Thursday, October 19, 2006

Coastal Rendezvous

Although very short, the Anchorage trip was near-epic in its splendor. We didn't get out of the house until 11:00 on Saturday (by the end of the week nobody has their act together enough to get packed, so we didn't even start until after 8 on Saturday morning). It was foggy or cloudy for the first couple of hours, but by the time we approached Denali NP, the weather cleared. We had spectacular vistas from Healy through Denali and Cantwell, and south of the park it warmed to mid 40s or even 50s. We had an amazing view of Mt. McKinley and stopped to take some pictures.

Got to Anchorage at about 6:30, too tired to do much. So we just had some dinner and chilled in the motel, watching bone-chilling footage of the 2004 tsunami disaster on the Discovery Channel. Scary stuff if you happen to live along the coast of the Pacific's Ring of Fire.Total whackos invaded the hallways at from about 1:30 AM to after 4:00, security finally came by and ran some of them off, literally. I peeked out the window to see the security guard chasing the miscreant around our car and through the parking lot.

Sunday was cloudy but pleasant for "late" fall. We drove down the Seward Highway, which cuts precariously between the steep escarpment of the Chugach Range and Turnagain Arm, a 30 mile finger of Cook Inlet. Basically you're cruising down a seismically active fjord. Tide was low, but we scanned for Beluga whales. At Potters Marsh at the south edge of Anchorage, we saw ducks and dozens of feeding swans. The kids got a major kick out of seeing the swans "with their butts up in the air!" A few miles further we came upon 4 Dall sheep, 2 ewes and 2 lambs, feeding right along the roadside. We stopped to take some pictures. The sheep paid us no mind, and were quite impressive with their acrobatic scrambling skills.

Back on the road, we saw a bald eagle soaring along the water's muddy edge. I pointed out avalanche chutes, which empty out right to the highway. We passed Girdwood and Alyeska resort, and I mentioned that someday, likely in the next 20 or 30 years, Anchorage will probably host the Winter Olympics. After Girdwood, the land flattens out a bit, with maybe a half or quarter mile between water and the mountains. It's covered in marshes, but dead trees tip like gray toothpicks in clay. My son asked why are all the trees were dead. The 9.2 earthquake in 1964 caused the ground to sink 8 feet, turning a forest into a marsh.

At the end of the Arm, we turned easterly toward Portage Glacier (which was our destination), but the road also leads to one of the most unique towns in North America, a little place called Whittier. To access Whittier from land you must either hike over several thousand feet of mountains and glacier, or you can wait your turn and pay $12 to go through a singe lane 2.7 mile tunnel. Time was short, so we chose the latter, not knowing what to expect. On the other side we were greated with an immense headwind, probably blowing at 30 - 40 knots, off of Prince William Sound. The town was mostly boarded up for the off-season. Large hospital like barracks sat abandoned at the base of the surrounding mountains, looking like some Siberian social experiment gone awry. But the town was very much alive with hundreds and hundreds of fishing boats on the docks. We stayed long enough to feel the chilly, salty air slap our faces for a few minutes, take some pictures, and read a seafarer's memorial with a Native poem about those lost in the wilds.

Back through the tunnel, and to the Portage Glacier visitor center, run by the US Forest Service. This is one of the best visitor's centers that I have ever seen. It had good interpretive information on the region, a 20 min film, and loads of hands on activities for kids and adults alike. Things like real ice worms, tiny worms that live on glaciers--they will die instantly if you touch them beause of the heat from your hands--cast in plexi-glass or displays where you look through an animal's eyes (compound eye of a bee vs. restricted frontal vision of a deer). I could have stayed another hour, but we had more sights to explore.

We returned to Anchorage, snacking in the car for lunch, and arrived at the zoo by 1:00. Zoos are always fascinating but at the same time depressing. You can see the despair in many animals, especially those that we would consider to be more intelligent. The pacing polar bear, in eyesight of two bull moose, walking to the corner of it's cage and ritualistically thrusting its head back as it did an about face, over and over again; the elephant, almost teary eyed, chewing on a metal bar, while reaching toward the feet of onlookers--as if looking for some kind of, any, contact with another species; tired 17 year old tigers, stalking the clean-up man as he picked up debris just outside the that was fascinating! The highlight for me was to catch a brief glimpse of an active wolverine, which ran to it's little log cabin house, and hid for a few minutes, only to pop it's head and watch us, with equal curiosity, as we watched it. The kids were delighted by anything feline, and their favorite was the snow leopards. One even came up to the window, right in front of them, and pawed, just like our kitty does when it wants attention. Of all the 8-10 people standing at the display, that leopard selected the kids. "Hmm. Lunch," I told them.

Late in the afternoon, we went to the Alaska Wild Berry Chocolate factory, to see a 20 foot chocolate waterfall, and to spend a lot of money on a few pieces of the best chocolate candies this side of the Yukon. Then we went to Hood lake to watch single-engine air planes, still with their pontoons take off and land on the lake--this was the favorite activity of the trip for the kids.

After dinner at Mooses Tooth, a local landmark pizza place (used be almost a dive, now more upscale), we headed back to a new motel, which offered a quieter, but smaller room. We had to get up early on Monday for our return, which took 6.5 hours, and it was cloudy most of the way. No McKinley view this time, but the snow-covered Alaska Range provided several hours of vista for the road weary.


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