On the road

Day 12. Tuesday 30 August.

Today we start the road trip, but as we’d been briefed on the motor home yesterday we had a later start to pick up our vehicle, giving us time to wander in to town for breakfast. After the usual amount of dithering we settled on Side St Espresso, which turned out to be a sheer delight.

IMG_4577The café is operated by Debra and George, two older citizens, who had all the time in the world for a chat – well, George (in dungarees and braces) did anyway. They’ve run it for 20 years or so, and do it all themselves. The coffee was perhaps the best on this trip so far. George spent some time with an obviously well known customer, a lawyer, who was telling the story, at length, of his early start to the morning acting on behalf of a client facing parking charges.

Debra smartly got George focused back on the job! It was the quiet, calm politeness and lack of urgency that was so relaxing. And George thanked us ever so gently and politely for choosing to come into his café.

IMG_5322On to pick up our home for the next few weeks. Departed Anchorage without breaking too many road rules or causing motor accidents – something of a miracle. Eventually on the open road at 65 mph, but the very strong side wind caused a bit of a slackening: a very uncomfortable feeling being pushed off the side of the road.

A short stop (3 hours!) at Walmart in Wasilla – home of Sarah Palin– to stock up. Emergency things…maybe a wok and a sharp knife, pegs and a length of rope. First van meal in the Walmart carpark and onto the road north.

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Highway is bordered with birches just starting to turn gold and the snow capped mountains of Denali remained on the horizon. The sky is still a cloudless blue…truly amazing the locals tell us.

 

 

Tonight we’re in Talkeetna, a small town at the end of a 14 mile road off the main highway (Highway 3 North), in lake country. We’re right next to the railway line, but have been assured that the train (only a tourist type) doesn’t run on this line at night!

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Our tour guides, Neil and Carolyn, have done a fabulous job, and seem to have shepherded all of their sheep in for the night.

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Suitcases unpacked, beer in hand – and just the right wine for the occasion.

 

 

 

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Still at Anchor

Day 11. Monday 29 August.

A ‘free’ day in Anchorage. Started with another search for somewhere nice to have breakfast, but had to settle for a boulangerie (hmm!) which was adequate. Needless to say, after we departed we came across about four other places that looked like just what we’d have preferred! Another consequence was that T found a wool shop, visited later in the day, that quite adequately consumed a good hour. Yarn is not “grown” in Alaska apart from qiviut, which at $90 per one ounce skein, is a bit beyond T’s budget.

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Having sorted out a week’s worth of laundry, off to the RV park to get acquainted with the intricacies of our home for the next five weeks or so. Starting to get excited, and although it’s bigger than the dearly departed Gloria, not frighteningly so. And it does have all mod cons, with enough water and electricity capacity to keep D happy.

 

 

 

The Museum of Anchorage has a terrific display of Indigenous culture, with stories and artefacts of the major nations. There is a very strong sense of cultural identity and revival. Anchorage is a very multicultural town, with 90 living languages, but schooling is done in English.

Took the one hour trolley tour: of the city, complete with snappy patter and what we’d call dad jokes, so D was right at home. Noted again the number of small single -engine aircraft, and heard yet another version of the statistic about how many Alaskans per head of population are pilots: it has been, variously, 1 per 95, 75, 70 and 60. It is very easy to believe when you see the number of aircraft parked like motor vehicles – yesterday we saw one community that had the planes parked in their back or front yards. Little planes are the only viable means of transport in a terrain of ice. They can have floats, rubber tyres or skis attached to their “feet”. The sound of small planes is as constant as the train horn.

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The impact of the 1964 earthquake is referred to constantly and much of the town was destroyed. The re-build is square, concrete, ugly but functional, with no street appeal and the usual urban social issues.

Reindeer sausages, ice cream, biscuits, (scones, really) and every dish with a huge serving of fries are the constant food offerings. Because of the short growing season and long hours of sunlight during the growing months, vegetables such as cabbage, zucchini, beetroot are ginormous. This explains what T had noticed at the Saturday market. It will be so good to get our own real food happening from tomorrow!

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A Wild Life

Day 10. Sunday 28 August.

The Alaska Railroad is a marvelous thing but trains rolling past the motel all night and day, sounding their horns, makes for some doubt. A very early start, at 5.15 AM, to catch the scenic train to Seward. All tourers arrived in the lobby at the appointed time – except the tour leaders, just a tad late. Then a mad scramble as half the group ran back to rooms to retrieve passports!

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The Alaska Railroad runs from Seward in the south through to Fairbanks (500miles). We travelled the Anchorage Seward leg (120miles) through spectacular views of mountains, glaciers, gorges, lakes.

 

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Then onto a cruising catamaran to explore beautiful Kenai National Park: a deepwater glacial fjord, bursting with marine life. Of course much of it has already migrated south to warmer waters. August marks the end of summer, but this year it has rained for the past 4 weeks and we have brought the sun with us! A magic day of cruising – we were privileged to sight land and water wildlife: white swans, ducks, moose, eagle, Canadian geese, puffins, seals, sea lions, sea otters, gulls, a cormorant, a goat, hump back whales, and the icing on the cake coming back near Anchorage were the pods of beluga whales in the quiet mirror-like waters of Turnagain Passage (but no photos, as iPad and iPhone aren’t quite up to wildlife photography).

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And what is the most important ingredient in the Seward Sunset cocktail?

 

 

 

 

After a bit more than a week, the members of the group are feeling fairly comfortable with each other. There is some good – natured ribbing of some chatterers, some awful dad jokes and sometimes just the sort of primary school joking you’d expect! There are, fortunately, no apparent square pegs: but early days!

At Anchorage

Day 8 & 9. Friday 26 & Saturday 27 August.

Missed a report on Day 8 – but we’re now connected, at least for the next couple of days.

Day 8 was spent cruising towards our final ship-board destination – Whittier. A highlight was the detour into College Fjord, to again marvel and the sights and sounds of the glaciers. The ship slowly edged towards Whittier, docking just after midnight.

The morning of Day 9 involved sitting around waiting for our turn, amongst the 2500 or so fellow passengers, to be disembarked. The process started at 6.15 AM, which meant we heard the early departees moving around from before 5.00 AM. The whole cruise exercise has been an impressive demonstration of logistics – D loves it.

Travel by bus from Whittier to Anchorage, about 2 hours, via a couple of tremendous single lane tunnels (3kms)which allow access from each end on a 30 minute turnaround through the mountains and more spectacular scenery. Checked into the Ramada – another flashback in an old style motel.

Anchorage, roughly the same population of Canberra, seems to be a ‘functional’ town.

IMG_4450After check in, a quick walk down town. Dropped into the market for a browse at lots of tourist type souvenirs, which some locals (assume they were) were buying. While eating our halibut tacos, were entertained by a vocalist with accompanying pianist singing hymns and gospel songs, along with a narrative on how there had been some saving grace at some time. Not quite SWUC…..

 

Needless to say, we passed – that’s not quite right – a quilt shop and of course T ducks in and out. T is in search of the musk oxen fiber (qiviut) cooperative. Having done some pre-reading about this cottage industry which provides employment to knitters on the remote Aleutians Islands and the coastal communities in western Alaska, T was hoping to get some of the beautiful wool and start a little “road trip” project. However, the yarn is not available for sale, only a small range of knitted items(hats) and tunics and because of the handcrafted process and the design ownership, the items are appropriately (highly) priced.

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Walking back through down town we came across a park with two notable features. The first was a glade of Mountain Ash trees with their distinctive red berries (which are poisonous). The season is almost over, but these trees still retained their vibrancy. The second was the planting of vegetables amongst the flowers – prolific and vigorous kale ad parsley. These plantings didn’t seem to be cropped, which is a pity because they were to be envied.

D branched off at this point to find a liquor store, eventually consulting the guide he had in his hand to discover that he’d done his recon in entirely the wrong direction. Anyway, he returned in due course with beer, wine, whisky, milk and a haircut. T in the meantime had returned to the motel, via a gallery showing some lovely watercolours and film by Amy Johnson, now into her 6th year of residence in Alaska, having driven alone, with her big blue dress, up from Seattle, in search of a personal challenge in the vast icy landscape.

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A lovely touch in Anchorage is the development of an urban salmon fishing facility on Ship Creek, which runs through the city (the bus driver on the way in delighted in repeating that it was indeed Ship Creek, not the one you’re up without a paddle). It was intriguing to see fishermen on dusk trying for the elusive fish – we saw just one very big one (probably 3-4 kgs) but it was nowhere near the fishermen, which perhaps says something about relative intelligence. Some things never change! An interesting technique – reels were many and various: fly, baitcaster, spinning, it didn’t seem to matter – but all involved continuously throwing a set length of line with a lure on the end into the water, retrieving without winding in a sort of loop and then repeating. It didn’t seem to work while we were there, but who is D to judge?

Dinner was beef burgers for two at the next door café/bar – the Slippery Salmon – right into American dining now we’re not cosseted by attentive staff on board ship – and T found that the Pinot was off. The Ramada is definitely a big step down from the Coral Princess – a tired 70s motel that smells of all the excesses of that era.

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Glaciers and Glamour

Day 7. Thursday 25 August.

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D was flicking through the TV channels looking for some actual news – there is a drought of comprehensive, global coverage on CNN, BBC, NBC etc: most of it interminable repeats of the all-consuming US Presidential election campaign. Interestingly, there is no balance: the stations are either for or against either candidate. It makes even the ABC look balanced! Anyway, the point of all that is to mention that as a break from news searching we came across repeats of the TV series ‘The Love Boat’, which is on 24-7. We watched an episode and felt we were in some sort of time warp, cruising in the Pacific in 2016 and how charming is the gentle innuendo of the old screen show!

Foghorns in a tag relay woke T very early, around 0530, after cruising gently all night. Foghorns meant camera shots would not happen and maybe glaciers would remain invisible!

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But as we steamed up Glacier Bay, the weather gods smiled, mist lifted and the cameras worked out. Tidewater and terrestrial glaciers appeared. At the top of the bay is Margerie Glacier and there we hovered for an hour, the ship swishing back and forth offering both sides a grand view of the ice wall. Occasionally slices were calved and the sound was like a thunderclap or a shotgun. Spectators went “AHHH!”

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But one remained nose-in-book throughout, below ice-viewing level, warm but alone in the spa.

 

 

 

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the foundation of US National Parks Service, so there was a special presentation in the Princess Theatre by a most enthusiastic and very fluent young ranger Caiti. Her theme was well crafted: glaciers destroy and create (perhaps in a cycle similar to bushfire, T thought). And Glacier Bay is a marvelous example of a lifecycle that has occurred in only a 250 year period. The entire bay was once land that hosted a massive glacier down to the Pacific Ocean. By about 1780 the inexorable ice mass had gouged the land underneath to such an extent that when it arrived at the Pacific, the ocean then undercut the ice river, thus dissolving it and moving in to occupy the canyon that had been created, to a length of 100 kms and in parts to a depth of 1000 metres. Today’s bay is a giant fjord, dotted with islands, coves and lumps of floating ice. Truly amazing! Time for a champagne toast to wildness (not a spelling error) and nature.

Tonight is a ‘formal’ dinner gathering of the RV folk. We’ll wear our virtual formal outfits – and our nametags.

Post dinner…A pleasant evening chatting to some of our fellow travellers, dining on lobster tails and pheasant. It’s a tough gig. Finished off the evening with some live music – an old crooner singing old favourites – Billy Joel, Gershwin, Sinatra interspersed with tales (tall & true?)

We’re in the Pacific now and the ship has a distinct motion, rolling and shuddering. Just the thing to rock us off to sleep.

Tomorrow (Friday here) is another full day at sea, although we look into College Fjord, to marvel at more glaciers. Saturday morning we arrive in Whittier, to disembark for a bus trip across the peninsular to Anchorage, to start Phase 2 of the adventure.

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To finish, of course there’s a lash up as D discovers a tear in suitcase. Always have a piece of (fishing) string handy!

Scamway

Day 6. Wednesday 24 August.

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Arrival in Skagway was at 0530, an event we seemed to have missed. And Skagway was indeed covered in mist, and stayed that way for most of the day, apart from those times when we weren’t at spots that needed clear visibility.

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After another hearty breakfast, a walk into town via Pullen Creek. We were supposed to see teeming salmon – but not a single flick of a tail. However, it was a lovely walk along well prepared and maintained pathways. A delight was the variety of mushrooms – we had been told in Juneau about the orange speckled one that was used by shamans for inspiration – but were advised against trying it! There were heaps.

 

 

To a 25 minute film on the Klondike gold rush and the dreadful hardships faced by the ‘stampeders’. And to add to their physical woes were the scammers, exemplified by ‘Soapy Smith’, the criminal lord of Skagway, who amongst his schemes, would offer cakes of soap supposedly with a lucky $5 dollar note inside: a lucky punter (one of Soapy’s men) would win it, encouraging the suckers to buy up to try their luck. He also ran a telegraph office, offering to send messages to families: depending on the version of the story, there was either no telegraph line, or he’d cut the connection outside the office. Just like Telstra! Soapy ran the town but the citizens eventually rose up and he was shot dead by the man selected to stop his control, John Reid– but in the meantime mortally wounding his killer in ‘the nether regions’, causing Reid to die in agony 12 days later.

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Talking about guns. The first time David saw this sign, he assumed, and confidently tried to assure a skeptical T, that it was an historical sign put up for the tourists’ benefit. But no, read carefully … it is a legit sign! And appeared over and over throughout town.

 

 

 

The film was terrific, explaining the birth of Skagway and the sudden start and equally abrupt finish of the Klondike gold rush (there was only a little gold and thousands upon thousands of mad, desperate gold seekers). Thus, the gold rush experience was mostly about the journey rather than the financial outcome. A significant trigger for us was that the scammers of the 1890s had been replaced by a more gentle, but no less active, set of scammers in the 2016s, trying to part suckers from their money with souvenir shop upon souvenir shop and tours to this and that. They seemed to be successful.

We walked through the town (a restored heritage place straight out of a movie set) and came across the house of Captain William Moore, the original founder, with his son Ben, of the town that he had called ‘Mooresville’. Why wouldn’t he? The name was eventually changed to Skagway, (shortening and merging 2 Tlingit names) by the Post office, which seemed to be a common occurrence in Alaska. Two other examples: ‘No Name’ became ‘Nome’ and ‘Caribou Crossing’ became ‘Carcross’.

Trying to find a proper coffee became a challenge, eventually finding an espresso machine at the popcorn store. Next door was a quaint, un-touristy, bookshop in which we were able to browse and pick up a couple of treasures.

Trish took off to visit ‘Quilt Alaska’ – any surprises there? – and in doing so came across a booking office for tours, amongst which she found one to the White Pass summit. Yep, we were a little suckered; we bought a mid-afternoon bus tour, in the hope that the fore-mentioned mist would rise sufficiently for us to see the views, thus getting a feel for the terrain that the stampeders had faced.

So, on the bus at 3.15, driven and narrated by Monica, a larger than life guide, who was surprisingly calm and measured when not performing as a rough, tough Alaskan (which she apparently wasn’t). The tour took us to White Pass, and to the top of the mountains 20 miles from Skagway, which was only the start of the hard and hazardous journey the stampeders took to the goldfields. We were told that many perished on this first part, and many suicided in sheer despair. The Canadian authorities insisted that each person have one year’s supplies with them: about 2500 pounds weight. This necessitated moving in bounds, taking loads of 100 pounds or so forward, going back for another 100 pounds and so on until the full load had been moved one leg. Then the same process was repeated for the next leg….then the next…..Imagine enduring this process and finding your unprotected provisions knocked off! Animals suffered even more – the trail to White Pass was nicknamed ‘Dead Horse Trail.’

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Stopped at several waterfalls on the way – spectacular more for length and strength rather than width.  Unfortunately the fog/mist did not lift, so the view from the pass was restricted to about 100 metres, which was enough to see how rugged the country was, but not enough to see into the forbidding distance.

 

 

 

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T decided at the border between Canada & Alaska that there was not much point in getting off the bus once again, so remained, sensibly, in the relative warmth.  We did drive into Canada, but not through a checkpoint, but needed to do so to re-enter Alaska. Apparently the Canadian and American authorities could not agree on the positioning of the border control points, so they are separated by a “no man’s land” corridor of some miles.

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A couple of lookout points on the way back into Skagway, and then onto the ship for Beer o’clock. Dinner that night was German themed: each night seems to have a different country theme (it was Italian the night before and we think its Mexican tonight).

Cruising into Juneau

Day 5. Tuesday 23 August.

‘Are we there yet?’ D had slept through the early morning arrival to Juneau, apparently undisturbed by his own snoring. In fact, docking in Juneau is actually “in town”, right underneath the cable tram running straight up Mt Roberts. Yes, Juneau is not accessible by road, only by air and sea.

We’re not due to sail (we have yet to actually see any sails on this ship) until 9.00 PM, so have opted for a leisurely breakfast. The day outside is not promising: low mist and occasional patches of light rain, but at least it’s not cold.

We walked along the dock into town, along with the tourist “gold” of 5 cruise ships. The pedestrian route is lined with souvenir shops.

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First stop at St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. The church itself is closed until 3.00 PM due to renovations, but we were invited inside the history room where we met the on- duty caretaker Patrick, who was keen to talk, and gave us some interesting information. Pastor arrived after a few minutes to announce that the workers are on their lunch break so the church is open for a while. So Pastor Nicholas took us through and talked to us, and others as they arrive, about the history of the orthodox church in Alaska (and, incidentally, its connections in California). We talked of congregations, services and what happens when congregations are without a minister. Nicholas’ congregation is around 50 on any Sunday, across ages and a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

He was keen to show us some symbolic accoutrements (wedding headwear and a chalice), given to the church by a Tsar. He talked of the number of orthodox churches in Alaska (150+], primarily of indigenous congregations. He then talked of the social issues that the First Nations communities face, the problems of alcohol and the internet and youth suicide. He then referred to Nietschke : when we understand “the why”, we will come to know “the how”.

Next stop is the Juneau City Museum, a small, focused collection. We watch a video about the foundation of the city (gold) and the area: some of the details about the local Russian Orthodox church differ slightly from Nicholas’ version.

Despite the mist hanging over the mountains, we take the tramway up Mt Roberts. It is worth it, not least because as we are returning from the loop walk, the mist clears sufficiently for a view down to the city and along the fjord on which it sits – but not enough to see anything much up higher. A hiker’s paradise!

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Back at sea level, we head to the Alaskan State Museum (did you know Juneau is the capital of Alaska?) to discover that it was 10 minutes to closing time at 5.00 PM. The attendants were kind enough to let us wander around for that time to get at least a glimpse of the history. The museum has only just reopened after a two year closure and is housed in an entirely new building. From the little we saw, it is very impressive.

Beer o’clock, so onto the Red Dog Saloon which boasts a gun of Wyatt Earp, but arrived there to find a queue – it’s not really a drinking spot, but rather a tourist attraction. The pinot in the stateroom is the preferred option.

So to dinner, to again be waited upon by terrific staff, from mostly (but not all) third world countries on contracts of 6 to 9 months, during which they are apart from their families. It does give pause to ponder.