Thursday, August 10, 2017

Alaska: The Last Frontier, Part 2

We are now 18 days into our Alaskan adventure and headed to Haines, known as the adventure capital of Alaska. So adventure we did, starting with an afternoon kayaking around Chilkoot Lake. 

Haines, AK, population 1,374

Our kayaking guides, three young men who seemed constantly on the lookout for adventure – or at least mischief – insisted that we should come out to the Southeast Alaska State Fair, which was going on the very weekend we were there. So we adventured out and looked at the livestock exhibits, the art entries, checked out the food stands and partook of some Alaskan spruce beer. About 45 minutes later we left and tried to find dinner in town. But every restaurant was closed so all the townies could attend the fair. 

The next morning was spent on an old school bus searching for wildlife along the Chilkak River. We spotted some brown bears -- and lots of eagles. Never would I have imagined that I would quit looking up when someone pointed out another bald eagle. There were just so many of them!

Icy Straits/Hoonah, population 750

I must be a skeptical traveler because when I heard that our next stop was Icy Straits, a new development built specifically for cruise ship tourists, I rolled my eyes and was pretty sure I wouldn't like it. But, like so many encounters, I just needed to keep an open mind. 

The community of Icy Straits was very nicely designed, with new buildings that replicated old native styles, attractive signage, and nice walking paths. We sat through a cultural program, performed by native teenagers, which I found entertaining in spite of myself. 

We walked the 1.5 miles to the actual native settlement of Hoonah, the largest Tlingit-tribe town, ate Dungeness crab from a boardwalk vendor, and bird watched along a forested nature trail. Turned out to be a most enjoyable day.

Hubbard Glacier

The next morning our ship turned a hard right into Yakutat Bay and made its way as far as it could up the bay. Ed and I bundled up and headed to the top deck as the captain maneuvered the boat closer and closer to the massive Hubbard Glacier, North America's largest tidewater glacier. At 76 miles long, 7 miles wide and 600 feet tall at its terminal face, it is stunning to look at. 

Every few minutes, we would hear a loud boom, crash, splash as parts and pieces of it calved into the waters below. For nearly two hours we were exhilarated by its magnificence, waiting with mighty anticipation for the next chunk of ice to come crashing down. Despite loosing large chucks from its terminal, it is still considered to be an advancing (growing) glacier, an unusual classification among Alaska's 100,000 glaciers. 

Seems like from each of our trips, I have one favorite photo. This is it. Sums up the luxury of the ship with the splendor of the glacier. 

Anchorage, AK, population 299,037

Our final stop was Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Our ship was anchored for two days and we weren't yet ready to leave our beautiful apartment, so we stayed on until the second morning. We did go ashore the first day to have a look around the town. Turns out, the original town was mostly destroyed by the 1964 earthquake and so was rebuilt in nostalgic early-'70s style. 

After being at sea for the past couple of days, we felt the need to walk. We set out on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, walking from Elderberry Park, along Cook Inlet, to Westchester Lagoon and then on further to downtown. For lunch, we headed to a longtime local favorite: Humpy's Great Alaskan Ale House, where we split a basket of fried haddock and fries. 

That evening, we watched dozens of fisher people casting almost shoulder-to-shoulder for thousands of spawning salmon headed upstream on Ship Creek, before heading to Bridges Seafood Restaurant for a king salmon dinner.

This trip was, by far, our most luxurious travel experience. Thanks to my aunt's invitation, we were transported from port to port in the finest fashion. It took me a few days to adjust to the ease. Normally when we travel, we spend a large portion of our time problem solving: how to get from point A to point B?, how to communicate in a language we do not speak?, where to eat our next meal?...  In addition, we both work physically hard on the farm, so it was strange to wake up and realize that nothing was required of us but to sit back and enjoy the experience. By the time we disembarked in Anchorage, I was sad to say goodbye to our home away from home. 

Train to Denali

The next morning we were up and off the boat early to catch an 8:15 train to Denali, on the Wilderness Express. For seven hours we rolled along in total comfort, watching beautiful Alaskan landscape roll by. If not in our big, comfy seats on the top domed deck, we could be found in the white-tabled-clothed dining car or hanging on to the outdoor viewing platform. If only airplane travel could be so pleasant...

Denali National Park

We somehow managed to plan our stay at the park for the two most beautiful days of the summer season. Of the half million annual visitors to the park, 75 percent are disappointed to find the namesake mountain shrouded in mist and clouds and not visible from the park's only road. Not us. The sun was shining; the mountain was clear – even if it was 60 miles away. 

We stayed at the Grande Denali Lodge and took a half-day natural history tour, going about halfway into the park. If we had it to do over, we would consider the 12-hour trip that takes visitors closer to Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. Instead, we spent the afternoon hours hiking around Horseshoe Lake, where we saw lots of evidence of beavers, some ducks, dozens of wildflower varieties, and lots of breathtaking views of the lake and mountains. 

Very early on the morning of August 7, we started our journey home, landing in Louisville that evening. We are amazed at how much the farm changes over the course of just three weeks when we are not watching it day-to-day. I had to hack my way into the garden as the gate was blocked by a profusion of sunflowers and zinnias. 

As always, it was good to be home. 

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