Unbelievable how time flies! It’s been nearly eight years since I was in a bar in Juneau, Alaska, ordering a particular drink for downing swiftly – and five years before then that I took a tentative sip of that potent concoction for the very first time!
More specifically, I was in a “saloon” in Juneau. And the favored drink was what’s known as a Duck Fart – one among many experiences in Alaska that proved a wonderfully pleasing surprise!
In 2010, Juneau was one stop on a week-long cruise the folks and I took. Forbiddingly hemmed in by water on one side and Mount Juneau on the other, Alaska’s capital is effectively an island unto itself – and it reminded me that my very earliest impression of the state had been really wrong! There was a map on my grade school classroom wall that depicted the US portion of North America while completely (and kinda rudely) excluding the Canadian bit. It led me briefly to believe Alaska was an island like Hawaii – one with an uncannily straight eastern side…
Okay, so now I know Alaska is not an island. Yet I heard more than one local refer to leaving its borders as going “outside” – as if the whole state were somehow separate like on that map.
In the 90’s, I thought I was getting to know Alaska by watching the tv series Northern Exposure. Turns out the sweetly quirky inhabitants of Cicely were really roaming the lower 48 streets of Roslyn, Washington where the show was actually filmed. (Read The Location, Location, Location Bit for more of my visit there and to other movie locations!)
After being misled by both the media and the map makers, there was only one thing to do!
I got a chance to set the record straight when my recreation ice hockey team, the LA Chill, put the Alaska Fools on Ice Women’s Hockey Tournament in Anchorage on their schedule! And one April day (hence, the tournament name), teammate Sherry and I flew out a couple days early to do some extra exploring.
From Anchorage, we skirted sparkling Turnagain Arm en route to Seward, taking in some enchantingly snow blanketed scenery on the way, and stopping to say hello to a few animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage.
Once settled in Seward, Sherry and I toured the town, finding historic spots like the starting point of the storied Iditarod Trail.
When the rest of our team arrived, we all embarked on a brisk and beautiful boat ride! Even though our ship’s captain explained it wasn’t yet the time of year to see whales, I thought there still could be a humpback or two that got confused and came north early (I mean, Daylight Savings is only an hour but it totally messes with me…).
So while it would have been more comfortable below, I opted instead to maintain a post on deck for the entire trip. My fellow defenseman Coeli, ever willing to back me up, stayed out there too, braving the bracing breezes in hopes of being rewarded with the telltale mist from a blowhole or maybe even a breach!
Um…the feeling in our fingers, toes and faces returned later that day – but, alas, no whales did…
Afterwards, we found consolation (and warmth!) in a visit to Seward’s Alaska SeaLife Center where we learned a thing or two and met some cute and curious residents!
The team’s next stop was the Alyeska Resort about 40 miles outside Anchorage. Here, some took off to roar around the area on snowmobiles while others (like Sherry and me) took a tram up the mountain for a sweeping view!
I’m afraid my impressions of Anchorage outside of the hockey rink will have to wait for another visit as it was all business once our team made it back. But I didn’t have to wait long to explore other parts of Alaska!
My cruise with the folks a few years later left from Vancouver, Canada, and included a leisurely voyage through Glacier Bay National Park for some of the most spectacular natural views I’ve ever seen! There’s a majesty about these age-old, imperceptibly migrating glaciers – and it’s magic when you happen to catch a section’s breaking off and dropping into the water (“calving”)!
And I finally had my chance to spot whales! This time, right from our stateroom’s balcony, I was able to see orcas prowling the icy waters!
Our ship also temporarily (but dramatically) increased the population of the charming city of Ketchikan! With only a short time there, I just strolled around and took in as much of the atmosphere as I could.
I was delighted by all the totem poles that provide pops of color and culture throughout the city – reminders of the Native Americans who hunted and fished there thousands of years before the first luxury vessels with bars and buffets glided in.
And we cruised right up to Skagway where, in Alaska’s gold rush days, prospectors would begin journeys through the White Pass in search of fortune in the Klondike.
The fortunes of the LA Chill on my first visit turned out to be good – perhaps because we found an unlikely inspirational edge! A Seward bartender had introduced us to that Duck Fart drink which consists of equal parts whiskey, Kahlua and Bailey’s – not all that pleasing to the eye, but very warming to the tummy and an instant team favorite! During the tournament, just before each period of play when we’d usually put our hands in and yell together something like “team” or “win”, we instead hollered “Duck Farrrt”! Lo and behold – the Chill won its division! Coincidence? Maybe – but, hey, you never know.
Yes, we rose to our hockey challenge that weekend – but there were plenty of other Alaskan challenges! Like, from that mountaintop at Alyeska, Sherry fearlessly snowboarded down. I stuck with the more conventional tram ride back to the lodge – where it should be noted I worked on and ultimately fulfilled my personal challenge to dine on Alaskan salmon every day of the trip! It was also an unforgettable challenge on the cruise to see how many whales I could spot from the breakfast table before I’d even had a second cup of coffee. And there’s so much wilderness to be explored!
I did think now and again though of the less recreational and more vital challenges Alaska has posed to those who’ve called it home.
I thought of the people who’ve had to seek out whales and fish not for sport but for sustenance, and of those who rebuilt their lives after a devastating earthquake in 1964. I thought of how in 1925, the sled run along the Iditarod Trail hadn’t been a competition but a race against time to get medicine to the diphtheria stricken residents of Nome. Talk about challenge!
True, Alaska is not the island I once childishly thought – but, to me, so much still sets it apart. Amazingly rich in natural splendor we can simply enjoy, Alaska also seems refreshingly ready to test our limits as much as we dare. And would I love to do more daring one day! (Okay, still not the snowboarding but, you know, other stuff.)
In the meantime, to all the people, places and pleasures that made my two visits so special, I raise a glass in toast – this glass filled with equal parts adventure, beauty and unpredictability!
Cheers, Alaska! And here’s hoping this “outsider” can come under your spell again!