Definitely not a Folly, Mr. Seward

Seward, Alaska~ Aerial view

Seward, Alaska is a charming city that has so many great things to offer that are quintessentially Alaskan. The city of Seward was named for President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward, the man who negotiated the purchase of the state of Alaska from Russia in 1867.  Seward signed a treaty with Russia for the purchase of  Alaska for $7 million. Despite the bargain price of roughly two cents an acre, the Alaskan purchase was ridiculed in Congress and by many of the American public as “Seward’s folly,” or “Seward’s icebox,”.  After the Civil War, Seward saw the potential in the land and was an advocate of  territorial expansion. He was eager to acquire the tremendous landmass of Alaska, an area roughly one-fifth the size of the rest of the United States. The city of Seward’s official motto is: “Alaska starts Here” and certainly showcases so many of the things that Alaska has to offer.  So you may have been ridiculed at the time Mr. Seward, but you knew a good thing when you saw it…..and what a beautiful land it is!

Relatively easy to get to,  Seward is only a 2 1/2 hour drive from Anchorage on the scenic Seward Highway. The city is nestled between the mountains and the sea and has the beautiful Resurrection Bay as it’s playground. Surrounded by glaciers and landscapes that support an abundance of wildlife and fauna, the Resurrection Bay was formed by millions of years of glacial activity and is now a deep fjord 35 miles long on the southeastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

Kenai Fjords National Park~~ Photo from Major Marine Tours

Also found stemming from Seward is The Kenai Fjords National Park. This park was originally established as a National Monument in 1978, and became a National Park under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. Most access to the park is via tour boats out of Seward. Several wildlife and glacial cruises are available. Out on the water traveling along the coastline, it is a great way to see glaciers, marine mammals and seabirds. A view of the Harding Icefield, which covers over half of the acreage in the Park, is an amazing relic from the last ice age and truly takes one’s breath away. The huge fields of ice advancing between the mountain caverns and a calving glacier are amazing and can sometimes make a person feel relatively small, in the scheme of things. Nearly 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield. The boat tours are worth taking the time when visiting Seward.  Exit Glacier is the only portion of the park that may be accessed by road. There are two Visitor Center’s available: one at Exit Glacier and one on Resurrection Bay in Seward. The park itself is open year round, but it’s important to note that both Visitor’s Centers, and many boat tours, have only summer operations: from May to early September.

It’s a fisherman’s paradise here and many charters are available. A good start would be a visit to The Fish House at 1303 4th Ave. They have lots of information on charters, equipment and anything and everything you need for fishing. Not only is it for fishing, it’s a pretty cool hardware store, too with a few little souvenir items. For more information check out their web site at: https://www.thefishhouse.net/  Sport Fishing in the area includes Halibut, Salmon and Rockfish.  Seward is known as one of the top five ports in Alaska for commercial fisheries.

Puffins at the Sea Life Center

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is celebrating their 20th year of operation. It opened in 1998 as an educational aquarium and rehabilitative center for marine animals. It is a wonderful place to get up close and personal with marine life creatures that you normally would not have access to. They have a wonderful aviary with an array of seabirds to view. In the lower level viewing area there is an amazing tank that you can view sea lions swimming and diving right in front of you! In addition to the various fish displayed there is an octopus, who always seems to be a big hit with the spectators. Also at the Center is a “touch tank” where you can gently touch and feel what sea cucumbers and starfish actually feel like. An amazing experience, but that arctic water is REALLY cold; touch tank experiences are usually brief! Of course there is a gift shop for obtaining a souvenir of your visit. It is good to know that your purchase goes to help support the Center as both a public aquarium and the stewardship of Alaska’s marine ecosystems. I think I would be remiss, if I did not include in this discussion about the Alaska Sea Life Center, the devastating event in history that in some ways spawned the creation of this wonderful center: the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.  On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez supertanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. I remember that devastating event and even today some consider it the worst man-made environmental disaster. After this disaster, years of litigation and civil settlements helped to create new wildlife rehabilitation programs in addition, of course, better regulations regarding the transportation of crude oil.  The Alaska Sea Life center was also created by collaborative efforts of local marine scientists and also Alaska legislature appropriations.  For more information on this must see destination in Seward, see their site at: http://www.alaskasealife.org

“Fog Woman” by Jennifer Headtke (part of the Raven Trilogy)

Walking around the streets of Seward you see wonderful examples of the rich heritage and artistic influence as depicted in all the murals around town.  In 2008, Seward was voted the “Mural Capitol of Alaska”  and an organization has been established to promote and maintain the artwork. The murals cover a diversity of topics including the history of Seward, commercial fishing in the area, the Iditarod trail, the natural world and the heritage of the Native Alaskans.  So when taking a walking tour of Seward, have your camera ready and your eyes open…you will see murals just about every 2 blocks.  There are several murals that I missed, guess I better go back! Also, there are at least 6 art galleries/gift shops that display wonderful artwork by Native Alaskans and art that is reflecting the Alaskan spirit.

So head down the Seward Highway and Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Anchorage: Starting point of Alaskan adventures

Glacial cruise near Whittier, AK.

The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word “Alyeska”, meaning “great land”. Very fitting for this land in terms of size but also the majestic mountains, glacial streams and miles of forested hills. Any time you set foot on this land, you can truly get swept away with the beauty here. Almost every Alaskan adventure starts with a flight to Anchorage.  Anchorage is the most populous city in Alaska: of the approximately 710,000 Alaska inhabitants, half live in Anchorage and the surrounding areas.

Anchorage is home to about 1,500 Moose

So the minute you land at the Anchorage Airport, you know you are not in any typical airport. The airport is filled with examples of animals that are readily seen throughout the state: bear, moose, wolves and a variety of water birds. Also on display is a variety of beautiful Native Alaskan artwork. Of course, included are several shops you can purchase the “usual” souvenirs from mugs to t-shirts and gourmet chocolates. However, I want to emphasize again…this is not your typical airport. I happen to see a vending machine that sells mittens and gloves. (Are you prepared for being “up North”?) That alone is unique, but it was pretty cool that they were made from Bison hair. I just thought it was pretty amazing to see gloves sold in a vending machine. Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.

 

459 lbs Halibut-That’s alot of Halibut steaks!

After descending the escalator to go to luggage claim, on display you will see another characteristic example highlighting the fishing industry in the state (both commercial and recreational) : a HUGE Halibut. This is the record holding Halibut at 9′ 5″ long and weighing in at 459 lbs. That must have been an exhilarating catch to watch them bring it in. (perhaps he was thinking: My name is Ishmael) Our family did go Halibut fishing a few years ago in Homer and had a very successful trip with several impressive catches. Then we had them fillet, frozen and shipped back home. It was exciting to have a whole freezer overflowing with Halibut. Halibut are sooooo delicious even though most people will admit, they are pretty creepy looking.

 

Anchorage Visitor’s Center

Once arriving, a very good start to getting familiar with the area and what’s available for the type of adventure you want to pursue, stop in at the Visitor’s Center. In the heart of downtown Anchorage, amidst the office buildings is a little log cabin with grass growing on the roof. This is the Anchorage Visitors Center. The building itself is so quaint and photo worthy and very easy to find: at the corner of Fourth Ave. and F street. The staff is so helpful there and can fill in the details of any questions you may have and they are also able to provide several different brochures about anything and everything within the state of Alaska. A definite place to stop by when in Anchorage and also a good starting point. The growing season in Alaska may be a little shorter, but they make up for it with beautiful displays of flowers all over the city. From block to block in Anchorage there are hanging pots with cascades of flowers. One of my favorite flowers, the Fireweed, gets its name because it is the first vegetation to appear after newly cleaned and burned areas.  It is a perennial  wildflower that is found in Canada, parts of Minnesota and of course Alaska. The purple and pink flowers light up the hillsides with color. Then in the autumn, they change to a soft, white fluff looking like lambs wool.

Ship Creek Fishing~Photo from Fish Alaska Magazine

Depending on the time of year you are visiting Anchorage, there are a few summer time activities you really should check out. Alaska is known for its abundance of wild salmon. Near the heart of downtown Anchorage is Ship Creek: an amazing place to watch the “salmon runs” and watch the anglers try their luck.  There is also a nearby fish hatchery. Not only do the local fisherman go to the shores, but the shorebird viewing in this area is amazing. When the locals say “the Kings are in”, you know the King Salmon have started to run. King Salmon are present in late May, then Coho Salmon run from August to mid- September. The best place for information is found on this link: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=viewinglocations.shipcreek

Another fun summer festival and Farmers Market that includes great food, music and an abundance of arts and crafts is the Saturday Market, held on Saturdays outside near 3rd Ave. by Buttress Park.  (summer months only) The craftsmen there provide many authentic Alaskan made products that are very unique and provide a wonderful remembrance of your Alaska trip. I remember when my boys were young we found some wooden toy frogs with washboard backs that made a “Ribbitt…Ribbitt” sound when the small dowel was racked across them. So cool! I believe they still have those. Also, at Saturday Market was the first time ever I had eaten a reindeer corn dog….Yum! Don’t knock it till you try it, and I actually like them better than the traditional Frankfurter dog.

Of course there is a whole diversity of fantastic dining in Anchorage besides corn dogs, with a diversity of price ranges. Simon & Seaforts boasts a beautiful view of Cook inlet and a great selection of Alaskan seafood. Beautiful restaurant with wonderful food, a bit pricey but worth it as a treat.  For a little less formal restaurant, and a place that is known for their wood -fired pizza try the Fat Ptarmigan. They are located in downtown Anchorage at W. 5th Ave. Great food in a casual, but very nice atmosphere. The Ptarmigan is Alaska’s state bird. Whenever I hear that, I think of a funny quip about the town of Chicken, Alaska (SE Alaska near the Canadian border). The founders wanted to name it after the state bird, but remembering how to spell Ptarmigan was a pain so they settled on Chicken…Ha. Probably not true, but a cute story. Last restaurant I want to mention is NOT known for Alaskan seafood, but surprisingly enough is a fantastic Mexican restaurant: Hacienda. I guess when I think of good Mexican cuisine, I thought one needed to head south (not north to Alaska?),…but this particular restaurant is really good and most of the locals are familiar with it. Not really on the beaten path of the tourists. And the Margaritas were perfect! Highly recommended fantastic Mexican food.

Are you craving chocolate yet? World’s Largest “waterfall” of chocolate

I know it’s “touristy” but one of my favorite places to go in Anchorage is the Alaska Wild Berry Products store. Not only does it have a wonderful array of “wild berry” products like jellies, candies and specialty teas…they have jewelry, clothing and just about any type of sought after souvenir you might like. AND….they have the World’s Largest Chocolate “waterfall”!(but it’s chocolate….Mmmmmm)  It is a 20 foot fall with 3,400 pounds of real liquid chocolate cascading down several buckets and ending up in a glistening pool of chocolate. Wow, you gotta love that. Here’s a picture, it really is neat and makes you crave a trip to the candy counter. Just for show, it’s really chocolate, but you can’t dip your pinkies in for a sample.

Well, this just scratches the surface of all the experiences that await in Anchorage.  There are also two awesome museums that really warrant looking into: the Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Anchorage Museum.  Additionally, exploring nature is easily accessible to the city with fantastic wildlife and bird watching at  Potter Marsh.  A hike up Flattop Mountain, in Chugach State Park, brings you to a dramatic, skyline view of Anchorage.  For more information on these features and much more about Anchorage, be sure to check out this helpful site: http://www.VisitAnchorage.com

So I hope I have whet your appetite for an Alaskan Adventure and don’t forget: Put your traveling shoes on. JES

The Glory of “The High One”: Denali National Park

Sunrise on Denali / NPS Photo by Tim Rains

Many travelers venturing to Alaska include on their itineraries Denali National Park, and rightly so. It provides breathtaking vistas in a rugged land to etch in your mind a memorable trip. Within Alaska alone, there are 24 parks and sites managed by the National Park Service, however Denali usually comes to mind when people think of Alaska. Denali is  Alaska’s most well-known national park and is actually more readily accessible than some of the other remote parks.  Denali averages over  400,000 visitors annually. The flag ship feature of the park is the 20,320 feet high mountain peak known for thousands of years by the Athabascans as Denali, or “The High One”.

So What’s in a Name?  The park we know today as Denali National Park was founded in 1917 by Woodrow Wilson as Mount McKinley National Park. The name of the Park has been a controversy since it’s inception.  There are certain ironies that one can’t help but ponder on. First, the name McKinley was taken from our 25th President William McKinley. McKinley himself had never traveled to Alaska.  Perhaps he would have gone to see the majestic mountain and park, but sadly he was assassinated in September of 1901. Charles Sheldon, a naturalist and conservationist, advocated from the start the name of Denali for both the park and the mountain. The locals called it Denali, and the debate continued for decades. Finally in 1980, many continued to favor the name Denali after the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act changed the park’s name to Denali National Park and Preserve. But the official name of the mountain remained Mount McKinley.  Then just prior to the National Park Service centennial year in 2016, the mountain was reverted to the name Denali. While visiting Alaska in September of 2015, President Barack Obama announced the official name change of the mountain.

Bull Moose~NPS photo

Keeping the “wild” in Alaskan wilderness.  The vastness and diverse ecosystems of the park are beautifully preserved and presented to visitors by virtue of how the park is operated and maintained.  Unlike other National Parks, access into the park is restricted and controlled by only one road, 90 miles long into the park.  Personal vehicles are not allowed beyond the 15 mile mark on the park road; only the shuttle buses taking visitors back and forth from several destinations. This may seem odd at first, but when you take a bus trip into the park it helps you to understand  how this system helps to minimize car travel and reduce the carbon footprint on this wilderness. Riders are free to get on and off the bus as they please.  Another distinct advantage is that you are much more likely to view an abundance of wildlife.  The animals have become accustomed to the big tan buses along the road and are more likely to view them as just a part of the landscape. When we went, we observed, from the safety of the bus, a mama Grizzly helping her two cubs to hunt a ground squirrel. That was an experience I will never forget.

Horseshoe Lake~Denali National Park

In addition to the park road, the trails allow foot traffic within the park for both the casual hiker and the seasoned veteran. Some of the more seasoned hikers are encouraged to “make their own trail”, but for the casual hikers there are several trails starting closer to the Visitors Center.  An easy hike, 1.5 miles, to the beautiful plateau above Horseshoe Lake provides ample opportunities for stunning photographs.  You can see why they call it Horseshoe Lake as evidenced by this photo. Wildlife thrives in the vastness of the park and the “big five” have been designated as: grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and Dall sheep.  It may be a personal goal to view all five, but don’t be too disappointed if you don’t view them all. You can always pick up a coffee mug or t-shirt with all of them on it; sounds a bit touristy but a great way to remember your visit.  My family and I saw a grizzly and her cubs from quite a distance and also a mother moose and her cubs, but sometimes it’s very cool to also capture them on a souvenir. Not quite the same as seeing them in real life, but it’s so neat to bring back the memories of your trip and be able to say you’ve been to Denali. Wolves and grizzlies are not as easily seen, but the abundance of Moose in the park makes it almost a sure bet you will see them at some point. Depending on the year, the moose population within the park fluctuates of course, but the National Park Service estimates about 1,800 Moose at Denali.  That’s alot of Moose!  Just FYI, the plural of Moose is Moose…good to know.

Visiting with one of the Sled Dogs of Denali

“Mush, Doggies! Mush!” You can’t get up close and personal with a grizzly, but at Denali you can get close and cuddly with the sled dogs.  In the winter months, the best way to get around from here to there within the park is still by sled dog team.  One of the must see attractions at Denali is the sled dog demos and a visit to the kennels.   Even if you are visiting in the summer, they have to keep the dog’s training going year round, so they add small wheels to the sleds to run them on all terrains.  During the summer tourist season, they have 3 daily dog sled demonstrations.  The Park Service runs several shuttles to the kennels.  When I was there I was amazed to find out the importance of the use of dog sleds withing the park and also within the state of Alaska.  The most famous, well -known sled dog race, the Idiatrod, has a colorful and intriguing history.  Portions of the Iditarod trail were used as early as the 1880’s, However the most famous event in the history of Alaskan mushing is the 1925 serum run to Nome; also known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” A large diptheria epidemic threatened Nome. The only way to get the antitoxin to Nome was by sled dog, due to unusable planes and ships in the worst of winter.  So on January 27, the port at Seward had received the serum where it was passed to the first of twenty mushers and more than 100 dogs who relayed the package 674 miles from Nenana to Nome. The dogs ran in relays, with no dog running over 100 miles. Wow, I hear that story and am amazed of the courage and tenacity of those mushers and their dogs. No wonder it has become an inspiring tale; both for those that participate in the Iditarod and those that watch on the sidelines.  All an amazing part of the Alaska experience. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

For more information on Denali National Park, check out: Discovering Denali, A Complete Reference Guide to Denali National Park by Dow Scoggins  and also the National Park Service has great details about the Park including information on park habitats and wildlife.  Check out their web-site at:http://NPS.gov

Tales from the Ghost Trees of Alaska

Driving along the roadways in parts of eastern Alaska, on odd indication of the 1964 earthquake becomes apparent. The 1964 Alaska Earthquake had a profound impact on the people of Alaska and  left visible scars on the land. Many of the scars and the buildings that were destroyed have long since left from view, but what remains after all these years are the tall trees that stand stark against the blue skies.

Alaska-2015 219
Ghost Trees near Girdwood,Alaska (photo: Julie Smith)

They stand like soldiers guarding the memory of that terrible day in 1964  and to serve as a reminder to never underestimate the phenomenal power of nature’s force. When the quake occurred, sea water came up through the fault flooding the terrain near the trees, but in the same token not uprooting them.  So they not did immediately die, but the sea water caused them to turn to a petrified-state and they remain standing.
It is just one of those odd tricks and unusual quirks of nature that leaves behind an almost artistic rendering to tell the story of what took place here over 50 years ago.   Repercussions of catastrophic events such as this earthquake can have lasting, visible effects for quite some time after the clean up has been completed and people have carried on with their lives.

1964 eathquake
Anchorage-4th Ave. 1964 (photo: Time.com Life collection)

The 1964 Alaska earthquake had a profound impact on numerous communities along the fault line.  The quake occurred on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 and according to the US Geological Survey measured 9.2 magnitude on the rector scale.  The quake was reported as the most devastating quake in North America. A total of 131 deaths were reported and the property damage totaled between 300-400 million dollars. Damage was widespread throughout the state and was felt as far as Oregon.  The epicenter of the quake was about 10 km east of the mouth of College Fiord, approximately 90 km west of Valdez and 120 km east of Anchorage.  This earthquake is the second largest earthquake ever recorded in the world. (http://www.aeic.alaska.edu/quakes/Alaska_1964_earthquake.html)  Because of the epicenters location, some of the hardest hit towns were Anchorage, Valdez, Girdwood and Portage. The quake also spawned a tsunami, which contributed to the severe damage to the harbor town of Valdez.  Half the town tumbled into the harbor and the disaster claimed 31 lives. Valdez was not totally destroyed but relocated 4 miles west of the original site. Traveling through Valdez today, there are signs designating “Old Valdez” prior to the quake. Girdwood was also relocated, but the town of Portage was completely abandoned after the earthquake.

 

The town of Portage was destroyed by the quake. In the area where Portage was located are a few abandoned buildings, still remaining, not yet consumed by the earth.

Portage2
The abandoned town of Portage (photo:www.greatlandofalaska.com)

The area around what used to be the town of Portage is a location that one can readily see an abundance of “skeleton trees” that stand there ground 50 years later after the rest of the landscape has changed around them.  In other areas of the country, with higher demands for immediate “land usage”, the trees may have been taken down, but here they stand on a seemingly barren landscape.  The tundra and other life has grown up around them, but their clinging to the earth with a refusal to succumb to gravity, gives them a stoic albeit sometimes ghostly look.  To hear Alaskans talk of the skeleton trees and their evidence of the earthquake in ’64, there is a sense of deep sadness of course, but also a sense of pride in the strength of the Alaskan spirit and tenacity.

 

When traveling to a new place it is so rewarding and incredibly interesting to learn some of the historical aspects of where you are visiting.  Not only is it valuable in terms of learning how certain areas were developed, but it also gives you an opportunity to view the area with an understanding on why it is the way it is: how the people and the land have been shaped: culturally, geographically and politically. Put your traveling shoes on.  JES

 

Off the Beaten Path:Kennecott Coppermine, Alaska

Nestled in the snow-capped Alaskan mountains of our largest National Park: Wrangell-St. Elias, stands the Kennecott Copper mine. Closed in 1938, it stands silent watch above the valley and steep drop offs that are common to the area.

When visiting the abandoned mine, the sheer majesty of its size gives you a whole new appreciation for the people who lived and worked here. The structure of the main mill, pictured here, has such an ominous presence that even if it is not haunted it still has an alarming presence that truly is awe-inspiring.The building of the mine itself, and the surrounding buildings supporting the workers, initially seemed to be  insurmountable tasks. To bring buildings materials in through the rugged mountain passes, the first priority was to build a railroad. In addition to helping construct the new city and mine, the copper ore was transported via railroad south to Cordova. When visiting Kennecott, I walked along the original rails that line up with the chutes, where the rock crusher spit out processed rock and ore that was further refined.

              Traces of past profits
Remnants of the tools that were used in the labor intensive process of mining are found strewn about the area. Here my son Dan surveys the rugged Wrangell Mountains while standing by an ancient rock crusher, circa early 1930’s. Also remnants of the life that was left behind after the mine closed are still visible and one gets a strange sensation that memories and spirits of the past still are present here.  It seems to have had more recent activity in the mine than the footsteps of tourists and it is hard to believe it closed more than 75 years ago.  Nevertheless, as one of those tourists, I found it a fascinating historical place to visit and taking in the natural beauty of the park was an inherent bonus.
National Park Service Site
The National Park Service acquired the mine in 1998 and the lands of the historic mining town of Kennecott.  The mine has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  On the Wrangell-St. Elias website: www.nps.gov/wrst life working in the mine is described: “Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work.  At the height of operation about six hundred men worked in the mines and mill town. Paying salaries higher than those found in the lower-48, Kennecott was able to attract men willing to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp…..Despite the dangers and grueling work, the Kennecott workers mined and concentrated at least $200 million worth of ore.”
The mine successfully ran for over 30 years, but was closed due to declining copper deposits and the high cost of railway maintenance.
  The Road Less Traveled
The mine is a fascinating place to visit because it is a demonstration of the tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit. When traveling the McCarthy Road to get to the mine, you feel as if you are already on an adventure, and you sometimes have to reach into your own resolve when seeking this destination.

The McCarthy Road is 60 miles long and is a long gravel road. Here is a photo showing where the nice smooth pavement ends and the gravel road & imposing cliffs begin. It is intimidating when all the travel literature warns NOT to take rental cars on this road and other warnings for the faint of heart. It was a rough ride with several portions of the road demonstrating the “wash-board” effect, a series of tight ridges.  I give my sister-in-law, Christy, so much credit: she drove both in and out on this challenging stretch of road.  We took her mini-van, which worked well and we took it slowly.  That is key to surviving on this road without a flat tire or worse damage to your vehicle.  It is only 60 miles, but plan for about 3 hours. It is well worth the trip if you take your time.

You can see so much more when you are traveling at 30 mph as opposed to 65. Be sure to catch all the scenery and wildlife along the way and the views are spectacular. This is the Kuskalana Bridge, built in 1910, it spans 525 feet and sits at a height 238 feet above the river. An incredible building accomplishment and yes we drove across it. Having a little bit of a fear of heights (don’t we all to some extent) I had to hold my breath and somehow muster up the courage to take in the view.  Be courageous and take in the view, it’s worth it.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES