Alaska- August- 2007
Friday- 8/24/07- Williamsville, N.Y.
It was a warm and humid, an 85 degree summer's day. We went for a Three-mile walk, stopping for coffee and a paper at Wegman's. Then, a brief trip to the Eastern Hills Mall and we made final adjustments to get under way on our Alaskan Adventure. An airport taxi picked us up at 2:15 P.M. and we were off. The baggage check in, and security screen, took but a mere 45 minutes. We always try to get to the airport early to prevent that awful “running down the aisles” feeling in the pit of your stomach. We watched one young girl desperately try to talk her way to the front of the line to make her flight connection. One of the security types was uncaring and even followed her to make sure she stayed in her “proper place.” She told the young girl that she had to ask every person in line if she could get ahead of them. What a creep! I hope she is late for a flight herself one day.
The American Eagle counter was busy. The 2:00 P.M. flight to Chicago's O'Hare, had just been canceled. Staff were scrambling to place the unhappy passengers aboard other airlines. Our own flight off-lifted an hour late, for the one hour and 20-minute run into O'Hare. We arrived without incident to a terminal in chaos. Throngs of passengers were scrambling to make their connections. A massive rainstorm in Chicago the day before had necessitated the canceling of 500 domestic flights. The whole system was running at top speed trying to recover.
We walked through the massive complex, amazed at the amount and diversity of flights and passengers. We soon found our own terminal, Air Alaska (flight #131) at gate 2-b in the “L” terminal. I always think of the Tom Hanks movie “Terminal” when walking through so large an airport. It made me smile even amidst the chaos. We had coffee at a Starbucks and waited patiently for our flight to board. It too was an hour late. Our expected arrival in Anchorage was getting to be later and later.
At 5:15 P.M. (CST) we boarded the Air Alaska Jet. Our airline miles had enabled us to secure seats in the first-class section. We would make this journey in style. During the six hour and thirty-minute flight, we watched two movies on the portable DVD players and read our books to pass the time. (“Angel's Flight”- M. Connelly) We were traveling high above and across the mid-section of Canada, the prairie Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Small sprinklings of glitter outlined the many communities that we flew over. Larger glowing auras, probably Calgary and later Yellow Knife, high in the Northwest Territories passed beneath us. I could see the indomitable wall of the Canadian Rockies far off to our West. A huge bank of gray clouds was pent up against the dark granite masses. The eerie light of a three-quarter moon made it look like a fog bank rolling in over a far distant shore.
The first-class stewards earned their reputation. A glass of decent merlot was followed by salads, salmon filets and a warm chocolate brownie dessert. It was the harbinger of the two-week caloric binge that we were about to embark upon. We were crossing three more time zones from Chicago, making a four-hour time difference from Buffalo to Anchorage. Although the clock read but 11:45 p.m. as we descended into Anchorage International, it was near four in the morning according to our internal clocks. We were dragging.
Final approach brought us in over the Cook Inlet. The moon glistened off of the ebony surface of the cold sea below us. Anchorage was lit up like Christmas. I could even see the small, fully-lit inchworm of a cruise ship as she motored across the far horizon. I wonder which one she is? And then we arrived at Ted Steven's International airport in Anchorage, Alaska. The terminal was crowded, even at Midnight. Apparently, flights left here at all hours of the day to make up for the many time zones that they had to cross. We retrieved our baggage easily enough.
Our flight was an hour late and it was near midnight, so we knew that the Princess greeter and waiting taxi had vanished with the waning night. We corralled a cab, outside the terminal, and told the cabbie to take us to the
“Captain Cook” hotel at 4th and L streets, in downtown Anchorage. The name sounds like a backwoods motel, but it is just the opposite. An imposing complex of four hotel towers, each 20 stories high, surrounds a complex of bars, restaurants and other patron services that you would expect in any world class city. The splendor was lost on us. We were dead tired. We checked in (Room #637), unpacked a few things and drifted off into the welcome arms of Morpheus at 2.A.M. (6 A.M. ) Buffalo time.
Saturday, 8/25/07- Anchorage, Alaska
We arose at 6:30 A.M. local time, tired but anxious to see the city. It was 49 degrees and sunny out. We had coffee in the room, then prepped for the day and set out at 8 A.M. to “see what we could see.” 4th Avenue is one of the main drags in downtown Anchorage. We walked down its length, slowly enjoying the many new and interesting sights. A log cabin with a sod roof, covered in grass, sits outside the visitor's center. We were to see many of these sturdy frontier structures in the next two weeks. Several very large Grizzly bears (stuffed) stood as totems, beckoning tourists into the many gift stores along the boulevard. The “Downtown Deli & Cafe” looked inviting. We stopped in for breakfast. Scrambled eggs and chopped salmon made for a great way to start the day. ($23)
Next, we walked over to the “farmer's market” sitting on the brow of the small slope that leads down to the sea. All manner of vendors peddled Alaskan souvenirs, salmon quesadillas, hats, furs, and knick knacks to beat the band. Most of the totems and bric a brac had a “made in china” label on them. It was something we were to discover all along our line of march. It was to become, for me, part of a cynical “Looking for Mount McKinley syndrome” that featured every ruse that a hard-selling chamber of commerce could manage to lure in the tourists.
We walked back to the Captain Cook Hotel to meet up with our 10:30 A.M. Princess City Tour. We were joined by Don and Diane Martin of Lake George, New York. The driver, Jesse, was pleasant enough, but had the uninformative patter of a Sphinx with Laryngitis. We talked with the Martins, who were just completing their two week swing through Alaska. They recommended taking a nine-hour bus/ train and kayak tour of the Kenai Peninsula. They had seen significant “calving,” of the glaciers, on their tour there. We drove along Fourth St. It was here that the main devastation of the 1964, 9.2 earthquake had occurred, leveling many of the structures. Everything has been rebuilt since.
Anchorage itself is beautiful. Situated on the Cook Inlet and surrounded by the Chugach and Kenai Mountains, it is a sheltered port that has expanded now to 270,000 souls in the metro area. Jesse brought us to the “Anchorage Museum.” It is a two-story complex that features the geological, cultural and historical development of Alaska from 10,000 B.C. to the present era. Many interesting dioramas depicted the varied native crafts and life styles. Replicas of a mining camp, gold prospecting, and oil exploration were all depicted informatively. Our guide was very well educated and pleasing to listen to. The real expansion of Alaska had occurred just before and during World War II, when the Trans Alaska highway connected the coastal regions with the “lower forty eight.” Military bases brought tens of thousands of young Americans to the area, many of whom returned and settled. Heavy fighting with the Japanese had cost several thousand lives on the Islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Chain. Elmendorf air base became one of the early anchors of the D.E.W line in the 1950's cold war period. It was an interesting and informative hour journey into what Alaska is and has become. I recommend you read James Michener's “Alaska” for a good overview of the area's history.
Our driver continued on. He explained that Anchorage had been originally built on the tidal flats of Cook Inlet. City planners had then laid out a grid pattern of streets and letters that is today's modern Anchorage, on the plain above the flats. Most of the city's modern history stems from this 1915 date. The town grew and grew, to its present size, for all of the reasons mentioned. The University of Alaska, at Anchorage, is huge. Pacific University, with a largely “pacific rim” student base, also prospers here. It makes for a very young population.
The driver pulled into the “Sour Dough Mining Corporation” for lunch. It is a western style, saloon featuring stuffed wild animals and many of the implements from the 1890's gold rush era. I bet the little monsters must love the place during the Summer months. A broiled Salmon filet was decent. The ice cream sundaes afterwards were even better. After lunch, we walked across the street to the “Wild Berry” Company. It is a compendium of everything an old lady would buy while on tour. I noticed that the cost of the freight to ship anything home was about one third above that of the purchase price. Freight charges are a defining fact of life in Alaska, where almost everything has to be shipped or flown in. A huge chocolate fountain flowed real chocolate in the front of the store. We admired all the products, of China and Indonesia, for a bit and then walked out to the parking lot to enjoy the warm sun. Other tour buses were dumping their aging cargos here as well.
Next, Jesse drove us to the Lake Hood area. It is a “Float Plane Base.” An entire lake is sectioned off into float plane docks, that tie up along the shore. They are the main transportation means for the Alaskan interior. Each of these beautiful craft can cost from $100,000 to a million dollars. A complex of two small lakes here holds many planes. The lakes are connected by two canals. One is for landing and the other for taking off. We watched for a time as several of the graceful craft slid across the water and became airborne. Just before they uplifted, the pilot would lift a wing and balance the craft on one float, to reduce the water tension. Then he would lift off graceful at almost a crawl speed, into the air. When landing the planes looked like Canadian Geese gliding in gently and then skidding across the surface on their wide floats. The planes could also be converted with wheels or skis to meet the changing weather conditions. We much enjoyed watching these graceful small craft land and take off on a sunny day, against a clear blue Alaskan sky.
By 2:45 P.M. we returned to the hotel and bid goodbye to the Martins. They were leaving that evening. We walked over Third Ave to “L” street. There, overlooking the inlet and above a flight of wooden spiral of stairs and landing decks, stands the imposing statue of Captain James Cook, and early explorer of the region. He had anchored his ships “Resolution” and “Discovery” here in 1798. We had come across other landings of this estimable explorer's ships in Hawaii, Sydney and Tahiti. That must have been one heck of a voyage.
We walked back to the Farmer's Market. It was loaded with outlanders visiting the city on a Saturday afternoon. We again browsed the many products of China and Indonesia before walking back along 4th Avenue in the warm afternoon sun. We came upon an imposing building called the “Alaska Federal Public Lands Building.” It is a repository of natural history and films about various features of the Alaskan wild. We were in time for a movie on “Brown Bears.” It was a pleasant interlude, watching the huge beasts scooping salmon from rivers and eating them whole. It was the closest we were to come to seeing these bears in Alaska. (Looking for Mount McKinley Syndrome)
It was 5:00 P.M., but the sun was still high in the Alaskan sky. At the height of the Alaskan summer, the sun stays up for over 18 hours. We entered the Captain Cook complex and rode an elevator to the 20th floor “Crow's Nest” high above Anchorage. I am not fond of heights, but the view here is spectacular. The Chugach Mountains stretched before us in all of their glory. The sun and shadow effects, framed against a brilliant blue sky would keep a painter in business for years. I enjoyed a signature vodka martini, shaken of course ala Bond and not stirred. Mary had a glass of Cabernet. We watched the mountains, the sky and the bay out of windows on the other side of the bar, appreciating the natural beauty all around us. Alaska really is a visual banquet, with a variety of natural vistas that make you stop and stare in wonder on occasion.
We were tiring from the long day and still groggy from our flight yesterday. We repaired to our room and settled in with a glass of Cabernet. I wrote up my notes. It had been a very full day in this land of rugged beauty. We crashed early, tired as old logs in a swamp.
Sunday, August 26, 2007- Anchorage, Alaska
We were up at 6:30 A.M. Our Circadian rhythms were still adjusting to the four-hour time difference. We had coffee in the room and watched the morning t.v.. news. The sun rose at 7:00 A.M. It was 49 degrees and cool outside. At 8:30 A.M., we set off down 4th St. heading for the “Downtown Deli” for breakfast. The scrambled eggs and smoked salmon was a meal worth repeating. The place was S.R.O. After breakfast, we ambled about the downtown streets, enjoying the sights. The Convention Center and Center for the Arts connected with each other near a lovely statue court and small park. A few of Anchorage's lesser land barons were still sleeping in the park. I wonder where they go when the outside temps drop to sub zero? More importantly, a Starbucks occupied the sculpture court. We enjoyed their amber ambrosia and headed back to the hotel. We read the Anchorage Daily News” and then decided to rent some bikes and ride along the sea coast bike path.
“Pablo's” at Fifth and “L” Streets had all of the new high-tech racers. We signed up for a three-hour rental. Kitted out with helmets and water, we set off. The “Tony Knowles Bike Path” runs ten miles each way from downtown Anchorage to the lofty green aerie of Kincaid Park, high on a bluff along Knik arm of Cook's Inlet. The inlet is a vast tidal basin that sweeps the water in and out daily, with a 30-foot tidal range. The tide was rolling out now, as we powered our jet age bikes along the leafy trail. Out across the bay, we could see the Alaska Range of Mountains, shining far to the North. Their icy white peaks reflected clearly in the still blue waters of the Inlet, creating that incredible double image you see are sometimes lucky to see along the waterfronts.
We enjoyed seeing new types of flora all around us. The Devil's club bush, with its bright red berries, Sitka spruce and alder trees provided a food rich environment for the thousands of moose who live in and around Anchorage. Bears live here too, but are much shyer around people. Vista after vista unfolded, as we sped around a rise or bend in the road. Sometimes you had to just stop and stare for a bit to take it all in. Even pictures that you take yourself, fail to reflect how beautiful the scenery is here.
About six miles out, we came to a large parking area overlooking the Inlet. We stopped for a time, had some water and enjoyed the visage. It was on the flight path to Steven's International, so the huge metal behemoths roared about three hundred feet over our heads, as they made their final descent. You could even feel the jet wash stir the air. It was a little unnerving to see these monsters so close above us. We continued on, mindful of the rising terrain of the pathway. Sometimes, even with the many higher gears, we dismounted and walked the bikes up the hill for a stretch. We were ascending several hundred feet in just a few short miles. A sheen of sweat had broken out on my face from the ride's exertion. Too many useless calories ingested the last few nights.
And then we arrived at the emerald pocket of Kincaid Park. An athletic field and various sports venues were complimented by a large public, stone and wood casino. Local folks were barbecuing and picnicking all around us. We walked out onto the patio of the casino and were treated to the sparkling white visage of Mt. McKinley, in The Alaskan Range. It was a clear and sunny day, but we were still amazed at the sight lines. Mt. McKinley sits some 235 miles to the north of Anchorage. Yet, we could see the top cone of her peak, icy white and majestic even this far away. It is a magnificent skyline. We watched the Mt. like everyone else around us.
As the weeks wore on, we were to hear from various guides and tour operators that “seeing Mt. McKinley” was a rarity. Something about cloudy days and the mountain “being out” for only brief number of days. Fortunate tourists felt like they were the only person in the last hundred years who had seen the mountain. It was part of the tourist hype of what I began to think of as “Looking for Mt. McKinley.” It became tiring after a time. The scenery up here needs no hype. It is magnificently beautiful in the extreme.
Soon enough we turned our bikes back toward Anchorage. The first three miles of the path were a downhill hoot. We had to ride the hand breaks all the way, hoping that no knuckleheads were blocking the path, as we careened around the downhill runs, like bobsledders in a run. We sped under the landing paths of the huge planes, again startled at their proximity. It was a cool ride. We stopped periodically along the path to enjoy again the visage of mountains and sea. It was a clear sunny day and almost seventy degrees out. This hadn't happened for over a hundred years:) (LFMM)
Near the trail's end, there are several spurs that run into the city neighborhoods. Access is both easy and well used. We had to dodge the many Families Griswald out for a day's sun. Our legs were tiring from the twenty-mile run. We made it into Pablo's with five minutes to spare on our three-hour lease. He seemed surprised to see us and asked if we had really ridden the whole twenty miles. I didn't want to ask if we looked too old, out of shape or he thought we were just fibbing. Yes, you can make the run in three hours, if you push it!
The afternoon was still young and the sun sat high in the Alaskan sky. We strolled up Fifth Avenue to stretch our legs. Starbucks beckoned. We sat for a time in the small plaza out front, enjoying their brew and watching the ebb and flow of tourists on a Sunday afternoon. The plaza held statues of a bear, moose, fox and a swan. After coffee, we walked back down 4th St. to the hotel, checking our e-mail on the net in the business office. We retreated to our room to write up my notes, share a glass of cabernet and enjoy a brief chat with Mr. Ozzie Nelson (nap).
It was near six P.M., as we showered and made ready for dinner. We had espied a nice looking restaurant nearby named “Orso.” I think it is Russian for Bear. We had a glass of Multepulciano and then enjoyed Salmon and Alaskan Halibut dishes. The small blonde child at the next table was an angel and traded smiles with us throughout the meal. After dinner, we walked back towards the hotel. The sun was still high in the sky, but we knew that we had to pack up our gear and get ready for departure on the morrow. We packed up, read our books for a time and then settled in to greet the sandman. The golden sun set at 9:45 P.M.
Monday- 8/27/07- Anchorage, Alaska
We were up by 2 A.M. Our Circadian rhythms were really off kilter. We packed our bags. They had to be ready for pick up by 6 A.M. Then, we had coffee in the room as we watched the morning news. By 7 A.M., we were out walking. It was 52 degrees and cool out. The Snow City Cafe, at 4th and L, is an estimable “Breakfast place” for locals. We settled in, enjoying “nuevos huevos” there, and watching the ebb and flow of Anchorage natives headed to work.
We walked the neighborhood, finding Elderberry Park overlooking the tidal basin. We looked out upon the Inlet, enjoying as always the panoply of sea, mountains and sky. Then, it was time to head back to the hotel for departure. In the lobby, we met and chatted with Seth and Madeline Champagne, of Baton Rouge and North Augusta, S.C. We were to become friends and dine with these estimable Southerners, during most of the week, aboard the Sapphire Princess.
At 10 A.M., two huge Princess land cruisers pulled up to the hotel and boarded our entire contingent for the ride North to the McKinley Princess Lodge, near Talkeetna. The ride took about three hours to traverse the 131 miles. During the ride, the bus driver narrated more on local history. He told us about the Iditarod, an Alaskan Dog sled race that covers 1049 miles, ending in Nome Alaska. It took the winner 9 days to cover the rugged terrain in winter. The race gets its start here in Anchorage, for maximum publicity, on the first Saturday in March. They run the teams, sometimes with local celebrities aboard, for 20 miles and then truck them further up the line to Vasilla, where the race really begins. Next, he related the history of a curious experiment in American History. During the 1930's, the federal government chose 200-300 farmers from Wisconsin and Minnesota and settled them in the Matanuska Valley, above Anchorage, in an attempt to help settle Alaska. The farmers had mixed results, due to the rugged conditions and short growing season. Some remain to this day, selling their produce in the farmer's market in Anchorage. Hay farms are a big seller here abouts. The fodder feeds sled dogs, horses and cattle. He also related several attempts to move the Alaskan capital from Juneau to Willow, a forest site North of Anchorage. The measure had passed the Alaskan legislature several times, with the proviso that when “funds become available.”
We arrived at Mt. McKinley Lodge around 1. P.M. The complex has about 23 wooden, two-story residence buildings, a huge central lodge with restaurants bars and other facilities, a heated spa building and gym, and a large restaurant called “20,320” (height of Mt. McKinley). It also holds all of the utility buildings necessary to support the complex during the six-month season before it closes up for the winter. The complex had opened in 1997 and still appears new. It sits on the side of a mountain, high above the Chulitna River, facing the Alaskan Range of mountains, some 40 miles in the distance. On clear days( LFMM) it has a rather magnificent view of Mts. McKinley, Hunter and others of the Alaskan Range.
We were assigned Rm.# 530 in building # 5. The room was pleasant enough. It sits next to the gym and spa, which has an open deck, and faces the mountains for those intrepid enough to sit in hot tubs in cold temperatures. We walked to the lodge and had coffee, sitting on the huge open rear deck of the lodge, watching like everyone else, the visage of Mt. McKinley. A rather substantial crowd of visitors milled about, waiting for their buses to carry them either further up the line of back towards Anchorage. We were to see and appreciate the logistical competence of the Princess organization, all up and down the line in a series of lodges and hotels that they own. It was also apparent later, on board the Sapphire Princess. Our bags, luggage tags and needed documents were “always there,” despite however many moves we made. Service was always friendly and efficient. Somewhere, they had managers who knew how to run complex things smoothly. Maybe the U.S. military should take note. A salud!
At 2:00 P.M., we met up with Ranger Larry. He is a cross between John Wayne and a Marine D.I. He walked several of us through a short nature walk, explaining the local flora. He was knowledgeable in local flora, but a smug, and unpleasant guide. The Chulitna River ran below us. It has a characteristic, “murky gray” coloring from the “glacial flour” that fills it. The glaciers grind up the mountains and their detritus is dumped into the rivers, forming a grayish, colloidal solution that clouds them as they run down to the sea.
Afterwards, we settled into our room, unpacked some clothes, and wrote up my notes. We showered and prepped for dinner. We were meeting Seth and Madeline Champagne for dinner at the “20/320” restaurant. We walked by the main lodge, enjoying the mountain views before meeting the Champagnes at 7 :15 P.M. The restaurant is a large and open Adirondack-style building, with a bar and seating for large numbers of diners. We had salmon and crab cakes. The fare was decent and our conversation enjoyable. After dinner, we walked down to the lodge to enjoy the view and wander in the gift shop. The temperature was cooling off to a chilly 52 degrees. The sun was still up as we retreated to our room, to read our books and enjoy a glass of Merlot. Soon enough, we drop off to sleep in the comfortable “wilds of up country of Alaska.”
Tuesday- 8/28/07- McKinley Princess Lodge - Talkeetna, Alaska
We were up at 5:30 A.M. It was forty three degrees out. A deep fog had settled in over the river valley below us. We had coffee in the room while watching the t.v. morning news. I finished reading “Angel's Flight.” We prepped for the day and, at 8:45 A.M., set out for the lodge. We opted for muffins, a banana and coffee in one of the fireplace rooms overlooking the mountains. A large group of visitors mingled about, waiting for their buses to Anchorage. We waited for the 9:30 A.M. shuttle to Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is a small village of 600 year-round residents. Once it had held 10,000 souls searching for gold. Now, it is an artists' colony of sorts. In Athabascan, “Talkeetna” means “place where the rivers meet.” It is the confluence of the Talkeetna River and the Chulitna Rivers. Then, these murky, fast moving rivers feed into the Susitna or “Big Su” river for the 130-mile run down into Prince William Sound, east of Anchorage.
A goodly number of other pilgrims had joined us for the one-hour run into Talkeetna. The village actually sits but six miles across the river from our lodge, as the crow flies, but the road into town takes an hour. The bus drivers always gave us a fact-filled and often amusing narration of the sights and sounds around us. We were traveling on the George Parker Highway. It runs the 400 miles length from Anchorage in the South, to Fairbanks, just 400 miles from the Arctic Ocean. Along its thin path lie most of the settlements of the interior of Alaska. Scraggly spruce trees compete with thin white birch trees for dominance in the surrounding forest. It has a feel “of the Adirondacks” to me. Wide fields or “Muskegs” are patches of land where the permafrost lies just underneath. The driver gave the best explanation for permafrost that I have ever heard. He said the land lies frozen longer than the heat of summer months can melt it. Grass, sedge and thin trees, with shallow roots, are all that will grow upon it.
One amusing establishment that we passed is called “Wal-Mike's.” It is a collection of every available form of junk and useless curiosity pieces that a rural state like Alaska can produce. A reindeer sat in a open pen out back. Many of these places brought back memories of the humorous television series “Northern Exposure.” Alaskans, like their Canadian cousins have a wonderful self-deprecatory humor that is both endearing as well as funny. We exited onto the Talkeetna spur of the highway and motored into town. Just before Talkeetna the driver stopped along the road. There, on the horizon before us, shined Mts. Hunter, McKinley and Foraker. He said no one had seen these, from this vantage point, in years:) (LFMM)
The village itself is a collection of a few short streets. A post office, three bars and a few eateries are speckled amidst several gift shops and other retail establishments. A number of those very attractive a-frame log cabins lie amidst the buildings and give the place its character. It has the feel of a frontier town. The main road is mostly empty. Tourists walk in groups up and down the streets, looking for more Chinese and Indonesian artifacts. The village is also the jump off point for the many climbing expeditions that try the climbing ascent of Mt. McKinley. In 2006, 1200 explorers made the attempt, 600 made it to the 20,320 ft. summit and five died in the attempt. Some 40 adventurers have been lost in crevices up there over the years, never to be found, frozen in time for some later day explorer to discover them in a few thousand years.
We found an artists' co-op and browsed the hand made clothing and gifts. At last, something made by real Alaskans. By coincidence, the girl minding the store was the woman that we were looking for. Barbara Holmes is a young and newly arrived Alaskan. She, son Jackson, husband and coming 2nd child live here year-round. We play golf with her Mother in law, in Ft. Myers, Florida, during the winter months. We talked with her for a while, enjoying her conversation. We then bought one of her “creations” for a niece. It is a small world that we live in.
It was nearing noon, so we sought out a spot for lunch. “The “Road House Cafe & Bakery” had been well recommended. From the outside, it looks like a dilapidated, wooden tavern. Inside, the aroma of freshly baked bread and cookies makes you glad that you came. The place is old and all angles are off kilter, but it is warm and friendly. It is also very democratic. You have to pull up a chair, where ever you find one, and sit with whomever is already at the table. It makes for interesting conversations. We ordered and much enjoyed a huge bowl of vegetarian chili and some corn bread that must have weighed a pound per slice. Both were wonderful.
After lunch, we walked down to “Talkeetna Park.” It is a patch of grass about twenty feet square. Two scrufty looking young campers were fixing their tent. But it lies on the path that leads you down to the Talkeeta River. We walked along the stony banks of this glacial river, admiring the exquisite views of Mt. McKinley and the other peaks of the Alaskan Range. The dark granite and eroded peaks of the Tokasha Mountains lie in front of them. They are twenty miles closer to us and appear much smaller than they are. They are also weirdly eroded and almost Tolkienesque in appearance. They stand in stark relief to the crystal whiteness of Mt. McKinley towering behind them, almost a sharply -pointed frame for the beauty of the higher mountains. No one had seen a view like this in years:) ( LFMM) We skipped a few stones across the river and enjoyed the brilliant sunshine setting the stage for everything around us. It doesn't come any prettier than this.
We browsed the “chocolate shop” and a few cute log-cabin, gift stores. They are all post card pretty. We walked by the Fairfield Inn, a run down old tavern and Inn. It is here than President Warren Harding ate his last meal, in 1923, while visiting Alaska. He supposedly ate some seafood that poisoned him. He was transported, by rail and ship, to San Francisco where he died five days later. Local wags noted that he was traveling with both his wife and mistress at the time. They suggest that one of them reportedly slipped him something evil in a drink, to end his life. It might not be true, but the locals love the “maybe” of it. We were tiring of the shops and walked to the end of town to the K2 Aviation field, where we watched the graceful bush planes land and take off for a bit. These sturdy planes are one of the only means of reaching much of the Alaskan interior.
It was nearing 2 P.M., so we hurried over to the Mahay's Jet Boat shop. There, we were boarded on buses and ferried a mile or so to their dock on the Talkeetna River, at the far edge of the “Talkeetna Marina.” They have a series of Jet Boats for rides up and along the Talkeetna River. Ours was running a bit late, so we sat and enjoyed the warm sun on us. A boat docked. Seth and Madeline Champagne got off of it. We talked with them for a bit. They had just made an early run, 60 miles up river, to the huge Level six rapids on the Susitna. They much enjoyed their trip.
When our turn came, about 30 of us climbed into the low-slung jet boat. It has glass sided windows and a huge bow and stern for viewing. Given today's new human weight levels, the first three rows of passengers had to stand in the back to get the boat off of the shore. The run up river was fun. We looked upon birch and spruce forests where no man now treads nor has in many years. The river below us was chalky gray and a chilly 38 degrees. On the banks, we caught sight of a bald eagle and her year old eaglet. They cavorted on the shore unaware, or uncaring, of their new audience. Both the river bed and the shores were stone lined, remnants from the might glaciers high above that fed them. In winter, these rivers all freeze solid, making for excellent dog sled and snow mobile runs for the locals.
About twenty miles up river, we berthed at a small set of wooden stairs. The ranger accompanied us to a site where he showed us the various native means of survival, like fish drying racks, wooden lean to, in-ground storage of food and fire pits. Then, we walked about a quarter of a mile through the woods to the sight of a log cabin. The ranger had a shot gun strung over his shoulder in the event we encountered any of the large brown or black bears that inhabit the area. He said in case of a bear encounter, we should not run, but form a large circle around him:) Humor always works.
The cabin, made of hand-hewn spruce logs was chinked with sphagnum moss and featured a sod roof with grass growing on it. A small stove pipe fed up from the rear of the building promising a stove of sorts for heating It looked like it would be warm and cozy in the freezing winter. The owner of the Mahay's jet boats company had come here from upstate New York, in the early 1970's to “live in the wild.” He hunted, trapped and fished with his wife, until the arrival of children suggested that they move into the relative civilization of Talkeetna. He then founded this river ride company. It is very successful.
Behind the cabin, stands a much smaller log cabin seated atop four log poles, about twenty feet in the air. The last few feet of the poles are covered in metal, so critters could not climb the poles. It was the storage cache for meat and food products. All foodstuffs are cached there. Bears and critters followed their noses. You didn't want them trying to enter your living space, so you had to cache your food high above in a protected space. The knowledgeable young ranger showed us fur pelts from red fox, sable, beaver, otter, coyote, black bear and grizzly bear. These had all been taken lately. The locals are permitted to shoot three black bear a year, at any time. The operation's manager of the jet boats had just shot a 500 pound black bear at their docks last week. The ranger said ruefully that it would probably be the food for their company picnic a few weeks hence.
The area where we stood had been once inhabited by Athapascan Indians. In 1896, when they first established contacts with white men, their numbers here had been in the 5,000 range. By 1924, almost the entire population has succumbed to the Influenza epidemic that then raged across the land. One rugged Athabascan survived and lived well into his nineties. It is from him that we learned much of the many native woodsman practices of how these hardy people lived and prospered in the rugged and frigid wilderness.
We marched back to the wooden steps and reboarded the jet boat, for a speed run down the Susitna river, and then back up the Talkeetna river, to Talkeetna. The sun was shining, the mountains “Out” and we were enjoying an exhilarating speed run down a wild river in Northern Alaska. It was as good as it gets. At Mahay's dock, we offloaded and were shuttled into Talkeetna. We only had to wait for a few minutes for the five thirty shuttle to the McKinley Lodge. On the ride back, we visually drank in the beauty of the green conifer forests, the permafrost muskegs and all the other pristine surroundings. You don't need a sales pitch to sell this area. It draws all by itself.
The sun was still high and it was a warm 67 degrees out, so we ordered a vodka martini and a glass of cabernet, while we sat on the open deck of the McKinley lodge. We enjoyed the sparkling visage of Mt. McKinley and the Alaska Range, with the darker and more foreboding Tokosha Mts. in front of them. The changing light and shadow made for “different mountains” every hour of the day. We decided to stay up for a bit. We walked over to the “20/320” restaurant and ordered a glass of cabernet and a caesar salad, in the quiet area of the bar. It was enjoyable. After dinner, we couldn't yet give up. We walked back to the lodge, and had coffee on the open deck, memorizing every line of the rocky horizon. After all, this only happens every few years. (LFMM)
Back in our room, we began to pack our bags. We would be leaving this pleasant spot on the morrow. I wrote up my notes, then read for a time (“Killer Instinct”- Joseph Finder” ) before settling into the welcome arms of Morpheus.
Wednesday- 8/29/07- McKinley Princess Lodge - Talkeetna, Alaska
We were up at 5:30 A.M. We watched the t.v. news, had coffee in the room and prepped for the day. We packed our bags and had them in the hall for the 8 A.M. pick up. Then, we walked over to the lodge and had coffee and muffins in the fireplace room overlooking the spectacular visage of the mountains glistening in the morning sun. It was cloudy and cool out, in the low 50's.
At 9:30 A.M. our entire contingent boarded several shuttles for Talkeetna, to pick up our train at the rail station there. The “rail station” is really just an open sided kiosk, with wash rooms and a ticket booth, sitting along the tracks outside town. Things are informal hereabouts. In the winter here, the train only runs once weekly. Along the entire length of the tracks, from Fairbanks to Anchorage, you need but to stand by the tracks and wave a red flag. The train will slow down and pick you up. Remnants of the frontier era I guess.
The train approached the station. We were boarded onto huge, two story rail cars owned by Princess. The top portion of the cars are glass domed and windowed. The view all around was spectacular. We were seated at a small table with John Carson, of Modesto Ca. and Therese Fogelman of Victoria, Australia. John was traveling with two other couples. Therese had just finished a six-week exploration of America by RV. Before that, she had visited Europe, Africa and many places in between. In that we were in close quarters, we soon got to know them pretty well. The conversation was wide ranging and interesting. Therese is a nurse by profession. John is a retired teacher.
The scenery around us was changing as we ran farther north. The slim birch trees were fading and the Spruce trees were becoming fuller and taller, like the Norwegian Spruce that does so well around W.N.Y. The train guide gave us occasional narration about the life and times along the trail. She gave us several minutes advance warning when we were approaching Hurricane Gorge, crossing the Chulitna River. The venerable railroad trestle spans a gorge that is several hundred feet across. It sits 300 feet above the river, not fun for acrophobics. We looked along the wide expanse of the Chulitna and could see the end of the long train behind us. The views of the gorge are awe inspiring. The artistic hand of a mighty river had sculpted this over wide gorge with an icy chisel, and left a broad canvass painted with autumnal colors of yellow, brown and gray. It was eye pleasing and inspiring.
The mountains and the far forests rolled by us in all their splendor and emptiness. Only rarely would we see a lone spruce log cabin, sitting on a hill side. These intrepid settlers had to be entirely self sufficient, even as to power, water, food and sanitation. Their only connection with the world was this weekly train in winter. And no, we didn't see any satellite t.v. dishes. Then, far off on the right of us, as if an apparition, appeared the industrial complex of a modern day “Lime Mine.” It is a successful operation, fed by rail that exports significant quantities of this prosaic ore. About this area we watched as rail crews were substituting concrete supports for the rails, replacing the rotting wooden ties beneath them. The work crews reminded me of civil service highway crews. One guy was digging in the hole and six of his colleagues were watching him.
We crossed the smallish “Jack River” and then headed into one of the more famous depots along the line, Denali Station. In the 1930's, just after the Park had been dedicated, wealthy tourists had unloaded entire train cars here, replete with 12-cylinder touring autos, for their extended vacations in the wilds of the Park. We offloaded and boarded bus #11 for the ride to the Denali Princess Lodge Complex. Two several story residences, and several two-story log buildings sit on the banks of the Nename River. The complex supports two restaurants, a bar, gift store and Klondike Theater. Across the road, a string of tour companies and a “Salmon Bake “ restaurant had grown up around the complex. Another resort sits high atop a mountain, just out of town. The feel was Northern Colorado, big and empty, with mountains all around us. It even looks like it would be colder than a well digger's butt here in the winter.
We were assigned room # 1151, in one of the taller residence buildings. Our bags were already delivered to our rooms, so we unpacked and settled in for a bit. Then, we walked the attractive “river walk” along the Nename, towards the center of the complex. Someone here has a green thumb. Huge baskets of fresh flowers were hanging from lamp poles and in front of all the buildings. It must be the long hours of the sun light that makes them grow so well. It made for an attractive compliment to the hotel complex. We walked by a log cabin “gift store.” Outside, all manner of wild creatures were chain saw carved from small trees. They stood in all of their wooden and life sized glory, waiting to be taken home. How do you fit one of these rascals into your suitcase?
We stopped in to look around the “King Salmon” restaurant and the more informal “Base Camp Bistro.” Both have large windowed views of the mountains and Nename River. We browsed the gift store, admiring the real fur jackets on sale. They cost more than an automobile. We had coffee in the Lodge and then walked along the other side of the road, looking into the tour companies and “Salmon Restaurant.” Everything is as pricey as you get further north. They must pay well here abouts. It was almost 5:30 P.M., as we retreated to our room. I wrote up my notes and we cleaned up some, before walking down the river walk to the “Base Camp Bistro. We had some pretty decent crab cake sandwiches and french fries. It was comfort food, yes. But, we were already calorically in over our heads, so what the heck! After dinner, we walked the grounds admiring the views all around us. It looked much as the attractive and restful scenery of the movie “A River Runs Through it.” We were tiring with the day and repaired to our rooms. A glass of Cabernet mellowed us. We read our books and then fell asleep to the gurgling of the rapid flowing Nename river, just beneath our window. It is a very nice way to fall asleep.
Thursday- 8/30/07- Denali Princess lodge - Denali National Park, Alaska
We were up at 4:30 A.M. The pleasant gurgle of the river was a nice sound to wake to. We read for a while, then watched the morning t.v news and had coffee in the room. We prepped for the day, then packed up our bags for the 8 A.M. pick up. We wished that we could stay here for another day. Our residence had a small breakfast nook in the first-floor lobby. We had some coffee and a bagel and lox sandwiches, with hash browns. We sat with Seth and Madeline Champagne, discussing the day's coming events. We were both headed, into the Denali National Park, for a five hour and thirty-minute Natural History Tour.
At 9 A.M., an old brown school bus picked us up for our tour. These small relics are the only conveyances allowed in the park, except for a limited number of campers. We were transported to the Park's visitors center, where we watched a brief film on the park's history (“Across the taiga and tundra”)
The six million acres of McKinley National Park had been created by act of Congress in 1917. The rugged terrain, and lack of roads, had prevented many people from seeing the natural wonders here. In 1922, they recorded only seven visitors. Slowly, a road was built into the park and more guests arrived. During the 20's and early 30's, Camp Savage, an expansive tent camp resort, housed many of the wealthy who visited. Their aforementioned touring cars led them into the wilds, for a brief “stay in nature.” Old pictures of the day show women standing in minks, silk dresses and stockings at the rail head. Times have changed, mercifully. The park also features a modern “Wilderness center” and a “Murie Science and Learning Center.” It is staffed by Federal Park Rangers. In winter, the park is closed at the six-mile marker. The remainder of the park is patrolled by rangers, using dog sleds, to detect poachers and other miscreants.
The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's laid down most of the present day expanse of 92 miles of road to the village of Katishna, at the other end of the park. Now, private cars are allowed only on the first six miles of the park roads. The rest of the journey is by made by means of these old brown school buses. In 1980, pressure from Native Alaskans changed the name of the McKinley National Park and Mt. McKinley, to its original Athabascan name, “Denali” or “the high one.” The climate here is a sub arctic desert. The area is sheltered by the Alaskan Mountains. It only gets about 15” of rain and 80” of snow annually.
The entrance into the park is predictably impressive. The sun dappled and multi colored hillsides are adorned with pockets of Spruce, Alder and Birch. The dark and thin Spruce, dotted along the dappled hillsides, reminded me of the Tuscan hillsides in Italy. They are as picturesque. Blackberries, soapberries and cranberries abound in the clumps of brush, favorites of the moose, caribou and various species of bear. High on the hillsides, the big horned Dall sheep perch on unbelievable narrow ridges, protections against predators less daring than they are. Porcupines and snow hares abound at ground level, in the deep brush. A photographer like Ansel Adams could spend a life time here composing pastoral photos that are soft and eye pleasing.
Our first stop was at the “Savage Cabin.” The CCC force had built a spruce log cabin for use as a cook and storage house, as they constructed the roads. When they moved up the line, they turned the cabins over to the Park Rangers, for use as patrol shacks. Built in 1923, this cabin is made of spruce logs, chinked with sphagnum moss and sports a sod roof with grass on top. The window's wooden shutters are also spiked with nails to keep out the bears. This cabin had sat originally along the banks of the Savage River in the Park. It had been moved inland to avoid the yearly Spring havoc wrecked by the ice jams and break ups on the river.
Next, a sharp-eyed bus driver spotted a female grizzly bear and her two cubs, off in the woods several hundred yards away. This prompted a small traffic jam on the two lane road, as several buses, a few camper vans and stray autos all stopped to “see the bear.” I muttered “take us to the zoo” a few times, bemused at the hankering. I am not too sure, I wondered sardonically, that it wasn't a couple of park rangers, hiding in the bushes and holding up cardboard cut outs of a grizzly bear and her cubs. (LFMM)
The bus moved on and we arrived at our farthest point in the park, Primrose Point, about twelve miles in. Four bus loads of tourists unloaded and enjoyed hot chocolate, using a mix and heated water, warmed from the back of the bus to mix with it. (honest) We then walked up a small rise. The view was inspiring. Mountains, wide sweeping valleys and all manner of muted fall colors caught the eye. One passenger carried a high-powered telescope with him. He espied a brace of big-horn Dall Sheep high on a hill side above us. They have a very white coat of longish hair, rounded horns and a billy goat. Even this far away, you could see them without assistance.
As we gathered on the rise, “Carol”, a native Athabascan from a village about 135 miles N.W. of here, was introduced to us. She talked of her native village and the conditions that they lived in. She also said, with a verbal wink, that they had access to McDonald's and all of the box stores, via float plane. Then, she sang a brief song in her native Athabascan tongue. It was an
interesting insight to a fast vanishing race of people. We loaded into the aging buses for the slow ride back to the park's entrance. Anyone coming after us should consider either taking the nine hour tour, which takes you much further into the park, or staying at the small hotel in Kantishna, some 62 miles into the park. You might then get to see some moose and bears without several hundred fellow tourists around you, straining to see something far away in the bush. (LFMM)
On the run back, a passenger cried moose!” Our bus, several others and a dozen camper vans all created another traffic jam as we all peered several hundred yards, across the grassy tundra, for the sight of two moose munching at the willow trees. If you looked carefully, you could just make out their shape as they moved from bush to bush. “Take us to the Zoo,” I muttered ruefully. (LFMM)
By 2 P.M., we were returned to the Denali Princess Complex. Our visit in the Park had been interesting, but all too brief. We had coffee and cookies in the lodge and wandered along the Nename River enjoying the afternoon sun. We were all waiting for the 3:30 P.M. shuttles that would take us to the rail head. We had time, so Mary and I hopped a shuttle to the Park's Visitor Center, a few miles away and just across from the rail station. We were not disappointed. It is a sophisticated portrayal, in dioramas and exhibits, that explains the wild life, ecosystem and history of Denali National Park. We wandered the exhibits, enjoying the science on display. Then, we walked along a brief trail to drink in the smells and sights of a forest trail in Alaska. It was sunny and 70 degrees out. True to form, a good-sized gift shop and small restaurant are also located conveniently on the premises, featuring all the best, small souvenirs that China and Indonesia can produce. (LFMM) We browsed with the now thickening crowds. It was time to head for the rail yard.
The waiting crowds were considerable. At each stop like this, most of the entire train gets off and boards the shuttle buses that we had just left. Then, they head for the resort and we board the huge double decked and glass domed cars, for the ride further up the line. This time our destination was Fairbanks, at the rail's end. We boarded our assigned car and were again seated with John Carson and Therese Fogelman, whom we had shared the train car with yesterday. Princess is an amazingly organized outfit! As the train cruised along the rugged river valley, we spotted several of the rugged Dall sheep, far off on the sandy hillside across the river. Their perches seemed almost untenable, as they munched at the vegetation. I wondered at these huge sand hills that formed the river banks. Now, so high above land in Northern Alaska, they must once have been at the bottom of a Northern Ocean, long, long ago. A geologist on the journey would have been welcome to explain to us what we were seeing.
The scenic river valley, through which we traversed, was also the source of another valuable commodity, coal. Some 1.25 million tons a year are mined here for domestic use in power generation. We crossed a trestle over a small river, at “Ferry, Alaska.” The guide told us an amusing anecdote. When the rail road was constructing their line, they put the ferrymen here out of work. There were also additional disputes about land acquisition and other practical matters. The Ferry residents came up on the losing end of the arguments. To show their contempt, they started a practice that they still continue today. Every year, on the Fourth of July, the entire town, men, women and children line up twice a day, when the train passes. The entire town collectively drops their trousers, amidst much laughter and hooting, and moon the train, to show their humorous anger towards the railroad. That must be one heck of a sight to see on the Fourth of July.
In the late afternoon, we again had the pleasure of eating dinner in the Dining car beneath us. John, Therese, Mary and I all sat in the comfortable booth, with glass windows. Mary and I had a Mondavi Cabernet. Then, salads, followed by a Salmon filet, mashed potatoes and broccoli. A wonderful berry pie capped off this delectable repast. Ah, dining in the wilderness of Alaska. (LFMM)
As we neared Fairbanks, the guide pointed out several local attractions. A large reindeer farm came up along our left side. It was part of the Agricultural & Technical School of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Then, the school itself flashed by. The campus looks both large and prosperous. Fairbanks itself passed by in flashes of strip malls and small complexes of housing. There are some 40,000 souls who live here year-round, bless them for their hardy perseverance. I took note of the heating wires attached to all the parking meters. You have to warm your engine oil, whenever parking here, or the whole engine will freeze solid in the Winter.
A shuttle picked us up at the train station, and delivered us to the Princess Riverside Fairbanks Lodge. It sounds more impressive than it is. Three, three-story wings of rooms surround a gift shop and two restaurants. A laundry and business office are located on the basement floor. It is pleasant enough in a utilitarian style. I think they build them for winter survival here, rather than aesthetic design, this far north. It is one of three hotel complexes owned by the Princess Organization here in Fairbanks. We were tired with the day. We unpacked our gear, settled in with a “vodka martini” and read our books. Sleep soon claimed us. It had been a long and interesting day in the far North of Alaska.
Friday- August 31, 2007- Riverside Lodge, Fairbanks, Alaska
We were up by 6 A.M. It was 43 degrees and cool out. We prepped for the day, and had coffee as we watched the morning news. 7 A.M. found us in the “Tracker's Restaurant” on the first floor of the hotel. We had some pretty decent omelets.
The shuttle arrived for us at 8:10 A.M. It would ferry us to the Binkley's Riverboat Cruise, up on the Chena River. The Binkley's complex is like an old frontier town. Four generations of the family had developed it and piloted stern wheelers up the Chena River. Our ship, the “Discovery III” is a stern paddle wheeler, four decks high, 165 feet long and weighs 180 tons. She can hold nine hundred passengers on the four decks and often fills to capacity in season. Today, she was about 2/3 full. We found windowed seats on the third deck. It was still too chilly for us to sit topside in the open air.
The picturesque paddle wheeler pushed off from the dock and we slowly churned up the river. The homes along the bank are not overly large, but are very expensive. One acre lots, along the river, cost in the $100,000 range. Building costs are in the $185 per sq. foot area. ($200,000 for a small home)The skipper held us stationary as a cooperative bush pilot landed his float plane and then took off from the river for our viewing pleasure. (LFMM) The graceful piper cub was rebuilt and worth $95,000. The pilot performed two landings and takeoffs, so that passengers on both sides of the ships could watch and enjoy the event. He then flew off into the morning sky.
Next, the ship docked near Dave Munson's Dog Kennel. His Wife, Susan Bucher, had won the Iditarod race five times. Last year she had succumbed to cancer. Dave gave a demonstration of a dog sled team, hauling a four-wheel ATV on the grounds along the bank. He could get the team up to the 20 miles per hour speed level for short bursts. He and the skipper talked at length on the care
and feeding of sled dogs, something that folks in these parts know a lot about. The animals are bred for speed and endurance, rather than size. They live for 16 human years on the average. Each has a distinct personality that determines whether it will be “wheel dog,” “lead dog” or “pack dog.” The orchestration of the dogs, in their proper places, will often make or break a team's chances in
the Iditarod. Their care and feeding is well thought out.
Around a bend in the river, we passed the colorful “Pump House Restaurant.” It sits at the mouth of “Cripple Creek.” A prospering gold mine had flourished here, just over the hill along Cripple Creek. Originally, huge pumps had forced water over the hills, for use in sluicing the lode bearing dirt and ore. Now, the area was “played out.”
We were approaching the “Chena River Indian Village “ on a small island in the river. Just before it, at a final bend in the river, as we just made the turn, a small heard of caribou raced from the forest into a small enclosure and started nibbling on willow branches, their favorite food. It had been so sudden that it took me a few second to realize that a handler had probably “cued the caribou” as we rounded the bend. Artificial? maybe, but entertaining to the passengers. (LFMM) The ploy reminded me of an old Chevy Chase film, when he was selling a farm in Vermont.
As we neared the Indian Village dock, the skipper pointed out to us a large “fish weir.” It is a metal, mesh contraption that turns with the water's current. Moving like a windmill, its two scoops lift anything that they come upon into mesh baskets, that slant any contents into awaiting basket by gravity feed. Though seemingly primitive, it is an ingenious, perpetual fishing machine
that often feeds a small village during Salmon Season.
At the Village, we were treated to a series of lectures in three venues, by Native Athbascans, students from the nearby University of Alaska. Each of the young women was personable, articulate and attractive. They shared with us many vignettes of their native Athabascan, Yup'ik, Inupiaq tribes. First, we got an explanation of the various furs trapped in the North. The young guide showed us examples of all the major furs harvested, as she sat in front of a spruce log hut. Fox, ermine, mink, muskrat, Martin and Beaver, Lynx and Timberwolf are the most valuable hides commercially. They are also employed for tribal use, in sewing warm clothes for themselves to weather the frigid Alaskan Winters. Each pelt had its use. The wolf hair is used in making the fringe, around the face of a garments hood. Chemical properties, in the skin of the wolf, make the fur immune from freezing and keeps moisture away from the wearer's face.
Next, an attractive native woman, Dixie Alexander, gave us a presentation on sewing beads into the furs and other means of adorning them, demonstrating the process. One of her creations is exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. Her daughter modeled a warm and beautiful fur coat, with attached hood. It was beaded, trimmed in wolf's fur and decorated with the
tribe's totem tastefully, on the back of the coat. It was for sale at $16,000.
Then, we were shown a series of hunting and fishing type of huts used by natives. Spruce bark logs are for log cabins, Spruce leaves and birch bark can build a temporary teepee, fi or use when hunting. Caribou, Moose and grizzly skins were hanging on a drying rack for our touch and perusal. The guide explained that contact with white people had provided the natives with the “axe and the saw.” Both enabled the natives to become a less nomadic people and enabled them to build more permanent settlements. A large Birch bark canoe, carved from a single tree, sat on display. It was a prime means of transportation for the natives, on the rivers. It was used for fishing as well.
Lastly, we were treated to a small dog pen area. A female trainer put her dogs through various paces. She was an Iditarod participant and runs a small Kennel nearby. Her love for and knowledge of the animals was apparent. They are like family for her. She demonstrated paw booties and body vests that are for use in the extreme cold for the animals. These dogs were well cared for and appreciated for their loyalty and endurance. As we walked back towards the stern wheeler, we looked in on a fish drying shack. The salmon were split down the middle and hung on racks to dry over an alder tree fire. The smoked salmon last
longer in storage, in the ground, this way. They fed Native tribes in this manner, well into a cold Winter.
This had been an interesting and informative tour. The Binkley's know how to entertain their guests. The paddle wheeler ferried us back to their dock. We browsed for a time, in the very large gift store, before our bus transported us back to the Riverfront Lodge. We had an hour before our next tour took us up to the El Dorado Gold Mine, outside of Town. We joined Madeline and Seth Champagne and settled into “Tracker's” in the hotel. We had some decent fish chowder and a vegetarian wrap for lunch.
At 2:30 P.M., the bus picked us up for our City of Gold Tour.” It was sunny and 65 degrees out, a beautiful afternoon to pan for gold. On the way to the mine, we stopped at Mile marker #450 of the Alaskan Pipeline. The raised section, of the 48” diameter pipeline emerges from the ground here and runs 400 miles further South to its terminal point at Valdez, on Prince William Sound. In the other direction, it runs 385 miles up to Point Barrow on the Arctic Ocean. The engineering of these pipe lines is amazing. The first four hundred miles or so, from the north, are set in deep bedrock. Then, as the line crosses huge areas of the ecologically delicate perma frost, it is raised on metal stilts about 12 feet in the air. This also allows for animal migration underneath the pipeline. The raised platforms also have built in expansion joints that allow the pipe to move both laterally and vertically, to safeguard it from earthquake and ground upheaval. Inside of these lines, thermal vents carry the heat, from the underground sections, to avoid melting the perma frost. We also saw examples of a “Pig.” It is a rounded, conical structure that is sent hurtling through the pipeline to clean it of debris. A “smart pig” is a similar tool, but has sensors to detect structural anomalies in the pipeline walls, and other weakness that could lead to structural failure. Twelve pumping stations, along its length, keep the 9 million gallons of oil that fill it moving from one end to the other. The oil travels about 4 mph and takes a few days to make the journey. The entire length of the pipeline had taken years to build in the early 1970's. Its construction cost over was $8 billion dollars. The Pipeline had been funded and is owned by a consortium of Exxon, Conneco, Philips Unacal, Conalaska, and British Petroleum. Oil experts now claim that there is sufficient space, in the pipeline, to handle more supply. There is a considerable lobbying effort by the industry to pressure the U.S. Government into opening up the Alaskan Arctic Preserve, North of here, to exploration. Conservationist groups fight the effort.
When the oil revenue started pouring in, the Alaskans had the foresight to start banking a large portion of their share of the proceeds. Called the “permanent fund,” the cache is now valued in the $40 billion dollar range. This pot of money, utilizing 50% of its yearly dividends, funds a yearly stipend for each and every Alaskan. In 2006 it was about $1,500 per person. To qualify, you have but to settle and live in Alaska for a year before you file. A large family up here can be an asset.
From the pipeline, we traveled to another source of wealth in Alaska, the glistening yellow kind. We arrived at the Eldorado Gold mine, in the small community of Fox. We got off the bus and boarded a string of open windowed mining cars, on the Tatana Valley R.R. The steam train drew us along narrow gauge tracks, into an actual gold mine. There, a miner in period costume, explained the nature of mining for gold. Quartz is the gold bearing ore. Miners sought out the veins of quartz in the rocky walls of the mine. Then, they used high pressure steam heated water to erode the face of the mine walls, exposing more of the ore. Then, old fashioned pick axes dug it from the walls. It was carried to the surface, in mining carts, and hauled by donkeys or small trains like the one we rode. It was then sluiced, with large volumes of water, and panned for dust and nuggets. Gold is 18 times heavier than water and always settles to the bottom of a sluice or pan.
An example of an old miner's cabin lay before us on the ride further up. Built of spruce logs, with a sod roof, it was tucked into a hillside near a small creek. A wooden rocker box is an implement that the miner poured his dirt
into and let the creek water sluice it for him, hoping for a “show of yellow.” A solitary miner could work a claim like this until he struck ore or starved to death.
Our guides treated us to a demonstration of a large scale commercial sluice box. A pond above the sluice way was dammed until water backed up. Then, dirt was fed into a twin walled alley of spruce boards. The bottom of the spruce box is lined, with netting and burlap, to catch the gold flakes. After quantities of the ore bearing dirt were fed along the sluice, the damn was opened and water ran down its length. Gold dust would sink to the bottom of the sluice for harvesting. In later days, ingenious miners had used astro turf for the sluice lining. It caught the gold flakes more efficiently and lasts forever. From the sluice box, we all walked over, through a short mine, and were handed a bag of ore bearing dirt. We emptied it into a metal pan, the shape of a shallow wok. We carefully roiled the water round and round, until many of the stones and dirt spilled over the edge of the pan. A last step entailed using a wave motion, to carry the last elements of the dirt from the pan. The heavier metal gold flakes settled and stuck to the surface of the pan. Skeptical at first, we tried and enjoyed the panning. Mary and I captured small yellow gold dust, which we placed in the plastic containers provided for us.
The next process was the most interesting for many. We walked into the large and well stocked gift store of the El Dorado Gold Mine. Coffee and enormous, freshly baked chocolate cookies were provided for all of us. We enjoyed them immensely. We stood in line and had our “gold dust” weighed. Between us, we had panned for almost $13 in gold. You can see where people get a “gold fever” from panning. Of course, the shop offered to encase your gold dust in attractive wrist and necklace chains. Not a bad deal! For seeding the dirt, with $5 or $6 of dust, they got you to purchase a $60 bracelet or necklace to hold your find. Some genius had thought up a marketing winner. Quite a few of our troop walked from the store, pleased as punch with their new bracelets.
We browsed the attractive store, enjoying the many items on sale. Not all of them were from China or Indonesia. We even got to heft and get the feel of an actual 19 ounce nugget of gold. Its current worth is over $25,000. You can still see traces of quartz ore in the seams of the hand sized nugget. The curious metal does have a draw to it. We boarded the train, in the warmth of the afternoon sun, for the ride back down to the depot. A singer with a banjo entertained us. At the depot, we boarded our bus for the ride back to the Riverside Lodge.
The Alaskan sun was still high in the sky at 6 :00 P.M. We tossed a load of whites into the first floor washing machine and went for a walk in the warm afternoon sun. The Pike's Resort lies almost adjacent to the Riverside Lodge. It is an attractive complex, also owned by the Princess Organization. We looked into the attractive lobby and restaurant and then returned to the Riverside, where we sat for a time on the rear sundeck along the Chena River. The scenery was bucolic and restful, like any area of rural country in the warm afternoon's summer sun.
We checked on our laundry and threw the contents into the dryer. We then walked to “Trackers Restaurant,” on the first floor of the hotel. We sat down to caesar salads and clam chowder. Both were very good. They feed you well here. After dinner, we checked our e-mails, and then picked up our clothes from the laundry. It was getting late and we were tiring with the day. We packed up our bags for the morning departure, wrote up my notes and then read for a while, until a welcome torpor drove us into the arms of Morpheus. It had been another interesting day in Alaska.
Saturday- September 1, 2007- Riverside Lodge, Fairbanks, Alaska
Six A.M. found us having coffee and watching the T.V. news. We prepped for the day and then packed our bags for the relatively late pick up of 9:30 A.M. We read our books, in the hotel lobby, and waited for the 10:15 A.M. airport shuttle. Soon enough, we boarded the bus for the run to the nearby airport. We picked our bags, from the pile of luggage, and checked them in at the Alaska Air Counter, flight # 184 for Anchorage. The security screen was perfunctory. We had time, so we enjoyed some coffee and muffins at an airport snack shop.
While standing near the departure gate, talking to Seth and Madeline Champagne, an air Alaska attendant approached us and asked if we would all like to be “bumped up to first class” for the flight. Does the pope do it in the woods? Is a bear Catholic? We accepted with pleasure. Now, where is that lottery sales kiosk?
The Air Alaska plane off-lifted and we headed south for the fifty-minute flight to Anchorage. As we approached the Alaska Range of Mountains, I could see a large portion of shining white cone of Mount McKinley, thundering up from the cloud mass below. It looked like a frozen jungle mount, surrounded by the misty clouds of her shore. No one had seen it like this in a hundred years I bet:) (LFMM)
Shortly, we began our descent into Anchorage. I looked for riders on the bike path as we passed over the shoreline. Our final approach really came pretty close to the path. After arrival, we picked up our bags, stacked them with a Princess representative and boarded another bus that would take us to the deep-water cruise terminal at Whittier, some 2 hours further south and east of here. Along the way, the driver explained that we would be passing through a tunnel, riding over rail tracks and under a mountain, and that the passage was “one way.” Every half hour, they shift the traffic direction and those going the other way have to wait thirty minutes until the next change. This was a welcome avenue of approach, effected in 2001. Before that, the only way to get to Whittier was by boat or rail, through this same tunnel.
Whittier, and nearby Valdez, the oil pipeline terminal, are located in a portion of Alaska that gets lots of rain, almost 140 inches a year. The small towns are harbored in fjord-like inlets of the Prince William Sound. They are deep water harbors and can handle cruise ships and the huge super tankers that dock here. The tidal range here is over 38 feet.
Earlier than expected, the bus pulled into the small, and I do mean small, port of Whittier. Except for the harbor area, I could see but a few residence complexes and a retail store or two. I don't think I would want to spend any time here. There before us, anchored at the dock, stood the shining white monstrosity of the Sapphire Princess. You don't really get an appreciation, for how big these ships are, until you are standing along side of them. Built by the Mitsubishi Industries Ltd. at the Nagasaki Shipyards in Japan in 2004, the ship is registered in Hamilton, Bermuda. She is 946 feet long and displaces 60,636 tons. She has a 120 feet beam and rises 203 from her keel. She carries 750,000 gallons of fuel and can manage a cruising speed of 22 knots at sea. This is one huge hummer of a ship!
We had been aboard the Dawn Princess, on a previous cruise, and found her roomy, comfortable and an agreeable berth. We were to discover that the Sapphire Princess was even “more so.” Sixteen decks of staterooms and restaurants, theaters and all manner of support facilities grace her elegant decks. A three-story atrium, from decks five through seven, are lined with retail stores, a casino and several coffee shops and bars. It is a six-star hotel that floats from destination to destination.
The check in and security screen were routine. The Princess organizational magic continued. We were assigned cabin C-305 on the Carribe Deck. (deck 10). We walked to our stateroom and settled in for a bit. It was roomy, with good closet space. The large balcony gave us a feeling of space in the room. We could also see and smell the sea air. Our bags would not be delivered for a bit, so we walked the ship enjoying the many new sights around us. An indoor pool and spa area looked promising. A jogging deck, on deck 16, gave us thoughts of the many calories that we had ingested during the last nine days. We found the “Horizon's Grill” on deck 14. It is a huge assembly of tables, along both sides of the ship. A large buffet area is open almost continually. This is the main “slop the hogs venue” on the ship. It was already serving lunch. Newly arrived passengers were already seated, with heaping plate of food. I think the first day or two, of a cruise, some folks refuse to believe the quantity and quality of food available, so they eat hearty, lest the fog be lifted and they return to their normal fare. We sat down with salads and watched, from our deck 14 perch, the activities of the port around us. We were already tiring, from the day's activities, so we returned to the cabin for a short conversation with Ozzie Nelson.(nap)
Our bags were delivered by seven P.M.. We unpacked, grateful that we would be able to sort things out and not have to “dumpster dive” into our luggage, as we had for the last week. A “boat drill” was scheduled for 8 P.M. Attendance is mandatory aboard all passenger ships at sea. We sat, with our large red floatation vests, in the “wheel house Grill.” We listened, to a rather officious crew member, detail boat assignments, abandon ship procedures etc. I never get too jaded with these performances. You only have to have one of them go wrong once. We paid attention. Coincidentally, “Titanic” was showing on a room television channel later that day. HUH?
It was 9 P.M. by the time we made it down to the “Pacific Moon” restaurant on deck # 6. We enjoyed some wonderful Mondavi reserve Cabernet. Shrimp appetizer, mushroom soup and a salad were followed by a Salmon filet, with potatoes and tomato. Coffee and a Viennese strudel, with warm vanilla ice cream, followed. It was exquisite. Stuffed like a hog for slaughter, we decided that we had better make plans for the gym tomorrow!
After dinner, we walked topside. The sun was just setting at 9:45 P.M. as we watched the synchronized ballet of a great ship leaving harbor. They maneuver these monsters with side thrusters, and can almost turn on a dime. It is a pleasure to see an adept ship handle manage one of these leviathans. I thought then of a great, great grandfather, old Emmanuel Martin, who had been a
great lakes sailor, on and old wooden steam ship. What would he have thought of this behemoth of a vessel sailing so placidly and easily away from dockside?
The air was cooling and we were tiring with the day. We repaired to our cabin. I wrote up my notes for the day, then settled in with Stephen King's “Lisey's Story,” until our leaden eyelids brought close to the day.
Sunday- September 2, 2007- Aboard Sapphire Princess- crossing Prince William Sound, Alaska
We were up by 6 A.M., dressed and ventured topside. During the night, The Sapphire Princess had motored through Prince William Sound, sight of the 1989 Exxon Oil Valdez spill. Near Port Wells, we entered the “College Fjord. “ It was so named by R.R. magnate E.H.. Harriman, during his 1893 “voyage of discovery” to the area. He and friends had named the many glaciers after their Eastern Colleges, Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth, snubbing Yale on purpose. Several others were named, at their wives insistence, after cooed alumni, Smith, Vassar and Bryn Mawr. The rich were at play. It was 42 degrees out. The air was chilled, with a low fog that hung around the tops of nearby mountain sides, almost Tolkienesque in effect. We could see many small ice floes in the water, as the ship drifted eerily through the early morning fog.
At the deck 14 Horizon's Restaurant, we ran into the Champagnes and sat with them for breakfast. Scrambled eggs and lox tasted pretty decent. The coffee was also tolerable fair. After breakfast, we bundled against the chilly air and walked topside to hear a naturalist talk on the area and watch the sea, sky and mountains around us. The huge fjord had been carved by glaciers over the eons. Volcanic in origin, this area had been the epicenter of the 1964 earthquake that had leveled Anchorage. The quake had generated a tsunami over 200 feet in height. It drowned a number of Alaskans in shore villages. Volcanic eruptions had occurred here as late as 1912. We watched quietly, as the ship slid down the fjord. We didn't see any “calving” of glaciers here, just viewed several of these retreating “rivers of ice” as they sat slowly, gliding down their sculpted crevasses into the deep green of the fjord. The deep blue crystal-like sheen, of the glaciers interiors, shined out at us as the sun broke through the clouds. The edges of the glaciers are dirtier and rock and debris filled, accumulations added as the ice further erodes their small valleys. You could almost picture the glaciers, as great carving tools, sculpting, always sculpting, the hills across the eons until whole new shapes were created on the surface of the planet. The scenery was enchanting, if glacially cool.
Facing a caloric binge of epic dimensions, we suited up and walked 40 laps on the deck 15 jogging track. Though just two miles, we figured it was at least a start in the battle of the bulge. It was still cloudy and in the low 40's out. Mary put some laundry in, and we settled in to the cabin to read for a bit. (Lost Lake- Phillip Margolin).
Near 1.P.M.. we walked down to the International Dining room on deck #6. It is a more traditional restaurant than the informality of the Horizons. We were seated with a couple from Knoxville, Tenn. (Deb & John) , a salesman from Ft, Lauderdale.(Glen) and a mildly complaining couple from whocaresville. The conversation was interesting, as everyone traded stories and experiences. We enjoyed some clam chowder, a seafood entree and a peach cobbler for dessert. It was delicious. We also knew we had already forfeited the benefits of our morning walk.
After lunch, we tried the internet station. It was $.75 a minute. It was also slower than paint drying. We gave up and returned to our room to read for a while and take a well earned nap. During the afternoon, the ship motored from College Fjord, across the Gulf of Alaska, clearing cape Hinchinbrook towards Cape Spencer and the “Inside Passage.”
By 5 P.M. the fog had lifted completely. It was sunny and a relatively warm 55 degrees on deck. We suited up for another 40 laps on the deck 15 jogging track. We were determined to make this cruise calorie neutral. As we walked round and round, you got to observe the sea, skyand clouds all around. The far coast line looked cold and forbidding. I wondered at the wooden ships, that had sailed here, and the courage of those intrepid sailors, venturing so far into the icy unknown of an unexplored expanse. I don't think they make them like that anymore.
Coffee, in one of the lounges, cooled us off, as we watched the ebb and flow of the passengers around us. We have learned to much enjoy these quiet days at sea, aboard an elegant liner. We returned to our cabin to read a bit, shower and dress for dinner. We were meeting Seth and Madeline Champagne for a “Formal Dinner,” at 8:30 P.M., in The Savoy Dining Room on deck #6. “Formal” means a tuxedo, or dark suit for men, and an evening dress for women. I had elected not to drag my tux across a continent, but wore a dark suit. Mary wore a black dress. We stopped first at the “Explorer's bar” for a drink, as we listened to a
jazz combo play softly. I chatted with a hostess, from just up the road from us in Toronto, Canda. Elegantly attired passengers walked up and down the grand ship passageways. It is a time to sartorially “strut one's stuff,” like an Easter Parade of old.
The Champagnes saw and collected us for dinner. Seth was attired in a black tuxedo, Madeline in an evening dress. They clean up pretty nicely. We complimented them on their appearance. We were already at the stage where we were comfortable enough to gently tease them. They had a good sense of humor and returned the repartee. Mondavi Cabernet started off our meal. A crab quiche, lobster bisque and a delightful Louisiana Crayfish followed. They were exquisite. I also learned that you never say “Crayfish” in earshot of Cajuns. It is pronounced “CRAWFISH. “ Coffee, and a chocolate soufflé, topped off this elegant repast. Our conversation was relaxed and easy. We were glad that we had met and made friends with Seth and Madeline. Our meal was made more enjoyable by Jane, a humorous, Thai waitress. She was personable and smart as a whip. Her repartee was both humorous and pointed. I wouldn't want to argue with her. It was a nice ending for a fine day at sea. We returned to our cabin read for a time and then drifted off to sleep to the gentle roll of a great ship at sea.
Monday- September 3, 2007- Aboard Sapphire Princess in the Gulf of Alaska
We were up at 8 A.M. It was a very cold 40 degrees out. The clouds and fog enveloped us eerily. Periodically, the mournful blasts, of the Sapphire's fog horn, would wail into the gray mists around us. We suited up and headed for the deck 15 gym and spa. It is a first class facility, with exercycles, a range of machine weights, treadmills and free weights. We did our best, for an hour, to combat the caloric tide. A brief sauna afterwards felt even better.
By 10:30 A.M. The Sapphire Princess had entered Glacier Bay. She stopped, at Bartlett's cove, to pick up a Park Ranger who would give talks on the ecology of the area. This entire sixty mile fjord, and the surrounding terrain, comprise “Glaciers National Park.” It is a federal preserve that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Canadian border, at the edge of the ice fields.
George Vancouver had sailed by here in 1794. The four hundred foot high wall of ice stretched for some 21 miles, across the entrance to the Fjord and met him at the ocean's edge. When naturalist John Muir returned here, in the 1890's, the massive ice field had already retreated some 60 miles back up the fjord. Since then, the rivers of ice had fallen back still another 35 miles, to “Margerie's Glacier” on the far end of the Fjord, at the Canadian border. Global warming? The jury is still out. Rangers say that the Summer temperatures here have indeed risen by 3.5 degrees. The increase does help melt the glaciers.
After the gym, we stopped by the Horizons Court. Scrambled eggs and lox always tasted good to me. We idled over coffee, watching the eerie gray fog swirl around us, as we sat high above the ship on deck 14. It looked mighty cold out there. We returned to our cabin to read and chill out for a time.
12:30 P.M. found us topside. A chill wind was rising. It made for some frigid viewing of the grandeur around us. The park ranger was giving a running narration of the flora and geology around us. We were coming up to the Grand Pacific Glacier. Her wall of ice is messy and black from the enormous quantity of rocks and dirt that she scrapes out of her gorge on the glacier's slow slide to the fjord. Scientists estimate that the Grand Pacific Glacier drops 10,000 lbs. of rubble into the fjord daily.
A smaller touring vessel lay just up ahead of us. She looked like a toy rowboat against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains. We were approaching the “Marjorie Glacier.” The great leviathan motored to within a few hundred yards of the fractured wall of ice. The fog had lifted and we could now see clearly what lay in front of us. A huge wall of ice, about one half mile across and several hundred feet high, sat with her steep face towards us. The Summer's sun had eroded her surface into many icy whodoos, frozen carvings all across her top side. The glistening pale blue, of her interior, sparkled out at us. Scientists explain that the extreme compaction of the ice traps most of the shorter primary colors o.f the color spectrum, allowing only the longer “blue rays” to shine back out at us, thus giving these monstrous icebergs their unique coloration.
The crowds, on the fore deck of the ship on several levels were enormous. Everyone wanted to see the huge “calving,” a portion of that wall of ice as it splashed into the sea. We watched for a time waiting patiently. A loud ”crack"” called “white thunder” by the natives, accompanied a small fall of snow and ice into the sea. It brought the predictable “oohs and “aahs” from the watching passengers. But that was all the show that there was to be for a day. We would have to imagine, for ourselves, the powerful splash of huge quantities of ice into the frozen water. ( LFMM)
The grand vessel swiveled using her side thrusters, and executed a 180 degree turn. This skipper knew how to steer his boat! We began the sixty five mile cruise back up the fjord towards the Gulf of Alaska. Another cruise ship, of the Holland America Line, was just making her way towards the Margerie Glacier. Even her grand size was dwarfed by the rocky and frozen back drop of the fjord. The park allows only two such leviathans in the fjord, daily. The walls of the fjord are eroded at spots, where an ancient glacier had carved its way to the fjord. You could still see the scoured width of its ancient path, and note the piles of rocks and rubble that melted as the glacier died. To say that this kind of scenery is impressive would be inadequate. It is of the “wow” variety. You will just have to see it for yourself one day to appreciate it.
Chilled with the cold, we sat down for salads in the Horizon's cafe at 2:45 P.M. The ship was motoring along the fjord and we could but watch and enjoy the mountains as they slid by us. We had run into the Champagnes and arranged to meet them for dinner this evening at 8:30 P.M. in the Savoy Dining Room.
Thinking of the continuing caloric tide to come, we suited up and did 40 laps (2 miles) around the deck 15 jogging track. We got to drink in the spectacular scenery as we walked round and round topside. We then retreated to our cabin to read our books and chill for a bit. We could still view the scenery from the balcony. A fifty minute conversation, with Ozzie Nelson (nap), helped invigorate us. We showered up, prepped for dinner and made out way to the Savoy, at 8:30 P.M.
We sat with the Champagnes and enjoyed the repartee with Jane, our pleasant and funny Thai waitress. Mondavi Cabernet, shrimp cocktail, calamari and mushrooms started the meal. A wonderful swordfish entre was flavorful. Decent coffee and Peach Cobbler completed a memorable repast. They feed you well on these old tubs. We chatted long with the Champagnes, enjoying stories of their children. It is a pleasant way to end the day. We passed on any late night entertainment and headed into the barns for an early quit. We read for a time and surrendered to the call of the sandman.
During the evening hours, the Sapphire Princess had motored along the “Icy Straight' towards Skagway. She would pass through the Lynn Canal and the Taiya Inlet, before berthing at this historic gold rush port of Skagway.
Tues.- September 4, 2007- aboard Princess Sapphire in the Icy Straights of Alaska
We were up by 7:30 A.M. It was 53 degrees out, cloudy, with a light mist falling. We were now 900 miles S.E. of Whittier and 1300 miles from Fairbanks. We breakfasted briefly, in the Horizon's cafe, and then left the ship for the short walk into historic Skagway. The high walls of the cliff face, around the port, hold flat rock surfaces that are decorated with the names of all the many ships that had visited Skagway and the date of their first visit.
Boy, had things changed since the Goldrush. In the six blocks of the main drag, we must have passed thirty jewelers and a dozen gift shops. We browsed a few of them, purchasing the odd souvenir for our smaller relatives. Four cruise ships were docked in port today. The lone street was awash with aging shoppers, buying tee shirts and jewelry. The rest of the town is pretty beat up. It doesn't have much to attract tourists. We walked back towards the ship, stopping at a small creek to watch the fat salmon swimming in abundance. The light rain continued to fall. This quadrant of Alaska, is very wet, sometimes averaging 100 to 150 inches of rain yearly. Skagway is connected by road, to Whitehorse in the Yukon, one of the few such towns along the coast that is accessible by land.
At noon, we were shipside, where we boarded a bus for our two and one half hour “Historic Skagway Tour.” The driver began a narration of the city and its part in the 1890's Goldrush. Prospectors made their way here from the lower 48 states, by any means afloat. They then had to struggle up the White Pass, or the Chillicoot pass, carrying two tons of gear, to make it to a lake on the other side. Then, they had to raft its length, to the Yukon River, and on to Dawson City and the gold fields in Canada. Murderers and villains in Dawson, frigid temperatures and avalanches had taken their toll on the prospectors, many of whom were ill equipped for the trek. Jack London, wrote some memorable pieces, like “White Fang” and “Call of the wild,” while prospecting[ here. Canadian poet Robert W. Service had penned the memorable “Dangerous Dan McGrew” and other lighter, tragic-comic poems describing the life and times of the gold rush.
In town, we passed the “Red Onion Saloon & Brothel.” It had been one of many such establishments that had sprung up to service the hordes of lonely miners. One such emporium had been located above a bakery. Their sign out front advertised “hot buns” day and night, Klondike humor. We were headed for the “Liarsville” prospector's base camp. It was the last spot many adventurers would see, before their arduous trek across Chillicoot or White's pass. The rain continued as we pulled up to this interesting complex situated in the damp woods outside Skagway. It was so named, because the contingent of print media would settle in here and file their many stories, of the gold rush and lawless Dawson, without ever having made the difficult journey across the pass and down to Dawson. The stories they filed were all hearsay. They made them up, as best they could, for the reading pleasure of their public, thirsty for stories of the fabulous gold rush.
The camp itself tries to be authentic. The rain and the damp helped set the stage. We walked into a chow line and were given blue enamel plates. We shoveled some baked beans and corn pone bread onto our plates and then were given a tasty grilled salmon filet. We collected a mug of coffee and sat around wooden tables, under a roof with open sides. We chatted with a Canadian couple from Calgary and another couple from Hunstville, Alabama. They were associated with the Space Lab there. The mister did not seem too amused at sitting in the rain and eating beans and salmon. We made the best of it and enjoyed the conversation.
After lunch, we were herded across the stony street, to the main area of the camp. Canvass tents sit in and under the trees, with realistic decor layed out in them. A press tent featured an old typewriter. A make shift brothel, sported an old bed and some fancy women's under things. A “madam is out so beat it” sign hung of the ten's flap.Names of the “service providers” were listed for selection. Oregon Mare, Big Dessie, Klondike Kate, and Pea Hullane were all available for “negotiated affections.” Fifteen minutes was the longest time period available for purchase.
A primitive laundry, with wash tubs and scrub brushes, advertised its prices. A cargo handler's tent offered “cargo pigs “ for hire. Huh? Damp, wet and primitive, it did give you the flavor of an old prospector's camp. A musical trio played the fiddle and sang for us. A roaring fire, under a lean to, tried to dry out the air. Naturally a gift shop offered its Asian trinkets for sale.
We were shepherded into the “Liarsville Hippodrome.” It is a collection of wooden benches, that sit under a spruce bark roof, with open sides. A young female attendant gave us a humorous reading of Robert W. Service's “Blasphemesville.” A comic entertained us with topical humor. It was fun, even in the rain. After the brief performance, we walked over to several long wooden troughs of water. The staff handed us our metal pans. We spilled some dirt into them and gently washed water in the pans round and round, until several gold flakes appeared in the bottom of the pan. We added them to our previous pannings. We were loaded with gold dust, at almost the $20 level.:) (LFMM)
At 2:00 P.M. our bus rescued us from the chill and damp of the falling rain. We drove back through town, to the luxury and warmth of the ship. We read our books for a time and relaxed. I made an early run to the sauna, on deck 15, to warm up my chilled bones. I met and chatted with an elderly Japanese. He had twelve word of English. I had maybe 11 of Japanese. Still, I found out that he was an auto worker from the Toyota complex at Nagano. He taught me how to say “too hot,” in Japanese (assayo atsui.) Another gent, was a Chinese-Canadian from Vancouver. He advised that Vancouver is under heavy construction, trying to get ready for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It these accidental meeting aboard ship, often across cultural and linguistic boundaries, that I find so interesting. Back in the room, I read for a bit (“Black water Sound” James Hale) and then caught a brief nap.
7:45 P.M. found us in the deck 17 “Sky walk lounge.” It has a great vista,looking out from high on the stern of the ship. We enjoyed a glass of cabernet and talked with our young Scottish waitress. She is from Glasgow. I told her that one of my great grandmothers had come from there as well. It is a small world that we live in. The great ship started making preparations for getting underway at 8:00 P.M.
The Sapphire has two speciality dining rooms available for an extra fee. The Sterling Steakhouse was one ($15) and Sabatini's was the other one ($20). We were meeting the Champagnes for, an 8:30 P.M. dinner, in the “Sterling Steak House” on deck 14. Shrimp cocktails, caesar salads and a delicious Halibut filet made my meal memorable. My companions all enjoyed prime cuts of steak. We chatted with young Igor, a Russian expatriate. I managed to remember a few phrases of Russian from my college days. A chocolate pecan pie, and good coffee, ended a nice meal. We were going to have to hustle, with some rigorous exercise, to pay for all these calories. We walked to our cabin. We were relaxed and feeling pretty good about our stay here in Alaska. We read our books for a time and then surrendered to our falling eyelids. We slept to the motion of a great ship at sea.
During the night hours, the great ship motored through the Taiya Inlet, rounding Tantallon Point and sailed North through the Gastineau Channel on her way towards the State's Capital in Juneau.
Wednesday- September 5, 2007- Juneau, Alaska
We were up by 7 A.M. It was cloudy and a very cool 53 degrees out, with a light mist of rain falling. We had breakfast in the Horizons cafe, on deck # 14, and then disembarked for our 9:30 A.M. Juneau History and Mendenhall Glacier Tour.
Juneau, the Alaskan State Capital is reachable by sea and air only. It sits in the Mendenhall Fjord, ringed by mountains, with a thin 30 miles of roads strung around its periphery. The area gets over 90 inches of rain and 100 inches of snow yearly. It is gray and overcast most days. The temperatures can rise to 90 degrees F in July or sink to -22 F in February. Some 30,000 souls live here year round. Lobbyists, interest groups and government employees fuel its year round economy.
There actually was an individual named “Joe Juneau,” who with his partner Richard Harris, came to the Silver Bow Basin area in 1880, looking for gold. Their quest was based on rumors fed to a financial backer by a Native Alaskan Chief named Powie. Juneau and Harris found nothing on their first two trips. On the third trip, they struck pay dirt near Lemon Creek. Their financial backers caught up with the two lucky partners, as they boarded steamers for Seattle, intent on heading for the hills. The city was first named Harris because he was the only one who could read, write and leave records. Later miners named it Rockwell, during the gold rush. Finally, the settlers named it in honor of Joe Juneau. Like a lot of miners, Juneau died broke in the Yukon, prospecting for another claim. The territorial Government was transferred to Juneau in 1906, from the old Imperial Russian Capital in Sitka. It has remained the political center of Alaska ever since.
The several square blocks of the downtown area appear much more upscale than those in Skagway. The Alaska Shirt Company, The Red Dog Saloon and other commercial establishments have the same pitch, but are just a little nicer in appearance. Four other cruise ships were in port today. The small shopping area was over run. Float planes and helicopters buzzed above us. They were headed on tours for over viewing of the surrounding glaciers. They were already busy with the day's commerce.
Our bus ferried us the few short miles from Juneau to one of the major attractions in the area, The Mendenhall Glacier National Park. We got off the bus and walked to “ Steep Creek.” It flows from the wooded hillsides into the fjord. We watched for a time, as a stream of bright red salmon swam up the creek. They looked like big suckers. We could see Salmon skins all along the far bank, where bears had come to feed and stripped the skin from their dinner before eating. The wooden walkway led up towards the Glacier Visitor center. A spur of it was blocked off. A sign hung from a rope, “Closed due to bear activity.” None of us, who had just seen all of the fish skins, challenged that sign. Most fokks respect the size and power of a bear.
We walked out onto a raised point of land that faced the Mendenhall Glacier. Impressive in size, the enormous wall of ice stood impassively as a hundred camera flashes recorded its rugged and imposing beauty. The shining, light blue turquoise auras glistened from within. The surface of the glacier is erose from sun warming and continued movement. Scientists had measured the Glaciers flow and found that the center of the mass flows faster that the sides, which scrape up against the rock walls of the gorge. The water, in the deep green fjord below the glacier, was adorned with ice floes of various sizes. No floes of any size lasted long in the August rain and heat. The Glacier itself retreats 200- 300 feet per year. At the present rate of warming, it too may be just a memory in a scant few hundred years.
A few hundred yards along the rock face, Nugget Falls spewed a continuous stream of icy white water down the granite walls of the gorge.The mountains surrounding the area feed the rivers and streams continually from their perpetual ice coverings. We watched and enjoyed this massive wall of ice. No significant calving occurred while we walked the paths around the park area. Rangers said that some knuckle heads, in the Winter, walk across the frozen surface of the Fjord to the glaciers face. One good calvingand they would be crushed in an instant. That sums up a city kids view of things here in Alaska. We treat the wilderness like an amusement park. The reality of nature here in Alaska is that it is totally unforgiving. Mistakes here end in your imminent demise. As tourists, we had lost that sense of “danger in the wild.”
We walked up a winding hill path to the enclosed nature center. A small fee for admission lets you into a heated observatory. Films of glaciers and the Alaska wild are shown periodically. A small gift shop sells items from China and Indonesia. We viewed the glacier through the telescopes and read the dioramas explaining glaciers and other exhibits. There is an interesting process that occurs, as the glaciers retreat, called “Deglaciation.” We had viewed various stages of it in the College and Glacier Fjords. First a “bullseye lichen” covers the bare rocks with a furry green fuzz. Then, bird droppings and other detritus begin to cover them, creating soil. Dwarf fireweed takes root in the shallow soil. Then, as more and more vegetation accumulates, shallow rooted Sitka Spruce and Cottonwood tress take root and soon cover the hillsides. Bear, sheep, and other animals come to feed on the brush and berries. You now have a functioning ecosystem where once there had been but ice and rock. Maybe we should start inquiring about land for Summer cottages along the Nome Coast of the Bering sea?
Our bus returned by 1:30 P.M. and ferried us back into Juneau. Mary and I found the “Red Dog Saloon.” It is a functioning old time saloon, complete with saw dust on the floors and a piano player singing for his supper. The place was awash with visitors, but warm and cozy. We managed to grab two seats, at a corner of the bar, and ordered up two glasses of Alaskan Amber Ale. It was pretty good tasting. For $6 a glass for draft beer, it should be. Still, you got the flavor of a gold rush saloon for the price of a beer.
From the saloon, we walked through a few gift shops. They were nicer than Skagway but sold most of the same Asian bric a brac. The real “Alaskan” carvings of totem poles and other works, are both beautiful and exorbitantly expensive. The artists must live well selling at those prices. An internet shop gave us a chance to check for messages and get a look at the world outside of Alaska for a brief glance. We then walked the half mile back to the Sapphire Princess in a light rain. It was damp and cold. We had seen enough for the day. Back aboard the ship, we had salads in the Horizons Cafe. Then, we suited up for a 90 minute work out and sauna in the gym. The intense heat (assayo atsui) felt wonderful after the damp chill of a raing day in Juneau.
By 7:30 P.M. we were again seated in the deck 15 “Skywalk Lounge.” We savored a glass of Mondavi Cabernet and enjoyed the view all around us, high above Juneau. You can get used to comforts like this. We had decided to try another dining room this evening. We walked down to the deck 5 “Vivaldi's.” Crab cakes, rockfish chowder, Alaskan crab legs, already shelled, and a black forest torte made for another memorable repast. You get used to dining like royalty all too fast.
It was 40 degrees out ,chilly and wet. We returned to our cabin to read for a time and then surrendered to the misty realm of tomorrow. Over night the great ship left Juneau and motored down the Gastineau Channel, through the Stevens Passage, across Chatham Straight and Chatham Sound and finally through Snow Passage and into Clarence Straight towards our last stop on the cruise, Ketchikan, Alaska.
Thursday- September 6, 2007- Ketchikan, Alaska
We were up by 7 A.M. It was the last port on our cruise. We prepped for the day and had breakfast in the Horizon's cafe. It was mobbed. It seems everyone wanted to go ashore early. The line to disembark was long as well. We waited our turn and soon were ashore. It was 51 degrees out, with a light rain falling. Ketchikan, the name even sounds Alaskan.
Once, the valley had been covered by a 3,000 ft. ice sheet. It had melted 2,000 years ago, carving out a scenic valley now covered by yellow cypress and sitka spruce. Most of modern Ketchikan sits on an island some seven miles long, by one half mile wide. The entire region of Alaska falls into the Tongas National Forest. The area had been a Summer fishing camp for the Tlingit native Alaskans. Five species of Salmon spawned in the creeks around the area. Later, after 1900, both gold and copper were discovered in the surrounding hills. The area grew to meet the demands of a large mining population. So too did the red light district. Creek Street is a section of wooden buildings, sitting over and along a fast rushing fishing creek. It became a row of bordellos, selling “negotiated affections” to the miners. The creek today is an attractive series of gift stores and artist's boutiques.
The fishing industry thrived here, establishing a series of canneries to prepare and can the enormous Salmon catch taken in the Alaskan waters. By 1936, the city packed over 1.5 million cases of Salmon, utilizing portable workforces of Chinese laborers imported for the season from Vancouver and San Francisco. During World War II, the town became an important Coast Guard base, with over 750 officers and men stationed here. It is the southernmost and first of the Alaskan cities, visited by hundreds of thousand of tourists annually. We were now among them.
Four vessels were in port today. The hordes washed across the small town like a colored and sneaker clad tsunami. We rode on the wave into town, washing up on a few gift stores and exploring them, admiring the Asian trinkets on display. There did appear to be more totems and carvings by native Alaskans here. The price of each item was several times that of their Chinese and Indonesian replicas. We walked the colorful town slowly, drinking in the sights and sounds. We could hear the mighty roar of an appreciative audience back towards the port. A log stadium featured lumber jack shows, with sawing, tree climbing and axe throwing contests. The audience was appreciative of the woodsmen skills demonstrated.
Several streets in Ketchikan are called “Hill streets.” They are literally cantilevered off the hillside above us. The steep wooden stairways, to each group of houses, must be a great aerobic exercise for those who had to walk them daily. A light mist continued to fall. We walked along “Creek St.” admiring the quaint shops. The Salmon were running even now in the swift rushing creek below us. One gaudily clad and highly painted matron tried to entice us into her shop for a “five dollar tour. “ I guess they call it something else these days. Nearby, a sign advertised the establishment of “Dotties” and “Black Mary's,” two noted hostesses of the gold rush era. After a bit , we found and stopped in the New York Hotel & cafe for coffee. We watched for a bit as the touristed stream flowed by, noting and enjoying the curious diversity of people.
At 12:30 P.M. we set off on our tour. We stopped first at the South East Alaska Discovery Center. A Ranger gave us a guided tour of the facility. First, she walked us through a replica of a temperate rain forest. The area around Ketchikan gets a lot of rain. In 1966 , 166 inches of rain fell here, drenching the valley. Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce, Red & yellow Cedars grow here in abundance. Moose, bear and a variety of small animals range in the hills around us. Salmon spawn here in abundance.
Culturally, the Haida and Tlingitt Natives had settled here. The museum features exhibits of cedar shake hunting shacks, red cedar canoes, “bent “ wooden boxes and wooden halibut hooks used in fishing. The natives used spruce roots for ropes and fashioned all manner of cooking implements and tools from the abundant wood. Colorful costumes, and other native artifacts, give a hint of the color and diversity of these tribes. The museum is small but informative and worthy of a brief visit.
From the museum, we bussed out to the native Alaskan village of Saxman, on the end of the Ketchikan island. We got off the bus and walked through the complex of native Alaskan workshops. A huge shed is dedicated to carving giant totem poles. Native workers were even now using sharp edged adzes to carve the red cedar wood into tall shapes. Keith Jackson, is a local carver of note. He supervised the men who were carving. We got a lecture on the different types of totem poles. Made of red cedar, each pole stands about 24 feet feet high and has several animal figures carved on it, one on top of each other. An eagle, a raven, a fish, a bear and a whale are popular figures used in their story telling. Each pole depicts a story in wood. When the pole belongs to a chief, a small aperture is carved in the back of the pole near the top, to store the ashes of the chief after he expires.
A circle of these colorful poles stands in a small park, at the center of the complex. Another row of them leads down to the water. One “praise pole” has a small figure of Abe Lincoln at its top. It seems that the U.S.S Abraham Lincoln, an American 19th century frigate, had sailed these waters and rescued a number of stranded natives. They had carved the pole as a tribute. Another pole is a “shame pole.” Atop it, sits the figure of, William Seward, the Secretary of State under Lincoln who had negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. He had come here in the 1860's and been given a “potlatch” or huge native fete. The local tradtion calls for one who receives a potlatch to return the favor. Seward never did. The natives think he broke their custom and erected a shame pole to dishonor him.
The ceremonial hall, of the complex is a highly painted one story building guarded by two large totems. We didn't have access to the ceremony inside, but we could hear the low chanting of a native group engaged in a tribal ceremony. As a a people, they are steeped in tradition and mystery. It would be intriguing to spend more time with them. We had no more today.
The bus ferried us back to a small city park in Ketchikan. A swift running creek runs through the attractive green expanse. At its end, sits the Native Heritage and Totem Center. We collected a native guide and began our tour. First, we saw two wounded American eagles. Both had been found crippled in the wild and brought here to recover. They are large birds with a sharp beak and powerful talons. Their diet consists of fish and small animals. They eat about 2 lbs. of fish a day. Next, we saw a Peregrine falcon and a great horned owl. They too had been found wounded in the wild and brought here to recover. They could both swivel their heads like Linda Blair in the Exorcist. It was the closest we were to come to wild animals in Alaska.(LFMM)
Next, we visited a fish hatchery. Small holding tanks held schools of the fat salmon. They grow thousands of the young salmon here and then release them into the surrounding creeks, to help nurture the fish population. Lastly, we walked through a “Totem restoration” center. Old poles, from the 1800's, are kept here to save them from destruction. Those that could be repaired are exhibited. In front of the complex sits a totem pole called “fog woman.” It tells the story of the arrival of the first salmon to Alaska. Each of these stories are like bible parables, made up to explain complex ideas to simple native peoples or commemorate some pivotal event in their history.
The tour was done and we were ready to pack it in. We bussed back to the ship and said goodbye to Ketchikan. We boarded the Sapphire and made our way to our cabin. I wrote up my notes for the day. WE began to pack our bags for the return trip home on Saturday. We had a glass of wine to celebrate our trip's completion, then showered and dressed for the evening. We were invited to stop at the “Captain's Cocktail Party” for all returning Princess Voyagers. Usually, you get a glass of cheap champagne and an intro to every crew member down to the galley cook. Not here. We sat in an elegant cocktail lounge and enjoyed whatever beverage we chose, with hors d'ouvres. We had joined a French Canadian couple from Montreal. We had a lively and pleasant chat about our respective Hockey teams and the city of Montreal, which we had visited two years ago and much enjoyed. The captain spoke but a brief few words, welcoming us back. One couple had cruised with Princess on eighteen occasions.
Tonight was a “formal dinner.” The grand promenades were lined with tuxedo and evening gown clad passengers “walking the walk.” We were dining again with Seth and Madeline Champagne in the Savoy Dining room, on deck 5. A Mondavi reserve Cabernet led into clams casino, caesar salads, broiled lobster tails and Brandy alexander torte. It was an exquisite denouement to a gustatory adventure aboard The Sapphire Princess. Now, we had to pay the caloric tab. We walked back to our cabin read our books and slept sounded to the rocking of a great ship at see. During the night we crossed from Alaska time to Pacific Coast time, a one hour time shift.
During the night, the great ship motored through the Tongas Narrows, across the Revillagigedo Channel and the Dixon Straights entering Canadian waters in the Hecate straight.
Friday- September 7, 2007- Aboard Sapphire Princess
We were up early at 7 A.M. We had ordered breakfast in the room. Cereal, coffee and fruit were delivered by 8 A.M. It was a nice change. We then suited up and made for the deck 15 gym. A one hour work out, and a good sweat in the sauna, makes you feel like a new person. It is a good start to the day. It was 55 degrees out and partly cloudly. We had coffee in one of the lounges and then repaired to our room. It was sunny enough to read our books on the balcony. We were passing Vancouver island on our starboard side. We had spent a few days there and much enjoyed the island and its inhabitants.
We had an early lunch, in the Horizon's cafe, and then lined up for the three mile charity walk to help fight breast Cancer. A small crowd of passengers paid $20 each to walk the 30 laps around the deck 15 walking track. Several of the participants must have been in pretty good shape. They blew by us like we were standing still. We doggedly completed our laps and enjoyed some water and yogurt afterwards. It is a good cause and we were glad to participate.
The late afternoon sun was bright and welcome. We sat on our balcony reading, until Ozzie nelson called for a short conference. (nap) Our bags had to be in the hallway by 9 P.M. this evening, when most of us would be out to dinner. Whatever you wore that evening, plus what you needed for the next day, had to fit into your carry on luggage. It was much easier packing to go home. You just “throw everything” into a bag and then stand on it while your partner zippers it closed, hoping it would all fit. Most cruises tell humorous stories of guests who leave nothing to wear in the morning or forget some critical item in their luggage. It is part of the lore of cruising. We managed well enough and set the bags in the hall before we left for the evening.
Seven thirty P.M. found us for one last time in the sky walkers lounge enjoying a glass of Cabernet. We watched the wide wake of the great ship spread behind us. Sharp eyes cried “whale.” We could see the grand mammal's air spray and tail flukes off on the horizon. The setting sun was golden, behind the Western hills of Vancouver island. It was a pleasant way to end the voyage. At 8:00 P.M. we met Seth and Madeline Champagne for our last dinner aboard ship, in the Savoy dining room. Mondavi cabernet, an avocado boat loaded with seafood, caesar salad, Filet of silver salmon and an ice cream parfait made for a last great repast. We had a lively conversation with the Champagnes and much enjoyed our waitress. We were able to slip her a gratuity to show our appreciation. In the fee for our trip, we supposedly include ten dollars a day per person as a gratuity for the wait staff. I would guess that they never saw much of it. We made our final farewells to the Champagnes. We had met and enjoyed their company for many an evening along our journey. They had much enriched our trip. We wished them a fond farewell and a safe journey on the morrow. They were flying out to Atlanta in the morning. We were tired with the day and the voyage. We were ready to go home. We read our books for a time and then fell into a deep sleep, rocked to slumber by a gentle sea.
During the night, the great ship motored through the Hecate straight, past the Queen Islands, picking up Canadian pilots on Vancouver island and continuing on through the Black Passage, Johnstone straight, Discovery Passage, Seymour Narrows and into the Straight of Georgia. No wonder they needed pilots to guide them.
Saturday- September 8, 2007- Vancouver Canada
By 7:00 A.M. the great ship had sailed under the Lion's Gate Bridge and into Vancouver Harbor. She docked at the cruise ship terminal and Convention Center. The terminal is architecturally distinctive. Long and narrow, like the body of a ship, the cruise terminal handles docking for two great liners at once. Above the ship terminals is a convention center. Atop them is the majestic and very pricey Pan Pacific Hotel, soaring some twenty floors above the Vancouver skyline. The roof line of the terminal has five large, white metal sails sitting astride the ship-like length of the terminal. It is as distinctive as the Sydney Opera House.
Today was disembarkation day aboard the Sapphire Princess. The ship was predictably aflutter with activity. We managed some coffee, yogurt and muffins before closing up our cabin. We walked to the deck seven lounge to await the “call of the colors.” Princess had assigned each cabin a “color” to disembark on. I think they were arranged by flight times, and distances needed to be travelled. Princess didn't seem to miss a trick right up to the end of the voyage. In that we were staying the night at the very terminal at which the ship docked, we were among the very last to be called.
We retrieved our color coded bags in the terminal, and got processed though Canadian Customs. It went very quickly. A Princess representative gathered all of her “purples” and escorted us, like ducklings, for the short walk through the terminal and into the grand expanse of the Pan Pacific Hotel. The huge central atrium of the hotel holds two restaurants with views of the harbor, a central registration and a few banquet halls. We were pleasantly surprised that our rooms were ready at so early an hour. We were assigned room # 1024. We took the lift to the room and settled in for a bit. The room is spacious and airy, with a grand picture window that looks out upon Vancouver Harbor. We could already see several float planes make their graceful landings and take offs nearby. The Lion's Gate Bridge stood on the far edge of our panorama. It was like watching a huge high definition television screen. We were glad we had chosen the Pan Pacific.
Our bags would not arrive until much later, so we set off for a walk. It was a brisk but sunny 60 degrees out, on this bright September morning. We have had the pleasure of visiting Vancouver before so we knew generally where we wanted to go. On the previous trip, we had visited beautiful Stanley Park, with its collection of Native Totem Poles. We had also visited the daunting Capilano Suspension Bridge on the outskirts of the city. We were walking now towards one of the more storied sections of Vancouver, “Gastown.” Named after legendary saloon proprietor, Jack “gassy” Deighton, the area features a steam driven clock, several tourists boutiques and a few decent restaurants. It is one of the more Bohemian districts of the city. We browsed “Michelle's,” a tourist emporium. All manner of clothing and gifts were emblazoned with the Maple Leaf and the name Vancouver on them. The town was already gearing up for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Then, we ambled down the street to the outdoor cafe of “Chill Winston's.” We sat in the bright sunshine and enjoyed some decent poboys on croissants and delectable french fries. What the heck, we were already fighting an uphill caloric battle. The lunch was pleasant. We sat for a time and watched the ebb and flow of both tourists and locals. We were sitting across the street from “gassy Jack's” old hotel. A small gun shop featured a life-sized replica of “The Duke,”John Wayne.
After lunch, we walked back along West Burrod to the Pan Pacific. A Starbucks sits beneath the hotel, so we availed ourselves of that delicious nectar. We sat on the terminal terrace over looking the harbor. Construction was underway nearby for an enormous waterfront press center for use in the coming olympics. The sky was an azure blue, the sun was shining brightly and the temp was in the mid sixties. It was a gorgeous day to be standing on Vancouver's waterfront.
We checked our airline information and cab times to the airport in the hotel, then repaired to our room to rest for a bit. Out of our picture window, a small wedding was taking place in the pool area a few floors below us. We were as uninvited guests, as we watched the East Indian ceremony unfold. Guests, bride and groom were dressed in colorful Saris and dress Indian garb. It was like watching a movie on the screen. Our bags soon arrived. We set our clothes out for this evening and tomorrow's flight home.
The sun was still high at 4:430 P.M. We walked down to the terrace level of the terminal. Both the Sapphire Princess and Holland America's Zuiderdam were set to leave port at 4:30 P.M. We wanted to watch the spectacle of great ships leaving port and sailing under the Lion's Gate Bridge. They were both making the reverse run up to Anchorage, the last of the season. From Anchorage, the Sapphire Princess was scheduled to make a run across the Northern Pacific, to Japan and Southeast Asia, before heading down under and handling Australian and New Zealand Cruises.
The outdoor terrace was crowded with many locals who also wished to watch the great ships leave. We ran into Aussie, Therese Kogelman on the Terrace. We had enjoyed her company for two afternoons, aboard the Princess trains, on the way up to Fairbanks. We chatted idly with her about the trip and her plans for going home. She had been good company.
We watched somewhat nostalgically as first the Zuiderdam, and then the Sapphire Princess, cast off their lines and slowly motored into the harbor. The ships passengers waved to us and we to them, in a ritual of sorts as old as ships going to sea. The great ships maneuvered into position and then motored gracefully across the harbor. They were majestic in the afternoon sunlight, these nautical leviathans effortlessly sailing out to sea. We were glad to have been part of them for even so brief a time. We walked Therese towards her hotel and then parted company, wishing her a safe journey home.
Downtown Vancouver is like any other major city. Banks, office buildings, hotels and restaurants populate the city center. We walked about for a bit, then returned to the Pan Pacific. We settled into the lobby Cascade Lounge. It features a grand view of the harbor. We had club sandwiches and iced tea, enjoying the view and the array of people around us. It was time to pack it in. We had an early call on the morrow.
In our room, we had a glass of Cabernet as we watched the golden sun set over the Lion's Gate bridge and the scenic harbor area. It was a magical setting in one of Canada's more attractive cities. We packed our bags, read for a time and then drifted off to sleep. We were ready to go home.
Sunday- September 9, 2007- Vancouver Canada
We were up by 3:15 A.M., quickly prepped for the day, called the bellman for a taxi and made our way to the front of the hotel by 4 A.M. The cab took nearly 30 minutes to reach Vancouver International Airport. Later in the day, the ride would be much longer. It was chilly and dark in the early morning hours.
There was already a line at the Air Alaska counter. We waited patiently, until the counter opened at 4:30 A.M. We checked our bags, then carried them through customs and entered the boarding gate. The terminal was already busy at this early hour. A Tim Horton's sign welcomed us in for early morning coffee. Soon enough, we boarded our 6:30 A.M. flight for the brief 40 minute hop to Seattle. We had a three hour layover at SeaTac, so we had a leisurely breakfast, walked the terminal a few times and read our books. The 10:30 A.M. flight into Chicago's O'Hare terminal was ontime. The four hour flight was uneventful and pleasant. I always enjoy watching the topography of the Continental United States unfold far below me, wondering at the massive tectonic forces that had carved and shaped so artful a landscape.
We had a two hour layover at O'Hare. The day was getting long and we were tiring. We enjoyed gourmet pizzas at Wolf Gang Puck's while awaiting our flight. The 6:30 P.M. flight to Buffalo was delayed. Stormy weather, around Buffalo, made the Airline consider canceling the flight. At the last moment, a “go” decision was made. We boarded the American Eagle craft for the 90 minute ride into the Big B.” It was raining in the Western New York area. We could see lightning flashes off to the east of us. The approach was clouded over. It was like flying through a light bulb. Our landing occurred without event.
We retrieved our bags, happy to be home. An airport cab delivered us to our caste in Amherst. We stumbled through some unpacking and then crept off to bed, tired with the 16 hour ride home. Upon reflection , I wondered at the temerity of those daring souls, of another era, who had made the same journey, but taken months to complete the trek. It had been an interesting and enjoyable trek and voyage. We were glad that we had gone, but much happier to be home.
( 23,208 words)
Joseph Xavier Martin
Amherst, New York