Friday, October 5, 2012

North to Alaska

For those who’d like to be close to and to appreciate wilderness, Alaska is a top destination of choice.   It holds more than half of the designated wilderness area of U.S. and yet accessible by plane, car, and sea.  For tourists who have a modest budget and time but can’t quite stay away from modern facilities and some pampering, one way to enjoy Alaska is to take a 7 night one-way cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage for the southeast region of Alaska, aka Alaska Panhandle.  Then one can rent and pick up a car at Anchorage to visit the south central and central regions of Alaska for places like the Kenai Peninsula and the Denali National Park.  That is what we just did in late summer.

The name Alaska means “the Great Land” that came from Aleut people who are the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.   Situated at the northwest corner of North America and disjoint from the rest of the U.S., Alaska has an area more than of 600 thousand square miles which accounts for almost 20% of U.S. and is bigger than most countries of the world.   With a slightly more than 700 thousands residents, it is also one of the least populated states of U.S.   Unlike most states in U.S., Alaska has more males than females.  With its unique natural resources and climate however, there is a popular joke about Alaska men: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

Some trivia: What is the north-most state of U.S.?  How about west-most and east-most?   How about the largest state by area?  How about the least densely populated state? Yes, Alaska is the correct answer for all of the questions above.  (You may quip how could a state be the west-most and east-most at the same time?  Well, technically, parts of Alaska are in eastern hemisphere and span from longitude 172° to 180° east of the Prime Meridian that passes through Greenwich, England.)  To give you some idea of the extremes, the population density of New York City is about 25,000 times more than that of Alaska which stands at 1.26 per square mile.

Alaska used to be a part of Russian Empire’s territory.  It was sold to U.S. on 1867 for a mere $7.2 million dollars (equivalent to $120 millions today) when the Tsar Alexander II made the strategic move using U.S. to mitigate Great Britain’s threat from its east who controlled British Columbia at the time.   

Did you know that Japan had invaded and occupied a part of Alaska (then a U.S. territory) during WWII?  Yes, Japanese did more to U.S. than attacking the Pearl Harbor.  Six months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese force landed and occupied two of the Alaskan islands - Attu and Kiska of the Aleutian Islands in mid 1942.  It wasn’t until almost a year later that American and allied forces reclaimed those islands with heavy casualties on both sides.  

Historically, Alaska was the first entry point of humans into the Americas when some groups crossed the Bering land bridge from Asia during the ice age more than 10,000 years ago.  Over time, some moved south, settled throughout the Americas, and are now referred to as the Indigenous peoples of the Americas whose similarity in features to Asian offers a clue.

With a vast territory and northern location (the north most location of Alaska is about 1000 miles from the North Pole), one usually associates extreme colds with Alaska.  In reality, the climate of Alaska varies a lot depending on the regions.  For instance, the southeastern region which is the popular destination of Alaskan cruises is not much cooler than Seattle or Western Europe.  And Anchorage’s climate is reasonably mild although due to its latitude, there can be as little as 5 hours of daylight in the winter.  On the other hand, by some estimates, Alaska does have three million lakes and more than 100,000 or roughly half of the world’s glaciers.

Typical Alaska cruise itinerary includes visit to Ketchikan, Juneau and  Skagway from south to north on its ports of call.  Juneau is the capital of Alaska but is not accessible from Alaskan roadway system.   The other two towns are small enough for easy strolls and exploration by foot.   While Ketchikan has many wildlife to show for – from salmon to bald eagles, Skagway is full of colorful human stories and history, thanks to the Klondike gold rush of 1896.  It was the port from where prospectors prepared for and started their 500-mile journey to the gold fields in Canada.  Some never made it to the gold fields and many never made it back.  Very few became rich.  Of course, the real smart ones “mine the miners” and became wealthy without nearly as much hardship (Now you understand why people want to work in Wall Street?).

Land excursions at those towns through cruise companies or independent operators offer opportunities to get close to natural beauties as well as wild animals such as salmon, bald eagle, grizzly bear, and humpback whale.  More adventurous minded tourists could also try glacier/ice field trekking, kayaking, rafting, etc.  Further north from Skagway, scenic cruising of Glacier Bay National Park and the College Fjord adds acclamations to the week-long cruise as majestic glaciers meet the sea water.  For some reasons, our memory of Glacier Bay was different and better from our first visit a decade ago.  The cruise ship we were on shut the engines and let us enjoy the views and sounds in complete silence.  I can still remember hearing the sound of crumbling glaciers from miles away with occasional cheers when one actually sees something.  Otherwise, passengers were mostly whispering as if everyone was afraid of disturbing the nature.  Below are a few selected photos that I took for your enjoyment.  To enlarge, simply left click on the photo.
Mendenhall Glacier
Auke Bay

Juneau Port from Mt Roberts Tram
Juneau Cruise Port

Auke Bay, north of Juneau
Sea Lions in Auke Bay


Humpback Whales in Auke Bay

Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay

The disembarkation point of our cruise was Whittier which is 60 miles southeast of Anchorage.  As we stepped out of the cruise ship in early morning, stunningly beautiful Whittier harbor and nearby mountains veiled in fog greeted us.  Not far from the cruise terminal, there lies the 2.5 miles long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel in one lane shared by both cars and trains.  It is the second longest highway tunnel of North America (50 ft shorter than the Ted Williams+I-90 extension in Boston) and is the only land access of Whittier to the outside world through the Portage Glacier Highway. 

The short drive through the Portage Glacier Highway was breathtaking.  We in fact returned to the area a few days later for more photo shoots and hikes to see the lake and glaciers.  20 miles west, Portage Glacier road meets the Seward Highway which is a part of Alaska Route 1.  If you turn left and heads west-southwest, you can explore the heart of Kenai Peninsula.   Turning right and head north, you soon see Turnagain Arm to your left with Anchorage at the far north of the mouth of the Arm at more than 30 miles away.  Turnagain Arm is one of the about five dozen places in the world where one can see tidal bore. (but it is not nearly as impressive as the one at Qiantang River of China which has the world's largest bore - up to 30 ft high and moving at up to 25 miles per hour.)   During high tides, pods of Beluga whales or white whales (ok, it is a misnomer and is really more like dolphins) follow and chase the silver salmon all the way upstream from Cook Inlet.  It is not difficult to spot some of these cute mammals along the highway, one of the only two places in North America where you can watch Beluga whales in the wild.

Turnagain Arm northward
Alaska Fireweed

Turnagain Arm when low tide

Continuing north on Alaska Route 1 past Anchorage, a mere 30 miles out, one reaches Wasilla which is a small suburban town of Anchorage with less than 8,000 residents.   It is now internationally known, thanks to Sarah Palin who was its mayor from 1996 till 2002.  She was elected as the Governor of Alaska in 2006 and became the Republican Party nominee for Vice President in the 2008 election.  To boost her credential on international affairs, Sarah Palin had made the famous statement: "They're our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." Although the statement was technically correct, it was such a stretch from her demonstrated intellects and experiences that the statement became a constant joke of her ignorance of foreign affairs. 

Picking up Alaska Route 3, aka the George Parks Highway after Wasilla and going north along the imposing Alaska Range at the west, one can enjoy a pleasant drive to Denali National Park 200 miles away.  The word "Denali" came from the native Athabaskan language.  It means "the high one", referring to the Mount Denali of the park.  It is also known as Mount McKinley, named after president William McKinley of Ohio in 1897.  Mount Denali is the highest mountain of North America.  Peaked at 20,327 ft, it is simply a gigantic piece of granite that was lifted up into the sky from Denali Fault as a result of tectonic activities over 10's of millions of years. 

Denali National Park and Reserve has more than 4 million acres in area and is the third largest national park of U.S.   Because of the low temperature and short growth seasons, Denali National Park has little wooded areas.  Instead, tundra at various elevations with beautiful fall colors covered much of the ground no matter at which directions you look.  There is only one Park Road of 91 miles long that takes one from the park entrance to the mining camp of Kantishna.  The first 15 miles is open to private vehicles.  The remaining 76 miles of narrow gravel road is only accessible by Park concessionary buses.  A round-trip bus ride with short stops along the way all the way to Kantishna would be a 12+ hours venture.   The reward though is the spectacular sceneries and possible encounters with wildlife – grizzly bears, mountain sheep, moose, and more.  One new thing I learned from watching a film at the visitor center was the most impressive camouflage I have ever seen.  Look at the photos below and compare the Willow Ptarmigans (the state bird of Alaska) in late Aug that we saw and a photo of a Ptarmigan in winter that I downloaded from Internet!   

More selected photos follow them below.  With a three-night stays, we barely scratch the surface.  Next time, we hope we have a better luck with the weather and have more time to hike at various parts of the park.

A lone grizzly bear
A lone visitor

Eielson Visitor Center
Wonder Lake

Mount McKingley seen from Alaska Route 1

Before I go, I should say a few words about food.  Material wise, you can’t go wrong with fresh local salmon and halibut.  But if you are not sure about the joint, simply order entrees that retain the original flavor as much as possible. We have had decent food at most of the places we visited including the café in the Denali Park.  We also had a wonderful outdoor lunch break and leisure walk at Talkeetna on the way to Denali from Anchorage.  It is a lovely small town with quite a few cozy restaurants.  I had Caribou Chili and a special Ale made with Fireweed honey.  With 9% alcohol, that Ale was the strongest beer I have ever had but is very good.  The Caribou Chili was nicely done too.  It didn't taste gamey as one might fear.   Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that restaurants in U.S., as required by law, can only serve game meats that are farm-raised? 

Talk to you soon!

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