Category Alaska

The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward

Horned Puffin

Tufted Puffin

Pretty sure this is a female harlequin duck, but you can call her Adorabill

Common Murre

Common Murre

Rhinoceros Auklet

I tend to like aquariums best when their focus is local, and thus, I loved the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. From their local bird aviary to their efforts to ensure that humans don’t bring rats to Alaskan islands where they are not native (and thus devastate native bird populations) to the effects the Exxon Valdez oil spill had (and still has) on native wildlife populations, the Alaska SeaLife Center has its view firmly centered on Alaska.

I was shocked to learn that as of 2014, some 21,000 gallons of oil from that 1989 spill still remains on beaches and that ExxonMobil fought the government’s claim for 92 million dollars for restoration for twenty five years, finally weaseling out of it in 2015 when the government dropped their claim. What they did to this area was appalling, they did just enough “clean up” so that people like me assumed it was taken care of and forgot about it, and then used their vast economic resources to litigate into infinity to avoid taking culpability. I’ve since read an article that claims that true cleanup and recovery is essentially a pipe dream–the oil remains in some form or another, the cleaned wildlife rarely goes on to live a healthy breeding life (many never breed again), and thus these companies must properly face the risk of spills with multi-billion dollar bonds up front. I’m in full agreement on that last point, and furthermore, I’m working to reduce my individual dependence on oil and fossil fuels. I’m as willing to watch these companies go extinct as they are to sit there and do nothing when oil from their tanker coats 40% of an endangered species’ remaining population. I hope to see their demise in my lifetime. If not now, when?

Driving the Seward Highway

I’d driven the first stretch of the Seward highway on my excursion to Seven Glaciers, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to drive it again the following day on my impromptu road trip to Seward. The views are absolutely stunning–the Seward highway hugs the winding curves of the Turnagain Arm coastline, each curve revealing a new postcard-worthy photo opportunity. Scores of cars lined the numerous pull-out locations, each person striving to commit this rugged beauty to memory.

Each new part of the road was simply achingly beautiful. Roadside jerky stands suddenly looked majestic with snowcapped mountains rising behind them into low clouds. The same goes for a collapsed barn and the knife shop with the Paul Bunyon size knife planted into the ground out front. Waters sparkled impossibly turquoise from glacial sediments. It was like driving in a centerfold in National Geographic magazine that kept unfolding.

I was excited to see spiky purple lupines studding the sides of the road, and eventually I found a pull off spot where I could examine them more closely and take a few landscape photos. Never have I regretted my lack of photographic skill more than in Alaska. I could only capture a poor shadow of the sweeping vistas, the natural beauty there is simply unbelievable. 

That’s entirely too close, zoom out.

Not far enough, zoom out.

Aaaaah, that’s better.

At the end of the Seward highway lies Seward itself, a small port town of just under three thousand residents. For comparison, Seattle’s football stadium holds some sixty seven thousand. It seemed evident upon visiting that the main industries are fishing, tourism, and tourism fishing, which is when salty sea captains compete to reel in the whopper with the biggest wallet, tales of which will be told beside a roaring fire over pints.

We wandered into some shops, but neither of us saw anything we needed. There was a shop called Mermaid Co that was super cute, though, and if I’d browsed there longer, I probably would have bought something. If I don’t object to the price and I sort of like it, sometimes I will buy something just because I have held it long enough that it feels like it’s mine. I have bought a shirt because it circled the whole of Target with me in the cart twice and I couldn’t leave it behind, now that we had the survivor’s bond and all. This is why the prospect of entering a car dealership is singularly horrifying to me, as I don’t know how many minutes it will take for my brain to accept that my butt has sat in the driver’s seat long enough for me to feel a sense of obligation to buy it–after all, I’ve ground my butt into it, it’s only polite. Anyhow, Jason dragged me out by the arm just in time as I was evaluating some sort of decorative buoy.

The only thing I can tell you about this dog is that he’s unhappy about whatever’s going on in front of his nose.

We ended up stopping into the aquarium (more on that later) and buying some coffee and chocolates from Sweet Darlings (a shop visited by the Obamas on their trip to Seward in 2015). We picnicked in the car,  looking out on the steely waters of Resurrection Bay and gnawing on the leftover pork chop from our previous night’s dinner with a side of flaming hot cheetos picked up from a gas station. That’s all fine dining is ever missing, really, the spicy cheese note. It was particularly fun to eat those notoriously red treats and a pork chop with my bare hands in a brand new car that wasn’t mine, full of self satisfaction from a successful adventure. Every decision I’d made led to this greasy, pork choppy moment, in this brand new car, with this amazing view, with my favorite person, and it was perfect in both its deliciousness and ridiculousness. 

On our way back to Anchorage, I had to stop for photos with this giant eagle because, well, of course I did. If they carve it, I will come. If it’s not too far out of the way.

 

And then, just beyond the eagle, I spotted a moose eating in a field. I set up the moose alarm code we’d established earlier. “MOOSE! MOOSE! MOOOOOOOOOSE!”, the two short blasts and one long indicating in primitive moorse code that the moose is female, on the right, and there appears to be parking available. Jason dutifully pulled over and we dashed to the viewing platform. There she was, all knobs and bumps and awkward proportions, picking her way through the field. I still haven’t managed to get that toddler size camera lens I yearned for in San Juan and briefly lamented my inability to see her very well with my camera or with my eyes, when I came up with the idea of mashing the binoculars up to my camera lens and seeing if that brought the moose any closer. Surprisingly, it sort of worked! 

 

This mini trip really cemented in me the desire to come back to Alaska and see more of the interior of the state, maybe after I’ve upped my photography skills. Or maybe, just maybe, practicing in Alaska is the only way for me to get good at photographing Alaska. There’s really only one way to find out.

Baked Alyeska: Seven Glaciers Restaurant

Occasionally while on a trip, I will forget where I am. It happens in museums most frequently, it’s as though in the process of taking in new information and linking it to things I already knew, some other recent stuff has to be shoved out temporarily. Goodbye, plane ride! Goodbye name of the street my airbnb is on! Goodbye, gas station sandwich! The important stuff comes back, such as if I’d already thought of a good joke to tell about the sandwich (because what is writing and specifically blogging but constantly immediately acknowledging to yourself how clever you are and making a note to tell everyone about it later?). At least, I think the important stuff comes back later. How would I know if it didn’t? I’m sure this spacial forgetfulness also has to do with subject matter as well–if you’re in a museum display of dinosaurs, it doesn’t really matter whether that display is in Colorado or Wisconsin or Utah. You could, in essence, be anywhere looking at dinosaurs. 

Alaska doesn’t ever let visitors forget that they are in Alaska. You wake up in the morning and open your curtains and a mountain range that screams Alaska slaps you in the face. Maybe when you’re walking to continental breakfast in the morning, there will be a musician in the lobby playing the 2013 smash hit “Let it go” from the movie Frozen, and even though you’ve never asked anybody or done even a second of preliminary research, you know in your heart it’s because all of Alaska, the frozen state, loves Frozen more than anywhere else. Also because without a gold rush, trends can take a little longer getting up there. Either way, ALASKA. From there, you could have lunch at a pub called Moose Tooth. Alaska.  Maybe at some point in the car, a moose will just amble across the street directly in front of your hood and into the woods and you’ll hiss “get the camera get the camera GET THE CAMER–goddamnit”. Alaska.  A shop isn’t a shop in Alaska if it doesn’t have a stuffed bear looming somewhere. Neither is a hotel lobby. I haven’t checked and thus have no basis on which to claim this but I feel almost certain that in any Alaska dinosaur museum, there will also be a bear. Potentially fighting the dinosaur. No matter what, you will at all times know that you’re currently in Alaska.

I definitely didn’t forget that I was in Alaska at any point during my drive to or time at the Alyeska resort, what with the aforementioned moose road incident, the mini museum in the lobby of the Alyeska, and its giant grizzly statue staring menacingly at me through the window. The one time, the sole time I forgot was when I was browsing in the Alyeska shop, and one of the shopkeepers half shrieked “Ewww! A mosquito!”. I kept my mirth to myself, but on the inside, I thought it a severe overreaction to a minor pest. After all, I grew up in Wisconsin, right? Where we grow ’em so big the locals joke about them being the state bird? Pfft, I could defend against them in a dead sleep. They’re annoying, but not a big deal. 

We made our purchases from this young woman ten minutes later (a button up shirt for Jason and some Alaskan unguents for my face), and she brought the mosquito incident up, not because she was embarrassed and wanted to explain the earlier shriek, I think, but because a mosquito biting her head was extraordinarily noteworthy. “All this over a mosquito? Do they not have Game of Thrones?” I wondered. Later, while sipping some cold beverages and waiting for the tram, we started poking one another and whispering “EW! A mosquito!” giggling maniacally. Then one drifted by. Or, rather, we drifted, shocked, in the wake of its passage, the slow, meaty flap of its wing slapping at the air, demanding to be borne upward, and physics too frightened not to comply. An Alaskan mosquito can be properly described as “husky”, as in, an average one could carry away and fully drain a husky child, leaving only a husky husk. Alaska.

Properly chastised for our ignorant mockeries, we rode the tram to the top of the mountain to have dinner at Seven Glaciers. What can I say? I like eating on mountains when the option is available.  Alaska had its stamp all over this restaurant as well–Alaskan crabs, halibut that was caught that morning on the restaurant’s proverbial doorstep, incorporating local flavors like birch syrup. We ordered half the menu and ate until we were fit to burst.  During the course of the courses, our server mentioned that today had been a particularly good day, in that she’d seen a bear crossing the road that morning. I don’t think it had occurred to me until that point that it’s possible that every single Alaskan has a bear story. I deeply regret my missed opportunities for bear-related lines of questioning up until that point, but I hope to never miss another, and, in fact, started almost immediately making up for lost time.

My server’s other bear story was an older tale involving the restaurant itself, and the time an intrepid bear broke in, ate pounds of butter, and was caught in a butter coma. By viewing security footage, they were able to determine that in order to get inside, the bear had to stand up on her back legs and shimmy sideways down a hallway, culminating with an “I’m a little teapot” side crunch to leverage the door handle. Authorities were able to get the bear out and away, but evidently a bear who has discovered the wonders of butter is difficult to dissuade.  If a bear took a liking to my house enough to break inside, I would just go ahead and deed the house to the bear, there’s no feeling safe in there in your underwear ever again.

We ended up bringing back a goodly portion of our entrees back with us down the mountain, eyes peeled for hungry bears and mosquitoes alike. The doorman didn’t have a bear story.

Spotted on the Roadside: The World’s Largest Chocolate Fall

Not to be confused, of course, with the “World’s Largest Continuous Chocolate Fountain“. I can play this game, too: I’ve got the world’s most widely read mega niche blog written by someone in my neighborhood. Impressive, no?

This neon sign is like one of those magic eye paintings, if you blur your vision just so, the waterfall turns into something much dirtier. As I entered the place, I realized that the chocolate fountain sign could just be a trap set by a clever polar bear to lure in easily-mauled tourists. 

Or, you know, they could have an actual chocolate fountain. It still doesn’t seem nearly as large as the Guinness-certified world’s tallest chocolate fountain, but maybe this one has a larger volume or it’s distinguished in some other small way or maybe it’s a way for a candy store to lure in tourists and their easily-mauled wallets. I don’t know, because if there’s one thing that’s consistent about all of these fountains, it’s that they never let me in there with both hands to take measurements and do chocolate science.

While I was there, I picked up a number of chocolates with jelly centers made from various Alaskan wild berries–salmonberry, fireweed, mossberries, etc, as well as some birch syrup. That’s right, maple isn’t the only sweet tree gunk game in town. The reason you may not have heard of birch syrup is that it takes many, many more liters of sap to make birch syrup than it does maple, so it’s considerably more rare and correspondingly expensive. The flavor is also strikingly different from maple syrup, with a dark (almost burnt) caramel taste, but slightly more complex and woodsy. It’s a deeply interesting flavor, and I’ve been having lots of fun incorporating it into various dishes–for example, for Halloween this year, I used birch syrup as a flavoring agent in a cheesecake. My original idea was to use it in the crust, but because birch syrup is primarily composed of fructose, whereas the most prevalent sugar in maple syrup is sucrose,  I was concerned it would encourage the crust to hold too much moisture and come off as soggy. Although it was more subtle in the cheesecake than I would have ultimately preferred, I was encouraged by the results, and I have enough left over to continue some new lines of experimenation. It’s also fantastic on coconut pancakes.

The store also had this sort of funny, sort of creepy painting of bears dancing, except for the one on the right, who looks like he’s emulating Louis C.K. 

Then there’s this deserted bus across the street that screams “danger” to any person with sense, the sort of bus you’d journey off in toward your own murder or a horrible picnic with the aforementioned creepy bears. No, thank you!

 

Spotted on Juneau St in Anchorage, AK

Next stop, Alaska!

I had been itching to visit Alaska for years. In high school, we read James A. Michener’s Alaska, learning about the northernmost frontier state’s wild history: adventure, betrayal, giant bears, it had everything. I could hardly be described as an outdoorswoman (frankly, it would be a stretch to call me an “outofbedwoman”) but I still wanted to see the state’s rugged beauty for myself. So when a flight deal for a weekend getaway too good to miss appeared in my inbox, I smashed the buy button without any hesitation whatsoever–I still would like to road trip up through Canada into Alaska someday, but in the meanwhile, this was an opportunity for a small taste of what this giant state has to offer.

As it was such a short trip, I was leery of booking too many things to do–not because tour activities are shockingly expensive and I’m cheap (though they are and I am, I was excited about the idea of riding a dog sled on a glacier until I saw it cost five times what my round trip flight cost and then I fairly well gagged) but because spending my trip going from scheduled activity to scheduled activity didn’t seem in the spirit of Alaskan adventure. So bright and early in the morning, I flung open my blackout curtains and stepped outside to see what Alaska had to show me.

First, I saw some pretty explicit instructions about where my urine was unwanted, which, frankly, raises far too many unanswerable questions for me. Was it happening so often that they needed an edict? If so, why and what is the lure to that specific spot? Is there some sort of Tinkle Bandit on the loose in Anchorage? Or was it just preventative in case someone started whizzing willy-nilly all over various walls and structures and the building owners are only particular about that one area? Who will penetrate these ammonia mysteries for me? Is this yellow journalism?

Jason and I wandered the streets, browsing shops, buying fine art, though in general, neither of us had much use for bone knives, animal pelts, or silver coins struck with the face of Sarah Palin. I might have made an exception on that last if there was a little speech bubble coming out of her mouth that said “I can see Russia from my house!” but sadly, they were not catering to people like me, which is actually good, because if they did they’d probably go out of business. 

Of course I rubbed the bear’s tummy, who am I to turn down some good luck or free germs?

l-r: Raven Stealing the Moon and Stars, (smug) Eagle and Giant Clam

After I’d had enough shopping, we found ourselves outside of Pablo’s Bicycle Rentals and decided to rent a couple of cruisers and hit the trail. They had a surprising variety of bikes, and part of me really, really wanted to try out one of the electric bikes, but for some reason, I’m reticent to let people know in person just how very little muscle tone I have, whereas I’m just fine blasting that information all over the internet. What I’m saying is, Hannibal Lecter might be annoyed at carving off my fat cap, but he’d be thrilled by my overall tenderness. You could cut me with a spoon. Not a grapefruit spoon, a wooden one. Anyway, I wasn’t about to admit that to Pablo or his representative. Only you, my pets. Only you.

The Tony Knowles coastal trail runs along the Cook inlet for eleven miles, and is supposedly an excellent place to see wildlife, including moose and bear. The person who rented us the bikes quickly explained what to do if we saw either, but I’m actually glad we didn’t end up startling any wildlife, as I’m certain any knowledge of what to do when I encountered a bear would fly out of my head the second I was actually encountering a bear. What I did encounter were a number of other people scattered along the trail, and almost every single one of them smiled and said hello. As a Seattleite (or as close as I’m ever going to get), this was shocking to me. People do not greet one another here. Neighbors walking past one another on their way to/from the mailbox will suddenly both find some interesting point in the distance to stare at fixedly, or will hurriedly pull out their phones and pretend they have urgent text message business to attend to only to quickly slip it back in their pocket when the danger period of potential human interaction has passed. Smiling? Saying hello? Eye contact? Where am I, 1986?

I saw a seagull strutting out there like he knew he was a very important bird, indeed, and it filled me with an inexplicable joy.

This is the first magpie I’ve ever seen, and I was probably more thrilled than any non-elderly person should be, but I couldn’t help myself. It was just gorgeous, its feathers flashing iridescent and blue, its  squeaky little noises. It’s backit here, so you’ll have to take my word for it. When I first looked them up and read they were also in Washington/Oregon/California, I was surprised I hadn’t seen one before, and then I looked at their range map and realized they only live in a whole swath of the States I haven’t spent much time in.

Do you think the moose take the suggestion to slow down? I’m not very familiar with their general lawabidingness so as to hazard a guess, and the people at the bike shop didn’t really address that point.

Other than the pretty gnarly-on-a-bike-especially-if-you’re-not-fully-comfortable-on-a-bike hill between Pablo’s Bikes and Elderberry Park, the coastal trail was fairly easy even for someone as non-exercisey as myself. No, I didn’t bike the whole thing, but I was out there for a few hours and had an excellent time, aided by the aforementioned lack of bears. On our way back to the hotel, we grabbed lunch and swung into the Qiviut Shop, where they sell musk ox yarn goods, which is claimed to be warmer than wool and softer than cashmere. I touched their little sample and it was wonderfully soft, but I didn’t inquire as to their cost as they were far too fine for someone like me who tends to take her scarf off, ball it up, and throw it up onto a closet shelf, potentially to never be seen again.

Man, this guy’s work is everywhere. I wonder if a coastal city doesn’t feel it’s “made it” until they have a Wyland?

There’s just something about this Mr. Prime Beef van that’s deeply unsettling. It’s not just the bloody, meaty skull, it’s the way the i gives said bloody, meaty skull an eyeball that stares at you in agony. Something like that.

Early summer blossoms? Goddamn have I been sitting on this post for a long time! Here’s a current photo of Alaska for comparison:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I’ll save my Canada-Alaska road trip for the summer, my years in Washington have made me too weak for most kinds of snow-based adventure, much less an Alaskan snow-based adventure.