August 27–September 17, 2008

Alaska LocationsTHE BIG PICTURE

        The Last Frontier. Land of the Midnight Sun. The Far North. Seward’s Ice Box.

        Whatever images such names conjure in your mind, there’s no denying the mystique of Alaska, something that draws one to wonder about what’s there, about why people went there and why they stayed. What is “home” that people find there? Is there more than a vast, untamed wilderness populated with wild animals, mountains and glaciers, and snow and ice as far as the eye can see? And a pipeline that runs through it all?

        We wanted to see for ourselves, so we planned a broad, overview tour of Alaska’s understandably most popular areas. We traveled by airplane, cruise ship, tour boat, train, RV, car, horseback, single-engine plane, and helicopter, plus a good share of urban walking and mountain hiking. Our itinerary took us from home to Vancouver, BC, where we began our cruise through the Inside Passage (Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and Sitka) to Whittier. In Anchorage we rented an RV and drove throughout the Kenai Peninsula (Seward and Homer) and back to Anchorage. Then we drove with friends to Fairbanks and Denali (Mt. McKinley) National Park, and back to Anchorage from where we flew home to Denver. Though we did and saw a lot in our three weeks, as you can see from the map (the red dots and lines are where we went), we left much of the state to explore on another trip.


        Judy had never been to Alaska and really wanted to go; our son, Michael, had gone with me in 1983 when I did a week of storytelling and a college mini-course in Anchorage; I looked forward to returning. Our first thought was to drive our RV, possibly combining the drive with the Marine Highway (Blue Canoes). The estimated cost with the RV on the ferry system was quite high and would require complex arrangements. Doable, but difficult—and expensive.

        As much as the images of thousands of tourists we’ve observed being disgorged from cruise ships in the Caribbean had always given us serious discomfort, we concluded that cruising the Inside Passage was the most economical and, in the end, the most restful and perhaps the most enjoyable way to see the towns, the glaciers, the wildlife, and the landscape of southeast Alaska. Besides, we’ve never taken a cruise and most people we talked with said we’d enjoy it.
Cruise Ship
        Well, we did.

        We chose the Carnival “Spirit” for the timing of the trip, the ports of call, and the low fare. The information we were able to dig up led us to believe, in general, that Alaska cruise ships go to the same ports (Sitka is not on every itinerary), offer the same entertainment, same food, same services, have the same accommodations, and are probably owned by the same parent company. The Carnival Spirit is big and one of the longest cruise ships to run the Inside Passage. It has 12 decks, a staff of over 900 (which speaks up to 60 languages) who serve just over 2100 passengers, though we were not full. A daily schedule of dozens of on-board activities—contests, games, lectures, movies, dancing, special sales, to say nothing of the swimming pools, spas, casinos, drinking, and shopping, all designed to keep passengers from being bored while “confined” to the ship—was announced daily in the newsletter delivered to the room each evening.

        We had a splendid time. We we may have eaten a little too much too often (at least I did); we scheduled 6:30 am room service “pre-breakfasts” (coffee, juice/fruit, lox and bagels, or something similar) each morning, then Judy ran her five miles while I rode a stationary bike and played with the exercise equipment. We’d have breakfast before leaving the boat for tours on shore. While on board, we attended excellent lectures by the ship’s biologist/naturalist, watched great live musical entertainment each night, ate outstanding dinners served up by young Paul, our very entertaining hotshot waiter from Peru (he had a few card tricks and remembered our names and special preferences from the first night on!). We had two days entirely “at sea” including the last day when we sailed through Prince William Sound to view dozens of glaciers up close.

Ketchikan, Alaska        As much as we enjoyed our time on board, we spent all the time we could off the ship when we pulled into one of the four ports on the itinerary. The four shore excursions will be what we will remember most from our week on the Inside Passage.

        •Ketchikan. We had booked a flight with Family Air Tours to fly us over and through Misty Fiords National Monument and the Tongass National Forest, the largest of our country’s National Forests. After a brief walk around the small town of Ketchikan as soon as we left the ship, we hooked up with Dave Rocke, a very congenial fellow who would fly us and two others (a fellow from Seattle and his son) in his single-engine Cessna 183 for a three-hour flight south of town over Revillagigedo Island into areas where only boats and small planes can reach. The weather for the flight was the kind the Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce dreams of. In fact, Dave said it was one of the five sunny days they’ve had all year. In our fly-over we saw densely forested islands and deep fiords, ice fields and snow covered jagged peaks that were too tall (over 4,000') to be ground down by the glaciers, and fresh water lakes, some with thick muskeg and teeming with trout and salmon. Dave set the plane down on one of the lakes so we could stretch our legs and poke around briefly. On the return flight we saw eagles, bears, and Dall sheep, those snow white, sure-footed daredevils that hang precariously to the mountainsides. This was an excellent trip and we enjoyed the scenery and Dave’s commentary throughout.

        In the afternoon, we made our way to Creek Street, the former red-light district that’s been done over for tourists with trendy shops that sell souvenir clothing, salmon, shot glasses. We’re sorry we spent any time there at all. We walked to the other end of town to the Totem Heritage Museum that houses relics and historical photos of Haida and Tlingit villages that were abandoned in the 19th century. The totems displayed were badly rotted, but the history in the photos was worth the visit: a real glimpse of native village life at the time of contact with Europeans. On the way back to the ship we walked along the Ketchikan River, so thick with spawning salmon you could almost walk across without getting your feet wet.
Fly Over Misty Fiords
        We agreed we don’t need to see Ketchikan again. It’s small enough to walk most of the town and see the same jewelry, salmon, jade, tanzanite, clothing, and diamonds that are found at each of the ports, as well as on board the ship (the cruise line operates many of these stores). A notable exception in Ketchikan’s retail line-up is a “chain,” called the Tongass stores: one for business supplies, for hardware, and for sporting goods. These are “real” stores like we’d like to have in our town, stores that remind us that real people live here year round and are not part of the cruise ship line-up of phony retail opportunities. If the cruise ship industry should by-pass Ketchikan, only salmon fishing would survive to support the town (as it did originally).

        •Juneau. Before we left home we had made arrangements for a helicopter trip and hike on the Juneau Icefield through NorthStar Trekking. When we arrived in Juneau, the clouds were low and there was a light rain/drizzle. We were not sure if we would make the trip because of the weather. However, we got picked up on time at the Red Dog Saloon (a downtown landmark of unearned reputation as a really “hot” place to visit on a Saturday night) and driven to the Juneau airport where we, along with four others, switched into ice hiking gear and climbed aboard the small helicopter. Our trip up the Mendenhall Glacier and beyond to the icefield itself was smooth and the views breathtaking. It simply didn’t last long enough.

        We landed at a semi-permanent camp where we met our guide, Dulcie, who led us on a tour of the icefield’s surface, which not only featured deep crevasses but to our surprise, lots of rivers crisscrossing what we thought would be a smooth surface. Shortly after we started out, she told us to empty the bottled water we were given with our gear and refill our bottles with running glacier water. We both tasted the bottled water before we emptied them and found the glacier water much sweet and more refreshing.
        The weather on the icefield was sunny and warm, especially bundled, as we were, into windproof pants and jacket on top of our regular clothing. The boots and crampons both helped us move safely on the slick surface, but took some getting used to. You can’t drag your feet. We hiked for about an hour, leaping across rivers and ice cracks and taking lots of pictures.

        After the hike, we shared a table with fellow icefield trekkers Kelly and Pam at The Hanger, a bit of a “joint” that lived up to its stellar reputation as a place for outstanding fish and chips with cold Alaska Amber on tap (recommended by both the NorthStar staff and Fodor’s as a “not-to-miss” eatery in Juneau). It was relaxing and refreshing, as well as tasty, after our afternoon on the ice.

        We returned to the ship for dinner (though we were not particularly hungry) then left again to mail postcards and pay a visit to the much-publicized Red Dog Saloon. After all, it was Saturday night. We walked into the Red Dog about 8:30 and thought we’d mistakenly found the Juneau morgue: There were six or seven dour looking folks sucking on longnecks at the bar waiting for something to happen. We don’t think it was going to. What a bust!

        •Skagway. The “good” weather followed us to Skagway: no rain, low clouds, and a bit cooler, but still fine weather for this part of the country at this time of the year. This seemed the most “authentic” town we’d visited so far. It has not been completely bought out by the cruise lines: stores have “real” merchandise in addition to souvenirs; there is a good deal of native art alongside the tanzanite and “mystic topaz” stuff. We walked throughout the small town: neighborhoods where the year round folks live, along the main street shops, through the town museum with its emphasis on gold rush history along with native arts. (Most of the town is part of the Klondike National Historic Park; the National Park Service hosts daily walking tours of the area.) The landscape of the narrow valley shadowed by sharp peaks on three sides away from the harbor seems very reminiscent of areas of Colorado, New Zealand, and Switzerland, except for the ocean, of course.
        The fabled Chilcoot (or Chilkoot) Pass (known to every Alaskan schoolchild and made famous most recently by its depiction on Alaska license plates) originated at the nearly deserted town of Dyea just a few miles away from Skagway. Crossing the pass was a terrible trek for unprepared “stampeders” from the lower 48 to make in their mad rush to the Yukon River and the Klondike on the other side. It was called “the 32 meanest miles in the world.”  Only one in ten who set out up the trail made it to the other side. Nearby White Pass was also treacherous, but when the railroad was soon built over the original wagon road in 1898, Chilcoot Pass was abandoned to the folklore of Alaska history as a symbol of the true hardships men, women, children, and animals suffered to get from the ocean to the Yukon River and the gold fields near Dawson and beyond. (The tragedy was, of course, that by the time most folks got there, the best claims were long taken and most of the survivors of the original Chilcoot Pass trek were to be disappointed and out of luck.)

        We had booked passage on the four-hour train ride to the top of White Pass on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad and had good weather and a comfortable ride. We never saw Chilcoot Pass, though we suspect it looks a lot like the White Pass road.

        [Note: The town of Haines (population about 2,500) lies just across the inlet from Skagway, though the towns are not visible to each other and no road connects them. Outside Magazine named Haines as one of the top 10 places to live if you didn’t have to make a living. We’ve enjoyed Heather Lende’s If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name (Algonquin, 2005), which paints a vivid and loving portrait of this scenic town. We’ll be sure to go there if we ever drive north.]
Totem Pole in Sitka
        •Sitka. Our first rainy day—the first of many to come—but our spirits were high because we were looking forward to a tour with Dave Lubin aboard his sturdy Esther G. south along the inlets and jagged coastline and out into Sitka Sound in search of humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, and other sea life. A little rain would not dampen our spirits.

        Because of the shallow port area, not all cruise ships stop at Sitka and those that do anchor offshore and shuttle passengers to and from the big ships. We used the morning to walk to the top of Castle Hill, where the Russians officially turned Alaska over to the USA and remained its first capital for a short while. We walked through the town of 8,000 that seemed to defy the cruise line image: there were fewer glitzy tourist stores and they were mixed in with Radio Shack and MacDonald’s; St. Michael’s Cathedral  (Russian Orthodox) stood proudly in the center of town; it was built in 1862, destroyed by fire in 1966, and rebuilt soon thereafter. Sitka’s Pioneer Home, now a facility for seniors, stands out at the port entrance to town, and Sheldon Jackson College only recently suspended their academic programs.

        We walked to the “end” of town to Sitka National Historic Park where we strolled along the short but beautiful Totem Trail through the dense forest of Sitka spruce and western hemlocks to the site of the Battle of 1804 where the Russians were, briefly, held off by defiant Tlingits in a decisive battle that gave Russia, at least in their minds, control of all Alaska. The totems placed throughout the dense forest are from other abandoned native villages. A totem carver and a silversmith were at work in the visitor’s center studios.
Louis, Davey and Judy
        We met Dave Lubin and his poodle, Louie, on schedule at the main pier in town. The other couple who was scheduled to be on the trip canceled at the last minute (Davey was told they had “a rough go of things the night before”) so we had Davey and Louie and the Esther G to ourselves for the next 34 hours. We cruised south from Sitka through a labyrinth of inlets and islands in search of sea otters (we saw a few), seals (we saw many groups), and sea lions (some were just off shore from the pier), eagles (lots in some areas), and jellyfish (hundreds in an area of confluence of fresh and sea water). Then we headed out into “the zone” in Sitka Sound eight to ten miles off shore where we saw half a dozen humpback whales up close. We considered it a successful trip, not to be missed. We especially enjoyed Dave Lubin’s knowledgeable and passionate commentary on the history of the area and the respect he has for the area’s environment.

        We returned to the Spirit for a rest, a fine dinner, and an early evening getaway that would take into fairly rough seas that continued throughout the night. The musical revue planned for that evening was canceled for the safety of the dancers!

        •The Glaciers of Prince William Sound. Our last day and night of the cruise were spent at sea. Because the ship continued to “rock and roll” a bit, Judy decided not to risk running on a wet deck. Later in the morning the sun finally showed itself, but not for long. The drizzle kept us indoors and we focused on the several tasks in preparation for disembarking first thing in the morning.

        During the dinner hour we passed into the College Fjord Glaciers area. We cruised by the Vassar, Smith, and other glaciers until finally nosing slowly up to the Harvard Glacier as close as a huge vessel can come and still be able to turn around. It would have been spectacular on a sunny day!


        [Note: One of our first purchases to help plan our trip was the latest copy of The Milepost, which describes in great detail every item of even passing interest along every mile of roads not only in Alaska but on main roads leading to Alaska through Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories, though the Canadian sections are less detailed. At  $27.95 (you can usually get a 30% discount through this is a must-have resource for anyone who gets behind the wheel of any vehicle (or is a passenger in a vehicle). It also includes information about the Alaska Marine Highway (Blue Canoes) and other ferries along the coast, and the Alaska Railroad. This 800-page volume offers suggested itineraries both getting to and while driving in Alaska, and includes useful phone numbers, addresses, email and websites for facilities throughout the region. Buy it before you go as a planning resource and, as they used to say—and it’s even truer with The Milepost—Don’t Leave Home Without It.]
Judy Running in Seward
        •Seward. We left the cruise ship in Whittier in a downpour and rode the bus an hour to Anchorage and Great Alaskan Holiday where we picked up our home for the next eight days: a 28’ Winnebago. We headed straight for Seward, shopped at the local Safeway for a few days of groceries, and spent the night at the city campground on the shore of Resurrection Bay. The spectacular setting would have been enhanced only by sunny weather: the snow covered peaks across the water emerged from wispy clouds to nearly 4000' above the bay. Behind us was the town and above it Mount Marathon, the site of a July 4th run we missed by nearly two months. Dinner at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant at the boat harbor was excellent: fresh baked salmon, fish and chips, and, best of all, seafood chowder. As we walked, after dinner, along the paved path that skirts the waterfront, we watched a lone sea otter as he floated on his back chomping on his dinner of shellfish he’d brought up from the bottom. It was quite a show, one we’d enjoy the next morning as well.

        Judy ran along the waterfront after the early morning rain finally stopped. That morning we arranged for an all-day boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park for the next day, and then drove a few miles out of town to hike to Exit Glacier that “flows” from the massive Harding Icefield. The Exit Glacier is one of the few glaciers accessible by car. The trail to the side and toe of the glacier is a short two-mile walk, and we appreciated the chance to see a glacier that close. On the way back to Seward we selected a place to spend the night parked in a large pullout on the Exit Glacier road.
Tour Ship
        [Note: Alaskans and visitors both take advantage of highway pullouts to park for a night. As long as there is not a “No Camping” sign and the road is in the National Forest, such parking is permitted and, apparently, as safe as parking in a Wal-Mart lot.]

        When we returned to Seward, we spent the afternoon walking through the town, mailed a few postcards, then finished the day at the Alaska Sealife Center, a marvelous facility for seeing and learning about wildlife native to Resurrection Bay. There are excellent exhibits of sea birds (puffins, ducks, etc.) mammals (sea lions, seals, and sea otters) and fish of all sorts. It is a zoo, of course, but all the animals were found either injured or abandoned and will live out their lives in the Center.

        •Kenai Fjords National Park. We had planned an all-day cruise along the coastline of this incredible national park with the Kenai Fjords Tours, one of at least three tour companies operating out of Seward. The experience was excellent: the opportunity to see the scenery, the wildlife, and the glaciers was all outstanding. The commentary by Dan Olson, Captain of the Misty (see photo on right) and a graduate of Boulder’s Circus Center (!), was informative and always interesting. We were comfortable and dry, except when we chose to venture outside during one of the many periods of rain that day.

        We cruised south out of Resurrection Bay, stopped by Fox Island to drop off some day hikers on the other side of the Bay, skirted the Gulf of Alaska, rounded Aialak Cape, passed through Granite Passage, and sailed into Northwestern Fjord. Along the way we saw Stellar sea lions who lolled on rocks incredibly high above the water line (Unlike seals, sea lions have long front flippers which permit them to climb, with some effort, high on rocks; seals don’t have the physical make-up to match sea lions.); sea otters, like our friend at the Seward waterfront; harbor seals that littered ice chunks fronting glaciers;  Dall’s (or Dall) porpoises (named for the same William Healey Dall, the American naturalist who gave his name to the rock-hugging sheep of Alaska); great numbers of both tufted and horned puffins, which we’d seen up close at the SeaLife Center the day before; and humpback whales that Capt. Dan steered us toward as they were spotted (no breaching, but flukes and diving).
Kenai Fjords Glacier
        When we finally entered Northwestern Fjord, we glided past several smaller glaciers along the side of the fjord and nosed slowly through a field of icebergs/ice chunks that grew larger and carried more seals as we approached the Northwestern Glacier. Capt. Dan nosed us into the face the glacier so that we could begin to grasp the massive size and height of the ice. It did calve a few times, but too quickly to catch a picture of the event. The low lying clouds, claimed Capt. Dan, was of great benefit to our enjoyment of the trip since, he said, as more animals come out in non-sunny weather and the glacial ice always appears bluer. So he said.

        [Note: We should not have been as surprised as we were to learn that Capt. Dan lived in Boulder one summer and had put his bike on an RTD bus and headed for Nederland for some high country mountain biking. Between Judy’s running and my “Boulder Race Series 2003” baseball hat, we talked with many folks throughout our trip who knew Boulder, the Bolder-Boulder 10K, and nearby Nederland. Among travelers, the world is small and personal connections are easily made.]

        •Homer. We spent the next night at Quartz Creek Campground, near Cooper Landing. This lovely campground is located where the Kenai River flows into Kenai Lake (take your choice of a lakefront or riverfront site). Judy got up for a pre-breakfast run and I walked down to the lakefront where I discovered a large group of people assembling for a rowing regatta with teams from Anchorage, Seward, and the Kenai competing on a triangular course on the lake. We stayed for a few races and then pulled out mid-morning for Soldotna (groceries and gas [$4.44/gallon] at a Fred Meyers store. The gas pump there is programmed to restrict pumping more than $125; we could not fill up the RV!); Kenai (a charming Russian church still standing and a great visitor’s center, but little else to make us want to linger); and south through Kasilof (where is town?); Clam Gulch (more razor clams than people); Ninilchik (a retirement village for Russian settlers with a very picturesque Orthodox church and cemetery—see photo); Anchor Point (not much there); and finally to our destination: Homer.
Russian Church
        We drove straight through the small town and out onto the famous Homer Spit, four miles of paved road atop glacial moraine that has drawn fishermen, hippies, and folks just looking for the end of the road (see photo below). By this time, Labor Day had come and gone, and many businesses and charters had closed for the season or had curtailed services. Captain Pattie’s, noted by locals and some travel guide gurus for great chowder made with razor clams, was open and we gave it a try. (The chowder was, to be generous, only so-so. We were to have the best chowder of our trip a few days later at The Sourdough Express just off the Spit in town: fresh pastries, breads, and sandwiches, as well as great chowder.) We spent the night in the city’s Karen Hornaday Memorial Park above the town, which offered some protection from the wind and rain.

        [Note: Our best advice: Don’t come to Alaska before June 1 or after Labor Day. Yes, there will be more visitors and traffic, but all businesses will be up and running—and the prices will be the same. Plus, it will be drier!]

Homer, Alaska        The next morning we read the Sunday paper and drank our coffee in the Safeway parking lot, waiting for the Pratt Museum to open at 10:00. The Pratt has excellent displays—videos as well as art, photos, and artifacts—of native history, sea life, the Exxon oil spill, and other aspects of life around Homer and Kachemak Bay. The docent at the adjoining pioneer cabin was entertaining as well as informative. All in all it was time well spent. The few art galleries open were worth the visit, as was a heath food store on the main street.
        Our intention to camp on the Spit for the next few nights got off to a bumpy (and expensive) start when I got the RV stuck in a very soft/sandy parking area of an RV park. After a fellow camper and two passers-by tried to help dig or pull me out, it took Big Alaska Tow’s powerful winch to pull it out. After that we settled for dry camping on firmer ground at the town campground on the Spit. After settling in at last, Judy went for a run toward town along the Spit (about four miles round trip). Afterward, we paid a visit to the “famous” Salty Dawg Saloon to check out the thousands of dollar bills tacked to the walls and ceiling of this smokehouse masquerading as a bar. Like the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau, the establishment’s reputation far outshines the reality. Don’t bother unless you need a second hand smoke fix.

        The next day we had a date with Mark Marette, the only cowboy for 1,000 miles and, according to Dana Priest of the Washington Post (August 3, 2008), the last of the Marlborough men. As it turned out, she was not far off. We had called him a few days before to set up a most-of-the-day trail ride along the upper reaches of Kachemak Bay.

        Mark’s place is about eleven miles north and east of Homer. We were at his place by 8:30 in the morning along with another couple, jumped in his pickup with a horse trailer in tow, and headed further on until the pavement ended and the road took a serious descent down to the shoreline. Mark parked at a Russian Church at the top of that hill and we rode our horses down and onto the shoreline toward the head of the Bay. We crossed several streams feeding into the Bay (some too deep to keep our feet in the stirrups) and passed by several “Russian” villages and homesteads. Mark explained that these Russians were believers in the “old religion” and were relatively new immigrants to Alaska (unlike those who are descendants of the original Russian settlers or immigrants fleeing Russia in the early 20th century for political reasons.) These new immigrants keep themselves separate from other Alaskans, have their own schools, speak Russian as their first language, and maintain, as much as possible, their cultural distinctions.
Hughes and Judy on Horses
        We rode about five miles to a place once homesteaded by a group of what Mark referred to as “Barefooters,” a religious sect called the Fountain of the World who originated in California led by Krishna Venta who was killed by outraged/jealous husbands of sect members in 1958. (I remember the newspaper articles when I was growing up in Ventura County in southern California.) Some of his followers, including his “wife,” Ruth, had come to homestead this attractive isolated area to live off the land (and keep their feet bare as they had in SoCal, apparently.) They sort of dissolved following Krishna Venta’s murder and the land returned to the state. (More information about the sect can be found at, if that gives you any idea about the nature of the group in its day.) We stopped there for a picnic lunch. On the way back, the trail passed through a woodsy area with a distinctive odor: the horses and Mark, then the rest of us caught the scent. Mark leapt off his horse, drew his six-shooter and dashed into the woods yelling, “Bear! Bear! Bear!” (to scare the bear, not call it out—or maybe part of the show). What he found was the carcass of a moose that most likely had been killed and eaten, in part, by a bear. We verified the recent presence of a bear by very fresh prints in the mud on the trail.

        [Note: While I found Mark’s name and recommendation in the Washington Post article by Dana Priest online, he’s also listed in Frommer’s Alaska  complete with phone number and address. I would have saved myself a lot of research time if I had checked Frommer’s in the first place. Their books are consistently one of the very best and most reliable travel guides to anywhere among the many that are available.]

        Weather and the calendar put a crimp in our plans for staying in Homer. We had hoped to visit Seldovia and Halibut Cove across the Bay, perhaps do some sea kayaking and/or charter fishing for halibut or salmon (are there two more delicious fish in the world than halibut and salmon?). But tourist businesses—maybe the whole town—had pretty well shut their doors for the season. We settled for a visit to the laundromat, dinner at The Sourdough Express, a shower in the RV, and an earlier start to our return trip across the Kenai to Anchorage.
Russian River
        •Return to Anchorage. On our return to Anchorage we set out to see some moose and/or bear in their natural surroundings by driving the Skilak Lake Loop Road, 16 miles of pretty good gravel that parallels the Sterling Highway through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge between Sterling and Cooper Landing. It is claimed that his area is one of the highest moose-vehicle collision areas for a rural highway in the state. We drove slowly, as fast a conditions allowed, but we saw only three other cars and little else. No moose, no bears, no deer, no elk, no nothing. That night we camped at the Russian River National Forest CG, a campground where bears are attracted by the salmon in the river. In the morning we hiked a few miles up the river to the cascades to watch salmon hurling themselves with unbelievable strength and persistence up the rocks against the force of the river to return to their original spawning area. (Yes, there really are silver salmon in the water headed upstream!) There were no bears or eagles to contend with, just the incredible force of the water that no human could stand against.

        Since we had tried our best to see big wildlife and failed, the next day we got to the end of the Sterling Highway (that runs between Homer and the Seward Highway) and stopped to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a  140-acre animal park with both black and brown bears, caribou, moose, musk oxen, wood bison, elk, Sitka black-tailed deer, and eagles. It has the look and feel of a drive-through zoo, but each of the animals has been orphaned or injured and is there for rehabilitation. There is a token admission fee to support their efforts and well worth a visit.
        Alyeska Ski Resort is in Girdwood, a small, cheerless town that hasn’t seemed to benefit at all from being home to a beautiful resort facility, an aerial tram in the off-season, a pleasant hiking trail through a dense rainforest (the Winner Creek Trail), Senator Ted Stevens’s remodeled and updated vacation home, and proximity to Anchorage 37 miles away. There are the usual tourist traps, including The Great Alaskan Tourist Trap (“located next to the Ice Cream Shop”). That says it all.  Unless you ski, or want to pay lot of $$ to hang out in a beautiful and expensive resort, you can drive close by and never miss anything.

        We spent the night in the worst campground in the huge Chugach National Forest: Bird Creek. And they charge for it! The redeeming feature is its location on a paved bike/running path that goes along six miles of the shore of Turnagain Arm. Judy enjoyed that, but the dirt road through the campground has pot holes into which even a 28' RV could disappear. And use a bathroom somewhere else before you get there; the outhouse facilities are rank! Even the campground host doesn’t go into them.


        We had planned our trip to meet up with old friends from our early marriage years in Boston who live in Anchorage but were going to be on a trip back to Michigan until Labor Day. We would get together with them and spend our last days in Denali. When we turned in the RV the morning after Bird Creek CG, Bob picked us up, took us to lunch and then to their house on Government Hill that overlooks the city and Ship Creek. In the afternoon we visited the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center for an excellent docent-led overview of the settlement of the city from the earliest native peoples, the Russians, whalers, and the gold rush to the coming of the railroad, the military in WW II and statehood in 1959. Alaska artists are also on display along with dioramas and photography. We shopped the downtown native art shops until dinner.
Eklutna, Alaska   
        [Note: The city was established as a railroad construction site in 1914 for the Alaska Railroad, which was built between 1915–1923.  Its original name was Ship Creek Landing. It was incorporated in 1920 as Anchorage with a population of about 1,850. By 1950 there were about 11,000, in 1960 44,000, and in 1990 there were over 225,000 residents. Today there are over 260,000 people representing many different ethnic groups: nearly 100 different languages are spoken by students in the Anchorage School District.]

        We left the next morning for Denali, stopping a short way out of town at the Athabascan Village of Eklutna, home to the Eklutna Historical Park. This small area is dominated by St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church and traditional, colorfully painted spirit houses marking the graves of both native and a few non-native people. Michael and I had visited this site 25 years earlier and it had stuck in my mind as a unique and memorable cemetery.
Road to Hatcher Pass
        Continuing north, we took a side route over Hatcher Pass, a former mining area surrounded by rugged alpine scenery north of Wasilla and Palmer. The isolated road is much like it was when mining was in its heyday: a narrow, bumpy, gravel road with switchbacks and potholes, though there are some paved areas and scenic turnouts. It follows Willow Creek to the town of Willow on the Parks Highway. The views were scenic as we hda heard, the birches were turning golden, and the surrounding peaks were touched with a light sprinkling of termination dust.

       We changed plans regarding our stay in the Denali area and continued on to Fairbanks for the night. We briefly stopped to pick some blueberries along the way (the blueberry bushes stretched for miles on either side of the road); we passed Wall*Mike’s and Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn without stopping except for a snapshot for our records. We looked hard for the mountains as we passed the entrance to Denali Park, but the clouds were low and the rain was light but steady, and we knew that the weather would have to change for us to take any advantage at all of really seeing the landscape of this area.

        [Note: The National Park Service closes much of the park to visitors in early September (the exact date varies a little from one year to another). This year, limited access by shuttle bus began September 12, the day we were scheduled to arrive. Visitors are free to hike and bicycle beyond Savage River, but the rest of the 80+ miles is unavailable [most of the year]. This is another good reason to plan a trip to Alaska between Memorial Day and Labor Day. There is a 3-4 day period after the Park closes up in early September when, by lottery, individuals may drive private cars as far as the end of the road, weather permitting. For information about road closings, lottery permit procedures, any reservations, and schedules, visitors should check out Denali Park’s website. Better yet, it’s worth a phone call (907-683-2294) to get the latest and most accurate information.]
Judy, Hughes, Ron
       The weather had lifted enough on our return to Denali NP that just a few short miles into the Park we caught our first and only glimpse of 20,320' Mt. McKinley (Denali), the highest point in North America. Because of fickle, unpredictable weather, most visitors don’t have that opportunity—and our view didn’t last for long. We pulled over and took lots of pictures while we had the chance. While they don’t match the postcard photos or ones taken from a fly-over, we were satisfied. As we pushed on to Savage River, the end of the road open to us, we were in awe of the fall colors and the rugged landscape. We would certainly welcome the opportunity to return mid-summer for a longer period of time to enjoy the wildlife (we did spot a lone moose crossing the river and watched a family of ptarmigans on our hike along the river), the pristine scenery hiking in the backcountry, and the chance to camp in one of the five established campgrounds or backpacking to a place of our own. Reservations are key, as the park is the most popular attraction in the state. The park is huge (approximately 6 million acres, about the size of New Hampshire) and the 85-mile park road offers views of only a fraction of what’s there. We’ll plan to fly over the park on a future visit.

       That same afternoon, we met up with Ron Holloway, a classmate I was friends with in junior high but who had moved away our freshman year in high school. He had missed our 50th reunion last year but he had been tracked down living in Alaska. I had his cell phone number and we got in touch with each other and arranged to meet after 54 years! Ron had done a number of things in his life—radio, police work, and resort management among others—and was now driving a tour bus throughout Alaska and the Yukon! After over half a century, our reconnecting was easy, as though the years melted away. We spent part of an afternoon near the entrance to Denali getting caught up on each other’s lives since going to school in Ojai, California in the mid-1950s. We later had dinner together with him and his wife, Barbara, a long-time resident of Alaska. We wished we’d had more time with them both. Like revisiting Denali NP more thoroughly on a future trip, we’ll be sure to spend more time with them.

        Upon our return to Anchorage, our last days were filled with downtown shopping (Judy found a lovely carved sea otter fetish carved from a walrus tooth as her memory token of the trip); visits to the Botanical Gardens (where everything was damp and little was full flower) and Potter’s Marsh south of town for wildlife viewing (lots of salmon, some muskrats, a few ducks, but no signs of bear or moose!) followed by a short walk along Turnagain Arm. Judy ran each day along an urban section of the Anchorage Bike Path, a series of connected paved paths throughout the city.

        On our final day Bob drove us to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, an outstanding “living museum” about the various native groups. We took a guided tour of the six traditional village settings, watched dancers, viewed exhibits and demonstrations of traditional crafts, and talked with native artists working and selling their work. This was a sampling of Alaska’s native cultures that exceeded our expectations and should not be missed by any visitor to Anchorage.

Mt McKinley

        On our foreign trips we know we only saw and experienced a tiny fraction of a country or area within a country. Though we spent weeks in Italy, Australia, Tanzania, and other wonderful places, we saw only a small portion of each country and realize there was much we didn't get to know. The same is true of Alaska. Much of the state is difficult to get to, requiring much more driving—better yet, flying. (Imagine placing a map of Alaska on top of the continental 48 states: Alaska would stretch nearly from coast to coast, from border to border!) What we did see filled our senses (and cameras) with images that were larger than life: the mountains, the wildlife, the glaciers, the fjords, the water, the spaciousness, the quiet. It was an amazing three weeks.

        Yet we are humbled by how much we didn’t experience, enough so that we look forward to the possibility of returning. There is so much more to see in this world, we regret we did not start our travels earlier in life.

Judy and Hughes Moir
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