All Aboard!

Whittier-Tunnel-01

My last post ended with the anticipation of the bus ride through the Whittier Tunnel, the only passageway between us and the Coral Princess. Like it or not, we had no choice but to go through it no matter how intimated we might feel. Sitting still as statues, the other passengers and I looked straight ahead throughout the entire two and one half miles. If anyone spoke at all, it was in whispered tones, but for the most part, we were quiet, our eyes straining for a glimpse of light at the end.

I almost laughed with relief when I finally saw the light.

shipinharbor

The bus emerged from the tunnel and took a curving road to the left. There she sat in the harbor, the Coral Princess. As the driver parked the bus, I looked to the mountains to my right and saw what appeared to be apartments. Later, the woman checked our passports told me that’s where most of the town’s residents resided. Most of the time, she said, that was about 200 people. Now, however, approximately 400 people lived there, many of whom would leave after the last tour of the season: ours.

The baggage handling was a snap and was efficiently taken care of by Princess employees. The passengers stood in line for about twenty minutes, and then we were out the door and walking up the gangplank. Once inside the ship, I noticed a man to our left taking pictures of all who came aboard, including us. We gave him tired smiles and then went in search of our room on the Baja Deck, Room 626.

Happy with our home for the next week, we went exploring and oohed and aahed every few minutes—er, seconds. There were several restaurants, a variety of stores, a casino, a theatre, a lounge, a bar, an outdoor movie screen on the top deck, hot tubs, a library, and plenty of other attractions. I knew right away that none of us would have occasion to say, “I’m bored.”

That evening, we had dinner in the Bayou Café, and our primary server was a delightful young woman from Macedonia. Pleasant and outgoing, her most frequent expression was an Italian one: “Mama Mia!” She and her two assistants made our first dining experience one to remember. Very attentive, they made certain everything was just right.

The menu was extensive, and although two of us ate salmon (after all, we were in Alaska), the others of our party sampled a variety of entrees. One of the men at our table enjoyed his shrimp cocktail so much that he ordered two. After all, he reasoned, we had paid for everything ahead of time. Not even the most disciplined among us could resist dessert. From tiramisu to shortbread and tarts to mousse, there was something delectable to suit even the pickiest of palates.

As we walked back to our cabins, we chatted about what the following day would bring. We knew we’d be at sea throughout the night, and much of our conversation revolved around the anticipation of that experience. About that time, we heard a loudspeaker reminding everyone to report to a “muster station” to learn what to do in case of an emergency.

The muster station experience brought reality home: You are traveling on a huge ship with hundreds of other people. Look around you! If something goes wrong, these are the people you’ll be sinking with!

On to Whittier

My last post about our Alaska cruise was about leaving Anchorage and heading for Whittier where we’d get on the Coral Princess. On the way, we stopped a a nature preserve and gazed at some magnificent animals.

Back to the trip.

We’d just left the nature preserve and were still oohing and aahing over the variety of animals we’d seen up close and personal. Moose, elk, reindeer, and grizzlies were walking around like they owned the place. The elk were such beautiful creatures, moving gracefully across the grassy expanse. And the reindeer and moose! How could they hold their heads so high with all that weight on the top? We saw a little porcupine too. I marveled at how the prickly spines grew right of his little body, just like hair. “All creatures great and small…..”

The weather was cold, yet perfect for the fall afternoon. We’d left Anchorage about 8:30 that morning and were scheduled to board the Princess Coral sometime that afternoon. None of us actually knew exactly where that was or when the “all aboard” would take place. We just knew it was soon, and it seemed to me that the whole bus was bristling with excitement and a touch of anxiety. Seven days on a ship? Were we ready?

The driver took us through some beautiful country, and I spied a couple of signs pointing toward the Portage Glacier. It would have been divine if we’d had time to visit the glacier that my daughter Carrie and some friends from South Carolina had visited nearly twenty years ago when we were in Anchorage for a Team-in-Training marathon. I recalled the quote, “Don’t be sad it’s over; just be glad it happened.” The memory of that cool morning (although it was June 20) would stay in my mind forever.

Suddenly the bus pulled off the road to the right so that we could get a good look at a mountain with a glacier. Many were content to sit tight in the bus, but Otis, Thomas, and I got off to get a better look. We simply could not resist walking through the open space between the evergreens. ‘Twas swell to feel the wind and stand as tall as humans could stand there in that majestic place. A glacier and a mountain and trees and a body of water!

Browning’s words, “God’s in His heaven. All’s right with the world” flashed through my mind as we sauntered down near the water. No matter where my life went after the trip, I’d always have this moment in nature with my sweet husband and one of our friends. Even they, tough nature guys, were affected by the magic.

We asked Thomas to snap our picture, and the image portrayed our feelings on the last stop before arriving at Whittier. Carpe diem!

We got back on the bus with our fellow passengers, and the driver informed us that we had to be at the tunnel by 1:30. The tunnel? What kind of tunnel was so special that you had to have an appointment? Here’s what kind: a 2.5 mile, one-way tunnel dynamited into being! Vehicles leaving Whittier began the trip through the tunnel at the top of each hour, and those going to Whittier went through on the half-hour. That’d be us.

It could have been my imagination, but it seemed to be that the chatter stopped, and for the most part, my traveling companions were all silent as they (we) considered what was ahead. We arrived at the tunnel, and I was surprised to see so many cars, trucks, and buses. Where did all those people come from? We took our place in the queue and listened to the driver prattle on as we waited our turn.

The half hour was upon us, and the bus inched forward.

Mountain, Rock, and Ridge

On the way into Denali National Park, the driver shared history of the area along with some fascinating facts about the people and terrain. Naturally, he talked a little about Mt. Denali and the recent name change, adding that the native Athabascans had always referred to it as Mt. Denali. He urged the passengers to look to the left for signs of the famous peak but cautioned us not to get our hopes up. Fog and distance were working against us.

Suddenly, the driver spotted a clear view of Denali on the horizon. From a distance, it looked like a dollop of cool whip, white and almost indistinguishable from the surrounding clouds. To our delight, he pulled the bus off the road and encouraged everyone to jump off for photo ops. Some people opted to stare from the bus windows, but Otis and I disembarked for a closer look and a photograph to commemorate the moment.

Our picture was fine, standard fare. I noticed others having pictures made on “the rock” and suggested that we take a moment to have ours made there too. The hubs was having nothing to do with such a foolish idea and repeated the words I’d heard every day all day long, “Come on. Let’s go, let’s go.”

A woman from California overheard this exchange and said, “Are you kidding me? You’re leaving without a picture on the rock? “

I shrugged, and she reminded me that I’d probably never pass that way again. “Get over there on that rock,” she said, “and say cheese.” So glad I listened to her and took her message seriously, not just to sit on the rock, but also to remember that we may “never pass this way again.”

Back on the bus, we traveled to Savage Cabin where we listened to a knowledgeable park ranger tell us about the cabin and surrounding area. After perhaps thirty minutes in the cabin vicinity, we departed for Primrose Ridge, an area in Denali National Park. The driver told us that Carol Reid was there that day and would be speaking to us on the ridge.

By this time we arrived at Primrose Ridge, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, we were getting a tad weary of getting on and off, on and off, the bus, but like good soldiers, we complied. None of us were prepared for the treat in store for us. A petite gray-hair native Athabascan woman stood on a slight incline ready to address us. Her hair flowing behind her in the slight breeze, she shared the history and tradtions of her people.

Until that afternoon, I hadn’t given much thought to the various tribes and their languages and traditions. Carol opened my eyes, not only to her own culture and background but to my own as well. I looked at her face and saw the features of her ancestors. She reminded us of the importance of knowing your family as a means of better understanding yourself.

After a serious and stirring presentation, Carol smiled broadly and sang out that she was the grandmother of “ten little Indian grandchildren.” Before we left the ridge, Carol said she hoped our paths would cross again and that she was not going to tell us goodbye.

She had cast a spell on all of us. Even the tough guys in the group were mesmerized by her words, gestures, and very essence. After a moment’s hesitation, I walked over and asked if I could hug her. She smiled as if to say, “Of course,” and I took her up on her inviting expression. I then told her that her words had touched my heart and asked if it would be okay to have a picture made with the three gals in our party.

We all walked quietly back to the bus, talking in low tones about our experience. I think Thomas spoke for all of us when he said that was the best presentation he’d heard since arriving in the 49th state.

Welcome to Nenana

“Let’s go, let’s go.” Those were the words I heard the morning of the 6th, the same words I’d heard every morning of our Alaskan adventure. Here’s something you need to know should you decide to go on a Princess cruise, part land/part sea: while on land, there’ll be places to go and things to do and see every day. And while that’s a good thing, some people can find it a bit tiring. Fortunately, bus and train rides offer opportunity to doze.

Back to the morning of the 6th. It was the day we were heading to Denali, and the very word conjured up cultural connotations. I was used to towns like Kershaw, Camden, and Sumter, and although they too have histories, I was so accustomed to their sounds and origins of these Southern places that I didn’t find them odd or novel.

Before day’s end, we get a peek of Mt. Denali, spend a sliver of time in a tiny town called Nenana, watch a film at a wilderness access center, listen to a park ranger talk about life in the wild as we stood outside the Savage Cabin, and meet Carol Reid on Primrose Ridge. Late in the day, we’d pull into the small town of Denali for an overnighter.

On the evening of the 5th, Thomas said he wanted to visit an Alaskan village, someplace where people really lived, someplace where there was no McDonald’s—just people living off the grid in “real life.” As he talked, I thought, “Me too.”

I wanted to see women strolling down a narrow street, a child or two in two, with a beautiful backdrop of taiga forest on an incline behind them. I wanted to see old cars and NO tour buses. I wanted to see a collection of buildings that would stay seared in my memory forever, a place where people lived and dreamed and loved and ached with desire and wonder.

There were no towns along the road to Denali, at least none that I could see, just miles and miles of breathtakingly beautiful scenery—a landscape “as old as the hills” (literally) and most of it untouched and unseen by human eyes. This was territory for the moose, the caribou, and the grizzly. At moments, I’d find myself becoming inured to the loveliness, and in then in an instant, I’d catch sight of a certain stand of trees or rock formation that would force a “Look at that!” from me.

On the morning of the 6th, Thomas got his wish. At some point, the driver pulled off the highway and drove down a narrow road lined with small homes. I gawked and then gulped. So this is what it’s like to live in a small Alaskan village away from Wal-Mart and The Fresh Market. Was there a school here? Where was it?

We were in Nenana, the first Iditarod checkpoint in 2003 and 2015.

We lumbered down off the bus and split up in different directions to take pictures, visit the gift shop, purchase snacks, and stretch our legs. I was captivated by the bridges, the railroad tracks that led out of town (a sure sign that there was life down the tracks), the gorgeous orange and yellow trees, a cemetery high on a hill, and the overall feel of the place. While Nenana was but a stopping point on the way to Denali, it was a welcome one, and I savored our half hour there.

Little did I know that the day would get better and better as it progressed.

Have you ever been to Nenana? Has there ever been a spot that cast a spell on you?

Striking It Rich at Gold Dredge 8

I’m wearing my gold-filled pendant on its delicate silver chain today. Yes, you read correctly—gold-filled pendant. There are flecks, not nuggets, in the tiny round pendant, but still, the jewelry is special because of the memories it conjures up, memories of a cool, overcast afternoon in the 49th state.

We’d spent the morning on the Chena River, and lunch behind us, we clambered aboard the tour bus to head towards our next excursion. Before the afternoon ended, we’d have walked beneath the Alaska Pipeline, also referred to as TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System), and panned for gold. The girls would be taking home some gold-filled treasures. When I say “girls,” I’m referring to pretty much every female on the excursion.

As soon as we disembarked and headed towards the Pipeline, we could see that the people already assembled were paying rapt attention to the speaker. Dressed in black from his hat to his boots, the presenter shared a number of facts with his listeners, including the tidbit that the Pipeline provides revenue to help operate schools and that Alaska citizens receive a check from its profits each year. Designed to move oil from Alaska’s north slope to Valdez, the 800-mile Pipeline is a marvel of construction.

Next we got on an open-sided train that was a replica of the Tanana Valley Railroad. While we waited for the train to get going, a musician entertained us by playing the guitar and playing “Ring of Fire.” Within a few moments, the train rolled down the tracks to Gold Dredge 8, a popular and historical attraction, where we learned how the dredge worked the gold fields. According to the literature, Gold Dredge 8 extracted millions of ounces of gold from the frozen Alaskan ground and today serves as a monument to the miners who built Fairbanks.

After a presentation on the history of Gold Dredge 8, we piled off the train and were handed small bags of what appeared to be dirt. Little did we know there would be actually smithereens of gold hidden in the dirt. Friendly employees clad in plaid shirts gave the gold diggers (us) a demonstration of exactly how to pan for gold by using the warm water in the troughs in front of us. After striking it rich, we deposited our tiny nuggets into a plastic receptacle and headed to the huge rustic building close by.

The building contained a number of gift shops and a jewelry kiosk (?) set up to measure our gold. Delighted to learn that we had enough specks to preserve in a pendant, most of the women walked over to one of the gift shops to check out our options. Choices included pendants and earrings of various sizes and designs. I chose a “plain Jane” version, but my traveling buddies got something a little more embellished.

While wandering in and out of the various shops, most people sipped on complimentary hot chocolate, coffee, or water as they munched on delicious freshly baked cookies. My personal favorite was chocolate oatmeal raisin.

Fortified by our snacks, we boarded the railway car and listened to a gentleman play the fiddle and sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Many of us joined in the singing, and I knew that I’d always recall that beautiful afternoon just “a singing” beside Gold Dredge 8. Seeing the staff lined up with smiles and goodbye waves added the perfect ending to the afternoon.

Back at the lodge, eight of us later met for salmon chowder, cheeseburgers, and meatloaf. To be honest, the food was mediocre to be so expensive. My chowder was thick, muddy, and lukewarm (even after it was reheated). My husband still talks about his $4.50 scoop of chocolate ice cream and is planning a trip to Cold Stone Creamery in Myrtle Beach ASAP.

Everyone hit the sack early that night, excited with the knowledge that we’d be heading to Denali the next morning.