Alaska Part 3 - 14 to 17 July 2014

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August 22nd 2014
Published: August 27th 2014
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We picked up a hotel shuttle bus at the airport and gave the driver our hotel details - we were a little concerned when he said he had not heard of it! He did get us there though and it was actually really easy to find being right next to the Railway Station. We had planned this as our next journey would be by train and not plane.

Before that though we had a few days in the largest city in Alaska. It was July and we were told that this was the best time to visit with good weather which it proved to be. As you would expect in the high northern latitudes, the longest days come around the summer solstice, 21 June, and they get quite short around the winter solstice, 21 December. In summer, Anchorage averages an amazing 19.5 hours of sunlight each day. Winter offsets this imbalance when it averages just 5 hours of sunlight each day - not sure whether we would like that!

On our first day we hired bicycles and set off on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail which I had researched on the internet as a ‘good thing to do’. The trail hugs the coastline of Cook Inlet from downtown Anchorage and travels about 11 miles to Kincaid Park. We began at Westchester Lagoon where we hoped to encounter some wildlife but were a little disappointed so we continued southwest along the shoreline before arriving at the end of the Anchorage Airport runway where we watched several low flying aircraft as they headed in and out of the airport.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) serves over five million passengers per year and is the second largest airport in the United States for landed cargo aircraft. As we stood and watched the planes taking off you could tell that the majority were freight carriers as we watched many FedEx and UPS planes depart in between the passenger only planes. We loved the look of Alaskan aircraft with the painting of a Eskimo face logo on the fuselage. The livery was introduced in the early 1970s and the state considered replacing the ‘face’ with a ‘mountain’ but plans were changed after many Alaskans were unhappy - we totally agree, why change what works.

We continued our cycle tour which took us through thick woodland with the occasional glimpse of the ocean. We were hoping to spot moose which are known for this area but were not lucky although we did spot a group of Sandhill Cranes feeding in the marshy area where the moose should have been! We watched from a far as the group of cranes wandered across the marshes looking for tasty food amongst the mudflats before flying off to pastures new.

Up until now the cycle ride had been quite easy gliding along on even surfaces and we were enjoying ourselves until we came upon some very steep grades on the approach to Earthquake Park. Having problem with the gears on the bike I decided to walk up the final bit……… The park had several notice boards detailing the devastating earthquake that shook Alaska in 1964 (more on this in our next blog). Where we stood right next to the inlet used to be an entire neighbourhood that slid into the ocean on that day. We had a great view of Mount McKinley though which was great as we were unable to get to Denali NP during our visit as it was all booked, so we were happy to have at least seen it whilst we were in Alaska.

We continued on passing Point Woronzof and into Kincaid Park the end of the trail but we still had to cycle those 11 miles back to the city and tackle those steep inclines again … … … On our return the tide was right out and Cook Inlet was showing its giant mud flats in all their glory with huge caverns of mud all across the bay - you definitely would not want to walk along here.

The next day we visited the Visitor Centre ideally situated in the centre of town and just a short walk from our hotel. It was not the run of the mill VC but was located in an interesting log cabin with its own grass roof in the middle of town! Inside were very knowledgeable ladies ready to answer any questions you may have about tourism. And not just tourism because Paul desperately needed a hair cut and the ladies directed him to the best one in town … … …

The next day we returned to the VC as we wanted to take the free shuttle to the Native Heritage Centre which was quite some way out of the city. The bus was late and we chatted to a local lady that helped guide people on to the various different buses. She was a native of the area and dressed in her national dress and looked really beautiful complete with an amazing headdress that she had made herself from blue beads. She had really long hair that touched below her waist and the headdress was incorporated around her hair and draped right down her back.

The Heritage Centre was run by Alaskan Native guides (indigenous people) from the many tribes around Alaska - the Inupiat, Yupik, Aleut, Eyak, Tlingit, Haida Tsimshian as well as a number of Northern Athabaskan cultures. Inside there was a small museum, a shop, a stage and theatre with a breakdown map showing the areas where the tribes lived. We watched some of the young presenters perform traditional dance routines before answering questions from the audience about their homes, food, hunting, traditions, dress, seasonal life in the varied locations and how they have adapted to change over the years. All of them had an in depth knowledge of their tribal history and customs which was refreshing to see. Listening to their music and songs whilst watching their dances gave us an appreciation of a culture that expressed their respect of elders and the nature all around them.

We took a guided tour outside visiting several different dwellings built around a central pond in a natural setting with wildflowers and trees. Depending on what part of Alaska they came from their house may have been built entirely underground to enable them to keep warm as well as to prevent bears and other predators from coming inside! They hunted whales and other animals for food but thanked the animals for giving up their lives for their subsistence. One young guide mentioned that he particularly like to hunt and fish and really liked Black Fish which is unique to the area - when asked what this tasted like he said it was just like chicken.

We watched a performance of their native games some of which were not easy to do, like kicking a ball hung in mid air by ones foot! Through some excellent videos, the activities on stage, and the outdoor exhibits, we really enjoyed our visit. It was good to think that they were actively keeping their language, skills and traditions alive for future generations but also for us visitors to enjoy as well.

On the shuttle bus we chatted to a lady who moved to Alaska years ago when she got married. She was going to live out in the wilderness and before she set off with her new husband she had to shop for a year’s worth of supplies. Not sure what she was ordering she ended up with many wrong items and they ate the same things over and over when she had not realised the size of an item - gradually over the years though she said she learnt what to purchase and what to avoid as well as how to shop annually instead of weekly or daily but it took some doing………she should have taken a leaf out of the Native Alaskan book first!

Back in the the centre of Anchorage we found a supermarket but again it was a struggle to find a liquor store. Like in other American states local supermarkets do not sell liquor so you have to visit a Liquor store - if you can find one (a bit like Dubai really). We finally found one and Paul selected some beer and I chose a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. We took our goods to the till and Paul tried to pay for our goods. The young lad asked for Paul’s ID and he showed him his driving license, which was fine but he then also asked for mine which we thought was strange as Paul was purchasing the ‘booty’. I did not have my DL with me so he said he could not serve us. The lad then said that if we left the shop and just Paul came back in he could then purchase the beer and wine. Not sure what this was all about but the lad said that the store was under surveillance cameras - there is obviously a problem here with alcohol as in many other cities around the world but we thought that this was going a bit too far.

Anchorage was a really pleasant city to visit and Paul was really in his element with so many boats, trains and planes all around him, just by looking out of our hotel window in fact - plenty to keep him occupied. I was disappointed that we did not see much wildlife but but this was a City after all and it was great to spend a few days here and the museums were really interesting too. On the morning of our departure we left early but did not have far to go to the Train Station which was just behind our hotel. There was a huge flight of steps to manourve our luggage down though but we found that we could drag it down a steep grassy bank rather than try to lift it down the steps. As we got to the bottom we noticed that a few others had seen what we were doing and followed suit so we became a 'convoy' heading for the trains down the grassy slope.


It was really well organised at the station and we were soon boarding our train which was a GoldStar Dome - the top-of-the-line rail service featuring the newest rail cars and more importantly the largest picture windows. This was great and you could also wander to the back of the carriage for outside 360 degree views. We saw some amazing wildlife as the train chugged along the track including Bald Eagles cruising the thermals and some Dall Sheep which come to feed on the low plants growing on the cliffs bordering the track. This Dall Sheep is a native to northwestern North America, ranging from white to slate brown in colour they have large curved yellowish brown horns - we were delighted to have seen one at last.

Breakfast was served on the train (at a cost) and as we had brought ours with us we did not divulge - however the announcements kept on saying that the biscuits and gravy was awesome - we still declined, as to eat biscuits with gravy did not sound appetising to us Brits particularly for breakfast - although everyone here seems to love it! We are still not sure what it is though!

We had chosen this train route between Anchorage and Seward as it is considered to be the most scenic in the state winding through a stretch of wilderness between the two towns. After traveling out of Anchorage we descended through the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge where there are usually plenty of birds but not today. We passed some large houses, so large that many had their own aircraft parked in their front gardens instead of a car!!!!!!! At Potter's Marsh we saw a few migratory birds and some water fowl but alas no moose - these are proving to be quite elusive on our travels.

We continued along the Turnagain Arm, a body of water featuring the world's second highest tides at over 30 feet which rush into the narrow confines of the Chugach Mountains. After stopping at Girdwood (home to Alaska's premier ski resort), to pick up a couple of passengers we proceeded to Portage where the track turned and we entered some of Alaska's most pristine wilderness area - it really was amazing. We passed through some glorious scenery which included a string of massive glaciers visible from the train including, Spencer Glacier and Bartlett Glacier before travelled through the Grandview - the historic Loop District - named for a complex series of trestles built to handle the steep grade in the age of steam engines, the name says it all, just awesome. At one point the train seemed to go around in circles along 'circular track' as we stood and gazed at the most wonderful scenery watching the front then the tail end of the train.

On board some ‘work experience’ school children interacted with us visitors giving a dialogue of the countryside as we passed. One young lad told us how he remembers the five different main types of Salmon, Chum, Sockeye, King, Silver and Pink using five fingers; Chum rhymes with thumb, Sockeye was pointing finger, King was large finger, Silver was ring finger and of course Pinky your little one!

As we finally descended into Seward we passed Kenai Lake. The turquoise blue colour of this 16-mile long lake is a result of sunlight striking suspended glacial silt in the water again a wonderful sight to see. We finally disembarked from the train and tried to locate our luggage but could not find it. We asked a young man and he said, ‘are your staying at the Holiday Inn Express’, and we said yes, he informed us that he had our luggage on his van and would deliver it direct to our room - that’s service for you…….. We then asked how we would get to the hotel and he pointed over his shoulder and said just walk across the road its behind you - see you there … … …

Additional photos below
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27th August 2014
Were we going around again!

We love train travel.
27th August 2014
Guide at Visitor Centre

Alaskan trains and treats
Love that Native Heritage Centre with music, dancing and info on all the indigenous groups. Regarding the lady who lived in the wilderness, well, I've a friend who taught school in a native village accessible only by plane. The food they ate was pretty awful by our standards--basically, mostly just things they could hunt. The big treat was Indian ice cream--animal fat and sugar--yikes! I too did that train ride and also thought it was one of the best ever. Alaska is amazing!
30th August 2014

Train travel!
I also love train travel and have always wanted to try this trip. Jealous. As for biscuits - i'm sad you didn't try! American biscuits are not cookies or sweet, they are more like scones or even pancakes - very savory. Think yorkshire pudding but not airy - full. We serve this with many main courses or breakfast, particularly in the south. Biscuits and gravy is a white gravy sauce with chunks of sausage. Delish!!! The liquor stores and ID check is also a source of frustration for me. It goes state by state; for instance, in California, no problems as all are sold in most major grocery stores. State by state, it could require liquor stores, no alcohol sold at certain days or times, ID checks usually for all in the party, some do not accept out-of-state or are a pain about it (my difficulties with CA - really? do they not have tourists??). But it is also one of the things I most love about the US - each state is its own. Alaska - one of the few I haven't visited and I've enjoyed reading all about it from you!
30th August 2014

Yorkshire Pudding & Beef Gravy
Give me Yorkshire Pudding and Gravy and day - but then this is what I was brought up on. Totally agree about the States, it was great that they were all so different and you are lucky that you have visited so many - hopefully you will add Alaska one day soon. Regards P&S

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