Thursday, 21 July 2011

Alaska Railroad

Being back on a continental landmass, it felt appropriate to revert to train travel, and the Alaska Railroad was well-placed to acheive this. I managed to get a seat in the "Gold Class" section of the train, with its observation windows allowing us to see up to the tops of the mountains we passed through. 

The curious shape of the observation glass leads to some interesting reflection effects
 This trip was a far cry from the trans-Siberian and trans-Mongolian journey that I did the year before. Those are very functional working trains, whereas this was entirely geared to tourists - for most of my fellow passengers it would have been a day-trip to Seward from Anchorage as part of a longer Alaska holiday.

  A lot of the tourists on the train were reading magazines or playing cards or computer games - I couldn't think why, as I was enthralled by the jaw-dropping scenery ... glaciers, lakes, complicated river formations with multiple channels... 

The train was well-staffed with a team who gave us a good running commentary on the terrain we were passing through, and pointed out wildlife when it appeared along the way. Another perk of the gold-class section was the ability to go outside to an open-air section where the roof was glass, but there were no side windows. 

 We saw a number of grazing moose, as well as moose tracks alongside the railway, leaping salmon, at least one bald eagle, and a black spot on a distant hillside that may have been a bear.

At an average of about 26 miles per hour, the train took us through the mountain wilderness that is the Kenai Peninsula, over and along a narrow rocky gorge, and then down into a wide open valley that led us back down to sea level.

 Here we wound our way alongside a body of water called Turnagain arm: so-named because when Captain Cook was searching the area for a way through to the North-West Passage, he found that since it was yet another inlet he had to turn again and keep on searching.

We were warned that the mud flats that appear at low tide are treacherous as they look solid and may feel like concrete to walk on, but can instantly turn to quicksand as the water rises.

Coming into Anchorage, we passed crowds of young people waving to the train, and caught a rare glimpse of Denali, North America's highest point, just over the horizon.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

To Seward with Swedes

I had initially been planning to leave the boat in Kodiak and get on the ferries, but I decided to stay on until the mainland so that I could ride part of the Alaska Railroad. Two crew did leave us in Kodiak: Theo, who ended up getting a job there on a fishing boat there, and Eva-Lisa who had joined us in Dutch Harbour and decided to fly to Anchorage and travel the northern part of the Alaska Railroad.

That left 4 of us to sail the boat across to the mainland, and me the only non-Swede aboard. It was a pleasant crossing - a beautifully clear night motoring between islands and fishing boats, followed by a beautiful dawn and a sunny day watching the snowy mountains of the Kenai peninsula get closer and closer.

We continued up the coast past the entrances to many fjords, and then found the entrance to Thunder Bay - a fjord which looked from the map like it might serve as a good anchorage. As we passed between the rocky walls of the fjord's entrance, we noticed some little splashes ahead of the boat, and then suddenly there were flashes of black and white coming out of the water all around us. My first thought was orcas, but no - these were smaller: a group of black and white dolphins breaking the surface of the water as they raced along beside the boat. I have since found that these were Dall's porpoises, a member of the dolphin family, and it seemed as though they were welcoming us (or guiding us) into their inlet. Thunder Bay was an idyllic bay with waterfalls, forests, stony beaches, caves at water-level, valleys bearing the last remainder of snow, a solitary bald eagle perched on a fallen tree ... and misty mountains towering above, with the sun going down behind.

 Seward is situated up another much larger inlet, amongst mountains and glaciers. On the way there from Thunder Bay, we passed many whale-watching boats which seemed to be failing to spot any whales. We passed a few rocks and small islands, and some large chunks of ice floating in the water of a glacial lake separated from the sea by a narrow beach.

There is an unwritten law that I will now write: If you arrive in Seward on a sunny Sunday afternoon, there will be lots of boats in the water.

Some of the boats we saw were sailing, but the wind wasn't quite the right angle for us and we motored up the fjord and into the harbour.

On the first day there, I walked up the 921 metre high Mount Marathon, which is the site of the annual hill-run on 4th July. In 3 hours, I thought I made pretty good time (especially as I took the longer route up, rather than the 3 mile round trip), but this does not even compare to the record time of 43 minutes, or the average race time of an hour and a half.

View from Mt. Marathon Summit

Looking down to Seward

At Seward, two more Swedes came and joined the crew, so as I packed up my belongings, the boat became awash with Scandinavian syllables, flowing around my ears like a babbling brook!

I left Lars and his reformed crew to take Jennifer on her way, and checked into the Moby Dick Hostel, to experience the luxury of a bed that was not constantly moving. 

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Approaching Kodiak

A few more days of mixed motoring and sailing (we still had the two foresails and the top section of the mainsail) took us to Kodiak. On the way we stopped briefly at Sand Point - a small dreary place with a slippery pontoon. Just setting out from there, we had our first undeniable whale sighting - a hump on the horizon and a "Hoosh!" of blown air.
Over the next three days, we navigated between various islands, to the Shelikof strait, an area notorious for gnarly tides, between the Alaskan mainland and Kodiak island.

We had a beautiful sunny day of sailing, with greeny-blue waters, biggish waves, many wind directions, and snowy Alaskan mountains glistening in the distance.

 Towards the end of the day, we passed a ketch (2-masted sailing boat) travelling the opposite direction. At the exact moment we hailed them on the radio, a whale jumped right out of the water in between the two boats. We learned that the ketch was en-route to the NorthWest Passage via the Bering Sea. The N-W Passage is an elusive route from Pacific to Atlantic via the North coast of Canada. This made our North Pacific crossing seem relatively unambitious, but now that more and more polar ice is melting in the summer months, more and more vessels are attempting to make this journey - and succeeding.

Whale splash in the centre; the ketch is just visible to the left.

I thought later about the timing of the whale's jump. While it may be wonderfully romantic to imagine that the whale may have been jumping to wish the ketch luck on its journey, I started to wonder if there was little or no coincidence that the whale jumped precisely when it was smack-bang in between two marine radios that were in contact. I wonder if there is an overlap between the frequencies of radio waves and whale language. Was the whale experiencing interference from the radio waves? Perhaps the poor thing found the transmission deafening...

That evening we entered the Kupreanof strait, and sailed away from a beautiful sunset.

In the early morning P-O and I helped Lars steer our way through a series of red and green lights of uncertain distance, which led us into the town and port of Kodiak.  As well as being the USA's second largest island (after Hawaii's Big Island), Kodiak is also home of the world's largest species of bear. These creatures stay away from the town, however, and the only bear we saw was a stuffed one in the town's museum. It certainly was big - even P-O the Viking Giant was dwarfed by it. Kodiak gave us some time to do some essential maintenance to the boat - I had the job of cleaning the sides of the hull, for which I launched the rubber dinghy and spent an afternoon rowing around the sides of Jennifer, scrubbing hard with a long-handled brush, and getting sunburnt.

On our final day in Kodiak, Theo and I went for a walk in the woods on Near Island, which is reached by a bridge from the town.

 We wandered along trails through a pleasant semi-wilderness, with many views out amongst the various islands, amongst which seaplanes frequently take off and land. In a small woodland on a small island we crossed to by a causeway, we found the rusting carcass of a truck amongst the trees. It seemed surreal, as it is far from any roads, but the only explanation I can think of for its presence is that it was somehow brought there by 1964 tsunami, which wreaked havoc on the area.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

False Pass

False Pass is the site of an abandoned cannery, situated on Unimak island, just across the Isanotski Strait from the Alaskan mainland. Geologically, the island is part of the Alaska peninsula: there just happens to be a flooded channel between them, and it is also the first island we came across which has bears. We didn't actually see any bears, but from what the locals told us, they do occasionally find their way into the village. It certainly seemed the sort of landscape from which bears might emerge.

We had thought that Adak was small-town, but False Pass took this to a new level: a summer population of under 100 goes down to around 30 in the winter! The people we met turned out to be very friendly, and very interested to hear about our travels - the few cars around would frequently stop to say hello. One family who greeted us had a 10-year-old son with an unbelievable amount of pure unbridled enthusiasm. He energetically told us about all the different fish he caught in the area, and took a great interest in the various foreign coins we had amongst us when he and his friends came to visit us aboard the boat.

One day when P-O and I were wandering around the village, we were passed by  the coin collector and his friends riding quad bikes. The boys were keen to show us around, and we thus inadvertently found ourselves hitch-hiking on quad bikes driven by 10-year-olds...

(what does it say on that sign?)

After being taken through a narrow gap in a hedge and along a bumpy track through the undergrowth at the whim of our drivers, P-O and I were transferred to one vehicle and both driven to the cannery.
Only a few of the old cannery buildings are now in use - mostly as stores and workshops; the majority of the site is left as it was when the cannery closed. You can look through the windows of the buildings and see the offices left just as if the employees had been planning to return the next day.
The threat of bears and a lack of time prevented us from going to explore the mountains, which are beautiful, and big enough to support glaciers.