Part 2: Journey to the Land of the Midnight Sun

Sunday, June 27: Our first stop is Kietchican, where some passengers disembark and others board. Because of an electrical problem with the ferry, our departure from here is delayed five hours, so we exit the vessel and do some exploring. Other ports of call are Wrangell and Petersburg. We see dozens of bald eagles.

Monday, June 28: Spotting our first glaciers today. Stops are Juneau and Haines before our departure at Skagway. Most of these communities are situated along a narrow strip of land between the sea and impassible mountains, so supplies are brought in by barges. Skagway was the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898. At the Visitor’s Center we watch a film on the Gold Rush, a story of triumph for a few, but tragedy for the many. Today the Gold Rush era buildings house unique shops complete with old-time boardwalks.

Tuesday, June 29: After checking out the shops, we dive thirteen miles on a dirt, pot-holed, winding, up and down road to the ruins of the town Dyea. During the Gold Rush, Dyea was a bustling place with 150 businesses and 8,000 people. Then on April 3, 1898, a disastrous snow slide killed 70 people. That factor and Skagway constructing a railway (which made getting to the gold area easier) contributed to the demise of Dyea. Dyea was a greaseland in its heyday. Today, nature has reclaimed it and is now a forest. A ranger guides us through the one-mile walk and explains the ruins. Walking through the old Slide Cemetery is sobering. Not everything in the cemetery is dead though, the huge mosquitoes are very much alive and well!

Wednesday, June 30: We leave Skagway and drive north into Yukon territory, up the mountains, through the clouds and then above the clouds, It is raw, rugged, wild and beautiful. We see our first grizzly bear and Dick is ecstatic.

Thursday, July 1: We drive for hours with hardly a sign of civilization. This is the Alaska Highway and smooth it isn’t – frost heaves, holes, wash-outs and extreme dusty gravel. So we creep along. Then we see a huge bull moose standing in the road in front of us and Dick is in ecstasy again! Later we leave Yukon Territory and come back to the United States – Alaska, that is. We go to bed at 11:30 p.m. and the golden sun is still not ready to join us.

Friday, July 2: We go hiking and take our trusty bear spray with us (just in case). They say everything is bigger in Alaska and mosquitoes are no exception Of course that just makes it easier to see them and smack’em. (Mosquitoes in Alaska are on steroids). Prices in Alaska and Yukon are bigger too. I can’t believe we actually paid $5.95 each for an ice cream bar!

(Worthington Glacier)


Saturday, July 3: The Worthington Glazier collects 28 feet of new snow each year. We can’t actually touch this massive chunk of ice but we get awfully close. We walk down the dock at the Port of Valdez where seals are bobbing in the water and ravens, much bigger than our crows, join in a continuous symphony of squawking. Then we watch fishermen from charter boats clean salmon, halibut, cod, snapper and rock fish at the multiple processing stations. The carcasses are thrown in a chute where flocks of seagulls feast on a free lunch.

The highways in Alaska are rough, homes are rustic and the few stores and restaurants appear to be from a previous era. “Alaska is still pretty primitive,” I remark to Dick. “Duh!” he answers, “That’s why we’re here!”

Sunday, July 4: At Solomon Gulch Falls and dam site we watch fishermen reel in abundant salmon that are on their way upstream to spawn. Bald eagles soar low over the area, not missing their opportunity for a free lunch. In downtown Valdez we see films on the 1974 construction of the 800 mile long Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and also on the 1964 earthquake that destroyed Valdez. The Historical Museum is interesting too.

Since it is Independence Day, we join in the festivities at the city park with free burgers and chips. Fireworks happen in broad daylight — can’t wait for that tardy sunset.

Monday, July 5: Ugh! Another rainy day. It’s been raining most of the past couple weeks. (Valdez gets 64 inches or rain per year in addition to 326 inches of snow). We leave Valdez and drive several hundred miles to the Matanuska Glacier. We see a sign saying to turn here, so we do. The “road” is one-lane, dirt, and all potholes, going down a mountain to a dead end. Just one more hair-raising situation that we find so easy to get ourselves into. It’s late. We’re stopping for the night and will find that glacier tomorrow. There are many pull-offs along the highway where campers are free to spend the night and we do so now. Then we hear screeching skidding tires just as I spot a moose dart in front of a car. I’ll bet that driver has some laundry to do.

Tuesday, July 6: Everything is clearer in the morning when we’re fresh. We learn that the road to the glacier last night is privately owned (and with hefty fees). And we do find the official access to the 27-mile long glacier. While hiking the one-mile heavily-wooded trail to reach the glacier, I get impatient with Dick who is taking too long reading all the informational signs along the way, while I’m way ahead of him. So I call our “here’s a moose, which I know will get him running. I just don’t know that other people are in the area and they come running too. Boy, we sure have a good laugh!

Later we stop at Beluga Point south of Anchorage between the towering cliffs of the Chugach Mountains and the Cook Inlet. Spectacular scenery but the white Beluga whales won’t be here until the salmon run in August. Way below the pull-off is a railroad and then enormous rocks jutting out into the water. A sign says “No Trespassing by Order of Chief of Security, Alaska Railroad Corporation.” Young people climb over the fence anyway, down the cliff, over the railroad and scramble up the rocks. Though trespassing and risking danger, we admire the exuberant and daring spirit of youth.

Wednesday, July 7: We are close to the Portage Glacier at the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. The temperature is in the forties, it’s pouring rain and the wind is vicious. (That 90 degree temperature back home is sounding pretty good). Because of the gale force winds we decide to stay put, and in the Visitor’s Center watch the film, “Voices From The Ice.”

Thursday, July 8: The town of Seward is our next place to explore. Located on Resurrection Bay, the east coast of Kenai Peninsula, the town was named in honor of Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, for 7.2 million dollars or two cents per acre. Because Alaska was thought to be a vast wasteland, the purchase of it was called “Seward’s Folly and also “Seward’s Icebox.” We roam through the shops (of course) then go to the “Alaska Sea Life Center,” Alaska’s only public aquarium. Here we observe marine life above and below the water line including interaction with a 2,000 pound sea lion. This center also rescues and rehabilitates ocean wildlife and researches marine eco-systems.

Throughout the town there are signs very foreign to us: “Tsunami Evacuation Route.”

Friday, July 9: The Harding Ice Field, a remnant of the Great Ice Age, is 50 miles long and 30 miles wide and is the parent of more than 40 glaciers in this area. Seventy feet of snow falls on the ice field every year. We go to Exit Glacier and see eight goats on top of the mountain — just white dots with the naked eye but binoculars give them shape. Before the hike to the glacier we are instructed to play dead if attacked by a bear, but if it starts to eat you, then fight back. (Not very comforting). Also to make a lot of noise so as to not startle a bear. So Dick and I loudly sing “On Top of Old Smokey.” Oh yeah, that’ll work!

Saturday, July 10: There are small black flies that take a chunk out of people before injecting their venom, causing intense itching that cortisone doesn’t relieve. A waitress tells us that applying vinegar does the trick. We try that and it immediately stops itching. I wonder if it would work on mosquitoes bites. We say goodbye to Seward, the town surrounded by the sea and majestic mountains, and drive to Kenai. This city was originally settled by the Russians. We walk through their “old town,” where we tour the Russian Orthodox Church built in 1894. There are a few chairs for the elderly in the church but no pews because of their belief that you stand to worship God. We have a really informative visit with their priest, learning about the political and religious history of Russia. Then a cold windy walk to the beach watching anglers dip-netting sockeye salmon, a process where large nets with long handles are held sideways in the water to catch fish.

Sunday, July 11: Ah, finally a warm (60’s) sunny day. We head north and see the towering Redoubt Volcano that erupted in 2009. Offshore in Cook Inlet are fifteen drilling platforms, all with underwater pipelines that connect to shore. High above the water is a picnic area where the platforms are visible and where we exchange tales with other travelers.

Monday, July 12: Dick is determined to see more wildlife so we drive out near Soldotna to where moose are frequently seen. He yells “there they are” but as we get closer “they” turn out to be llamas. Then he calls out again and this time they’re horses. His imagination gets a lot of exercise!

Tuesday, July 13: It’s another all-day foggy rain. With all the rainy days we’ve had, it’s surprising that there has been no thunder or lightning. We drive to Homer on the southwestern Kenai Peninsula, the Halibut fishing capital of the world. Despite the precipitation, we go walking along the Kachemak Bay, then to the long steep ramp and watch big cabin fishing boats being launched. A huge eagle nest is in a tree with the parent birds keeping watch on a nearby branch.

Wednesday, July 14: Jutting out from the main part of Homer is Homer Spit, a four and a half-mile strip that is a major facility for boat docking and servicing. Nestled in between fishing charters and restaurants are the ubiquitous shops, all selling Alaska T-shirts, hats, mugs, knives and jewelry. At the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center we learn about refuge wildlife and watch an almost unbelievable film “Alone in the Wilderness,” an account of Richard Proenneke’s self-sufficient life alone in the Alaskan mountains. We walk through a huge boat junkyard, where rotting and rusting hulks are all that remain of the boats’ former working days. I wonder what tales they could tell.

Thursday, July 15: We visit the Pratt Museum featuring an original homestead cabin, native cultures, harrowing mariners’ tales, a live remote video of bears at Katmai National Park and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. In their gift shop are DVD’s titled “America’s Biggest Oil Spill” with a sign in front correcting them: “America’s Second Largest Oil Spill.”

It’s now 9:30 p.m. and we are back on a ferry, the Tustumena, this time for a fifteen hour ride to Kodiak Island.

Friday, July 16: After many contortions trying to sleep in a seat on the ferry, we wake up to cold pea-soup fog. We stop at Port Lions on the north side of Kodiak Island, then at 1:30 p.m. disembark the vessel at the city of Kodiak (population 6,000). We are met by Borghy, a friend of our daughter and life-long resident of Kodiak, who graciously shows us the highlights of her city. The surrounding beauty is kept secret by the fog.

Saturday, July 17: The blanket of fog lifts for us today as we meander past many fish canneries, through emerald hills and white-capped mountains to the southeastern end of Kodiak Island. At Pasagshak Bay there are dozens of bald eagles, some of whom allow me to get very close while I photograph them. The juveniles are all brown; no white head or tail feathers yet. There are five poles here, each with an eagle perched on top, looking like flag poles, except these birds are the real thing. The Kodiak Launch Complex, owned and operated by Alaska Aerospace Development, and the U.S. Coast Guard Facility, the largest in the country, are both surrounded by tall security fences. There’s no welcome mat out for snoopy people like us.

Sunday, July 18: After church we meet up with Borghy and drive 47 miles to the beach where her friend Dave is gill-netting. A Minke whale gets in his net and tears it just before we arrive. At only 33 feet the barnacle-covered Minke is one of the small species of whales. Dave, Borghy, Dick and I ride in his inflatable raft (with an eight-horse outboard motor) and get within touching range of the whale — a bit too close for this scaredy cat. For about three hours in Dave’s raft, we watch as he and Borghy “walk the nets” to retrieve the salmon and cod. Seals help in the process by chasing fish into the net and then help themselves to one of the catches.

continued next week

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