North To Alaska

by Katy Tahja, October 23, 2013

Alaska

Photo by Jerry Woody via Flickr.

After two weeks spent exploring the northlands I think the funniest thing I saw was a bumper sticker that said “I drove the Alaska Marine Highway!” Why funny? The Alaska Marine Highway is a ferry system and no novices were behind the operation of the vessel we were on. 

A trip to Alaska for my husband and I was always a dream...perhaps “one of these days” speculations. As we age we realize financially and health wise there are some things that should not be put off indefinitely or you’ll never do it. So we made the commitment to go this fall and began the planning months in advance.

Alaska has a summer tourist season that ends in September when all the cruise ships go south for the winter. All of a sudden tiny ports like Sitka do not have behemoth vessels disgorging 1,000 visitors at a time onto their streets for short visits. We decided early on we did not want to be part of this mass migration of tourists and chose a quieter time to visit. Some places we wanted to visit had closed up for the year, like the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, but we hope to return another time. We found as we crossed Alaska as “independent travelers” merchants were happy to see us in the off-season.

After organizing 11 separate reservations for travel and accommodation I have a whole new respect for what travel agents do for a living. I know we are all supposed to be computer competent in this day and age but occasionally I hit glitches where I needed to speak to a real live human being. To speak to a living breathing person at Delta Airlines to make a reservation costs $25 — times two since we needed two tickets. And to check one bag each cost another $50. To Delta’s credit however all the connections were on time and we, and our bags, all arrived in Anchorage together.

As seniors we are frugal so we were looking months in advance for cheap fares from Sacramento to Anchorage. The fun begins when you realize the longer you allow travel to take in hours the cheaper the ticket may become. My rule was I wanted to fly in daylight to see the scenery, since I don’t fly often. Forget the idea of leaving Sacramento by air and going to Seattle directly for the connection to Anchorage. As customers we were offered connections through Los Angeles, Phoenix, Minneapolis-St. Paul, or Salt Lake City to Seattle, then Anchorage. We choose Salt Lake City. The whole flight travel with layovers took 10 hours but we got there.

Flying north from Seattle we were treated to a sunset that, I kid you not, went on for more than an hour as we flew north and west. It was hands down the most beautiful sunset I ever hope to see in my life. Cloud formations of every shape and color marched to the horizon and below the ocean turned bronze with evergreen forested islands interspersed with open water. Clouds that looked like dandelion fluff floated on golden seas. It was enchanting and magical. Nothing beats Mother Nature when she wants to show off.

A visit in Anchorage with an old friend and mentor of mine took us on a tour of the town and a visit to the Alaska Fur Exchange. This was a wonderful shop that would cause any vegetarian to cringe just walking in the door. While it featured the regular display of tourist items the back room was piled 5’ high in beautifully tanned skins from every critter with a pelt in Alaska. Caribou, bear, wolf, otter, raccoon, you name it and it was available. Name any clothing object made from fur...boots, parkas, hats...they had it. I could have spent hours just educating myself in that shop but time didn’t permit it.I could have spent $1,000 in the blink of an eye but finances didn’t permit that either. That night we ate reindeer sausage on a pizza in an excellent microbrewery.

No vacation in the Tahja family is complete without a train ride so we bought a package tour from the Alaska Railroad. Seniors were half price. We started at the one place in Anchorage we saw more of than any other location...the airport. With all the TSA restrictions we were always at the airport an hour early, got through checkpoints, then sat waiting. You can make interesting observations while waiting however. Transfer of all people jailed for whatever reason is done by airplanes since highways are few and far between. Handcuffed men with law enforcement officers were constantly moving through the airport and we assume boarding planes. Finally we flew to Fairbanks.

They tell you in Alaska you are five times more likely to see a bear than see Denali (Mt.McKinley) in clear view. We were blessed with clear weather and stupendous views of the mountain range. And it's true folks...every superlative you hear about Alaskan scenery is worthy...it’s spectacular. At Fairbanks we got a shuttle to go an hour northeast to Chena Hot Springs literally at the end of the road. Chena has developed a commercial geothermal power unit and also provides the heat and energy for the resort. Nothing like having fresh tomatoes and salad greens in greenhouses when it’s twenty below zero outside. The outdoor hot pool was great in the chilly night air. They have a sled dog facility just far enough from dwellings for guests that you can’t hear the incessant barking that goes along with it.

The Chena Hot Springs ice museum stays at 25° year round inside cooled by geothermal energy turbines used for cooling. You’re given a parka for a tour...offered an Alaska distilled vodka martini in an ice glass while sitting at an ice bar for $15 (we passed) and saw ice sculptors creating statues that decorate the interior. There’s an ice bedroom with an ice bed and for $600 they pile it full of tanned caribou skins and you can have this ice palace to yourself (along with a lodge room for access to heat and a bathroom). Tame reindeer let you stroke their noses and antlers in game pens. I was surprised by the number of Asian tourists here in central Alaska. I know in Japan visiting onsen hot springs is a popular activity and when you look at a globe the orient isn’t that far away in Alaska.

The return shuttle to Fairbanks took a short detour so people could photograph themselves by the Alaskan Pipeline. Our guide told us it was running at 40% of capacity and was considered a “tourist attraction”. The restaurant we dined at in Fairbanks that night had a putting green tee and the green was on the other side of the Chena River. Our waitress told us it takes a considerable whack to get that ball across the river. I didn’t ask who’s job it was to retrieve the golf balls that floated down the river.

The next day was a slow 12 hour ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage on the railroad. Some things surprised us. The interior timberlands of Alaska have forests reminiscent of our pygmy forest on the coast. One third of Alaska has its feet in permafrost, while the north coast has hardpan under the soil. These Alaska spruce grow trunks and short stubby branches and they never get big — but interspersed with birches turning golden they look lovely. There were several quick stops and we made a few flag stops, where literally people trackside wave at the train and it stops and they climb aboard. Geographic features called “arms” on Alaska waterways we passed have tremendous tidal variations and clam diggers are occasionally killed when five feet of tidal surge can cover your clamming spot in just a few minutes.

To fly to Juneau and get the ferry it was back to the Anchorage airport again. Arriving there we hoped to go see the Mendenhall Glacier but because the government was shut down so was the park visitor center. You can’t hide a glacier several hundred feet high however, it looms over the ferry boarding area. I did find an independent bookstore to put some tourist dollars into.

The Alaska Marine Highway system was wonderful and un-crowded in early fall. Our vessel the Malaspina could carry 499 passengers and had 180 on board. The observation areas had people quietly reading books (print & electronic) and spotters up front who would call out “a pod of Orcas at 11 o’clock” and everyone would look up. The food was good and reasonably priced and vegetarians would have been happy. Soda pop was $1 a can. The theater showed free movies all day interspersed with videos of the history of the ferry system. Everyone who works on the ferry is a state employee and you can’t tip anyone. Looking out the windows at offshore islands it looked like every travelogue ever viewed of Mother Nature at it’s best.

At Sitka my husband got off to go see St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral and the tour bus took 20 people into town. My husband and a New Zealander were a tour group of two at the church and they learned of the connection of Russian Alaska and the Fort Ross settlement in Sonoma County. Merchants were happy to see anyone.

We had boarded the Malaspina at 6 a.m. Tuesday and it pulled into Bellingham WA at 8 a.m. Friday, where a transplanted friend from Comptche picked us up and gave us a ride to Seattle. We stayed the night at an interesting hotel in Seattle, the Panama Hotel, built the year the Panama Canal opened. It had been built as a rooming house for Asian working-men because they were not allowed to marry or bring families to America. It’s the location that was the setting for the novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet.”

Panama Hotel is one of those places being lovingly restored room by room. A tour of the building shows you the soaking baths that used to exist for the men in the basements, old trunks left behind, and the history of the big brick building in the international district of Seattle. The tea room/coffee shop attached had big glass jars of 30 different kinds of traditional and oriental teas available and good food. It was reasonably priced at $99 a night. And best of all it is a four block walk to the King St. Amtrak station.

We took the Coast Starlight train home to California and enjoyed a wine and cheese tasting of Pacific Northwest products in the Parlor Car reserved for sleeping car passengers. We commiserated with British tourists headed for Yosemite hoping the government would get it’s act together and reopen national parks before they had to leave the state. And wonder of wonders Amtrak arrived in Sacramento on time. However we stood in the pre-dawn chill for almost 20 minutes on the boarding platforms waiting for the station to send out a shuttle for those who needed help getting into the depot with their luggage.

So it was two weeks on the road to the north on an adventure I’d recommend to any “independent traveler”. I came home with a new stock of trivia facts I’ll probably never have a practical use for. Did you know Alaska has 3,400 miles of coastline? Or that Halibut in excess of 300 pounds are called “Barndoor Halibut”? Or that reindeer are domesticated caribou? True. And my husband and I decided when and if we go back we’d like to go on the ferry to Dutch Harbor and along the Aleutian archipelago. While the Inside Passage is beautiful it looks too much like home. We’d like to experience landscapes radically different from what we see every day. And then there’s that White Horse and Yukon Railroad we missed waiting at Skagway. Maybe another trip awaits us.

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