John and I just returned from a fantastic week in Alaska. We were there to sing and teach at the Valley Quilters’ Guild in Palmer. We were very well taken care of by the gals at the guild, in particular Jessica, Julie, and Glenda.
We have been to Alaska before. In February of 2006 we flew up to Juneau and sang there and in Ketchikan. That’s when we took the ferry up to Skagway to see the Duck Neck quilt (which I wrote a song about). We also did a cruise in 2010 up to the Panhandle which stopped in the same places.
But we’d never been further north in Alaska, and that’s where we went this time. We flew into Anchorage and Jessica and Julie picked us up to begin our adventure.
The Mat-Su Valley is the heart of agriculture in Alaska. It began with an experiment back in 1935 when the New Deal sent settlers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to form a colony. We were told it was an experiment in communism – or perhaps communalism – but most of them left the next year, likely for various reasons. BUT there are lots of farmers there today; the valley is known for HUUUUUGE cabbages and various other produce. Everybody had something growing, either outdoors or in a greenhouse with the very long days but short growing season.
We spent the next day with Glenda and her family. They took us up to Hatcher Pass, where we wandered around an abandoned gold mine, once the 2nd largest in the state. The views from up there were tremendous.
Before returning to Palmer, we stopped in at a reindeer farm. This is a tourist trap, and they do play up the Santa connection (though there was none with a red nose!). You do know, don’t you, that all of Santa’s reindeer were female? Male reindeer lose their antlers in October. This time of year, they all have fuzzy antlers – they are growing about 4″ a day and they are very sensitive. The fur grows on the skin that covers them as they grow. When the antlers stop growing, the skin dries up and falls off.
They also had a herd of elk (same species, but the wild elk are larger) and a sole bison, who had been raised with elk and thought of himself as one! It was fun to visit the farm and to feed the reindeer.
We sang for the guild the next day and did a Mock Mola class. The day was very long, but it was never dark – there are 18 hours of daylight this time of year.
The next day was another day off, and we drove down to Anchorage with Jessica and her husband Dave. They have a great museum there, with really good exhibits on the development of Alaska. We did stop for some chocolate sustenance at the Alaska Wild Berry Products shop, where they have the tallest chocolate waterfall in the world (whatever brings in the tourists, I guess….). Alas, you can’t dip into it.
Yes, that’s the man I married on the right…
From there, we headed down to Turnagain Arm. It was named by William Bligh who served as Captain Cook’s sailing master on his last voyage to the north Pacific (right after that, he went to Hawaii where he was killed by the natives). When he realized that this waterway didn’t get him to the Northwest Passage, and they had to explore two arms of it, both leading to river mouths, he called it Turn Again. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a great place to see a tidal bore – 2 1/2 hours after we were there!
The next day was a Notan class. Here are some of the pieces created (mostly on paper) during class.
Then, we were on our own for a couple of days before heading back home. We rented a car and headed north to Denali National Park! Our plans had us staying a couple of nights near the entrance and taking a day-long shuttle bus into Eielson Visitor Center. We hoped for good weather.
Our first view of the mountain came as a surprise. We had caught glimpses of white-topped mountains through the clouds and kept saying to each other: THAT’s Denali. No, THAT’s Denali! But when we did see it, near MilePost 132, it was absolutely unmistakable. It towers over all the other mountains. At 20,310 feet, it is the tallest mountain in North America. But if you want to climb it, it is taller than Everest because the climb starts much much closer to sea level than does Everest. This is July and it’s still totally covered in snow and ice.
We got up early the next morning and hopped on the 7am shuttle. It is not possible to drive in the park for most of the year. In the fall, they have a lottery to allow 1500 cars to drive through the park, and the locals jump at the chance. For us, it was better to just sit back and look for wildlife instead of concentrating on the gravel road ahead.
Our driver came on the PA system to tell us “up ahead is the ‘Mile of Terror'”! Halfway up the side of a mountain, the road has been perched on top of scree – the tumbledown rocks on the south slope – not the most secure looking driving surface. It was thrilling!
Along the way the bus stopped every time anyone saw wildlife. In all, we spotted a total of:
Moose: 7 (including 3 babies)
Grizzly bears: 5 (including 2 cubs)
Caribou: at least 90, including a herd on top of a mountain
Dahl Sheep: 8 (all very far away)
Ptarmigan: 7 (including 5 chicks)
Golden Eagles: 2
And a whole lots of absolutely gobsmacking scenery, full of huge views and grandeur.
At the Eielson Visitor Center we got to see a quilt I’ve admired from afar, made by Ree Nancarrow. It’s in four large pieces and it’s called “Seasons of Denali”. This quilt started as white fabric which Ree dyed, painted, stamped, silk screened and appliqued on top of to reflect the wildlife in the park in all seasons. It took her a year of hard work to make it, and it is magnificent. It more than made up for the fact the we couldn’t see the mountain at all from our vantage on that day.
But we did the next day. On our way back to Anchorage, it was totally clear.
This was such a wonderful experience, and I would highly recommend it to you; even if you don’t like camping, you can savour the joy of being driven on one of the most exciting and beautiful roads in the world through pristine wilderness.
So, thanks to the Valley Quilters Guild, we got to have a superlative experience. The last night before our plane home, we had dinner right beside the float plane base. Float planes are essential transportation in the far north, and it epitomizes the end-of-the-road-and-into-the-woods ruggedness of Alaska.