Jan Wertz's Trip Report

(May 1998)

by Jan Wertz

I had heard so many things about Alaska. My folks had been on and enjoyed cruises along the Inside Passage. I had heard on the news about the Pipeline, and about the wild country of the Alaskan interior. Books by Jack London about the Yukon- which is actually in Canada- and accounts written by Iditarod mushers described heroic struggles against implacable cold. I had heard so much, but had yet to see for myself. I had to go!! And so, with a friend from work, passage was booked for an Alaskan cruise. Oddly for a cruise, it was to begin with a train trip from Anchorage to Denali. Bags packed and camera at the ready, we caught our plane.

Some hours later, the view out the airplane window changed. In place of greening trees and freshly plowed fields, snow covered mountains raked the sky. Glaciers carving their valley floors could be seen, slowly flowing rivers of snow packed ice- their currents marked by pressure ridges and patterns of cracks. Some of them looked like a gigantic tractor had been driven along them leaving tire track patterns in the snow. Occasional frozen lakes could be seen. No roads. No towns. The Ice Age frozen in time.

Early the next morning, hand luggage in tow, we boarded our train. The cars our cruise line owns have glassed bubble tops. But the best view was from the vestibule in between cars. The landscape started out as stark black and white- snow and rock with just a few leaf bare trees and shrubs. Gradually it thawed out, although remaining bare and brown. The tour guides told us that homesteaders could board the train by flagging it down and that there was always room for these hardy folks in the Alaska Railroad cars at the front of the train. We were also told that moose occasionally view trains as intruders in their territory and will occasionally challenge the train's right to be there with a head-on confrontation. The moose always loses, but evidently word of this has not cut down on the number of the big deer willing to try. As the land thawed out, beaver dams could be seen, along with occasional moose (none challenged the train the days I rode on it) and mountain sheep.

Wertz photo #1Click on photos for larger size.Wertz photo #2

The train let us off in Denali. The little town just outside the park has just about anything a tourist could want. Junque (stuff and such with decor in mind) shops sold everything! T-shirts, jackets, postcards, jewelry, statuettes of the local wild animals, you name it, they had it! Does your computer need a moose pad? They've got it! Screensaver? OK. Choose between the Aurora Borealis, wild animals or mountain calendar art. I had come to see, not to shop- although I did that too. I bought a couple of murder mysteries by Alaskan authors. I can heartily recommend "Termination Dust" by Sue Henry and "Breakup!" a Kate Shugak mystery by Dana Stenbow.

On to Denali Park, by bus. A red fox trotted across the road in front of the bus. Ptarmigan males, bright red comb eyebrows flaring, called for a lady to love. Spruce grouse trotted along the paths when we got out to walk to the Origional Ranger Station. Caribou meandered in the distance, while willows decided spring had arrived and sent out fuzzy catkin buds. In the distance, clouds hid Denali Mountain from view, although some rather impressive peaks were in view. We would have liked to sign up for a paddle wheel steamer trip. However, an ice jam blocked us from going. If the jam were to burst while we were on the river, the steamboat might be in jeopardy. So, no river trip.

We signed up to tour the kennels of one of the leading Iditarod sled dog mushers, Jeff King. The road from the highway to his house is over a mile long. The dog kennels were full of sleek barking sled dogs. And, they do not all fit the popular idea of what a sled dog looks like. Far from looking like Siberian Huskies or Malamutes, these look like really varied mixtures. As Mr. King pointed out, any dog that pulls a sled and is of arctic breeding with a double coat- fluffy cottony undercoat and an outer coat of guard hair- are huskies. Handing the tourists in our bunch puppies to handle (socializing is a must for sled dogs who must travel through towns and be able to associate with strangers and dogs in various mushing competitions) the multi Iditarod winner explained about dogs, and all of the equipment needed for dog sled competitions. One of the dogs came galloping up to Jeff King, and launched herself at him, all in hope of being caught and held for a moment of individual attention. This was no reluctant dog who feared her master. Respect- yes. Fear-no. He talked to us for over an hour without repeating himself once, and then patiently answered any and all questions.

The next day, we were back on the train. This time we passed through the interior, past Elmendorf Air Force Base. Here the terrain is very flat . Then on to Fairbanks. Tried my luck at panning gold. I found an assayed value of $7.50 worth of grains of the precious metal. This necessitated purchasing a locket and chain to keep it in- cost $17.50. I'd say they do a fairly good job of panning the tourists for gold these days which is OK. I knew that before I went there. But now I can say I have panned for and found Alaskan gold, and I have the gold to prove it. The miner's stew was delicious! Then back onto the bus and the road trip to Seward where we met our cruise ship. The land tour portion of the trip was over. But I have great memories, and LOTS of pictures!


© 1998 Jan Wertz