(3rd in a series of 3 posts on Alaska travel)
The blight of Valdez soon faded into four days on the Kenai Peninsula that assaulted our senses with beauty. Pristine coastal waters, snow-covered mountains, calving glaciers dropping thunderous boxcar-sized chunks of ice into Prince William Sound, abundant wildlife in every direction, nearly everything “Alaska” seemed to be here.
Homer, at the southern tip of the peninsula, is “The Halibut Fishing Capital of the World,” and apparently a meeting center for bald eagles by the hundreds if not thousands. It’s an artsy town where Ellen took a watercolor workshop sponsored by the Homer Arts Council while I wandered through museums and coffee shops and savored the Anchorage Daily News in the Homer Public Library.
We had to experience fresh-caught halibut while in Homer. One evening we went to the highly recommended Homestead Restaurant on East End Road, about eight miles from the main part of town. The meal that followed ranks among the best dining experiences we have ever had. The snow-white halibut came with black rice, a rare type of rice we had not had before. Other parts of the meal don’t stand out in my memory, but perfectly sauteed halibut with incredibly nutty black rice was unlike anything we had ever experienced. Ahhh, I can see and taste it now.
Heading north the next day on Highway 9, about fifteen miles south of Seward, we came into a particularly scenic roadside stop. There on a large plaque was a quote from geographer Henry Gannett of the Harriman Alaska Expedition of 1899 that read:
“There is one word of advice and caution to be given those intending to visit Alaska . . . If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of its kind in the world, and it is not wise to dull one’s capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first.”
The next day was a perfect example of what Gannett wrote about in 1899. We drove from picturesque Seward to Whittier, accessed by driving through a recently built one-lane tunnel used by cars, RVs, buses, trucks, and trains. We trusted that a competent team of people would keep us from driving head-on into a train. Whittier is a town of about 300 people living in only two buildings that previously belonged to the military. We had never seen a town like this.
We took a five-hour fjord cruise from Whittier to see twenty-six glaciers in Prince William Sound. This was one of the best days of the trip, rivaling our ride into Denali. Rain, wind, and clouds didn’t detract a bit from the scenery. Our boat went slowly among thousands of icebergs with visible portions varying in size from apples to large cars. With only one-ninth of an iceberg visible above the water line, some of these icebergs were hundreds of feet in diameter. Sea otters with smiling faces greeted us from the surfaces of the larger icebergs. Chunks of ice several stories high came crashing from the glaciers into the water, making thunderous sounds and setting off impressive waves that traveled long distances. The ice was unique in composition and form with diverse formations of rock and soil folded in from the grinding flow down mountain valleys. These deposits appeared dark gray, even charcoal at times, surrounded by white or blue-tinted ice. Our guides explained that glacier ice is perfectly clear and the blue look is an illusion caused by refracted light.
That night we parked back in Seward overlooking a moonlit bay with mountains almost touching the moon. Ellen read a book in the RV while I took a short walk into town. Music was in the air ahead of me, country music coming from a honky-tonk. I stepped in to see a crowd of about fifty people listening to a singer dressed in Western wear like many of those who appear nightly in Austin. The singer was good and I listened carefully to his songs. Instead of singing about lost love, or cattle, or horses, every song I heard in a fifteen-minute period was about fishing! This brought back to mind that perfect white halibut with black rice that Ellen and I had savored in Homer three days earlier. I love to catch fish with a fork—on a dinner plate.
We spent our last two days of the trip in Anchorage—a city of 240,000 making up forty percent of the state’s population. It sits at the north end of Cook Inlet with lush and impressive mountains on the east and west sides of town. Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America 125 miles to the north, was clearly visible from downtown. Anchorage was much more sophisticated than we had expected. Many young, ambitious professionals live there, and they are cosmopolitan, educated, and apparently prosperous.
Henry Gannett made a good point. Go to Alaska when you are old. My added caution is this: Don’t put it off too long to be able to get around. But go! I would also add, since Henry Gannett had no way of knowing about today’s rapidly disappearing glaciers, Alaska may never be as beautiful as it is now. So go as soon as you can.
Alaska—Denali National Park in Retrospect (1st in a series of 3 posts)
Alaska—North to Fairbanks, South to Valdez (2nd in a series of 3 posts)