Return to Alaska (Part 1)

denali 2It is hot…..and humid….and buggy……and I’m outside weeding in a flower bed filled with weeds and plants I love that have gotten totally out of control. I really don’t like to garden in July. It is just way too hot and I can come up with about two dozen good reasons not to be out there up to my elbows in dirt and weeds. Of course, I have one big reason to be there….the weeds are taking over the flower beds and I haven’t spent any quality time lately with my flowers. So I’m there and I’m getting it done, at least some of it, but my mind is elsewhere. My thoughts drift back a few weeks to Alaska where it is cool….well, it was downright cold some days and I shivered my way through that but, right now, sitting here sweating and scratching, I’m thinking how nice it was to be somewhere cool.

I have to admit, it was buggy up in Alaska too. Our favorite of all the bug jokes was the one about us coming to Alaska because we heard they had the world’s biggest mojitos only to find out they meant mosquitos. (It is always good to get a joke in somewhere in the blog…getting it in right at the beginning sort of takes the pressure off……now back to the trip.)

We had been thinking about going to Alaska for some time and it was certainly on the old bucket list so when it floated up to the top, we figured we might as well get to it. I have to say that any delays in planning the trip were of my own doing since I had way too many ideas on what we should do and how we should make the trip. You see, I had been there before and this would be a return trip for me and there were some things I missed seeing the first time I was there so I wanted to make sure I got to them on this trip. (That’s right – it is all about me!)

It is 1978 and I had been traveling for about eighteen hours with a five year old and I was dead tired and not in much mood for anything but a good meal and a soft bed. But it was getting close to midnight and I wasn’t there yet. I had merely made it to Fairbanks. Little did I know when my husband (then) picked me up at the airport that I had roughly another hundred miles of bad road to go before arriving at Delta Junction which is a junction – a wide spot in the road per some folks.

DJ 1973The town is known for being the terminus of the Alaska-Canadian (ALCAN) highway unless you side with the good folks of Fairbanks who say the road ends there. Delta Junction is also known for its location on the Tanana River and another river whose name I cannot recall. Finally, Delta Junction is the home of Fort Greely which is why I was there.

Before I go further down memory lane, let me take a short break to share something I did not learn the first time I went to Alaska. Okay, I might have learned it but somewhere along the line, I promptly forgot it. “Na” is an aboriginal (Athabascan?) word meaning “river” so adding “na” to the end of a word like “Tana” becomes “Tanana” which means Tana River (more or less). So the Chena is the Che River and the Nenana is the Nena River (again, more or less since I am not really schooled in native languages of Alaska). So, when I say, “Tanana River”, I am being totally redundant and saying, “Tana River River” but had I simply said, “Delta Junction is on the Tanana”, you might not have understood I was talking about a big ole river and you might actually have gone off in another direction and maybe thought it was a mountain or railroad or something.

fort greelyNow, getting back to Fort Greely, it is situated such that you have beautiful views of Brooks Range (which are mountains and not rivers, of course) and the view from the kitchen of our lovely government quarters was of those beautiful mountains. And the view of the mountains was something I wanted to see again.

pipelineAs you will surmise, I have digressed again. So, back to 1978, it is midnight and there is no midnight sun because it is February. In February in Alaska, you just get midnight dark for the most part….and cold. You get lots of cold in Alaska in February. I think it was something like 20 below that night and I had on way too few layers (I’m not sure I even knew about dressing in layers then) and my coat was way too small. I remember telling myself, “I have got to get a better coat or I will never survive this tour.” I remember that long drive to Delta Junction and I remember the northern lights dancing like some magical swaying curtain across the night sky. I particularly remember the lights dancing over the newly built Alaska Pipeline where it was shining silver steel ribbon suspended across the Tanana all sparkling color and silver reflected back from the frozen river below. I remember that it was breathtakingly beautiful.

It was this kind of experience I wanted again and that I wanted to share with my (now) husband. So I had lots of ideas about going to Alaska again and what to see and do. But Alaska is HUGE…I mean really BIG. They say you can set Alaska inside the continental US (i.e., lower 48) and Alaska will reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Okay, that’s tip to tip if you lay it sideways and include all the islands. It would be difficult to do…. so just trust me that this was said to give you an idea of how big the 49th state really is.)

The more I planned and budgeted and ciphered and figured and planned some more, the more I realized that maybe I couldn’t possibly do everything in one trip. It may be a once in a lifetime trip but you just have to whittle down the options available and do what you can. Now, isn’t that the way it is with most vacations?  Ultimately, we settled on taking a cruise and land tour which would hit most of the items on my list in about 15 days. It wouldn’t get it all but it would cover a nice mix of things I (we) wanted to see and do.

Up front, I realized that we’d not be doing too much birding although I’d heard so many stories about all the birds to see in Alaska. But birding Alaska was going to need more thought and planning specifically to take advantage of the locations where birding is best….and off the main tourist routes, as it were. So, we decided to go with the basic tour this time and maybe plan a birding trip later in the future…..if possible. Of course, that wouldn’t stop us from looking for birds along the way anyway….which we did.

But I definitely had a few things in mind I definitely wanted to see and do.

ONE: I wanted to see Mount McKinley, or as it was always known to the natives, Denali, “the great one”.

denali heliIn the two plus years I’d spent at Fort Greely, I had missed the opportunity to get to Denali National Park and to see Mount McKinley. Well, I actually got to see the mountain briefly from the air on a business trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks but I hadn’t gotten to see it “for real”. I mean a brief flyover really doesn’t give you time to really experience the moment. I’m not sure why I never got to Denali back in the 70’s. It was quite a distance to drive but no further than we drove on other trips we took while we lived there. We did get to the Yukon and to Matanuska Valley and to Anchorage and to Seward and to Valdez but for whatever reason we did not get to the area between Fairbanks and Anchorage or drive down the Parks Highway. If I had to guess at this point, we just ran out of time. The Army sent orders and the tour was over. It is the way it always is when you are stationed somewhere with the military… spend your time working and living there and get to be a tourist when you can slip a trip in here and there.  It was the same in Germany. How do you spend over three years in Germany and not get to Paris? It happens. And it gives you plenty of reasons to try again someday.

denali from parkSo I was going back and I really wanted to see that mountain. I had some concerns about seeing Denali because it is summer and less than 30% of the people who visit Alaska in the summer get to see the mountain. It is just too high and is cloud covered most of the time. Winter is a different story – I’ve heard the view is clear as a bell and cold as well…..heck in the winter time. But, then again, not too many people (tourists, that is) visit Alaska in the winter time.

TshirtThis time, I thought, I am going to see Denali. And I’m going to visit that National Park. Done. Discussion over. No doubt about it. It was going to happen. And it did. We were delighted with the views and amazed at the beauty of the mountain. We even took a helicopter ride (my first except for a medivac ride that I was told did not count as being a real helicopter ride) and so I got views of the mountain from the ground and, again, from the air. It was amazing. I might have said that already. I took tons of photos….and, like everyone else, said “oh, my gosh” and “awesome” and “cool” way too many times. The mountain was enormous and beautiful and, well, just amazing.

denali busesWe also enjoyed our time at the National Park and saw all the things you’re supposed to see – Grizzlies, Dall Sheep, Moose, Ptarmigans, Caribou – all except wolves. Okay, we didn’t see wolves but, we saw plenty of Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles and lots of wildflowers. But we didn’t really enjoy going 50+ miles in a converted school bus…really, National Parks Service……if you’re going to make everyone ride your bus through the park, at least get a decent one and wash the windows each morning! (You ride an NPS bus so they can limit the number of visitors and vehicles in the park in order to protect the wilderness and animals. It is a good thing to do….I’m just saying, get a better more comfortable bus.)

TWO: I wanted to go to Glacier Bay National Park.

glacier 1Pretty much the only way to do this is to do the cruise (take your pick, Princess, Holland, Carnival, etc.). Okay, I’m thinking you can fly or boat or maybe even try to hike into the park but that is going to take more time and more roughing it than I care to do so the cruise it is. You can always drive through Canada and over the mountains into Skagway and then get on a boat to see the Bay…but, again, more time and effort. I have to say the cruise lines have a bit of a monopoly going in making it easy to see Glacier Bay. The only problem is that I get seasick.

ferryWhen I came back from Alaska in 1980, we took the Alaska Ferry. Great Ferry system and I loved the trip…but hated getting seasick. So, I spent about five days getting sick every time that ferry went through open waters. As long as we were in the inland waterways, I was fine but open water and ground swells laid me out. So I knew I would have some issues with this trip and I packed the Dramamine but I never expected gale force winds on our first day out as the ship crossed Alaska Bay and open waters.

mist cruiseThe land tour had gone very well (another blog on another day) but the first twenty-four hours of the cruise were excruciating for me. And, being pill-phobic, I put off taking the Dramamine until it was too late.  Ultimately, it hit and I got sick…..well, I had been queasy and nauseated the whole time but full force sea sickness did not hit until evening. I dare not gross you out with the details but I have to tell you about the HAZMAT team that came in to clean up the cabin. All my “sickness” had been in the bathroom but the cleaning team (gloves, masks, and the whole shebang) wiped down the whole cabin. Anything I might have touched had to be cleaned and disinfected. And, just to make sure it was all done properly, they did it again the next day. Of course, the next day, the ship was in the inland waters so there were no white caps or winds or rolling seas and I was perfectly fine but, no matter, the hazmat boys came back and wiped it all down again.

room serviceOne more little note on my seasickness – we called room service for ginger ale and some saltines. I guess they just could not even consider just bringing a couple packs of crackers….they brought a tray with a plate filled with crackers……and utensils because I couldn’t possibly eat crackers without a fork, spoon, and knife!

But, at least the hazmat boys didn’t quarantine us and we were able to fully enjoy the trip through Glacier Bay and we got to see glaciers and more glaciers and scenery like you wouldn’t believe even existed.

marjorieAnd the glaciers were beautiful and way bigger than life and, well, dare I say it again, just amazing? I could have stayed there for several more hours watching Marjorie Glacier… wasn’t doing much, calving now and then, but even so, I could have sat there watching this blue wall of ice until past dark if I could have. (And we did get midnight sun here so dark would have been a good long time coming.)

JH glacier

THREE: I was determined, in spite of the potential for another bout of seasickness, to go whale watching.

And, what can I say but it turned out to be marvelous? We took the boat out of Juneau and had a great afternoon. We spent the morning at Mendenhall Glacier in what we thought was never ending rain. But, by afternoon and the time for the whale watching, the rain was mostly gone except for scattered showers. But the whales didn’t care about the rain so why should we? We were able to see Humpback Whales and Sea Lions and Dall’s Porpoises (no relation to the sheep), and Bald Eagles. And I did not get even a whimper of nausea.

whale tailAnd I would have liked for the boat to have gone on chasing those whales for hours but time ran out way too quickly. Just as an aside, the best way to find whales is to look for other whale watching boats…they seem to congregate once a whale or two is spotted. (Or, maybe that is how whales find humans when they go out human-watching.) We got one last “whale tale” before the boat turned and headed back into shore.

Mountains, whales, bears, moose…..we got a good sampling on our trip. And, yes, I will tell you more in later blogs. And, yes, I will admit that getting a second taste of Alaska does make me want to go back again.  And, finally, yes, if I go back again, I would like to stay longer and do more roaming around on my own exploring the wilderness and looking for some of those birds I missed on this trip.  I’d want to do it all…… long as I can find places to stay with running water and hot showers and electricity and a warm comfortable bed to sleep in once my roaming is done each day.


Empty Church

ChurchWe came across the old church on the road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee.  The church sits on a ridge high above the roadway near a clear water fast flowing creek but back up in the trees on the mountainside. It wasn’t too far back up the hillside so we thought that we’d make the short hike – that it wouldn’t be too hard even on old knees although we worried that it was cold and damp and the wet leaves would make the trail a little too slippery.  We meandered up the path taking our time pausing to check out the long metal pipe sticking straight out from a bubbling spring. If we’d had a good bucket we would have filled it up and enjoyed a good cold drink of cool spring water….straight out of the heart of the mountain.

We came to the church not expecting the door to be open but hoping for a peek inside. But the door was open as if waiting for the long forgotten congregation to come on in for the Sunday morning service… I imagined it had been for the past hundred years or so. I cannot say that this was sacred ground. The Park Service may have moved the building here when it was restored in 1912….out of convenience, I suppose. And yet, when we entered, we lowered our voices out of some sense of respect or, perhaps, out of awe at the thought that people had joined together here, in this place, to worship God through the years.

The church was so quiet on this day, beautiful in its simplicity – bare wooden benches worn smooth over time, a single pulpit with another old bench to serve as an altar.  But this church would not always have been so quiet and still. The old building would have been a bustling place as the congregation made their way inside after coming up the mountain on horseback or in wagons, all decked out in their Sunday best – long muslin dresses and black woolen suits – ready to greet their friends with handshakes and hugs and to hear the word of the Lord at least one Sunday every month from the preacher riding circuit ministering to the few churches in the hills.

“I am the way, the truth, and the light. No man cometh unto the Father except by me.” 1 And, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” 2  

Words of love for people who lived hard lives filled with work, day in and day out, just to eke out a living off the land. They would have nodded their heads and called out, “Amen”, to the preacher’s reminder to keep God’s word in their hearts and his blessings would rain down upon them.

And they’d all sing the old hymns about grace and the cross and coming back to the Lord,

                                                    “Just as I am without one plea,

                                                     But that thy blood was shed for me,

                                                     And that thou bid’st me, come to thee.

                                                    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”3

There would be prayers, heads bowed, soft words sent up to the heavens asking for forgiveness and help for the sick and bedridden and about thankfulness for crops that had come in, bills that had been paid, and storms that had been weathered…….prayers  and songs rising up to God through the old wooden rafters.

We also paused for a moment to say our own silent prayer – thankfulness for gifts received and a small request for safe passage back home through the mountains.  Then we were back on our way leaving the church empty and silent once again yet for the prayers and memories and long forgotten hymns from a hundred years ago.

  1. Bible, New Testament, King James Version (KJV), John 14:6.
  2. Bible, New Testament, King James Version (KJV), John 3:16.
  3. Just as I Am, Without One Plea”; Text: Charlotte Elliott, 1789-1871; Music: William B. Bradbury, 1816-1868; Tune: WOODWORTH, Meter: LM