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Alaska

The Alaska Grand Tour: How to Sample the State in Two Weeks

May 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


by Lee Foster

Although Alaska is an immense area of real estate, it is possible to see a fair sample of the state in a two-week period if you plan carefully and use optimum air, sea, and land transportation. Almost all visitors to Alaska come during  the summer months from June through August. 

Alaska is unlike other travel destinations where you can casually search for transportation and accommodations. Prudent Alaska travel requires that you have confirmed lodging and transportation before your trip. There just aren’t any extra lodgings or places on the buses for the drop-in visitor during the tourist season. Moreover, there are hundreds of miles of spruce forests between outposts of civilization.

Despite the fact that you can make all the arrangements yourself, traveling independently, the vast spaces and limited accommodations of the state have made it primarily a travel-agent-and-tour-operator-cruise pattern of travel. The cruise industry is a major player, with Holland America Westours and Princess Cruises’ Alaska Cruisetours among the more prominent.  

To make a grand tour of Alaska in two weeks, consider flying to Anchorage to see this metropolis. Then train north to Denali National Park and Preserve for a day or two of viewing the wildlife from the Park Service guided buses. Following this, you can train or bus north to Fairbanks to see the pipeline, the Alaska Museum, and the salmon camp of Howard Luke. Then jet south to Juneau, the state capital. Take a cruise ship south to Vancouver, with visits to Glacier Bay National Park and Sitka, the original Russian settlement, along the way. The itinerary could also be reversed. Cruises often start in Vancouver or in Seattle, with the cruise portion first, then the land experience.

Here is each stop in more detail.

Anchorage

Anchorage is the gateway to the main body of Alaska. In Aleut, the word Alaska simply means “the great land.”

About half of the state’s total population lives in Anchorage. As you fly in, you’ll see the city framed by mountains, set on a plain a few feet above the ocean, perilously vulnerable to a tsunami. When you taxi down the runway, purple fireweed is the visually-dominant wildflower, especially in late summer, although the forget-me-not is the state flower.

On your first night in Anchorage, the long summer daylight period will become apparent. At 11 p.m. the twilight continues to persist. The flip side of summer light is winter darkness, which prompts some Alaskans to seek a winter home “outside,” meaning in the lower 48 states or Hawaii. Short rest-and-recuperation flights south, especially to Hawaii, recharge the inner solar energy of those citizens who can afford to be mobile in winter. Anchorage citizens so appreciate the summer light, as an antidote to seven months of winter and darkness, that they take much pride in their lawns. There is a Lawn of the Year contest. Hanging-baskets of flowers adorn almost every house. Greenhouses are popular, giving ornamental flowers and vegetables an early start in spring and prolonged growth in autumn. Ironically, the hours of summer light are so long that the total light falling on plants approximates that found in Illinois or other breadbasket states. However, all the growth must occur in a four-month period from June through September.

The city of Anchorage is spread out, 1,955 square miles, so take a city tour to orient yourself. These tours are offered from all the hotels. The Hotel Captain Cook and Anchorage Hilton are among the main downtown lodgings.

At Resolution Park, you’ll find a statue to Captain James Cook, who sailed his ships in 1778 into the inlet near Anchorage that now bears his name. Cook was searching for a northwest passage trade route.

Anchorage originated as a camp and transport site in 1914 for the developing Alaska Railroad, located at the edge of the Cook Inlet.

Within the city you’ll see salmon spawning in streams. Several types of salmon can be found entering Alaska streams for their final and fatal mission to reproduce in the same waters where they were born. The salmon species are the King or Chinook, whose red and oily meat is most highly prized by gourmets, the chum or dog salmon, which was the main food for sled dogs, the fall chum, the silver or coho salmon, plus the pink or red salmon.

Earthquake Park commemorates the Good Friday quake of 1964. Outsiders in the lower 48 states may have forgotten this Alaska earthquake, but Anchorage citizens remember it well. The quake first was measured at 8.6 on the Richter scale and later revised upwards to 9.2, greater than the San Francisco quake of 1906. Moreover, the duration was impressive, with the earth heaving for a full five minutes. Anchorage, at the epicenter, was left in shambles, with 10-foot drops in soil level. One hundred people lost their lives and 4,000 were left homeless. Anchorage’s older citizens divide all events into those before and those after the Quake. Earthquake Park attempts to portray for the visitor the force of the quake. When vegetation covers the ground, however, it is difficult for the layman to appreciate fully the impact. The view of the skyline from the park is well worth the trip out. Anchorage citizens, shaken each summer by a few minor quakes, remain fearful of possible future major quakes.

The main issues that excite Anchorage citizens, besides the natural beauty of the state, are: Is all the money from oil being used wisely? and Who finally owns and will own this state in the future?

For tourism information on Alaska, one good source is the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

Denali National Park

Denali National Park’s old name was McKinley National Park. Alaskans favored renaming the park after the Athabascan Indian word for the mountain, denali, meaning “the high one.” The park now bears that name. Technically, the peak itself retains the name Mt. McKinley, after the American president, William McKinley.

Only after you leave Anchorage and spend most of a day on a train ride to Denali Park, noting how short the distance is on the map, does the size of Alaska begin to sink in. Alaska is larger than all of California, Oregon, and Washington combined. Alaskans like to joke, but there is a basis in fact, that if the state of Alaska were cut in two, Texas would be the third largest state. The 49th state added a full fifth of the land size of the first 48. Roads penetrate only a small portion of this vast area.

The human record in Alaska goes back some 30,000 years to small groups of Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos, whose ancestors originally followed their caribou herds across the Bering Sea, when it was frozen, or who crossed from Russia in small boats.

Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. Both the height of the mountain and its northerly position account for a perpetual snow and glacier appearance, which only a third of the summer visitors are fortunate enough to see, due to overcast cloud cover.

However, the mountain is only the second major attraction of the park. The original rationale for creating the park was the preservation of wildlife. Viewing wildlife in a preserved natural environment is the special experience the park offers. A typical visitor who takes the Wildlife Tour, operated in buses by the Park Service, will see the Big Four–grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. If you are fortunate, you may also see wolves.

Cars can’t be used for exploring within the park. Shuttle buses and Wildlife Tours operated by the Park Service control all transportation. This is exactly the opposite approach from Yellowstone, our other great park for wildlife viewing. Denali will never allow a tradition of garbage-fed bears, such as Yellowstone once encouraged. The emphasis here is on minimum impact.

The Wildlife Tours amount to six hours on a bus with a competent naturalist-driver, who interprets the park and assists in wildlife sighting. When wildlife is sighted, you view it from the bus or, if you will not disturb the wildlife, from near the bus. The tour includes a box lunch. Roads are bumpy, so come prepared for a rigorous trip. Tours leave early in the morning and in mid-afternoon to catch the best viewing time. For every traveler, this tour is highly recommended.

Free shuttle buses make the same trip in and out of the park, allowing you to get off at designated points for a hike. The shuttle buses move quickly and don’t stop to view the animals or offer naturalist interpretation.

Distances in the park can seem boundless and there is only one road in and out. It takes four hours to go from the park entrance to the final stop, at Wonder Lake, deep in the park.

One of the special Park Service interpretive efforts is sled dog demonstrations, which takes place near the park entrance.

The geological story of Denali is a compelling part of your experience. Glacier-fed rivers pour forth and twist across sediment beds in a braided pattern through the valleys. In summer, the rivers turn grey because of the ground rock, called “rock flour,” crushed by the weight of the creeping glaciers.

Among the few lodgings at Denali, the rustic but comfortable McKinley Chalets or Denali Princess Lodge are good choices.

For further information on Denali, see the Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/dena.

Fairbanks

Fairbanks is in the interior of Alaska, a landscape far more severe than the temperate coastal areas of Anchorage or Juneau-Skagway-Sitka.

At Fairbanks, where winters are cold and dark, temperatures commonly drop to Farenheit 45 below, without considering the wind chill factor. Such conditions can provoke introspective self-knowledge or cabin fever approaching madness, depending on your temperament. A sobering detail at the University of Alaska campus is that all the parking lot spaces have electric sockets where you plug in the heater cables on your engine to keep the motor from freezing up while you attend classes. The electrical cost to keep a car plugged in overnight, producing enough heat to save the engine, is high. In Fairbanks, you need to be tough to survive.

One consolation in winter is the passionate sport of dog mushing, the official state sport. Dog mushing becomes an international competition in February. Mushers come from across Alaska, Canada, and from the U.S. as well. The popularity of this sport is broad and the practical use of dogs in Alaska is considerable. If you forget to plug in your car or snowmobile during a Fairbanks cold spell, the engine will freeze up and be useless. Dogs don’t exhibit such behavior. Dogs, however, require about a salmon a day or the equivalent in commercial dog food to survive. The Musher’s Museum in Fairbanks celebrates the dog cult, which peaks in two grueling winter races, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.

Summer in Fairbanks, when most visitors come, offers a more hospitable environment. It is light so long during the day that a famous midnight baseball game played on June 21 requires no electric lights. Parents allow their children to play outside long after the usual bedtime, well aware of the need for humans, as well as plants, to absorb as much sunlight as possible in the luxurious but brief summer sun time.

Fairbanks considers itself the Golden Heart of Alaska because of the substantial gold discoveries here, in the middle of the country, in September 1900. Typically for Alaska, Fairbanks has been a boom and bust town. The booms occurred when gold was discovered in 1900, when attention focused on Alaska as a defense post in World War II, and when pipeline employees were cashing their $30/hour paychecks during the building of the 800-mile pipe 1973-1977.

Orient yourself by stopping in at the downtown Log Cabin Information Center. Next to the log cabin you’ll find a swiveling signpost marker indicating the distances to various places in the U.S. and around the globe. At Pioneer Park, also next to the log house, you can see a bronze statue of the early pioneers and markers with the names of the early families. Fairbanks is as far north as most Alaska travelers go, except for those dedicated few who take charter flights beyond the Arctic Circle.

A downtown walk can take you from the Visitor Center to the Cheena River bank. There you’ll see remnants of homes from the era when trader E. T. Barnette, gold discoverer Felix Pedro, and legal arranger Judge James J. Wickersham founded the town. Wickersham asked Barnette to name the town, when the post office was established, after Wickersham’s friend, Senator Charles Fairbanks from Indiana.

Away from downtown, be sure to see the Alaska Museum at the University of Alaska. The museum divides the state into sections, each represented by the genius of its lifestyle or crafts. A huge Kodiak brown bear greets you in the foyer. One of the unusual exhibits is an ox-like animal that was attacked and killed by lions, then frozen in the tundra some 60,000 years ago, preserving its carcass as if in a supermarket freezer. Now the carcass is restored to its moment of death.

Be sure to see the defining symbol of modern life in Alaska, the 800-mile pipeline that brings oil from Prudoe Bay in the Arctic down to Valdez, the ice-free port east of Anchorage. Seeing the pipeline is a little like seeing grizzly bears or glacial ice up close. These are monumental Alaskan experiences. At one spot on the pipeline tour, you can stick your hand through a hole in the outer pipe, past the fiberglass insulation, to feel the 140 degree warmth of the interior pipe and flowing oil. The oil is kept warm because of the friction created by pumping it at high speed through the pipe. To keep the permafrost from becoming damaged by the warmth, the pipe is elevated wherever permafrost occurs, which is along half of the total distance. The warmth of the oil is crucial for the oil to flow rather than congeal at times of extreme cold. Today the pipeline transmits about 600,000 barrels of oil a day, 365 days a year.

Another interesting experience available in Fairbanks acquaints you with both the Indians and the riverboat world of the Gold Rush traders, a kind of Mark Twain world of the north. The outing takes place on a sternwheeler named Discovery III. The tour is run by the Binkley family, which has been operating riverboats here since 1898. Only in recent decades have these trade and postal boats become tourism boats. The trip takes you down the spring-fed Cheena River and up the glacial Tanana River. Rivers were the roads of commerce during the great gold rushes of Alaska. Near Fairbanks, the Cripple Creek strike was worth $100 million in gold, which would be the equivalent of $1 billion today.

You disembark at a simulated Athabascan Indian village, where you see how king and chum salmon were caught in fish wheels and dried or smoked. The salmon fed not only the Athabascans, but their sled dogs, on which they relied for winter transportation. You see how food was stored in high caches, which stood on poles out of the reach of bears. Several young Athabascan women give talks and demonstrations during the trip. The hard life of the Athabascans becomes apparent as you visit the area. The lushness of summer growth is deceptive because it is so brief. Life was a continual struggle for the Athabascans, who spent almost all of their time searching for food. The moose, especially, was a great prize because it might yield 1,300 pounds of meat.

In the evening in Fairbanks, be sure to enjoy Alaskaland’s outdoor salmon barbecue. Follow this with the Eskimo-Indian Olympics show, which exhibits feats of skill needed to survive in the wilds of Alaska. Of particular note is the degree of cooperation, rather than competition, needed in the society for well-being. The Palace Theater and Saloon Show presents a musical revue of Alaskan life from the Russian era to the recent oil-boom,

The Westmark is a dependable lodgings. For a classy restaurant, try the Bear ‘n Seal at the Westmark.

For Fairbanks information, see http://www.explorefairbanks.com.

Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka are cities in the southeast panhandle of Alaska. They differ sharply from the more northerly areas of the state. Precipitation here is high, comparable to Washington state, so the trees, such as Sitka spruce, grow to great heights and can be harvested for lumber or pulp.

The area is the most historic in Alaska. Sitka was the major Russian colony during the fur-gathering era. At Juneau, prospectors made major Alaska gold discoveries. From Skagway, some 20,000 hardy miners, plus many women and children, climbed over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.

A special Marine Highway ferry system ties the region together, operating between Seattle and Skagway. Waterways, shoreline, and boating become defining aspects of life here. Southeast Alaska has 33,000 miles of coastline, fully 68 percent of the Alaska coast. One out of five people owns a boat. Air and sea transport offer the only access to the region.

The flight to this area from Fairbanks on a clear day is one of the most spectacular views on the planet. As you leave Fairbanks, you see the spine of the Alaska Range of mountains and the vast stretches of uninhabited and rugged land between cities. The snowy peak of Mt. McKinley stands out majestically. And finally, as the flight progresses, you see sweeping aerial views of the glaciers of southeastern Alaska, including Glacier Bay National Park. From the air you get a clear sense of the glaciers as rivers of ice.

Juneau began when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. There were three major mines and a stamp mill. Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, though it has been overshadowed by Anchorage as a developed area and a population base. There are about 300,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage and only about 31,000 in Juneau, out of a total population in the state of only about 723,000. Most of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.

Once in Juneau, visit the Mendenhall Glacier, where you can touch and walk on glacial ice. Mendenhall is one of 16 glaciers in the 1,500 square miles of ice fields around Juneau. See also the Alaska State Museum, with its elaborate collection of artifacts. This museum and the museum in Fairbanks at the University are excellent introductions to the state.

Stop for a drink at the lively Red Dog Saloon, walk past the State Capital Building, and visit the historic Baranof Hotel.

From there, it is only a short walk to the Mount Roberts tram, which can take you to the top of the mountain for a spectacular view of the waterways, city, and other mountains.

Leaving Juneau, a marine ferry can take you up the Lynn Canal to Skagway, a town that boomed when miners seeking passage to the Yukon needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the best way. Canadian authorities required that miners assemble a year’s supply of provisions before proceeding.

Skagway’s main attraction is a walk around the historic area, with a stop at the Park Service headquarters for a brochure on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. There you’ll see photos of canvas fold-up boats that hopeful miners used on the Yukon River to get their supplies southward. The walls of the Park Service headquarters celebrate quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, with a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity. Be sure to see the Skagway presentation of the Soapy Smith Show to get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and this consummate local con man.

Sitka lies south of Juneau and is accessible only by cruise ship, ferry boat, or aircraft.

Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799, Russian Alexander Baranov began construction of fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and to develop the fur trade. The Tlingits resented Russian infringement, burning their fort and killing most of the people in 1802. Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit, after which the Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel. Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built between 1844 and 1848, burned in 1966, then was reconstructed as an exact replica.

Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S., in 1867, for $7,200,000, or about 2 cents per acre. The revived interest in the Russian heritage here includes the New Archangel Dancers, who entertain visitors with Russian folk dancing.

A half-mile from St. Michael’s Cathedral is the National Historic Park, where you can see Tlingit Indians practice wood carving, sewing, and jewelry making. At the historic park you can walk along a path to the site where the great battle of 1804 pitted the Russians against the fortified Tlingits, who were eventually overcome because of Russian firepower. Adjacent to the path you’ll see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 9,000 people are Tlingit. Nearby, visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a missionary’s collection of artifacts gathered from the various native groups in Alaska. The museum is on a college campus of the same name, where 200 students attend. You’ll see salmon-skin garments and a host of other artifacts of the Indian culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.

Seeing Sitka via a cruise ship port stop is the main mode of access to the area. 

For Juneau information, see the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website at http://www.traveljuneau.com.

Glacier Bay National Park

Glacier Bay National Park, west of Juneau, is the glacial prima donna among our national parks. Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice fall and crash into the water, making a sudden thunderous boom. For these special sights, about 400,000 visitors each year come to Glacier Bay National Park. About 90 percent of these visitors see Glacier Bay from the comforts of a cruise ship.

Within the park you are likely to see eagles and bears along the water’s edge. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters.

The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Park Service maps record the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region was covered with glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the area in 1794, his log book recorded that his progress was impeded by an impenetrable mass of glaciers covering Glacier Bay. He found the ice mass 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay.

Glacier Bay is a premier example of retreating glaciers, as well as specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers (glaciers that hang on mountainsides) and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that come to the water’s edge). The area serves as a laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers.

The study of retreating glaciers by modern scientists attempts to define their interaction with and effect upon the weather. The study is important because, around the world, glaciers and polar ice store more fresh water than all our lakes and rivers, groundwater, and the atmosphere combined. Glaciers form when snow fall exceeds snow melt.

Cruise ships or park service concession boats take you north along the Johns Hopkins Inlet and the Tarr Inlet to see the glaciers. Onboard Park Rangers present a running commentary on glacial realities.

Reid, a tidewater glacier, is the first major glacier that comes into view. There are 12 tidewater glaciers in the park. They are much rarer than land-bound glaciers. The intense blue of the glacier occurs because water crystals, formed under pressure, align to reflect blue light. As icebergs float away from the glacier after breaking off, they endanger navigation because their underwater size is uncertain. Rock and sediment in the ice may weigh down all but the tip of the iceberg.

Lampugh Glacier has a massive stream of melting glacial water pouring from its base.

At John Hopkins Glacier the cruise ships pause and drift. You can hear the roaring sound of ice crashing into water as the glacier  slowly breaks apart. Tlingit Indians called this sound “white thunder.” In the John Hopkins area, substantial flows of glacial ice pass the boat. The major phenomenon of retreating glaciers becomes evident at John Hopkins when you look at Park Service maps. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was about 15 miles further into the sea than its present position.

Moving up the Tarr Inlet, you see retreating Margerie Glacier.

For information on Glacier Bay National Park, see the Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/glba.

If you make an Alaska Grand Tour, as suggested here, you will sample a satisfying selection of our largest state.

***

Alaska: If You Go

For overall tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

Other helpful websites are distributed throughout this article as the subject is discussed.

Alaska

Anchorage as Alaska’s Gateway City

May 28, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


Anchorage Alaska – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Anchorage is the gateway city to many of the travel adventures available in Alaska. In Aleut, the word Alaska simply means “the great land.” Except for travelers who confine themselves to the “panhandle” of Juneau, Sitka, and Glacier Bay in the southeast corner of the state, Anchorage is the main entry point.

About 301,000 people of the state’s total population of about 735,000 live in the Anchorage mtro region. Many of the dreams and realities of the state first become apparent here to the visitor. While some visitors quickly pass through Anchorage, it is enlightening to spend some time here, especially if the culture of Alaska is of interest to you.

As you fly in, you’ll see the city framed by mountains, set on a plain a few feet above the ocean. When you taxi down the runway, purple fireweed is the visually dominant wildflower, especially in late summer. As the fireweed blooms successively from bottom to top, sourdoughs say, you can see the brief calendar of summer disappearing. Snow may fall by September 1.

Most of the annual 2 million visitors come to Alaska in summer and about half pass through Anchorage. On your first night in Anchorage, the long summer daylight period will become apparent. At 11 p.m. the twilight continues to persist. The flip side of summer light is winter darkness, which prompts some Alaskans to seek a winter home “outside,” meaning in the lower 48 states. February rest-and-recuperation flights to Hawaii recharge the internal solar energy of those citizens who can afford such mobility.

Flying is the main way that visitors get to Anchorage. Some drive along the inland Alaska Highway, which is a month-long adventure, and some take cruise ships to Seward and then ride into Anchorage. Half of all visitors come from California, Washington, and Oregon.

Planning an Anchorage Visit

Anchorage (and Alaska) is unlike other travel destinations because the amount of time the average visitor spends here is long. The length of stay is partly due to the immense size of the state. Alaska Airlines is one of the main carriers reaching Anchorage, especially from Seattle.

Once you arrive in Anchorage, getting around is an issue. The city is spread out, so a city tour to orient yourself is helpful. Tours are offered from all the hotels. There are several major downtown hotels, such as the Captain Cook, the Marriott, and the Hilton. Consider renting a car after a guided tour to go around on your own for a day to look at the sites missed.

When moving beyond Anchorage to the “interior,” you’ll need a plan for your transportation and firm reservations for lodging. The distances are vast, lodgings are limited, and nothing exists in between except spruce forests. The gigantic size of the state of Alaska will become gradually apparent to you. Alaska is larger than all of California, Oregon, and Washington together. If Alaska were split in two, Texas would be the third largest state. The 49th state added fully a fifth more terrain to the country of America. In 1984 Alaska celebrated its silver anniversary of statehood. Roads penetrate only a small portion of this vast area. The rest is unexplored territory, viewed only occasionally by bush pilots. The lack of roads is suggested by the tendency of Alaskans to refer to their main highways by a name rather than a number.

Many visitors take tours arranged by companies that have the transportation, lodging, and dining arrangements organized. Two of the more active of these tour companies are Westours and Princess. Travel agents will have information on providers of Alaska tours. Independent tour operators, especially in the adventure travel field, abound.

You could also rent a car in Anchorage and drive yourself to Denali Park and to Fairbanks. However, the roads are only fair, due largely to frost heaving the pavement after each hard winter freeze. A better plan would be to take a train to those areas, either on the Alaska Railroad or on the luxury dome cars managed by Westours and Princess.

Before coming to Anchorage, think through your itinerary. For a grand tour, which would sample much of the state, consider a plan that would land you in Anchorage, take you up to Denali Park to see the wildlife, and then to Fairbanks to see the interior and the trans-Alaska pipeline. Then fly to Juneau to see the capital, with a side trip to the gold rush town of Skagway. Back in Juneau, catch a cruise ship south to Vancouver, taking you through Glacier Bay National Park and down to Sitka, originally a Russian town. Such a grand tour would take about two weeks and would be a memorable travel adventure. It also could be done in reverse.

The human record in Alaska goes back some 30,000 years to small groups of Athabascan Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos, whose ancestors originally followed the woolly mammoth and caribou herds across the Bering Sea, when it was frozen, or who crossed from Russia in small boats.

A Dane sailing for Russia, Vitus Bering, first set eyes on the area in 1741.

Anchorage Perspectives

In Anchorage, at Resolution Park, you will find a statue of Captain James Cook, who sailed his boats in 1778 into the inlet near Anchorage that now bears his name. Cook was searching for a northwest passage trade route.

Anchorage originated as a camp and transport site in 1912 for the developing Alaska Railroad, located at the edge of the Cook Inlet. Fairbanks was then the main Alaska town, due to its proximity to the gold mines. Anchorage was merely a railhead until World War II thrust it into prominence. Anchorage developed quickly during the war as a military defense against the Japanese threat. Elmendorf Air Base near Anchorage still hosts a large fleet of military aircraft. Today Anchorage is one of the main air cargo cities in the United States as jumbo airplanes used by Federal Express and other couriers carry goods between the United States and Japan or other Asian destinations. Due to the curvature of the earth, the shortest route for the long journey is the flight north with a fueling stop in Anchorage.

On a city tour of Anchorage you may see salmon-spawning streams within the city limits. You’ll also see the lush gardens and lawns of the residential sections, plus the Earthquake Park that commemorates the Good Friday quake of 1964.

Several types of salmon can be found entering Alaska streams for their fatal mission to reproduce in the same waters where they were born. The salmon species are the king or chinook, whose red and oily meat is most highly prized by gourmets; the chum or dog salmon, which was the main food for sled dogs; the fall chum; the silver or coho salmon; plus the red and pink salmon.

A culinary explorer in Alaska will want to sample salmon, which may be white-fleshed as well as pink. The other appealing fish is halibut, which is caught in the hundred-pound range off the coast. King crab, whose succulent claws yield a white meat of unsurpassed delicacy, is another gourmet pleasure coming from these waters.

Anchorage citizens so appreciate the summer light, as an antidote to many months of winter and darkness, that they take pride in their lawns. There is a Lawn of the Year contest. Hanging-baskets of flowers adorn almost every house. Greenhouses are popular, giving ornamental flowers and vegetables an early start in spring and prolonged growth in autumn. Ironically, the hours of summer light are so long that the total light falling on plants approximates that found in Illinois or other breadbasket states. However, all the growth must occur in a four-month period from June through September. In the Matanuska Valley, near Anchorage, farmers grow 70-pound cabbages in this bright summer sun. Depression-era migrants from Minnesota populated the valley in the 1930s and established one of Alaska’s most viable agricultural areas.

Anchorage Attractions

Several stops on an Anchorage tour list are as follows:

*The Anchorage Museum of History and Art tells the story of the state’s art on the first floor and history on the second. Among the art pieces, the painting not to miss is Sidney Lawrence’s epic depiction of Mt. McKinley. On the second floor you get a good orientation to the five native peoples of the state and the recent growth of Anchorage, which had only 11,000 people in 1950.

*The Alaska Native Heritage Center is another critical stop. There you can see a movie on Alaska natives and watch dancers performing. Walk around the small lake on the property to see dwellings of the main cultural groups in the native Alaska mix, ranging from an Athabascan log cabin to a Tlingit board house. There is much to learn about how the native Alaskan culture enlarges our sensibility. The potlatch tradition, for example, celebrated the art of giving things away, meaning the more you gave away the better. The coming of age ceremonies for a child are different–for a girl it might be gathering her first bucket of berries, and for a boy it might be shooting his first ptarmigan, a bird, with his .22 rifle.

Beyond these two blockbuster sites, there are many other intriguing attractions to savor:

*In Anchorage, a hospital also happens to be a major art venue. At the Alaska Native Medical Center, take the elevator to the top floor and then walk down, perusing in the public areas and along the steps some of the finest native art you will see in Alaska.

*Another special museum is in the local Wells Fargo Bank building. At the Heritage Library Museum you can see artifacts from the 200 B.C. Bering Sea Culture, plus a recent Bering Sea kayak. The museum also displays numerous paintings of Alaska. A woolly mammoth tusk on display alerts a traveler to these large and extinct mammals, which flourished here as recently as 10,000 years ago.

*The Oscar Anderson House near downtown in Elderberry Park shows the typical 20th-century life of urban settlers in Alaska.

*The Log Cabin Information Center in the downtown is a good place to stop for brochures and directions. Walk around in the adjacent blocks on Fourth Street and its offshoots to see a range of art and memento shops. Some of the quality shops are Aurora Fine Art for Alaska native work and the Alaska Glass Gallery for exquisite glass. The Fourth Avenue Theatre is one of the landmark buildings.

*The Alaska Zoo is one place where you are certain to see the major mammals of the Great Land, meaning moose, black and brown bear, Dall sheep, polar bear, caribou, wolf, and musk ox.

Try to allow time for a walk or a bike outing on the Tony Knowles Coast Trail, which snakes along the water and offers good views. The best place to look back on the city skyline is from Airport Park. Catch the sunset at Point Woronzof to see the sky lit up over the Chugach Mountains around the waterway. Also near this area is Earthquake Park , which has the Coastal Trail running through it. Earthquake Park is a subject in itself (see below).

There are some fun downtown dining options, such as Snow Goose, where the home-brewed beer, a burger, and the outdoor deck are a treat. Another downtown eatery is the Glacier Brewhouse, where craft brewing and inventive entrees draw in the patrons. With a car, you could drive out to Gwennie’s Old Alaska Restaurant and be greeted by a mounted grizzly bear in the dining room. The reindeer sausage and king crab can’t be replicated easily elsewhere. Gwennie’s is the antithesis of the chain restaurant.

A car would also allow you to drive along Turnagain Arm to explore the trendy, small town of Girdwood, home of the Alyeska Prince Hotel, a major lodging in a scenic rather than urban setting. Alyeska is the main Alaska ski resort in winter, but its tram also operates in summer, taking visitors to the top of Mount Alyeska for a view of the Turnagain Arm waterway and the surrounding Chugach Mountains. Restaurants at the top of the tram offer a welcome dining experience, possibly another indulgence in salmon, halibut, or king crab. On the drive to Girdwood, stop at Beluga Point to watch the tidal surge pass by and possibly see one of the large white whales for which the point is named. Dall sheep are commonly seen on the hillsides above the road in the vicinity of Beluga Point.

Inquire also if special events may be occurring during your visit.

For example, the first Friday of each summer month in Anchorage is called First Friday and it features open house at the art galleries. Start at Snow City Café, where you’ll find a local band and a gallery show, as well as food and drink. Pick up a map there of all the local gallery venues. A short walk away, you may find a nature photo exhibit, for example, at Side Street Espresso.

You may be able to glimpse an only-in-Alaska event if you happen to be in Anchorage during the summer. The annual Alaska Native Youth Olympics is open to all Alaska youths. What is special are the unusual feats of skill for this Olympics. For example, the One Hand Reach requires that a person balance the body off the ground on one fist, then reach up with the other hand to touch a ball hanging in the air, then maintain the body balance position for another couple of seconds. Hundreds of young people compete in an unusual range of sports events, which evolved from the survival needs of the native cultures.

Quake of 1964

People in the lower 48 states may have forgotten the Alaska earthquake of Good Friday 1964, but Anchorage citizens remember it well. On the Richter scale the quake was first measured 8.6 and then revised upward to 9.2, greater than the San Francisco quake of 1906. But the duration was equally impressive, with the earth heaving for a full five minutes. Anchorage, at the epicenter, was left a shambles, with 10-foot drops in soil level in many places as the ground under the city liquefied and sank. A hundred people lost their lives and 4,000 were left homeless.

Anchorage residents of an advanced age divide all events into those before and those after the Quake. Earthquake Park attempts to portray the force of the quake. However, now that vegetation covers the ground, it is difficult for the layman to appreciate fully the impact, especially the drop of several feet in the soil level. The view of the skyline from the park is worth the trip out, however.

Portage Glacier and Prince William Sound

Two of the best tours from Anchorage are water adventures to see the Portage Glacier or to venture out on a tour boat on Prince William Sound.

Portage Glacier is a short ride down Turnagain Arm. A boat, called the Ptarmigan, takes you out for a close-up inspection of the glacier. Travelers often witness the “calving” process at the glacier. Calving refers to huge chunks of ice falling from the glacier, with thunderous sound, into the water, creating mini tidal waves.

If you drive, the Seward Highway road follows the shoreline and leads you into a region of dramatically retreating glaciers. The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center, near the Portage Glacier, tells the geological story in detail, expounding on the realities of the 6,000-square-mile Chugach ice fields.

Although this area is close to Anchorage, wild game abounds. Dall sheep and bears may be seen during the drive. Eagles and white beluga whales are common along the water’s edge. Scenic views of the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula across the waterway greet you at every turn. The Kenai Peninsula is the playground of Anchorage, where anglers have caught world-record salmon (97-1/4 pounds) and halibut (404 pounds).

Stop at the Potter Marsh, along the route, to witness many species of migrating waterfowl. The marsh, created by the quick drop of land in the 1964 Quake, hosts more than 130 species of birds. Intriguing among these creatures is the Arctic tern, which makes the longest migration of any living thing. The tern summers in the Arctic and then proceeds in “winter” to the Antarctic. The tern spends more time in sunlight than does any other creature.

A traveler with a full day’s time for a trip on the water should consider a boat excursion on Prince William Sound. Tour boats on the Sound take you out for a day of major sightseeing and a tasty fish lunch. The boats depart from Wittier. Getting to Wittier involves riding through a tunnel cut through the mountains.

Shortly after the boat leaves Wittier, you pass next to a major nesting ground for thousands of black-legged kittiwake birds. The birds nest on the bluffs in huge numbers and provide a symphonic background of music. Beyond the kittiwakes, you are sure to see eagles sitting in the trees, easily visible with their white heads, and sea otters resting on the ice floes. The scenic views include many perspectives on the Chugach Mountains and several glaciers, such as Surprise Glacier. For the traveler who comes to Alaska for scenery, wildlife viewing, and glaciers, this is one tour that offers it all.

The adventure traveler can sea kayak in Prince William Sound, experiencing the kittiwakes from water level without the sound of a motorized engine.

Anchorage is the gateway city to the state, and there is plenty of Alaska scenery and adventure within day-trip distance from the city. Also, to experience the culture of Alaska, from heritage museums to art galleries, Anchorage has an importance place on your potential itinerary.

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Anchorage: If You Go

For tourism information on Alaska, see the website of the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

The Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau is at http://www.anchorage.net.

Alaska

Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve

May 26, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

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Denali National Park Alaska – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

In both the height of its mountains and the abundance of its wildlife Denali National Park is unsurpassed.

The old name for Denali National Park was McKinley National Park. Alaskans favored renaming the park after the Athabascan Indian word for the mountain, denali, meaning “the high or great one.” The park now does bear that name. Technically, the peak itself retains the name Mt. McKinley, after the American president, William McKinley.

Mt. McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the tallest mountain in North America. Both the height of the mountain and its northerly position account for a perpetual snow and glacial appearance. Only about a third of the summer visitors are fortunate enough to see the mountain, due to the prevalence of overcast skies.

Seeing McKinley is a moving experience, partly because of its height and partly because it rises so abruptly from the surrounding land. The classic view is from Wonder Lake, which requires a four-hour shuttle bus ride, plus the good fortune of weather conditions that permit visibility.

The mountain is only the second major attraction of the park, however. The original rationale for creating the park was for the preservation of wildlife. Viewing wildlife in a preserved natural environment is the primary special experience the park offers. A typical visitor who takes the Wildlife Tour, operated in buses by the Park Service, will on a given day see the Big Four: grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou. If you are fortunate, you may see even more spectacular sights, such as wolves.

For exploring within the park, cars can’t be used. Shuttle buses and Wildlife Tours operated by the Park Service control transportation within the park. Note that this is exactly the opposite approach from Yellowstone, our other great park for wildlife viewing. Denali will never allow a tradition of garbage-fed bears, as Yellowstone once encouraged but does not condone today. The emphasis here is on minimum impact. Controlling people by preventing the use of private autos is the main approach.

A primary mission of the park, as the park superintendent once expressed it to me, is to make such wildlife sighting available for the present and future generations.

Denali Wildlife Tours

The Wildlife Tours amount to six hours on a bus with a competent naturalist as driver. The driver interprets the park and assists in wildlife sighting. When wildlife is sighted, you view it from the bus or, if it will not disturb the wildlife, from near the bus. The tour includes a box lunch. Roads are bumpy, so come prepared for a rigorous trip. Tours leave early in the morning and in mid-afternoon to catch the best animal viewing. For every traveler, this tour is highly recommended.

Denali was created after considerable lobbying by groups interested in preserving the wilderness wildlife habitat. Naturalist Charles Sheldon first traveled here in 1906. His guide was Harry Karstens, who became first superintendent of the park, in 1917.

In 1980 the park was substantially enlarged to its present acreage. Each year more than 400,000 people visit the park.

Free shuttle buses make trips in and out of the park, allowing you to get off at designated points for a hike. The shuttle buses move quickly and don’t stop to view the animals or offer naturalist interpretation. If you have only one day, take the guided Wildlife Tour, which costs a moderate fee, rather than the free shuttle.

The Park Service’s estimates the number of big game in Denali Park as follows: 200 grizzly bears, 1,700 caribou, 2,500 moose, 2,500 Dall sheep, and 140 wolves.

Distances in the park are vast and there is only one road in and out. It takes four hours to go from the park entrance to the final stop, at Wonder Lake, deep in the park.

Wildflowers and other flora in the park are appealing to see. On the wildlife tour a short wildflower walk occurs at Polychrome Pass, which is also a prime wildlife overlook. The spruce, willow, and birch trees of the park, the tundra environment of stunted growth, and the huckleberries that feed the bears are all part of the floral spectrum here. Jaeger birds, a predator that lives on mew gull eggs, among other things, can be seen in this vegetation. Ptarmigan, whose white heads stand out like those of bald eagles, sit on the tops of spruce trees. Overall, the scenery is stunning, emphasizing a vastness of space that one can encounter in few other regions.

The geological story is a major part of your experience at Denali. Glacier-fed rivers pour forth and twist across sediment beds in a braided pattern through the valleys. In summer the rivers turn grey because of the ground rock, called “rock flour,” created by the weight and friction movement of the glaciers. Downstream, when the rock flour settles out, salmon and grayling flourish.

People at Denali

A superintendent once told me how he planned to control carefully the number of people allowed into the park. He also hoped to emphasize high quality adventure trips as well as the standard Wildlife Tour and shuttle bus.

“I have to wrestle every day with the number of buses we’ll allow into the park,” he said. “I know we are doing some damage to the number of animals and to their closeness to the road, for viewing. But we are doing a fairly good job of maintaining the environment and providing a high quality experience for visitors. The bottom line is that the public knows this: Denali is a place where the average citizen can see the critters.”

Using some European park experiences as a model, the superintendent hoped to emphasize more adventure trips and a strategy that focuses human impact more on the south side of the park, taking some pressure off the prime wildlife habitat of the north. He hoped to allow helicopter companies to take visitors into the McKinley glaciers, where the visitors would be dropped in to camp.

“There are places on the south side where you can see 12,000 vertical feet of ice. The experience is profound. I feel we can bring people to this experience in economical ways and with only a fraction of the detrimental impact of more roads,” he said. “We plan to offer the adventuresome traveler an experience special to this national park.”

Naturalists all over the world in the higher levels of resource management see Denali as “an international biosphere reserve.”

“Worldwide, people recognize this is a one-of-a-kind park,” said the superintendent. “I aim to maintain that quality environment, despite our annual increase in visitations. Those of us who manage the parks must realize we are just passing through, we are managing the park as a legacy for the future. If the wilderness is destroyed, you can’t recreate it.”

Two intriguing side trips are possible at Denali because they don’t require roads. The first amounts to flying around the mountain in a small plane or helicopter. The second involves rafting the Nenana River.

From an airplane or helicopter you can get superb views of Mt. McKinley. If clouds obscure the mountain, it is often possible to climb above them. Flights originate near Park Headquarters.

The airplane ride also introduces you to a prominent mode of transportation in Alaska, that of the small bush planes. These planes are not confined to the legendary bush pilots who carry fishermen into wilderness lakes. A surprising number of prosperous Alaskans own airplanes. Wasilla, a town on the road between Anchorage and Denali, even has a fly-in shopping mall. A quarter of all the small planes in the US are located in Alaska, which has more pilots per capita than any other state. The two-airplane garage is like the two-car garage in the lower 48 states. For many areas of the state the airplane is the only mode of transport possible because there either are no roads or the distances are too great. Bush planes may have wheels, pontoons, or both for maximum versatility.

Nenana River raft trips amount to two-hour floats through the area. These trips provide good chances at seeing wildlife, especially eagles. One of the two offered trips is a white-water experience and the other is a more sedate float.

Sled Dogs at Denali

One of the Park Service interpretive efforts is the daily sled dog demonstration, which takes place late in the afternoon near the park entrance. Historically and today, sled dogs play an important role in park management. Before the snowmobile became generally available in Alaska, sled dogs were the only means of winter transportation off the road. At Denali, sled dogs have always been one of the most important means of patrolling the outer reaches of the park, looking for poachers and managing the subsistence hunting allowed in some park areas. For many Alaskans and for the Park Service, sled dogs are superior to the snowmobile. They never break down. They eat local salmon rather than less accessible gasoline. They need no spare parts. And the lead dog can become the navigator, finding the trail below freshly falling snow. In the event of a storm, the driver can curl up with the sled dogs to keep from freezing to death.

Your mode of transport and your lodging at Denali National Park should be planned carefully. There is little room here at support facilities for the casual, drop-in visitor in the peak summer season. You are far, far from the relative civilization of Anchorage.

There are several basic approaches to solving these travel issues when exploring Denali.

For most visitors, the best plan is generally to use a travel agent or booking website. The main operators include Westours and Princess, both for a dome-car train ride from Anchorage and lodging in one of the few hotels (such as the McKinley Chalets or Denali Princess Lodge). Trains with vistadome viewing cars can provide luxurious transportation for visitors traveling between Anchorage and  Denali.

If you’ve driven to Alaska in your own car/RV or if you rent a car, you can drive yourself to Denali. The road is paved, but rough, due to the damage from frost heaving the road in winter. Alaskans debate whether a gravel road or a paved road is better under these conditions. Your speed on the road will be slow. Arrange lodging in advance.

If you wish to camp or backpack, you can do so near the park or within the park. A few cars are allowed to drive deep into the park to car campsites at Wonder Lake. Backpackers have many options within the park.

***

Denali National Park: If You Go

For further information on Denali National Park, see the Park Service website at www.nps.gov/dena.

For tourism information on Alaska, a major source is the Alaska Travel Industry Association, www.travelalaska.com.

Alaska

Fairbanks and the Alaska Interior

May 24, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


Fairbanks Alaska – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

A trip to Fairbanks takes you to the interior of Alaska, a landscape far more severe than the temperate coastal areas of Anchorage or Juneau-Skagway-Sitka.

At Fairbanks the winters are cold and dark, with temperatures dropping commonly to 45 degrees Fahrenheit below, without considering the wind chill factor. Such conditions can provoke introspective self knowledge or cabin fever approaching madness, depending on your temperament. A sobering detail at the University of Alaska campus is that all the parking lot stalls have electric sockets where you plug in the heater cables on your engine to keep the motor from freezing up while you attend classes. The electrical cost to keep a car plugged in overnight, producing enough heat to save the engine, is about $5. In Fairbanks, you need to be tough to survive.

Summer in Fairbanks, when most visitors come, offers a more hospitable environment. It is light so long during the day that a famous midnight baseball game played on June 21 requires no electric lights. Parents allow their children to play outside long after the usual bedtime, well aware of the need for humans, as well as plants, to absorb as much sunlight as possible in the luxurious but brief sun time.

The winters of Fairbanks engender a sense of community in those who remain. The cold months are so severe that mutual help is crucial for survival. Fairbanks’ citizens tend to look after each other, as they must. As an example of the daily challenge of winter life here, the house in which President Ronald Reagan stayed during his 1983 visit, while he rested for the China trip and met with the Pope, had no running water. On the night before his arrival, cold burst the water pipes.

Fairbanks is not always that cold, however. While the thermometer may plunge for a spell, the statisticians insist that the average January temperature is indeed 12 degrees Fahrenheit above zero. Adding to the darkness and cold is a condition called “ice fog,” in which liquid in the air crystallizes, forming a white haze in the brief daily sunlight hours of winter. If you tend toward depression, a sedentary lifestyle, and the comforts of alcohol, Fairbanks is not what the doctor ordered. To survive here, you must be spirited and resourceful.

One consolation in winter, however, is the sport of dog mushing, the official state sport. Dog mushing becomes an international competition in February. Mushers come from all over Alaska, Canada, and from the northeast U.S. as well. The popularity of this sport is increasing and the practical use of dogs in Alaska is growing. If you forget to plug in your car or snowmobile during a Fairbanks cold spell, the engine will freeze up and be useless. Dogs don’t exhibit such behavior. Dogs, however, require about a salmon a day or substantial amounts of commercial dog food to survive. The Musher’s Museum in Fairbanks, an interesting touring stop, celebrates this dog heritage. The famous annual races, the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, test the ultimate in dog and human performance.

In Fairbanks, the observant eye can’t help but be amused by details of life that indicate the traveler has entered another realm. For example, there is a golf course in Fairbanks. In fact, it is the most northerly USGA-rated course in the US. But it had no greens (until recently). The “greens” were called “greys.” Greys were grey-sand greens. When your ball landed on the grey, you were permitted to dig it out of the sand. You were then permitted to take a roller, a kind of sod roller present on every green, and carefully roll out a pathway across the sand between your ball and the cup. Eventually, however, green astroturf replaced the traditional sand.

Fairbanks considers itself the Golden Heart of Alaska because of the substantial gold discoveries here, in the middle of the country, in September 1900.

Typically for Alaska, Fairbanks has been a boom and bust town. If anything, tourism may ultimately reduce more transient cycles in the community. The booms occurred when gold was discovered in 1902, when attention focused on Alaska as a defense post in World War II, and when pipeline employees were cashing their $30/hour paychecks during the building of the 800-mile pipe 1973-1977.

Getting to Fairbanks

As with any Alaska trip, transportation and lodging must be assured in advance because both are limited, especially in the summer.

After arriving at Anchorage, you can fly to Fairbanks. You can also take the train or, if you wish, rent a car for the drive there. The drive is long and the roads are poor. The Westmark Fairbanks is one of the dependable lodgings. There are also a few classy restaurants, such as the Bear’n Seal or the Pump House, which situates you over the river. Try the regional specialty, reindeer sausage.

Three interesting details of the Fairbanks airport should be noted. The motif in the lobby is an heroic early-day bush plane. A sign as you boarded your flight, in the pre 9-11 era, was an only-in-Alaska phenomenon. The sign read, “Before boarding, please check your ulus.” Ulus, popular souvenirs, are the bone (later steel) knives used by Athabascan women to scrape moose hides and perform other tasks. The runways include one long watery landing strip in which float planes, used by the bush pilots, line up wing to wing.

If you drive or train to Fairbanks, you’ll pass the town of Nenana, which boasts a special annual celebration. Each winter a huge tripod is placed on the ice at the middle of the Nenana River. A long cord attaches the tripod to the prominent town clock. The locals (and interested citizens statewide) place sizable numbers of $2 bets on the exact minute in spring when the ice in the river will break up, the tripod will fall, the clock will stop, and a blow-out celebration to end winter cabin fever will begin. Each year the winner takes home a cash prize over $100,000. All participants do their best during the celebration to banish memories of darkness and the long winter.

History of Fairbanks

For the last 30,000 years Athabascan Indian people have survived here, putting most of their energy into the search for food. They ate salmon and game, especially moose, that they learned to kill with stone spears at great risk to themselves. They had a hard life, with an average life expectancy of 25-30 years, living in small extended-family groups, the maximum population numbers that their hunting and gathering skills could support.

Only in relatively recent years, at the turn of the century, did the first white men penetrate the region. Boats of traders came as part of the Gold Rush in the Yukon. Missionaries soon followed the Gold Rushers. Flu and smallpox wiped out many of the Indians.

One of the interesting experiences available to the traveler here acquaints you with both the Indians and the riverboat world of the Gold Rush traders, a kind of Mark Twain world of the north.

The outing takes place on a sternwheeler named Riverboat Discovery. The tour is run by the Binkley family, which has been operating riverboats here since 1898. Only in the last two decades have these trade and postal boats become tourism boats. The trip takes you down the spring-fed Cheena River and up the glacial Tanana River. Glacial rivers are full of pulverized rock, called “rock flour,” ground up by the weight and friction of the slipping ice. Like the Missouri, this kind of river water is “too thick to drink and too thin to plow.”

Rivers were the roads of commerce during the great Gold Rushes of Alaska. Near Fairbanks, the Cripple Creek strike was worth $100 million in gold then, which would be $1 billion now.

You disembark at a riverbank habitation simulating an Athabascan Indian village. There you see how king and chum salmon were caught in fish wheels and dried or smoked. The salmon fed not only the Athabascans, but their sled dogs, on which they relied for winter transportation. You see how food was stored in high caches, small storage houses placed on poles out of the reach of bears and other mammals. Several young Athabascan women give talks and demonstrations during the trip.

How hard life was for the Athabascans becomes apparent as you visit the area. The lushness of summer growth is deceptive because it is so brief. Life was a continual struggle for the Athabascans, who spent almost all of their time searching for food. The moose, especially, was a great prize because it might yield 1,300 pounds of meat. Athabascans ate salmon during the seasonal runs. Berries were abundant, briefly, in summer.

Athabascans were the last group to make the migration from Russia across the Bering Sea ice bridge. The Apaches and Navajos of the American southwest are an extension of the tribe, based on a shared language structure. More Indians living today speak varieties of Athabascan than any other Indian language.

Main Attractions of Fairbanks

Orient yourself in Fairbanks by stopping at the downtown Log Cabin Information Center and its adjacent Pioneer Park, noted for a bronze statue of a pioneer family and the engraved names of all the original families who settled the area. As in Anchorage, a log cabin has been chosen as the building for visitor information. Throughout the state you’ll see a surprising number of modern log cabins as standard houses. The downtown Fairbanks log cabin is a particularly handsome example. The logs are massive white spruce from the panhandle area around Sitka. The basalt stones of the fireplace are from Denali. The sod roof on the cabin is a frequent practice, providing added insulation. Some people even grow vegetables and flowers on their roofs. Next to the log cabin you’ll find a swiveling signpost marker indicating the distances to various places in the U.S. and around the globe. Fairbanks is as far north as most travelers get, except for the dedicated few who take a charter flight beyond the Arctic Circle.

At the Information Center you can get brochures for a walking tour of Fairbanks. You can also get information on a city tour, if you aren’t already booked for one. The distances to places like the University and the pipeline, two prime stops, are such that you will need some transportation to get there. Public transportation won’t do, so either use your own vehicle, take a tour, or plan to pay a taxi the high rates commanded in Alaska for all services. A tour is the most economical and efficient approach for most travelers.

A downtown walk can take you from the Information Center along the Cheena River bank to see remnants of homes and buildings from the era when trader E. T. Barnette, gold discoverer Felix Pedro, and legal arranger Judge James J. Wickersham founded the town. Wickersham asked Barnette to name the town, when the post office was established, after Wickersham’s friend, Senator Charles Fairbanks from Indiana.

I once had the pleasure of walking through the old Fairbanks area with author Stan Patty, who was born here. Stan’s father founded the university and served as a mine manager. Stan showed me the spacious log house that his father built here in the 1930s, complete with a room for Stan’s mother’s grand piano. Even on the ragged edge of the Alaska tundra, there was a thirst for culture. The small town had an excellent library, which sparked Patty’s long and distinguished literary career. To repeat our walk, wander in the rectangle formed by 8th, Cowles, Front, and Noble Streets. The typical housing pattern here was to add on new rooms to the small, original structures.

Although the river may be flowing generously during the summer melt and flooding is possible, the Fairbanks area is relatively arid, getting only 12 inches a year rainfall, compared with the 50-150 inches common in southeast Alaska.

Aside from the Riverboat Discovery, be sure to see the Alaska Museum at the University of Alaska. All of the state is divided into sections in the museum, with each section represented by the genius of its lifestyle and crafts. A huge Kodiak brown bear greets you in the foyer. One of the unusual exhibits is an ox-like animal that was attacked and killed by lions, then frozen in the tundra some 60,000 years ago, preserving its carcass as if in a supermarket freezer. Now the carcass is restored to its moment of death.

At the University, you can tour the agricultural experiment station, which attempts to breed selected forms of grains and vegetables suitable for Alaska. Wheat of high protein content has been one of the successes. Research on musk ox and caribou helps document the astonishing skills of these animals at surviving in one of the harshest climates known to mammals.

A city tour of Fairbanks is recommended as an efficient way in which to comprehend the diverse pleasures of the region. Inquire about the city tours at your motel. On the two-hour tour, you’ll see the defining symbol of modern life in Alaska, the 800-mile pipeline that brings oil from Prudoe Bay in the Arctic down to Valdez, the ice-free port east of Anchorage.

Seeing the pipeline is a little like seeing grizzly bears or glacial ice up close. These are monumental Alaskan experiences. At one stop along the pipeline, you can stick your hand through a hole in the outer pipe, past the fiberglass insulation, to feel the 140-degree Fahrenheit warmth of the interior pipe and flowing oil. The oil is kept warm because of the friction created from pumping it at high speed through the pipe. In order that the permafrost will not be damaged by the warmth, about half of the pipe is elevated, wherever permafrost occurs. The warmth of the oil is crucial for the oil to flow rather than congeal at times of extreme cold. Major oil fields were discovered in 1968 and the pipeline was finally built, 1973-1977, after numerous safeguards were assured to reduce its environmental impact. The pipeline actually takes up only 14 square miles of land in its route and can be disassembled at a later date, if and when its usefulness has been exhausted. About 20,000 people worked on the pipeline during the boom years of construction. They earned $1000 per week, but living expenses in Fairbanks were also astronomical. Workers traded a guarantee of high wages for a no strike clause in their contract. Today the pipeline transmits about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, 365 days a year.

In the evening, savor the Alaskaland salmon bake, an excellent meal, and then watch the entertainment offered at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics, a test of practical physical feats needed to survive in the far north. The remarkable feature of these Olympics is that cooperation, rather than competition, is required for survival, as it is in real life in the tough Alaskan outdoor environment. After the Olympics show, walk over to the Palace Theater and Saloon show, a musical revue that celebrates the spirit of Alaska from the Russian period to the oil era.

After you have visited Fairbanks, the full impact of the Alaskan state flag begins to register. The flag consists of a golden Big Dipper and North Star on a blue background. The blue stands for the blue of the state’s sea, sky, lakes and rivers, and state flower, the forget-me-not. The gold stars reflect the dreams of the gold rushers and the bright stars of the night sky. Alaska is seen as the North Star in the Union, a star with a strong and steady light.

Side Trips from Fairbanks

Casual side trips from Fairbanks are not a plausible prospect. There are few roads and no facilities beyond the outskirts of the town. Air flights, however, can take you from here to the Arctic or to the Yukon. One of the best such trips is a bush plane ride to the Eskimo village at Anaktuvuk Pass. Again, the distances are vast and confirmed modes of travel, as well as confirmed lodging, are crucial.

***

Fairbanks: If You Go

Further information on Fairbanks comes from the Fairbanks Convention and Visitor Bureau at http://www.explorefairbanks.com.

Alaska

Cruising Alaska in Summer

May 22, 2014 by · 2 Comments 


Alaska Cruise – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Glistening circular backs of humpback whales roll across the water. Stark white heads of bald eagles show readily in the green spruce trees. Calving glaciers send tons of ice crashing into the water, creating minor tsunamis. Gold mines testify to this northernmost allure of precious metal.

For such grand adventures and amazing sights, few cruise destinations approach the enormous scope and dazzle of Alaska.

With only a brief summer season available for exploration, cruise lines combine great comfort and ease of travel during the primary Alaska travel time, June-August, although there is also some cruising, usually at reduced rates, through the “shoulder seasons” of May and September.

Each year promises to be another banner year for Alaska cruising.

Most of the big cruise lines deploy ships here in summer. Some companies commit several ships. Holland America and Princess have been, traditionally, among the most energetic players. Both also own hotels in Alaska, offer popular land tours, and have deluxe rail cars for the ride out to Denali National Park.

Passengers may board a ship in Vancouver, Juneau, or Anchorage. Some sailings to Alaska start farther south, in San Francisco or Seattle.

Not all ships go to one of the prime experiences, Glacier Bay, because there simply are not enough slots to accommodate all ships that might want to sail there. A consumer can look over details of a possible Alaska venture and research out who offers that experience. 

Every cruise company wants to be part of the Alaska cruise boom, which is running at near maximum capacity. Carnival , Celebrity, and Disney are here. Higher end participants, such as Silversea, are also active. Some small ships stay in Juneau and focus on Glacier Bay.

One popular cruise pattern for ships originates in Vancouver, then continues north to Juneau along a waterway called the Inside Passage. This watery trek snakes its way through a labyrinth of islands in Southeast Alaska, buffering ships from the rolling waves of the open sea, providing passengers a smooth ride. The cruise may include a visit to Glacier Bay National Park or an itinerary passing other glacial areas. There may be a pause at some interesting small Alaska towns of the southeast, such as Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka. Then the ship turns around and heads back to Vancouver, so you may fly in and out of Vancouver or Juneau.

Alternatively, some ships drop passengers at Skagway for an overland tour of the Yukon and inland Alaska. 

Another pattern takes passengers from Vancouver to Juneau and then on to Seward or Whittier, towns connected by road or railroad to Anchorage. This itinerary sometimes celebrates the Gulf of Alaska, Prince William Sound, and the Kenai Peninsula. Passengers offload at Whittier and depart by air from Anchorage or participate in a land tour. Another cluster of passengers flies into Anchorage and sails the voyage in reverse, disembarking at Vancouver.

Travelers looking for a small-ship experience in the wilderness waterways may fly in and out of Juneau, departing on their voyage to Glacier Bay and other pristine places from this mid-way city.  

Year-after-year, cruise passengers delight in seeing the glaciers and wildlife of Glacier Bay National Park, one of the most inspiring natural settings on the planet. Besides the wonders of nature, the interesting small towns to explore include Juneau, with its state-capital bustle; Skagway, where patient miners with visions of gold nuggets hiked across the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon gold fields; and Sitka, noted for its Russian heritage.

Let these introductory remarks orient you to your potential Alaska cruise pleasures. Where the ship goes will have a bearing on which ship and sailing you choose.

Glacier Bay

Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice dislodge and crash into the bay with a sudden thundering sound.

For these special sights, Glacier Bay National Park is the single greatest attraction in Southeast Alaska. Glacier Bay is our one National Park seen primarily via cruise ship.

Within Glacier Bay National Park, located west of Juneau in Southeast Alaska, you are likely to see eagles and bears along the shore. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters. Ocean wildlife flourishes here because the conditions are favorable for their food supplies. The extreme coldness of the water coming off the glaciers supports abundant dissolved oxygen. Long summer daylight hours encourage rapid growth of plankton, krill, and other small plants and animals at the base of the food chain.

The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Currently, these glaciers are making the fastest glacial retreat in recorded history. Park Service maps date the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region was covered with glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the region in 1794, his logbook recorded that an impenetrable mass of ice impeded his progress at Glacier Bay. He measured the ice mass at 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was more than 15 miles farther into the sea than its present position.

Glacier Bay is also a premier example of specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that slide to the water’s edge). The area is a perfect laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers. Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay, for example, was solid glaciers 200 years ago, but is now a maturing spruce forest.

A relevant question to ask your potential cruise company would be, “How good is your naturalist program?” The more interpretive information you receive on an Alaska cruise, the more satisfying will be your experience. Certain primal moments, such as following a humpback whale meandering around Glacier Bay, can live in your memory forever.

Joe Juneau’s Gold

Juneau began when Joe Juneau and his partner Dick Harris discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he believed he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. However, Juneau actually succeeded in overspending. He died impoverished in the Yukon. Friends took up a collection to ship his body back to Juneau for burial.

In Juneau there were several major mines and a stamp mill. The AJ Mine was at one time one of the world’s largest producers of low-grade ore.

Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, even though Anchorage overshadows it as a developed area and a population base. There are about 300,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage city and only about a tenth as many in Juneau, out of a total population of about 731,000 in the state. Almost all of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.

It would be hazardous to argue that in the lower 48 states there is a state capital more attractive than Juneau. Where else is there a combination of visual pleasures that encompasses the sea, mountains, glaciers, wildlife, and salmon spawning, all close to the city’s edge?

In Juneau, take a city tour to orient yourself to the area. The tour will transport you outside of town to the Mendenhall Glacier. Mendenhall is one of 16 glaciers in the 1,000 square miles of ice fields around Juneau. The reddish fireweed wildflowers flourishing in front of the white Mendenhall glacier, with the green of the forests as a natural frame, is one of the most lovely images in all of Alaska.

In Juneau, see the Alaska State Museum, with its elaborate collection of kayaks.

Stop for a drink at the lively Red Dog Saloon, a honky tonk with player-piano music and stuffed animals on the wall. The beverage of choice here is locally-brewed Alaska beer, a hearty drink. Try the award-winning Alaska Amber.

Take the comfortable tram ride up the mountain to get an eagle’s view of the surroundings.

Skagway’s Chilkoot Pass

Skagway boomed when miners seeking passage to the Klondike Gold Rush needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the surest route to riches. Canadian authorities allowed only miners with a year’s supply of provisions to proceed. Skagway booms again today, but it is cruise ship passengers rather than precious ore generating the wealth. The community of less than a thousand people swells with about 300,000 summer visitors a year.

Explore Skagway by strolling through the historic area. Stop at the park service headquarters for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. There you’ll see photos and displays of this major historic event. Photos, for example, show how miners used fold-up canvas boats on the Yukon River to get their supplies down river. Most of the boats were abandoned when they proved to be too flimsy. The walls of the Park Service headquarters are covered with quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, echoing a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity.

The photographic image of long lines of men, chained together for safety, hiking in the middle of winter up the 45-degree grade of the Chilkoot Pass, is one of the most moving images of the Klondike rush. The weather here can be severe. In fact, Skagway is derived from the Tlingit Indian word, skagua, that means “home of the north wind.”

Be sure to see the Skagway presentation, each afternoon and evening, of the Days of 98 Show with Soapy Smith. In the revue you get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and the consummate con man, Soapy Smith, who knew a thousand ways to separate a sourdough from his gold nuggets. The Red Onion saloon is a favorite bar, often featuring impromptu jam sessions led by musicians from the cruise ships. The town is compact and pleasant to walk around. Explore the shops, such as Tresham Gregg’s gallery of his Tlingit Indian art creations. Gradually, many of the buildings are being restored to their 1898 appearance as the National Park applies its influence and funds. The photo shop Dedman’s, for example, was one of the original photo studios and still has glass plates from the gold rush era.

Sitka’s Russians

Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799 Russian Alexander Baranov began building fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and develop the fur trade. The Tlingit resented Russian infringement, burned the fort, and killed most of the settlers in 1802.  Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit. The Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel. Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built 1844-1848, burned in 1966, then was rebuilt as an exact replica.

Today no white Russians live in the Sitka area, though some Tlingit Indians with Russian names and Russian blood reside here. Renewed interest in Russian heritage inspired the New Archangel Russian Dancers, a group of women who entertain visitors with a repertoire of Russian folk dances. Be sure to catch their daily performance in the Centennial Building, which also houses a small Sitka City Museum. Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S. in 1867 for $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre.

Sitka is an isolated town surrounded by islands and backed by Mt. Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano. At the Sitka National Historical Park you can see Tlingit Indians engaged in carving, weaving, and jewelry-making. Walk the oceanside path to see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 8,881 residents are Tlingit. Interpretive displays at the park headquarters describe how the Indians and Russians co-existed.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum showcases missionary Jackson’s collection of artifacts gathered from various native groups in Alaska. There you’ll see salmon-skin garments, masks, and many day-to-day artifacts of the Indian material culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.

Stop in at the Russian Bishop’s House, which the Park Service has restored. The Russians briefly made Sitka the “Paris of the Pacific.” Ships from 13 nations weighed anchors here. Trade goods ranged from Virginia tobacco to Flemish linens. The settlement included schools, a flour mill, tannery, and a foundry that cast the bells for some of California’s Spanish missions.

An Alaskan cruise is a memorable vacation because of its two major pleasures–glacial wildernesses with spectacular natural beauty and historic port towns once alive with gold fever and Russian intrigue.

***

Alaska Cruise: If You Go

One of the best informed sites about Alaska cruising is run by veteran travel journalist, Mike Miller, who lives in Juneau and served in the Alaska legislature. See Mike’s in-depth reports at http://www.AlaskaCruisingReport.com.

The official State of Alaska tourism site is at http://www.travelalaska.com.

A cruise industry information site is run by the Cruise Lines International Association at www.cruising.org.

Alaska

Small Ship Cruising on Alaska’s Wilderness Waterways from Juneau

May 20, 2014 by · 1 Comment 


Alaska Small Ship Cruises from Juneau – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

A week of small-ship cruising from Juneau, Alaska, through the wilderness waterways of the Alaska Southeast can get you close to humpback whales, orcas, glaciers, bears, and hundreds of islands covered with rain forests.

Such a trip may renew a traveler’s sense of the joy of nature and may reduce a certain citified malaise. A traveler may find that the experience of civilization needs to be offset from time to time with antidotes of wilderness.

Small Ship Culture

Small ship may carry less than 100 guests. Cabins are often comfortable and modern, with a picture window for views. The window can also be opened for fresh air. Binoculars sometimes provided in each cabin got plenty of use.

Meals are usually served open seating, and on my trip were ample. The chef on my week continued to deliver magic, with an emphasis on fresh Alaska fish and shellfish, especially salmon, halibut, and crab.

The entire style of the ship is informal. There is no need to dress for dinner. There are no keys for the cabin doors. The clientele is a self-selecting cluster of outdoor enthusiasts. Everyone onboard is here to enjoy nature.

Small durable inflatable boats take you off the ship to touch an iceberg, see the edge of a glacier, view arctic terns or seals up close, or meander and hike on shore.

A skilled naturalist usually guides the adventure, giving preparatory talks each night about what’s coming up next and then a running commentary, when the desired orcas or humpback whales make their unscheduled appearances. The naturalist for my voyage had just completed three years of humpback whale research in Hawaii.

This wilderness parade winds its way past islands whose trees are part of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rain forest in North America. The captain can change the itinerary at a moment’s notice if wildlife viewing opportunities arise. There are often only a couple of port calls to make, and they were Kake and Sitka on my trip, both intriguing stops. No large cruise ship will ever be allowed to stop at Kake, a small village of 800 Tlingit natives.

A Week of Nature Adventures

Each day in a week of sailing presented a new watery terrain with an unfolding set of adventures.

Day 2: After getting on the ship the previous afternoon.

In the morning we ventured up Endicott Arm to its glacial terminus at Dawes Glacier, where everyone got off in the small inflatable boats to see the icebergs up close and watch seals. On this day, serendipitously, there happened to be massive “calving” off of the glacier. Calving means a large chunk of the glacier has fallen off into the water with a thunderous noise, creating a tidal wave. The Tlingit Indians actually had a word “white thunder” to describe the explosive sound. One ship officer said he had not seen such dramatic calving in the past seven years.

In the afternoon we ventured into Tracy Arms, a narrow 25-miles long glacially carved waterway with steep mountains alongside, much like the fjords of Norway. On the way we paused to watch a pod of orcas, or killer whales. Our naturalist determined that this was a transient pod, rather than a group of locals. At the Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arms there were many icebergs. On these ice floes seals congregated, partly because the ice floes are a safe place to escape their predators, the orcas.

Day 3: The day began with the ship moving carefully through glass-smooth Keku Channel, where more than a dozen humpback whales were spouting. Most were traveling alone, but occasionally there were two or three together, most probably to gather food more efficiently. Humpbacks sometimes entrap small bait fishes with a wall of bubbles and then lunge through the corralled food source.

Humpbacks are a joy to behold, partly because they are an endangered species making progress towards more stable numbers. From an estimated population in the North Pacific area of only about 1,000 in 1966, it is now believed they have climbed to 6,000-8,000 individuals. Humpbacks can grow to 45 feet and weigh a ton per foot. I was mesmerized by their showy behavior as they rolled their huge bodies through the water and then displayed their flukes before diving. One humpback even began slapping his pectoral fins playfully on the surface and then breached clear out of the water several times, using its tail, said to be the most powerful muscle on earth, to thrust the huge tonnage upward. Alaska is the humpbacks’ summer feeding grounds as they eat a ton a day, primarily consuming small shrimp-like creatures called krill. In winter these whales will journey to the warm waters of Hawaii, Mexico, or Japan to give birth and mate.

Another treat that day was a permission to land the small cruise vessel for a visit at the remote Tlingit Indian village of Kake, population 800. The Tlingits here are culturally intact, preserving their way of life. They staged several dances for us and explained their subsistence lifestyle of fishing for salmon, hunting for deer and moose, and doing their crafts, such as carving, in the leisure of winter. Their young people were well-spoken, had modern computers, and one high school graduate was proudly going off to college “down South,” which meant Colorado for that young man. They showed us what is asserted to be the world’s largest totem pole, carved in 1971 from a 132-foot Sitka spruce.

Day 4: This day was devoted to the fine art of “gunkholing,” which means the captain and the cruise director determine where we go and what we do, depending on what nature experience would be best. Only on a small cruise ship is such discretion possible.

We awoke and spent much of the day in the Bay of Pillars. At dawn and in the early morning hours shifting fog drifted about. Then the sky cleared and we offloaded in our durable inflatable boats and went ashore to explore on a rocky beach where an old salmon cannery lay in ruins, the rusting and rotting remnants of another boom and bust dream in Alaska. On the way into shore we observed lionmane jellyfish and stopped to examine huge bullwhip kelp that can grow two feet a day.

Without a skilled naturalist, much of what we saw that morning would have been pleasant, but uninformed. However, with our naturalist, we could turn over a rock and suddenly savor a universe of natural interactions. On the rocky shore at low tide we witnessed a cornucopia of starfish, clams, limpets, chitons, barnacles, mussels, crabs, eels, whelk, and bladder kelp. The interactions between all these creatures was an endless puzzle to decipher. Tiny chitons found their place in the small barnacles welded to defunct clam shells. Behind us rose thick stands of forest, with broadleaf alder at the base and then sharp-needled spruce and drooping hemlock commanding the upper reaches of light. Ripening in the understory sunlight of the forest, the salmonberries were turning gold and red, teasing the area’s bears with their aromatic lusciousness.

Day 5: Sitka, the Russian capital, was the cultural treat of the day. Seeking to expand their profitable fur trade, the Russians firmly captured Sitka in 1804, defeating a formidable native Tlingit native force, which had wiped out an earlier Russian expeditionary settlement two years earlier.

As we stepped off the ship into Sitka, there was a small promontory called Castle Hill that was the Russian residence of choice. Below it sits a Russian cannon today. A quarter of a mile further along the waterfront is Centennial Hall, outside of which is a statue to the main Russian visionary, Alexander Baranov, head of the Russian America Company. Also adjacent to Centennial Hall is a large and ornately decorated Tlingit canoe, a visitor’s first taste of the elaborate arts that the winter leisure cultures of Southeast Alaska nourished.

Within Centennial Hall, we saw the daily performance of a talented woman’s dance group known as the New Archangel Dancers. They recreate a range of Russian dances with much skill. The Centennial Hall also hosts the Sitka Historical Society museum, which shows an intriguing model of what Sitka looked like in 1867, when Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. A natural history display at Centennial Hall offers taxidermy presentations of all the birds and mammals one is likely to see in Southeast Alaska.

Venturing one block inland, we looked at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Michaels, an exact replica of the original 1840s church, which burned tragically in 1966, but was quickly rebuilt.

Walking further along the waterfront, we came to a yellow building, the Russian Bishop’s House, which has rooms filled with period artifacts. The Russians controlled Alaska until both the fur supply and fur market, much of which happened to be in China, deteriorated. The Russian Czar felt it was wiser to sell rather than wait for British/Canadian or American interests to seize the land.

Beyond the Russian Bishop’s House is the premier attraction of Sitka, the Sitka National Historical Park. We stopped first at the interpretive center to see the fine museum of the native people, especially the Tlingits, showing many artifacts, such as an elaborately decorated bear coat and staff to be worn by the most honored elder. Besides the museum, there is a carver, weaver, and silver craftsman at work. The master Tlingit carver present was working on a mask from red cedar or a food bowl from alder.

Then we walked through the forest adjacent to the interpretive center to immerse ourselves in three realities. The forest itself is a lush example of the rainforests of Southeast Alaska, with mature hemlock and Sitka spruce. Scattered throughout the forest are representative totem poles, one of the major art forms of the Alaska natives of the southeast. And, on these grounds, in 1804, a thousand Russian soldiers in the warship Neva, aided by their Aleut Indian allies, narrowly defeated 700 armed Tlingit, who felt it was wiser, after a week of bombardment, to slip back into the forest and relinquish their stronghold.

Day 6: On this day our small cruise ship poked around Icy Strait, the northernmost entrance to Southeast Alaska from the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean. The area was especially rich in wildlife. The ship passed numerous rafts of sea otters, whose thick and rich pelts set in motion the historic development of Alaska. We paused for shore excursions in our inflatable boats along Idaho Inlet.

The captain was always on the lookout for bears. Almost every day we saw bears along the shore, feeding on sedge grasses, salmon, and shellfish. Bears have an uncanny ability to slice open a salmon to eat the fatty brain tissue and the eggs of the females. We saw the larger brown bears, called grizzly bears when found inland, easily identifiable by their size and their humps. Alaska is the last frontier for the brown or grizzly bear, hosting about 31,000 animals, compared to a total of 1,000 in the lower 48 states. Smaller black bears also prowled the shoreline, with its many small salmon streams, tidal shellfish abundance, and opportunities for carrion. There is a saying about bears in Alaska, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

Bald eagles were another popular quarry in our wildlife spotting. The white heads of mature eagles could be seen easily against the green trees. There are now about 100,000 bald eagles in North America, half of which are in Alaska. Recently, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list, so this is one conservation success story to celebrate.

At mid-day we reached Cross Sound near the Inian Islands, a particularly strong upwelling point where the open ocean currents meet the more protected waters of the island channel. In this rich marine environment there was an explosion of life. Here we saw hundreds of huge northern sea lions and countless birds, from Bonaparte gulls to common murres. A birder on board confirmed that she had reach 38 birds in her desired quest for 50 identified birds. Anyone who reaches 50 gets a personally signed Wings Over Alaska certificate from the state’s Governor.

The day ended with the cruise ship drifting at Point Adolphus so we could savor the most elaborate display of humpback whales on our trip. At least a dozen whales cavorted all around us, feeding voraciously on bait fish. Several whales breached repeatedly. Some whales even seemed curious about the ship and ventured to within a few yards, though the captain was judicious and tried to keep out of their way and not approach them.

Day 7: Glacier Bay National Park was a grand finale for the trip, the most protected area in this Southeast Alaska wilderness. Glacier Bay is famous for its receding glaciers and fecund wildlife.

We paused first at South Marble Island to see the abundance of nesting birds and the 2000-pound stellar sea lions. Common murres on the island are known to be able to dive 600 feet in search of prey. Black-legged kittywakes were plentiful. This was our first sighting of tufted puffins.

Further north, at Sandy Cove, we watched a black bear feed on barnacles in the intertidal zone.

More than a third of the park is permanent ice and snow. For about 250 years people have observed the gradual retreat of most of these glaciers. In 1750 the bay was recorded to be a total mass of ice. By 1794 explorer George Vancouver indicated that it had retreated six miles. Today a boat can venture for 65 miles up the waterway. This is the fastest retreat of glaciers ever documented. An anomaly occurs with the Johns Hopkins Glacier, which happens to be advancing.

We floated for an hour in front of the massive mile-wide face of the John’s Hopkins Glacier, a 16-mile long river of ice, which was calving off as it approached the water, moving forward about 3-5 feet per day. It takes about 50 years for snow falling on Mt. Fairweather to make its way down to the ocean through the glacier. Mt. Fairweather happens to be among the snowiest places on earth, receiving about 150 feet per year, partly because of its heavy rain fall and partly because of its height, 15,300 feet, one of the steepest mountains close to the water in a cold environment.

Only two cruise ships and three smaller tour boats are allowed into Glacier Bay National Park each summer day, along with 25 personal craft, so access to the national park is tightly controlled. The park service continues to study the effect of ship wake and ship noise on the wildlife, especially the endangered humpback whales.

Starting from Juneau

The strategy of starting from Juneau has its logic and advantages, both for passengers and the small-cruise provider. Flying in and out of Juneau puts the entire time into the adventure itself, not some of it lost in “days at sea” to get there. Juneau is located in the midst of the Alaska wilderness area of the Southeast. This state capital is unusual in that it is totally inaccessible by road. While large cruise ships can get into Juneau in the main channel, only the small cruise ships can navigate in many of the narrow wilderness waterways near Juneau.

Allowing a night or two in Juneau before embarkation can greatly add to the satisfaction of this trip. Juneau is far more than just a cruise ship terminal. It has many cultural and natural treasures to offer. Local tours or a guide-with-a-vehicle can be engaged. The downtown and the Mount Roberts tram can be done on your own by walking. For other suggestions, you’ll need local transportation. Here are my recommendations for time spent in Juneau:

*View the Mendenhall Glacier, outside of town. This is a massive glacier to which you can drive. In summer the meadows in front of the glacier have brilliant fields of purple fireweed, a showy wildflower. After viewing the glacier from afar, drive close in to the Visitor Center and hike toward the ice mass and the voluminous Nugget Falls pouring out near its side.

The Mendenhall Glacier illustrates the main phenomenon of most modern glaciers in Alaska. They are receding due to global warming. Snow melt now exceeds snow fall at Mendenhall. Mendenhall is retreating roughly 60 feet per year. (Conditions of glaciers are local, however. The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska is advancing.) Mendenhall is a relatively small but highly visible part of the vast 1,500 square miles of glacial activity known as the Juneau Ice Fields.

*Go on a wildlife tour emphasizing humpback whale watching on the Lynn Canal.

Chances are you’ll see a range of wildlife. Foremost are the previously endangered humpbacks, which are feeding furiously during summer on krill, a small shrimp-like food that grows abundantly here in the upwelling, cool, nutrient-rich ocean. The humpbacks put on quite a show, rolling their spiny backs out of the water and then displaying their tails before plunging into deep dives. Some non-breeding males and non-pregnant females remain here all year. The breeders swim out to Hawaii for the winter birthing and mating season.

Besides humpbacks, you are likely to see orcas or killer whales, Dall porpoises, sea lions, eagles, and plenty of waterfowl, such as scooters.

*Walk the historic downtown.

Downtown Juneau is compact but hilly. Good walking maps are free and available locally at your hotel.

Some buildings to see are the Russian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas, the columned Alaska legislature, the Governor’s house, and the original house of Judge Wickersham, a mover and shaker in the early history of Juneau.

There are also two small museums with major resources. The Alaska State Museum features Native People cultures, including many special artifacts that are temporarily given back to tribes for occasional ceremonial use. Displays, especially of the hunting culture, make a traveler aware of the Eskimo, Athabaskan, Aleut, and Tlingit culture. A giant samovar used for tea service is a highlight of the Russian Alaska display. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum emphasizes the gold mining story that began in 1880. Gold discoveries brought Juneau into existence and thrust it into prominence as the logical choice for the state capitol.

In the downtown area along Franklin Street the main shopping occurs.

*Ride the Mount Roberts Tram to the 1800-foot top of the mountain and enjoy views of the Gastineau Channel, the body of water on whose banks Juneau rests.

There are 2.5 miles of hiking trails at the top of the tram, giving you a good sample of the roughly 120 miles of hiking trails in the immediate Juneau area. Juneau residents are proud of their hiking opportunities, emphasizing that the city area has only 45 miles of roads, but far more miles of trails.

At the top of the tram you can savor the view, hike, dine, and shop.

*Visit the Gastineau Fish Hatchery, also called the Macaulay Fish Hatchery. As many as 170 million salmon fry are released from this small hatchery each year. Several years later those that survive, about two percent, return and are harvested for their milt and eggs to replenish the cycle. The hatchery, which exists to enhance the commercial and sport fishing scene around Juneau, began in the 1970s at a time when Alaskan wild salmon were over-fished. Today the wild salmon fishery is flourishing. The site is fascinating to visit, with thousands of salmon “ripening” in concrete pens prior to their harvest for sperm and eggs. A small aquarium shows the range of fish and shellfish flourishing in the local waters.

There are five types of salmon in Alaska waters-the chum or dog, sockeye or red, king or Chinook, silver or coho, and pink or humpy. They run at different times of the summer. The king and sockeye are especially prized for fine dining.

*Enjoy food and drink at the Hangar, a convivial downtown eatery favored by locals. The Hangar gives you a view of the water, glancing at the float planes coming and going, and the cruise ships lingering in the distance.

The Hangar is an historic place. This was the original airport when float planes were the only means of speedy transport. In 1935 the legendary pilot Wiley Post and his financial backer, humorist Will Rogers, stopped here enroute to Fairbanks and Barrow. The two were on a mission to show the practicality of an air mail route. They crashed fatally at Barrow.

At the Hangar you can enjoy the many culinary wonders of Alaska, such as grilled salmon, grilled halibut, king crab, and Dungeness crab. One item never on the menu is “farm raised” salmon, a hot button subject in Alaska, where no farm raising of salmon is allowed.

The beverage of choice would be the locally brewed beer, Alaskan, perhaps starting with their popular Amber and then moving boldly into their award-winning Smoked Porter. The Alaskan Brewing Company’s facility is in Juneau, can be toured, and has its own attractive tasting room.

If you long for a wilderness immersion in wildlife, glaciers, and the vast expansiveness of Alaska, but with the support of a comfortable small cruise ship and the guiding knowledge of a naturalist, you will delight in the opportunities offered out of Juneau.

**

Small Ship Alaska: If You Go

The main suppliers of small-ship Alaska wilderness cruise trips in the Southeast can be found at http://www.alaskacruises.com.

For Juneau information, contact the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau at http://traveljuneau.com.

For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Associationn at http://www.travelalaska.com.

Alaska

Cruising Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park

May 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 


Glacier Bay Alaska – Images by Lee Foster

By Lee Foster

Bluish rivers of ice slowly push their way to the water’s edge. As you watch, amidst the silence, massive chunks of ice fall and crash into the water with a sudden thundering sound.

For these special sights, summer visitors come each year to Glacier Bay National Park. About 90 percent of the annual visitors to the park arrive by cruise ship. A popular cruise in these waters might be a trip out of Juneau or between Juneau and Vancouver, passing by Glacier Bay National Park and stopping at Sitka, the original Russian settlement. An Internet search can inform you about all the cruise ships plying Glacier Bay.

Within Glacier Bay National Park, located west of Juneau in southeast Alaska, you are likely to see eagles and bears along the water’s edge. Humpback whales, orcas or killer whales, minke whales, seals, and dolphins disport themselves in the chilly waters. Point Adolphus is the choice spot to see the once-endangered humpback whales feeding furiously on krill and bait fish, showing their massive flukes before diving. Often the humpbacks blow their spouts so noisily as to be clearly audible from the ship.

Ocean wildlife flourishes here because the conditions are favorable for their food supplies. The extreme coldness of the water coming off the glaciers supports abundant dissolved oxygen. Long summer daylight hours encourage rapid growth of plankton, krill, and other small plants and animals at the base of the food chain.

Glaciers in Retreat

The major geological phenomenon of interest here is the rapid retreat of glaciers. Currently, these glaciers are making the fastest glacial retreat in recorded history. Park Service maps record the advance or retreat of specific glaciers. Two hundred years ago the entire region was covered with glaciers. When Captain George Vancouver explored the region in 1794, his log book records that an impenetrable mass of ice impeded his progress at Glacier Bay. He measured the ice mass as 4,000 feet thick, 20 miles wide, and 100 miles long. By 1879, observer John Muir found that the ice had retreated 48 miles up the bay. The known forward face of the John Hopkins Glacier in 1907 was about 15 miles further into the sea than its present position.

Retreating glaciers interest modern scientists and concerned citizens, who want to define the interaction of glaciers with weather and global warming. The study is important because, around the world, glaciers and polar ice store more fresh water than all our lakes and rivers, groundwater, and the atmosphere combined. Glaciers form when snow fall exceeds snow melt. The intense blue of a glacier occurs because water crystals, formed under pressure, are aligned to reflect blue light. Glaciers in Glacier Bay take about 50 years to cycle from snow back to ocean water. The date of ice samples can be determined by testing pollen in the ice.

Glacier Bay is also a premier example of specialized forms of glaciers, including hanging glaciers and tidewater glaciers (glaciers that come to the water’s edge). The area is a perfect laboratory for the study of how plants successively colonize land newly opened up by retreating glaciers. Bartlett Cove at the entrance to Glacier Bay, for example, was solid glaciers 200 years ago, but is now a maturing spruce forest.

A Parade of Glaciers

Individual glaciers you pass are the major attractions. Near the glaciers, the water is grey because of the finely ground stone, called rock flour, that a glacier creates as its weight crushes rock at its base. Eventually this sediment settles out and the water becomes bluish. As the icebergs float away from the glacier, after breaking off, they are dangerous to navigation because their size is uncertain. Rock and sediment in the ice may weigh down all but the tip of the iceberg. However, in contrast to Atlantic glaciers, Pacific glaciers rarely last sufficiently long to endanger shipping.

Reid Glacier is the first major glacier that comes into view. Reid is one of the 12 rare tidewater glaciers in the park.

Lamplugh Glacier has a huge stream of melting glacial water pouring from its base.

Cruise ships take you north along the Johns Hopkins Inlet and the Tarr Inlet to see many more glaciers up close. The ship usually drifts in front of the Hopkins and Grand Pacific Glaciers for a close-up view. At Johns Hopkins Glacier, while the cruise ship pauses, you can hear crashing ice as the glacier slowly breaks up. The process is called “calving,” suggesting the glacier is giving birth to icebergs. The Tlingit Indians had an appropriate metaphor for the crashing sound of the iceberg breaking off. They called it “white thunder.” Thousands of seals crawl up on the ice in front of Johns Hopkins Glacier to give birth to their pups and keep clear of their major predator, orcas or killer whales. In the John Hopkins area substantial flows of glacial ice pass the ship. Onboard Park Rangers present a running commentary on glacial realities.

Further passage in the park is finally blocked by the Grand Pacific Glacier, which blankets the channel.

The park service allows only limited numbers of cruise ships, excursion boats, and private water craft per day to enter the park. Aside from cruise ships, there are limited other ways to get here, by sea or by air. The park is about 100 miles by boat from Juneau. Taking the more direct air route, a bush pilot can fly you there in about 30 minutes. During the peak season, bush pilots run a fairly regular schedule of flights from Juneau.

A Park Service concessionaire boat visits some glaciers, leaving from Glacier Bay Lodge, which is in the park. To reach the Lodge, at Bartlett Cove, you need to have a bush pilot fly you over or take a commuter boat from Juneau. Sightseeing air flights over the glaciers are also possible. Bush pilots operating out of Gustavus can also drop you in a remote area for a camping trip and pick you up at a specified future date. The concessionaire boat can also drop off campers.

The Park Service maintains the rustic lodge and a campground. Observe caution when encountering bears or when camping near glacial rivers or along the shoreline. The volume of water leaving a glacier can change from a trickle to a torrent in a few hours. Campers near the shoreline should make sure they are above the high tide mark.

John Muir, the gifted naturalist, was one of the earliest enthusiasts of Glacier Bay. In 1879 he traveled in a 25-foot canoe paddled by Tlingit Indians up Glacier Bay in the hazardous month of October. Muir hoped that experience with Glacier Bay would confirm his theories about the formation of glaciers, which had also scooped out his beloved Yosemite Valley.

Eventually Glacier Bay received some protected federal status, but only in 1980, under the Carter administration, did it become a full National Park and Preserve covering 3.3 million acres.

***

Glacier Bay: If You Go

For further information on Glacier Bay National Park, see the parks website at http://www.nps.gov/glba.

For tourism information on Alaska, contact the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

Alaska

The Southeast Alaska Towns of Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

May 16, 2014 by · 1 Comment 


by Lee Foster

The southeast panhandle of Alaska differs sharply from the more northerly sections of the state. Precipitation here is high, comparing with Washington State, so the trees, such as Sitka spruce, grow to great heights and can be harvested for lumber or pulp.

The region is the most historic in Alaska. Sitka was the site of the major Russian colony during their fur-gathering era. At Juneau, prospectors made major Alaska gold discoveries. From Skagway, some 20,000 hardy miners, plus many women and children, climbed over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon Gold Rush of 1898.

The region is tied together by a Marine Highway ferry boat system operating between Seattle and Skagway. Waterways, shoreline, and boating are major aspects of life here. Southeast Alaska has 33,000 miles of coastline, fully 68 percent of the Alaska coastline. One out of five people owns a boat. The weather is rainy, but the citizens compensate. If rain appears imminent on the Fourth of July festivities, they reschedule.

Getting to Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway

Air and sea transport are the primary ways to get to this region. There are no roads to the outside world from Juneau and Sitka.

Scheduled air flights from the lower 48, especially from Seattle, or from Anchorage to the north, regularly visit Juneau. The flow of travelers is assured because Juneau is the state capital, where lawmakers from around the state convene.

The flight from Anchorage or Fairbanks to Juneau on a clear day is one of the most spectacular flights on the planet. As you leave Fairbanks, you see the spine of the Alaska Range of mountains, the vast stretches of uninhabited and rugged land between cities. The snowy peak of Mt. McKinley, highest mountain in North America, stands out majestically. And finally, as the flight progresses, you get sweeping aerial views of the glaciers of southeastern Alaska as you approach Juneau. This terrain includes Glacier Bay National Park. From the air you get a clear sense of the glaciers as rivers of ice.

Skagway can be reached by smaller commuter aircraft from Juneau. The state ferry system reaches Skagway, as do many cruise ships.

Sitka is served by Alaska Airline jets, marine ferry, and cruise ships. The Alaska Marine Highway ferries visit each port as they ply their ways northward and southward.

Cruise ships take many passengers to these towns, including a stop to see the glaciers at Glacier Bay National Park.

History of Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

Juneau began when Joe Juneau discovered gold there. It is said that Joe Juneau wept because he had made more money than he could ever spend in a lifetime. There were three major mines and a stamp mill. Juneau was selected as the state capital, historically, though it has been overshadowed by Anchorage as a developed area and a population base. There are about 300,000 Alaskans in metro Anchorage and only about 31,0000 in Juneau, out of a total population in the state of only about 718,000. A move to change the capital to the town of Willow, west of Anchorage, was voted down because of the high cost of the move. Most of the people in Juneau work for the state or federal government.

Skagway boomed when miners seeking passage to the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush needed a staging area. Looking at the map, it was determined that traversing the Chilkoot Pass and then taking rivers downstream was the best way. Canadian authorities required that miners possess a year’s supply of provisions before they were allowed to proceed. Skagway booms again, today, in a sense. The community of about a thousand people gets about 300,000 summer visitors a year, over half from cruise ships.

Sitka was populated by Tlingit Indians, possibly for thousands of years. Russia watched the area with interest after Vitus Bering sighted the Alaskan coast in 1741. In 1799 Russian Alexander Baranov began construction of fortifications at Sitka. Baranov intended to colonize Alaska for Russia and develop the fur trade. The Tlingits resented Russian infringement, burning their fort and killing most of the people in 1802. Baranov returned in 1804 with the warship Neva and 1,000 men. He fought a decisive battle against 700 armed Tlingit. The Tlingit retreated and the Russians formally established their colony of New Archangel. Be sure to see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox cathedral and its historic icons, some from the 14th century. The cathedral was built 1844-1848, burned in 1966, then rebuilt as an exact replica.

Today no white Russians live in the Sitka area, although several Tlingit Indians with Russian names and some Russian blood do reside here. One bright aspect of the revived interest in the Russian heritage is the New Archangel Russian Folk Dancers, a group of talented women who entertain visitors with a repertoire of Russian folk dances. Be sure to catch their daily performance in the Centennial Building, which also houses a small Sitka City Museum. Because of the declining fur supply, the Crimean War, and Russia’s inability to defend Alaska, Russia eventually decided to sell Sitka and all of Alaska to the U.S., in 1867, for $7,200,000, about two cents per acre.

Main Attractions of Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

Allowing a night or two in Juneau before or after embarkation can greatly add to the satisfaction of a trip. Juneau is far more than just a cruise ship terminal. It has many cultural and natural treasures to offer. Local tours or a guide-with-a-vehicle can be engaged. The downtown and the Mount Roberts tram can be done on your own by walking. For other suggestions, you’ll need local transportation. Here are my recommendations for time spent in Juneau:

*View the Mendenhall Glacier, outside of town. This is a massive glacier that you can drive right up to. In summer the meadows in front of it have brilliant fields of fireweed, a colorful wildflower. After viewing the glacier from afar, drive close in to the Visitor Center and hike toward the ice mass and the voluminous Nugget Falls pouring out near its side.

The Mendenhall Glacier illustrates the main phenomenon of most modern glaciers in Alaska. They are receding due to global warming. Snow melt now exceeds snow fall at Mendenhall. Mendenhall is retreating roughly 60 feet per year. (Conditions of glaciers are local, however. The Hubbard Glacier in Alaska is advancing.) Mendenhall is a relatively small but highly visible part of the vast 1,500 square miles of glacial activity known as the Juneau Ice Fields.

*Go on a wildlife tour emphasizing humpback whale watching on the Lynn Canal.

Chances are you’ll see a range of wildlife. Foremost are the endangered humpbacks, which are feeding furiously during summer on krill, a small shrimp-like food that grows abundantly here in the upwelling, cool, nutrient-rich ocean. The humpbacks put on quite a show, rolling their spiny backs out of the water and then showing their tail before plunging into deep dives. The non-breeding males and non-pregnant females remain here all year. The breeders swim out to Hawaii for the winter birthing and mating season.

Besides humpbacks, you are likely to see orcas or killer whales, Dall porpoises, sea lions, eagles, and plenty of waterfowl, such as scooters.

*Walk the historic downtown, visiting two museums. Downtown Juneau is compact but hilly. Good walking maps are free and available locally at your hotel.

Some buildings to see are the Russian Orthodox Church St. Nicholas, the columned Alaska legislature, the Governor’s house, and the original house of Judge Wickersham, a mover and shaker in the early history of Juneau.

There are also two small museums with major resources. The Alaska State Museum features Native People cultures, including many artifacts that are temporarily given back to tribes for occasional ceremonial use. Displays, especially of the hunting culture, make a traveler aware of the Eskimo, Athabaskan, Aleut, and Tlingit culture. A giant samovar used for tea service is a highlight of the Russian Alaska display. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum emphasizes the gold mining story that began in 1880. Gold discoveries brought Juneau into existence and thrust it into prominence as the logical choice for the state capitol.

In the downtown area along Franklin Street the main shopping occurs.

*Ride the Mount Roberts Tram to the 1800-foot top of the mountain and enjoy views of the Gastineau Channel, the body of water on whose banks Juneau rests.

There are 2.5 miles of hiking trails at the top of the tram, giving you a good sample of the roughly 120 miles of hiking trails in the immediate Juneau area. Juneau residents are proud of their hiking opportunities, emphasizing that the city area has only 45 miles of roads, but far more miles of trails.

At the top of the tram you can savor the view, hike, dine, and shop.

*Visit the Gastineau Fish Hatchery, also called the Macaulay Fish Hatchery. As many as 170 million salmon fry are released from this small hatchery each year. Several years later those that survive, about two percent, return and are harvested for their sperm and eggs to replenish the cycle. The hatchery, which exists to enhance the commercial and sport fishing scene around Juneau, began in the 1970s at a time when Alaskan wild salmon were over-fished. Today the wild salmon fishery is flourishing. The site is fascinating to visit, with thousands of salmon “ripening” in concrete pens prior to their harvest for sperm and eggs. A small aquarium shows the range of fish and shellfish flourishing in the local waters.

There are five types of salmon in Alaska waters-the chum or dog, sockeye or red, king or Chinook, silver or coho, and pink or humpy. They run at different times of the summer. The king and sockeye are especially prized for fine dining.

*Enjoy food and drink at the Hangar, a convivial downtown eatery favored by locals. The Hangar gives you a view of the water, glancing at the float planes coming and going, and the cruise ships lingering in the distance.

The Hangar is an historic place. This was the original airport when float planes were the only means of speedy transport. In 1935 the legendary pilot Wiley Post and his financial backer, humorist Will Rogers, stopped here enroute to Fairbanks and Barrow. The two were on a mission to show the practicality of an air mail route. They crashed fatally at Barrow.

At the Hangar you can enjoy the many culinary wonders of Alaska, such as grilled salmon, grilled halibut, king crab, and Dungeness crab. One item never on the menu is “farm raised” salmon, a hot button subject in Alaska, where no farm raising of salmon is allowed.

The beverage of choice would be the locally brewed beer, Alaskan, perhaps starting with their popular Amber and then moving boldly into their award-winning Smoked Porter. The Alaskan Brewing Company’s facility is in Juneau, can be toured, and has its own attractive tasting room.

Skagway’s main attractions amount to walking around the historic city, with a stop at the park service headquarters for a brochure on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park. There you’ll see photos and displays on this major historic event. Photos, for example, show how miners used fold-up canvas boats on the Yukon River to get their supplies northward. Most of the boats were abandoned when they were found to be too flimsy. The walls of the Park Service headquarters are covered with quotes from Robert Service’s poetry, with a constant theme: human perseverance in the face of crushing adversity.

For a short hike in the area, walk the nature trail near the park headquarters to the caves. More ambitious hikers use Skagway as a base for a hike of 3-5 days over the 33-mile Chilkoot Pass. The jumping off spot for the pass is near Skagway at Dyea, now a ghost town and a nature area noted for birds and wildlife. Each September some 700 runners in relay teams make a Klondike Relay through the pass. The photographic image of long lines of men, all chained together for safety, hiking in the middle of winter up the 45-degree grade of the Chilkoot Pass, is one of the most moving images of the Klondike rush. The weather here can be severe, earning for Skagway the meaning Tlingit Indians had for the word, skagua, home of the north wind.

Be sure to see the Skagway presentation, each afternoon and evening, of the Soapy Smith revue. In the revue you get a sense of the Gold Rush of 1898 and this consummate con man, who knew a thousand ways to separate a sourdough from his gold nuggets. The Red Onion saloon is a favorite bar, often with impromptu jam sessions led by musicians from the cruise ships. The town is compact and pleasant to walk around, examining the shops, such as Tresham Gregg’s gallery of his Tlingit Indian art creations. Gradually, many of the buildings are being restored to their 1898 appearance as the National Park applies its influence and funds. The photo shop Dedman’s, for example, was one of the original photo studios and still has glass plates from the gold era.

The Klondike Highway, finished in 1978, affected the White Pass Railroad, which competed with it for passengers and freight. The main freight items are lead, copper, zinc, and silver ores, mined in the Yukon, and brought to a loading shed in Skagway, where they are taken out weekly by Russian or Japanese freighters.

A short drive out of town on the Klondike Highway takes you up the White Pass, the famous trail and railroad bed, where signs alert you to the struggle to get to the Klondike. White Pass was an alternative to the Chilkoot Pass. The White Pass was longer, but less steep. Horses could be used, but one sign along the highway indicates, at Dead Horse Pass, where 3,000 horses met their deaths on the steep grade, losing their footing or dying of exhaustion.

Sitka is a picturesque town surrounded by islands and backed by Mt. Edgecumbe, an extinct volcano. The main attraction here is a visit to the Russian Orthodox St. Michael’s Cathedral to see the icons, canvas walls, gold-thread vestments, and ornate bibles. Some of the icons date to the 14th Century.

The second major pleasure here, within a half-mile distance, is the National Historic Park, where you can see Tlingit Indians practicing carving, weaving, and jewelry-making. At the historic park, walk the oceanside path to the site where the great battle of 1804 pitted 1,000 Russians against 700 fortified Tlingits, who were eventually overcome because of the Russian firepower. Along the path you’ll see Tlingit and Haida totem poles. Today about a third of Sitka’s 8,200 people are Tlingit. Interpretive displays at the park headquarters describe how the Tlingit and Russians lived.

Then visit the Sheldon Jackson Museum, a missionary’s collection of artifacts gathered from the various native groups in Alaska. There you’ll see salmon-skin garments, masks, and many day-to-day artifacts of the Indian material culture, including the ceremonial eating bowls of the Tlingit.

Stop in at the Russian Bishop’s House, which the Park Service is now restoring. At the house you can buy books on the Russian presence in America. The Russians made Sitka briefly the “Paris of the Pacific.” Ships from 13 nations weighed anchors here. Trade goods ranged from Virginia tobacco to Flemish linens. The settlement included schools, a flour mill, a tannery, and a foundry that cast the bells for some of California’s Spanish missions.

Along the Sitka waterfront, the dominant structure is the Pioneer Home, a special Alaska institution. The Pioneer Homes are state-supported retirement homes, available to all residents who have lived in the state for 15 years. There are five pioneer homes in various areas of the state. The rationale of the Pioneer Home is partly to prevent the exodus of senior citizens by providing them with comfortable retirement accommodations. A landmark in Sitka, the Prospector Statue, stands in front of the Pioneer Home.

Sitka is a compact town, easy to walk around, with a sizable fishing fleet. If you walk beyond St. Michael’s Church, you’ll find Castle Hill, an easily-fortified position that was the Russian stronghold. Beyond that is the Tlingit Village.

Side Trips from Juneau, Skagway, and Sitka

There are few roads in the region so the major side trips involve airplanes or boats.

Helicopter or fixed wing air flights from Juneau and from Skagway can take you over the glaciers, sometimes landing on them. The air flight over these rivers of ice can be turbulent because cold air coming off the glacier tends to suck the air downward and create unsettling air currents.

An interesting air flight from Juneau or Skagway can take you to Haines, where you can raft the Chilkat Eagle Preserve along the Chilkat River near Haines. The eagles are so thick in this area that bush pilots must set down carefully to keep from running into them.

Sitka’s islands can be enjoyed from local excursion boats. All three towns offer charter fishing boats for the traveler wishing to catch salmon and halibut.

**

Southeast Alaska: If You Go

For tourism information on Alaska, see the Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

More details for the towns come from:

Juneau at http://www.traveljuneau.com.

Skagway at http://www.skagway.org.

Sitka at http://www.sitka.org.

Alaska

Adventure Cruising Alaskan Small Towns

May 14, 2014 by · 1 Comment 


Alaska Southeast Cruise to Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Tracy Arms, Haines – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

With so many cruise ships and marine ferries plying Alaska waters each summer, the bewildered consumer wonders: what ship should be chosen? One answer is to look for a ship that might take you to some off-the-beaten-path locations.

Usual cruise ship and marine ferry destinations in Alaska include Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, and Skagway.

Besides these ports, some smaller cruise ships and ferries call at or explore Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Tracy Arms, and Haines. Here are portraits of four lesser-known ports and destinations in Alaska.

Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert ranks as one of the most isolated towns in an Alaska cruise itinerary. Located at the northern edge of British Columbia, the town subsists on fishing, forest products, and on its position as a Pacific railhead where grain and coal can be loaded onto freighters and sent to markets in the Orient.

For travelers, Prince Rupert is an important connecting point, a southern stop for the Alaska Ferries, the northern end of the British Columbia ferries, and western seaside terminus of the railroad or auto road.

At local seafood restaurants, such as Breakers Pub, sample fresh Dungeness crab and salmon, while gazing down at the substantial Prince Rupert fishing fleet. Besides salmon and halibut, another major fishery is herring, harvested for its roe, which is highly prized by the Japanese. The Japanese also purchase a special local commodity, pine mushrooms, which are sold to dealers for upwards of $20 per pound. Prince Rupert celebrates each June with a Seafest, honoring its sea heritage.

A steep tram outside town takes you to a mountain top, affording an elaborate vista of the ocean, islands, and lush spruce forests. A mile of boardwalks at tram-top allows hiking across muskeg soil, soft organic soil in which you would otherwise sink. The boardwalk hike takes you through a fecund landscape with subtle shades of green, ranging from ferns to hemlock leaf, sprinkled with red berries and wildflowers.

Downtown Prince Rupert boasts the Museum of Northern British Columbia, a major interpretive center. Here you can see barbed harpoon points carbon dated back to 3000-1500 B.C., indicating the long time that man has enjoyed life along this hospitable coast. Displays inform the visitor about important Indian crafts, especially basketry, and explain key Indian rituals, such as ceremonial potlatches, where gifts were given that established status. Jade jewelry, an important contemporary Indian craft, can be seen at the gift shop.

At the Carving Shed, adjacent to the Museum, new totem poles are fashioned by Indian artists. These totems are noteworthy for their faithful dedication to the traditional three colors that Indians used to ornament selected eye and mouth features of figures on their cedar log totems. Mixing salmon egg oil with ground minerals, they concocted red pigment from iron oxide, blue from copper ore, and black from graphite.

A short ride from town brings you to the North Pacific Cannery Village, a major historic center recalling the salmon canning culture. The cannery has acquired Heritage Site status, a Canadian political designation opening up the prospects of further funding for restoration. Here you can see salmon fishing boats, the full paraphernalia of salmon fishing, exhibits on the ocean environment, the company store from the 1940s, and representative houses of company employees.

Ketchikan

Ketchikan puts you in the heart of one of the choicest fishing grounds in Alaska. Boats with seine nets, gill nets, and troll lines ply the waters for salmon, halibut, and cod.

Sport fishermen take trophy salmon and halibut, freeze them, and ship them home. Local canneries, such as Silver Lining, smoke and can high-quality salmon in summer. Along Ketchikan Creek in the City Park you can watch the upstream migration struggle of salmon. Fish in the stream are in all stages of their final days. As you watch, some of the more deteriorated salmon finish their spawning cycle. They expend their last ounce of energy fighting the creek current before they die and float out to sea. The five species of salmon (sockeye, king/chinook, pink, silver/coho, and dog/chum) spawn cyclically during summer.

Also at the park, the Deer Mountain Fish Hatchery, managed by the state of Alaska, raises prized king salmon. The hatchery releases one-year-old fingerlings into the stream and thence the ocean.

The park also offers the first of three prominent totem pole experiences in Ketchikan, a major totem pole destination in Alaska.

Since the Alaskan Indians had no written language, totem poles were story sequences serving many purposes. Totems might honor a dead person, celebrate a gift-giving ceremony (a potlatch), announce the clan identification of the household, memorialize events or legends, or even ridicule people.

The Heritage Center in the park preserves 33 poles that would have otherwise deteriorated as Indians gradually abandoned three villages within 50 miles of Ketchikan, choosing to live in the town. Totem poles, even though carved from decay-resistant cedar, last only a century in the rain forest environment of Southeast Alaska. These poles, salvaged in the early 1970s, include samples from the three Indian groups of the region (Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimian).

Besides the Heritage Center, you can see poles at Saxman Native Village, 2.5 miles from town, and at Totem Bight, 10 miles away.

The poles at Saxman, named after an Indian school teacher of the 1890s, are controlled and managed by Tlingit Indians. A dozen poles include the amusing ridicule pole, known as the Seward Pole. The pole commemorates a visit to Alaska by William Seward, who was instrumental in purchasing Alaska from the Russians in 1867. When Seward arrived to inspect Alaska, the Indians offered him ample gifts, as was their custom, but he was not aware of the reciprocation that gifts implied. He was parsimonious in his response, a matter that his effigy on the pole suggests.

Totem Bight consists of an Indian clanhouse and a collection of poles, carved by Indians in the CCC period of the 1930s, recreating earlier poles. (A “bight” is a curve in the shoreline.) The clanhouse recreates a typical woodboard structure that Indians lived in during winter along this Alaskan coast. Totems here interpret several Indian legends and stories, sometimes in a manner different from a pole telling the same story at Saxman.

The ride out to Totem Bight takes you past a large Louisiana Pacific pulp mill, one of the substantial processors of wood harvested in the Tongass National Forest, a huge chunk of Southeast Alaska real estate. Whether the Tongass Forest is properly managed or not is an issue of intensive and divisive debate.

Ketchikan is a pleasant small town to explore on foot. The Ketchikan Museum-Library includes elaborate displays on the historic Indian cultures, complete with their food supplies, which were abundant, and their ceremonial life, which was extensive. The local Indians dried seaweed for use as a trade item with inland Indians. Local minerals, mining history from the 1897 gold strikes, Indian spruce and cedar baskets, and a seashell-coral collection are a few of the eclectic exhibits.

The celebrated historic part of the town is the 17-house cluster along Creek Street, where famous madams, such as Dolly Arthur, maintained brothels in their homes. This practice was sanctioned by Alaska territorial law. Dolly’s is now a museum to the pre-statehood era. As part of its bid for statehood (successful in 1959), Alaska felt it was prudent that Ketchikan conform to outside notions of propriety. Dolly’s place, far more than just a brothel, was both a salon and a saloon. Dolly’s offered socializing for uprooted men, suffering from boomtown loneliness. Men gathered at Dolly’s to indulge in conversation and their beverage of choice, whether Prohibition was in force or not.

Tracy Arms

Tracy Arms is an off-the-beaten-track inlet that takes you close to the Sawyer Glacier. This 25-mile inlet is a narrow U-shaped fjord with deep glacial cuts, meaning the ship is in 2,000 feet of water, though it may be only a hundred yards from shore. Mountains along the water’s edge show pronounced glacial polish and scraping.

Wildlife flourishes in Tracy Arms. Mountain goats on the ridges, black bears gorging on salmon, killer whales, and many sea birds are common sights.

At the end of Tracy Arms the ship hovers close to Sawyer Glacier, called a tidewater glacier because it approaches the ocean. The Sawyer Glacier is a visible tongue of the large Stikine Ice Field. Immense chunks of bluish ice break off the glacier, a crashing process called “calving.” The chunks then float down the inlet toward the ocean. Immediately at the foot of the glacier, as the breaking chunks stir up the bottom, small birds called kittiwakes gather in huge numbers. Kittiwakes feed on crustaceans thrust up by the churning water.

Haines

At Haines you can raft the Tsircu and Chilkat Rivers through the Chilkat Eagle Preserve. By late summer one of the largest concentrations of bald eagles in the world can be found here, feeding on salmon that struggle across the shallow gravel bars of these braided glacial deltas. (Another major concentration of eagles is at Brackendale in British Columbia.) The 1-1/2 hour raft trip along four miles of the Tsircu River and two miles of the Chilkat River may include sightings of bears or wolves, who also appreciate easy salmon dinners. A special upwelling of the Chilkat River in winter, due to the deep glacial pools, prevents the river from freezing. The winter water flow further concentrates bald eagles at their food supply of salmon carcasses. The bald eagle, our national symbol, nests in the alder trees along the river and gorges itself on carrion fish.

In Haines you can also see the Chilkat Dancers, a Native Alaskan demonstration of Tlingit Indian legend dances. At the Indian Arts Center, carvers fashion new totem poles.

Haines is also the primary home of noted artist, Tresham Gregg, who perpetuates Tlingit Indian designs in several media. Among art galleries in Haines, the Northern Lights shows an especially wide selection of crafts.

Haines is accessible by cruise ship and Alaska state ferry or by small plane on a half-hour flight from Juneau. A road from the interior reaches Haines, but the route is circuitous. Though Skagway is only 13 air miles from Haines, the road winds for 359 miles before joining the two communities.

***

Southeast Alaska: If You Go

For tourism information on Alaska, see http://travelalaska.com.

For Prince Rupert, see http://visitprincerupert.com.

Alaska

Exploring Alaska by Small Plane

May 12, 2014 by · 2 Comments 


Alaska By Small Plane – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Nothing captures the magic of Alaska better than the adventure of flying across the vast wilderness in a small bush airplane.

I’ve made three such flights that a typical traveler could easily duplicate.

From Fairbanks I flew north to a remote Eskimo village at Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, visited for the day, and flew back to Fairbanks that evening.

At Denali National Park I took a 70-minute flight-seeing trip to get a close-up view of Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. From the plane, McKinley seemed almost close enough to touch.

In Anchorage I flew west to a wilderness area for a day of northern pike fishing at Alexander Lake and saw moose, white beluga whales, and soaring eagles on the return trip.

Small planes, otherwise known as bush planes, called Beeches, Navajos, Otters, Widgeons, Beavers, or Cessnas, are the signature transportation mode of Alaska. Ever since the first bush planes appeared in the 1920s, they have been important links in the state’s transport system. Large commercial jets serve Anchorage and Fairbanks in central Alaska, but beyond that the small plane becomes critical.

So much of Alaska remains a roadless wilderness that bush planes are, in fact, the only way to get around. Some bush planes sport wheels to land on small airstrips. Others have floats to alight on the State’s many small lakes and rivers. In winter, skis can be strapped to the bottom of the plane. Anchorage’s Lake Hood is said to be one of the busiest seaplane bases on earth. Similarly, Anchorage’s Merrill Field boasts boasts a huge number of takeoffs and landings, but the planes are small bush planes rather than jumbo jets.

The freedom of the small airplane, creating your own road above the wilderness, is exhilarating. The ability to drop out of the sky into a wilderness lake few people visit is exciting. Sighting big game, such as caribou, moose, grizzlies, and wolves, is common. Because small planes fly at low altitudes, perhaps only a thousand feet above the ground, you experience an intimacy with the terrain.

The safety record of bush pilots in Alaska is also impressive. It takes some adjustment for many passengers, who would fly with no worries in a 747, to sit next to a lone bush pilot in a small plane with nothing but spruce forests stretching to the horizon below. However, most bush pilots have remarkable longevity. The pilot who flew me into Gates of the Arctic had flown almost every flyable day, in all kinds of weather, for the past 30 years, without incident. When the weather turns nasty, as it often can in Alaska, the bush flights will be canceled, so allow some flexibility in your schedule for a second-day flight.

From Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass

Anaktuvuk Pass is an inland Eskimo village in Gates of the Arctic National Park, north of the Arctic Circle, about 260 miles north northwest by bush plane from Fairbanks.

From time immemorial these inland Eskimos have hunted the caribou that migrate through the region, with herds reaching a quarter of a million animals each autumn.

By the early 1950s a legendary bush pilot, Sig Wien, was landing with some regularity at a small strip in Anaktuvuk Pass, causing these nomadic peoples to congregate and settle in the region. When I visited, there are about 250 of these Eskimos, called Nunamiut Inupiats, or inland Eskimos, living in the village at the airstrip. They are the furthest inland of the various small Eskimo populations.

The flight north from Fairbanks in Frontier Flying Service’s Beechcraft plane took me over broad tundra flats, across the serpentine Yukon River, and then through the spiky Brooks Range mountains to the village. I passed beyond the northernmost forests. Below me I could sometimes glimpse the pipeline through the wilderness, carrying oil from Prudoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south.

A flight goes to the village from Fairbanks each morning and afternoon, making it easy to fly in during the morning and out in the afternoon.

At the village we were met by a mammoth of a man, Steve Wells, a white outsider who came to Alaska to teach. Steve arrived in Anaktuvuk Pass and married a village girl, Jenny Paneak, from the prominent family, that of Simon Paneak, patriarch of this Eskimo community. Paneak’s rapport with bush pilot Sig Wien set in motion the founding of the village.

I toured a small museum run by Jenny Wells, showing how the Eskimos lived from hunting the migrating caribou, fishing for grayling trout, and harvesting berries and other plants during the brief summer. The chief virtue of a man was to be a good hunter. As nomads, these Eskimos lived in portable skin houses, following their food supply. Caribou would be killed in the autumn and then consumed through the winter and spring. A typical family would take about 12 caribou during the autumn as the caribou passed through on their annual migration. These Eskimos are one of the few subsistence people who survive on hunting rather than gathering.

At Jenny’s house I sampled the full range of the typical meat and fish diet of the Eskimos. I ate caribou leg, marrow of smashed caribou bone, grayling trout, and muktuk, or whale blubber. All these foods were shaved off frozen chunks with the typical rounded Eskimo knife, the ulu. Jenny Wells’ mother, Suzy, living on a traditional Eskimo diet, ate this meat and fat diet, raw or boiled, three times a day.

Especially in winter, you need to keep caloric energy output high. This previous winter Steve Wells traded in his two broken thermometers, which stuck at Fahrenheit 40 below zero, for the latest improved temperature-measuring devices, which now go down to 80 below.

I rode out with Steve in a small all-terrain vehicle to a promontory above the village to enjoy the scenery. The vehicles, called Argos, seat six people and are capable of going over land or water, with four balloon-like tires on each side. We could make our way at will over the rocky tundra and small streams. Until a few years ago, dog teams would have been the only way to move in this region, especially in winter.

Steve and I savored the grey mountains, sprinkle of saxifrage wildflowers, discarded caribou horns, and lichen-covered terrain, the domain of moose, sheep, bear, caribou, and wolf. Steve’s family would go later in the day to the hunting camp a few miles from the village. During the summer the area enjoys sunlight virtually 24 hours a day.

Life has always been brutally difficult in this region, even with the abundant caribou, and still remains challenging. The village is 70 miles from the oil pipeline and the nearest road, making the bush plane the only link with the outside. Small pre-fab houses are flown in, but cost a great deal. The houses are built on stilts, so as not to melt the permafrost, which would cause the house to sink. Former dwellings of sod are now deteriorating, but there are still two livable sod houses in the village.

The local Eskimo populace accepts modern life on their own terms, controlling the identity of their people and displaying it with pride in their museum. The village has chosen to be dry, meaning no alcohol is allowed, which is a local option in Alaska.

Anaktuvuk is known for an important craft, caribou masks, and Jenny’s mother, Suzy Paneak, was one of the foremost practitioners of this art. Hundreds of the masks are displayed at the local village store, the Nunamiut Store, the place to get lunch while in the village.

Due to the oil wealth of Alaska, the village at Anaktuvuk Pass is relatively secure and well-to-do. The Eskimos are part of the North Slope Borough political mechanism, benefiting from royalties associated with the oil resource.

Only about 600 outsiders fly into Anaktuvuk Pass each year, so the traveler who seeks an off-the-beaten-path experience in Alaska can be rewarded with a fresh adventure.

From Denali National Park Around Mt. McKinley

The Alaskan name for Mt. McKinley, Denali, means “the high one” or “the great one,” and that is what you notice most about the mountain, the tallest peak in North America, at 20,320 feet. Its broadly-curved top, even from a distance, is immense. Up close, you also see the steep vertical rise of 14,000 feet, called the Wickersham Wall, along the north side. This is one of the steepest rises from a base of any mountain on earth.

Many visitors to Denali, however, never see the mountain because of cloudy weather. I didn’t see it on my first trip. But on my second trip, the mountain was “out.” I could observe the peak from the Park Service Wildlife Tour bus, a wonderful experience, highly recommended. The sighting whet my appetite for the ultimate Denali experience, the flight in a small plane close in to the peaks of the mountains.

I booked Denali Air for the event. During the May 20-September 20 tourism period, they fly visitors to see the mountain. For the rest of the year they fly into remote Eskimo villages carrying routine cargo. Seven passengers and the pilot crowded into a Cessna 207 for the excursion.

The flight went well, the weather was ideal, but the air was turbulent, something to be mentioned because small planes, flying over glaciers and amidst mountain passes, get buffeted around considerably. A prospective passenger should be prepared for this and not worry. However, the first time your plane drops or rises a few hundred feet in a violent wind draft can be unnerving.

So vast is Denali National Park that the flight west from park headquarters to the mountain takes over a half hour. At takeoff, everyone watches for moose around park headquarters, where the cow moose like to drop their calves in relative safety because grizzly bears tend to avoid the park headquarters area. Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and grizzlies are sometimes spotted on the flight out to the mountain.

During the trip out to Denali, the scenery is spectacular. You pass jagged wave after wave of the 300-mile Alaska Range mountains. Below you stretch the braided rivers, so named because the sediment of the glaciers divides the stream into crisscrossing braid patterns. You witness the grandeur of miles-long glaciers, such as Muldrow Glacier, a huge river of ice moving in slow patterns clearly discernible from the air, chewing up rocks into a fine powder called “glacial flour.”

If there are photographers on board, the pilot will turn periodically so that all passengers can aim their cameras at the peaks, glaciers, river valleys, and the ever-approaching Mt. McKinley. The vastness of this Alaska wilderness park, only barely penetrated by a single road, will impress a visitor.

The small plane flies to about 11,000 feet, the highest prudent elevation without oxygen masks. If the weather is relatively clear, as it was on my flight, the plane can snake its way close to the peaks, riding the turbulent air. Sometimes, when weather is cloudy at park headquarters, you can still get a clear view of Mt. McKinley from a plane.

The north peak at Denali is spikier and shorter than the south peak. The Wickersham Wall of sheer vertical clearance is an inspiring feature. During my flight, in late May, we were able to spot climbers, a few of the roughly 1,100 who make the ascent annually. In 1908 climbers made the first successful assault on McKinley.

From Anchorage to Fly-In Fishing

Inspired by Alaska fish stories and recalling the many wonderful fishing adventures of my youth, I looked forward to a day of fly-in fishing from Anchorage.

I flew with the company owned by Craig Ketchum, whose family has been prominent in setting up this kind of adventure. Already in the 1960s the Ketchums of Anchorage were operating fly-in fishing trips. Today they have multiple planes going full time in the summer. They maintain cabins at various wilderness lakes within 25-200 miles of Anchorage, all accessible only by float plane. The Ketchums can drop you at a lake in the morning and pick you up in the evening. Or they leave you for a specific number of days. They even have raft trips where they drop you and the raft, picking you up on a future scheduled day at a point down-river.

Ketchum’s pilot decided to take me and a few other prospective anglers for a day to Alexander Lake, where the Ketchums have boats and a small cabin, affectionately known as The Homestead. When we arrived, we put on daredevils and caught pike, but not as many (this is honest reporting, however painful the truth is) as the three fellows lounging at the cabin.

“If you had been here at dawn, you’d have caught one on every cast,” said one bewhiskered type, devoted at mid-day to relaxation, imbibing, and male-bonding. “Why, some of my lures have all the paint chewed off them.”

The pilot can take you to a pike lake or to a dolly varden trout lake, depending on what you want and what’s biting. Their Cessna 206s, Otters, and Beavers carry 6-8 passengers, plus an allowable 70 pounds of gear per person. They can provide a fishing guide, if desired.

“I’ve flown into about a thousand wilderness lakes in my day, flying around up here for the last 15 years,” noted my pilot.

The flight back proved to be special. We took off from the lake, passing abundant birdlife, including clusters of whistler swans. The scenery proved spectacular, with 90-mile visibility as we crossed the Big Susitna River watershed. At one point we found ourselves circling a few hundred feet above three soaring bald eagles. Then the pilot exercised his moose-spotting skills and we circled around a half dozen of the magnificent large creatures scattered over the landscape. The piece de resistance, however, occurred when we passed over the Cook Inlet on the way into Anchorage and saw beluga whales, white behemoths in the dark water, cruising up the inlet, following the schools of smelt, one of their major summer food supplies.

Although I have traveled several times to Alaska, few experiences have captured the magic of the area for me as much as small bush planes traversing this huge wilderness.

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Alaska by Small Plane: If You Go

Some providers of services to keep in mind:

Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk via Frontier Flying Service at http://www.flyera.com.

Around Mt McKinley with Denali Air and others at http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/flightseeing.htm.

Remote fishing lakes from Anchorage via Ketchum Air Service at http:///www.alaskaone.com/anchorage/ketchum-air-service-inc.htm.

General tourism info from Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.

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