ALASKA 2006 - Ruud Leeuw

Mountain rage shortly before landing

My first visit to Alaska took place in 1995, my second in 2003 and during that last visit I vowed my third visit should not see that same interval of eight years, as we had taken a great liking to Alaska's scenic beauty and ruggedness.
The fact that we returned only 3 years after our last visit, was because we were able to combine it with a visit to Canada: the airline I work for -Martinair- operates to Canada and issued me tickets in celebration of the 25th anniversary of my employment.
We took it upon ourselves to visit parts we had not visited before and were not disappointed. Alaska Airlines flew us from Seattle to Anchorage.

View on Anchorage Driving from the city of Anchorage towards the airport brings one to Point Boronzof, which offers fine views on a day like this. Hiking and biking trails plenty here, along the coastline.
I always tremendously enjoy the vastness here.
We had stocked up on books at the Title Wave bookstore (more about this fine bookshop in my 2003 account), checked emails at the Coffee Shop next door and felt: we were on our way.
click here to enlarge
The Moon Handbooks' edition of Alaska (very pleasantly written by Don Pitcher) was again of great use, but The Rand McNally Roadmap (I buy a copy on each roadtrip through N.America) was useless, as Alaska has so few roads the map for this state simply doesn't state enough details for the roads which are there.
But our copy of The Milepost more than made up for this: great book, vastly recommended!

Seward Highway The Seward Highway (main access to the Kenai Peninsula, 127 miles, a National Scenic Byway) brought us south to the Kenai Peninsula and we departed it for the Sterling Highway, destination (end of the road): Homer.
Early June brings tender colours to the flora.
The weather went from very cloudy and a low ceiling, to bright sunshine. The weather would play an important role in days to come.
Click to enlarge Some people like to live as remote as this, though they will probably say: "Anchorage is only a few hours drive away!". Click to enlarge Yep, we still slam the brakes when we see a moose beside the road!

Click here to enlarge Woodsculptures: a nice break from the 6 hours drive (over 500 kms), but nothing here that would be allowed to carry on in an airliner cabin...

There is a lot more to stop and explore on the route we travelled, but time was limited so we continued on via Kenai and Soldotna to Homer.

Kenai Peninsula map.

The Homer Spit The Homer Spit and in the background loom the huge mountains across Cook Inlet.
The clouds hide the 3 active volcanoes there: Redoubt, Iliamna and Augustine (was active in 2006).

The handbook reads: "The Russians knew of the limitless coal in this area in the early 1800s and the Americans were mining the seams only a decade after the Alaska Purchase. The gold rush began delivering men and supplies to the small port at the end of the sandy spit on their way to the gold fields at Hope and Sunrise up the Inlet in the mid-1890s.
Homer remained a small fishing- and canning port until the early 1950s, when the Sterling Highway finally connected the town with the rest of the continent."

For me, Homer had that undefinable quality of sitting on the edge of society.

Camping on the Spit I can only admire the people who decide to camp here on the Spit: windy, chilly, just rocks and sand...

The Spit is also known for hosting the famous bald eagles, but while one night we saw 3, the other night there were none.

Click to enlarge Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

The Pratt Museum isn't half bad, either: a visit can be highly recommended.

Homer sits on Kachemak Bay and one of the activities one can undertake here is to go on a flightseeing flight. A few operators provide that service, but one that stands out is KACHEMAK BAY FLYING SERVICE, for their aircraft is a Travel Air S6000B... built in 1929 ! Up in the air with the Travel Air!

Owner and pilot Bill de Creeft took us up and flew us over lakes and glaciers, overhead isolated Seldovia and we had a magnificent flight. We took off from Beluga Lake and were equally in awe of Alaska's scenic beauty as well as the performance of this classic plane.
Bill and his wife Barbara (who assists in the departure and arrival of the Travel Air) took this plane through 2 major renovations and if one plane got a lot of "TLC" (Tender Loving Care) it must be NC9084 !

This flight was a highlight of our stay in Homer, in fact: of our vacation! Read more on this.

A brid's view The engine has no cowlings

Now this is Alaska! Floatplanes (also known as Seaplanes) are very much part of life and transportation here in Alaska. DHC-2 Beaver floatplane
Moose are very common too; this little family we came across while turning the car on an empty lot, at the edge of town.
It was raining at that time, a slight drizzle as is quite common in Alaska, but I could not resist to get them on camera.
Family looking for dinner tasty leaves... Those spindly legs !

A fe wmiles from Seward Hwy turn off to Sterling is Cooper Landing General Store at Cooper Landing; stores like these are a good place to store up on fruit or softdrinks for the long drive and many times I left these stores holding an icecream, too. But since the advent of all the flavored coffee's, I often turn to these. Mocha seems to be my favourite. Signs modified for coffee
I thought myself in the Alps Two reasons for us to go in June: still snow on the mountains (here: Kenai- and Chugach Mountains) and the salmon run.
We had hoped to do a bear viewing trip from Homer, but we had to cancel our booking as the weather did not allow a landing for the plane for 2 days. We also found that the salmon run had not started and no great number of bears were yet to be seen on these trips. Although we made a few inquiries elsewhere (Soldotna), we got the same answers: no salmon, no bears. Our flight to Juneau left on June 14th and we could not postpone. Pity, but our visit to the Kenai Peninsula had been rewarding nevertheless.

Our Alaska Airlines flight from Anchorage to Juneau.
look at the colour change in the water!

Juneau: the Capital of the State of Alaska (since 1906), but probably best known as a stopping point for these humongous cruise ships travelling the Inside Passage...
Juneau is the only state capital with no roads leading in or out!
Half the local jobs here are with state, federal or city agencies; tourism provides another mainstay for the local economy.

Small floatplanes await their arrival to whisk small groups of passengers away on a flightseeing flight, to be impressed by glaciers and mountain ranges or to consume a copious lunch at a remote lodge. In the same manner smaller boats await their arrival to take them on a whale watching trip or do some fishing.
But the majority of the crowd flood the streets for some serious shopping (I did not get the impression people much went to museums). Locals are surprised if you didn't come by boat, but flew in on an airliner...

The Hangar is a nice place to have a meal or drinks; they have a view on the docks and large cruiseships.
The Hangar was home to Alaska aviation pioneer Shell Simmons' Alaska Air Transport in 1935, Marine Airways, Alaska Coastal Airlines in 1939, and Alaska Coastal-Ellis in 1962.

Whale watching We had only one day in Juneau and since the weather turned out sunny and very pleasant we decided to spend a big part of it at sea: whale watching. Our tourgroup consisted only of 5 people, on a modest boat. These boats come in various sizes, we went on a smaller one.

It is extremely good fun to try to spot the whales in time when they surface, often exhaling with a geyser of water and air; these whales move through the water silently, showing little else than their backside and dorsal fin. Then when the whales decide to dive: the tailfin appears for a very brief moment end the waiting game (8 - 12 mins.) starts all over again... eyes peeled on the expected spot for them to resurface. Quite exhilarating!

Sea Lion suffers surprise attack
While on the boat, we also witnessed a Bald Eagle surprising a Sea Lion (I think) and he got away with a large fish...
The first photo suffers a little from camera shake, but one can see the Sea Lion in pursuit! But to no avail: the eagle managed to get airborne with its heavy load and away it flies !
There were two Sea Lions on this buoy and the one on the left was so pleased with its audience: it started a complete show of diving from the buoy, swimming around and getting back on with a joyous jump!
Now you see them,
now you don't
Bald Eagle: majestic! The weather was turning gloomy, the light was going, but I managed to get a few shots of these Bald Eagles circling our boat: not too proud to receive a handout (a few pieces of salmon thrown in the water). Their white heads make them easy to spot in the trees.

This was what the weather was like when we returned to harbour in Auke Bay!
The boat seen here, the Matanuska, was our ferry ride the next day: Juneau to Sitka.

Alaska Marine Highways

The ferry on the Matanuska took 10 hours and we started with dismal clouds, then the sun came out in force. This change happened a few times during the trip.

Left: scenery shortly after leaving Juneau.
Ten hours: people spent it by making music, others slept or did some relaxed reading. With plenty of room to walk around it is so much more relaxing than airtravel, even if it takes longer.
There was also a guide on board, who made interesting presentations and could be asked questions while en route (photo below, right).
Some nice tunes! From the sleeping bag to the music! Questions get answers on board
The weather goes through extremes here: rain and a balmy evening are within hours of each other.
Note the person on the bow keeping watch (photo below, middle). At some point The Narrows got so.... narrow; I estimate I could have hit the coastline throwing a stone, on either side.
Because of the difficult tidal conditions in Peril Straits (between Baranof- and Chichagof Islands) the ferries must pass at just the right time; a small delay can mean a 6 hour delay for the ship will have to await the right tides.
Rain: time to curl up with a book someone at the stern for careful navigating Last light; arrival at Sitka is imminent


With a population of only 8.800 people, Sitka is a small town located on the western shore of Baranof Island and ideal to take a brake from some intensive travelling .

Alexander Baranof -head of the Russian American Company- founded Sitka in 1799, but his fort was destroyed by a Tlingit attack in 1802. But Baranof returned 2 years later with 120 soldiers and 800 Aleuts and defeated the resistance by the Tlingits; this was the last resistance by any Northwest Coast Indians.
The Russians rebuilt the town, called it New Archangel, which is now downtown Sitka.
New Archangel did well for itself, at one time it was labelled "Paris of the North Pacific".
In 1867 the town was handed over from the Russians to the Americans and served as Alaska's capital for several decades.

Sitka Hardly "Paris of the North" these days...


Town of ravens ! These ravens are very common in Sitka, are synonymous to this town.
Impressive birds and proud enough to stand their ground, like this one on top of a car.
According to Native American belief, ravens are powerful. Their black feathers are sacred, mysterious and can give the added courage needed to take new steps: changes in life or career, move house, etc.
Ravens are also associated with magic and healing.
Lars Opland added this cultural note: "typical Alaskan native theology holds that Raven, or rather the spirit represented by the raven here, was the Creator; a real Biggie!"
cruise passengers come to shop The cruise passengers are easy to recognize in the streets.

Large cruise ships dock here at Sitka as well, but the crowds are nowhere near as bad as Juneau. For now.

russioan Orthodox church St.Michael's Cathedral in the center of town is the most obvious landmark, reminiscent of Sitka's past Russian culture.
It was built in 1848 but it burned down in 1966. It was replaced by this replica a decade later.
Frankly I had expected more Russian landmarks, but I only found one or two.
The town is of such size it can be easily visited on foot. Map.
Accommodation is very limited; we stayed here 3 nights but while we booked months ahead, we could not find a place to stay for 3 nights... So we stayed at the B&B Read Raven for 2 nights and 1 night at B&B Annahootz (be sure to have a look at Dale Hanson's art work when you visit!)

What a mess some people live in... Like I said: no more "Paris of the North". Some people don't mind how their garden or frontporch looks like. Or maybe there is some spring cleaning in progress here and everything was thrown out...
The bald eagle and Stars and Stripes Gracious birdExcept for ravens, the bald eagles are here common too. Ready for departure..

A life eagle in the classroom Alaska Raptor Center.
There was a briefing about the Raptor Center and a (life !) bald eagle was actually taken inside the classroom...
Here they take care of wounded birds of prey -eagles, falcons, owls, hawks, etc- and some manage to recover from car accidents, gunshot wounds, encounters with power lines and others may remain her forever.
The Center serves a worthy cause and we had a pleasant, informative visit here. There is a deck overlooking a large enclosure where some of these birds are kept for recovery (photos below)

Takes its leave from the classroom
bald eagle Owl Bald Eagle
A walk through an enchanted forest... Gnarled trees Sitka National Historical Park is located between the Raptor Center and the town; it offers a very nice walk (20 mins.) through a lush second-growth spruce forest (quite the enchanted forest). This park is located at the mouth of Indian River (watch for bald eagles).
This park has 15 totem poles on display outside; they were carved for the 1904 St.Louis World's Fair. They line a 1-mile trail among the huge spruce trees.
Totem Poles Totem pole close up Incredable size
Master craftmanship Totem poles.
Native craft workers show the immense task of carving such a totem pole. They expected to have this one ready in september, but it was going to be a race against the clock.
Eagles swoop over the forest The beach... It was at this location, Sitka National Historical Park, at the mouth of Indian River and overlooking the Sitka Sound, that the Tlingits and the Russians fought their final battle in 1804; the Indians kept the invaders at bay for a week, but they ran out of ammunition and supplies and withdrew to Peril Strait.
Cruise ships at Sitka Sitka does not have a deep sea dock, so the cruise ships cannot dock in town like they can in Juneau.
Fascinating museum

The Sheldon Jackson Museum is a very interesting museum: full of Eskimo, Athabasca, Tlingit, Haida and Aleut artifacts. to protect this priceless collection, a fireproof museum (the first concrete structure in Alaska!) was built here in 1895.
The photos show a kayak; other exhibit include dogsleds, baskets, Eskimo masks and many drawers can be opened for household items, jewelry, etc.

Photo below: The eagles always seem to have one eye on me and the other looking for fish!

Looks a bit ruffled, but proud A ship's mast has a good view No smiles...


Ketchikan KETCHIKAN.
Just like "it never rains in California" isn't quite true, I found the "99 days out of a 100 it will rain in Ketchikan" not true: we had 2 bright sunny days here (statistically that is possible I know, but still..)


One could think himself to be in the Midwest here... And there is that Frontier feeling to Ketchikan.
But while walking here one hears the screeching of the seagulls and bald eagles flying overhead, hunting for fish and patrolling the docks; no mistake, this is not Bozeman,Montana, this is Ketchikan,Alaska!
Ketchikan: "Alaska's Shopping Capital"

Some good ales here Some 11.000 cruiseship passengers can roam the streets on a busy day here..
We fled the streets and had a pint (that Tradional Ale is good stuff !) at this bar/restaurant, called Annabelle's Keg and Chowder House. It is right next door to the Gilmore Hotel and it has a fine dining restaurant too; Don Pitcher writes:"with its 1920s-style decor it wins the best atmosphere prize among Ketchikan restaurants." I cannot but agree!
flightseeing... MS Statendam
For me the large attraction (except for Ketchikan's remoteness) were the floatplanes.

On the lake in a floatplane... Against my better judgement I decided to go for a last chance for some bear-viewing...
Southeast Aviation convinced me their pilots knew where to find them and even though the salmon hadn't started their run, I would stand a good chance to see some.
While we had a pleasant flightseeing trip and made a landing at a lake, the pilot saw only 1 bear but was heading for homebase and only gave it a quick look from a considerable height and continued back to Ketchikan. Bummer.

Vicinity of Ketchikan map.

Chip Porter calls Ketchikan his home and he has the finest photos of these parts:

From above Remote living... Lumber..
On the waterfront... This is Creek Street and is everybody's must-see in Ketchikan. Creek Street once housed the red-light district and during the Prohibition was the only place one could buy booze. It is now a collection of tourist shops.


This marks the end of the US part of the trip. we continued to... Vancouver, Canada.


Helpful sources of information:
Moon Handbooks, the Alaska edition was again a pleasure to have at had: Don Pitcher
The Milepost, a treasure of information while driving through Canada's northwest and Alaska
Bald Mountain Air Service, a candidate for flightseeing and bear viewing trips
Emerald Air Services, idem
Katmai National Park, where you want to go for those bears!
Alaska on the Web
Alaska Airlines
Warbelow's Air Ventures
Stats and info on Alaska Cities
Due Up, the most amazing photography by Shaun Lunt, who takes his Supercub everywhere!
Alaska Natural History Association, much information and helpful links