Having only ever really cruised the local Florida waters before, it was an odd experience to pull into our final port and know there was still 4000 or so miles between us and home, and many hours before we could start that journey. When we made our way up to deck for breakfast and I sat looking out at the cold, damp, misty mountains, I found myself thinking about the things I hadn’t gotten to do in Alaska. I hadn’t walked on the side of any of the majestic, snow-covered mountains. I hadn’t seen a bear, despite being told there was one every square mile. I hadn’t seen a moose, even though I was told they were very, very dangerous — even moreso than bears. Would I regret not having done those things? Probably a bit. Ahead of us was our long final shore tour that was described as a trip up a tramway to have lunch at a resort, and then a trip to the airport to sit around a few hours and wait for our flight.
And yet there were still surprises left. Like the fact that once we were comfortably ensconced in our motor coach, we would have to travel through a very odd tunnel. The tunnel that leads out of Whittier, which is the only way in or out of the coastal town in a ground vehicle, is 2.5 miles long and a single lane. It was built by the military when Whittier was a military town, and was there to provide the military supply train a way to get to the base. Now, vehicles can drive through for $12. There’s a set schedule as to when the tunnel is open in each direction to what kind of vehicle. For example, our buses had a window from 10 – 10:15 am.
And I say buses because, although they could fit us all on the one giant motor coach, they had to split us up when we went through the tunnel. You see, in case of catastrophe, there are pull-offs arranged throughout the tunnel with supplies, air, protected areas, and they are sized for a specific number of people. So a single vehicle can only carry a certain amount of people.
Credit to military engineers, I found the tunnel to be very safe-seeming and had a blast driving through it. I kind of wish there was a tour. It looked like an amazing piece of engineering. Though our tour guide told us if you drive through with your windows rolled down, it’s kind of smelly.
After that we paused to take a peek at the Portage Glacier, and collect the rest of the travelers on our bus from the tunnel overflow bus. Then we proceeded on to the first surprise of our tour, a stop at the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center.
Yes, fate had heard my thoughts. Here we were, pulling into the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a beautiful, huge nature preserve where they take in animals who, for whatever reason, are no longer able to live in the wild. At first, we were just rolling through in a motor coach with a guide aboard chatting about the animals. There I was, snapping some fairly crappy pictures through the windows of the coach, thinking, “Just let me out here. I’ll get a taxi to Anchorage!” And sure enough, we get to the brown bear area and we get to leave the coach! Woohoo!
The brown bears there were AMAZING! Giant! Stupendous! Aboslutely terrifying. And yet, somehow, cute. While I was taking the pictures, I saw some space further ahead and started to jump forward into it when the biggest bear in the enclosure, right in front of me, stands up on it’s hind legs and just towers over me. I’m standing there, looking up, going, “Holy sh– wow — oh, my!” And then I think, camera! And of course, the bear drops back down. Still, it was amazing to having this giant, furry, clawed and toothed wall of hair towering over me. I’ll trade the pictures for that moment of OMFG. Lest you worry about us, the sort of flimsy fence between us was labeled “electrified”, and the bears didn’t seem interested in getting past it. They seemed perfectly happy in their huge environment. And best yet, they seemed happy and curious about us. As we hopped back on the bus, one of them was floating on his back in the water with his paws sticking up. The perfect image of some little tourist statue labeled something like, “Getting Bear-Naked In Alaska!”
I thought we were going to get trapped back on the bus for more riding around, but they took us over to the visitor’s center and dropped us off to let us explore a bit. I was ecstatic! I got to see just how big mooses actually are. And how absolutely stunning a red fox is. So brightly colored, and the eyes are gorgeous! It look just like a little dog as it made it’s little turn and sat down in front of me, soaking up some sunshine with its eyes squeezed tight in satisfaction.
The black bears looked and acted amazingly like dogs for as big as they are. The one I have pictures of just flopped himself in front of the tourists, looking like a contented hound. When he’d had enough of our clicking away with our cameras, he went and checked out some bones that looked fairly worked over. Finding not much to chew off them, he started using it to scratch his face and head. It was absolutely cute in a sort of morbid, glad that isn’t my bone kind of way. You have to keep thinking, as you watch these bears, how absolutely huge and strong they are. I think I’ve said of Alaska before, Nature there left me feeling small.
I was almost sorry to jump back on the bus, but I was hungry for both food and more adventure. Our next stop was the Alyeska Mountain Resort. Driving up to it, there’s a quaint little town of artist houses. One house has beautiful stained glass in the windows. Another, through the big bay windows you can see a giant stuffed bear. I must be in the wrong line of work if artists can afford these kinds of houses!
We rode a tram up to the house. Our tram driver closed the door and yelled, “Lightspeed!” Nice! Made me feel like I was at home. (“Lightspeed to Endor!”) At the top, we got to pick out a little boxed lunch kind of thing in the snack bar, which turned out to be fairly yummy (Natasha and I both had crab salad sammies) and included a, to quote Natasha, “cookie as big as my head!” After lunch, we explored the mountaintop. Yes, I wanted to walk on a mountain, but in the end, I decided I didn’t want to walk very close to the edge with all the ice and wet mud around. But the view was still amazing, especially since the sky was full of para-glider thingies. They have a tandem service up there for people who want to learn or try it. It looked amazing. The tandem team that was up there while we were basically were able to swoop back and forth around this little sort of rounded valley between the peaks, right near the visitor center. Swish! They’d fly over to the edge of the mountain and just catch a wind coming back and shoot back to their launch area, until they finally shot off the side and glided over the valley. Must be exhilirating. I would have peed my pants!
Our next stop was the Alaskan Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It’s a fascinating living museum covering all the native cultures in Alaska. There are your typical museum pieces in a small area, but there are also native artisans right there, answering questions and selling their wares. If you’re more into living culture, there’s a stage where the gregarious young cultural instructors were playing music and teaching people native dances. Outside, arrayed around a lake, there are examples of the kinds of dwellings the native people build. Each one has a small stuff of cultural reps who can tell you about traditional native life. One of the reps there showed us a rain chaser, a kewl, whizzing device you spin on a string. He said he’s used it that morning to make the rain go away. I have to admit, it looked pretty miserable in Whittier, and it was cold. But by the end of our tunnel ride it had warmed up and we were gifted with a sunny day for our explorations, so I think there is some magic in Alaska!
Anchorage brought back a little bit of home. I knew we must be getting close when I saw the Sears, and the Target shopping plaza under construction. Soon enough we arrived at the airport, and soon after that our giant metal raptor was whisking us away from the frozen north. With one last look out the window, one last look down upon the glaciers rumbling down the majestic mountainsides, I said “Thanks” to Alaska, for showing me there was still wilderness out there, in my very own country. Still hardy settlers, struggling to survive surrounded by the immensity of the natural world. I’ll take home the absolute conviction that we need to protect every bit of this we can.