To There and Back Again

…one traveler’s musings of a trip to a land of ice, creatures and the midnight sun.  

Story and Photography by Tom Dobbins

Ketchikan, the southeastern-most city in Alaska, looks like something out of “Frontierland,” but with the breathtaking vista of the sun rising over the mountains behind it. Lying between mountains and the edge of the sea, Ketchikan is a cozy port city only three miles long and three blocks wide along the Alaskan inner passage. Eagles abound, and the first thing I learn is that even the local populace of humans is migratory. Lots of folks come for the “season” (read summertime) and depart for the winter. One can readily imagine the deserted streets and swinging doors that come with the first wisp of winter. The indigenous, or “first people” as they like to be named, still carve totems out of wood, and Ketchikan is home to a large collection of totem poles located in several parks and the Totem Heritage Center. A resident of the Saxman Native Village took me into the Clan House and around the totem poles, explaining the local traditions and stories of the poles. Because there was no written language, many native legends and stories were carved on the poles and then passed down as part of an oral tradition from generation to generation. Master carvers are located nearby who work on new totems that are still hand carved generally from cedar. Ketchikan became famous as the point from which the proposed $200 million plus “Bridge to Nowhere” was to be built. The bridge was to connect Ketchikan to Gravina Island where the nearest airport is located so folks would no longer have to take a ferry. The locals still talk about it and drove me out to where the bridge would have been. Creek Street, once the red-light district, is a collection of wooden buildings on stilts above Ketchikan Creek and is filled with shops, restaurants and during salmon season was a great place to spot what can only be called the Fish of Alaska!
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Juneau still manages to hold on to the title of Capital of Alaska despite several votes by the people of Alaska to relocate the capital city, the most recent one being in 1996. Besides being home to the Governor of Alaska, Juneau sees a large migration of humpback whales, made famous by Star Trek.  Humpbacks rarely do huge breaches or jumps out of the water but famously wave their tails on their dives back into the deep. As seemed to be a trend, our guides worked the summer in Alaska and the winter in Hawaii and would spot the same whales time and again in both locales. The whales also apparently decided that travel pattern made sense!  The sea lions, however, enjoyed sunning themselves on the nearby buoys.

The famous and oldest man-made tourist attraction in Juneau is the Red Dog Saloon, but after a hike to the Mendenhall Glacier and Falls, I preferred to grab a cold one at the Lucky Lady. The Lucky Lady was owned by Mary Joyce and has clippings, memorabilia, etc. about her. She was an illustrious Alaskan figure who became a famous for taking her 1936 dog sledding trek 1,000 miles from Juneau to Fairbanks. My last stop before moving on was to grab a nosh of some delish Alaskan Crab at Tracy’s King Crab Shack.

Skagway, Alaska, which was once the starting point for a prospector’s journey up over the White Pass to the Klondike Gold Rush, was my starting point to the top of a glacier and a dog-sledding adventure. Strapping into a four-man helicopter, we took off to fly over mountains and up to the Denver Glacier within the Tongass National Forest, to a working dog-sled camp.

Arriving, I met up with true adventurers who are training teams of their own with the hopes of one day competing in the Iditarod. The Iditarod, which promotes itself as “The Last Great Race” as opposed to the “Amazing Race” it really is, is a more than 1,000-mile dog-sled journey between Anchorage and Nome each year. Fighting through blizzards, sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds, mushers annually compete to win this most popular of sporting events in Alaska.

Bred to want to run, the team of dogs can barely contain their excitement to get started as they are hooked up to the sled.  All the dogs, like Santa’s reindeer, have their own names, personalities and roles. A lead dog must bond and become one with the musher to guide the sled, and highly muscular dogs must keep running for miles and miles on end. Like a few of the younger dogs who were paired with more experienced ones, my trainer had me on an extension on the back of the sled so I could try my hand at guiding but with that all important driver’s ed stop peddle in place. It was exhilarating flying over the snow and ice on top of a glacier, turning and guiding the sled.  After making a big loop, I got to meet the new puppies at base camp while waiting for my return flight down the mountain.

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Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and College Fjord, Alaska offer some of the most spectacular views, wildlife and walls of ice ever seen.  Cruising through water that turns a greenish tint, with chunks of ice floating by, and clouds hanging low, you feel you have entered another world. At the end of this landscape are massive sheets of blue ice walls that crumble and fall, (caving) making a booming sound akin to cannons and lightning. The Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay is one mile wide and 250 feet high above the waterline, with more than 100 feet below sea level. College Fjord, located at the northern part of Prince William Sound, contains five large glaciers and numerous others. Its name comes from the fact that most of the glaciers are named for East Coast colleges.

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Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska is the home of North America’s highest mountain and the Alaskan grizzly bear. Mt. McKinley towers an unbelievable 20,230 feet into the sky. Originally, the Park was named for Mt. McKinley, but was changed in 1980 to honor the Indian name of the mountain.  A Tanana Indian word, Denali means “the High One” or “the Great One.” After a full day of exploring the park, not being eaten by bears, but spotting some, and a requisite and scrumptious salmon dinner, I embarked on an evening adventure a few miles away to Healy, Alaska and the 49th State Brewing Company. There, besides some homegrown brews, I discovered some of the people who come to work for a summer or to spend their lives living closer to nature. From the musician who hikes all across the world, the artist who won’t sell her paintings of the indigenous species she finds, and the group of folks who come to hike to the abandoned bus on the Stampede Trail, all were pioneers of sorts who sought adventure and excitement in this great frontier. This unexpected journey took me to a place where the young at heart and the intrepid of spirit come to experience a moment outside of the familiar – a world of mountains, adventure, ice, flora, fauna, and legends.

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The author would like to thank April Powell of Ocala Travel Cruise & Tour (www.ocalatravel.com) for her assistance in arranging this journey.