Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Revisiting Alaska: A Travelogue

I had to look back in my blog archives to see if I've already written about this and I didn't. I wrote next to nothing about it actually considering how happy it makes me feel (probably still on a high and didn't want to shake it). I'm talking about a some of my experiences in Alaska back in May. (Warning, very, very long post!)

I'm in the middle of re-reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and finally saw the last 1/3rd of the movie. I had been avoiding it for years because I didn't want to cry. The book is enough. I resonate with a lot of it. Seeing the scenery of Alaska on screen brought back some great memories.

The neat thing about solo travel is getting to meet people. I'm not the type to suddenly sit beside someone and start talking. What I mean is that I inevitably end up talking to someone in a non deliberate way.

It starts at the airport in Vancouver with me all excited and stuff. I was sitting beside an older lady who was waiting for the same shuttle. It begins with a knowing glance, a smile and shrug when we found out the shuttle was delayed yet again and the conversation began.

Turns out we are both heading to Alaska for our first time. She lives in Calgary but went to university in the same city as me. Fast forward 5 hrs and we are still chatting. I've met some members of her family and because there was another delay, I was routed with her into an express line due to her hip issues and the officials' assumption we were "together" because of how we are getting along. That move saved us 2 more hours of transit time. How lucky was that? What a blessing!

It took 2 days to get to Juneau. As I am attracted to food, I found myself following my nose to a family owned fudge store. The young people working there, especially the guys were so genuinely happy, they nearly floored me. They were humming and singing away while making chocolate not shy at all. You couldn't help but smile and be happy. It was contagious. I thought of how much fun it would be to go to school here.

Not being fudge eater, I bought 1 1/2 pds of a dark chocolate walnut maple sugar mix for a girlfriend and something choconutty to myself to munch on while I kept walking. I had lunch at an out of the way place where it doubled as a hanger for float planes. Four of them came and went while I ate. The scenery was already incredible. I couldn't believe it was going to be more and more dramatic as I ventured north.

My next stop was Skagway. Pristine is the best word I have for it. Here, I started my hunt for some art to bring home, namely a small totem pole. I cannot explain my affinity for native culture. It started during my first trip to Arizona and Utah, especially in Monument Valley.

The nice art shops were glitzy with prices to match but offered no real feel of the artist. I saw some things I liked but never returned to buy them because I would much rather buy directly from the artist if I can. But I did end up buying some coffee beans for D. I couldn't help myself -- The name got me -- 3 Peckered Billy Goat, locally made.

If I had more time, I would have liked to try my hand at ice climbing. During my last couple of years of school, a buddy and I spent some time weekly at a climbing gym for stress relief. I'm likely totally out of shape for this now but I was willing to give it a go. Next time. There were some amazing outfitters here as well as guide shops with some very fit guides.

I ended sitting at a bar for lunch in a restaurant I had read about. I hadn't had enough of Halibut yet so I ordered some more. This time, I made a comment that started a conversation. The bartender left forearm was covered with a beautiful tattoo and I told him that when he brought my lunch. He told me that his uncle drew it for him and it represented his clan -- The Killer Whale.

So we got talking about Skagway and what draws people here. The rent is very high. A camping spot costs over $500 a month! Again, the energy of the people in Alaska amazes me. He was so grounded and present. As with many things, he served as a mirror to where I was. I would like to be more grounded and present, like him.

Spent the next morning riding into a Fjord. How far in you are able to go is determined by how big the iceberg fragments got as 90% of an iceberg is underwater. You get the picture. The water looked too cold to be inviting! Saw a glacier near the end. The blue colour and a turquoise of the water reminds of Lake Louise in Alberta.

I hit the jackpot in Ketchikan. After getting lost, just wandering, I stumbled into a native artists' coop that just opened 3 days prior. I am not able to do justice to my experience there but the store is owned by a beautiful native woman who has an elderly mother to take care of. She isn't an artist but had a vision of joining tribes together through art and allowing artists to be able to make a living through their art.

So 75% of the sale of each piece goes back to the artist. She went on to tell me the biography of each artists whose work I admired. The story and picture of a female seal hunter fascinated me. This particular artist fashioned mittens, coats and other ornaments (of which I bought one) out of seal fur. No part is wasted and during the open house 3 days prior to my arrival, she was there taking people on a tour of her boat, showing them the rifle she uses and wanting people to see exactly what she does.

It was important for her that people understood how much she revered the animals that gave their life to feeding people with their meat, warming people with their skins and adorning people and places with art that is made as a tribute to the animal. I would have loved to meet her.

When you look at her picture you see strength. I bought an Eskimo ornament made by the Woman Hunter and miniature totem by a male artist from a northern tribe. Ketchikan is an active fishing port and there was a lot of boat activity in and out when I was there. It was exciting. I wanted to be on a fishing boat too.

I had lunch in a locally "famous" place for Halibut. I had gotten lost looking for this place when I ran into the artist coop. It was run out of a trailer and only had a few small tables. I shared one with a fellow. He was probably the exact opposite of what I had come to associate with Alaskan people. He was from a big city and was visibly agitated with his wait. I didn't like this sudden change in energy.

The owner/cook of the restaurant has a bit of crazy gleam in his eyes. When I placed my order, he came right up to me (very close) to verify if I really wanted a full order of Halibut, he wanted to make sure I can handle it. I whispered back that I was starving and I wanted it all. I realized quickly why he asked when my order came. I could barely finish it.

I think people were looking at my plate because it was so huge. It's kind of a serve yourself place and when I got up to throw out my garbage to let other people have the table, the owner came over and took it for me and said he thought I did real good eating all that (I'm stubborn). I told him that I felt like I just ate an entire 100 lb Halibut. He laughed and wished me well. I was near comatose.

This was as far as I got in my Alaska adventure. It was pretty tame all in all. I didn't do any trekking or anything. I didn't mind the weather at all. I was dressed for it. The food was great. Didn't get enough crab this time.

Being a huge fan of room service, I would make it a habit to checking out the menu as soon as I would enter a hotel room. One particular room service supervisor got used to my room number/name etc and took it upon himself to send me a fruit basket. I really don't know why, but perhaps it had to do with the fact I always tipped the people who deliver the room service even though it was included.

After I realized the fruit wasn't a wrong delivery, I asked that the attendant who delivered it to please give the supervisor a tip from me ($20). I know how much things cost. I then called the supervisor to thank him myself and his response was overwhelming. He told me that in his 12 years, he has never received a tip and he sent the fruit because he wanted to do something nice as I called frequently. (I though it was a nice way to say that I ate a lot...!)

I couldn't believe his emotion. I am so glad I did it. So the next couple of days, I came home to canapes and chocolate covered strawberries. When I called him to thank him again, he told me not surprise him anymore, he would not be able to take it. We laughed and I told him I will need to go on a diet when I got home.

I ventured south to check out Seattle before coming home. Again, a new place for me. It was fabulous. Spent too much money to stay at the Seattle Westin though made up for it with someone I met later that evening. The day was beautiful. Didn't know that sunny days were rare there. Pike street market met my expectations. (I have a thing for open air markets. My favorite one so far is La Boqueria in Barcelona.)

Had lunch at a hole in the wall Cajun restaurant that enticed me in with the smell (again!). Turns out it is Zagat rated! Had my first Po Boy with pulled pork. Yummy! The restaurant was run by a mother daughter team and their southern accents were awesome.

I marveled at the number of architectural bookstores and design offices. Seattle was growing on me very quickly. Had the best coffee gelato in my life at a small shop there. I have not tasted anything better in the places I've gone to in Italy.

I kinda passed out for a few hours later that day and when I woke up, I was too lazy to walk back to the restaurant I had scouted out earlier that day for dinner. So I decided to check out the hotel restaurant. Again I sat at the bar. It was a nice spot and I was definitely under dressed.

The bartender was an older man with a face that said no stress. He moved quickly and was very good at reading people. He wasn't upset when I only wanted water to drink. I asked for his opinion on a couple of dishes before putting in my order. When he came back, he lingered as it wasn't very busy, so I asked him what working for Westin was like.

His eyes lit up and we started talking. Mostly about travel and the deals they get as employees. I was jealous. Then he seemed like he couldn't hold something in much longer and told me in a low voice, that his wife and him just finished paying off their mortgage 2 weeks ago, they were completely debt free (they had had their share of financial troubles) and tonight was his last shift before flying off to spend 2 weeks in Mexico to celebrate.

They own a waterfront home in southern Seattle that has been in his family for 55 years passed down from generation to generation. I couldn't be happier for him.

In the next few hours I found out that his father passed away 1 1/2 yrs ago and his passing really rocked him and one of the things they spoke about was his writing. He wrote poetry all his life. So once he felt up to it, he gathered up his works and published it. It was hot off the press when I met him.

I told him I would be on Amazon when I got home to get myself a copy. What a great spirit he has in him. He paid me a complement before I left, 4 hours later. He said that I was the type of woman men like him write about. What a kind kind man. You can't blame me for wanting to go on this trip again.


  1. Sounds wonderful...you've re energised my longing to visit Seattle :-)

  2. Hi Laura;

    Can't wait to hear what you think about it when you get to go!

  3. What a great story! I really loved the book "Into the Wild as well".

  4. Thanks Carlos! I appreciate you reading!