Monday, July 26 -– AnchorageWe got rained out today! We were planning to go on a boat to see the Portage Glacier but we got there to find that a storm had blown in, making travel on the lake impossible.
To get to the glacier, we drove south from Anchorage onto the start of the Kenai Peninsula. We followed Turnagain Arm, a 40-mile long inlet that is very shallow and know for its high tides, which have a range of 30 feet. Just after low tide, the tidal water surges in to the constricted inlet, forming a tidal bore, an abrupt wall of water that can reach a height of 6 feet. We drove along the highway, which follows the arm and has numerous viewpoints, at just the right time, and saw about a 2-foot high bore.
Turnagain Arm is also known as a good place to sight beluga whales. One interpretive panel described an ingenious native hunting technique that involved digging a hole in a sandbar at low tide. A tree was planted upside down in the hole, so that the roots were up in the air like an umbrella. When the tide came in, a native hunter would be perched atop this root platform and be able to harpoon a beluga whale.
As we stopped at the viewpoints along Turnagain Arm, the wind speed intensified and it was hard to stand up. By the time we got to Portage Glacier, rain was being blown horizontally. Driving along at 50mph, sheets of water blew past us on the road. A waterfall at the side of the road literally blew uphill in the stronger gusts of wind!
The glacier cruise cancelled, we decided to go through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier at the head of Prince William Sound. Originally just for rail traffic, it is the longest highway tunnel in North America at 13,200 feet, and takes 6-1/2 minutes to drive through at 25mph. There is a staging area to enter the one-lane tunnel, where a traffic light turns green after about a 100-yard interval between vehicles. All the traffic clears one way, then the traffic waiting on the other side gets its turn to go through. At the toll booth for the tunnel, the attendant told us that the strongest wind gust recorded today was 128mph!
On the way back to Anchorage, we stopped at the Mt Alyeska ski resort. We had intended on riding the tram, which continues to operate in summertime, for the panoramic views from the top, judged by Conde Nast Traveller as the “best view” of any U.S. ski resort.
Unfortunately, the winds closed the tram today, so we headed back to Anchorage to do some of the things we had planned for tomorrow. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city, with over a quarter of a million of the state’s 650,000 citizens living here. At sea level and moderated by the ocean, it kind of reminds me of Victoria, surrounded by water and greenery, at least in summertime. It has a growing season from late May to early September, but with 19-1/2 hours of daylight, plant growth is prolific. Winter is a different story, with only 5-1/2 hours of daylight. Interestingly, the city is shielded from ocean moisture by the mountains on the Kenai Peninsula and averages only 16 inches of precipitation annually.
In shops all over the Yukon and Alaska, you see these strange Eskimo knives with a rocker blade on them. They’re called Ulu knives and we visited the Ulu Factory in Anchorage. Ulus (pronounced oo-loo) have been used by natives for centuries, first made from slate with an antler or bone handle. Now made from stainless steel, it still is their most popular cutting tool, and apparently excels at cleaning and filleting fish. :-)
Our last stop was at a master furrier’s store. This was an incredible experience. I remember growing up that stylishly-dressed ladies had a mink stole or coat. While there were some of this style of coat on display, the modern versions were absolutely beautiful. Some of the furs were dyed bright colours, other coats had a mix of furs. There were hats, scarves, boots, and blankets as well as the coats. Prices were extraordinary, ranging from a few hundred dollars for a chinchilla hat that I tried on to a ladies coat for $8,500. The private gallery had items that were probably well in excess of that. The salesman very graciously put up with five obvious non-prospects trying on hats, and even more graciously observed that in the company of my four sons, I was a millionaire in the truest sense of the word. I agreed with him.
Tuesday, July 27 -– Anchorage to Talkeetna Undaunted by yesterday’s rainout, we drove the 60 miles back to the Portage Glacier cruise terminal. Actually, we phoned first to make sure the cruises were sailing. Although the weather in Anchorage was clear, by the time we drove all the way up Turnagain Arm it was rainy and windy again. We were to find out later that between Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound is Portage Pass. The wind funnels in, creating a venturi effect (wind tunnel). The result is that Portage Pass is always windy, and frequently cloudy and rainy.
The cruise is on Portage Lake, a 4-1/2 mile long lake 650 feet deep. One hundred years ago, there was no lake, but the glacier has receded and filled the lake with meltwater. No fish or plants live in the lake, it is so heavily laden with glacial silt. Glacial silt is sand that has been ground to the consistency of flour by the grinding action of the rocks in the glacier. As the glacier used to be only nine miles long, it has lost nearly half in the last hundred years.
The hour-long cruise was narrated by a ranger from the U.S. Forest Service, as the glacier is within the boundary of Chugach State Forest. His talk was very informative and the boat took us right to the foot of the glacier. Along the way, dozens of waterfalls poured into the lake. At the glacier, 100-foot ice cliffs towered above, while another 250 feet were invisible beneath the surface of the water. The boat had a glassed in main deck and an exposed upper observation deck. When we got to the foot of the glacier, we went onto the observation deck. Although it was raining, it was more sheltered from the wind at this end of the lake. The glacier looked so immense from the water below it.
The rainy weather over the last day and a half had melted some ice and numerous small icebergs were in an ice floe along one edge of the glacier. The ranger said that hadn’t been there on the last cruise two days ago. While we were watching, there was a loud crack, between a closeup gunshot blast and thunder in its loudness, and a small chunk of ice fell from one of the towers of ice. We were hoping for more calving to take place while we watched, but it didn’t happen. The whole experience, however, was awesome.
After a quick lunch, we drove back into Anchorage, hooked up the trailer, and started the drive towards Talkeetna. Along the way, we stopped at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters. The Iditarod is a 1,000-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome that takes place every year. It follows a traditional mail and supply route serviced by dog sleds, and is now a National Historic Trail. The race has come to be known as the Last Great Race on Earth.
In the 1920s, dog sleds carried precious serum to the isolated community of Nome, which had experienced an outbreak of diphtheria. Plans to send in an airplane were thwarted by the weather. Instead, a relay of dog teams was dispatched. Twenty mushers carried the serum and were awarded gold medals for bravery by then President Coolidge. A statue of Balto, the lead dog of the finishing team, was erected in New York City’s Central Park.
Notwithstanding their historical significance as a link to the outside world for these communities, when air travel and snowmobiles arrived, the dog teams began to disappear. The Iditarod Trail was largely forgotten until the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1967. Held each year in March, the race includes competitors from around the world and is a test of stamina and knowledge that pits mushers and dog teams against some of the harshest conditions on the planet.
At the trail headquarters, there are memorabilia and videos of the race. Dog sled rides are also available. Well, not exactly a sled, but a cart. A team of 12 dogs guided by a musher pull it on a short circuit across a forest trail. They go fast! About 12mph. The musher, the son of the man who started the race in the 1960s, said that the pace on the Iditarod would be slower, but on other, shorter races, the pace would be even faster.
You can pet the dogs and the pups. I was surprised to see that although the dogs were Huskies, they were smaller, leaner, and wirier than I had expected them to be. They were frisky, friendly and good-natured.
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