Seward and the (Seemingly) Neverending Exit Glacier

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Continuing our journey around the Kenai Peninsula, we headed to Seward. I’ve heard that cruise ships regularly stop here, but thankfully there were none there when we arrived. Due to changing ferry schedules, I only got to stay in Seward one night. On the condition it was minus the cruise ship passengers, I would have liked more time there. There is something very quaint and traditional about the town, which says a lot in a state where everything is practical in design and had to be rebuilt after the 1964 earthquake.

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Seward was our entry point for hiking to the top of the Exit Glacier. If you’re looking for a leisurely stroll, then this is not for you. Out of our group of eight, only four made it to the top. The entire hike, up and down, with A LOT of near vertical, is about 7 miles. We did start to question the miles markers, though. We’d trek for an hour, only to find the next mile marker telling us we’d covered less than half a mile.

Year markers show how much the glacier has receded.
Year markers show how much the glacier has receded.

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You don’t have to make it all the way to the top to see the glacier, there are lots of great photo opportunities on the way. Although it’s all tough, the last third is by far the hardest. There was thick snow on the ground by this point, slowing us down even more. There are lots of false horizons too. Just as we’d get our hopes up that we were near the top, we’d see yet another hill in front of us with a line of orange route markers dotted up it. If you do manage to battle the slope, snow and rocks, the view of the Harding Ice Field from the top is definitely worth it. A white landscape stretches for as far as you can see. I feel privileged that I’ve been able to witness it, but then also saddened that for future generations the glacier and ice field, along with many others, will simply be a thing of history.

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It took us two hours to descend back to the car park, and my reward was a hot shower at the Hotel Seward. Ms Gene bought the hotel just a couple of weeks before the earthquake in 1964. As well as repairing the hotel, she helped other locals in Seward to rebuild. A true example of the Alaskan spirit of survival.

Hanging Out in Homer

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It’s only when you start to travel from one point to another in Alaska that you realise just how big the state is. After meeting up with my G Adventures group in Anchorage, our guide Miles drove us to Homer.

There are two parts to Homer, downtown and The Spit. Downtown is fairly boring, but practical. That’s where you go if you need grocery shopping. The Spit is where all the action is. The long, thin strip of land that protrudes out into the water feels like it could be washed away at any minute. It apparently used to be wider, but a lot of the land was lost to the 1964 earthquake. Now, artists’ studios and fish restaurants balance on stilts out into the water. Sea otters regularly float by on their backs, and bald eagles here are known as the ‘Homer pigeon’ due to their high numbers. We ate at one of the restaurants overlooking the water. After a few sighs and the sucking of teeth from the waiter, he decided that yes they could rustle up a vegan, gluten-free meal for me. He produced some grilled veggies in coconut milk on brown rice, which was fine for me. I noticed that I still paid the same as everyone else, but I wasn’t complaining. It irked me that he kept addressing me as ‘no protein’. I desperately wanted to point out that my meal contained lots of protein, it just wasn’t from animals, but I bit my tongue. The waiter stressed that they were ‘really busy’ as it was Fathers Day – with a population of less than 5000 I wondered just how busy it could be.

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We spent 2 nights in Homer. While one of our travelling companions went halibut fishing to catch dinner for the rest of the group, the remaining nine of us caught a water taxi across the bay and hiked up to a glacial lake. I’ve walked and skied on glaciers before, but this is the first one I have visited that ends in a lake. As soon as we left the green forest we had trekked through and walked onto the lakeside the air was noticeably cooler. Icebergs floated in the water, another first for me. We had the lake all to ourselves while we ate our lunch, then when more hikers turned up and disturbed our peace we decided to head back down. The trail leads back another way, zigzagging down the mountain to a secluded beach where we waited for the water taxi to come and collect us. The tranquillity of the moment was only shattered by a screaming American kid upset with his brother and complaining about having to be in a row boat with him. We figured, though, that at least his screaming would keep the bears away.

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Summer Solstice

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Summer Solstice in the UK, in my limited experience, is all about recognising pagan traditions. People gather around stone remains to celebrate the longest day of the year. They may even dance naked around those stones. The Solstice Festival in Anchorage could not be different to the way we celebrate back home.

Runners travelled to Anchorage from all over to take part in the half-marathon, most of which I believe took place in Delaney Park. This long strip of land was originally cleared as a fire break, then used as an airstrip (if you leave a long enough piece of land empty in Alaska, eventually someone will land a plane on it), and is now a park. As I walked into town to enjoy another great meal at Snow City Café, runners wearing medals started to filter into the crowd.

A huge street party, about 8 blocks long, took over the city centre. Kids bounced on trampolines and scampered up climbing walls. A group of skateboarders gave an impressive demonstration of their talents.

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There were food stalls, beer gardens and arts and crafts on offer. And, of course, no Summer Solstice is complete without an Elvis tribute act.

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My favourite was the Hero Games. Members of various armed forces, fire departments and rescue teams competed in bizarre heats such as scooter racing and fussball. I can assure you, should you need these guys, they will come to your rescue with gusto. It might just take them a while to reach you on their scooters.

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Anchorage

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Most towns and cities have at least one feature that they label a ‘tourist attraction’ and milk it for all it’s worth. If they don’t already have one, they create one. Even though it is by far the biggest city in Alaska, and with a population of almost 300,000 home to half the state’s inhabitants, Anchorage apparently never bothered. Tourists come here (mainly from the cruise ships that had been following me up the west coast) and wander around the city centre, but there isn’t that one tower/church/underground city that everyone pays $20 to queue up in a line for 2 hours and experience for 10 minutes.

Downtown Anchorage is a pretty regular, mundane city centre, albeit with the quirks that don’t let you forget you’re in Alaska. It’s home to the biggest shopping mall in Alaska, for example, but the post office inside the mall still closes for lunch every day.

Anchorage spreads over a huge area, I heard it is the same size as Delaware (Alaska itself is 20% the size of the rest of the United States). Locals complain about over-crowding, which they blame on the permafrost they are unable to build on. I think, though, if they looked at other cities they could see it’s probably possible to fit a lot more people onto the solid land they do have if they really wanted to.

There is one trolley tour that will take you around some of the outlying points of interest in Anchorage, and I’d say it’s the best way to see them if you don’t have a car. Our guide on the Anchorage City Trolley Tours was Brendan, a 3rd generation Alaskan pre-med student with an infectious enthusiasm for his home state. He was brilliant, and kept us well informed and entertained on our one hour journey (you don’t need any longer).

Earthquake Park was previously known as Turnagain Heights. When the earthquake hit in 1964, most of the houses were pushed into the water. 7 of the 9 people who died that day were killed here. A peek into what is now woodland shows what an impact the earthquake had on the landscape. Once flat ground now rolls in huge waves out to the coast. Brendan told us that his father, a 16 year old boy scout at the time, was sent to Anchorage to hep with the rescue. He repelled into crevices trying to find survivors. They raise ’em tough in Alaska.

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Although 9  people sadly died that day, the death toll could have been much worse. There was a basketball game scheduled at the high school at 5pm. However, it being Good Friday, parents complained that their children should be in church instead. The principle rescheduled the match for the following day. Around 5.30pm, the earthquake hit and the entire (thankfully empty) high school building was swallowed  up into the ground. The class of ’71 arranged for the eagle to be painted on the side of the rebuilt school. When the principle refused to allow them to paint ‘class of 71’ on the bottom, they arranged with the artist to secretly incorporate the number 71 into the mural instead. Can you see it?

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Lake Hood is famous as the biggest boat plane dock in the world. The international airport sits right next to the lake, and the control tower has to co-ordinate both airports simultaneously. If you really want to travel in Alaska, you need a boat plane. Due to the high costs ($90,000 – $150,000), most boat planes are passed down through generations of the same family. There’s a 10-15 year waiting list for parking spaces on the lake, so you pretty much have to wait for someone to die if you want to park your plane there.

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If you make it to Anchorage, be sure to make a reservation at Snow City Café (I had to wait two hours without one). They do the best all-day breakfasts and cater to vegan and gluten-free diets. Their tofu and spinach scramble with hash brown and gluten-free toast is one of the best brunches I have ever had.

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Useful Info:

Flight Juneau to Anchorage with Alaska Air: $120

People Mover bus airport to downtown Anchorage: $2

2 nights dorm bed at Alaska Backpackers: $50

Anchorage trolley tour: $20

White Pass & Yukon Route

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When planning my (possibly over-ambitious, I grant you) journey from San Francisco to Anchorage, I had considered travelling through the Yukon. I figured I would have little reason to venture into the province again, and it would be another one to check off the bucket list. Unfortunately, after further research, I realised that none of the (very few) transport routes in the area connect up and, even if they did, cheap accommodation is scarce. Unless you’ve got about 3 weeks spare (which I didn’t), just about the only way to do it is drive. I didn’t fancy three or four days in a car on my own. So, when I saw that the White Pass and Yukon Route railroad travels as far as the Yukon (as the name leads you to believe) and I could join the excursion via the fast ferry from Haines, it seemed perfect. As the details on their website seemed sketchy, I emailed the excursion company to check it definitely enters the Yukon and was informed it does. However, it was only when I was on the train that I discovered they had booked me on the Summit Excursion. This train only travels 200ft into British Columbia, over 20 miles short of the border with the Yukon.

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The mentality of cruise ship passengers is something I don’t think I will ever understand. Despite being told the train was going to be full, only a few of us got into the first carriage. The second carriage was reserved for a cruise ship group, who all boarded the train and promptly fell asleep. I looked on astounded, shocked they had paid over $100 each to nap on a train.

The Summit Excursion is a beautiful train ride, and I have some amazing photos that I took as we chugged along cliff edges and over bridges that didn’t look like they would hold our weight. I wouldn’t have paid $179 for it if I had known we were only going as far as White Pass Summit, though. I used to work in British Columbia, so crossing over that border was nowhere near as exciting as if I’d been able to say I’d visited the Yukon.

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So, the Yukon goes back on the bucket list. It has got me thinking, though. If I could find someone to come with me, maybe we could drive through the Yukon and then further up to explore Northern Alaska…

As an added note to this post, when I returned to the UK I contacted HSFF who booked the excursion for me to complain about the incorrect information I had been given. The lady responsible apologised and refunded me 30% of my ticket.

Skagway – Cruise Ship Central

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When you spend any time in South-East Alaska, it soon becomes apparent that a lot revolves around the cruise ship arrivals. In Haines, where I was staying, they receive one cruise ship at a time. When I arrived in Skagway, there were four docked at the same time. Apparently, they have room for a fifth, this was a relatively quiet day. If you want to take part in excursions from either town, I suggest you check the cruise ship schedules first. If there aren’t any docked, the excursions don’t run. At one point when planning my trip, I’d considered staying over in Skagway. I’m glad I picked Haines instead.

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Right from Sacramento, I had been following the story of the Klondike Gold Rush. Skagway is the point at which all those hopeful young men would have set off on foot, or with horses if they were lucky, to claim their fortune. Although  thousands went in search of gold, apparently only a few actually discovered any. Many of the men returned to Skagway empty-handed, and set up businesses to sell to newcomers who didn’t yet know there was no gold.

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My main purpose of visiting Skagway was to join the White Pass & Yukon Route railroad excursion. I wanted to say that I had visited the Yukon. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t get the chance, but more about that later. I’m glad I got to stop off in Skagway, though. However, I’m not sure who had the tougher deal. The early Gold Rush explorers faced with an unforgiving trek up into the mountains, or today’s travellers having to navigate through 10,000 American, Japanese and European tourists as they flood off the cruise ships.

The Art of Haines

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In my last post I told you about the wonderful town of Haines, AK. I couldn’t move on to the next part of my trip without showing you photos of some of the artwork I saw in Haines. The whole town feels like a piece of art, every building unique and creative. Traditional Alaskan Native carvings and sculptures mingle with handmade jewellery and decorative architecture that looks like it came straight out of a hippy commune. Needless to say, I really like Haines.

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Exploring Haines

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For the first couple of days of my trip, I had sweated what felt like half my body weight in the 102 degree Californian heat. I’d consoled myself with the thought that, as I was heading much further north, it was going to get cooler. As I stepped off the ferry in Haines, in the middle of an Alaskan heatwave, I realised that it wasn’t going to get that much cooler.

Just like all the stops we’d made along the route, the ferry port at Haines is out of town. 4 miles in this case. Viva, the owner of the only taxi in Haines, was waiting at the port. She had seven spaces. Three couples wanted to see Haines before returning to the boat. I grabbed the last spot and paid her to take me out to Bear Creek Cabins & Hostel, where I had a reservation. As we drove through downtown, Viva gave us a mini tour with commentary. If we needed a lift anywhere, she told us, just ask a local to call Viva. I got the impression that, if you needed picking up, she would just magically appear like some taxi driver sixth sense.

Bear Creek Cabins & Hostel is located 1.5 miles out of town, on the opposite side to the ferry port. 8 cabins sit around a communal outdoor area, with a shower/bathroom block and kitchen off to one side. Two of the cabins are used as dorm rooms. It’s basic, but it’s also cheap, and you have everything you need. As it turned out, no-one else checked into the female dorm the entire time I was there. I had the cheapest private room in Haines. I rented a bike from the manageress and encountered my first proper exercise in 3 days. Viva had warned me that 2 bears were roaming the area, and that I should keep an eye out. Oh great, I thought, it’s like moving to British Columbia all over again (I once spent a winter working in Whistler). I’d love to see a bear, just not when I’m on my own on a pushbike in the middle of nowhere.

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My fears of not finding any plant-based, gluten-free food were unfounded. On my first cycle into town, the very first building I came across was a health food store. Although Mountain Market is pretty much the only place in town where you can buy plant-based, gluten-free food, it stocks a pretty good selection.

Situated about 40 miles from the Canadian border (locals seem to disagree on how long the road is), Haines AK is the place to go to if you want outdoor adventure in a laid back setting. Downtown Haines isn’t very big, but there’s enough to keep you occupied for a couple of hours. It’s home to the Hammer Museum which, as the name suggests, displays a collection of 1700 hammers. If that’s not enough hammers for you, apparently the owner has 7000 more at home. Just look for the giant hammer on Main Street, you can’t miss it.

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On the opposite side of the road, just down from the Hammer Museum, is the Sheldon Museum and Cultural Centre. This charming and welcoming little hub of local life houses Tlingit artefacts and crafts, as well as items from more recent Western settlers.

More Native American artwork can be viewed at Alaska Indian Arts. This has to be the most laid back museum I have ever visited. Entrance is free, and you just let yourself in and wander at will. A couple of small signs ask you to close the door behind you firmly and not touch the tools (totem poles and other art pieces are still carved here). A tiny sausage dog with a persistent cough greeted me as I arrived, but other than that no-one seemed to notice I was there.

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Alaska Indian Arts is part of Fort William H. Seward. You can pick up a self-guided walking tour leaflet for the fort at lots of places around town, and I would highly recommend it. Work began on the fort in 1903, and its primary use was to protect against the threat of attack from Canada. It was also used during both World Wars for training and recreation. When it closed after the War, Haines suddenly fell quiet. Five World War II veterans, with the support of their families, bought 85 buildings and 400 acres and began to develop the community that is still there today. It is very much a living museum, with the original buildings being used as residences, hotels and art galleries. It must be strange to have tourists constantly walking past and taking photos of your home. I’m not sure I could handle it, but the upside is you get to live in a piece of history with a view over the stunning Portage Cove.

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The Bald Eagle Foundation on the Haines Highway was ethically a tough visit for me. On the one hand, they rescue and rehabilitate injured bald eagles as well as other birds of prey, a commendable vocation. They have two bald eagles who are permanent residents and used for educational purposes (neither can be released into the wild again for their own safety, and one of them has returned to the foundation on numerous occasions), and visitors are invited to watch them being fed at 2.30pm every day. The trainers seem genuinely respectful of the birds and their wishes, and  will happily answer questions. The other side of the building, however, I found more sinister. Hundreds of stuffed animals stare at you in the foundation’s museum, and a gentleman who I presume to be the manager proudly told us how he had hunted some of the exhibits himself. As entertaining and pleasant as he is, I found it difficult to understand how you can be so passionate about preserving certain species on one hand, whilst contributing to the extinction of many more on the other. However, this is Alaska, and I just smiled politely until I could make my escape.

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About 10 miles out of downtown Haines, back past the ferry port, is Chilkoot Lake. if you have access to a car, which thanks to the kindness of one of my fellow ferry passengers I did, it’s worth the drive. You can also phone Viva, or I imagine just think about wanting to visit the lake, and she will take you. We were disappointed to find there are no walking trails around the lake, but the view is spectacular. I didn’t see any, but apparently bears frequently visit the area to feed. About halfway up the river to the lake there is the curious sight of the fish counting station, where all the fish are forced to swim through a narrow gate so their numbers can be recorded. We asked a fisherman how the station works, expecting some highly technical answer. He told us that the gentleman wearing waders, sat next to the gate, had the unenviable job of counting the fish by eye and keeping a tally. If that wasn’t odd enough, he clocked off at 5pm, and I can only assume the fish are then either not allowed through the gate until he returns to work the next morning, or they are trained to somehow record their own visit if it happens to be during the night.

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Bald eagles, Native American Artefacts and hammers seem an eclectic way to mark your place on a map, but Haines manages it with a friendliness and charm I have seen in very few places.

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Useful Info:

One way taxi Haines ferry port to Bear Creek Cabins: $12

3 days bike rental: $50 including tax

3 nights hostel bed Bear Creek Cabins: $66

Entrance to Sheldon Museum and Cultural Centre: $5

Entrance to Bald Eagle Foundation: $10

Change

I live in Cardiff, a city that is forever changing. Buildings appear  and disappear, roads move, traffic changes direction and giant rugby balls crash into the castle. Sometimes the changes are so frequent that developers have to put up temporary maps to guide residents through the chaos. A couple of years ago, I took a photo of the derelict building below. Industrial subjects appeal to me, and I had this strange feeling that I needed to preserve the scene with my camera. Shortly afterwards, the building was knocked down and plans for new residential units were pinned to the fence. I have returned every few months since to document the changes in the site. The new buildings are almost complete now, and this is their story so far.

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Click here to see more entries from this week’s photo challenge, Change.

A Quick Stop in Ketchikan

Please note, this post is part of a series. Click here to read it from the beginning.

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When I boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Bellingham, I had no idea that we would have a stopover in Ketchikan, our first port of call in Alaska. When the announcement came over the tannoy that we would be there for five hours, I raced off the boat, excited to have this bonus in my itinerary.

Ketchikan very much caters to the cruise ship passengers. As if the high street of stores selling jewellery, souvenirs and candy wasn’t evidence enough of this, they also got to dock right in the centre of town. We had a 40 minute walk from the ferry terminal.

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The geography of Ketchikan leads to some extreme architecture. Houses built on stilts balance above the water and the main road into town, and steep wooden staircases lead up to amazing views.

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Ketchikan airport is on a separate island, and I have never seen such a crazy transport hub. As the jets land on the runway, boat planes take off within metres of them, in turn barely missing boats that are also using the water. I held my breath watching those insane manoeuvres. It was really busy, too. The only place I have seen a higher frequency of planes is at Heathrow airport.

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Getting to visit Ketchikan was a nice surprise, and I definitely think it’s more exciting to arrive on the ferry than on a cruise ship.