Saturday, 28 May 2016

Alaskan Journal Part 11

A day of culture and celebration. Culture when we visited the Native Alaskan Heritage Centre for a few hours. Celebration when we joined our friends of 35 years for their 40th Wedding Anniversary, which coincides with their son's wedding over here.

The Native Alaskan Heritage Centre was a fascinating place as it enabled us to learn more about the Native Alaskan peoples and their customs and to put their present position in Alaskan society into context. It's not all eskimoes and igloos: in fact it's never eskimoes and igloos. Taking the long view, it's a tale of colonisation, the possessed becoming the dispossessed, the haves becoming the have-nots. It's a tale of cultural desecration and partial cultural resurgence. We've read this sort of scenario so often in other countries and with other cultures. Sadly, it's what we white people/Brits do. I/we do get angry at the injustice of it all.

After the doom and gloom of cultural repression, we had an evening of liberated fun with around 40 people in a hotel on the outskirts of Anchorage. An interesting place as it was directly under the landing path of float planes on a neighbouring lake. Every few minutes something flew in with a splash or flew out with water dripping off the floats: an out-of-the-ordinary scene.
Native Alaskans doing a Native Alaskan dance with Native Alaskan insouciance. I probably should have been more impressed than I was.
Forget the detail on this poster. Just concentrate on the patterns and colours. These represent the many languages and 'tribes' of Native Alaskans. I didn't know about these.
The representative dwellings in the centre were all variants of a theme: underground or built up with soil for insulation.
The business end of a smokehouse. Photograph taken as a design reminder for future use.
A collection of husky dogs. Forget Hollywood's depiction of woolly bundles. These are slim working dogs. A very animated dog-handler gave us a chat about their treatment and what they do. They all seemed pretty relaxed and enjoying the sunshine.
Some of the tribes have a tradition of carving totem poles replete with symbolism. And, no, I don't know what this one means.
And a detail from another. The God of Depilation?
White-crowned sparrow.
It may be small but once it threw its head back and swelled its chest, it really belted out its song.
Some of the celebrants at the anniversary meal.
The Harry Laws Memorial Joke: "These must have been running at a hell of a speed when they hit the wall". RIP Harry Laws.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Alaskan Journal Part 10

Today's jaunt took us south of Anchorage on a 60 mile drive to Whittier. Our route took us to the top of the Turnagain Arm (spectacular coastal scenery all the way) and then up through Portage Pass, passed Portage Lake and then through a 2.6 mile tunnel to emerge about half a mile from Whittier. The interesting think about Whittier is that it really didn't exist until 1941 when the US army decided to build an extensive military base there. As part of this, they built the tunnel for the railway to get things to and from the port they built. The tunnel was exclusively for train use until relatively recently and now it allows both trains and cars etc through. Obviously not at the same time as it is single track. There is a tight time tabling system allowing access by one or the other. Driving through the tunnel is an interesting experience as I've never driven a car in such a straight line for so long. Whittier is an interesting one-off place and well worth visiting. We enjoyed it.
The entrance to the tunnel. It is tall and narrow, not that much wider than a single track road. It is dead straight, which makes holding a line more difficult than you might imagine.
Once through the tunnel, almost immediately you are in Whittier harbour. It's the base for lots of fishing trips in the Prince William Sound and is a terminal for the Alaska Marine Highway, which is a ferry that links a string of towns/villages in the Sound, some of which are inaccessible by road.
Now here's the most unusual thing about Whittier. When the army moved out in around 1960, it knocked down a lot of its buildings but a few remain. Some are used as municipal facilities, one is a hotel/museum but the old troop accommodation block now houses most of the residents of Whittier (population 217 in 2014). Imagine that, a whole village under one roof. The mind boggles. No room for disputes between neighbours, eh? The school is attached to the building via a tunnel which means that students don't have to brave the Alaska winter to get to school.
Just liked the directness of this - Mutt Mitt. It does what it says on the holder.
The tunnel giving pedestrian access from the ex-army zone to the harbour. We used it to go to the Whittier Museum which dealt mainly with WW2 and the campaign against the Japanese in the Aleutian Islands. An episode that we knew very little about but we know a little bit more now.
Luckily no tsunamis when we visited. We didn't realise how often Alaskans feel the ground move.
This snow moving machine makes our road salters in Cornwall look rather weak by comparison. This is a serious toy for the boys.
The view across Portage Lake to Portage Glacier.
On the way back we hiked the mile or so to the Byron Glacier, alongside Byron Creek all the way. Not a very spectacular glacier but it was interesting to get up close to one.

Looking further up the Byron Valley. Look closely and you can see the sun glistening on the melting ice.
Looking down the valley and a feeble attempt to capture clouds passing over the snow fields. What was I saying about the inability of the camera to capture what is really going on in front of you.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Alaskan Journal Part 9

Today we bade farewell to our little creekside cabin and drove the 250 miles back south to Anchorage. With mind-expanding scenery to the left, right and in front, it was not a real hardship. We stopped off in Talkeetna, a railway town dating from the 1920s and now the starting point for those adventurous enough to want to climb the 20000+feet of Denali (aka Mt McKinley), the highest peak in North America (have I mentioned that before?). A laid back kind of place and a good place to have a rather delicious Alaska salmon sandwich. And Mrs P's tomato and basil (sorry, tomaytoe and bayzil) soup went down well as well. After that we braved the drive around, not through, Sarah Palin's hometown of Wassila. What can I say? Not the sort of town I'd stop for: it hasn't even got an attractive backdrop of mountains to soften the blow. Maybe the residents decided to take their revenge on the world for making them live there by electing Sarah Palin to a position of prominence? Still, it was but a short journey remaining to get us back into Anchorage and the house party that is evolving around the wedding on Saturday. But more of that later.
Apparently, only 30% of the people who visit Denali ever get to see the eponymous mountain. Guess what? We were in the 70%. This is where it should be.
Last chance. Still looking. Still not there.
Patterns and colours. What's not to be entranced by?
Ditto for this member of the Daisy family. But which one?
And I should know what this one is (in the garden of our B & B) but it escapes me at the moment. Anyone out there know?

While we were in Denali, I think we tried to be simply there. We drove the Park Road, we hiked trails and crossed gravel bars. We touched just a little bit of the tundra. We saw Dall sheep, moose, caribou, ptarmigan, Arctic ground squirrels and bears. Quite a few bears. Someone said that when you see more bears than mosquitoes – that’s a good trip to Alaska. We’ve had a good trip to Alaska.
And what about the landscape? By trying to be there, we did more than only look at the landscape. Maybe, just maybe, for a small fraction of the time, we were part of the landscape. In a post a while back, I mentioned the feeling of ‘spirit of place’ that we get in some parts of our usual stomping grounds on Dartmoor. I felt that about Denali.

The landscape is not just something to look at and photograph from a tour bus or car window. It is something to experience. Yes, I took lots (and lots) of photographs but there were many times when I let the kit just dangle from my neck as I used my eyes and ears. Truly, how could anything captured on my screen compare to what I was seeing? How can it ever be captured adequately by a digital device? It has to be experienced viscerally and captured in the mind: that’s the only device capable of holding it, of really taking it all in. So, my tip for visiting Denali (or any isolated spot, for that matter), is to stride out, even if you go just a short distance. Experience the two-dimensional backdrop of the landscape morphing into three-dimensional space as you enter it. Experience, enjoy and be alive.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Alaska Journal Part 8

For our last full day in Denali we decided to do two short walks, morning and afternoon. In the morning we followed a trail up and down the Savage River, the starting point was as far into the park as cars are allowed, about 12 miles. In the afternoon, we took the Horseshoe Lake trail which took us to and around, guess what, Horseshoe Lake. What can I say? Another great day and another chance to get into the landscape of Denali. A few photographs from the many I took.
Our walk took us a mile and a half up one side of this river and down the other. It was warm and very, very pleasant.
Another view of the river valley. It's a walk I could do again - and again. Memorable for many things, including the Revenge of the Seafood Chowder. But there's no need to go into the details.
A pair of Harlequin Ducks enjoying the sun by the riverside.
Just in case you come across this scat - moose droppings. Each piece is about 2 cm long.
Arctic Ground Squirrel - we only saw the one.
It's a little disconcerting to see a notice like this at the start of a walk. But, armed with our bear spray and singing heartedly, we kept them at bay. If indeed they were there: we like to think they were but our precautions proved effective.
A bird with a mighty fine song, punching far above its weight for the volume it produced. But what is it?
A little bit of post-editing and some Photoshop enhancement and we come up with an answer. It's a male Varied Thrush.
An Alaska Railroad train making its way towards Fairbanks. The whistle on these is just like the sound you heard in the old cowboy films. Every time it blew, we were expecting Casey Jones to be waving at us. But he never did, of course, because he wasn't real.
Wood Avens. Scattered here and there beneath the trees. I can't think of a flower with fewer leaves.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Alaskan Journal Part 7

One of the main reasons for us travelling to Denali was to see the local wildlife in its natural setting. As access to the main areas of the park is strictly controlled and allowed only on permitted transport, the best way we could do this was to take one of the tours on offer. We opted for a 7 hour excursion called the Tundra Wilderness Tour which started just before 3 pm, the idea being that the evening was one of the best times to see whatever may be out there. This is a time when the long days this far north are an advantage - sun rise is around 4.30 am and sunset around 11.30 pm. We had a very informative and engaging guide/driver and a group of fellow travellers who gelled well for the duration.
Was it worth it? Definitely yes. We saw all of the things on our mental lists and went away happy bunnies. And the day ended with a somewhat bizarre and disorganised meal at a local hotel restaurant. When the food came one of us had a good plate, the other so-so after a wrong order boomeranged back and forth a couple of times.

A fairly typical landscape as we made our way into the park. These wide river beds were not caused by snowmelt torrents but by many cycles of freezing and thawing. The thick layers of ice that result from this scour the beds and throw up the gravel. Apparently these beds act as good corridors for the wildlife to move around.
OK, just a raven but what black plumage.
A male Willow Ptarmigan in its winter plumage. Give it a few more weeks and the white feathers will have moulted and the bird will be relatively dowdy with a brownish coat.
As well as having white plumage, another winter adaptation the Willow Ptarmigan have are 'feather feet'. The extra area these produce makes it easier for the birds to hop across the snow as they search for food. These feathers will also be lost fairly soon.

Not our bus but another heading back. Some of the terrain was not good for anyone suffering from vertigo. Vertiginous was certainly the right word for describing some of the drops from the side of the narrow single track road.
Dall Sheep. Normally seen as little white dots on the hillside, we were lucky enough to have a good close up encounter with a flock. The overhunting to near extinction of these was one of the main reasons for the founding of the park as a nature preserve almost 100 years ago.
And talking of little white dots. This little white dot by the river is a blonde grizzly bear. Those with binoculars could make out a couple of cubs with this one.
And that brown dot laying on the river bed in the distance?
That's a brown grizzly bear. Our guide told us that this one had been around here for a while, guarding its cached moose body that it had killed recently. That's what they do, apparently, kill something and then secure the body of their prey as they gradually eat their way through it.
After all those bears in the distance and at the limit of my zoom lens, we get one ambling up the road in front of us. Without a care in the world, it made its way slowly for about half a mile before wandering off into the brush. One word to describe its gait? Sashay, that's the one. Swaying from side to side in an unhurried manner. The rule of the road here is 'bears take priority'. No overtaking when you come across one. Just wait for it to do whatever it wants to do and if it takes time, just be patient.
The highest point on our route was Polychrome Pass at just under 4000'. The various colours in the rocks give a clue as to its name.
In amongst some scrub willow were four or five male caribou lying down and having a munch. Look closely and you can see the down on their antlers which are in their rapid growth phase
A bull moose in the distance. We saw a reasonably sized group of these munching on willow trees. The female moose were too busy having babies to join in the feast. The birthing of moose seems to be well synchronised with many females producing in a short space of time. Apparently this is a survival tactic: too many moose calves for the grizzly bears to pick off. 
More of the spectacular scenery that surrounded us for the entirety of our trip. As far as the park management can achieve, it's in pristine condition.
Long may it remain that way.