ADVENTURE BOUND IN ALASKA



by Pam Hobbs, photos by Michael Algar

Considering how much I moaned about Toronto's snow and ice last winter, it's hard to believe I am so thrilled to be standing on a glacier, cut off from the world, tramping about on ice as old as time itself. Spiked boots prevent me from slipping, but terrain is bumpy enough that I could easily lose balance - to be gone forever in an icy crevice. And so I am careful about where I walk, leaving younger companions to stride up the hill and over the top. Cupping a handful of crystal clear water from a puddle melted by the sun, I find it tastes sweeter than anything bottled. Then, gleefully, I turn and shout "I'm the King of the Castle" to my mate, who's grinning from the step of the helicopter that brought us to this magical place. Pesky health problems prevent him from walking far. But hey, we're here, feeling very much alive, and proving that for two old codgers pushing 80 there is still adventure to be had in this unstintingly beautiful wilderness that is Alaska.

Adventurers have been coming to America's 49th state for hundreds of years. Fur traders from Russia stumbled on its wealth of sea otters in the late l700s, and returned to hunt them almost to extinction. A century later gold prospectors flocked through on their way to the Yukon. And now summer brings visitors of all ages, and every level of physical fitness (900,000 of them last season) for adventure vacations that more than fulfil advertised promises.

Most of our fellow travellers are over 50 and many won't see 75 again, showing that age is no barrier when you're on a Princess "Cruisetour" which is giving us a trip that's safe and hassle-free. Ours is a typical package: the land segment starts in Fairbanks and ends at Whittier (Anchorage) four days later when we board the Coral Princess for a week's sea journey south to Vancouver.

What exactly is hassle free ? Well, for starters there's no struggling with luggage. Large cases taken from us at Fairbanks reappeared four days later in our ship's stateroom. Smaller baggage left outside our door at one lodge, is in our room at the next by the time we arrive. Local tour operators pick us up on time for fantastic excursions, and if poor weather cancels a trip then another is quickly arranged. Meals and seats on the trains are pre-booked. Hanging about for connections is kept to a minimum.

If you are in a wheelchair you will find all public and some guest rooms accessible and suitably equipped. Busses and trains have lifts, as do pools and hot tubs on the Coral Princess. And if you need no more than the occasional helping hand, you will always find one close by. As Michael soon learned, whether it was doing up his spiked boots, assisting him on and off vehicles or rustling up transport when a distance proved too far to walk, he was helped with courtesy and a smile.

Had we come home after the land portion of our tour, still I would have considered the trip worthwhile. Travelling largely by train, we stayed at three of Princess's five lodges, purpose-built in sensationally scenic settings. Pre-booked excursions from the lodges cover everything from dog-sledding across a glacier, white-water rafting and zip-lining through a rain forest, to flight-seeing, salmon bakes, train and bus tours more suited for the less nimble among us.

When deciding on our excursions from home, I must admit to feeling a bit of wimp. But, much as I'd love to go kayaking among the whales and heli-hiking across a glacier, and was sorely tempted to sign up for a horse-back ride in Denali National Park, in truth I was never that athletic. As it turned out our mini- adventures were often exhilarating and always interesting. (How could we not be thrilled to fly low over five glaciers ?) We met amazing people who love this land, and survive through almost insurmountable hardships to live here. We learned about indigenous cultures and a way of life very different from our own. And yes, although sometimes thwarted by rain and fog and our own limitations, I can honestly say that just being in Alaska is an adventure. Spectacular outings and breathtaking views, a hilarious stage show in which Michael was roped in as an on-stage stooge - a salmon bake in the rain, champagne breakfast on our stateroom balcony, having a laugh with new friends in the ship's bars and elegant meals in the dining rooms - all these things bring a smile when I recall them now.

Our adventure begins in Fairbanks aboard the Midnight Express for a four hours journey to Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Commentary along the way is provided by an entertaining young lady called Fallon ("O.K. folks, so my mom was a fan of the t.v. series Dallas"). Strangers become friends who we meet again on other trains, excursions and aboard ship. Scenery flashing past is reminiscent of Canada, with mile upon mile of trees, and skinny waterfalls cascading down rocky mountainsides, and small communities so far from anywhere I wonder what brings anyone to live in such isolation..

There is no way to exaggerate when describing this state. Mountain ranges stretch for hundreds of miles, national parks cover millions of acres, winter temperatures are lower almost anywhere else. Even farm produce and flowers belong in the Land of the Giants, where dahlias and roses are the size of cabbages and cabbages as huge as bushes. One farmer told me her grandchildren use her rhubarb leaves as umbrellas! The growing season is short but days are long, and rain so plentiful it is measured in feet instead of inches.

Our destination is the six million acres, Denali National Park, America's largest natural preserve with the country's highest mountain, Mt McKinley, as its centrepiece.

Hikers and horseback riders have a grand time in this park, returning to the lodge with tales of wildlife sightings that include black and grizzly bears. Travelling its 90 miles of road by school bus, with stops along the way, we see nothing larger than a brown hare, but I really don't need to. It's the peace I find so compelling. Walking ahead of our group, I am struck by the absolute silence. Hundreds of bird species, animals big and small live in Denali, and yet there isn't a sound. No squawks or twitters, no singing of wires overhead, no snorts from hidden animals. White blobs in the trees turn out to be bald eagles, staring stonily down from their spruce tree perches. On this morning pink fireweeds are sprinkled with snow, and the grass spiked with frost. In mid summer I am wearing a woollen hat and gloves, and must brush snowflakes off a sign in order to read it. And yet it is so utterly beautiful I want to stay.

A few hardy souls spend their winters in the park. We visit a single-room cabin, one of 14 used by rangers who patrol by dog sled on the look-out for poachers. Scientists too spend a few nights at a time here while studying area wolves. Nails on the cabin's shutters are a deterrant to bears; claw marks below show their determination to gain entry. An Athabaskan arrives to tell us about his nomad tribe. His melodious voice is sad, as he explains how his ancestors crossed the ice bridge from Asia some 12,000 years ago, and now the younger generation is being counselled on drugs and alcohol abuse. Pop and Doritos, he says, are making some of the kids obese. Others play baseball in hopes that athletic skills will allow them to travel far away.

On board the Coral Princess we have a real dilemma, for this is a floating resort with all the expected bells and whistles, and we could be entertained royally without ever going ashore. But then those once-in-a-lifetime excursions and historic ports beckon, and we have to figure out how to fit it all in.

To minimize environmental impact, only two cruise ships are allowed into Glacier National Park & Preserve at any time. On the second day at sea it's our turn, causing passengers to glue themselves to the rails or in chaises pulled up to picture windows, as park rangers explain the heart-stopping scenes unfolding before us. It is as if we have sailed into a fantasy world of ice, cocooned in soft grey mist and clouds. Great walls of ice, in places marbled with blue, rise from ice-clogged water. I half expect the Snow Queen to glide by on a golden sleigh. Instead there's an otter, its hands folded neatly on its belly. (I can almost hear him humming contentedly). Seabirds dip and dive before settling onto little ice rafts. More otters. Snowcapped mountains. Coastal beaches. A thunderous clap rents the air when a slab of ice - like Humpty Dumpty - falls from the wall in a procedure known as 'calving'.

On another day some of our passengers kayak through this wonderland, returning home to tell of eye-balling grizzly bears on the shore. But we are no less thrilled to skim over the park in a float plane, for a view more spectacular than anything I've seen before.

The next three mornings see everyone on the move. Tour busses are lined up on dock to take passengers to their excursions. Other passengers wander into towns and easy walk from the ship. Skagway is our favourite port. Touristy though it is, we love the frontier town character, reminding us of times when this was base camp for prospectors heading for the Klondike. Now, the main street's restored buildings from that era house perfectly respectable shops.

We talk with an actor playing the role of the notorious confidence trickster Soapy Smith, and pose with costumed girls from the Red Onion. Then, after walking back to the ship for lunch, (I can't get used to eating a first class meal in an elegant dining room, and leaving with a smile instead of a bill from the waiter) we ride the famous White Pass and Yukon Railway on the miners' route through snow-covered mountains, past glaciers and waterfalls and fast-running streams. We climbed close to 1,000 metres in 20 minutes recalling that until the railroad was finished in l899, prospectors travelled on foot bringing a year's supply with them..

Juneau, the state capital, covers 3,108 square miles but has only 30,000 year round residents. I linger on a bench by the harbour, watching fishing charters come and go from the harbour and float planes set off for nearby glaciers. And spent far too much time in a wonderful little shop where a local carver demonstrated use of his traditional curved ulus with handles made from moose or caribou antlers. An ulu is also known as "the woman's knife." on the theory that men do the hunting and fishing, women prepare the food with their ulus. A practical tool originally used by natives to cut up meat and tough hides, mine is great for slicing anything for which I would normally use a serrated knife.

Ketchican was originally settled by the Tlingit people whose work you'll see in totems scattered about town, and attractive little galleries. Our excursion this morning is to Saxman Village, an authentic Tlingit community founded in l886 and now home to 450 members of the tribe.

Fishermen, sailors, explorers, traders and gold miners settled here in the early l900s. Now, for us, it is the last Alaskan town on our route south towards British Columbia. One dockside sign tells us we are entering the World's Salmon Capital, another that this is the state's Rain Capital - 12' so far this year. Three more feet to go to meet the average, and the heavens are trying hard to reach their target today.

We head for Creek Street where former brothels are now picturesque one-of-a-kind shops lining wiggly lanes and alleys above the creek. And on the way back stop on a bridge to watch hundreds of black salmon leaping from the water. Fishermen, perhaps a dozen or more, crowd the bridge and wade into the water to scoop them up. One enterprising lad wants to rent me a rod and bait: $12 for twenty minutes, money refunded if I don't hook a fish. Alongside me, small children no more than seven or eight are netting their own salmon, to add to their parents' haul watched over by the family dog. I imagine them at home later this afternoon, Ulus in hand, beheading and gutting their catch, doing whatever they must to preserve their salmon for use in the long dark winter ahead.

It is Saturday afternoon. On our walk to the ship I think of a typical Saturday afternoon in Toronto, and how different this world is from my own. On Deck 5, classical music emanates from the Bordeaux Dining Room, as tea gets under way. White cloths and silver service. Warm scones smothered in preserves and cream, petit fours. Bite-sized salmon sandwiches that would do any five star London hotel proud.



ALASKA'S MODERN PIONEERS

Magnificent scenery aside, one of the most interesting aspects of an Alaskan vacation is the people you meet and stories they tell. Many came here in the '60s in search of a better life, others came to do a job and when it was finished realized they were hooked on the north country.

Men like Doyle, who was posted here with the U.S. Airforce, and when his time was up became a fireman. Now semi-retired, he is a trapper who faces temperatures of 60 - 80 below to check his traplines every 48 hours and sells his furs to big stores in New York.

Then there's Bill, a computer geek in the '60s when he arrived to work on the pipeline, fell in love with local sled dogs. These days you'll find him racing some of the thirty he owns, in hopes of having a winning team in the Iditarod, the gruelling race he has finished seven times to date.

Most memorable though is Joanne Porterfield of Trappers Creek. I met Joanne through her daughter Janel who drove us to one of our excursions. Along the way she told me how she had come here as an infant in the '60s, with her parents, three siblings and a dog, and she grew up thinking everyone lived as they did. No baby sitters. No malls. No television. "It's all about family up here" she said, "where Mum and Dad went, we went too." Stopping off at her family's home (Two Bit, Two Cow Ranch) to pick up lemonade and a snack for our trip she asked if we'd like to meet her mother. A real live homesteader ? You bet.

Now 74 and widowed, Joanne still lives in the family log cabin added to over the years. There's still no community closer than Talkeetna, 80 km away in summer and less in winter when she can travel on the frozen river. Any regrets ? "Yes" she smiles wryly. "I brought a lot of my favourite coffee, butternut, and had to throw it out. The water here made it taste bitter." Other than that, not a one. No regret that she, husband Frank and the kids (did I mention they were aged l8 months to 6 yrs ?) lived in a trailer for two years while building the house. "Sometimes the ice inside froze the girls' hair to the windows overnight. I had to heat water to get them unstuck." What did she miss most ? Running water. "I had to do the running. To the creek in summer, and for snow to melt in winter."

Joanne was 27, a school teacher living in South Dakota where Frank ran the family farm, when they decided they wanted adventure in their lives. Alaska was offering free land: five acres of wilderness a mile from the road. So they came, with their Volkswagen 'beetle' and a trailer. Supplies were brought in every six months by boat from Seattle. Their crops failed, except for potatoes. They ate a lot of potatoes back then. And moose meat. And berries. Joanne home-schooled her children, and any others who turned up.

Janel came in to say a moose and her calf were in the back field, so we trooped out to look. No surprise there. The duo are regular visitors. I ogled Joanne's enormous cabbages and roses, and noticed a battered VW up on blocks. It is the car they had when they first arrived in Alaska. It's been bought and sold a few times over the past forty years. Now Janel is hoping to find time to restore it to its original state. Throughout our visit I tried to remember where I had seen this mother and daughter a few days earlier. "Oh yes, "Janel replied when I asked her if they were in a promotion film on Alaska. "They came and asked if we'd talk about our life here. Mom was also featured in National Geographic once, but neither of us can figure why. We're just like any other Alaska family. We love the outdoors and the wildlife, and wouldn't live any place else."