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Alaska Girdwood & Portage tour

Adventurer in Alaska

Day 18

Bus tour and Hi Speed Tram ride and a walk with bears and wood bison.

  September 18, 2013, Wednesday

Text and photos by Robin Bowers

    In the dark of the morning, the alarm sounds off. This is the start of my first morning here in Alaska's largest city.
It was still a few minutes before the crack of dawn when my timbers were shaken. After a few moments I realized what happened. When your near neighbor is  Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska's largest Air Force base and home to 23,000 people and a few moose, afterburners on the jet engines were turned on and the pilots were getting ready to go out on patrol. This is a NORAD base and of course you know that I can see Russia from my hotel window high atop the Guest House or the jet mechanics just wanted to give the neighbors a friendly wake up call. 
    For breakfast this morning, I went across the street to Sizzlin Cafe which was highly recommend by the informative hotel desk clerk last evening. Had a great ham and eggs with coffee while watching the crack of dawn (cod). 

    Today was a bum day. No train rides today. Not one.

    This was the first day of the convention with a day of varied activities in Anchorage, including:
Alaska RR depot and operations center tours.  Sold Out.
Alaska RR shops tour. Sold Out.
Railroad and rail history seminars
NRHS Advisory Council meeting
NRHS Annual meeting of the Membership
Full day bus tour to Girdwood and Portage.

So I was doing the bus tour leaving the Hilton Hotel at 8:30 AM.
Leaving my hotel a few minuets before eight, I walked down 5th Ave, one of the main drags in town to the Hilton. Arriving about 15 after, I find and board the bus. It is nearly full save about half a dozen seats. Our bus guide and director today was the "Lunch Princess," Sarah Jennings. Also on board was Elizabeth A.

ticket 0311

My ticket to ride.

At 8:30 the bus left and we were under way. The driver gave his narration as we traveled south thru the city.

    Perched on the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet and framed by the Chugach Mountain Range, Anchorage began as a railroad construction base in 1913, saw a post office open in 1914, and boom times through both World War I and II as military staging city. Anchorage has grown into Alaska's center for finance and industry. It is the state's largest city with more than 275,000 people. Because it is protected by the Kenai Mountains, Anchorage is relatively dry, receiving only 15.9 inches of precipitation and 69 inches of snow yearly.

    Anchorage is an important community in world freight movements. Approximately 90 percent of the consumer goods for Alaska flow through either the port or the airport. The Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the third busiest freight airport in the United States (behind FedEx in Memphis and UPS in Louisville) and among the top ten in the world. It has long been a refueling and freight consolidation center for flights from around the world. For passengers, there are more than 280 flights daily, handling more than 5 million passengers a year.
     After being in Anchorage a short time, you come to realize that time here in measured by the 1964 Easter earthquake. Before and after.
The driver pointed out the grassy hillside park south of the train station and across from the Hilton was a result of the quake. The buildings were in rubble then the land was cleared and became a park. The driver also talked about a local city zone ordnance that in the downtown historic core that fast food and chain restaurants are banned. They wanted to maintain the small mom and pop style businesses so the town didn't look like all the other main streets in every town in the country and the wold. So if you need your fix from the big chain you have to go to the suburb were they are welcome. Also the money you spend with local businesses stays in the local area.

    It wasn't long before we left the city and were on the Seward Highway going south. The first portion of the Seward Highway was completed in 1923, and the highway was finished on October 9, 1951. The entire highway was paved in 1952. It became a US Forest Service scenic byway in 1989 and was designated as an All-American Road in 2000. The highway stretches from Anchorage south to Seward. The highway and the Alaska Railroad tracks run parallel here along the bank of the Turnagain Arm.
    Turnagain Arm was named by William Bligh of HMS Bounty fame. At the time, Bligh served as Captain Cook's Sailing Master on his 3rd and final voyage, with the aim to discover the Northwest Passage. Hunting for the Passage, Bligh was of the opinion that Turnagain Arm was the mouth of a river and not the opening to the Northwest Passage. However, Cook ordered a full search of the area. Upon this party's return, Bligh's frustration led him to name the bay the disingenuous name "Turn Again," thus Turnagain Arm.


Turnagain Arm

About a hour out from the hotel, we passed several fields with dead trees. The driver explained that this was the result of the 1964 earthquake that flooded the land with salt sea water. The trees are now in a state of being petrified.

    At about 10:00 am we arrived at out first venue for the day. We are at the Portage Glacier and Portage Lake. Portage got its name by being on the portage route from the Gulf of Alaska to Cook Inlet.

    Portage Glacier is considered by some to be Alaska's most visited tourist attraction. The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center provides information on the Portage Glacier area. Portage Glacier was a local name first recorded in 1898 by Thomas Corwin Mendenhall of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, so-called because it is on a portage route between Price William Sound and Turnagain Arm.

    The glacier has been receding for a number of years. In the last few years the glacier face has begun retreating from the lake it created. A small section in the center has exposed bedrock but much of the glacier face is still in the water and extends down more than 100 feet into Portage Lake. Portage Glacier is still considered a valley glacier. Nearby are several hanging glaciers; that is, glaciers that come part way down a mountainside. Glaciers that reach the sea are called tidewater glaciers and glaciers that end in lakes are also called freshwater glaciers. Portage Lake was created behind the terminal moraine of Portage Glacier as it began receding.


Portage Lake

     As our bus pulled into an empty parking lot and parked near the Visitors Center, everyone noticed the big "Closed" sign at the entrance doors. Boy did the tongues start to wag. Sarah J. got off the bus and walked to the entrance and the doors were open to greet her. Several minutes later she came back on our bus and explained that the Visitors Center had closed for the season last weekend but the rangers agreed to come from their posts and open the center for just us special people. We were welcomed inside and given a short welcome talk by the rangers and then lead into the theater to watch a short film of local history and some earthquake footage. At the end of the film, I think the front curtains were to open and reveal big windows over looking the lake and glacier. It didn't but several of us went up to curtain and pulled it back to see behind the curtain. Having seen a similar presentation at Ft. McHenry Nat'l Monument, I highly recommend a visit to it and the B&O Railroad museum if you are near Baltimore, MD. 


Our bus and driver at Visitors Center

    Begich, Boggs Visitor Center
    Open to the public in 1986, and rededicate with new exhibits in 2001, the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center is built upon the terminal moraine left behind by Portage Glacier in 1914. The visitor center offers an unique opportunity to learn about the Chugach (CHEW-gatch) National Forest, America's second largest national forest, roughly as large as New Hampshire.
The visitor center is named after Congressmen Nick Begich of Alaska and Hale Boggs of Louisiana. They, along with their pilot Dan Janz, and congressional aide Russell L. Brown, disappeared in 1972 en route to Juneau from Anchorage. They were last heard from as they flew over Portage Pass. No sign of the men or their plane has ever been found. Congressman Boggs is the father of TV news personality and author Cokie Roberts.

        GPS:  60 47.064, -148 50.497      Click for map     Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.








    Large piles of rock and debris are deposited by glaciers as they flow down, or retreat from, valleys. In fact, the visitor center is built on a terminal (end) moraine that was deposited by Portage Glacier between the late 1890's and 1914, when it began its most recent retreat.

    The unique milky blue coloration of Portage Lake and Portage Creek is due to the silt or rock flour that stays suspended in the water. As glaciers move over the landscape, the rocks they pick up along the way grind against the mountainsides, creating the fine dust-like particles.

Why is the Ice Blue?
    Glacier ice is formed under the weight of countless snowfalls, which squeezes out most of the air, leaving dense, compact ice. Sunlight, or white light, is made up of all colors of the spectrum - with each color having a different amount of energy. In regular ice, like the ice in your freezer, the air bubbles scatter the light - creating the white appearance. When sunlight strikes glacier ice, the lower energy colors are absorbed by the ice and only the blue color, which has the most energy, is reflected back to the eye!









First of several tunnels on the road to Whittier and Prince William Sound.


Parking lot at the visitors center.

After about an hour it was time to re-board our bus for a short trip to our next venue.

    Shortly after leaving we rejoined the Seward Highway and then a few minutes later we were arriving at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) is "a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Alaska's wildlife through conservation, public education, and quality animal care. AWCC takes in injured and orphaned animals year-round and provides spacious enclosures and quality animal care. Animals that cannot be released into the wild are given a permanent home at the center."
     Since its founding, more than 3 million people have visited the wildlife center. As its fame spreads, attendance has increased to the point that annual visitation is now over a quarter of a million people. Located west of the railroad tracks in Portage (south of Girdwood) on 170 acres, the facility provides a unique opportunity to see and photograph many Alaskan animals including brown (grizzly) and black bears, coyotes (see them in the bear enclosures where they keep up their scavenging skills), moose, elk, musk ox, wood bison, sitka deer, caribou, lynx and porcupine. All of the large mammals are in enclosures covering acres of land, allowing them to wander in their natural habitat. The AWCC continues to expand and is building new enclosures to provide better viewing of the animals.

    When we arrive at the entrance gate, we are informed that the free shuttle that would take you around to different areas was not operating today so it was walking on your own to get around. Not good for people unable to walk. Those of us who could walk were let off to scout out the center at their leisure. Just be back at the bus for 12:30 pm departure.

            GPS:  60 49.284, -148 58.799            Click to see map.         Click Back button on your browser to retrn to this page.





This bear was pacing back and forth.


Maybe this was his exercise path to keep in shape?


Looking out on Portage Creek and the Turnagain Arm.


Portage Creek.


Placer River.


Placer River.


    AWCC is involved in some major wildlife restoration projects. In addition to its efforts to heal and release injured animals, the facility is an active participant in restoring the wood bison back into the wilds of Alaska. Jointly sponsored by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game and other conservation groups, this effort is scheduled to take place over the next year or two  as the herd at AWCC has grown quickly over the few years. Gone from the wild of Alaska for almost 100 years, the restoration of the wood bison, the largest land mammal in North America, has been underway since 2003. In November of that year, the Yukon Territory donated a herd to the AWCC, the only wood bison herd in the United States. The first wood bison calves born in the state of Alaska in over 100 years were born at AWCC in 2005. The herd has continued to expand through natural birth and via further donations from Canada. In 2012, almost 40 calves were born to the herd.













Staff member with her pet out for a walk and picture posing.

To watch short video, click here.
Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.





        After a stop in the gift shop for some half off sale ice cream it was time to re-board the bus.
        Both driver and Sarah J. did a census count and when they agreed we left AWCC for our next adventure.


Garden beds at the AWCC.

    Now we were back on our friend, the Seward Highway heading north toward Anchorage for the last venue and adventure. Along the trip, I learned that stretches of highways are built as emergency landing strips. This came about after the earthquake in 1964.

They saved the best for last !!!

    After a 30 minute ride, we arrive at the last and the best stop of the day. A Grade A+ experience.



     In 1954, eleven Girdwood residents passed the hat and passed the hat and raised enough money to purchase what became the land base for a major ski area. Through initiative and perseverance, they developed a ski area that was small in assets but big in promise. They found a French Baron who shared their dream. Francois de Gunzburg installed a Poma chairlift, built ski trails and a day lodge and ordered Chair 1, a 5,700-foot double chairlift that rose 2,000 vertical feet.
     Today, the Alyeska Resort is considered by many to be Alaska's premier year-round resort, featuring the 304-room Hotel Alyeska. The hotel, built in a chateau-style, opened in 1994. Today, it is a favorite for winter sports, with an average snowfall of 650 inches, and summer outdoor activities. Alyeska Resort sits in the heart of Girdwood, a glacier carved valley. To the west and north, the mountains of the Chugach State Park provide a stunning backdrop over Alyeska. At 495,000 acres, it is the third largest state park in the US. During the winter, the Alaska Railroad often operates a ski train to Girdwood for the Alyeska slopes.


Hotel Alyeska.

            GPS:   60 58.224, -149 05.810        Click to see map.         Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.
                        elev: 266'

    The Alyeska Resort Aerial Tramway was designed by Von Roll Tramways, Inc of Switzerland. It has a regenerative drive system. AC power is converted to DC, allowing the tram to operate at varied speeds - slow for scenic riders and fast for powder days. In the winter, the tram operates at full speed. In the summer, the tram is operated at half speed, allowing ample time to enjoy the natural beauty of the area and to spot wildlife. The tram operates two cars on a counterweight system - one car goes up the other car comes down. It takes you to the top of mount Alyeska at 2,300 feet above sea level. This seven-minute ride takes passengers to the mountain's viewing deck with breathtaking panoramic views of mountains, hanging glaciers, streams, spruce and an array of wildlife. Telescopes on the Glacier Terminal viewing deck intensify what Conde' Nast Traveler Magazine rated the best view of any U.S. ski resort.

Before leaving the bus, the "Lunch Princess" told us the plan while we were here. After our tram ride. we will have our box lunch on the Hotel Alyeska patio. But before our tram ride, we will have a docent led tour of the machine room. The docent meet and welcomed us to the Tramway. He then led us to the machine room. It was sort of secret passageway to enter the machine room. We went thru a two door elevator. Neat. In the front door and out the back door.






Not a large room. Above the ceiling is the platform for car loading.



The docent gave a great talk about the workings and mechanics of operating the Tram. He also told about how resort hotels, ski lifts and the railroads were inter involved and related. After the tour we proceed to the loading platform. As our group was just about all the riders for the tram, we split in to several smaller groups to go up to the top. This would give more room and better viewing in the cars.







Turnagain Arm in the distant.

    As the car climbs to the top, we notice that a lot of trees have a curve or bow in the trunks about three to six feet above ground. The guide explains that is due to the almost 700" of snow fall each winter that the snow pushes the trunks in a downhill direction slowly bending the trees. We also notice a trail up the side of mountain with a lot of switch backs going directly under the tram route. This the guide explained was where the annual run up the mountain was held. We had missed this years run by several weeks. During a 24 hour period, runners see how many times they can go up the mountain. This year's male winner did 12 trips and the female winner completed 11 trips in 24 hours.


Upper Tram Terminal.

            GPS:  60 57.685, -149 04.804    Click to see map.           Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.
                        elevation: 2334.'


The Glacier Express restaurant is a self-service restaurant with gift shop on far right.


Construction being done on back side of Upper Tram Terminal.


More of back side of tram station.


Chair Lift.


Chair lift and gift shop.


Gift shop and First Aid.


View from front of Upper Tram Terminal.




Back side of Upper Tram Terminal.


 Car at Upper Terminal.


Hotel Alyeska at Lower Tram Terminal.


Turnagain Arm with the town of Girdwood near water's edge.

Hotel Alyeska.

        The car operator was asked when is the best skiing time of the season. His reply was that the sweet spot was in late March and April. There was more daylight then and the snowing had stopped he said.


One last look.

     Tram stats provided by the resort;

Maximum Speed: 26 miles per hour (42 kilometers per hour)
Average Time: 4 minutes in the winter and up to 7 minutes in the summer
Capacity: Each of the two cars holds a maximum of 60 persons. The maximum in the winter in 800 persons per hour.
Elevation: Lower Tram Terminal: 306 feet (93 meters)
Upper Tram Terminal: 2,334 feet (711 meters)
Vertical Rise: 2,025 feet (617 meters)
Length of Span: 3,869 feet (1179 meters)

     After arriving at the Lower Tram Terminal it was time to find our "Lunch Princess."


Hotel patio where our box lunches were being served.


Enjoying a great box lunch and fabulous view. Sarah J. said the Hilton Anchorage prepared these and I think they are best we had so far.



Lower Tram Terminal with temporary summer tent to the right. Used for concerts and dances.


    After a enjoyable lunch break, we were led on a walking tour thru the hotel to our waiting bus.


The Hotel Alyeska lobby.




Grand staircase.


On the outside looking in.


NRHS listed at top of today's hotel calendar.


Lobby display.



Leaving the hotel front entrance via the red carpet to the porte-cochere.


Under the porte-cochere.


Just outside at the front entrance.




Front entrance driveway with our bus waiting.


View of hotel side lawn


Main Entrance and walkway.


    At 3:30 PM, it is time to leave this three diamond resort hotel. Plan to talk to my siblings about coming here for a family reunion and winter ski holiday.
We travel thru Girdwood to the Seward Highway for our northbound trip to Anchorage. While on the highway we encounter several slow downs and detours due to road work and repair. The bus driver said that due to the short warm repair season in Alaska that road work was a 24-7 schedule to get as much work done as possible. Lots of good jobs up here for road workers and many come here to work and then return home at end of season.
As we approach Anchorage the driver said that we missed the hanging flower baskets by just a couple of weeks. Each summer the city is beautifully decorated with almost 100,000 hanging flower baskets brimming with brightly-colored blooms. At the end of summer the baskets are taken downed and stored until next summer.
While waiting at a stop light, the driver notices an unmarked police car. He states that the FBI Anchorage office is the largest in the world. A great many residents here are involved in national security either directly or indirectly.

As we approach downtown, we go down 5th Ave past my hotel. Wouldn't been nice if I could have been dropped off here in front of my hotel. Turning off of 5th Ave we go pass the Hotel Captain Cook, the driver tells us this was the first high rise hotel to be built and had many financial problems in getting started and with construction.    

Minutes later the bus arrives at the Hilton and I leave it and walk back to my hotel. I meet up with fellow hotel friends and plan tonight's schedule. Two important tasks were laundry and supper. The Guesthouse Anchorage Inn has a small laundry room for guest. It has two washers and two dryers in a locked room.Therefore only one guest at a time can use the laundry. You make reservation at the front desk and receive the key, do your wash and then return key. Elizabeth A. would go first and do her wash before dinner. Chris P. and I would go to dinner and then I would do my wash then Chris P. his. Chris and I decide to go across the street for dinner at the Sizzlin Cafe. It was a good meal and we both had the Cobb salad. Then it was time to pick up the laundry room key and a roll of quarters. Afterwards it was good to have an all clean wardrobe.
    Then it was lights out on my first full day in Anchorage, Alaska.

FYI Links:        Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.

    Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, Glacier Ranger District       Visitor Center

    Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center            Alaska Wildlife Center

    Hotel Alyeska                           Hotel Alyeska

    Guesthouse Anchorage Inn
    321 E. 5th Ave           Guesthouse Anchorage Inn

    Sizzlin Cafe
    346 E. 5th Ave                   Sizzlin Cafe
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Day 19

Anchorage to Seward Excursion

* Return to Day 17 *

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