Alaska: A Time and Place for Exploration and Reflection

Of all the trips I’ve been on since last October, going to Anchorage, Alaska this past week was unlike any other.

Cities like D.C., NYC and Seattle allowed me to explore the concrete landscapes while Anchorage allowed me to explore the real, natural landscapes that cannot be found anywhere else.

What was truly unique about this five-day trip was that I stayed with my relatives, which allowed them to show me around and take me to some of the greatest places in the state. It was also a time for reflecting back on and engaging in a dialogue about what can best be described as a very complicated family history that dates back at least a generation or two.

During the five days I spent in Alaska, we checked out national parks, glaciers, restaurants, shops and so much more.

Whittier, Alaska

On my first full day of the trip on Wednesday, my cousin Garrett, his wife Melissa, their son Kalen and I took a trip down to Whittier, a very small community where the local economy heavily relies on the cruise ship port stationed there as well as the fishing industry.

To get to Whittier, we traveled through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, the second longest tunnel in North America after Boston’s Big Dig. This tunnel is unique in that it is shared by both vehicular and train traffic although not at the same time. The one-lane tunnel results in traffic to pass in one direction at a time, alternating about every 30 minutes or so.

Afterwards, we visited the Portage Glacier. The water and ice from the glacier is clean enough for people to drink and consume as Garrett placed bits of the glacier ice onto his Pepsi and also in my bottled water, making for a very refreshing drink.

 

Bisons at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

In the afternoon, we stopped by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center where we saw bears, bisons, caribous and other wild animals roaming around in their natural habitats. We saw a couple of bears playfully fighting each other in a pond, putting on quite a show for those of us who were watching.

On Thursday, Garrett and I went on a flightseeing trip. Thats where we met Mark, a pilot with 36 years of experience piloting small aircrafts. He works for Spernak Airways, the company that offers such tours. This was a new experience as I’ve only flown on commercial airliners in the past but not smaller aircrafts.

Vast marsh lands near the Knik Arm just north of Anchorage

Our journey began at Merrill Field, flying due north as we passed by vast marsh lands and snow-capped mountains. We almost reached as far as Denali National Forest if it weren’t for me needing to take a restroom break, resulting in us having to land at Talkeetna Airport. We headed back to Merrill Field afterwards, checking out more sights over the air as we went along.

View from the Alaska Railroad

On Friday, my aunt and I took the Alaska Railroad to Seward. The 4.5-hour train ride included many scenic views of the mountains, natural landscapes, glaciers and occasional sightings of wild animals. During the summer, the Alaska Railroad hires and trains high school students to serve as tour guides on the train rides, all of whom did a fantastic job making the experience and the ride a very enjoyable one. Once we got off, we met up with Garrett at the Alaska Sealife Center. Located near Resurrection Bay in Seward, it is the state’s only public aquarium and we saw exhibits and displays of various aquatic animals.

Trail to Exit Glacier

The three of us then headed to Exit Glacier for a hike. There is a trail that takes visitors all the way to where the glacier current lies. Since the late 19th century, the glacier recedes about 10 feet every year as evident by signposts with years placed near locations where the glacier used to stand.

Samples of reindeer and buffalo sausages at Indian Valley Meats

Food was certainly unlike anything I’ve experienced in the lower 48 states. While I did not try moose meat or caribou like I hoped to –apparently due to legal reasons — I did have something almost every day I was there and on almost every meal I ate: reindeer sausage. I will say that reindeer sausage tastes just like regular sausage except slightly better and with a somewhat noticeable difference in taste.

I’m also surprised by the Alaskans’ obsession with pizza as I’ve seen it offered in almost every restaurant that I’ve visited and many of them have reindeer sausage as one of their toppings. I’ve tried a few and Alaskans really know their pizzas, especially Moose Tooth, the most popular pizza restaurant and brewery in the city.

Alaska at 9:40 p.m. View from my bedroom.

One really interesting phenomenon I experienced while there is that the sun never fully goes down. It’s not unusual to see at least some sunlight still up at 11 p.m. Even during the wee hours of the morning, it was somewhat dark but the sun never fully sets. Despite initial concerns, it did not throw off my sleeping patterns thanks to curtains that completely blocked out the sunlight.

This trip was a remarkable one as I stayed with and visited my relatives. My aunt Sue is someone I have always regarded as a mother figure when my own biological mother was unavailable. My uncle really serves as the patriarch of the family and knows how to unite people. My cousins, Garrett and Trisha, also are excellent people and so are their respective spouses and children.

Discussing our family history was certainly unavoidable. I wound up learning more things about my family than I ever knew. I was stunned to hear so many things about my life and about others in our family that I never knew before. During this time, I also discovered and watched a video of the funeral of my grandmother from December 2005, which was notable in that I chose not to attend because my father was in attendance.

Alaska was definitely the place for exploration of new things and reflection of the past. Seeing that it is such a huge place, it will take another trip up there — and a longer one, too — to explore the rest of what Alaska has to offer. I look forward to taking another trip hopefully in summer 2012. It’s a big place with so little time to see it all.

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2 thoughts on “Alaska: A Time and Place for Exploration and Reflection

  1. Simon,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post about your trip. And so glad you enjoyed your train ride. (ps – Anchorage to Seward is only 4.5 hours)

    We hope when you return, you’ll come with us again! The natural world, as you found, is a bit like a church. A great place to experience silence and calm and a great place to contemplate life.

    Best to you!
    Ruth (Marketing at AKRR)

    • Thanks, Ruth! I made the correction just now regarding the travel time. I’m planning on coming back to Alaska in summer 2012, hopefully for a slightly longer stay. Once that happens, I’ll definitely ride the Alaska Railroad again. I truly enjoyed the ride and it’s unlike any other railroad trips I’ve taken. Kudos to AKRR and keep up the good work!

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