NORTH to ALASKA: One if by Land

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART ONE: One if by Land

Eventually we all have to confront our fears. My time came this summer. Young DavidEver since I was young I’ve had a reoccurring nightmare of being trapped at sea on a mid-size cruise ship in a cold climate. While on this ship I’m forced by tribal customs to eat sizeable meals every 4 hours and make pleasant conversation with large numbers of people from all over the world. (But more about my nightmare later.)

This year was my wife’s turn to pick our summer vacation destination and Dina chose Alaska. I believe she selected it in retaliation for my choosing Cuba last summer. Dina is not a fan of hot weather, humidity or nail polish, and I’m not a fan of cold weather, gated communities or cruise ships. The dagger to my heart was that, in addition to the cold of Alaska, part of the trip would be spent on a cruise ship.Coral Princess

The first thing I did was research weather in Alaska in August. Not too bad – a high of low 60’s to 70˚F. What did concern me was descriptions like “weather highly unpredictable”, “dress in layers” and “Alaska gets rainier as the summer progresses”. We set off on July 29th with our first stop being Anchorage. The weather gods must have been listening to my prayers, because when we landed it was 80˚F and sunny. And I do mean sunny because at that time of year Anchorage experiences 20 hours of sunlight per day. Lucky for us our hotel room had blackout curtains.

What’s the first thing to do after landing in Anchorage? Play “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked – a personal favorite of mine. What’s the second thing? Find a place to eat some great seafood. For us it was Simon’s and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill. After consuming a dozen local oysters, wild Alaska salmon Carpaccio, crab cakes, and several glasses of sauvignon blanc while watching the sun go down over the bay, we were ready to start our Alaskan adventure.

Mt. McKinley RangeOur first stop was the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, where Mt. McKinley (proper name is Mt. Denali – meaning “The High One”) could be seen in the distance. Standing at 20,237 feet tall it’s the highest mountain peak in North America and only fully visible 33% of the time. We took a short bus ride to Talkeetna, a small village at the base of the mountain, for a glacier landing with K2Aviation. Put this awesome adventure on your bucket list!

Jeff BabcockJeff Babcock, a retired 28 year veteran pilot of the Alaskan State Troopers was our pilot and enjoys his job. As soon as the de Havilland Otter took off, Jeff’s shoulders relaxed and he cracked jokes through our headsets. After flying over moose grazing below, we were within a mile of one of the most amazing sights in the world. To accentuate the moment Jeff pressed play on his iPod mini and we were instantly grooving to Johnny Horton singing “North to Alaska” followed by John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”. Yes, I know where the second song takes place, but it still worked.

Glacier LandingWe landed at an elevation of 5600 feet on the Ruth Glacier. Alaska is aptly nicknamed “The Last Wilderness”. The scene was one of austere beauty – vast, quiet, pristine and uninhabited. Dina and I were as silent as the landscape, awed and aware that we were in a place that only a small percentage of the world population will ever see.

The following day we panned for gold with Rich Humphrey, the new owner of Denali Gold Tours in Trappers Creek, Alaska. Rich was born in Alaska and has spent his entire life there except for a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps. Since Dina and I were the only people on the tour that day, Rich had time to talk about Alaskans. The best way to sum them up is “friendly people who need their alone time”. Many live off the grid with no running water, electricity and little contact with neighbors – and prefer it that way.

Even though Dina and I have faced numerous precarious situations while living in NYC, we were nervous driving 20 miles down gravel roads into the back country with a man carrying two hand guns. Rich assured us that the guns were only a precaution in case we encountered bears. His explanation shifted our worry from him and his two guns to possible bear confrontations.Gold Panning

We were lucky since no bears were sighted, but we did see moose and spawning salmon. Dina proved to be a master gold panner in the mountain-fed freezing river as she found several flecks of gold. The best I could find was some flour gold – so small it wasn’t worth saving. Our back breaking labor was rewarded with a gourmet lunch of Reindeer Dogs and cold drinks at the local 7-Eleven equivalent and a visit to the Trapper Creek Museum. (Best of luck with the new business, Rich!)

Our next stop was a 2-hour drive to Denali, Alaska. There we took a half day tour of the six million acre Denali National Park and Preserve, filled with snow capped mountains and virgin forests. Our visit included an exhibition of overzealous 80-100 lb. dogs pulling a sled. The excited dogs almost pulled their trainers out of their boots as they went from the kennels to the sled. The trainers had to restrain the dogs’ enthusiasm by grasping their collars and lifting their front paws off the ground. No matter what the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages says about cruelty to horses, these dogs love pulling a sled.Lake WasillaDog Sled Exhibition

The next day we left on the McKinley Explorer glass-domed train for a relaxing six-hour train ride from Denali to Whittier, Alaska. The ride took us through endless acres of forests, over rivers and gorges, past Sarah Palin’s summer home on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska and down the coast along the Prince William Sound to Whittier. The train did stop briefly in Wasilla, but as hard as I tried …  I couldn’t see Russia from there!

NEXT WEEK

PART TWO : Two if by Sea

A Colorful Tale

Cornfields

Cornfields: With Permission from Todd Huffman

I learned at an early age that travel is filled with surprises – some bad, some good.  Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, just slightly west and across the state line from Lake Woebegone, my childhood was an episode from Prairie Home Companion. No surprises…until I was about four years old…

One of my favorite playthings was a table-top wooden map of the US, with each state cut separately and painted a bright color – the better to distinguish it from its neighbors. I loved putting the map together, hearing the slap of wood against wood as I plunked the states into place in the frame.

I always started with the easiest piece, Florida’s dangling peninsula; it was bright orange – a perfect color choice since oranges came from there. Blue California next to the ocean was second, then butter-bright Texas with its yellow roses. One-by-one I slipped the states next to each other until I had a paint-palette of geography. One day I overheard my mother and a friend discussing the Arizona desert. NOW I understood why the Arizona piece was tan!

South Dakota was deep green, of course – thick grass grew in our yard, leaf canopies shaded our house, and July’s knee-high corn covered the fields outside of town. Yes, the South Dakota puzzle piece was a satisfying, lush, expected green.

Are we there yet?

One summer evening, my parents announced that we were going to Iowa for the first time, and to see my grandparents who lived on a farm. My mother painted glorious pictures – I would be able to ride a horse, pick berries and go wading in the creek. Even so, my evident excitement surprised her. She had to make a calendar count-down to manage my enthusiasm!  Finally the last calendar number was torn away, and we were in the car. Hardly out of the driveway, I started the questions:

  • How long before we got to Iowa?
  • How far away would we be before I could see it?
  • How much further did we have to go?
  • Was it over the next hill?
  • Would I need sunglasses?

My parents were confused; Iowa was not a big deal. Why was I so excited?  And sunglasses?  I watched cornfields go by, regularly punctuated by the dwindling mile markers – Five miles to go, Four, Three – I was bouncing in my seat! Two, One!

“Here it is!” my mother exclaimed, looking at me expectantly … and I burst into tears.

Iowa was NOT pink!

The key to traveling anywhere in the world is simply to love the experience. I got over that Iowa was disappointingly green. I had a wonderful time riding the horses, picking berries and wading in the Chickasaw Creek. Since that fateful trip, I have learned a lot of travel lessons, most of which have been a result of making the wrong assumptions, not following directions, or just being too eager to jump into the middle of things.

Decades later, my first travel lesson has not been forgotten:

When I have unrealistic expectations about a travel adventure, I’m likely to be disappointed … but as soon as I “get over it,”  I have a great time!