Monday, September 22, 2008

Leaving that dam ship

Alaskan mountain majesty

My last view of an Alaskan glacier from the Alaska Railroad train

September 14 and 15

The last morning on the M/S Volemdam (that dam ship!) was literally only a few hours. Bags had to be in the hallway by midnight, which meant that whatever clothes one intended to wear the final day(s) had to be carried by hand or put out in advance. The night was rainy and dreary. It was if Alaska was crying that I would be leaving her behind soon. A final breakfast line for early departing passengers was opened at 5:00 a.m., but by the time I got through the very long line, I had all of ten minutes to down the food. We docked in Seward, Alaska at 6:00 a.m. and in just a few moments I boarded a car of the historic Alaska Railroad. Originally begun as a private concern, the Alaska Railroad was taken over in 1914 by President Woodrow Wilson and completed by President Warren G. Harding in 1923 at a total cost of $60 million. The first leg of the train runs between Seward and Alaska's largest city, Anchorage, a journey of 114 miles. The remainder of service continues another 356 miles to Fairbanks. And what a train. The cars are constructed out of large plexiglass that afford unparalleled views of the Alaskan countryside. While we didn't see any moose, we did spy some mountain goats and eagles along the way. The Alaska Railroad is run along a single track over formidable ground. Each five-mile section of track is cleared for forward progress. If another train is approaching, one gets the right of way and the other pulls off onto a side track until it receives clearance. Each car has its own food service and drink area, while a club car allows for other amenities like espresso, cappachino and smoothies either with or without alcohol. The service was excellent and the four and a half hour trip was most enjoyable. Over the course of the short morning trip the scenery that was viewed was absolutely incredible. We arrived in Anchorage at 11:30 a.m. and were whisked to the Sheraton Anchorage, which served as a courtesy area for all disembarking passengers from the Volendam who were heading off to the airport. The luggage from the ship was already at the hotel, having been trucked from the ship. It was time to check out the sights of Anchorage.

Anchorage Trolley

A city trolley tour of Anchorage cost only $15.00 and lasted nearly an hour. The tour went to the airport near the center of town that boasts the largest number of private aircraft on a per capita basis. According to the tour conductor, one in 26 people in Alaska have pilot's licenses. Near the end of the tour, I elected to hop off and check out the Anchorage Art Museum. There was supposed to be an admittance fee, but as I approached the front door, I was surprised to learn that it was Hispanic Americans Appreciation Day and no fee was required. To which I replied, "Muchas gracias!" The museum had a wonderful collection on Alaska native life and a special exhibit on the Iditerod, the famous dog sled race. Several pieces of art were featured and it was the only way I was able to "see" Mount McKinley in Anchorage (not visible due to low clouds):

An oil featuring Mt. McKinley
An oil painting of Mt. McKinley

I dined at Orso Restaurant in downtown Anchorage, the site of the most powerful earthquake in the nation's history in 1964. Since those 44 years, the city has rebounded and proved to be quite resilient. By the time that evening fell, it was time to get to the airport with luggage in tow. My flight started in Anchorage at 9:22 and was due to fly all night to Dallas, three hours ahead of Alaska time. With just 15 minutes between flights from landing in Dallas to boarding a plane headed to New Orleans, it was 9:00 a.m. when I was back in a post-Ike and post-Gustav environment. It all looked the same, but I knew that wasn't the case. Parts of Mandeville and several sections of Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes hit hard by Gustav were revisited with floodwaters during Ike's close passage. Alaska seemed a world away and indeed it was.

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