Alaska 1995

In the summer of 1995 we aimed for Alaska as a destination. It is also known as The Last Frontier, because of its ruggedness, its unforgiving climate and large areas of wilderness. The following photos will illustrate some of that, I hope.

Panorama over Hatcher Pass Road
North of Anchorage, starting point for us (and most), one finds Palmer. There is a beautiful road, large part just gravel and unmaintained in winter, through the Hatcher Pass to Willow. The scenery is very rewarding.

campground at Willow Island Resort We had decided to "rough it" and brought a tent to camp most nights. Sleeping can be uncomfortably cold if you consider that a few feet down an ice pack starts that goes down more than a mile ! So you have to consider the quality of your matress and your sleeping bag carefully. Nevertheless we slept with clothes on a few nights.
The campsite here is at the Willow Island Resort. The river contained large King Salmons and a lot of people come here to fish for salmons.
We laughed when the landlord cracked jokes about bears, but thought otherwise when we found fresh beartracks on a walk only a few minutes down river... The Last Frontier, remember ?

Typical local road....
The weather is something else here. During our trip rain and sunshine came at regular intervals: a day of rain, the next day the sun shone freely and the next day we had cloud ceiling on the ground... If it rained it was a slow drizzle mostly. Roads into communities were often like this one at Talkeetna, near Mt. McKinley.

Beautiful rainbow over
The tent is clearly outnumbered BY RV's here at "River's Edge", a campground just outside Fairbanks. You would hardly believe that this photo was taken after 10pm ! Here we went to sleep and never saw the sun go down, it was up again just after 4am. And of course we weren't.
There is a disadvantage of beautiful evenings like these: mosquitos ! They are out in full force with some sunshine and little wind. They are a pain when you are trying to enjoy the evening or read a book.
At those times I could envy those comfortable RV's !

A DC-6 is being loaded with freight Because there are few roads in Alaska, many communities depend on "air support". All sorts of goods go by air: fuel, supplies, furniture, building materials, etc. Here an old tired workhorse, Douglas DC-6, is being loaded on an oil-drenched ramp. These airliners date from the 1950s and finished their tours of duty with most well known airlines in the early 1960s. But these propellor transports are capable of landing at very primitive airfields, if they would deserve that qualification at all sometimes.
These "propliners" also serve the mining industry here and those airstrips often defy the imagination !
Unfortunately, rarely a season goes by without one of these transports falling victim to a mishap that is often weather-related.

Map of Alaska It is easy to see that by road you don't get far in Alaska; most areas you need a plane to get anywhere. Many communities depend on air travel to get the goods and supplies brought to them.
We also found along our route, that if a supply truck hadn't come along, they would not be able to feed you a dinner and the next meal was 50 miles further up the road !
We had taken a Moon Publications travelguide with us, the Alaska-Yukon Handbook. The Handbooks are my favourite travelguides, the style and info agrees with me. For a map I always buy the latest edition of Rand McNally's Roadmap, easy to use and plenty of information. In a supermarket we also picked up a copy of Mileposts. It covers all major roads and notes in detail with reference to the The Milepost what's to be seen, done or about facilities (hikes, food, etc.)

A Reindeer Laboratory... We had hoped to find lodging in Cantwell, but it was boarded up. We decided to check things out and drove up on the dirt road. It seemed deserted, till we saw a small airplane taxi towards us, on that same dirt road ! We gave it right of way and guessed people were going to the city for groceries. There were no shops in Cantwell, but there was a Reindeer Research Laboratory ! Unfortunately, there were no reindeers about and no people to ask about their business; probably closed too, it looked a bit rundown. So we made out for the Highway again, without a clue where we'd be able to sleep that night

Tyre repair at Gracious House (c) R. Leeuw After Cantwell we set out on the Denali Highway. It's a highway Alaskan style: unpaved, unmaintained and closed in winter. But with fantastic scenery, left and right.
The road was, however, covered with sharp stones, so it was slow going. We had hoped to complete it and find a campground at the other side (135 miles, 218 kilometers) by nightfall. But our progress was slow and in spite of the late sunsets, we would not make it by daylight. So, where to camp ?
Fate intervened: we got a flat tyre ("Denali Special") within sight of Gracious House (half way on this "highway") and they had a repair shop as well as cabins for rent. And some good food too !

Where eagles soar... view on the glaciers (c) R. Leeuw Over breakfast I told the owners of my frustrations sofar not having been able to arrange a scenic ("flightseeing") flight, because of the weather or insurance policies of people I approached with my request. Back in the kitchen, a pilot of a small floatplane was having his breakfast and he was asked to join us in the conversation.
He used his World War II Piper Cub (on floats) to bring hunters and fishermen to remote areas and flew in regularly with supplies for these people. As he had no flights planned that day, he could offer 2 seats for a short flight. We agreed about a price (bring cash, credit cards cannot be verified here and will not be accepted) and we set out for nearby Roosevelt Lake. We had an excellent flight, a unique experience (I am not in the habit of chartering flights on the spot).
The pilot was carefull not to "buzz" any animals, keeping distance and showing responsibilty. The flight to the glaciers was a bit of a struggle for the small plane, circling for height, but the view was very rewarding.

The road to Valdez is lined with glaciers The road south, to Valdez, is more or less a dead end. I was tempted to take a left turn, towards Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. But we had had another flat tyre and was not sure about one that was repaired: I kept looking in my mirror, thinking it was going flat. Of course it wasn't, but I did not feel like trying my luck on another unpaved, rough road.
If you don't get on a ferry out of Valdez, you have to drive back the same way. I had thought that ferries go each day, but it was another 2-day wait for the next one (1-weekly Valdez-Seward). So that's what we did, drive back part of the same way when we headed back for Anchorage and on to Kenai and Seward. But the scenery, with glaciers reaching down to the road, is very rewarding and never boring.

You can't have the sun shine forever...! Valdez (pronounced Valdeeeeeez) is a small city on the Valdez Arm/Prince William Sound and a harbor for fishermen, sightseeing cruise ships and oil tankers. Valdez sits behind the mountains at the waterfront and when you sail out, you feel like you are in a Scandinavian fjord.
Camping was not so cold here.
The Alaskan Pipeline ends here and big oil tankers take it in to ship it to the world waiting. Remember the Exxon Valdez ?
The fishermen give it an authentic atmosphere, but most tourists come here to board a sightseeing cruise and hope to see whales. We did that and had an excellent day, though we did not see any whales (had better luck at Seward).

The sun plays a little magic over the low clouds The cruise provided with some extraordinary views. Though the clouds were present as ever, the sun was there too. The captain found his way through the packice, navigating very carefully with an alert eye on his underwater radar. We enjoyed the warm rays of the sun and the magnificent scenery around us.
The crew provide you with valid information and there is documentation on board to distinguish the varied wildlife: harbor seals, steller sea lions, sea otters, humpback whale, killer whales, harbor porpoises, horned puffins and the list goes on ! You won't get bored.

Steller Sea Lions sunbathing on the rocks Steller Sea Lions dozing in the sun... It is not just the wildlife that makes the trip rewarding, but the scenery with these little islands as well.
It is good advise to bring binoculars, as you want to see them up close. You'll want to stare the fish eagle in the face. And everybody wants to be the first one to "discover" a whale or whatever ! But it's hard to beat the trained eyes of the crew...

This is what I'd call: picture perfect ! This photo was taken on the cruise trip from Seward; again the destination was a glacier and we did see quite a bit of wildlife en route. We even saw 2 sharks, while sharks are not common in these cold waters. The guide told us that the sharks were probably following the salmon trail (like most tourists seem to do, too !).
The cruise ships are pleasantly modest in size, esspecially when you compare it to the size of that glacier !
You hear loud bangs every now and then, similar to gunshots in fact. That's ice, breaking away from the glacier.

Not every day a whale waves good bye !
So, we did see a whale. Two in fact. But they are not easy to photograph. Most of the time you get a bend back, when the head goes down into the deep and the rest simply follows... Even then you have to be quick, as they are out of sight most of the time. They stay under water 5-8 minutes and it's difficult to predict where exactly they will resurface.
Maybe it was just not the time of year to go jumping about and frolicking in the water for benefit of the camera-happy tourists. Still, with some of its breath blown out of its blowhole lingering over the water and a nice wave with its tail, I was quite pleased with this shot.

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Fun Facts about Alaska

Alaska adopted the flag for official state use in 1959. The blue field represents the sky, the sea, and mountain lakes, as well as Alaska's wildflowers. Emblazoned on the flag are eight gold stars: seven from the constellation Ursa Major, or the Big Dipper. The 8th being the North Star, representing the northern most state. Alaska's flag was designed in 1926 by a 13-year-old Native American boy, Bennie Benson, from the village of Chignik. Bennie received a 1,000-dollar scholarship and a watch for his winning entry in the flag design contest.

And That's All Folks !