Early Saturday morning, my mother and I boarded the Alaska Railroad’s “Coastal Classic” which traveled along beautiful Turnagain Arm and through the Kenai Mountains. We were headed to Kenai Fjords National Park, the final highlight of our trip. The train ride offers splendid views of the inlet at sunrise and sunset, constantly changing with each bend in the track. A railroad employee narrates the route, interpreting the geographical, historical, engineering, and wildlife features as the train passes through the outstanding terrain of Chugach National Forest. Dining is available, and passengers are free to roam between cars for a change of perspective. Eva and I saw several black bears, evidence of the ’64 earthquake and, as we approached Seward, impressive hemlocks and Sitka spruce.
Louis drove part of this same route before his plane departed from Anchorage. Being able to make stops and wander, he was able to observe belugas and to take a short, but fine, hike from the Indian Creek trailhead.
Seward is a quaint town that was rebuilt after the 1964 earthquake. Its parks, harbor, restaurants, and services make travelers comfortable. And, nearby, there are mountains, a glacier, and the SeaLife Center! A convenient shuttle makes a loop around town every half hour. If you visit, set aside time to visit the Seward Community Library where they show an informative documentary, “Waves Over Seward” about the earthquake and tsunami and their impact on the town.
Here are some of images of this coastal town.
We took a 6-hour cruise to Aialik Bay in the national park. Despite being cold and windy, I spent most of that time on deck as did my mother. Out on the deck you can really feel immersed in this misty wonderland of steep green islands and inlets. It is easier to see animals such as sea lions, puffins and orcas; it’s easier to hear bird calls like those of the kittiwakes; and it’s invigorating to be right in the midst of it all. Ice created (and continues to create) the complex contours of this coastline. Glaciers flow down from the tremendous Harding Icefield which covers over half of the park. Our ship plowed through the icy slush to give us a close look at the blue ice of a tidewater glacier, though I’m afraid my photos looks far too static; in reality, there were seabirds all around, moving ice, and a black bear walking along the nearby shore. At another point, the ship came upon a pod of 50 orcas. The park is bustling with life.
Our destination for the night was Chitina, a tiny town on the outskirts of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and it was getting late in the day. Thus, after our glacier hike, we drove . . . past more mountains, through forests and tundra, until we turned south on the Richarson Highway at Glennallen . . . and then we drove some more. Travelling down the Richardson, we now followed the Copper River, one of Alaska’s grandest waterways, one that supports a prolific salmon run and, at its delta, a provides a major resource for migratory shorebirds. We rested at Chitina House B&B, a well-preserved building that had formerly been a bunkhouse for railroad workers.
Cafe in Copper Center.
Sandbars of Copper River.
Fish Wheel, Copper River.
Huge, mountainous and very special, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is part of a 24 million acre World Heritage Site. At six times the size of Yellowstone, with a glacier bigger than the state of Rhode Island, it is a land of superlatives.
There are three ways to get there: two long gravel roads or flying. We flew. The 30-minute flight was smooth and spectacular. Along the way, we saw major rivers, glaciers, enormous mountains and six mountain goats. This park is ideally suited to wilderness activities such as backpacking, fishing and rafting, which we, unfortunately, did not have enough time to pursue.
Louis exiting bush plane.
Bush plane at Chitina airport.
View from bush plane over Wrangell-St. Elias.
Upon arrival, we took a shuttle to the historic mining town of Kennecott, a town built in the early 1900’s for the purpose of extracting, processing and transporting copper ore back to the lower 48. The richness of the ore, up to 70% pure, provided motivation to develop a mining operation in such a remote and difficult location. It required, among other things, that a railway be built from the coast and a steamship be disassembled and carried over mountains, and, of course a set of rich investors (two of them being the Morgan and Guggenheim families). The first trainload of ore was shipped in 1911. The mine continued to operate until 1938. The featured image, which is the centerpiece of the historic site, is a 14-story concentration mill where the raw ore was “purified” through various processes employing crushing, water and gravity. The National Park Service is currently restoring various Kennecott structures, some of which have nearly collapsed.
We did a self-guided tour through the mining town’s buildings and explored the surroundings. Louis hiked to one of the actual mine sites where he saw the tramline that had been used to transport copper ore down the mountainside. Before leaving, my mother and I visited McCarthy, another ghost town in the process of resurrection, the place where Kennecott’s hard-working miners and railroad men sought entertainment.
Historic copper mill town.
Eva at McCarthy bridge.
A modest, sprawling city, Anchorage is surprisingly close to the “wilderness.” It is surrounded by mountains and the Cook Inlet and has great recreational areas and wildlife viewing right nearby.
The slider below offers a few glimpses of this area:
1) Our first lodging, The Coastal Trail Inn, a comfortable suburban home complete with expertly-trained bird dogs, elaborate perennial gardens, and its own dovecote. The lovely Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, an eleven-mile paved biking/walking trail, is right across the street
2) The view from The Snow Goose, a downtown brewpub, where caribou burgers are served and the brewing tanks are on display. The delightful roof patio offsets the lackluster cuisine.
3) A historic marker about Hatcher Pass, a mountain pass through the Talkeetna Mountains (not far from Palmer and Wasilla) where prospector, Robert Hatcher, found gold in 1906. In Willow Creek Valley below, visitors can tour the camp at Independence Mine State Historical Park.
4) A grand view of the Matanuska, a 75-mile long river that flows through the Mat-Su Valley between the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains. It roughly parallels the Glenn Highway, flowing southwest towards the Cook Inlet.
The Anchorage area provided several fine experiences with Native Alaskan culture. The first was our visit to the Alaskan Native Heritage Center where we toured the art and cultural exhibits, attended a lecture on medicinal plants, visited a village of historically-accurate dwellings, and talked with artists who were selling their work. The museum interpreters and artists were glad to share their history, art and perspectives. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting them.
We also visited the Dena’ina Athabascan village of Eklutna which is about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage. The cemetery at this historic site reflects the meeting of Native Alaskan and Russian Orthodox beliefs; it is a place where colorful spirit houses stand next to Christian Orthodox crosses. Although we arrived late in the day, we were graciously given a brief tour of the newer chapel at the site, the one shown in the image below. The Old St Nicholas Church, a log structure with an unusual “steeple,” is the oldest standing building in the Anchorage area.
The drive from Anchorage along the Glenn Highway offered great views of the Chugach Mountains, a peek at Mat-Su’s agricultural area, an encounter with geologists, and some closeup views of cliff-dwelling ravens. Yet the most exciting feature of this leg of trip (at least to first-time Alaskan tourists) was the Matanuska Glacier. Perhaps we were partial because it was our first glacier, but I suspect it would be impressive and beautiful even to the initiated. One can reach the glacier quite easily by taking a side road off the Glenn Highway to Matanuska Glacier Park, where, for a reasonable fee, one can drive to the beginning of a marked trail. It was fascinating to see the size of the glacier, its blue-hued ice formations, and the pools and silt at its terminus. We were now at the headwaters of the impressive river that we’d viewed along the Glenn.