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.

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