Words by Chris Flynn
As an Australian who gets pretty jack of tourists banging on about how dangerous it is here in paradise, it’s refreshing to stay in a place where the emergency evacuation procedures in the hotel welcome guide have tips on what to do in the event of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
“If you are in bed, stay there and place your head under the pillow.” No shit. Also, lava is apparently harmful to both humans and vehicles. Who knew? Girdwood (pop. 1842) has a general store (The Merc), a couple of cafés, a microbrewery, a Cajun steakhouse permanently wreathed in Mardi Gras paraphernalia (The Double Musky Inn) and is surrounded for most of the year by large carnivorous land predators.
The most useful building in town is, well, the banner hanging out front says it all: “The World Renown(sic) Girdwood Laundromall. Voted America’s #1 Laundromat. Laundry – self & drop off. Showers. Wi-Fi. ATM. Cannabis. Thai Food. Hair Salon. Massage. Art Gallery.”
I’ll let that sink in for a minute.
Firstly, there’s an awards night for Laundromats? Never mind Splendour, how do I get a ticket to that stellar line-up? Secondly, man, you have to hand it to these guys, they have the order of services down pat. Drop off your washing. Withdraw money from bank. Purchase the wacky baccy. Get the munchies. Hey, do I need a haircut? I think I do, I think I need a trim. And a discrete rub-a-dub-dub, after which I’ll be ready to zone out in front of a magic eye painting. Wow. Is that a vast alien landscape, or a banana? I really can’t tell. Pick up washing.
Don’t stagger home from the Laundromall too late, though. Those aforementioned carnivores are actually omnivores, in that they’ll eat anything that isn’t nailed down, including you. Ursus arctos—the grizzly or brown bear—roams the forested slopes around Girdwood all summer long, stocking up on tasty salmon, deer, berries and human arms still clutching their selfie sticks. I shouldn’t poke fun. A couple of weeks before I got there, some teenager took a shortcut during a fun run and bumped into a 300 kilo griz who was watching the race from the bushes. He was promptly eaten to bits, although he still managed to text his little brother. Being chased by a bear, LOL! I’m sure that’s not what he said, though his phone did prove useful when rangers went looking for his entrails. They shot the bear, incidentally. He didn’t seem to notice and loped off into the forest.
Girdwood was originally further down the valley near the inlet. Despite everyone putting their heads under their pillows as instructed, an earthquake in 1964 raised the water level and drowned the town. You can still see cabins protruding from the shoreline of Turnagain Arm, which also boasts the second strongest tidal bore in the world.
Every day millions of gallons come rushing up the inlet in a series of two-metre waves. You can surf a couple of miles inland, and some do, alongside a pod of beluga whales on the lookout for salmon. Sometimes the whales get stranded when the tide sucks everything back out again, but they don’t care. They just hang on the sandbars and wait for the next set.
The town moved to the base of the mountain in the late 60s. Look out a window and you’ll see ice on the slopes. There are seven permanent glaciers, so even if you come in summer (which I did, and it’s kinda like Melbourne winter) you can go climbing or walking on a massive, sort of dangerous sea of ice.
I say sort of dangerous only because you’ll be knackered by the time you get there, which ain’t great when you’re balancing on a 50-centimetre wide ice ridge in spiky shoes and the gung-ho Texan guide says if you slip into that crevasse, your body will never be recovered. You’ll just fall and fall into a deep dark hole and maybe they’ll find you in ten thousand years if the glacier melts. Whereupon our descendants will probably think your name was Kathmandu.
Reaching the nearest glacier from Girdwood requires a short train trip—the train only runs in summer because: avalanches. They have a fucking cannon mounted on top to shoot dodgy looking ice and make it fall so it doesn’t hit them later and knock the train into the inlet. Then you have your spine compacted by a dirt track that is more pothole than road. Up next: cross an iceberg-strewn lake in a kayak for, like, an hour. Then walk from the base of the glacier to the ice cliffs, which, if you have any muesli bars left, you might attempt to climb. In short, it’s awesome.
To say Girdwood is a wilderness destination is a bit of an understatement. I was there for a week and I saw wolves, moose, deer, those elusive beluga whales, sea otters, bald eagles, a marble fox, a porcupine with three legs and bears that came crashing through the trees like the T Rex in Jurassic Park. I came home twice as fit and strong as I was when I left Australia. I even met a Russian that worked for Facebook, who probably helped rig the American election.
Alaska is nuts. They have open carry laws there, so everyone’s toting a rifle or shotgun, and in one case, a dude on an ATV had a .357 Magnum long barrel pistol holstered across his chest. You know, just in case you have to draw down on some asshat who cuts in line at The Merc. Or go toe to toe with a griz who tries to eat your packed lunch while you’re panning for gold in the creek. And they say Australia’s dangerous. Pfft.