Alaska Cruise — Part 2

Day 10 – It was an overcast day with intermittent rain when we disembarked at Whittier. We had avoided rain so far, so we were not distressed. We boarded one of the two busses for our tour and drove to Portage Lake and Portage Glacier. The scenery along the drive was beautiful.

We arrived at Portage Lake and boarded a fair sized boat (maybe 200 passengers) to travel to the far end of the lake and the Portage Glacier. There were lovely small waterfalls all along the lake. It was also raining.

We arrived at the Portage Glacier. It was not as huge as some of the ones in Glacier Bay, but it was very pretty.

As we got up close to the glacier, we could see the dirt and ground up rock that the glacier creates and pushes along.

As we headed back to town we saw another moose.

The restaurant where we had lunch had several sculptures and taxidermy of Alaskan wildlife.

After lunch we went to the Anchorage Museum. After birds and nature, a museum is one of our favorite places to go, so this was right up our alley!

It had many artifacts from the indigenous peoples historic way of life.

And some modern works as well.

We stayed the night at the Captain Cook Hotel in downtown Anchorage, with a great view of the inlet and tidal flats.

Day 11 – The next morning we boarded the train to Denali. The cars were comfortable with glass domed roof to allow us excellent views of the scenery as we passed. I had expected to see lots of wildlife along the way, but we didn’t see nearly so much. But the scenery was spectacular.

We did see a pair of Trumpeter Swans along the way.

People who live in the back country can arrange for the train to stop at a pre-arranged mile post and they can get on or off to go to Anchorage, get supplies, etc.

We made friends with Randy & Patti and Terri & Karen as we traveled. Terri had broken her foot the day before she had to leave on the trip, so she was wearing a ‘boot’ for the entire trip!

But the train ride was mostly about the scenery!

Our lodgings in Denali were rustic but comfortable. While on the cruise portion of the trip we learned that Holland America pioneered cruising to Alaska and remains one of the largest cruise lines serving Alaska. We also learned the line was founded in 1893 and bought by Carnival in 1989. Holland and Princess (another Carnival line) have entire complexes at the entrance to Denali with company owned hotels, restaurants, shops, etc.

Day 12 – Our first day in Denali was the Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour, about an 8 hour bus ride from the hotel for about 43 Miles to East Fork River Turnaround. In years past this tour has gone 62 miles into the park, but a landslide (actually a moving glacier of loose rock) has wiped out the road, and they are still trying to figure out how to handle that!

The scenery into Denali was spectacular!


Our driver was excellent at pointing out wildlife along the way.  He also had a video camera with a telephoto lens that allowed him to show close-up images of what we were seeing on video screens above our seats.

We saw two small herds of caribou and two grizzly bears foraging for food.

We also saw a Ptarmigan in summer plumage.

We learned that Denali, at 20,000 feet, actually creates its own weather patterns, and it is one of the most dangerous of all mountains to climb because of its dynamically changing weather patterns. One can leave camp with calm winds and sunshine, only to be confronted with 140 mph winds and blinding snow before the day is over!

We also learned that most people who visit Denali never actually see the mountain! Its weather frequently shrouds “the great one” in clouds, so only about 30% of visitors actually see the mountain. WE WERE AMONG THE LUCKY 30%!!

When we first saw the mountain, it was peaking over the edge of a distant ridge line. But we got closer and saw it much more clearly.

By the time we were heading back to the hotel, the mountain was again completely encased in clouds!

Late that afternoon we went to the park’s working sled dog display and presentation. Because most of the park is a designated Wilderness Area, mechanical devices are mostly prohibited in the park. Much of the Park Service’s work has to be done using sled dogs, so they have a large kennel and breeding program for these working dogs. We saw about 20 or so hanging out in the kennel area, some coming over to get a pet from visitors, most resting inside their house (or on top of it).

The presentation included learning more about their use and breeding as well as meeting one of the working dogs, and watching a puppy race. The puppy race is actually an integral part of the training of the young dogs!

Then we each got to pretend that we were real mushers!

That evening we enjoyed one of the best meals of the entire trip (and that’s saying something!) We took the shuttle from the kennels to the King Salmon restaurant where we both enjoyed fabulous salmon dinners including a wonderful bowl of seafood chowder and desserts.

We had elected to spend an extra day at Denali to enjoy the park with little extra time. Otherwise we would have left right after the bus tour into the park. This gave us a chance to sleep in a little and visit the park Visitor’s Center.

That afternoon we rode the tour bus to Fairbanks, stopping in Nenana for a rest break. This little town holds a raffle, the Nenana Ice Classic, trying to predict when the ice will break up on the river in the spring. Judith made a small wager for the fun of it, although last year’s payout was nearly $250,000, so that would be fun too!

Day 14 – The last day of the tour was packed full of activities! We started the morning with a riverboat ride on a stern-wheeler, Discovery III.

Because the state is so large and there are so few roads, private aircraft are a key part of transportation in the state. About 1 in 100 Alaska residents hold a private pilot’s license! And the most common air strip is a lake or river, so we were treated to a demonstration of a small Cessna taking off and landing on the river in front of us.Along the river, we also saw numerous ducks. (Common goldeneye, I think.)

Along the river we stopped at the home of Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Monson. Susan was a four-time winner of the Iditarod sled-dog race, a race that old-timers said could never be won by a woman! Unfortunately, she died of cancer in 2006, but her husband continues to train sled dogs and to promote her memory. (There are many videos about her, here is one.)

They talked about training the young dogs, selecting strong, intelligent pups, and teaching them to overcome obstacles.

While we watched, Dave and crew hitched up a team of dogs to a 4-wheel ATV, since there was no snow. The dogs were SO EXCITED, knowing that they were going to get to run and pull! 

They pulled the ATV around the compound a couple times, and were clearly ready to continue on. But they stopped and unhitched them, and turned them loose. As a reward they dashed into the river to frolic.

The river was beautiful and peaceful.

We also learned that reindeer are essentially just domesticated caribou. We saw an impoundment of reindeer along the way. They are shedding the ‘velvet’ from their new season’s growth of antlers.

Then we arrived at a re-constructed native Athabaskan village. Here we learned about their traditional way of life, including the harvesting, drying and storing of salmon.

We saw cabins typical of the people after western contact, as well as pelts and traditional clothing.

The village even has its own post office!

There was a statue of Susan Butcher’s famous lead dog, Granite.

They showed examples of shelter used before western contact.

And make-shift shelter used when traveling.

There was also a sled dog kennel.

It was a delightful and informative stop.

After the riverboat ride, we were served to a large, family style lunch.

Then it was off to the Alaska Pipeline and the Gold Dredge. We learned a little about the trans-Alaska pipeline which carries oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil field over 800+ miles and 11 pumping stations to Valdez, Alaska, on the Gulf of Alaska. It is a 48″ diameter pipeline that is mounted on ‘field goal stands’ to give it flexibility to expand and contract and to absorb seismic jolts. It is mostly above ground to protect the permafrost layer of the tundra.

Then we visited Gold Dredge #8, a huge machine that chewed up rock and soil, washed out the tailings, and allowed the heavier gold to fall into fabric mats, often cocoa fiber mats, which would trap the heavy gold and allow the sand and gravel to wash over the top. Then they could burn the mat, gold and all, leaving melted gold to be retrieved. (I neglected to take a picture of the dredge, so here is one from the internet.)

We took a cute little train out to the dredge. The conductor was also a fiddler.

When that was over, we were each given a small bag of gold bearing gravel, and we were taught how to pan for gold. Neither of us was very good at it, but in the end we retrieved $42 worth. They would sell you a pendant to put your gold in for $45! We declined.

But Judith found the safe where they kept the ‘real gold’.

That evening we attended a cute musical production about Fairbanks.

Day 15 – was the departure date for the rest of the tour group. However, we were going to stay a couple additional days. The day before had been extremely busy, so we slept in a little, then walked around town. In the process we ran into some of the other folks from our tour! In the afternoon we visited the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center. It was delightful with displays of historic cabins on the grounds and lovely displays.

There were a couple interesting statues in town. With tensions what they have been with Russia, it was particularly interesting to see the WW II statue.

On our trip to Portland, we had been routed via Atlanta (airlines have a strange sense of geography) with a 5+ hour layover in Atlanta. We had exited the secure area to have lunch with a long time friend, Fran. Of course, that meant that we had to go through security again. Apparently, I left my driver’s license at the security checkpoint, and we did not notice that until after we arrived in Portland. For a fee, the Atlanta airport located my errant driver’s license, and for a FedEx charge, they sent it to our hotel in Fairbanks. But I got my driver’s license back!

Day 16 – We had a free day in Fairbanks and were casting about for what we wanted to do. Our original plan had been to take a driving tour up into the Arctic Circle. This would be a 13 hour round trip on ‘one of the loneliest roads in the world’. We also had considered a ‘Northern Lights’ tour, but that would start at around midnight and last for 4 or 5 hours … and we just aren’t night owls. So we decided to see what else was happening around town. And we found that they are holding their annual CRANE FESTIVAL!

They had a ‘Crane Calling Contest’ for the kids with an enthusiastic group leader.

The grounds of Creamer’s Field were lovely.

But of course, the stars of the Crane Festival are the Sandhill Cranes!

After the festival we found a delightful little restaurant, The Crepery, where they served sandwiches in crepes. Those who live in Fairbanks year ’round are sturdy individuals! Fairbanks has the widest temperature range of any city in the world, from -56 to +99!! In the winter it is so cold that parking lots even provide plug in outlets for your engine block heater!

Day 17 – We had an early flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage where we would rent a car. The flight was beautiful, with lovely views of the Alaskan countryside.

We picked up our car rental and drove to Homer, down the Kenai peninsula. That was perhaps the most beautiful drive we have ever taken!

The mountains and the stupendous scenery makes us puny humans feel small.

Homer is also known for having wildlife ‘everywhere’!

Day 18 – We took a drive around the town, out onto the Spit (a long narrow stretch of land going out into the bay), and up to Wynn Nature Center. We didn’t see a ton of wildlife, but it was a very pleasant walk.

There were Elderberries everywhere!

We did see a little bit of wildlife: a Canada Jay and a moose!

Day 19 – We enjoyed investigating Homer. The spit is filled with fun and interesting shops and we visited several, but didn’t buy much. We had a delicious dinner of baked halibut at one of the restaurants. The spit is also home to many of the docks for commercial and tourist boating. The sights are fantastic!

Judith stayed in the room while I went out to explore a little more. Along a side road I made a discovery.

Day 20 – Our last day in Alaska, we drove back to Anchorage to catch our flight back to Cleveland. A wonderful trip.

While we don’t buy many souvenir items, but we enjoy collecting pins. Here are the ones we gathered during this trip.



Next Post:   Whale Watching out of Gloucester MA

Previous Post:  Alaska Cruise – Part 1