Saturday, July 28, 2007

Alaska: Land Tour

At Seward, we left the Radiance and boarded a tour bus for the next part of our journey. We met our Tour Director, Joanna, as well as John, our Driver.

The first leg of the trip was the drive from Seward to Anchorage, about 120 miles. This area is within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and we made a stop at an animal rescue center along the way. This center cares for animals which are orphaned or injured and not able to live on their own in the wild. We arrived at Anchorage by lunch time, and pretty much just puttered around town. Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska at about 300,000 people, and while interesting, it is not what we came to see.

The next day, we started the trek to the interior of Alaska by making the 120 mile drive to Talkeetna. Along the way, we were blessed with a clear view of Denali, aka Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America at over 20,000 feet. Denali is covered by clouds most of the time, and it is said that only 20% of the visitors to Alaska ever see the peak. The lodge at Talkeetna was fabulous, and we were happy to stay there two nights.

We boarded the train at Talkeetna on the 11th day of our trip, and set off into Denali National Park. These were magnificent train cars, with comfortable leather seats and panoramic windows. It was too bad that the dining facilities were on a lower level, because the view was much more constrained.

After arriving at Denali village, we set off on a Jeep excursion into an area on the north of the Denali village. It was a little lame, with no real serious four-wheeling involved, but I have no complaint with getting to spend time outdoors in a place like this.

The next morning we took a ride into Denali Park on a park bus. We saw caribou and Dall Sheep. We learned that caribou and reindeer are the same species, with the only difference being that reindeer are domesticated. And once more the summit of Denali showed itself above the clouds. In the afternoon, we boarded the train toward our final stop, Fairbanks.

On our way to the El Dorado Gold Mine, we had the chance to stop at a place where the Alaska Pipeline runs above ground along the highway. I was hoping that we'd get to see the pipeline. As interesting as the line itself was, there is a place across the road where a guy had collected various pieces of equipment no longer needed when the pipeline was completed. One was this enormous transporter vehicle that carried sections of pipe. He had taken one of the trailers of this transporter and made it into a deck for his house. Utility comes before aesthetics in the north country.

One thing which surprised us all – it never gets dark in Alaska in the summertime! I think we all knew that north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets on the summer solstice. Fairbanks is only about 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, so while the sun did set (at about 11:15pm), it remains twilight until the sun fully rises again just five hours later. We all said that we were looking forward to getting back to dark nights.

On the last day, we needed to have our bags out at 3am, and ready to board the bus to the airport at 4am. We sat in the plane on the ground while the mechanics confirmed that a hatch was latching properly, and then the toilet needed to be unplugged. We barely made our connection in Seattle, and then only because they loaded us up into three electric carts for the long trek across the airport. Next was a relatively short hop into Salt Lake City, and then another long flight home. We landed around 11pm only to find that our luggage didn't make the connection in Seattle. It was finally delivered to our home at about 5pm the next day.

Glad to be home, but thrilled to have taken this trip.

Alaska: Aboard Ship

The first leg of our Alaska trip was aboard the Radiance of the Seas, a massive cruise ship operated by Royal Caribbean. Our group of five couples had adjacent balcony staterooms on the starboard side, Deck 8, just below and aft of the navigation bridge.

This was the third cruise for Terry and me, and quite different than our prior voyages in the Caribbean. The obvious difference was in the latitude: there would be no sunning on a deck chair through the afternoon this time around, although we did have some warm days were we could sit on our private balcony and enjoy the sun. Southeastern Alaska is rainy and chilly, similar to what many of us think of Seattle. The capital city, Juneau, is one of the wettest cities in the country.

The cruise began when we boarded the Radiance in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. We had never been in Vancouver before, and our first impression was of the rattier parts of town on the route between the airport and the harbor. The Cleverleys have friends who live in Vancouver, so they came out a couple of days before to visit. Their impression of Vancouver was that it is a beautiful city. As is always the case in a big city, there is wealth, and there is poverty. At least everyone has access to the healthcare system in Canada. We sailed in the early evening.

The next day was spent at sea. It was sunny, warm and smooth. We were accompanied part of the way by Dall's porpoises, who apparently get a kick out of surfing in the wake of the ship. It was formal dinner night, when we got to meet our waiter, Darko (no kidding). He was a tall and intense Croatian man who I thought would make a good Count Dracula. Compared to the waiters we've enjoyed on other cruises, this guy was humorless. His assistant was a Bahamian named Leaford who spent most of his time getting ordered about and criticized by Darko. Nonetheless, the ten of us had a table to ourselves, and enjoyed the food and company each night. The evening closed with a stage show and a stunning sunset.

Our first port of call was Ketchikan Alaska. We arrived in the early morning, escorted by a Coast Guard patrol boat on which the forward 50cal machine gun was manned and ready. We never learned why we got this escort, and it was the only port in which this happened. One can understand a cruise ship being a juicy terrorist target, but I'm not sure Alaska is a primary target area. Who knows in this crazy world. Ketchikan is just a tourist trap, with most of the businesses owned by Royal Caribbean as we understand it. We walked around the block and came back aboard the ship.

The next day, we arrived in Juneau. Although it is the capital, Juneau's population is only about 30,000. An interesting fact about Juneau is that it cannot be driven to; one must go there by either air or sea. In the morning, we rode a bus out to the Mendenhall Glacier. When we booked this excursion, we didn't know that we would later be seeing the Hubbard Glacier from the ship. The trip to the Mendenhall wasn't a waste by any means, but these land excursions are kinda pricy, and on that basis I don't think I would recommend spending the money if you are going to see the Hubbard anyway that is.

The afternoon was spent whale-watching with Barb and Jim, and we had the opportunity to see several mother-calf pairs of humpbacks. Afterwards, we looked around town a little, and stopped for a snack of reindeer sausage at the Red Dog Saloon – a fun place to go.

We arrived at the tiny town of Skagway to find three other cruise ships in port. This is an amazing thing since Skagway has a permanent population of under 1,000, while each cruise ship carried around 2,000 tourists. The high point of this trip was the ride to the White Mountain Pass on a narrow gauge railroad. After the ride, we stopped in the Red Onion Saloon for lunch, another fun place.

Next was Icy Strait Point, where the Hinkles, Cleverleys and Krzykowskis rode the mile-long zip line. They said it was a blast. We looked around the little village which had been constructed there just to host cruise ships, and hopped back aboard.

After working our way out of the Inside Passage, the Radiance sailed to the Hubbard Glacier. This was by far the most spectacular part of the cruise. The glacier is massive, with a face several times the height of our ship and six miles wide. The weather was clear and sunny, and the captain was able to maneuver us within a few thousand feed of the face. Every few minutes, we would hear a rumble. If you were quick enough, you could see a hunk of ice fall from the face into the ocean.

From here, we sailed due west toward Seward, the terminus of the cruise half of our journey.

Home from Alaska

Our two weeks of travel in Alaska is over, and we're back home in Ohio. It's a shame that wonderful vacations like this start and end with the aggravation which is air travel today, but soon the memories of the crowds and inconsiderate fellow passengers fade and the good times are what sticks.

It was a blessing to be able to take this trip with friends from our church: Steve and Lynne Krzykowski, George and Cindy Hinkle, Bill and Linda Cleverley, Barb Hix and Jim Murdoch. We participated in many activities together, yet went on our own at times to pursue our own interests. This is a great way to travel, and I hope we have other opportunities like this in the future.

One goal of mine was achieved on this trip: after visiting Alaska, I have now been in all fifty states of our union, and Terry is missing only a handful. While each one has something special to offer, I am partial to open country, away from crowds and development. West Virginia will always be our homeland, and the southeastern part of the state my favorite part of it. But for sheer beauty, Colorado has been number one on my list -- that is until this trip.

Alaska has it all: the highest mountains, the ocean, unspoiled rivers and glaciers, and miles of vistas with no evidence of human impact. At Denali National Park, the rangers make a point of telling folks that there are no trails because they want to maintain this aspect. They tell you to make a new trail, and there is a chance you will walk where no human has walked before. Awesome.

One term we heard frequently is that there are many people in Alaska who live 'off the grid.' This means they have no public utilities; no water, sewer, electricity, gas, telephone or cable TV. There were folks who live this way within the city limits of Fairbanks. They get their water from creeks or water stations, use outhouses, and heat and cook with wood. We saw homesteads where the only means of supply was the Alaska Railroad, as there are neither roads nor navigable streams. And we heard stories from young Native Alaskans who came from villages north of the Arctic Circle where the hunting of whales and seals are key to survival.

We also saw what I call the Disney World version of Alaska. In Fairbanks we toured the El Dorado Gold Mine, and got to pan for gold. We took a ride on the Riverboat Discovery, and visited a staged Indian Village. All while be herded around with a couple thousand fellow tourists. It was the last day of our two weeks, and the complete antithesis to the days we spent in Denali. I guess it was a good preparation for the gauntlet of airports and airplanes the next day, but I would have preferred to spend the time just gazing into one of those endless Alaska vistas.

We took nearly 600 pictures and video clips during the trip. The cool thing about digital photography is that you can just snap away and never worry about wasting film or developing costs. I shoot at the highest possible resolution, yielding 2MB image files. In total we have 3GB of images. We'll post a few here, and a few on the family website, but to see them all, you'll just have to come visit us.

Paul & Terry

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Alaska: The Day Before Departure

We're off to Alaska in the morning (leaving the house at 4am!!) with a group of friends from our church. Here's our route

Light blue = flights
Red = aboard ship
Green = bus
Purple = train

I've decided not to take a PC, so no pictures or travel diary as we go. But expect a trip report when we return!