Alaska: The Final Frontier

Trip Start Mar 15, 2008
Trip End Oct 02, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Friday, May 9, 2008

Leah says: Alaska here we come! We boarded our flight to Alaska in the morning around 8:30 am where we flew back to Seattle before transferring to Anchorage. The flight with Alaskan Air went well and it was a bit different to be on a small plane for a change. Our first glimpse of this wild place was breathtaking. The views of snow-covered mountains from the plane, as we flew in to Anchorage were amazing. While British Columbia had definitely prepared us for picturesque mountain views, we were blown away by how the mountains in Alaska seemed to go on forever.

We landed in Anchorage around 3pm and went about the business of collecting luggage and finding out about the public transport into the city. We caught a bus that ran down the middle of Anchorage before arriving at a hostel we'd prebooked. The hostel looked just like a large house in a suburban neighbourhood, located only a couple of km's outside of the city.

26th Street Hostel was run by a young couple and is smallish with only about 5 dorm rooms and 3 double rooms. It was very simple, basic accommodation and yet one of the best places we have stayed in for the simple fact that it had all the elements cash strapped travellers need. The owners were extra friendly and welcoming, the rooms were clean and comfortable with their mismatched bed linen. The free breakfasts were yummy and available from 7am til whenever, there were lots of freebies including Internet, local phone calls and as much local advice as you needed!

We spent our first evening wandering down to the nearby shopping centre and found a diner to grab some dinner. Our waiter was in good humour and after trying to convince me that buffalo wings (chicken wings) came from the winged buffalos in the area, I decided to have the chicken potpie instead. It was a little over our budget but I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Our first day in Anchorage saw us catching the bus 10 mins into town in the afternoon after doing some much needed washing. We familiarised ourselves with the place and mainly wandered around taking in the local shopping mall, and lookout and town centre. We also saw the starting point for the famous Alaskan Iditarod race. This is an annual dog sled race that sees mushers racing their dog teams across Alaska facing all kinds of harsh conditions to claim this lucrative title. We went to a local bar for dinner recommended by a lady we met on the bus and had the best seafood pizza I've ever eaten. We also tried some lovely Alaskan salmon and Alaskan beer. After dinner we decided to walk back as it was still so light so we made the hike back to the hostel and it only took us about 30 mins.

It took us a few days of being in Alaska to get our sleeping patterns sorted and get used to the sun setting around 11pm and rising around 4:30 am. That said, it was great to have the extra sunlight once we got used to it! We were up extra early the next morning around 5am so we could get a cab down to the train station where we had booked a trip to Seward. The Alaskan railway is known as one of the most picturesque travel routes and the leg we travelled from Anchorage to Seward did not disappoint! We had 4 hours of beautiful snow capped mountains and valleys as well as lakes, Glaciers and small towns. We managed to see mountain sheep and goats as well as a couple of sightings of moose off in the distance. The weather was perfect with beautiful blue skies and sunshine the whole way. The train was even fitted out with a couple of viewing carriages which had an all glass top that you could sit under to get a great view of the nature around you.

Ben Reporting: We finally arrive in Seward, about 11 a.m. after a wonderfully scenic ride through the powder white countryside of Alaska. The four-hour train trip between Anchorage and Seward must be one of the great rail trips of the world, with an abundance of snow-covered peaks, frozen-ice lakes and endless stretches of snowfields with spring furs just poking their leave-less tops through.

We get off the train and watch as everyone totters off to their tour buses, no doubt to pre-booked hotels. We're at the very edge of town and have an address for a cheap hostel, but their website is archaic so we haven't been able to pre-book. We start to lug our bags down the Seward main street, with over 20 kg's on our back and packs of probably 6-7 kg's on our front. We can't find the street our hostel is on, and Seward is such a tiny town, so the strain of carrying backpacks begins to burn. But with nowhere else to go, we push on.

American streets tend to be numbered in the thousands, and, despite Seward's tiny size (smaller than Murray Bridge) the address for our hostel is in the 900's. A quick phone call and we discover that the hostel is actually about a 30-minute walk out of town. Nuts. Seward is the kind of secluded small-town you don't tend to find taxi's flying around, so we knew we'd have a walk ahead of us. As we got to the end of the main street we came across a motel called Murphy's and decided to see if they'd fit into our daily accommodation budget of next-to-nothing. To our surprise they only went over our budget by $5, and with our own room, fridge, TV and net access on offer, we could hardly decline.

So, leaving our bags behind, we venture out to see the city. Seward is a small fishing village on the inner tip of lengthy Resurrection Bay, and has a quaint, cabin-in-the-woods feel to it. There are lines of older-styled houses, shops and fishing huts with a clapboard shack appeal to them. The most impressive sight, though, are the surrounding mountains circling Seward almost completely, like giant overseers. The mountains are rendered even more incredible as they are nearly smothered in pure white snow. On days when the sky is white with cloud, the camera cannot recognise the difference between the sky and the mountains, and you get these odd, bleached-white photographs that fail to do justice to the scenery.

We awake after our first night in Seward, where the sun sets at about 11 pm, and head off to a day tour we've booked. The tour involves a cruise down Resurrection Bay and around into another bay to view Homer Glacier, with the tentative promise of plenty of wildlife viewing on the way. The brochure promises bears, moose, whales, puffins and all sorts of native creatures you only see in cartoons. The weather is reasonably still; though the clouds hang much lower over the mountains than the day we'd arrived.

As we were about to board the yacht, Leah, who is prone to motion sickness, rushes off to buy some tablets. She offers me some, and while I don't tend to have motion problems, I decide I can't see the harm in taking a couple. In the end, it is a very good decision. We board the yacht at about 11am and, after some safety preamble from the crew, we're on our way to see the glacier. We make idle chatter with the couple at our table from Sacramento; she seems quite a bit younger than him, he seems to know a bit about sea-travel, like he's from the navy or something similar. There's a park ranger on board as well, hosting the tour and providing random facts about the area and the animals. She comes up to us and chats a bit about the animals we may or may not see - whales seem a promising prospect.

So we get on our way. We wander out onto the open top deck to look around at the scenery; the sheer cliffs on either side, capped with snow, making one feel very small and insignificant indeed. It's stupidly cold outside, and a stiff breeze means we're only outside for short stints. After about 40 minutes down the bay, the yacht pulls up and the park ranger alerts us to some wildlife sighted on the cliffs. Sheep! Mountain sheep, in fact, perched precariously on thin angles of land hanging off the side of sheer, vertical cliff face. The goats, incredibly, sit halfway down the cliffs, as if they'd been dropped there by aliens while no one was looking, such is the unlikelihood that they could've climbed down themselves. But, I suppose that's why they're called Mountain sheep.

As we move down the bay, we stop again to see more sheep, then more sheep, and then, a little further down the line, the park ranger alerts us to a bear sighting. But by the time we all rush to the starboard side of the cabin, the black speck way at the top of the cliff face has disappeared behind some trees. No bother to us, though - if you read our British Columbian blog from Canada we detail our close encounter with a black bear. So, after heading further down the bay, we once again stop to see some sheep on the cliffs, and we're all pretty over it by then, I think.

As the yacht heads towards to end of the bay, it starts to sway as the Pacific Ocean begins to get rockier. Walking through the cabin increasingly sees us having to step in-time with the swaying movement of the boat so that we are not thrown to the floor, and there are already one or two people stretched out across benches, perhaps not having taken sea-sickness tablets at journey's beginning. The swaying, initially, seems like a symptom of being at sea, and we wander casually around the cabin, moving in a swaying, loping motion as we go. Soon, though, it gets increasingly worse and walking around the cabin no longer seems safe. The boat rocks side-to-side haphazardly and those of us still standing have to stutter and stumble to our benches.

To make matters worse, the captain calls on the loudspeaker and announces that we're hitting rough waters (like we didn't know) and that he'd have to reassess the situation to see if it were still possible to make the glacier. At this point, with the boat acting more like a lengthy theme park ride, rather than a means of travel, I feel that I'd be pretty satisfied with a premature return to the docks. Leah is still keen to see the glacier, for whatever crazy reason, and she seems to be handling the conditions quite well. Now several people are starting to look a little green and the crew stumble from table to table to hand out sick bags.

After close to an hour of rollicking and rocking, the boat being thrown about like a toy in a bathtub, we get some relief as we reach a spot at the end of the bay in between land and a tiny island where the motion of the Pacific Ocean is broken by land. We relax and quickly take a toilet break, thankful that we can go without the fear of being tipped on our heads. After sitting in between the land-break for a few minutes, the captain comes on the loudspeaker to deal us our fate for the afternoon. I half expect him to say we're heading back home, considering the conditions. But no, he informs us we're going to push on into the open Ocean and then ends his transmission with the warning: "...and you'd better hold on folks, because it's going to get a fair bit rougher." The reaction, is unforgettable: most of the people on the boat turn to their family/loved-ones (those who aren't lying flat on a bench) and echo, "What? Worse?" And without time for protest, we push on.

As we reach Open Ocean, there's no longer the protection of the bay on either side, and now being rocked from side to side seems a luxury. The captain promises this next stretch should last just under 30 minutes, but as the boat is lifted up on increasingly higher waves, and thrown down onto an angry sea, half-an-hour seems like an eternity. No one, aside from the crew, is still standing, and about eight or nine people are showing serious effects of seasickness. The crew moves around to comfort people, but violent waves smack against the windows, spraying water over the roof of the boat, and comfort seems a ridiculous notion. As the seas get more violent, the rain hammers down harder. The boat is lifted higher and higher on the waves, and each time, as it comes crashing down, the shudder on the hull gets louder and more urgent.

I begin to think of the Titanic. In particular the scene in the film where the boats hits the iceberg and a shudder is felt throughout, rough but not enough to alarm. I think of the boats bow opening and water flooding in.

At the next table over, a crewmember comes up to have a word with one of the distressed customers. A few minutes later the crewmember stumbles back with a large, black plastic garbage bag, the kind you use to line your larger rubbish bins with. I wonder about this for a while, before I see the man lean in and heave up his breakfast. I notice now that sick bags are in quite frequent use around the cabin. The captain comes on the radio to inform us that lunch service will be somewhat delayed, due to the circumstances. Honestly, I wonder, who is thinking of lunch at this point in time?

We finally reach another area protected from the ocean by cliffs and a small island. The boat, briefly, is calm. But we're a lone vessel on the uncaring ocean, and we all know that we'll have to fight rough waters again soon. The glacier is now only fifteen minutes away, in a cove protected from the ocean, so we must endure another quarter of an hour of being tossed about before we reach our destination. The rough seas are quite clearly not abating. After a few minutes of bobbing in gentler seas we head off. The boat is tossed over wave after wave, as the captain tries to steer her over the crest of each wall of water, only to come crashing and shuddering over the other side.

Finally we reach calmer waters, in the cove of Homer Glacier. There is a great relief felt across the boat. Belated lunch service even begins, although only about the half the guests seem able to stomach anything. And so, the million-dollar question is: were the rough seas worth enduring to see this Glacier? The answer, thankfully, was yes!

No greater sight have I seen, nor sound have I heard, than the awesome experience that is a glacier. An immense wall of solid ice that actually glows an ethereal blue when seen with the naked eye. We stood out on deck, bellies full of Atlantic salmon, and admired this rare sight of nature. At the very end of the cove, the glacier sits, a perfect wall of carved ice that faces you like the gates to another dimension. The space in front of the glacier measures about 300 metres and is made up of bobbing bits of crumpled off ice. Cameras snap all across the boat, as seasickness is momentarily forgotten. As we watch, large shards on the face of the glacier break off and crash into the water, breaking up into smaller pieces of ice that bob in a carpet of ice shards across the still water. The sound of ice breaking off a glacier is akin to, perhaps, the sound of a tree falling alone in the woods (not that I've ever heard such a sound), making a deep, echoing 'crack' sound ringing around the base of the cove.

After watching this incredible sight for fifteen or twenty minutes, the ante is upped: everyone on the boat gasps in amazement as a massive chunk of ice sitting precariously on the face of the glacier breaks off and slides into the water with a massive splash. The huge chunk dunks into the water in slow motion, with the sort of grace you only find in truly untouched nature, gaining speed as it enters the water. The splash creates a wave that rolls towards us like a mini-tsunami and knocks the boat, albeit somewhat gently, from side to side. The fear of the rocking boat from earlier on has subsided and is replaced by a sort of communal celebration - we all feel we've seen something absolutely incredible. The park ranger confirms it. In a droll, scientific tone, she tells us; "Folks, I've been doing this job for four years and that's the biggest piece of a glacier I've ever seen break off." And then in an equally mono-toned voice: "So as you can imagine, I'm pretty excited too".

For those of you reading who don't know exactly what a glacier is, here is a basic description. A glacier is a moving wall of solid ice. The mouth of a glacier is usually visible at the edge of a valley, where the build up of ice spills out. Being ice, the movement is inhumanly slow so all that we see is a wall of ice, leading to a large field of solid ice behind. Because a glacier is a thick build up of nothing but ice, when sunlight hits, the light refracts and creates a beautiful blue glow within the glacier.

The captain moves the boat as close to the glacier as he can, perhaps 100 metres away, but warns he can get no closer as the difficult conditions our boat is being pulled into the glacier by the movement of the ocean waters. After getting very close and taking about a million photographs, we eventually must leave and head back to Seward, back through the storm addled waters that await us.

We charge ahead again and the captain warns us about another 30 - 40 minutes enduring rough seas. As we venture out into the Pacific Ocean and the seas get rougher and rougher, we realise the storm hasn't subsided, not even a little. In fact, it begins to seem much worse. Just before we hit really bad waters again, Leah ducks out to use the bathroom. I decide this is probably a good idea too, and follow suit. When I get out onto the back deck where the toilets are, I find Leah chatting to a guy who is looking rather green, clearly queasy from the ships movement. As I listen to their conversation I'm surprised to realise that the guy is one of the boats staff, struck ill by the grisly rocking of the boat. It's a forgivable case though; we discover it's his second day on the job and, over two-thirds of the people on the boat have been rendered incapacitated by seasickness. Begrudgingly he tells us this might also be his last day on the job, considering the stress and the sickness.

Again we rock through the storms - the worst yet. The boat is thrown up, time and again, on waves over three metres, appearing out of the Ocean like demons, only to be thrown, briefly airborne, onto the sea below with an ever increasing thud. The thoughts of the Titanic dog me still. I find myself thinking that at the end of our journey, I'll shake the captains hand, kiss the solid earth, and then make for a good bottle of red wine.

The woman across from us, from Sacramento is getting increasingly worried, and airs fears and concerns that echo in my own head. She accusingly asks her strangely calm boyfriend, "Oh, you've got experience, you've probably been in worse than this." The supposedly experienced sailor replies, "Actually, this is the worst storm I've been in, on a boat this size." A cry rings out, almost in response, from the rest of the boat, as we're lifted up, high, on yet another demonic wave. The mutual shout lingers in the air as does the boat, before we come crashing down again.

I am filled with a mixture of fear and excitement. This is one of the most intense experiences I've had, and at the end I will look back on it as a story to tell, and as an imprint on the somewhat featureless life of a young person. Yet there is something unnerving about being tossed about like a disposable toy in the careless hands of nature. By this point in time we've been riding the storm so long that it seems we're getting quite good at being able to foresee the roughest waves roll up alongside the boat and then know, in advance, we'll be tossed down onto the Ocean. As the Ocean beside the boat dips cavernously, we realise that we're now being pushed up on a wave, again. This foresight gives us no relief, though, it only grants us a second or two longer to hold on and watch as the boat pitches over another three-metre beauty, only to thud down on the slate-like waters below us. The hull's taking a heck of a beating.

After enduring this battering for nearly forty minutes this time, we hit calmer waters, briefly. One more stretch, the captain promises. About fifteen minutes. I notice nearly half the boat is capacitated. Only our table out of 30 has all four members not yet struck by some form of seasickness. I look across at the other side of the boat. One lady has been leaning over a sick bag for hours now, the thin edges of the bag wrapped around her mouth so her face is totally obscured. Another person has their jacket hood wrapped tightly around their head and is holding a crumpled bag near their mouth. Their hand is visibly shaking. I can't tell if they're man or a woman.

We move bravely forward. Another rough period passes and all I can do is stare fixedly at the horizon, unwilling to pull my gaze away for fear of being blind sided as the boat suddenly pitches sideways in some unnatural fashion. We survive this rough patch though, and as we sail, albeit somewhat rockily, in between the safer cliff walls of Resurrection Bay, we are finally able to breathe a sigh of relief. We've made it into calmer waters, and all there is left to worry about is the 2 or so hour ride back to the docks at Seward.

Dessert is served, for those few who can still stomach it. The boat draw up alongside a cliff wall and the park ranger begins to jabber on about some more mountain sheep that are visible on the cliff wall. No one really seems interested. I hear one guy behind me tell his friends; "...that's it. You'll never get me on another sailing ship, ever again. This is the last time!" Some colour and life returns to the boat and even the sickest people are now sitting up, chatting normally.

After taking a look at some seals on some rocks, we finally head back to Seward. The boat docks, and as we leave the crew and captain make a line at the exit to say goodbye. I shake the captains hand - I feel it's the least I can do really. We head back to our motel, exhausted, and make small talk, watch TV, check our email etc. At this point in time it seems ridiculous to make too much of our edge-of-your-seat 'cruise'. We're not the only boat ever to encounter a rough ride, and the captain and (most of) the crew were well trained to handle it. But I know its something I definitely wont forget. Being alone, out in those seas, the only thing holding me together being a couple of tiny, orange, chewable motion sickness tablets and the assurance that the captain knows what he's doing. And then there's the glacier, its size, power and ethereal glow. I guess, these are the adventures I sought when I decided to travel to the ends of the earth.

The following day, it's raining, all day. We end up staying in our motel the whole day, only heading out briefly to brave the 30-minute walk to the supermarket to get food during a drier period. As we head back, the Arctic winds pick up, along with the rain, and we get a true feel, once again, of the unpredictable power of Alaskan nature. When we finally make it back to our motel I drag my hands out of my jacket pockets expecting them to be blue from the intensity of the weather. They aren't blue but they're nearly numb from cold.

We spend the evening watching DVD's on Leah's computer. Fittingly we watch two movies set in Alaska: '30 Days of Night', which is set in the far north of Alaska in Barrow, during winter when the sun doesn't rise, and 'Insomnia', which is set in the far west of Alaska, during summer when the sun never sets. Don't bother with '30 Days of Night'. The other film is definitely worth a look.

The following day, our last in Seward, it's raining again, which is a problem. We have to check out of our motel at 11 am, but our train doesn't leave for Anchorage until 6 pm. This is a problem we often face as low-budget world travellers. The friendly lady running the motel kindly agrees to let us leave our backpacks in the motel office for the day, and we set out down the wet main street, looking for somewhere to take refuge.

We're fortunate to find the indoor 'Alaska Sea Life Centre' at the end of town, which is expensive at $20, but really a perfect way to kill a rainy day if you're a tourist. The centre is a pretty good interactive museum of sea life, with a lot of current information about the life and habits of Alaskan sea life. There's a pretty good section at the beginning that presents and even-handed look at how global warming is affecting Alaskan sea life, and how the balance of nature has been interrupted by certain changes but not others. The information presented showed that while some global warming scares are myths, or at least, unproven; many are having a very visible effect on the natural balance of life in Alaska.

One of the best joys of a Centre like this, though, is getting to see, first hand, the sea life! We were especially pleased to get our first very close up experience with puffins. And I always thought puffins were either extinct or mythical, like the dodo or a low interest mortgage. The puffins were cool little birds to watch flying and diving around, with their waxy orange beaks. We also saw some sea lions and the like, but the Centre was more informational than it was an animal habitat.

We eventually headed downtown to the train where we boarded at the first available opportunity. At 6 pm we began our journey back to Anchorage, being left with vivid memories of this secluded place out in the world; Seward. Visiting Seward has helped cement in my mind why travelling to such far and distant places is so beneficial. While we spent some of our time holding desperately to the back of a bench on the open seas, and even more time stuck hiding in a motel room, we touched a part of the world I hadn't imagined was out there. Seward, I will never forget.

Leah Says: After Seward we headed back to Anchorage for another 3 nights. Unfortunately we couldn't make the most of our time back as I got a nasty cold and spent 1 and days in bed feeling mighty sorry for myself while Ben looked after me extra well. We did get to utilise some of our time and managed to buy a few gifts for ourselves including fossilised mammoth ivory pendants and the obligatory magnet for Ben and shot glass for me.

We grabbed a reindeer hotdog for lunch... I'm pretty sure mine was Blitzen! Ha ha. They really were mighty tasty hotdogs! Later on in the afternoon we visited the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, which was absolutely fantastic. It gave us a full rundown on how Alaska became what it is today. There were plenty of displays explaining Native life from clothes and housing to food and lifestyle. There was also a great section on the founding of the Iditarod race and mushing history in Alaska. Finally we got to see some wonderful art by local people and art of local landscapes and topics. It took us about 4 hours to get to see everything and even then we had to rush a little through the end as we wanted to make the movie they were showing about reindeer farming.

We headed back to our hostel for one last night before we sadly left Alaska behind with a vow to come back and see more of this amazing part of the world. Our next jaunt was going to be a complete change with a stop off in Dallas, Texas.
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