Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ketchikan - Land of the Totems

Rain fell in buckets the first time I landed in Ketchikan.  Travel guides celebrated the rugged mountainous beauty of Alaska’s self-proclaimed “Salmon Capital of the World” but all I saw was rain.  It rained again my second time there and some people I talked with were convinced it was from the same storm I had experienced six months earlier.  Five years passed before I returned to Ketchikan and this time the rain was so heavy I was convinced that Harbor Seals were pairing off in twos and purchasing boat building material from a local lumber yard. There is a very good reason that Ketchikan is also considered the rainiest city in Alaska – most likely because it is.

You can't get much further south in Alaska than Ketchikan and still be in Alaska

Judging by the number of fishing vessels racing around in the channel between Ketchikan and Gravina Island it’s probably safe to say that Alaska’s “First City” deserves its proclamation as the Salmon Capital.  Having once visited Naknek on the Alaska Peninsula near King Salmon on Bristol Bay, I think that Naknek probably produces more salmon than Ketchikan and probably more rightly deserves the moniker of Salmon Capital.  It’s all about marketing.

Alaska's First City is also its rainiest city

A curious and by now totally foreign golden oval shined brightly in the sky over the Norwegian Sun as we made our way through the Inside Passage toward Ketchikan.  We were about even with Thorne Bay when the clouds parted revealing a brilliant blue sky and even more brilliant sunshine.  Guests on Deck 11 hurriedly lined up in sun tanning chaise lounges and started soaking up the first sun rays we had enjoyed in six days.  I had read somewhere that the sun is obscured in Ketchikan an average of 300 days each year.  If you are here on one of those 65 other days you are “one lucky son-of-a-bitch” as a drunken Indian once said to me while we waited in the Ketchikan airport for Alaska Airlines to fix our broken plane.

Today we were two of the lucky ones the Indian talked about ten years earlier. Ketchikan sits at the edge of the gigantic Tongass National Forest, an area of more than 17 million acres and by far the largest National Forest in the United States. Set aside by the US Congress, the purpose of Tongass is to ensure a supply of wood products for the future, to provide for recreational opportunities for humans and most importantly to provide for the protection of water quality for all of those salmon.

Being a natural resource and existing on Federal land, the Tongass National Forest is also subject to the vagaries of political thought and the greed of politicians who possess those thoughts.  Some years ago former U.S. Senator and later Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski was a strong and vocal proponent of extensive clear cutting of the forests of the Tongass.  His well-rehearsed lines pulled at our heart strings as he told about economic hardships experienced by his loyal constituents and how only widespread logging would save their future.  After all these were American trees and Americans had the right to make a living cutting down these American trees. 

At 17 million acres Tongass is the largest National Forest in the United States

There were just two things that Senator Murkowski failed to mention during his soliloquy.  First and foremost the bulk of those American trees were being cut down and shipped to Japan where they were milled and sold back to America as finished products.  The Senator also failed to mention that he sat on the Board of Directors of the largest bank in Southeast Alaska. It was the very same bank that handled the bulk of the proceeds from the sale of all those American logs to Japan.

Murkowski made out like a bandit on these tree-cutting deals.  Japanese corporations made out like thieves on the deals and American’s who needed the lumber products for building material paid higher prices for American wood products that had been re-imported from Japan.  Today Frank Murkowski’s equally corrupt daughter Lisa is one of the two Senators from Alaska.  She is one of the strongest proponents of taking the National Forest system out of Federal control and turning it over to the States.  Lisa and others of her ilk claim that allowing the States to manage these forests is better for the forests than to let the Feds retain control.  Past experience with other natural resources suggests only that the States can sell off land more quickly than the Feds because they have fewer regulatory impediments.  

Tlingit people of Southeast Alaska are famous for their ceremonial use of totem poles, structures made of logs and festooned with symbols of various animals that tell stories.  Many totems from around the Southeast are preserved and interpreted at Totem Bight State Historical Park north of Ketchikan.  We had rented a car for a brief foray to the park to study the totems but until it arrived we explored the tourist area near the cruise terminal.

Ketchikan’s waterfront is cluttered with an endless string of tourist shops each selling “authentic” Alaskan goods for authentic tourists to carry to their authentic homes.  One of the largest, the Tongass Trading Company, carried a t-shirt for a particular brand of Alaskan beer that I enjoyed.  Piled beneath a huge sign proclaiming the “Made in Alaska” authenticity of the shirts, I pulled one out to examine it.  On each shirt was a large blue sticker with the words “Made with 100% American cotton” emblazoned across the shoulder.  “American” was written in all capitals, I’m certain to get the point across that here in even the rainiest salmon capital in the world even the shirts were patriotic.  These 100 percent cotton signs were there on these authentic made in Alaska t shirts despite the very real fact that cotton does not grow in Alaska and especially in the rainforest part of Alaska. 

Ketchikan's waterfront is Mecca for cruisers searching for "authentic" Alaskan goods, especially, it turns out, those that are made in Haiti

Not satisfied with the description I looked at the label inside the neck of the shirt where the truth was revealed.  There on each “Authentic” Alaska t-shirt made with “100 percent American cotton” was a smaller label that read in French “Fabrique en Haiti avec polyester.”  Here in reality, cruise ship tourists at the southernmost tip of the Land of the Midnight Sun were gobbling up authentic Alaskan shirts made in Haiti from polyester.

Our rental car arrived on time at a predetermined downtown location and we quickly set out for Totem Bight State Historical Park. Each totem tells a story using animals that were important to the Tlingit.  Eagles and ravens, probably the two most important animals in their culture, soar through the skies.  Whales, otters and dolphins occupy the ocean while bear, deer and wolves live in the forests. Each animal had a special meaning. For instance the Raven is a symbol of the creator. Eagles signify peace and friendship.  Killer Whales are a symbol of strength.  Sea turtles symbolize mother earth.  Wolves with their power can help people who are ill. Otters are a symbol of laughter, salmon represent persistence and owls represent the souls of the departed. 

Totem Bight State Historical Park is only 8 miles from downtown Ketchikan

A Tlingit story tells a tale about someone or something that has happened and its carved in a long washed up on a beach.  There are thirteen different stories preserved and interpreted on the thirteen different totems at the state park.  The Pole on the Point totem depicts a shaman wearing a headdress of bear claws and a fringed leather apron.  A carved club in his hand symbolizes one of his spirit powers.  A halibut and two river otters below the otters are spirit aides and the animals together depict a sense of adventure.

The Sea Monster Pole includes a village watchman standing ground at the top of the pole. Below him are two eagles and beneath them are faces painted to represent the mountains and clouds that are habitat for the eagle.  Below this is a mythical sea monster whose face is in the process of devouring a human at the base of the pole.  Still another pole, the Raven at the Head of Nass Pole, incorporates a Raven (symbol of the creator) and a smaller human representing ancestors of the Raven Clan who benefitted by the Raven’s theft of daylight.  This is perhaps an early reference to Ketchikan seeing the sun only 65 days a year!

Also present was a Clan House that could have housed 30 to 50 people.  Inside the cavernous room was a central fireplace surrounded by a platform.  Traditionally Clan Houses served as living space for two or three families of a certain lineage (either Raven Clan or Eagle Clan).  Inside the carvings symbolize the exploits of others who lived in the Clan House.  Designs on the front of the house symbolized great wealth.  Perhaps, then, this Clan House was the home of a chief of the local Tlingit population at some time in the past.

Entrance to a Clan House where two or maybe three families lived.  This one has symbols indicative of wealth so maybe a chief and his family lived here

Studying totems long enough you slowly begin to understand how to interpret some of what is being described.  However I firmly believe that a huge hit of peyote would help even more.

Ketchikan’s annual Blueberry Festival was winding down one block off Main Street when we returned from Totem Bight.  We wanted to participate but little remained of the festivities other than small crowds walking away from the area, many of them with a dark blue stain on their lips.  Near the festival area we encountered the Sitka Fur Gallery and next to it the Sitka Fur Gallery Outlet.  Each was stacked with the fur and hides of enough animals to make old Parker Hide and Fur in Rice Lake, Wisconsin look like an amateur operation.  Anyone who belongs to PETA would have a field day becoming enraged at the Sitka Fur Gallery and its outlet.  One item was a coat of sea otter fur that was marked down 70 percent from its original $3,695 to “only” $1,099. Curiously, for whatever reason, the “native made” sea otter coat had been dyed a deep crimson red.  It was almost the color of the Northern Cardinals at your feeder in winter.  Having worked with sea otters for several years while living in California I don’t recall any of them being crimson red.  Maybe there was some peyote involved in manufacturing this coat.

An attempt to get a beer at Annabelle’s restaurant downtown became a disaster when we waited at a table for 28 minutes and received no service.  Frustrated we walked north through the tunnel to the Asylum Bar that we had seen from the road on our return to Ketchikan.  A sign proclaiming “Cheapest Beer in Town” drew us to the Asylum.  It was a classic local’s bar with loud music blaring, baseball on the television, the stench of cigarette smoke everywhere, and drunks lining the bar.  It resembled any of a hundred beer joints in the north woods of Wisconsin that I may have entered at one time in the past.

The Asylum Bar has more character per square inch than any of the tourist traps near the cruise terminal. They also have huge quantities of Alaska Amber on tap.  Uncredited image downloaded from the Internet

Our bar maid, a native of San Diego who followed a now-former boyfriend north to Ketchikan, was visibly and verbally annoyed that she had to work on the day of the annual Blueberry Festival.

“There is only one festival that I like in this god damned town,” she started, “and it’s the Blueberry Festival.  It’s usually so cloudy and depressing around this fucking town that you never see the sun. Then when it’s finally a sunny day and it’s on the day of my most favorite festival, I’m stuck in this rat hole pouring pints of beer for a bunch of drunks!”

To say she was non-plussed by the situation was an understatement.

I asked about the bar hours. “We close at 2:00 a.m. every day rain or shine and it’s usually raining.  We open at 8:00 a.m. every day except Christmas and then we sleep in and open at 9.”

Alaskan Amber beer is the finest tasting beer I've had anywhere in the world. I'm not sure what "Alt Style" means but I'm a strong proponent of it

We drank a pitcher of Alaska Amber beer and then had two more pints.  The price we paid was one-third what it would have been on the ship and half what was offered at Annabelle’s where we received no service.  We stayed as long as we dared and then scurried back to the ship to prepare for our 8:00 p.m. departure.  There was not a single cloud in the sky anywhere around the rainiest city in Alaska as we left the pier and made our way south.  We certainly were two of those lucky people the drunken Indian in the airport prophesized about ten years earlier.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Baseball Under the Midnight Sun - Sort of

Friday night July 24 before a record setting crowd of 1,286 rabid fans, the Mat-Su Miners took on the Chugiak (Eagle River) Chinooks in an Alaska Baseball League game.  Played at Herman Brothers Field near Palmer, Alaska, it was my first-ever baseball game in Alaska. 

The Alaska Baseball League is made up of six teams located in Anchorage (2 teams), Fairbanks, Palmer, Chugiak/Eagle River, and Kenai.  The ABL website explains a bit more about the league and the players in it.  Like other Summer collegiate baseball leagues, the Alaska Baseball League is dedicated and designed to provide minor league level competition for NCAA players that wish to continue on into professional baseball. The Alaska Baseball League operates in a similar manner to a Minor League team: playing nightly in stadiums before fans, using wood bats and minor league specification equipment, and experiencing road trips between games. Like all other summer collegiate players, they are unpaid in order to maintain their NCAA eligibility, and live with host families in the same manner as Single A or Independent League players. While serving as a crucial player development team, the Alaska Baseball League has continued to push the boundaries of Summer Collegiate Baseball, including foreign players, winning many league national and international titles and bringing their own brand of baseball across the world.

Having watched more than 400 minor league games in 89 different stadiums in the Lower 48 States ranging from Rookie League to AAA levels, it’s safe to say that the level of play and the skills shown in the Alaska Baseball League are on par with any High A or AA level team I’ve ever watched.  The game between the Miners and the Chinooks that night was no different.

There aren't many baseball fields anywhere that have a backdrop like this.  Image courtesy of the Mat-Su Miners

Played against a backdrop of fantastic mountain scenery and curiously with no lights surrounding the stadium, all games are played in the evening.  Mother Nature provides all of the lighting.

The ticket window at Herman Brothers Field leaves a little bit to the be desired. But with tickets only $4.00 who can complain.  Image courtesy of the Mat-Su Miners

Herman Brothers Field is about the same quality as some Short Season stadiums I have visited (Jamestown New York immediately comes to mind).  The ticket window at the edge of the field and the concessions area needs a little improvement.  That is especially true of the concessions area where teaching people working there how to take down a food order correctly would be a great improvement!  If you want to buy any Miners gear you only have to duck behind home plate and wait your turn in line to pick up what you need at the well-stocked team store. 

There is no need for artificial lighting at Herman Brothers Field in Palmer, Alaska.  Image courtesy of the Mat-Su Miners

The one part of the concessions area that does not need improvement is the beer sales section.  As we quickly learned in Alaska, that state is home to some wicked good beer and the selection available at the Miners game was no different.

Although available only at one small pub in Talkeetna on the road north to Denali National Park, Ice Axe Ale is one of many uber high quality beers brewed in Alaska.

We sat in the bleachers on the third base side looking almost directly into the sun.  We had no choice because there were no seats available on the first base side by the time we went there.  My daughter Jennifer, son-in-law Ryan and grandson Garrett attended with us.  It was Garrett’s first baseball game but at 16 months old I have a hunch he won’t remember.

The cost of a ticket was $4.00 unless you’re a senior or a child (sometimes I think they are the same thing) and then it’s only $2.00.

It was a hard-fought game and the Miners won as they had been doing all season and it was a ton of fun to watch.  I had been admonished not to heckle but I sneaked in a few jabs at the umpire when my daughter wasn’t within hearing distance.  High latitude heckling could become addictive.

The Alaska Baseball League is not something to take lightly. Some of its alumni include Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Chris Chambliss, Dave Winfield and Frank Viola to name just a few.

The game we saw was during the end of the season and when that season was complete the Miners played the Anchorage Bucs for the league championship in a best of three series.  Unfortunately for the Miners the Bucs took them 2 games to 1 but I’m sure it was not for lack of trying.  However as every dedicated Chicago Cubs fan knows, there’s always next year. If I return to Palmer any time soon during baseball season I won’t pass up a chance to watch excellent baseball in the evening on a field where there are no light switches.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Canada's Inside Passage

Without fail the last day at sea produced the best weather, clearest skies, and balmiest temperatures we experienced in the last week. Conditions were so perfect that the ship’s crew put on an afternoon salmon bake on Deck 11 that, assuming you still had room, included paella.  A week earlier we departed Seward under cloudy mist-filled skies with temperatures in the low 50s.  It was like a warm June day in North Dakota but not the type of day we had come to expect from cruising.  On this final day as we plowed across Queen Charlotte Sound, wispy cirrus clouds hung like banners in the sky and with the temperature over 80 degrees I was dressed in shorts, sandals, and a Jimmy Buffett t-shirt.  It was more like being in the Caribbean than north of the 55th parallel.

A salmon bake on Deck 11 as we negotiated the Inside Passage was a fitting end to a fantastic cruise

As the mountains of Vancouver Island came into view off the starboard rail it felt more like I was looking at Jamaica with its palm-fringed beaches rising up out of the ocean rather than Sitka spruce forests where only the heartiest Canadians would consider a swim in the ocean.

Crushingly beautiful is the only way to describe the Inside Passage.  Unattributed image downloaded from the Internet

In his classic book Travels in Alaska, naturalist John Muir recounted his adventures traveling north from Seattle through these same waters in 1878 and 1879.  Muir’s explorations were done by steamship and canoe, not from the luxury of a cruise ship.  His passage over Queen Charlotte Sound was described in almost nightmarish terms because of the brutal winds and hellacious seas they encountered.  By contrast my crossing was nearly flawless from a 900 foot long ship that rarely swayed in the ocean’s currents.  There was no wind and the waves were mere ripples.  It was the sort of day Muir could only fantasize about in his dreams.

Anne Vipond’s excellently written and highly informative travel guide Alaska by Cruise Ship describes British Columbia’s Inside Passage by saying “There are many scenic waterways in the world but there is only one Inside Passage. Stretching from Puget Sound in Washington State to Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska, this vast and intricate coastline of winding channels, forested islands, and turquoise fjords is unsurpassed in scenic beauty.”  Vipond’s description was one of the most accurate I have read to describe an area and its impact on visitors.

The open waters of Queen Charlotte Sound almost defy description

Seabirds dotted the ocean’s surface and armada after armada of gulls patrolled floating mats of kelp.  Humpback Whales each on their southward migration to Hawaii provided constant entertainment. Groups of Pacific White-sided Dolphins broke the surface and occasionally surfed in the wake of the ship.  In one particularly narrow strait we encountered a pod of Killer Whales actively snacking on salmon that had not yet reached the relative safety of the Fraser River.

Humpback Whales are a common sight in the Inside Passage

Other than my presence on a gigantic ship the only suggestion of humans along many miles of the Passage was the contrails of Alaska Airlines jets at 35,000 feet streaking back and forth from Anchorage.  The near-wilderness experience we encountered in the Inside Passage was akin to that we enjoyed in Denali National Park.

Several nights earlier at a party Norwegian Cruise Line hosted for its most loyal customers, we overheard a man in a buzz cut haircut and clothed in a coat and tie tell the ship’s Cruise Director he had been cruising for 30 years and been on more than 100 cruises in that time.  Although he still enjoyed cruising, the one thing he missed was “When cruising was more formal and you dressed up for everything onboard the ship.”  I threw away my coat, tie, and long pants the day I retired and have not worn them since (or do I own any of them now). To me cruising is about relaxing and not having a care in the world and the last thing I want to think about or participate in is dressing up like you’re at the office to stroll around the deck of a ship.

To my fellow travelers the serenity of a mid-day crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound and the Inside Passage meant little or nothing at all.  However for me the scene I enjoyed as I wrote this chapter from the balcony of Stateroom 9241was exactly what I have sought from cruising and I didn’t need to be in a coat and tie to enjoy it.

We all have our own concept of wilderness. Mine is best enjoyed from the deck of a ship.  Unattributed image downloaded from the Internet

My journey began on the Carnival Victory where I hoped to discover why people cruise and what they gain from the experience.  What I have learned over time is that we each cruise for any of a thousand different reasons.  Concomitantly we each receive from cruising exactly what we want from it.  Some people backpack their way through Denali National Park to lose themselves in the wilderness.  Others go on safari in South Africa to gawk at elephants and lions. Still others find peace and serenity at a beach resort in Barbados.  For me the enormity of the ocean and the excitement I experience when I see a distant land mass rising up from the ocean’s surface are what I came to find.

Now I can’t wait for my next cruise.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Grandview Train to Seward

An Alaska Railroad engine at the main depot in Seward Alaska

Paul Theroux is a master of riding the rails.  In one of his many books involving train travel he lamented that he had never seen a train that he didn’t want to board.  His train travels once took him from London to Viet Nam then north to China and eventually the Trans-Siberian Railway through which he eventually returned to London.  Theroux once traveled the rail system of Africa to Simon’s Town, South Africa, the actual end of the rail line on the continent.  Closer to home his classic tale The Old Patagonian Express chronicled his travel by train from South Station in Boston to the southernmost tip of South America.  Only in easternmost Panama where there is no train system, did he not ride the rails on his journey south.

Reading each of Theroux’s books has further stoked my unquenchable wanderlust.  However unlike Theroux who has traveled almost everywhere there is a train track, my tally of train trips is only four.  Three times in the very early 1980s my former family and I rode Canada’s Via Rail system from The Pas, Manitoba north to Churchill on the edge of the Arctic tundra on Hudson’s Bay.  It was not until 26 years later that I rode AMTRAK’s Auto Train on a one-way trek from the Washington DC suburbs to Sanford, Florida exactly one day after I retired.  

Despite my friend Mike DeCapita’s descriptions and arguments to the contrary I have shied away from train travel because I found it long, boring, and excruciatingly slow.  Flying to Churchill would have taken us two hours from Winnipeg.  Instead we drove 12 hours to The Pas and then rode the train for 24 hours in each direction to and from Churchill.  Our cost for four people on the train was less than one half the cost of one person on the plane.  Economics won out and I rejected speed in favor of cost.

The Norwegian Sun was an excellent vessel to be aboard during our way-too-quick 7 day cruise to Vancouver

The lead up to our cruise aboard the Norwegian Sun from Seward, Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia, forced me to re-evaluate my beliefs about train travel.  Anchorage, Alaska is the airport nearest to the cruise terminal in Seward.  Separated by 114 road miles, travelers have two options for accessing Seward.  One rental car company allows one-way rentals between Anchorage and Seward but the management hierarchy of that rental company long ago banned me for life from ever renting one of their vehicles.

The other option was traveling by bus chartered by the cruise line that transported cruise line guests, for a price.  Despite being an efficient alternative the possibility existed that you might not reach the cruise ship in time for its scheduled departure.  The Seward Highway is the only road between Anchorage and Seward.  Its circuitous path follows the incomparably beautiful Turnagain Arm for nearly 40 miles before proceeding inland at Portage Glacier and passing through scenery that is more beautiful than Turnagain Arm.  In mid-summer, traffic on the Seward Highway can sometimes be considered heavy.  At least it’s heavy by Alaska standards.

The breathtaking vistas of Turnagain Arm are alone worth the effort to visit Alaska. Uncredited image downloaded (without attribution) from the Internet.

About two-thirds of the traffic is made up of tourists awed by the immense scenery and focusing their attention more on mountains than oncoming traffic.  About one-third of the traffic is made up of Alaska residents who are interested mainly in getting from Point A to Point B and who become frustrated with all the tourists gawking at the mountains and looking for a real-live Smokey the Bear.  Frequently the Seward Highway is blocked for hours because of accidents.  Sometimes there are massive accidents involving tour buses and other times there are multi-car pile ups.  Both can and do result in lengthy delays, the sort of delays that don’t matter to cruise lines with a 9:00 p.m. departure from Seward.

Browsing the selection of on-shore excursions available as part of our cruise I was surprised to discover that the Alaska Railroad and the cruise lines have collaborated to provide one-way transportation between the Anchorage airport and Seward.  Its cost was only $10 more than the chartered bus and the journey time was only 90 minutes longer.  Even though the coast of the travel and the time involved were greater on the train there was no chance that the train would be involved in a six-car pile-up when Tommy Tourist from Brooklyn stopped in the middle of the road to photograph the first moose he had ever seen.  We booked two seats on the 1:00 p.m. train to Seward.

Originally known as the Alaska Central Railway, its purpose was to carry coal, gold, and other commodities from the interior of the state to the ice free port of Seward. Begun in 1903, the company laid 50 miles of track north from Seward before going bankrupt in 1909.  Shortly after reorganization another 20 miles of track were constructed to near Girdwood on Turnagain Arm.  The United States Congress later authorized the completion of the train over the entire 470 miles north to Fairbanks. 

What would become the Alaska Railroad hauled vast quantities of raw materials and passengers along its route and played an even more vital role during World War II.  By 1984 the railroad began carrying passengers in domed cars designed for tourists.  Today domed cars are a major component of the railroad during the summer tourist season.  We sat in the lead domed car of the Grandview Train during our run to Seward.

An announcer informed us as the train pulled into the Anchorage Airport station that nearly 500 passengers would be exiting the train as it returned from hauling newly-arrived cruise passengers north from Seward.  We were admonished to remain close by because once the train was cleaned and fully re-stocked we would depart. The all aboard announcement was given a few minutes later and nearly 400 cruise ship passengers left Anchorage 10 minutes early.

As Daryn, the purser in our car tried to explain the services available as we traveled away from Anchorage, a particularly loud and obnoxious woman from Pittsburgh told everyone within earshot of her travails in reaching Anchorage.

“First,” she bellowed, “we were delayed in Pittsburgh; mechanical difficulties they called it.  Then we were delayed in Los Angeles; more god-damned mechanical difficulties.  Then a day later we were delayed in Seattle because of mechanical problems.  I’m surprised any airline operates at all with all these god-damned mechanical problems!”

Seemingly content now that she had vented her frustration with the state of the nation’s airlines, she began speaking even louder about the problems she encountered with her hotel in Anchorage.  She told the now visibly-annoyed couple sitting near her, “We were supposed to get here three days ago but instead we arrived at one o’clock this morning!”

“The hotel where we were supposed to stay didn’t send their van to pick us up until three o’clock and I had to get up at 9 to get ready for this train.  At least I hope this god-damned train runs on time.”  Daryn took her order and quickly brought her a vodka on the rocks that seemed to calm her nerves.  At least it helped reduce the volume of her voice. 

Alaska Railroad’s route along Turnagain Arm is on the ocean side of the Seward Highway affording travelers a more expansive view of the mountains than can be enjoyed from a car or bus.  Many of the precipitous cliffs we passed extended above tree line where Dall sheep are regularly seen grazing peacefully on the tundra vegetation.  The first Dall sheep I ever saw was spotted easily on these mountain cliffs the first time I visited Alaska in 1988.

A Chinese man married to a Philippine woman was seated across from us.  The man professed to have a great deal of knowledge of Dall sheep telling anyone who would listen that he knew exactly where we would see sheep.

Moving his right hand in a sweeping motion before him, he declared that “I’ve been here once before and I know exactly where there will be sheep.  They will be down near the road at a place called Beluga Point.  I know this for a fact!”

Dall sheep are a regular sight along the mountain faces of Turnagain Arm
Uncredited image downloaded (without attribution) from the Internet.

Meanwhile Daryn narrated some of the story of the route and made special mention that Dall sheep lived in some parts of the mountains we would be passing.  “If you see any large white furry things on the side of the mountain those will be Dall sheep.”  Daryn concluded his sheep discussion saying, “Beluga Point up the tracks a couple miles used to be a reliable place to see them but they seem to have moved on now.”

Stunned by this revelation the self-appointed Chinese sheep authority shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, they used to be there I guess.”

The Grandview Train offered uncountable opportunities to see alpine glaciers before the route cut inland at the uppermost point of Turnagain Arm.  Our first glimpse of a gigantic alpine glacier caused people to lean over their neighbors to snap digital images of the far-away retreating ice.  Most images were captured with cell phones so the size and shape of the glacier had to be diminished at best.  A few minutes and a few more miles passed as we rumbled around the curve at the end of Turnagain Arm.

Even more glaciers now appeared and as if on cue almost everyone repeated the same seat and body climbing behavior when the first large glacier was seen.  The obnoxious woman from Pittsburgh flung herself across the table occupied by the Chinese sheep authority and feverishly snapped more images.  Another passenger asked Daryn if the train could be stopped so that images could be taken more steadily.  Great interest was focused on these stationary glaciers until Daryn screamed into his microphone, “There’s a bull moose!! It’s only the seventh bull moose we have seen all summer!”

Startled by the noise of the slow-moving train, the bull moose was trotting across an open wetland and seemed focused on a grove of willow trees where it could disappear.  Suddenly everyone lost interest in photographing the stationary glaciers and focused instead on the quickly disappearing bull moose.  As it sought cover in the willows, the Chinese sheep authority said, smugly,’ “I knew a moose would be there.”

Seeing a bull moose, if only fleetingly, was one of the many highlights of the Grandview Train to Seward.  Uncredited image downloaded (without attribution) from the Internet.

Mile marker numbers became increasingly smaller as we approached Seward.  At about number 55 we completed two sweeping turns as the train gained elevation and crested at a pass.  Almost everyone in our car, including the obnoxious woman from Pittsburgh, had grown silent.  The alpine tundra and black spruce forest scenery splayed across seemingly endless miles of untrammeled mountain landscape caused everyone to sit with their eyes focused out the windows.  About the only sound heard was the clickety-clack of the train’s wheels on the rails.  Each of the 15 times I have traveled to Alaska I have been awestruck by the enormity and the beauty of the landscape.  Today on the Grandview Train to Seward I had to pinch myself again so I could believe that I was in Alaska.

Sweeping vista's of alpine tundra.....

... and glaciers at almost every turn make a ride on the Alaska Railroad to Seward one of the highlights of any trip to Alaska

Not long before we began our descent from the pass, I found myself surprised that the 4 ½ hour journey was quickly coming to an end.   We passed the tiny settlement of Moose Pass.  It was near here that author Joe McGinnis spent four nights in a cabin in the middle of an Alaskan winter.  He described the experience in his book Going to Extremes, a book that used to annoy Alaskans because it didn’t describe the place in visitor bureau terms similar to those words used by John McPhee in his contemporarily written Coming Into the Country.  McGinnis eloquently described the rugged remoteness and occasional harshness of Alaska in a way that resonated with me.  I sometimes wish I had followed in McGinnis’s footsteps as he absorbed the serenity of the land near Moose Pass.

Moose Pass Alaska is home to a major flight school for bush pilots.  Photo by Charlie Johnson

We watched float planes doing touch-and-go landings on the lake at Moose Pass.  The lake there serves as a flight school for bush pilots seeking certification to fly amphibious planes.  

We passed the edge of gigantic Kenai Lake where Arctic Terns were busily foraging and where Daryn informed us that all five species of salmon that spawn in Alaska were currently present.  He dashed the hopes and aspirations of all the potential fishermen onboard when he informed us that once salmon reach fresh water they lose all interest in feeding.  Now the urge to reproduce was their strongest driving force and feeding could wait for another life time.

A few minutes later we rumbled over the Resurrection River and past the Seward airport and then in the distance could see the Norwegian Sun docked at the Seward cruise terminal.   As promised by Daryn, the Grandview Train came to a stop only a few feet from the terminal and quickly all 400 passengers trotted toward the waiting ship. 

As we prepared to leave, Daryn thanked us for using the Alaska Railroad adding, “In all my years working on this railroad I have to say that this group of passengers is…..”  He took a long pause and we all expected him to use some superlative to describe us but instead Daryn had the last laugh, “….is my most recent group.”

It was a fitting end to an enjoyable beginning.