Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Of seaplanes, salmon and sled dogs

Monday, July 16, 2007

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — Our first task this morning was to hitch up our trailer and move it all of 50 yards to a new slot in the same campground. The managers gave us a full-service site overnight (which includes electrical and water connections plus a sewer disposal on the site), but could only offer a site with electricity for tonight. Not a huge problem, but it did mean pulling in our slides, stowing almost everything away, hitching up and unhitching again, after maneuvering our 32-foot behemoth around a number of other very large rigs already in place. Val did a great job overcoming these challenges, and we were soon on our way into town to see the sights.
Our first stop was the visitor information centre, a log cabin in the heart of town complete with sod roof! We got all the brochures and maps we needed, and decided to take a one-hour tour by trolley bus for an overall view. We had a bit of a wait, so we stopped for lunch at a sausage stand with a difference: the main fare was reindeer sausage! Fortunately, they also had chicken sausages for folks like me, who are not inclined to munch on Donner or Blitzen in a bun. Val said his reindeer meat did have a bit of a gamey taste, and he probably wouldn’t go looking for it again.
We then boarded our trolley. It was actually a clear day today, so we even got a good look at Mount McKinley off in the distance — a treat not all visitors get to enjoy.
Our driver took us past the Earthquake Park, where there is evidence of homes that sank nearly 30 feet in 1964 when the quake hit near Valdez. We also drove past two lakes, where float planes take off and land at the rate of 250 per day. He told us that Alaska has more of such planes than it has cars. All around both lakes, every 20 feet, were slips where the planes park, and little cabins where the owners stow their gear. There was even a section of the road with a sign that says "Yield to planes", because it does dual service as a road and airstrip! We must have seen more than 200 small planes.
Scattered around the downtown are fibreglas salmon sculptures that various artists have dressed up in different styles. One blue one had fried eggs all over it — Salmon eggs. Another was painted with bright red and orange flames — xxx; and there was one that incorporated a board game called Salmonopoly. I think Toronto did a similar thing with large moose figures a couple of years back.
Speaking of salmon, we were told that you could wander down by Ship Creek and actually see them swimming upstream to spawn, so we decided to have a look. We saw quite a few folks in hip waders with fishing rods, but nobody seemed to be having much luck in the shallow stream. A young boy whose name was Derek was coming by on his bicycle and started chatting with us about his fishing ventures. He said he’d bring us to a place where you could see the salmon, so we followed him a little further up the creek to a footbridge and he pointed down into the water. We were amazed to see great, brick red salmon milling in the water just above a small waterfall. There were at least a dozen of them and some were up to four feet long! There were even more on the other side of the bridge. Fishing was restricted at this point, so they weren’t in any danger. We watched for several minutes — the water was quite clear, and the sun glinted against their red scales. We thanked Derek warmly for sharing this special feature of his home town with us before he pedaled off.
In the same area, we had stopped in to see the Ulu factory, where they manufacture replicas of the sharp, curved knives with wooden handles used by Inuit people to skin animals and fillet fish. You could watch them making the knives and then buy them at the gift shop, along with bowl-shaped cutting boards for chopping foods.
Outside the building was a girl cradling an adorable puppy that turned out to be a husky pup. She was selling tickets to the Iditarod show just down the way, where they demonstrated how the sled dogs are used in this world-famous thousand-mile race from Anchorage to Nome every year. So off we went to see the show. The host was the son of the winner of the Iditarod in 2004, but the stars of the show were the dogs themselves, who yelped and jumped with excitement in their harnesses, and sped like the wind around a small arena oval, pulling actual Iditarod sleds over a bed of small river rocks. We were amazed at their strength — they even hitched up a team of 16 dogs and got them to pull the dog team’s pickup truck across the centre of the arena from a dead stop.
The young people who put on the show got into lots of hijinks as they pitted the boys’ team against the girls’ in races and got everyone to cheer them on. We were also introduced to "Flapjack", who was featured in the Walt Disney movie Eight Below that we had seen on DVD. After the show, we even got our pictures taken next to this canine movie star!

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