Wrapping Up the Panhandle

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6/24/19. Lobby of the Windsong Lodge, Seward, Alaska

We designed this trip as a series of four (or maybe five) separate trips all originating and returning to Anchorage.  Anchorage serves as our hub and a place to regroup and get maintenance chores done.  We had an early flight out of Sitka on Saturday morning.  it was bad enough that we had to get up at 4:30, but managed that and caught the hotel van to the airport.  

Then the fun set in.  I had thought, incorrectly it turns out, that it would be best if we could limit our checked baggage to just a single bag.  My thinking wasn’t so much saving baggage fees (actually Alaska Airlines has better baggage policies than United or Delta does), but because I wanted to minimize my hassle and effort lugging multiple bags in-between modes of transportation and lodging. So the plan was to take two checked bags, plus our backpacks, to Anchorage and then, for each of the mini-trips we would limit ourselves to just a single bag, keeping the extra bag at the Anchorage hotel storage room and using it for extra supplies and clothing that we didn’t need for a particular mini-trip.  So when we headed out for Juneau, more than two weeks ago, we were good with a single bag.  We made it on Alaska Airlines – it was a couple pounds over but they winked at it and let us go.

But the whole plan forgot the fact that we buy clothing, books, and souvenirs as we travel.  So there is more junk at the end of the trip than there was when we started.  As we packed the bag, early Saturday morning, Joan had to sit on it so I could close the zipper, but we managed to get the damn thing closed.

Off to the airport we go and we are there with just an hour to get through security and board.  I manage to get baggage claim checks for the bag and then I put it on the scale.  ‘Oops’, the lady says, ‘you are overweight!’  

Of course, my first reaction is ‘ well, don’t you think I already know that, and then I realize she isn’t talking about my body, but rather my bag.  Unbending my nose, I think about things a bit, and then ask her,  OK, what are my options.  She says, well, you can pay the $100 excess baggage charge, or you can reduce the weight of that bag by 12 pounds.  I guess she grasped the pained look on my face as I’m thinking about what stuff we can throw away (dirty laundry seems like a possibility) and she says that I can either buy a second piece of luggage at the store right behind me, or she can give us a cardboard box to put crap in.

Not knowing what to do I go over to Joan and explain the problem.  She immediately runs into the store and spends $35 for a second bag.  (I was leaning towards the cardboard box, but hey, this isn’t one of those things you argue about.). So we repack our suitcases, right there on the floor in the terminal, get a second baggage sticker, and proceed to move on.

Remembering my experience two weeks ago when I was sweating after running late for the plane and the TSA guy giving me all kinds of grief, and I am now sure that I’m heading for another one of those, because, well, I’m sweating again and, of course, I look like a terrorist!

For reasons I can’t explain, our boarding passes are marked as ‘TSA PreCheck’.  I don’t know what that means exactly, but a TSA lady tells me we get to go through the shorter line.  I, of course, am highly suspicious and wonder what kind of setup this is.  But going through the shorter line, you don’t have to take off your belt or your shoes.  So, hey – this is good.

But then, my backpack becomes suspicious.  I offer to unpack it for the TSA inspector and she informs me that if I touch it I might be arrested, so I back up quickly behind the yellow line.  She pulls out my coffee mug, and then my umbrella, and my jacket.  Finally she gets down to the Michener Alaska book and says ‘yep, that’s it’.  So an 1100 page novel is now considered a lethal enough weapon to bring down an airplane?  I’m incredulous, but decide not to say anything.  She looks at me and says that its because it is organic, like, somehow that is supposed to make sense.  I guess now bombs are being made out of cellulose – who knew that books are the next things to be banned from the airplane line.

Finally, she finishes my backpack and waves me through.  We enter the gate area and quickly board our flight.  After that, everything went fairly well.  I had  upgraded our seats so I could have a bit more leg room and for both legs of the flight, Sitka to Juneau and Juneau to Anchorage, we had a pretty good experience.

Flowers at the Anchorage Airport

We couldn’t check into the hotel yet, because the room wasn’t ready and it was before noon anyway, so we decided to do laundry.  After two weeks of traveling, we had a fair amount to do, but Joan did all of it.  I went to the grocery store and picked up some detergent, toiletries we had run out of, and stuff for breakfast.  

Finally, after checking into the room, we pretty much collapsed – I admit we were exhausted.  We woke up around six and hiked back over to the Moose’s Tooth for a pizza and salad (another excellent meal in a very crowded restaurant), and then returned to the room and went back to bed.  Sunday, the only thing we did was repack for the second leg of the trip.  We had to get up early again for the shuttle to the train station.

So the first segment of our Odyssey is over.  What can I say about it?

I’ve beaten to death the cruise ship thing – it isn’t good.  Yes, you get to see some glaciers and some wildlife.  But you can do that even better from the smaller boats doing the park service day trip.  And, when in towns like Skagway or Sitka, you can spend the evening, leisurely, eating dinner with locals instead of dashing back to the ship to meet your departure time.  I also had real difficulties in the ways the cruise ship industry took over the shopping experience.  I can understand buying jewelry items crafted by local natives.  But what’s the point of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on gems that didn’t even come from Alaska?  If you must do the cruise ship thing, well god have mercy.

The beauty of the inland passage is unforgettable.  the contrast between the tall barren, snow-covered mountain peaks and the lush green rain forests at the bottom is amazing.  This is a complex ecosystem that you won’t find anywhere else except along the Pacific Northwest.  Add glaciers to the mix, in Alaskan waters, and the only word I can use is ‘awesome’.  Glaciers are disappearing, so seeing them now is important, and Alaska has more glacier ice than any other location (except maybe Greenland!).

The native culture of the Tlingits was surprising in its beauty and complexity and resilience.  As Leia said in Bartlett Cove, they are survivors and their culture will still be here generations from now.  I’m not sure all native Americans can say that.

In addition to the stunning beauty of Glacier Bay National Park, we also saw our two Historical Parks on this trip, Klondike Gold-Rush and Sitka.  From there we got terrific introductions to three periods in Alaskan history, the Tlingits, the Russians, and the Gold Rushers.  There is other stuff to know about Alaska, but those are key elements.

We enjoyed the best crab legs we have ever eaten at Tracy’s King Crab House in Juneau, and I think our best lodging was at the Westmark Inn in Skagway.  

The panhandle is an important part of Alaska and needs to be appreciated.  Now, though, we move on to the regions of Alaska known as the Peninsulas, Kenai and Alaskan.  We have four more parks in this region and the focus is more on natural resources than culture.  We will be leaving the rain forest and sample three distinctly different ecological zones in this part of the trip.

More tomorrow about our first day in Seward.