It’s a clear day and as we zoom by helicopter between peaks and over a glacier’s deeply etched fingers I can see for miles in every direction
Gemma Z Price goes on a whirlwind tour of Alaska to capture some images that she will never forget
Clutching my train ticket in one mittened fist and a hot chocolate in the other, I think I could only have been more excited if I had boarded the real-life train to Hogwarts.
Today I was about to board the Alaska Railroad Glacier Discovery train that hugs the rugged coastline of 49th State. As we chugged out of the Anchorage depot towards Whittier, it actually started to feel like something from a movie.
Hanging out of the window I could see the steely bay and snow-capped mountains are so faithfully mirrored in the shiny blue and yellow glossy livery, the train almost seemed to disappear. It was just me hurtling through the landscape, my hair whipped into a halo in the startingly fresh morning breeze.
I’m on a small group trip led by Nat Geo photographer Stephen Alvarez. The aim of the trip is to experience – and hopefully capture with some degree of justice on a smartphone – Alaska’s jawdropping landscapes.
We pass through the ski town of Girdwood and the former settlement of Portage and pull into the port of Whittier. It’s here that we bade farewell to our Hogwarts Express and head to the harbour for the next part of our Alaskan adventure.
We board the ship to cruise the calm waters of Prince William Sound and Blackstone Bay. Black-legged kittiwakes circle above us in the air as we approach hundreds of tidewater glaciers, which tumble down three kilometre high mountain slopes to halt as cliffs of ice overhanging the fjords.
Even though it’s August, it’s chilly; as I channel South Park’s Kenny and tighten my hood tightly around my head so only my sunglasses are exposed, I can only watch in baffled bemusement as the ship’s crew wanders around in short sleeves, asking if anyone fancies a “glacier margarita”. In minutes, they have fished out a huge hunk of glacier ice, out of the water and have chipped it into cups to pass around. It has to be the ultimate brain freeze. With our phones memories filled with shots of bald eagles, seals, otters and Hollywood-worthy backdrops, we head to our hotel in Alyeska for dinner.
As far as approaches to a restaurant go, the tram ride up to Mount Alyeska is one for the books. As spring warms into summer, this ski resort thaws to reveal lush green mountain scenery of thickets of poker-straight firs, standing that sentinels around pockets of bush-ringed limpid green pools and glassy clearings, which slowly unfolds during the aerial tram’s five-minute, 700-metre ascension from the Chateau-inspired main hotel on the valley floor up to mountain top Seven Glaciers restaurant.
The car holds 60 people, but today our small gang of 11 means we have plenty of space to swoop from side, with our noses and phones pressed against the picture windows. “There’s Turnagain Arm!” somebody exclaims, pointing out the waterway into the northwestern part of the Gulf of Alaska, named after British explorer James Cook, who had to “turn again” after realizing it wasn’t the Northwest Passage during his 1778 voyage. I don’t even bother to look around – I’m busy trying (and failing) to spot the bear and moose I was told might be roaming the steep green slopes below.
In the summer months, you can pick berries and even hike the surrounding glacier, but as we unload and start up the flights of wooden steps to panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, we are here for one thing: the food. Perfectly crisp crab cakes with dollops of rich remoulade are followed in swift succession by Rocket Ranch pork belly with peas and carrots and Alaskan prawns on a bed of cabbage and crispy skinned halibut with smoked mushrooms. My portion of Snake Farms wagyu New York steak arrives somewhat unnecessarily – no complaints – with a dish heaped with King Crab legs and bowls of drawn butter and crescents of lemon.
I don’t even remember the ride home, nor getting to sleep, but the next morning I fairly leap out of bed with excitement: today, I’m taking a helicopter ride onto the Punch Bowl Glacier, a snow field in the middle of the Chugach Mountains, to meet some of the dogs that compete in the Iditarod – an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome and billed as the Last Great Race on Earth.
It’s a clear day and as we zoom between peaks and over a glacier’s deeply etched fingers reaching into steely grey crags I can see for miles in every direction; as we approach the glacier camp, what looks like a grid of small, dark holes gradually solidifies into a network of individual, carefully spaced igloo-shaped dog kennels. I was expecting fluffy huskies but as I run between them, administering head rubs and ear scratches, I notice the dogs are all different colours and sizes and range from lean and rangy to fluffy, heavyset Malamutes. “They’re all descended from past champions and each is a well-oiled machine,” Dave our guide explains.
We even get to meet some future athletes while the guys prep some sleds and teams – a litter of six, 14-day old pups valued at US$ 10,000 upwards each, sired by a former winner and lead-dog Friday. She doesn’t seem to mind at all as we scoop up her little ones and zip them into our jackets, their bright eyes shut tight again the wind and making tiny mewling sounds that instantly drowned out by our squeals of delight.
When we settle onto the sleds, the mushers have to hop off and give the dogs a helping push from behind – usually it’s one person per sled, not three, and last night’s dinner definitely isn’t helping – but soon we start to move through the snow, dogs yipping and “wooing” to each other.
We scoop a clear track over the glacier, winding through rocky outcrops, the wind whistling around my temples. We stop occasionally to let another team catch up or to pick someone up who rolled off their sled and into a snow drift, but before we know it we’re back at camp and our helicopter is ready to fly us back to the valley floor.
Alaska means the Great Land in Aleut and even during the short time I spent there, I couldn’t agree more.