The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

We Survived Thunder Bird Falls

Posted on | July 2, 2023 | Comments Off on We Survived Thunder Bird Falls

When my son told us we were going for a hike Saturday, my first thought was, “We’re going to get eaten by bears.” A quick Google search (“thunder bird falls + grizzly bear”) turned up several results, including a recent story with this quote:

“Bear encounters can happen anywhere in Anchorage, in Alaska,” Fish and Game Assistant Area Biologist Cory Stantorf said. “So regardless of where you’re at, whether it’s a viewing deck or the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, Kincaid, you always have to be prepared and ready for an encounter with wildlife, whether it’s bear, moose, wolves.”

And then there was this headline from 2005:

“Nothing to worry about,” said my son, as he loaded his .44 revolver and packed it into the holster strapped to his chest. “Just in case.”

By the way, notice how the Fish and Game biologist spoke of “bear encounters,” rather than “bear attacks.” Political correctness run amok. I expect this kind of euphemism from Democrats in Philadelphia (“Carjacking encounters can happen anywhere”) but this is Alaska, OK? We’re talking the Final Frontier, pioneers in the wilderness. When I “encounter” a gigantic omnivorous wild beast with fangs and claws, this is a bear attack, I don’t care what you call it. Anyway . . .

We headed up the highway to Thunder Bird Falls, which is in Chugach State Park. An interesting Alaska cultural note: “Chugach” is a compound word, from the native chu (“eaten by”) and gach (“bears”).

On our way to adventure.

A helpful map near the park entrance, showing visitors where they can get eaten by grizzly bears (i.e., everywhere)

Thunder Bird Falls is on the Eklutna River, which is less than 12 miles long, tumbling down from the top of a mountain to the Cook Inlet in the Gulf of Alaska. The inlet is named for 18th-century British explorer Captain James Cook, who sailed into the inlet seeking the fabled Northwest Passage. Given the trend whereby Mount McKinley has been renamed “Denali” (because that’s what the natives allegedly called it), it’s probably only a matter of time before Cook Inlet gets renamed, because you can’t name stuff after white guys anymore. Meanwhile . . .

Another interesting Alaska cultural fact: Eklutna is also a compound word, from the native eklu (“food for”) and utna (“grizzly bears”).

If you’re getting tired of my dark sarcasm, imagine how my wife felt as I was cracking these jokes all the way to the park. Facing danger with a smile on your face — that’s just the way I roll. And because of my habitual sarcasm, you may think I was joking when I talked about my son strapping a .44 to his chest before we left the house.

See the revolver handle sticking out of the holster? In addition to being a Ranger-qualified Army Airborne sergeant first class, my son is also a serious hunting enthusiast, who is currently planning bow-hunting expeditions for mountain sheep (aoudad) this fall. On our trip to Thunder Bird Falls, he was telling me something about the state game laws that protect the bears, and I was thinking, “Shouldn’t the laws be about protecting people?” Fortunately, there is a loophole in the laws, so that it’s not illegal to kill a bear in self-defense, but because this is 2023, I’m sure some environmentalist version of Ben Crump would show up to lead a protest claiming the bear was an honor student who was just minding his own business when you killed it: “No justice! No peace!”

Anyway, my son had a pistol strapped to his chest, and a two-month-old baby girl strapped to his back, because he’s a badass that way.

Grandma and Eliza: Smile and say, ‘Bears!’

So now we had the family ready for the hike up the trail, and if I was (mostly) joking about the danger of a “bear encounter,” soon I encountered something perfectly calculated to inspire fear.

OH MY DEAR GOD! While I’d been clowning around about the prospect of being eaten by grizzly bears, it hadn’t occurred to me that this trail followed the edge of a deep mountain gorge. Exactly how high was that “STEEP CLIFF” the sign was warning me about? I don’t know, because I’m so afraid of heights I didn’t dare get close enough to look.

It’s weird how my acrophobia is selective. Like, I’m not afraid of every high-altitude situation. We’d flown over 3,000 miles to get to Alaska, and that didn’t scare me at all. And when I was a kid, it was nothing to climb way up in the biggest poplar tree in the neighbor’s yard. But put me on the edge of a precipice — no, I can’t stand that. It terrifies me. Any action-adventure film where the hero is dangling off the side of a skyscraper? Nope. Never see those scenes. Got my eyes closed.

That first sign, warning me how close I was to the “STEEP CLIFF” — plummeting hundreds of feet to my death — caused me to notice how narrow the trail was, and how crowded it was with tourists who seemed utterly heedless of their proximity to “DANGER.”

When I’d started out up the trail, my main concern was about the my-thighs-are-getting-sore steepness of the climb. Once I realized there was a “STEEP CLIFF” just a few feet to my left, however, my concern shifted to the fact that there were whole families of tourists, some of them with dogs on leashes, carelessly loping up and down this trail with utter disregard of the “DANGER” nearby. And the trail was barely wide enough for three people to walk side-by-side safely, so that when I’d see a cluster of tourists approaching, I’d get wwaaaayy over to the right side of the trail to let them pass. And, every 40 or 50 yards up the trail, there’d be another one of those signs: “DANGER! STEEP CLIFF! STAY ON TRAIL!” And I’d be muttering, “Yeah, you didn’t have to tell me twice.”

About a half-mile up the trail, we reached the “Gorge Overlook.”

Family members foolishly risk their lives.

It must be explained that I also have vicarious acrophobia — it’s not just that I’m afraid of heights, but I also get freaked out by seeing other people near the edge of a precipice, especially my kids. Like, when the boys were little, we’d hike up to Black Rock, and I’d be a bundle of nerves whenever they’d go to the edge of those cliffs. While I could control my own risk — I ain’t going anywhere near the edge, if I can help it — the children were beyond my control, and I was deathly afraid of them falling off. Wonderful irony that my son should have become a paratrooper, but “out of sight, out of mind.” I can ignore Bob’s death-defying career choices, because I don’t have to see it, and am therefore capable of blocking it out of my consciousness. Meanwhile . . .

Staying far away from danger

While everybody else was RISKING THEIR LIVES at the “Gorge Overlook,” I was on the other side of the trail, chilling out — and by “chilling out,” of course I mean, avoiding psychiatric trauma.

Should I mention that I dislike the word “acrophobia”? Because a “phobia” is an irrational fear, whereas being 300 feet above a river gorge is a real danger, and therefore my fear is perfectly rational. The crazy people are the ones who can stare down at the bottom of that cliff and not freak out, but the psychiatric community doesn’t have a word for that.

My daughter-in-law laughs at the danger

See what I mean? She’s standing next to a sign that clearly says “DANGER,” and she’s laughing at my (entirely rational) fear.

It’s Alaska. It’s about survival on the frontier — basically living inside a Jack London novel, and I’m pretty sure his protagonists never took any unnecessary risks, simply because life was so difficult they didn’t have time for cheap thrills. But nonetheless, we continued hiking up to the “Falls Overlook,” with me trailing behind so that I could navigate around the clusters of dumbass tourists who kept coming down the trail with no apparent concern about the “STEEP CLIFF” on one side.

As we approached the overlook, the path turned into a sort of wooden deck, with rails on either side. DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN! We were literally suspended over the side of the cliff by some kind of jerry-rigged cantilever construction that I’m certain would not pass a safety inspection in any of the Lower 48 states. The headlines were easy to imagine:


Even if I’m not as skinny as I used to be, still I’m easily 100 pounds lighter than some of the tourists who were clomping around up there.

So the family went ahead of me to the overlook, while I hung back waiting for the crowd to clear out. Because if I’m going onto an overlook deck, I’m sure as hell not going onto it while it’s occupied by:

  • 7 or 8 fat tourists;
  • 5 or 6 of their clumsy low-IQ children;
  • 3 or 4 dogs.

What is it with people taking their dogs everywhere they go? Like, it’s important for your dogs to have the cultural enrichment of travel? Perhaps most people don’t think about this, and maybe my misanthropic streak was aggravated by the circumstances, but COULD YOU IDIOTS PLEASE LEAVE YOUR DOGS HOME when I’m trying to walk a trail marked with “DANGER STEEP CLIFF” signs every 50 yards?

Finally, the crowd thinned out enough, and I was ready.

Smile for the camera!

You may notice in that picture that my left hand is very firmly gripped on the rail, because I’m surviving, like a Jack London hero. Also notice that I’m wearing red sneakers. Those aren’t my sneakers. I’d expected to wear my normal street shoes — tasseled loafers — for this hike, but my son insisted on lending me a pair of his sneakers, and boy, I’m glad he did. As bad as it was going up that “DANGER STEEP CLIFFS” trail, it would have been a thousand times worse if I’d been wearing slick-soled loafers instead of those sneakers. Grateful for every small advantage.

My son’s family.

Despite my advanced age, I out-hiked everybody on the way back down the mountain. It wasn’t even close. Smile for the camera — snap! — and then I set off at a blistering pace, because the faster I went, the sooner I’d be away from “DANGER STEEP CLIFFS.” By the time the rest of the family got to the bottom of the trail, I’d been sitting there 15 minutes, smoking a cigarette, smiling like the hero of a Jack London novel.


Throwing in The Big Yellow Button here because I hope you’re enjoying this tale of my Alaska adventures enough to hit the freaking tip jar. And don’t worry about the IRS, because of course, I’ve got plenty of tax-deductible business expenses from this trip. This is one of the beauties of being a Professional Journalist™ in America — anything becomes a “business expense” if you write about it. You write about travel? Tax-deductible business expense. You write about food?

Having survived the trip to Thunder Bird Falls, and to celebrate not getting eaten by bears or falling off a cliff, we headed up to Palmer, where we dined at La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant. This was the occasion of even more of my habitual sarcasm, because who else would travel to the arctic wilderness to eat Mexican food? And as we were heading up there, I already knew what I was going to order, because the menu in every Mexican restaurant has it — the #1 Combination Plate, with a beef taco, chicken enchilada, rice and beans. There is nothing more predictable than the #1 Combination Plate, which is why I always order it. And, wearing my Professional Journalist™ hat as a food critic, I can tell you that La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant serves excellent food in large portions. My wife ordered the vegetarian burrito and it was ENORMOUS! As soon as they brought it out, I was like, “Just go ahead and bring us a take-out box, because there’s no way she’s going to eat that whole thing.”

After dinner, we did a bit of sightseeing in downtown Palmer — the view of the mountains is breathtaking — then went for ice cream at The Big Dipper, which is also excellent, the Professional Journalist™ said.

Having survived the wilderness — in a thrilling Jack London way — I took a long nap when we got back, and now, after 2,000 words, I must remind you of the Five Most Important Words in the English Language:





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