Saturday, 8/25- Anchorage, Alaska
We arose at 6:30 A.M. local time, tired but anxious to see the city. It was 49 degrees and sunny out. We had coffee in the room, then prepped for the day and set out at 8 A.M. to “see what we could see.” 4th Avenue is one of the main drags in downtown Anchorage. We walked down its length, slowly enjoying the many new and interesting sights. A log cabin with a sod roof covered in grass, sits outside the visitor’s center. We were to see many of these sturdy frontier structures in the next two weeks. Several very large Grizzly bears (stuffed) stood as totems, beckoning tourists into the many gift stores along the boulevard. The “Downtown Deli & Cafe” looked inviting. We stopped in for breakfast. Scrambled eggs and chopped salmon made for a great way to start the day.
Next, we walked over to the “farmer’s market” sitting on the brow of the small slope that leads down to the sea. All manner of vendors peddled Alaskan souvenirs, salmon quesadillas, hats, furs, and knick knacks to beat the band. Most of the totems and bric a brac had a “made in china” label on them. It was something we were to discover all along our line of march. It was to become, for me, part of a cynical “Looking for Mount McKinley syndrome” that featured every ruse that a hard selling chamber of commerce could manage to lure in the tourists.
We walked back to the Captain Cook Hotel to meet up with our 10:30 A.M. Princess City Tour. We were joined by Don and Diane Martin of Lake George New York. The driver, Jesse, was pleasant enough. We talked with the Martins, who were just completing their two week swing through Alaska. They recommended taking a nine hour bus/ train and kuyak tour of the Kenai Peninsula. They had seen significant “calving,” of the glaciers, on their tour there. We drove along Fourth St. It was here that the main devastation of the 1964 , 9.2 earthquake had occured, leveling many of the structures. Everything has been rebuilt since.
Anchorage itself is beautiful. Situated on the Cook Inlet and surrounded by the Chugach and Kenai Mountains, it is a sheltered port that has expanded now to 270,000 souls in the metro area. Jesse brought us to the “Anchorage Museum.” It is a two story complex that features the geological, cultural and historical development of Alaska from 10,000 B.C. to the present era. Many interesting dioramas depict the varied native crafts and life styles. Replicas of a mining camp, gold prospecting, and oil exploration,including a section of the oil pipeline, are all depicted informatively. Our guide was very well educated and pleasing to listen to. The real expansion of Alaska had occurred just before and during World War II, when the Trans Alaska highway, built by the U.S. Military, connected the coastal regions with the “lower forty eight.” Military bases brought tens of thousands of young Americans to the area, many of whom returned afterr the war and settled here. Heavy fighting with the Japanese, had cost several thousand lives on the Islands of Kiska and Attu in the Aleutian Chain. Elmendorf air base, became one of the early anchors of the D.E.W line ( distant early warning) in the 1950’s cold war period. It was an interesting and informative hour’s journey into what Alaska was, and has become. I recommend you read James Michener’s “Alaska” for a good, brief overview of the area’s history. (900 pages)
Our driver continued on. He explained that Anchorage had been originally built, on the tidal flats of Cook Inlet, as a railroad station. City planners had then laid out a grid pattern, of streets labeled with numbers and and letters. It is today's modern Anchorage, on the plain above the flats. Most of the city’s modern history stems from this 1915 date. The town grew and grew, to its present size, for all of the reasons mentioned. The University of Alaska, at Anchorage, is huge. Pacific University, with a largely “pacific rim” student base, also prospers here. It makes for a very young population.
The driver pulled into the “Sour Dough Mining Corporation” for lunch. It is a western style, saloon featuring stuffed wild animals, with exhibits of many of the implements from the 1890’s gold rush era. I bet the little rascals must love the place during the Summer months. A broiled salmon filet was decent. The ice cream sundaes afterwards were even better. After lunch, we walked across the street to the “Wild Berry” Company. It is a compendium of everything that an a tourist would buy while on tour. I noticed that the cost of the freight, to ship anything home, was about one third above that of the purchase price. Freight charges are a defining fact of life in Alaska, where almost everything has to be shipped or flown in. A huge chocolate fountain flowed with real chocolate in the front of the store. We admired all the products, of China and Indonesia, for a bit and then walked out to the parking lot to enjoy the warm sun. Other tour buses were dumping their eager cargos here as well.
Next, Jesse drove us to the Lake Hood area. It is a “Float Plane Base.” An entire lake is sectioned off into float plane docks, that tie up along the shore. They are the main transportation means for the Alaskan interior. Each of these beautiful craft can cost anywhere from $100,000 to a million dollars. A complex of two small lakes here holds scores of planes. The lakes are connected by two canals. One is used for landing and the other for taking off. We watched, for a time, as several of the graceful craft powered across the water and became airborne. Just before they uplifted, the pilot would lift a wing and balance the craft on one float, to reduce the water tension on the plane. Then, he would lift off gracefully, at almost a crawl speed, into the air. When landing, the planes looked like Canadian Geese, gliding in gently and then skidding across the surface on their wide floats. The planes could also be converted, with wheels or skis, to meet the changing weather conditions. We much enjoyed watching these graceful, small craft land and take off on a sunny day, against a clear blue Alaskan sky.
By 2:45 P.M. we returned to the hotel and bid goodbye to the Martins. They were leaving that evening. We walked over Third Ave to “L” street. There, overlooking the inlet and above a flight of wooden spiral of stairs and landing decks, stands the imposing statue of Captain James Cook, an early explorer of the region. He had anchored his ships “Resolution” and “Discovery” here in 1798. We had come across other landings, of this estimable explorer’s ships, in Hawaii and Tahiti. That must have been one heck of a voyage.
We walked back to the Farmer’s Market. It was loaded with outlanders visiting the city on a Saturday afternoon. We again browsed the many products, as well as the local produce, before walking back along 4th Avenue in the warm afternoon sun. We came upon an imposing edifice named the “Alaska Federal Public Lands Building.” It is a repository of natural history and films about various features of the Alaskan wild. We were in time for a movie on “Brown Bears.” It was a pleasant interlude, watching the huge beasts scooping salmon from rivers and eating them whole. It was the closest we were to come to seeing these bears in Alaska. ( Looking for Mount McKinley Syndrome)
It was 5:00 P.M., but the sun was still high in the Alaskan sky. At the height of the Alaskan Summer, the sun stays up for over 18 hours. we entered the Captain Cook complex and rode an elevator to the 20th floor “Crow’s Nest” high above Anchorage. I am not fond of heights, but the view here is spectacular. The Chugach Mountains stretched before us in all of their sun dappled glory. The sun and shadow effects, framed against a brilliant blue sky, would keep a painter in business for years. I enjoyed a signature vodka martini, shaken of course ala bond and not stirred. Mary had a glass of Cabernet. We watched the mountains, the sky and the bay out of windows on the other side of the bar, appreciating the natural beauty all around us. Alaska really is a visual banquet, with a variety of natural vistas that make you stop and stare, in wonder, on occasion.
We were tiring from the long day and still groggy from our flight yesterday. We repaired to our room and settled in with a glass of Cabernet. I wrote up my notes. It had been a very full day in this land of rugged beauty. We crashed early, tired as old logs in a swamp.
Sunday, August 26, 2007- Anchorage, Alaska
We were up at 6:30 A.M. Our Circadian rhythms were still adjusting to the four hour time difference. We had coffee in the room and watched the morning t.v.. news. The sun rose at 7:00 A.M. It was 49 degrees and cool outside. At 8:30 A.M., we set off down 4th St. heading for the “Downtown Deli” for breakfast. The scrambled eggs and smoked salmon was a meal worth repeating. The place was S.R.O. After breakfast, we ambled about the downtown streets, enjoying the sights. The convention center and Center for the Arts connect with each other near a lovely statue court and small park. A few of Anchorage’s lesser land barons were still sleeping in the park. I wonder where they go when the outside temps drop to sub zero? More importantly, a Starbucks occupied the sculpture court. We enjoyed their amber ambrosia and headed back to the hotel. We read the Anchorage Daily News” and then decided to rent some bikes and ride along the sea coast bike path.
“ Pablo’s,” at Fifth and “ L “ streets, has all of the new high tech racers. We signed up for a three hour rental. Kitted out with helmets and water, we set off. The “Tony Knowles Bike Path” runs ten miles each way from downtown Anchorage to the lofty green aerie of Kincaid Park, high on a bluff along Knik arm of Cook’s Inlet. The inlet is a vast tidal basin that sweeps the water in and out daily, with a 30 foot tidal range. The tide was rolling out now, as we powered our jet age bikes along the leafy trail. Out across the bay, we could see the Alaska Range of Mountains, shining far to the North. Their icy white peaks reflected clearly in the still blue waters of the Inlet, creating that incredible double image you are sometimes lucky to see along the waterfronts.
We enjoyed seeing new types of flora all around us. The Devil’s club bush, with it’s bright red berries, Sitka spruce, birch and alder trees provided a food rich environment for the thousands of Moose who live in and around Anchorage. Bears live here too, but are much shyer around people. Vista after vista unfolded, as we sped around a rise or bend in the road. Sometimes you had to just stop and stare for a bit to take it all in. Even pictures, that you take yourself, fail to reflect how beautiful the scenery is here.
About six miles out, we came to a large parking area overlooking the Inlet. We stopped for a time, had some water and enjoyed the visage. It is on the flight path to Ted Steven’s International, so the huge metal behemoths roared about three hundred feet over our heads, as they made their final descent. You could even feel the jet wash stir the air. It was a little unnerving to see these monsters so close above us. We continued on, mindful of the rising terrain of the pathway. Sometimes, even with the many higher gears, we dismounted and walked the bikes up the hill for a stretch. We were ascending several hundred feet in just a few short miles. A sheen of sweat had broken out on my face from the ride’s exertion. Too many useless calories ingested the last few nights..
And then we arrived at the emerald pocket of Kincaid Park. An athletic field and various sports venues were complimented by a large public, stone and wood casino. Local folks were barbecuing and picnicking all around us. We walked out onto the patio of the casino and were treated to the sparkling white visage of Mt. Mckinley, in The Alaskan Range. It was a clear and sunny day. We were amazed at the sight lines. Mt. McKinley sits some 235 miles to the North of Anchorage. Yet, we could see the top cone of her peak, icy white and majestic, even this far away. It is a magnificent skyline. We watched the Mountain like everyone else around us. (LFMM)
As the weeks wore on, we were to hear from various guides and tour operators that “seeing Mt. McKinley” was a rarity. Something about cloudy days and the mountain “being out” for only brief number of days. Fortunate tourists felt like they were the only person in the last hundred years who had seen the mountain. It was part of the tourist hype of what I began to think of as “Looking for Mt. Mckinley.” It became tiring after a time. The scenery up here needs no hype. It is magnificently beautiful in the extreme.
Soon enough we turned our bikes back toward Anchorage. The first three miles, of the path, were a downhill hoot. We had to ride the hand breaks all the way, hoping that no knuckleheads were blocking the path, as we careened around the downhill runs, like bobsledders in a run. We sped under the landing paths of the huge planes, again startled at their proximity. It was a cool ride. We stopped periodically, along the path, to enjoy again the visage of mountains and sea. It was a clear sunny day and almost seventy degrees out. This hadn’t happened for over a hundred years:) (LFMM)
Near the trail’s end, there are several spurs that run into the city neighborhoods. Access is both easy and well used. We had to dodge the many Families Griswald out for a day’s sun. Our legs were tiring from the twenty mile run. We made it into Pablo’s with five minutes to spare on our three hour lease. He seemed surprised to see us and asked if we had really ridden the whole twenty miles. I didn’t want to ask if we looked too old, out of shape or he thought we were just fibbing. Yes, you can make the run in three hours, if you push it !
The afternoon was still young and the sun sat high in the Alaskan sky. We strolled up Fifth Avenue to stretch our legs. Starbucks beckoned. We sat for a time in the small plaza out front, enjoying their aromatic brew and watching the ebb and flow of tourists on a Sunday afternoon. The plaza held statues of a bear, moose, fox and a swan. After coffee, we walked back down 4th st. to the hotel, checking our e-mail on the net in the business office. We retreated to our room to write up my notes , share a glass of cabernet and enjoy a brief chat with Mr. Ozzie Nelson (nap).
It was near six P.M., as we showered and made ready for dinner. We had espied a nice looking restaurant nearby named “Orso.” I think it is Russian for Bear. We had a glass of Montepulciano and then enjoyed Salmon and Alaskan Halibut dishes. The small blonde child at the next table was an angel and traded smiles with us throughout the meal. After dinner, we walked back towards the hotel. The sun was still high in the sky, but we knew that we had to pack up our gear and get ready for departure on the morrow. We packed up, read our books for a time and then settled in to greet the sandman. The golden sun set at 9:45 P.M.
(to be continued)
Joseph Xavier Martin