Thursday, July 8, 2010

Independence Day

We were privileged to celebrate the Birthday of the Greatest Nation on Earth in truly American style with a 4th of July parade, baseball game and fireworks.

The parade was a much bigger success than our first Alaskan parade. Clad in American colors, and armed with US flags, we joined the proud Americans lining the streets of downtown Anchorage to cheer on the parade as it marched by.

There was a huge military presence, and we were all liberally asking God to 'bless our troops', thanking them for fighting for and maintaining freedom. It got a bit gushy, but it was quite amazing to witness such unabashed national pride.

In the evening we attended our first baseball game, the Glacier Pilots vs. the Bucs. We weren't too sure of the rules, but after watching several innings ending with no runs on the board, we've decided that no-one can call cricket boring! The Glacier Pilots swapped their regular blue shirts for military replicas, but it still wasn't enough to win. After ten innings, the score was 6-2 to the Bucs.

The match ended with a fireworks extravaganza, which kicked off with a 21-gun salute in honor of the brave men and women who risk their lives for the land of the free and the home of the brave. God Bless America!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Trains and Glaciers

Portage Glacier is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Alaska, so we headed on down to see what all the fuss was about. We caught the signature blue and yellow Alaska Railway scenic train down to Whittier, and the trip was absolutely charming. The conductor came up into our double-decker carriage to talk about the Alaskan wildlife, and the train even slowed down as we passed some Dall sheep up on the cliffs. The entrance to Whittier is via a three-mile long, single-track tunnel, which is shared by trains and cars.

Whittier is a tiny, one-road town, with one main building which houses apartments, the hospital, the grocery store, and has a tunnel connecting it to the school. It comes to life in summer as cruise ships and catamarans come to view the glaciers. The ranger on board our ship pointed out a black bear, sea otters, and harbor seals, as well as oyster catchers and a kittiwake rookery. The trees came right down to the shoreline, and the teal sea and spectacular waterfalls left the impression that we were cruising through a tropical island!

It was quite surreal to put on our thick winter coats in the middle of summer, and sail past icebergs in the sea, crackling and popping as they floated on by. The glaciers were just breathtaking, dazzling us with their immense size and ice-blue color. We even saw a couple of chunks of ice calve off the glaciers and plunge into the sea. It was truly magnificent!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Coastal Trail

There are hundreds of miles of trails winding their way through Anchorage, the most famous of which is the 11-mile Coastal Trail from Kincaid Park to Downtown. I undertook this route with friends from South Africa, but without our trusty navigator, Daniel. At first we thought we were the only ones smart enough to walk the trail downhill, but we soon realized that everyone else was actually doing a roundtrip! Unfortunately, we had also added a very unnecessary five-mile detour to our walk before we even started, so our Coastal Trail was much more challenging than it needed to be.

The walk was beautiful, however, and we saw lots of exciting wildlife. A marvelous moose bull actually blocked our path for a little while, causing us to back up a bit in case he decided to charge. We also came across a couple of moose cows, some squirrels, and lots of birds, including a downy woodpecker and a family of rare sandhill cranes.

Towards the end of the trail, we stumbled upon our first Anchorage mansions, hugging the coastline. We also finally figured out where all the postcard photos of the city skyline are taken from!

And lastly, I quite enjoyed the signs advertising the multi-use Coastal Trail. Perhaps Daniel and I will try it this way next time!

The Big Five

The Alaskan Big Five doesn't feature the King of the Jungle, but anything that has a sheep at the top of its list definitely beats the African equivalent!

Dall Sheep

Moose Cow

Caribou (Reindeer)


Grizzly Bear Cub


Denali National Park and Preserve is over six million acres of "pure, rugged wilderness", 240 miles north of Alaska. It is home to Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. This elusive mountain is visible to fewer than 30% of Denali visitors, and we were lucky to get a glimpse of the snowy slopes when the clouds disappeared for a generous few seconds.

Denali is completely different in every way from a South African game reserve. Whereas in the Kruger you can drive your own vehicle along the many park roads and spot wildlife around every corner, in Denali there is only one 90-mile long road in the entire park, and access after mile 15 is only available on tour or shuttle buses.

Another big difference is the lack of wildlife. Very few animals choose to stay in Alaska over the winter, and only a few return for the summer. Thus animal sightings are generally few and far between, but we felt like we had the two luckiest days in the park. We saw the Alaskan Big Five, as well as a red fox, snowshoe hares, Arctic ground squirrels, and lots of birds, including golden eagles, northern harriers, goshawks and shrikes, and even a little short-eared owl.

One of the most impressive aspects of the park was the magnificent views. Two mountain ranges meet in the park, amidst intertwining river and glacial valleys. In the dappled sunlight, the landscapes were extraordinary.

Brooks Lodge

Brooks Lodge is world-famous for the salmon run up Brooks River and the opportunistic bears which feast on the spawning fish. The lodge mainly attracts fishermen, but there were a few of us who were there just for the bear-viewing off the platforms overlooking the falls.

Later in the summer, the bears stand in these falls and wait for the salmon to leap up the waterfall into their open mouths. They become greedy and fat in the short summer before they fall asleep for months on end. The bear presence wasn't at its peak while we were there, but we still had lots of great sightings. One bear blocked our path when we were out on a cultural tour of the area, and Daniel and I saw a big bear just five yards below us under the viewing platform. We even had a bear perform some tricks for us!

The presence of bears increased towards the end of our trip, so much so that our flight home was delayed by a 'bear jam'. We were unable to reach our plane for boarding due to a rather curious bear...


We were told by friends that the one thing we should do during our time in Alaska is to take a trip to Katmai in south-west Alaska. We took the (rather expensive) plunge and headed to the famous bear-viewing destination with friends from South Africa. It was worth every penny!

We flew to King Salmon and then took a dinky six-seater seaplane to Brooks Lodge. We enjoyed spectacular views from our precarious perch among the clouds, and the new snow-free Alaskan forests, rivers and mountains were breathtaking. We also all loved the experience of the float plane taking off and landing on water.

We went on a tour of 'The Valley of 10,000 Smokes', a lunar landscape created by the world's largest volcanic eruption in 1912. On the drive there we were treated to a rare sighting of a wolverine. These creatures are supposedly extremely vicious, but all we saw was a very cute and fluffy bum running down the road in front of our bus. The walk down into the valley was incredible, and we were refreshed by the spray from the rivers carving canyons through otherwise barren land.

Each night after our tours and bear-viewing, we enjoyed some wine during the long Alaskan evenings. Since the sun didn't set while we were still awake, we 'settled' for a backdrop of a late silver dusk, gleaming off the glacial blue waters of Naknek Lake.