Back home safe and sound in New York, where the sun rises and sets at "normal" times!
On my last night in Alaska, someone asked me what my favorite part of the trip had been. I thought hard ... and couldn't point out one day or thing above the rest. Robert had the same reaction. The whole trip was a blast – one of our best road trips ever.
Perhaps what we liked the most, though, was the people we met – gracious, interesting and incredibly hospitable. Maybe that's because of the table tennis connection more than Alaska. But everyone we met, to a person, was intensely proud of their state, with a stronger sense of pride than I've experienced anywhere else. They say once you visit Alaska, you never come all the way back.
And now, after this trip, I can say I've been to all 50 states.
Regarding yesterday's puzzle from the chancellor, the answer, not surprisingly, is Alaska – around July 15, give or take, depending on where exactly you are in Alaska. But how is it possible for the sun to set twice in the same place in one day?
Well, during the winter in northern Alaska, the sun actually sets after midnight (and rises a few hours later). Then after the summer solstice, around June 22, the sun starts setting earlier (and rising later) by a few minutes each day. On July 15 in Fairbanks, the sun sets at 12:01 a.m., and then sets again at 11:57 p.m. Voila! Two sunsets in one day.
Our last day in Alaska turned out to be our busiest. Shortly before noon Diann Darnall met Robert and me at the Parrishes' and drove us to the University of Alaska Fairbanks to have lunch with the chancellor, Brian Rogers, and his wife. Lunch conversation covered a lot of topics, but it ended, surprisingly, with an exchange of puzzles. Chancellor Rogers told us a good one that he said is original. I'll share it with you in a moment.
After lunch Robert and I went to KUAC, Fairbanks' public radio station, where Lori Neufeld interviewed us live.
Diann met us again and gave us a tour of the university's Museum of the North, which is said to have more than a million artifacts from the Arctic -- stuffed bears and other animals, Eskimo carvings, photos and memorabilia from the Alaska gold rush of the 1890s, Alaskan artwork (both native and otherwise), and lots more. I could have spent hours and hours there.
The last event of the trip was a public exhibition of table tennis back at the Patty Center, which over a hundred people attended. Robert and I put on a show, and members of the Fairbanks club played matches in singles and doubles, with both sponge rackets and hardbat. It was a good showing for the club.
Then it was back to the Parrishes to shower and pack for the flight home.
Regarding yesterday's puzzle, my answer was McKinley, as in president William. If you thought of another answer that meets the conditions of the puzzle, let me know.
One last new brainteaser, courtesy of Chancellor Rogers: What is the only state in the U.S. in which the sun can set twice in the same day? Identify the state and how this can happen.
The thing about Fairbanks at this time of year is that the sun sets for only a couple hours a day. Even after setting, the sun is just below the horizon, so it's not really dark out. I feel like I have jet lag, even though I'm completely adjusted to Alaska time and am sleeping fine.
Robert and I started the day at the Mr. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge at the edge of Denali National Park. The previous evening, as we'd been driving up, we had tried to figure out, through the haze, which of the monstrously high peaks in the Alaska Range was Mt. McKinley. We'd finally settled on one, which seemed higher than all the others, even though it didn't match the pictures we'd seen.
Well, in the morning, with a clear sky, we finally saw the real mountain, which is twice as tall as the one we'd previously picked out. It is unbelievably huge, taller than anything you'd imagine -- awesome in every sense of the word.
From the lodge we continued north toward Fairbanks, arriving in a little under four hours. We're staying at the home of Jamo and Jane Parrish, members of the Fairbanks Interior Table Tennis Club, who are a retired lawyer and retired mediator, respectively. They have converted the garage of their beautiful, modern home into -- guess what? -- a table tennis room, with an athletic floor and excellent lighting. The four of us played there for over an hour.
Sunday is the 160th day of the year, and my 160th consecutive day playing table tennis -- on my quest to play table tennis every day in 2013.
As I mentioned yesterday, Robert and I stayed overnight in Eagle River, at the home of Boyd and Shirley Bennett, who could not have been more hospitable hosts. Also, they happen to have a professional-quality table tennis facility above their garage. Players started arriving around 11:30 am, and we played nonstop, both singles and doubles, until 3:30. Karl Augestad, of the Anchorage club, took lots of pictures and video, some of which he'll probably post at akttc.squarespace.com. Boyd doesn't play anymore, but he watched and conversed with us from the sidelines, smiling the whole time.
At one point Shirley brought out Boyd's Golden Ulu, a gold medal he won in table tennis at the first Arctic International Games. An ulu is a curved Eskimo knife, a word I knew previously only from crosswords.
After a late lunch and a shower, Robert and I hit the road, heading north to Denali National Park, passing through Wasilla (Sarah Palin's home) on the way. From the highway at least, Wasilla is just an undistinguished commercial strip.
Saturday morning, at the Ocean Shores motel in Homer, I was sitting at the desk peering out the big window at the water. I saw splashing in the distance. I asked Robert, "Is that a whale?"
Indeed it was. In fact, it was one of four whales, swimming up the sound, their backs visible in the water. Over the next hour or so we saw probably 20 whales altogether. A beautiful start for the day.
After breakfast at McDonald's, we drove to Soldotna, a town of 5,000 about 90 minutes north, to play with the Soldotna Table Tennis Club. During the academic year the club plays at a school, then breaks for the summer. Since school was now closed, and we still wanted to play, special arrangements were made at the Soldotna Elks Club, which has two tables in a gym in the basement. Most of the club members were away, but six of us (including two teens) showed up, playing from noon to 2:30. We had a good time and a great workout.
Back on the road, Robert and I stopped for lunch again at Suzie's Cafe in Sterling. Robert had his favorite, a chickenburger, while I tried the hot open turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. This is the very definition of "comfort food."
The weather here in Alaska has been gorgeous -- sunny and warm. Friday's high was around 70. Robert and I were told this isn't normal, especially the clear skies.
We started the morning in Anchorage, where I taped my weekly NPR puzzle at KSKA, for airing nationally on Sunday. It involved a game of Categories based on the name HOMER, the town where we were headed. The player did pretty well, but stumbled badly on "Canadian Cities." So that part of the puzzle won't make it on the air!
After the taping we headed south on the Sterling Highway, Alaska Route 1, toward Homer, on the southern tip of the Kenai peninsula. Homer bills itself as the Halibut Capital of the World. The drive takes about four hours, with constant views of snow-capped mountains along the way. Part of the route hugs the coast, where we were told we might see whales. No luck on this day, though.
It's almost midnight in Anchorage as I write this, and the sun is just setting. Dawn is only a few hours away. The sheer length of a June day here takes some getting used to.
Robert and I started the day with a 9 a.m. meet-and-greet at KTOO, the public radio station in Juneau. About 60-70 listeners showed up. The station manager interviewed me on a small stage, and I ended by presenting some quick oral word puzzles – which the audience answered amazingly quickly.
On our way to the airport afterward, two ladies from the station graciously took us to see the Mendenhall Glacier just north of Juneau. They said the glacier has receded hundreds of yards in recent years, but it's still an awesome sight.
Tonight in Anchorage, Robert and I joined the Alaska Table Tennis Club, which has a lot of solid players, including the reigning Alaska state champion. Karl Augestad runs the group. About 75 people turned out. As part of an exhibition, Robert performed some trick shots, including hitting the ball behind his back, around the net and with his shoe. We also played lots of matches. I won some and lost some in singles, but Robert and I were undefeated in doubles. A reporter/cameraman from KTUU, the local NBC affiliate, filmed part of the evening for a story to air on Friday night's 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts.
A wonderful, if long, start to Robert's and my trip to Alaska – up at 5:30 a.m. in New York City, to bed at midnight in Juneau, which is itself four hours behind New York. A busy day, too.
Tim and Phil of the Juneau Table Tennis Club met us at the airport. The drive to our hotel downtown was spectacular, even with overcast skies. Snowcapped mountains rise straight up from the edge of town. Streams cascade down the sides almost vertically. I've never seen anything like it.
The Juneau Empire, the local paper, had a front-page article (with photos) about our trip. And KTOO, Juneau's public radio station, has been promoting our visit for two weeks.
This evening Robert and I put on a table tennis exhibition at a local middle school, which more than 100 people attended. Then we played with as many others as we could, separately and together, both singles and doubles.
In the car earlier tonight I thought of a puzzle: name a U.S. state capital whose last two letters are the same as the first two letters of a second state capital – whose last two letters themselves are the same as the first two letters of a third state capital. What capitals are these?
I've thought of two answers, which I'll reveal tomorrow.