Matt Dickerson provides posts from Alaska Part 1: The Yurts
“I want to stay in a yurt.”
That’s what my wife Deborah told me. The comment did not come out of the blue. Two years ago I went on a research trip to Alaska. It was the summer of the graduation of my oldest son, Thomas, from Saint Michael’s College. So I added a week to the end of my research trip, and took Thomas with me as his graduation present. We backpacked, fished, biked, and saw Dahl’s sheep. We also went on a three-night sea-kayaking trip in Kachemak Bay near Homer, and stayed in a yurt at Right Beach.
I told my wife where we stayed and showed her pictures of the yurt. I showed her lots of other pictures, too. Mountains. Glaciers. Eagles. Otters. Seals. Moose. More mountains. Salmon. She focused on the yurt. That’s when she made her proclamation.
“Why do you want to stay in a yurt?” I asked.
“I like the sound of the word ‘yurt’,” she said. “Yurt is a cool word.” She paused. And then added, “Your yurt had a wood stove. And it’s a lot bigger than a tent.”
Yurts are also romantic. They came from Mongolia, where they are used as dwellings by nomadic peoples, and are traditionally made with skins and fur pelts. Of course, modern Alaskan yurts are a little different. They are placed on permanent wooden platforms in state and national parks. You have to pay and reserve them during busy seasons. They have wooden bunks as well as wood stoves. They are not made from fur pelts. But they still have a cool name.
“It doesn’t have any running water,” I pointed out.
“I still want to stay in a yurt,” Deborah replied.
So this summer when I was invited to teach a four-week nature and environmental writing class in Alaska focusing on Dolly Varden trout, my wife decided to come along. I brought my youngest son Peter, too, as his Mount Abraham Union High School graduation present. And we made plans to arrive three days early so that we could all stay in a wilderness yurt. In fact, we did even better. My brother from Anchorage made us reservations to stay two nights at two different yurts on the Eagle River Nature Center.
The first yurt, called Yukla yurt, was a trek of about three miles up the valley from the trailhead at the nature center. Amazingly, Deborah, the mother of three Eagle Scouts, had taken only one backpacking trip in her life: a climb on Old Speck Mountain in Maine. I was only able to entice her on that earlier trip by promising to carry all her gear except her toothbrush, camping pad, and clean underwear.
“If you want to sleep in a yurt, you’ll have to carry your sleeping bag and some food this time,” I said.
“It isn’t like I have never carried anything,” she replied. “I carried each son in the womb for nine months and then several years in a baby pack.”
After Peter helped hoist her 28-pound pack onto her back, he commented, “You look like a tired Boy Scout.” When she asked what he meant, he replied, “You are slouched forward. Can’t you stand up straight?”
“If I stand up straight,” Deborah said, “I feel like I am going to tip over backwards.”
It was fortunate she didn’t have to carry a tent also. That was because we were staying in a yurt.
The hike proved to be stunningly beautiful and reached our destination without incident. Yukla yurt was just 50 yards from Eagle River, in the shadow of several 5,000- and 6,000-foot peaks and ridges lined with hanging glaciers and waterfalls.
Deborah plopped down her pack and proceeded to eat her entire three-day supply of trail mix while leaning against her new temporary shelter. She gazed out over the river. It was, as she described it, “a milky gray color due to the glacial flour, rock pulverized by the weight of the glacier. The water thundered by. Not surprising, it was frigid.”
We had soup for supper, and stored our food in a steel bear box a few dozen yards away from the yurt. We did not wash in the river. Despite the Alaskan sun not setting until after 11 p.m., we went to bed early.
The next day we took a two-mile hike without packs up to another spot in the valley with even more stunning views, as well as a plethora of edible wild berries. We then retrieved our packs and hiked less than a mile to the next yurt back down the valley. It stood on a bluff 50-feet above the river and overlooking the entire valley. The view was stunning. Deborah sat down on the deck and took a nap in the afternoon sunshine beneath a blue sky. She ate an extra portion of the evening meal of hearty vegetable soup.
On the way out the next day, we saw a moose. Then we drove up to another glacier lake and stopped for ice cream. Deborah had two scoops for the first time I can remember. While we ate our ice cream, 42 Dahl’s sheep starting walking across the mountain slope above us. We watched them through binoculars and dreamed of the next time we would stay in a yurt.
NOTE: This is the first of three Summer 2015 “Posts from Alaska” from Addison Independentoutdoor writer Matthew Dickerson, who is spending the summer in various parts of Alaska teaching a class and working on a book.
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