26 March 2014

The Last Frontier, Part 1: The Land Tour

[Almost a dozen years ago, my mother and I took a trip to Alaska, principally to see the fjords along the southeastern coast.  The trip, booked through the Holland America Line, was a combination of land tour and sea voyage, including Anchorage, Denali National Park, and Fairbanks, and ending in Seward where we boarded HAL’s MS Statendam cruise ship for the seaborne portion of the trip down the Inside Passage of Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia.  I kept a sort of journal, which I later turned into a series of e-mails to friends and then collected into the narrative you see below.  The trip through Alaska lasted from Thursday, 7 August, through Sunday, 17 August 2003, and then Mom and I stayed in Vancouver until Tuesday, the 19th. 

[Overall, it was a marvelous trip, with a few glitches and missteps, so I’ve decided to spruce up the e-mail transcriptions and post at least some of the journal on ROT.  (I may post other installments of the travelogue in the future, but I haven’t decided that yet.)    My dad went to Alaska on business in 1960 because he’d joined a group of businessmen who started the Alaska-North American Investment Company in 1958 in anticipation of Alaska becoming the 49th state (3 January 1959).  He was in Fairbanks on 8 November when John Kennedy was elected president and brought back the next day’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the northernmost daily newspaper published in the U.S., with the banner headlines announcing the election outcome.  (A sidelight: This was the first presidential election in which all 50 of the current U.S. states voted, but Alaska, as it continues to do in most campaigns, voted for the Republican ticket of Vice President Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge.  Ironically, my family lived in the District of Columbia in 1960 so my parents couldn’t vote in presidential elections until the adoption of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution in 1961—effective for the election of 1964.)  My mother had made a visit to Alaska with my father later, but I’d never been there.  The prospect of seeing the magnificent coastline and the glaciers was irresistible, however.].

(Cue musicYou should be humming “North To Alaska” or the theme from Northern Exposure.)
First, I should say that overall the trip was wonderful.  Some things connected to the tour didn’t go well, but the balance of the experience was great. 

Second, I’ll report that the flight(s) out were an awful experience— though not all of it was the airline’s fault.  (Most of it was, however.)  To start with, we had to change planes twice (that is, three flights), with changes in Denver and Seattle.  We took off from LaGuardia at just before 2 p.m. EDT on Thursday, 7 August 2003, and didn’t get into Anchorage until about 2 a.m. the next morning, Alaska time (that’s 6 a.m. in New York!).  Now that included a three hour delay in Seattle because the plane, which was coming from Dulles, had been held up in Washington, D.C., for a thunderstorm (which, ironically, we had just missed when we left New York).  Furthermore, because of the local departure times of each flight, none of these was a meal flight.  You can be sure this was not a really pleasurable experience, even on top of the usual nastiness of flying these days.  It didn’t help matters, either, that because of the way our tour was to begin, we were carrying several days’ clothing change and toiletries in our carry-ons in addition to our “travel needs.”  (Our main luggage was going straight from Anchorage to Fairbanks; we traveled from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks before we caught up with our clothes.)  It took us longer to get to Anchorage than it did for me to get to Hong Kong in 1980 (which I did by way of Anchorage, ironically)!

There was one saving experience in all this—a literal silver lining, you might say.  On the flight from Seattle to Anchorage, out over the horizon, we saw the northern lights out the plane window.  Either because of the atmospherics, or because we were up looking down instead of down looking up, these lights weren’t colored like some pictures you see.  It was all sort of greenish, like the image on a radar screen or through a fluoroscope.  But it was still an eerie sight—like something that really shouldn’t be happening.  A close encounter of the weird kind!  (Ironically, if our flight had left on time, earlier in the evening before darkness fell in that part of the world, we might not have seen it.  And we didn’t see the lights again during our trip—though it probably didn’t help that most nights we went to bed before darkness really fell.  Sunset in Anchorage is after 10 p.m. at that time of year; Juneau is about an hour earlier.)

The return flight from Vancouver wasn’t nearly as bad—only one change in Chicago—though the time-change going east was against us so we left early, but got in very late.  (New York is three hours ahead of Vancouver, four hours ahead of Alaska.)

Our arrival was also part of the first negative circumstance concerning the Holland America Line and the tour aspect of the trip.  We arrived in Anchorage so late, of course—early Friday morning—that we had no time to see the city.  (We left a few hours later that morning for Denali.)  HAL had told Mom that there wasn’t anything scheduled as part of the trip on that first day in Anchorage.  So she booked a flight to get us in that day.  If we had gone a day earlier, it turns out, we’d have had some time to explore Anchorage, with or without guidance from HAL.  It was a bad decision based on bad information—not the first of that sort.  (HAL doles out the details of the trip in small increments, and isn’t really forthcoming with all of the specifics until you’re actually on location, so to speak.  It’s hard to make any plans on that basis.)

So, we arrived at 2 a.m., got to the hotel only to learn that the departure for the train to Denali was 7:30 a.m.!  I had called HAL to find out when that train left, and the HAL representative at the other end of the line told me very specifically that it left at 12:30 p.m., though they wanted us at the station at noon.  (This turns out to be the time the return train from Denali to Anchorage leaves—which we weren’t even taking as we were going on to Fairbanks, not back to Anchorage)  We had thought we’d have a little time to catch up with ourselves, since we were getting in so late (early?)—even without the Seattle delay.  WRONG!!

So we had our hour-and-a-half nap and got to the train to Denali National Park.   That’s the home of Mt. McKinley—not to mention a lot of wildlife. 

Now, the train itself is kind of interesting.  First of all, Alaska is the only state that still has its own railroad (aside, of course, from commuter trains and subways).  Of course, it doesn’t go very many places—Anchorage to Fairbanks to Seward, with stops along the way.  (In the winter, apparently, passengers can actually flag the train to stop anywhere along the track.)  Alaska Railroad is basically a regular, though limited, railroad, except that the big tour companies (HAL and Princess Cruises) have special cars that they pay ARR to pull.  These cars—I assume the Princess cars are about the same—are quite luxurious, with big seats, a bar, a restaurant, a guide, and (of course) a shop.  They’re double-deckers, with the seats up on top, with glass all around—including the roof.  The restaurant, galley, bathrooms, and shop are all below in one or the other of the two cars.  Each car has its own guide/narrator and bar.  The trip to Denali is about four hours, so it’s always over a meal (lunch up, dinner back), though it comes pretty early by my family’s standards.  Still, it’s a pretty decent meal. 

But the real attraction of the train ride was the scenery between Anchorage and Denali.  The train runs along a river for most of the trip, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other, so there were lots of views of mountains, forest, and river landscape, especially as the train rounds a curve or crosses a bridge and you can see way up ahead.  We were extremely fortunate because we had magnificent weather on our arrival.  The summer weather in Alaska is often rainy and foggy; August is the driest month, and it gets a little rain at least most days of the week.  (Alaskans call this “liquid sunshine” and just go about their business regardless.  Only we tourists get discommoded by the wet.  All the tour busses were stocked with umbrellas for the passengers, just in case.)  But when we got there, Anchorage was having record-breaking high temperatures—75 degrees!   (That’s about 24º Celsius for all you “metricals.”)   And bright sun and blue, cloudless skies, with unlimited visibility all around.  You’ll pardon the cliché, but it was breathtaking.  That’s no exaggeration. 

And as we got near Denali, we got several views of McKinley—a sight all the guidebooks warn might not be available because the mountain is usually shrouded in mist most days.  But as the train came around several curves, the guide warned us what was coming, and towering above the surrounding terrain—this huge, white mass glowing among the other, brown and green mountains.  You can think it’s just another mountain and be prepared not to see anything special—I’ve seen Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn many, many times—but all the preparation aside—McKinley, with an elevation of 20,237 feet, the highest peak in North America, gets a lot of word-of-mouth—the sight itself will subvert any sense of blasé déjà vu you might have: it’s truly majestic—another cliché that turns out to be accurate here.  When we saw it that day (we saw it again several times the next day, too), with the unusual weather, it was as if a huge spotlight were focused on the mountain—it actually glowed in contrast with the surrounding mountains, which are mostly not covered in snow.  It looked like a postcard—a doctored photo for tourist consumption.

Once again, the specter of HAL (isn’t that the name of the renegade computer in 2001?  Fits) arose to spoil this part of the trip, too, a little.  While we were on the train to Denali, a Gray Line/HAL salesperson was aboard, selling tours at the park.  Since we were arriving at about 12:30 or so on Friday afternoon and our pre-scheduled ride into the park wasn’t until Saturday morning, Mom and I considered some of the offerings.  We didn’t want to go rafting, golfing, horseback riding, or fishing, and the plane and helicopter rides seemed very expensive despite the magnificence of the views.  But there was a sort of dinner tour that was a carriage ride into the park—remember, during Alaskan summers, it stays light until 9:30-10:00—to a restaurant.  We thought it would be a pleasant way to spend the evening, until we got to the lodge and realized how tired we were and that we really didn’t want to go on the ride after all.  Aside from the fact that we’d been sold on the package a little too enthusiastically at the time, the salesgirl didn’t tell us that we couldn’t back out.  Mother, who can be really annoying when she wants to be, argued with the Gray Line manager at the lodge, and probably to get rid of us, he canceled our reservation. 

The lodge—called the McKinley Chalet, which is a little over-grand for what it actually is—is on the edge of the park.  (I’m not actually sure if it’s in the park or just outside it—in any case, the terrain is identical and contiguous anyway.)  Unfortunately, the little “village”—it’s really a collection of shops (souvenir, for the most part) and eateries (not quite restaurants)—was undergoing a major road-construction and everything was heavy equipment, dust, and dirt.  We looked around a little, then went in search of some place to have a very light supper.  The choices being minimal in the immediate range of the hotel, we ate in the lodge bar, which did have a beautiful view of the mountains and, just below us, the Nenana River.  The rafters go by below the bar as they round a bend in the river, which, like many in Alaska, is grayish because it’s glacier-fed.  (The glaciers grind up the bedrock as they move along, making glacial silt—a fine, gray powder—which colors the rivers and lakes whose sources are the glaciers.  The other streams and lakes are clear, and as we rode past one confluence of two rivers on the train, the guide pointed out that one was clear and the other cloudy as they ran together at that point: one river was spring-fed and the other glacial.  When we were whale-watching in Juneau later in the trip, the naturalist on the boat pointed out the part of the bay into which the glacial Mendenhall River runs—the river actually runs out into the bay several miles—which is visible because the river is opaque and the bay is clear.  And they stay that way—they don’t blend!  It sort of looks like Elsa Lanchester’s wig in Bride of Frankenstein.)  So, we sat and had a drink—Alaska beer, which is very, very good, by the way—and ate our supper—salmon, which I ate as often as I could (including salmon chowder on the train); we originally ordered reindeer sausage, but they were out of it!—and watched the rafters and the scenery.  It was still bright daylight—dusk didn’t come along until after we had retired.

And that’s what we did, after a short stroll along the Nenana riverbank—which is several hundred yards high above the rushing little stream.  We were still exhausted from our flights the day before (well, earlier that same day, actually).  We had sort of thought we’d nap on the train, but even at four hours, there was too much scenery to take in, so we never closed our eyes.  I guess we knocked off about nine o’clock, while the sun was still shining outside.  The park drive was scheduled early the next morning, anyway.

This was the next little complaint we had.  The various park tours, which were prearranged by HAL, not selected by the passengers as some of the shore excursions from the boat were later, were all scheduled for early in the morning, even though the train to Fairbanks wasn’t until late that afternoon.  We tried to switch to a later bus, but there wasn’t one available until too late to get us back in time for the train.  The runs were all mostly in the morning anyway, then late afternoon—there’s a big gap in the middle of the day.  The explanation was that there’s more chance to see wildlife early or late than there is in the middle of the afternoon.  Considering how little we saw anyway, I’d have taken the chance and spread the activity out a bit better. 

So early Saturday morning, 9 August, we drove through part of the park—Denali is the local Athabaskan name for McKinley; it means “The Great One” (apparently an homage to Jackie Gleason . . . NOT)—which, as I said, is vast.  (I won’t get into the controversy over the mountain’s name, so I’ll just note that in Alaska it’s known as Denali and in the Lower 48 and in federal references, it’s McKinley.  The Russians, when they owned Alyaska, called the mountain Bolshaya Gora, which means “the great mountain,” the Russian translation of Denali.)  The park’s full, official name is Denali National Park and Preserve, and it’s a huge wilderness.  In size, it’s smaller than the state of Vermont but larger than New Hampshire.  Denali’s 6 million acres (9,419 square miles) in area; the world’s largest protected open space, Northeast Greenland National Park, is 229 million acres (357,917 square miles).  It’s the third largest national park in the United States (the first two are also in Alaska) and the 25th largest protected area in the world.

The area’s principally forest, and it’s a preserve as well as a park, which means that it’s pretty much left natural with minimal interference by humans.  Trees that fall are left (unless they block a road or path), hunting is prohibited (except for some “subsistence” natives who are allowed to take what they need to live on, but not to sell or trade), and there are minimal roads and constructed facilities in most of the park.  You’re not even allowed to take away a rock as a souvenir or pick the wildflowers.  (This sort of contrasts with Israel when I was there: they fairly begged us to take a rock home as a souvenir!)  Only busses (and bicycles) are allowed past a certain point to keep vehicle traffic and pollution to a minimum—and the busses have to be old school busses, not the big, heavy tour or city busses.  As far as I could learn, the interior of the park is pretty much free of anything artificial—open only to hikers, bikers, campers, rafters, and climbers.  (You can fish in Denali, but it’s catch-and-release.) 

We had only a small amount of luck in the wildlife-sighting department.  No bears or moose, but we saw some Dall sheep and one caribou that actually came down to the road, practically right up to the bus.  Of course, we saw lots of eagles in flight, but none perched or close enough to get anything more than an impression.  (Binoculars, a pair of which we brought along, are very handy.)  The sheep, a noble-looking, long-haired, white sheep with immense curled horns that lives way up in the hills among the rocks and scrub to keep them safe from wolves and pumas, were pretty far away—how anyone spotted them, I’ll never know—but our driver came equipped with a telescope and he set it up at the roadside and we took turns looking up at the small herd.  These big sheep, which stand between 4½ and 6 feet high and weigh between 160 and 250 pounds for rams and 100 and 110 pounds for ewes, just have a wonderfully serious, stern look, set off by the great, curled horns that look almost too big to be real.  (Think of the biggest Shofars you’ve ever seen.) 

The caribou, or reindeer, on the other hand, looks very ungainly.  His horns are tremendous, too—as much as four feet long, way out of proportion to his head and body.  It was hard to see how he keeps from toppling over.  He was standing in some low vegetation near the roadside when we first saw him—it was tall enough to hide him when he put his head down to eat (caribou stand about three to six feet at the shoulder)—and he just hung out, eating and loping along in a meandering path in front of us.  Little by little, he moved toward the edge of the road, and we wondered if he’d actually climb down—the road was below the ground level by four or five feet—and eventually, he did.  He sort of slid down the cut, loped across the road and continued his lunch on the other side.  He pretty much ignored us.  (Many of the animals, such as the caribou and the moose, are unafraid of the busses—drivers keep the engine noise down and move very slowly or stop when an animal is spotted—but people are admonished not to get out of the bus, make noise, or even lean out of the windows.  This is ostensibly to prevent the animals from becoming used to humans too much; the park people don’t want the wildlife to be panicked by human contact, but they don’t want them to become too people-friendly, either.  Seems wise.)

We got back to the lodge in the late morning, but had to vacate the room ay 11 so we couldn’t even take a short nap.  There wasn’t really enough time to get on some other excursion, even if there had been one that appealed to us, and we’d already explored the “village” as much as we wanted to.  (Besides being mostly shops—it’s not really a village; no one lives there—and all that dust, it’s spread along George Parks Highway so it’s a long trek even just to poke around.)  This is what I meant that the tour aspects of the trip left much to be desired, even if the Alaskan aspects tried to make up for it. 

So we killed some time in the chalet lobby until the train, which actually left a little early to everyone’s surprise.  (Indeed, one couple had booked a plane flight—”flightseeing,” they call it—over the park and McKinley for the afternoon, and got back just in time to see the train depart!  They would have been fine if it hadn’t left earlier than scheduled, and people on the trip who knew them even reported that they weren’t aboard when the train started to pull out.  The tour people put them on a helicopter, called the train, and we waited at a siding down the track several miles as they were delivered to the train.  Pretty stupid.)  Anyway, the second train ride was nothing like the first.  The cars were the same, of course, though we had a real nebbish of a guide this time—our first guide was quite wonderful, even though she wasn’t a native Alaskan; she came up from Southern California for a break just to take this job—but the terrain is ugly and uninteresting between Denali and Fairbanks just as soon as you leave the park area.  (For the first couple of miles—until we stopped for our delinquent passengers—there were spectacular cliffs as we rolled along the Nenana River.)  This time, we did nap.  And since the dinner was going to be served so early—around 5:30—we skipped it and opted for the chance we could get something at or near the hotel in Fairbanks when we arrived at about 7.  We did have a drink en route, though!

This part of the trip was a total loss really, all due to HAL’s planning.  Well, first we had trouble at the hotel, which may have been the hotel’s fault rather than HAL’s, though HAL wasn’t helpful in fixing it.  (One of our traveling companions also had a problem with which HAL was unhelpful.  Fairbanks was where our main luggage caught up with us—for one night only, then it went off to the ship pretty much directly—and this couple didn’t get theirs.  It didn’t make it to Fairbanks somehow, and the HAL representatives in the hotel were incompetent as far as locating it and getting it sent to the right place.  Alaska hires kids for everything—hotels, restaurants, the tour representatives, and the like.  They look like highschoolers, but I suspect they’re college age or thereabouts, and this may be just summer-season hiring, but they’re very young and not very resourceful when it comes to handling unexpected situations.  In this case, they explained that the phone they had at the hotel could only call locally, not back to Anchorage, so they had to wait till they could get to their Fairbanks office to locate the bags in Anchorage.  Mother asked why they couldn’t just use the hotel’s phone under the circumstances—an obvious idea, I thought—and they eventually did locate the bags at the hotel we used in Anchorage.  They were routed directly to the ship in Seward—and did arrive there, though the couple were worried the whole time we were in Fairbanks and en route to Seward.) 

Our problem was simpler, though potentially more embarrassing.  Mom and I were sharing a room, but our reservations all along the way specified two beds.  Well, the Fairbanks hotel had us in a room with a double bed—obviously unacceptable.  The HAL people were no help at all, of course, and when Mother called the desk, they offered to put us in a room with a convertible or another room in which they would add a roll-away.  (The room we were in originally couldn’t handle even a cot.)  We didn’t think either of these was an acceptable solution, and Mother ended up talking to the manager.  (I said she can be really annoying—and persistent, too—when she wants.)  He gave us the same options.  Then I suggested, since they were willing to move us anyway, why couldn’t they just give me another room?—at their expense, of course: it was their mistake.  “There isn’t another room,” said the manager.  “Ridiculous,” said I.  “If you were going to move us, then there’s obviously another room.”  “Oh . . . yes,” said the manager.  Silly rabbit!  (I got a separate room for the night—a suite actually, with that fold-out sofa we didn’t need.  But two TV’s!)

Anyway, it was just overnight, and by now it was latish so we went in search of a light supper again.  (We still weren’t hungry, even though we’d had lunch back at Denali.)  Well, there was a saloon-like place across the street (part of another, cheaper motel) and a Chinese restaurant around the corner.  Someone on the train had mentioned the Chinese place, and we kind of thought that would be best for our needs, so we strolled over and . . . it was closed!  Not just closed for the day, or on vacation—out of business!  You’d think the hotel folks would have known this, no?  The saloon was unappetizing—and very warm inside—so we ended up having a bowl of soup—salmon chowder again for me—at the hotel restaurant.  It met our needs, but we’d kind of hoped to do it outside the hotel just for the change.

Next to missing the entire city of Anchorage because of HAL’s bad advice, the Fairbanks visit on Sunday, 10 August, was the tour’s biggest failing.  We never saw the town at all.  Fairbanks, less than 120 miles from the Arctic Circle, is, after all, the largest city (about 30,000 people as of 2000) in the interior of Alaska, third in size to Anchorage (271,000) and Juneau (31,000).  Founded in 1901, it’s got a frontier history and was at the heart of one of the principal gold rushes that drew thousands to Alaska between 1898 and 1910 or so.  As I mentioned in my introduction, it’s home to the daily newspaper published the farthest north within the United States, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.  The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, built between 1974 and 1977, passes through the city.  There’s a helluva lot of history in Fairbanks, and we never saw any of it to speak of!

This was one of the stops where HAL booked the activity, and we assumed it would include at least some of Fairbanks’s sights.  But, NOOooo!  We get up (early again, of course) and get taken to a gold dredge.  Okay, the guide does point out some of the city landmarks, but just as we pass by them on the way.  We didn’t get any feel for the town at all.  Then we spend a couple of hours at this defunct gold dredge, Goldstream Dredge No. 8, which went out of operation in 1959.  (It began operations in 1928.)  I mean, it’s an interesting thing—both because it’s a huge, complex machine (built by a shipyard, interestingly enough) and because the gold-dredging is a complicated operation about which I, at least, knew nothing.  You see pictures and read stories about digging for gold, mining for it, panning for it, but not, as far as I know, dredging for it.  Anyway, the dredge is this immense, barge-like thing, a five-story, 1,065-ton structure, with a conveyor belt contraption equipped with ¾-ton, giant iron buckets that dug into the side of a ditch, pulling up large quantities of gold-laden soil.  (The ditch itself was flooded artificially, so the dredge floats.)  In 31 years of operation, the dredge recovered 7½ million ounces of gold.  The dirt was essentially washed to leave the ore behind, and then the ore was amalgamated with mercury to separate the gold out, the amalgam was heated to release the gold, which was then formed into ingots or bars for shipment.  It was a floating (and noisy, filthy, sweaty) gold factory which ran 24/7 except for a two-week period or so when it was cleaned and maintained.  (After the tour of the dredge, everyone got a “poke” of ore-bearing dirt and a pan and went to long troughs to pan for little bits of gold.  It was silly and boring—especially since, though they weighed your gold and told you what it was worth, they didn’t buy it from you.  Dumb.)  Afterwards, they served a miners’ lunch—stew and biscuits—which was all right, considering . . . except that it was only 10:30 in the morning!  All in all, even if the story of the dredge is interesting, I could have done without it, and I’d much rather have seen some of Fairbanks and been let loose to poke around a little.

Then came one of the dumbest bits of scheduling in the whole trip.  All along, there was a lot of wasted time waiting for stuff—busses, planes, tenders, so on—which is especially aggravating since we always seemed to have to get up early in the morning, then have time to kill later that couldn’t be used efficiently (either for a rest or poking about).  But this was really stupid.  The gold dredge bit was over before noon and we drove a ways along Steese Highway to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Viewpoint, a spot outside Fairbanks where you can go up to the 48-inch pipe and touch it—an experience of only mild interest to me: it’s a big, fat pipe!—then we went directly to the airport to fly back to Anchorage to meet a bus to drive to Seward, where we boarded the ship.  Okay, not only did that seem unnecessarily circuitous—why not get directly from Fairbanks to Seward?  The train goes there, and I’d bet there are flights, too.  Maybe it just wasn’t convenient, I don’t know, but the really dumb part was that we got to the airport before 1 p.m. for a flight that didn’t take off until 3.  At the very least, we could have done the dredge thing a little later in the morning and spaced the day out better.  (Lunch at 11:30 instead of 10:30, maybe?)  As you can imagine, Fairbanks International (its real name) isn’t the biggest airport around.  I mean, we’re talking about a town that’d fit comfortably into Union Square Park with room left over for the Greenmarket.  So we were stuck in this little airport for several hours, just waiting. 

Now, this set me up for trouble—not the tour’s fault, really.  Of course, there was security, as there is everywhere now, and we went through the system, showed our tickets and had our carry-ons screened, and so on.  But now we had all this time to kill.  There was a store right next to the waiting area, and they had newspapers, so I decided to go get one to occupy me during the wait and the flight.  But the door into the shop from the waiting area was closed at that particular hour (go know—it was lunchtime maybe), and I saw another door around the corner.  I went there, out one door and in another, got my paper, and then realized what I must have done.  I’d left the waiting area and reentered the unsecure area outside the security check.  And I didn’t bring my boarding pass with me.  I didn’t think I was going out, and the door I left by didn’t have a sign saying anything like, “if you leave, you can’t ever, ever come back!”  In this case, it was a good thing the airport is so small.  The security people paged Mom and she came back with my boarding pass and I got back into the waiting area.  Of course, when they paged her, no one said, ‘Bring your boarding passes,’ so she had to come to the security area, find out what was up, go back to get the pass, and return.  Mom doesn’t move real fast anymore, you know.  I’m sitting there, thinking—what if I’d been traveling alone?  I’d have really been SOL.

Well, that killed a little time at least.

The flight to Anchorage had nothing to report, and the bus to Seward was a nice—but long (about 130 miles, 2½ hours)—drive on Seward Highway along the coast out of Anchorage and then across the Kenai Peninsula.  There were a few wildlife spottings along the way—mountain goats, the ubiquitous eagles (in flight again)—and the driver/guide pointed out some sights as we went.  As you may know, Anchorage was at the center of a devastating earthquake/tsunami in March 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake—most of the city was destroyed, and whole outlying towns were just carried away—and it was curious, and daunting, to see the remains of towns that no longer existed because of the force of nature, even in my own lifetime.  I mean, I visited Pompeii back in the ’60s and contemplated what it might have been like to be eating supper when Vesuvius erupted, but that was ancient history.  I was already 17 at the time of this natural disaster—a fully sentient human being (or, as a much younger classmate in my MFA program said to me, I was “already a person”!)—and there were people in Anchorage and, say, Portage, which was completely wiped out, who’d have been high school juniors just like me when the water rose up.

[In Seward, we  boarded the Statendam on Sunday, 10 August, for the coastal voyage south, stopping at Sitka, Juneau, and Ketchikan, with anchorages along the way (no disembarking) to see some fjords and glaciers from the sea.  If I post another section of my log, the next installment will cover part of the cruise down the Inside Passage.]

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