SEWARD - Sure it's a cliche. But legend has it that the highlight of Alaska's Independence Day celebration started as a bar bet.
And when you see the muddy, bloody runners dragging themselves over the finish line after scrambling up and down Mount Marathon in Seward, it makes sense that the first people to conceive of this outrageousness likely were drunk. What it doesn't explain is why hundreds of apparently sober people choose to put themselves through this high-altitude endurance test.
I might not want to participate in it, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy it. For while the athletes were tripping over rocks, roots and snow in a mad scramble up the 3,000-foot mountain on a recent Fourth of July, the thousands of spectators in downtown Seward were having a grand time.
There was a parade, face-painting, bagpipes, food vendors and souvenirs. There was even a little mini Mount Marathon Race for children as young as 2, and late that night there were fireworks, barely visible against the perpetual summer sun. After all, the Fourth of July is The Big Event for Seward.
The rest of the year, most tourists are drawn to Seward because it is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, or for sport fishing for salmon and halibut. The drive from Anchorage, 125 miles to the north, takes motorists down the Seward Highway, one of the most scenic routes in the country.
Travelers wind along the north shore of the fjord-like Turnagain Arm, where we saw moose grazing, then pass through Chugach State Park and Chugach National Forest, providing a panoramic view of the Kenai Mountains. The drive can take three hours on a good day, or endless hours if you're stuck behind a line of slow-moving RVs.
We came to Seward from Homer, a side trip that added several days and nine hours of driving to our trip, but was well worth the experience.
Homer, 220 miles southwest of Anchorage, is a funky little town, and has turned out such notables as singer-songwriter Jewel, radio personality Tom Bodett and, my personal favorite, the organic Ah!Laska chocolate syrup.
Among the 4,000 residents are the "spit rats," free spirits who choose to live in huts and tents on the Homer Spit, a curling piece of sand and rock that juts 4 1/2 miles into Kachemak Bay.
The Spit also is home to a thriving tourist industry, largely based on halibut fishing, tour operators, the Salty Dawg saloon and the most picturesque RV parks I have seen.
While we would quickly return to Homer, our feelings about Seward were somewhat more mixed. Because the city of 3,000 attracts about 10,000 people over the July Fourth weekend, finding accommodations can be a challenge, and we booked at the last minute. Although we went through a local travel agent, we found ourselves in an unusual bed-and-breakfast, which consisted of a lovely room in the home of some fundamentalists whose religious fervor left us uncomfortable.
We found lots to do in Seward, even though we passed on the hiking, kayaking and fishing because we were traveling with our year-old daughter.
One requirement for visitors to Seward is a cruise through Resurrection Bay, and we enjoyed a six-hour tour through Kenai Fjords National Park that took us past calving glaciers, otters, sea lions and breaching whales.
The ship was large, which provided for a comfortable trip, but prevented us from getting near the animals. In Homer, we had enjoyed a half-day trip on a 14-passenger water taxi that took us up to the rocks of Gull Island bird rookery, where we came within yards of puffins, bald eagles, cormorants, oyster-catchers and otters.
To see the wildlife up close in Seward, one heads to the Alaska SeaLife Center. This $50 million facility was paid for partly by the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement and combines research, rehabilitation and public education. Visitors can watch puffins, sea lions and harbor seals, and learn about the marine ecosystem of Alaska.
Just outside of the center is Mile Zero of the Iditarod Trail, where the trek to Nome historically began. The modern race starts in Wasilla (45 miles north of Anchorage), but its presence is still felt in Seward at the Seavey family homestead, which boasts three generations of Iditarod racers and a sled dog training facility. The public can cuddle husky puppies, try on Arctic racing gear and learn about mushing from the pros. Their IdidaRide trip allows guests to experience an entertaining ride on a wheeled dog sled along a 2-mile track.
Back in Seward for dinner, the focus was again on the Mount Marathon Race as the crowds gathered to rehash the day. Occasionally, a scraped, dirty, tired runner would enter to join friends. The beer flowed and tales were told, and as the bravado grew, even a few bar bets were made.
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