Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

Remember that trip I took to Alaska? Because I barely do.

In May I took a trip with my parents to Alaska, making grand promises as I left to write about our adventures as soon as I got home. June came and went with my Alaska blogging output totaling exactly one post (two if you count the rant about my miserable trip home, thanks to United Airlines). July and August found me immersed in book editing, wedding officiating, and pseudo-parenting. You know, your standard summertime activities.

Late September landed me and my friend Philippa in Los Angeles to try to learn a thing or two about podcasting, and then suddenly November was upon us. Since National Blog Posting Month always makes me desperate for content, now seems like the perfect time to recap the trip, based on my notes and increasingly sketchy recollection.

My parents and I spent the first day of our trip in Anchorage, getting acclimated.  The next morning, the three of us boarded a bus bound for Kenai Fjords National Park to check out whales, glaciers, and other natural wonders. I’m not necessarily tour bus people; however, I understand that my parents, now in their early seventies, spent years schlepping me and my siblings around and are happy to let someone else do the driving. But I don’t think any of us expected our driver for hire to come right out of Mom and Dad’s demographic. This lent direct, if unwelcome, proof that drivers, as they age, really do gravitate towards vehicles that combine maximum size with minimum visibility.

Nevertheless, we arrived in Seward safe and sound three hours later and prepared to board a medium-sized boat captained by the spitting image of John Candy. I half-expected him to say, “Sorry folks, park’s closed. Moose out front shoulda told ya.”

As it turns out, we did not see any moose. But we did lay our eyes on plenty of sea otter, thanks to John Candy’s expert guidance. He also taught us to watch for the little geysers of water –“blows”–that signal the presence of a whale. As we made our way to a glacier we spotted a few blows off in the distance but no whales. We forgot about the whales once we got close enough to the glacier to see and hear it drop huge chunks of ice into the water in a process known as “calving.” I could have listened to that all day. But we had to turn back. We were escorted in grand style by a school of Dall’s porpoises-– a species found only in the North Pacific–zipping in and out of the water alongside our boat until our pace bored them. Then we passed a rock where a large group of harbor seals and sea lions lazed in the sun like surf bums.

We’d seen some amazing sights, but still no whales up close, and we were almost back at the port. My parents and I were resigning ourselves to a twinge of disappointment when the captain cut off the engine. He spoke in a low urgent voice and told us to hurry to the port side. There, three orca whales were surfacing at regular intervals, the water around them tinged with red. Orca whales are notorious loners and can be difficult to spot, except when they feel the need to show off after an exceptional kill. I couldn’t help but wonder whether one of those sea lions we saw had chosen a very bad time to take a dip.

We reflected on what a fun, exhilarating and exciting day we’d had as we boarded the bus, not realizing that more excitement was ahead. Our bus driver had picked up a trainee who, by the sounds of things, was both dyslexic and visually impaired. We tried not to be concerned when we heard him say, “Your right hand. Your other right hand. Nope, still not the right right hand,” and the trainee respond with, “I can’t see what you’re talking about.”

I closed my eyes, leaned my head back on the seat, and tried to picture a less traumatic scene, like those feasting Orcas.

This glacier is actively calving, or as actively as glaciers do anything.

This glacier is actively calving (as actively as glaciers do anything, that is).

Anchorage: You Could Do Worse

Alaska is wild, beautiful, vast and…really far away.

Getting to Anchorage, the starting point for my and my parents’  adventures in Alaska, required about nine hours of air travel.  We flew on United, which regular readers know is my very favorite carrier.

If you haven’t haven’t had the pleasure of flying United in a while, you might not know that it has totally revamped its in-flight entertainment.  Gone are the days when you had to spend a long flight watching some crummy movie you’d never waste good money to see in a theater.  Now you can waste perfectly good money to watch crummy programming you’d never pay to see at home.

This win-win was made possible by United’s recent partnership with DirecTV, allowing airborne consumers to watch TV shows live via satellite, a content delivery system broadband is pushing towards  obsolescence.  With this kind of forward thinking, it’s just a matter of time before United equips each seat with its own VHS player.

My parents and I forked over $7 each for in-flight entertainment privileges anyway, knowing that we faced a six and a half hour flight from Chicago to Anchorage. Only after the programming had begun did United mention in passing that coverage might be interrupted once we left the U.S., a useful thing to know when you’ll be spending the majority of your flight passing through Canadian airspace. Still, at least we got to Anchorage on time, if thoroughly bored.

We arrived at Pork Barrel International, er, Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage late on the evening of May 18 and cabbed straight to the Hotel Captain Cook, our home for the next two nights.  I had not researched the property ahead of time, but based solely on its stratospheric rates, I felt certain a vision of luxury awaited.

We pulled up to a complex consisting of three stark towers whose exteriors were mustard-colored with brown trim.  The sight did not evoke luxury so much as the color scheme in my parents’ kitchen, cerca 1975.

The Captain was built in 1965 and may well have set the standard for grandeur in its day, but since the ‘60s were days when a big chunk of the population stopped shaving and otherwise got a bit lax about hygiene, the grandeur bar was set a little low.  Today, the Captain still proclaims itself  Anchorage’s only “true luxury hotel,” which sounds better than “Acnhorage’s Crown Jewel of  Institutional Architecture.”  It’s a nice enough place on the inside, don’t get me wrong, but if that’s true luxury, I think I’ll stick with the fake kind.

Over breakfast the next morning, my parents and I traded sections of the Anchorage Daily News.  Whenever I go to a new city, I pick up the local paper because I feel like it gives me a window into the place and its people. I perused that day’s edition and found an article about how to handle a bear encounter. (Bears, moose and other wildlife do sometimes take to the streets in Anchorage.)

I read aloud the first piece of advice: “Spot the bear first.”

“Whoa, that’s deep,” said my mother.

The article did not elaborate on how one might go about spotting the bear first, so the second and final tip should have been: “Notify next of kin.”  But instead of relaying any truly useful advice, the author blathered on about running, making noise, and doing all sorts of things that wouldn’t stand a chance against the simple force of Darwinism.

Confident that we were as well-equipped to encounter a bear as we would be to gold medal in figure skating, my parents and I set about exploring Anchorage. Tourists don’t usually linger in Anchorage and instead use it as a jumping off point for excursions to Alaska’s more famous attractions.  At one time, the city’s official motto was “The Air Crossroads of the World,” which narrowly edged out “Just Passing Through” in a slogan-off.

The city is home to roughly 300,000 Alaskans, which represents more than 40% of the state’s total population.  I suspect it also boasts the nation’s highest number of moose per capita.

Anchorage might not offer jaw-dropping views when compared to places like Denali, but the city’s natural scenery still makes for some very happy wandering.  Six mountain ranges are visible from town, and an eleven-mile coastal trail gives walkers and runners a chance to enjoy both forest and ocean.  On a good day, you can even see Denali off in the distance.

Though our five mile journey on foot was nowhere near as ambitious as James Cook’s exploration of the Alaskan coast in 1778, it still left us pretty tired and hungry.  With the aid of Yelp– a tool I use far more expertly than a compass–we discovered Sack’s Cafe, an outstanding little restaurant I’d be thrilled to see in D.C.

We left Sack’s at 9:30 p.m. and headed to the Hotel Captain Cook, our way lit by a bright sun that wouldn’t think about setting for at least another hour.

The three of us agreed that our day in pretty and unassuming Anchorage had been outstanding by any standard, and especially so if measured by the number of bear encounters.

Next up: The Three Moosketeers Take on the Kenai Fjords!

The Hotel Captain Cook, in all its mustard and brown glory.