Friday, 20 September 2013

My Amazing Team.

While I continue to share the frivolous descriptions of my life and travels, my other Alaskan companions are doing the incredible job of writing the fascinating and factual stuff about our trip. They also have some stunning photos. 

I think they will be updating their blog every few days but the beginning of our adventure is there already, so please have a look:

Monday, 16 September 2013

Homeward Bound.

The lovely thing about travelling halfway across the world is that it makes life a lot more pleasant if you can stop off somewhere, breaking up your journey... and I don't mean layovers, which are hideous. When I was first invited to Alaska, I realised it was going to be a long, nightmarish journey of about 16 hours, and expensive too, but there are clever ways around ticket prices… buying separate tickets for each leg of the journey, can sometimes knock off hundreds of pounds. So with the help of my very generous Uncle, I got a return ticket to Minneapolis and then a separate ticket from Minneapolis to Alaska. It meant I could spend the first 5 days of my holiday with my family and get over my jet lag at the same time. Brilliant.

I have already written about the insane Minnesota state fair that I went to with my cousin and her friends, but the other lovely thing about spending time there was getting to know that side of my family so much better. Invariably, we only see extended family at weddings and funerals, birthdays and anniversaries, fitting in snippets of conversation between toasts and mouthfuls of food. So, being able to spend long, lazy days with my Uncle, Aunt and cousin and actually just talk, was lovely. Minneapolis was also hot and sunny, which meant afternoon swims in the lake behind the house, eating lunches on the Mississippi River and having cocktails and delicious dinners on rooftop terraces. On my return trip, my Uncle and Aunt even invited me to play golf with them. Oh dear.

It's probably the one thing my friends don't know about me, that I love playing golf. When I was 16, I was given lessons as a birthday present, and my Father and I used to play at a beautiful course in Leckford, Hampshire. I played pretty well I think, but when I left to study in America and as I moved around the country, golf became an expensive luxury and certainly not an activity art students found cool. So the only time I played, was when I was on holiday. I had to warn my Aunt and Uncle that my game was not up to scratch and hoped they were very patient. Suffice to say, I might as well have played the entire 9 holes with my putting iron, as my ball skimmed around the course only about 2 inches above the ground… or as my Aunt called these particular shots, worm-burners! I was absolutely dreadful, taking great divots out of the ground, and on one occasion, hitting my ball at a right angle, and having it land on the opposite hole's green, as two men tried to putt. But I didn't care, I was having a lovely time… zooming around a beautiful course in a golf buggy, in 80 degree sunshine and a gentle breeze. It isn't a bad way to spend the morning, especially when followed with a lovely al fresco lunch. I had a wonderful time in Minneapolis. It is a stunning city with beautiful parks, lakes and rivers, delicious food, and the added pleasure of meeting my cousin's new toddler for the first time. Adorable.

As we pushed and shoved my incredibly heavy suitcase into the car to go to the airport, I had a sudden flashback to Mel (the crazy gun toting lady we met in Alaska) and what she had said when she had read my Rune stones. She had been scarily accurate but the one thing she had said to watch out for, was delays in travel. Two days later, we had had to drive the RV at snails pace because of the stinky weather, and then the boat trip in Valdez had been delayed because of storms… so I was hoping these were the only occasions my runes were referring to, and nothing to do with my upcoming flight.

The first incident was at the bag drop. The bag handler actually groaned when he put my suitcase on the scales and told me it was 10 pounds over the weight limit. I would either have to pay an extra $150 or remove some items. Oh no. My uncle quickly whispered in my ear that if I tipped him well, he would let me get away with it, so I took out $5 and placed it, very strategically, on top of the counter. Well, it obviously wasn't enough because he just put his hands on his hips and raised an eyebrow. Oh dear. I unzipped my case and a mini explosion took place, shoes and underwear springing out from every nook and cranny. Thank God, I had managed to do some washing before packing, as no one wants to see crumpled smelly socks and knickers lying deceased on the pavement. "You got any jeans or bottles that you can leave behind?" the bag man asked, "Jeans are heavy!". Um. I looked forlornly at my suitcase and pulled out a very faded and torn pair of jeans, then a bottle of vodka that I had bought simply for the packaging. It was called Big Rack Vodka, 80% proof, and had a silhouette of a moose on a camouflage background. It summed up the 'shootin, fishin, huntin' aspect of Alaska perfectly. "I don't want to get rid of the packaging but you can have the vodka inside" I said, sadly proffering the bottle. "You Australians are weird…!" He said, grabbing the bottle and weighing it on the scales. Nope… we needed more. I took out lotions and potions, a muddy pair of trainers that definitely could be upgraded and we tried again. 10 lbs on the dot. He looked at me with sympathy. "Tell you what… put the vodka back in the case and I'll just label it HEAVY." Yay.

Once on the plane, the second incident occurred. I found my seat next to a tiny woman who was sitting in a lotus position. Annoying. As I sat down, I realised I couldn't actually get my knees behind the seat. I stood up and asked the man in front of me if his seat was reclined, but it wasn't. Weird. I mentally measured the space between my seat and the back of his seat, and looked at other seats around me. There was about 4 inches less legroom. What? The day before I had paid £25 to change my seat for a 'preferred seat' which I assumed meant more legroom, not less. I called one of the stewards over and showed her. She scratched her head and went off to get another steward. They returned, and took it in turns to sit down, scrutinising the seat and came to the same conclusion, it was smaller than normal and did have much less legroom. They both went off to see if there was a free seat and came back saying the flight was full, they didn't even have anything in business or first class. I could hear slight murmurings around me - suspicious passengers a few seats away, thinking I was making a fuss just so I would be bumped up a class - so I said loudly, "Look, I fly all the time and have never had this problem, I would totally sit down and be happy if I could fit my legs behind the seat but I can't, so maybe I could take another flight if this one is full, or maybe someone shorter could swap with me? What I can't do, is sit in a seat made for someone who is 5 foot tall, for 8 and a half hours. It's impossible". No one moved, no one volunteered, so the steward got the head steward who came and took a look and nodded that there was indeed a problem with the seat. For God's sake! Then the Delta representative was called and she came onto the plane. It was becoming farcical, we were already 10 minutes late for take-off and the passengers were getting fidgety. The Delta rep simply thrust two cards into my hand and said sharply, "Sit down". I looked at the cards: Two free alcoholic drinks, compliments of Delta. "Oh, that's very kind" I said, irritated, "But trying to get me drunk won't make me any shorter. Look!" and I attempted to sit down. "Oh, I see," she said crossly. "Ok, get your bags and follow me". So I did, knowing the only solution was to bump me off that flight and for me to take another flight the following day. I said to her, as I struggled with my backpack, "Just so I'm clear, you are admitting that this seat is faulty and Delta will pay for me to take another flight tomorrow, and will I get help with accommodation for tonight and taxis etc. as I have to stay another day in Minneapolis… because of Delta's error?". She was starting to sweat, we were now half an hour late. I heard a man say, "This can't be the first time someone has noticed this, the seat was obviously designed for a midget!" I could have kissed him. 

Suddenly, a man across the aisle stood up and announced proudly, "I'll swap", as if he had just volunteered his space on a Titanic lifeboat! Relief swept through the plane. Thank God. I took off my backpack and hugged him, realising at that moment he was a teeny tiny dwarf of a man, said thank you and sunk down into his seat. The bloody Delta woman stomped up the aisle looking very confused. "This very kind man swapped with me," I said, indicating the short man in my seat. Well, talk about a change of attitude… she shook his hand, thanked him over and over again, smiling and giggling, and then wrote out a compliments slip from Delta, for $200. What? $200! I could not believe it, nor could the guy. "I just got $200 for being short," he said euphorically. I was fuming. If I had squeezed myself into that seat, all I would have got was displaced kneecaps, but he got $200. I immediately started composing a 'shocked and bewildered' letter in my head… outrageous, treated appallingly etc etc., when the Delta rep cam back on board and handed me a compliments slip. Well, that's more like it, I thought. "I'm so sorry for all the inconvenience, and I apologise on behalf of the whole Delta team." she said warmly, and shook my hand. I relaxed back in my seat and looked down at the piece of paper. It was a £25 refund for my preferred seat upgrade!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Alaska - The Final Frontier.

The bad weather lifted enough for us to go on our 7-hour boat trip to see the wildlife in Prince William Sound, and the Columbia Glacier… one of the fastest tidal glaciers in the world. 32 miles long and retreating on average, half a mile a year, creating calving ice and an amazing sea of icebergs. It's not uncommon to see Grey, Humpback, Minke and Orca whales, harbour seals, sea otters, porpoises, bald eagles, puffins and along the coastline, more bears! We were so excited we got there early, which was a good job because everyone behind us in the queue were edging forward and discussing seat tactics like war generals. We managed to get two bench seats with table in between, close enough to the outside door so we could make mad dashes outside whenever a sighting was announced. It really was too cold to stay outside the whole time and as we approached the sea of ice, 3 hours into the trip, I was particularly thankful for my thermals, numerous fleeces, ski hat and gloves. The wind chill was alarming. Of course, you always get the idiot tourists on board, who come on these trips wearing only a pair of trainers and a thin fleece, thinking that will suffice. My God, they were not happy bunnies.

We saw lots of harbour seals, then some gorgeously cute sea otters floating around in groups, some holding hands, others with arms behind their heads, looking at us with great fascination. 

We saw a large grey whale, which we sadly thought had beached in the shallow waters, so the lovely concerned Captain assured us he would call the coastguard to check on it. An hour later, he was happy to report that the whale was no longer there and had obviously managed to get back into deep water, phew. We saw bald eagles, kittiwakes, loons and cormorants, we watched mountain goats hop from boulder to boulder, hundreds of feet up sheer rock cliffs. 

The Captain carefully steered the boat through a field of aqua icebergs, casually hitting one every now and then, causing grimaces and ripples of exclamations from the passengers, as the ice scraped the underside of the boat. 

The glacier itself, was one of the most awesome things I have ever seen. Vast and beautiful, a brilliant blue white with dense indigo crevasses, creaking and groaning under its own weight.

Every now and again you would hear a terrific roar as the ice sheared off, exploding into the sea, causing a mini tidal wave and creating more and more icebergs. Breathtaking.

By the time we got back to the RV, it was almost 6pm. We knew we had to drive back to Anchorage that night, in order to return the RV by the morning so it was another long journey. Luckily, the sun came out and we saw the Chugach mountains in all their glory, passing huge glaciers and dozens of waterfalls, that we hadn't realised were there on the way down. 

We got to a state park outside Anchorage just after 1am, and all of us pretty much passed out. I say, all of us... I of course, didn't get a wink of sleep, because Brad outdid himself and saved his most outstanding snoring for our last night in the RV, how sweet! We returned it, a little more bruised and battered than when we got it, but we had grown to love Her Majesty... even with all her flaws. I hated sleeping in the RV but I loved travelling around in it. We had made some rules early on that were adhered to, thank God. Things like never pooing in the RV loo, which sometimes meant a quick sprint to a public convenience after the first cup of strong coffee. We used the shower cubicle as a shoe cupboard, so pongy hiking boots and smelly sneakers didn't infiltrate the living quarters, and when we could, we opened doors and windows for the same reason. Four adults, dirty washing, some days without showers, plus no fresh air, is not good!

So with one day left, Mike saved the weirdest surprise til last… a nights stay in the most haunted hotel in Alaska. Noooo! It was obvious by now I was not comfortable with ghosts, so spending the night with one, was really not my idea of fun. We dropped off the bags and went to grab something to eat, deciding on Mexican. Even though it was past noon, it was still officially breakfast, so having hot spicy salsa and refried beans on an empty stomach was probably not the most sensible thing to do, especially as the rest of the day was to be spent walking around town. We realised our mistake when Brad disappeared for half an hour as soon as we got inside the Anchorage Museum… I lasted another twenty minutes but I must have been longer then I thought, because by the time I came out, Mike and Diana had already left! Brad and I walked back to the hotel to check into our haunted rooms and I seized my opportunity and whispered to the receptionist, "Um, look I know the other three would probably want to be in the MOST haunted rooms, but could you put me in the LEAST haunted one please?" He frowned and looked at the computer screen. "Well, I can't guarantee it but you should be ok in room 307." Oh that's bloody reassuring, thanks.

I think the build up is sometimes worse than the reality… walking into a large beautiful room on a bright, sunny afternoon, with a cheery receptionist, did not seem scary at all, but there was definitely one thing in the room I wasn't keen on. In the bathroom was a large mirror and on the opposite wall was an equally large mirror so that when you looked into it, there was an infinite reflection that blurred into nothing, and every time I passed it, I kept thinking I was seeing something other than myself. Eek. I rang down to the front desk, just to double-check I was in the least scary room, and heard the phone ringing outside my door. Weird. "Um, are you outside my door?" I said into the receiver. "Yes" said the receptionist with no other explanation. "Ok… um… well I know I've already asked you a few times, but I will be ok in here, won't I?". I asked. A pause. "Well, we haven't had sightings in this room for a while now, so I'm sure you'll be fine" he said. Oh God.

As a prequel to a sleepless night, we met up with another contact of Mike's, a lovely guy called Rob Roy (yes really). He was another Big Foot fan but wanted to show us a place outside Anchorage, called Crow Creek Gold Mine, apparently haunted. Oh for God's sake! We bumped our way along another unpaved road for a few hours and found ourselves as this very pretty little deserted town, filled with old wooden shacks, wild flowers, and a fast flowing river. It really was very beautiful and peaceful, and even though there was a big sign saying 'CLOSED', we decided to go in anyway. 

We got out of the car and started wandering up the main path, until we heard distant barking, which rapidly got louder and louder until these two beasts came barrelling round the corner and were upon us. Dogs are sometimes hard to read… they can be barking, growling and slathering as they come towards you and as you poo yourself, they suddenly wag their tail and lick your hand… others do the opposite, looking very happy and waggy until they get two feet away from you and then go for your throat. One of the dogs barking and running towards us, looked like a St. Bernard, who'd had a really bad haircut. It ran at us at full speed, and skidded to a halt as we froze, waiting to be mauled, and then wagged it's whole body and drooled in ecstasy. We then saw a man staring at us from one of the houses. In the whole time we'd been in Alaska, we had not met a single angry, unkind or rude person, but this guy encompassed all three, as he told us we were not only trespassing but should leave immediately. He had that terrifying passive aggressiveness, saying everything in a cool low voice, but his face turning red and the veins in his temples bulging with anger. I imagined a handgun tucked into the back of his trousers, and a scene from 'Deliverance' popped into my head. We left quickly. 

After a lovely last supper of bison and elk burgers, we returned to the Historic Anchorage Hotel, fully prepared to spend the entire night awake. Our flight was really early so I set the alarm for 3am, packed, and lay in bed with all the lights on. The next thing I knew, I heard a soft knocking. I froze, scared out of my whits. The knocking became more insistent and just as I was about to wet the bed, I realised it was coming from my door. I looked at my clock and it was 4am… shit! Not only had I slept through my alarm but the airport taxi was downstairs and I was still in my pyjamas, so the only haunting I had had, was some evil ghost, sending me into a coma. I sprang up and threw everything into my case, which was very disturbing, being such a neat freak. I made it downstairs in 5 minutes and must have looked as if I has been possessed… I hadn't even had time to look at myself in the mirror and knew I had creased face and bed hair. Scarier than any bloody ghost!  

We said our goodbyes and left the wonderful and truly awesome Alaska. The people were kind, incredibly generous and very funny; the landscape so varied and beautiful that no photograph could ever do it justice; and the wildlife was abundant and breathtaking. Our ten days were a delicious appetiser, for a stunning country so vast and ever-changing, it would take months to discover. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Alaska - Part Four.

We headed down to Valdez, which is a small town on the South coast of Alaska. You may recognise the name because it was in the news in 1989 for having one of the worst environmental disasters in history. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a sandbank and leaked nearly a million barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound, one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline and famous for its wildlife. Valdez is the finishing point for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline… what some describe as one of the modern wonders of the world, wiggling its way through Alaska for 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in the North to Valdez in the South and supplying much of North America with its oil. It is an unusual place because of its contrasts… giant modern tanks and tankers constantly filling with oil surrounded by stunning fjords, glaciers and mountains; extremely wealthily oilmen and engineers sitting side by side with fishermen, tourists and regular native Alaskans.

Our journey South was, once again, greeted with the most horrific weather. When I imagined Alaska, I always thought about those big blue skies you see in photographs, but the reality of their weather in September is rain, wind and bone chilling cold... a bit like England but on a really really bad day. And the roads were appalling. Sitting in the back of the RV for seven hours, being shaken to death as it rattled and shuddered it's way through the Chugach mountains, hitting pothole after pothole and being thrown a few feet into the air every time it happened, was hideous. We got there in one piece, thanks to Brad and Diana being brilliant drivers, and decided we were going to find a warm, comfortable bar to while away the rest of the day in cosy inebriation. And we found the perfect place… The Mermaids Tale, perched on the waterfront, and possessing a very impressive beer and pizza list, lots of room to read or plug in computers, and best of all, a massive wood burning stove, creating an inviting fug.

We settled in and began writing blogs and checking emails, but after about an hour, I was totally overcome with the heat. I actually swooned when I stood up, and so decided to go outside for a bit and cool off. I wandered down to the marina and was greeted by about 5 rabbits. These weren't rabid wild things, they were completely tame, lovely fluffy bunnies that we spotted all over Valdez during the next few days. No explanation from anyone… most peculiar. When I went back into the bar, the heat of the fire room was so intense I knew it would finish me off, so I sat in an adjoining room about 10 feet away from the others, but much much cooler. The locals coming in must have thought it most odd, because ever half an hour or so I would get up, go into their room, have a chat, grab a piece of pizza and then go back out to read my book at my own table.

We returned to the RV later that night, to discover our boat trip the following day was canceled, so we decided to explore the town and drive around a bit. The following morning, after another hideous night of sleep, we started off with an enormous breakfast. 

America does breakfast like no other country… vast, cheap and delicious. Eggs done in a dozen different ways, pancakes, waffles, french toast, hash browns, muffins, bagels, steak, cereals, fruit, the list is endless. That morning, I had poached eggs on toast with a side of crispy bacon, two buttermilk pancakes with whipped butter and warm maple syrup, 3 cups of coffee and some toast and marmalade. Fatty yum yum. We managed to waddle from the restaurant and check out the local heritage museum…. a taxidermists paradise. You get used to seeing stuffed animals in Alaska, some are done well, some really not, but this place was incredible. They had paid a lot of money for these animals and they were done beautifully…. giant polar bears, grizzlies and black bears, moose, caribou, bison, musk ox, seals, wolves, mountain lions and otters.

From there, we decided to try and find the ancient pioneers graveyard, as you do. For our resident ghost hunters, Mike and Diana, it was very exciting. The place was supposed to be very spooky and also haunted. Yay. But when we found it, down a muddy lane, miles from anywhere, we started spotting signs saying, "Bear crossing" and "Beware of bears". Double yay. 

We were a long way from any other humans so decided this was where we needed to really be careful, and not only get the bear bells out but make as much noise as possible so we didn't surprise them. I suggested we walk close together so that we looked like a bigger and more ferocious predator, and it also seemed to be my job to say "hello bear" every few seconds, by way of introduction, as we walked deeper into the forest. I cannot lie... I was terrified. As we got nearer the abandoned graveyard, the mist began rising from the ground and everything was shrouded in low lying fog.

Big black ravens began cawing and huge bald eagles looked down on us from the tree tops… all in all, the whole thing looked and sounded like the beginning of the scariest horror film EVER! I took some film footage and all you can hear above the ravens, is my wavering voice saying, "Hi bear, hello bear, how are you bear" like an idiot and the occasional jingle of bells from Diana and Mike. To say I wasn't happy is an understatement, especially when we spotted half eaten salmon and flattened bushes where the bears had just had lunch, so I was giddy with relief when we got back to the RV in one piece. Mike and Diana then announced they were going back out with their ghost equipment… WHAT? Brad and I thought they were insane and decided to stay in the RV, waiting patiently and quietly, listening out for their blood curdling screams as they got eaten. They were fine.

We then drove round the coast to a spot famous for seeing black bears. It is also a spawning ground for salmon so the bears are in paradise, simply having to walk down to the shore and grabbing as many salmon as they can eat. We suddenly saw two small black bears by a stream, but we had nowhere to pull over so had to carry on, muttering and swearing that it may have been our only sighting. But then I saw a black bottom disappear into the bushes and screamed "STOP". Luckily we were right by a lay-by and pulled in. I grabbed the binoculars and tried to see where it had gone, and there it was, peeking out at us from 5 feet away, behind some bushes. Mike got out to get a better look and thats when it began to move. We screamed at Mike to get back in , and watched as it came out of the trees, behind our RV, across the road and down onto the beach. Amaaaazing. 

Then another one came out in front of us and ambled onto the beach. Mike started to get out of the RV again and Diana shouted "Michael, NO!". We all knew how fast bears can run and they could have turned round at any point. He retreated rapidly, but as soon as he was safely inside, Diana just couldn't help herself. She took out her camera, with massive zoom lens, got out of the RV, crossed the road and started snapping the bears, from the road. A crowd soon started to form because as soon as you see brake lights or someone taking photos, you know there is something worth looking at. We watched until the two black bears disappeared down the coast and we returned to Valdez.

I decided, for the third time on the trip, that I needed to sleep somewhere other than the Rv that night, away from the incessant snoring, as I was beginning to resemble a zombie, with bags under my eyes and pale, lifeless skin. I found a small B&B right next to the RV park and discovered the landlady at her desk, a tiny little thing barely able to see above her laptop. She must have been about 90 years old and I immediately noticed she had two of her fingers missing. Gulp. She gave me a cheap room on the second floor and as she handed me the key, she grabbed my hand and warned me to keep my door shut… as if I would leave it open, yeah right! When I asked why… thinking she was going to warn me of drunken trawler men or something, she said they had a young local bear, who had figured out how to open the main door and would wander the corridors looking for food. Oh my God, maybe that's where her fingers had gone! I got up to the room, locked the door and then put a chair under the handle for good measure. That would keep everything out! I was awoken in the middle of the night by a strange growling noise that made me sit up in bed, rigid with terror, but very quickly realised it was my own stomach making noises. How embarrassing! 

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Alaska - Part Three.

North to the Chena River, where we visited the stunning but freezing ice hotel, complete with ice beds in ice rooms, an igloo music room and beautiful ice sculptures everywhere. 

After an iced vodka cocktail at the ice bar (you get the idea), we warmed up by having a dip in the natural hot springs next door, water bubbling and steaming out of the rocks like a gorgeous giant sulphuric bath, and making us feel like human lobsters.

We then had a mad dash back into town, as Mike was giving a talk about Big Foot in Fairbanks biggest bookshop, Barnes and Noble. As with everything in America, things are always bigger here, and this bookshop was no different. It was the size of a supermarket with a large cafe inside and a big circular fire-pit in the middle of the store, with a dozen or so people dozing or reading around the blazing fire. Diana and I were in complete heaven, both being total book nuts.

The talk was a massive success... with so many people turning up for the presentation, that Mike had to do it twice! Big Foot is a big deal over here and they even have a hit TV reality show called 'Finding Big Foot' which some of Mike's friends are in. Quite a few of the audience talked of sightings, with one Alaskan Native woman, in particular, showing us footage of an entire Big Foot family, on her iPad. But there were plenty of skeptics too, providing quite a lively Q&A session afterwards.

We then joined the SOPAH (seekers of paranormal and history) gang, to talk about ghosts, haunted houses, exorcisms and poltergeists... as you do.

We all went for dinner, and for a treat afterwards, they took us to their favourite haunted property, a Masonic Lodge. Oh joy. I would have preferred coffee and dessert myself, but this was the way they did things. I was terrified. The stories we had heard about this place were not for the faint hearted, and the amount of equipment they lugged in to the place was even more intimidating. The had meters for reading electricity and temperature, to see if there was something in the rooms other than ourselves. They had a spirit box which attempts to photograph ghosts as they pass through it, there was a machine for recording voices, night vision cameras, all sorts. These guys meant business. I put on as many clothes as possible, as if this would protect me from the spirits, and we went in. There were about 12 of us in total, but so much for safety in numbers... as soon as we were in the door, everyone went different directions... some upstairs, some to the basement, they just scattered. I thought the basement would finish me off in term s of terror, so opted for going upstairs with two of the other women on the team who had waited for me. What they hadn't told me, was that the upstairs was where most of the scary stuff happened... it was where the Masonic rituals had been held, so women in particular were not very welcome, as it was a male-only domain. Thanks guys, good to know.

The first thing that happened as we got to the top of the wide staircase, in the pitch black, with only one torch, was Diana rushing past us, back down the stairs, looking utterly petrified. Oh God. "Diana, what's wrong, are you ok?" I shouted after her, "Did you see something?". "No, I'm fine. Just going downstairs" she said, very unconvincingly. Oh God. The girls pulled me upstairs, saying they would protect me. I clung to them like a baby gorilla as they flashed the torch around the vast room and towards the altar at the far end. Mel walked off towards a small ante-room, which she said had been used as a holding area. For what? Human sacrifices, animal sacrifices? She sounded so excited as she disappeared into the blackness, voice fading. Chris and I were left on our own with only her key-ring torch, a bloody useless thing that only lit up about two feet in front of us. We suddenly felt a cold draught and the torch went off. "Chris, I swear to God, if you are messing around, I will kill you" I said, grabbing her sleeve. The torch flickered, then went off again. My heart was beating so fast I thought I might throw up but then I got the giggles. You know when your adrenalin starts pumping and you start to feel a little hysterical? Well that was me, a giggling, shaking mess. We decided to go into a smaller room with another guy called Mike, and as we walked in, the door slammed behind us... so that was enough to send me downstairs! Diana was there looking very peaky, and she described how she had felt a very cold, angry presence upstairs that loomed up in front of her, blocking her way. She was really scared it would push her over and felt sick and dizzy. As more of the group gathered in the hallway also reporting feelings of nausea, I suggested maybe it was due to the heavy Mexican dinner we'd had, but this didn't go down very well. They are very serious about their ghosts. 

After a restless night back in the RV, and kept awake most of the time by the snore that was Brad, we decided to have a lazy day. We drove up to the North Pole and visited Santa Claus. Yup, North Pole, Alaska. Just a town that happens to have the same name, and so, of course, they've gone potty and built a Christmas shop with a real Santa, reindeer, the lot. Slightly ridiculous but also rather fun. The best thing in the shop though, were christmas fairy lights made from used gun cartridges... ahhh, how perty!

 After that, we headed over to Mel's house for the sort of party I think I will only ever experience once. It began with Diana and I having our fortunes read by Mel, followed by booze, food and shooting guns. This is partying Alaska style. The food was amazing... not quite so amazing for Mike and Diana who are vegetarian and had to make do with pasta salad, but for the rest of us, it was heaven. Freshly caught Alaskan salmon, pork loin, giant Alaskan king crab legs, yummmm. Mel lives out in the sticks so you can make a lot of noise and shoot guns. In fact, they were soo excited when they found out I had only ever shot an air rifle and gone clay pigeon shooting, that they all got out their guns immediately. Mel's guns were in her closet, three rifles, two shotguns, a handgun and two tiny pink rifles that were her granddaughters, I kid you not! 

Mike, a friend of theirs who was a sniper in the US Military, had his own personal arsenal. He had a professional crossbow, knives, rifles, shotguns, handguns, you name it, it was in the boot of his car. He also wore a gun at all times, strapped to his belt. This was definitely the man I wanted to teach me how to shoot. 

Half of us piled into Ty's truck, and the other half went in Jason's jeep, including Mike, Diana and Brad. The jeep took off so fast, gravel and dirt spitting out behind them, that we lost sight of them immediately but Mel assured us they were going to the same place as us, so we weren't worried. We had almost got to a clearing, when we were flagged down by another truck. Mel immediately shouted, "Don't stop, they've got guns, they might rob us or something", to which Mike replied, "We've got more guns than they will ever see!". Fair point. As we pulled over, we realised they were only teenagers. They told us they had put some explosives in an old fridge but had run out of ammunition, so would one of us like to shoot it instead? You don't get asked that question every day! Mike leapt out, quick as a flash and sprawled on the ground, high powered rifle in hand, aiming at the tiny white target, three hundred feet away. Seconds later... Boom! The whole thing exploded into the air, fireball, smoke, absolutely deafening. I was trying to film it and I must admit, I didn't get a lot in the frame. Not only was the noise so unexpected but you could actually feel the explosion in your chest. I think I also uttered every swear word I have ever known in the space of ten seconds.

So then it was our turn. I watched for a while, seeing how casually they all seemed to handle the weapons. They were very safe, don't get me wrong, but they were just so used to them that seeing me flinch and hide behind the car, every time a shot went off, was highly amusing to them. I was finally persuaded to come from behind the truck and shoot a rifle. Mike gave me a 22 calibre to start with, or as Mel kindly described it, "The kinda gun my kids shoot!". Thanks Mel, no pressure. And it was fine. I aimed, I shot, I hit a beer bottle, yay. I shot some more, and some more and was scarily enjoying myself. I was then given a bigger gun but I have no idea what it was called, just that it gave me a bit of a kick in the shoulder when I fired. Meanwhile, Mel was shooting some crazy looking shotgun that kicked her back about two feet and everyone else had some sort of gun in their hands, shooting into the distance. Totally freaky but my God, a total adrenalin rush. 

We suddenly realised we hadn't seen the jeep since leaving the house, and were wondering where they had got to, when we got a text, telling us they had gone off the road and were stuck in the mud. All the guys I was with just laughed, because it happens all the time in the bush, and usually the jeeps can get themselves out, but as time went on, the texts became more frantic, and it became clear they were really really stuck. So the problem with that information was there was no way of knowing where they were. There were no road signs, no distinguishing features, only mud tracks and woods, so we had no way of knowing where they were stuck in order to get them out. I knew Brad, Mike and Diana would be freaking out by this time... stuck in a jeep, in the dark, in the middle of bear country. I got quite annoyed and said, "Look guys, you may not be bothered about trying to find your friends but my friends will be scared, so please let's stop bloody shooting and try and find them".

I must have sounded fairly authoritative because they all stopped, packed the guns away and got in the truck. Amazing. After dropping the rest of us off at the house, they went out and found them, cold, muddy and tired. But the poor guys were not only in an accident with a maniac driver, they missed all the shooting too. Didn't seem fair. 

What also didn't seem fair was Mel offering me her spare room while the others slept in the RV. What?! I thought refusing would be rude!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Alaska - Part Two.

The cabin complex I had booked into for the night, seemed to have an age requirement of 70 years or older, judging by the other guests. The two young male receptionists looked quite startled when I said I wanted a room. I vaguely explained that I was there because of lack of sleep and snoring but didn't go into details. Later that night though, when I walked back to reception with Brad, Diana and Mike, the two young guys were still there. Brad said loudly in their direction, "You know that's my wife checking in?", and then to me, "And I always thought you liked my snoring, dear". The guys exchanged a knowing look, as if to say, 'Oh no, here we go, another domestic' and said to Brad, as I walked out of earshot... "Good luck Sir!" 

When I got up to the room I had the opportunity to look at myself for the first time in 4 days. In the RV there was only a small, grubby mirror in the loo, and most of the bathrooms we used when we stopped were tiny, so I was suddenly faced with a full length, and very well lit reflection. Oh dear. With my rumpled checked shirt, dirty jeans, hiking boots, pale face, tired eyes and wild banshee hat hair, the only thing stopping me from being a true Alaskan, was a beard. But when I took off my clothes, that was even scarier. There seemed to be a bruise for every 6 inches of skin. I mean, I know I'm accident prone but I honestly couldn't think what had caused them all. Then I remembered... Brad had found it rather amusing the first day of driving the RV to not inform me when he was about to start driving. So I would be casually pottering around or on the loo, and then suddenly be thrown off balance as he accelerated, causing me to bang head, legs and shins into any sharp corner. Ha bloody ha! If either of the reception guys had walked in at that moment and looked at my black and blue body, they would have thought I was a battered wife on top of everything else!

I did look a bit better in the morning thank god... 8 glorious hours of sleep and a hot shower can do wonders. We met up with Mel and Jason who were going to drive us to the Arctic Circle, weeheee. Mel and Jason were part of a group called SOPAH, that Mike had been in touch with before we travelled to Alaska. As our trip was about folklore, ghosts, Big Foot, myths and legends, as well as seeing the beauty and wildlife of Alaska, we had the added bonus of doing some slightly unusual things and meeting some slightly unusual people. SOPAH stood for Seekers of Paranormal and History, so they were basically ghost hunters, and they were to be our hosts for the next three days. Gulp.

Diana and I went in Mel's 4x4 jeep and Mike and Brad went in Jason's. It was a bloody good job, as I'm not sure a normal vehicle would have made it... mud, rain, grit and ice are a jeep's perfect day out though.

Mel had been in Alaska for about ten years after moving from Wyoming, and was married to a big haul trucker who often drove the ice road. She immediately began telling us stories. Stories which all seemed to end in either death or jail. She would start a fairly mild tale of her friend and herself having a picnic, and suddenly someone would be killed, arrested, drunk, in a fight, in an accident, or all of the above. I loved her. Mel was a self-confessed red neck with a heart of gold, but as I pointed out to her later, my god, I wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of her. She was slightly scary, and she had guns. In fact, most of the people we met in Alaska had guns and several of them carried them quite openly, in their cars or in holsters on their belts. I wasn't at all comfortable with it, but they found it far stranger when I told them we couldn't own a gun in the UK nor were our policeman armed. "So how do you kill things?" Mel asked, completely straight-faced. In fact, I have made Mel promise to email me a Mel-ism every day, because she simply has the best one-liners I have ever heard. She wanted to stop for a loo break half an hour into our journey, and said, "Jesus, I have to pee so friggin bad my bladder has stretch marks". She described her hangover from the previous, saying, "I hadn't felt that bad since the hogs ate my little brother." and  "I felt like something a coyote shit over a 50 foot cliff." Brilliant.

As we headed away from Fairbanks, the road got rougher and rougher and the weather followed suit. We went through rain, torrential rain, mist, dense fog and blanket cloud. Visibility was about ten feet. Being on the Dalton Highway - which is the only road leading North, and the one which is featured on Ice Road Truckers - is terrifying. It is an unforgiving ride... unpaved mosttly with hour long stretches of gravel and mud. 

At one point, we came around a corner, out of a fog bank, and saw a wolf crossing the road. We skidded to a stop to watch and suddenly Jason came through on the walkie talkie telling us to look behind the car as her two pups were there. They were adorable, letting our little howls as they trotted past us, trying to find mum.

Our first stop was Chatanika to look at an old gold mining dredge boat that lay abandoned in the river. The SOPAH team had been there a few months previously to investigate ghosts and it really was a very eerie place. A once bustling industry, the 1850's Alaskan gold rush was similar to the one in California, with people traveling from all over America and the World to make their fortune. Unlike California, the conditions were much much harsher and thousands perished just trying to get there. If they managed the journey, they were faced with a harsh landscape, wild animals and terrible working conditions. There were thousands of accidental deaths and many suicides, so sites like the old gold dredge were perfect for ghosts. Thank God, it was daylight, that's all I can say.

Of course we stopped several times for pee breaks but it's not always easy... The choice is either a wee in the woods or a squat & drop in a lay-by, either of which could result in a bear eating you. For a more upmarket affair, wooden cabins or shacks with outside loos are found every few hours. The owners of these places are tough cookies, not afraid to be on their own for long stretches of time and having to endure the harsh weather for months on end. Some of these places have rooms but mostly they offer delicious hot food and conversation to big burly truck drivers. We stopped at a place called the Hotspot, run by a friend of Mel's (she seems to know everyone), that served burgers the size of my head, and milkshakes so thick you needed a spoon.

Deeeelicious. If you like meat, which I do, Alaska is a carnivores playground. They don't mess about... servings are large or extra large, meat is bloody and nothing is out of bounds! They eat everything they hunt, and they hunt everything!

We got to the Arctic Circle about 5 hours later. We were very very excited. We walked around the car park, took photos by a giant map, went to the loo, chatted for a bit and then realised there wasn't much else to do but turn around and drive back again. 

By the time we got back, after another horrendous drive, it was about 9pm, so we decided to just have a quick snack for dinner and hit the hay.

I realised it may be my last chance for a few days to get a good nights sleep, so I headed over to the cabin place again to see if they had any room. The same two guys were on reception as the previous night and the older of the two gave me a huge grin as I came in and said they'd just had a cancellation and it was my lucky night. It was the master suite in the main hotel and he said he would give it to me for the same price as the cabin... wow, how nice. He seemed so happy and kept telling me it was his favourite room. He then offered to show it to me, which was weird, as it was only at the top of the stairs but I said ok as I thought it was the right thing to do. He opened the door with a flourish and excitedly showed me round. It was huge. I said "My god, I could fit my whole flat in here" and he grinned at me, coming to stand right next to me.

"This is my favourite room" he said, for perhaps the 4th time, "If I could stay in any room in the hotel, it would be this one."  And then I think he winked. I am completely stupid sometimes and thought he was hinting at a tip, so I hurriedly found my purse and handed him $3. He shook his head and smiled and said, "That's really kind but I don't want a tip". I was really confused and proffered it again saying, "Please take it, you've been so kind". He then did something that hasn't been done to me since I was at a disco in Turkey, twenty years ago. He took my hand as if to shake it and then ran his finger down the middle of my palm, poking it a bit. He smiled again, headed for the door and said, "I'll be downstairs all night if you need me." Oh. My. God. I sat down on the bed and processed what had just happened. Euuggghh, he fingered my palm! Yuck yuck yuck. Who does that sort of thing? He must have thought, after the whole snoring debacle, that I was the long-suffering wife, lonely and sex starved, possibly needing some comfort in the arms of a young strapping receptionist! I did resist by the way, just so you know. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Alaska - Part One.

I had an interesting journey from Minneapolis to Anchorage, in that I immediately noticed my flight was about 90% male, with the majority sporting creative displays of facial hair. I was happily perusing these specimens when the only clean shaven chap sat next to me. When I pointed out this anomaly, he simply said he was from Florida, as if this was the only explanation necessary. He told me he was flying to Alaska and then on to the Yukon territory where he was meeting his friend to go caribou hunting. I asked if he had brought a gun with him and he looked at me as if I was completely stupid and said, "You don't go hunting without guns". Ok then. On reflection, I asked many stupid questions about guns and hunting during my first few days in Alaska and was greeted with pretty much the same 'look' by everyone. 

I was met by Brad on my arrival in Anchorage, one of the guys on my trip. I actually heard him before I saw him as he had come to collect me in our delightful RV. This was to be our mode of transport and accommodation for the next 10 days, and I looked in horror as I saw this bone-shaking, rickety vehicle coming towards me, Brad grinning or, I realised later, grimacing behind the wheel. I stepped into the Shit Heap (a name we affectionately christened it), and was hit by a wave of pong like no other. A mixture of grease and old socks which made me dry heave on the spot. Brad gave me a sympathetic look and then said, "Um, how tall are you Jules". "5 foot 10", I replied, "why?". He made a face and looked down at the kitchen banquette area. I then realised what he was looking at... This tiny area was supposed to fold out into a bed for me, but by our visual calculations this sleeping area was made for either a child or a midget. "Oh my God" I said, "I can't sleep here". Brad made a noise, which may have been a laugh, although I didn't know him well enough at that point to be sure. 

We immediately agreed that this RV was not going to work. As we drove away, everything clattered and shook, cupboard doors shot open and the general lack of suspension in this ancient brown crap-mobile, made me realise if I remained in it for too much longer, I would have several internal fractures and most probably go insane. We decided to put it to the back of our minds and not worry about it until the others arrived. Brad and I went out for dinner and then he dropped me at my B&B, my last night of luxury before the long 10-day road trip. Brad was going to sleep for a few hours in the RV before going back to the airport to pick up Mike and Diana at God-awful o'clock the next morning. 

My host, Larry, tried to hide his disgust as he looked out of the window at what I had arrived in. "Wow, that's pretty old" he said. Yup, thanks for stating the bloody obvious. Larry introduced me to his partner Frank and they showed me round their very pretty, very twee house. I had been given the jacuzzi room and decided I would make as much use of this as possible. I made the mistake of adding two minute drops of bubble bath, started the jets, and moments later my bath looked like the top of a lemon meringue pie. Oops. I waited half an hour for the suds to dissipate and tried again. The noise was unbelievable, as if a jumbo jet was flying through the bathroom but I presumed this was ok and lay back in blissful repose. 

After a wonderful nights sleep I decided to have another jacuzzi, before breakfast. Well, why not. But when I climbed from my basement room straight out into the breakfast area, and was greeted with a row of very bemused faces, I wondered wether there was some sort of jacuzzi protocol and having one in the morning was deemed a bit extravagant. That, or I may have been singing very very loudly to hear myself above the bubbles!

Brad, Mike and Diana picked me up, and after big hugs and a catch up, we all agreed that we needed a different RV. We drove back to the RV hire place, which to me, looked like a dumping ground for every type of truck, tractor and machinery, and were greeted by Ira. Ira was a short black guy with one tooth and a booming laugh. He was incredulous when he saw that it was me that was supposed to sleep on the dwarf bed and said that he had mentioned this problem to Brad. Brad looked sheepish and denied everything!

So, after a very anxious three hours, while we waited for the new RV's electricity to be fixed, we were on our way... in a cleaner, bigger, less smelly and generally more modern RV than the Shit Heap. This new one was named Her Majesty, as her model name, emblazoned down each side, was Majestic.

We headed out of town and stopped at the Alaska Native Heritage Centre to learn about the First Nations's way of life, past and present. It was fascinating; just seeing how they survive in minus 60 degrees was an eye opener... they only have official snow days when it's more than 49 degrees below freezing. Makes London seem a bit ridiculous when everything shuts down after a few inches of snow! These people know how to live in this cold and rugged landscape... it shows in their clothes, their tools, their art. If you are squeamish about killing animals, this is not a place for you... the only way they have survived is to hunt, skin and eat every part of a whale, seal, otter, bear, fox, wolf, and musk ox. If it isn't human, it will be dinner. As we walked around the grounds, it began to rain and so I put my rain jacket over the top of my backpack. We soon realised people thought I had some weird deformity and I was an unfortunate hunchback. When I walked back into the heritage centre I was even offered a wheelchair!

We began heading north, driving up pretty much the only highway in Alaska. We scanned every wood and clump of trees for animals but didn't see anything. What we did see, were shops that only the North American frontier would have... stores renting and selling guns, snowmobile and ATV (all terrain vehicles) yards, fishing and hunting outlets.

The more North we drove, the more I came to realise that Alaska is about the land, the animals and the weather. If you think we talk about weather a lot in England, this is something else. The weather is discussed all the time, at great length, because their survival, their jobs, their way of life depends on it. It gets so cold here in winter, humans almost hibernate alongside mammals. They hunker down and wait it out, emerging in Spring having endured unbelievable cabin fever. 

One of the funniest things I heard was about going to the loo when it's freezing outside. Above Denali, many of the toilets are what we call 'squat and drops'... privies built outside, in tiny log cabins. So when it's freezing, and they go to spend a penny or have a poo, it freezes on the spot and they end up with a stalagmite coming up out of the loo, which they occasionally have to knock down with a spade. They affectionately call them 'poopsicles'! Alaskans have a fabulous sense of humour!

We arrived in Denali late and spent our first night in an RV park in the woods, under a massive sky filled with stars. So beautiful and peaceful... until Brad started snoring. Back in January, when I was invited on the trip, my only concern was the sleeping arrangements. I need my sleep and if I don't get enough sleep or have interrupted sleep then I am not a happy bunny. That's putting it mildly. I cannot function, I am irritable, I am miserable, I am a bitch from hell. So I made damn sure that the RV was big enough for all of us to sleep comfortably and that Brad, who would be looming above me on a platform three feet away, did not snore! I asked Mike and Diana several times before I booked my flight, "Does Brad snore?". No, they said. That was good enough for me. Imagine my horror then, when five minutes after lights out, a gentle rumble emerges from the platform bed. I held my breath and prayed. A few more snuffles and then suddenly velocity and volume increased and Brad was... snoring.

I tried not to think ahead to the next 9 nights and hoped this was just a 'one off'. I reached into the dark for my sponge bag and located my earplugs which I stuffed rapidly into my ears. It blocked out just enough for me to drift off. A few hours later I woke up to a strange sensation. Brads snoring was actually vibrating through his mattress, down the partition and into my body. It also didn't help that the RV had very squidgy suspension so that whenever any of us moved in our beds or rolled over, it was like a delayed wave, rolling up the vehicle causing slight motion sickness every time. 

The only good news was that we had to wake up at 5am for our tour into Denali, so the torture of sleeplessness didn't last too long. I felt exhausted but was so excited to see wildlife, I didn't care. The first thing we were told on our tour bus was shout 'STOP' as loudly as possible if we saw any animals. The bus would then screech to a stop and photos and gasps of wonder would ensue. We drove and drove deeper into the park and saw nothing. No birds no insects and no bloody animals. We even drove down a ten mile stretch of road called Moose Alley but did we see a moose? No! About three hours later, and with several passengers dozing off, I saw something to my left. This is then what happened inside my brain, over the next 2 seconds:
"Ooh look at that big gray sheep, thats cool. Hold on, they don't have sheep here, so maybe it's a wild boar or something. Do they even have wild boar? Not sure. It's too big though. Nope I don't think it's a boar. Oh look, I think there's two of them. Hmmmm, what is that? It's big and brownish grey, and furry and... um.... Holy shit. BEAR!" I panicked. I stared again. I then had massive self doubt that if I shouted stop and the bus slammed its breaks on and what I had actually seen was a bush, then 30 people would give me that  annoyed pitying look. Oh sod it! I stood half up in my seat and screamed. "BEAR. STOP. BEAR!"
All the Japanese tourists on the bus, flung themselves across the aisle, cameras out. "Where, where?" I looked again and my mouth nearly hit the floor. It was a female grizzly bear with two cubs. Oh my god. I shouted, "Bear and two cubs, 8  o'clock!" Bus frenzy! Cameras, pushing, shoving. We watched in awe as the mother came down the slope with her two cubs, onto the road and began rolling on her back a few feet from us while the cubs played and gambolled around her. They didn't seem to have noticed this big grey bus right beside them and casually strolled over to a tree and began scratching against it. It was amaaazing!

After that we saw several moose, herds of caribou, pika, which look like giant guinea pigs, and then we saw something even the driver hadn't seen this year...  a beautiful pale, shy, and very rare lynx! A truck had pulled up ahead of us so we knew they had seen something and as we slowed down, this amazing creature just slowly padded across a dry river bed, 20 feet from us. We were so lucky to see it. 

In fact the whole day was utterly incredible and we saw more than we ever hoped to. The only teeny tiny downside, was that because the sheer ruggedness of the Alaskan man means they dont feel the cold, our driver Martin decided not to heat the bus. Our old rickety draughty bus was freezing. I noticed he was in a short-sleeved shirt while the rest of us were bundled up like Nanook of the North. He had his window wide open most of the time too sending currents of frigid air through the bus. I asked him how he could drive with the window down and he said he enjoyed pissing off the tourists but it also kept him awake. He called the window his 'Pneumonia hole'. 

That night, Diana made a delicious mexican meal but I was looking at the refried beans with slight dismay at what might be emitted later that night. Fortunately, there didn't seem to be a gas leak but the lovely Brad continued to make noise that even my earplugs couldn't block out. I think I managed about 4 hours in total.

So a strong coffee was definitely needed to start Day 3, an ATV ride into the wilderness of the mountains, through canyons and along white water. It was muddy and wet and bumpy and absolutely brilliant fun. Of course, there was still the danger of meeting a bear, moose or wolf in the woods so we were keeping our eyes peeled as we sped along. At one point I was sure I saw movement and lost concentration, veering off the track. The couple behind me said it was hilarious to watch because I literally careered into a bush and back out again. 

We then headed up to Fairbanks, the last town at the end of the main road in Alaska and a few hours from the Arctic Circle. I was so tired at this point, after two nights of horrendous sleep, that I booked myself into a cabin adjacent to the campsite. And this is when things got really odd!