Changes in lattitude

Trip Start Oct 29, 2003
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Flag of United States  , Alaska
Monday, June 28, 2004

The three hour flight from Seattle was one spectacular long sunset over snow-capped peaks and blue ocean (the old codger next to me wanted the blind lowered so that he could see 'Calendar Girls' better, but the view out the window far surpassed that of naked old ladies so I ignored him). When I arrived in Anchorage the sun had popped back up over the horizon. Hard to believe it was midnight, but then again this was the Summer Solstice.

This was my third trip up here, and the first one in four years. The reason for this trip was for a couple of weddings. Two friends from college in the States ('soccer' teammates Jeff Sack and Alex Czopp for those of you that know them), thoughtfully planned their weddings two days apart in the same town, which was very considerate of them and their families. I was met at the airport by Jeff and Brent, another college friend who had flown in from China, and spent the night at Jeff's crowded house. They had lots of family and friends in town so myself and Brent had booked a train ticket early the next day to get up to Fairbanks in the interior to spend a few days with Sam, yet another college friend.

The passenger train only operates during the summer months, mainly catering for the Grey Army of retirees who are literally wheeled off the cruise boats and onto double-decker carriages also owned by the cruise companies (judging by some of the passengers I wouldn't be surprised if the last carriage was a mobile morgue). We were in a normal 'non-cruise' carriage complete with enthusiastic college kid giving mundane commentary spiced up with "which is pretty neat!" every other sentence or so. Not for the first time on my travels, I was pleased to have my iPod.

It was a 12 hour trip up to Fairbanks, not because it's so far - about 360 miles - but because the train is so slow. The first half of the trip took us along the Knik Arm and the Susitna River, with the cloudless day giving great views of the Alaska Range and Denali, at 20,320 feet North America's highest mountain formerly known as McKinley (as in Australia and New Zealand historical native names are replacing those changed by whitey). Very scenic it was too, up until the Denali National Park stop. By comparison the second half was pretty dull but we eventually pulled into Fairbanks at 8:15pm. We spent the evening catching up over a few beers and grilled salmon which Sam caught at the weekend, as you do.

While Sam was at work we lazed around the house, admiring the bear rug that Sam shot one winter and enjoyed the 25C temperatures. I managed to listen to the England-Portugal game over the internet, and was utterly distraught at yet another penalty shoot-out loss. To help me get my mind off the disappointment, Sam put us to work cleaning his raft and preparing bait for our fishing trip after the weddings. The bait consisted of mixing salmon roe, sugar, salt and borax which we molded into small disgusting globs before freezing. If the fish didn't fall for it I only had myself to blame.

We drove down to Anchorage Thursday night with another wedding guest who flew in, some of you know him as Rookie, some as Doug, and soon everyone as Dawg. We met up with yet more friends who had arrived from the east coast, and Friday drove down to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula. In the afternoon we stopped at the Kenai river for a short float and fish before getting to Seward in time for attending Jeff's rehersal dinner at the Alaska SeaLife Center. Built with money from the Exxon Valdez disaster relief fund it's a great insight into Alaskan sea life and a unique place to have dinner, although I'm sure the diving puffin in the tank beside me was eyeing up the food on my plate.

The wedding on Saturday wasn't until 3pm so we went to visit Exit Glacier earlier in the day. Alaska is full of glaciers, but this is one of the most accessible. To get to the terminus we had to walk through a number of glacial streams, which might not sound too difficult but let me tell you that after about five steps my feet were so cold I was anxious to get out pretty sharpish. The widest stream was probably ten paces, and after dodging small icebergs the bones in my feet were aching from the cold. It's hard to believe that water could be that could without being frozen.

The wedding ceremony went very well with the bride looking resplendent, although three guests (namely Pete, Ryan and Bowen) showed up 20 minutes late after getting lost on a mountain hike. Good work, fellas! There then followed a six-hour wedding reception with live band and much wine and dancing into the twilight of 1am, at which point the party adjourned to a big old campfire on a gravel bar beside a glacial river. By that time things got a wee bit blurry, but I remember singing 'Come on Eileen' for some reason.

Sunday was spent recovering. Some went fishing, and some - like me - did absolutely nothing in preparation of wedding #2 on Monday. Dr Alex and Dr Wendy met at graduate school in Kentucky, but Wendy's parents run a tourist cruise boat company out of Seward during the summer (for a live web-cam of Seward harbour click here. The wedding ceremony was brief and to the point, and the reception that followed was held on one of Wendy's parents boats as we cruised around Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park drinking yet more wine looking for whales and otters (unfortunately we only saw otters, plus a few glaciers, and several empty glasses). Following this unique wedding experience we decided that we should once again do the fire thing, so after acquiring enough chopped up firewood from the pile hidden behind the hotel's reception we once again went down to the river. This time we were lucky enough to see a black bear wander out of the woods and swim down the river, but fortunately he was a couple of hundred yards away.

So with the weddings over part two of my Alaskan adventure was about to begin: a week of fishing, camping and floating down the Gulkana River. Salmon beware!
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