Alaskan Indians and Cappuccino
The book I’ve just read describes all of Anchorage as resembling a strip development near a major airport. I’ve also heard people say that the best thing about Anchorage is that it is only 15 minutes away from Alaska. Shortly after landing at Anchorage Airport, we put these descriptions to the test. We found a coffee shop in a freight container located on what looked like a building site. Some might claim that it was too cool, trying too hard to be a typical rough-and-tumble Anchorage icon, but I suspect that’s just how things are here and we liked it. Most importantly, a trend was set – the coffee was good. Beyond that, we found little to contradict the unflattering portrayals we’d heard, so we collected our rental car and scrambled out of town to the Kenai Peninsula.
We took the Seward Highway, a road considered one of the most scenic in Alaska and in North America. It has an appealing mix of sea and distant ice and snow, with curvy roads and steep, glacier-carved mountainsides. I think the main attraction of the route is the prospect of seeing humpback and beluga whales. It was a perfect day for this, rare Alaskan blue skies and boundless visibility just waiting for whales to leap into the air or to flap their muscular tails like Lassie or, if you were really fortunate, for dolphins to appear and perform mid-air pirouettes. The viewpoints were filled with hopeful watchers and we stopped to join them, bustling between the signs on the road telling us it was a viewpoint. It’s always good when ambiguity is removed from these matters. Sadly, there were no marine mammals spotted that day and the only wildlife that we saw were the whales’ chubby, terrestrial counterparts wielding selfie sticks, binoculars and long-lensed cameras. My wife, still smitten with a pathological fascination for wild sheep breeds, was of little help in this endeavour as she kept on looking away from the sea at the high mountains in search of Alaska’s famous Dall sheep. She too met with disappointment.
Our first stop on the Peninsula was Homer, the self-professed, “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World”. I know this, because as I entered town they told me, in the form of a huge sign proclaiming the fact. I wondered a bit about why they would be so proud of this – I know Alaskans love fishing, but I know people who love vegetables and people who love dogs, but there isn’t, as far as I’m aware anyway, a “Turnip Picking Capital of the World” or a “Chihuahua Capital of the World.” Of course such places would lack the sporting element of a wiggly worm (or some modern equivalent) attached to a hook to lure the prey, but whilst not as mainstream as fish, there certainly are people in the world with palates who would find fried turnip and chips or grilled chihuahua with lemon wedges just as delicious as a well-cooked halibut.
Alaskans leave you in little doubt about how serious they are about fishing and hunting. At times, I felt like an emaciated midget in a Strong Man competition as our comparatively tiny Ford Fiesta was surrounded by beefy RVs and their accessories. One would think a portable home which is larger than a Greenpoint penthouse would be enough. But it was not uncommon to see these large beasts cruising the roads with a trailer in tow, dragging a boat or a couple of ATVs (those four-wheeled motorbike things), fishing rods and bicycles hanging from the back, the interior almost certainly packed with countless gadgets, leaving just enough space to throw Granny in the boot. When we stopped for fuel alongside these mechanical brutes, they would disgorge roly-poly men covered head-to-toe in camouflage gear, sometimes carrying firearms, almost always wearing facial hair so rugged that it had to be coiffed.
Homer is an intriguing yet charming mix of tourism and hard-nosed fishing, with rough skiffs docking just metres from Disneyfied boardwalks. My nose may be hard, but I’m no fisherman. Bucking the trend set by locals and visitors alike, who hop on the nearest fishing charter to test their skills, we chose to showcase our own peculiar abilities by tasting the local catch instead. In between guzzling salmon, halibut and the better-than-it-sounds “Scallop Mac and Cheese,” we took scenic drives and the odd walk. We also hunted for locations to take some pretty pictures. Using jet lag to our advantage, we rose early one morning for a sunrise photo shoot and stumbled across a fog-covered lake with floatplanes scattered about, one or two taking off into the rising sun. My deeply hidden romantic soul stirred slightly at this delightful sight. My wife simply cooed.
The rest of our stay in the Kenai Peninsula was at Seward, a small harbour town, with less of a down-to-earth feel than Homer. It’s a popular stop-off point for large cruise liners as well as a departure point for day cruises and we hopped on one of these in our ongoing quest to see the legendary orca. It was another atypical Alaska day, cloudless and sunny. Unfortunately, nobody told the orcas as they were either very well-concealed or were doing backstroke whilst blowing fountains in the air, chuckling to one another many miles away, far from prying tourist eyes. The cruise was excellent though – we found a school of leaping porpoises riding the wake of the ship like small, darting mini-orcas that leapt in unison with the gasps of delight from onlookers. Along with a brief glimpse of a whale, a couple of eagles and a few sea-lions, we soaked up the never tiresome views of fjords. The highlight for me was the impressive Aialik glacier – a massive calving glacier with ice floes scattered around it, the small cruise ships just tiny flecks in the foreground.
We visited another glacier near Seward, the Exit Glacier, where a short drive and a short walk take you to the face. We passed a series of signposts along the way which show where the terminus of the glacier was at a particular year in history. The degree and speed at which the glacier has receded is astonishing, about 2km in the last 200 years. Of course, the movement of glaciers is affected by a number of factors, but there there is little doubt that man-made climate change has been the leading factor over the past few centuries. Contemplating this, I had an overwhelming desire to round up all climate change deniers and tie them to the glacier face so that their livers could be attacked repeatedly by bald eagles, reliving a Promethean nightmare until they accepted the prevailing scientific evidence. I can be that way sometimes.
Our first meaningful hike of the trip was up to Portage Pass where we were promised a glorious view as a reward. We set out in a slight drizzle and I huffed and puffed my way up a long, steady incline. My wife, still buoyant and fit from her months of boot camp training seemed light-footed and agile in comparison. I half-expected her to bound ahead of me and then stop so she could perform Russian-dancing or inch-worming or some other ill-named exercise that she picked up at that strange exercise class. But she didn’t, perhaps reading the signs that such showy over-enthusiasm would be unwise. I was determined though – I knew a glorious vista awaited for plodding through the fog and drizzle and I crested the top gleefully. This is a picture of me admiring the view:
We visited the quirky village of Whittier, accessible only by boat or by the single lane tunnel which is shared by both trains and cars – not all at the same time of course. A former army base, it is home to a couple of hundred people almost all of whom are lodged in the same 14-storey building. I think the locals pretend that there is a certain charm to living in a “city under one roof” (including an underground tunnel from the building to the school so that schoolchildren never have to see the light of day in winter). Despite their bold claims, I couldn’t help but feel that such bravado was much like the kid who gets sent to the naughty corner and then says defiantly that actually that’s where he really wanted to be all the time anyway. The area around Whittier is meant to be scenic but on the day that we were there (see hike above), we were unable to confirm this and were reduced to drifting around town and waiting the weather out in the local diner drinking coffee until the tunnel traffic-flow changed direction. Still, it provided an insight into local life as we sat eavesdropping on some locals arguing about an apartment rental which included awful furniture and a rather incoherent story about a urine-stained mattress. We never asked.
As we reached the half-way point of our Alaska trip, I pondered what had surprised me and what hadn’t. I had expected the striking views and the majestic glaciers, the romance of the floatplanes, the ridiculous portion sizes and the guys called Deke, Zack and Gator with their ginger beards and their caps worn backwards (yes, we really came across a guy called Gator). The stark beauty of the landscape and the friendliness of the slightly odd people charmed me. Although mildly surprised at the depth of the hunting and fishing culture, what I really didn’t expect were the Indians and the espresso. I’m not using the politically incorrect term for Native Americans, I’m talking about genuine Indians. Chaps from Chennai. Babes from Bengal. Men from Mumbai. Of course, Indians have as much right to visit Alaska as anyone – us, the Papua New Guineans or Ma Baker from central Iowa, but I was taken aback by their sheer numbers. Even at the top of our fruitless hike, out popped a couple of Indians, like happy, omnipresent genies, wearing faded denim and smiley faces to share the view with us.
Perhaps it’s the espresso. I’m not sure if Indians like espresso more than Alaskans, but if they do, they’ve come to the right place. Everywhere you look, espresso is advertised. Not in a demure Starbucks way, but in a garish neon light way as cafés, ice cream parlours and coffee shops have signs that simply read: “ESPRESSO”. There are drive-through espresso shacks and walk-in espresso shacks. And it’s good. Freshly roasted good. Keep San-Marié happy good. Now that’s a feat. Maybe there is some Alaskan-Indian agreement formed by an Indian entrepreneur who supplies espresso machines – he promises to send ten Indian tourists to Alaska for every espresso machine that Alaska buys from him. Or maybe not. Perhaps, like Alaskans, Indians just like espresso.
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