At a population of around 300,000 Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city; more than 50% of Alaskans live here. On a peninsula, this town is defined by Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm. As I am writing this I have a great view out to Knik Arm from the B&B I am staying at.
Anchorage was established by the railroad. The government needed a way to ship Alaska coal (which apparently has no sulphur, so burns clean) overseas and to the lower 48 states, so the building of a railroad link commenced in 1914. At first only men were allowed to come, having to leave their families behind; some time later it was deemed suitable to bring the women and children too. As the settlement had no name and therefore no address, the US Postal Service refused to send anything to and from the place. The women of tent city (which is what it pretty much was at that time) were not happy as they wanted to send and receive letters from home. Nobody could agree on a name so a list of possibles was put to a public vote. The name Anchorage just won marginally and refers to the fact that the anchorage at the mouth of Ship Creek was much better than anywhere else in the area. After this, the post office was opened thereby keeping the female populace happy, and Anchorage was born.
The current population includes diverse racial and cultural groups and everywhere you look there is evidence of the towns heritage. My favourite are the totems of the Eagle and Giant Clam that stand in front of the courthouse. They are carved of red cedar by Lee Wallace of Ketchikan and were erected in 1997. They represent the eagle and raven moieties of the Tlingits people, intended to symbolize the balance of justice. A Tlingits creation story tells of how raven stole the moon and stars and brought them to mankind; in the raven pole here, the moon and stars are the stars of the Alaska flag. The eagle is shown trapped by a giant clam, another Tlingits legend, a warning that those who break the law will lose their freedom.
The other thing you notice when you walk in downtown Anchorage is that there is a large amount of art everywhere. This apparently is due to the fact that if you want to build anything in town, 1% of the cost has to go towards the arts, hence most buildings have some art displayed either in, on or in front of their buildings. Another monument, which is slightly hidden away in a small park is the Captain Cook monument. Mr Cook looks out to the inlet that bears his name. He actually never made it to Anchorage, leaving that to his second-in-command William Bligh (he of the mutiny of the HMS Bounty fame). Captain Cook sailed along the inlet in 1778 looking for the Northwest Passage. After 2 weeks of not finding anything, he decided it was time to move on. Now I can hear you asking, why build a monument to a man who never set foot into Anchorage? Alaskans admire Captain Cook for his exceptional cartography; he mapped not only Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, parts of Canada, but also Alaska. A recent undertaking found, by overlaying pictures from space with Cook’s maps, just how accurate he was. This particular homage to Captain Cook can be found in Resolution Park just at the top of L Street.
My third favourite monument is the one that commemorates the mushers and dogs of the Iditarod Trail and the Fur Rendezvous World Championship races. For the Iditarod Trail race this is the ceremonial start, the official one being in Willow, which is north of Anchorage. This race is probably the most famous one of all and takes places every year in early March from Anchorage/Willow to Nome. Mushers and their dogs cover the distance in 9-15 days or more. The fastest time so far was recorded in 2011 by John Baker with a time of 8 days, 19 hours, 46 minutes and 39 seconds. Teams face blizzards causing whiteout conditions with sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds, with wind chills that reach -100F/-73C. The trails runs up the Alaskan Range into the sparsely populated interior, then goes along the shoreline of the Bering Sea before finally reaching Nome in western Alaska. This trail takes teams through tundra, spruce forests, over hills and mountain passes, and across rivers.
This race is the most popular sporting event in Alaska (after High School basketball it seems) and mushers and their dogs are local celebrities. Most of the teams are Alaskan, but competitors from all around the world take also part.
The Fur Rendezvous World Championships, also known as the Rondy, takes part every year in late February as part of North America’s biggest winter festival in Anchorage. In this race, dog teams and their mushers complete three high-speed, all-out 25 mile loops over three days with the fastest elapsed time being the winner. This competition, which began in 1946 is considered the grandfather of all Alaska races (although I am sure that this is highly debatable).
The nice thing about Anchorage, apart from all the art, is that everything is fairly compact and most places are easily reached on foot. Most hotels and B&B’s are either right downtown or just on the edges, making this a very pedestrian friendly place. If you every happen to go to Anchorage, please make sure you visit the Anchorage Museum, which has a superb Northern Arts section and currently also includes an exhibition from the Smithsonian.
Tomorrow I am off to Tok, which is still in Alaska, but will be my last stop in this beautiful state. It is time to make my way home and face the open road again. I should have Wi-Fi access in most places, so will be able to post updates from along the way.