After living in Alaska for a year (officially on the 7th), I am currently seeing Alaska the way most people do; I am a tourist! And I am loving it.
Today I learned that 500,000 people visit Denali National Park every summer and earlier I read (in some unremembered source) that 900,000 people visit Alaska every summer via cruise ship. You may think those numbers are outrageous, but I dare you to argue after you see Juneau on a sunny (or misty) day when five cruise ships are crammed in the Gastineau Channel. And yes, that is about 200,000 more tourists that visit annually on cruise ships than people who actually reside in the state of Alaska.
My travels have been made possible by my wonderful mother and father who came to visit me in Sitka and have allowed me to join in on the fun during the rest of their state-wide roamings. I won’t bore with too many details (and I don’t have pictures on the computer yet, so bear with me), but I will share some of the highlights.
There have been many “firsts” for me since my parents arrived in Sitka last week. For the first time I . . . 1) walked into the Russian Bishop’s House (though I’ve lived across the street from it all year), 2) walked into St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church, 3) visited the Alaska Raptor Center, 4) saw a bear in Sitka! 5) went to the very interesting and informative Sheldon Jackson Museum, and 6) rode the Alaska Marine Highway when I took the “fast ferry” from Sitka to Juneau, a short four hour trip on a sunny day (the first sunny day my parents experienced after a week in Southeast!). We joked all week that it was a good thing they came to visit so I could finally see the sights that Sitka has to offer! Shortly before we departed town, my mom managed to catch a glimpse of Mt. Edgecumbe, which had been hiding behind gray rain clouds all week, allowing her to officially cross off everything on her “to-do in Sitka” list!
My parents and I roamed around in Juneau this past weekend, doing everything on the list except the Mt. Roberts Tramway–again too cloudy–but we had no trouble visiting the JVs, seeing Mendenhall Glacier, driving out to the Shrine, and slurping up some samples at Alaskan Brewery. My dad headed back “down south,” aka: he returned to Seattle, while my mom and I flew to Fairbanks. With only a day in Fairbanks (which happened to be my birthday), we hopped on a very touristy boat ride down the Chena River and got to see Susan Butcher’s (Iditarod winner) dog kennel and demonstration. After a lovely birthday dinner on a porch overlooking the river, the next morning my mom and I hopped on the train chugging down the Alaska Railroad to Denali. We sat upstairs in the train cars with the full ceiling windows for optimal viewing, which kept us fully entertained as we headed south.
We arrived at tourist central, aka: Denali Station, where we were met by our rather subtle resort bus and driver to take us to Denali River Cabins. I only emphasis our humble bus and driver because we were not following a herd of hundreds in matching jackets to get on a massive coach bus painted with Princess, Holland-America, or Celebrity Cruise logos. And we most certainly were not staying at the “Princess Monstrosity Deluxe,” as my mom lovingly referred to the Princess Wilderness Lodge, wedged in between all the other resorts along “the Strip” or “Glitter Gulch,” as locals and guidebooks refer to the tourist trap highway running through the “town” of Denali outside the park entrance. A few more miles down the road from the park entrance and these luxury resorts, lies Denali River Cabins, a Native-owned and operated resort, where we are staying in a cute, stand-alone cabin along the river.
Staying just outside of a national park as a tourist gives me flashbacks to working in Grand Teton National Park at Jackson Lake Lodge, the largest resort found in Grand Teton. I feel somewhat strange as a tourist, rather than being on the working side of the travel industry, and as I walk around and see the seasonal employees that are my age and have the jobs I had at JLL, I feel like I should know them, their hang-outs, and the daily routine of work here. When I mentioned this to Braden the night we arrived here, he said, “Oh, so you’re around your people.” I let him know that I wasn’t sure they were my people, but I certainly felt like I must know some of them. Last night, my mom and I wandered into The Chubby Salmon for dinner where we were served by the bartender who, once again, looked like he must have been a co-worker from years past in Grand Teton. Casually chatting as he served us our dinner, we stumbled upon the discovery that he did, in fact, work at the exact same lodge as me, just four years before me. I have somehow found myself forever in the network of seasonal workers!
Besides flashbacks to summer jobs, I have had the chance to explore the BEAUTIFUL land of Denali National Park. Granted, I didn’t put on my backpack and travel on foot, but with my mom, I was able to take the 14-hour, 85-mile bus ride all the way to the end of the park road at the old mining town of Kantishna. We had an excellent bus driver/tour guide and within the first three minutes we had spotted a moose and ten minutes later we spotted a wolf. My first wild wolf sighting! The weather looked semi-hopeful as we turned the bends toward Denali and sure enough, the 20,320 foot peak began to loom bright white above the green brown hillsides along the road. Denali, aka: Mt. McKinley, is said to be visible only 15% of the time from the park road and when we reached Eielson Visitor Center, Denali dominated the landscape, but park rangers said it was the first time in three weeks the mountain had been completely visible. INCREDIBLE. We had a half-day of mountain views in the morning before the clouds covered the dramatic landscape. But the wildlife sightings continued all day with a total of three wolves spotted–one of which was chowing down on a dead caribou in the river, seven bears spotted–including a momma with two second-year cubs and another who had finished the wolf’s feast of the dead caribou in the river and was comfortably curled up asleep next to the remaining head and antlers. We also spotted live caribou, Dall sheep, ptarmigan, and, of course, we can’t forget the arctic ground squirrel! It was honestly an AWEsome day with so many unpredictable elements coming together to give us quite the show. Pictures to follow in a few days.
After strolling the visitor center and National Park campus buildings today, we are headed on the train to Anchorage tomorrow. There is still more exploration to be had in South Central (not to be confused with Southeast or the Interior where we have already been).
As my vacation would suggest, my year-long commitment with Jesuit Volunteer Corps: Northwest has concluded as of July 31. A few of my housemates have departed from Sitka and a few remain to enjoy the long summer days Alaska still has to offer for a few more weeks (as I sit at 63 degrees latitude, though cloudy, the trees are still outlined by light at 11:15p.m. even six weeks after the solstice). I will be soaking up what’s left of summer as I finish my vacation, return to work for a couple of weeks, welcome the new JVs/train the JV taking my place, and then I will hop on the Alaska Marine Highway once again for a somewhat longer journey south!