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Sunday, June 29, 2003, 11:00 a.m.
Sitting on the back deck of my house. The painters are finishing up, so it seems as if I might be able to leave on this trip with a sense of calm and all the stress of the past week behind me.
I'm not feeling excited, though. Not sure why. A couple of weeks ago I was hugely elated and looking forward excitedly to my trip. Now I'm mostly relieved to have gotten here. It's weird because I've been looking forward to this for so long. Hard to believe it's finally here.
Sunday, June 29, 2003, 5:20 p.m.
I'm looking out the airplane window at vast ranges of snowy mountains and jagged coastline.
The captain just announced that we've begun our descent. Already, the mountains seem to be much bigger; are we that much lower down, or are they so tall? My friend Joel at work was teasing me that I'd be disappointed when I didn't find igloos and eskimos, but so far, I'm not disappointed at all, and we're still in the air. It's truly breathtaking. No more writing now--I want to watch these vistas go by.
Sunday, June 29, 2003, 7:30 p.m.
I'm sitting at a table outside New Sagaya City Market eating a sandwich. I took a cab from the airport to the K Street B & B, which is two blocks from here, dumped my stuff in my room, changed into shorts, and set out on a walk to this strip that they call Delaney Park. Watched a softball game and people flying huge kites.
Except for the nearby mountains, this town seems kind of bland. Totally flat. Mostly ugly buildings. The taller downtown buildings have oil company names on them.
It is a beautiful day, warm and sunny. A lot of people out and about for a Sunday evening, enjoying the weather, I guess.
The B & B is pretty basic, not at all charming. Really nice kitchen! There are a bunch of Alaska vacation videos, but I didn't see a TV anywhere.
7:45 p.m. - Finished my sandwich. Not sure how I'm going to pass the time this evening. The sun is still pretty high in the west. I guess I'll go for another walk if I can just find somewhere pretty to talk. Or maybe I'll sit here and read for a while.
Monday, June 30, 2003, 7:10 a.m.
Thank you Mary for giving me the night mask. It was still broad daylight when I got to bed last night at 11:00. I woke up periodically during the night and had to look and see how light it was. At 1:30 it was kinda dusky. At 3:00, it looked like dawn. Mask or no mask, I woke up at 6:00, an hour before my alarm. So I showered and dressed and now I'm sitting on the bench on the front steps of the B & B. It looks like a great morning -- light overcast, pleasant. Kate should be up shortly with breakfast, and the van comes at 8:00.
Last night I sat at the market for a little while, then came back here and read my book. (Thanks again to Mary, who lent it to me -- Timeline by Michael Crichton -- a good, engaging read, perfect for airports and other places with lots of distractions.
Speaking of distractions, I just heard a raucous squawking. Grabbed the binoculars to have a look, but it appeared to be seagulls. I never heard seagulls make a noise like that before.
So I've been looking forward to this trip for months, and I'm finally here, waiting for the "adventure" to begin. It all still seems so unreal. I don't feel excited, or even anticipatory. Just going through the motions, doing what I do. Almost ho-hum. Of course, I didn't feel that way looking down at the mountains yesterday from the airplane, and I suspect my mood will change once we get out of Anchorage and into the wilderness.
Monday, June 30, 2003, 2:40 p.m.
I'm sitting on the front deck of the Coastal Explorer, our cruise ship that departs Seward at 3:00 for Fox Island. The sun is right in front of us, not a cloud in the sky, pleasant breeze. Mountains are all around us. A perfect day. I wasn't expecting to come home from Alaska with a sunburn!
This morning on the way out of Anchorage, we stopped at Earthquake Park. It's hard to imagine the neighborhood that was once there.
There we made our first acquaintance with Alaska's state bird--the mosquito. They were relentless.
From there we drove around the airport looking for moose--apparently, that's their common grazing area--but no luck. Driving past the small-airplane and float-plane airport was impressive, so many bush planes, float planes, 2-seaters and up.
Finally we hit the Seward Highway out of Anchorage, driving along Turnagain Arm. Every turn in the road was one more stunning panorama.
Our guide/driver is Patrick. He's from Provence, and he's very charming. He's been here doing these tours for ten years. There are five other people on the tour. Art and Jeanne are from Clearwater, Florida. Joyce and Dick from Columbus, Ohio. Either Joyce and Art or Jeanne and Dick are siblings, I can't remember which. Andrew is from Windsor, England. They all seem nice, fun, and friendly.
We arrived in Seward for lunch at a little cafe with outdoor seating.
Then we had a short visit to the Alaska Marine Life Center. Some interesting exhibits, especially the marine birds, sea lion, and harbor seals.
While waiting to board the boat, I took some photos of the scenery.
Monday, June 30, 2003, 8:25 p.m.
I'm sitting on a log on the "beach" on Fox Island. There's going to be a campfire, complete with s'mores, at 9:00. The boat ride was okay--a lot of kids, but once we got going, it got really windy on the bow and all the families took cover inside. We saw a nesting pair of bald eagles and a good sized flock of puffins.
We arrived at Fox Island around 4:00, and for those who were interested, a hike started right away. I dropped my stuff in my cabin (which I'm sharing with Andrew) and the hike took us over a very challenging trail, about 45 minutes each way. First we had to navigate tree roots, then mud, and after all that work came the steep uphill portions. The view at the top, about 1500 feet above the water, was worth it, but it was a killer hike.
Two fascinating things I learned about this island on the hike: 1) There are no foxes on Fox Island. It got its name because the used to farm foxes her for fur. That ended during the 1930s. 2) The combination of seismic and glacial activity caused this island to tip over 45 degrees. We sat at the top looking down a field of boulders. The guide told us that this was sedimentary rock and was once flat level. Today it drops precipitously. On the other side is igneous rock that got pushed upward.
After we got back down, I was so hot and sweaty that I was eager to take a dip in Resurrection Bay (actually Halibut Cove, the small inlet that is in front of me right now). They said the water is 40-45 degrees. Sounded great to me! It was frigid, but felt great once I got in. Walking barefoot on the beach, however, which consisted of flat rocks as big as 6 inches across until you got close to the water, where they became small, pointy pebbles, hurt like hell.
After the swim and a hot shower, it was dinnertime. We gathered in the Wilderness Lodge for a really nice dinner of Caesar salad, fresh baked bread with herb butter, and pork chops (or chicken breast for the non pork eaters). It was served with apple chutney (that's what the chef, Brooke, called it, but it was really just stewed apples), twice-baked potato, and grilled broccoli and cauliflower. The dessert was a really good, decadent chocolatey thing.
Monday, June 30, 2003, 10:30 p.m.
Having a campfire in broad daylight was kind of weird, but it was fun.
Afterwards, I took a walk on the beach to the south end of the cove, and I'm sitting here on a really big flat rock, lying back, just taking it all in. Earlier, we watched a bald eagle perch in a tree and three gulls proceeded to harrass it until it finally flew down, behind the trees, probably to get a duckling for dinner.
The sun has dropped down behind the mountains but hasn't really set yet. But it's starting to get chilly. I can't really go much further without climbing over a lot of huge boulders, and my legs are kind of wobbly from the hike this afternoon. I guess I'll head back and see if I'm ready to sleep yet. It'll be a relaxing morning here before our boat leaves at noon for the tour of Kenai Fjords National Park.
I'm glad I got up from where I was just sitting. A mini rock slide just came off the cliff behind me. I wouldn't have been conked on the head, but I'd have been scared witless!
Tuesday, July 1, 2003, 7:20 a.m.
Last night at the campfire the staff people were looking at the clouds in the west and saying that rain was coming. This morning it's here. Kind of a Seattle-style rain. It's grey and drizzly. Well, a little more than drizzly. I thought I packed my rain pants to bring to Fox Island, but I guess I left them in the van, so I guess I'll have to spend most of today's boat ride inside the cabin.
I'm sitting on the porch of the Wilderness Lodge listening to the rain and the birds. A distant boat heading south in Resurrection Bay is the only other sound, along with the water lapping onto the beach. I wonder if the boat is off to catch halibut. Yesterday while waiting to board our cruise, we watched fishermen unloading their catch from their boat. Some really big halibut.
I just got a private wildlife show and went down to the edge of the water to investigate. It was a family of river otters--five of them. For a while they were swimming right toward me, and I got to see them really close up. With binoculars I could see their whiskers and watch their nostrils flair. Then they swam off. I also saw herring jumping out of the water.
The rain has stopped. For now.
Tuesday, July 1, 2003, 10:00 a.m.
Just finished our nature walk on the beach. The sun is coming out. We saw lots of birds: pigeon guillemot, hermit thrush, goldeneye, Stellar's jay, plus interesting sea animals stuck on land in low tide.
They're grilling salmon for lunch. Breakfast was scrambled eggs with cheese and mushrooms, really good fried potatoes, and fresh melon.
Tuesday, July 1, 2003, 12:50 p.m.
On the boat touring Kenai Fjords. Just had a wonderful sighting of humpback whales!
1:10 p.m. We just saw a sea otter with two pups swim past us, plus two oystercatchers, and a bald eagle in its nest.
2:20 p.m. The amazing show continues. The most thrilling, on Chiswell Island, were the Steller Sea Lions lying on the rocks. And the puffins and kittiwakes. There was another humpback whale, but we lost it.
4:00 p.m. It is hard to express the awesome beauty of Holgate Glacier. It's not that it is a pretty thing to look at. It's seeing this massive wall of ice and realizing that it is actually a flowing river, with Harding Icefield as its headwater. We saw it calve a few times--it sounds like cracks of thunder--and the sound is continual, as the glacier flows, breaking apart and compressing against itself. Big chunks of ice float in the water extending maybe a mile away. It brought tears to my eyes.
Tuesday, July 1, 2003, 10:30 p.m.
I'm sitting on the porch outside my cabin in Hope. We have a very early morning tomorrow, so I'm not going to write too much. About 50 feet below and in front of me is a creak and waterfall, the sound of which will be a wonderful serenade for sleeping tonight.
We had just a little time in Seward before we got back in the van.
We drove to Hope (and had a sighting of a porcupine ambling along the side of the road) and directly to the Discovery Cafe.
Dinner was really good, especially considering how ordinary looking the restaurant is and how tiny the town of Hope is. I had blackened halibut with rice and veggies, and a really good mixed berry cream cheese pie for dessert. We even got the recipe:
Mixed Berry Cream Cheese Pie
Mix 1 cup of powdered sugar into 11 ounces of softened cream cheese. Fold in one container of Cool Whip. Stir in 2 cups of mixed berries (frozen are fine). Pour the mixture into a graham cracker crust. Chill and serve!
Then Patrick gave us a little tour of Hope and brought us to Discovery Cabins. Our cabin consists of nothing but a set of bunk beds and a table and some lamps. The bathroom is up the path. It's very charming.
OK, I'm going to go brush my teeth and try to sleep until 4:30.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003, 5:00 a.m.
Well the serenade of the creek was drowned out by the torrential rain pummeling the metal roof of our cabin. Finally, unable to sleep, I got up at 4:00, took my shower, got dressed and packed up. Turns out the downpour is just a light shower, amplified on the metal roof, and the creek makes it sound all the more torrential. I'm tempted to tell Jeanne, who's never seen a moose, that one wandered by while I sat here on the covered porch of the cabin. Maybe one will.
We have a 6:00 departure so we can get to Homer and catch our boat to Seldovia, where we spend the night tonight. The word is it's a quaint town. I wouldn't say that about Hope. On our tour, we drove down the main street which, Patrick says, has appeared in a number of TV commercials. Apparently, at the Seaview Cafe, "they don't take American Express." Tomorrow night I hope to walk back down there and take photos. I hope it will stop raining by then, preferably much sooner. We were lucky yesterday; though it remained overcast all day, there was almost no rain after the morning. They say the wildlife makes a better show under cloudy skies, plus the blue of the glacier (from the blue eyes of the tiny ice worms that live just below the surface is the local joke they like to tell tourists; actually, it's because of the highly compressed ice that traps all of the spectrum except blue) shows up better when it's overcast.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003, 11:00 a.m.
Sitting aboard the "Discovery," our cruise ship from Homer to Seldovia. Sadly, it's been a lousy day weather-wise. The drive from Hope was intermittently rainy with fog, so there were no views of mountains across Cook Inlet. We did see our first moose, a female. Breakfast was fix-it-yourself at the kitchen at Discovery Cabins (which are owned by Barb and Todd, the people who run Adventure Alaska Tours), and we packed sandwiches for lunch, which I'll eat shortly. We stopped to take a quick look at the village of Ninilchik, and at the post office there so I could mail my postcards. From there, our next stop was Anchor Point, the westernmost point on the North American highway system. And then to Homer and directly to the "Spit," a five-mile strip of land (actually the terminal moraine of the glacier) jutting into Kachemak Bay, where there was a little time to wander and shop before boarding the boat.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003, 12:30 p.m.
We're nearing Seldovia. Seen plenty of birds on this trip: bald eagles, cormorants, pigeon guillemots, gulls, puffins, kittiwakes, murres. AND, the mountains came out -- some real serious clearing to the west. Mt. Ilimna and Mt. Redoubt are visible against bright blue skies. YAY!
Wednesday, July 2, 2003, 3:30 p.m.
We docked in Seldovia at 1:00 or so, watching the blue skies move ever closer. Walked the two short blocks to the Boardwalk Hotel, where we stay tonight.
After dropping off my stuff, I set off to explore Seldovia, armed with the free city map I picked up on the boat. This map, while it has a charm all its own (rather like the city it illustrates), is totally out of scale. I walked along Main Street to see what sort of quaint shops I'd find (not too many), and then decided to head toward the Otterbahn Trail. While the trail appears to be about twice the length of the (3 minute) walk from the boat dock to the hotel, it actually took about 45 minutes one way. The trail itself was nothing to write home about, but the view from the beach at the end of the trail was spectacular.
Then, according to the map, it's about as far along the beach to the road that leads back to town as the trail itself. That walk along the beach took about 5 minutes. I should've given up on trusting the map at that point, but I walked for a long time on the road back to town before I came to the cemetery (CITY CEMETARY, according to the map), a graveyard overgrown with wildflowers and labeled with what I think is the Russian Orthodox cross. I was also close to the airport, and when I looked up at an overhead plane just taking off, I saw 2 bald eagles right overhead. One flew over and I lost it; the other landed in a tree and sat for a while to pose for my photos.
From the cemetery back to town took five minutes, even though on the map it looked further than from the beach to the cemetery. Meanwhile, by the time I was halfway from the trailhead to the beach, I had shed both my jacket and my sweatshirt, and by the time I reached the beach, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I went back to the hotel and dropped off my extra clothing, grabbed my sunglasses, and came over to the Buzz Cafe, where I sit now, out back, drinking an iced latte. It's kind of breezy, and there are windchimes clanging noisily. I'm overlooking the boat harbor, where I just watched the Discovery depart for its return to Homer. I'll go walk in another direction soon to explore a different part of this town, but for now it's just so nice sitting here enjoying the breeze and the sun.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003, 5:45 p.m.
I now think I've seen all ther is to see in Seldovia. There is some charm, but most of it seems to be faded away. Many places for sale, many closed businesses, just not much here anymore. I'm sitting on a dock across from Buzz Cafe and the Boardwalk Hotel. I can see the window of our room from here. There's not much activity in the harbor. A few fishermen, but not many, and now big wheelbarrows full of fish like we saw in Seward.
Apparently, before the 1964 earthquake Seldovia was made up primarily of boardwalks. There's just one left in what they call the historic area; the rest were destroyed.
Near there is Seldovia Slough, and while the tide comes in, people fish off a bridge that crosses it. There were king and chum salmon. They drop the hook, baitless, and attempt to snag the fish. No one caught anything while I was there.
Dinner is at 6:30 in a restaurant called the Mad Fish, so I'm just killing time til then. Lots of eagles around here. Earlier one was being chased by a gull. Maybe I'll walk up to the bridge again and see if anyone's still there fishing.
Wednesday, July 2, 2003, 9:15 p.m.
One thing I never expected to do on this vacation was wander the beach collecting sea shells. (Another was swimming in the ocean.) But here I am in Seldovia, looking west toward the sun that, while low in the sky, has no intention of setting anytime soon. There are some clouds, but at the moment the sun is reflecting brightly off the water of Cook Inlet (or is this Kachemak Bay? I'm not sure where one ends and the other begins). Now that the sun has momentarily ducked behind a cloud, I'd have to say it's still a good 20 degrees above the horizon. There are some more clouds far off on the horizon, and I hope they won't bring rain or overcast in the morning, so we can have a great flight back to Homer with some excellent views.
Dinner at the Mad Fish was trying really hard to be elegant but didn't really succeed. I had salmon with an olive tapenade that was good, but I've had better salmon simply grilled. For dessert I had mixed berry crisp that was just okay. Everyone had raved about the ice cream at the Sweet -n- Clean, a combination ice cream parlor and laundromat. I had gone in before dinner and found out that they were open til 9:00, so I promised I'd be back after dinner. But I was really full. So I went in and told her I was back and she asked, "How was dinner?" and I said, "Good, but I'm stuffed." So she said, "Then what are you doing here?" I said, "I promised you I'd be back!" So she gave me a children's scoop for a buck.
Thursday, July 3, 2003, 8:55 a.m.
I gave up on waiting for sunset last night and was asleep by around 11:00. Full 8 hours of sleep -- felt great! After a quick walk up to the old Russian Orthodox Church (which I somehow overlooked in my wanderings yesterday),
I came back for breakfast at The Buzz. Baked french toast that was yummy, with fruit and cheese baked into the bread. It reminded me of Grandma Rose's Lokshen Kugel. It's cool and breezy this morning, but not enough to keep me from sitting outside.
I was talking with Andrew earlier this morning about the economic condition of this town, and he gave me an interesting perspective. Having traveled in Alaska more than I have, he said that this is how a lot of places are, and how Alaskans choose to live. Pretty houses or nice cars aren't necessary or even desirable, and with limited good weather, they're more interested in using the opportunity to keep things functioning rather than making them nice. If a car dies, it's easier to just let it sit and rust.
In about an hour we fly back to Homer. I'm excited!
Thursday, July 3, 2003, 12:05 p.m.
What a difference from yesterday to today! I'm on Homer Spit, under a bright sunny sky. A cool, strong ocean wind is blowing.
On the walk to the airport in Seldovia, we crossed the bridge over Seldovia Slough, and the locals were out going after salmon again, but this time they made a few catches.
The plane ride was short but a real treat for me. It was a twin engine plane, seating all 7 of us plus the pilot, who seemed barely 18 years old. The airport in Seldovia was a source of much humor for us, so small and completely lacking in amenities or security. The restroom was an outhouse! Baggage sat unattended in a wheelbarrow and there was no security of any kind. There was a small whiteboard in the building on which I wrote:
Flight 1 from Homer, 10:15 a.m., Gate 1
Flight 2 to Homer, 10:30 a.m., Gate 1
When we got in the plane and the pilot closed the hatch, I saw that there was a gap in the gasket. I said to the pilot, "Must be hard to pressurize the cabin with a gap like that." He laughed. The I asked him if he'd point out sights on the way back to Homer, and he said, "It's just water."
After we got to Homer, I ducked into the Salty Dawg, where people sign and post dollar bills all over the walls and ceiling, and wandered onto the beach. There's a seafarer's memorial here with plaques in memory of fishers and pilots lost at sea.
Thursday, July 3, 2003, 3:10 p.m.
Homer is behind us now. I'm in the van; we're heading north on Sterling Highway (Alaska Route 1). The views of the three volcanoes (Augustine, Iliamna, and Redoubt) that were shrouded on the trip down are stunning today.
Lunch on the Homer Spit was at an Argentine/American restaurant called Las Pampas. I had halibut chowder and a salad with grilled halibut, and for dessert the chef made us creme caramel (flan, or whatever the Spanish word is). All yummy!
Then Patrick drove us to two spots for views.
I was chatting with a kid who was sunbathing out in front of Las Pampas. He goes to school in Montana and usually works commercial fishing boats in the summer, but he's taking this summer off and bumming around. He was saying that fishing has taken a serious downturn lately. He said stocks get depleted and fish move to other feeding areas and it's a cyclical industry. Tourism is down as well, but nevertheless, Homer is still growing quickly.
Thursday, July 3, 2003, 5:30 p.m.
We just stopped at Fred Meyer in Soldotna. Pretty much like every other Fred Meyer I've been in except more hunting and fishing stuff. Earlier we pulled off the road to see a small Russian Orthodox Church.
We also had our second moose sighting just before we reached Soldotna.
The sky is still bright blue, with a few puffy clouds here and there. I sure hope it says this way through the weekend.
Thursday, July 3, 2003, 11:30 p.m.
We got back to Hope, where Barb was waiting for us. She took our barbecue orders and I went with a turkey burger. Shortly, Todd came by with Liam, their son. How interesting it was to arrive back at the cabins and feel like I was arriving home! Joyce said the same thing as I was thinking it, even thought we'd only ever been here once before, two nights ago.
After dinner we walked up to the Seaview Cafe for a beer and listened to some live music (a couple of guys with guitars singing), then came back here and I took a thoroughly refreshing soak in the hot tub. Now I'm waiting for my swim suit to dry in the dryer before bed. What a great day it's been!
Friday, July 4, 2003, 7:05 a.m.
Hard to believe that by the end of today I'll be back in Anchorage. Five days ago, the thought of being in Anchorage was thrilling. Today it just means that my Kenai adventure is over.
Yesterday on the road to Hope along Turnagain Arm, we stopped to check out the bore tide coming in. It was a wave, and we could easily follow its leading edge, rolling at a good clip. Patrick said that if the wind is blowing against the tide, and it's a particularly high tide, it creates a wall of water, and he once watched someone surf it!
The thermometer reads 41 degrees as I sit here on the porch of my cabin, watching the creek and listening to its roaring rapids. Feels wonderful! Happy 4th of July!
Friday, July 4, 2003, 1:00 p.m.
After a nice pancake breakfast made by Barb, we said goodbye to Todd, Barb, and Liam--they were heading to Seward to watch the Mt. Marathon race. Then we loaded up and went into "downtown Hope" and learned to pan for gold from Peck. From there, we visited the town's historical museum and then hit the road.
We're at the Portage Glacier Visitors Center now. I'm sitting on a rock alongside Portage Lake. The joke (a true story) is that they built this beautiful center for viewing the glacier, with all kinds of exhibits and viewing windows, and then the glacier receded, and you can't even see it anymore unless you take a boat out on the lake. The center was so overrun with tourists that it made me squeamish, so I dashed through the exhibits and came outside to enjoy the brilliant sunshine and fresh air.
Friday, July 4, 2003, 3:20 p.m.
I'm sitting on the top of Mt. Alyeska. I'm the only one in the group who opted for the tram ride up here, so I have a few moments of solitude. I'm watching a paraglider travel down the face of the mountain and listening to the sounds of a few other visitors, an occasional airplane, and the noice from Forest Fair, a local Girdwood 4th of July celebration. Lunch was at a wonderful little sandwich shop in Girdwood with beautiful baskets of begonias and other flowers out front.
Stretched out in front of me is the valley (not sure what they call it), fanning out into the waters of Turnagain Arm. On such a bright, clear day, I can't think of anwhere else to be right now.
Friday, July 4, 2003, 8:10 p.m.
I'm back at Kate's B & B. Even though the tour was loose and relaxed, and I enjoyed the people, I'm ready for it to be over and to strike out on my own. I just hope the clear skies hold up for a few more days.
After we left Mt. Alyeska, we made a couple of stops, first along Turnagain Arm at a really nice view spot,
and then near the airport at Point Woronzof, where there was a view of Mt. McKinley and downtown Anchorage.
I got dropped off first and took a shower. I felt so hot and sticky. I mean, I know it's summer, but, goddammit, this is Alaska! I feel so much better now. Walked over to New Sagaya Market and got some food for dinner, and I'm sitting out in the back yard of the B & B. Kate and her friend invited me to come over -- 3 houses down -- for margaritas, so I guess I'll do that. I'm doing laundry, and then I've got to repack for my 3 days to Denali. I decided to walk to the train station in the morning since it's not that far and I won't be that heavily loaded.
OK, I'm off to Margaritaville!
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 7:30 p.m.
I'm sitting across from the Alaska Railroad depot, which doesn't look even remotely like what I expected. I imagined a quaint village depot. No, it's nothing like Grand Central Station, but it's more like a small white office building than a train station. Until I saw "THE ALASKA RAILROAD" on the front of the building, I wasn't sure I'd found it.
It only took 20 minutes to walk to the station through downtown Anchorage. Not the most modern and tall downtown I've been in. Newer office buildings are interspersed with businesses that look like they are in the original houses built on that spot.
The train station is crowded. I'm definitely in the midst of a lot of other tourists. This pretty much ends any illusion I had of visiting remote places seldom seen by others. It was a silly illusion to cling to anyway. But the train, which just pulled into the station, is cool. I have a reserved seat, and there was even a printed passenger manifest that the ticket agent looked through to find my reservation.
Margaritas last night were okay. About 8 or 10 people were there, some of whom didn't know each other, so I wasn't the only one who didn't know people.
Afterwards, Kate asked me to help her figure something out on her computer. She offered to let me check email, but that's the last thing I wanted to do. No encounters with reality until it's absolutely necessary!
I could hear (and see, what little there was to see) the fireworks from my bedroom window. But I closed the blinds and went to sleep and they didn't keep me up.
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 8:45 a.m.
The train is comfortable, and I think it's more about tourism than transportation. Our car has its own tour guide, and he's passing around books on wildlife and a personal photo album. The maximum speed is 49 MPH, though the route is too twisty to main that.
My seatmate, Ellen, is from D.C. She's here with her husband and daughter, on the other side of the aisle. She and I both went to Syracuse University at the same time. They are also getting off in Talkeetna and going flightseeing.
There's a little overcast today, but it's clear enough to see Mt. McKinley.
There are four passenger cars plus the dining car and the bistro car, plus about 8 cars hanging on the back that belong to the cruise lines and pay the Alaska Railroad to pull them along.
I came up to the dome car, which has a nice view. The seats in this car, downstairs, must be first class--lots of legroom--although the seats in my car have perfectly adequate space.
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 11:15 a.m.
The tour guide's name is Jordan. He's 18, just graduated high school, and attending UA - Anchorage this fall. This is his second summer working on the railroad. He passed around a scrapbook of family photos. He grew up in Alaska, and his father was one of the originators of the Iditarod. He seems to have had a fascinating life so far and seems like a very nice kid.
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 3:20 p.m.
I'm not good enough with words, and I'm not a good enough photographer, to adequately capture the spectacle of flying over Denali. We circled Mt. McKinley and were able to make out some climbers ascending the mountain. We got as high as 12,500 feet, and it was hard to believe the mountain rose up another 8000 above that! We also flew over the base camp. We saw a number of glaciers and then landed on Ruth Glacier. After we took off from the glacier, we followed its valley all the way down, and that is a perfect way to see how a glacier carves a valley much like a river. I was lucky enough to win a coin toss and got to sit up front.
Now I'm at Mountain High Pizza Pie in Talkeetna, waiting for my slice, sitting outside in the shade. It's WARM!!!
Talkeetna is essentially one street with shops, restaurants, and tour businesses. You can do almost anything from here--flightseeing, fly/skiing, river rafting, hiking; and this is the starting point for climbers. I think there are two resort-ish hotels here. I have to be at one of them to meet my 6:00 van to Denali. I guess I can try to kill a couple of hours in this town. Maybe get a beer, maybe some ice cream....
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 4:05 p.m.
I have to reconsider whether I can really kill two hours in this town. I walked from the pizza place, at the far end of town, to the ice cream parlor, and it's been just 45 minutes, including the time I took to eat lunch and write my previous journal entry. I bought some Alaskan-made sopas as gifts for Ursula (for house/dogsitting) and Joy (for airport duty). Maybe I'll walk to the hotel instead of taking the shuttle and just relax there til the van arrives. A little down time would be a good thing.
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 8:00 p.m.
We left Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge 2 hours ago and have enjoyed some great views along the way. The spruce trees have changed. There are fewer of them, scattered about, and they are like toothpicks, with hardly any spread. Shorter too. There are some other trees, aspen I think.
The Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge was very nice, though a longer walk from the town than I anticipated. Made me kinda wish I were staying at a nice lodge in Denali, but I think the cabin will be fine.
Saturday, July 5, 2003, 10:15 p.m.
I have to get up at 4:00 tomorrow morning! They'll bring me at 5:00 to where I catch the bus tour into the park.
The cabin is nice. It has TV (first I've seen all trip), phone, room-darkening curtains, 2 double beds, coffee maker, and full bathroom. The facilities here are very limited, though. No restaurant. They gave me a ride to a nearby place with a restaurant, where I got some food to go--a really delicious grilled chicken sandwich.
OK, lights out, so I can get up early and try to stay awake all day on the bus through Denali.
Sunday, July 6, 2003, 5:00 a.m.
I just got dropped off at Denali River Cabins, where I have an hour to wait before my 6:00 departure. There's a restaurant that's supposed to open at 5:00, so I can get breakfast. A few other brave souls are here waiting for it to open as well. I'm sitting here wearing a T-shirt; they've all got sweatshirts and/or fleeces. The restaurant just opened, so I guess I'll go in. It's a beautiful morning, cool, clear, still, the sound of a rushing river in the distance.
I'm inside now Ordered a veggie omelet. I already had coffee in my cabin, so no need for that here.
I'm rambling. I didn't bring my book -- didn't think I'd need it -- so I figure I might as well write.
Someone just came in wearing gloves. I thought it was comfortably cool outside. It's too warm in here.
There's about 20 tables in here, and it could easily hold twice as many. There's a bar in the corner; other than that, it's a plain, open room with vaulted ceilings and posts and beams.
I just counted how many pages I've written. This is page 65. Gee I'm prolific.
It was weird to watch TV last night. They get Los Angeles stations here via satellite, so I atched local LA news before bed. They didn't report on anything national or international. I have seen snippets of news--front pages of newspapers--on this trip. Seems to be serious trouble in Liberia, plus Vancouver won the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Sunday, July 6, 2003, 10:30 a.m.
Animals seen so far: Red Fox, Dall sheep, Bull moose, Caribou, Willow ptarmigan (the Alaska state bird).
(I didn't get photos of all the animals.)
11:30 a.m.: Grizzly bear and three cubs.
Sunday, July 6, 2003, 1:50 p.m.
I'm at the Kantishna Roadhouse. Six hours is a long way to drive for a chance to see animals really far away and eat a turkey sandwich.
It was actually a thrill to see the animals, but maybe I'm just jaded, or tired. If we're lucky, the animals will be much nearer to the road on our way back. Even the driver, Kevin, who started out seeming really knowledgeable and interesting, became annoying after a while because he has way too much to say about everything and seems to love the sound of his own voice. I guess I'm just tired and ready to go home.
They're starting a presentation on sled dogs and the Iditarod.
Sunday, July 6, 2003, 3:10 p.m.
The kid who did the presentation did a really good job. His father, Emmitt Peters, won the Iditarod several times.
We're on our way back now. Already spotted a moose mother and calf.
4:45: We got a really good, closer look at the mama grizzly and her cubs. For a while, the cubs were separated from her; then they found her, and they were being very playful.
Sunday, July 6, 2003, 8:20 p.m.
I am so glad to be off that bus. As wonderful as the wildlife show was, it was not worth 14 hours on that bus. Part of the problem was that there wasn't much wildlife to see past the Eielson Visitor Center, about 4 hours in. The lunch was meager: turkey sandwich, dollop of cole slaw, and a cookie. I enjoyed Emmitt Peters, Jr. I was impressed that he was so good about speaking to the crowd and answering questions at a fairly young age, maybe 19 or 20. But I think the main reason I came out of that bus so irritated and so glad it was over was the driver, Kevin. He just had to give SO MUCH information about everything. Sometimes I just want to observe, not have everything explained in such minute detail. The worst was his complete history of chefs at the Kantishna Roadhouse. Puh-leez!
Well, I'm enjoying an Alaskan Amber, a bowl of chowder, and a salad at McKinley Village, the same place that made me that great chicken sandwich last night. I'm on my second beer, just starting to relax.
Okay, almost done with my beer, starting to mellow out a little.... Tomorrow, my first ever helicopter ride! I hope the mountain is out (it wasn't out today) AND more wildlife to see. And then a nice, relaxing, long train ride, and a good night's sleep. Tuesday, hang out in Anchorage, then HOME. I miss Rose. And my house. But this has been a wonderful trip, both by meeting my expectations in some respects and by completely confounding them in others.
Alaska doesn't put on its best face for tourists. It is what it is. It's an amazing place to connect with nature. But the small cities and quaint towns aren't all that quaint, not like, say, Tiburon, CA, or La Connor, WA, or Sturbridge, MA. They're pretty much what they are: places where people live and try to eke out a living among some of the best scenery and variety and quantity of wild animals anywhere. I was disappointed by Seldovia at first, but I just needed to shift my paradigm and it made perfect sense--in fact, it became enchanting. I think maybe the paradigm shift is one of the great lasting values I'll take from this vacation. I mean, the towns aren't here to entertain me. The nature--animals, wildflowers, trees--is enchanting. The people and their homes taught me how people can live in a way that's still American but with completely different values from what you'll find in small towns in, say, Illinois.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 8:10 a.m.
What a difference a good night's sleep can make. I'm ready and looking forward to my first-ever helicopter ride, and even though there are some clouds, the sun is out. The helicopter people are picking me up at 8:30, so I'm having a muffin and coffee while I'm waiting.
I was thinking of Hope last night. This is a town with nothing for visitors. Well yes, gold panning, a museum that's only open on weekends, and plenty of hiking/camping/fishing that's no better than a zillion other spots on the Kenai. But it was a highlight of the trip, largely because I got to see and talk to people who live there year round and do things outside of the tourism industry, and get a glimpse into that world, which is so different from any world I've ever experienced before.
Alaska has so much beauty. Next time, I'm going to stick to off-the-beaten-path activities. I'd love to stay at a backcountry lodge where I could get out and explore on my own. Or go by plane to a bush village and spend some time there.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 10:50 a.m.
The helicopter tour was so stunning, and completely different from the airplane. We didn't see a lot of wildlife--just some sheep and caribou (and I had to stifle a laugh that would've gone through the headphones when the woman from Australia asked who owns the sheep)--but the scenery was breathtaking, and much more up close than we saw from the airplane, or from the bus yesterday with all the clouds and fog.
Afterwards, I would've liked to chance to hike a bit by the entrance, and I could have if I'd thought of it ahead of time. But the guy from the helicopter company dropped me off at McKinley Chalet (a hotel owned by Holland America), so I wandered Glitter Gulch for a while looking at souvenir shops, and now I'm about to take a bus to the train depot.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 11:30 a.m.
I'm at the train depot. So far, the Alaska Railroad wins the award for service. They have a ton of nice, young folks working for them. When we pulled away from the station in Anchorage, the crew there--ticket agents and baggage handlers--stood on the platform and waved good-bye! The ticket agent here, friendly and all smiles, had my boarding pass already printed up. The vast majority of the passengers seem to belong to the cruise line, and I pity them for not getting the real ARR experience.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 12:05 p.m.
On the train, waiting to depart. I'm in car C, the dome car that I thought was first class on the way up. Real luxury accommodations! Huge amount of legroom, and the seat reclines practically flat.
The guy from the helicopter company told me that after 9/11/01 the Railroad couldn't run between Anchorage and Denali because it passed through several military bases. In fact, on 9/11 they stopped the train and backed it up, and they had to bus people in and out of Denali. He also told me that some of the bush pilots got military escorts back to where they came from--they didn't know what happened and were forced to land or be shot down.
I think this train trip takes 8 or 9 hours. But it's comfortable and relaxed, and I'm really looking forward to the rest of today. Tomorrow, on the other hand....
Monday, July 7, 2003, 12:30 p.m.
Dominic is our tour guide, and I asked him if he has a scrapbook, and he does. He told me that it's a requirement of their class they take to get this job. It's a 10-week course, after school, and there's no guarantee of a job. His scrapbook wasn't anywhere near as impressive as Jordan's, but it's still very cool to see these kid's lives--kind of another glimpse into Alaska.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 1:50 p.m.
Things I've learned on this trip:
1) Glacial valleys are "U" shaped, with flat bottoms; river valleys are "V" shaped, with narrow bottoms.
2) When the northbound and southbound Alaska Railroad trains pass each other, they stop, and the tour guides switch places. That way, the Fairbanks team goes back to Fairbanks and the Anchorage team returns to Anchorage.
We just passed two trumpeter swans sitting at the side of a pond.
2:05: big bull moose in a lake.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 3:00 p.m.
We just passed a series of creeks and ponds full of king salmon. This must be one of very few trains that slow down for scenery and wildlife viewing.
The tour guide for our car is Maura for the rest of the way. Her scrapbook is kind of boring, but she's really sweet and we had a very nice conversation.
The Alaska Railroad runs a flag-stop train year round for people living in remote areas where the train is the only way in or out. How cool is that!
We just crossed the Susitna River. Its dirty color is the result of glacial silt, Maura just informed us. I think that is the hundredth time I've heard that glacial silt gives streams and rivers a murky color since I've been in Alaska. they should have a sign in the airport; then they wouldn't have to keep telling us.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 5:00 p.m.
We just got a great sighting of a moose mother and calf in a pond by the side of the tracks, followed shortly afterwards by another pair of trumpeter swans.
Monday, July 7, 2003, 7:55 p.m.
Third thing I've learned on this trip:
3) More moose live in Anchorage than live in Denali National Park.
We're almost to the Anchorage Depot. I hate to get off the train. It kind of signals the end of my adventure.
Tuesday, July 8, 2003, 9:25 a.m.
The country itself ... it's grand. It's so damn grand.... It's like trying to paint Niagara Falls or a brilliant sunset or the Grand Canyon or some other visual aspect of nature which can only be described by people who have lived in it, have soaked it up, have been in that environment long enough to assimilate and understand it.... It is very hard to look at something with your mouth open and at the same time try to think in technical terms: how do you control this image, how do you present it? How do you compose it so that it is the most effective?
---Karl Fortress, WPA artist, 1937
I'm sitting in a gallery of Alaska landscapes in the Anchorage Museum. It's truly overwhelming, having seen some of these places first hand, to see how artists have attempted to express them on canvas. The variety of techniques is astounding, and yet each, in its own way, captures an essence of this beautiful place.
Tuesday, July 8, 2003, 12:35 p.m.
I'm at Humpy's. This is where people told me to come for good halibut and local color with local people, no tourists.
The museum took a good two hours and was really great, though no part of it was as powerful for me as that big room with the Alaska landscapes (with the possible exception of the exhibit of wild ducks).
Then I stopped in the 5th Avenue Mall, a downtown mall with Nordstrom, JCPenney, a few local stores, and a lot of chains. And then I came here. It's a really bustling place, filled with locals, and probably a small share of tourists. I ordered a halibut burger, blackened, "Bill's Way"--with cheddar, tartar sauce, salsa, grilled onions, and grilled peppers. It's huge and delicious, and the fries are great, crispy brown, thick and meaty.
I guess I still have time for The Alaska Experience before I head back to K Street to get my cab to the airport at 3:00.
Everything on this vacation has gone so smoothly, and I haven't had any health problems (though my back hurts today). For each of my vacations in Europe I had some kind of malady--eye problems, back problems, foot pain in Paris that made it hard to walk. I'm getting nervous about going home tonight and finding some kind of disaster. It's just all worked out too well. Maybe the cab won't pick me up, or my flight will be canceled--something to eliminate the jinx. My current back pain isn't bad enough.
Tuesday, July 8, 2003, 1:30 p.m.
I decided against The Alaska Experience, a big movie thing that seemed overpriced. Instead, I walked a few blocks to Elderberry Park. If I've got my Alaska geography down, I'm looking west at Cook Inlet, and to the north is Knik Arm; directly ahead of me is a wide stretch of mud flats.
Oh, and here are two other things I've learned:
4) Cook Inlet has the second highest tides in North America (something else they should post at the airport so locals won't feel compelled to tell us again and again.
5) No two Alaskans agree on how many Alaskans have pilot licenses, though it's by far more than in any other state. The figures I've heard range from 1 in 5 to 1 in 50.
Tuesday, July 8, 2003, 2:30 p.m.
A strange thing happened while I was walking back to K Street. I heard a loud squawking coming from a tree as I passed under it, then two gulls started flying overhead, yelling at me angrily and swooping down near me. Soon I saw why: 2 chicks came walking out from under a shrub. I stopped to look and take a picture, but I was afrad the gulls would attack me, so I walked away quickly. They continued to harrass me until I was well away from the area.
I guess it's good I'm going home, since I'm no longer welcome here!
Monday, July 14, 2003
The cab came on time, my flight left on time and actually got me home early, Joy was there to pick me up, and I got home to find my house and my dog and my garden all looking just fine (thank you, Ursula).
As I was entering my journal onto this web site, reading over what I'd written, I was surprised to see that I heard and saw some noisy gulls on my first morning in Anchorage. I'd forgotten about that. It all makes perfect sense now, that the wildlife welcomed me when I arrived and bid me adieux as I prepared to leave. It's their home. It was before humans came, and it will be after humans leave.
Athabaskans came here. They fished. They hunted. They faded away.
Russians came here. They trapped. They traded. They moved on.
Americans came here. They panned. They drilled. They stayed.
I came here. I listen. I wonder. I dream of coming back.
7/1/2003, Fox Island
article published 7/15/2003