Tuesday, July 30, 2013


impressions of a trip through our northern plains
…first in a series…

Late in the afternoon, after having started somewhere on the other side of Bear Tooth Pass, Yellowstone's Mammoth Hot Springs teemed with so many visitors that I took a pass and found a room in nearby Gardener, MT.

The next morning, as I left town, the springs had no such crowd.  So I engaged in a leisurely stroll up the wooden walkways enjoying the aroma, the steam and the views.

RIDING AWAY, curiously, I recalled the grandma-type who lived down the street while I was growing up. Rose Carah (née: Wild) was her name. 

Well into her 80s, with a mother’s touch and wisdom, she'd round up the neighbor boys, offering us store bought cookies and Kool-Aide because we'd listen to her Bible stories.  But the Bible wasn't her only source of material. More than once she told us of visiting these very springs as a little girl. "Rode in on backboards and wagons. Tethered the stock to posts and slept out under the stars for a good week or two."

My thoughts while piloting the big BMW the next twenty or so scenic miles surrounded something about how close in proximity we are to history - history that when we read or hear about it seems ancient. That, or, how brief our time in any one place is.  Or...

"Church" file photo*
…I was in the middle of this cogitation when a momma grizzly stepped into the highway in front of the car in front of me currying along two furry offspring still in need of a mother's touch and wisdom…

...and my train of previous thought just sorta went away.


* Point of clarification: I didn't catch a photo of the momma bear and cubs in Yellowstone.  This one is from a month ago in Alaska.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


…my introduction to Seward’s folly…

My beloved does not pillion, at least for very long.  Therefore, our vacations involve her using a car as a chase vehicle or relegate us to a plane, a train or an automobile.  So our exploratory trip to the Last Frontier would not involve the bike.  As it turns out, this was not such a bad idea.

We accessed the Alaska Railroad website, perusing several tour plans there offered.  Alaska’s National Parks by Rail seemed to fit the time slot we had in mind, but I held some trepidation about hanging with twenty-five or fifty folks whom I would meet, greet and not particularly care about for the period of the tour.  The first of the really good news is that by booking through the rail company, all one is receiving is transit, lodging and a few activities.  There is no tour guide hustling folk through this cathedral or that museum with an eye toward the watch that dictates when the tour bus is going to depart.  Nope.  Passengers ride the train from Anchorage to Denali or to Seward and hook into activities that no one else aboard may have decided to partake.

Here is a little photo gallery of thing seen and enjoyed that I might have missed had I been astride the “Horse.”

Day 1: Traveling from Anchorage to Denali by train is a six-hour excursion into among the least populated geography on the continent.   
Two husky GP 40s pull about 13 rail cars from Alaska’s largest city into a rugged and beautiful landscape fed by rivers fueled from melting glaciers.
The trek northward becomes more and more dramatic…
…and we are told that we might be among the few who are afforded an unobstructed view of Denali – the continent’s highest point. 

Luck, and a string of eleven days of record-breaking heat winks, and, indeed, we do.
Laying over at near the administrative center of the National Park for a day, we engage in a 94-mile bus ride into the interior of the park.  Critters abound.

Like this foraging Grizzly…
…a bachelor moose…
… a pair of cows wondering what the hell to do about all the tourists…
… a red fox wearing black stockings…
Photo: Courtesy of fellow traveler Annette Reimer
… and this little fella who felt we’d wandered to close to the nest.

But the mountain dominated from tens of miles away to close up.

Just as on a bike, the return trip was as enticing as the trip out as the views changes with each sinewy turn of the rails.

Day four found us heading south from Anchorage to Seward.  Sweeping turns…

and views of glaciers dominated the route over the pass and toward the Gulf of Alaska

Our objective was to do “the tourist thing” catching a ride on a launch that promised an up-close view of a remnant of the latest ice age.

Along the way, the captain nosed into rookeries…
… and sea lion habitat…
…before high-tailing it out to the gulf for a view of a living-breathing chunk of history.
A frolicking male Orca decides to accompany us.
The Kenai Fjord Glacier proves to be a mile across where it breaks apart into the brine.

The captain skillfully steers us past a tiny iceberg, not likely big enough to harm our craft.  Still I could help thinking of the Titanic – which is likely why he piloted us so close.
Then, pausing to drift for the better part of a half-hour, the 80 of us on board listened to what sounded like cannon-fire or thunder.  This was the fracturing sound of the ice, the magnification of what we hear when we drop and ice cube into a tumbler of water.
Drifting, our collective reverie was broken when the skipper intoned that we were experiencing the tail end of the last ice age adding, “Welcome to Chicago 10,000 years ago.”

Days five and six found us again on the rails, this time on the local between Anchorage and Seward. 

The Alaska Railroad is the only rail operation in the country serving both passengers and freight.  Thus, if the engineer sees something the customer might enjoy - unlike the UP - he slows down so that we all might get a good look.
Today’s mission would be to visit the Spencer glacier and her attendant icebergs.

A lupine informs us that in late June, spring is only just arriving to the north country.

A guide explains to the gathered what to do when – not if – the raft capsizes into the 34 degree water.

Then we launch to drift among ice that was formed sometime during one of the seven migrations from Asia of the folks who would come to be known as “Native Americans.”

We did not approach the glacier to the extent we may have wished. 
Soon we were tumbling down the gray waters of the silt-laden river.
With impeccable timing, we arrive at our portage point, just as the Local pulls up to carry us to whatever our next destination might be.

So: Alaska by bike or by rail?  Next time, I’d certainly want to travel north on the bike.  But for an introduction to this rugged wonderland, it’s tough to beat a few days riding the Alaska Railroad.



© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press