The boat docked early Monday morning at the port of Seward on the southern side of the Gulf of Alaska. For us it was an early start – one more go at the breakfast buffet and then we had to get off the boat at 7.45am to get a coach through to Anchorage. Our coach driver Wallace was very good – it was his last run of the season and his commentary was very playful – he referred to the light dusting of snow on the surrounding hills as ‘termination snow ‘ – when it falls, summer is over and with that your summer jobs comes to an end – your employment is terminated. Seward is essentially a port town of less than 3000 people, but every 4th July the town swells for the annual Mountain Marathon Run – thousands of people come to run us a steep hill in Seward – fastest time is around 42 minutes (it’s not a marathon distance run). The Seward Highway is a run of approx. 130 miles over to Anchorage – by coach this took us a good 2 ½ hours. Along the way you follow around Cook Inlet – yes, so named as Captain Cook was an early explorer in these waters. According to our driver, along the Turnagain Arm of the inlet you often see Beluga whales, but despite the efforts of the driver and most of the people on the coach, no whales were spotted.
Our driver shared some local facts and details with us – some interesting points were there are approx. 3,000,000 lakes across Alaska but to be considered a lake, it has to be big enough for a float plane to land and take off from it. Supposedly 82% of the population of Alaska have some connection to flying – either they fly themselves (apparently 1 in 78 Alaskan’s are registered pilots), or they are reliant on flight for supplies etc. The impact of the float plane was very evident at Lake Hood which is next to the International Airport. Lake Hood is where loads of float planes park up and operate from. The rim of the lake was one little garage after the other with float planes everywhere. The coach had to do a series of drop off’s – the airport and then all the main hotels – our stop was the last stop, but it meant we got to see a bit of the city.
Anchorage is nicely positioned jutting out into the Cook Inlet, and is Alaska’s largest city with a population of upwards of 300,000. Anchorage was originally a summer camp for the local Athabascan Indian’s, with James Cooks calling here in 1778. The city itself wasn’t properly established until 1915 when the area was selected as the headquarters of the Alaskan Railroad. Our Montana friend Dale linked us with a couple of locals – one being Dick Armstrong. We gave Dick a call and he suggested we do lunch so Dick and his dog Mickey met us 15 mins later and whisked us around the road to the local fried chicken shop – I got the impression the team here knew Dick pretty well. Dick was a really interesting character – not sure of his age but he did say he retired in 2000 only to get bored. He’d sold his engineering business and took up flying and eventually got himself a fleet of small aircraft. Several successful ventures later, Dick is sometime of a philanthropist and has donated aircraft and facilities locally to the universities flying programme. After some lunch Dick took us out to his hangar and gave us some suggestions for things to do, including linking us up for a scenic flight. Dick was keen to take us around himself, but his 78-year-old sister and boyfriend were flying in for a couple of weeks – family comes first. Dick has been down to New Zealand a number of times and is currently helping the Deep Freeze team with the building of a new scientific base in Antarctica. Dick dropped us back into town and we spent the rest of the afternoon having a look around some of the downtown area including the nice coastal trial (runs around 11 miles along the each of the city and the harbour).
We had an early start on the Tuesday – we hired a car for the day in order to go and collect a car – there’s a means to this. Dale has a couple of friends who when not working down on the ice in Antarctica, live in the little town of Talkeetna which is around 110 miles north of Anchorage. Sandra and Loomy (John’s surname is Loomis and looks like that’s what he goes by) very graciously lent us a car and also provided us with a couple of the night’s accommodation in their AirBnB in Talkeetna – very much the bonus for us. We arranged to meet them in Wasilla which is about 45 miles north of Anchorage and after a good coffee catch up with them both, Netty and Carol followed me back to Anchorage in their car. We dropped the car off at the hotel and got ourselves around to Merrrill Field Airport where we met Lucas – our pilot. We’d arranged to go up for a ‘1-hour introductory flight’ but we ended up being up in the air for just over 1 ¼ hours as we searched the valley’s for moose and other wildlife.
Lucas lifted us off – there is a constant stream of small aeroplanes taking off and landing Merrill – a load of flight instruction is done from this field. Lucas worked his way north following the Knik River till we came to the very impressive Knik Glacier – we were flying over the glacier at quite a low height so it was quite the spectacle. On the way back we searched high and low – literally and figuratively for wildlife – spotted some swans, some mountain sheep and a handful of moose. We were led to believe the wildlife was everywhere up this way but we’d have to say they have been few and far between. Flying back into Merrill Field gave us a good perspective of Anchorage and the bay that it sits in – very cool. With our feet back on the ground we headed across town and out to Kincaid Park which sits right out on the point where the Turnagain and Knik Arms of the Cook Inlet meet. There are loads of trials and tracks here – very popular in the winter for cross country skiing and related activities. After a good walk (with very little additional wildlife to show for our efforts – we’d been told there are something like 1500 moose that move within the city boundary, as well as a few bears), we headed back and dropped the rental car off on our way out for dinner. Carol was after some King Crab so we found a busy spot in town – all the busier for it was quiz night, so we ate and worked our brains at the same time – a good evening.
Wednesday morning we loaded up the car and got ourselves on the road to head north. We opted to do a loop up to Fairbanks which had us head east on the Glenn Highway to then connect north on the Richardson Highway. The day started off very wet but once we got onto the Old Glen Highway, the traffic eased and we could pretty much dictate our pace. Working up to Palmer you go through a little place called Butte and between Butte and Palmer every other yard seemed to have old cars of some description – would have loved to have been able to stop and look but a fleeting glance as we passed was the extent of my viewing. From Palmer you hop on the Glenn Highway proper and you climb up to an area called Glacier View – yep, a couple of very impressive glaciers can be viewed along the highway, so long as the weather cooperates. Today wasn’t the best for viewing as there was very low cloud sitting in the valley but you got the odd glimpse. One of the glaciers was very interesting – it almost appeared to lay horizontally along the valley floor with little or no drop to it. Along the road, every available parking area off the road was taken by what were obviously hunters looking for moose – most were pulling trailers for ATV’s and side by sides – must have been a load of hunters out and about. At the top of the summit (3300 feet) the weather cleared and by the time we stopped at the Eureka Roadhouse for refreshments, we had a nice day ahead of us. As we were going in a couple of guys in their hunting camo were coming out so we had a good talk to them about the hunt and questioned where all the moose were – obviously hiding as it turns out and for good reason.
The host at the roadhouse was very friendly – we had a good talk about the local area – differences between summer and winter in the area. I asked how much snow they get on the highway – she suggested that if I checked the 2.5-metre high markers up the road I would get a good idea – the markers are so the snow plough can see where the road is for clearing. With food in our bellies we pushed on through to Glennallen which is the junction for the Richardson Highway north. We trekked up the Richardson to the junction town of Delta Junction – aptly named as this is where the Richardson and Alaskan Highways merge north and south. Along this stretch of the road you get a number of glances at the great Alaskan Pipeline – this runs oil from the top of Alaska at Prudhoe Bay, 800 miles south to the deep port of Valdez where the ships come in and take it south. Some smart stuff was done with the design of the pipeline – it’s built up off the ground so that the heat of the oil in the pipe doesn’t melt the permafrost, changing the environment – very smart. Besides the pipeline we were lucky to spot one female moose on the roadside – these guys are few and far between, and well camouflaged. Besides the moose we saw a few golden eagles. When you do hit Delta Junction, it’s just that – a junction of two main highways, with a couple of gas stations and a couple of motels – one of which we were staying in. On your way into Delta you do pass a large military base – Fort Greely is the militaries cold weather base – for testing equipment in the cold extremes of the area, and the military personnel. Fortunately for us the weather wasn’t that cold – yet. Thursday sees us moving further north to Fairbanks – update pending.