Alaska Adventures – part 2

Below please enjoy the follow-up post by my guest blogger, and son, Mike Malecha. Continuing to see more of Anchorage and experience one of Alaska’s 664 named glaciers – Washington is the state with the next closest number of named glaciers at 186.

Enjoy Alaska Adventures – part 2 by Mike Malecha:

 

Wednesday
Wednesday began nice and early with a workout at Body Renew, the gym where Tara does some personal training. It was (almost) effortless to get up early and head to the gym already surrounded by light that made it feel like mid-day. A few hours of sleep somehow felt like an eternity in an Alaskan summer. What a great feeling to be back at the house having coffee by 8 with an energizing workout (and a long stretching session which my body needed after a few days of climbing and hiking) already in the books. With the rest of the morning to myself to catch up on some reading, I set out to grab a little breakfast at the local McDonalds (just to make sure it’s the same in Alaska as everywhere else;) – and it is!) and then spent the morning with my nose in a book and doing the tiny bit of work I reluctantly allowed myself to bring on the trip.

Once Ryan had finished up at work himself, we kept the activity and adventure theme going and hit the road for another hike. One of the ‘must-do’ items on my list was to see a  glacier, and that was the item of the day. Ryan and I drove about an hour south to a town called Whittier, a very small water-side community tucked into a gorgeous river-valley between the mountains. The drive also included a 2-mile stretch directly through Maynard Mountain via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel! We set out on the Portage Pass Trail, up over a saddle between two peaks which took us to a glacier-viewing area. On the way up, we had a view of the pristine Portage Lake running through the valley behind us the whole way, and the sight only became more beautiful and expansive as we climbed upward.

Maynard Mountain with road/train tracks lead into the 2 plus mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

This way to glacier viewing!

I requested several stops along the way up, to turn around and embrace the scenery (and just maybe to catch an extra breath or two, but that was a very secondary reason ;). Once we made it over the saddle, the view of a hanging glacier, Portage Glacier, between the upper slopes of two mountains nearly stopped me in my tracks – truly one of the most awe-inspiring scenes I have ever witnessed. The pictures below can do the glacier more justice than my words can, and the pictures aren’t nearly enough. Truly something that must be seen first-hand to be appreciated. The magnitude of nature’s power became overwhelmingly apparent while in its presence. Witnessing the masterpiece created by such monumental forces, which over immense periods of time, came together to form this natural wonder was a humbling experience.

From the road – the destination of the Portage Glacier looks daunting.

Portage Glacier slowly melts into Portage Lake as viewed from the Portage Pass Trail.

And it was worth the effort!

Dinner that night was at Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, a staple in Anchorage. Lines extend out the front door and fill the waiting area on a daily basis at dinner time, and for hours thereafter. We went at about 8:30 pm and still had to wait over a half an hour. Fortunately, the place brews a number of its own beers, so we patiently sat on the patio and each enjoyed our pick of their home-made Broken Tooth brews while waiting; my Raspberry Pale Ale was terrific. The pizza was every bit worth the wait – easily understandable why the place has become such a staple. Aside from the food quality, an ever-bustling family style atmosphere filled the place, not a person in the restaurant without a smile on their face. It’s the kind of place I’m sure has kids jumping up and down and shouting in joy when their parents agree to take them out for pizza.

Checking out the different brews at Broken Tooth Brewing while waiting to get in for pizza at Moose’s Tooth.

Big surprise, Ryan and I decided to do another hike on Thursday afternoon once he was off work, and today we wanted to focus on physical intensity more than the scenery. So, we set out on a two and a quarter-mile trek, pretty much directly upward from the base of Alyeska Ski Resort (about a half hour south of Anchorage) up to the resort’s winter lodge. Up until now, we hadn’t had to worry much about wildlife encounters, but as this outing took us through more raw wilderness, we were sure to equip ourselves with bear spray and Ryan’s firearm.

Our destination is the Alyeska ski lodge at the top of the hill.

Ran into a big snow-patch about halfway up the mountain! Forgot to bring our snowboards unfortunately!

As fortune would have it, about 10 minutes into the hike, a woman passed by on her way down saying there had been reported sightings of a mother black bear and 3 cubs not far up the trail. Rather than a quick discussion of whether we should go forward, Ryan simply said, “Well that’s Alaska for you, better get used to it!” and proceeded to take his gun out of his pack to keep it close at hand, and we continued right on up the hill – and I had my bear spray at the ready. I thought I would feel much more fearful in such a situation, but I knew we were properly prepared and the initial fear honestly faded quite quickly. We made sure to make a racket as we went to alert any nearby critters of our presence, which basically resulted in a non-stop clapping, singing and whistling fest most of the way up the mountain – not a noise level that was much out of the ordinary for the two of us.

We made it to the top without a sighting of any wildlife, only with a couple of spent pairs of legs. The hike was a real kicker, but the satisfaction upon reaching the top was of course worth every second. Another Alaskan mountain conquered! A nearly 360 degree view of the mountains, valleys, bowls and the ocean off in the distance was yet another breath-taking setting. The views may not have been the focal point of our day, but they delivered nonetheless.

Alyeska Ski Resort sits at the base of what is called a deep steep slope.

After 4 hikes and some mountain biking under my belt in my short time in Alaska, I could see exactly why even residents would never get sick of outdoor activities day in and day out. To make sure we completely gassed ourselves and earned what we planned to be a final day of total R&R tomorrow, we finished up with another rock climbing session. We accomplished our goal of over-exhaustion, and I managed to move up one level from V2 to V3!

Round 2 at the rock climbing wall!

As planned, our final day was devoted to rest, relaxation, and a little reality TV – had to take in an episode of “Alaskan Bush People” while we lazed on the couch for the first few hours of the day. The rest of the day didn’t get much more exciting than that, and mostly involved working ourselves up to actually getting off the couch, playing with Hank, and packing at the last-minute in my patented fashion. My sore muscles thanked me for asking very little of them all day. Ryan, Tara and I enjoyed a wonderfully fresh seafood dinner, an absolute must when in Alaska, at the Southside Bistro before they took me to the airport. A trip that was 3 years in the making had gone by, as expected, in a blink.

Dining at one of Ryan and Tara’s favorite seafood restaurants. Most vehicles are either SUV’s or trucks.

Finishing my trip with a little R&R, fun and games, with my two hostesses with the mostesses! Thanks Ryan and Tara for an amazing trip!

My trip to Alaska was, in many ways, exactly what I expected it to be: a week devoted to experiencing nature like I never had before, and to be blown away by the scenery I saw all along the way. But there was more to the week than just mountains and glaciers. The most interesting thing I took away from the trip was how unassuming it all was. There I was, closer to Russia’s east coast than I was to home or any of my other family in the lower 48, in a highly functioning, North American urban setting, and it just felt right – even surrounded by all the natural rugged beauty one associates with Alaska. And it should, because it is very apparent that Alaskans greatly appreciate the many unique qualities the state has to offer, and are willing to battle through the harsh winters and long nights to live in this amazing place. Coming back to experience those 23-hours of darkness has now moved up near the top of my bucket list!

Check out more fantastic pics from Alaska in the Global Gallery.

St. Petersburg – Part 1: Drunk on beauty

Following is a post written by my first guest blogger (and daughter), Allison Malecha, assistant editor at Grove Atlantic Publishers, a published poet and a great travel companion. Allison is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in Comparative Literature and the Humanities – with a focus on the languages of French and Czech. Allison has traveled the world extensively, with extended studies or internships in Paris, Prague, Amman, Oxford and Florence. She brings to her writing a very old soul with a very young heart. 

St. Petersburg is a city that has had many names—Saint Petersburg at its founding by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, Petrograd in 1914 after the fall of the tsarist monarchy, Leningrad following Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924, returned to its original moniker in 1991 after the fall of communism, and nicknamed “Piter” throughout. My phone, set to Czech, still called it Petrohrad.

However you title it, the city is Russia’s second largest, and it is the northernmost big city in the world, with just under five million inhabitants. From 1713 to 1728 and again from 1732 to 1918, the city was the capital of Russia (the governmental seat then moved to Moscow)—and its monumental architecture and wide Parisian boulevards fit that bill. But the fact that the city is basically an assortment of swampy islands bisected by the Neva River, which runs from Lake Ladoga in the northeast to the Gulf of Finland in the west, keeps it from achieving anything like a grid. Partly because of this, and partly because I spent my seven days in the city with a friend who is fluent in Russian acting as my 24-hour guide, I still had trouble navigating the 10-minute walk from my friend’s apartment to Nevsky Prospekt, the famed artery of St. Petersburg, until the very end of my trip.

A map of St. Petersburg showing the highlighted attractions and the many waterways off the Neva River that flows through the city from Ladoga Lake on the east side to the Gulf of Finland on the west side

The first step, though, to seeing St. Petersburg, or any of Russia, is just plain getting there. You need a visa, and to get a visa, you need an invitation, which you can buy for around $30 on this website. It looks fake and feels fake and is fake, but it works. The same site also directs you to the visa application, which you fill out online and then finish processing at a visa issuing office. The total cost for me was around $150, but the price varies depending on time constraints and type of visa.

Once inside the St. Petersburg airport, I wasn’t asked a single question by the customs officer, and with the tap of a button inside her glassy cubicle, I was let loose on the whole beautiful city. I had flown in from Prague, and the colors of St. Petersburg’s buildings looked sober to me in comparison: yellows, beiges, and peaches instead of greens, pinks, blues. But I soon learned that these more stately exteriors hid many vibrant treasures: from the Hermitage’s Golden Drawing Room to the jewel-encrusted eggs cushioned in gleaming display cases at the newly opened Fabergé Museum.

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

The Gold Drawing-Room at the Hermitage

My first full day was Thursday, May 1st, and since the Hermitage Museum offers free entry to all visitors on the first Thursday of every month, my friend and I stood for an hour and a half in the cold to avoid paying for tickets. Once inside, every goosebump became well worth it. My mom has mentioned Versailles here, but the rooms of the Hermitage, Russia’s most famous art museum and the former residence of the Russian monarchs, made the Hall of Mirrors look chintzy in comparison. Truth be told, I couldn’t describe a single painting or sculpture I saw, but I can remember feeling awe in a room done entirely in gold leaf, putting my hand around a crystal doorknob the color of a ruby and the size of a tennis ball, and craning my neck in each room to gaze at the wooden ceilings, intricately carved and painted pale blue and white, or cream and gold, or in splashes of color formed into murals.

Me in front of the Hermitage

Me in front of the Hermitage

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ruby red crystal door knob, the size of a tennis ball, on a door at the Hermitage Museum

Ceiling at the Hermitage

Highly ornate ceiling at the Hermitage

The large-scale extravagance of the Hermitage is mirrored in miniature at the Fabergé Museum, just off Nevsky Prospekt along the Fontanka Canal. One of St. Petersburg’s newest treasures, the museum has only been open to the general public since April and still must be experienced through a Russian-language tour. But it is worth finding an interpreter, or screwing comprehension altogether, to ogle the imperial eye candy on display. The French and German-trained jeweler Carl Fabergé began making his priceless ostrich-egg-sized artifcats—often fashioned from mother of pearl and spackled with gems—for Tsar Alexander III in the 1880s and continued it as an Easter tradition for his successor Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. The yolks of these eggs are the real treat—pint-sized portraits or gem-covered toys that reveal themselves through impressive feats of mechanization. The museum’s collection doesn’t end with the eggs, though; Fabergé designed everything from cigarette cases to dinner plates to icons, a staple of traditional Russian households. And it’s all housed in the elegantly restored Shuvalov Palace, which once saw some of the finest fêtes in St. Petersburg come through its ballrooms.

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge' Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

The only picture I was able to take of the Faberge’ Exhibit at the Shuvalov Palace

As in any big city, St. Petersburg’s art doesn’t end indoors. For each of the five million living, breathing inhabitants, there seems to be a stony-faced statue. St. Petersburg boasts more statues than any city I’ve ever seen: scientists and tsars, politicians and literary greats, and a Lenin and Pushkin for every neighborhood. Carved into the walls of subway stations and building facades, guarding the many bridges, and standing proudly in every square and half-square of the city. Some of my favorites were the self-effacing Raskolnikov (Dostoevsky’s murderous protagonist in Crime & Punishment) on Stolyarny, and the immense Lenin in front of Finland Station, one hand clutching at his armpit, the other thrust outward at an invisible crowd. The day we visited, we were the revolutionary’s only audience, along with a cluster of snowflakes the clouds had suddenly let loose from the sky. The most renowned statue, though, is the Bronze Horseman, along the bank of the Neva and not far from the Hermitage. Catherine the Great’s 1782 tribute to her idol Peter, the statue is mounted atop the “Thunder Stone,” which the Russians claim to be the largest stone ever moved by man at 1,500 tons.

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Lenin statue in Lenin Square in front of Finland Station

Unlike in most European cities, almost all of these statues are secular in nature. But as anyone who has read Russian literature—and if you haven’t, Crime & Punishment is an excellent place to start—knows, Russian Orthodoxy is integral to the nation’s culture, and remained so even through 60 years of communist state-imposed atheism. The orthodox church’s onion domes strongly flavor the skyline: from the coal-colored domes of Vladimirskiya, which Dostoevsky frequented while writing the Brothers Karamazov, to the Candy Land-esque spires of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. The name of the latter hints at its origin story: it was built at the end of the 19th century by Tsar Alexander III in honor of his father, on the spot where he was fatally wounded by a bomb-throwing anarchist. I could have walked around the building for hours, analyzing its deep rainbow shades and flourishes of gold. But after waiting in line for a ticket, I walked inside the cathedral. Though every wall is covered floor-to-atrium in mosaics, I felt less that awe-inspired. Not because I’m unreligious, though that’s true, but because my head immediately became filled with the snaps and clacks of cameras capturing every tiled face and lit candle. I couldn’t concentrate, and after one tour, I pushed my way back outside.

Church of the Spilled Blood

Church of the Spilled Blood

Earlier that same day I had resented Fabergé’s no-photography policy—compounded by the fact that its museum store seemed indefinitely closed for business—but my experience at the Church on Spilled Blood (for short) made me think they might have had the right idea. Sometimes, the beauty of a city, especially a city as overflowing in beautiful things as St. Petersburg, is better sipped in silence.