Monday, September 1, 2008

Denali - The Great Land


When I graduated from college I immediately moved to Seattle (just in time to get trapped in the explosion of Mount Saint Helens - my old T-bird still has ash in the fender wells to prove it). 

I had visited Seattle as a kid for the Worlds Fair and I was smitten. It was green and had lofty views of Mount Rainier. It had the monorail and the Space Needle. I was convinced it was the City of the future.

After living in Seattle a year or two, I also came to find out I hate grey skies and relentless, Gregorian chant quality, rain.

But it was during my brief domicile in Seattle when a series of unrelated events collided in such a way that I wound up moving to Alaska. Believe me, when I moved to Seattle, Alaska was the furthest thing from my mind. But somehow it all seemed like a good idea at the time. Alaska needed architects, the median age was 26, I was in a dead-end job in Seattle, and the pay in the Great Land was exceptional.

I can truthfully say, all things considered, it was the best decision in my life. I made friends for a lifetime, started a family, was able to travel, and was given remarkable responsibility in my profession.

Here's how my adventure started. I packed my little Mazda with what little household stuff I had, my inherited stray cat, and some cash. I then drove to British Columbia (I will save my posting about the western provinces of Canada for a later blog). From Vancouver I caught the BC ferry to Vancouver Island and drove to its Northernmost tip. There I boarded a Canadian ferry bound for Prince Rupert. In Prince Rupert I caught the Alaska Marine Highway (the state of Alaska's ferry service) and started my travels into Alaska itself. Like everyone I was stunned by the scale of the state. Everything is extreme.  An abundance of wildlife, endless mountains, glaciers, and forests. The showers in the ferry also host the planet's most indestructible strain of athlete's foot (bring nuclear powered Lysol). 

Although seemingly huge when aboard, the ferry boats are actually compact when compared to the incredible cruise ships that now ply the inside passage. So they routinely travel through the narrow little places the big ships bypass.  They are also a people watchers dream carrying people from every walk of life.  

At night you can even stretch your sleeping bag out on the astroturf top deck and sleep under the northern stars (although during Alaskan summers the sun barely sets!) The ferry I took was the venerable Malaspina and it called on Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, St. Petersburg, Skagway, and Haines. Haines is where I disembarked to connect up with the Alcan Highway. 

From the Alcan you can essentially go north or south. North to Fairbanks or south to Anchorage and the Kenai peninsula.

Many folks just take an "Alaskan Cruise" up the inside passage, look at Glacier Bay and return to Vancouver or Seattle. Sadly, they leave thinking they have seen Alaska. While a very worthwhile trip, the impression that a trip to Southeast Alaska constitutes a full Alaskan experience is dead wrong. 

First things first. If you can swing a trip to Sitka, I highly recommend it. It has a wonderful Russian Orthodox Church (actually a precise replica of the original that burned a few years back). Its trees are full of bald eagles, and, if the weather is clear, you are afforded an amazing view of Mount Edgecomb. Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka is where James Michener lived while researching and eventually writing his epic novel "Alaska".

Ketchikan is a fishing village gone tourist. If you stop there don't miss Ray Troll's Ketchikan gallery - he is Alaska's icon of offbeat salmon based art. 

Wrangell and St. Petersburg are not touristy at all, they are the real deal; serious hardworking Alaskan communities. 

Juneau, remains defiantly the state's capital, despite numerous attempts to move it to the interior of the state. Listed right up there with Istanbul (earthquake), and Mexico City (volcano), as one of the most "at risk" cities in the world (avalanche), it just keeps on plugging away in the rain and fog. Personally, I love Juneau. Its downtown clings to the side of the mountain. It has quaint bed and breakfasts and generally some of the ugliest buildings found anywhere in the world (I rest my case with the US Federal Building). 

I love it in the off season.  When I was planning Juneau's new police station I visited with my (then) 12 year old daughter. On the weekend we went to the glaciers, and then the docks to watch the fishing boats deliver king crab and halibut. My daughter sidled up to a yellow slicker clad fisherwoman and mentioned that she loved king crab. She was rewarded with an invitation to come back that night and eat our fill at the woman's very own restaurant! We fondly remember that restaurant (I think it is now the Twisted Fish restaurant). Another great place to eat was the Silverbow (for breakfast or dinner). For coffee head straight to the Heritage Coffee house. Alas I bemoan the loss of Juneau's marvelous Fiddlehead Bakery. 

Don't leave Juneau without a visit to see William Speer's gallery of custom designed cloisonne pins, they make superb souvenirs.

OK, once on the road from Haines it became apparent to me and Tess, my cat, that things were gonna be very different. The pines had disappeared and were replaced by the great interior spruce forest. Now a few things you have to know about spruce. Their roots stop at the permafrost, so they lean drunkenly. They also stink. After two attempts trying to use spruce trees for Christmas trees, we gave up, and agreed to pay whatever it cost to get a sweet scented noble fir from Seattle.

I was also not prepared for the mosquitos. I know, I know, everyone warned me, but still it was a shock.  They are huge and vicious. They eat poodles. 

At my first stop (to buy gas on the way to Anchorage), I got out to pump and noticed the drape move slightly in the window of the log structure where the gas station attendant was checking me out. Within seconds I realized I was literally covered by voracious mosquitos. Jumping and slapping, I hopped back into my car. At this point the gas guy slowly emerged trying not to laugh himself to death. I found myself cracking the car window just enough to slip the credit card out and the DEET drenched attendant finished off the job. 

The 800 miles from Haines to Anchorage were amazing.  I have never seen potholes like that before. When I left Seattle I had to jump on the hatchback to close it.  By the time I got to Anchorage (after so many lumps and bumps) everything in the car had settled to a point where I could plainly see out the rear view mirror and the cat had taken up a spread eagle perch on top of the whole mess.

I soon got settled, started to work and over the next few years grew to love the state more and more. Traveling from Point Barrow to Dillingham (and seemingly all points in between), it was always breathtaking. 

During the 21 hour days in summer I could ride my bicycle till 2 am. In winter there was snow volleyball. And moose were constant visitors in my backyard devouring any landscaping we could offer up. 

Anchorage is Alaska's largest City and is loved and reviled by the rest of the state. It is referred to "Los Anchorage", or "that big city close to Alaska".  

All I knew was it had a great trail system, and was the place where I could work by day and then go watch the incredible Cook Inlet boar tides (the second highest tides in the world). 

First stop would be to grab a burger and onion rings at the Arctic Roadrunner and then park to marvel at the white whales frolicking in the tides at Beluga Point south of town. In winter we could ski at Mount Alyeska (where else can you ski from the top of the mountain all the way to sea level!)

Anchorage, I also came to realize, has great restaurants (our favorite was Sacks - where we had our wedding reception). There was also wonderful dining at the Corsair and The Cook (locals refer to Wally Hickel's Hotel Captain Cook as simply "The Cook"). Around the corner was Simon and Seaforts with a kick-ass view.

I enjoyed many nearly forgotten dinners at La Mex on Spenard Road (where ingesting two of their huge margaritas while waiting for a table leaves one in a coma). 

There were incomparable steaks (believe it) at the dark old Club Paris. There was modern fare at Orso, and lots of Japanese food (the local favorite was Kumagoro). Darwin's Theory was where you could meet friends and grab a drink and curse local politics.

But for nightlife, there was only one Mr. Whitekeys fly-by-night club, which was going out of business in the same turtle-free environment, for nearly thirty years....The club finally did close for good on September 6, 2006.  Thank you Mr. Whitekeys for all those wonderful nights, great music, and all that spam. Night time will never be the same in Alaska.

For breakfast we loved Jackies Place. It was run by former Hawaiian's and featured serious "Local Boy" breakfasts complete with macadamia nut pancakes, spicy portuguese sausage, and rice.

Anchorage has a great fine arts and history museum, library, and a first rate downtown performing arts center.  

When your time in Anchorage is over hop on board the Alaska Railroad for a trip North through Denali (Mount McKinley) and then on to Fairbanks or South to the Kenai Peninsula (Seward, Kenai Fjords, halibut fishing, and eventually the end of the road Homer).  When we lived there you had to go through the rail tunnel to get to Whittier (the secret city and fuel reserve in WWII). Now you can drive. Progress. Sheesh. Whittier is the place to commence a flat water sea kayak adventure in Prince William Sound.

One last bit of advice about Anchorage. Do the unthinkable, go in winter. If possible go for the annual fur rendezvous. It is a party unlike any you will ever experience, a true once in a lifetime event. The bush trappers come to town with their furs. The bush villagers bring their gorgeous parkas and mukluks for judging. There is the miners and trappers ball, dog sledding, a midway, and seemingly one event after another. Mid-winter there is also a good chance to see the aurora borealis where the sky meets Dr. Timothy Leary. PETA folks, should not come anywhere near here during "Rondy!"

As for the balance of the state, plan to spend a couple of days exploring Denali Park.  If the mountain is out, you are truly blessed. The wildlife and its offspring is everywhere to be spotted. Since the only way into the park during high season is on big buses, the wildlife realize they need not hide.

In Fairbanks, plan a trip to the Chena Hot Springs. Also, don't miss the striking new museum at the University of Alaska.

Perhaps finish off the visit with a float plane trip to a fishing lodge or to the Brooks Range above the arctic circle.  

Alaska is yours to explore and I assure you, once you visit, its magic will remain a part of your soul forever.

Roadboy's Travels © 2008

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