Friday, September 24, 2010

Touring Anchorage with Good Friends

Our 13-day Alaska adventure ended in Anchorage, where Steve and I were lucky to have the opportunity to connect with old friends whom we hadn't seen in 16 years. Tim and Sharon Jackson have lived in Anchorage for a number of years so we felt privileged to have them personally show us around. Shortly after we arrived at the Anchorage train station after an eight hour ride from Denali, Tim and Sharon took us to the Crow's Nest at the Captain Cook Hotel for a glass of wine or two or more -- frankly I can't remember since we were having such a great time catching up. From the Crow's Nest, we enjoyed a panoramic view of Anchorage. Although Anchorage is Alaska's largest city with a population of 280,000, it isn't very big and you can get the whole lay of the land from the Crow's Nest.

A few days before we arrived in Anchorage, Tim had asked me if there was anything we particularly wanted to see in Anchorage. Since Steve had been craving for really fresh grilled halibut ever since we arrived in Alaska and hadn't yet had any, I told Tim that we were on a quest for halibut. The next day, after taking us on a brief tour of downtown Anchorage and Earthquake Park, Tim and Sharon took us to the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood. Since Tim and Sharon used to work at the Alyeska Resort, everyone knew them there and we were treated like family. And Steve finally got his fresh halibut. Misson accomplished!

Alyeska Resort is Alaska's most luxurious property. The grounds are gorgeous and populated with some of the largest flowers I have ever seen. But then everything is bigger in Alaska, right? After lunch, we took the tram to the Seven Glaciers Restaurant, Alyeska's Four Diamond restaurant which Tim used to manage. We got our very own private tour of the restaurant (it wasn't open for lunch) and I enjoyed hearing Tim's stories about what it takes to get and maintain the AAA Four Diamond Award. On a clear day, one can see seven glaciers from the restaurant. Since we didn't have a clear day we didn't see the seven glaciers but still managed to take a few good pictures through the patchy fog.

Our trip to Alaska had it all -- stunning glaciers, majestic mountains, wildlife sightings, inspirational moments and a visit with old friends. I know I'll be back!

More photos of Anchorage

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Historic Alaska Railroad

The Alaska Railroad is the most comfortable way to travel by land in Alaska, especially in Holland America's dome rail cars from which we got magnificent views of the stunning scenery gliding by. Given that we spent a total of 12 hours on the train (4 hours from Fairbanks to Denali and 8 hours from Denali to Anchorage), I was really happy about the wide reclining seats and ample legroom. One advantage of the train over the motorcoach is that you have the opportunity to get up and walk around which greatly decreases the size of the flat spot on your butt from sitting all day. Another advantage is the domed rail cars will allow you to not only look out but up as well; given how dramatic the landscape can be in Alaska, you really need to be able to look up as well as out in order to appreciate it. The beverage service is excellent so you can have a drink while soaking up the scenery.

I was also impressed with the dining car and the food. For breakfast I had the opportunity to try reindeer sausage which was lean (compared to pork sausage) and tasty. I also found the crab cakes surprisingly good. The dining car is directly below the domed rail car where we were seated and meals were done in two shifts in order to accommodate everybody in the rail car.

Our train conductors were amusing and would point out interesting sites along the way. One of the most intriguing landmarks was Clear at milepost 392.9, about 78 miles south of Fairbanks. Clear was originally a railroad station known as Clear Site. Now it is one of the world's three early warning ballistic missile sites (others are in England and Greenland). The 125 Air Force personnel receive overseas pay and are not allowed to have families on the base because of top security status.

The train conductors could also tell a good tale or two. When the railroad was officially completed on July 15, 1923, President Warren Harding drove the golden spike at Nenana to commemorate the event. Interesting enough, President Harding's wife and mistress both accompanied him on his trip to Alaska. A few days later, President Harding died in San Francisco and there was a lot of speculation about whether his wife killed him because she was tired of him playing around on her. Our train conductor told us that while he was telling this story to a group of passengers, one of them promptly informed him that she was President Harding's granddaughter. Although the conductor was a little embarrassed about telling this sordid tale in her presence, he did ask her if there was any truth to the story. She promptly replied, "You bet, Granny offed him."

At any rate, if you're planning to travel into Alaska's heartland, take the train! Although it can't stop on a dime to allow passengers to take photos of wildlife, it does have an outdoor viewing platform. Besides, I only saw one moose from the train and it was very fleeting. If you've got your heart set on viewing wildlife, take the Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park. Even there, there are no guarantees but your chances are a lot better. Go with the flow and keep in mind that wildlife do not make appointments with tourists.

Photos taken on and from the train

Monday, September 13, 2010

Denali National Park and Preserve

Until the 11th day of our Alaska cruisetour when we took the Tundra Wilderness Tour to Denali National Park and Preserve, we hadn't had the opportunity to see any living big game. We saw the stuffed versions at the Wildlife Display Museum at the Westmark Inn in Beaver Creek and at the Denali Visitor Center but there's nothing like the real thing. At this point in our trip, you might say we felt 'wildlife' deprived. We had all hoped to spot some big game along the road or railroad tracks as we traveled through the Yukon Territory and Alaska but it didn't happen. At one point we thought we had spotted a black bear on the highway but were vastly disappointed when it turned out to be just a "Canis lupis familiaris" or dog.

At around 2:30pm on August 3, our group of 40 hopped on the Tundra Wilderness Tour bus, which you might find a bit tight if you're particularly tall or large. Only a single road goes into Denali which leads 93 miles into the wilderness and private vehicles are only allowed on the first 15 miles in order to reduce congestion and preserve the natural resources of the park. Park service buses and commercial outfitters, however, make trips as far back as the lodgings at Kantishna at the end of the road and they carry 350,000 visitors each summer.

River White, our bus driver and trained interpretive naturalist, promised he would stop on a dime for wildlife sightings and he didn't let us down! We saw Dall sheep grazing on a steep cliff face, grizzlies feasting on soapberries (in a single day, the grizzly can eat 200,000 soapberries!), caribou roaming in the tundra and one lone moose. One caribou seemed to be blissfully unaware of the bears in a feeding frenzy below him. I thought we were very lucky to see all of these beautiful animals in one trip because believe it or not, they don't make appointments with tourists!

The National Park Service offers the following three tours of Denali:
  • The Denali Natural History Tour, a 4 1/2 to 5 hour tour 17 miles into the park

  • The Tundra Wilderness Tour, a 7 to 8 hour tour that generally goes 53 miles into the park; however, because Denali (Mt. McKinley) was visible on our tour, albeit barely, we were able to go another eight miles down the road to Stony Hill Overlook

  • Kantishna Experience, a 12 to 14 hour journey to the end of the road

The Kantishna Experience would be wonderful but a 12 to 14 hour journey in the tour bus would be a bit much. If you decide to go to Kantishna, you should seriously consider spending the night there.

More photos of Denali National Park and Preserve

A video of Mama grizzly and her cub:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

There's Gold in Them Thar Hills!

August 1 was a day jam-packed with a lot of truly Alaskan activities. As much I enjoyed my visit to Rika's Roadhouse in Delta Junction, my peek at the Trans Alaska Pipeline, and the Alaska Salmon Bake and Palace Theatre at Pioneer Park, my afternoon visit to the authentic Gold Dredge No. 8 and the El Dorado Gold Mine nine miles north of Fairbanks was the most memorable.

Our visit to Gold Dredge No. 8 began auspiciously with a hearty miner's lunch of stew and biscuits. I had worked up an appetite just thinking about gold panning and was happy to sit down to a meal. I was even happier when I was offered a dish of gold nugget ice cream, a yummy flavor made with sweet cream, caramel and toffee.

After lunch we toured the dredge. Between 1928 and 1959, 7.5 million ounces of gold were extracted from this five-deck dredge which functioned as a gigantic mechanical gold pan. So if it takes many tons of ore to produce a single ounce of gold, can you imagine how much ore was processed through this dredge over 31 years? I don't know the answer and judging by the look of the innards of the dredge, a whole lot of dirt passed through there.

We then boarded the El Dorado Gold Mine Train out to the mine where we would seek our fortune. Our conductor, Earl Hughes, provided lively commentary about this land and the lifestyle of rural Alaskan families. Along the way we saw a small miner's operation similar to those which dotted the landscape during the gold rush and traveled through a short permafrost tunnel where we saw the kinds of mineral and rock formations in which gold was most likely to be found. I'm sure glad I entered this tunnel riding a train rather than riding down in an open permafrost shaft in a tailing bucket!

At the gold camp we were met by husband and wife mining team Dexter (pictured at left) and Lynette "Yukon Yonda" Clark, who looked like they could have been plucked right out of the gold rush era one hundred years ago. They were very funny as they demonstrated prospecting, panning and placer/sluice mining. About 99.9% of recovered gold is in the form of dust, called 'fines'; a mere 1/10th of 1% is in the form of nuggets. Yukon Yonda was wearing a gold nugget necklace and to show us how a nugget is defined she dropped her gold nugget in the pan and it went 'plink'. She explained that a nugget is a piece of natural gold large enough to make a 'plink' when dropped in the pan.

At the end of the demonstration we were all given a poke of dirt and a pan to try our luck. Would I or would I not hit 'pay dirt'? There is a real technique to gold panning and I needed all the help I could get. I wasn't jiggling my pan aggressively enough because I was afraid I would lose the gold with the dirt. Lucky for me I received a little help from an experienced staff member. Unluckily, Steve and I together only collected 42 specks or 'fines' of gold. Oh how I had wanted to hear that 'plink' in the pan! We had our gold weighed and our total take was worth $18. I guess I won't be giving up my Cruise Diva position any time soon.

More photos of our golden adventure and sites in and around Fairbanks

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

You've Got to Expect the Unexpected in Alaska!

In Alaska, just about anything can happen. During our trip, it happened that the Taylor Highway, which is a 160 mile gravel road that links Eagle with the Alaska Highway near Tok, wasn't quite ready for a motorcoach full of wild travel agents. In July, heavy rain storms had washed out parts of the Taylor Highway and at the beginning of August, commercial vehicles were still not allowed to travel over it.

The initial plan was to get aboard the Yukon Queen II in Dawson City and cruise 100 miles along the Yukon River to Eagle. From Eagle, we were to travel by motorcoach along the Taylor Highway to Tok. The new plan was to hop on a plane at the Dawson Airport which Holland America had chartered to fly us from Dawson City to Beaver Creek. From Beaver Creek, we would travel by motorcoach to Tok. Although I was sorry to miss the trip on the Yukon River, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the prospect of sitting in a motorcoach for 160 miles on a mostly gravel road. So, I was happy with the change in plans and looking forward to the airplane ride.

Upon arriving at the Dawson City Airport, all 40 of us proceeded to board a Hawker Siddeley 748, an older plane of the turbo-prop variety which looked as though it could have been the plane in Casa Blanca which Rick makes Ilsa board telling her that she would regret it if she stayed, "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life." In reality, the Hawker Siddeley 748 isn't that old as it was designed in the late 1950s as a replacement for the DC-3 and is noted for taking off and landing on short runways.

The service on this short 45 minute flight was unbelievable. Our flight attendant was friendly, attentive and served us complimentary juice and snacks that rivaled anything the major airlines serve these days. And she actually appeared to like her job. What a concept!

During the flight, there wasn't much opportunity to take many good photos as the windows were too small and there was too much glare. However, I did manage to take a relatively good one of the braided White River.

I was happy that the Hawker Siddeley 748 was built for short takeoff and landings because the gravel runway at Beaver Creek Airport was only 3,745 feet long. Given that landing and taxiing to the tarmac (there is no gate) were uneventful, I was surprised to see that one of the tires was flat after I got off the plane. As I said, you've got to expect the unexpected in Alaska (and the Yukon, too).

Monday, September 6, 2010

Even a Long Ride in a Motorcoach Can Be Amusing

I know the Yukon Territory and Alaska are large land masses but I didn't appreciate how much ground we would cover on our trip until we were actually doing it. The two longest stretches that we covered by motorcoach (motorcoach, not bus) were from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Yukon (340 miles) and from Tok to Fairbanks, Alaska (206 miles). Even if the motorcoach is comfortable, the only memorable impression I generally have after a long trip in one of them is a flat spot on my butt. This trip was different because of our engaging and fun-loving tour leaders: Adam Johnson, Mike Harris, Jeannie Robertson and Micha Pauza.

Adam Johnson was our Tour Director who was incredibly organized, always had a smile on his face and was bound and determined that we not get bored. On one of our long stretches in the motorcoach, he decided that we should all participate in the Moose Migration Exercise. All forty of us were given a piece of paper and asked to write our name at the top of it. He then asked us to draw the body of a moose -- just the body, nothing more. We were then told to pass our paper to the person behind us. Adam then requested that we draw the front legs on the moose and pass the paper to the person behind us. This went on for a while and we were all doing just fine until he asked us to draw the dewlap on the moose. The what??? It was hilarious to see how many different versions of dewlap this crowd came up with. The finale was when we had to write a poem about our moose. Needless to say, we drew some pretty odd-looking moose and at the end of this exercise I was laughing so hard my sides were about to burst. To give you an idea, take a look at Colleen's Moose and Steve's Moose. My moose has both udders and antlers --- go figure!

Mike Harris was our driver/guide and had some interesting stories to tell about Alaska. I was particularly amused by his tale about dressing up in a moose costume because he wanted to be sure his guests actually saw some wildlife in Alaska. There are many more men than women in Alaska and Mike warned the women that although the odds are good, the goods are odd in Alaska. There are two seasons in Alaska: winter and construction. Did you know that if you split Alaska into three states at low tide, Texas would be the fourth largest state in the union? While in Canada, Mike entertained us with a song by The Arrogant Worms called Rocks and Trees.

Jeannie Robertson and Micha Pauza did a wonderful job telling us about all of the interesting Alaska cruisetours that Holland America offers. They are 10 to 20 days long, include a 3 to 7 day cruise, showcase different areas of the Yukon and Alaska and include accommodations from remote Alaskan lodges to luxury resorts. After taking this trip, I'm convinced that Holland America offers a cruisetour for everybody and that people will really miss a big part of Alaska's heart and soul if they choose to take the cruise only.

Here is photo that was taken by one of our guides at the Alaska/Yukon Territory border:

Answers to two questions I know are on your mind:

1. What's the difference between a motorcoach and a bus? A motorcoach has a bathroom. I used it only once and by chance I happened to choose a moment when we were bumping along on one of the roughest sections of the Alaska Highway. Let me just say that it was one heck of a wild ride back there in the toilette.

2: Dewlap: A long, round flap of skin and hair that hangs from a moose's neck.