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Beyond the Pale - A 'pale' is a fencepost. The English Pale was a boundary in Ireland marking out the part of Ireland under direct English rule circa 1450 (which included Dublin and environs). Those that lived 'beyond the pale', outside of English rule, were considered out of control and uncivilised. You decide...

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Alaska - Anchorage and Seward

Choooo Choooo
ANCHORED DOWN IN ANCHORAGE

When you mention the word ‘Alaska’ to people a wistful look crosses their face, they lean in a little closer, hoping in earnest that an invitation is about to fall from your mouth, and they quietly whisper “Go on…”



What he said
It was Captain Cook who had a similar ‘Go on’ conversation with King George III. He was a busy chap and in many ways the original human sat nav, he detailed one third of the world navigating his way in a boat, in only 7 years (take that Google maps and your driverless camera cars!). He came out of retirement at the behest of the King to search the Northwest Passage, he meticulously surveyed the Alaskan coast ending with the Arctic ocean. Interestingly the area around Alaska (known today as the Bering Straits and Russia) he called it “UnAlaska”. I kinda like his logic and propose the area around Ireland (known today as the United Kingdom) be called “UnIreland”... just a thought ;)

Reasons to visit Alaska… it is the biggest state, it is the most northern state, it is the most western state and (because the Aleutian islands stretch over the intl date line) it is also technically the most eastern state. If your reasons to visit a place aren’t based on the co-ordinates of a weather vane, Alaska is also visually stunning.


360 degrees of WOW
It was tempting to emulate Cook’s journey but we had misplaced our ship, so we boarded a plane to Anchorage instead. A lovely chatty lady from Indiana sat beside us, she was planning to visit her army son on his military base. She continually told us she was shocked we would choose Alaska for a vacation, “You’re mad, have you heard of 
Hawaii??”.

She was a generous soul and kindly gave Roisin an impromptu present of a squishy flashy stringy ball. Roisin was delighted! When a cheeky older boy sitting in front of us reached back to steal Roisin’s new toy, our little pint sized minx let out a quick “Hey!”. The Indiana lady found this hilarious and roared to the plane “You don’t mess with an Irish kid, am I right? am I right? Haha”

The Last Frontier
10.30pm at night we collapsed with tiredness out of the plane into blazing light, it was as bright as 10.30 in the morning! The hotel had blackout curtains which helped our brains ignore the sun and slip into slumber. However at 3am Dom decided to visit the bathroom, his elbow clipped the curtain on his way and a shard of startling laser beam sun streamed into the room and burnt my eyeballs wide open. It was jarring but there was something very cool about witnessing this crazy division of night and day. The sun does set, just not for very long during certain times of the year.
10.30pm ?!
Anchorage is a small city with beautiful snow capped mountains fringing the city scape. Everyone we encountered was incredibly friendly. People in shops kept giving us tips on things to do. The first thing top of everyone’s list was the Anchorage Museum. It didn’t disappoint (but I am a museum nerd). First off the bat there was a floor dedicated to baseball, the early white settlers introduced the game to the wilderness as a way to rally spirits and boost morale. My favourite team name was the North Pole Knicks.

I don't follow baseball, but if I did...
There was a parka "jacket" in the museum made from gut, yarn, hair, scraped skin and pigment (everything you want in a coat, and a little be more). I learned that the Arctic ocean is the smallest ocean in the world but it serves as a global thermometer. Guess what, the world isn't well, temperatures are rising!

Many moons ago I backpacked around Canada (read about that - here) and ‘Eskimo’ was very much a politically incorrect term, the preferred word was ‘Inuit’. In Alaska the word Eskimo appears abundantly. I chatted to a woman in a shop who made native clothes and she described herself as an Eskimo. North America is a minefield of what you can and cannot say.

Anchorage is wildly diverse which was great to see, esp for such a small population (700k) in a remote part of the world. A hundred years ago people came to Alaska in search of gold, then oil. People still come here in search of the last frontier. I think the US army base and the diversity that naturally brings also helps, I prefer the last frontier explanation better. Plus the different tribes of native people from Eskimo (yikes, don’t hate me cos I said it!) to Aluet bring a natural diversity to the table . It might also help that every year the Alaskan government gives every resident a cheque from the oil profits the state generates. Karl Marx would be thrilled.

Looking for a snack, we strolled to Kombuk Coffee, a lovely quaint olde worlde coffee and tea house cum gift shop. It was the oldest business in Anchorage and sold all sorts of dinky things, a nice spot for a no frills sandwich and an Alaskan tea towel for the mother in law.

A step too fur
Post lunch we were well placed to amble down 3rd, 4th, and 5th Avenues, the main streets downtown. I was surprised to see how many fur shops there were. I knew it was a big industry that started when the Russians owned Alaska but talk of politically incorrect in this day and age. I felt distinctly uncomfortable just peering in the windows.



America bought Alaska from the Russians in 1876, not that far into the past. Some of the remote coastal towns still have Russian Orthodox churches attended by the native Aleut people. From an anthropological point of view that deeply fascinates me…. (maybe I need to get out more). 

Alaska is ALLLL about the outdoors, we headed to Flattop Mountain for a hike. The plan was to drive to some sweet hiking trail, do a Bear Grylls number on it and then back to the car for Pimms O’Clock. Like everyone, I rely on my phone's GPS to get out of my apartment. However, our phones collectively gave up the ghost, we were driving up a mountainside, old school, just the taste of the air and colour of the trees as our guide.

Who is carrying who?
As we drove higher and higher, wrapping around the mountain the dirt roads getting narrower and narrower. I had a panic attack that we were going to end up precariously perched on the tippy top of the peak. Our SUV twerking in the wind. Thanks to the mountain gods we spotted a hiker, we did an emergency park and tore after him. He was nice and friendly, when we asked him how far should we hike, he smiled and said “Walk as far as the tundra”... words I will never hear again in my life, and easily the coolest directions I’ve ever been given. It was a gentle climb and the sun shone warmly, Alaska you’re a beauty.

For dinner we dived into our store of local tips again and rocked up at a spot called the Moose Tooth Pizzeria. As we waited in line who arrives only the lady from the plane. She greeted us as old friends, we met her son, had a great chat and as her table was called she parted with her trademark loud bellow “Next time, Hawaii? am I right? am I right? Haha”.

Very friggin cool

Being the largest state in the union, you have to jump on a train to get some exploration under your belt. The Alaska Railroad company is famous and knows how to do it in comfort. Upon boarding we were presented with a gold pin with the Alaska Railroad logo engraved on it. Like a 10 year old boy admiring his stamp collection, I couldn’t help feeling very chuffed with myself and my precious pin.

Now that's what I call a train with a view

Thanks to the train’s glass ceiling, our uninterrupted view of the scenery was exquisite, it fulfilled every expectation; snowcapped mountains, tundra, sea, bears, moose, glaciers, and this was all within the first hour. It was relentless, I had to snap myself out of taking it for granted. I’ve had some interesting train journeys in my time (escorted off a train by Serbian police for passport “issues” and ricketing across Egypt on a honeymoon helter skelter) but this might top the lot.
Mesmerizing

The train skimmed past classic American houses. In their backyards where you’d expect to see cars were cessna bush airplanes. Although Alaska is the biggest state it has the same road system as Rhode Island which is the smallest state. 90% of Alaska is covered in frozen tundra, Alaskans fly where roads can’t go.

Glacier
Hours later we got off at the port town of Seward. We boarded a boat and span around the fjords of Resurrection Bay. They give you a brochure when you board that details the wildlife to look out for with a tally of how many skins are needed from each animal to make a coat (?!) Good Lord!

I bet even Captain Cook took naps

The fjords were magical, we saw bald eagles, humpback whales, a mountain goat and her kid, a family of orca whales, puffins, sea lions. That totted up to a whole lot of coats! We stopped on Fox Island for a salmon lunch. That fish was so damn fresh it winked at me!

A landscape that paints itself

On the train ride back to Anchorage, the train driver urged us to peer out the window at the strangest thing, a bore tide. This is created when the incoming tide fights the outgoing tide causing a natural rise, sometimes as high as 6 feet. It was unsettling to observe, nature versus nature, tete a tete!

Snow City merch
The next day back in Anchorage a place called Snow City caught my eye. We ventured in for brunch. Next time you’re up Anchorage way I would highly recommend the place, it was a little bit hipster, great music played and every type of person under the sun was represented. The food was excellent and came in huge portions (a common theme in Alaska).

It was time to get biked up and rip it up along the Tony Knowles Coastal trail. It was a wonderful 20 mile bike ride, we flew through enchanted woodlands where moose lightly tread. I was sorry I didn’t have a moose encounter, well, my inner photographer was sorry, my outer wimp was secretly quite happy just to skid up to the signs scattered about the trail and read what to do if a real life moose does actually appear.

Online dating for Moose
The man we hired the bikes from was an implant from Hawaii. The man who checked our tickets on the train was an implant from Hawaii. What’s with the Hawaii link? They are v different places, has it something to do with staying out of the lower 48 (the contiguous united States)?

With tired limbs we traipsed into Gwennies for dinner. A stuffed bear stands in the centre of the no frills restaurant (stuffed animals appeared in most establishments in Anchorage). Locals filled the tables eating hearty meals. Alaskans are never going to rival the French when it comes to sophistication, they are a hardy people and I say that fondly, I saw and heard a lot of Irish surnames so I can see where some of this comes from.

With a lack of sophistication comes a whole lot of fun. I would love to come back to Anchorage and partake, or witness, or maybe just watch on TV the famous iditarod race. People race dog sleds through blizzards for 8 days.

Our hotel can get stuffed!

On our last day we headed to the final place people said we must visit, the Alaska Native Heritage museum. Luckily our arrival coincided with a demonstration of traditional singing and dancing. The drums were really similar to the Irish bodhran, and the way each song was introduced with tales and a twist of humour really reminded me of a sesuin back home. The singing and dancing was strikingly similar to a slow version of what you see on Hawaii. The dancers kept their feet relatively still, as traditionally the dancing would have happened in small igloos. It’s all about the hands.

"If you liked it you should have put a ring on it"

I noticed that everything was demonstrated by enthusiastic teenagers. The Museum has programmes for teens. The top 3 native languages are going to be taught in schools to keep them alive. High five to the next generation. Maybe you can also rethink the thriving fur business.

The teenagers told us that the Aleut people would use sea lion fur to cover their boats and the sea lion intestine to make coats. And I thought Irish mammy's didn't like waste!

I came to Alaska with a list of 10 to do's and left with a list of 20. It is a truly truly stunning part of the world. For your next vacation step out of your comfort zone and into the Arctic circle.

Next stop, my own private Idaho!


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2 comments:

  1. Awesome trip!! Alaska is on our list but were thinking of waiting til D gets a little older. No time like the present though!!

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  2. Great post, only just saw it. Never realised how scenic Alaska is, totally want to visit now. That train looks awesome!

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