Leaves from My Travel Diary – Alaska

Pradip Roy Chaudhury

“Are you from Kolkata or Dhaka?"
The question from our Taxi Driver on our way to hotel from Anchorage Airport in Bengali, sprang a big surprise naturally and was least expected in faraway land in Alaska. We could not believe our ears. Then came his broad smile as if dispelling the dark clouds hanging over Anchorage.
“I am Moidul from Bangladesh.“



(Astounding natural beauty of Alaska all round, viewed during the train ride from Anchorage)

“Happy to meet you Moidul. In our team, some of us from Mumbai, some from Kolkata. But right now we have travelled from Boston “- I replied. Moidul appeared to be quite friendly and began talking about his life in Anchorage. He came here almost five years back and his family of wife and two school going sons, now well settled in Anchorage. Before shifting to Anchorage he stayed almost for ten years in California and always drove his taxi for a living. Moidul seemed happy to relocate to Anchorage as the cost of living is cheaper here compared to California.

Before coming to Alaska, I had a burning desire to encounter the celestial phenomenon called ‘Northern Lights’ also called ‘Aurora Borealis’ which is unique to Alaskan sky in the Northern Hemisphere of the globe. The elusive celestial lights sometimes can be viewed (if lady luck favours you) from September onwards and only if the night sky is clear. I was aware there has been some sightings of Northern Lights already two days back in Denali where we would be reaching shortly. “Have you ever witnessed Northern Lights?” I asked.

“Yes only once in last five years. I still remember vividly. I had gone to drop passengers at a hotel quite far from the city. By the time I was returning it was well past midnight. Suddenly, I saw streaks of lights started emanating from the horizon. Slowly the streaks transformed into distinct bands of green and yellow patterns in the sky. I stood dumbfounded closing my eyes in disbelief. The effect lasted for about fifteen minutes and slowing started fading out. That was my only encounter with Northern lights. This year Northern Lights have already appeared in Denali.”

The name of Denali sounded like magic in my ears as we would be visiting Denali, our last stop in Alaska soon. Will my dream be fulfilled by viewing the enigmatic & elusive Norhern Lights? I need to wait for another four days for my answer. We retired for the day early after a quick dinner at the hotel. We are a team of six members -Mala, Kaushik, Anwesha and her parents Aupam and Shukla beside me. We had a long journey to reach here from Boston which almost took 8 hours including lay over for 2 hours at Newark and a packed tour program awaiting us to explore Alaska for the coming eight days.




(Our drive through Alaskan wilderness road)

Next day we started early after a quick breakfast and rushed towards to the railway station to catch the early morning train at 6.15 am. From Anchorage the train goes to Seward from where our further Alaska trip to continue. Seward is the starting point of famous Kenai Fjord cruise tour and Glacier trips and obviously we were feeling excited. Little did we know the train journey would be perhaps the most exciting event. The train ‘Gold Star Dome’ with lovely décor is a sight to behold, fitted with wide viewing glass on the top and huge glass windows on both sides for unrestricted views around. We are all comfortably seated on plush seats. As the train slowly began to meander through expansive Alaskan landscape, we are soon surrounded by the unforgettable raw beauty of nature. We crossed Girdwood and the train was heading towards pristine Kenai Mountains wilderness. Mobile cameras and other hand held cameras continued clicking as our train passed through the Spencer Glacier and the charming Kenai lake of turquoise colour. Customer care at Alaskan train must be experienced to believe! The coach Supervisor has a team of attendants who are frequently moving up and down with trolleys serving coffee, tea, wines and snacks. The supervisor is ready with her mike before arrival of any particular scenic place so that we have ample time to shoot. She would inform us about the ecological significance beside the relevant history of the place.

Seward is a place of astounding natural beauty surrounded with hills and lakes. Next day from the harbour of Resurrection river, we board our much awaited Kenai Fjord Cruise. The steamer gently starts moving, leaving behind the shores of Seward and very soon we are out in the sea for our new adventure cruise. The sea lions basking in sunshine perched upon the rocks with waves, constantly splashing their backs is a sight to behold. After sometime there is an announcement from the captain urging the passengers to go out into the deck as we shall be viewing the unforgettable Tidewater Glacier soon. The excitement of seeing the glacier from close was palpable. We were simply wonderstruck on seeing the glacier while approaching near. The huge mass of ice had solidified through thousands of years and appeared bluish in colour and jetting into the sea. The ice was breaking with deafening crackling sound and from a distance we could see some polar bears frolicking on the mass of ice. The handheld cameras all around went clicking to record the unforgettable sight.




(The mighty glacier from close during Kenai Fjord cruise)

On our way back we saw few small whales bobbing up and down while sprouting water jets in their playful mood. Visit to Seward was also rewarding for us as on stepping into the jetty after the cruise, we saw Alaska’s famous Halibut fish being sold to visitors. The white fish was a treat to our palate which was simply fried and eaten with rice on our return to the guest flat. If you ask me how did Halibut fish taste, my answer would be the fish was simply a delicacy and far superior to “ Bhetki “ in taste.

Next day in the morning, my son hired a big sedan car in which six of us were comfortably seated for visiting the Seward National Park area where we had planned to take trek to see the Exit Glacier and point of origin of the local river called ‘Resurrection’ - a serious name indeed for a river! The tourist information centre is a museum by itself giving all details of the park area, the map and route chart leading to the glacier clearly shown. Photos of the Resurrection river originating from the base of the glacier which is the end point of our trek, are also there with a word of caution about what needs to be done on seeing a bear while crossing the forest area during our trek.

What struck me most, are the series of photographs of the Exit Glacier taken over the years with dates mentioning how the glacier has retreated due to ‘Global Warmimg’. The glacier moved away by almost 50 meters from it’s original point during the last 20 years due to gradual melting of it’s solid ice which is a grave danger to ecology system of Alaska. The winding path through the woods reverberating with sounds of flowing river water and chirping birds. On the way we saw some sign boards at intervals mentioning the ‘Glacier was here’ with month & year. Very soon we were rewarded with the majestic view of the glacier and looking below from a height we could see the new born river Resurrection gently trickling down from the source, the point of origin at the base of glacier. This was my first experience of viewing from close, the birth of a river.

Next two days, we moved further driving through the forest areas in the heart land of Alaska crossing new vistas in the lap of nature with unspoilt virgin beauty. We reached Girdwood where we would camp for next 2 nights. Our itinerary here was to visit the famous Alyeska Ski Resort on a mountain top where we reached through a cable car. The thrill of going high up the mountain on a cable car, the morning cool breeze, the unrestricted view of the Alyeska glacier filled our hearts to the brim. This is the famous spot for skiing upon the glacier. Exploring the glacier area for about two hours, we descended to visit our next spot, the Girdwood Zoo with separate enclosures showcasing the famous Alaskan Moose with large horns, MuskOx, deer, giraffe and of course the famous and ferrocious Grizzly Bears. The pathways inside the zoo are motorable, so one can view the animals even sitting inside the car. We were just in time for the afternoon feed of Grizzly bears by zoo keepers. It became an enjoyable sight for all to see how the bears were fed by agile zoo keepers while taking care of their personal safety. We then returned to our guest house for the much needed rest and preparing for our next day’s journey for going to Anchorage before setting out to our last stop at beautiful Denali National park.



(Alaskan Moose crossing jungle stream)

The five-hour train ride to Denali from Anchorage was again a memorable experience of Alaskan Rail travel for extreme comfort, scenic beauty of the landscape around and lavish food spread for passengers. When the snowcapped Denali mountain became visible, the Coach Attendant immediately informed us to be ready with camera to capture the moment as the train slowed down. Also, the train came to a halt for a minute when the coach supervisor drew our attention to an eagle nest with a bald eagle (unique in Alaska) perched upon the nest. Also on another occasion, there was a photo stop for our train on spotting some big horned Moose running through the marshy land. Finally, we arrive at Denali station. The train will move further to terminate at Fairbanks. To our surprise, the railway staff in charge of passengers’ luggage told us to move ahead to our designated hotel (details of which were collected beforehand while boarding the train) as Alaskan Railway would take the responsibility of sending all baggage of passengers to the respective hotels. This arrangement of passenger care was indeed a pleasant surprise!

On arriving at the hotel, we completed the formalities of ‘check- in ‘quickly and lo! Our baggage with tags bearing our names and room numbers waiting for us! Before leaving the reception desk, I made a special request to the front desk official to inform us immediately if there is a sighting of Northern Lights appearing on the night sky. Lady receptionist smiled and assured me that same would be done. I did not receive any mid night call from the hotel though I was wide awake well past midnight in anticipation. Next morning, we started getting ready for our Denali National Park tour which was booked in advance. This guided full day coach tour was outstanding. We were in the middle of wilderness which I never thought of. We were crossing forest areas, hills, sometimes absolutely barren land, small rivers flowing through marshy lands. There was commentary of our tour guide constantly introducing us to the new landscape. I practically got a goose bump when the guide announced that we were now inside the Tundra region. My mind went down the memory lane when in our school days in the geography book we read about Tundra region. What a thrill!

Suddenly, the guide announced to be watchful as he spotted some grizzly bears, through some trees nearby. Yes, a family of bears could be seen from a distance and busy eating from the field. Our guide said they were eating berries grown in abundance during this season. Suddenly the voice of the guide boomed. “See what is moving towards our vehicle. Take pictures but maintain absolute silence.”

Oh it was our moment of the day! A huge grizzly bear moving gently towards our coach, halted for a minute, casually looked around and slowing crossed our vehicle from a handshake distance. “You guys are fortunate having seen the grizzly bear from so close “said our guide, once we settled down to our seats. On our way back, we had a spectacular sight of trees in distant mountains decked in fall colours of yellow & orange. What a sight it was!

After a hectic day trip we were naturally tired and went to bed early. Suddenly around mid-night the telephone rang breaking our sleep. I could not believe my ears when the hotel staff said “Northern Lights are seen. Please go the garden area right away”.

I hung up the phone, called my folks who were up already. We scrabbled out disregarding the severe cold outside, just wearing a jacket or a sweater, carrying our mobile phones to shoot. Anwesha (daughter in law) carried her cannon camera. Out in the garden, we saw several other boarders too having already arrived, some were mounting their cameras on tripods to capture the moment of their life. We looked up, it was a cloudless night. From the distant Denali mountain top, streaks of green lights were slowing appearing and moving towards our direction. We were as if trembling with excitement by viewing the beginning of much desired Northern Lights. Slowly band of lights now distinctly in green and red colours were stretching above our heads illuminating the night sky. Soon, from behind some more bands of green lights from the horizon mingled with already existing lights and started moving in circles for a spectacular show of celestial ballet. We were as if watching absolutely in a trance. The spectacular display of lights shows in the sky lasted almost for an hour though we lost count of the time. An American photographer said he spent almost six months in Iceland last year but ‘Aurora Borealis’ was elusive. Yes, lady luck certainly smiled upon us that night. Gradually, the dancing lights started fading away and we returned to our hotel room with a memory of a lifetime.

Thus our dream tour of Alaska came to an end and we returned to Boston with an unforgettable memory having seen the pristine nature at her best. The unforgettable journeys by Alaskan Rail, the mighty glaciers, snowcapped Denali Mountain, the Grizzly bear adventure tour and above all the Northern Lights spectacle will remain with me for the rest of my life. Almost five years have passed but it seems only yesterday. Would I ever return to Alaska? Perhaps not, because experience of a lifetime can happen only once.



(Ferrocious Grizzly Bear moving past our bus window at Denali National Park.)

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