Shipp: This is Monday, 9/17/2001. Where are we sitting, Norm?
Norm: We're sitting in the first class cabin of flight 844, Anchorage to Minneapolis/St. Paul.
--from trip transcript
The crowded Anchorage airport.
Alaska Diary Day 13-18, September 12-17, 2001
It took six days for us to get home after we were picked up by John and Bev. I'll give a brief summary. The energy in the guesthouse changed when nine hunters in three different groups arrived. The record for the guesthouse was twenty-three so there was no problem with us all fitting. I noticed that we had one advantage over most of the hunters: we had no specific goal for our trip except to experience the Alaskan wilderness in its fullness. The hunters (and some other fishermen we met elsewhere) had very specific goals: a bull moose, a large caribou or a monstrous salmon. When they did not get what they wanted, disappointment verging on depression set in. One group of hunters hadn't even seen a caribou and was dreading going home to explain this to wives and friends. Part of it was the expense and part was the perception in the "outside" that Alaska was crawling with game and it that only an idiot could go there and not shoot something. We, on the other hand, were happy to have seen all the wildlife and scenery we did. We did not dwell on not seeing a moose, for example. There is something to be said for traveling without a goal.
A pair of hunters had taken the luxury approach to their trip. This was in sharp contrast to our more Spartan style, which had been shaped by having to carry all gear on hikes in the Southwest (Norm) and portages in the North woods (Shipp & Norm). These two hunters had lived in an eight-man tent complete with carpet, chairs, cots, bright lanterns and a heater. They slept in sleeping bags rated below zero. Their day began with a huge breakfast of two to three pounds of potatoes, two eggs, toast and coffee. They ate thick steaks at night washed down with rum drinks cooled with ice from a cooler. They never emerged from their tent until 3:00 in the afternoon. They had succeeded in shooting two caribou; but bears had eaten both of them. They had fired shots over the head of one bear that left after the first shot but then returned in half an hour to continue eating. The bear ignored all subsequent shots.
We wandered around Bethel asking at places like the hospital, museum, Yukon Delta ranger station and various shops about the meaning of the word "Kisaralik". A root of the word might have meant that which "floats awhile and then sinks." But this was inconclusive. After a while, we began to ask people who had already heard that somebody was asking about the meaning of Kisaralik; Bethel is a small place.
Alaska Air began to fly on Friday, September 14. We arrived at the airport early and found that it was much changed. On our arrival it seemed almost third world with all sorts of people milling around. Now it was almost deserted. My luggage came up for the new random search. A young female employee donned latex gloves and poked around in my bags. She quickly stopped her search when she encountered the pants I had worn for twelve days.
By contrast, the Anchorage airport was packed. Lines 300 yards long snaked around ticket counters. We eventually go on the standby list for the next day. We headed for the $85/night Walk Around Town B & B recommended by Papa Bear. We chatted with two couples: one from Australia and one from Oregon. We wanted to be first in line at the airport and left at 5:00 a.m. thus missing the breakfast part of the deal. Thus began three days of waiting in the airport for flights that were totally booked. On one day we waited from 4:00 pm until after 10:00 pm only to find out that we were not even on the standby list!
Between hours spent in line we found things to do in Anchorage. We rented an off-brand car for $25/day and drove down he Seward Highway along the Turnigan Arm where we saw white Beluga whales at Beluga point and glaciers near the Portage Glacier Park. We Climbed up Glenn glacier just to say we had stood on a glacier. On another day we climbed Flat Top Mountain, which offered a great view of Anchorage and Cook Inlet. We checked out all the shops in Anchorage and saw where the Iditarod race begins. Norm enjoyed a trip to a museum and I wandered a craft market where I bought small pieces of Mastodon and Mammoth fossils. I also bought a couple of things from some Russians who added things up on an abacus.
The B & B didn't seem like a good value and we opted for a Red Cross shelter, which turned out to be fine. It had a friendly staff, food, shower and other strandees with whom to commiserate. They even had a computer and I had fun sending a few emails to friends and family from a shelter in Anchorage.
All along we had had a confirmed reservation on September 17. On that day we got to airport very early, checked in and waited at the departure gate. We were knocked off our feet when we ended up in First Class. A very classy flight attendant placed white napkins over our tray-tables, gave us hot towels and a tasty meal. It was amazing to think that the night before we were in a shelter and a very days before that were eating on cold, damp gravel bars.
We napped in the Minneapolis airport, which was almost deserted. A kind flight attendant put a blanket over me as I dozed on a couch. In Nashville, where it was 80°, my wife met us with red, white and blue ribbons in her hair. She didn't seem to mind my 18 day-old beard! We dropped Norm off at his house where he discovered he was locked out. He found a way in and in a few minutes I was home. Whew!
Small World Department:
On the way up Flat Top Mountain we passed a couple on their way down. I noticed a Tennessee Vols sweatshirt and said, "We're from Tennessee, too." It turned out that they had been married in my home town, Sewanee, 30 years ago and had just been there to celebrate their anniversary. It's a small world!