The ship arrives in Whittier on a sunny Saturday morning and we disembark and meet Jim, our coach driver for this part of the tour. He gives the commentary – Whittier has a population of 300 and almost every one of them lives in a tower block of 15 stories which has an underground tunnel leading to the school over the road. No excuse for not going to school when the snow is 2 m deep! The tour of Whittier takes all of three minutes as we literally circle the apartment block and boat park where all the fishing boats are parked, a grocery store and hotel. Whittier is a deep water port in Prince William Sound and this tiny place is accessed through the longest road tunnel in North America (4 km) shared with the Alaska Railroad. Every coach has a pre-determined time to travel the tunnel so we have a little time to fill in at this tiny place. We exit the tunnel to beautiful scenery of green mountains left and right with huge white glaciers spilling down the wide valleys. Salmon is spawning in the rivers and the sun is enhancing this beautiful visual feast. The bright pink fireweed is starting to go to seed and we are told this is one of the markers that snow will indeed be fallin here in about six weeks and the long eight months of winter will begin where these people do not ever see the sun in that time and have approximately five hours of daylight a day. You don’t need to be told that you don’t see shops selling bathing suits, beachwear or boogie boards in this place! Deary me – we packed the togs but I can tell y’all they haven’t come out of the case and there is no time today to ride a bore tide – darn it!
We stop at the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Centre to view these elusive black bears, brown bears, bison, elk, marmot, Lynx, wolves, black tail dear, red fox, porcupine with lots of area to roam. Today was birthday day and our group enjoys a happy hour out beside our little log cabin here at Kenai Wilderness Lodge, perched near the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers, because two of us in the group have a birthday today and funnily enough we are both turning 22 so that surely is cause for celebration! The sun is shining and our happy bunch makes the most of the happy hour out in the fresh air. All this excitement is followed by dinner – an Alaskan experience you might say because all six of us at the table ordered Bering Sea King Crab – the biggest crab legs you ever did see accompanied by a toolbox of implements to extract the absolutely delicious meat. All this was washed down with a few glasses of bubbly and a happy day came to an end with best wishes from many friends and all the family and special grandkids.
This morning we had signed up for one of the Freechoice excursions that Scenic puts on for us at most places we visit and we had chosen a four-hour nature hike so off we set to be delivered to the company providing this and two young ladies drove us out to the starting point. Heaven help us – there is a new Bear Alert notice at the entrance to the track so I’m thinking we might break the record for the 5-mile hike! We hiked on a nice track called The Russian River Hike to a river where the salmon were trying their very best to get upstream to spawn. It was fascinating standing on the platform watching all the activity. Then these two girls put down a tablecloth on the steps, a vase of wild flowers and an array of snacks for us to enjoy before we hiked back to spend the afternoon relaxing at the lodge.
Monday today and we depart the lovely Kenai Wilderness Lodge on this rainy morning and start the drive to Anchorage. The changes in the landscape are noticeable with the fall colours starting to show up on the birch trees and the swathes of red fireweed are dying. It is interesting to talk to people here as many working in the lodges and for the tour companies are here only for the season and the season is coming to an end. A lady we spoke to last night told us she and her husband are retired but they drove 6700 miles from their home in Florida to work here in Kenai for the season. They drove their RV, towing a trailer with a little car and a boat and they have loved the season here and are thinking of returning next year.
As we get to the Turnagain Arm the tide is coming in and we witness a bore tide where a wave forms on the incoming tide and that wave can continue for a few kms so the surfers love it. But my question is – how many surfers are livin ‘ere? The coach driver Jim tells us that the Beluga whales can often be seen here and no sooner are the words out of his mouth and one surfaces and as we drive along the coast several more pods surface to our amazement. We continue on and the bald eagles are also staring at us from their perch at the top of the trees. There are many many dead trees with their feet deep in salt water as a result of an earthquake which caused the road to sink a few metres.
We stop in Anchorage for lunch. The city centre is about the size of Hamilton and it is a busy place. We stop at the official start of the Iditarod Trail but we are also told that last year they had to truck in enough snow so that sleds could actually start here. There are two airports here and an awful lot of planes because many places in Alaska are not accessible by roads so the planes are kept busy. The streets are named A, B, C, 1, 2, 3 here in Anchorage – easy!
After lunch we set off towards Copper River and we are now travelling on the third of the Alaska’s three freeways and a busy road it is. All vehicles must have their headlights on when on the main highways and freeways by law. We pass two very large military bases up in this part of the world and we are reminded that Russia is very close by – in fact it is only 50 miles from Alaska! We arrive at the beautiful Copper River Wilderness Lodge in a very pretty setting looking out to the mountains which are sprinkled with snow. We could easily be in the South Island and it is reminding us of Glenorchy. The Lodge is situated beside America’s largest national Park, Wrangell-St Elias and the area has a rich mining history. They are also celebrating mid-winter Christmas here so the Lodge is all decorated up with Christmas trees and lights, Christmas music, the fire is roaring in the lovely lounge area and Santa is visiting tonight. We have two days here in this beautiful setting so this morning we set off for a little nature walk through the bush. The aspen trees are very tall and the fall colours are still evident even in the bush. At 8.30 pm there is a flag lowering ceremony outside the main entrance of the lodge so we all go off to witness this. The music is playing and the flags are slowly lowered – the final flag is the American flag lowered to the national anthem. One veteran present was selected to accept the folded flags and put them into the box and at the end of this rather emotional ceremony about eight veterans who were present were asked to come forward and accept a miniature American flag.
After lunch we head off as a group to the Wrangell-St Elias national park. Now this national park is the largest in America – it is also bigger than Switzerland in size with higher mountains. It has a total area of 13.2 million acres. On the way to the park we make a stop at the great Alaska oil pipeline which stretches 800 miles or approximately 1200 km in length. The building of this began in 1975, finished in 1977, cost $8 billion and was privately funded. When it was built it was considered to have a 30 year lifespan but it is still being used although many of the oil fields have closed. It crosses three mountain ranges and over 500 rivers and streams. When it was being built there were concerns that the line would hinder the caribou migration but the caribou have grown to like it often settling under the line when the ground starts to get cold. We were told that in winter the pipeline is slightly heated so the oil will keep flowing and was built to withstand an 8.5 magnitude quake and has, in fact, been subjected to an 8.3 magnitude quake. It is truly a clever example of engineering.
We return to the Lodge to see a film on Aurora Borealis and then, after dinner, the sled dog ride. Well, goodness me – this was a highlight. The guy running the sled dogs is an interesting character – he lives with 20 dogs and I am thinking his living conditions are pretty basic. He tells us that he hasn’t left the area for 10 years; originally was a truck driver and then got a reputation for looking after dogs very well. Before he knew it he was getting calls from far and wide to take another dog. These dogs respond just to his body language and a few words and he certainly has a very close connection with them. We board the “sled” which is a very comfortable vehicle on wheels for the dogs to pull. He links three dogs up to do the first run and then we go back to the base to collect the 6-month old puppy to add to the mix. These dogs are so eager to get to work – they get so excited at the thought of pulling us and this guy hasn’t even asked how much we weigh (thank goodness for that because we told you about the shrinking clothes and we are not keen to go anywhere near any scales!) Off we go and we are loving it and these dogs are loving it and the musher seems to be enjoying himself too. We stop again – the dogs get ice in their bowls this time and this is a real treat for them. By this stage some of our group is standing outside the Lodge waving and awaiting our return so that they can pat these beautiful dogs. We are so pleased we did this even though there was no snow on the ground! And to our relief the dogs pulled us easily so we are thinkin we are lighter than we thought!
On we go now to Denali and the last few days of this absolutely amazing adventure. And no – we didn’t have a reindeer hotdog because we knew Oliver and Isabella would never forgive us if we did!