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Friday, September 18, 2015

The Intrepid Traveler

Written by  Jerome Bird

Alaska!

The land of the last frontier, spacious skies and rugged mountains; the land where one can be free! These aren’t clichés; they’re true. Alaska is big! For instance, if you chopped Alaska in two, what would be the biggest state? Yes, you got it right. Alaska! It’s twice as big as the runner-up – Texas! And now is a great time to go. The snow is manageable and the cold has not yet set in.

Most people who go to Alaska take cruises through the Inland Passage from Seattle or Vancouver. That’s Southeast Alaska – the part that sticks down and is hemmed in by the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and the Yukon. Princess and Holland-America Cruise Lines have this route pretty well sewn up, but other lines are getting into the act – and they are introducing “all-inclusive fares.” Regent, Seaborne, and Seven Seas are making a bid with smaller ships and those all-inclusive fares. That means that gratuities (for your steward or stewardess who makes up your room) are included, as are alcoholic drinks (including wine with dinner) and (in some cases) land excursions. You pay for spa treatments and gift shop purchases. In short – no huge bills and no surprises at checkout. All inclusive fares are more expensive than regular fares, but compared to what you’d spend onboard, they are not that much higher.

Towns that you will probably visit in Southeast Alaska are: Ketchikan, in first town north of Vancouver on the Inland Passage; Juneau, the state capital (and the only state capital that cannot be reached by car – it can only be accessed by boat or by airplane); and Skagway, the jumping-off point for the great Yukon Gold Rush of 1887 and the place were we toured in a restored 1928 bus driven a dance hall lady who told the story of the first president of the company who drove the original 1928 bus to Hollywood to see Mae West and showed her a gold-colored boulder that was allegedly panned in the streams around Skagway. She is reported to have said, “I like the size of your nugget.”

In order to avoid the starvation of the San Francisco Gold Rush of a few decades earlier, the Canadian Police enforced the law that each of the gold rushers have a ton (2,000 pounds) of supplies. That meant that individual rushers had to climb the snow-covered mountain multiple times a to amass a ton of supplies.

Another town you are likely to visit is Sitka, the home of St. Michael’s, the Russian orthodox cathedral whose newly installed prelate is Scottish. Each of these towns are unique in their own way, but the greatest attraction by far is to get up close and personal by boat to a great glacier that dot the region. To watch these prehistoric monsters calving (breaking off large chunks which crash into the sea with tremendous force and thunderous sound) and watching the crullers float by the boat (the smaller chunks that break off from the calves) is worth the price you paid.

But all too quickly it’s over – there’s Anchorage up ahead!

Anchorage, the largest and only “city” in Alaska, is at the bottom of state proper. We took the one-week cruise-line add-on – and flew as far north as you can get, to Prudhoe Bay on the shore of the Artic Ocean. Tradition has it that first-timers to Prudhoe Bay have to go skinny dipping in the Artic. Fortunately it was frozen so we made snow angels instead.

Then it was off to Denali (Mt. McKinley) via a cruise-line bus on the Dalton Highway. The Dalton Highway was built as part of the oil pipeline project in the 70s. It is not paved, incidentally, but surfaced in gravel lest it break up doing the hard winters.

The bus broke down twice but we had lots of help along the way, particularly by two pipeline inspectors who lent us jumper cable. “Let’s just say they fell off the truck” (wink).

Denali is in the center of the state ten miles west of Fairbanks, which has permafrost (frozen ground) year-round. Denali is so big, it generates it own weather, causing fog seven out of eight days. Because of the fog, we didn’t see the mountain but we did see Denali sheep.

Then we took an Alaskan train back to Anchorage. Our Alaskan adventure was over, it seemed, before it began.

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