In Alaska, a City Girl Goes Wild

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003

I had been in Alaska less than 24 hours and nature's wrath had come upon me in full force. Tucked into a single-person kayak, I was trying -- in vain -- to make headway against 15-knot winds as waves crashed against my boat, about a mile off the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

"Are you okay?" my instructor, Heather, called out.

"I'll survive," I yelled back gamely.

In reality, however, I had no idea how I was going to make it back to shore. I was paddling furiously, but kept edging toward the rocks. I pressed on pedals that shifted my rudder, but it appeared to have little impact.

My eyes scanned the bay as I tried to fix on the tiny dot that represented our goal, the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying. Then Heather came up with an inspired plan.

"Pull up your rudder," she ordered.

I took a breath, pulled up the rudder and resumed paddling. It worked. Now that I was no longer manipulating my rudder back and forth, the kayak glided more easily through the water, leading me back home. While it took another half-hour to return to shore, I had made it through what can best be described as a sort of nature-hazing for an inexperienced city girl who decided to venture into the great outdoors this summer.

Camping and outdoor sports are not exactly my forte. But I've always wanted to see Alaska, a state where each resident can kill two bears a year by law (one black, one brown), whose single representative in the House once shook a walrus penis bone at an Interior Department official, where volcanoes are plentiful but people are not. So even though I'm not much of an outdoors person, when my two best friends from college announced they were planning a hiking-cum-driving trip in the 49th state last month, I couldn't resist joining them.

Our challenge: to construct an outdoorsy, wildlife-oriented vacation without excessively roughing it. Alaska, we discovered, can accommodate this demand.

Our nature- and food-filled (but somewhat animal-deprived) expedition took us to some of Alaska's most scenic spots. We focused our efforts on the Kenai Peninsula, which encompasses about 16,000 square miles in south-central Alaska. I spent nine days in Alaska, all of it along a route that spanned roughly 220 miles. Roaming Highway 1 in a rental SUV large enough to seat at least two suburban families and fueled by plenty of lattes, we stopped where we liked and gawked shamelessly at the scenery. And with roughly 18 hours of daylight every 24 hours, we quickly caught on to one of the best things about Alaska in August: You never pay a penalty for sleeping late.

Roughing it does take some effort. After flying into Anchorage, I rented a car and drove about four hours south on Highway 1 to Homer, a pretty port town, where I hopped a 30-minute water taxi ride across Kachemak Bay to my first stop, a tent camp on a cove called Kasitsna Bay. Across the Bay features five canvas tents on platforms with screened windows and doors (guests bring sleeping bags to put on perfectly comfy beds). My tent was beside a creek and across from a wood-heated sauna.

There were outhouses, yes, but also hot showers, sumptuous breakfasts (my first morning, owners Tony and Mary Jane Lastufka served red salmon they had smoked themselves, a treat that put East Coast smoked salmon to shame) and equally tasty dinners. The first night's fare was a fabulous nettle pesto appetizer, grilled red salmon with potatoes and tabouleh, and fresh salad from the garden. Lunches featured halibut and salmon salads.

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