North to Alaska-Part One

It was a very big trip in almost every way.  We left the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport at 12 noon on Monday, July 21st, and landed in Anchorage after a 5-hour 45-minute flight.  But it wasn't supper time in Anchorage.  It was only mid afternoon because of the three-hour time difference between Minnesota and Alaska.

Did we see polar bears?  No!  We saw "Alaska: The Great Land" on a huge omni-theater screen.  We were also initiated to "The Great Earthquake of 1964," the greatest earthquake ever on the North American continent.  And we had dinner at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel.

This is our original travel group of friends we came to know at least 20 years ago through the American Public Works Association.  All the guys are civil engineers from the metro area.  Left to right:  Al/Sue Orsen, Dick/Marilyn Sobiech, John/Jan Flora, Rosalie/Lloyd Pauly.

We are photographed above the Matanuska River on the way to Copper Center in a luxurious and comfortable motor coach.

It was near empty, as you can see, so we spread out wherever and whenever we wanted in order to catch the best views.

We were impressed and awed by the mountainous scenery and colorful fireweed, so called because after a forest fire, this colorful plant is the first to grow and propagate.

We drove through the Matanuska Valley and explored inland Alaska with the colorful Wrangell-St. Elias Range in the background.

Next to this tiny Russian Orthodox Church is a cemetery filled with colorfully painted "spirit houses" in which the spirit can live on.

Our tour guide and driver was Colleen, a very knowledgeable person and expert driver as well.  She could drive and talk and answer questions simultaneously, continuously.

At the Sheep Mountain Lodge we enjoyed a lunch of delicious homemade soups and burgers.  Everywhere in Alaska, people planted  lots of flowers for their three-months of summer.

We found other buildings of interest on the way to Copper Center, including a City Hall very unlike Allan's office at the new Wayzata City Hall and also a gift shop across the road just as cute as can be, rather eclectic, sort of like the Victoria Gazette office.

We had dinner that second evening at the new Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, overlooking the beautiful Wrangell Mountain Range.  That's (l-r) Rosalie, Jan, Marilyn, and me.

After dinner (remember that the sun is shining 20 out of 24 hours!) we visited an Alaskan "cultural bar" where the owner, Ron Simpson, displayed his elaborate model train that traversed from inside the bar to outside the bar on a raised platform under a not-very-protective canopy.  Mr. Simpson, a proud descendant of native Alaskans, signed a copy of his book for me, "Legacy of the Chief."

Everything was more subdued the next morning at 5:30 a.m. at the Princess Lodge.  We had to have our bags packed and outside our rooms by 6 a.m.  We didn't mind the early rising.

On our way to Fairbanks via the Alaska Highway midst a cool and overcast day, we saw the Trans-Alaska Pipeline up close.  We learned it was one of the most difficult engineering feats of our time, and it was the only way to get crude oil from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope of Alaska down to tankers at Valdez, the nearest ice-free port.  Oil was only discovered on the North Slope in 1968, and the first piece of pipe was laid in 1975.  It came to be 800 miles long, with 380 miles of it buried.  It crosses three mountain rages and more than 800 rivers and streams, including a 2,300-foot bridge over the Yukon River.  The pipe is 48-inches in diameter.  We touched the steel.  All of its $8 billion cost -- for material and a workforce totaling 70,000 people -- was privately funded by eight oil companies, six of which own and maintain it today as the "Alyeska Pipeline Service Company."  The Company employs 1,000 people in Alaska.  From Valdez, the oil is shipped to the lower 48 states and some to Japan.  We continued to catch glimpses of the pipeline off and on throughout the day.  Our engineers loved it.

Traveling through this magnificent country, I spied two moose from the motor coach, a mother and her calf, and I signaled fellow passengers as instructed:  "Moose at 3 o'clock!"  It turned into a warm and picturesque day, so I suggested a group photo that would include our newfound travel friends.

There were only seven couples plus Driver Colleen on that entire large motor coach!  The fancy flush plush bathroom in back was always available!  (L-r): Allan and I, Paula and Earl, Dick and Marilyn, John and Jan, Lloyd and Rosalie, Barb and Lars, Beverly and Roy -- all Midwestern folks.

After another lunch of delicious homemade soup and sandwiches, this time at Rika's Roadhouse, we tried on fur jackets and vests made from authentic Alaskan animals.  I bought an authentic $52 pair of earmuffs  to wear at Victoria's annual Ice Fishing Contest each February, but not the fancy hats and jackets that I tried on.

Pioneers once depended on various roadhouses as they traversed the northern frontier.  They were places to eat, drink, sleep, buy general goods, or just escape the wilderness for a few hours.  Rika's was built in 1909 by John Hajdukovitch who sold it to Rika Wallen in 1923.  The building was restored by the State in 1986.

As we boarded the motor coach, we were entertained once again by Colleen's taped music, "North to Alaska."

At North Pole, Alaska, we found Santa Claus visiting with children and parents alike.  We also saw his reindeer and learned that Rudolph, as well as Donner and Vixen and Blitzen and all the others, were female reindeer.  Both sexes sport antlers, but males lose theirs before Christmas while females don't lose theirs until spring.  Do the math. 

We arrived in Fairbanks around 5 p.m. on Wednesday, July 23rd, and parked our stuff at the River's Edge Resort, a delightful neighborhood of "individual homes" on "neighborhood streets."  All of us seven couples on the Anderson House Tours stayed in our own separate cottages.  In broad and bright daylight of the evening, we then partook of a delicious Outdoor Salmon Bake that included halibut and cod, all you can eat, and then headed for more live entertainment.

We had front row seats at the excellent "Golden Heart Review" about the origins of Fairbanks, so named because of the gold rush being in the heart of the state.

We were told the people of Fairbanks were unsophisticated, and that we might guess it because their socks don't match.  But their flowers were beautiful as you can see.

On Thursday, July 24th, we visited historic Gold Dredge #8 at Fairbanks where Allan and I together mined almost $10 in pure gold.  All of us found gold in "them thar hills" after learning there's a trick to panning.  Gold is heavier than anything else in the slush so it sifts down into the dip of the pan.

Located in the Tanana Valley, this vessel moved a distance of 4.5 miles as it dredged for gold during its 32 years of operation, leaving behind a trail of rock debris.  It required massive amounts of water, electricity, and workers to operate successfully.  We also learned that Gold Dredge #8 is an artifact from the pre-World War II boom period in Alaska gold mining.  It was declared a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1986.

Lunch was served family style at the original mining camp dining hall where Dredge workers ate their meals.  It consisted of plentiful and delicious Miner's Beef Stew, a tasty blueberry crunch cake for dessert, and iced tea.  Many of us took seconds and thirds.  Mmmmm.

Our riverboat ride on a classic sternwheeler carried us, and dozens of other passengers from around the world, up and down the Chena and Tanana Rivers.  It was peaceful, pretty, and prehistoric as we went ashore to visit a reproduction of an Athabascan native village.  We also had many Alaskan sightings from the boat.  For example

Float and ski planes are common in this territory.  We watched them take off and land on very short rugged runways.

We viewed training grounds for huskies that run in the famous Iditarod races and watched them pull four-wheelers for fun and exercise.

This river contraption once caught tons of salmon as it went round and round itself, scooping in and out of the water.  An Alaskan lady (in blue) demonstrated how to clean and get the salmon ready for smoking.  River waters are gray because of the color of the natural occurring soils.

The next morning, after a tasty light dinner of tomatoes/bruschetta/bread/pesto, we caught a ride from Fairbanks to Denali on the "McKinley Explorer."  It was a peaceful and picturesqure four-hour train ride to Denali National Park and Mount McKinley, the highest mountain on the North American continent.  The slow and silent start led to an exciting and breathtaking conclusion as our train wound through mountain tunnels, narrow mountain ledges, and awesome views of whitewater rafters.

Breakfast in the dining car was an elegant morning affair.

Views from the train continued to be astounding in every dent and detail.

From our panoramic perch we waved to adventurers on the rambunctious rivers below us and then caught our own barreling breath as we burrowed into mountainous tunnels

and emerged from the train around noon to embark on another mode of transportation ...

We might have called it "Tripping on the Tundra" for there cannot be more uneven and scalloped earth anywhere else in the whole wide world.  It was Friday, July 25th, at Denali National Park.

Allan likes horses because they remind him of his childhood on the farm and riding out to the pasture to bring in the cows

John doesn't like horses but he gallantly sang Gene Autry and Roy Rogers songs for the entire two hours to himself

Lloyd prefers tennis.

Dick prefers golf.

The cold mountain air outside the bus and our steamy breaths inside the bus kept the windows constantly fogged over so we learned to keep them open a bit. Our bus driver went on and on about all the different kinds and colors of buses that the park uses to move visitors.

We participated in roadaside stops and ate lots of homemade chocolate chips cookies and enjoyed sightings galore of many native Alaskan animals including bear, moose, caribou, and wolves.  We only got one clear and very short view of Mount McKinley on this longest bus ride in the whole wide world on roads that were too close to the edges of the mountains and where we experienced "steep" in some very steep ways.

At our destination on this Denali National Park bus tour, we could pan for more gold, learn more about the Iditarod huskies, or sit by the fire before we headed back to dinner at the McKinley House.

We were astounded when our bus finally landed that evening at the same point at which we began 14 hours earlier, only to witness the most spectacular close-up window view of wildlife that we had to date.  'Twas a moose and her calves that we saw in the city within a few inches of our very own bus!

After one week our Alaska adventure was only half done.  We had witnessed and experienced great and awesome wonders, and yet the best was yet to come as we prepared to board a luxury cruise liner that would take us from the Alaskan Gulf port of Seward south to Vancouver.   Click here to continue.

Not the End

Love, Sue