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...

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