Culture

Summer trolley tour ridealong offers a tourist's-eye view of Anchorage

Jaden McCarrey finishes eating his lunch from a Tupperware container, boards his sparkling red trolley, pauses as if preparing to conduct an orchestra and puts on his microphone headset.

For the next hour, a dozen tourists on the 2 p.m. trolley tour on an overcast Wednesday are all his.

His job is to show them Anchorage in an hour. Each has paid $20 for the privilege.

All are from out of state, from places like Indiana, Ohio and Michigan.

Some are already wearing the spoils of their vacations: hats that say Denali or Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage, shirts with airbrushed scenes of wildlife.

They, like most summertime visitors to Anchorage, are not in town for long.

"Maybe a day and a half, max," says Cyrus Aldeman, manager of Anchorage Trolley Tours, a business his parents started in 1995. It's the only operator that offers a straight city tour -- no trips up to the mountains or down Turnagain Arm.

Their customers are looking to quickly get a feel for the city and its history, Aldeman says.

In the ecosystem of Alaska tourism, Anchorage is most often a stopover point between flights or legs of an overland organized tour or cruise. City tourism boosters have been working to capture more of visitors' time.

McCarrey, who has a swoop of dark hair and a smile that could advertise an orthodontist's finest work, starts by sharing his Anchorage bona fides, which are substantial: Family in town before Alaska was a state. Four siblings and his mom all work as tour guides.

The passengers are advised of free popcorn and discounts at Polar Bear Gifts, and the trolley rumbles off. As it lumbers down Fourth Avenue, McCarrey gives a shoutout to Tia's reindeer dogs. He pulls down F Street, to the Eisenhower Alaska Statehood Monument, which he says locals call "Ike on a half shell" (if they are aware of its existence at all).

Look, there's the Ulu Factory! And the Bridge Restaurant! The tour goes past the Alaska Railroad, where McCarrey tells passengers about a type of rail car known colloquially, he says, as a "moose gooser." Past Snow City Cafe -- "a great place for breakfast -- also haunted!" and the Park Strip, which has roots as a makeshift airstrip.

"If you leave an expanse of land open that's flat and wide in Alaska, a guy is gonna land a plane on it," he explains.

That one gets a good laugh.

The weather is pretty good today, by Anchorage standards. It's close to 60 degrees, with sun breaks.

As the trolley makes its way up the West High School hill, the mountains are velvety green in the east, and a patch of sun sparkles on the Inlet.

It is not one of those days that make life hard for tour guides, when the Chugach range is socked in with clouds and a low ceiling drips rain and the many things that make Anchorage so different from Kansas City or Cleveland are not immediately obvious.

McCarrey's policy on bad weather: Don't acknowledge it. If you do, your guests might start feeling sorry for themselves.

At West High, McCarrey touches on what appears to be a classic Anchorage tour anecdote.

It's mentioned as far back as 1987, when an underwhelmed Anchorage Daily News reporter wrote an account of riding along on a 2.5-hour coach bus tour. This was years before the Aldeman family started their trolley tour business.

The reporter notes, "The tourists on the bus controlled their excitement, emotionally depleted perhaps from the previous sight, the eagle on the side of West High."

The eagle contains a hidden '71 -- legend has it students sneaked it in after the principal told them they couldn't include their class year in the mural.

"A number of passengers thought that was really neat and said so," the reporter wrote almost 30 years ago. "When invited to, a few got off and took pictures."

The passengers on the 2015 bus tour also thought that was pretty neat when McCarrey told the story, though nobody got off to take a picture.

And just as in yesteryear, the driver next pointed out a clutch of well-kept trailer homes sitting on some of the most valuable land in West Anchorage -- "indicative of a boom-bust economy."

Look, there's the Atwood family mansion. And, on Forest Park Drive, an underground home -- only the stairs are visible from the street -- that purportedly is insulated to stay at a comfortable temperature year round.

"That's awesome!" said a rider, one half of a couple from Flint, Michigan.

On down West Northern Lights Boulevard, past the Rustic Goat restaurant and neighborhoods where a ranch home built in the 1960s can set you back a half a million dollars.

McCarrey peppers the passengers with facts. Anchorage is one of the most tax-friendly cities in the country! There's an obligatory, well-received Texas vs. Alaska size joke.

He pulls into Earthquake Park. In the distance, two municipal workers struggle to replace a bear-proof trash container. He talks about the 1964 earthquake, the devastation that was wrought and the way it chucked some of the Turnagain neighborhood into the Inlet, killing people.

Stunned silence from the passengers.

Next comes the crown jewel of an hourlong tour of Anchorage.

Lake Hood has in abundance the two things that tourists most commonly say they want to see, according to Aldeman: floatplanes and moose.

There are more sweeping Chugach mountain views and a feast of airplanes. But no moose reveal themselves among the spruce and wild roses.

McCarrey spins anecdotes about Alaskans' proclivity for piloting (highest percentage of residents with a pilot's license) and about the salty Spenard neighborhood.

Forty-five minutes have disappeared. It's time to head back downtown.

On Minnesota, waiting at a red light, the trolley pulls up alongside a bus stop crowded with people drinking tall silver cans of beer. No mention.

The trolley heads past Westchester Lagoon, where McCarrey tells a funny and possibly apocryphal tale about a bunch of seabirds that allegedly got stoned when officials burned down a marijuana grow. (Punchline: The Day No Tern Went Unstoned.)

Back into downtown. Yes, out the window to your right is Star the reindeer, mobbed by a selfie-stick wielding crowd.

Past Town Square Park, where McCarrey points out the riot of flowers but not the knot of teenagers conversing with a frustrated-looking police officer.

As McCarrey pulls into the log cabin, he launches into a stirring rendition of the Alaska Flag Song in his deep baritone voice. It's impossible not to feel a swell of civic pride at this point.

Our moose, our mountains, our crafty mural-painting high school seniors and our ingenious underground dwellings, our reindeer dogs and actual reindeer! Our ability to transform anything into an airstrip!

Afterward, Beth and Tim Sheppard, the couple from Flint, Michigan, stood on the sidewalk, plotting their next move. They had come to Alaska to visit a relative. They have enjoyed their vacation and have been suitably impressed with mountains and sea.

But they were a bit surprised by the amenities of Anchorage. They had imagined something a bit more rustic -- more log cabins perhaps?

"I have seen a couple," Beth allows.

But a bit painfully, her husband doesn't see a huge difference between Anchorage and Flint.

"It seems like any other city," he said. "It looks like our city."

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