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!

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