A glacial wonderland

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iol travel oct 22 ss alaska4

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Nearing the spectacular Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay, one of 16 active tidewater glaciers in the bay.

Anchorage - Ask me what word sums up the highlight of my trip to the wild frontiers of Alaska and it has to be: mush. Not to be confused with the stuff you feed the babies from Purity bottles… Mush! As yelled at teams of powerful Alaskan sled dogs.

They love nothing more than to pull a sled in conditions in which most of us would be inside by a fire with a hot toddy.

I opted to sit right at the front of the sled to witness the power of these dogs… not so clever.

The thrill was amazing – especially for a dog lover like me – but at the end of the ride, and despite the ample cover provided by the trainer, my face, hair and parka were covered in blobs of mud.

Yet I would not have missed this experience for anything in the world.

These dog sled teams are the stuff of legend, the very soul of Alaska, one of the world’s last great wilderness areas.

iol travel oct 22 ss alaska3

We were in a musher training camp in Dyea, just outside the small town of Skagway. After we’d gone from there up into the mountains in the Tongass National Rainforest in the camp’s specialised Unimog, we got a mile-long ride in a custom-made wheeled summertime sled… and it was hard to tell who loved it more, the dogs or us.

All the dogs at this camp are owned by full-time mushers, some of whom have competed in world-renowned races such as the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.

Back at the musher camp we were treated to an informative “kennel talk”, after which we were allowed ample time to cuddle up with the most adorable husky pups and meet some expectant and new mothers with their new litters.

I’ve done plenty of travelling, but this experience was so wonderful because there are very rarely any chances to react closely with animals – and when I’m away from home, I miss my dogs…

But the whole Alaskan experience was something special.

Mention Alaska and immediately the mind conjures up visions of majestic glaciers, brown bears fishing for salmon in azure waters, beautiful blue-and-brown-eyed sled dogs racing effortlessly across snowy plains.

But it’s only when you’re up close and personal that the sheer scope and scale of Alaska’s scenic beauty really hits home, tantalising the senses.

After boarding the colourful “freestyle” Norwegian Pearl cruise ship at Seattle’s bustling Pier 66 and leaving the port in festive spirit with bubbly galore, a full day at sea along scenic south-east Alaska’s Inside Passage followed.

Even in early summer it can be quite chilly, but rather than missing out on anything this bountiful region has to offer, you cover yourself against the elements and find a secluded spot on the deck to witness, in soothing silence, the splendour of endless forests and snow-clad mountains passing you by – worlds apart from Gauteng’s never-ending hussle and bustle.

And when you spot a lone brown bear through your binoculars feasting on berries far in the distance, the excitement is palpable.

Not long after that, two humpback whales – one of the world’s most endangered whale species – seemed to appear out of nowhere, enthralling passengers no end with their stately antics.

Tucked away in the panhandle of south-east Alaska and surrounded by endless mountains covered by lush green woods dotted with snow and interspersed with glittering waterfalls, capital city Juneau – the only capital in the world that’s only accessible by plane or boat – looks picture perfect.

Besides being home to 38 major glaciers flowing from the Juneau Icefield, which covers 3 000km2, Juneau also boasts the spectacular Mendenhall Glacier, the city’s hallmark attraction.

Originally known as Sitaantaagu (‘the glacier behind the town”) and subsequently renamed after Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a noted scientist who served on the Alaska Boundary Commission that was responsible for surveying the international boundary between Canada and Alaska, Mendenhall glacier is an awesome sight, to say the least.

While some more courageous (and fitter) fellow passengers opted for the helicopter excursion to brave some of the glacier’s steep cliffs high above its end, we opted for the less taxing drive-to version by bus to stroll the walkways around this impressive glacier which, incidentally, is receding at an accelerating rate due to global warming.

It took us about an hour to meander along the pathways to the Nuggett waterfall alongside the glacier, taking pictures, enjoying the surrounding beauty and tranquility, and walking back to the visitors’ centre.

Not in any hurry, we stopped to watch a mountain goat high above us and wondered what we would do if we were to encounter one of Mendenhall’s small population of black bears.

After some souvenir shopping in town, we headed for the centrally located Red Dog Saloon.

Dating back to the heyday of Juneau’s glorious mining era, the pub was packed with cruise ship visitors downing a pint or two and enjoying the zesty piano playing of a jovial “ou toppie”.

Then it was a leisurely walk back to the harbour, past the myriad jewellery and gift stores, which, with colourful totem poles and hanging flower baskets, line the streets, and underneath the Mount Roberts Tramway, which offers visitors panoramic views of the capital, weather permitting.

Shortly after another themed, scrumptious dinner on board the Pearl, it was anchors aweigh en route to our next stop: the small, quaint town of Skagway. With fewer than 1 000 permanent residents, a fine selection of well-preserved historic buildings and White Pass Railroad, the town provided yet another highlight.

Initially we were disappointed that our helicopter trip to a musher camp for a sled-dog ride across the snow could not take place due to mist and low clouds...but the alternative more than made up for that.

Just when we thought Juneau’s delights were as good as it gets, the day-long cruise around Glacier Bay moved the goal posts.

Located in the middle of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, a sanctuary and World Biosphere Reserve and Heritage Site, this paradise boasts a fine collection of fjords, inlets, all five species of Pacific salmon, 25 percent of the bird species in North America, dozens of humpback and other whale species that arrive each summer to feast on schools of pollock, herring and other fish, and colonies of sea lions.

And it is home to 16 active tidewater glaciers.

The area is a popular cruise ship destination in summer. Just two cruise ships a day are allowed in by the National Parks Service, so the spectacular bay is never overcrowded.

With masses of clouds and grey mist hovering low over the icy waters, entering Glacier Bay was almost a surreal experience. But as the journey progressed and the skies cleared, we were once again treated to a rare feast of nature.

So, while rangers who came on board in the bay extolled the various glaciers and natural history of this region over the ship’s PA system, we rushed from starboard to portside, from one vantage point to another, to get the best possible views of some of the glaciers, whales and sea lions, the icy weather and wind forgotten.

A surprise highlight just before the ship turned to start its return journey was witnessing the spectacular calving of the majestic Marjorie glacier when a large chunk of ice broke off and crashed into the water with a thunderous roar, amid the spontaneous applause of onlookers.

Our final stop in Alaska, at Ketchikan, brought another pleasant surprise. Despite the rainy weather – the town is Alaska’s wettest city, with an average of 4m of precipitation a year – after docking we immediately took to the streets to discover what makes this salmon capital of the world tick.

Some clad in bright colours, others more subdued, the town’s timber buildings, churches and houses – piled high on top of wooden stilts running alongside the shore and further up a steep hill – make for a pretty picture.

Seeing that Ketchikan was the last Alaskan town en route back to Seattle, map and umbrellas in hand we set off on foot to the Point, described in a brochure as one of the town’s most popular shopping destinations and a local favourite.

As it was a Friday, we hit the jackpot with a local band of seniors entertaining us to a fine selection of music from bygone days as we enjoyed seafood chowder and sour bread, overlooking the picturesque harbour filled to the brim with sailing boats.

Again we had the chance to experience the friendliness and warmth of Alaskans first-hand, a memory that, like countless impressions of the state’s immense and wonderful wilderness and natural beauty, will linger for years to come.

Did you know?

l The US state of Rhode Island could fit into Alaska 425 times.

l Most of America’s salmon, crab, halibut and herring come from Alaska.

l Dog mushing is the official state sport. The Alaska legislature adopted it in 1972.

l The discovery of gold in the Yukon began a gold rush in 1898. Later, gold was discovered at Nome and Fairbanks.

l Juneau is the only capital city in the US accessible only by boat or plane.

l Jade is Alaska’s official state gemstone.

l More than 800 000 cruise passengers will visit Alaska this year. - Saturday Star

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