Alaska, the last frontier / 1


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The two best words to describe Alaska are vast and wild. The sheer size of Alaska – 1.7 million km2 – is larger than all but 18 of the world’s countries. Its population is a mere 731,000 vs 21 million for all of Scandinavia, an area of similar geographic characteristics. Alaska is home to Mt. McKinley (Denali), the tallest mountain in North America (6,190m) and taller than any European mountain. Denali – the mountain and National Park and Preserve - are central to our visit.

13-Museum-Anchoragejpg(Anchorage museum                            photo by Bill Bartlett)

Like nearly every tourist arriving in Alaska by air, Anchorage is the starting point for holidays. The city, that is not the capitol, has over half of the State’s population and is the commercial and financial hub. It is also one of the less charming cities in all of the US from an architectural standpoint, its museum a notable exception. The city sustained massive structural damage in the great Good Friday earthquake of 1964. The city promptly rebuilt with little to no imagination, a victim of the least fruitful era in US architecture.

Consider Anchorage a staging or grouping point only and not a place to spend more than a day or two exploring. Our journey is made entirely by train, no car other than occasional taxi except Denali where only authorized buses will take you to the deepest part of the Park. The 4 star and most expensive hotel in Anchorage is the Captain Cook. Alas Anchorage is dominated by chain hotels with few independent choices but we are staying at the 15 room Copper Whale in the heart of downtown. It was one of the few structures to survive the earthquake.

 The Alaska Railroad is a storied piece of Alaska’s history and a vital link to its infrastructure. Its speed will seem snail-like compared to Europe and Japan. That’s precisely why you want to make it your primary means of transport. Trains and boats are the absolute best way to see Alaska offering panoramic views and folksy staff to enrich your Alaska experience.

05-Glacier-Calving2jpg (Glacier calving     photo by Bill Bartlett)

Our first destination is Whittier for a glacier and wildlife cruise on Prince William Sound. Departing Anchorage at 09:45 on The Glacier Discovery we arrive in Whittier at 12:05 with plenty of time to connect to the 12:50 sailing of the Klondike Express. It was an unforgettable experience, covering 257 km, 6 hours in all with a meal provided. The route took us through Esther Passage, College Fjord and Blackstone Bay where we were amazed by more than 20 named glaciers and a host of sea life.

The primary motivation for this excursion is the glaciers. Our skilled captain and narrator navigated through massive ice chunks getting us within 500 meters of the Harvard Glacier with breathtaking images and sounds of calving (the splitting off of house size ice blocks as the constantly moving glacier makes contact with the water).

Two rookeries were especially compelling.  One, a breeding ground for Steller Sea Lions who weigh up to 400kg and the second for the Kittiwake, home to 10,000 of the birds laying their eggs and nurturing their young every summer. We were further treated to eagles, whales, playful sea otters and hundreds of harbor seals. 

10-StellerSeaLionsjpg(Steller sea lions            photo by Bill Bartlett)

Our weather was dry with calm winds, not always the case for Alaska summers by any means. The skies were dark overcast making wildlife spotting easier. After docking we walked to The Inn at Whittier, new in the last 5 years but lots of charm and stunning harbor views.

To reach our next stop, Seward, we have to taxi 36 km to Girdwood (this must be carefully arranged) to board Alaska Railroad’s 08:05 Coastal Classic arriving at 11:05, also in ample time for the 13:30 Orca Sound cruise of the Kenai Fjords. Actually, we have time to check in at Hotel Seward, within walking distance of anywhere you will want to go. We took in the fine brunch with fresh seafood offerings before our walk to the harbor. 

16-Orca1jpg(Orcas          photo by Bill Bartlett)

It is amazing what you can see in only 3.5 hours on Resurrection Bay. Without exception all on board will best remember the Dall’s porpoises who played incessantly alongside the boat. Our weather was vastly improved from the day before entirely free of clouds. This gave us spectacular views of the Chugach and Kenai mountain ranges and their high alpine glaciers. Bear Glacier (a piedmont glacier) and the largest in the vast Park (2,712 km2) was particularly striking. Collectively the passengers must have taken a few thousand photos of the afternoon adventure. I know I took 346.

As entertaining as the porpoises were, we could hardly believe the show put on by the Orcas (killer whales) who danced and sang within a meter or two of our boat. Not 10 or 20 or 30 Steller Sea Lions, but hundreds throughout the afternoon were perched on what seemed like every available rocky ledge. Only three days and Alaska has wowed us.

12-Porpoise2jpg(Porpoise        photo by Bill Bartlett)

We had all of the next day to explore Seward, a small (2,830) city but rich in Alaskan history. Like all of Alaska, Seward is meant to be enjoyed outside where it is surrounded literally by glaciers and impressive mountains that includes 921m  Mt. Marathon literally at Seward’s door. We chose to spend it mainly at the harbor bulging with fully functional commercial fishing trawlers interrupted by a steady summer intrusion of large cruise ships. None were in port that day, thankfully.

In the afternoon following a late lunch at the superb Smoke Shack, we visited the Alaska Sealife Center, important to Alaskans. It is small and only mildly interesting. It helped fill the time until the 18:00 train to Anchorage which arrived promptly (as always) at 22:15. Another night at Copper Whale where we fell fast asleep from two extraordinary days in the Alaskan wild.

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* BILL BARTLETT  (Bill is Managing Director of Cascade Travel & Photo in Central Oregon. Texas is the first of a series of 4 articles for foglieviaggi. Bill has traveled to 58 countries on 6 continents. His travel focus is history and architecture. Look for Mississippi – From Top to Bottom to appear soon )

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