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2013 NRHS Convention -- Glacier Tour, Wildlife Conservation Centre and Alyeska Tramway ~ September 18th, 2013

by Elizabeth Guenzler

This first full day in Anchorage was set aside for the business meetings. There were two limited capacity tours offered - a shop tour of the Alaska Railroad and dispatching centre as well as a motorcoach trip to Portage Glacier, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre and the Alyeska Tramway. I was eager to see wildlife and scenery while in Alaska and the latter tour was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, both sold out very quickly and a waiting list was developed. However, I was mentioning this very item in conversation with Robin Bowers and Chris Parker during yesterday's train trip and they had learnt that a Board member, Cora Sower, had bought a ticket for the motorcoach trip but was not going to be able to use it as she had to attend the meetings. The two of us met and I was extremely appreciative and grateful to her for giving me her ticket.

I was able to sleep in today then had breakfast at the hotel and made my way out to the motor coach for the 08:30 departure. There were about forty others going on this adventure, including Bart's wife, Sarah Jennings. Our first stop was the Portage Glacier Visitor's Centre built upon the terminal moraine left behind by Portage Glacier in 1914. I first explored the wall displays and information boards.

The Land of Extremes relief map at the visitor's centre.

I had not realized that Alaska was so large.

The Wild Side - Animals in the Chugach National Forest.

Views of the Portage Glacier across a lake and halfway up the hill. Although I naturally learned about glaciers in school, it was not until I saw this one, my first, that I really comprehended that Earth was once covered in glaciers. A short film was shown on the area, the 1964 earthquake (which I knew little about) and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill (which I well remember learning about in Grade 12). However, seeing these films and being in the state where they happened made it very real.

After that, it was a short drive to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre, also located in Portage.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre History

In 1993, Mike Miller founded Big Game Alaska with just a modest herd of plains bison and Rocky Mountain elk. Since then, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) has transformed over the last 20 years gaining 501(c) 3 nonprofit status in 2004. Today the AWCC is Southcentral Alaska's #1 visitor attraction. Dedicated to preserving Alaska’s wildlife through conservation, education, research and quality animal care, the AWCC takes in orphaned and injured animals and provides them with care and spacious enclosures. Located in Portage, Alaska, the AWCC has over 200 acres that allow for its animals to live in large enclosures in their natural habitats. The AWCC has a partnership with the United States Forest Service and leases 110 additional acres that are dedicated specifically to wood bison.

The AWCC is home to lynx, brown bears, porcupines, wood bison, black bears, foxes, coyotes, wolves, moose, elk, Sitka black-tail deer, muskox, caribou, reindeer, a bald eagle, a great horned owl, a red ground squirrel and ferrets. The animals are cared for in large, natural environments. Since 2003, the AWCC has taken part in a program to re-introduce native wood bison back into Alaska after a 100-year absence. The wood bison is the largest land mammal in North America and is a keystone grazing herbivore from the region. This project is a joint effort with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. In 2015, 130 wood bison were released back into western Alaska. Along with our conservation efforts, the AWCC is also dedicated to providing our guests with high-quality learning opportunities. Educational efforts include development of STEM curriculum, as well as teaching visitors and students about Alaska’s wildlife through field trips, interpretive signage, and animal presentations.

The hills overlooking part of the AWCC.

This was the first grizzly bear I had seen in person.

Throughout the grounds are scupltures such as this.

Alaska Wood Bison grazing in the fields.

Wood Bison information boards.

It was quite something to be so close to these animals.

Elk information board.

This elk was much more interested in investigating the tree stump than take notice of the people.

Elk grazing in the fields.

The bald eagle information board.

Our Living National Symbol.

Adonis, the bald eagle.

Red Fox information board.

The Red Fox.

Great Horned Owl information board.

The Great Horned Owl, as best as I could photograph him.

Northern Cat information board.

The cats were sitting up on high beams so the angle was not ideal.

Caribou information board, although there were no caribou seen.

I passed more Wood Bison as I made my way around this fantastic place.

The animals that make up the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre.

An example of the trees that were killed by salt water when the ground sank ten feet in the 1964 earthquake.

Porcupine information board.

The porcupine partially inside his 'house'.

A Prickly World information board.

This moose walked down the hill, through the river and up the other side, right in front of me!

Ducks, while not being part of the AWCC, were foraging for food by the stream. I was very impressed by everything I saw here and my quest to see wildlife was certainly accomplished. I visited the gift shop and acquired some souvenirs before boarding the bus for the Alyeska Tramway in Girdoowd.

Alyeska Tramway Details

The Alyeska Tramway, designed by Von Roll Tramways, Inc. of Switzerland, has a regenerative drive system. AC power is converted to DC, allowing the tram to operate at varying speeds -- slow for scenic rides and fast for powder days. In the winter, the tram operates at full speed to get eager skiers on the slopes. In the summer, enjoy the natural beauty of the area and to spot wildlife. The tram operates two cars on a counterweight system. It is a seven-minute scenic ride climbing to 2,300 feet in elevation at the top of Mt. Alyeska. From the tram, you can see miles in all directions -- including views of the Turnagain Arm, up to seven "hanging" glaciers and endless peaks deep into the Chugach Mountain range. Do not forget to look down! In the summer months, moose and bear sightings are common. An observation deck provides panoramic views while you enjoy a relaxed lunch or a beautiful evening sunset.

Inside the motor room.

Looking up at the wheel which spins the wire that moves the tram.

The tram on its way down to pick us up.

The Alyeska Tramway tram approaching the boarding area. Several of us boarded and I was excited for my ride up the mountain.

The view as we ascended.

Soon we were above the treetops. We arrived at the Roundhouse, which sits 2,280 feet above sea level and is accessible by aerial tram or ski lift. The distinctive octagonal building first served as a warming hut and later as a popular mountain gathering place. Built in 1960, the Roundhouse was placed on the National Historic Register in 2003, and is now a museum. Half a century ago, eleven Girdwood residents passed the hat and raised enough money to purchase what became the land base for a major ski area. Through initiative and perseverance, the eleven formed the Alyeska Ski Corporation and developed a ski area that was small in assets but big in promise. They did it because they understood that the Valley's future lay in its golden slopes. They found a French Baron who shared their dream. Francois de Gunzburg installed a poma lift, built ski trails and a day lodge and ordered Chair 1, a 5,700-foot double chairlift that rose 2,000 vertical feet. The upper terminus of the chairlift became known as the Roundhouse.

Today, the Roundhouse symbolizes the importance of outdoor recreation to this Valley's legacy, much like Crow Creek Mine serves as an icon of the Valley's golden past. Alyeska’s ski patrol used the lower level as its headquarters. In summer, the Roundhouse turned into a visitor center for people to enjoy the alpine environment and the panoramic view that encompasses two mountain ranges, seven glaciers and scenic Turnagain Arm. But age took its toll and public use all but ended in 1992 when the Glacier Terminal and aerial tram opened. The building was placed on the National Historic Register in 2003 in recognition of its significance to the development of skiing and other outdoor activities in Alaska. Girdwood, Inc. was formed, in part, to restore the Roundhouse and turn its upper level into an interpretive center and museum. The Roundhouse renovation began in 2003 with seed money from the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Corridor Communities Association. Since then, Girdwood, Inc. has raised approximately $1.9 million for the project through a combination of public and private money, including the Rasmuson and Atwood Foundations, the National Park Service, HUD and the Eddie Gendzwill estate. Alyeska Resort generously underwrote large parts of this project with extensive on-mountain support and technical expertise.

The view looking from the Roundhouse at the top of the tramway.

Views as I walked around the perimeter of the Roundhouse.

The title of this information board is completely true.

Part of the roundhouse with the ever-moving clouds.

Starting the descent.

Plummeting into the clouds.

The clouds parted so this view of Alyeska Resort, the tram travelling up the mountain and the trees and lake could be enjoyed on the way down. I walked over to where lunch was being distributed and ate while I reflected on everything I had seen today. On the return motorcoach trip to the hotel, the bus driver gave very interesting details and history of the area. I arrived back at the hotel about 16:00 hrs, called Chris to find out how his day was going then did the laundry. We went to dinner at the Sizzlin' Cafe across the street and I spent the evening catching up on the Internet and helping write the story from today.

I believe I used Cora's ticket for this day to the utmost and was very glad that I had been able to see a glacier, lots of wildlife and ride on a mountain tram.