Sometimes towns aren't quite as they first appear, discovers Mark Thornton.
I awoke to the sound of Ellie and Bill laughing as they made breakfast in Traily’s kitchen. Bill is a jolly red-haired fellow from Vanderhoof, near Prince George in central British Columbia. Ellie met him in Whistler where she was teaching his niece horse riding and he was working as a joiner on posh homes in the ski resort. Both love food and are the best people to have looking after your cooking on a Traily holiday. It was a pity he could only take leave for a week.
While Jen and I washed up, Dianne and Luci entertained Elke with a miming game and Tim helped Ellie and Bill secure Traily, for we were leaving it behind at the site to tour the Kenai Peninsula unencumbered. Then we set off for the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet to find the village of Hope. Turnagain Arm was named in 1778 by William Bligh of HMS Bounty fame while he was Captain James Cook’s sailing master looking for the fabled Northwest Passage to the Arctic Ocean. The arm was a dead end so he turned about. On its southern flank Hope was founded 117 years later by miners seeking gold.
It was in 1889, seven years before gold was found in Canada’s Klondike, that a miner discovered nuggets in Turnagain Arm’s Resurrection Creek. Word got out and soon more than 3000 miners were camped along the shore. They discovered more gold in Six Mile Creek and Hope, named by the miners not for the feeling of expectation but after 17-year-old Percy Hope, the youngest miner to step ashore, became Alaska’s first gold rush town.
Hope is tiny, more a hamlet than a village, and looks like the set for a period film. We drove quietly past wooden cabins and shacks that looked deserted until we reached the end of the village; a dead end at the water’s edge. Perhaps it was so late in the year the tourist season was over and everyone had gone home. Perhaps it was melancholia that lingered on after so many homes were lost when the coastline dropped two metres in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
Regardless, we stopped and walked about to stretch our legs. A hand-painted sign outside one cabin, owned by chainsaw carver Jim according to a shingle on the door, said: “Gone fishing”. How long ago I wondered. Further along the dirt road a cottage displayed a large notice: “Don’t let Patches out, no matter what he tells you”. I hoped it referred to a dog. The place seemed long abandoned.
And then, a black dog at first unseen on a porch across the way raised his head, as if to ask my business, and a curtain twitched in a front window of a cottage next door. Shyly, or so it seemed, the village began to reveal itself and its people. Here was an art gallery, where Dianne, Jen and I browsed with Ellie and Elke, enchanted by the beautiful carvings of owner Trevene and bronzes of iconic Alaskan animals cast by a friend. An unexpectedly elegant woman for such a remote place, Trevene gets orders for the bronzes, some costing $3000, and ships them around the world. Then Ellie and Bill found a school with 18 students from kindy to Year 12, a blacksmith’s forge, library, museum and a wealth of other businesses, especially—to our collective delight—Tito’s Discovery Café.
Actually Tim and Luci discovered the café, drawn there by the aroma of delicious pies home-baked by Deah and Tahneta, who treat you like you’ve always been one of the family. I had believed Hope to be lonely and forgotten, now I thought it should be renamed Aspiration, or Contentment. It just shows how important it is on holiday to take time when exploring. It’s a mantra worth repeating often. Like so many places already visited, we wanted to spend more time in Hope. But the highway and the still unseen delights of the Kenai Peninsula beckoned. After packing us some delicious fare to enjoy later, Deah and Tahneta, both named after Athabascan forebears, waved us off from their porch.
With Bill ensconced in Ellie’s Ford with Dianne and Elke singing in the back, it was my turn to ride with Luci, Tim and Jen in Black Thunder. We listened to the Dixie Chicks turned up very loud and I swear the vehicle was rocking on its axles as we cruised onto the highway to Seward through the Kenai Fjords National Park. Suddenly the two-way crackled into life. “Traily calling Black Thunder. There are two young moose on the river flats to your left.” And so there were, crossing a creek through the appropriately named Moose Pass. Tim hit the brakes. “Roger Traily, Mark’s taking a photo.” I had just enough time to snap off one shot and luckily it came out.
Ellie said they would be two-year olds driven away by the mother who would have had another calf. While bears or wolves will kill about 50 per cent of calves before they are six weeks old, the fact there were two calves together greatly increased their chances of survival. And after just two months a young moose can outrun a bear.
About 40kms later we reached Seward, named after William Seward, US Secretary of State during Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s presidencies. It was Seward who argued, against the wishes of his government, that the US should buy Alaska from the Russians. Russia had financial difficulties at the time and feared losing the territory in any future war, particularly with the British, without compensation.
The Russian emperor, Alexander II, decided to sell and offered it to the Americans, who in 1867 paid $A9.5 million ($A161 million today) and named it Alaska after its Aleut, or Eskimo name. Not all Americans approved. For years the deal was known as Seward’s Folly, but not any more. Yet to this day 12 per cent of Alaskans have Russian ancestry.
Seward has a population of 2500 and sits, like so many others in Alaska, at the head of a fjord for protection from the more extreme vagaries of the weather. We drove past the bustling fishing and cruise liner ports and continued to the town proper with one main street, the Seward Highway, sloping directly down to the fjord. Behind every fifth door was a bar. But there was a great bookshop too and many more curiosity shops on the dozen or so cross streets, including one discovered by Dianne that sold quilting fabrics reflecting the designs and motifs of the North American flora and fauna.
Right on the edge of Resurrection Bay is the Alaska SeaLife Centre, a magnificent modern building housing natural rock aquariums for a variety of seals, Steller sea lions, sea otters, sea birds and a multitude of fish ranging from a scary looking 2.4m wolf eel, two metre long halibut, salmon and giant octopus weighing up to 45kg with a 2.5m span. It’s dedicated to marine animal rescue and rehabilitation and research and has a team of 14 scientists, half with PhDs.
In the mountains around us autumn was beginning to show itself. “In autumn comes rest, as if the year’s work were done” wrote John Muir on his 1867 Alaska trip. “Sunshine, streaming over the cliffs in rich, hazy beams, calls forth the last of the gentians and goldenrods; the groves and tangles and meadows bloom again, every leaf changing to a petal, scarlet and yellow; the rocks also bloom, and the glaciers in the mellow golden light. And so goes the song, change succeeding change in glorious harmony through all the seasons and years.”
As evening drew a curtain of mist over the mountains and damp descended on Seward, we found dinner at the Seward Brewing Company restaurant, an architect’s celebration of wood, off Washington Street. Excellent food with great service and interesting company; we were seated between a Japanese family on our left, Germans to the right and some young locals across the aisle. The bar even sold one of my favourite remembered beers from England, Newcastle Brown Ale.
As we walked back to our vehicles we greeted Tanya and Uwe from Stuttgart sitting next to their RV with a fire on the seawall rocks. In the fjord beyond them, disappearing into the gloaming, steamed a cruise ship, the Radiance of the Seas.
We drove back to Williwaw in darkness to find Traily as we had left it, safe in its bower. No fire to light, no need to wash up, we tumbled into our bunks and slept like babes.
Join Traily back on the road for tomorrow’s episode ...
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