There’s Something About Hope
By Jennifer Tarnacki
Finding ourselves with time to spare en route to Homer from Anchorage, we peeled onto the Hope Highway on a curious whim, intending to take a peek. Three days later, we turned back on to Seward Highway doused in river water and rejuvenated from camping in forest bliss.
Hope is something special.
At 15 miles down a dead-end winding mountain road, you have to really want to go there, and once you there, you’re not sure if you’re quite there yet. The town is deceptively small: a cafe, a bar, an inn, a spattering of BnB’s, a museum and a gold panning operation. There seems to be a slowness to it, like a local wouldn’t mind at all stopping and chatting about the best creek bend to catch pink salmon or the best way to operate a gold panning sluice.
Maybe it is the presence of historical artifacts about town and the remnants of timber from homes lost in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. The town feels like stepping back into an era suspended. The outdoor museum houses relics of human dwellings and livelihoods from the gold rush era; an axe here, a anvil there, still useful but abandoned. Old tractors, oxen and diesel powered, rust away sheepishly in overgrown grass.
Hope’s history is filled with transients. Streams of gold rush hopefuls filled the tiny town, their dreams tied up in Resurrection Creek. Structures were erected- a dance hall, a shop. The settlers built the structures with a whipsaw technique, manually intensive and arduous, sawing for hours into thick, dense spruce. Then, as soon and as quickly as they arrived, the bulk went north at the whiff of better prospects.
With gold flecks in the creek beds, it’s easy to imagine the hopes born and nurtured in those hand hewn log houses.
We continued on away from town toward the terminal end of Hope Highway. Porcupine Campground juts up into a sprawling white birch forest. It’s the end of the road, a boundary line. Suddenly fossil-fuel powered travel is no longer possible. Instead, a thick forest and a rough beach awaits. It feels fitting that the end of the road turns into a campground with nowhere else to go next but into the forest.
We chose a campsite that backed up against the lush woods. Devi’s club, pushki, fireweed and eminently climbable spruce trees surrounded the site. Birch dominates, spreading in every direction, their grayish trunks rising skinny into the sky framed on all sides by fanning turquoise leaves. This is old forest.
The bore tide pulses in and out of the beach below the campground. We were eager to get down to this unexplored side of Turnaigan Arm that we’d always looked out at from Bird Point.
There are two trails surrounding the campsite, but neither offered beach access. We peered down at the shore from above. This beach was windswept, looking more rocky and forbidding than inviting with the thick line of brush down to the beach looking like a “ye shall not enter” moat of Devil’s club and nettles. Continuing along the trail, we saw a narrow opening and climbed down into the thicket.
It felt like a secret path, and we must have chosen right, because as we scrambled down we came upon a rope, tied to a tree to aid us down the steep patch. The trail for a moment became a wall, and as we inched backwards holding dearly onto the rope, I felt for a moment suspended and helpless.
Alders surrounded us in thickets on either side, and I wondered if bears had made their day beds or paths down to the beach here. The Devils’ club berries had all been nibbled off. Bears love those berries.
It was alarmingly steep, but soon enough the rope ran out and the ground was underneath us and we jumped and ducked under alder branches and massive chunks of driftwood to emerge onto the beach.
The beach overlooks the Knik Arm. The highway inches across the horizon towards the only bustling metropolis in Alaska. It’s a thrill to be on the other side of the water from the highway. Usually when stopping at Bird Point outside Anchorage, we were looking out at this inaccessible, distant beach. Now here we were.
The bore tide mud flats glisten, jutting out at odd angles in slick forms, holding the tide back until they can no more. Then the tide pours rushing in, releasing its might.
It was low tide now. We wandered and scrambled over the rocky shore jutting out towards Turnagain Arm, bladderwrack growing furiously on the rocks. I tasted some, and it exploded in my mouth salty and bitter, faint traces of indescribable ocean left to linger on my tongue.
In the sensory delight of the salty wind, the slick rocks underfoot, and the sea salt spume, I could feel the healing effects of being near the sea, the secret pleasure of roughed up hair and wind-chapped skin.
Back in Hope, we wandered the town. The old tractor and the remnants of tools rusting amidst the dense growing of the rainforest brought to mind the transiency of settlement, the places we inhabit and the reasons we inhabit them. It’s the resources we extract and depend on for survival versus places we save for the pleasure of them being left wild.
It is a reminder of a kind of perennial shifting and migration, of people, of land. Social factors that pull people in like the earthquake shifting the land itself, to remodel and reshape it. There’s a poignancy to that process, as the bore tide beats its steady drum through the ages, indifferent to human affairs.
Fifteen miles down a winding road to Hope forces you to go 25 mph at points, following the bend of the creek. The creek, bending you to its will, is a metaphor for living close to nature itself.
Hope’s remoteness is a siren call, a magnet for those who seek the purifying silence and tranquility of a day lived slowly. Time seems to stop here, suspended in the air as thick as molasses, for a momentary rest in grace.