The first thing one discovers about Alaska is that it is enormous. My girlfriend and I spent four intensive weeks there earlier this summer in just two areas - south-central Alaska, where the commercial capital of Anchorage is located, and south-eastern Alaska, near the state capital of Juneau.
I had heard a fair amount about Alaska from my girlfriend, who had lived there for 22 years. Even so, it was impossible for me to imagine the thickness of the forests, the power of the mountains, the vastness of the land and sea and the silence of nature wherever we traveled.
Even my girlfriend, who had moved away 17 years earlier, was unprepared for the summer weather we encountered. We arrived in Anchorage in the evening of June 26, a few days after the summer solstice. On our first night there, the sun officially went down at midnight, but a pale light continued to shine during the four hours of twilight before the sun rose again.
Of course, I knew that I was in the land of the midnight sun. But I did not expect the weather to be sunny and the temperature around 25 C that evening, or 32 C in our hosts' house because of the hothouse effect created by so many windows.
I should add right away that our trip to Alaska was not the standard tourist experience. My girlfriend still has many friends there who hosted us throughout the visit and provided us with experiences we might not otherwise have had. It also meant that for the most part, we did not have to pay for food and lodging, which enabled us to stay longer and see more. The popular way for outsiders to travel around the state is by camper vehicle, which solves the problem of lodging, food and travel in one fell swoop. Another cheaper possibility is renting a cabin and using it as a base for day or overnight excursions.
Anchorage, which boasts the only international airport in Alaska, is located in a bowl of relatively flat land surrounded by mountains on three sides. To the west, it flanks two narrow prongs of the Cook Inlet, itself a long tongue of water protruding inland from the Pacific Ocean. One of these prongs bears the rather unimaginative name Turnaround Arm, because it was here that the British explorer Captain James Cook, seeking a northern sea route from Europe to Asia in 1778, ran into a dead end and had to turn around and head back to the Pacific.
ANCHORAGE IS a nondescript town, a little Los Angeles strung together by a network of highways and roads, linking far-flung neighborhoods to malls and the small city center. Today, the city boasts quality stores that until not long ago could only be found in the "lower 48." There is also an excellent municipal museum which provides a graphic overview of the history of Alaska.
There is no reason to stay in Anchorage for more than a day or two. In fact, a popular saying among Alaskans is that "the best thing about the city is that it is close to Alaska." So, two days after our arrival, we drove south about 360 kilometers to Homer, to join our Anchorage hosts at their summer home on the far side of Kachemak Bay.
The route down the Kenai Peninsula was breathtaking. Directly above us, to the right, were thick, towering forests that ended in small rocky cliffs descending to road level. To our left was Turnaround Arm and beyond that, an endless view of massive mountains, many of whose peaks were still covered with snow and a few sporting hanging or cascading glaciers. Aside from the cars on the road, there was almost nothing to disturb the scenery except for a few motels and old-fashioned log roadhouses. The highway was equipped with pullouts so that drivers could stop and enjoy picturesque views.
Several times we came across cars pulled off the road and their occupants gazing the other way, towards the forest on the opposite side of the road, to observe white mountain sheep moving precariously along the bare cliffs.
We did not stay long in Homer, but the funky town apparently served as the inspiration for the fictional Cisily in the famous TV series Northern Exposure.
An extraordinarily long spit (a very narrow piece of land) extends out of Homer into Kachemak Bay. The seven-kilometer-long spit is lined with camping sites, hotels and restaurants and a marina that serves amateur and commercial fisherman. As we lugged our bags and provisions down the metal staircase to our hosts' motorboat, one fisherman after another climbed up with crates of salmon and halibut, washed them in the sink located at the top of the staircase and filleted them with a few expert swipes.
Our hosts' summer home was located along a protected shoreline, more or less in the middle of nowhere. The government had recently put up a few plots of land for sale and they had been lucky enough to buy one. I found the shoreline desolate and harsh and the weather cold and often rainy. But obviously, many love the rawness and pristine quality of this northern scene.
While there, I made my first foray into ocean kayaking. It is not a sport for the faint-hearted; if the kayak overturns, you will freeze to death unless you extricate yourself from the water within a few minutes. This is one of the things that a visitor to Alaska must remember at all times: There is a lot of water in Alaska, but you can't swim in it.
Luckily, although I somehow managed to soak myself inside the boat from head to toe, I at least stayed afloat.
AFTER TWO days, we left our hosts and flew to Juneau in southeast Alaska. Juneau lies in the midst of a gigantic rain forest, one area separated from another by inland waterways. The area is a narrow panhandle stretching about 600 kilometers south of the American-Canadian border and separates the province of British Columbia from the ocean. It rains in this area about 250 days a year, and even on the days it doesn't rain, it is cloudy and misty.
After an overnight stay, we flew to Gustavus, a small community that serves as the launching board for Glacier Bay, a protected nature reserve that can be toured by boat or kayaking expedition. We took the boat tour and saw a large number of glaciers descending from the surrounding mountains into the bay. We also saw whales (that is, the waterspouts and tails of hump-backed whales), otters, bald-headed eagles and other wildlife creatures. Through a set of binoculars, I saw my first and only brown bear. Even from far away, it looked awesomely big. The eight-hour cruise, which included a simple fish meal, cost $170 per passenger.
Gustavus itself has about 300 families in the summer. We spent the Fourth of July there, and even a cynical Canadian like myself couldn't help but enjoy the small-town innocence of the celebrations, which included a parade, a picnic, a raffle and auction, races and a tug-of-war. The residents gathered in an open field, saluted as the flag was raised and took turns reading out with gusto the entire Declaration of Independence, which, I was shocked to learn, is primarily a diatribe against the Crown.
The Gustavus area is the only flatlands in southeast Alaska. It was created by the pressure of the enormous glaciers which later receded and left behind a lush plain.
From Gustavus, we took a chartered boat to Elfin Cove, where friends of ours own a summer cottage. This tiny village is located at the base of a mountain and the homes are strung together by a wooden boardwalk. From here, we took magical rides on our host's skiff through waterways and past heavily forested islands where not another soul was present - except on the commercial fishing trolls plying the ocean waters far off in the distance.
ONE DAY, we visited a commercial fisherman who lives all year long with his wife and brother in splendid isolation in a bay hidden from sight. The family has planted a beautiful garden, landscaped it and even brought in a flock of ducks for company. They call their home the Hobbit Hole. The wife, originally a landlubber from Nevada, maintains a bed and breakfast which is used as a night stopover for kayakers traveling on journeys of several days.
On another day, we visited a school of about 200 friendly sea lions who dipped up and down in the water as they swam alongside us, honking enthusiastically and staring at us, apparently, with a curiosity as great as our own.
After a week in the Gustavus-Elfin Cove area, we flew back by a float plane to Juneau. Here we stayed with a family of Alaskan old-timers whose home was situated on beautiful Auke Bay, about 20 kilometers from downtown Juneau. Cliff, the husband, was the first veterinarian in Juneau and the neighboring parts of Canada. His friendly and modest nature helped him to make many friends, several of whom insisted that he buy their land when they were too old to hold onto it any longer.
He and his wife built their permanent home on one plot. Another one was located on Admiralty Island, a huge 160-kilometer long forested island almost directly across the bay from their home. The family owns the only structure on the island, an old-fashioned log cabin with no electricity or running water. It takes them about half an hour door-to-door by skiff from their house to the cabin, but when you make the trip, you feel like you have gone back centuries, to the pioneering days of the Wild West.
The cabin is built behind the first rows of trees separating it from the waterline. Once you walk past them, you enter a clearing where a few of the trees have been chopped down. Outside the cabin and clearing, you are swallowed up by the forest. Cliff, now retired, cultivates a flower and vegetable garden a few minutes' walk from the cabin, and spends long hours there all by himself, the only man on an island inhabited by bears, moose, foxes and eagles.
We spent the last few days of our vacation at Girdwood, a small ski resort about 60 kilometers south of Anchorage on Highway 1. The village is quaint and modest, full of green - trees, grass, bushes and unpaved roads. It appears to attract many young people, although families now live there all year long and the village sports a grocery and liquor store, a Laundromat and public shower, and at least two excellent restaurants.
We also used Girdwood as a launching pad for a number of adventures in the surrounding area. One day, we went to visit the famous Portage Glacier, only a few kilometers away. It is one of the most famous glaciers in the area. Several years ago, the government built a lovely tourist center which backed up onto the wall of ice. At the end of a movie explaining the glacier, the screen lifted and behind it, a glass wall was meant to reveal the glory of the real thing. Unfortunately, global warming has taken its toll and the glacier has receded and turned around a bend, so that it is no longer visible from the center.
On another day, we visited the Crow Creek goldmine, an honest-to-goodness century-old, still-functioning goldmine, whose owners have preserved it exactly as it was when they bought it many decades ago. Some families come out to prospect for fun, but there are also a few deadly serious gold miners still apparently seeking to make their fortune. One of the more serious ones had brought along a Geiger counter to help him in his search.
It was from Girdwood that we made our most unfortunate foray of the trip. Weeks in advance (on our way to Kachemak Bay), we had reserved two places on a fishing boat on the Kasilof River in the Kenai Peninsula. It was in the height of the salmon fishing season, when the king and silver salmon struggle upstream to spawn. We had to leave Girdwood at 2:30 a.m. to meet our guide at 6 on the river wharf, but after many days of sunny weather, it happened to pour with rain that night as we headed down the curving highway.
Somehow, we made it on time, but the rain accompanied us all the way. For the next four hours, we sat in an open boat, our fishing rods in holders, sitting with folded hands, waiting for the fish to bite and exposed to the never-ceasing downpour. Together with us in the boat were a father and son from Atlanta. They had flown up for five days of fishing and were hell-bent on catching a "king." After four hours of utter misery, my girlfriend and I gave up and pleaded for mercy. The guide, Nigel, a mad fisherman but, luckily for us, humane, decided to let us off the hook, so to speak.
Needless to say, the father and son stayed for the duration and were even granted a two-hour bonus for the time they wasted on us sissies.