Just returned yesterday from 20 amazing days in Alaska. Visited 5 National Parks, saw wildlife, visited family at their new home in King Salmon, much, much more. Here are some fuzzy details and recent photos of our last stop in Katmai. More when pictures get downloaded.
Arrived in Anchorage, a nice small city that began in early days of 20th century because ships could anchor in the deep water port at the end of Cook Inlet off Pacific Ocean. The original town was a filthy tent city, and was soon moved up to to the top of the bluff.
From Anchorage we took a four day trip up the highway through Wasilla to Denali NP staying first in cabins at the park entry with access to Visitors Center, and gateway tourist stuff (shops and restaurants). Highlight of the day was the sled dog demonstration by the Park Rangers. Enthusiastic is an understatement for the dogs' manner. It was a thrill to get to play with the dogs and learn about their important role in the winter patrol of the park.
Then we went to the end of the road (93 miles into the park, accessable only by park shuttle) and stayed two nights at the Backcountry Lodge. Saw wolf, 3 grizzlies, foxes, caribou, snowshoe hares, and much, much more.
Leaving the park on the Alaska Railroad Gold Star domed viewing car to Fairbanks. Slowest train ride we've ever had, departed at 3:00 pm arriving in Fairbanks at 8:45 to crawl over a distance of about 140 miles. But all for the best sightseeing.
From Fairbanks, we joined a small group - 10 of us - on a van trip up the Dalton Highway, the Haul Road built to build and service the 800-mile TransAlaska Oil Pipeline. Stopped for breaks at Yukon River crossing, Arctic Circle, and overnight in tiny town of Coldfoot. This was a workcamp for the pipeline crews, with their spartan accommodations now used for crazy tourists like us. They consist of corregated metal shipping containers lined up like a motel, with doors and windows cut in them. Mercifully panelled and ceilinged and floored and a private bath installed in a corner.
Next day crossed the Brooks Range and down the North Slope through ANWR- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Spent the night at another former work camp called Deadhorse just out the gates of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. This time the corregated container rooms are on platform sledges to be hauled out on the ice fields during winter for work duty. Toured the oil facilities and dipped a toe in the Arctic Ocean. Also saw muskoxen.
Then six of us went on by small plane to Barrow, northernmost point in US and on mainland North America. Stayed at Top of the World Hotel and visited the Inupiat Eskimo Heritage Center where schoolchildren performed native dance and music.
On the next day we enjoyed the most creative full-day tour of a TINY town you could imagine. Our native guide filled every minute of the day with all things Barrow. From the airport (the only paved space in the town) our first stop was across the street - the memorial to the plane crash that killed Will Rogers and Wiley Post. Then he announced that the next stop would be the Visitors Center, put the bus in gear and moved 8 feet to the next building (a la Mayberry "I'll drive you on over to the hotel now"). It went like this all day. We saw the high school gym and indoor pool, the blue astroturf football "Field of Arctic Dreams" built by a Jacksonville woman when she saw that they played on a gravel gridiron. Go you Whalers! Another dip in the Arctic Ocean. The town natives had just taken a 55-foot bowhead whale about three weeks ago and was still in the process of dividing it among the townpeople. Estimated at 2,000 pounds per foot, this was 110,000 pounds of whale. It will last the whole town all summerlong. They don't use refrigerators --everyone has an ice cellar cut down into the permafrost which is accessible as close as two feet underground. The only traffic light in town was installed for the elementary school crossing, and they have to disconnect it in the summer because it is the prankish thing to do to push the button for crossing and watch the car (if there happens to be one) have to stop for nothing. We loved Barrow and feel we know every inch.
Flew back to Fairbanks where we got a car for 5 days....drove the Richardson Highway through wonderful mountain passes to tiny abandoned Chitna, once the thriving service town for the copper mining going on the the Wrangell Mountains. We flew in a vintage 1948 DeHavilland Beaver into Wrangell-St. Elias NP, our largest National Park, over glaciers and seven of the ten highest peaks in US, to the abandoned Kennicott Copper Company town. Mining and milling of copper was done here until 1938 and the left-behind town is amazing. The 14-story millworks processed copper from the top, going downhill until it ended in the railcar and was whisked away to Chitna and river transport to the shipping lanes. You can tour four of the remaining buildings - the Assayer's Business Office with vaults and accounting tables, the Power Plant too big to describe, the Recreation Hall, restored and used today for programs, and a residence house for management class workers. Our hotel had been an apartment housing for middlemanagers, and most of the workers were in bunkhouses. The Visitors Center is the abandoned Company Store with product still left on the shelves when they closed - not worth the cost to them of shipping it out. The neighboring town of McCarthy, where the airstrip is, was once the nightlife district for the workers in Kennicott. Saloons, brothels and such that the Company couldn't allow. We learned of the all-too-common hardships of oppression in a company town -- workers would toil under brutal conditions for maybe $20 a week but their overpriced lodging and store needs would come to $19.50.
Next to Seward to visit Exit Glacier - you enter the park facilities and see a sign showing where the glacier face had been in 1818, then travel MILES on toward the Visitors Center noting signs for 1900, 1935, 1959 (statehood) and so on, and finally hike a 1.5 trail to the receded terminal face of today. And it is an awesome sight.
Took the full-day Kenai Fjords sealife boat trip. Glaciers, whales (orca and humpedback), otters (my favorite), seals/sea lions, birds galore. Salmon feast for lunch.
Next stop was Homer, staying at Land's End 5.5 miles out on the Homer Spit. Great sea viewing deep into the spit, also with views of volcanos across the inlet to the Alaskan Peninsula.
Drove back toward Anchorage, detouring once again through Wasilla to Talkeetna hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt.McKinley/Denali. You see, it is most always shrouded in clouds. We did manage a fleeting glance of snow-topped mountain. It's too high to describe. You can see a mountain range in the foreground that stands at 7,000 feet, and your jaw drops when you visualize Denali behind it three times that height - at 20,320.
Stopping at grocery store in Wasilla, we bought provisions to carry to cousins Julia and Tom in King Salmon. Prices there, and availability for fresh foods, are limiting. Ralph managed to pack a full case plus three more six-pack of beer to bring along, while I bought 40 lbs of produce. Alaska Airlines allows 3 checked bags per person plus the standard two carryons - FREE!!. SWEEET!
Arrived in King Salmon and visited Julia at her Fish and Wildlife Services offices, then spent the day touring greater King Salmon and a drive down the only paved road (the overstatedly named "Alaskan Peninsula Highway) for its complete course of 14 miles to Naknek on Bristol Bay. Saw an unending string of commercial fishing craft, canneries, lots of birds, and a most unusual sighting of beluga whales, about 60 in all. Next day was floatplane into Katmai NP and the bus trip to Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, remaining lands of the 1912 volcanic eruption of Novarupta- the largest volcanic eruption EVER KNOWN!
Back at the Visitor's Center we were delayed by a grizzly bear hanging out in the path, and went to the bear-viewing platform at Brooks Falls (the iconic spot where you see bears standing in the stream catching salmon as they run upstream). Alas, salmon are a few weeks away, so no bears there.
Back at Julia and Tom's we had a salmon feast that couldn't be beat, along with early birthday celebration for Ralph's 57th.
Got home yesterday to our first night of darkness. It really was light 'round the clock and hotels there haven't figured out how to cover windows to darken a room. It is quite disorienting to not be able to tell when it's midnight or morning.
We boarded a total of 13 flights on planes ranging from jet to smallprop to floatplanes. Alaska is BIG, more than BIG! A popular tourist teeshirt shows the outline of the state of Alaska with an outline of Texas shown within its borders, and says "This really pisses Texas off!"
Well, too much to tell and alot even left unsaid. It was another trip of a lifetime for us. Good to be home, but plenty more to see and do in Alaska.