Australia may have some of the world's most deadly insects, reptiles and ocean creatures. Oh, and jellyfish on the beach, and. Forget it! This blog is not about the antipodes. One recent trip took us far away from all this, up north, almost to the other end of the earth. Way out of our (dis)comfort zone, almost to the Arctic Circle (we're talking 60 degrees north) we were deposited in a potentially even more hostile environment. Here, we're talking sub-zero temperatures, ice ravines, avalanches, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, bear, moose, and mudflats that can suck you down. You have to be tough in Alaska, we were told, although to be fair we did it at the softer end, wimpily booking into a cosy B&B (The Copper Whale, highly recommended) on the edge of Anchorage's main city grid, and hiring a car from Hertz to get around.
Not for us would there be any crouching on a stool beside a hole cut into a frozen lake, rods at the ready to catch some giant halibut. Not for us trekking on snowshoes up a glacier. Nor were we enticed to strike out into the forest, even with a can of bear spray at the ready. I asked a friendly sheriff who was meeting-and-greeting at a special Native Heritage Mother's Day event (America does these things so well!) what bear spray contained. He umm-ed a little, but it seemed to be a mace-like, capsicum-spray-ish mixture which, supposedly, is aimed at sending a bear off sneezing and cross-eyed into the woods from which he had so recently lumbered. Figuring I'd be much happier with a mixture of tranquiliser dart and taser-like effects, we decided to pass on doing too much dallying around outdoors either. Anyway it was too cold.
We had arrived in Seward (which, after many variations I finally learned is pronounced SOO-erd - a rather unfortunate choice for such a delightful small town) on our cruise ship, Celebrity Millennium. Maximum temperature expected that day was 3C. Itineraries being what they are, we had no time to explore the bayside port town, and left immediately on a coach for Anchorage, three hours away by road. Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, population around 300,000, held our interest for several days. There's plenty to see by way of museums and souvenir shops, parks and a dinky tourist train. Almost levelled by a massive earthquake on Good Friday 1964, some of the resulting architecture and town planning has a random, slightly temporary look to it. And why wouldn't it?
On our cruise, we had skirted the chain of volcanic Aleutian Islands flung out into the Pacific as if discarded by North America and, sure enough, days after our return home, there was a big eruption on one of them. Two major tectonic plates colliding and reconciling below the ocean keep this area constantly on its toes - or its knees, depending on the ferocity of the event. But we liked the place. I have never been a fan of some of the US's glitzier cities, so Anchorage suited me just fine. The people were friendly (well, locals are the same everywhere, aren't they, if you think about it) and there was a frontier town feel to the place, underlined by the horizons of snow-capped mountains almost anywhere you looked. You just knew, without even consulting a map, that they stretched far beyond, almost forever - or at least until the Pole. On the edge of a still half-frozen lake near the airport, we encountered the lifeblood of the area.
Because the ground conditions are so often treacherous in winter (that's for around nine months of the year), almost everyone flies if they want to get somewhere. Huntin', shootin', and fishin' are a state past-time, and so what is simpler than to hop in your little plane which is often parked on the side of a lake beside its own little cabin just minutes from the town centre, and take off into the blue to catch your dinner? We saw hundreds of light aircraft beside the airfield, and even had to stop at traffic lights on one road so that a plane could slowly taxi across! But after a few days of sightseeing, shopping at the local weekend markets, and stuffing ourselves on some of the best seafood in the country, we needed to stretch our boundaries.
While we could walk to most places in the city from our B&B, other things definitely needed wheels to get to. Like the Native Heritage Center, where we watched native dancing and dipped into Inuit culture and history, or Seward where, this time, we strolled the main street, stopping for a very good coffee at Sea Bean Cafe, then inspected the boats in the harbour, and spent much longer than we thought we would at the SeaLife Center, the latter a fascinating insight into the local sea and birdlife, and environmentally challenging. Returning from Seward in the long almost-spring twilight, we put ourselves on high moose-alert. We had cheated a little a couple of days earlier at the amazing Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Girdwood, halfway to Anchorage.
Here there were moose and black bear, brown bear, bison, elks and dozens more species being faithfully preserved and bred, ready to be released back into the wilds. But while it gave us a chance to inspect a moose at close quarters, the zoo-like proximity didn't quite make us believe the sobering facts we had been told. These rather dopey-looking creatures have been known to use their huge antlers to scoop a human off his or her feet and then, once down, to stomp them to death with their sharp hooves. We were told a couple of people a year may suffer such a fate. Safely inside our little car, though, warm and speeding along the highway, we allowed ourselves a final wish to see one in the wild. And we did. Far away, sloshing through a marsh, we saw him chomping his dinner, blissfully unaware there were two potential 'stompees' downwind. Of course we photographed him as evidence. After all the moose is the state animal emblem and we felt Alaska expected that much of us.
©Sally Hammond 2013
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