Alaska Interlude: Anchorage and the Alaska State Fair

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Although we’d already spent two nights in Anchorage, one as we arrived in Alaska and the other between Kenai Fjords National Park and Denali National Park, it was finally time to stay for a few nights and take in Alaska’s largest city.

With a population of 300,000, Anchorage is the most populous city in Alaska and the sixty-third most populous in the United States. By comparison, Saint Louis has a population of 310,000, but Saint Louis has a much larger metropolitan population spreading out on either side of the Mississippi River. Most of Anchorage’s population is in the city and borough proper, which encompasses over 1,900 square miles, compared to 66 square miles for Saint Louis. So Anchorage is large and populous, but much less dense than comparable cities in the “lower forty-eight.”

It grew out of a tent city of rail workers that had risen in 1914 when the Alaska Railroad Corporation chose the outlet of Ship Creek on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet as its construction headquarters. The city was incorporated in 1920.

Until World War II, the railroad remained the main driver of Anchorage’s economy. Alaska’s strategic significance during the war in the Pacific (up to and including Japan’s invasion of two of the far-western Aleutian Islands) led to an increase in military presence, which continues today. The city’s location makes it important to aviation, providing a vital stopover point for goods shipped by air between North America and Asia.

In 1968, oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. Resource extraction, particularly oil and gas, has been a major economic driver and producer of wealth in Anchorage over the past five decades. The tallest building in Alaska is the ConocoPhillips building in downtown Anchorage. The primacy of the oil and gas industry in Alaska was undermined over the past year by the plummeting price of oil, leaving the state with a deficit equal to two-thirds of its annual budget. This comes after decades of Alaskans receiving an annual stipend from the state’s coffers full of extraction industry revenue. It also comes at a moment when the impacts of extraction industries’ contributions to a warming climate are impacting Alaska in direct ways from villages threatened by eroding seacoasts to homes sinking into the ground as permafrost melts.

Meanwhile, Alaska’s $3.7 billion tourism industry, of which Anchorage is a major hub, continues to hum along. And it’s why we were there.

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We arrived back in Anchorage in the evening of Thursday, August 27. We had reservations for three nights at the Anchorage Downtown Hotel. Then on Sunday, we’d continue on to Juneau.

The Anchorage Downtown Hotel stands as the only dud accommodation in Sean’s and my travels together. Sure, there have been straight-up worse, grimier places (the Red Roof Inn near Sea-Tac, the La Quinta in Kenosha), but in those instances, we knew what we were getting into. For a special degree of trying and failing, compounded with a baffling management style, the Anchorage Downtown Hotel is something special.

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We had stayed at the hotel our very first night in Anchorage, and hadn’t been thrilled with our garden level room. But it had been fine. And we’d been there for less than twelve hours between our arrival by plane and our departure by train. Then we’d stayed at a Best Western during our transition night between Seward and Denali.

The woman at the front desk at the Downtown was very friendly. We got chatting, and she recommended that we check out the “Palmer Fair,” which is how locals refer to the Alaska State Fair as because it’s held in Palmer, about 45 minutes from Anchorage.

Our room, however, was unacceptable. The window, instead of opening to the outside, opened to an interior hallway with external windows opposite. It was the sort of thing you might see at a larger hotel like a Holidome, where room windows open onto a central domed courtyard. But with a window opening onto a hallway, there would be no privacy with the shades open. And with the shades closed, it was a small dark tomb. Sean made the point that the situation was even worse after having spent the previous five days outside.

We inquired about other rooms and that our only real parameter was a window that opened to the outside. There wasn’t one available for all three nights, but we could switch each night. The downside was that we’d have to pack up our things each morning while they moved us to a different room. It wasn’t ideal, but it was fine. The first room we moved to was a touch more expensive, but that was fine too.

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It actually turned out to be a spacious room with windows facing east toward downtown and the Chugach Mountains beyond. We would be in this room Thursday and Saturday nights and switch for Friday night. Fine. It sounded good. We inquired about laundry. Guests were able to use the washing machines and dryers at certain times when they weren’t being used by housekeeping. So we hung out, cracked open a bottle of wine, and began sorting out our gear and our dirty laundry.

Later that evening, I went went to the lobby to see if the laundry facilities were available. They weren’t. While I was there, the night manager, a large cranky woman, accosted me. Apparently the front desk woman (who was also still at the desk) had just done the unacceptable when she switched our rooms. The night manager made me explain again why we didn’t find the original room acceptable. The night manager was put out and a touch nasty. She was also very belittling of the woman, who again was right there, who had originally helped us.

Overnight, starting around 4am, the smoke detector in our room began to beep intermittently, indicating that its battery needed to be changed. It woke both of us up, and we couldn’t go back to sleep because of it. Even with earplugs. Sean turned on the light and had a look. We were loathe to pull out the battery to make it stop because the detector appeared to be wired into a system. We were afraid that messing with the battery would make the entire system sound the alarm.

Sean called down to the front desk and spoke with the cranky night manager, who was absurdly unhelpful. She informed him that she didn’t know what she could do since she didn’t have a “square battery” (a nine-volt) and that she wouldn’t mess with it if she were Sean because the system was indeed connected. Ugh. She also took this opportunity (again at a touch after 4am) to inform Sean that the original desk staffer should never have put us in the room she did, and we’d have to move to a different room tomorrow. Sean interrupted her that yes, that would be fine, and if there was nothing she could do for us about the smoke detector, then we would try and go back to sleep. Undaunted, she kept him on the phone explaining the problems in their computer system that switching us had caused because of the way the front desk staffer had handled it.

Good fucking grief.

Well, at least we could stay in the same room for two consecutive nights.

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Next morning, Friday, August 28, dawned sunny and cloudless over Anchorage. We spent the morning running some errands, including to the post office to grab flat rate boxes. Sean had had the genius idea to begin mailing our camping gear and souvenirs back to Chicago. Ultimately, we’d send seven boxes back to ourselves by the time we’d depart Juneau.

We also went to a camera repair shop. The man there determined that yes, my camera was water damaged, and yes it would need a new circuit board, but that it could be fixed for about $250. The problem was that he’d have to order the part, so it would be about two weeks. And that was that. No more Canon Rebel T3i in Alaska. I packed the camera into a box, and shipped it home with the camp stove and the coffee percolator. I retained the lenses, though, because I had every intention of getting a new camera in Anchorage.

Since housekeeping was using the laundry facilities when we got back to the hotel, we packed up the remainder of our things and “checked out” of our room. It was time to explore Anchorage.

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This photo perfectly captures the Anchorage Downtown Hotel. They try to be special and a local, boutique alternative to the big chain hotels, but they chase that rainbow and miss, leaving a big mysterious stain on the hallway rug. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

The buzz in Anchorage that weekend was the impending visit of President Obama on Monday. As Chicagoans, we were amused by how unused to presidential motorcades’ closing streets the good people of Anchorage were.

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We breakfasted at Snow City Cafe, one of the most popular and highly recommended brunch spots downtown. The food was great, the atmosphere just what we were looking for, and the staff was completely relatable. Highly recommended! It’s places like Snow City Cafe that when Sean and I are traveling inspire thoughts of “Oh yeah, we could live here.”

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Image: Sean M. Santos

After brunch, we carried our parcels to the post office branch in the mall in downtown Anchorage, doing some amusing window shopping along the way.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Since we couldn’t go back to the hotel for several hours until it was time to “check in,” we decided to spend the afternoon at the Alaska State Fair. The fair has been held in Palmer since 1936, and it has been the state fair since Alaska became a state in 1959. It averages about 300,000 visitors (so roughly the equivalent of the population of Anchorage) a year.

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Palmer is located in the Matanuska-Susitna (or Mat-Su) Valley north of Anchorage and Cook Inlet. The Mat-Su Valley is Alaska’s agricultural heartland. It is nestled between the Alaska Range, the Talkeetna Mountains, and the Chugach Mountains, and it is fed by the two rivers for which it is named as they complete their journey to Cook Inlet.

We enjoyed ourselves quite a lot. I think I’d only been to the Michigan State Fair once, but I’ve had lots of experience with the “carny culture” of art fairs of various sizes and levels of snobbery (the Ann Arbor Art Fair topping the list during the years I lived there).

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The only upsetting exhibit at the fair was the first thing we went into, a traveling “Birds of the World” exhibition that some guy travels around to fairs doing. It was sad, and we decided not to go into the neighboring reptile house.

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Far better was the 4H building, where the young people involved in the organization got to show off their artistic, horticultural, craft-making, and fashion-designing skills. There was lots of enthusiasm and lots of talent there.

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Sean: “I’d wear that.”

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Likewise, the textiles and crafts hall, where both adults and youths exhibited, was smashing. Some of the handmade quilts were gorgeously intricate.

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This is a set of crocheted wigs of the characters from The Hobbit.

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Dinos of Yesterday/Dinos of Today — love it!

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This kid (above) demanded a dollar after I snapped this photo. I began to argue the semantics of a picture “with” Bigfoot versus a picture “of” Bigfoot. But I thought better of it. Instead, I handed him a twenty and made him go and get me change and then made him slowly count it out for me…while other folks snapped photos while they walked by.

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Then it was time for the farm pavilion and the giant vegetables. The near-constant summer sun in the Mat-Su Valley means that although the growing season is fairly short, it is intense, causing produce and flowers to grow to huge sizes.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Lambs in Spanx? Why are they wearing Spanx? And in such vibrant colors too… Image: Sean M. Santos

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Nothing says honeymoon romance like your mustard initials on a corn dog…

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Image: Sean M. Santos

On the way back to Anchrage in the late afternoon, we stopped by the Best Buy on the north side of town so I could price out new cameras. My desire was to check out a local camera shop downtown the next day, but I wanted to be able to compare prices and which Canon models each had in stock.

Back at the hotel, we “checked in” and got our new room, which was the same garden level room we’d had the night we’d arrived in Alaska. Not fantastic, but quiet, private, and with a window that opened to the outside to get some fresh air. It was just fine.

Having resolved to get a new camera, the only outstanding question from the drowning of my camera on Mount Healy was whether the memory card was corrupted. So I went to the lobby and popped the card into the HP laptop they had there for guests’ convenience.

And the computer told me that it couldn’t read the card. I felt cold all over. I tried ejecting it and inserting it a few times. I tried making sure that “hidden files” were visible. It kept telling me that there were no accessible files on the card. I quickly began researching online ways to recover images from a damaged memory card. I tried downloading some software, but since it wasn’t a public computer, I couldn’t install it.

Back in the room, I felt numb and then felt nauseated. The 4,300 images of the trip so far swirled in my head. It would have been a crushing, monumental loss.

Sean calmed me down. There was nothing to be done at the moment. So we stepped out for dinner.

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We decided to try Orso Ristorante, one of the fancier places downtown. It was great. The food was fresh (it was the final night that Silver Salmon would be on the menu as the run ended), the preparations interesting, and the cocktail and wine lists fun. But the best part was our server, whom we bonded with after commenting on how awful the table next to us was being to her. She was from Minneapolis, but worked up in Alaska during the summers. She was a delight. And when the meal was over, she thanked us for bringing such happy, positive energy to the restaurant.

During dinner, I laid out my plan to Sean. Not only would I buy a camera the next day, but I’d also buy a laptop. I had been thinking about getting a ten-inch MacBook Air for a long time. I’d thought about getting a tablet, but I spend so much time editing images and writing that a small laptop would be the best of both worlds. And If I wanted a big, dramatic screen, I always had my iMac at home. Then with my own laptop, I could try again to fix my memory card. At the very least, I’d know one way or the other if my photos were actually lost. The prospect of the next eleven days of the trip with this uncertainty felt unbearable. Plus, there’s no sales tax in Anchorage, so it would be cheaper than getting one in Chicago. Sean thought that it sounded like a sound plan.

Babbling on, worriedly, I said that the three most heartbreaking losses would be the Sea Otter eating an octopus at Kenai Fjords, the mother Grizzly and her cubs at Denali, and the Caribou cleaning the velvet from his antlers at Denali. I said that if I’d lost those images, I’d make it a project to recreate them in some way in some other artistic medium.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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The tallest building in Alaska

Back at the hotel, there was a new young woman behind the counter. She was a hoot and a half, and since we were a little drunk from dinner, we chatted and laughed with her while she showed us how to use the laundry facilities.

It did occur to us that the woman who’d helped us the night before (the nice one, not the terrible night manager) may have been fired. We certainly hoped not.

Back in our room while we waited for our loads of laundry to finish, we listened to Evita and assembled a Lego fire truck, which we’d picked up at Target. Since we’d gotten married in a fire house, it was suitable to have a fire truck as one of many souvenirs of our honeymoon.

Next morning, Saturday, August 29, I woke early and continued researching cameras. Ultimately, I settled on the Canon EOS 7D, which I knew was in stock at Best Buy. Sean was sleeping soundly, so as the time approached that Best Buy would open, I showered and got dressed. He woke just as I was getting ready to leave. While I did my (first) run to Best Buy, he showered and dressed.

At Best Buy, I verified the camera prices and availabilities, and then bought a laptop. It was sort of cute. The fellow who came over to help me was clearly used to customers with lots of questions who may or may not want to make a purchase. I said, “I’ll take this one please.” With a laptop and a memory card reader, I was in and out in about twenty minutes. And it was on sale. (I’m sitting on our guest room bed typing on it now.)

Back in the room, I plugged it in to get it charging up. Then came the moment of truth. I popped in the memory card, and there they were. Every image, every video. Some 4,300 files there and fine.

I was practically rolling on the floor with relief.

The very first thing I did was to begin copying them onto my new laptop so there was an immediate backup.

Then, in a buoyant mood, we set out for a full day of fun in Anchorage.

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Our first stop was the Saturday Market, a weekend street fair in a parking lot downtown. It featured local crafts, farmers market stalls, and food trucks. Alaska has a fairly large Filipino population, and we got some hot lumpia from a vendor, along with some fried fish sandwiches, for lunch.

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As he walked by, Sean noticed that the cute fellow with glasses at the adjacent table had Grindr open on his phone.

At the market, I bought my Mother’s Christmas gift, a bowl decorated with preserved Alaska wildflowers.

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We were definitely beginning to settle into Anchorage. This sort of thing, wandering around getting food at a street fair and checking things out is definitely our speed.

After the market, we walked over to Stewart’s Photo Shop, a small camera shop nearby. I really had wanted to get my new camera from this shop if they had the 7D. But it was $300 more than at Best Buy. Still, I would have been sorely tempted to get it anyway and support the shop. But the guy behind the counter was just not particularly friendly at all. When I asked about a used one that they had, he was pretty take-it-or-leave-it dismissive. So, after talking it out with Sean, I decided I’d get the camera at Best Buy.

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National Park Service Alaska Regional Office in downtown Anchorage

After the Saturday Market, we walked over the the Anchorage Museum. Ostensibly a city historical museum, the museum has become something of a de facto state museum, particularly since its multi-million dollar expansion in 2010.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

The museum opened in 1968, and the earlier exhibition spaces definitely tilt toward the triumph of the white explorer and pioneer in a series of dioramas. The culmination of the history presented in the original wing is the expansion of the energy industry toward a bold economic future for the state.

The new wing (which must have more than doubled the museum’s size) expands on that history, reframing its focus more inclusively and openly challenging visitors with questions about the state’s (and the Arctic region’s) cultural, political, and ecological future. For example, it now houses the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center.

The new wing features multiple special exhibitions spaces. First we visited a small, charming exhibition about the history of Alaska’s municipal and regional baseball teams.

The main special exhibition while we were there was a tour-de-force show on Captain Cook’s explorations in the Pacific, including Alaska. The artifacts and information were presented across multiple galleries in disarmingly creative and unexpected, often interactive, ways.

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But the most impressive (from a museum studies perspective) and moving (from a human perspective) is the permanent Alaska Native Cultures exhibition. In approach and execution, it is the opposite of the natural history diorama approach to native cultures found elsewhere (including the old wing of the Anchorage Museum).

Created with the participation of Native Alaskans, the exhibition is comprised of hundreds of artifacts returned to Alaska by the Smithsonian so that they are accessible to the people of the state. In addition to the artifacts, the exhibition includes videos and oral histories of Native Alaskan cultures.

It is easily the most powerful, moving, and respectful exhibition of native cultures I have ever seen. It stands as an example of what this sort of cultural exhibition should be.

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Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik Kamegtaaq (figure for a whaling ritual), acquired 1913

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Yup’ik Qantaq (bowl), acquired 1879

Unfortunately, our time at the museum was cut short because we had a late afternoon appointment for massages. We decided that we would come back to the museum during our afternoon-long layover in Anchorage at the end of our trip.

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Our massages were at Ice Spa, at the top of the Sheraton at the edge of downtown.

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Sean’s masseuse excitedly jibber-jabbered with him about his immediately previous client, singer-songwriter and gay John the Baptist, Rufus Wainwright. Wainwright was in town performing a series of shows with his sister, Martha.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

In addition to the relaxation of the spa, the views to the east of downtown Anchorage (the top image in this post) and to the west of the Chugach Range (below) were first rate.

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After Ice Spa, we still had a few more activities to cram into what was already turning into a packed day. Many of our Anchorage experiences were items that friends and family had gifted to us through our honeymoon travel registry. Having spent much of our first full day in Anchorage dealing with room nonsense and going to the State Fair, we were packing everything else into day two. (Without that impetus of the gifts, we may have decided to forego a few of our plans in Anchorage, but looking back certainly I’m glad that we didn’t.)

Next up, Midnight Sun Brewing Company, a fantastic local brewery and eatery in an industrial section of midtown. We went back to the hotel to grab the Jeep and headed over to Midnight Sun. It was first come/first served/seat yourself for a table. But it didn’t take us too long to snag one.

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The beers were great and the gastro-pub comfort fare was the perfect end for our time in Anchorage.

Clouds rolling in off of Cook Inlet had spit some rain on the city as we were headed over to Midnight Sun. The result: an astonishingly intense rainbow, which I captured from the brewery’s second floor deck.

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After Midnight Sun, we drove over to the other Best Buy so I could get my camera. On the way, there was a momentary torrential downpour, but it was over by the time we got out of the Jeep. Turning around, there was a huge double rainbow filling the sky.

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Similar to the morning when I’d bought my computer, I knew exactly what I wanted. The fellow in the camera department had been working with a family who asked about virtually every model, but didn’t buy anything. Then he got to me, and again I said, “I’ll take this one, thanks.” While I was there, Sean went to the Gap and bought some clothes.

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On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a little shop and picked up some macaroons for dessert. We also filled up the Jeep with gas in preparation for returning it in the morning before our flight to Juneau.

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Oh gas station employees. Oh dear.

In trying to find a quicker way back to the hotel we ended up lost in a lovely residential neighborhood near downtown. It was definitely one of those moments when you daydream about what it would be like to live in a place that you’re visiting.

Back to the hotel, we boxed up another round of items to send back to Chicago and got packed up for our next set of adventures: Juneau and Glacier Bay.

 

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