Monday, 24 May 2010

Show me the way to go home

I can hardly believe it, but the time to head back to reality is upon me (I won't be in England for a few days yet, but there'll be a lot of sitting in airports before then). As I sit in a gift shop in Anchorage, using their ancient machine and surrounded by cuddly moose, I'm hard put to think of anything really serious to say! I'd like to sum up my experiences, and tell you what I've learnt, but the faux Inuit tat is really distracting me, and in any case I expect I'll still be discovering what I've learnt in months to come.

All I can really say is that it's been an adventure - I've been tired, scared, wet, boiling hot and freezing cold, and irritated beyond endurance by my fellow man (you can't beat hostel living!). I've also been elated, excited and overwhelmed by beauty; I've made friends and met people from all over the world; I've done things I never thought I could - and done them well. Right now, I'm more positive about the future than I've ever been in my life. I know that I'll face problems with finding a job, and fitting back into a working routine, and I know that I'll moan about it! But I rely on all of you to remind me that, at this moment, I knew that anything was possible.

It just remains to say thank you all for reading - it often comforted me to think that I'm connected to friends and family back home, no matter how far away I was. But now I'm so looking forward to being there in person... Over and out!

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Land of the midnight sun

And so to the third new entry, and Fairbanks. This is Alaska's largest city in the interior (and second largest in the state), and I can't say I enjoyed it much. It might have had something to do with the hostel - I was greeted at the door by two obese, horridly wheezing pugs and it didn't get much better than that. It's also a very inconvenient city for the non-driver - not so much a town as a very loosely connected collection of far-flung buildings. With, bizarrely, a congregation of tae kwondo and yoga instructors at the top of my road.

Still, I did go to the Museum of the North, the pride of Fairbanks and rightly so. It's got displays on Native culture, on local wildlife - and a 9ft-tall stuffed bear in the foyer. You can't say fairer than that! I was also able to watch several informative films on the Aurora borealis (always there, even if you can't see them because of cloud or sunlight) and on living in the far north through the winter (it gets as cold as minus 60C in town; the locals recommend lots of layers and good boots).

The real reason for the trip north, however, was my tour to the Arctic Circle, some 200 miles north of Fairbanks along the gravel-paved Dalton Highway. If you want wild Alaska, that's really the place to go looking for it - from the subsistence miners and "End of the Roaders" who fill their yards with junk and insure it with Smith & Wesson, to hundreds of miles of arctic tundra. There's only one place to get supplies between Fairbanks and Deadhorse (the oil town on the northern coast). Yukon River encampment is right on the shores of the Yukon - as you might expect - but its big claim to fame is that it sells burgers and blueberry pie. Apart from that, it's just you and the pipeline, which pumps crude oil all the way from Deadhorse to Fairbanks. Although ugly in itself - and much derided by the environmentalists - the 1974 pipeline is a beautiful work of engineering. All the men in our party (three older couples and a guide called Norm) were fascinated by it, though I was more interested in the tree swallows that were nesting in the joists.

It's a long, long haul up to the Arctic Circle, but the scenery is pretty mesmerising - in spring, the tundra is covered not by ice and snow but by black spruce and stunted birch and green mosses; it's unexpected and really pretty, and you can hear birdsong everywhere across the Yukon Flats as they gear up for mating season. Our guide kept us entertained, too: Norm is a real Alaskan, by which I mean he's 61, Republican, he goes hunting and trapping, flies his own floatplane to his cabin in the woods, and moved here 40 years ago because of the freedom. He and I certainly didn't agree on everything, but he had thought hard about his choices and was willing to see that his opinions were just opinions - as long as others did the same. A really interesting guy.

The Circle itself is just an imaginary line in the ground, with a sign to say you've made it. But it didn't feel like an anticlimax to me - now I can feel I've been, and seen a different aspect of Alaska, one that tourists often avoid. I didn't even feel (that) disappointed to miss the Northern Lights - after all, they were right above my head, even if I couldn't see them. And it was cool to have all the daylight - it's early in the season, but it's still bright enough to read at 11pm, and the sun's back in the sky before 4am. By midsummer, it won't set at all.

So after all that, I've caught the railroad down to Talkeetna, a tiny town south of Denali National Park, and the hub for climbers attempting Mt McKinley, the tallest mountain in the States. I too am heading up there tomorrow, but I'm doing it the easy way - in a plane with skis, which will land us on virgin snow up top for a hike. Cheating? Perhaps - but in such a good cause...

Striking gold

The next adventure was different in tone, but no less enjoyable. I headed back to the ferry and motored down the Lynn Canal - on another gloriously sunny day; I've been very lucky with the weather - to the gold-mining town of Skagway. In between watching snow-capped mountains slide by, I fell into conversation with another Alaska character: a young man named Mark who had clearly taken far too much LSD and methamphetamine in his life. Hard to say if he was on something then or if he's just permanently addled, but he considers himself to be a prophet and a man of God, so we had a pretty good chat about spirituality. He also prayed to God to relieve me of my cough; I can't say it worked any better than the antibiotics, but his heart was in the right place.

He'd certainly have fit in to the original town of Skagway, which welcomed dreamers of any stripe when it sprang up during the Klondike gold rush in 1898. Today, the whole town has been preserved as a national park, and the buildings along Broadway have been maintained (or restored) in their original gold rush style. It had everything you expect from a Wild West (or Wild North) town: saloons, gambling, ladies of doubtful virtue and a criminal gang headed by one "Soapy" Smith, who was eventually killed in a shootout with the town's marshal.

Sadly for the thousands who flocked to Skagway and nearby Dyea in order to cross the mountains into Canada and the Klondike gold fields, the rush itself was short-lived. By the time they'd waited out the winter - when the passes are, well, impassable - and been bilked of most of their savings by the likes of "Soapy" Smith, all the productive claims had been staked by Canadians nearer at hand. It was enough to put Skagway on the map, however, particularly when they built the White Pass & Yukon Route railway to facilitate travel for the prospectors.

Today it's a tourist trap, but a very beautiful one. I trod the wooden boards of the sidewalk; visited a restored saloon; and took in the sights of the town (a brisk 10-minute walk end to end). I also went over the pass on the railway, where the snow was still lying 10 feet deep and the walls of the tunnels (blasted by those original prospectors 100 years ago) were solid with ice. My plans may have changed while I've been on the road, but I did get to Canada after all! And by a historical route to boot - though happily not carrying 40lbs of supplies on my back...

Ice, ice, baby

I left you, dear reader, as I was about to join a cruise to the glacier at Tracy Arm Fjord, and it was every bit as spectacular as I hoped it would be. We were greeted by Steve, our skipper - a true Alaskan with a laconic drawl and a dry sense of humour, who took us all the way out to Endicott Arm Fjord (Tracy Arm was still too thick with pack ice to negotiate). Along the way we passed yet more magnificent coastline, several colonies of 40-odd bald-headed eagles, and a mother bear with her two cubs, shooing them into the undergrowth as soon as we hove into sight. ("Bad tourist bear," said Steve.) We even met a rather bashful humpback whale, who barely surfaced before slipping under the waters again.

But the best wildlife spotting as at Dawes Glacier, at the far end of the fjord. As Steve picked his way through jagged blue icebergs (blue because they're freshly broken off from the glacier and lack oxygen), the seals who live on the pack ice kept poking their heads above the water, checking us out; after we stopped to take in the glacier, and the silence, and the sharp, chill air, they came even closer, wondering what the hell we were doing there!

Cute as they were, though, it was the glacier that really commanded attention: so far from human activity it was clean, mountainous shards of blue and white ice stretching hundreds of feet deep, cracking and groaning with hidden movement. We saw several icebergs calf too, with a thunderous rumble and a crack like gunfire, falling into the water with a force that made our boat rock several hundred feet away.

We were the only people for miles around, and our small boat was dwarfed by the spectacle, which is just as it should be, and the day wasn't over yet - on the way home, we motored down Ford's Terror (an arm of the fjord, so named because the (white) man who discovered it was caught in the currents at the entrance and thought he was a goner). Steep granite mountains rose to either side; snow melt fed wonderful waterfalls, and then, right at the end of the arm, we stopped to appreciate water so still and dark and deep it was like glass - I have never seen such clear, sharp reflections; it was the kind of beauty that makes your heart swell.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Northern exposure

I know, it's a cheesy headline, but it fits! Alaska is all that I hoped it would be and more - I'm ending my trip with a bang, not a whimper (the only whimper being when I'm racked by another coughing jag; much to my appalled horror I was finally forced to the doctor today to get some antibiotics for my poor abused chest - I'm prouder than ever of Britain's national health care).

On a happier note, I've made it as far as Juneau up the Inside Passage (and no matter how often I say that, it feels rude!). The first few days we floated in glorious sunshine on a sea as calm as a millpond, while the fluffy white clouds stood out so clearly it looked as though we could touch them from the deck and mountains of dark cedar and spruce rose at the water's edge. The absolute highlight, however, was sighting whales - one humpback breaching the waves behind us, and a pod of Orca playing alongside the boat. Even the gnarly, tattooed hard men (of whom there were plenty on board, hanging around in their vests despite the nip in the air) rushed to the rails to see - I guess whales are just one of those things you never get blase about.

I also stopped off in Ketchikan, Alaska's "first city" (ie it's the first one you come to after passing hundreds of miles of Canadian coastline), where I spent a delightful day walking along the creek where the salmon fight their way to the spawning grounds every May, marvelling at the bald-headed eagle who'd landed on the roof of the Lutheran church not 30 feet above my head, checking out the totem poles dotted everywhere around town, and visiting Dolly's house, once owned by Ketchikan's most notorious (and successful) prostitute. All her things have been preserved just so, including what has to be the floweriest bedroom of sin ever. She earned between $75 and $100 a day, when the miners' wages came in at around $1, and clearly knew a thing or two! More staid was the Totem Heritage Center, which houses about 40 19th-century totem poles, rescued from abandoned villages where they'd been left to rot. I love the brightly painted modern ones that are everywhere in Alaska and the Northwest, but these were something else - half decayed, but vast and powerful all the same.

And now I'm in Juneau, the state capital, which is unbelievably tiny! City Hall is little more than a shack, and Parliament House is hardly bigger than a small London theatre. However, what it lacks in size it makes up for in the stature of its natural wonders. It's cupped in a valley formed by majestic mountains (once again covered in cedar, spruce and, at this season, snow), with snowmelt forming roaring waterfalls down to the sea. There's a glacier just down the road, which is close enough to walk on (I didn't! My derring-do is on hold until Mt McKinley, where I'll be doing a glacier walk in trained company). And tomorrow I'm heading out on a boat to Tracy Arm Fjord, where the ice forms walls right at the water's edge, and whales and sea lions play nearby. It's all about the landscape here, and it's almost too good to be true! Superlatives are just not enough...

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Election fever

Literally, in my case! I'm glued to Helen's computer in Seattle, watching the results as they come in, while I cough up a lung and sweat out some kind of cold virus. Not nice, but on the plus side it's only the second time I've been sick during my travels, and if I have to be ill, at least I'm doing it in someone's comfy home... till tomorrow anyway (I'll be back on the road - or ferry, anyway - and heading up to Alaska). Another advantage is that if the exit polls are correct and the Tories do well, I kind of want to be delirious.

In other news, I've just returned from Spokane, where I was visiting friends I met on a cruise in New Zealand (I love travelling!). Don, Nancy, Janet and Brian were incredibly welcoming, and treated me like a queen (of England)! They even threw an all-American barbecue for me, with cheeseburgers and apple pie, and invited the neighbours round. It was a totally different experience from the rest of my travels, and great to see the other side of America (I've been in the big cities and doing the common tourist trail; Spokane is far inland in Washington state, close to the Idaho border, and my friends live in Republican suburbia). Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and though we didn't always agree politically, it was interesting (and salutary) to hear other views. And in addition to three days of lovely hospitality, I got to see Deadliest Catch - a reality TV show about Alaska fishermen, following five ridiculously manly and tattooed fishing crews as they go their storm-toss'd and cussing way across the Bering Sea. Just fabulous.

And all that testosterone lies ahead of me - the ratio of men to women in Alaska is five to one, apparently, and I may yet meet a man who wrestles bears in between taking off bottle tops with his teeth. Or not. I suspect the trip may be more about the scenery than the (human) wildlife! But before then the UK will elect a new parliament (and government) - and I've still got hopes that it won't be a Conservative one. Whatever happens, I'm incredibly cheered by seeing lines outside polling stations, even if - disgracefully - too many of them couldn't cast their votes. How can you get people to participate in the democratic process if they can't be sure their vote will be counted?

Friday, 30 April 2010

Tempest toss'd town

I've been in Seattle for nearly a week now, and it's certainly living up to its reputation as the rainy city - the skies have been pretty uniformly grey, and any hint of blue disappears like a false dawn as soon as I get outside! Having said that, today the sun shone - and stayed shining - as I headed out to Bainbridge on the ferry. It was a glorious trip, with Seattle's skyline gradually disappearing behind us as this tiny island appeared ahead. The real highlight was getting out on the water, but I also enjoyed pottering about Winslow's bookshops and
cafes, and absolutely loved the city centre - three wooden buildings and a bizarre pod-like sculpture. Archetypal small-town America, right down to the picket fences.

Elsewhere, I've been mixing food for body and soul. Yesterday Helen and I went on a tour of Theo's Chocolate Factory in Fremont. It's a small place that makes Fair Trade and organic chocolate: we got the low-down on production from tree to tummy, and at the same time were given a bunch of free samples to concentrate the mind! Just to balance out all this indulgence, earlier in the day I'd been round the Seattle Art Museum, with some really interesting modern art (my favourites, a giant black mouse sitting on a man's chest, and a chainmail coat made out of 40,000 dog tags. What did they mean? Who knows? And who, really, cares? It's all about how they make you feel. There was a quote by Georgia O'Keeffe up on the wall that is possibly the best explanation for abstract expressionism (and modern art) I've ever seen: "Even if I could put down accurately certain things that I saw and enjoyed it would not give the observer the kind of feeling the object gave me - I had to create an environment for what I felt about what I was looking at - not copy it.").

Rather less high-mindedly, the previous day I'd been to the Seattle Center, photographed the Space Needle, and run amok in the Frank Gehry-designed Sci-Fi Museum (it also housed the Seattle Music Experience, but except for a rock photography exhibition, and some information on the grunge scene of the Nineties, this didn't interest me so much). But, oh, the books! The cyberpunk! The models of the Terminator! The original costumes and ray-guns from Star Trek! I admit it - I geeked out. Then I went on the monorail into town and felt like I was in Fahrenheit 451 - without the book-burning...

Anyway, I'd best head off and get some more coffee down me. Seattle being the home of the barista (yes, I've had a mocha in the original Starbucks - I couldn't resist), they have coffee shops every few steps here, just in case your caffeine levels fall dangerously low. By the time I leave here I may well be vibrating, but, oh, it's delicious! Bottoms up!