FAIRBANKS IN THE FAR NORTH

ALASKA BLOG 09

Tuesday August 9, 2016

We’re home. (You probably guessed.) In fact, we’ve been home for a week. (Sorry, I forgot to tell you.) And I’ve yet to tie up the loose ends and post the final entry to this blog. (Slack eh?)

Well, we ended our Alaskan adventure in that country’s northern-most outpost: Fairbanks – once a rough-and-ready goldrush town, now the region’s Golden Heart City. Fairbanks is just a couple of hundred kms from the Arctic Circle. In summertime (like now) it’s still twilight at 1am in the morning – and darkness lasts barely three hours. During Alaska’s frigid winter, of course, when temperatures drop to 40-below (or worse), it’s daylight that’s in short-supply. But that doesn’t stop the Fairbankers from having fun. Their far-north town is Start-Line for the Iditarod 1000-mile dog-sled race. It’s also Ground Zero for viewing the weirdly wonderful Aurora Borealis in the northern night skies.

We didn’t experience any auroras, regrettably. But we did sample a slice of Fairbank-life aboard a lovely big paddle-steamer, Riverboat Discovery … going ashore in the rain to tour a traditional Athabascan Indian village … eyeballing a restored steam-dredge … and panning for gold (again) in the hope of a lucky strike!

By this stage, it was all over bar the shouting. We caught a southbound flight (via Seattle) to Vancouver: the magnificent City of Glass … celebrated a noisy Mad Midlife Farewell Dinner at the Dockside Restaurant’ on Granville Island … crawled into our huge beds for the last time in North America … and then dragged bags and bodies back to the airport for our 14-hour Air New Zealand flight home to Godzone.

Alaska? It’s totally amazing! So you’ve gotta add it to your ‘bucket-list’. We’ve had a BALL, we truly have! And we’ll never forget our lovely long weeks in these vast wild regions …

PEOPLE-NEWS: One lucky-last quacky yellow duck has left the nest …

  • Trevor received our Accident & Emergency’ Award – for causing a right royal disturbance during breakfast in our posh hotel. Poor Trevor had hurt his wrist when slipping over on a glacier several days earlier – but instead of going to a medical centre like most people would’ve done, Trevor called a doctor and attending nurses (all from our group) to his breakfast table. Then, pushing aside his bacon-&-eggs, he had them bandage his injured limb right there in front of the hungry crowds! The manager of the busy restaurant finally asked our Kiwi crew to disburse.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you’d like to read earlier chapters in this Alaskan Blog, just click on ‘PREVIOUS’ or ‘OLDER POSTS’ – either at the start or finish of this entry. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription!

DENALI NATIONAL PARK

ALASKA BLOG 08

Thursday July 28, 2016

Earlier this week, as we trekked further ‘North to Alaska’, we coached along the scenically scenic Scenic Byway for a day and a night in Anchorage – founded in 1914 as a work-camp for the Alaska Railroad, then devastated by a 1964 earthquake, but quickly recovering to become home for almost half of Alaska’s residents. This popular city is ringed by mountains and waterways, and loved for its great outdoors – especially Turnagain Arm, named thus by Captain Cook, and billed as one of the most beautiful stretches of water in North America.

Next morning, you would’ve found us relaxing aboard yet another train: the luxurious domed railcars of the McKinley Explorer, which took us, eventually, into magnificent Denali National Park. For many adventurers, Denali is the highlight of their Alaskan adventure – 24,500 untamed square kilometres. (That’s five times more landmass than the entire Auckland Region!) And yesterday was a biggie: a fully-narrated bus-ride aboard (I kid you not) a genuine, cramped, old-fashioned school-bus – the famous Tundra Wilderness Tour – transporting us deep into this remarkable natural wonderland.

This was probably our best chance of spotting some of the region’s hard-to-find wildlife – curvy-horned sheep traversing rugged cliffs far in the distance (too far off for a decent pic) … golden eagles patrolling the ridges … moose, caribou and grizzly bears, foraging in upland meadows … and even a beaver or three, building dams in the streams that crisscross the park. Most of us just missed spotting a beaver, but we all managed to tick the boxes for moose, caribou and bears.

This wilderness tour was also our only chance to eyeball an icy monster, Mt Denali (previously known as Mt McKinley), soaring high above the surrounding plain. Mt Denali is North America’s highest peak (known to native Athabascans as the Great One), fully twice the height of Mt Cook – and, on most days (as for most tourists) it hides its massive snow-smothered bulk behind clouds. But our Kiwi luck was in – and our cameras were on hand to record the magic moment.

PEOPLE-NEWS: Three more world-famous quacky yellow ducks have been given out …

  • Marg (Barlow) received our ‘Overeaters Anonymous’ Award. When changing for dinner the other night, she was appalled to find that her pants no longer fitted her … until it was pointed out that she had them on back-to-front!
  • Heather walked away with our ‘Tutti-Frutti’ Award. At that same dinner, she ordered a salad for starters, and was trying in vain the squeeze the juice out of a slice of lime … until it was pointed out that her slice of ‘lime’ was actually a slice of granny-smith apple!
  • Gail took home our ‘If the Cap Fits’ Award. Struggling to see something through her binoculars the other day, she asked Ross if she could use his stronger pair, then kept complaining that his were even worse … until it was pointed out that she’d forgotten to remove the four lens-caps!

STILL TO COME: We take up paddle-steaming and gold-panning in Alaska’s most northern city, Fairbanks, wondering all the time if we might see the Aurora Borealis this close to the Arctic Circle (just a couple of hundred km away). Stay tuned … and find out!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

KENAI FJORDS: ALL CREATURES GREAT & SMALL

ALASKA BLOG 07

Tuesday July 26, 2016

We’d worked for it, we’d earned it, and on Saturday we GOT it: a full day aboard the Zaandam, sailing in a north-westerly direction through the Gulf of Alaska, with little else to do but rest up, eat up, and live it up. (Bet you feel sorry for us!)

Come Sunday, we said goodbye to our cruise-ship and its friendly crew, heading ashore in Seward (pronounced sue-idd’) – gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. The mountains here are so close you’d think they were trying to push the town into Resurrection Bay!

We took to the water again – this time in a smaller, purpose-built launch, and journeyed to the face of the Aialik Glacier to witness more of that ‘calving’ as ice-chunks break off and thunder into the sea. This glacier’s a genuine whopper – fully 3.5 kms across where it meets the water – and those icy cliffs are fully half a kilometre high at the face, towering above our launch and making us feel decidedly puny! (Can you spot the small boat in the glacier photo below?)

However, as we motored on through the majestic Kenai Fjords, the show was stolen by wildlife, with otters cavorting playfully on the surface … bald eagles eyeing us from their vantage points … blonde harbour seals and brown sea-lions yawning sleepily from their beds on the rocks … seabirds swarming hungrily and screeching noisily … gorgeous puffins (two different species) getting slowly, flappingly airborne in all directions at once … and humpbacks surfacing boldly.

One 30-tonne youngster decided to show off, broaching powerfully, leaping right out of the water, then crashing back onto the surface. It happened so quickly I couldn’t get my camera focused in time, but a young mum we’d met on board, Cathy Smith from Texas, caught the entire sequence – and agreed to share her photos with me and you! Cool pix, eh?

An exhilarating, exhausting day? Yep, it sure was. But we Midlife Madness Kiwis stayed alert and on the lookout to the very end … as the photos below testify!

Our day in the Kenai ended with a buffet dinner on Fox Island, featuring Alaskan Salmon and prime-rib. Makes your mouth water – right?

STILL TO COME: We enjoy some leisure time in popular Anchorage, ringed by mountains and waterways, and loved for its great outdoors … then relax aboard the domed railcars of a luxury train, the McKinley Explorer, en route to Denali National Park. Our Alaskan adventure ain’t over yet, folks, so don’t go away …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)

GOLD-RUSHING, HELICOPTERING & GLACIER-CRUNCHING

ALASKA BLOG 06

Sunday July 24, 2016

Not sure where to start. So much of what’s happened these past few days is so hard to describe …

#1: GOLD-RUSH TRAIN

If you’re ever looking for the tiny frontier town of Skagway, it’s nestled up the end of a beautiful fjord and surrounded by rugged wilderness and looming peaks. And that’s where, on Thursday, the Zaandam dropped anchor (well, docked, actually).

This ‘Gateway to the Yukon’ was once the busiest place in Alaska. How come? Well, Skagway, in the late 1800s, was the hectic kick-off point for the famous Klondike Gold Rush. Gold-panners streamed up every valley and sloshed through every creek in search of the promised yellow ore. And it’s hard to imagine the frightful conditions those hopeful (desperate) prospectors endured during winter, when this region freezes almost solid.

We, for our part, spent the morning doing it in style – grabbing a taste of what life was like back then by riding the antique White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railway up-up-up into the mountains, past silvery-purple rock faces, death-defying canyons, and once-famous locations like Deadhorse Gulch. On the way back down, we even tried our hand at gold-panning (no kidding) – and almost everyone came away with a few shiny, lucky, glowing specks in tiny plastic bags!

But wait … there’s more!

#2: HELI-SPECTACULAR

We then got to ride a helicopter (in fact, a fleet of helicopters) ever so much higher onto Alaska’s spectacular icefield – where we were treated to eye-popping views of jagged peaks, plunging valleys, glacial rivers, before landing on the mighty Meade Glacier for a guided walking tour.

The weather wasn’t as kind as it might’ve been, but the heli-ride (a first for lots in our group) was thrilling. However, what really overwhelmed us was the scale of this landscape. Sorry, folks, but this one highlight you’ll never appreciate secondhand – you’ve gotta see it for yourself. I mean, against this huge black-and-gray-and-white ‘river-of-ice’, our helicopters looked like insects. And we humans felt like SPECKS!

But wait – there’s even more!

#3: GLACIER BAY

Having briefly witnessed the TOP end of Alaska’s glaciers (there are more than 200,000 of ‘em up in those mountains) we spent Friday getting up-close-and-personal with the BOTTOM end of a few biggies … as our ship (arriving in the foggy drawn) cruised ever-so-slowly through the UNESCO World Heritage Reserve known famously as Glacier Bay National Park. This 100km-long fjord, filled with inlets, looming peaks, frozen cliffs and floating icebergs, has more tidewater glaciers than any other place in the world.

Look, why don’t you do what we did? Put on your long undies and warm layers and woolly hats while I give you a few Staggering Glacial Facts:

  1. These shorelines are no strangers to ice. In fact, only 250 years ago, this vast region (including the Bay itself) was completely buried, up to 4000 feet thick, under the stuff.
  2. The monster ice-slides we Kiwis saw began life some 4000 years ago, and were formed high in the mountains from compacted snow (just like the glaciers in NZ).
  3. When these giant, now rock-solid iceblocks get heavy enough, they begin inching (centimetering?) downhill, reshaping the landscape and gathering rocky chunks and rubble on the way.
  4. When their front-ends finally reach the ocean (the glaciers we photographed from the ship were a LOT further away than they look, and some were one-to-two miles across) they begin breaking up …
  5. It’s called ‘calving’. It happens when slabs of ice split off from the towering face of a glacier and crash into the sea. And when it happens (especially if it’s a big chunk) it sounds like thunder, shooting water hundreds of feet into the air – and seriously rocking the boat (if you happen to be close enough)!

Anyway, some of us spent hours on deck and on our balconies trying to capture this explosive moment on our cameras – not caring that we got cold and hungry. We waited, and hoped, and held our breath, and even prayed for a calving-to-beat-all-calvings. But the best we saw was a few smaller ice-crunches that went off like a gunshot and hit the water in a cloud of spray.

Not that it mattered. Because this was yet another mind-blowing, gob-stopping Alaskan experience that we will always remember.

STILL TO COME: We say goodbye to the Zaandam, and head ashore in Seward – gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park and home to more awesome mountains, glaciers, and creatures great and small …

PEOPLE-NEWS: Four more world-famous quacky yellow ducks have been given out …

  • Kathy won the ‘Tweedle-dee-Dee, Tweedle-dee-Dumb’ Award – for commenting on a busy street corner in Victoria (Vancouver) how nice it was to hear birds again. “I’ve hardly heard or seen any birds since we arrived. ” Only problem was, what Kathy was hearing wasn’t a bird – it was the beeper on the pedestrian-crossing.
  • Bert received our ‘Very Very Early Bird’ Award – for beating the sparrows up the other morning. Frankie (his cabin-companion) came in at midnight after enjoying some shipboard fun in the Piano Bar. Bert woke up and, next thing Frankie knew, Bert was in the shower and getting dressed for the day ahead. On hearing it was only 1am, Bert complained, “I wish you’d told me sooner …”
  • George took home our ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ Award – except it wasn’t Seattle, it was on the ship. And, far from being sleepless, George managed to sleep through our afternoon Midlife Madness Cocktail Party on board the ship, and would’ve missed the entire event if someone hadn’t gone and woken the poor boy up.
  • Heather walked away with our ‘Two Early for Condiments’ Award. Looking very sleepy-eyed at breakfast this morning, she was observed scavenging through the variety of different sugar-sachets on the little container on their table, asking “What colour is the salt and pepper?” It took someone else to point out that the salt and pepper were in the big glass salt-and-pepper-shakers sitting right in front of Heather.
  • Rob (McBride) earned himself our Breaking & Entering’ Award – for making a serious attempt to get into the wrong hotel room the other night, sliding his key-card up and down, trying the handle several times, and all-but kicking the door down … much to the consternation/excitement of the two ladies from our group whose room it was.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

P.S. If you want to receive future Mad Midlife Travel Blogs in your INBOX, just sign-up (top-right) for your free Email Subscription! And if you’d like to leave a message for someone in our group, just click on the little speech bubble at the top of this entry, and add your comments! (Make sure you say who it’s for and who it’s from – and keep it brief.)