Alaska | The cold air up there

Alaska | The cold air up there
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First Published: Fri, Jul 10 2009. 10 17 PM IST

On a high: (from top) Mt McKinley is the highest peak in North America; a Bald Eagle; the Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik. Photographs: Alaphia Zoyab
On a high: (from top) Mt McKinley is the highest peak in North America; a Bald Eagle; the Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik. Photographs: Alaphia Zoyab
Updated: Fri, Jul 10 2009. 10 17 PM IST
It sounded like the tinkling of ice cubes in a glass, except that there was no glass. There was a big lake. The water on the edge of the Grewingk Glacier lake had turned into cubes of ice and gentle waves knocked them against the gravel, creating a jingling sound I had never heard in the outdoors.
On a high: (from top) Mt McKinley is the highest peak in North America; a Bald Eagle; the Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik. Photographs: Alaphia Zoyab
From the calving of a glacier and the cries of a kittiwake to the crunching of your own footsteps on a lonely gravel beach—in Alaska, you have to listen as much as you have to look. In bear country, your safety could depend on it.
With the goal of covering as much of south-central Alaska as possible, we had rented a 29ft RV (recreational vehicle or motor-home) instead of getting on a cruise ship. No need to book hotel rooms or plan our sorties into the great outdoors: We could stop any time to enjoy the Alaskan wildlife, landscape and history. RV-ing in the crisp, early summer on Alaska’s empty highways is freedom unlimited.
We headed south from Anchorage on the scenic Seward Highway, flanked by the waters of the Cook Inlet and snow-capped mountains—enough to challenge any driver’s concentration. Our stated destination was the port town of Whittier. It’s a small, dull place, but access lies through a day trip across the Prince William Sound, a living museum of wildlife and glaciers. As our boat crept up as close as possible to the glaciers, the anticipation on the deck was almost tactile: Everyone was waiting and watching for calving—the birth of an iceberg as chunks of ice break off from the glacier. With the wall of white before us, we heard it before we saw it, a clap similar to thunder as chunks of glacial ice broke off before crashing into the icy waters of the Sound.
Bear with me: An unperturbed grizzly ambles by a parking lot. Photograph: Alaphia Zoyab
Way back in 1867, the Russians sold Alaska to America for the grand sum of $7.2 million. Driving past small towns and villages along the Sterling Highway to Homer—at the very tip of the Kenai peninsula—we could tell the region retains a Russian influence. Keen to see a Russian Orthodox church, we went off the highway at the village of Ninilchik. At the end of the appropriately named Orthodox Avenue, just before the land dropped sharply into the sea, stood a beautiful white church with a green roof and ochre onion domes. As we marvelled at the Matryoshka dolls inside, a bishop emerged to start a service with all of two devotees participating. We stood near the entrance in awkward silence for a few minutes before shuffling out, only to find a notice informing us that we had stumbled into a funeral service!
We moved from the sounds of birth (of icebergs) and death to the stuff of life. We hired a water taxi to take us across the Kachemak Bay to 400,000 acres of wilderness in the Kachemak Bay State Park. Bulked up in layers of warm clothing, we raced along the water, landing on a lonely shore 20 minutes later. Todd, our boatman from upstate New York (the tourist industry seems to be run entirely by non-natives from the rest of America) promised to return in 5 hours. We embarked upon the Glacier Lake trail, keeping up a loud chatter to alert any bears in the vicinity—a good thing too, because we came across plenty of fresh bear dung. Thankfully, the trails in Alaska’s state parks are well marked and watched over: Hikers have to sign registers before setting off, ensuring their absence will be noted should they get lost.
The trail took us uphill through a wood of spruce and cottonwood trees, plateauing before opening up suddenly into a beautiful lake with the Grewingk Glacier flowing into it. And it was here that we fell silent to listen to nature’s unique little ice-cube jingle, the only disruption coming from a cawing raven, probably challenging us intruders.
At Homer, it was time to turn the RV around, but our Kenai experience still had one gaping bear-sized hole. Our longing to see one of the state’s most famed residents was fulfilled in the most unexpected of places—in a parking lot halfway to Anchorage. As we pulled into a lot near a stream at Cooper Landing, we found a big brown bear scrounging for food about 20ft away. It stayed oblivious to the five faces plastered against the window of the RV. We had 5 exclusive minutes photographing the bear till alert drivers along the highway started pulling in, sending it right back into the woods.
After four days on the Kenai, it was hard to imagine that a few US Congressmen had opposed the purchase of Alaska from Russia. The place had been derisively labelled “Icebergia” and “Walrussia” and the newspaper New York World had declared: “Russia has sold us a sucked orange.” Clearly, in the mid-19th century, it was hard to imagine you could do anything in Alaska but bundle up in layers of wool and stay indoors. But in the 21st, an Alaskan summer is incredible fun, offering plenty of options and 20 hours of daylight.
And of the many sounds we loved, perhaps the one we grew most attached to was the gentle roar of our RV—a great big beast of a vehicle that took us to all the incredible sights that go with the sounds and became home, even while allowing us to roam free.
Do
Alaska is the perfect destination for a driving holiday. If travelling in a largish group, it makes sense to hire an RV. Five of us rented our RV from Alaska Travel Adventures (www.bestofalaskatravel), and received excellent service. Daily rental rates in summer are around $113 (around Rs5,500). In addition, there is a housekeeping package ($35 per person) and mileage charges (25 cents per mile).
Know
Try to pick up and drop off the RV at the same location if you don’t want to pay an additional fee. Driving on Alaska’s roads in summer is fairly simple. An international driver’s licence is necessary. If you’re a first-timer, it is advisable to purchase the Collision Damage Waiver insurance as well as
Windshield Damage Protection. Carry along ‘The Milepost’, a guidebook with detailed descriptions of every milepost along the highways.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jul 10 2009. 10 17 PM IST