“Let whoever wants to, relax in the south,
And bask in the garden of paradise.
Here is the essence of the north and its autumn
I’ve chosen as this year’s friend.”
― Anna Akhmatova
The original plan for our Pan-American trip was to travel from Colombia to Ushuaia, and then back from Ushuaia all the way to Alaska. Unfortunately, plans never work flawlessly and we had to cut our trip short and leave Alaska for better times.
I love the summers in Ontario. They are hot and humid, everything is green and blooming, and colorful. The mosquitos are a little bit too friendly, but you cannot ask for everything to be perfect. I was at peace with our Canadian summer, so when Ivan woke me up one morning in July with: “Darling, we have unfinished business. Let’s go to Alaska”, the only thing I could do was shrug and hope for warm weather and a good story.
The day before we left Toronto, I posted on Facebook a picture of my luggage. I just wanted to brag about what a minimalistic traveller I am, but most of the responses were: “Be careful. There are bears in Alaska”
Hm, bears. I didn’t think about them until my friend mentioned them. I must pack my bear bell, and bear spray and will be ready for them.
Except for finishing the Pan-American route, there was one more purpose of the trip to the last frontier. We wanted to rent an RV and see what the feeling would be. There are so many untraveled roads. Silk Road or Trans-Siberian Highway for example. We just needed to see if the van life is a good fit for our travel style and plan our next trips accordingly.
Almost everyone knows that Alaska is the largest, northernmost, and westernmost state in the US. But what most people don’t know is that Alaska has the easternmost longitude of the US as some of the islands extend to the Eastern hemisphere. It has become a family joke and a great trivia question to friends over dinner: “What is the westernmost state? Alaska. What is the easternmost state? Which city is more to the north – Toronto or Venice?”
Even before we landed in Anchorage, we glimpsed Alaska’s beauty through the clouds and airplane windows. It looks wild, cold, and unreachable.
Our first day in Alaska proved me wrong. It wasn’t so cold. It wasn’t cold at all. We drove to Seward and after a quick visit to the city, we parked our RV on the outskirts and prepared our first RV dinner. There, next to a beautiful clear lake, we enjoyed the calm of nature. Surprisingly – no mosquitos. And with a sun that doesn’t set everything was perfect.
Driving from Seward to Homer provided us with an opportunity to have a few quick hikes around Copper Landing and Cooper Lake.
I was very bear-aware with a bear bell and bear sprays. Who can say that I am not a responsible hiker?
Homer, Alaska often was referred to as “the end of the world”. I could proudly say that I have been from one “end of the world” to the other. From Ushuaia to Homer, Alaska.
We arrived late and only had time for a quick drink in Salty Dawg Saloon, one of the first cabins built in Homer back in 1897
and to book the trip of my dreams. We are going to see the bears. Not the cute teddy-bear-looking Ontario black bears, but the gruesome salmon-fishing grizzly bears.
When we booked our bear trip, I was a little skeptical and I thought that we might spot one or two bears from far away. And I was so wrong. We saw BEARS. We saw many grizzly bears. In 2-3 hours we saw more than 30 or 40 of them – moms with babies, juveniles, and big males.
In the early morning, we flew for over an hour with the smallest waterplane to Katmai National Park. We landed in a small lake and started our hunt for bears. And surely, soon enough we spotted the first one. It was a female. No, it was a mom with two teens. According to our guide, they are close to two years old and that would be their last summer with their mom. And as all children they were curious. So much so that one of them come to our group to meet us.
Next few hours we were in the bear kingdom. I never could have believed that is possible to stay 10 meters away from a mommy grizzly with babies or to be between a young and a huge old male grizzly.
The grizzlies are very territorial and what you see in the pictures is very unusual. We were watching a huge male hunting and eating salmon from the river when a young male jumped from the shore no more than 5 meters from the old one. They just looked at each other and moved in different directions. This could happen only when there is an abundance of food. The rivers and streams we crossed were literally boiling with salmon.
This year was good for the fish and that made our bears very calm and happy. There were so many fish that the bears ate only the sides and the head and threw the rest away. When our guide explained that all that fish is walking dead and it will be dead in a week or two, I wondered can we collect it. There are so many people to benefit from it. Do we have to leave it to waste? Our guide, an old, native man looked at me and smiled: “Everything has its place in nature. The land here is so harsh and poor in ingredients. The fish you are looking at was born 4 years ago in this exact stream. It travelled to the ocean, but in the end, each and every one of the salmons travels to its place of birth. To leave its eggs for the new ones, to be eaten or simply to die. And its flesh and bones will be the nutrients for the next generations. “
After the bear-watching trip, excited and in awe, we drove to Whittier. It is one of the weirdest places we have visited ever. You can reach the city only by driving through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This is a single line 4.1-kilometre-long tunnel under the mountain. It is the longest highway tunnel in North America and probably one of the few that you must share with a train.
The tunnel has a strict schedule for when the cars can drive eastbound, westbound or when the train will pass. The tunnel is open from 6 am to 10 pm only. We were there relatively late and when we arrived in Whittier, we have no other choice but to look for a place to spend the night. Whittier is famous as a city where its population of around 200 people lives in only one 14-story high-rise building.
The underground path connects the building with the school no more than 100 meters away. In the building, there is a grocery store, a medical clinic, and a hairdresser, and it is rumoured that there are residents of the city that haven’t left the building for years. The place feels surreal and spooky and I have goosebumps on my arms that night.
We parked the RV in a remote spot across the building and I felt like in Stephan King’s book or in some futuristic movie. But I suppose life in the only huge building in the city is not so different than in some remote village in Peru or in Bulgaria. Everyone knows and is connected to everybody in the community.
In the morning we have some time to enjoy the magnificent peaks and glaciers around the city before we drove again through the tunnel toward the Anchorage airport to pick up our son.
At the time we were planning our Alaskan adventure, Ivan Jr. was wondering if he wants to come with us. He was accepted for the summer term course in Jerusalem where he had to study for three weeks, get one more university credit and have 2 weeks trip around the biblical places. I told him: “Baby, you can come with us of course. There will be a place for you in the RV, but I totally will understand if you prefer to go to Israel.” What was my surprise when he decided to come with us: “I will have all the time to travel to distant places, but I don’t know how many more vacations I will be able to be with you guys”. Isn’t he sweet?
We picked him up from the airport and we headed straight toward Denali Park. The native Americans named the pick Dinale or Denali which means “tall” in their language. When Alaska was Russian territory, the mountain was referred to as “Big Mountain”. In 1896 the peak was named McKinley, as support for presidential candidate William McKinley. In the 1960s for a brief period of time, the north and south peak of the mountain was known as Churchill peaks.
Finally, in 2015 the name Denali was restored to the national park, the mountain, and its highest peak. But for me, it always will be McKinley. This is the peak I dreamed to climb when I made my first steps in mountain climbing on the not-so-high and dangerous slopes of Bulgarian mountains, many, many years ago. So, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of this great peak and sending it to my friend in Bulgaria. The one with whom we used to climb, read and dream together.
Here, inside the Alaskan peninsula and away from the ocean the weather was a little bit on the cold side, even in August.
After Denali Park, we restocked our supplies in Fairbank and stopped at an RV camp just outside the city.
The next day a long unfinished job awaited us – a trip to the northern end of the world or our postponed end of the Pan-American highway.