July 31 – August 14, 2003
Thursday, July 31, 2003
Orlando to Vancouver
In our continuing search for cool — literally — places to visit during the hot Orlando summer, we headed for Alaska this year. We invited our friend from Australia, Pamela Collins, to join us for a week of cruising and a week of land touring. For Pamela it would be a chance to warm up from the Australian winter. It’s a long way from Orlando to Vancouver, and we didn’t choose the most efficient route. Up at 5 AM, we had two comfortable Delta flights in free first class, connecting in Salt Lake City and arriving in Seattle around noon West coast time. It was a lot faster than the Dallas connection I once did. But we’d learned it was impossible to rent a car to drive to Vancouver — our original plan — so we caught the Quick Shuttle at the airport. After clearing Canadian customs and Immigration (surprisingly rude Canadian agents!) at the border, the bus dropped us right at our hotel, the Pan Pacific — convenient, but it added another five hours of travel to the already long trip. Total door-to-door travel time: 16 hours. But I guess we can’t complain. . . Pamela had to come by way of Tokyo, taking two days to get there!
It was a challenge packing for the warmth of Vancouver, the cold weather up on the glaciers, plus formal nights on the ship and a week of backcountry trekking. Nine suitcases and three carry-ons told the story – thank Heaven for Princess porters.
The Pan Pacific is a delightful hotel. It was constructed for Expo ’86 (which Linda worked on) and it on the cruise ship pier. We met Pamela in the lobby and got reacquainted during a lovely dinner at the Five Sails restaurant.
Friday, August 1, 2003 – Vancouver
Friday was our free day in Vancouver. We made the most of it, renting a Jeep Grand Cherokee just like mine at home and touring Stanley Park. Then we headed across the Lion’s Gate Bride for North Vancouver where we had lunch at nice cafe near the Capilano Suspension Bridge.
Afterwards we ventured onto the bridge, and crossed over the 300-foot-deep gorge.
Pamela was very brave and overcame her fear of heights to join us. The bridge was originally built in 1886 by Mr. Capilano, who purchased the surrounding 6000 acres and was either looking for a way to get around his property or wanted to create a tourist attraction. It has certainly turned into the later, with shows and exhibits on both sides of the canyon. They also are constructing a tree walk in the forest on the far side.
Linda and I walked the bridge in 1986, but our recollection is that then it was just a bridge. We were skeptical of the increase in the admission charge, which is now over $20 CDN, but the new attractions made it well worth it. Here you can see Dani in the middle of the bridge, wearing burgundy colored pants.
Some of the cedars and Douglas Firs in the forest on the far side are several hundred feet tall. New walkways wind through the forest and cantilever out over the chasm.
Back to the hotel to relax and change, and then we returned to North Vancouver, passed the Capilano Bridge and parked at the base of Grouse mountain. There we took the gondola to the 3700 foot summit (Pamela was certainly getting some acrophobia deconditioning today) for dinner at The Observatory.
While the food was elaborate, it struck me as one of those restaurants that is trying way too hard. Nothing on the menu was normal, with salmon served in a soup bowl, and this bizarre mussel-like preparation for scallops. . . pretty, but not what Dani has in mind when she ordered it (in her travel journal she referred to them as “scary looking shells”) . She traded for Linda’s somewhat more normal chicken. At least it wasn’t in a soup bowl.
Saturday, August 2, 2003 -Departing Vancouver
Staying at the Pan Pacific made Saturday a breeze. Our luggage was transferred directly from our rooms, and we cleared US Immigration and were on board by noon. We’ve been on Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Lines, Costa, The Big Red Boat, and Disney ships, but never Princess.
The Coral Princess is brand new; this is its inaugural year. The ship the most beautiful I’ve been on. A very different design than the Voyager-class ships of RCL, the Coral Princess is built upside-down, with the public areas on the lower decks, and the guest cabins above. 85% of the cabins have a balcony.
The public areas are where the difference in philosophy is most apparent. Although there is a beautiful multi-story atrium that joins the dining rooms, shops and other areas, the emphasis is on the many small, elaborately decorated and themed lounges that meander their way about the ship. Rare woods, gleaming fixtures and dramatic lighting are used to full effect throughout.
There are several unique activities available aboard the Coral Princess. My favorite is the ceramics workshop, where you can paint or even create your own pottery. Two artists on board teach clay sculpture and pot “throwing”. Even before the ship left port, Dani and I were starting our projects, ceramic boxes decorated with scenes of Alaska.
Dani and Pamela are sharing a mini-suite on the port side, while Linda and I have a starboard suite. This gives us a choice of views. At 6pm we set sail from Vancouver and passed into the Georgia Strait on our way to the inside passage.
Sunday, August 3, 2003 – At Sea
Sunday we spent a restful day at sea, cruising the inside passage. The water was very still in the morning, and Dani and I saw an Orca Whale blowing very close to the ship. We sighted a few other more distant whales throughout the day. We attended a sculpting class and were quite amazed at the results. The instructor told us to let our fingers do much of the thinking. We were startled to find that we could sculpt things that we could never have drawn realistically. Dani made a remarkable polar bear, and I did a reclining nude. Later we will glaze them so that they can be fired.
We dined in Sabatini’s, one of the two cover charge restaurants on the ship. Our $15 bought us about a dozen courses, some of which consisted of eight or ten things. Basically, you select your entree and they bring you everything else on the menu. Our main course was lobster, langostino, prawns, scallops and Alaskan Halibut, but we couldn’t eat very much by that point in the meal. The food on Princess is the best I’ve had; in particular, it’s far better than Royal Caribbean.
Monday, August 4, 2003 – Ketchikan
We awoke in Ketchikan, a city on an island. The population is only 14,000, yet it’s the fourth largest city in Alaska, after Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. It rains about 250 days out of the year in Ketchikan — annual total about fifteen feet — so we were very lucky to have such beautiful weather. After a morning shopping foray we returned to the ship to get ride of all our warm clothing. It was in the fifties and sunny all day.
Linda and Pamela set out for a lighthouse tour, while Dani and I headed down the coast for a mountain bike ride.
The bike ride was billed as a “gently rolling” ride along a dirt road, but it was more of a steady grade up — both ways. Actually, it was nice that it was downhill most of the way back.
Our first stop on the bike ride was at a salmon hatchery. We learned there are five kinds of salmon, that you can remember from your fingers:
Ring Finger (wear a ring made of. . . ) Silver
Middle Finger (the Longest) King (also called Chinook)
Index Finger (the Three Stooges poke with it) Sockeye (also called Red)
Thumb (rhymes with. . . ) Chum (also called Dog)
Because salmon return to where they are spawned, the fish hatchery can release millions of babies and they will swim back straight into the local fishing grounds when they are grown.
A few make it past the fishing nets and return to the hatchery by climbing up these. . . Salmon ladders.
There is a big King salmon in the water at the right. She has already gone up many levels, and must jump this last one to reach the holding tank. They collect only 340 of these pregnant females — they’re about three to four feet long. From them they will harvest 14 million(!) eggs, which they artificially inseminate and then release as hatchlings.
By a stroke of luck, as we stood looking at the fish hatchery, three Black Bears approached on the other side of the river. As we watched, they found a salmon and carried it off, nibbling from it on the way.
On up the road we stopped to rest at this pretty waterfall. I headed back but Dani went on for another mile or so. The total round trip was about seven miles, and we were more than ready for lunch when we got back to the ship!
Sunset was on the starboard side of the ship — an interesting phenomenon for a North-bound cruise. Many of these ports are at the apex of narrow sounds. We saw a V-formation of geese grazing the water near the ship.
Tuesday, August 5, 2003 – Juneau
Juneau is the capital of Alaska. Half of the residents are civil servants and the other half sell souvenirs. Squeezed against the mountains on top of a pile of mine tailings, the city dates from the 1880’s, when gold was discovered in the river.
Note the dichotomy between the scenery on the dock and the border of the postcard!
We spent the morning buying — you guessed it — souvenirs. Linda and Dani did some jewelry shopping in this shop with an antique scale. This must have been for really successful prospectors.
Pamela tries out a pink boa. What a great look for her, eh?
We (minus Pamela!) took the tramway 1800 feet up to the peak of Mount Roberts, where we had a leisurely lunch perched atop the mountain. The tram goes literally to the top — another five feet and you’re going down again. This is the only tramway we’ve ever been on that doesn’t have an intervening support – the cable is strung in a direct line from station to station.
Juneau, with two of the day’s five cruise ships at dock.
In the afternoon we tried our hand at gold panning near the original gold strike. Our guide, “Mule”, was a gregarious comedian who gave us the inside scoop on the history of Juneau, which was named for a drunken Frenchman who died broke in the middle of gold country. Mule is a student at the University of Alaska, but he’s originally from Macon Georgia, y’all.
He showed us the panning technique, which uses water to float off the lighter particles, leaving the heavy gold flecks in the rust-colored pan. Our sand may have been salted to guarantee results, but we all found at least one fleck from a pan of honest river bottom sand, too.
Back on the ship, Dani and I finished glazing our sculptures and Dani tried her hand at pot “throwing”. tomorrow is the last day for ceramics since they fire up the kiln Wednesday night. We have a busy day of activities planned, so we tried to finish everything else today.
At these latitudes the sun seems to take forever to set; it is still quite light at ten or even eleven pm. The effect is exaggerated as we travel northwest because we don’t change time zones but we move the equivalent of several time zones westward.
Tonight the sun and moon set at nearly right angles to one another — an effect impossible in Orlando. The glow of the sunset shifted from starboard to port and back again as we wound our way through the channels back to the northward passage. The moonlight illuminated white birds skimming the waters near the ship. After only a few hours out of Juneau the landscape had changed dramatically, with jagged peaks cradling snowy saddles of ice.
At 11 pm the sky still glowed deep orange in the west when a green ribbon appeared against the dark sky overhead, snaking its way from the north to disappear over our ship. The Northern Lights.
We called Dani and Pamela’s room and they rushed over in pajamas and warm coats to watch. The ribbon twisted and spiraled, its lower edge sometimes glowing red. It seemed to be comprised of thousands of vertical strands, each following in a choreographed procession. At times it would disappear, and another would reform nearby. Sometimes a section would whip across the sky, covering hundreds of miles in only a few seconds. At one point a bright blue-white shooting star arced through its center. The show lasted fifteen minutes, and then faded, leaving a milky glow across the northern sky. It was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.
Wednesday, August 6, 2003 – Skagway
In Skagway the ship docks against a rock mountain which bears the names and the painted logos of the ships that have gone before. I saw inscriptions from the ’20s, and Linda spotted The Princess Louise, which was converted to a restaurant docked in San Pedro harbor when we were kids. I could almost hear Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” playing as I watched a squadron of helicopters careen from the dock and head up into the mountains, taking Dani and Linda to the top of the glacier for dog sledding.
Linda and Dani go Dogsledding
After some disorganization on the pier, Dani and I were shuttled off to the local helipad and issued glacier boots and orange flotation vests. (Near as I can tell the only function of the latter was to make your body easier to locate after you had expired in the water from hypothermia. ) After having to confess our weights (which will not be recorded for posterity) we were assigned seats in a helicopter and our adventure literally took off.
Having never flown in a helicopter before, we were amazed at how solid it felt — sort of like driving a sports car in the sky. Our pilot was a nice young man who assured us that his learner’s permit was valid and that all he had to do was follow the lead helicopter. We were encouraged to talk to one another over the intercom system while he practiced flying. We soared over glacial valleys and ice-covered terrain riddled with crevasses — not terribly hospitable but beautiful in its own way. After 15 minutes of flight to about 5000 feet we noticed a collection of small dots on the ice. We were soon to arrive at the summer dog sledding camp located on top of a glacier.
As soon as we disembarked and the helicopters flew away, taking their motor noise with them, we were struck with not “glacial” silence but rather the enthusiastic welcoming yips of some 200 dogs.
Each dog is given their own dog house with an indentation in it for their food bowl. They are loosely chained to a common team line. Most seem to prefer to hang out on top of their houses to soak up the sun, check out the newcomers and wait for their next meal (they are fed mostly cooked lamb). They are very friendly and not ashamed of voicing their opinions — Dani couldn’t figure out which one to pet next.
After some brief instruction (pretty much where the brake was and don’t walk away from the camp as you most likely will die in a crevasse) we were off. Dani took the first leg steering our sled (we were actually tethered to a sled in front but it looks good in the pictures).
Our sledding guide, Lucas, told us the philosophy of the camp was not to overly train the dogs — as long as they were willing to run in the correct direction that was good enough. Hence, although they pulled smartly together as a team, as soon as we stopped the line quickly dissolved into mayhem with dogs eating snow, rolling in snow and doing other things in the snow which accounted for the distinct aroma.
The dogs really enjoyed running — each time we stopped, they seemed frustrated and anxious to take off again. Each of the three of us riding with Lucas got to steer for about ten minutes. Our fellow passenger, Paula from San Diego, was a skier and got the most challenging segment. The sleds are very lightweight — their design allows them to skim over quite rough snow and smooth out the worst of the bumps. It’s the closest Linda will ever get to skiing — standing on skids sailing over snow but with a nice handle to hold on to!
After about 30 minutes we went back to camp and were led over to the “nursery” where husky puppies are being raised. Dani got to cuddle Patches, 4 weeks of wriggling joy. There were eight puppies in Patches’ litter. Being cuddled by various folks (albeit under the eagle eye of both mom and the sled guide) is the first step in their sled dog training.
Dani did her best to smuggle Patches out, but to no avail. Soon our helicopters returned and whisked us back to town.
Meanwhile, in the Yukon…
Meanwhile, Pamela and I set out for “The Best of Skagway”. The first thing we did was leave Skagway. Not surprising, since this tiny town — still bearing 1898 facades — was more important for where it was that what it was. Today there are only about 800 residents, and its longest street is only a few blocks long. The four cruise ships at the dock increased the population by about 1000%. But Skagway was important because it served as the gateway to the Yukon gold fields, and that’s where we headed, aboard the White Pass and Yukon Railway.
The thirty-mile trip over the pass climbs three thousand feet and takes about and hour and a half. It was a beautiful, clear day. The views of distant mountains, glaciers and harbors were spectacular. We were told that one jagged range of mountains which seemed almost to loom over us was actually 45 miles away, and was almost never visible. The railroad was constructed in less than two years, beginning in 1898. Even so, it opened too late to help the 100,000 Stampeders who came looking for Yukon gold. The followed the torturous White Pass Trail, which we could see winding through the rocks below us. And they didn’t follow it just once. To enter the Yukon, the Canadian government required them to carry 2000 pounds of supplies — one year’s worth. Wagons were impractical on the trail, and pack animals were rare, so this meant each miner had to make thirty to forty trips over the pass carrying 50 pound loads roped to their backs — a total distance of about 2000 miles.
Of the 100,000 who set out, only 30,000 made it, and many turned back at Dawson City. Only a few thousand ever found and gold at all, and just a few hundred struck it rich. After passing over what, in 1898, was the longest cantilever bridge in the world, we emerged from a tunnel into the Tormented Valley, so named because no tree can grow more than a foot or two tall because of the severe winters. The train stopped at Fraser, British Columbia, a town consisting of three houses for Canadian Customs. We disembarked, reboarded our bus, and took the road back down through US customs, posing for a picture at the border.
Our bus driver, Trevor, was a twenty-one-year-old recent college grad who is putting his political science degree to work driving a bus in Alaska. He told us many funny stories, including one about his first week on the job. He forgot a woman at one of the viewpoints and had to go back for her. The woman was very irate — but not at him. She was mad at her husband for not saying anything. At the end of the tour the husband tipped him $10, telling him, “It was the quietest half hour I’ve had in 35 years. ” On the way down we crossed an unusual single-sided suspension bridge. All of the weight of the bridge is supported from one end, and the bridge simply rests on the ground at the other end. This is because the gorge that it straddles represents the junction of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates, which are slowly colliding. A regular bridge would be crumpled by the two to fifteen small earthquakes that occur beneath it each day. At the bottom of the pass we stopped at Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp. The tent city of Liarsville — accurately recreated and interpreted by costumed characters — is so named because the reporters sent north to cover the gold rush never actually made it to gold country. Seeing the hardships of the pass, they stayed here, and simply invented their dispatches. We had a delicious salmon supper, wandered past tents for the Press, Saloon, General Store and Brothel, and then watched an entertaining show about life in Liarsville. Afterwards we panned for gold and — what do you know — we found some, even though there was never any gold discovered in Skagway.
Back in Skagway we stopped at the Red Onion Saloon, one of 60 brothels that served the town in 1898. Upstairs we visited one of the ‘cribs’. In mining days, ten dolls stood behind the bar downstairs, representing the ten whores upstairs. You picked your favorite, and the bartender laid it on its back, indicating she was engaged. Upstairs a network of pipes connected from each room. When the coins came rattling down her pipe, the doll went back into service. On our way back to the ship we passed one of the original locomotives, outfitted with a giant rotary plow designed to deal with the twenty feet of snow that accumulates in the pass each winter.
While we were gone, Linda and Dani completed their ambitious day with more shopping in Skagway (world leader in houses of “negotiable affection”), and horseback riding. On the site of the old trailhead, Dyea, they were given horseback riding “101”. Instruction did not exactly mesh with Dani’s idea of proper form, but Linda’s patient mount Iris was kind enough to give her the illusion that she was in control.
Thursday, August 7, 2003 – Glacier Bay
When explorer Captain George Vancouver passed this was in 1794 there was no Glacier Bay, just an icy depression in the coastline. But by the time of John Muir’s visit in 1879 the glaciers had receded forty miles! Since then they have retreated another 20 miles, leaving deep fjords for our ship to explore. There are many reasons for the retreat of the glaciers, including the end of the little ice age and the effects of major earthquakes. It is unclear whether man’s activities have also contributed, since a number of the glaciers are actually advancing.
Some of the glaciers are quite dark because they carry massive amounts of gravel down to the sea. As a result the water is quite cloudy. Because it is also cold, large numbers of deep water Lantern Fish can be found here, fooled by the cold and dark into thinking they are in the deep sea. There are many small fish, and the turbulence caused by the falling ice stirs the water, bringing them to the surface for the birds to feast upon. The surrounding land is — contrary to our expectations — quite verdant, and is home to much wildlife, including bears. The bay waters are well suited to porpoises, humpback whales and sea otters. Princess Cruises prepared a spectacular room service breakfast with Moet Champagne for — I suspect — about half the passengers, all out on their balconies to see the glaciers. The most spectacular was the Margerie glacier. Taking advantage of the fact that our cabins are on opposite sides of the ship we spent an hour or more watching giant chunks calve from its 200 foot face, accompanied by thunderous crashes. One seemed to come down every ten minutes or so. At other times ominous cracking sounds emanated from deep within.
A note about the weather: visibility today was about fifty miles. This apparently almost never happens. The bay is usually fogged in. Our cabin steward told us this is the first cruise this summer when it hasn’t rained, and on many it has rained every day. We feel very fortunate.
Friday, August 8, 2003 – College Fjord
College Fjord is a narrow (three-mile-wide) channel that was explored in 1899 by a group of travelers which included John Muir. They named each of the dozen glaciers after eastern colleges: Harvard, Yale and so on.
Again we were lucky, as this was the first cruise in a month that was able to see the glaciers. There was much more floating ice than in Glacier Bay. It made a strange crackling noise as the ship’s transverse propellers rotated us through it.
The ship’s photographer’s set off in a small orange rescue boat to take our picture against the icy backdrop.
That “little” berg that Dani’s is pointing at was about forty feet long.
This picture of the sunset (in the northwest) was taken from our balcony at 10:30 pm.
Saturday, August 9, 2003 – Seward to Fairbanks
We left our beloved suite aboard the Coral Princess at 7am and boarded a coach at Seward for the three hour trip to Anchorage.
Our driver, Crystal, was a native Alaskan who grew up 40 miles to the north, in the only Alaskan farming community. Founded during the depression, it was a agricultural experiment that invited Minnesotans — including Crystal’s grandparents — to come to Alaska and homestead forty acres. Not many of the original families stayed, but those that weathered the minus 65 degree winters were rewarded with extraordinarily fertile land that, because of the long growing season, produces phenomenal crops, such as 100 pound cabbages.
On our way across the Kenai Peninsula we stopped at the Arctic Wildlife Rescue facility, which rehabilitates injured and orphaned animals. We spent a pleasant hour watching moose, caribou, bears, and other animals before continuing on to Anchorage.
There we caught our charter deHavilland turbo prop along with our twenty fellow travelers. It was a very comfortable plan, and the one hour flight to Anchorage passed quickly.
We were again blessed with very clear weather. Denali — or Mount McKinley, as it is also known — is the tallest peak in North America, at over 20,000 feet. It has the reputation of nearly always being shrouded in clouds, but we could see it from 70 miles away, and it thrust dramatically from the landscape as we passed over it. Note the glacier flowing down its side. The terrain around Anchorage was surprisingly flat, green and lake-filled. In fact it looked exactly like Central Florida. As we approached Fairbanks the ground became mountainous, then leveled out into a plain covered with fir trees and oxbow rivers. There was very little snow in Alaska this past winter, and it is 75 degrees in Fairbanks today. Oddly, the mild winter has greatly reduced the mosquitoes — unofficially known as the Alaskan state bird — because there were no pools of snow melt for them to lay eggs in.
In Fairbanks we took a two-minute bus ride from the airport to the Riverboat Discovery III. I expected this four-hour riverboat excursion to be a hokey tourist fiasco, and a way to stall us until our rooms were ready, but it turned out to be the highlight of the day. The family-run operation is very professional, and is far more than a riverboat ride. Along the way we watched a prop plane take off and land in about 200 feet (1 in 60 Alaskans holds a pilot’s license), interviewed workers at a husky training camp, and learned how to smoke salmon from an Athabascan native.
These presentations were incredibly professional. The boat stopped at each location and the MC — who was on live video broadcast to all for decks — could talk seamlessly with people on the shore wearing radio mikes. Several roving cameras focused in on the action onshore and were edited into the video feed in real-time. A top notch production.
At the husky training camp — owned by Susan Butcher, winner of four Iditarods — we were amazed at the dogs’ enthusiasm as they were hitched to a four-wheeler for a one kilometer race around the lake. (The Iditarod is a bit longer — Fairbanks to Nome, over 1000 km. ) In the photo you can see the lead dogs leaping, trying to “break free” their pretend sled.
On the way back we stopped at Chena Village, a recreation of several periods in Native American history, where we learned about hunting techniques, animal hides and bead work. We also got to visit with some of the huskies again. We checked into the Fairbanks Princess Lodge, a pleasant accommodation similar to some of the new National Parks lodges.
Dinner was a bit of a fiasco. Our waiter, Stephen, had apparently never actually dined in a restaurant in his life. He had trouble with concepts such as removing plates before serving new ones, and was unaware of the meaning of such exotic words as “Perrier”. The manager must have been aware of the problem(s), because without our showing the slightest irritation we were delivered a free bottle of wine — which we almost had to demonstrate how to open.
As I write this it is going on 11 pm, and it’s still bright daylight outside. Time to pull the blackout drapes.
Sunday, August 10th – Denali
The Midnight Sun Express pulled out of Fairbanks at 8:15 am. For the first hour we passed through tall birches where the ground was soft and stunted black spruce struggling to grow above permafrost. Our Ultradome car’s ceiling was almost entirely glass and our vantage form the second floor was glorious. We could also step out onto the open observation platform at the rear of the train for some fresh air (75 degrees and clear again today). Downstairs we had a glorious breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and breakfast burritos(!)Gradually the terrain became mountainous, and the train followed a raging, silt-filled river up into Denali National Park. We passed white water rafts and kayaks . At noon we arrived at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Our room is on the second floor of a log structure, perched above a bend in the Nenana River. Our trip included a four hours natural history tour on a school bus, but since we’ll be on a bus from 8 to 5 tomorrow, we all decided to skip it. We enjoyed the ambiance of the river and view of the national park, napped, and had an early dinner in the lodge’s casual dining room.
In retropspect our visit to Denali was somewhat pointless, since you can’t see the peak from the lodge or its environs (I guess that’s what the Princess Mt. McKinley lodge is for) and we’d already seen it from the air, anyway. I suppose for train buffs it was worth it to take the Midnight Sun Express. It’s not the most efficient transport though — if we’d taken it all the way to Anchorage it would have been a twelve hour trip. We did the reverse by deHavilland yesterday in only one hour.
Monday, August 11, 2003 – Denali to Copper River
Today we had a long bus ride over unpaved road from Denali to Copper River. Fortunately it took much less than the advertised 10 hours, but we were still on the bus from 8am to 3pm except for a few rest stops. This was our first overcast day, with a few raindrops keeping the temperature below 70 all day.
The road was a bit monotonous. It passed through rolling hills of stunted black spruce and crossed many rivers; the Alaska range was often visible in the distance. The only noteworthy event was when a moose ambled across the road in front of us. Our first rest stop was the rather funky Gracious House, a lodging, cafe, bar and gift shop built mostly from army surplus Quonset huts. A strange army surplus cargo mover served as their marquee.
Lunch was at the Tangle River Inn — hot dogs $12 but that includes chips and a drink. Hey, this is the middle of nowhere. Even the electricity is from a generator. It was actually quite tasty.
Our final rest stop was at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse. Best bring some serious money if you want that peanut butter sandwich (see menu).
The Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge is their newest and nicest facility. Opened in 2002 and still undiscovered by most travelers — just ten of us arrived at the empty hotel, although a few more joined us later in the evening — it sits on a hill overlooking the Klutina River.
Two story windows provide a breathtaking view of Mt. Wrangle, an active volcano.
We had drinks in the bar — I particularly liked their mosquito lights — and an early dinner in the expansive dining room.
Tuesday, August 12, 2003Copper River
We had a nearly private hotel today. A few groups came in yesterday afternoon, but by 8 am they were already gone, leaving the lodge to a dozen or fewer guests. The weather was pretty, at times blustery, with many clouds, some of which looked threatening. But it remained nearly seventy, and no rain fell.
Dani, Pamela, and I rode the shuttle to Copper Center while Linda slept in. Copper Center was a staging point for first gold and later copper miners, but today it is a mere scattering of buildings.
We poked around a one-room museum of mining artifacts, and visited a bar with an elaborate model railroad that ran inside and outside through two buildings, at times elevated on Plexiglas. Well, that’s about it for Copper Center.
Back at the hotel we played some shuffleboard. In the afternoon I arranged for Dani, Linda and I go on a ninety-minute family rafting trip. After several visits to the outfitter’s desk I was told the time had change to 4pm.
At the appointed time we joined a couple from Washington State and a man from France in the lobby, where we were picked up by two rafters, Randy and John, and Buck, a 79-year-old character who seemed to have stepped straight out of a Robert W. Service Poem. We climbed into a dilapidated van and started up 14 miles of what can only imaginatively be called a road.
To say that we were amazed that the van didn’t simply fall apart on the way up would be an understatement. On each right hand turn, clouds of dust poured in through the two inch gap between sliding door and sidewall, and the few fixtures still attached rattled on every rock and pothole. Since the road was comprised of nothing but rocks and potholes, this was a lot of rattling.
Along the way we learned that the Klutina River is the third fastest in North America, an can travel at up top 15 miles per hour. It’s a Level 3 river, meaning you can survive it in a raft if you remember to steer. The van climbed 2400 feet, then descended only a few hundred to join the river at the only accessible spot for miles.
While the rafters unloaded two rafts from the trailer we donned rubber overalls, jackets, boots and life preservers and received instructions on what to do if we fell into the 38-degree water — basically, die of hypothermia unless we were fortunate enough to drown or be bashed to pieces on a rock. It was near the end of this explanation. as Buck drove away to meet us down river, that it dawned on me: we were on the wrong tour. This wasn’t the 90-minute family float trip, it was the full-fledged four-hour white water rafting trip. That explained all the, er, white water.
We piled into our raft — Dani and Linda in the front, me in the back, with John rowing, and the others in the second raft. White water proved to be Dani’s thing. Soon John was making sure she was on the leading edge of every wave. And his masterful steering assured that we hit every wave for 14 miles. Her delighted cackling could be heard in the other raft, which trailed several hundred feet behind. For two hours we splashed and twirled downstream. Along the way we saw dozens of bald eagles, either perched on trees or driftwood or buzzing the surface of the water. I also saw a huge salmon leaping out of the water on its way upstream. The geology along the way was spectacular, too, with the water cutting into steeps banks hundreds of feet high revealing many layers of strata. The sun kept us warm for most of our journey and the waterproof clothing did its job.
Only Dani’s collar and Linda’s sleeve were wet. It didn’t turn cold until we were getting out of the rafts near our lodge, and we gratefully climbed into the van to get out of the wind. A few minutes later we were back at the lodge where we were greeted by a worried Pamela, who wondered why our 90-minute trip had taken four hours. We assured her that a good time was had by all.
Wednesday, August 13, 2003 – Back to Anchorage
Our drive along the Glenn Highway from Copper Junction to Anchorage was beautiful. We skirted snow-covered mountains, stopping at the Sheep Mountain Lodge for an early lunch of soup and sour dough bread – check out those flowers behind us – 18 hour days are good for something!In the early afternoon we passed the Matanuska Glacier, an unusual formation of ice that travels one foot per day down an otherwise ice-free valley. By mid afternoon we had reached our hotel in anchorage, The Captain Cook. It’s a nice high-rise in an otherwise unattractive city. Captain Cook led an amazing life, circumnavigating the globe three times, exploring from the artic to antarctic, and discovering Australia and Hawaii in the process. Wherever he went he made charts and took soundings. Many of his charts are still in use. Cook explored the waters around Anchorage in 1778, naming them Turnagain Arm because he was once again forced to turn back in his quest for a Northwest passage. Today these tidal flats are known as Cook Inlet.
We had a fabulous dinner across the street from the hotel at The Corsair: Escargot, Caesar Salad made tableside, Chateaubriand, Bananas Foster, and real Café Diablo made the way it used to be before the insurance companies got in the act: by pouring flaming brandy down intertwined clove-studded orange and lemon peels whilst setting the tablecloth and various other parts of the restaurant on fire. Yum.
Thursday, August 14, 2003Anchorage
A final day in Alaska was a quiet one, spent walking around Anchorage, my nominee for ugliest city in the United States. It was easy to see where hundreds of feet of the city fell into the tidewater flats during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, which registered 9. 2 on the Richter Scale — the strongest quake ever recorded in North America. I remember, as an eight-year-old, waiting for the resultant to Tsunami to travel down the coast of California, where it killed 24 people. Amazingly, only 115 died in Alaska, where nearly every building fell down. The destruction caused by the quake necessitated the rebuilding the entire city of Anchorage. Unfortunately for Anchorage, 1964 did not represent a high point in American architecture.
We are constantly amazed by the beautiful flowers everywhere in Alaska. They line the street in hanging baskets, window boxes and planters. The long hours of daylight work wonders. It was a little drizzly today, but didn’t require an umbrella or even a jacket. Dani and Linda did some souvenir shopping while Pamela and I browsed the Cook Inlet Bookstore for used paperbacks.
Then Dani, Linda and I had lunch at La Mex, a local Mexican restaurant where a single appetizer platter filled us all up.
Afterwards we stopped at The Alaska Experience where we saw a well -filmed, deadly dull, 70mm, 180-degree, interminably long film about Alaska. The dialog, narrated by the guy who narrates every dull documentary you’ve ever seen, might as well have been arranged in random order, for the amount of sense the film made. It was followed by a documentary on the Alaska quake which inexplicably featured a lisping German geologist as host. The exhibits were considerably more interesting, including a working seismograph that went spastic if you jumped up and down.
On TV we watched in amusement as New York and most of the east coast were brought to a standstill by a power outage. I don’t think it would have much effect on Alaska, at least not in summer. Remembering the last such outage, 25 years ago, when New Yorkers couldn’t watch TV for a night, I guess we’ll be seeing a lot of babies come May 14th.
Dinner was at the Snow Goose, a restaurant overlooking the tidewater flats. Tonight we pack for an early flight back to reality tomorrow. It’s been a marvelous trip, with good friends, good scenery, good food and good activities.
Alaska was full of surprises, not least of which was that we never used any of our warm clothing. It’s hard for us to imagine what it must be like to live her in winter, though, when the temperatures are routinely below zero. But people get used to it. The full measure of this is a line from the Fairbanks High School Student Rule Book:
“Students may not wear shorts to school if the temperature is less than minus 20 degrees. “
Tips for an Alaskan trip:
- Book a northbound cruise — a southbound one would be anti-climactic.
- Select a cabin on the starboard side so there’s always land to look at.
- Go with Princess for intimate large ships, great service and food, good kids’ activities and ceramics classes.
- See Creek Street in Ketchikan.
- Pan for gold authentically, on the river in Juneau.
- Take the helicopter/dogsled excursion, even though it’s really expensive.
- Ride the Riverboat Discovery if you go to Fairbanks.
- Skip Denali and the Midnight Sun Train unless you’re a real train freak.
- Don’t bother to spend any extra time in Anchorage – the best itinerary is probably to get off the cruise ship and go straight to the Copper River Princess Lodge for a few days, then to Fairbanks for a day and fly home from there.
- Don’t expect snow or cold weather, but rain and bugs are likely even if we didn’t have them.
- Bring binoculars and sunscreen.