We stopped for gas three hours out of Anchorage, in Glennallen. The eggplant-colored Tok Thai food truck fed a steady lunchtime crowd on the edge of the parking lot. The major peaks of the Wrangell Mountains loomed large across the Copper River valley, blocking our view of Yukon Territory. Stacy had been riding shotgun since we met up that morning at the Eagle River library. I'd hired her over the phone and we planned her transition from one volunteer position at the Eagle River Nature Center to another at the Wrangell Mountains Center. Another coworker had lent me his full-sized pickup truck to haul construction supplies back out along with the new intern. We went straight to Spenard Builders Supply from the library and loaded up a dozen 50-pound bags of cement before hitting the road.
We headed north from the urban hub of southcentral Alaska, skirting the western edge of the Chugach Range before turning east to trace the braided Matanuska River upstream. It winds between the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains to its namesake roadside glacier. Even from the truck, we could see the particular blue glow enhanced by overcast skies. The road afforded ample views of fantastical alpine peaks and wild drainages, mile after mile. Traffic was light-some RVs, some trucks towing trailers with ATVs. Early summer was in the air, when daylight stretches its muscles after winter's long sleep.
We passed a spot not too notable-at a glance-where the Alaska Audubon Society hosts a Tailgate Raptor Party each spring. The area aligns with gaps in the mountains that funnel legions of migrating raptors. Birders come to watch and count, perched in folding chairs, binoculars trained on the procession of golden and bald eagles, merlins, northern goshawks, red-tailed hawks and more. It was the first of June-too late for the migration-but Gunsight Mountain appeared, as always, its notched summit aiming at sky. We blew by into the Copper River watershed.
The valley widened and the Chugach withdrew to the south. Feeble-looking, ancient black spruce cropped up, pipe cleaners making do in wet, boggy turf. We entered caribou and snowmachine country, where even in bewildered low-snow years, sledheads can recreate. The 22-mile-long Nelchina Glacier terminated in Tazlina Lake, fantastical in blingy sunlight.
We'd started just 200 feet above sea level and topped out at 3,322-foor Eureka Summit. Trumpeter swans floated in pairs and families on small lakes and ponds. White mountains crowded every cardinal direction and the road was smooth and ours. As the country unfolded, we talked about McCarthy and the summer to come and Eagle River where Stacy had been. Barreling downhill and over the Little Nelchina River bridge, my imagination left the truck and road, floating downstream to another bridge we'd cross a few hours later on the Richardson Highway.
It used to take eight hours to drive from Anchorage to McCarthy. The road's improved so much since I first went that it's now often as fast as six-and-a-half hours. I've done it countless times, in all seasons, in many vehicles, with all sorts of company and solitudes. Google still prescribes 8hr 38min for the drive, though-a nostalgic overestimate.
Glennallen marks the staggered crosshairs where two highways meet-the Richardson Highway runs north-south between Fairbanks and Valdez. We'd just driven the Glenn out from Anchorage to the spot where it T-bones the Richardson. The Glenn technically jogs fifteen miles north from that intersection and continues as the long and lonely Tok Cutoff. It's usually thought of as its own highway, though, loping along the north edge of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve for 125 miles before gaining the Alcan Highway in Tok. We'd circle south instead.
Refueled and leg-stretched, we turned in the direction of Thompson Pass and Valdez. Still a few hours to go. It feels good to gain the Richardson. Traffic dwindles and epic views of the Wrangell Mountains tempt the imagination, weather permitting. The road passes old homesteads, boggy drunken forests, scenic lakes studded with float planes and classic cabins and funky shacks that exhibit what's possible where zoning laws run scarce. The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline comes and goes on the right, above ground and below ground, making its dogged way to Valdez, glugging Alaska crude to port and beyond, to refineries in the Lower 48 that boomerang it back, changed to burn in trucks like ours.
Any clichéd river tropes employed as metaphors for life could certainly adapt to fit the drive to McCarthy without trouble. Yes, it never is the same road twice. Yes, the journey warrants as much mindfulness as the destination. Yes, something about going with the flow. Often enough, the 6.5 hour drive has taken ten, twelve, fourteen hours thanks to flats, construction or lengthy encounters with friends on the road. When the salmon run, it can be tough to drive through Chitina without spending time sieving dinner from the Copper with a dipnet.
Stacy proved to be a comfortable and companionable amiga for the long drive, and we were both anticipating summer deep in those mountains out the window. We weren't more than five miles past the gas station-grandiosely dubbed the Hub of Alaska-and clipping along a bit slower than the inevitable bogies who occasionally crept up and passed. We were cruising and feeling fine, when something caught my eye.
"You see that? Was that an owl?" I asked, making a quick decision to pull over and stop. We left the truck and backtracked a hundred yards on foot toward a large dark shape on the shoulder.
It was, indeed, a gigantic owl sprawled on its back, its convex face pointed skyward. It lacked the ear tufts that characterize other owls in the area, like Great Horneds I'd seen many times. We approached with surprise and wonder, presuming it dead. At first, we looked without touching. It was perfectly intact-no sign of injury, no disfigurement.
A semi-truck and trailer exploded past us, swerving away over the center line to give us room. The bird's feathers shifted in the windblast with an illusion of movement. I imagined it alive and flashing across the highway in pursuit of a vole or mouse, maybe, the clearance between itself and a truck like that closing too fast.
How suddenly can spring-loaded, elegant motion transpose to total inertness? This was the first Great Gray Owl I'd ever seen outside of a field guide. Its face was situated in the middle of a pronounced disc centered by its yellow bill, bright amid the grays and blacks of its face. Its dead eyes were open and fixed back in dark recesses, yellow irises matching the bill. Even at close range, its ears were invisible, covered by feathers. The entire Great Gray head design funnels sound into their ears. This one looked almost camouflaged against the gravel of the road shoulder where it meets the pavement. A write ruff circled its throat, a collar like a beard.
Bumpy skin, a paler shade of yellow than its beak and irises, covered its toes and soles. Feathers covered most of its feet. Its four talons were killingly sharp, almost medieval, and clenched like a fist-the front three claws intersecting one another, all curving backward toward the last toe, angled forward, pointing toward that intersecting trap of arced skewers. I wondered how many small mammals or birds had been stabbed by those talons. How many hours had they wrapped around branches at night under the pivoting firmament overhead?
I stood in a spot where I'd never stood before on the edge of that highway I've driven countless times. I crouched over a gigantic, prone owl and looked into its open, yellow eyes. An hour before, 30 minutes before, maybe 10 minutes before, the owl was alive. What would the being it had been perceive if it was still conscious during this face-to-face eye contact?
It's hard not to wonder after meaning when a magnificent animal of that kind appears in one's life, especially for the first time. What tradition's implications could possibly apply? Was this an omen of death and endings? Of prescience and wisdom? What does it mean when a harbinger like this shows up but is dead, and only just killed? If owls could be our reincarnated dead, as some say, who might this one-dead twice over now, then-have been? Is there real significance in the literal death of such an emblem if we encounter it, or mere confirmation that death waits; a reminder bold enough to demand our notice?
The greatest surprise came when I picked it up. This massive, stunning, elusive being, the size of Stacy's torso, I'd say, its wingspan over four feet wide, was light as air. The sensation of lifting it was something like the brief anti-gravity befuddlement of grabbing an empty water bottle one expected to be full, jerking it off the counter with too much preemptive oomph. Light as a feather, indeed.
I've found memorable dead birds aplenty-a bald eagle in the tideline on the far shore of Kachemak Bay. A pigeon in the cockpit of a sailboat in Homer-presumably eagle prey. Murres by the hundreds during the massive die off throughout Southcentral Alaska during the 2015-16 winter. A white-crowned sparrow floating in an uncovered rain catchment barrel beneath my McCarthy window.
For years after non-indigenous people began colonizing North America, Great Grays were unobserved by newcomers, who thought they only occurred in Europe. Yet here they were all along. Their eyes are fixed in place, a predicament addressed by the exceptional flexibility of their necks. By moving their entire heads they envision the world, achieving a kind of peripheral vision.
I didn't know if Great Greys are federally listed as endangered or not. I've found-and kept-feathers that are apparently illegal to possess from eagles and Bohemian Waxwings. I drove through Canada once with a long piece of bowhead whale baleen-legally acquired, but illegal to transport internationally-without harming anything. I knew this owl, left where we found it, would become magpie, maggot, raven and vole food. Maybe that would have been best. Or perhaps it would have attracted those scavengers that, themselves, would also get roadkilled.
Standing on the shoulder, dead owl in hand, occasional vehicles barreling by, Stacy and I decided to take it our destination was an environmental education center in the middle of a wild UNESCO World Heritage Site after all. Chances are the carcass would teach no one but us anything about owlkind if we left it on the roadside.
The bone collection in the Wrangell Mountains Center is admittedly feral. Almost nothing is labeled. Only a couple modest student-built interpretive displays exist. The bones are simply there. Nearly all the stories behind the dozens and dozens of bones and skulls are hushed or forgotten. The owl skull and wings we contributed probably constitute the only first-person Great Gray experience that nearly anyone who happens upon them can claim.
Discernible or not, all the bones and parts in the Wrangell Mountains Center's collection have a story, though-each moose jaw and sheep horn; the skulls of bears, wolves, Dall sheep and mountain goats; those beaver jaws with their chisel teeth; a human-like leg from a black bear skeleton. Those who end up in the Old Hardware Store in McCarthy can visit that parts collection and try to pick out that Great Grey Owl skull. Its beak is bright. It's sized like an adolescent human's fist. It weighs nothing and is perfect, as skulls go. It died on the Richardson Highway on June 1, 2012, which led promptly to its first ride in a vehicle. Stacy the owl, and I barreled in that pickup faster through the boreal forest than any owl could ever fly.
Some visitors to my cabin notice and ask about the talon that leans on the window near the woodstove, a fist of clenched toes and deadly claws. It's the one part of the owl I kept. It's so light it wouldn't even prevent a poem from blowing off the deck in a breeze. I handle it often, especially in the spring and fall when I hear the calls of Great Horned Owls in the dark. I listen and imagine their bodies, alive, in the trees. I imagine Great Grays passing silently through the area, undetected.
I imagine that one particular, fragile skull collecting dust in the dark of that old McCarthy building. I think of cars and trucks hurtling over the thin skein of asphalt on that highway far out to the west, hours and many miles away, beside the shy and slowing vein of the pipeline. I imagine gas pumps at every knuckle of the road system, where at any hour, vehicles fill up, illumined in the kind of glaring, harmful station brightness that burns modest holes in local darks everywhere.
Some of the vehicles are smudged with traces of blood, perhaps some downy feathers dried on windshields, grills or bumpers. Not too far away, a killed bird gets discovered by a scouting ant. The milky translucence of dead, opened eyes reflects an avian moon. A shocked trucker's racing pulse calms back down after nearly ramming his semi into a huge being, wings wide, eyes intelligent, flashing through a cone of light coring another thick night.
Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter (University of Alaska Press, 2015). The Executive Director of 49 Writers, he migrates seasonally between Anchorage and McCarthy, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.