Ice chunks floated on the surface as the captain maneuvered our way to the glaciers at the back of Prince William Sound. The pilot of our single engine 1954 vintage Beaver aircraft weaved through mountain peaks to land on a base camp leading to Mount McKinley. The King Crab feast at Phyllis’s Cafe in Anchorage was enough for two people. I have finally sampled Alaska, and it has left a delicious after taste.
While Anchorage with its 250,000 inhabitants constitutes almost half of the state’s population, it is interesting to note the contrasts in backgrounds of its people. More often than not, the conversation with those you get a chance to meet often leads to information about where they grew up, and the statement, “I came here for only a short stay 10 (20) (30) years ago and never left”.
One is quick to note the pride the residents have in this state where they have chosen to make their home, and in their sense of psychological separation from the rest of us.
You recognize you are in a unique environment when the sport that garners the greatest following is the Iditarod, the grueling 1049 mile dog sled race that takes place every winter from Anchorage to the Bering Sea coast.
The race is actually 1100 miles, but 49 is used to mark Alaska’s entry as the 49th state of the union. Even local musher, Martin Buser who has won the event four times, is a transplanted Swiss National, who as he states, “Only took out my U.S. citizenship after the events of 9/11 when I felt strongly that I must do so”.
Cradled by mountains and situated not far from Mount McKinley, the highest mountain range in North America, Anchorage clearly is a tourist city. But it is mostly a summer tourist city, as museums and other points of interest don’t open until mid May. Until then it is quiet and serene other than a steady stream of conventions or conferences. Once the cruise ship season starts it becomes a very busy place.
Craft shops and restaurants along the streets between 4th and 7th Avenues, the main thoroughfares that flow through the centre of the city, cater to both local and out of town clients. By day the streets are crowded with shoppers, and those who drive commerce in the city. But in the evening, blends of music ranging from country to Celtic pour out of the bars and night spots.
While Anchorage is a modern city, it is also the gateway to the great Alaskan adventure.
The Alaska Railroad is part of that adventure. Still an important transportation mode for cargo, it is often filled with visitors who want to experience more of what this 50th state has to offer.
Sitting in one of the rail cars as we chugged along glacier lakes framed by snowcapped mountains, I am struck by the impact of the tides. An almost galactic quality is designed on the lake beds as they wait for the waters to be drawn back over them again.
At Whittier, the train stops only long enough for us to disembark and board the Klondike Express Catamaran, for what is called the 16 Glacier tour.
There is no escape from the mountains that seem to surround us as we sail along Prince William Sound. Hints of what is to come are signaled by the thousands of ice flows on top of the water. They wait for warmer weather to convert them into a flatter, more permanent, shimmering waterscape, even as new jagged formations break off the glaciers with a thunderous roar and splash.
The catamaran wends its way through the sharp edged blocks that may have sunk ships of the past. Sea Otters sit on ice flows and dive into the water as we approach, only to raise their heads minutes later, as though to check to see if they should be concerned about our approach.
The vessel slows to a crawl as we get as close as we can to a blue glacial formation ahead of us. The occasional burst of falling ice warns us to keep our distance. The recent volcanic eruption of Mount Redoubt has left dark ash on the surface of the blue mass of rock. It punctuates, but does not mar its beauty.
Hungry digital cameras cannot get enough as they break the silence of the scenery stunned passengers.
We rest in front of this blue stone like glacier for quite some time, contemplating the power of nature and our good fortune in being present to capture its grandeur. But even though the daylight already lasts until almost midnight, it is time to head back to Anchorage to reinvigorate ourselves with a good nights’ sleep before embracing tomorrow’s adventure.
And a genuine adventure it turns out to be.
The drive from Anchorage to the small community of Talkeetna (pronounced Tal keet na) takes you away from the constant mountain ranges that seem to be pervasive. So it is a surprise as you re-emerge from the highway that leads into Talkeetna to see the mountain peaks pop up in front of you one more time.
Talkeetna is small, but devoted almost entirely to satisfying tourist curiosities, with historic shops, unique restaurants, and an abundance of tour opportunities of the region, including a walk on a glacier or a visit to a musk ox farm.
The big draw however, starts at the airfield where dozens of small planes barrel down the runway taking off, bound for the majestic Mount McKinley. Flying over the tundra-like terrain, I am struck by the vastness of the region and how little of it is inhabited.
There is only one main highway going from north to south. Other than a few small shacks along the lake, and some bigger resorts near town owned by cruise lines like Princess Cruises, there is nothing.
Soon the pilot is explaining important facets of the terrain below as mountain peaks emerge in front of us, then below us, and then beside us as the plane banks left, then right, and left again. Each turn saves us from crashing into the peaks ahead and facilitates a more impressive view of the mountain tops we know will end with a view of the king of them all, McKinley.
Five of us and the pilot! Standing on the base camp where climbers often chose to begin their ascent of the mountain, we feel small. Perched on the glacial snow we become suddenly fearful of a wrong noise which could bring down an avalanche of snow, entombing us as permanent tourists.
Our pilot assures us we are far enough away, but it is still sobering to mentally measure our distance from the nearest peak which might suddenly decide it doesn’t appreciate our intrusion.
Even though we remain on the surface a long time, no one is anxious to leave. It may be a onetime experience, so none of us want to come down from the euphoria of the adventure.
Unfortunately, all trips must end with the journey home. But even as I have tasted Alaska for the very first time, I now look forward to coming back for a second helping.