Alaska: He Said, She Said
Hers was cold and remote and everything she had dreamed of. His was humpback whales, dinner at eight, strictly upper deck. Whose Alaska is it anyway?
Cruising Into the Country
By Richard David Story
Darling," cooed my old friend (let's call her Millicent) from her cell. "I think we'll pass this year. You know, we're really not a cruise sort of family." Then a short, nervous, and, I think, slightly snarky little chuckle before adding, "And to be perfectly honest, Alaska sounds a tad, well, booooooring, doesn't it?" Then a loud conspiratorial belt of laughter.
I could have slugged her.
Let me back up and explain. It was neither the inappropriateness nor the churlishness of her comment but the fact that maybe she was right, maybe the Storys weren't a cruise sort of family either. I had, after all, long ago buried the memory of my first cruise, aboard the Federico C, but my brother still remembers it perfectly: the midnight buffets, questionable eveningwear, and being practically trampled to death by the eager throngs when we disembarked for a couple of duty-free hours in St. Thomas. Alas, that was a cruise only a grandmother could have loved (and ours did). But that was also 30 years ago, I kept telling myself.
And as for Alaska? Well, I had never made it through John McPhee's Coming into the Country, and as a kid I wasn't overly fond of Jack London. Perhaps, I worried, Millicent might have been right. But at the same time I love comfort and being pampered, and the idea of experiencing The Great Outdoors aboard a luxury liner was enormously appealing. Don't misunderstand: I crave the beauty and majesty of mountains and forests, vast rivers and enormous glaciers, but I am not at all opposed to enjoying them from a more comfortable vantage point than a wilderness trail in hiking boots. Hence, it was off to Alaska by boat. Millicent be damned!
Since we were traveling with a ten-year-old, we did not want the quiet jewel-like intimacy of a small boutique ship, one that was all hushed pistachio-and-pink-striped damask and inlaid floors on which the Nike-clad clatter of a child would be discouraged. That ship I would save for some later romantic sail à deux. Nor did I want to dress for dinner every night (if it were a cheeseburger and fries with a martini and DVD en suite I wished, so be it). At the same time I liked the old-fashioned formality of dinner jacket and tie in a chandeliered dining room and my own individually assigned butler. And there was something irresistible about being able to watch a migration of humpback whales or gaze out on the frozen beauty of Glacier Bay as one took afternoon tea, a dip in a heated pool, or pumped his way to fitness on a treadmill aboard a luxury liner traveling at 22 knots through the Inside Passage.
We decided to sail the Crystal Harmony. The ship's parent company, Crystal Cruises, consistently ranked number one (see "The Departures Survey, Cruise Lines," in this issue), and it also came highly recommended by friends who are seriously addicted cruisegoers: It was neither too small and quiet (remember, that's not what we wanted) nor a behemoth that would devour us. It also sailed out of Vancouver (an attractive idea since I'd never seen the city) and returned via San Francisco in time to watch the sun rise as we sailed under the Golden Gate. And the ten-day itinerary included a hit parade of Alaskan favorites: Ketchikan, the Inside Passage, Glacier Bay. The Harmony has 480 rooms; my favorites are the Penthouse Suites and the four Crystal Penthouses (fantastic) on the tenth deck. Our suite, done in that salmon-blue-tan palette of so many luxe places, had a queen-sized bed, dining-room table, its own neat little bar, a terrace, and a comfortable sofa our housekeeper turned down for our son, Zachary, every night. Bottom line: a well-designed if not zealously stylish room that was exactly what one wanted for ten days at sea. For recreation there was a movie theater, cigar bar, spa, gym, and a great little pool and putting green.
Anything you want, I do for you." thus the dapper tuxedoed butler introduced himself, as he had, I'm sure, a hundred times before. After all, Manuel, 34, has been with Crystal Cruises for a number of years, and like every proper butler knows how to make things happen, whether securing a DVD of Belle de Jour or Jungle Book or teaching one the best way to knot a bowtie (it involves the thigh, not the neck, and is something that I wish he would teach the salesmen at Bergdorf Goodman Men's Store). He also managed to clue me in to Marnie Neve, who taught the 8:30 a.m. yoga class; the best pasta dishes to order at Prego, the very good Italian restaurant; and why we might want to consider booking several meals at the Japanese restaurant Kyoto, which was even better. Though we had a standing reservation every night in the fussy main dining room, I must admit I preferred the food and intimacy of the latter two.
Alaska by ship is obviously different than Alaska by hydrofoil, four-wheel drive, or Timberland boot. But through Crystal's sophisticated itinerary of shore excursions, those too can be part of the experience. Passengers have available at each of the five ports of call a choice of trips, rough or easy as they choose. The more sedentary might opt for something like the train ride from Skagway to White Pass or whale watching on the catamaran that motors its way through Auke Bay off Juneau; more adventurous types opt for sea kayaking in the Tatoosh Islands or mountain biking in the rainforest outside Ketchikan. There were, of course, those who spent their free time in Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan shopping for what Gertrude Stein would have described as "all those ugly things . . . made by hand." In its orientation package, Crystal admonishes: "To fully appreciate Alaska, it is essential to get out and explore the wilderness regions beyond the settled areas."
And so we did: There was the seaplane to Taku Lodge, a 1920s hunting and fishing camp northeast of Juneau, and St. Lazaria, a national wildlife refuge at the stop in Sitka. But most memorable was the Juneau Icefield Mushing Camp.
The 25-minute helicopter ride from Juneau to the Middle Branch of the Norris Glacier is spectacular. It's also the only way to get there. "Like that? Like what you see?" our pilot asked Zachary, as we hovered at 5,000 feet between prehistoric glaciers and blinding blue sky. This, I realized, was as close as I would ever get to the Ice Age. Once we landed, however, it was less Ice Age than Christmas in July: nothing but snow and eight-week-old puppies tended to by a parka-clad army of young, good-looking "mushers" who raise close to 200 sled dogs—much smaller, leaner, and friendlier than I would ever have imagined. "They have to be," said Dan, our musher for the hour-long visit. "It's hard work." These are not the same dogs Zachary studied in school that run in the yearly Iditarod race traversing more than 1,000 miles between Anchorage and Nome. But they were close enough to completely wow a ten-year-old, as well as the rest of us who'd paid $387 each to helicopter in that afternoon. To visit this camp on top of the world and mush a sled through a frozen wilderness, led by a team of ten dogs at what seemed like the speed of light, was simply delirious.
Sledding finished. Chopper ready. back in the air: Whirly whirly whirly. Within 40 minutes we were back on deck and in time for afternoon tea in the Palm Court: crumpets, scones, and clotted cream. Out of enormous windows we watched Juneau recede into the background. Then Zach was off to hit golf balls from the putting green on the Tiffany Deck; my wife, Jennifer, headed for the library; and I wandered off to book a reflexology appointment in the Crystal Spa on the Sun Deck. Within hours we'd once again be somewhere in the middle of nowhere, dressing for dinner. Maybe in black tie. Maybe not. And maybe, since it remains light through so much of the summer night, we'd glimpse the tip of an iceberg, the breaching of a whale—something, I thought, to remind Millicent of what she had missed this summer.
In 2003, "Crystal Harmony" has ten cruises to Alaska (May 23-August 6). The first, with a ten-day itinerary, sails from Vancouver; all others are 12 days and leave from San Francisco. Penthouse Suites, $9,430; Crystal Penthouses, $15,905. Children under 12 sail free when sharing a room with two paying adults. On this summer's agenda: guest executive chefs Luciano Pellegrini from Spago in Los Angeles (June 14) and Lee Hefter from Valentino in Las Vegas (August 25) as well as etiquette classes for children. For information, contact Crystal Cruises, 2049 Century Park East, Suite 1400, Los Angeles, California; 310-785-9300; www.crystalcruises.com.
By Reggie Nadelson
In Delta Junction, one winter pastime is tossing your coffee into the air, then watching it freeze in pale-brown crystalline sheets on the way down. Temperatures in the interior of the state, here at the last stop on the Alaska Highway, often sink to 50 below. Weather isn't small talk 2,350 miles north of Denver; it's life and death. You plug your car into an outlet when you park so it doesn't freeze ("plug-ins" are found at every supermarket and motel), and "ice fog" produced by frigid temperatures and engine exhaust damps out what little light there is in winter. (Night falls around two in the afternoon in December.)
"It's another world up here," said a Delta Junction resident from Topeka, Kansas. "What's the hardest thing?" I asked her. "The dark," she said mournfully. "The dark."
Delta Junction (pop. 840) is, of course, linked to the rest of the world by the Internet and TV; parents take their kids for ice-hockey practice and to the movies up in Fairbanks, 96 miles away. Like all Alaskans they try to go "outside" every winter—to Hawaii. But there is also a real connection with, and pride in, a more primeval existence, in the unspeakable cold, in an untamed place where hunters and trappers are the stuff of myth, where most people a generation back or less came to get away from the world, a place with a fierce libertarian spirit—the less government the better.
"One of the things Delta does not want (and had for only two years) is a police force. We generally don't lock our front doors," said Pete Hallgren, the town administrator. There are state troopers, though. Sometimes when there's roadkill they call up Hallgren, and he and the other men pack up their knives, go over to the highway, and butcher the meat. "Up to our waists in meat," he said. Among Alaskans, especially those up in the north, hunting is known as "getting your meat."
This is the other Alaska. Not the Alaska of summer cruises, stylish fishing camps, or the urban pleasures of Anchorage, where nearly half the state's population of 635,000 lives. In the deep interior and the north, the state is awesome, terrifying, thrilling—especially in the winter, when green curtains of the northern lights shimmer across the iced night sky and the great dogsled races—the Iditarod, the Yukon Quest—are held. It is also the Alaska of hard-times towns that exist on a boom-bust cycle—gold, oil, the military—towns like Chicken and Fox and Nightmute (featured in the film Insomnia).
It is the Alaska Jack London made legend a hundred years ago in The Call of the Wild. Self-sufficiency is prized; guns are a way of life. I asked Vicky Naegele, a mild-mannered reporter who covers Delta Junction for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, if she owns guns. "I always take my forty-five when I go blueberry picking," she said. In the time it took her to add that she does it in case she meets a bear, I had an image of her shooting the blueberries off the bushes.
I went to Alaska last December with a colleague to work on a BBC documentary about the U.S. Missile Defense System, which under Ronald Reagan was dubbed Star Wars. By 2004, it is alleged, the first weapons will be in the ground at Fort Greely, outside Delta Junction. I also went because I wanted to see northern Alaska in winter. Most places have a season that is quintessentially theirs; Alaska's is winter: extreme, raw, wild, still America's last frontier.
On the trip west from New York, Kris, a flight attendant with Alaska Air for 29 years, remembered how it was back when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was going up. "We were 'stews' then," said the handsome blonde Kris, a heavy gold bracelet on her wrist. "We wore hot pants, chain belts, black stockings, boots, and little hats. And the guys who were working the oil pipeline, they had money falling out of their pockets, they would tip us a hundred bucks. It was always a party," she added.
Prince William Sound came into view on the final leg to Fairbanks. The plane window was filled with glacial mountains stacked to infinity; Alaska as big as a sixth of the whole United States, as forbidding and beautiful as Siberia's steppes.
In the last slanting light of the day, as we made our way from Fairbanks to Delta Junction, only a browsing moose broke the monochrome landscape as it picked its way through the white birch glistening with frost. Then an enormous crescent moon came up bright yellow and seemingly hung on an invisible ribbon over the mountains at the edge of our horizon.
NO LOADED GUNS IN THE STORE, PLEASE," read a sign in the general store at Delta Junction. At a gas station, a man with a beard and a few teeth was sucking a red lollipop and looking philosophically into the night. I asked him where Kelly's Country Inn was.
"Just past the Texaco," he said amiably.
After dinner at the Buffalo Center Diner (for a while Delta Junction had been called Buffalo Center after a herd of bison imported in 1927), I spent the night at Kelly's, where the radiator was nearly rusted through, the pink towels frayed to the thread; but the room was warm, the flowered sheets clean. All night you could hear the trucks roaring by. Next morning there was reindeer sausage and eggs at the diner, where I eavesdropped on locals holding a prayer breakfast at the next table. This is a religious part of the country. The Christmas poster on the wall read: JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON. "Well, He turned water into wine, didn't He?" one of the men said.
For a few hours a day the frozen sun struggles into view before slumping behind the mountains, where it seems to hibernate. It was almost ten. The first smudge of light showed beyond the strip mall, the churches, the tidy suburban houses that were lighted up for Christmas. Suddenly the Alaska Range revealed itself, drifting into sight in a surreal pink glow.
At the Clearwater Lodge, a restaurant in the woods outside town where the owner, Pam Ellis, serves good pepper steaks, I met the daughter of Mary Hansen, one of Delta's original settlers.
"Mom came to Alaska in '28, to Delta in '39 and started a roadhouse," said Irene Mead. "She was a miner, a trapper, and she kept her own sled dogs. She died recently at age ninety-seven."
Others remembered how they'd lived in tents, played penny-ante poker on Saturday night and done Bible study in the same place the next morning. "I came in 1955," said Norm Cosgrove. "We had no electricity, no conveniences." Cosgrove talked about the economy. "A boom when they built Fort Greely," he said. "Another when the pipeline came in. Now we're looking at a third boom with the missile defense, and this is going to bust one of these days." I asked how he felt about the missiles. "I would rather get a chance to shoot them guys out of the air than not get the chance," he added.
Everyone said this was the warmest December in 77 years; the temperature rarely dropped much below zero (by early January it was 30 below), but at the missile site an 80-mile-an-hour wind blew in from Canada and shoved the wind chill down as it rattled the metal plates over gravel pits being readied for the weapons. Most of the construction workers had gone home for the winter; we shivered alongside our military guides. At the edge of the site a chain-link fence with barbed wire was the only thing breaking the tundra. To quote Captain Scott when he reached the South Pole in 1912, "Great God, this is an awful place."
The stands of white birch, the ice and snow, the military presence, the insularity of the people, the churches. Most of all this Alaska reminded me of the Russian heartlands. And there are Russians here. Some are Pentecostals who fled from the Soviet Union. Others are Old Believers—the zealous fundamentalist Russian Orthodox who live out in the woods and raise eight or ten children in each family.
Locals have an uneasy relationship with these Russians. Superficially, they seem tolerant. But there are accusations: The Russians get big government handouts, the Russians build swimming pools out of sight of the road. The paranoia reminded me, of course, of Russia itself.
"I'm against all the immigrants coming because we can't talk to them, they don't want to obey the laws, they don't want to learn English. They're hard to handle in the schools, and they're killing off the moose along the road. This bothers me," Norm Cosgrove said. "I like my wildlife."
All Alaska was, in fact, Russian until 1867, when Andrew Johnson's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, bought it for $7.2 million—about two cents an acre. The Russians, like the Spaniards and Danish, the English and Americans, had come for the sea otters and other furs and in search of the Northwest Passage, a trade route from the North Pacific into the North Atlantic. And then, when the sea otters were gone, with Russia broke from its adventures during the Crimean War, it relinquished its hold on Alaska. Americans thought the purchase was insane—they called it Seward's Folly, Seward's Icebox. Barely anyone was interested until the first big gold rush took shape in 1880, when Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discovered gold on the site of present-day Juneau, the state capital. By 1912 Alaska had territorial status; in 1959 it became a state, eight months before Hawaii. Then, a decade later, came the oil.
On the road up to Fairbanks from Delta Junction, and north from Fairbanks, you can see the exposed artery of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline as it uncoils over the bleached landscape on its 800-mile journey south from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. (The U.S. government looks at the North Slope and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge these days and sees MORE OIL.) Wherever you go, you are aware of the pipeline, the urgency with which it snakes across the countryside, providing 20 percent of the country's oil and 80 percent of the state's revenues. Eight miles north of Fairbanks you can get up close to it. It looks utterly vulnerable, just a metal pipe four feet in diameter, nothing more.
But in the north of the state the pipeline is the essential fact of life. At Fairbanks Airport, I met a pipeline worker waiting to catch the regular charter for Prudhoe Bay; his schedule was one week on, one off. The 51st state, Prudhoe has been called.
Fairbanks started as a gold town in the early 20th century; up the Old Steese Highway in summer you can visit a real gold dredge that was operated from 1928 to 1959. It experienced boom times when the Alaska Highway was clawed out of the wilderness in 1942. (Used for strategic purposes during World War II, Alaska is now littered with military bases.) Fairbanks was remade by the discovery of oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the building of the pipeline from 1975 to 1977. Jammed with workers flush with cash, it was a raucous, high-living city. (As was Delta Junction, where there were five nightclubs and, according to the locals, prostitutes working out of Winnebagos.)
I checked into the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge, a huge hotel on the banks of the Chena River catering to tourists off cruise ships in summer and spectators at the dog races in winter, races that have become the province of the rich adventure traveler looking for something recherché. (Some say the Yukon Quest between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in February is even tougher than the Iditarod, between Anchorage and Nome.) In March there are the Ice Art Championships.
The room was big and comfortable; empty, the hotel was fine, but I'm not sure how it would be in the summer with 300 people off a cruise ship. Still, it's the best in town; the service was friendly, the bartender a local happy to pass on advice about sightseeing and life in Fairbanks. The food was drab, the fish and chips soggy, the steak overcooked. But you don't come to Alaska in the winter for the food.
Leave a message at the front desk of the Princess and someone will wake you up in the middle of the night if the northern lights appear. Flat and sprawling, Fairbanks, Alaska's second city, is a university town of about 30,000 (80,000 if you count the North Star Borough). In the summer people use it as a base for hiking, canoe trips, kayak expeditions. It has a multiplex and Thai food and cappuccino; it has pizza at Gambardella's, caesar salad at the Dog Sled Saloon, James Bond at the movies. In the decrepit old downtown you can buy gold-nugget earrings and carved jade and get a whiff of the place before it was safe, suburban, and geared to tourists.
GOVERNOR GOES OUTSIDE FOR A WEEK was a headline that caught my eye in the Fairbanks News-Miner. Alaska, I had realized, is self-obsessed, insular. John McPhee's Coming into the Country, published a quarter of a century ago, still feels relevant when McPhee calls Alaska "the most provincial place in America. . . .The conversation," he writes, "is Alaska. Alaskans, by and large, seem to know little and to say less about what is going on outside. They talk about their land, their bears, their fish, their rivers."
Alaska has its own rituals, even its own vocabulary: cache (for grocery store; originally a wood box on stilts to keep food from the bears), kayak, tundra, mukluks (soft winter boots). The central irony of Alaska is that in spite of its almost obsessive devotion to its myth as the last frontier, in spite of its libertarian attitudes (and no taxes), the state lives off big business, off big oil (every citizen receives a dividend of some $1,500 a year), and off the government. Alaska is America's military encampment, the country's gas station.
The government runs the state ferry and train systems; the government owns much of the land; Alaska, you could say, though you wouldn't say it out loud, is practically socialist.
Not that you'd know it. For a while the state had a liberal bent. It voted Democratic. Then came the oil and with it outsiders, many from the Bible Belt South. In hock to big business, it turned Republican, conservative, fundamentalist.
"I'm one of the two Democrats around Delta Junction," said Bob, a guy I met at the Buffalo Bar before I left for Fairbanks. "I was opposed to the Vietnam War, and my kids suffered for it."
Before I left Alaska I was determined to see the far north. I wanted to see the coast, Barrow and Kotzebue and Prudhoe Bay, where at the winter solstice the sun never rises.Where the Arctic Ocean, the only thing between the coast and the North Pole, is frozen ten months of the year. There's plenty of what they call "flightseeing" out of Fairbanks, plenty of tours, but the season doesn't begin until January. No one visits Alaska in December. There were no tours at all. I figured I'd drive.
At first the road north was beautiful, rolling farm country like Virginia, only covered in frost. Past Fox with its Howling Dog Saloon (shut), past exurban houses, then into wilderness.
I was making for the Dalton Highway, the 400-mile-long road to the north coast. I was sure that at Livengood, where the highway starts, I could fill up the tank and buy supplies. Hours later it was almost dark. The few cafés and gas stations on the road were closed.
Then I saw the sign for the turnoff to Livengood—no services. I reached for the guidebook, which informed me that once you're on the unpaved Dalton Highway there are almost no service stations, your rental is not insured, your cell phone won't work. Break down, and they'll find your white bones in the spring.
A naïve outsider, I peered through the window at a world stark, white, unbroken except for the pipeline and some abandoned cars in ice shrouds. They reminded me of the way frogs in very cold climates not only hibernate but also entomb themselves in ice, seemingly lifeless, all systems suspended, waiting to revive with the thaw. Up here in the north the vista is so immense, your mind falls off the map thinking about it.
I turned the car around. The drive had been one of the most exotic and one of the most exciting things I'd ever done; I could almost think of myself as a pioneer. I'd be back, I was hooked. But for now it was time to go back to Fairbanks. Time to go back outside.
Reggie Nadelson wrote about the ultimate luxury cruise ship The World in the last issue of Departures.
Alaska: Alternate Routes
For the Departures reader, who is always in search of the truly unique, five other extraordinary ways to experience the real Alaska:
1 PRIVATE YACHT along the Inside Passage so you can get right up against the glaciers, under hot springs, and far up into fjords (or arms) too narrow for the large ships. Cindy Brown of New York's Ultra Marine, a specialist in arranging yacht and cruise vacations, recommends CEO Expeditions' luxury yachts the Katania (a 100-foot Burger with three staterooms; $29,900 per week) and Kayana (a 120-foot Vosper-Thornycroft with five staterooms; $59,900 per week) for the quality of their accommodations, meals, and crew, including an onboard naturalist. Prices do not include food and beverage costs or the captain's fee. Ultra Marine, 888-858-7212; www.ultramarineyacht.com.
2 RAFTING the Tatshenshini and Alsek rivers from Canada to the Gulf of Alaska through Class II and III rapids, or the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge alongside the caribou migration. Tatshenshini: nine days, eight nights, $2,890 per person. Kongakut: ten days/nine nights, $3,695 per person. Bush plane flights included. Alaska Discovery Wilderness Adventures, 800-586-1911; www.akdiscovery.com.
3 SEA KAYAKING in Glacier Bay, past the Muir and McBride glaciers with a backdrop of the Fairweather Range and birds, bears, and sea lions. Floatplane trip included. Six days/five nights, $1,895 per person. Mountain Travel Sobek, 888-687-6235; www.mtsobek.com.
4 FISHING for pink, silver, and chum salmon, arctic char, and sea-run dolly varden in the rivers of the Alaska Peninsula/Becharof National Wildlife Refuge. J.W. Smith of Rod and Gun Resources has two of the three permits issued for this pristine region and runs weekly camps of haute roughing it—accommodations are in Weatherport shelters with maid service, a bar of fine wines and rare scotches, and five-course meals, such as spinach and mushroom soup, a salad course, salmon Béarnaise, huge New York strip steak, and bread pudding in whiskey sauce. Two days of helicopter sightseeing or fishing are included; trips can be customized for more helicopter excursions ($900 per person per day) or sightseeing jaunts to hot springs or for wildlife viewing. Trips ($4,295 per person per week; $34,360 per week for exclusive use of the camp) run July through September. Rod and Gun Resources, 800-211-4753; www.rodgunresources.com.
5 DOGSLEDDING through the Brooks Range in Alaska's far north. Sourdough Outfitters offers seven-day moderate-adventure dogsledding trips in which you cover about 30 miles a day and overnight in woodstove-heated tents or rustic cabins. There are also 11-day trips through the remote and even more rugged Arrigetch Peaks, averaging 25 to 40 miles a day. Trips can be customized to include different itineraries or different ways of getting around, such as snowshoeing or snow machines attached to sleds, if you want to give the dogs (and yourself) a break. Brooks Range trip: $2,595 per person. Arrigetch Peaks: $3,995. Fourteen-day runs to the most remote mountain areas: prices vary. Trips run through the end of April. Sourdough Outfitters, 907-692-5252; www.sourdoughoutfitters.com.