Hit the Road

10 days on solid earth in spectacular Alaska

Tell someone you are going to Alaska and they assume you mean via a cruise.

Located downtown, the Anchorage Museum is the state’s largest, with stunning exhibits of native arts and artifacts; a hands-on science Imaginarium for kids; and a planetarium. A current exhibit commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1964, 9.2 earthquake, which destroyed many of the city’s buildings, and caused a tsunami that destroyed the towns of Seward and Homer. The building was designed by David Chipperfield and was a finalist for the Royal institute of British Architects Lubetkin Prize.  [Courtesy of the Anchorage Museum] 
Mark Ransom, an employee, pilot and docent at the Alaska Aviation Museum, stands by a 1928 Stearman (NC5415), flown by many of Alaska’s early aviation heroes, including Wiley Post (who died with Will Rogers) and Merle “Mudhole” Smith.  In 1932, this plane conducted the first landing and rescue on 20,000-foot Mt. McKinley. It crashed in 1937, was recovered in the mid-1960s, restored to flying condition and purchased by the museum in 1991. The museum is dedicated solely to the history of aviation in Alaska. [Courtesy photo] This sign hangs in the bar of the downtown Historic Anchorage Hotel, a reminder of the hotel’s heritage. Half of the original hotel survived the 1964, 9.2 earthquake, which caused part of downtown Anchorage to sink 14 feet. Today the 26-room boutique hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  [Photo by E’Louise Ondash] These totems stand in front of the Nesbett Courthouse in downtown Anchorage. Artists Lee Wallace and Edwin Dewitt created “Raven Stealing Moon and Stars” (left) and “Eagle and Giant Clam.” The eagle plays a leadership role in native mythology, while the raven is frequently portrayed as a culture hero, trickster or both. [Photo by E’Louise Ondash]It took more than two years and many volunteers to dissect and clean the bones of this 41-foot, 40-ton female gray whale that died on the beach near Portage, Alaska, in 1999. It is displayed at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, where visitors learn about Native Alaskans’ customs and way of life. Whaling is integral to native groups who revere the mammals and pray for their spirits after the hunt. Every part of the whale is used for food, clothing, fuel and tools.   [Photo by Jerry Ondash]Teen members with ancestral roots in Native Alaskan villages entertain visitors with dances and songs that tell of 10,000 years of native peoples’ history. The Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage also offers guided walking tours of recreated native village dwellings and exhibits featuring examples of clothing, tools and artwork that illustrate how native peoples survive in Alaska’s harsh environments.  [Photo by Jerry Ondash]

While I’m told that cruising the Inside Passage is great, it can’t compare to spending 10 days on terra firma in what is arguably our country’s most spectacular state.

In June, we chose to make Anchorage our base as we explored the city and surrounding area.

We began by hopping the Anchorage Trolley for a 15-mile tour. Our driver-docent, a school teacher during the cold months, told of the city’s history, culture and oddities, like the 1,500 moose that live within the city limits;  Earthquake Park, where the city dropped 14 feet during the 9.2 earthquake in 1964; and the 135 miles of paved trails within the city limits.

You also can watch anglers fish for salmon a few blocks from downtown at 10 p.m. any summer night — and don’t forget your sunglasses. Though much smaller than many American cities Anchorage (population 301,000) has three must-see museums.

The first, the Anchorage Museum, offers 170,000 square feet of galleries and gathering space within an impressive downtown glass edifice.

One exhibit — the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center — houses 600 rare and beautiful Alaska Native artifacts (tools, clothing and jewelry) from the Smithsonian Institution.

Displayed under glass and low lights, the artifacts are arranged according to the state’s 11 cultural groups, in which 110 different languages are spoken.

The exhibit demonstrates the amazing capacity of the Eskimo to survive in harsh environments and the ingenuity employed in using every resource available. (Consider the waterproof jackets made of walrus intestines and the puffin-beak jewelry.)

Definitely worth the time: the earthquake exhibit marking the 50th anniversary of The Big One, and the Northern Lights show at the planetarium. Visit        anchoragemuseum.org.

The Alaska Native Heritage Center, northeast of downtown (public transportation is available) provides a comprehensive overview of Alaska’s native groups through music, storytelling, and song-and-dance performances throughout the day; exhibits of clothing, art and artifacts; and an impressive one-hour guided walking of  village dwellings on the shores of a lake.

Our guide (who doubled as a dancer) was a well-spoken native teen who credits the center for enabling her to discover her family’s roots.

“My mother, grandmother and I all grew up in Anchorage, so we had no idea about our heritage,” she explained, “but I’ve learned so much, thanks to the center.”

The tour took us to a complete gray whale skeleton, the remains of a whale that was beached at the Placer River near Portage in 1999.

When I relayed this to my Anchorage cousin, Panu Lucier, she told us that she had been a part of the two-week volunteer effort to clean the bones and make it usable as a teaching tool for school children. Visit alaskanative.net.

Because so much of Alaska is accessible only by plane, bush pilots and their machines were and still are integral to the states’ history and commerce.

This story is told at the Alaska Aviation Museum near the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane base in the world.

The museum “preserves, displays, educates and honors the history of aviation here,” said Mark Ransom, a museum employee, historian and pilot. He also is my cousin’s significant other.

“All of our exhibits are Alaska-specific and meaningful to Alaskan aviation history.

That means that what you see here is likely different from what you’ll see elsewhere … ”

Plus, he added, “it’s a known fact that any time spent in or around airplanes is not subtracted from one’s lifespan.”

Ransom has been operating off that theory for years.

He made his first solo flight at age 17. “With so much wilderness and so little accessibility, flying in Alaska has always been so much different from flying elsewhere.”

The museum is packed with airplanes, artifacts and memorabilia, including a 1931 Pilgrim, “the star of our fleet,” Ransom said. “She was a state-of-the-art airliner 83 years ago, and is fully restored right down to the lavatory in the back. There were only about 26 of them made … and ours is the last remaining Pilgrim flying.”

Don’t miss the excellent film about the little-known-but-brutal Aleutian Island campaign during World War II — the only time Japanese occupied North American soil.  Visit www.alaskaairmuseum.org.

We stayed several nights in downtown’s Historic Anchorage Hotel. Charming and beautifully maintained, the 26-room hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and claims ghostly goings on frequently enough to be logged into a journal kept in the lobby. Will Rogers and Wiley Post stayed here just two days before their fateful flight to Barrow in 1935.

If you see no ghosts, you’ll still find the collection of photographs of the city’s past fascinating. A generous breakfast buffet is served in the wood-paneled bar, and many attractions are within easy walking distance. Visit historicanchoragehotel.com.

For a free 100-page, full-color guide to Anchorage and surrounding areas, visit anchorage.net.

E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at eondash@coastnewsgroup.com

 

 

1 comment

Panu Lucier July 27, 2014 at 8:10 pm

We greatly enjoyed seeing a small piece of Alaska’s beauty, history and culture through your eyes!

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