Saturday, August 31, 1996 – We’ve covered about 700 miles in two days as we’ve left Alaska behind. Currently, we are heading toward Watson Lake, along the Alaska Highway in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The big claim to fame Watson Lake has is the Sign Post Forest, hundreds of signs pointing in different directions and showing the mileage to various places.
A GI building the road started it in 1942, and it has kept going ever since. It will be the highlight of our day, which has been filled with nothing but highway and non-descript trees. We did pass through Whitehorse but didn’t see its claim to fame: a DC-3 mounted on a pole to make the world’s largest weather vane. Seems a waste of a perfectly good aircraft.
Meanwhile, we suffered our first windshield crack yesterday. We knew it was going to happen, but it’s still depressing. A rock flew up and hit the upper right-hand side of the windshield, making a nearly circular crack about the size of a silver dollar. Actually, it’s not as bad as many windshields have been hit, and hopefully — knock on glass — it will be our last. Of course, the car’s being sold anyway when we get back. To whom we don’t know, of course — but we’ll have three days to dispose of it!
I left off last with us about to explore Anchorage. Here’s to it:
Day 17 [Wednesday, August 21, 1996] – We dragged ourselves out of bed late and finally made it out into downtown Anchorage. There was surprisingly little there. We parked right downtown, spent about 5 minutes in the visitors center and quickly decided against doing the
walking tour. It didn’t seem that interesting. Instead, we did a walking tour of the nearby touristy T-shirt shops, as usual checking out the various models of stuffed moose, Alaska hats and Ulu knifes. Then we settled in for lunch at a nice deli, sitting under the hot Alaskan sun and enjoyed the good food.
Next, we headed out to see Anchorage’s Earthquake Park. This is where a large area of land dropped down many feet in the massive (9.2, or something like that) quake of 1964. Of course, we got lost along the way — but it was a good thing. We stumbled upon the Hostess Thrift Shop, which Let’s Go had mentioned. This is where all the day-old bread and other bakery goods are returned from various stores. Heaven! I found the miniature powdered donuts I’d been craving but refusing to buy in order to stick to our budget. $1 per box! We picked up some bread, cupcakes, Twinkies (Lorna had never heard of them in Britain and now loves America’s favorite snack food) and bread for under $10.
Still seeking Earthquake Park, we drove further and came across REI. Naturally, we stopped in to see if there was possibly any camping equipment we did not yet own. We found it, too — mosquito nets to go over our heads. Denali was rumored to have terrible mosquitoes, so despite the pith helmet look, we went for the protection.
Only minutes after getting back into the car, we came across a Carr’s — Alaska’s number one attraction, in our opinion. Carr’s is the Alaska version of Vons, and we decided it was time to stock up. We were thrilled to discover great mark downs on sandwich meat about to reach its sell by date. A budget-saver! We stocked up (and have not had any ill-effects, to date). Potato chips, lots of soup and more needed foods were obtained.
We finally reached Earthquake Park, but it was mostly a disappointment. There are lots of trees, and the ground is all jumbled, but you don’t get a real sense of an earthquake causing it, much less how. A bit further down, we got to a point were Beluga whales are sometimes spotted. None were seen by our eyes, however.
Back we went to the motel, where we settled in more television and a do-nothing evening. Even though we’re not working, all the traveling is actually pretty tiring and it was nice to have a “day off” of sorts.
Day 18 [Thursday, August 22, 1996] – Out of Anchorage and off to Seward, where icy fjords and more wildlife awaited us. We got the car’s oil changed, then did nothing but drive for about 5 hours and watched rain clouds ominously fill the sky. The trip to Seward was stunning. We went along an ocean inlet most of the way, with towering mountain faces on the other side. There were some fantastic tidal mud flats–deadly if you go on them, due to their quicksand nature. People have died getting trapped in them.
Arriving in Seward, we quickly knew we didn’t want to stay long. It was high fishing season and not particularly our scene. The campground was right at the edge of the harbor and was seemingly filled with pickup trucks, boat trailers and stubbled-men in green rain ponchos and jeans.
After setting up the tent and staking it against the strong, cold wind, we took a quick driving tour of downtown Seward. Most of the city was leveled during the 1964 earthquake by several tidal waves. Rebuilt, Let’s Go praised it for not having the mini-malls and Golden Arches that other cities on the Kenai Peninsula had. We didn’t think it made that much of a difference. It looked pretty much like a rundown little town.
A flag-fan, Seward did have one attraction that I liked. It was home of the person who designed the very-attractive Alaska state flag, Benny Benson, I believe. The flag is the Big Dipper and North Star on a field of blue, with the Dipper or Bear representing Alaska’s bears, the North Star representing Alaska as the northernmost state in the union, and the blue for one of Alaska’s flowers, which I naturally cannot recall now. Benny entered a state-wide contest back in the 20s when Alaska was only a territory and its territorial governor had noticed it was the only territory without a flag to fly over the post office in Washington DC.
Our discovery of Seward completed, we went to bed with hopes that the rain, if it came, wouldn’t be too bad.
Day 19 [Friday, August 23, 1996] – Up in the morning, we headed to the harbormaster’s office where pay showers were available. I had a lovely hot shower for $2 while Lorna reported freezing to death in the coldest shower of her life. It was only a $1, so perhaps there’s
some weird situation where men can pay more and get hot showers in Seward while women are resigned to freezing.
Next, we boarded the tour boat to take us on our cruise around Kenai Fjords National Park. We kept our expectations low and almost wondered if we really needed to go on the trip, considering we’d done something similar in Glacier Bay. And unlike Glacier Bay, the day was rainy and dark.
Of course, we’d already paid for the trip, so there wasn’t really much of a debate. Soon, we were well pleased with the sailing. For one thing, it was a much faster boat and a shorter overall trip, only 6 hours. But mainly, we saw a lot more.
When we arrived at the main glacier, it was glistening white and soon began calving. I got a some good shots of the first icefall, but the most spectacular one won’t come out. I had only 24 shots in the camera but thought I had 36, so I kept advancing despite the pressure and probably just shot 12 frames all on one. Nonetheless, it was something to watch, even better than what we saw in Glacier Bay. Once again, as the ice hit the water, a huge surge came to lift the boat up.
On the way back, we had the good fortune to spot a humpback whale leaping out the water very near the boat. Lorna said it took her breath away, and I was quite in awe to see the massive creature. It was beholding to watch, and I can see now why so many people go out on trips every year when whales migrate past California.
Along with the whales, we also saw sea otters, dolphins, puffins and sea lions. We’re jaded about the sea lions, of course, since they are so common in California.
Back on shore, we headed back toward Anchorage rather than spoil our great day with dismal camping in Seward. We stopped at Portage Glacier, Anchorage’s answer to Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier–close to a city, easy to visit. By the time we arrived, it was about 8 p.m., dark and raining off and on. With four glaciers coming into the valley, it was also very cold. Still, we braved it and put the tent up. We also took a quick trip to the visitors center, where huge bolder-sized icebergs from the distant glacier had washed ashore near the visitors center.
Returning to the campground, we dived into the tent and went to sleep.
Day 20 [Saturday, August 24, 1996] – In the morning, neither of us wanted to emerge from the cocoon of warmth. But Denali awaited, so emerge we did.
We headed back to the visitors center, which had now opened, but we decided against going in. It was still overcast, and the main attraction is the view across the lake from the center to the glacier. I did dash in for a quick look-around and got to see a few small ice worms crawling across a small piece of ice taken from the glacier.
Driving through Anchorage, we decided to find a place to shower, as well as get some more fuel and food. We found a Carr’s soon enough, so it was easy to stock up on nearly out-of-date meat. But what about the bakery? Could we find it again, after having just stumbled upon it before. We knew we were in the right area, and Lorna joked that we could just look for a Hostess van and follow it in. About 10 seconds later, one actually passed us and we did just that. Within five minutes, I was stocking up on powdered donuts and bread.
On the edge of the city, we found a campground with showers. These were the worst showers we’d ever used, and I was glad to have the pair of sandals I use for the public showers as I trod across the muddy floor to the stalls. Still, it was nice to be clean once again.
About an hour outside of Anchorage, we stopped at the headquarters of the Iditarod dog race. The race follows a former trading and supply route that dog sledders used, with its most famous use coming when several times they rushed urgently needed vaccine from Seward to Nome to relieve an epidemic of diphtheria there.
There was a short video to watch, and I came away with a better appreciation of dog sledding, especially the attention that sledders have to give the dogs, down to putting little booties on their feet if the ice becomes too hard.
Back on the road, we had about another two hours before we reached the park. Just before the entrance, Lorna brought the car to a quick halt. She had spotted our first moose of the trip, as had several others pulled off beside the road. It turned out to be someone’s pet, since it had a collar, so I didn’t think it counted. Lorna disagreed and claimed it to be a perfect moose, the one she’d come to Alaska to see.
Once in the park, we checked in and got our campsite assignment. For once, Denali was not overcrowded, or so we were told. I’d hate to see what it looks like when busy.
At the campsite, we put up the tent and had a hot meal, protected from insect by our new mosquito helmets. We also had an interesting ballet of spoons as we leaned over our bowls and brought the rice and soup up under the nets and out of reached of hovering mosquitoes. Of course, if we did eat a mosquito, we probably wouldn’t have known. A book I was reading when we ate at Tok talked about how those working on the road watched as cooks made big batches of pancake batter with pepper along the sides of the vat. It turned out the “pepper” was actually
After dinner, we retired to the tent. It was very cold, making us for the first time unzip the sleeping bags from each other so that we each had our own. This kept the warm air inside the bag much more than when they are zipped together. It may not be as romantic, but with the temperature plunging, we wanted to be warm!
This is part of my Big Trip 1996 retrospective travelogue. See this page for an introduction to it and links to all other posts Next In This Series: Still to come!