Passing through Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, we saw an airplane on a pedestal. A little investigation proved interesting. Civilians know the aircraft as a Douglas DC-3, the military designates it a C-47, and pilots everywhere affectionately call it a Gooney Bird. The Gooney Bird’s place in aviation history cannot be overstated. Though the total hours on the airframe of this aircraft (31,000 +/-) is unremarkable, it lived out most of its life as a bush plane, on wheels and skis, in the Yukon. Interested parties rescued this bird from going to the scrape yard, restored its appearance and turned it into a weather vane.
Leaving Seward for Skagway, our plan was to drive to Tok, Alaska the first day, spend the night in Tok, then drive on to Skagway the following day. Having started earlier than usual, we found ourselves arriving in Tok early in the afternoon, leaving a LONG drive, with two border crossings, for the next day. Taking a chance, with serious reservations, we pushed on to Beaver Creek, Yukon Territory, hoping a place we had seen advertised, Buckshot Betty’s, would be at least tolerable. Besides having an additional two hours of driving under our belt we would also have one of the border crossings behind us. Beaver Creek is the western most community in Canada. Buckshot Betty’s turned out to be just fine. The restaurant had a varied menu and the little cabin we stayed in was well appointed and immaculate.
Our visit to Seward, Alaska was prompted by the recommendation of an on-line acquaintance who suggested we go to Seward and take the Northwestern Fjords Tour, in the Kenai Fjords National Park, if we did nothing else. As the date of the tour approached, I started having misgivings about being captive on a boat for nine hours and was wishing I had not committed to that tour.
The tour was all that it had been promised to be by the acquaintance and by the tour company. The boat was a purpose-built tour boat that was very comfortable in its accommodations and motion. It allowed excellent viewing, in every direction, of marine life and geological features either from within the climate-controlled cabin or from the deck.
Addie and I were initially more interested in the marine mammals than rocks and glaciers. It turned out that the rocks and glaciers were as fascinating as the critters. The captain of the tour boat, who had been doing that tour for twenty years, was great. The amount of information he provided along the way, undoubtedly carefully researched and scripted, was voluminous and entertaining. Wildlife was plentiful; we saw Orcas, Humpback Whales, Sea Otters, Seals, Sea Lions, Bald Eagles, Puffins and numerous other bird species. The tour’s climax was reaching the Northwestern Glacier. It is magnificent and the captain put the eighty-something foot boat within a boat length or two of the glacier and very slowly pinwheeled in place for thirty minutes so everyone could get all the pictures they wanted. Besides the awesome views in every direction, I thought that was an impressive bit of boat handling.
What I feared would be a too-long day, passed quickly and was over all to soon.
After one day of brown bear viewing and one day of kayaking, Addie and I spent two days riding around Kodiak Island. Actually, we covered all the road, paved and unpaved, on the island, some of it more than once. Several times we had to pass scary signs to proceed, but the locals paid no attention so we went ahead, too. Spectacular vistas were around every curve, wildflowers were blooming everywhere. Loving airplanes, especially old ones, and work boats, I could have spent days just photographing those subjects. We stumbled upon the Kodiak Launch Complex – the other cape, they say. Who knew? We had a little excitement when, approaching Fossil Beach, we started down a STEEP grade we should not have. Once begun, there was no turning back and the situation worsened when we reached a deep gully in the middle of the road that caused our rental car to bottom hard a number of times. We actually feared getting high-centered and being stuck there. Addie did a masterful job of driving back up the the hill, but I think she did say a bad word! We have been waiting to hear from the rental car company or their lawyer about the condition of the car we returned.
Addie told you a little bit about the bears and included many pictures of some of the bears we saw. I will tell you a bit about the details of the bear viewing trip.
Harvey Flying Service of Kodiak was chosen partially based on a recommendation of friends of Joyce and mostly, I confess, because I wanted to fly in Steve Harvey’s beautiful 1943 Grumman Widgeon airplane.
Another major factor in choosing Harvey was that his bear guide, Jo Murphy, is reputed to be the best. Even though I had high expectations for Jo, her knowledge and competence exceeded them by any measure. That was appreciated when walking around in the bear’s environment, often quite close to bears, even mama grizzlies with cubs.
The flights to and from Katmai National Park and Preserve were a treat in themselves. Though I had flown in float planes a few times, flying in the old Widgeon was my first flight in an amphibian. The scenery was beautiful and Jo was able to provide a lot of interesting details about what we were viewing.
Once we arrived at Katmai, we got out of the plane in knee-deep water and waded ashore. We kept on hip boots for the duration of the excursion, as we waded across small rivers numerous times. After leaving the beach, we hiked into a meadow valley surrounded by mountains. The meadow, mountains and several visible glaciers were gorgeous.
On the return flight, we had a blond co-pilot that made me more nervous than the bears (see picture).
Addie enjoyed the grizzlies immensely, even found being in their environment with them a very emotionally moving experience. It was that to me and more. When I was five years old, fascinated with wild animals in general, and bears in particular, my father told me about Kodiak Island and the huge brown bears. At that time, I wanted to go to Kodiak to hunt the world’s largest grizzly bears. Even when I passed the hunting phase of my life, I remained fascinated with the Kodiak bears. Visiting Kodiak Island was on my bucket list for a half century before anyone ever heard of a bucket list! Now, I want to go back.
On the drive from Denali National Park to Anchorage, Addie and I saw an unusual arrangement for a small airport. On one side of the highway was the typical airport you might find outside of any small town with a runway and a couple of hangars. On the opposite side of the highway, on the edge of a lake, was a facility for float planes and amphibians that had docks for float planes and a hangar or two. It seemed unusual to us that there was a plane crossing across this busy highway so that planes could taxi back-and-fourth between the facilities. You would surely flummox your insurance agent if you reported a collision with a de Havilland Beaver!
Prevalent along the roadside from British Columbia to Alaska is a wildflower called Fireweed. It is the territorial flower of the Yukon Territory. We were told that Fireweed got its’ name because it is the first plant to reappear after a forest fire. In Alaska, the initial blooming of Fireweed is considered a sign the middle of summer has been reached. The flower blooms from the bottom to the top and it is said when the fire reaches the top summer is over.
After lunch at the Kantishna Lodge, at the end of the road into Denali National Park, we had a choice of two optional activities, panning for gold or watching a presentation on dog mushing. Frankly, neither particularly appealed but, loving dogs, we chose the latter. Fate favored us once again; Emmitt Peters, Jr.’s presentation on dog mushing was a highlight of the trip. Emmitt, a competitive dog musher himself, is the son of an Iditarod hall-of-famer, who smashed the previous record of 21 days by winning his first Iditarod race in 14 days, changing the way the race has been run ever since. Emmitt, the father, Started the Iditarod thirteen times and finished in the top 10 ten times.
Emmitt, the son, has been mushing since before he can remember. His knowledge of the subject is encyclopedic. Even better, his comedic lines, delivery and timing are as good as any stand-up comedian you have ever enjoyed. He is knowledgeable, engaging and hilarious! The subject proved most interesting.
The embedded video is crude, the audio distracting and the videographer apparently dozed off towards the end. Stick with it, though, to see the dogs straining to get going.
Only thirty percent of the visitors to Denali National Park get to see the summit of Mount McKinley. Clouds obscure the peak most of the time. We were able to see it only because, on our flight back from Kantishna to Denali, the cloud layer did not reach the summit and our pilot was able to get us above the clouds. Had we not chosen to fly back out of the park, rather than riding the bus back, and been lucky enough to get a pilot who made a special effort to get us a view of McKinley’s peak, we would have been among the seventy percent who never see the summit.