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Alaska, the American Outback

Each city should be judged on its own merits. Sometimes it’s a destination to itself. Sometimes it’s simply a jumping-off point. Anchorage, in many ways, is the latter. Charitably, it’s a city in a great location with a quirky, if limited, downtown. The local fjord, Turnagain Arm, is mere minutes outside the city. Wildlife is common and it’s not unusual to see moose strolling alongside the highway. When wandering its streets, however, it’s not hard to see Anchorage as the equivalent of Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque.

Run-down strip malls are common. The downtown has few obvious economy-driving companies other than Conoco and is instead littered with shops selling t-shirts and trinkets. The homeless and mentally ill, not unlike in other cities, are common fixtures. From a surface level perspective, Anchorage seems to be lacking a purpose other than tourism.

That purpose brought me here. On to Alaska!

I arrived with three days of travel time and a goal of seeing as much of the Kenai Peninsula as possible. On Sunday I set out for Homer, a major commercial fishing center.

The mountains of Kenai loom over the town, providing a spectacular backdrop as eagles dart overhead. I’d been on the road for a while and wanted to stretch my legs, so I stopped at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center before continuing to Homer Spit. After wandering around the exhibits, I took a brief boardwalk trail through the trees and over to the local beach.

At the start of the trail a sign stated “watch for moose”. I didn’t think much of it. The day had begun sunny, but was rapidly becoming overcast. I didn’t want to waste a moment and quickly walked down to the beach.

While I say “beach”, it wasn’t one where you could find shells. Instead it had almost a hard packed mud interspersed with rocks. Dogs chased each other through the water. Eagle cries could be heard in the distance. It was both a welcome change, and an interesting juxtaposition, from the poverty evident alongside the trail.

I looked in the distance and noticed that Homer Spit was already submerging in deep clouds. I decided to hustle back to the car and see if I could catch the remaining sunlight. One thing I’d been asking myself was: what would I do if wildlife was spotted and I was outside the relative safety of a car or building? There were no hiking plans on this trip, so I didn’t spend much time considering this. As I walked back up the boardwalk, the question forced itself back on me.

About fifty feet ahead was a moose and two calves. My blood went cold. Should I proceed forward, hoping they’d move? Was there another, longer, way back to the visitor center’s parking lot? How would I get back to my car? Would the moose attack me?

I stood there, frozen, deliberating. I had no answer. I felt rooted to the spot. The moose disappeared from view. How much longer should I wait? When would it be safe to move forward? I didn’t know. I moved up a few feet, then noticed people up ahead. That gave me some confidence. They were, without concern, photographing as the moose backed deeper into the trees, giving little warning grunts. That gave me an opportunity to safely walk by and get to my car.

Shaking from fear and excitement, I drove the remaining way into Homer. The clouds had lowered. Colors had shifted to muddy greys. That perhaps didn’t aid my first impression of Homer. It struck me as a “dirty” town, congested with stores selling more t-shirts. That impression was, of course, unfair. It is a working commercial fishing town. And the “dirty” imagery stemmed mostly from the RVs parked everywhere and their visible garbage. If anything, my impression of Homer was driven almost solely by the tourists themselves.

A change was needed. I was really enjoying the trip, but something was missing. That was remedied the next day on the journey to Seward.

As you’ve noticed from prior blogs, I have a weakness and that’s with planning. There were things I considered doing in Seward – visiting the Russian store, the Sealife aquarium, maybe have some halibut for lunch. All those were predicated on just walking around town. Before I left Seattle, though, a coworker mentioned that the real highlight of Seward was the boat tours.

Between the time I left Anchorage and arrived in Seward, I subconsciously decided to do just that. Where did my lack of planning fail me? As I parked and rushed into the Kenai Fjords Tours office, I realized I had the wrong lens. I like carrying the wide angle. It’s light and is successful in nearly all conditions. It really has no limitations. But if there’s one limitation it does have, that’s the inability to zoom towards objects in the distance. Based on this new plan, all objects would be in the distance.

That didn’t stop me, though. I quickly signed up for the six hour National Park tour. That boat ride started in Seward and meandered around numerous islands and glaciers:

We left for parts unknown. On each trip I take, the highlight is not only seeing new places and experiencing new cultures, but meeting unique people. Alaska was no exception.

On the boat, there was a semi-retired guy from the Czech Republic. Broken English, visibly lacking teeth, eagerly running around with his camera. He was taking his daughter (probably early 20s and highly embarrassed of his antics) to Alaska and the West Coast. At one point he said: "is the captain a woman? OMG – I don’t feel safe". His daughter didn’t even turn around. She just held up a finger – the index finger – in warning. He chuckled. He was looking for people to talk to and ended up adopting me. "You've been to Prague?! What did you think of the beer?" Periodically he'd find his daughter and start speaking in Czech to her. "I was just telling her you've been to Prague. She lives in Prague." Alright you old gangster, I don't think that's all you were saying, but of course, I can't speak or understand Czech and a more cynical part of my brain said: I'm probably old enough to be her father!

His commentary was colorful, often questionable, and clearly from a different era. He complained about Angela Merkel and how the European Union was bringing too much “communism” to Europe. He expressed concerns about the apparent lack of safety, due to immigration, and was frustrated that the Czech Republic was being forced to allow more immigrants from embattled Muslim nations. “Paris was unsafe, I don't want Prague to be that way.” He told a story of someone using a box cutter to slice his daughter’s pack open in a crowded area of Wenceslas Square. He provided no detail of the skin color or religion of the assailant, though.

"I spent 6 years in Chicago. Back then the US dollar was worth more. I worked around the clock with multiple jobs and returned to the Czech Republic, opening my own business with that money. Now the exchange rate isn’t so good." This was the point I jokingly started thinking of him as an “old gangster” as he described carpentry jobs. “During the time I was in Chicago, I never traveled or was able to see the country. I was too busy. I’m trying to fix that now.”

He wanted help identifying wild animals. “Is that an eagle? I’ve got to get me a picture of an eagle!”

It was an eagle. We also saw harbor seals, stellar sea lions, humpback whales, otters, orcas, and the bubble trails of porpoises.

I returned to Anchorage happily sunburned. What would my last day bring? I started with Turnagain Arm – a place I’d seen before, but never in sunshine. It’s well known for having dramatic tides. At different times of the day, mud flats and ribbons of land may be exposed. At others, the entire waterway will be submerged.

After days that fluctuated between murky sun and outright clouds, Tuesday brought bright sunshine.

I felt there was now little left to do, so I decided to give downtown Anchorage another chance. Blue skies helped and the shopping district had some charm, but it still struggled to win me over. Not every city can be London, but at the same time, I was looking for a sense of character that wasn't immediately apparent. Instead, it seemed to be a more run-down version of Spokane.

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