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Rod’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 13 Jun 2010

Location: Anchorage, USA

MapAs I began the first instalment of this retrospective travelogue the calm waters of Alaska’s famous Inside Passage slipped away beneath our boat and we headed out into the open sea of the Gulf of Alaska. The sky was mostly blue with high cloud, with a skyline of dark green forests and snow capped peaks - another gorgeous sunny day. I’m told that such days are rare in the late spring but I have found them (thankfully) common on my travels so far.

We had just departed Juneau – capital city of Alaska – and the remarkable Mendenhall Glacier. Juneau is possibly the only capital city in the world unconnected by road to anywhere else in the world and with a wheel-chair accessible glacier within a 5 minute bus ride of downtown. Why it remains the capital is a matter of ongoing, often vitriolic, discussion amongst Alaskans. Anchorage does seem a more logical choice (sorry Juneau) but Anchoragites point conspiratorially to the expensive Juneau waterfront landholdings of the legislators (that would significantly lose value if Juneau lost the capital) and admit change is unlikely.

Aside from legislative largesse, Juneau’s other main source of revenue is tourism and in recent years it has become a cruise ship destination. This is a mixed blessing and, despite the turnover figures, is not necessarily welcomed by all Alaskans. By all accounts they (the cruise ship industry) are a rapacious mob and locals are increasingly cynical about the economic ‘benefits’ of a high volume tourist operation that funnels its punters exclusively through its own hotels, shops, and local transport while extorting huge %’s from local business and demanding that local communities invest their own funds in infrastructure development to suit the cruise ship industry. It certainly brings in the tourists - it was just me and several thousand tourists on my short stroll to the waterfront at the Mendenhall Glacier.

A major attraction of the Inside Passage, apart from the million dollar views from your moving hotel suite provided by blue water, deep green forests, ice blue glaciers and endless snow capped peaks, is the chance to see wildlife. And of all the wildlife that cruise past nothing causes people to stage a mass exodus from the cosy lounge and lean precariously over a cold metal rail in a chill wind faster than the captain advising there are whales breaching off the starboard bow (well… he adds front right hand side for the landlubbers). The place is infested with them – some 1000-2000 humpback whales migrate up and then down the Inside Passage annually. Orca (Killer Whales) are also popular although watching them tear a seal to pieces or rip the tongue out of humpback whale is a bit disturbing for the kids. The super abundant forage fish populations and plankton make for spectacular scenes of humpbak whales doing their thing. So with the boat taking a decided list to starboard, instant whale experts (me included) are born. Here’s my story my first humpback whale sighting.

"Earlier a mother and youngster kept pace with the ship for a while. She traveled sedately, surfacing with the occasional spout, the youngster repeatedly breached – lunging out of the water doing a half role and crashing back with a huge burst of water. Doubtless there was some important learning going on – like how to smash up a school of sardines or how to impress teenage girl whales but really it just looked like fun – like the teenage compulsion to do ‘bombs’ at the local pool. My last sighting of them was an enormous tail emerging and waving farewell as the mother dived to fill up again on plankton".

The volume of tourists in Juneau, vociferous and disparaging remarks by passengers (Anchorangites!); and (more importantly) a chance to spend three more days aboard ship traveling across the Gulf of Alaska to Whittier and seeing the Malaspina ice fields (and numerous more whales), convinced me to reduce my planned stay in Juneau to just a two hour stopover. In fact such was my planning (or perhaps inexperience with complex shipping timetables) that I was completely unaware the ship I had booked on in Prince Rupert (British Columbia, Canada) actually went as far north as Whittier (and on a twice a month only schedule). So it was a lucky snag as Whittier is only an hour’s (amazing) drive to final destination Anchorage and it meant I would arrive in Anchorage before my host Randy departed for a 4 day camping trip. My abrupt change of plans necessitated some bargaining with the purser to retain my cabin and extend my ticket, and some phone calls to advise Randy (my Anchorage host) and Ilse, and to arrange transport to Anchorage from Whittier.

Whittier (population 137) is, by all accounts (local and guidebook), a strange place. The Lonely Planet description reads “you will never, in a lifetime of searching, find another place like Whittier”. Whittier was built as a secluded army base and everyone lived in a 14 story building with underground tunnels connecting the block to shops and stuff. The original building is now defunct (and full of asbestos) and 80% of the 174 residents live in another high rise building. Chosen by the US military because it is most often foggy, isolated and surrounded by impassable mountains, Whittier rarely disappoints (and it didn't). Road access is by a converted train tunnel. The tunnel is one lane, barely large enough for your average "RV" and still used by the train so it’s a juggle to ensure each traffic flow gets a go – when the train isn’t using it. After an hour of waiting we got the green light, entered the tunnel and were on our way to Anchorage.

Anchorage is, of course, a sister city of Darwin. It is also (almost) the home of the indefatigable Sarah "She may be hot but Presidential she is not" - (Bumper sticker in Juneau, 2009) Palin. Sarah actually lives in Wasilla just to the north, from where, according to Sarah, she can "see Russia from her front porch" - no mean feat given that Russia is over 1000km away and some of the worlds highest mountains lie in between her porch and those damn reds. Given this geographical sophistry on her part, I feel entitled to some on my part and so will regard Sarah as an Anchorage dweller. Nevertheless, Sarah is a remarkable and clearly farsighted woman and I am looking forward to our meeting to talk about life, cultural exchange opportunities and moose hunting. Our sister city relationship will of course be high on the agenda - btw what is the relationship between two individuals who are residents of paired sister cities? I have discovered (thanks to the Darwin City Council website) that I have a lot in common with Sarah. A synopsis of our common bonds (plagiarised from www.darwin.nt.gov.au/council/sister-cities/anchora
ge) follows:

Sarah and I both live in places that:
- were visited by Captain Cook;
- are frontiers with (opposite) extremes of temperature;
- are surrounded by bloody National Parks;
- are huntin', shootin' fishin' type places with lots of crabs;
- have troubling wildife (Alaska has bears and wolves while the NT has crocodiles, deadly jellyfish and the world's most venomous snakes);
- hate people from "down douth" (although most residents come from there;
- have star constellations in our state/territory flags;
- have huge tides, are on peninsulas, have a big military presence and had the crap bombed out of them by the Japanese in WWII;
- have pro-development governments that love tourism, mining and BIG projects;
- are sick of mosquitos.

Curiously neither the the DCC website nor the Anchorage City website (www.muni.org/departments/mayor/boards/sistercitie
spages/darwin.aspx) mention the prior ownership of the land by Aboriginal people and the importance of Indigenous culture to the economies and identity of each place. Seems we also share the affliction of Terra Nullius. I will raise it with Sarah (and Graeme and Paul).