Saturday, 8/20/05

The flight from Philadelphia to Atlanta was brief and uneventful, but it seemed all hell had broken loose in the Atlanta airport.  The immediately noticeable thing was that the air conditioning was off and there seemed to be no other fresh air circulating.  It was 91 degrees outside and blazing sun.  Those trapped inside were red-faced and fanning themselves while gulping iced drinks.  On my boarding pass, it said that my flight from Philadelphia would land at gate A20 and that my connecting flight to Anchorage would leave from A25:  a piece of cake in the 50 minutes between flights.  But the flight attendant announced A27.  Neither proved to be correct, so I checked the monitors – E34.  These two gates are as far from each other as it’s possible to be.  So, dripping, I made my way to E34 by shuttle and foot.  In the intervening time, the gate had again been changed, to E11.  At least it was in the same terminal.  I rolled my pant legs up above my knees, drank lots of water, and sat very still while awaiting the boarding announcement.

I was surprised to see that about 25% of the passengers in the Atlanta airport were soldiers wearing their camouflage uniforms.  It’s been decades since I’ve seen a U.S. soldier in uniform, and then to see all of these young people reminded me that we are indeed at war.   I guess Delta took pity on us, and although they were not nearly ready to depart, allowed us onto the air-conditioned plane to await take-off.  As we boarded, I saw something I’ve never experienced before:  misters.  Clouds of humidity were being pumped into the cabin from a strip running down the middle of the ceiling.  It was very comfortable and nobody complained that we departed exactly one hour behind schedule.

It was a long, fairly bumpy 7-hour flight – just as long as going to Finland!  Happily, there was an empty seat between me and the other passenger on the 3-seat section in the middle of the plane.  Dinner was served and I watched “Monster-in-Law” (don’t!), cat-napped, and read, read, read.

As soon as I got into the Anchorage airport, there was no doubt where I was.  The first thing I saw was the head of something with antlers hanging on the wall.  Below was a glass case containing a stuffed musk ox, and along the way to baggage claim were many other examples of taxidermists’ work on local animals.  Frankly, I was too tired to appreciate them.

I collected my luggage and proceeded to try to use my cell phone to call the Inlet Tower Hotel to see when their shuttle would be by to collect me.  No phone service on my plan in Alaska!  So I used a pay phone and exited immediately as they said the van was 2-3 minutes away.  I stood under cover peering out into a blowing downpour for 20 minutes.  I dug a fleece and a jacket out of my suitcase.  It was 3 a.m. my time.  I saw dozens of tourists arriving with large coolers I presumed to be full of fish that they had caught.  The shuttle driver confirmed that.

The Inlet Tower Hotel was spectacular, my room a suite really.  Alaska Tour & Travel had chosen it for me because they had a shuttle to the railroad station.  After arranging for a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call, I crashed at 3:45 a.m. (11:45 p.m. local time), but of course couldn’t sleep.  I did eventually, though, but awakened at 5:15 a.m. local time to answer nature’s call (on my home schedule).  Total sleep – less than 5 ½ hours.  The wind howling around the building sounded like a blizzard in North Dakota, and a huge tour bus was idling out front.  I decided to get up, do my yoga practice, and write.  It was still pouring.

Sunday, 8/21

The hotel shuttle took me to the railroad station, which had some handsome totem poles out front as decoration.  I boarded the Denali Star for the all-day trip to Denali National Park.  Aboard this train were two charming hostesses – high school students who were volunteering – who pointed out sights and facts about Alaska at points along the way, and answered questions.  Frequently, there would be small airstrips.  Our hostess explained that these dot the whole state since only 25% of it is accessible by road for a total of only 1,000 miles of public roads, and only 30% of these are paved.  One of every 58 Alaskans is a registered pilot, and there is one aircraft for every 77 citizens.  Alaska is one-fifth of the total land of the United States and is 2½ times the size of Texas.  (That must have been hard for the Texans to swallow!)

We passed many full, roaring rivers and streams, due to glacier and snow melt in the summer.  When glaciers melt, glacier silt, a flour-like substance, stays suspended in the water, giving it a milky appearance.  This silt doesn’t allow sunlight to filter through, thus there is no photosynthesis, and no plant or fish life.  We saw the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountain ranges (well, barely in the clouds and rain).  Shortly into the ride, we passed through a farming community.  They have a 110-day growing season and on the best day have 19 hours of daylight.  This allows some flowers and vegetables to reach gigantic proportions.  The record for the largest cabbage at the State Fair was last year at 102 pounds!  We also passed areas which were gravely affected by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, which measured 9.2 on the Richter scale, making it the worst ever recorded in North America.  The ground, made up mostly of glacier silt, shook for over 14 minutes.  That caused the ground to compact and lower and the salt water from the Pacific Ocean to pour in during a tsunami 25 minutes later.  This preserved fallen trees for a century before they’ll begin to rot.  We could easily see their white spines among the greenery that has grown up around them, a chilling reminder of that devastating event.

I got an “Alaska-sized” muffin and hot chocolate for breakfast in the snack bar and noted that they also offered reindeer sausage sandwiches, in addition to other more mundane fare.  Again I was fortunate to have an empty seat next to my assigned window seat, so I could really spread out all of my stuff.  There were many other empty seats on the train, which surprised me because when I had tried to make a reservation for a week earlier, it was fully booked.

When we reached the town of Talkeetna, we were allowed about a 20-minute leg stretch outside the train.  I was fully prepared to get off, but when I saw how hard it was raining, I opted instead to visit the on-board railroad gift shop, where I did some Christmas shopping for Wilma and Elis.  I also bought some postcards.  I then had some absolutely delicious salmon chowder with tiny oyster crackers, the first time I’d ever had it.  When we passed the town of Cantwell, in front of a general store which faced the tracks, one of the locals faced away from the train, dropped trou, and mooned us as we glided by.  Also a first for me!

We passed the town of Palmer, where the Alaska State Fair was in full swing during the last two weeks of August.  Had I known, I might have come up a day earlier to experience it.  We also passed over the 918’ trestle spanning Hurricane Gulch.  You’ve probably seen this as it’s on all the railroad’s literature.  Hurricane force winds are known to blow through the gulch, thus its name.

We reached the Denali station at 3:45 p.m.  It’s really a staging area for the dozens of huge, plush motor coaches — marked with names like Holland America and Princess cruise lines — to disgorge and corral their passengers.  And then in the downpour I saw a young guy with an “Elderhostel” sign and an arrow pointing to our waiting aged yellow school bus!  There had been 18 of us on the train and another 19 had arrived that morning by train from Fairbanks in the other direction, for a total of 37 hostelers out of a possible 44 spots available for the trip.

During the 8-mile ride to the Denali Learning Center, we saw a large group of cars up ahead and I assumed it was an accident site.  Indeed it was a moose sighting – two in fact.  This was also a first for me, seeing moose loose in their own habitat.

I was the only unattached member of the group.  One woman, a recent widow, was traveling with her daughter who was not yet old enough to qualify for an Elderhostel on her own.  Everyone else was part of a married couple.  We had an orientation session and a walking tour of the Denali Learning Center “campus,” the only Elderhostel site in the U.S. built exclusively for that program.  The only phone on the premises available to us was a pay phone in a little shelter that looked like an outhouse.  We had a very serious lecture on bear and moose safety, the moose being cited as the more dangerous of the two.  Grizzlies and moose had been known to stroll through the grounds, plus we’d be out hiking frequently and needed to know what to do.  I was relieved to hear that there has not been a single grizzly-related fatality in Denali since it was incorporated as a national park in 1917.

We slept in simple two-room log cabins, two to a room, with all four sharing a single central bath.  I, happily, didn’t have to share my room or pay a single supplement since the trip was undersubscribed.  The Nenana River, which marks the eastern boundary of Denali National Park, ran right outside the cabins.  There was a large log lodge where all of our other inside activities were held:  meals, classes, evening entertainment and lectures.  It had a small library, maps, a TV and VCR, a dry erase board, a large commercial kitchen and long rows of tables and chairs.  It had a delightful back porch surrounded by aspens and which overlooked the rushing river.  We had an exceptionally delicious dinner of salmon, pilaf, broccoli, salad, and blueberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream.  Coffee and hot water and fresh fruit and snacks were available at all times.  We agreed that if this was to be the level of the food service, we were all going to be very happy campers.

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After dinner, we went around the room, introducing ourselves, telling what we “used to do,” if we’d been on an earlier Elderhostel, and where we’d traveled in the world.  Our group was made up of highly accomplished professionals who were seasoned travelers, deeply interested in the environment, and doing all manner of volunteer activities in retirement.  Just a few were still working.  I returned to my cabin at 8 p.m. to unpack, to prepare for the very active day ahead, to write in this journal, and to start the book “Red Water” for the September meeting of my book discussion group.  Because I was still feeling jet lag, I turned in at 10.

Monday, 8/22/05

I awoke just before 6 feeling incredibly refreshed.  The sky was starting to clear and I felt hopeful that we’d have a day without rain.  When I had checked weather.com before leaving, there was a rain icon in every date on the calendar – for both Denali and Seward – as far out as it extended.  I was feeling pretty depressed about that.

Following breakfast, we were taken to the entrance of the park in our school bus, where we boarded a tan park service bus, which meant we were going to have a fully-narrated natural history tour in the park.  It’s important to understand that the original park was only 2 million acres.  Another 4 million acres were added on around it as a “preserve,” so that the entire area is now 6 million acres.  It was originally called Mt. McKinley National Park, but when the preserve portion was added, the name was changed to Denali, the name the original Athabascan native people gave to the mountain, which means “High One.”  Officially, the mountain’s name is still Mt. McKinley, named after the president.  No locals refer to it as anything but Denali or just “the mountain.”  Only park vehicles are allowed to traverse the full length of the 91-mile park road.  Denali is a wilderness park; there are no trails.

On our natural history bus tour, we went in only 15 miles.  As we approached Denali (the mountain), our driver/narrator, Gary, became incredibly excited:  we were going to be able to see the mountain!  It had not been visible for nearly a month, the last two weeks because of smoke from forest fires.  The heavy rain we had cleared the air.  Indeed, fewer than 20% of visitors to the park get to see the mountain.  Excitement ran high, and there it was – a white monolith rising behind shorter, grey mountains.  We were 75 miles from it and it looked huge.  We stopped for photos.  Later we stopped to visit the Savage River Patrol Cabin, one of the original log cabins built as cook houses for the workers installing the road into the park.  When the crew would move on to a new area and build a new cabin, the old cabin would be turned over to the rangers to be used as a refuge during the winter when they are patrolling the park by dog sled.  The cabin was fully furnished and an interpreter was on the porch, telling stories as if it were the ‘30s and ‘40s.

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Nails around window to discourage bears from getting inside

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We were shown the difference between the demarcation a glacier makes as it moves (U-shape) and what shape water makes (V-shape).  On one bridge we crossed, it was obvious we were at the toe of a former glacier, since on one side the land was sharply split by the water rushing off the formerly melting glacier.  On the other side was a wide gravel bar with little streams of water running through it, called a braided river.  This is a prime growing spot for berries and bears are easy to spot in the open on these bars devouring the fruit.

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We had been given bag lunches before we left in the morning and were advised to eat them on the bus so as to minimize any food crumbs in the park which could attract animals.  At Primrose Ridge, which is as far into the park as any vehicle other than a green park bus is permitted, we saw a herd of Dall sheep in the distance.  Dall sheep are the only white mountain sheep in the world.  The driver set up a scope, allowing us to get a really good look at them.  It was to preserve the Dall sheep from “market hunters” that the park was originally founded, thanks to the lobbying of Congress, over 13 years, by Charles Sheldon, who was named the first superintendent of the park.

As we were returning to the bus, one woman sidled up to me and said, “I really admire you for coming on this Elderhostel alone.  My husband was given two years to live a year and a half ago, and I can’t imagine my doing this alone after he’s gone.”  I asked her about his ailment and it was the effects of Agent Orange from his years as a soldier in Vietnam; he had been a career military man before his retirement.  I told her how glad I was that – together – they got to see Denali, since it was a dream of theirs to do so.  We two near-strangers hugged and it was a special moment.

We were returned to the Denali Visitor Center, where we saw a fantastic 20-minute movie about the park, which concluded with these words:  “If we listen to the land, it will tell us what to do.”  We broke into two different hiking groups, depending on cabin number, and proceeded with naturalists for 2 ½ hours.  We returned in time for a complete Thanksgiving dinner.  The stuffing was so good, I wanted the recipe.  It included walnuts!  Dinner was topped off by homemade pumpkin pie and real whipped cream.  After dinner, an elderly couple who had homesteaded in Healey, just outside the park, in the ‘40s, spoke to us about “The Way It Used to Be.”  This couple came up from Nebraska to raise livestock on 126 acres.  Their reminiscences of their extraordinarily difficult life, raising sheep while raising and home-schooling six children in those times and in that harsh environment, was spell-binding.

Tuesday, 8/23/05

After a pancake breakfast, we had a lecture and slide show by Nan Eagleson, a renowned wildlife biologist.  She had been the naturalist leading the hike I went on the day before.  While she has a Ph.D. in her area, it seems her knowledge is endless about every aspect of Alaska.  She, like everyone else who taught or drove or fed or organized us, was not native Alaskan.  These people came here on a whim, or a dare, or a vacation, or an escape, fell deeply in love with the area, and stayed, or ran home to get their stuff and returned.  And to a person, they were characters.  Do you remember the ace TV show of some years back, “Northern Exposure,” about a New York City doctor in Alaska, and the marvelous characters depicted on it?  We could match them on this trip.  Nan’s lecture on “Welcome to the Subarctic” made the movement of tectonic plates and the relationship between mosquitoes and grizzlies — and everything else she told us — riveting.  After lunch, we piled onto the school bus for the 15-minute ride to the Park Service Dog Sled facility where they put on a demonstration three times daily.  We had time to meet and pet the dogs, talk to kids from a local day-care center spending a full day at the facility, learning from them about their adopted dogs.  They each sported a badge with their dog’s picture and name, and could tell you its sex, age, age of mandatory retirement, and where they go when they retire.  The kids also wore badges urging people to walk gently on this land, and really that is the overarching, zealously proclaimed message of everybody here.  After the demonstration, we again split into two hiking groups, each accompanied by another naturalist.  Following the hikes, we reconnoitered at the Denali Visitor Center and were bused back to the Learning Center in time for a pasta, salad, and garlic bread dinner – again, top-notch.

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That evening’s lecturer, Rainier Newberry, Ph.D., geologist, ran in the door late and proceeded to set up all of his stuff in a frenzied manner – another character.  His lecture on “The Geology of Denali” was somewhat over my head, but focused on a recent finding – the first in Denali – of a dinosaur footprint mold.  He taught us why it is so miraculous that this one was discovered at all and why it’s unlikely any more will ever be found.  He had hands-on visual aides but the difficult material he was presenting and his frenetic manner were off-putting to me.  With a request to be awakened to see the aurora borealis to Carol Cooper, the youngish woman accompanying her widowed mother, who faithfully awakened around 1 a.m. each night to try to see it, I went off to bed.  We’re all tucked into bed by 10 p.m. latest each night, as we’re up around 6-6:30 to start our days.  Continental breakfast is at 6:30, hot breakfast from 7-8.  Activities begin at either 8 or 8:30, depending on whether or not we’re going off-site.

Wed., 8/24/05

Another outstanding morning lecture and slide show from Nan Eagleson on “The Wildlife of Denali,” then lunch and off on a hike down to Horseshoe Lake.  Emphasis of the walk was on how things are changing in the park and what causes those changes.  The biggest of course is the tourists, but also nature itself:  the river meandering, beavers chopping down trees and damning up water.  When we returned, we signed up for special activities during our Friday free time.  Choices were several kinds of rafting, horseback riding, free hiking in the park, the Husky Homestead Dog Sled Tour, fly-fishing, and flightseeing.  After dinner, we had a lecture on “Predators and Prey in Interior Alaska,” by Tom Walker, a photographer for National Geographic, among other publications, and a prolific author.

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Bear claw marks

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Beavers’ work

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Thurs., 8/25/05

Today was the showpiece of the week, a day-long green bus ride 58 miles into the park.  A green bus indicates that the driver is just a driver and does not narrate unless he or she wants to.  Both green buses I was on that day had drivers who wanted to talk, and all were amazingly articulate and well informed.  The first thing we noticed was that snow had fallen on some of the mountains since we’d last been in the park.  (The first snow of the season is referred to locally as “termination dust.”)  We were told that it had fallen at 4000’ and above the night before.  We also noticed a marked change in the color of leaves, bushes, and grasses.  The area was losing six minutes of light per day at that time and thus the fall color changes were coming on rapidly.  There’s an Alaska joke that winter is 9 months long with June as spring, July as summer, and August as fall.  And it’s certainly true!

We saw Dall sheep up high on a mountainside, and ptarmigan, the state bird, right on the side of the road, in the midst of their annual change-over from mottled brown to winter white.  They have large, heavily feathered feet to make walking on the snow easier.  One of the lecturers had brought in a ptarmigan foot and we all thought it was a furry rabbit’s foot.  What I spotted first, and which was then identified as a golden eagle, flew overhead, also a northern harrier.  Two running caribou came into sight.  The antlers of one were crimson.  This indicates that the velvet coating has just sloughed off, smearing the antlers with blood.  The bus driver had urged us to be the eyes watching for wildlife, while he kept his eyes in the road.  We were to shout out anytime we spotted something – or thought we did (there were a couple of false alarms) – and he’d stop the bus for viewing and photographs.  There was a relaxed pace to the trip, with comments on what we were passing.  Our driver, Lee McKelvey, was from Ireland, and had a delightful brogue.  However, he surely French-kissed the Blarney Stone, as he spoke nearly non-stop.  We’d make a comfort stop about every 1½ hours.  I found the toilet facilities immaculate.  There was no paper trash around because only an antibacterial gel was dispensed from machines in the stalls; there was no running water, soap, or towels available.  There were no concession stands of any kind in the park – hallelujah!

At Toklat Creek, it was announced that we could leave our group’s bus at this point to board a different green bus going all the way to Wonder Lake, just 7 miles shy of the end of the park road.  There was also another bus going all the way to the end of the 91-mile road, to the town of Kantichna, where there are a number of wildly expensive lodges ($400/night per person or $600 for a couple, with a 3-night minimum).  Since the bus ride in is so long, folks staying at Kantishna are usually flown in and out (and can afford it if they can afford to sleep over).  We were told that the last 7 miles between Wonder Lake and Kantishna was on a very poor road and the scenery along the way not worth the jolt to the system.  It should be noted that the park road, after the first 15 miles on which cars may drive, was not paved nor did it have any guard rails.  It was narrow and in many places incredibly twisty with a long, long drop down on one side.

I was the only one in the Elderhostel group who elected to change buses to go to Wonder Lake.  Our organizer, Terry Boyd, who was along on the trip, privately congratulated me on my choice and told me that most times Elderhostelers were reluctant to change buses.  I told him there was a good chance I’d never pass this way again, and I wanted to see it all.  He must have returned to the bus and given them a lecture, because four more folks joined me, one a very funny woman from South Carolina with a bad cold, who became my seatmate and companion on the extended trip.  It cost only $8.75 for the extra bus ride beyond what was included in my Elderhostel fee, and what a good investment that turned out to be!  We saw four different grizzly bear groupings, one a sow with her two cubs; she was a blonde.  Later we saw two adults with three cubs, then a couple of single, brown grizzlies.  They were in their pre-hibernation, hyperphagia stage where they eat non-stop for about 20 hours a day to put on an additional 300 pounds of fat to see them and their nursing cubs, if any, through the winter.  Their diet is mainly berries, which were in profusion  — low-bush cranberries, also called lingonberries, blueberries, soapberries, pumpkin berries, etc.  Grizzlies on the coast eat salmon, but there are no salmon – or any other fish, for that matter, except arctic graylings in a few spots in the park — because of the glaciated water.  The bears we saw were hard at it, eating as fast and as much as they could.  At one point a heavy cloud cover parted to expose the top of Denali surrounded by a halo of clouds.

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We also saw more caribou and ptarmigan, a loon on a lake with a huge fish in its mouth, a red-throated grebe, and migrating sandhill cranes.  At Wonder Lake, we had a 25-minute lay-over.  It began to rain, followed immediately by the sun peeking out and a rainbow formed over the lake.  Indeed, a special sight.

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We then returned the 84 miles to the park entrance.  Total travel time – 11 hours.  And total work day for the driver, also.  Twice the bus stopped to pick up hikers who had flagged it down.  This is the protocol in the park.  You can walk anywhere you wish, then make your way back to the road and flag down a bus going in whichever direction you want to go.  If there is room on the bus, you are welcomed aboard, and will be dropped off anywhere along the route you want.  Since the five of us who opted for the additional trip to Wonder Lake didn’t return to the Visitor Center until 7:30 p.m., we of course missed both dinner and the lecture on “Planning Denali’s Future.”  We took the shuttle back to the Learning Center and three of us headed off to the Roadhouse, a restaurant associated with McKinley Village, a hotel complex adjacent to the Elderhostel facility.  We all had the salmon sandwich, which was just fabulous.

Friday, 8/26/05

We started the day with our final class with the world-class lecturer, Nan Eagleson, on “Ethical Dilemmas.”  Actually, Nan didn’t lecture, but divided us into four discussion groups.  She educated us about the mandate of Denali National Park (protect, but provide access), which is often contradictory, and the wording of the Wilderness Act, signed by LBJ in 1964.  Then she gave each group a sheet with a current real-life dilemma in the park.  We discussed and argued for a half hour, then gave presentations about our conclusions.  It was very stimulating.  After lunch, we had our scheduled free time and I went to Husky Homestead, the kennels of three-time Iditarod winner, Jeff King.  Quite an operation!  His van picked up those of us who had elected that activity.  Workers offering 3-week-old puppies for us to hold met us at the kennels.  Another litter had been born just the night before, but we didn’t see them.  Jeff himself welcomed us and then turned us over to a guide.  We saw most of the 80 dogs he keeps, from the puppies to a very senior dog (a 2-time winner) who, at 18 years old, had arthritis, a fatty tumor on his underside, and pretty mangy fur.  He had the run of the place.  The others were tethered and were close enough to other dogs to play with them, but not to mate.  Females discovered to be in heat are quickly removed to their own kennels which they share with pregnant and nursing bitches.  We learned all about the year-round training of the dogs, their diet and exercise.  Then we went into a large building where we were seated for a presentation on the Iditarod race itself.  The race is an annual commemoration of the relay Pony Express-type dog sled run made in 1925 to carry diphtheria medication from Nenana to Nome.  This first run was accomplished in only 127 hours (about 6 days), in temperatures that barely rose above –40 degrees F. and in winds strong enough to blow over the dogs and sleds.  The serum arrived in time and hundreds of lives were saved.

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We were returned to the Learning Center.  I spent the next three hours of my free time waiting in line to use the one washer and drier, and actually using them.  Then it was dinner time.  That evening’s lecturer was unable to be with us, so Terry Boyd, one of our organizers and a world-class photographer, gave us a moving introduction on how he got interested in photography and came to be in Alaska from his home in Arkansas, and then showed us slides of his work.

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Saturday, 8/27/05

Our cabin check-out proceeded in an orderly fashion and we boarded one of those plush motor coaches for the all-day ride to our next site, the Kenai Fjords Peninsula Learning Center in Moose Pass.  As we passed McKinley Village, our driver stopped to pick up a friend of his, a tour guide who worked for Holland America Lines who was returning home to Anchorage on a break.  She earned her ride by acting the tour guide for a short while and telling us some amazing facts:

  • Juneau, the capital of the state, is completely inaccessible to its constituents except by boat and plane.  There has been interest over the years in moving the capital to another city, but an estimate of costs came in at $2.3 billion, and the citizenry voted not to move it.  The town of Willow, which is equidistant from Fairbanks and Anchorage, had been identified as the possible site in the ‘80s.  A real estate boom ensued in Willow, and those who bought are still holding on today, hoping that the move will come to pass.
  • Alaska has no income tax nor sales tax (except in Anchorage).   There is tax on personal property, land and buildings.  There is something called the Permanent Fund, funded by oil revenue, which cannot be spent except by a vote of the people.  The fund currently stands at $30 billion and every man, woman, and child in Alaska receives a yearly check as their portion of the interest on that fund.  The checks range from about $1000 to $2000 a year, depending on the interest rates.  Parents have the option of leaving theirs and their children’s payments in a fund for college expenses; these accounts grow at the same annual interest rate as the Permanent Fund.  In order to receive this check, a person must be an Alaskan resident for one year and cannot reside outside of Alaska for more than 90 days to qualify.  Snowbirds carefully book their plane reservations so as not to miss out!  Large families have been known to move to Alaska for the dividend.  A former mayor of Anchorage had 14 children, thus last year when the payments were in the $2,000 range, he received $32,000!
  • The average house price in Anchorage, where approximately 42% of Alaska’s population lives, is in the $250,000-$275,000 range.
  • There are many homeschoolers in the state since the ride to school is often prohibitively long.  A free college education has been offered by the state to the top 10 kids in every high school graduating class.  Often, the entire class gets to go, since there are sometimes fewer than 10 kids in the class in the more outlying areas.  If a student winds up paying for his or her own college education using student loans, the state will repay them if the student stays and works in Alaska.  There does seem to be a problem with Alaskan youth leaving the state.  However, many do return later.
  • The cost of living in Alaska is about the same as in the lower 48.
  • There is research being conducted at the University on fast crop growth because of the extended daylight hours during the growing season.
  • There are about 100 earthquakes a month registered in the state.
  • Medicine is often practiced by e-mail, especially in the back country.
  • Alaskans consume more ice cream per capita than any other state!

We stopped a couple of times for photo opps of Denali totally devoid of cloud cover, bathroom breaks, even though there was one on the bus, and a coffee break/leg stretch.  For lunch we pulled into a beautiful riverside campground where all manner of camping was going on, from pup tents through pop-ups to modest RVs, asked in the office if a busload of Elderhostelers with bag lunches could eat at their picnic tables in their grove, and were waved in.  This would never happen in the “lower 48,” as the states down below are constantly being referred to.

In mid-afternoon, we had a stop at the Alaska Wild Berry Products complex, which had – among many other wonderful things – a chocolate waterfall!  I bought more Christmas presents for the grandchildren.  Most of us got ice cream cones in Alaskan flavors, and we continued on our way.  We arrived in Moose Pass at 5 p.m., right on schedule.  We settled into our rooms at the Trail Lake Lodge which is a motel now used only for Elderhostel groups.  The owners also run a restaurant and bar on the site, and of course feed us hungry hostelers three meals a day.  There’s no daily maid service on Elderhostel trips, but who needs it?

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I had a one-hour hike to stretch after sitting all day, then we had dinner and an orientation.  The entrée was salmon, and that and the other parts of the meal – lots and lots of veggies and fruits – were as good as the food we’d had up in Denali.  Our rooms had TVs, so I watched the news for the first time in a week to see what was going on in the world.  It was all bad news about Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm, heading for New Orleans.

Sunday, 8/28/05

We had breakfast and by 8 a.m. were in a bus that was one step up from the rickety yellow school bus in Denali and on our way into Seward and the Alaska SeaLife Center, a 45-minute drive away.  A cow moose sauntered across the road in front of the bus.  We had an introductory talk and power point presentation on the mission of the Center, which is research, rehabilitation, and education, with the primary emphasis on research.  We were told that the town of Seward was the central point for animal rescue after the Good Friday 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.  The marine wildlife population in Alaska has declined 80-95% in a 30-year period, and the scientists at the Center are attempting to determine why.  One interesting strategy they’re employing is setting up video cameras in the wild on Chiswell Island in the Bay of Alaska and there is live footage that you can watch as part of the displays.  We were shown some interesting snippets of recent footage.  We then had 1½ hours to peruse the exhibits at the Center on our own, returning at 11 for another lecture on the research being conducted on the horned puffin and the common murre.

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Lunch had been brought from Moose Pass – hot soup and sandwiches.  Then we had the entire afternoon free to wander around Seward.  Many places were closed since it was Sunday.  I tried both the library and the senior center for free Internet access, but was forced to pay $2.00 for every 15 minutes at a terminal in the Seward Shop.  I caught up on 8 days of e-mail.  I was also able to purchase another memory card for my digital camera, at a tourist price, but what was I to do?  Then I walked along a path by Resurrection Bay all the way down to the small boat harbor.  The party fishing boats had just arrived and I watched fascinated as men expertly filleted all sorts of immense, beautiful fish, including salmon, flounder, and cod, and gave them in plastic bags to those who had caught them.  I then walked back to the SeaLife Center where the bus was waiting to pick us up.  Most others had shopped and strolled and had ice cream, but some hiked.  One couple witnessed a thrilling helicopter rescue atop the mountain they had climbed.  Seems a crew member from the Holland America liner in port for the day went mountain climbing, slipped and badly injured himself.  I had seen the helicopter hovering over the mountain as I took my walk.

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We had about an hour before dinner and I continued my reading of “Red Water.”  It’s gripping and I didn’t find much time to read it, although the bus ride from Denali down to Moose Pass was so smooth due to the plushness of the motor coach that I was able to read about half of it.  It’s the story of three of a Mormon man’s 19 (!) wives out in Utah in the mid-19th century.  It’s a surprisingly sexy book considering it’s about Mormons and their harsh frontier life.  I highly recommend it.  It’s out of print, but readily available online.

After dinner, we had a most fascinating talk on “An Alaska Life” by Rosella Ikerd, whose story is not to be believed.  Some of the women stayed afterward to talk to Rosella and she commented that there were many available men in Alaska.  She quipped, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

It was announced that that night there was a good chance of seeing the aurora at around 2:30 a.m., so I added my room number to the list of those to receive a sharp knock should our leader see it.  An aurora-sighting index is listed on the TV each night along with the weather.

Monday, 8/29/05

At 1:30 a.m. what sounded like a fire alarm rang at the motel.  Those of us who had wanted to see the aurora dutifully got up, dressed, grabbed our cameras, and paraded down to the boat launch.  There was a total cloud cover and our leader was not present, so we concluded that the warning siren had had nothing to do with notifying us of the aurora.  Unfortunately, I was not able to get back to sleep.  The next morning at breakfast we learned that the night chef had done something to set off the smoke alarm in the kitchen and that’s what we heard.

We started the day at 8:15 with a lecture on “Alaska:  An Overview” by our organizer/leader, Kris Cassity.  At 9:30, we boarded our bus to Cooper Landing, where we were treated to an interpretive walk of “K’Beq” (“footsteps”), an Athabascan prehistoric archeological site.  A handsome raised boardwalk had been built in the forest so visitors could look down on the depression remaining in the earth that had been the site of a large home, a nichit, sleeping maybe 30 people.  We also saw a number of chugilin q’a, fish caches, surrounding the nichit site, a fish-drying frame, and learned alot about the everyday lives of the early native people who lived there.  Our guides were two young people, recent high school graduates, who were members of the Dena’ai tribe.  In a small cabin, there was a magnificent model of a nichit that a local 3rd-4th grade class had constructed.  We then sat at picnic tables and had a beading lesson from two older women from the tribe using great little kits we were provided with.  We enjoyed the lunch we had brought with us on the bus – salmon spread on bagels with lettuce and tomatoes, a delicious mushroom soup, vanilla pudding and apples.

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After bidding farewell to our hosts, we drove about a half hour to Alaska Wildland Adventures for a 2-hour interpretive Kenai River float.  We had been warned that it might be cool on the river, so I already had on four layers.  We removed our shoes and were given nearly knee-high boots, rain overalls, a rain jacket with a hood, zip-lock baggies for our cameras, and gloves if we didn’t already have them.  There was much hilarity as we donned these garments, all of us snapping photos of the others.  Add to this a hat and my binoculars, and I waddled the short distance to the rafts.

Office and cabins available to rent at Alaska Wildlife Adventures, the facility where we had our raft ride.

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We were given a safety talk on what to do if we fell in  (we had earlier turned in signed releases), and were shown how to get in the inflated raft and how to hold on.  The form and instructions were a little scary, but we were assured that in all their years leading raft tours, no one had ever fallen in.  Unfortunately, I was seated in the front facing backwards, so I didn’t see what was coming up and would see things our paddler pointed out long after we’d passed them or not at all.  There were 10 people in the boat, including the paddler.  Our paddler was a stunning young woman who was a veteran boatwoman and all around outdoorswoman.  I must interject here to sing the praises of the Alaskan woman.  Life in the backcountry in Alaska, particularly during the 9 months of winter, is no walk in the park, and these strong, skilled, accomplished, resourceful women take on any task or recreation usually associated with men and do these things seemingly effortlessly.  After rowing three different groups for 2-hour raft rides each, plus hoisting the rafts onto trucks at the end for the return trip upstream, our paddler was going fishing!  The women are accepted as equals, as they certainly are the equals of any man in that state.  I am in awe of their power and confidence.

Our float was peaceful, with only a few category 1 rapids, where some splashing did occur.  After being on the turquoise glaciated water of the Kenai River for awhile, we came to its confluence with the clear Russian River, formed by melting snow.  There were lots of anglers (the non-sexist term common in Alaska) thigh-deep in the water and in boats trying to catch the last of the salmon before their spawning and their turn to red exterior and mushy interior, prior to death.  One of the anglers pointed out a nearby bear to one of the rafts; our raft missed it.  Those on my raft saw several eagles’ nests and also male and female bald eagles sitting side by side on a branch, which was said to be highly unusual.  We saw lots of waterfowl and in the shallows, hundreds of the red salmon spawning.  It was cool on the river, but being very well dressed, I was completely comfortable.  Turning to look at things or using my binos or camera was difficult with all the layers and trying to continue to hold on.

We returned to our motel in time for dinner and a lecture on “Glaciers and Glaciology” by Ranger Doug Capra of the National Park Service.  This lecture was in preparation for our trip the next day to Exit Glacier.

Tuesday, 8/30/05

By 8 a.m., we were on our bus and headed once again to the Alaskan SeaLife Center in Seward.  We had two lectures, the first on the training program for the harbor seals and stellar sea lions.  This program conditions the animals for the various procedures that will be used to study them.  The unique thing about this program is that no animal is forced to do anything.  They are actually asked to participate, to “volunteer” is the word that was used, for the various measurements, studies, tests, etc.  They are not fed at a set time each day as they soon learn the drill and wind up lining up for a meal at the appointed time.  To mimic life in the wild and to keep the trainers from lapsing into a fixed schedule, they throw a die each morning to see how many times the animals will be fed that day, anywhere from 1 to 6.  Of course their reward fish for doing various requested activities counted toward their total daily calorie requirements and of course they were given sufficient rations, just on a varied schedule.  Later in the day, I happened on a feeding session and was able to observe the “targeting,” whistling, and hand motions I’d learned about.  Because of the close association with their trainers, these particular animals will never be returned to live in their native habitats again.  But in some studies, where the animals will eventually be returned to the wild, food is totally separated from human contact.  In these cases, fish are thrown over a wall or shot into an enclosure from a canon.

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The next lecturer talked about the Giant Pacific octopus, one of which, “Thing,” was at the facility.  I learned so much about octopus that it’s hard to believe.  Did you know they have beaks and that in the male, one of the arms is used exclusively as a penis-like appendage to deliver sperm to the female, and has no suction cups on it?  The talk was riveting!

Full disclosure:  this is not one of my photos.

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While we ate lunch brought with us, we watched a great movie about a boat called the Tiglit (“eagle” in the native people’s language) on which scientists go to the rookeries in the Arctic National Refuge to help restore these traditional breeding grounds for literally millions of birds.  When the Russians owned Alaska, they had brought rat-infested ships to these places.  Also foxes had been introduced to the islands, and between these two predators, some of the bird species were being decimated.  The crew methodically trapped and removed most of these pests over a several-month period, while at the same time studying the bird populations there.  Between the often-treacherous waters in which the boat had to sail, plus some of the death-defying places they ventured to study and tag the birds, it was a very exciting movie.  We then had about 45 minutes to enjoy the Center before re-boarding the bus for our excursion to Exit Glacier, about a half hour away.

This photo also is not mine; another Elderhostel traveler took it and sent it to me.

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We first went to the tiny ranger center, then took about a 15-minute walk to the toe of the glacier.  As we drove in on the access road and as we walked closer, we saw signs with dates on them, going back as far as 1870.  These signs showed where the toe of the glacier used to be.  We were told that one of the definitions of a glacier was that it was always in motion and Exit Glacier moved forward at the rate of 2” a day.  However, it was simultaneously in what is called “retreat,” that is, it is losing mass to melting, so even though it is moving forward, it is shrinking in on all sides.  Glaciated water pours from the bottom of it, forming gravel bars with braided rivers.

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Being up close and personal to a glacier was completely overwhelming to me.  The ice is about 200’ thick, and looks blue in the crevasses since glacial ice absorbs all of the colors of the spectrum except blue.  Some large and small holes have formed, which produced things that looked like they belonged in Arches National Park in Utah, except they were ice.  Signs and a roped-off area kept us from approaching too close.  We heard a story of a couple who ignored the signs.  The man was snapping a photo of his wife standing right next to the glacier just at the moment when it calved (a chunk broke off).  She was killed.  We could see some chunks lying at the bottom of the glacier, so it seemed a plausible tale.  We then walked up on a path through the woods next to the glacier to the top of it.  There is no way you could actually walk on the glacier because of all the crevasses.  If you fell in, you would never be able to get out.  It was an extraordinary experience, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

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After much photo-taking and the walk back to the bus, it was time to return to the motel for dinner.  A half hour before dinner, I joined about half our group for a pre-dinner drink and an appetizer of halibut quesadillas, the specialty of the house at the bar/restaurant/pool hall at our motel.  This delicacy seemed the ultimate of fusion cooking (not unlike San Diego’s famous fish tacos), and I found it delicious.

After dinner, we had a lecture about a volunteer program on the Kenai River called Stream Watchers.  Because of the devastation of the paths leading to the river and the river banks, and the litter caused by the 70,000 anglers who come during the 2-month season, this group built a boardwalk from the parking area right down to the river, installed fish-cleaning tables at the water’s edge, and are on site each day to discourage littering, to encourage fishing from in the river rather than on the banks, to put up temporary fences to guide anglers onto gravel paths, to help with snarled fishing lines and to teach proper fishing techniques, etc.  This service is under the auspices of the National Forestry Service.

Wed., 8/31/05

Today was to be the peak experience of the second week.  We were bused to Seward, given our boarding passes and lunch tickets for the Glacier Express, a boat which would take us on the Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise, boarding at 11 a.m.  Prior to boarding, we separated into two groups for ranger presentations on the life cycle of the five types of salmon or local fox farming in the ‘20s.  We had been given very specific instructions for where to sit depending on our tolerance for boat motion/tendency to motion sickness.  Since I am a prime candidate for the latter, I chose to sit inside and downstairs and near the center of the boat.  I also took a Bonine tablet (new generation of Dramamine which does not make you sleepy) one hour before departure.  We were fortunate enough to get a captain who was as savvy about the wildlife as he was about the water through which he was guiding us.

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We went out of Seward, through Resurrection Bay, past Pilot Rock and the Chiswell Islands (where the Alaska SeaLife Center had its video camera), into the Bay of Alaska and up the fjords to Aialik Glacier.  Along the way we saw sea otters, which are the smallest of the sea mammals, but actually the largest member of the weasel family.  They live entirely in the water, even giving birth there.  Because they have one million hairs per square inch of skin to keep them warm, they have no need for blubber or fat.  Their frequent rolling motion helps to keep their fur groomed in order to keep them warm.  In the late 19th century, the Russians hunted them almost to extinction for these extraordinary pelts.  A minke whale was spotted, but I didn’t see it (nor had I ever heard of it).  We saw many stellar sea lions warming themselves on rocks, also a lone harbor seal.  In the bird kingdom, we observed horned, tufted, and tuftless puffins, black-legged kittiwakes, and two bald eagles.  Ninety percent of the eagles in the U.S. live in Alaska.  We were thrilled to see two blows and a show of fluke from a hump-backed whale.

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But the star of the trip was Aialik Glacier, which came right down to the bay.  We were able to get to within ¼ mile of it and in addition to seeing its blueness and multiple fissures and crevasses, were able to hear it cracking.  It sounded like a combination of gunshots and thunder.  Then we could see huge chunks of it – hundred of tons of ice at a time – “calving,” breaking off and falling into the sea.  We were told that the ice we could see in that glacier was probably about 3500 years old.  We stayed there in awe for about 20 minutes, all of us wildly snapping photos at each calving.  The water all around us was littered with small ice bergs from the glacier.  We could hear them bumping and scraping the sides of the boat as we moved through them.  This glacier experience was truly without peer in my lifetime.

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We then high-tailed it home.  I slept for the last hour, from a combination of the effects of the Bonine, the lulling of the boat, and the warmth of the cabin.  We docked a few minutes late at 5:45 and arrived back at our motel just in time for a scheduled late dinner at 7 p.m.  Following that, we watched a short video on auroras.  None of us had given up hope of seeing one during this trip.  Although we had a squall on the way to Aialik Glacier, by the beginning of our return trip, the sun was shining brightly.  However, the weather turned again and we arrived in a downpour.  By bedtime, it had again cleared so hopes ran high for an aurora sighting.

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Thursday, 9/1/05

Our last Elderhostel day!  We again spent the morning at the Alaska SeaLife Center.  Our first lecture was by the director of research at the facility, who talked about what are light-heartedly called “Crittercams.” He was followed by one of the vets on staff.  Then there was a short presentation about the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.  The initial settlement with Exxon was a payment of $275 million to three separate entities – the majority to a trustee council, but $125 million of this was returned to Exxon in recognition of their help with the clean-up.  The $5 billion settlement is still tied up in the courts.  There was a realization after the spill that there was little data about the sealife in the area, thus the Alaska SeaLife Center came into being through funds from the trustee council.  However, no funds from the settlement are used for its ongoing mission.

We were told of another, more recent oil spill of 300,000 gallons and the ship’s cargo of soybean oil in the Aleutian Islands in December 2004.  The Malaysian ship actually split in half.  Recovery from that disaster – which virtually none of us had heard about – is ongoing.

After lunch, we were separated into three groups and taken on “behind-the-scenes” tours by members of the Center’s staff.  We then had a free afternoon.  I ran to the public library for the 2 p.m. screening of two movies about the ’64 earthquake.  From there I visited the senior center and sat all by myself in a room of six computers checking my e-mail.  For the last half hour before the bus pick-up, I once again strolled the streets of beautiful downtown Seward on a gloriously clear, warm day.

After dinner we had a closing ritual where we shared, if we wanted to, either what surprised us most about Alaska, what defining image we would take back with us, or in 5 years in the future, what would most likely still be vivid in our memories.  While the images of the glaciers were certainly high on my list, another person spoke of them first, so I said that the image I would carry home with me was how lightly Alaskans lived on the land, their respect for it and its inhabitants of all species.

Friday, 9/2/05

Several different couples invited me to spend the day with them in Anchorage, since we were bused to the airport early in the morning and none of us had flights until evening, even some not until the next day.  I joined the funny South Carolinian with whom I’d ridden to Wonder Lake and her husband.  We had lunch at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, then strolled the streets of the town.  They were hot to go to a furrier and had gotten some recommendations from Chris Cassity.  She finally did purchase a reversible fur vest.  Her husband asked if I were anti-fur when I showed no interest in the fur proceedings.  I assured him that I would not throw paint on his wife’s vest, but I did have a change in heart and mind about the wearing of furs from that trip.  I don’t think anyone in Philadelphia needs an animal fur to keep warm, but I certainly see their value in the harsh Alaskan (and other countries on that latitude) winters.  I think if I lived up there in the winter (we know that will NEVER happen!) I would buy a fur coat for the warmth.  And they were exquisite, I must admit.

We stopped for an ice cream cone, again featuring Alaskan flavors.  I had glacier silt, made with spice wafers, cinnamon and ginger.  The ice cream was the exact color of the Kenai River!  And it was delicious.

We returned to the museum and spent several interesting hours there, meeting several other members of our Elderhostel group.  We made our way to the airport, checked-in and had drinks and a snack since dinner wouldn’t be served until 9 p.m. or so.

I had the seat from hell on the Anchorage to Atlanta leg of my flight.  I was in the absolutely last seat in the back, across the aisle from a bathroom and with the galley kitchen behind me. There were no windows anywhere near me so I missed the magnificent parting view of Alaska’s mountains and glaciers, announced by the captain.  Sleeping was impossible on this overnight flight since people walked by me constantly to use the bathroom, and then there was the flushing.  The flight attendants gossiped throughout the night in the kitchen.

The Atlanta to Philly flight was uneventful and I was thrilled when I checked my voice mail to learn that Suji would be able to meet me.  Since the flight was right on time, we made a bee-line from the airport to the post office so that I could pick up my accumulated mail, rather than having to sit out the Labor Day weekend without it.  We made it in plenty of time.  Suji returned me to my home, which was in perfect order.

Postscript

The people I met in Alaska were primarily young and all told of loving their jobs.  Many were what might have been described as “hippies,” cobbling together a living by working seasonal jobs or several jobs, not necessarily knowing what was next for them.  They appeared universally hopeful.  They had learned how to deal with the difficulties of life in the backcountry, and even embraced them and that life.  They were gutsy and way ahead of the rest of the country in sensitivity to the environment.  Alaska is truly the last frontier in America.  The people I met were real individualists, but they exhibited a strong sense of community as Alaskans.

I urge you to come and experience Alaska soon.  The experience was life-changing for me.  I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be true for you, also.

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