Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Alaska The Last Frontier

Alaska The Last Frontier is a tag line on all automobile license plates in Alaska and this signature is correct. We took a 6 day land tour and 7 day cruise to Alaska the end of May 2008. We flew from Jacksonville arriving in Fairbanks at about midnight. We flew in a day early to get some extra sleep and try to acclimate to the 5 hour time change. The next day we arrived at the Princes Lodge in Fairbanks and was very impressed with the lodge and spacious rooms with great bedding. We spent the day touring the city including a visit to the local Elks to meet some of the locals and partake in some adult beverages. This Elks is proud of the fact they are the north most Elks lodge in the US. That evening we had dinner in a very good Italian restaurant that looked like it had been moved from Italy to Fairbanks.

Next day we started with a one half day city tour of Fairbanks. The bus driver pointed out stores such as WalMart having electrical outlets in their parking lot. Cars in Fairbanks have electrical plugs hanging out from the front of the hood. During the winter time it gets so cold that cars will not start without an electrical heater to keep the engines warm. So stores such as WalMart have electrical plugs in the parking lot for customers to plug their cars into during the winter time while they are shopping. The bus driver has lived in Alaska for the last nineteen years and told us about living in Fairbanks. There are wet house and dry houses in the area, the difference being the wet houses have running water and the dry houses did not. The dry houses were built on the side of the mountains around Fairbanks and had great views, but the owner has to truck water to his house for drinking, cooking, laundry and to flush the toilets. The morning began with a trip to visit the Alaskan pipeline and a history of the building and maintaining of the pipeline. Then it was onto the El Dorado gold mine for a demonstration on early gold mining and instructions on how to pan for gold. After that everyone was given a bag of dirt and rocks to take their hand at panning for gold. Panning for gold is not as easy as it looks. After a little more instructions we were able to separate the dirt and gravel from the gold. We took our gold to the gift shop where they weighed it and told us what it was worth. I panned about $15.00. At the price of gold at $900.00 per oz it doesn't take much gold to make $15.00.

In the afternoon it was off to another excursion on a stern wheel riverboat cruise. Cruising down the river we were given a demonstration of a water take off and landing of a small private float plane. In Alaska over 50% of the population have their pilots license and float plane flying is necessary to get to some of the outlying populated areas of Alaska to deliver mail and supplies. Then it was to the kennel of a former 4 time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher for a talk by her husband on raising and training of sled dogs for the sled dog races held in Alaska during the winter, the most popular being the Iditarod. Cruising further down the river we visited an Athabascan Indian village to see how they lived and survived in the harsh winters of Alaska. There were stories of the life of the Indians and how they caught wild animals for fur and meat. A women gave a demonstration of clothing that could be made from furs of wild animals. This woman was very talented in the fabrication of clothing and her work is so good she has some of her clothing shown in the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

The next day it was time to board the train for our 4 hour ride to Denali Park. The rail cars had panoramic glass domed windows that gave us an opportunity to view the beautiful scenery with towering snow capped peaks and fast running glacier fed streams. Along the way we kept our eyes pealed for wild life and we were not disappointed. We saw moose and caribou along the way. Arriving in Denali we were met by a bus and checked into the beautiful Princess Denali Lodge. What a beautiful lodge with the snow capped mountains around it. At 2:00pm we departed on our 8 hours Denali Tundra tour taking us to the 53 mile marker on a gravel road. The first hour of the ride was uneventful, however after that the wildlife became more abundant. We saw herds of Doll sheep with small kids at their side, moose and caribou. It was very clear that day and we were able to see Mt. McKinley from about 70 miles away. What a fabulous site! However the animal everyone wanted to see was the grizzly bear. After 2 hours we still had no sightings of a grizzly. The action was about to begin when the bus driver a short time later stopped the bus and said I see several grizzlies coming from the left side of the bus and in a minute a mother (sow) with 2 cubs about 2 years old approached the road and proceed to come onto the road and looked around. The bus driver told everyone to be quiet and for the next 45 minutes we followed the 3 grizzlies as they walked down the middle of the road as if they owned the place which they do. We were only visiting. I have some beautiful pictures of the grizzlies. Needless to say that was the highlight of the trip! We did not get back to the lodge until about 10:00pm and it was still daylight. It usually did not get dark until about 11:30pm. What also made the trip memorable was the knowledge of the driver who lived in the area all his life. He was able to talk in depth about Alaska wildlife, history and life in Alaska.

The next day we spent sight seeing in the area including the Denali Natural Wildlife Museum and hiking some of the trails in the area. A very interesting item we found while at the Denali Natural Wildlife Museum is that the Federal Park Service raises and maintains a kennel of sled dogs to patrol Denali during the Winter time. We were permitted to mix with the dogs, pet them and take some great pictures. The Park Rangers hitched a team of dogs to a sled with wheels and gave us a demonstration of dog sledding and driving. It was quite a show. That night we decided to venture to a local restaurant for dinner and enjoyed a great salmon dinner in a rustic building with a nice fire. What a way to end a great day.

The next day it was time to board the train for our 4 hour trip to the Princess Mt. McKinley lodge. Another fabulous trip with spectacular mountain scenery and wild animals. We arrived at Talkeetna and had a one and one half hour bus ride to the lodge. We arrived and what a site! The mountain was a little clouded in but it still looked magnificent. We ate dinner that night in the lodge and our window looked out at the mountain ranges surrounding the lodge. Again the sun didn't set till about 11:30pm.

Next morning we were out early to see "The Mountain" McKinley which means "The Great One" and it was out in all its magnificent stature, not a cloud covering the mountain. We took several great pictures of the mountain and the surrounding range of mountains and it looked awesome. We were over 40 miles from the mountain and it looked huge. We decided to leave the lodge early and travel to Talkeetna and roam the town and see what it had to offer. One of the first things the bus driver told us was to eat at a restaurant called The Roadhouse.

Our daughter has a friend who has lived in Alaska for over 10 years and she joined us for breakfast at the Roadhouse. What a place, everything is home made from the bread to the pastries, if you get there you have to try the cinnamon rolls, to die for. The special of the day was black and blue pancakes which was a whole wheat pancake made with fresh blackberries and blueberries and the pancake cover the entire large plate. During breakfast the friend of our daughter's talked to us about living in Alaska. Her and her husband live in a dry house. They cut up trees during the summer to heat the house in the winter time. They also have a salmon wheel to catch salmon during the salmon run and they smoke and can the salmon for eating in the winter. They also kill caribou for meat to freeze and can. She says they buy very little meat except for chicken occasionally. Her husband had just purchased some land and staked his claim for mining gold and they were beginning to work there claims. They live a very interesting life but do not have all the luxuries some of us have in the lower 48, but have a very beautiful country to view.

After a great breakfast we visited the Park Ranger office that is the checking in point for anyone climbing Mt. McKinley. They gave us a talk on their operation. The day we were there they were very busy, two Japanese mountain climbers were due back a week ago and they had not shown up. So they were in the process of trying to find out what happened to them. We proceeded to walk through the town and visit the craft stores in town to get a feel for life in this part of of Alaska.

At noon we had to be at the bus stop for transport to the train station for our 6 hour ride to Whittier and board the ship. Again we were able to see some very beautiful scenery and wildlife such as caribou, moose and eagles. At Whittier we boarded the beautiful Island Princess for a relaxing 7 day cruise to Vancouver.

The first full day on the ship was spent cruising through College Fjord and then the next day to Glacier National Park. It took over 10 hours to sail into and out of the park, but what sites! We were able to see seals, whales and eagles during the cruise. During the sailing Rangers from Glacier National Park were on board the ship to give lectures on the park and the formation of glaciers and also a running commentary pointing out points of interest and wildlife they spotted as we sailed. The ship spent over 90 minutes parked less then a 1000ft from a glacier that was over one mile wide and over 250 ft. sticking out of the water. While parked we saw several large pieces of the glaciers split off or calve from the glacier creating a loud sound and a big splash. The glacier is continuously moving up to 8 inches a day according to the park rangers. As it moves it creates very loud sounds like a shotgun firing. There was another glacier 90 degrees from the main glacier, however it was completely covered with rock and dirt from its grinding through the mountainous valley to the ocean.

The 3rd day of the cruise we stopped at Skagway, known as the "Gateway to the Yukon" during the Klondike Gold Rush. We enjoyed taking many hiking trails and enjoyed the magnificent wild nature surrounding the town. The sidewalks are still made of wood just like the early gold rush days. They have several saloons with old gold rush themes and we partook of beer brewed locally which was very good. This is also a port of call where you could take a helicopter ride and land on a glacier and walk around or they would ferry you to a sled dog kennel in the mountains where you could take a dog sled ride on the snow. There were many activities on shore including some very interesting museums to view at your leisure.

The 5th day the ship ported at Juneau, the capital of Alaska. While in Juneau my daughter and I went sea kayaking on the Mendhall River. The area is rich with wildlife and we were able to view an eagle up close setting on a buoy in the river, and several pairs of harbor seals who watched us as we paddled our kayaks. The biggest thrill however was seeing a sperm whale swan within 150 feet of the kayak. We sat and watch him for over 15 minutes as the whale surfaced and blew water from his spout and dived to try to catch his dinner. My wife and other daughter took an excursion to a sled dog kennel where they were able to pet the dogs and were given a lecture on sled dogs and there training to be sled dogs. As part of the tour they were given a ride on a sled with wheels through the forest. We all met in the city and then went to the Red Dog Saloon for some old time piano music and good locally micro brewed beer. We had been to Juneau about 8 years ago on a cruise and we were amazed at the change in the city. The downtown has expanded and although there is still some local craft stores it also now includes allot of the same stores you would see in the Caribbean, such as jewelry and trinket shops.

The sixth day we stopped in Ketchikan, a narrow picturesque city with a large population of fishing boats and sea planes. This city is also noted for rainfall averaging about 160 inches per year. It had not rained there for over a week and the locals were upset because they had to generate electricity with diesel power rather than using hydroelectric power. The result was a much higher electricity bill. My daughter and I decided to try some zip lining. What a blast! We traveled outside the city about 5 miles where we loaded into a special truck to take us about 400 ft on the top of a mountain. We then received about 15 minutes instruction on how to take off and land when we were zipping across the mountain. You are given a harness which is like a seat made with straps and attached to the harness was a pulley which then attached to a cable strung between two trees in the forest. First you did a little practice run to get your technique down. Then it was off to the real zip. There were about 8 people in each group and you would all gather on a platform attached to a tree anywhere from 50 to 75 ft. above the ground. You would stand on a step and the attendant would attach your pulley to the cable and then tell you to sit in the harness and off you would go to the next tree. The highest point we were off the ground was 170ft. The longest zip was about 750 ft. and you could get up to speeds of 35mph. We had 6 different zips and each one was exciting and the scenery was fantastic. This is something you must try once in your lifetime, but do not try it if you are afraid of heights. This was the best shore excursion of the vacation. Leaving Ketichkan we sailed past a pod of Orcha whales. What a site to see!

The final day of the cruise was spent cruising the inside passage with its many pristine forest and mountains. It was a day to relax before disembarking from the ship in Vancouver. We booked an excursion of the city that was very interesting and enlightening. The city is very clean and has some very interesting neighborhoods and shops.

Now I would like to give you a little information on our ship "The Island Princess." The ship was built to sail through the Panama Canal and therefore is narrower and smaller than some of the other Princess ships in Alaska which we liked. The ship was beautifully decorated and in great shape. The staterooms were very comfortable and well appointed. You could not have asked for better service from the dining room staff, buffet staff, or our cabin steward. Our room was always made up and kept very clean.

One of the big features of cruising on Princess to Alaska is their local menu items served during the cruise. Several mornings we had the choice of reindeer sausage as one of the items for breakfast. Every evening there was alaskan salmon on the menu and on some evenings halibut was offered as a selection. One day for lunch the buffet was a "Taste of Alaska" that was spectacular. The menu offered items such as reindeer chili, fresh salmon, rockfish chowder, barbecue fish, king crab and fresh wild berries. And if you had a balcony stateroom, Princess offers a Glacier Bay Champagne Brunch that is served on your balcony.

Alaska is truly the last frontier! It is a state that every person should make an effort to visit in their life time. To me cruising with a land tour is the only way to see the spectacular snow covered mountains, beautiful glaciers, wild life that is abundant with magnificent eagles, caribou, moose, whales and of course grizzly bears. I have visited Alaska 3 times, twice on a cruise and last year on a fishing trip. It is a great vacation for the whole family. I am ready to go back!

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