Tuesday, July 10, 2007

USA - Drive to Alaska

Following is a piece that I did for the Washington Post travel section, but they have not used it yet.

The Trip: A fifteen thousand mile odyssey from Virginia to the land of the midnight sun – west across the prairies, north along the spine of the Rockies, up the Alcan Highway, north to Dawson, Yukon, “Top of the World” highway into Alaska, north to the Artic Circle, then almost every road in that vast state (there are not that many), back south on the ferry through the inside passage, zip across the lower 48 to home. Whew!

Who went? Me; Connie, my wife, and our 2003 Jeep.

When? July to mid-September.

Why? I had been there briefly in 1992 and knew that Alaska needed more time. There is just too much to see. Recently retired, we had the time and the vehicle; besides, we had not been on a really good road trip since driving around East Africa for two months in 1999.

How long? We did not rush. Twelve weeks.

Getting there was …three quarters of the adventure. Each day was new. The road rolled out before us. Mountains loomed, glaciers gushed, bears prowled, flowers bloomed in profusion, rivers roared, fish jumped. Most roads were well paved and, once past the Canadian mountain parks, traffic was light.

First Alaskan moment: Stopping in the rain and mud at the ramshackle log cabin café at Boundary replete with moose antlers and assorted junk stacked around the yard, but a warm welcome, hot coffee and cinnamon buns inside.

Best museums: A guided walking tour of historical buildings – the court house, customs house, old church, and the army post - in the town of Eagle (population 60) exposed a rich trove of sleds, vehicles, pelts and paraphernalia from the gold rush era 100 years ago. Eagle has few visitors so everything was hands on – touch, sit, feel. A second delight was the hammer collection in Haines that displays virtually thousands of hammers of all descriptions. I also recommend the state museum in Anchorage, the oil pipeline display in Valdez, sourdough cabins in Hope, and Native American artists at work in Sitka.

It was all worth it when…. after two days of camping in the cold rain and mist at Wonder Lake in Denali Park, I arose at 3:00 am and in the dawn’s early light discovered Mt. McKinley, the mother of mountains, towering above. She was out and crystal clear for two days, fading again into the clouds only when we departed.

Wildlife: We saw lots of bears – black, grizzly, brown – along the Alcan, and all around Alaska, but especially in Denali Park where we also had encounters with moose, wolves, caribou and ground squirrels. In the waters we saw tens of thousands of salmon spawning, otters floating, sea lions bellowing and whales breaching. Eagles, hawks, puffins and kittiwake gulls crowded the skies. Good binoculars were essential.

Scariest moments: We hiked for several hours daily – rain or shine. In Alaska we had lots of rain. I wore bear bells and when evidence, i.e. fresh scat, indicated ursine presence nearby, I clapped and sang out, “I can run fastest. Catch Connie!” Fortunately, this was effective; the only bear I met at close quarters completely ignored me.

Best golf: Yes, I carted my clubs along. The links type course at Haines cannot be bested anywhere in the world for its spectacular setting along the fiord surrounded by snow capped mountains and hanging glaciers. It was a decent nine hole layout as well, but the eagles all stayed in the trees.

Thrill: Flying in a small plane below the mountain peaks over the vast Davison glacier and looking up to spot mountain goats on the ledges.

Favorite meal: An hour long boat ride from Homer took us to Halibut Cove, an artists’ enclave, where we dined at The Saltry on scrumptious fresh seafood before a roaring fire on the covered outdoor deck. A good bottle of wine made it perfect!

Hostelries: We stayed at brand name motels, mom and pop’s, even a double wide motel, b&b’s, our tents, with friends, park and fishing lodges, and a cabin on the ferry. We especially liked two old hotels with the charm of an earlier epoch: the Van Gilder in Seward and Hotel Halsingland in Haines. Be warned, however, that all lodging in Alaska – no matter the quality – is about twice the price of “outside,” i.e. the lower 48.

Biggest disappointment: Not the bugs, the distance, the prices, my failure to catch a really big fish, but the weather. August/September 2006 was mostly chilly (day time highs in the fifties at best) and wet. However, long daylight was nice and the few sunny days were magnificent.

While we were there: Alaskans squabbled, then elected a newcomer woman governor over seasoned pros. They voted a cruise ship tax (that will be passed on to passengers.) They vociferously debated routing of a natural gas pipeline, whined about federal controls on federal land, rejoiced in the $1000 per capita payout from the state’s Permanent Fund, bemoaned the extension of the 81st Stryker Brigade in Iraq, and mourned the passing of Iditarod legend, Susan Butcher.

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