John Clark bringing you along on a trip Beth and I took over the Fourth of July to Alaska. When we went on our Canadian Rockies by rail tour in 2015, we met many people who were combining it with an inland passage cruise and a tour of Alaska.
Fast forward two years and we were ready to see Alaska ourselves. Finances made the inland passage portion prohibitive, so we booked a ten day tour starting in Fairbanks with stops in Denali, Seward, Homer and Anchorage. The adventure really started at La Guardia Airport in New York. After flying from Bangor, we had a several hour layover that turned into a real life edition of “Let’s Make A Deal.” It was July 1st and Delta must have overbooked every flight leaving that airport. Beth and I were amazed at how much the airline was offering in gift cards to passengers willing to be bumped and placed on a later flight. It topped out at $1300.
The next interesting part was the flight from Minneapolis to Fairbanks. Our plane was outfitted with video screens that included a moving map as we flew over the Dakotas, western Canada and Alaska. We could also see our altitude, ground speed and the external temperature-at one point, a balmy -56 degrees. The scenery, even from 39,000 feet, was spectacular. We could really understand why parts of North Dakota are called the badlands and as we passed over British Columbia and a sliver of the Yukon, it was endless mountains with Denali poking a couple thousand feet above clouds as we made our approach to Fairbanks.
We had a great tour guide in James and an excellent bus driver in Robert. Both had been doing tours for years. James was extremely funny and enthusiastic. His dad is a retired Anchorage police officer and he regaled us with several stories including the time Dad and his partner fielded a prowler call that turned out to be a moose in a very small back yard. The more experienced officer lost it, emptying his service revolver very quickly. He shot the house four times and a glancing bullet knocked out the moose. Another equally funny story involved a different officer who was an avid hunter, but had never bagged a wolverine. When he answered a dead animal call, it was a large male wolverine. Instead of contacting animal control, he put it in his trunk. Yup, the critter wasn’t dead, just stunned and by the time three police officers had tried twice to shoot it in the trunk, its value as a taxidermy item was destroyed and the repairs to the trunk cost $8,000.
We enjoyed two adventures in Fairbanks. We took a narrow gauge train to Gold Dredge #8. This was a floating barge-like vessel that systematically scooped up giant gobs of gold bearing gravel after the surface soil was blasted away by high pressure hoses. It dredged an entire valley before being retired. We were shown how to pan for gold and found $22 worth of flakes between us. There’s a nice combined gift shop and museum there as well. Next was a ride on the sternwheeler Tanana Chief on the Chena River near our cabin with stops at the dog training kennel run by Susan Butcher’s daughter. She talked to all 300+ people on board about what goes into training. A short distance from there, we chatted by radio with a bush pilot who took off and landed beside us a couple times. His plane which you see in the photo, was abandoned in someone’s yard with weeds growing through it. He rebuilt it a number of years ago and it flies perfectly. In fact, he said the most preferred bush planes date from the 1930-50 era as they’re simple and durable. The ride included a visit to a recreation of an Athabascan village, complete with talks by some very talented young people from the tribe about how their ancestors lived in such a village. Note the amazing detain in the fur parka. It took six months to make.
We spent the next two nights in almost new rooms overlooking the Nenana River. The Alaskan Railroad ran high above us on the other side and James told us that this state owned railway provides passenger service during the summer and runs freight during the rest of the year. Because they hit moose frequently, the railroad has a call list of Alaskan citizens who are willing to pick unlucky critters. We upgraded to go on the longer bus trip into Denali and it was well worth it. We saw black and grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep, moose, eagles and stunning back country scenery. We were also fortunate to have a bus driver who was passionate about the park and had an excellent eye for spotting wildlife.
On our way from Denali to Seward, we passed the small town of Cantwell which sprung up as a result of the railroad being built. They sell a t-shirt that says ‘You Can’t Hide in Cantwell’. It got its start because there was one bar in town and it had the only reliable TV service. Apparently, reality TV shows and America’s Most Wanted were the top shows, but twice people who lived there turned up on the show, including the bartender.
Seward was a great stop. The long pipeline you see in the picture carries ultra low sulfur coal from the railroad depot to freighters. Both Seward and Valdez Harbors drop off sharply. Wade out too far and you’ll find yourself in 600-900 feet of frigid water. We spent a full day on a cruise to see marine life and glaciers. As you can see in some of the accompanying photos, we saw lots of amazing creatures and scenery.
On our way to Homer, we stopped at the Idatarod headquarters where we read up on the history and some members of the tour went on a snowless dogsled ride. Both Beth and I got to hold week old huskie puppies. We had a free day in Homes after getting an excellent tour of the marine life that lives in the harbor. The giant starfish I’m holding has invisible velcro-like hairs on its upper surface that can pull arm hair off you very easily. It’s a defense mechanism to keep its breathing area clear. Eagles were everywhere, some sitting on posts so close to the road you could have plucked tail feathers as you went by. We also did some beach combing, shopped in an art store and visited the Homer Library. As you can see in the photo of their bulletin board, it’s a pretty busy place in the summer, but when the sun doesn’t set until midnight and comes back up three hours later, that leaves plenty of daylight activity time.
Our last day was in Anchorage and we took in the Anchorage Museum (https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibitions/). It was probably the best twenty bucks we spent. Amazing paintings, a gut grabbing photo essay on threats to the native people (substance abuse, suicide, etc.), a huge display loaned by the Smithsonian as well as photos of Native Alaskans with a short life story of each. The two hours we spent there barely scratched the surface.
It was a terrific adventure and gave me multiple levels of appreciation for the state as well as its people.
More pictures from the trip are on my Facebook page.