A Walk in the Park | The Ring of Fire

Written by by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in October

I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire

I went down, down, down

And the flames went higher

And it burns, burns, burns

The ring of fire, the ring of fire


“Johnny Cash,” said Shirley. “Very nice. But your B-flat could be just a tad less flat.”

“I was going for a note of Country-Western authenticity,” I said.

“And you almost hit it, too,” she said.

We were on the beach at Anchor Point, Alaska. The sign there says “Anchor Point, North America’s Most Westerly Highway Point.”

Across the Cook Inlet rose my vocal inspiration—the four volcanic peaks of Mt. St. Augustine, Mt. Redoubt, Mt. Iliamna, and Mt. Spurr—part of the Ring of Fire that stretches virtually all the way around the Pacific. The Ring, the most geologically active area of the globe, has more than 75% of the world’s volcanoes and experiences about 90% of the earthquakes.

“Do you suppose Johnny was thinking of plate tectonics? You know, the subduction of the Pacific Plate under the North American Plate that creates so much seismic activity?”

“Probably not,” said Shirley. “I think it is more likely he had Dante in mind. The imagery seems more theological than geological.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but you should never underestimate the complexity and profundity of Country-Western artists.”

We had been to Anchor Point in 2014, but back then we just wanted to brag that we had been as far west as you can go by highway. It is the same principle as stopping at the sign in Key West that says you have gone as far south as you can go. This year we actually stayed in Anchor Point instead of Homer, about 15 miles away. We went to Homer, too, of course, because out at the end of the five-mile gravel Spit in Katchemak Bay is Land’s End, yet another place where you have gone about as far as you can go.

At our Anchor Point campsite we were impressed when three juvenile bald eagles came to sit overhead in a spruce tree. (You can tell they are juveniles if they are not “bald”; i.e., their heads have not turned white.) Shirley went for a very short walk down to the beach and came back with the news that three juvenile eagles are no big deal. Their elders were feasting on salmon and other fish as they fended off seagulls raucously calling, “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

Anchor Point, by the way, is said to be named for the place where Capt. James Cook lost an anchor. He was exploring the area in 1776 looking for a shortcut across the top of North America called the Northwest Passage. Back then, North America was just an annoying roadblock between Europe and the riches of the Far East. You may remember Capt. Cook as the British naval officer killed by natives in Hawaii where he was the first European to visit. (You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.) Cook was accompanied by William Bligh who later learned something about making good impressions as the captain who provoked the mutiny on HMS Bounty.

But, back to that Ring of Fire. Most of the time we were there, the volcanoes across Cook Inlet were swathed in layers of clouds that make it difficult to get impressive photos. There was a series of really dramatic eruptions over there in the 1980s and ‘90s. Good photo ops then, no doubt. There are also some interesting historical photos taken after the horrendous Alaska earthquake and tsunami of 1964 that almost wiped Anchorage off the map and actually succeeded doing so with the coastal towns of Girdwood and Portage.

One morning there was low light from the east reflected off the snow-covered peaks. Shirley tried to capture the scene with her iPhone.

“Doesn’t do it justice,” she said.

My Canon camera did not do much better. Gray sea. Gray sky. White mountains. Not enough contrast. When you travel to Alaska you may have better luck. (Give it a try and send us your results.)

Now, this is the part you may find hard to believe. Eagles up the wazoo? Pooh! Volcanoes? Pooh! What Shirley found really fascinating about Anchor Point was the boat launch and retrieval.

On Lake Erie you launch your boat, depending on its size, by having it lifted by a crane or you just back your trailer down the ramp and into the water. When the tide is out on the Cook Inlet, the water is about a quarter mile away from the parking lot. Really hard to back your trailer across the combination of soft sand, gravel, and boulders. And never mind trying to get your boat back on the trailer again. Of course, you could just consult your tide tables and plan your return for when the tide is in. But what you are more likely to do is pay $70 (plus tip) to the guys who own these heavy-duty tractors with six-foot-high wheels. They’ll take you out and bring you back in. Their motto is “We get wet so you don’t have to.” That is, when it comes to hooking your boat to your trailer, they are the ones who jump into the water to make the connection. Did I mention that it was rarely over 52 or 53 degrees at Anchor Point in July? These guys earn their pay and tips.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, one of the eagles was running another lucrative concession. He perched on a good-sized rock and patiently allowed tourists who had visited his tip jar to approach to within ten feet for photos. Those who were particularly generous tippers could take selfies with him. This was on July 4, which may or may not be relevant. The eagle looked simply majestic. I won’t characterize his tourist clients. Shirley says I tend to be too judgmental.

“Pay less attention to the speck in your neighbor’s eye and more to the log in your own,” she says. Speck? Log? Where does she get this stuff?

At Anchor Point we had come to the end of the road, so we began planning our route back to the Lower 48. This created reason to think of another classic tune—“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

Our plan had been to take the Cassiar Hwy. south to the twin cities (more like villages) of Stewart, British Columbia and Hyder Alaska to watch bears eating salmon. Then it was to be east to Prince George and south into Washington. More specifically, we wanted to return to Columbia River wine country to visit my “cousin” Liz Mercer Elliott at the Mercer Winery as well as Fourteen Hands, Covey Run, and Columbia Crest. But that was not to be.

Huge wildfires in British Columbia had closed several roads—and there aren’t all that many roads to begin with. At decision time, it was still possible to get through by taking some rather complicated detours, but conditions were fluid, as they say, and could be vastly different by the time we arrived at a critical junction. If the fire cut across our route, it could require backtracking for several hundred miles—assuming it was possible to backtrack. (A woman at the visitor center said she really needed to get back to California and asked how fast she could drive without getting a ticket.) Instead of speed, the option we chose was to come back the way we went: down the Alaska Highway to Mile 0 at Dawson Creek, south on the Icefields Parkway through the Canadian Rockies to Montana.

There were truly grand vistas along the Parkway: Columbia Icefields, the glaciers that give the road its name, Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, Moraine Lake, and Lake Louise. Plus the magnificent mountains punctuating the whole experience. And I won’t even mention the wildlife along the way: black bears and grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, Stone sheep, mountain goats, deer, elk, caribou, moose. We even got stuck in a bison jam just the way you do in Yellowstone. But I won’t mention any of that.

Speaking of Yellowstone, let us not forget that almost the entire park sits in the caldera of a volcano that promises to bust loose any time now—geologically speaking. This year there was an earthquake “swarm” of more than 2,400 beginning in June. Most were detectable only with highly sensitive technology. In 1985 there were more than 3,000 in a three-month period. The area has always been one of the most geologically active places in the world. Some of the most popular features of the park—Old Faithful, Norris Geyser Basin, and Mammoth Hot Springs—are a direct result. Yellowstone is the most famous tourist destination in the Ring of Fire even though we don’t usually think of it that way.

When we reached Jasper, Alberta there was haze in the air and just a whiff of smoke. Before long there was much more than just a whiff. Shirley and I think the smell of campfires is quite pleasant. The smell of millions of trees all aflame, not so much.

Driving south through Kootenay National Park to Radium Hot Springs, we entered a stretch of dense smoke that was like really heavy fog. Less intrepid souls might have been a little unnerved by driving a steep, winding mountain road unable to see…well, unable to see. We don’t know any such intrepid souls. I started to hum. Then to sing under my breath.

I fell into a burnin’ ring of fire….

At Radium Hot Springs the smoke began to thin out, and at Eureka, MT the sky was clear. But, wait, there’s more. We spent several days in northern Montana before continuing to the Tetons in NW Wyoming. (Shortly after we left Montana, a wildfire destroyed Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park and closed Going to the Sun Road through the park.) The Tetons are the stars of the most spectacular scenery you will find anywhere. When you can see them. When the wind came from the right direction, the days were clear and bright. But too frequently the Tetons were enveloped in haze from wildfires to the west in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and California.

Wildfires in the West are as common every summer as snow in Buffalo every winter. For the traveler, this can mean various levels of inconvenience, but the burnin’ ring of fire usually represents just one more story to tell the folks back home. For residents, wildfires are a serious threat to life and property. What do you do, for example, if you operate a ranch with several hundred head of cattle and/or horses? Got enough trucks to haul them all to safety? Caring for your family, home, ranch hands, and livestock gives you cause to be grateful to the firefighters who take extraordinary risks as a matter of routine. This year, even the population of Los Angeles was threatened.

At Gros Ventre Campground in Grand Teton National Park, our neighbors left to enjoy their day in the park. Soon after, the wind fanned their “dead” campfire back to life. (I was tempted to make a bad pun about their “fire ring.” But I won’t.) We went over and put a couple gallons of water on it. No harm done. This time. Shirley and I love the Tetons and want to continue hiking the trail up to Taggart Lake that has already been burned over at least once in recent memory. About 10% of wildfires are caused by lightning. The rest are started by people like our neighbors who are just careless. Whether you are a tourist or resident, coping with the threat of wildfires is never just a walk in the park.❦