Alaska (1987)

                                             Alaska and the Arctic Circle

Alaska is a great state, a beautiful country, an exciting adventure and well-worth the trip up there. Our trip began by ship, then by air, then by train and included intermediate side trips by bus, helicopter and small plane. We left from Vancouver on the Royal Princess for our first leg . . . a one week cruise up the inside passage to Anchorage.

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  By Ship  (The Princess)                                                          By Train  (The Midnight Express)                                            By Bus (Arctic Tours)

Inside Passage. The Princess is the four year old flagship of the Princess Lines and a beautiful ship. Almost the size of my old aircraft carrier, it carried 1,000 passengers and a crew of 500 and had every amenity from pools to workout rooms to a full stage nightclub for 500 guests. Each with an outside window, the staterooms were elegant and the dining, as you might imagine, was first class if not overwhelming to our diets.

We had three ports of call along the passage - Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway and were able to spend a half-day in each. In Ketchikan we visited a Klinkit Indian village known for it’s totem poles and watched them working on a couple of totems for their new tribal lodge. In Juneau, the state capital, we bussed up to the Mendenhall Glacier and took a white-water raft trip back down the mountain . . . wet and fun.

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  Mendenhall Glacier                                                                 Husky Pup and Friend                                                                     Mendenhall Glacier

Skagway was our favorite. Boned up on Jack London and other stories of the Klondike, we really felt the presence of the ghosts of the old gold rush days, many of whom landed in Skagway for their trek over the Chilkoot Pass to the Yukon River and into the Klondike. The stories of that remarkable era are worth re-reading. One series of statistics stuck with me. Of the 100,000 stampeders who set out for the Klondike in 1898, only 50,000 made it to the gold fields; of those, only 20,000 actually searched for gold (the rest provided services of one sort or another), of those 20,000 only 4,000 found gold and finally of those only 200 made their fortunes and only a handful kept their wealth to a comfortable old age. It was at Skagway, too, that we took a helicopter trip up over the Chillkoot Pass and onto a nearby glacier, where we landed and had a chance to walk (very carefully!) with a guide among the cracks and crevasses.

One very nice feature of the cruise was our ability to travel into fjords and bays into close proximity to the hundreds of glaciers which line the coast. In both Glacier Bay and College Fjord we stopped within a mile of some very large tidewater glaciers (Alaska has over 100,000 glaciers) and watched as enormous, building sized chunks of ice broke off and crashed into the sea. It was in these bays that we saw our first whales and porpoises.

Fairbanks. After relaxing and enjoyable week on the Royal Princess, we debarked at Whittier, took a train to Anchorage and flew inland to Fairbanks. Once another gold rush town, it’s now a pleasant little city of 20,000 on the banks of the Tanana River and home of the University of Alaska. We took a river cruise on a paddle wheeler owned and operated by a family which had supplied the gold miners on similar boats on the Tanana and Yukon Rivers ninety years ago. We noted with interest that all of the cabins along the river had both a boat and a float plane tied up in front of the property. (With so much space and so few roads, one in forty Alaskans owns an airplane).

We stopped along the way at an Athabaskan fishing village where we were exposed to the fur tanning and fish drying process practiced by the Indians tribal ancestors and still in use today. We also met an interesting woman, Mary Shields, a dog musher and the first woman to finish the famed Iditarod ski race. On the way to the riverboat we stopped to see the Alaskan pipeline that passes through Fairbanks on its way from the north slopes down to the tankers at Valdez. Although not that impressive at first glance, it certainly is a modern engineering miracle.

Midnight Sun Express. The train ride back to Anchorage was spectacular on the Midnight Sun Express, a private, vista-dome rail car operated by TourAlaska between Fairbanks and Anchorage with an overnight stopover at Denali Park (Alaska’s Yellowstone Park) and home of Mt. McKinley (recently renamed Mt. Denali), the tallest mountain in the U.S.

At Denali we took a six hour bus ride into the far reaches of the park in search of wildlife and were treated to sightings of caribou, moose, long-horned sheep and even a large grizzly bear walking along a mountain stream near the road. The following morning we went back into the park this time in a single engine, six seater plane which flew us over the streams and tundra we’d seen from the bus the day before and right up to the face of Mt. McKinley in all its 20,300 foot high splendor. It was a bit of a bumpy ride close to the mountain but well worth the discomfort for the unforgettable views and experience.

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  Mt. McKinley                                                                                                                                                   Kotzebue - Above the Arctic Circle

Arctic Circle. We had a day in Anchorage to get a bit of a feel for Alaska’s largest (250,000 population) city and then took off the next morning on Alaska Air for Kotzebue, Nome and the Arctic Circle. The trip across the circle was exciting. Feeding the passengers something about the ‘corona borealis’ effects at that latitude, the pilot did a little ally-oop routine with the plane as we crossed the Circle to welcome us all to the Arctic. (In fact, they sent us certificates to prove our crossing).

Nome and Kotzebue have both their size (about 3,000 people) and the fact that there were no white men there a hundred years ago in common. Nome had its beginnings in the Gold Rush and Kotzebue was a stopover for Eskimos migrating along the Bering Sea. Kotzebue is still basically an Eskimo village (with 80% of its population native) and is 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Even in late July, the days were extremely long with sunset close to midnight and sunrise shortly after 3 am For the eighty days before and after the solstice, in fact, the sun never sets. Conversely in winter, there are eighty days again when the sun doesn’t rise. The housing is make-shift and spartan and one wonders how they survive the winter. We visited a fish camp and again saw demonstrations on how to preserve fish and were even offered seal and whale meat . . . although the Eskimo kids admitted that they preferred a good cheeseburger.

We flew down to Nome for our overnight at the Gold Nugget Motel and again wondered how people could survive in such a desolate place in the Winter. We went out to a gold mining area and had a chance to pan a couple of trays of gold dirt but without results. Over one-tenth of the population of Nome still make their living by gold mining. While in Nome we heard the news about a California girl who swam the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. She had been training up to the day before in the 38 degree waters of Nome. It was the first time it had ever been done or even tried. Nome has its moment of glory every year when the famous thousand mile Iditarod dog sled race from Anchorage ends there. For the past three years the race has been won by women and you see a lot of T-shirts reading "Alaska . . . Where Men Are Men and the Women Win the Iditarod".

The economy has slowed down in Alaska since oil prices have dropped. Our cab driver in Anchorage was a driller on the north shore for five years until the cutback. When I asked why he didn’t head for another oil field, he said that Alaska was now in his blood and that he’d rather drive cab in Alaska than  work in the old fields somewhere else. With the gold rush and the oil rush now history, Alaska is waiting for the next big rush. It suspect from our experience, it could well be a tourist rush.

Two weeks in Alaska can only be a sampler . . . but from the flight to McKinley to the hike on the glacier to the visit to the Eskimos, it was sample which has only whet our appetite to go back again . . . for a longer stay and at a more leisurely pace (maybe in a camper) to really explore this last frontier of the U.S.

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