Recreating during a pandemic presents some challenges. Is the great outdoors great enough? How do you social distance on a narrow wilderness trail? How toxic are those toilets in a port-a-potty? And is it safe?
As a 64-year-old, slightly cautious, COVID-19-serious guy, I discovered I can still enjoy familiar activities. I can walk on the beach. I can hike. I can watch birds. And, as I found out on a recent staycation last month, I can camp.
Like most Alaskans, I’ve become weary of the pandemic. Statewide, daily positive case counts kept rising all through July. Any trip to the store felt like a commando raid — mask up, go in fast, grab what you need and hope you didn’t get hit.
The slightest sniffle or high temperature could cause concern. My wife, Jenny, and I also hadn’t taken a vacation together since May 2019, and our plans for a March trip to France had evaporated like Berthillon ice cream on a hot Paris street. We needed a break.
Apparently, so did the rest of the state. Here in Homer we’ve seen the rental motorhomes cruising the Spit. While holiday weekends didn’t hit the peaks of previous years, those old familiar crowds returned. When you live in a tourism hot spot, it seems weird to go somewhere else. That’s the whole point of vacations: To escape the familiar, even if it’s just up the road.
So we loaded up Gerty, our vintage 1993 VW Eurovan camper, and headed north. I discovered these things about COVID camping:
• Federal and state campground toilets are sparkling clean, especially the ones at the U.S. Forest Service Trail River Campground. Thank you, volunteer and contract janitors.
• A lot of Alaskans have recently discovered camping, as seen by the many sites with brand-new equipment.
• The best gear investment we ever made was a portable screened shelter. Get one.
• It’s not a bad idea to make reservations ahead of time, but midweek it’s not too hard to find a spot.
• Campers do a good job of staying in their social bubbles and respecting space.
• That America the Beautiful Lifetime Senior pass I bought after I turned 60 was a great investment. Half price on a $10 federal campsite? Thank you, Uncle Sam.
Our trip started on a Friday afternoon at the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service Hidden Lake Campground in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Though we didn’t score one of the prime spots by Hidden Lake, we found a nice site on one of the upper loops. Hidden Lake is one of the gems of the refuge — great for fishing, boating and hiking.
A year after the Swan Lake Fire that closed the Skilak Lake campgrounds and torched forests along the Sterling Highway, the sight of fireweed and wildflowers rising from acres of charred and downed trees showed how nature had already begun to heal. The only wildlife we saw was a wayward apricot domestic rabbit that fed by our campsite. Fledgling ravens squawked as they hopped from tree to tree learning to fly.
Many campers seemed to be family groups — three generations of children, parents and grandparents enjoying time together. Most people seemed to keep their social bubbles tight. The refuge ranger told us the last week in July had been the quietest she’d seen since late May. The campers practiced good physical distancing, staying apart on trails or waiting to use the bathrooms.
We headed north on Monday to a reservation at the Porcupine Campground past the end of the Hope Cutoff near the historic mining town of Hope. Jenny and I first camped there back in the 1980s in our early tent camping days.
The Porcupine Campground has beautiful waterfront sites up on a bluff above Turnagain Arm, but we had a spot in the birch forest on the upper loop. That was the day we were glad we took our portable screen porch since it got buggy at times.
I’d put my smartphone on airplane mode to save batteries. “Getting away from it all” also means dialing back on screen time, something that spotty cell service enforces anyway. Thus, I missed the big earthquake and tsunami warning back in Homer.
One day we walked into Hope to tour the town. Fishermen hauled in pinks and silvers on Resurrection Creek, another sign of normalcy in the pandemic. Some shops and stores had closed. The Hope Library had a gift shop open where I could pick up another book in case I finished the stack I’d brought with me.
We like to hike and get out while camping. I also really, really love taking a nap in the afternoon and just hanging out and reading. That trip’s main reading was John Barry’s “The Great Pandemic,” about the 1918 influenza outbreak that killed an estimated 50 million worldwide. OK, reading about a historic pandemic in the midst of a modern pandemic might not have been the best escapist literature. I also brought a Harlan Coben thriller.
Our final camping stop was at the U.S. Forest Service Trail River Campground on Kenai Lake, another favorite spot. We drove to Seward about 15 miles down the road to resupply. Coming on the heels of its own outbreak, Seward took the pandemic seriously. Just about everyone in the stores wore masks, as did many on the streets.
We’d heard about the American Triumph seafood processing ship that was due in port on July 22 to offload 85 crew who had tested positive for COVID-19. Always the reporter, I drove out to the docks to see if the ship had come in and saw a row of buses lined up to take the patients to Anchorage. Of course, I took some photographs.
As at the other campgrounds, people kept their distance. A few campsites also had family groups either in one site or side by side. This seems to be the summer for grandparents to bond with their children and grandchildren through camping — the elders in motorhomes or trailers and the kids in tents.
A soft summer rain kept us inside on one day, all the more reason to nap longer and read more. I love the easy routine of camping: Get up, make coffee and breakfast, take a walk, read, make lunch, nap, read some more, sketch, have a beer, make dinner, clean up, sleep and repeat. A bumper sticker on a former reporter’s truck sums up the spirit of camping, I think.
“Slow down; this ain’t the mainland,” it reads. That refers to Hawaii, but it might as well be Alaska.