Friday, June 20, 2014

Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan is either the first or last stop when going up and down the Inside Passage of Alaska. I don't want to say there's not much of a shoreline, but the first street that runs along the water is built on the dock. The streets get steep pretty quickly.

Ketchikan is something of a starting point for outdoor adventures for the region, such as hiking, kayaking and canopy adventures (ziplines, etc.). Downtown has a variety of shops, including the ever-present jewelry stores and souvenir emporiums. Dolly's House is an ex-brothel that is now a museum.

There are lots of totem poles around as well - Ketchikan is one of the world's leaders in that department. The Totem Heritage Center and Saxman Totem Park (a couple of miles out of town) have plenty. And as the sign suggests, there's plenty of salmon to eat.

Due to some mechanical problems on our cruise, we didn't get as much time as we'd like to explore Ketchikan. Maybe next trip.

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Misty Fjords National Monument, Alaska

There certainly are places that are as beautiful as Misty Fjords National Monument. I don't think there are any places that are prettier.

This was designated as wilderness in 1980 and takes up more than 2 million acres. It receives more than 160 inches of rain a year, and thus is as green as you can imagine. Much of it looks as if no human being has ever set foot on it, which considering the topography is probably true.

Visiting it isn't easy, but it's worth it. We took a floatplane from Ketchikan, taking off from the Tongass Narrows a short distance from our cruise dock. The plane needs only several minutes to get to the National Monument. After taking a look around, the place actually lands in the middle of a mountain lake which is surrounded by glacier-chiseled cliffs. Riders then can actually get out of the plane and stand on the floatation devices that stand in for landing wheels. (The above picture was taken from there; I can't imagine what a sunny day looks like there.) The only sounds come from the waterfalls in the immediate area. After a too-short stay, it's back up in the area for another look around before heading for the departure point.

A tip: Tourists from the cruises are swarmed by representatives of floatplane companies as soon as they get off the boat. The aggressiveness is bit startling and leaves a slightly bad taste. We had set up a reservation for a flight in advance with ProMech Air, and were treated quite well. Other companies probably do as good a job as that one, but they didn't shout at me in order to get my business.

Sure enough, someone else did a video of a similar trip.

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Juneau, Alaska - Mount Roberts Tramway

One of the striking parts about Juneau is how little flat land there is along the waterfront. In some portions of town, it is level for only a few blocks before the terrain goes almost straight up.

How, then, can you see the whole landscape? One way is to take the Mount Roberts Tramway, which takes passengers straight up to a landing spot on top of the hill.

The structure is more than 3,000 feet long and 1,700 feet high. One interesting part that you might not notice is that there are no towers along the way, as the trip is so steep that the supporting structures were bypassed. There are two cars that hold 60 people each; as one goes up, the other goes down.

The structure opened in 1996 and is built right on the docks. It's easy to find - just look for the wires. Here's someone else's video on it:

This is not a cheap ride, checking in at $32 per person as of 2014. At the top is a big gift shop, a small nature center, and a restaurant. Make sure you allow enough time to go for walks on the scenic trails. You'll have a better chance of getting the best views of the area by getting away from the complex around the top of the tramway. Trees and buildings can get in the way of the views there, spoiling the experience somewhat. (In fairness, it's a little tough to trim the trees up there because of the steepness.) Therefore, if the trails are closed for one reason or another or if it's a very cloudy day, you might not rate this a consumer "best buy."

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Juneau, Alaska: State Capitol

Those who have been to a variety of states capitals know that the state capitol building usually is large and has some sort of dome. Not so in Alaska.

In 1931, the United States government constructed the Territorial and Federal Building to handle business before Alaska became a state. When Alaska achieved statehood status in 1959, the building was turned into a capitol.

Still, it's been adapted for the usual uses. Here's a shot of Alaska's House. Being a legislator here is a part-time job, usually in the early months of the year. There are 40 representatives and 20 senators; the state only had a population around 750,000.

Tours of the building are available, for free no less. We were unlucky enough to get a guide who had just started on the job. I think we knew more about Alaska's state government than he did, based on his struggle to answer questions. But he'll get the hang of it eventually.

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Juneau, Alaska: Patsy Ann Dog Statue

How many dog statues have their own web site? At least one. Patsy Ann, though, wasn't just another dog.

Whenever a ship came into Juneau's dock area in the Thirties, Patsy Ann - a bull terrier - would run to greet it. This is rather remarkable since Patsy was born deaf. Still, she returned to the wharf again and again - perhaps because visitors would always give her treats.

After a while, the dog was one of the area's best ambassadors. Juneau's mayor opted to name her "the official greeter of Juneau, Alaska."

Patsy Ann died in 1942, and the body was placed in Gastineau Channel. A statue was finished 50 years later, and Patsy Ann is still greeting tourists there to this day.

Check out a longer version of the story here. You can even buy a t-shirt or mug through the site.

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Juneau, Alaska: Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure

Steve and Cindy Bowhay owned about 50 acres of land in Juneau that were adjacent to a national forest and located on a steep hill. The land had been clobbered during a heavy storm, causing a creek to overflow. So ... they got to work.

The result is the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, a surprising outburst of color.

Upon arriving, visitors are taken on a tram and slowly wind their way up the mountain. They eventually reach the top, taking in the plants and flowers along the way, and visit a wonderful scenic overlook of the Juneau region.

But it's the upside-down trees that will catch your attention. Supposedly Steve got frustrated in the clean-up process with a particularly pesky tree, and stuck it in the group the "wrong" way. When plants were placed on the top/bottom, the Gardens suddenly had a unique item.

Here's a look at a few of them together. And I have no idea who the man in the red jacket is; he was on the tour with us. But thanks for lending your image, sir.

For a more full picture in the form of an ad, here's the video from the Glacier Gardens site

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Juneau, Alaska: Mendenhall Glacier

You'd think you might get tired of seeing glaciers after a while, but it never happens. They are too impressive.

Mendenhall Glacier certainly qualifies. The blue ice is part of the attraction, as the surface absorbs all colors except blue.

If you want an example of the concept of climate change, this isn't a bad one. This glacier has been retreating quickly for quite a while, and the rate has picked up. This picture was taken from the Visitors Center. The glacier was about even with this location during the 1940s. It now checks in at 12 miles long, a half-mile wide and 70 feet tall, but we'll have to see how true that statement is in the coming years. Right now it is called the fifth-biggest icefield in North America.

By the way, when you click on the picture to increase its size, take a good look at the waterfall on the right. It's very large, and as you can see visitors can walk up very close to it on a trail from the Visitors Center. That also provides an even closer look at the glacier.

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Juneau, Alaska: Macaulay Salmon Hatchery

Salmon not only the dinner entree of choice in this part of Alaska, but it's big business. So why not give Mother Nature a little help?

Thus, the Macaulay Salman Hatchery in Gastineau Channel was created. The operation (factory or plant just doesn't seem appropriate here) is designed to grow salmon. There's a six-part process involved. Eggs are collected and fertilized, alevins evenually hatch and turn into salmon fry, and they go through an imprinting process in the pens pictured. The idea is to get them to learn where they are.

Then it is off to the Pacific Ocean. They'll spend two to five years out there, before returning to the Hatchery to spawn. This is a pretty neat trick when you think about it all the way around, and it works from 2 to 10 percent of the time. I'm sure the salmon wind up in some stomachs too, human or others.

Visitors can see the tanks where the little fellers start the process. There's also a large aquarium and a gift shop with plenty of salmon-related items. I'm not sure if I would have gone here on my own (it was part of the tour), but it wasn't a bad stop.

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Skagway, Alaska: Red Onion Saloon

You can tell a lot about a society by what it preserves for future generations to examine. (Pretty profound for a travel blog, I'd say.) Therefore, it's interesting that a lot of old brothels in Alaska are museums.

Take the Red Onion Saloon in Skagway. The business is on the corner of Broadway and Second St. The lower level is a working bar and restaurant, while upstairs is the museum. Be prepared to pay for the chance to head upstairs, just like in the old days.

We were a little too cheap to take the tour, but stuck our heads in the front door to look around. The place still draws a crowd, at least.

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Skagway, Alaska: White Pass & Yukon Route Railway

What the heck is this?

A sideview probably would have offered more clues, but this seemed more dramatic.

It's actually an old snowplow engine for the White Pass & Yukon Railway, that starts in Skagway. The narrow gauge railroad goes high into the hill and actually makes it into Canada. It gets snowy up there, naturally, so one of these machines was helpful in busting through in order to reach the end of the line.

This line was built around 1900, and served as an important method of moving supplies during the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II.

This is a nice ride but expensive. The catch comes with the weather, as clouds can hurt the experience. Keep that in mind when deciding whether to go.

Here's a taste of what's on the route:

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Skagway, Alaska: Centennial Statue

Tourists who get off the cruise boat or ferry in Skagway are greeting from a statue of two people who obviously come from another time. At least that's the idea of this piece of art.

It's designed to celebrate the centennial of the town, which was celebrated in 1997. Skagway became popular in 1897, when the Klondike Gold Rush began up in the mountains near the city. Many adventurous types came to try their luck, and Skagway became a launching point.

Here the Native packer leads a 30-something from the Seattle area into the hills in search of fortune.

Buildings went up almost overnight at this time, and you can still get a taste of what it was like. The area is a National Historical Park, and the wooden raised sidewalks on a major street in town go on for a few blocks.

When you do walk down Broadway, and you will, be prepared for all of the jewelry shops along the way. Apparently where cruise ships go, jewelry stores go.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Haines, Alaska: Hammer Museum

Dave Pahl had a problem, or at least wife Carol thought so. Dave liked hammers. A lot. He had bunches and bunches of them. What to do with them all?

The answer was a bit surprising. Dave didn't cut down on his collection, or move out of the house. He opened a museum. What's more, Carol eventually thought this was a splendid idea.

That's the genesis for the Hammer Museum in Haines. It was the first such place in the world. Apparently there is another one in Lithuania, but it must rank as a cheap copy of the original in Alaska.

Dave has so many hammers that he can't display them all in the building. At last count according to the town information guide, only 1,500 of 8,700 are being showed at a given moment. Still that's a lot of hammers. They are grouped according to type. Some are even downright silly.

By the way, the staff (there are a couple of summer interns in addition to the Pahl family) will be happy to listen to your jokes about going to a museum and getting hammered. But you have to put a buck in the pot for charity before they'll laugh.

It's tough to know what picture to use with this description. Is it a shot of a wall filled with hammers? A carving of "The Little Man with a Hammer," a 1930s business mascot? A picture of silly hammers, including one two handles?

In the end, I went with the shot of the outside of the building. The claw hammer is 20 feet tall, and it is slightly down the hill from the main intersection in Haines.

This all could be really, really odd except for the fact that everyone involved is having fun with the concept. It's worth a stop if you are in the neighborhood.

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Haines, Alaska: Fort Seward

Haines actually had a good-sized military installation for a number of years. The catch is that those years were before Alaska became a state.

The Army decided in 1903 that the location was a good spot for a base, and went to work. The first soldiers arrived in 1904, and Fort William H. Seward - something else named for the guy who headed up the purchase of the territory from Russia - was in business. The name was changed to Chilkoot Barracks in 1922.

The fort was a center of activity for several years. But after World War II, the army decided to move their business to more strategic locations. Still, the base still plays a role in the day-to-day life of Haines.

Pictured above are some nice quarters for the officers, etc. The buildings are private homes now, and offer a great view of the waterfront. Across the street is an open space, that was used at the time for drilling and formations. It's nine acres in size.

Some of the other buildings in Haines once had military uses as well. For example, the ferry office by the port was a telegraph office.

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Haines, Alaska

You have to admit that Haines makes a mighty nice first impression. This is the view tourists have when they get off a cruise ship after the initial landing.

Haines is a nice little town right on the Lynn Canal, which is not man-made as the name might imply. It's the closest town to Glacier Bay National Park, and near several opportunities for adventures outdoors. By the way, you can reach this by car from the mainland, something that can't be said for several areas of this region.

Plenty of cruise ships come through this region in the summer, but most of them go up to Skagway. Haines apparently can't handle too many ships at one time. That's not necessarily bad. Haines might lose its small-town feel with more tourists.

When we stopped there, we were handed copies of the Visitors Guide when we got off the boat. There were signs around the town welcoming us as well. It was all kind of nice, actually.

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Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska: Margerie Glacier

If you've ever seen pictures or videos of Glacier Bay National Park, this probably is the image that comes back to mind. It's a glacier extending from the mountains right up to the sea. Sometimes kayakers are pictures going up nice and close to the ice.

I had no idea until I got there that only this one portion of the park looks like this. The other glaciers aren't quite as spectacular as the Margerie Glacier. But this one is worth an extra look or two, or seven.

Summer is the best time to see the ice, and not just because the weather is more permitting. You can see the cracks in the ice in the picture. Every so often, a chunk falls off the glacier and into the sea, thanks to the warmer weather. The process is called calving, and it sounds a lot like thunder.

Here's what it looks like through a camera that was in the right place at the right time:

The glacier is 21 miles long. It is 350 feet tall, with the bottom 100 feet under water. The size has remained relatively stable recently.

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Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska: Grand Pacific Glacier

The Grand Pacific Glacier gets listed in Alaska, but most of it is in the Yukon of Canada. Apparently ice pays little attention to national boundaries.

This glacier is 35 miles long and two miles wide in spots. Oh, and it's 900 feet thick at certain parts.

The glacier has fallen victim to climate change. It has fallen back quite a bit in the past century, since it filled the entire Tarr Inlet at one point. Recently the process has gotten faster. The Grand Pacific used to join with the Margerie Glacier.

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Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska: Carroll Glacier

Glacier Bay National Park is an unusual part of the Parks system. It's a popular tourist destination, even though no one can drive in to see it.

Glacier Bay is located around the top of the panhandle of Alaska, and thus is a target for the cruise ships that go up and down the coast in the warmer months.

Those cruise ships stop to pick up a couple of Park Rangers when they enter the area. They spend the next several hours explain to tourists just what they are seeing. And what they see is spectacular - plenty of snow-covered mountains, deep blue water and the odd bit of wildlife.

As those ships sail up the bay, the first glacier available for viewing is the Carroll Glacier. It's off the starboard side, as they say in the Navy, at the end of the Queen Inlet. The glacier actually had a growth spurt in 1987 when it surged about 90 feet a day for a while. The surge ended the next year, but the glacier has remained relatively stable since then according to the National Park Service.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Seward, Alaska

Several people asked if we made it to Seward on this trip. The answer - sort of.

The idea was to get off the train from Anchorage and look around a bit. However, we were ushered directly into a processing building, where we received the proper paperwork to immediately get on the boat. Which we did.

Too bad. As the picture from the boat shows, Seward is breathtaking. It is located on Resurrection Bay, surrounded by big mountains.

It's the natural jumping-off point to see Kenai Fjords National Park. Plus, it is within easy reach of lakes and mountains. The Alaska SeaLife Center in town has gotten good reviews as well.

I know. Maybe next time.

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Alaska: Anchorage/Seward Railroad

You can take a bus from Anchorage to Seward, and there are some nice views on the road. But ... the train is better. It goes into some wonderful areas of that part of the world that aren't otherwise accessible.

For example, take a look at this picture of a glacier that emerges out the window. Spectacular stuff. I believe it is Spencer Glacier near Whittier. Readers, correct me if I'm wrong.

One picture isn't the best way to judge an eight-hour train ride, of course. So here's a video to show what it's like:

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Anchorage, Alaska: Atlas Statue

When you think of Atlas, mythical strongman, you think of ... furs. At least in Anchorage.

Roadside America reports that the building has been around since 1962. It looks like it too, as some repairs are definitely in order. The website says the building is up for sale, so it's tough to say how many more viewings of the structure at 105 West 4th Ave. there will be in the future.

I asked the statue about this, and the reaction was a simple one: Atlas shrugged.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Dr. King Memorial

It apparently took a while for the citizens of Anchorage to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The first plan was to rename a street in his memory, but that was voted down in an election. Plan B was a memorial area in the park. That one made it, on the Park Strip on I St. between 9th and 10th.

The display is more elaborate than what is shown here, as there are elements behind what is pictured. For a complete look, take a visual tour at this site.

Roadside America describes this as the northernmost monument to Dr. King in the United States. That sounds about right.

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Anchorage, Alaska - Territorial Guard Statue

Alaska wasn't a state in World War II, but its citizens still played a role in the battle. You might not know that Japan actually took over a couple of the Aleutian Islands in 1942, and held them for a year.

Some Alaskans were involved in that battle, while others kept watch over the shores for enemy activity. More than 6,000 volunteers were involved.

The Alaska Territorial Guard, which was around from 1942 to 1947, is still remembered. The statue shown above is in downtown Anchorage, but there are copies in several cities around the state.

In addition, Bethel just opened a park to pay tribute to these brave men, who recently were officially recognized as veterans by the United States government. Read the story of the park here.

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Anchorage, Alaska: The Alaska Railroad

As you might expect, the railroad has been a big part of Alaska's development over the years.

It was built by the federal government in 1923, and eventually reached from Seward to Fairbanks. It was vital in bringing supplies to regions of the state that could get them in no other way.

It still serves that function today, even though the federal government exited the business more than a quarter-century ago. The Railroad still carries freight, but it also serves as a way for tourists to see the state. There are a variety of tours available.

In addition, the Railroad works with the cruise companies who have extended their reach to the land. Holland America cars, for example, are pulled by Alaska Railroad engines.

The office is located near the Anchorage depot just a few blocks from downtown. There's a nice tribute to engines and days gone by across the street.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Eisenhower Alaska Statehood Monument

Alaska hasn't been a state for very long, at least as compared to 48 of the others. It and Hawaii slipped in during the course of 1959.

A nice thank-you gift must have seemed appropriate. Thus, this little plaza near the train station on the edge of downtown was created in 1990.

The plaza went up on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dwight Eisenhower, who was President when Alaska became a state. It also marks the 75th anniversary of the year that Anchorage became something of a tent city.

Jacques and Mary Regat did a nice job on the center of the display, with Eisenhower wrapped up in an American flag.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Log Cabin Visitor Information Center

Those who seek information about Anchorage are in for a bit of a treat on their way there.

They are greeted by a "Spirit Bridge." Roger Barr designed it to soar toward the sky and eventually become part of downtown Anchorage. It is dedicated to the late Robert Hartig, a lawyer and community leader of the city.

Underneath and beyond the arch is the Log Cabin Visitor Information Center. You should notice the grass that is growing on the roof; there are some other items on there too (onions, flowers).

The cabin was made out of logs from Homer, Alaska. It went up in 1954, and has been welcoming tourists ever since. The staff is quite friendly and helpful.

Outside, a jade boulder is near the front door. This was shipped from a location above the Arctic Circle; jade is the state gem of Alaska. It checks in at 5,000 pounds, so don't think about carrying it away.

There's also a crossroads sign, pointing out the distances to various cities around the world. Anchorage used to be a major refueling stop for airplanes that couldn't make long journeys between continents. Anchorage's sister cities are listed as well.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Holy Family Cathedral

Tourists usually don't create much of a stir when they come to a town. Pope John Paul II was an exception.

His visit to Anchorage obviously was big news at the time. It attracted an estimated 65,000 people from all over the region when it happened in 1981.

During his visit to the Holy Family Cathedral in downtown Anchorage, the Pope talked privately with several disabled individuals.

The church put up a plaque on its front wall to mark the occasion. As of this writing, Pope John Paul II is on his way to sainthood status. That will make his visit even more special down the road.

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Anchorage, Alaska: The Last Blue Whale Statue

This work of art has to be one of the biggest in downtown Anchorage. The approach is a little, um, odd.

This is called "The Last Blue Whale," and it is designed to show people what happens when a whale is attacked. The fishing boat has been attacked - you can sort of see people jumping out of the it.

As for the whale, he/she has something of a smirk on its face. This creature isn't quite ready to be turned into whale oil quite yet.

Tributes to mankind getting knocked around by the animal kingdom are few and far between. This one checks in at about three stories, so even though it is surrounded by trees and bushes, it stands out. Visit it at 301 K Street when you are in Anchorage.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Captain Cook Tribute

You learn something every day when using the Internet. The value is up to you to determine.

Here we have a tribute to Captain Cook, the famous explorer who toured the Pacific three times back in the 1700s. I think he did more traveling than a Secretary of State and is remembered more fondly in most cases. It's a nice little exhibit in downtown Anchorage.

The art work is part of the Captain Cook Parking Garage. I'm willing to say this is an odd way to salute one of the founding fathers of Anchorage. The hotel in the Alaska city makes sense, but the parking ramp is an odd one in the respect category.

When exploring the subject on line, I came across a first reference that was a bit of a shock. There's an entry in Parkopedia about it.

Parkopedia? Who knew?

We were the only tourists visiting this site on a Saturday night, which shows that the tourists who come to Anchorage (and we were in a big group) obviously need to do some research and widen their perspective on what to see.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Anchorage, Alaska - Seward Statue

William Seward is still a big man in Alaska, and not just because he worked with Abraham Lincoln and turns up often in the superb book by Doris Kearns Goodwin on the Civil War era.

After all Seward is the guy who convinced President Andrew Johnson that Alaska was a steal for $7.2 million in 1867, so America acquired a huge amount of land from Russia at two cents an acre. As one-sided deals go, this is right up there with (editor's note - pick your favorite one-sided sports trade to fill in the blank here).

You'd expect plenty of things to be named after him, and they are. Anchorage pays tribute to Seward with this statue that's in front of Old City Hall.

According to one story, scupter Gerald Conaway didn't have enough good marble to do a full statue of Seward. This was the second choice, complete with design elements depicting a bear and sunshine.

I know. What's the point of art if you can figure it out at a glance?

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Anchorage, Alaska: Sled Dog Statue

The world's most famous dog sled race is the Iditerod, which goes from Anchorage to Nome. Every year in March, Anchorage goes bonkers over the start of the race, throwing a big party.

There's a ceremonial starting point to the race, and you are looking at it. This statue was created to pay tribute to all of the mushers and dogs that have worked in Alaska over the years. Look for it at D St. and 4th Ave. in downtown Anchorage.

It is not a tribute to Balto the Wonder Dog. Balto was part of a dog sled team headed by Leonhard Seppala that carried medical serum to Nome in 1925. The Balto Seppala Park is in a different part of Anchorage.

By the way, Balto became so famous that another statue was put up to honor the dog ... in Central Park in New York. You can read all about his dramatic story here.

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Anchorage, Alaska: Bear Square

We stumbled on the most likely place to tour Anchorage merely by accident. Bear Square is something of a downtown gathering point.

The small plaza has a variety of attractions attached to it. You can rent a Segway, take the trolley around town, and pan for gold.

Heck, the place has its own website, the easiest way to determine these days if something is important. If you want further proof, it also is on Facebook.

But let's face it. People come here to say hello and see the bear. You just have to pat the big fella's belly when you are in the neighborhood. When you are done, then you can think about getting some ice cream.

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Wasilla, Alaska: Wasilla Lake

Funny how a small town can become nationally known in a short period of time.

Welcome to Wasilla, Alaska, which has been growing fast in recent years. Its population is under 8,000, but the number has jumped in relatively recent years. Many residents commute to work in Anchorage because of lower housing costs despite the 40-mile distance between the the cities. By the way, the average snowfall here is a little more than 50 inches a year.

Wasilla got its name from Chief Wasilla, a Dena'ina Indian. It was established in 1917. There was a statewide vote in 1994 to move the capital of Alaska from Juneau to Wasilla, but it was defeated.

It's tough to get a good picture of Wasilla from a moving train. Rather than display a shot of the back of strip malls here, a shot of Lake Wasilla seemed like a better idea. It's been popular with outdoor enthusiasts for years.

Now, about the nationally known part of the story. Wasilla became famous in 2008 when Governor Sarah Palin was plucked from obscurity to become John McCain's running mate on the Republican Presidential ticket. Palin had served in local government in Wasilla before winning the Governor's job. After losing the election and resigning the Governor's position, Palin moved to Arizona. We'll have to wait and see if she adds to a very odd American story in the years ahead.

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Alaska: McKinley Explorer

All aboard!

Train travel is a great way to see the countryside, particularly for those who do most of the driving on trips. Such is the case in Alaska.

Holland America is part of a company that owns the McKinley Explorer. The train runs from Fairbanks to Anchorage and back. The passenger cars are classics. They feature passenger seating upstairs, with domed ceilings so that people can see the scenery in all directions. The downstairs level has seating for meals, as well as rest rooms.

Now, there is one drawback to this type of travel for our purposes - there aren't road signs to tell you what you are viewing as you go along during a railroad trip. And it's not like you can stop the car, get out and take a picture. So, one does the best one can by shooting through the window (stay close to the glass to cut down on reflection). I did buy the guide to the trip on board, but didn't furiously take notes every time I hit the shutter release. Therefore I have a group of nice photos with little idea where they are.

The picture here came out well at least, he wrote modestly. I'm not sure where or what it is, but I believe it is the Nenana River north of the Continental Divide. For what it's worth, the first two hours of the trip from Denali are the most interesting from a scenic standpoint. I'm not saying that the rest of the way is the equivalent of looking at the backs of hardware stores, but it just doesn't meet the early standards of the trip.

Here's someone else's video of what we saw, more or less. However, it's in reverse, as it goes from Anchorage to Denali:

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Denali National Park, Alaska: Mount McKinley

There are a variety of ways to see Mount McKinley when visiting Denali National Park. You can walk there, of course. But the hike is a long one, since it is a few dozen miles from the park's only road.You can try to spot it from a distance. But that depends on the weather, and the darn mountain is blocked by clouds more than half the time.

Or, you can cheat. In a manner of speaking.

Airplanes are available for "flight-seeing" tours of the park and of the mountain. We saved up our pennies and took off for a trip that went right over the mountains and around the summit of McKinley. The journey lasted a little more than an hour. It was a spectacular flight with many impressive viewpoints. We flew with only two other people and a pilot, so it was almost cozy.

I could have picked a photo of the top of the mountain for this particular page, but I opted to go in another direction. This is below the summit. If you look carefully at the middle of the picture (click on it to blow up the image), you'll see several tents. This is the campsite for those trying to climb Mount McKinley.

Based on the number of tents, you might guess that the number of climbers is rather large. In fact, the National Park Service counts them. There were about 400 people on the mountain when we were there in early June. The yearly total is close to 1,300.

Here's a video of what the trip looks like:

Yes, it's an expensive trip. But you're only going to do it once.

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Denali National Park, Alaska: Teklanika River

The Teklanika River comes out of the mountains and eventually flows into the Tanana River, which in turn winds up connecting to the Yukon River. I would bet water levels could be very high after a snowy winter when the precipitation melts in the spring. Our visit in June saw the river much more dry than we might have expected.

According to Wikipedia, the Teklanika is mentioned as "the Rubicon" in the book, "Into the Wild." That's a story that is definitely worth your time. 

Most visitors see the river about 30 miles on the road from the Visitors Center at the entrance to the bank. It's also known as the first bathroom stop, so it is of good-sized importance to many. The area doubles as a good location to take photographs.

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Denali National Park, Alaska: Stony Hill

Mount McKinley is the highest mountain in North America, checking in at more than 20,000 feet. (By the way, it's still growing.) Since the starting point of the mountain is a valley at 2,000 feet, it's a huge formation - stretching more than 40 miles at the base. That is big enough to affect the weather, along the lines of Mount Rainier in Washington.

At one end of the tour of Denali National Park, people get to walk out on to a scenic overlook at Stony Hill. If they are lucky, they just might get to see the big mountain. We were one of the 30 percent of visitors that actually got to see it.

You probably will have to click on the picture here to get a better image. If you look carefully at the clouds in the right-center of the picture, you should be able to see the mountain.

By the way, Denali means "the High One" to the Athabascans, who got there first.

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Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali National Park is more of a reserve than a place designed for visitors. It's big - about as big as Vermont - so there's plenty of room for wildlife to spread out and get comfortable. And they do.

Private vehicles are not allowed on most of the one main dirt road that leads into the park, so visitors must take a tour on a bus (or hop on a park-provided shuttle) to see what the place is like. The drive can be a little scary, but there are plenty of good views of the mountains and valleys.

We were lucky enough to be greeted by this moose when we entered the park, and saw a few more along the way during an 8-hour trip. We also saw some caribou and bald eagles.

The highlight, though, was a bear sighting. Mr. Bear was spotted taking a little swim in a creek near the first rest stop, probably the Teklanika River. The bear came out of the water, did a bit of a shake, and walked along the riverbed. Then the animal went up the hill, cut in front of our bus (we had halted) on the road, and headed for the wilderness. And thanks for dropping by.

Here's a video look at the Tundra Wilderness Tour:

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Denali Park, Alaska: Husky Homestead

It takes about $100,000 a year to put together a winning team for the legendary Iditarod Race in Alaska. First prize is only $50,000. Therefore, you have to do something to make ends meet.

Jeff King, a four-time winner, has come up with an unusual method to balance the books. He gives tours of his training complex. It's called the Husky Homestead, and it's wonderful.

Start with the fact that guests are handed a puppy when they get off the bus. Awww. In our case, the dogs were five weeks old. It's actually good for the dogs to interact with people right away. You can see people melting into puddles as they pet the dogs.

After that, guests stay outside and are given an explanation of what happens at the complex. The best part of that comes when King picks out some dogs for a demonstration of a training run. The dogs make all sorts of noise in an effort to be picked - running is what they love to do - and the sound is loud and wonderful. By the way, as soon as the sled is loaded and gone, the dogs immediately quiet down. It's an amazing transformation. That's King in the picture, playing with one of the dogs. Staff members then review how the complex works.

Everyone then moves inside, where King does a presentation on his view of the Iditerod. He explains what goes into a winning team, and how the race is run. The dogs basically can run about half the time in the race from Anchorage to Nome (1,100 miles), sometimes in an eight hours on-eight hours off format. You may think this could get dull, but King has the timing of a standup comic. He's funny and interesting.

Here's someone else's video of the visit:


I couldn't find anyone who went to the Husky Homestead and didn't have a great time. When in the neighborhood in the summer, be sure to drop by.

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Nenana, Alaska: Tanana River

The Tanana River is quite beautiful, as you can see from the photo here. It's in Nenana, which is about 50 miles south of Fairbanks.

Why is this particular river so popular in Alaska in the winter? It has nothing to do with scenery, and everything to do with gambling.

The Nenana Ice Classic is held every year, which sounds like it should be a hockey tournament. A tripod is place on the frozen surface at the start of winter, and people bet on when the ice will thaw and the tripod will move. In 2014, for example, all that happened on April 25.

The prize is not spare change. The winner walked away with $343,627 last year. At $2.50 a guess, that's a lot of interest.

Nanama is mostly known for a long railroad bridge, the Mears Memorial Bridge. It is the longest bridge in Alaska, and was the longest railroad truss bridge in the world at one point. President Warren Harding drove the last golden spike into it in 1923. The bridge caused a brief boom in population, but eventually the numbers went back to where they were before - well under 1,000 - and have more or less stayed there.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: Riverboat Discovery

Ah, the riverboat. It's a wonderful throwback to those days on the Mississippi River, when visitors traveled in luxury.

Except, this is still the Alaska section of this blog. The river is the Chena, and Mark Twain never wrote a book about it.

This is one of Fairbanks' most popular attractions, a three-hour tour of the area. (No Gilligan's Island jokes, please.) What's different about this business is that the owners work hard to make more than just a ride up and down the relatively small river; the novelty of such attractions wear off rather quickly in my case.

There are stops along the way. A floatplane pilots does a sample takeoff and landing to entertain the visitors; it's actually fun to watch. Then it's on to a demonstration by a dogsled team on shore. The group is owned by Dave Monson, the husband of the late Susan Butcher, an Iditerod champion.

Finally, there's a stop at a replica of a Native village. There are demonstrations of life and how the Athabascans  survived the harsh climate for thousands of years, and the dogs from down the river turn up to be petted by the tourists.

At the end of the ride, "Steamboat Landing" lures visitors into the gift shop. There's a "40 Below" room so they can see what a winter day in Fairbanks is like. Its popularity is, um, surprising. Those on tour are moved into a large room for a lunch of beef stew and vegetables. When we were there, four-time Iditerod winner Lance Mackey turned up to answer some questions, and then headed to a booth to pose for pictures for a small fee. Remember, those dogs on the sled need to eat too.

Here's the video version; the announcer is the same I believe:


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Fairbanks, Alaska: Museum of the North

Now this is a museum.

This is just one of the many exhibits in the Museum of the North, located on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'll explain about the picture in a moment.

UAF has about 11,000 students, which means the town must be mighty happy economically when the students arrive in September - even if it's a sign that winter is coming. The sports teams used to be the Polar Bears, but they switched to Nanooks. Should have bought a t-shirt in the bookstore.

The museum is a first-class job when it comes to telling the story of the region. There are exhibits about Native life, the gold rush days, art work, movies, etc. The museum gift shop is well stocked with items. The outside of the building is very impressive architecturally.

All right. You can now ask, what the heck is pictured? The correct answer is: an outhouse.

Artist Craig Buchanan crammed the outhouse with artifacts from the region. Click on the picture for full effect. The artwork even has a foam seat. As many of you no doubt know, foam is the substance of choice in Alaskan outhouse because of its, um, protective powers in the winter. Museum visitors can post for photos while sitting on the seat. My guess is that it's the most popular stop on the tour.

The artwork was created for the opening of the museum in 2006. The Fairbanks newspaper did a fine job of covering the story here.

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North Pole, Alaska: Santa Claus House

According to Roadside America, the little town of Davis, Alaska, changed its name to North Pole in 1953. I suppose it was an attempt to pick up some tourism dollars. Someone quickly realized there was a marketing opportunity involved here, and opened the Santa Claus House.

Here's a giant statue of Santa that greets visitors. Be sure to notice the street name and the striped pole by the stop sign.

Some reindeer hang out in a pen by the store to welcome visitors, and the building has some good-sized murals. Inside, the Santa Claus House has all sorts of Christmas related items for sale. You can get a personalized letter from Santa, complete with the North Pole postmark. The post office here must be busy in December.

The star attraction of the place, naturally, is Santa Claus. I had the chance to pose for a picture with him, and we had this actual conversation.

Me: I've been good so far this year, Santa.
Santa: That's what you said last year.
Me: Yes, but I mean it this time.

We'll see how I do at Christmas.

By the way, kudos to the bus service that goes from Fairbanks to North Pole for a mere dollar each way or two dollars for the day. There's even an exit right in front of the Santa Claus House. For those who are without a car, or who just like to see what local residents are like, the bus system is often a great help.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Fairbanks, Alaska: Golden Heart Plaza

Every city needs a title, and Fairbanks has one. It's "The Golden Heart City," which is mentioned right at the front of the visitors guide. It's something of a tribute to the city's roots, which involve a gold rush.

Naturally, the major gathering point of the town is "Golden Heart Plaza." This serves as something of a gathering point for town events. When we were there in early June, workers were getting the place ready for a nice early summer concert right on the Chena River. No curfew here, since sunset was after midnight. A farmer's market is also held there.

You can see a statue in the middle of the plaza in the picture, a tribute to the "Unknown First Family" of the city - which salutes the Native population. I thought it would be nice to have a shot of the riverside instead of the statue for a change. This was taken from the William Ransom Wood Memorial Footbridge. Dr. Wood is a former mayor of the city, if you're curious.

Fairbanks actually is rather well-known for a town its size, which is less than 40,000 people. That's still one of the biggest cities in Alaska, and it pops up all the time on weather forecasts. It's the coldest place in Alaska in the winter, which is saying something. Oh, and it's also the warmest in the summer, and the driest.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: Lend-Lease Monument

Downtown Fairbanks has a nice walkway along the Chena River. It offers a good vantage point to see the city, and is the logical place to honor historical moments in city history.

Consider this something of a crash course in an important part of World War II's outcome. Ooh, maybe crash course isn't the best phrase.

Planes and parts were shipped from the United States up to Alaska, which wasn't a state at that point. There they met up with Soviet pilots, who flew them back to their homeland for use on the Eastern Front. It wasn't exactly a short cut, but it was safe.

The monument made its debut in Fairbanks in 2006, according to A variety of officials from the old Allies came back together for the ceremony.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: Antler Arch

Your journey in Alaska starts here.

Well, it should start here.

It's the "Antler Arch," which has been called the northernmost arch of its kind in the world. Who am I to disagree?

(Brief tangent: Fairbanks loves these geographic distinctions. I saw a sign on one restaurant pointing out that patrons were about to enter the northernmost Denny's in the country.)

The antlers have been collected from across northern Alaska. Fairbanks is something of a jumping-off point to the vast frontier beyond the city. If you want to explore the Gates of the Arctic National Park, Point Barrow, etc., you stock up on supplies here ... because there aren't many after this on what roads there are in the region.

The arch is located just a few feet northwest from the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, right along the riverfront. The Center has some good exhibits on the area, and shows free movies as well. Speaking of those movies, the titles and showing times are printed in the local newspaper - which is at the least unusual. 

This may be the only antler arch that has its own web cam. Depending on when in the year you visit this page, you can see the arch in daylight at midnight or darkness at noon.

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