Tales from the Ghost Trees of Alaska

Driving along the roadways in parts of eastern Alaska, on odd indication of the 1964 earthquake becomes apparent. The 1964 Alaska Earthquake had a profound impact on the people of Alaska and  left visible scars on the land. Many of the scars and the buildings that were destroyed have long since left from view, but what remains after all these years are the tall trees that stand stark against the blue skies.

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Ghost Trees near Girdwood,Alaska (photo: Julie Smith)

They stand like soldiers guarding the memory of that terrible day in 1964  and to serve as a reminder to never underestimate the phenomenal power of nature’s force. When the quake occurred, sea water came up through the fault flooding the terrain near the trees, but in the same token not uprooting them.  So they not did immediately die, but the sea water caused them to turn to a petrified-state and they remain standing.
It is just one of those odd tricks and unusual quirks of nature that leaves behind an almost artistic rendering to tell the story of what took place here over 50 years ago.   Repercussions of catastrophic events such as this earthquake can have lasting, visible effects for quite some time after the clean up has been completed and people have carried on with their lives.

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Anchorage-4th Ave. 1964 (photo: Time.com Life collection)

The 1964 Alaska earthquake had a profound impact on numerous communities along the fault line.  The quake occurred on Good Friday, March 27, 1964 and according to the US Geological Survey measured 9.2 magnitude on the rector scale.  The quake was reported as the most devastating quake in North America. A total of 131 deaths were reported and the property damage totaled between 300-400 million dollars. Damage was widespread throughout the state and was felt as far as Oregon.  The epicenter of the quake was about 10 km east of the mouth of College Fiord, approximately 90 km west of Valdez and 120 km east of Anchorage.  This earthquake is the second largest earthquake ever recorded in the world. (http://www.aeic.alaska.edu/quakes/Alaska_1964_earthquake.html)  Because of the epicenters location, some of the hardest hit towns were Anchorage, Valdez, Girdwood and Portage. The quake also spawned a tsunami, which contributed to the severe damage to the harbor town of Valdez.  Half the town tumbled into the harbor and the disaster claimed 31 lives. Valdez was not totally destroyed but relocated 4 miles west of the original site. Traveling through Valdez today, there are signs designating “Old Valdez” prior to the quake. Girdwood was also relocated, but the town of Portage was completely abandoned after the earthquake.

 

The town of Portage was destroyed by the quake. In the area where Portage was located are a few abandoned buildings, still remaining, not yet consumed by the earth.

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The abandoned town of Portage (photo:www.greatlandofalaska.com)

The area around what used to be the town of Portage is a location that one can readily see an abundance of “skeleton trees” that stand there ground 50 years later after the rest of the landscape has changed around them.  In other areas of the country, with higher demands for immediate “land usage”, the trees may have been taken down, but here they stand on a seemingly barren landscape.  The tundra and other life has grown up around them, but their clinging to the earth with a refusal to succumb to gravity, gives them a stoic albeit sometimes ghostly look.  To hear Alaskans talk of the skeleton trees and their evidence of the earthquake in ’64, there is a sense of deep sadness of course, but also a sense of pride in the strength of the Alaskan spirit and tenacity.

 

When traveling to a new place it is so rewarding and incredibly interesting to learn some of the historical aspects of where you are visiting.  Not only is it valuable in terms of learning how certain areas were developed, but it also gives you an opportunity to view the area with an understanding on why it is the way it is: how the people and the land have been shaped: culturally, geographically and politically. Put your traveling shoes on.  JES

 

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Put Your Traveling Shoes On

Why do I end every post with :”Put your traveling shoes on.  JES” ? Well, the last part is easy,  JES  are my initials: Julie Etta Smith. The  Put your traveling shoes on goes a little further than just a request for some sturdy footwear. It is always a good idea to wear comfortable shoes, a trek on a wooded trail would not be too easy with spiky sandals.hiking shoes Yet, I am using that phrase as more of a metaphor for preparing yourself, both mentally and physically, when starting out on a trip.  When you start to plan a trip, I like to encourage people to go beyond the usual hotel reservations, airline tickets and road map plan.   When you complete those first, it’s best to take it a step further and find out more about where you will be visiting.  What about the local history? Is there a favorite local cuisine? Are there products exclusive to that area of the country~ in my case: a fantastic wine, perhaps? Always good to be on the look-out for a memorable souvenir. It is so incredible to read articles and see photographs of an amazing feature or place and then view it with your own eyes. I remember seeing photos of the “freak of nature” prismatic springs at Yellowstone National Park and thinking to myself they must be photo-shopped. Nothing could look that strange. Yet, seeing the rainbow colors with my own eyes made it that much more spectacular. It is good to get some background on the local history and lore of an area.

On the same trip we made to Yellowstone I was in the back seat reading a local publication with a feature about a HUGE mansion that was being built in the late 1970’s.

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Smith Mansion~on the road to Cody, Wyoming

The man building the Pagoda-inspired design was tragically killed when he fell from the highest floor.  Locals say that it is still haunted and sits atop the hill untouched since his death. AND to add a little more intrigue to this story, it is referred to as the Smith Mansion. I know Smith is a common name, but nevertheless this story just keeps getting better.   Do you have goose bumps yet? Well, as I was describing this story to my family, I looked up and there it was…just a short distance from the side of the road. “OH, MY GOD……THAT’S IT!”  I shrieked to my family as they wondered the cause of my alarm. Now that was creepy: just when I was reading about that local story it appeared before us. Other than a story of unique coincidence, if I had not read up on the local history we never would have known the story behind that interesting Pagoda on the hill.

It is truly amazing the things you can learn before a trip that will really make your trip more memorable. So take a trip to the library, peruse the internet, talk to friends and family that have been there and be sure to enjoy the ride. Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

For the Love of Lighthouses

My family & friends frequently tease me about my love (er…obsession perhaps…) of Lighthouses. Yet, fellow admirers of Lighthouses will agree with me that these majestic structures provide an inspiration and tales of their colorful histories abound.  Also, it never ceases to amaze me that no two lighthouses are alike and they are as varied as the shorelines they beautify.

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Port Washington Lighthouse ~ Wisconsin

I believe Lighthouses have evolved from their historical roots as a guide to ships in turbulent waters and rugged, dangerous coastlines to landmarks of great historical significance and beauty. Not only do they serve to guide ships, but they have an air of spirituality about them to guide troubled souls in a world of darkness.  Their beacons shine in such a way that they provide an inspiration to all who view them.  How can one look upon a majestic lighthouse perched on a cliff or at the far end of a pier and not help but smile at its beauty.

Living in the Midwest, I feel honored that we have the greatest concentration of lighthouses anywhere in the world.  By virtue of the five great lakes, that provide hundreds of miles of coastline that need lighthouses to provide safe navigation.  In recent years, many of the lighthouses have not continued to operate and function as navigating tools, with the advent of more technologically advanced methods replacing them.  Yet, since many are steeped in history and tradition, there are efforts to restore and maintain them. For more information, an interesting site on preservation is: www.lighthousepreservation.org

It is interesting when visiting a community that is fortunate enough to have a lighthouse; the local residents utilize it as a focal point and a tool for orienting. “Oh, that cottage is located just south-east of the lighthouse”, one might say; makes things easier to pinpoint.  Also, many times a specific lighthouse is symbolic to the area in which it is found and has unique characteristics to only that lighthouse.  That is the exciting thing about lighthouses: each one is different and each one has their own special features and attributes. Not all are the tall beacons rising high on a rocky cliff.  Many are actually relatively small structures, but are situated on a jutting landscape so as to shine their light on the water.  It never ceases to amaze me the different sizes, shapes and features inherent with all the different lighthouses.

When viewing, and visiting a lighthouse I try to appreciate the craftsmanship of the actual building and of course the view from the top, if one is able to gain access to the tower. In addition to the physical beauty you are surrounded by, it is wondrous to imagine the history, local lore and stories therein.

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Split Rock Lighthouse~Minnesota

When close to a lighthouse I can’t help but feel a sense of serenity and guidance, a connection between the creations of man and the turbulence of waters of Mother Nature; both the sea and the massive stretches of fresh water lakes. Here is one of my favorite iconic lighthouses in the Midwest: Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior (Minnesota). It was built in 1910 and sits atop 127 foot cliff Now that is quite a cliff!

 

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St. Joseph Lighthouse ~ Michigan

Shown here is the St. Joseph Lighthouse on Lake Michigan. (St. Joseph, Michigan) Since it is situated across from Chicago on Lake Michigan, lighthouses were built at the St. Joseph location dating back to 1832, but the current structures were built in 1907. This is a lighthouse with such character and seems rather diminutive with it’s small “partner”building. The lighthouse itself is not that tall, but sits atop the pier as it juts out  approximately 1,000 feet out onto the turbulent waters of Lake Michigan.  I have walked all the way to the end of the pier to take in the view from the lighthouse.  Catwalks above the pier were built so that the lighthouse keepers could access the lights when the seas were rough and waved crashed over the pier. Walking on the pier on a sunny, summer day, I envisioned what it would have been like on the catwalks with snow and ice below you.

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Winter dressing of the St. Joseph Lighthouse (photo by Tom Gill)

This particular lighthouse is frequently photographed when artfully depicted covered with snow and ice; as shown in the photo here.

I  was so charmed by this lovely little lighthouse, an artist friend of mine painted a beautiful oil for me that I have in my home. (Thanks Rebecca!)

So the next time you have an opportunity to visit a lighthouse, take the time to enjoy it’s unique design and think of its rich history. Ask a local about the history and the folktales of the lighthouse…I’ll bet there is a story to hear.

Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

 

 

State Parks: Not to be overlooked!

LaSalle Canyon, Starved Rock State Park

Depending on where you live in this great Nation of ours, you may or may not be relatively close to one of our beautiful National Parks. Fear not, the State parks hold many wonderful treasures that frequently mirror the beauty and splendor of their “big Brother” National Parks. Sometimes state parks are overlooked as a travel destination, but not only are they more readily accessible they frequently deliver a fantastic travel experience and if you are within your own state…a sense of civic pride surfaces enjoying what wonders are found in your very own Homeland. It’s amazing to think that in the United States, there are over 7,000 state parks. In my home state alone, Illinois, there are sixty. Now that’s quite a few parks to choose from.When travel planning, keep in mind the fantastic sites and adventures that can be found in all of our State Parks. Frequently, travelers head to a National Park and forget the beauty that can be found in a nearby State park in the same vicinity.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the most visited state park in Illinois is Starved Rock State Park in the central area of the state near Utica. With its varied terrain, hiking trails and sandstone bluffs, no wonder it is the most visited state park in Illinois. My husband and I visited and were amazed at all the natural beauty to be found. The park is also located along the Illinois River, and has several high bluffs with fantastic views of the river and the surrounding woodlands. The park is home to at least six seasonal waterfalls (best viewed in the melting thaws of springtime) and several scenic canyons. Most of the canyons are easily accessible, although some are quite steep. It is so interesting to hike through the wooded areas and have the opportunity to see up close the layers and layers of rock and the cool formations. Here is a picture of one of the deeper canyons: LaSalle. For purposes of navigating your way around, they have named all the major canyons and maps can be found at the visitors center. If you want to make it longer than a day trip to the area, they do have a historic lodge on the premises and lodging in nearby Peru. The park was established in 1911 and the beautiful Lodge was built, in part, by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930’s. For more information on the Park, and also reservations on the Lodge, you can check out the web site at: www.starvedrockstatepark.org

It is interesting that the oldest state park in the country is often viewed as a “national” treasure. Niagra Falls State Park in New York was established in 1885 and is a popular destination averaging over 28 million tourists annually. Niagra Falls are made up of three sets of waterfalls that are on the border between Canada and the United States. The Falls can be viewed by both the American and Canadian sides and each side offers a different perspective.

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The combined Falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in the world. In addition to tourism, the falls provide an abundant source of hydro-electric power for the area.
A fun way of finding a park near you is exploring a really fun web-site called: America’s State Parks. They have lots of information on all the parks including historical, activities available, lodging and local events. One of the most nifty aspects of the site is a map of the U.S. showing how many state parks are in each state. Just hover the cursor over each state to get a count. California has a whopping 278 state parks, and much fewer are found in the state of North Dakota: only 15. You can check out this site at: www.americastateparks.org

When travel planning, keep in mind the fantastic sites and adventures that can be found in all of our State Parks. Frequently, travelers head to a National Park and forget the beauty that can be found in a nearby State park in the same vicinity.
When traveling to Alaska, many of course view Denali National Park~ a must see when there. Yet, when I was recently there, we spent an afternoon hiking in Chugach State Park: a 500,000 acre park near Anchorage.

Alaska-2015 346 This park is home to Flattop Mountain, with an elevation of 3,510 feet, it provides beautiful views of the city of Anchorage, Denali, Mount Foraker and Mount Spurr. Since Flattop Mountain is very accessible from Anchorage, it is the most climbed mountain in the state. We did not make it quite to the summit…but climbed to one of the higher plateaus for a fantastic view!
So, next time you plan a trip, even a short weekend get-away, seek out the adventures in your very own state~ ~ what treasures are held in your State Parks?  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

Start @ the Visitor’s Center!

When traveling to popular attractions, to make the most of your trip, it only makes sense to start at the Visitors Center. Obviously, it is a great place to start to get your bearings about what you want to see, brochures and if at a National or State Park-trail maps to help you navigate your way. Several people, however, begrudge the whole idea of even stepping foot in the building.
I remember several family vacations when my sons moaned about having to “make Mom happy” and go to the visitors center.

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“Are we done yet?”

Here they are at the Grand Tetons Visitors Center looking tickled pink to be there-they wanted to get out on the trail ASAP. “Take the picture Mom and let’s go!” That particular center is filled with beautiful statues, paintings and of course a bounty of information about the natural history of the area. It’s a great place to start your trip….but I would venture to say that a Visitor’s Center is so much more than brochures and maps-it can itself be a destination of great interest. This occurred to me recently when I took my Mom to Union Station in Chicago. I decided that since I was in the city, anyway I would take the time to go the Visitors Center and update my collections of brochures and guides, that were at least a decade old. A little research ahead of time revealed 3 different visitors centers in the downtown area. Since I was on foot, I wanted one within walking distance to the train. I chose the Chicago Cultural Center: only 1 mile from Union Station.

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An easy walk and some good exercise for me. The decision was made. When I arrived I was amazed at the grandeur and stoic elegance of the building. When I found out the background of the building, its amazing that it was originally built as Chicago’s first public library in 1897. The detail and craftsmanship with mosaics, polished glass and marble makes it stand out as a real gem of architecture in the city. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also a protected Chicago landmark. Here is a look at the beauty of the front entrance. Another Visitors Center, showing an alternative style in contrast to the ornate architecture of the Chicago Cultural Center is the Anchorage, Alaska Visitors Center. Located in the heart of downtown Anchorage, it is easy to spot by the grass growing on the roof and the log-cabin construction in the midst of city buildings and businesses. Reflecting the pioneer spirit and the beauty of the great outdoors it also depicts a quaint image of the “Last Frontier” that Alaska is usually associated with.Alaska-2015 005

It not only provides the usual brochures and travel tips…but is a great photo op of a unique visitors center that could ONLY be found in Alaska! So when you are starting out on a trip, and collecting your brochures, be sure to spend a little time at the visitor’s center. You never know what new things or sights you will most assuredly take in. The Visitor’s Center….a great place to start.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

Seek out your Passport!

Seek out and obtain your Passport.  Your Passport to the National Parks, that is.  Is has some of the same concepts as a traditional Passport, you get it stamped at your various destinations, but it is a whole lot easier to obtain and contains more information for you than just where you have been.  I have visited many National Parks, but just recently obtained my passport at America’s largest National Park: Wrangell St. Elias in Alaska.  Now I just have to “catch up” with all the Park’s I visited in the past and fill in the dates.  It is fun to cruise through the Passport, finding the places you have seen and remembering the visit. It is also a great partner for assisting in planning your next trip.

The Passport to Your National Parks program started in 1986, to help travelers in the U.S. gain a broader understanding and appreciation of the treasures of America’s National Parks.  It serves as a great souvenir to take with you on every trip to “log in” and have your book stamped with the cancellations of the specific park you visited. More than just a souvenir, it has a terrific overview of all the parks and includes maps, color photos and background information on the Parks. The Passport book is divided into 9 geographic travel regions making travel planning and finding specific parks much easier. You can purchase the Passport at just about every National Park, but if you are itching to get a copy right away, you may find it at www.eParks.com

The very informative Program consists of the Passport book, companion books, stamps and the park cancellations. Cancellations for your book are free of charge and are usually available at a park’s Visitor’s Center. Some people may have the misconception that the “stamps” are affiliated with the Postal Service, as commemorative stamps.  This is not the case, they are more akin to large stickers that highlight various features of each given Park: that fit into the Regional stamp sections of the Passport.
Whether you have visited 1 or striving to visit all 58 National Parks, it is beneficial and enjoyable to learn about and participate in the National Parks Passport Program.  In addition to providing information about and the locations of each of the Parks, it is good to know that proceeds from the sale of Passports and stamps are donated to the National Park Service.  Enjoy the beauty of our National treasure’s and…..have Passport, will travel……  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

 

Off the Beaten Path:Kennecott Coppermine, Alaska

Nestled in the snow-capped Alaskan mountains of our largest National Park: Wrangell-St. Elias, stands the Kennecott Copper mine. Closed in 1938, it stands silent watch above the valley and steep drop offs that are common to the area.

When visiting the abandoned mine, the sheer majesty of its size gives you a whole new appreciation for the people who lived and worked here. The structure of the main mill, pictured here, has such an ominous presence that even if it is not haunted it still has an alarming presence that truly is awe-inspiring.The building of the mine itself, and the surrounding buildings supporting the workers, initially seemed to be  insurmountable tasks. To bring buildings materials in through the rugged mountain passes, the first priority was to build a railroad. In addition to helping construct the new city and mine, the copper ore was transported via railroad south to Cordova. When visiting Kennecott, I walked along the original rails that line up with the chutes, where the rock crusher spit out processed rock and ore that was further refined.

              Traces of past profits
Remnants of the tools that were used in the labor intensive process of mining are found strewn about the area. Here my son Dan surveys the rugged Wrangell Mountains while standing by an ancient rock crusher, circa early 1930’s. Also remnants of the life that was left behind after the mine closed are still visible and one gets a strange sensation that memories and spirits of the past still are present here.  It seems to have had more recent activity in the mine than the footsteps of tourists and it is hard to believe it closed more than 75 years ago.  Nevertheless, as one of those tourists, I found it a fascinating historical place to visit and taking in the natural beauty of the park was an inherent bonus.
National Park Service Site
The National Park Service acquired the mine in 1998 and the lands of the historic mining town of Kennecott.  The mine has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  On the Wrangell-St. Elias website: www.nps.gov/wrst life working in the mine is described: “Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work.  At the height of operation about six hundred men worked in the mines and mill town. Paying salaries higher than those found in the lower-48, Kennecott was able to attract men willing to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp…..Despite the dangers and grueling work, the Kennecott workers mined and concentrated at least $200 million worth of ore.”
The mine successfully ran for over 30 years, but was closed due to declining copper deposits and the high cost of railway maintenance.
  The Road Less Traveled
The mine is a fascinating place to visit because it is a demonstration of the tenacity and ingenuity of the human spirit. When traveling the McCarthy Road to get to the mine, you feel as if you are already on an adventure, and you sometimes have to reach into your own resolve when seeking this destination.

The McCarthy Road is 60 miles long and is a long gravel road. Here is a photo showing where the nice smooth pavement ends and the gravel road & imposing cliffs begin. It is intimidating when all the travel literature warns NOT to take rental cars on this road and other warnings for the faint of heart. It was a rough ride with several portions of the road demonstrating the “wash-board” effect, a series of tight ridges.  I give my sister-in-law, Christy, so much credit: she drove both in and out on this challenging stretch of road.  We took her mini-van, which worked well and we took it slowly.  That is key to surviving on this road without a flat tire or worse damage to your vehicle.  It is only 60 miles, but plan for about 3 hours. It is well worth the trip if you take your time.

You can see so much more when you are traveling at 30 mph as opposed to 65. Be sure to catch all the scenery and wildlife along the way and the views are spectacular. This is the Kuskalana Bridge, built in 1910, it spans 525 feet and sits at a height 238 feet above the river. An incredible building accomplishment and yes we drove across it. Having a little bit of a fear of heights (don’t we all to some extent) I had to hold my breath and somehow muster up the courage to take in the view.  Be courageous and take in the view, it’s worth it.  Put your traveling shoes on. JES

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