Anchorage, Alaska, May 2016

The final stop on our Alaska cruise was the city of Anchorage.  Established in 1914 as the terminus of the newly established Alaska Railroad, Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, with over 40% of the state’s population living in the city.

Anchorage 4th Ave HDR Outdoor 2

On Good Friday in 1964, much of the city was destroyed by the second strongest earthquake ever recorded.  Downtown Anchorage sustained much of the damage, but many areas of the city were destroyed.  The Turnagain neighborhood was destroyed when the land it was built on dropped seven feet and then slid into Cook Inlet.  The destroyed area was turned into Earthquake Park and can be seen from the Anchorage Trolley tour.

While we’re on the subject of the Trolley tour, our tour guide had an interesting account of the earthquake.  Her husband, a kid at the time, was at the dentist on the day of the earthquake.  When the earthquake happened, the dentist grabbed the child from the chair and they climbed out the first floor window.  The young boy, having never been anesthetized before, thought the shaking was the result of the novacaine.

Despite the extensive damage, Anchorage was quickly rebuilt and today is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.  Monuments and art, including several totems,  are everywhere.

There are murals everywhere in Anchorage, even in back alleys.  The largest and most beautiful is Alaska’s Marine Life, the 54th of artist Robert Wyland’s Whaling Walls.  Other standouts are the Iditarod mural on the side of the Alaska Experience Theater and a small mural on the side of Kobuk Coffee.

We had roughly a day in Anchorage and we made the most of it.  We like to research restaurants we’d like to visit before we visit a place and the place we chose for dinner was Glacier Brewhouse.  The place was packed when we stopped and we had to wait more than an hour to be seated but it was worth it.  The food, the beer and the service were all great.

The next morning we took a walk to Snow City Cafe for breakfast.  Another popular spot with both locals and tourists, we had about a half hour wait.  While we waited we wandered across the street to Resolution Point and the Captain Cook monument.  Resolution Point gave us a great view of “the Sleeping Lady”, Mount Sisitna.

After a wonderful breakfast at Snow City we wandered back to the Anchorage Visitors Center for the Trolley Tour.  The Visitors Center is a cute little “cabin” with a sod roof.  The Trolley Tour took us on a very informative tour of the city.  We visited Earthquake Park, Lake Hood, some of the oldest neighborhoods in Anchorage and saw Engine No. 1, the first locomotive of the Alaska Railroad.

Lake Hood was interesting. We learned that 1 out of every 60 Alaskans have a pilot’s license (the national average is 1 out of 400).  This makes sense when you find out that roads reach only 30% of Alaska.  We also saw the iconic de Havilland Beaver airplane.  Only 1,600 of these airplanes were built between 1948 and 1967.  Despite the last Beaver rolling off the assembly line 50 years ago, hundreds are still operational and are so popular in Alaska that they pass down from family member to family member.

After the Trolley Tour we took a leisurely walk back through town, eventually stopping at Town Square Park for a reindeer sausage.  The weather was great and the park was a wonderful little place to enjoy the day.

Anchorage Park HDR Outdoor 1

Eventually it was time to get to the airport.  Ted Stevens Airport was pretty interesting with a lot of art.  The ducks and geese were quite striking.

So, after twelve days, it was time for the flight home.  We enjoyed everything about the trip and will always look back on it as a trip of a lifetime.

Alaska Railroad, May 2016

Our trip from Denali to Anchorage was aboard the Alaska Railroad.  The bi-level, glass-domed McKinley Explorer cars were perfect for viewing the extraordinary landscape of Alaska.

Denali Train Depot CFX Help Me Rhonda

The Alaska Railroad’s routes are entirely contained in Alaska and the railroad carries both passengers and freight.  While the railroad depends heavily on tourism, inland residents of Alaska depend on the Alaska Railroad for supplies and transportation.  But our experience is as passengers, so we’ll focus on that.

This is not your average passenger train.  The lower level is the dining car and, from our experience, the food is quite good.  The upper deck is glass-domed, which gives the passengers great views of the passing landscape.  There’s a full-service bar on each passenger car.  Here’s a view of the beautiful yellow and blue engine from the passenger car.

Alaska RR engine from dome car 2 HDR Deep 1

The trip was around eight hours and we passed through some beautiful country.  Inland Alaska is sparsely populated, so much of what we passed was wilderness.  We never tired of watching the mountains, forests and rivers pass by.

One of the highlights of the trip was Denali.  Few visitors to Alaska get to see the Tall One.  Denali spends most of its time hiding behind banks of clouds that hide it from most people.  We among the fortune few.  The weather was perfect, with few clouds.  Denali was in sight from the train for over an hour.

Best Denali CFX Detail

Denali was the icing on the cake.  The rest of the trip to Anchorage was pretty uneventful and relaxing.  Each car had a guide who pointed out interesting facts and, in general, kept us entertained.  We enjoyed a nice lunch, a drink or two, and a beautiful journey.  Soon we would reach our last stop on our Alaska journey, Anchorage.

Tundra Wilderness Tour, Denali, May 2016

Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park.  Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station.  That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.

The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens.  When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness.  At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats.  The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.

Tundra Tour Buses HDR Deep 2

Our driver was great.  He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since.  He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers.  For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc.  We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.

One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out.  That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.

The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.

Moose Color Efx Ektachrome 100 and Detail Extractor

The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes.  This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park.  Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths.  Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.

The next sighting was a ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration.  Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken.  One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken.  The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.

Ptarmigan Color Efx Fuji Velvia 100 Foliage

Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali.  Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds.  Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other.  We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs.  Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.

Grizzly in Road Revealing Detail Foliage

Next up were a herd of Dall sheep.  Dall sheep are quite common in Denali.  They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.

Dall Sheep HDR Outdoor 2

Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour.  The rugged landscape was breathtaking.  One of the high points was Polychrome Pass.  Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour.  The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.

Polychrome Pass HDR Deep 2

Caribou are quite common in Denali.  We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape.  This was the best I could do with the Caribou.

Caribou Ektachrome 100 and Foliage

We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station.  The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points.  From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.

Tundra Tour Landscape Detail Extractor

In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou.  But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road.  After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”

All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent.  If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.

 

NPS Sled Dogs, May 2016

One of our favorite excursions was also a free one.  We took a shuttle from McKinley Chalet Resort to the park to visit the National Park Service sled dogs.  The NPS sled dogs are quite different from the racing dogs we saw at Caribou Crossing in the Yukon.  The NPS dogs are working dogs and, as such, are not built for speed but for endurance. Because of the harsh winters virtually the only way into the wilderness is by dog sled.  The rangers can spend weeks in the the wilderness and depend on the dogs to get them in and around the park.  During the spring and summer, though, the dogs take it easy and provide an opportunity for tourists to interact with real working sled dogs.

As part of the visit to the dogs, the park rangers put on a short but informative sledding demonstration.  It’s obvious from the demonstration that the dogs love what they do.

A few words about the dog sled team.  Each dog on the team has a job and they’re assigned that job based on their physical abilities and their personality.  Here’s the team from our demonstration.

The Team HDR Deep 2

The front row contains the lead dogs.  Lead dogs steer the team and set the pace.  Qualities of a good lead dog is intelligence, initiative and the ability to find a good trail in bad conditions.

The second row are the swing dogs.  These dogs help swing the rest of the team along the turns of the trail.

The dog closest to the sled is the wheel dog.  The wheel dog needs to be calm and intelligent, so that it is not startled by the movement of the sled.  They also need to be able to help guide the sled around tight turns.

So that’s the team.  The sled they  pull during the demonstration is an actual working sled, but without the couple hundred pounds that can be loaded on the sled for long excursions into the Alaska wilderness.  The all wood sled has not changed much since men began using sleds and dogs for transportation in Alaska.

NPS Sled Ektachrome 64 Pro HDR Deep 1

The actual mushing demonstration only lasted a minute but it was obvious that the dogs enjoy their job.  Once they were done with their 60 seconds of work the dogs were rewarded with a treat and laid down to enjoy it while a park ranger explained the ins and outs of the life of an NPS sled dog.

Mushing HDR Deep 2

In case you’re interested, the NPS sled dogs are retired at age nine.  By that time they’ve traveled more than 8,000 miles under harness.  So what happens to the dogs once they’re retired?  They’re adopted to suitable homes.  Keep in mind that the years of sledding have kept these dogs in top condition and the energy and intelligence of the dogs may not be a match for the casual dog person.  But if you’re used to high energy and intelligent dogs and can give one of these dogs the home it needs, please consider adopting.

Seward to Denali, May 2016

Our final port on the Alaska cruise was Seward, a town of just under 3,000 residents on the Gulf of Alaska. Seward is the ninth most lucrative fisheries port in the United States and the harbor was full of fishing boats.

Port of Seward HDR Outdoor 1

Seward is also the beginning of the Seward Highway, one of the most beautiful drives in the United States.  Our trip from Seward to Denali would begin along the Seward Highway.

Fifty years after the 1964 earthquake that devastated Alaska from Anchorage to Seward there are still signs of damage.  The land dropped six to eight feet and was flooded with salt water.  Along the highway you can see “ghost forests” of trees that were killed by the salt water.

Just five miles from Seward the highway passes through the Chugach National Forest.  Alaska.  The trip to Denali passes through some truly beautiful wilderness areas.  The largest state in the country, Alaska is also the most sparsely populated state, and has relatively few highways.  Most of the population of Alaska live in the coastal regions, so much of the interior of the state is wilderness.  It seemed that everywhere we looked there were beautiful vistas.

Inland Alaska HDR Deep 1

Our trip took us along the Turnagain Arm, a waterway running inland from Cook Inlet, and the location of the second highest tides in North America.  Tides can reach forty feet and come in so quickly that they form a wave called a tidal bore.  The bore can be dangerous if you’re caught unaware when it comes in, but it is also a favorite with kayakers and surfers who like to ride the wave as an extreme sport.  Our trip did not let us witness the tidal bore but Turnagain Arm is quite beautiful, with high and rugged lining the north side of the Arm.

Tournagain Arm, I think

We stopped for lunch in Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley.  During the Great Depression the U.S. government began offering families the opportunity to move to the Matanuska Valley as a way out of the hardships of the depression devastating the country.  Each family who relocated was offered forty acres of land.  All they had to do was build a house and farm the land.  The valley is well suited for dairy farming and vegetables such as potatoes and cabbage grow well in the valley.

The experiment was not very successful.  The climate, while mild by Alaska standards, was much harder than many of the colonists were used to, and by 1940 over half of the original families had returned home.

We still had a few hours before reaching Denali.  This final stretch was where we saw our first moose, two of which came out of the woods and ran along the highway for several yards.  We were to see several more moose at Denali.

Finally, we reached our destination, the McKinley Chalet Resort.  Located along the Nenanha River, the location of the resort is quite beautiful.  The cabins were rustic yet comfortable and the scenery was awe inspiring.  The land around us changed literally overnight.  When we awoke the after our first night the mountains behind our cabin were covered with a fresh snow.   It was beautiful.

Denali is pretty remote as far as destinations go, but we were to experience firsthand how small the world can be.  The first evening we went to Karsten’s Pub, a new restaurant at McKinley Chalet.  Our waitress was a young lady from Marietta, Georgia.  Marietta was our home for many years before we relocated to North Carolina.

While our Alaska adventure was nearing its end, we still had two days and enjoyed two great excursions, a visit to the National Park Service sled dogs and the Tundra Tour, a bus excursion that took us deep into the park.

 

Glacier Bay, May 2016

One of the highlights of our cruise was the day spent in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.  Designated a National Monument by President Calvin Coolidge and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Glacier Bay has been a cruise ship destination since the 1960s.

We spend virtually the entire day on deck enjoying some of the most beautiful natural areas on Earth.  Luckily, it didn’t rain, which, according to the National Park Service, is a rare event.  They call rainy days “glacier making days” and there are a lot of Glaciers in Glacier Bay.

We went on deck early and enjoyed a “special” coffee.  We asked the waiter for coffee with a splash of Kahlua.  His response was “Ooh!” and then he made our coffee.  We liked him a lot.

Cruising Glacier Bay is a thing of beauty.  Everywhere you look you see wilderness virtually untouched by man.  It’s quiet to the point of feeling like you’re in a religious shrine.

Glacier Bay CFX Double Tone and Darken

We were on the lookout for wildlife.  Glacier Bay is home to whales, sea otters, seals, brown bears, mountain goats and many other species.  We did see a couple sea otters, a humpback whale and a bald eagle (resting on a small iceberg), but the excitement started for us when we spotted mountain goats high up the sides of the mountains.  It’s amazing to see these animals make their way across nearly vertical walls of rock.

The stars of the show for most, though, are the glaciers.   There are a lot of glaciers in Glacier Bay but the queen of them all is Marjorie Glacier.  The railings along the deck were packed with people waiting to see Marjorie Glacier.  It had the feel of fans lining the red carpet at a movie premier.  And, to be fair, Marjorie Glacier is quite a sight.  Big and beautiful, calving icebergs every few minutes, the glacier puts on quite a show.

If you can tear your eyes away from Marjorie Glacier and manage to look over your right shoulder you’ll see another glacier.  The Grand Pacific doesn’t have the eye appeal of its neighbor but is no less impressive.  Grand Pacific is black, covered with dirt that the glacier has dragged along in its journey to the bay.  Because of this Grand Pacific doesn’t attract thr attention that it’s neighbor does.

Grand Pacific Glacier CFX Detail

We spent an hour or so at these two glaciers before heading for our next glacier, the Johns Hopkins Glacier.  This 12-mile long glacier gets its start on the eastern slopes of Lituya Mountain and ends in the Johns Hopkins Inlet.  Interestingly, the western slopes of Lituya Mountain were the site of the highest tsunami ever recorded.  Damage from a 1958 earthquake along the Fairweather Fault were seen over 1,700 feet up the side of the mountain.

Johns Hopkins CFX Graduated ND

A second glacier terminates in Johns Hopkins Inlet.  Lamplugh Glacier is quite pretty, with lots of the glacier blue ice showing at its terminus.  Just over a month after our visit, Lamplugh Glacier was the site of a huge avalanche that left 150 million tons of debris on it’s surface.  Nature can be awesome.

Lamplugh Glacier CFX Graduated ND

Our time in Glacier Bay is a day we’ll never forget.

Yukon Territory, May 2016

One of the things we were most excited about when we booked the Alaska cruise was the opportunity to see some of the last true wilderness areas in the world.  Our excursion to the Yukon territory let us do just that.  It also gave us the opportunity to see wildlife, snuggle puppies, and ride a historic train.

We took a bus from Skagway along the Klondike Highway.  We made a few stops along the way so everyone could get out and enjoy a beautiful day and the spectacular scenery.  Along the way we crossed an unusual bridge, the Captain William Moore Bridge, an earthquake-proof suspension bridge.  It’s only anchored on one side, so if the ground shifts due to an earthquake the other side will move freely.

Captain William Moore Bridge HDR Dark

The scenery was amazing.  I would have never imagined the amount of greenery and blooms that we saw in May in the Yukon.  There was still plenty of ice on the ground but there were plenty of signs of spring as well.

The main destination on the excursion was Caribou Crossing, a tourist stop not far from the little town of Carcross.  Carcross, by the way, was once named Caribou Crossing, but the town changed its name to Carcross to differentiate it from the other six towns in the Yukon named Caribou Crossing.

We had a nice lunch at Caribou Crossing and then explored the taxidermy museum.  We were not excited about taxidermy but I will say the museum was really interesting and the taxidermy was some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Caribou Crossing was also our first opportunity to interact with sled dogs.  The sled dogs at Caribou Crossing are racing dogs and are a good bit smaller than working sled dogs, the National Park Service sled dogs, for instance.  We got to pet on some of the adult dogs, watch a team pull a cart filled with tourists, and pet on puppies.

After our time at Caribou Crossing we took a short ride up the highway to Emerald Lake, a lake known for its intense green color.  Quite beautiful.

Emerald Lake HDR Outdoor 1

Our last stop before connecting with the train ride back to Skagway was the small town of Carcross.  Carcross has been the home to Tlingit and Tagish First Nations people for at least 4,500 years.  The town of roughly 300 residents and is where we caught the train.

After a quick stop in Carcross we hopped on the bus to catch the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad for our trip back to Skagway.  We were delayed for a few minutes so we could observe a black bear that was scavenging along the highway.  It was our first bear sighting of the cruise.

Black Bear Color Efx Detail and Vignette

Black bears can be any color, like this ginger colored bear.  Similarly, Brown bears can range from black to a unique blush color.  Black bears are smaller that brown bears and are missing the large hump over their front shoulders.  Also, black bears don’t have the dished out nose like brown bears do.

Finally, we were ready to board the train for our ride back to Skagway.  The White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is an N-scale that had its origin in the Yukon Gold Rush.  The railroad was started in 1898 and when it opened in 1900 it supplanted the Chilkoot trail as the primary route into the Yukon.  Today it’s primarily a tourist train but does make several stops along the way to pick up hikers, campers and off-gridders who need a ride into Skagway.

The train ride is one of the more popular excursions on the cruise lines and it’s no wonder.  The trip was enjoyable and the train ran through some of the most beautiful scenery in North America.