North to Alaska, Pre-Trip Part 1

Well, 2020 hasn’t gone as expected, has it?

I started this year off back in MontrĂ©al, thinking we had the fantastic new Roaring ’20s to look forward to. I had plans lining up for a great year…a week in Death Valley in late March, the Mendo_Recce Land Rover rally in late April, lighthouse trips across America, and maybe a trip to England to see Liverpool FC’s Premier League champions parade as that started looking more and more inevitable. The annual Maine Winter Romp was a smash hit and had me looking forward to a great Land Rover events season, especially with the iconic Series I 86″ Oxford travelling around America this year.

Then, on March 12th, it all collapsed. That was the last day I would work in a Manhattan office. My colleague thought he had COVID-19, and we shut everything down and sent everyone home. I got COVID-19; my mother did too. It was two weeks of what felt like a really crappy flu. We recovered, though, and then in the middle of all the physical distancing and turmoil, somehow, I got a bit of clarity.

Our company suddenly started working just as efficiently without an office as with one. Working from home agreed with all of us, most of all me — a natural night owl who was sick of short-sleeping and three-hour commutes. By May, the decision was made: we were moving out of New York City and going fully remote for the long haul. One month of working from home turned into a summer, and a summer turned into the rest of my life…because no matter what company I work for, I’m never going back to commuting. As much as I love being out and about travelling, I actually really enjoy a low-key home life, and this has more than given me that.

As I cancelled trip after trip this spring, refunds and United Airlines flight credits piling on, there was one trip that was still hanging in limbo. My lighthouse friend Fran and I had been planning a trip to Alaska this summer to take a helicopter to two lights offshore from the roadless city of Cordova. They’re some of the hardest lights to see in America, and vital for our quests to each see every one of the 715 or so lighthouses in America. The trip came together in the fall of 2019, before things fell apart, and since it was planned for August 2020, we held on tight to our reservations, figuring that there was no reason to cancel them months ahead of time.

As I continued cancelling or wondering about other trips in 2020, the Alaska trip remained out there as a question mark. It was far enough out, and things were somewhat calming down, at least in the New York area. Alaska was using the benefit of its exclave status to control entry and the virus in the state. Even more, with the cruise industry shut down for the summer and taking the coach tour industry with it, it’s looking like 2020 is going to be a quiet summer in the North — perhaps on par much more with 1979 than 2019.

So with a pile of time off having accumulated, cancellation credits from trips all year, and a feeling that if I’m going to sit on an airplane with a mask on for hours at end, I better make the trip damn worth it, I decided to extend my existing trip to Cordova to include an 11-day roadtrip from Anchorage to visit the three road system-connected national parks in Alaska: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. These are all places that usually take on a heavy tourist load, and my goal was to take advantage of the quiet summer to maximize my visits to them.

Certainly, going to Alaska in the middle of a global pandemic is not without complications. First and foremost, the state has a strict, and somewhat complex, COVID-19 testing requirement to even get in. Access is only by air or the Alaska Marine Highway from Washington right now, with the Canadian border closed. You need to come with a negative COVID-19 test in hand, or take a test at the airport and prepare to quarantine. After a week in-state, you have to test again, just to make sure you’ve remained clear of the virus. That means that on top of everything else prepping for a relatively complex trip, I also have to figure out how to get a test turned around within 72 hours of my departure for Alaska.

It’s all rather complex, but I also have come to realize that I have aspirations for complex, international overland trips in the future. If I can’t handle the logistics of travelling domestically in these times, I can’t handle driving London to Cape Town, or across Central Asia, or the Pan-American Highway. This is nothing compared to the logistics that those trips will require, spending hours in consulates across New York City and the world, dealing with paperwork in sextuplicate, and the dozens or hundreds of bribes that I’ll have to stave off.

But that’s all long in the future. For now, I have my priorities. Preparing for this trip, with its complications. The usual pre-trip chaos of organizing the photography gear, the camping gear, the clothing choices, and the luggage choices. The shopping, which seems eternally unavoidable before a trip. The reservations, the permits, the route planning and the fuel and food planning in a remote land. Figuring out what I want to photograph, scoping it out on Flickr and Instagram and deciding what lenses and bodies to take. Figuring out where I can get food, and what I have to bring with me. Dealing with a round-trip flight from Anchorage to Cordova in the middle of it all. Dealing with United constantly changing my flights to and from Anchorage as they realign their service to retain a semblance of profit in this period of record-low demand.

It’s not easy. But then again, is any trip truly worth doing easy?