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Times of the Islands Magazine

Striking It Rich In Alaska: Trip of a lifetime to the majestic and extraordinary 49th state

May 07, 2021 02:53PM ● By TANYA HOCHSCHILD
Striking It Rich In Alaska: Trip of a lifetime to the majestic and extraordinary 49th state [4 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Flying into a wild and still largely undiscovered place makes the heart beat a little faster. We had seen photos of salmon arcing like zeppelins through clear river water, grizzlies facing down homesteaders, wolves howling at the aurora borealis. Alaska speaks to us of moods and seasons and has always been the last frontier, calling out to gold miners looking for the bonanza or individuals wanting to be alone in a vast wilderness, living a life beyond community

Its majestic landscape continually overwhelmed us as we looped a portion of the state in 10 days, traveling from Anchorage to Fairbanks to Skagway and points in between. Throughout the journey, we saw vast expanses of seemingly uninhabited terrain. Then we’d spot a moose swimming in a lake, or a bald eagle circling above a snowcapped escarpment. Each sighting was significant.

There are no traffic jams and hardly any billboards. A memorable one read: “Santa Claus, North Pole”—advertising the post office in a one-building town where most of the world’s “Dear Santa” letters arrive. And yes, the reindeer (called caribou) are plentiful.

The 49th state is made up of a jigsaw puzzle of rock formations such as marble, schist, limestone and basalt that, drawn to the top of the world, rafted up as a result of continental drift caused by plate tectonics and docked in Alaska. The land is covered for miles and miles by western red cedar, Sitka spruce and western hemlocks—trees that colonized as a result of spores attaching themselves to bare bedrock, creating soil, grasses and berries—and over the centuries providing a growing environment for today’s forests. Landslides, fires and windstorms still control the landscape. Much of the ground underneath the root systems is permafrost.

We landed in Anchorage, in the land of the midnight sun, in early July and for the entire time in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, Canada, did not see a star in the sky. Whatever time we went to bed, the sun was up and never went below the horizon. An avid local golfer told us the most popular tee time is midnight.

The first portion of our journey from Anchorage to Denali National Park and Preserve was aboard one of the glass-domed railcars of the McKinley Explorer. From this air-conditioned vantage point, we enjoyed postcard vistas all day. We saw salmon migrating up the creeks to spawn, and smokehouses pouring smoke as they dried the salmon.

We traveled over Hurricane Gulch on a trestle bridge and saw log caches (huts on stilts) in which homesteaders store food supplies away from animals. Tourists, of course, are encouraged to eat and drink and are served by very friendly Alaskan students who work on the trains for their summer jobs.

The park is larger than Massachusetts. Mount McKinley is the highest peak on the Alaska Range, referred to as Denali, the “High One,” by the Athabascan Native people. We passed spectacular panoramas of unpolluted rivers under a huge blue sky—lucky because it’s mostly rainy and foggy. The sun pierced the sky with a special light found usually in the late afternoon in more southern spots, backlighting the trees whose shadows stretch to the nearby Arctic Circle.

Driving over the tundra, we saw moose, Dall’s sheep and bear. We watched a grizzly kill and eat a marmot, saw large caribou with even larger antlers, gyrfalcons and bald eagles, ptarmigan and ravens. Polychrome Pass displayed Arctic lupine, Iceland poppies, arnica and forget-me-nots, all celebrating their release from winter.

To get to places in much of Alaska, you fly in a bush plane, float plane or travel by boat. Many teens learn to fly when they learn to drive. On the Tanana and Chena rivers, near Fairbanks, we boarded the sternwheeler Riverboat Discovery. Her crew are all Alaskans, including various Native Alaskan guides, Eskimos, Aleuts and Tlingit.

We passed log homes with grass and flowers growing on the roof, making good insulation and preventing animals from eating the flowers. Students dress almost like astronauts and the school bus has a strobe light attached to it. The guides told us the ratio of men to women are favorable to women, but one added, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd!”

On the Yukon River, we were on the state-of-the-art Yukon Queen. Lifted by the speed from the water, we seemed to be hydroplaning down to Dawson City. We left from Eagle, Alaska, having said our farewells to the town’s one horse.

We’d previously been in Chicken, Alaska, so named because townsfolk couldn’t agree on how to spell ptarmigan, a local bird, so they settled on the easier spelling. The entire town is one building. Many towns in the Yukon lasted only as long as it took rumor mills to spread word of a gold discovery in some distant hills and the stampede was on again.

Dawson City, home of Diamond Tooth Gertie, dancehall queen Klondike Kate and countless other characters, retains the feel of a gold rush town. We visited the rustic cabin of “Bard of the Yukon” Robert W. Service. He wrote about the bawdy celebrations going on down the street in the saloons and dancehalls and “the strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold … ” (excerpt from the “Cremation of Sam McGee.”)

A handsome Mountie, resplendent in his red uniform, patrols the sand streets—but gone are the thousands who panned for gold at El Dorado and Bonanza creeks. There is still gold in “them thar hills” and prospectors work them, but the main excitement in town is the annual “breakup” of ice on the Yukon River. Bets are placed as when it will happen; in spring, townsfolk line the river to wait and watch.

Another memorable trip on the water was exploring Misty Fjords National Monument out of Ketchikan, in southeast Alaska. Fjords are glacially carved valleys filled with seawater. This area, charted years ago by Capt. Vancouver, deserves to be the centerspread in National Geographic.

For two and a half hours, we cruised alongside forested slopes without a break in their canopy. We came upon a black bear feasting on a beached whale carcass, and heard the calls of roosting mew gulls nesting on a steep vertical cliff face.

We passed splashing waterfalls and saw harbor seals and pups sunning themselves on a rocky island. At the end of the cruise, there were four float planes waiting to fly us back to Ketchikan. There were six of us in the plane, including the pilot; for me, this was an “extreme sport” experience.

The world was made up of three distinct colors—blue sky, green canopy of the forest and the white snow. We seemed to be just missing the tops of snowcapped peaks. I felt I could scoop up some snow just outside the plane’s window. The glistening braids of fjords below were beyond description and long after the ride was over, we were “still floating.”

We boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway train at Whitehorse and traveled over passes and through valleys bound for Skagway. These were the same spectacular mountain passes that took the lives of so many backpacking fortune seekers pursuing their golden dreams more than 100 years ago. 

Leaving the mainland and its history of the quest for the motherlode, we boarded the mother of all cruise ships—a floating palace, a city of sybaritic pleasures, a dome away from home. It was the old joke: We arrived as passengers and disembarked as cargo. One glorious evening, after the parade of the flaming baked Alaskas (what else!), those of us who still had the energy to applaud, raised our glasses to the chefs.

The cruise ship tours Glacier Bay, which is part of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Her deck serves as a splendid platform to view not only the orca and humpback whales but also the jewels in Alaska’s crown—her glaciers.

There are many active tidewater glaciers, mostly receding, but many advancing. It is their power that shapes the mountains and valleys, and created the bay we sailed on. Ice continues to carve the landscape. These rivers of ice, as tall as New York skyscrapers, continually calf (release) icebergs into the water. Calving is an awesome sight and sound; listening to the grinding of the ice before the explosion of its impact on the water is an unforgettable experience.

This extraordinary place is a World Heritage Site and also a Biosphere reserve, so its pristine beauty is assured. After four days of cruising, we disembarked in Vancouver. All too soon, it was a shock to be back in “civilization” again. Robert W. Service would have been depressed!

Tanya Hochschild has been a freelance writer in South Africa, where she grew up, and in the U.S., her home since 1981. She is the author of a historical novel, a memoir, an anthology of poetry, and biographies of nonagenarian residents of Fort Myers-based Shell Point Retirement Community