16 September 2006 – Whittier and the Midnight Sun Express: Into the Interior
We had incredibly detailed disembarking instructions for Whittier left at our stateroom door. It was like a military operation – various groups were going off in various directions, luggage had to be tagged correctly so that it would follow you to proper places, we were all given codes and groups and warned that we would be CALLED when our group was wanted so that everyone could disembark in an orderly manner. In addition to this, rdeck had been handed a letter stating that it had “come to their attention” that he required wheelchair assistance in disembarking, and did he need such assistance in Whittier? We had said no, but another letter arrived anyway instructing him to go and wait in the Savoy Dining Room together with others requiring assistance so that he could be, well, assisted. Since everything else was running with such military precision, we thought it best not to put spanners in works by not turning up, so that’s where we presented ourselves in the morning together with our Group Tags – we were Brown 3.
The guy doing the disembarkation announcements over the PA system must have been picked with malicious glee by his colleagues – that, or he was picked first and the colours of the disembarkation groups had been picked afterwards with equal malicious glee. The poor announcer had a definite speech impediment – and EVERY colour picked had the letter R in it. So we had calls for the disembarkation of Wed One, Bwown Two, Cweam One, Puwple Thwee, and lots of things like “We wish you a safe onwawd jouwney and thank you for sailing with us on the Sapphiwe Pwincess.”
Our group was finally called, and we flourished our Bwown Thwee tags, rdeck was parked into a wheelchair, and a young man trundled him off the gangplank and onto Whittier wharf. It was drizzling lightly and they had a canvas roof set up over the passageway to the tracks where our train waited; we slipped into that and views became restricted except for a frighteningly large pallet of potatoes waiting to be loaded onto the “Princess” for her onward journey (which got me wondering – it’s a LARGE ship – but there are more than one thousand crew on top of the nearly three thousand passengers, plus there is a necessity to store vast quantities of foodstuffs and fresh water – it might even have been doable here where we hugged the coastline and supplies were easy or at least easier to get at – but what did they do on the cruises where the ship was out on open water for a week or two or even three? Where did they PUT all the stuff that they needed to carry to support all these people? Where did they stow the staff when they weren’t polishing the brassworks? Was that ship relativistic in some fundamental way, larger inside than out…?). They had also lifted one strategic panel of the canvas “corridor” so that we were treated to a full view of the “Princess” as she lay berthed wharfside. I blew her a kiss. She had been good to us, aside from that one brief attack of seasickness, and she had taken us to some incredible places.
The train was ALSO owned by Princess. Well, the engines were Alaska Rail, but the coaches were these double-storey domed affairs with the Princess logo festooned all over them – the lower floor was a restaurant, and the upper floor had tables and seating next to dome windows offering unparalelled views of the countryside. Aside from having to ask the other people at our table, who were already there, whether we could switch places because sitting for the next nine and a half hours (which is how long the journey took)with my back to the engine would have been… interesting…everything else worked like the usual clockwork – we were delivered to the train, helped up to our table, helped to settle down, everyone else was efficiently settled down, and we were off, into the interior.
A few words about weird Whittier.
I learned later from someone who had once served as chief of police in Whittier that there exists a T-shirt which says “POW” which in this context means “Prisoner of Whittier”. The only way out of Whiitier on land are two railway tunnels – which have great iron gates on either end. Because the air pressure is so different on the Whittier side of the mountain and the other mouth of the tunnel, these gates may not be opened at the same time or they would simply blow themselves out – so one set is opened, the train is allowed in, the gates are shut, and the other set is opened to let the train out. It’s something of a strange fantasy novel, it is.
The other interesting fact was that all the inhabitants of Whittier apparently lived in a single 19-story condominium building called the Begich Tower. That much information we did gather, but I was curious as to why, and it was only later that I was told about the 8-foot snowfalls which descend on Whittier in winter, in which one’s cars (and presumably any homes on ground level) get permanently buried until spring thaw. Apparently there are tunnels under Whittier for children to get to school in winter.
For a place that isn’t really THAT BIG, Whittier appears to hold more magic and mystery – at least to an outsider, someone who doesn’t have to live there and deal with all this stuff on a daily basis – than perhaps any other place I’ve ever seen.
The train started moving and before we had a chance to look around and see more than a last glimpse of our white ship and perhaps a quick sideways glance at the Begich Tower, we were through Whittier and into the yawning mouth of that tunnel.
And then we were out of it.
And the valleys fell open between high mountain slopes, and led the eye to the sky. And on the other side, the railroad ran beside Cook Inlet. We learned that there were two arms to the inlet and the one we were currently skirting was called Turnagain Arm because Cook, when looking for the original Inside Passage when he first came to these shores, persisted in believing that they could be reached through this particular waterway SOMEHOW, and kept turning the ship this way and that obstinately searching for a passage out until the crew, bored and bewildered and frustrated, dubbed the place the Turnagain Arm. It was an open waterway, all silted up with what looked like fine gray sand – not so, said our on-board guide, all that stuff was talcum-powder fine glacial silt, glacial “flour”, as they called it, and it was more than your life was worth to walk on that stuff because it was so fine that it would act like quicksand and eat you right up. Later on we began passing stands of dead trees, and our guide explained that these were what the natives called the pickled forests – after the massive earthquake which shook the place in 1964, salt water surged in and invaded the water table and whole tracts of trees were killed by it, pickled where they stood, still standing in brine, a testament to the power of nature. At least one building collapsed into a pathetic heap also still bore mute testament to the fury of that long-ago earthquake, which wiped out whole towns with the resulting tsunami.
We saw other things, too. We saw what looked like a huge moose in a river – but it was not a wide river, and it was wooded on both sides, and the quick vision of the moose was obscured by trees before we could be absolutely certain of what we had seen – but we DID see Dall sheep on the hillside, and we definitely saw a couple of eagles. One was sitting majestically on one of the pickled trees, just staring at us; the other was in full flight, wings outstretched, soaring across a vista of open valley and distant glacier. Alaska seemed to be in a wish-granting mood on this trip, because moments before we saw that second eagle our table companion on the train had let slip that these views of the Alaska countryside were what he and his wife had come here to find, and that he really really wanted to see an eagle in flight…
They fed us lunch, and lunch was a large sourdough bread bowl full of reindeer chili. Actually, it was only one of a handful of things on the menu – but the rest were infinitely more prosaic, and when we came to order our meal our server said apologetically that he had to tell us that they had run out of several things. Of course I assumed it would have been the chili because that’s what I wanted, and it was unusual and, well, local, and my instinct would have been to think that it would have been what everyone was curious enough to order and therefore they had no more. But no. What they had run out of… were their Garden Veggie Burgers.
Oh well – we did have our chili. We also had, at some point on the train ride, reindeer sausages – and these I really liked, they had a faint peppery aftertaste which was memorable, and now if only Deck would stop muttering about eating Rudolf…
The views through our dome windows were great but it was hard to take pictures through them so every so often I would retire down to the apron between the cars again with my camera, drinking in the colours of the Yukon which had followed us here. It was still gold, but the sun was not on it so it was not quite as blindingly spectacular as the Yukon was – however, it was still absolutely beautiful, and the train obligingly slowed down or even stopped for the best panoramic views. And once, very quickly, I snapped off a shot to the side where a beaver dam sat right there next to the tracks. We were on that train for nearly ten hours, but it passed in a blur of beauty – Alaska is huge, but it is so fascinating that it makes a traveller, by focusing on the constantly changing views and the details that make each one unique, forget about how long it takes to get places anywhere within it. In a visitor’s centre, later on in this journey of ours, we saw a map of Alaska superimposed on a map of the United States, and it’s SOBERING to realise just how huge Alaska really is. It’s twice the size of Texas. Just as a matter of adding a few inevitable statistics, it is also quoted as being the equivalent of 4 Californias, 10 Georgias, 7 Minnesotas, 7 Utahs, 14 Tennessees, 59 Vermonts, 114 Connecticuts, 277 Delawares and 470 Rhode Islands. And 69 times the size of Massachussetts – which is put into proper context when you take into account that the Denali National Park, where we were headed, was the size of a Massachussetts all by itself. Alaska consists of 570 374 square miles of territory, with one road to every 3 or 4 THOUSAND miles, and 33 904 miles of shoreline (which is more than a third of the total length of shoreline in the United Staates). This place is big. REALLY big. And if anyone ever disputed that big is beautiful, they should come here and get lost in this great expanse of wilderness and grandeur and beauty.
But all good things come to an end and this train ride – which is counted as one of the Great Train Rides, with good reason – did as well. Just as a digression, we nearly didn’t make it on the train at all – it had rained pretty solidly all summer and just the previous week a bunch of track and one entire bridge had apparently been washed right away which, if we had come in that week and as we learned from someone just returning from the cruise that we were about to take while waiting to embark at the Vancouver cruise terminal, would not only have meant no train but also the alternative of not nine but TWELVE hours’ journey, in a motor coach (and as we have already established, the same journey taken by train and by coach is, well, not the same journey…) We were also told that the Alaska Railway suspends service completely “…when the rails are under more than two inches of water.”. Now there was a mental picture. Uh, okay. When railway is drowned, do not send in train… But the rains had stopped and the washouts had been fixed and we had made it on the train after all. And like everything else on this trip, it was quite a journey.
We were deposited at the Denali Railway Depot, and distributed amongst various coaches and buses to take us to our hotel – which, according to the maps we had been given when our welcome packets (including our room keys – no pesky waiting in line to register when you’re with Princess!) were handed out on the train, was a maze of individual buildings which looked like they were scattered across a fairly large area. I was a little worried, given rdeck’s leg and subsequent chances of impaired mobility, but was assured that the map was misleading on that score and that it was not exactly to scale.
So off we went on our Princess bus to another piece of the Princess Alaska Empire – the Denali Princess Lodge.
17 September 2006 – Denali: The Day of the Mountain
We spend that first evening, quite simply, doing nothing. We nip over to what the hotel calls “The Bistro”, which is essentially one of those places so stuffed with tables that it is hard tofind room to sidle past, and by the time we get there it’s packed, and noisy, and it also, incongruously, has Entertainment, which comes in the shape of a valiantly-fighting-middle-age lounge crooner type with slicked back hair that might have been blond once in his boyhood and a pair of spectacles that make him look like a bookish uncle rather than Vic Damone, but he’s warbling happily into a wireless microphone with the accompaniment of what looks like a karaoke machine playing instrumental backging. I actually LIKE songs like “Moon River” and “Unforgettable” but when he’s schmoozing around these packed-in tables flirting with patrons and batting his bespectacled eyelashes at women wolfing down warm soup it’s kind of disconcerting, if not actively odd. As rdeck put it, it was the wrong “atmosphere”. So we ate quickly and left, and I went to the front desk to mail a postcard or two and to sniff out the layout of the rest of the hotel.
One of the shops, a furrier’s, had this stuffed wolf just inside the door – and he was absolutely perfect, golden eyes and everything.
“Can I take him home?” I pleaded, stroking his great head, lifted n an iconic howl.
“Sure, for $2800,” said the proprietress, grinning.
“Can I at least have my picture taken with him?” I said, defeated.
She said yes, so I hugged the wolf and she took the picture. I look so YEARNING in it. I wanted to get a wolf hybrid dog once, but rdeck would never let me. Spoilsport. I LOVE wolves. If I have a totem animal, they’re it…
It was another of those EARLY excursions the next day, so we sloped off to bed early – and piled onto a refurbished old school bus before dawn the following morning. Well, okay, it was around 7 AM but it was STILL before dawn, which began breaking when we were some way into Denali National Park on our Tundra Wilderness tour.
We learned a few things on the way – such as the sheer SIZE of the place, and that, with about 1200 moose roaming freely around Anchorage, it is probably easier to actually see a moose, like, up close and personal, in downtown Anchorage than it is here in Denali which is their natural habitat. This point was the subject for much whining from the couple behind us on the bus: “But we came heeeeere to seeee the aaaaaaaanimals!”
I, in the meantime, was falling in love all over again.
When I was little, again (ye gods, do all my childhood roads lead to Alaska?) – it was a different context at the time, sure, because I heard it and a filed it as “Russian” but the word “taiga” has always had a semi-mystical Siberian ring to it – the lonely wilderness of the frozen north, where permafrost lies underneath the ground and makes trees grow stunted and small because they cannot penetrate that frozen layer with their roots. In fact, we were told, permafrost resulted in the phenomenon of what here in Alaska was known as the “drunken forest” where the tree puts down roots, hits permafrost, starts putting out as many roots as it can laterally rather than down, and finally gets to the point where its shallow hold on the ground ceases to be enough to keep it upright and so the trees lean at crazy drunken angles against one another. That’s below the true taiga line, though, for taiga is the last gasp of forest against the breath of the Arctic, with short tiny trees which might look like saplings but which have endured fifty or sixty frozen winters in their time standing studrily in the ground which is already shading into the flat and treeless northern tundra… which, in this season, was flaming with improbable shades of saffron and cinnamon and rust and russet and more gold.
And we found the animals, as well.
Our guide found and pointed out a VERY large bull moose – but he was what looked to be like five miles away, and really hard to see – I tried a picture of him with my telephoto lens and although you can see a moose-shaped object in the middle of the picture it is hard to resolve it into anything more than that. But we also saw grizzlies – momma and two cubs – also distant, to be sure, but these were close enough for me to make out through the lens, and I saw them, those distinctive humped grizzly backs, the lolloping gait of the young ones, the more considered amble of the large female. I saw them – I saw grizzly bears in the wild. Mr and Mrs Whiny behind me complained bitterly about the bears not presenting themselves right there on the roadside – but in a way this was even more magical than that. For me, just the knowledge that they are out there… roaming, free… that meant more than if I’d seen one peer into the windows of the bus. Sure I would have loved to have one park in the road and let itself be photographed at close range. But this was fine. More than fine. This was wonderful. There were bears. I had seen them.
We saw a herd of caribou dash across the road in front of us, too fast to photograph. We saw Dall sheep on the steep slopes above the road.
“That’s the big four,” our guide said. “You’ve seen them all.”
“White dots and brown dots,” complained Mrs Whiner.
We also saw ptarmigan. And arctic ground squirrel (these are the salmon of the tudnra. EVERYTHING eats them – foxes, wolves, eagles, the grizzlies will dig into the ground like giant beardozers if they catch a whiff of one. You have to just pray for prey sometimes.)
And then, on our way back to the Lodge, we saw another bus stopped by the side of the road with people spilling out, taking pictures.
“They have to have stopped for something,” our driver said, peering around for any signs of something photogenic. And then he turned his head in the right direction, and suddenly nodded in enlightenment. “Ah,” he said. “The Mountain is out.”
It is a sign of the magnitude of the presence of Denali, that peak that looms above this plain at over 20 000 snow-capped feet, that in the concentric rings of high snow-capped mountain ranges that ring this place there is only one Mountain. When you speak of The Mountain… you mean THAT Mountain and no other.
Because of its incredible height, rearing into the thin air which only such mountains as this (and the Himalayas) breathe, Denali often carries its own weather, and three days out of four it’s invisible behind a self-manufactured cloud.
Today, the cloud lifted.
There it was. On the horizon. White and bright and beautiful – Denali, which in the Athabascan language means The High One. The Mountain. Oh, the geography books call it something different – it’s Mount McKinley, named by a sycophant after a politician who hinself never set foot in Alaska. The atlases call it that. Even much of the gift shop paraphernalia calls it that. But to the local people it’s Denali, and to Alaska in general it’s Denali, and to me it will always be Denali. The High One. The Mountain.
Yes, this is getting repetitive – there were tears in my eyes again. I had steeled myself that we would not see it at all – after all, we were told we had only a 25% chance of doing so, no more than that. But like I said, Alaska was in a gift-giving mood, ready to make dreams come true, and Alaska gave us the vision of that incredible mountain against bright tundra and roiled cloudy skies, something that once again no photograph could fully and faithfully reproduce (although, so help me, I tried – I don’t think I have any other subject as the focus of quite as many shots, trying to get as many as I could in the hope that one, just one, would turn out good…)
Whales. Glaciers. Grizzlies. And now Denali.
Everything I had prayed for, I had been granted. Everything, except perhaps one thing – and our driver said, pretty much unprompted, that the coming night might be a good one to watch for the Northern Lights.
But that was a maybe, and that was a later, and right now my eyes and my mind and my heart were full of that tundra, and that vastness, and that wilderness, and that Mountain.
We stopped off in the brand new Visitors Centre and browsed their diorama exibit – REALLY well set up, that place – and we watched a short movie in their theatre, called “Heartbeats of Denali”.
And I sat there in the darkness as the screen began to show the seasons in the Denali National Park, and there was a cup of joy somewhere inside of me that was brimming over, and I just sat crying very quietly, feeling the tears well up and slide down from the corrner of my eyes and down my cheeks.
I would never forget this
Still under the influence of the movie, we wandered off to the coffee shop because we had an hour to wait until the shuttle that would take us back to the hotel. I sat there, still practucally weeping into my latte, and a person with the badge of the Alaska Natural History Association – you remember, I had just joined the organization, back on the ship – came by our table. And I got up and I said to her,
“We just came from the park, and I just feel… as though I need to hug someone for making sure all this is cared for, making certain that it is here, that it exists…”
“You can hug me,” she said, smiling at me, her face glowing with something – a sort of pride of being a cog in that wheel, a sense of being moved by someone saying this to her.
So we hugged.
“Thank you for coming here,” she said.
Good God. Alaska… was thanking ME.
We hopped on the shuttle back to the hotel, and I was still thinking about that last comment as we drove the short distance there. Someone back on the ship had said, when we said we were from Washington state, that coming to Alaska, in that case, wasn’t that much of a change for us. Same scenery, you know – mountains, trees, that sort of thing. And my response had been, yes, sure, the surface similiarities were there – but the difference was as though you had walked from a country chapel into a cathedral. And there the cathedral was, thanking me (through its accolyte) for all intents and purposes for coming to worship at its feet…
We wandered around the grounds of the hotel briefly when we got back, still trying to get our heads back together – we had a bit of supper, and then I dragged rdeck off to see that stuffed wolf that had so enchanted me earlier. The lady who had taken my picture with the wolf wasn’t there, but another guy was, and we got talking to him in the shop. We had to move this bear sculpture from the top of the stairs, so that rdeck could use the banister while he was climbing up. The bears then suddenly seemed to be everywhere – rough-hewn wooden bears of various sizes, with incredible expressions on their faces, and the guy we were talking to said that they took between twenty and forty five minutes to make.
With a chainsaw.
We stopped. We stared. We were flabbergasted, and then intrigued, and then enchanted.
“We ship,” said the guy in the shop, looking up at the ceiling angelically.
There’s a chainsaw wooden bear coming to live on my porch. He’s maybe three and half feet high, with this faintly bemused look on his muzzle (I know how he feels) and now I have to find out if a wooden bear like that can survive in the Washington wet out on my porch. I mean, his big brother out in front of the shop has survived several Alaska winters of temperature of fifty below zero – but that isn’t quite the same and this is a dry place compared to where I live. And I don’t want to hurt or harm this bear in any way; I want him to have a long and happy life out there on my porch, grinning at me from his silly face, reminding me of where his first home was.
For his name… is Denali.
18 September 2006 – Fairbanks: The Day of the River
We boarded our coach for Fairbanks, the last destination on our trip, the next morning.
We lucked out with yet another wonderful driver/guide, whose name is N….oh, I promised I wouldn’t say, for reasons that will become obvious…let’s call her Nora.
“I can’t count,” she said cheerfully as we all boarded the coach. “So we’ll do a roll call. Just holler if you’re here.”
And she did. Just like in grade school.
I waved from the front seat.
“Right,” she said, “would anyone who isn’t here please raise their hand…?”
Oh, and the reason that her name has been changed to protect the innocent…? Let’s put it this way – there’s a $500 fine for littering in Alaska, and the story, in her words, goes something like this:
“This is probably the most embarrassing thing to happen to me all season. I was driving down from Fairbanks empty, just like I did this morning, to pick up a load of passengers at the Denali Lodge – and the passing truck drivers were actually smiling at me, and waving, and I thought, how nice, part of the professional driving community at last. I had my music on, but in between songs there was this THUMPTHUMPTHUMP noise in the back – and I looked, but the door to the restroom was closed and it wasn’t that, and I couldn’t see anything else loose, but still it went THUMPTHUMPTHUMP all the time and everyone still kept grinning and waving at me and I was still quite happy about that… and then I finally looked back to where my rear view mirror was showing me that the emergency hatch to the restroom was open, and the spare roll of toilet paper I kept up there had been steadily unwinding and streaming out behind me ALL THIS WAY. That was what the thumping noise was. I stopped the bus and ran back there but by this stage there was nothing left except the cardboard core. Well, I could have just kept quiet about it but it was FUNNY and so I told the passengers when I picked them up, and then, as we were driving back to Fairbanks everyone suddenly started laughing. Because there was suddenly toilet paper EVERYWHERE – in all the trees, in the bushes, on the roadside. I kind of kept quiet about it after that – there’s a fine for littering but I didn’t know if they would count the entire toilet roll as one incident or fine me per strip…”
Other people toilet-paper their neighbor’s house. Nora toilet-papered the state of Alaska.
We stopped for a last look at Denali, whose majestic lower half was just visible peering from underneath heavy gray clouds, and yes, I took some MORE photos. Then we drove on towards Fairbanks, and the sun came out, and we stopped at a lookout overlooking a BEAUIFUL broad valley which still wore its golden fall colours, and there was Denali one more time, distant and ghostly, white against a washed-out sky, a farewell glimpse. We also passed through the small town of Nenana, which the driver was not supposed to do but hey, we were the last bus of the season, when else was she going to take liberties? She told us more stories, about this place:
“This is the site of one of the most lucrative bets in Alaska. When the river freezes (this is the Nenana River, right there by the town) it freezes solid – and then, in the spring they put what they call a Tripod on the ice. It isn’t really a tripod, a tripod has three feet, it’s my pet peeve, that, but they call it that – anyway, it goes on the ice, and when it comes close to the the ice breaking they actually put on a 24-hour watch on that thing, and people place bets on precisely when the ice would break on the river and the tripod is the mark for it. EVERYONE knows when the ice breaks, it’s a crack like thunder. You have to guess PRECISELY, down to the day, the hour, the minute, in order to win. It’s twenty dollars to enter, and last year the purse was $260 000 – thirteen people guessed right, and shared the purse.”
She did say when the ice broke. Precisely. But I forget exactly – I just remember that it was in May. LATE May.
For the rest of it, Nenana doesn’t have much else to have a claim to fame about. It’s a one-street town with tiny little houses, and one shed-like building across from the church announcing that it was a District Court at one end of it and a Barber Shop at the other. I don’t know, perhaps the district judge gave haircuts to plaintiffs before they were allowed into the courthouse…
We heard more about Fairbanks as we came closer. Like the fact that lots of people around here – including some in Fairbanks proper – still have outhouses in terms of attending to calls of nature. Yes, even in mid-winter. The outhouses here have seats made of polystyrene, or lined with fur, otherwise you’d, well, STICK. Until the thaw.
They plug their cars in here when winter hits – because Fairbanks apparently has a temperature range that is frankly unbelivable, ranging from a possible –60F in the winter to 90F in the summertime.
“But they only switch on the power for the cars when it hits zero,” our driver said. “When it does that, I’m fine. It’s the days when it’s five or six outside that I worry whether my car would start…” (I actually took a picture. All the cars in Fairbanks really DO look like they’ve just swallowed your vacuum cleaner while you weren’t looking, and there’s the telltale plug still hanging from their mouth…)
Also, the ratio of men to women out here is something ridiculous like thirteen to one.
“So your odds are good, ladies,” the driver said cheerfully. “But you have to remember that the goods are sometimes very odd indeed…”
We came into Fairbanks around lunchtime, on another perfect day, but the golden aspens and birches were already starting to fade, with showers of golden leaves falling away as the branches stirred and trembled in the breeze. We were given a short and sweet tour of downtown while our driver pointed out places where we might want to stop and eat (except one – we saw a spot called Trapper’s Tavern, not all that inviting anyway, but as we drove past it our driver said in a flat, inflexionless voice, “Don’t go there. I mean it. That’s all I’m saying.” – Which of course piqued my own curiosity immediately. Later on I found out more – apparently the place is just a tad too much of a dive to steer tourists into, full of somewhat ripe represenatitves of the “goods are odd” variety who may not necessarily have taken a bath in the past month of Sundays…) and we finally picked a local Italian restaurant where we were apparently served by a lady who looked like she was owner, the maitre-d, and the chief cook. And just as a slight aside, would anyone else find it vaguely ODD and even disconcerting to be eating spaghetti and meatballs in a dining room festooned with frescoes of grape vines and olive trees and the bright sunlight of a clement and laid-back southern clime in a place where technically it could be minus sixty outside…?
Lunch taken care of, we retreated back to the Visitors Centre where we were supposed to meet our bus, which was supposed to take us to our last excursion on this trip, an afternoon on a paddlesteamer on the Chena River.
The paddlesteamer in question is part of a family-run enterprise – as its little newspaper, the Riverboat Discovery Gazette puts it, “Your three-and-a-half hour cruise will take you into the heart of Alaska and the heart of a family who has made the rivers of Alaska a way of life for four generations”. We boarded the Discovery III, the latest and newest and largest of the paddlesteamers owned by the Binkley family; we saw the other two, the somewhat smaller Discovery II and the original Discovery I, tied up at the dock (which, incidentally, is made up of leftover bits of piping used for the Alaska Oil Pipeline. There is, of course, a story. But we’ll get back to that.). The blurb is perfectly correct – if we had been shown the grand spirit of Alaska’s wilderness as we began this journey, we were ending it right here by being almost literally invited into the lives and the back yards of the people who live and work along this river. The ship moves slowly down the Chena as though through a living diorama – it will slow down to allow the passengers to watch a bush pilot take off in a small puddle jumper plane from a tiny airstrip by the river or a float-plane take off and land on the river itself; it will pause at the kennels belonging to the late Susan Butcher, the four-time winner of the gruelling Iditarod Race, and there is someone there on the shore with a mike and talks to the passengers about the dogs, with a team harnessed into a practice “buggy” so that we can see how excited they get to be in harness and how concentrated and dedicated their attention to the task at hand when at a single word twelve or fourteen dogs leap away as one and vanish in a twinkling of an eye around a bend in the road; it will pause again to talk a young Athabascan woman on the shore who fillets a salmon before our fascinated gaze in about ten seconds without losing any limbs in the process, and tells us about family, about fishing camps, about what kind of salmon is fed to the dogs and what kind to the people, about how to dry and smoke the catch (of which there’s an example set up, right there next to her, and you can actually smell it as you hover there just offshore, a heady whiff of smoke and fish and an ancient culture which is still vital and vivid and thriving in this too-fast, too-comemrcial modern day and age. The ship goes all the way to where a temporary sandbank has closed off the confluence of Chena and Tanana rivers, and then turns, and stops at a nearby bank where it unloads its passengers for about an hour in the Chena Indian village where native guides (girls who are students at local universities and even one from a high school) will tell visitors about life as it was, as their ancestors lived it.
“The one thing this village does not have,” the shipboard guide says, with utmost sincerity, “is a gift shop. This is not a commercial enterprise. You will come here to look, to listen, to learn. There is nothing here for you to buy.”
He is right. Everything in this village is a free gift. It’s that journey into the heart of Alaska, and of its people.
We move from one gathering place to another. At the first stop there’s a talk about home, and how houses were built and furniture made, and a cache house on stilts where traditionally things were kept out of reach of wild animals and above the snows. One young lady sits on the cache steps and explains what animals her people hunted, and what the furs were used for – wolf, fox, mink (“this was not valued until the white man came, and then it became known as the ‘money pelt…’ ”), ermine (“Anyone here from Texas…? Yes…? Well, don’t take this the wrong way but we call these our Texas polar bears…”) the dreaded wolverine, for whom even a bear will step aside, and smaller skins like beaver, otter, muskrat. Later on we see an example of a parka made from six or seven different kinds of these furs, and it’s absolutely exquisite – and a similar parka, if you wanted to own one, would probably cost you close to $20 000. IF you could get it at all, that is.
At another stop we are told about the animals the people domesticated (like reindeer) or how they used the ones they hunted in the wild, or how they used the wild to get whatever they needed for their daily lives. Birch-bark canoes or shelters or baby carriers, moose-hide thongs and ties, a hut made of skins and a hut made of fir branches, a megaphone made from birch bark (“We used to use these to make the bull moose mating call, which would bring the moose for us to hunt,” one of the young ladies said, showing the megaphone. “I suppose you want a demonstration of that?… I thought so…” And then she liftes the megaphone to her lips and starts, with a straight face, “Heeeeeere moosey moosey moosey…” The audience cracks up…)
At a third stop we are shown how furs and hides are cured and prepared to be worked (did anyone have an inkling that moose brain was used in curing hides…? No? Neither did I before this moment…). The huts and houses in the village have sod roofs with flowers growing around the chimneys. There are skins hung out on the walls and fences. Nearby a salmon smoking shed emits its scent of drying fish flesh.
Not too far away is the final stop – the young lady whom we had already met earlier, the one with the dogs on the shore, who has come up here to talk to us, to let us meet the dogs, to answer questions.
There is no NEED for a gift shop here. You are given everything. Freely. You are given things that you couldn’t even afford to buy, even if they had been for sale – dignity, power, talent, knowledge, pride in a heritage, secrets of the past, dreams of a future. This is a living place, and you sink into it, and leave a part of yourself in the woods, and take part of the woods with you – the laughter of the young guides, the yelping of the dogs, the sunlight on the water, the roof-flowers nodding red and blue in the breeze, the texture of bark and fur and a pebbled shore, the scent of sap and salmon and working dog and river water.
And that blessed blue sky and bright sun reign over all, Alaska’s blessing once again, yet another perfect day.
If I had been asked how I envisaged this trip concluded, it would probably not have been this – but it’s perfect, so right, so complete. It’s like I’ve been travelling the high and the wide, like I’ve been soaring with eagles and running with wolves and swimming with whales…. And then, as though I had arrived at a homely house with blue smoke coming from the chimney pot, and had a door open spilling warm yellow light out into the twilight, and been invited inside for a shared supper and a warm bed. It was wonderful, and moving, and magnificent.
Oh, and before we leave – I promised a story – about that dock. The original Captain Jim of the Binkley family saw the potential for these things, and when the Alaska pipeline was selling off a batch of spare pipe he approached them and asked if he could buy a few of the pipes.
“Nothing doing,” he was told, “we sell as is. It’s being sold at auction – if you want to bid you’re perfectly free to do so but you bid on the whole batch.”
Which was way more than Captain Jim needed, but he bid anyway – and won the bid. He used some of the pipes to make a floating dock to which he could keep his boats moored – there was the advantage that he could also fill the pipes (whose ends he had had saealed off) with water if he needed to, which would make the dock heavier so that it would sink, and then he could move his boat right on top of it, pump out the water, raise the dock, and have his own little dry-dock facility. Of course, he was left with a huge surplus of pipe – which was stored in every yard or shed that he could beg borrow or bully out of nearby friends and family.
Came a time when the Alaska Pipeline people ran out of pipe themselves and needed some for repair purposes. Guess who had the only pipe to be had? Captain Jim, of course. So they approached him to sell them back a few pieces of the pipe.
“Nothing doing,” he said. “You’re welcome to buy it, but you buy the whole batch…”
What goes round, comes round. You have to pay the pipe(r)…
But anyway – for us, it was back into the deepening gold of late afternoon, back to our bus, back to the hotel (another Princess Lodge). We’re told there would be a decent chance of seeing the Northern Lights that evening, what with a cold clear night forecast – so I left my name at the front desk to be woken should this little miracle occur – but we weren’t to be so lucky. Not this trip. It is my nagging suspiction that Alaska is a canny place – not that I NEEDED an incentive to return, but Alaska was just making sure I do come back. For I have yet to see the Lights, and now that I’ve seen Alaska I very much want to see them in these skies. Where they really, really belong.
We had a “truly Alaskan” breakfast the next morning – as the breakfast waitress told us. rdeck had Crab Eggs Benedict, and I had Sourdough French Toast (did y’all know that anyone who has spent a full year in Alaska is entitled to being called a Sourdough…?) with the ubiquitous reindeer sausage. And then it was into the bus and to the airport, and into the plane, and as we took off into the late afternoon I turned and blew a kiss at the still-golden aspens beneath us, surrounding a winding river, opening a vista of silver and gold once again, a reminder of a memory.
Until next time, Alaska.
For I will return.
19 September 2006 – Homeward Bound
We landed in Seattle late on the 19th of September.
It was raining.
Alaska was a golden dream, a treasured memory.
We were home.
keep watching that Gallery. I've just added a few more, but I'm having a spot of trouble with some of 'em - however, rest assured, there ARE more pictures coming.