TRIP TO ALASKA 2006
(and the Anchorage Marathon)
Fifty hours ex Cape Town we arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, at 2 am (minus our baggage). My sister, Amanda, and I had missed our connection in Minneapolis, and were redirected via Seattle (I’d rather not go into too much detail about that). On arrival that morning we went straight to the hotel, which we’d booked via the internet. There we had a bit of a giggle, as the Black Angus Inn is not quite what we had in mind. The hotel was about 15 minutes walk from downtown, and although it appeared to be catering mostly for truck drivers, the room was spacious, warm, and comfortable. We were too tired to bother much about the hotel, and went straight to bed as by now I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Wake-up was at about 8 am, and the search for the baggage was on. We hopped on the hotel’s free airport shuttle, and were relieved to locate the baggage in a pain free operation.
I saw that Anchorage is a city surrounded by snow-capped mountains, except for the ocean (Cook Inlet), which looked deceivingly calm. I hadn’t expected the country to be so mountainous, and hoped there was a flat bit on which to run the Mayors Marathon, which was one reason for the trip.
After sorting out the baggage we took a walk downtown to register for the Marathon (there was even a little expo at the registration). With numbers in hand we headed back to our hotel. The rest of the day was spent walking around town inspecting the shops, and taking the trolley around to places of interest in Anchorage.
I really wanted to do the hiking trail as indicated on the local maps. The trail turned out to be a paved path, more of a walk in the park than a hike. However, the walk was very enjoyable and scenic, through dense trees to the coast and along Cooke’s inlet back to the city centre. We arrived back at the hotel around 7 pm, but in bright daylight! Then time for a quick supper (salmon of course).
There was no time to waste, and after a quick breakfast and a walk downtown it was off to Portage Glacier on a bus. I couldn’t leave there without seeing a glacier, and the bus traveled along the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet to Portage. Apparently this inlet has one of the fastest changing tides in the world, and the ocean surges and recedes in no time at all. What a fantastic drive, all along the coast with the snow capped mountains in the background, and dall’s sheep on the cliffs. The boat trip to the glacier took about an hour, freezing cold but absolutely beautiful. The glacier has a magical blue color, with big chunks of ice floating all around. It’s hard to believe that it extends an equal amount underwater as what is visible above. The return trip to Anchorage was via a ski resort (I had never been to a ski resort before). In order to explore the area we took a walk along a trail (not paved this time, but nearly).
We also walked along Lake Hood, where all the sea planes take off and land, quite a sight. Apparently there are more aircraft per capita in Alaska than anywhere else in the world. I must admit it sure seemed like everyone there had their own plane, judging by the activity on the lake.
I found it really difficult to judge the time of day, as it was light all the time. I needed a pizza for supper as well as an early night, as the marathon was the following morning. Someone recommended the "Sacramento" downtown, and so we hit the road and took a walk down there. Absolutely worth it, excellent pizzas, but medium was huge (this was America)!
We woke early as we had to take a 15 minute walk to the Sheraton Hotel, where we would get a bus to the start of the marathon. Busses to the start left from all over the city, and participants could just hop on. The marathon started at 08h00, but we got there fairly early already. A total of 1 550 runners lined up for the start of the marathon, after the playing of the national anthem. The run was absolutely beautiful, mostly off road through parks and nature areas. I had a terrible run, feeling as though I was stuck to the ground. I just didn’t feel comfortable (one of those things), so all I could do was to enjoy the spectacular scenery. Eventually I finished in 4h29m, which felt more like 14 hours. Then it was back on the bus to town, and the 15 min walk to the hotel (which I didn’t appreciate). Miraculously I recovered after a good soak in the bath and a bit of a snooze. Next it was off to the Moose’s Tooth for a bit to eat (this time by taxi). It felt really weird to leave the restaurant at 22h00 wearing sunglasses, but sunshine or not I had no problem sleeping.
One would think that with so much summer daylight the Alaskans start work earlier, but it seemed that businesses only opened between 09h00 and 10h00. For breakfast we had coffee and chocolate muffins (from Carr’s - the local supermarket), before renting a car for the remainder of our trip.
Wow, now that was nerve racking! Driving on the wrong (right-hand) side of the road every turn seemed strange, but we made it out of Anchorage and onto the Parks highway to Denali National Park. As we had the whole day to travel we stopped at the Talkateena waterfalls, where most of the climbs up Mt McKinley are organized from. It was a quaint, but very touristy little village. Our campsite was situated about 11 miles south of Denali National Park, a really nice place next to the river and with good facilities. We took a drive to the park entrance, and booked a shuttle bus into the park for the next day. No private vehicles are allowed in, and one can hop on and off the shuttle at any stage inside the park.
Back at the campsite we found a restaurant just across the road, where we had a quick bite to eat.
Out of the sun it was really freezing cold, so I lay curled up in my sleeping bag as long as possible in the morning. At least the showers were nice and hot, and the shower room and toilets were heated (what a luxury). We took the shuttle into the park all the way to the end (Fish Creek), and then headed back by foot in the direction of the park entrance. At first we tried to bundu-bash but the terrain was very soft and wet, so we headed along the road for more than 3 hours before hopping on a bus again. I found it much better to walk, as it was very quiet and the scenery was spectacular. One can camp anywhere in the park, which would have been fantastic. However, we didn’t have camping equipment with us, so we headed back to our campsite where we arrived at around 19h30. At least we’d seen a bear (way in the distance), a moose, a caribou, and some dall’s sheep. As can be expected in such a harsh country, wildlife is not in abundance.
It was time to leave our campsite next to the river and head for Fairbanks, further North along the Parks highway. We only had a small map of Fairbanks, but miraculously found the very friendly Travel Info, where they had a list of all the available accommodation. We opted for the Go North Hostel, and camped for only $12. At least the ground was soft and the showers hot. They even offered to do our laundry, which was becoming critical at that stage. Back in town we had supper and a beer, and again sat outside on the deck at 23h00 with sunglasses on (totally weird). I constantly had to check my watch to confirm the time of day. There isn’t a hell of a lot to do in Fairbanks, so it seemed time to head further north to the Arctic Circle the following morning.
One of the most impressive things around there is the size of the mosquitoes. I would not have thought that they could survive in such a cold climate, but boy-o-boy they were huge.
That morning we hit the dreaded Dalton High Way, which runs North from Fairbanks all the way to Dead Horse. This is a gravel road, and we were told that it would be unwise to travel there by sedan car. The brochures also recommended that we take emergency equipment such as flares, extra food and water, spare tyres, etc. So we anxiously headed that way, just to find that the Dalton was in excellent condition, better than most dirt roads I am used to. Sections of the road are even tarred, and there are various places to get fuel and food along the way. What an over kill! But on the other hand I’d found most things in Alaska a bit exaggerated, such as a hike which is no more than a walk in the park. Even the river rafting (which I decided against) looked more like a float on the river than white water rafting. I was by now starting to take everything they said with a pinch of salt. The country seemed to be so burdened by rules and regulations that there was little freedom for adventure left.
First stop was the Yukon River, and then on to the Arctic Circle (not much happening there). After a kodak moment we headed for Coldfoot, the next place were we could stay over. Coldfoot is a small place with an Inn (you can camp on the lawn), a restaurant, and fuel pumps. It’s claim to fame is that it is the most northern truck stop in the world. We set up camp and had a superb supper at the restaurant. This was the 21st of June, and the longest day of the year, so definitely no sunset. There was no party as expected, and the restaurant ran out of beer at around 21h00. So, not much else to do other than go back to the mosquito infested camping area (man, those things were ferocious!).
After packing up it was my turn to drive towards Fairbanks (it was my job to drive on the dirt roads). In fact, there was no need to stop at Fairbanks again, so we went straight to North Pole, a little village well known for Santa Clause’s House. This is a shop, so busy and claustrophobic after all the space and freedom we had around the Arctic Circle, that we left there faster than we’d arrived.
As it was still early we carried on driving. By now Amanda had had enough of camping and was refusing to ever camp again, so we stopped at the first road side inn and got a room. There was even a little restaurant where we ate something small (this was no place for a vegetarian). Caribou steaks, Reindeer sausages, Halibut, and Salmon, were the order of the day.
Refreshed, we headed further South. I now understood why the driving times indicated in the brochures are so long, as it is not due to bad roads, but rather that the speed limit is only 55 miles ph. As we moved along at a snails pace we also encountered a lot of road works (they only have about 4 months a year when they can work on the roads). Once again I found the authorities way over the top - at the stop/go points there were even "follow-me" trucks driving ahead!
As beautiful as Alaska is, I couldn’t live there (just too many rules and regulations). It felt as if there is no freedom, and one was being told what to do all the time.
We intended going to Valdes along the Richardson highway, but the road was closed due to heavy rains. We had to turn back to Delta Junction in order to take the Alaskan highway instead. It’s a beautiful drive on a world famous highway, just a pity it was rainy and cloudy so one couldn’t see the mountains. After the village of Tok we turned towards Glenallen and on to Valdez. It was rather late and extremely cold by the time we got there. Due to the refusal to pitch a tent (enough is enough, Amanda said) we found a tiny cabin for the exorbitant price of $140. Although small, the cabin was at least warm and comfortable, with a hot shower. We took a short walk through the town, as Valdez is a small (but quite important) place. It is a tourist paradise offering everything from fishing, to sea kayaking, and boat trips to the glaciers (all at quite a price). This is also the end terminal of the Trans Alaska oil pipeline, and it seems that most of the local people are involved with the pipeline.
So that evening it was off to the Pipeline Pub - the only place that seemed to be rocking. I still couldn’t get used to going out and coming home without it getting dark.
After waking I went for a little run along the waterfront, which felt really good after days of sitting in the car. This is such a scenic place I felt like just running and running. I ran past all the boats in the harbour, which reminded me that I was in the fishing paradise of Alaska.
Unfortunately it was time to pack up and go, a pity to leave such a beautiful place. We headed to Glennallen, from where we took the highway back to Anchorage. We had a last look at the Valdez Glazier and the famous fishtail waterfall before we departed. In Glenallen we stopped at a shop and locked the key in the car – what a performance! We managed to phone a locksmith who arrived more than an hour later and charged us $100 (a rather expensive stop).
On the road again we headed for the glacier where I wanted to do a glacier hike. Unfortunately the place was deserted, and I could only leave a telephone message for a hike the following day (but we were running out of time).
Next stop was Palmer, well known for growing oversized fruit and vegetables. Further along the road we found a campsite with no real facilities, but next to a river. So the tents were pitched again! We bought some wood at a little store nearby, and made a fire to keep us warm.
We woke and packed up for the drive back to Anchorage, and the long flight home to Cape Town.