Escape to Alaska by Steve Kaffen (Russia)

Escape to Alaska
by Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96)
December 2023
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Author and explorer Steve Kaffen had to escape Washington, D.C.’s stifling summer heat and energy-sapping humidity, but where? Having just returned from Iceland, his natural conclusion: an escape to Alaska. The decision made perfect sense. Alaska is a haven of awesome natural beauty, spectacular scenery, great and meandering waterways, prolific animal and sea life, and fascinating indigenous cultures. It’s a land of superlatives: America’s largest state (by far) has the longest coastline, the tallest mountain, and the largest national park and national forest. Its thousands of glaciers include those in sprawling Glacier Bay, the enormous Hubbard Glacier, and majestic Mendenhall Glacier, an easy drive from the state’s low-key capital Juneau. Finally, Alaska is descriptive of a state of mind that embodies resourcefulness and self-reliance, confronting and surmounting challenges, an adventurous spirit, humility, and yes, solitude. The author is well-qualified to serve as guide, this being his fourth visit by land and ship. Alaska is a photographer’s paradise, and the author has selected 300 representative photographs for the book. The introductory narrative contains instructive material and suggestions to help the reader plan and execute his/her own memorable Escape to Alaska.

Who is Steve Kaffen?

Steve Kaffen (Russia 1994-96)

Steve Kaffen dedicates his books “To you, my fellow traveler, on the road and in life,” and invites his readers to “execute your own memorable journeys.”

Kaffen has visited most countries. He is a long-time member of the respected Explorers Club, nominated by mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary after they met high in the Nepal Himalayas. The following year, Kaffen climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro to see sunrise over Africa, and several years later, he was invited by Chile’s Navy on a voyage into Antarctica.

His principal travels, detailed below, include a four-year, country-by-country journey across Asia, Africa, and the Americas; an overland adventure through the Middle East; excursions by bus and rail in Europe and Australia; ships across the Atlantic and Pacific; and Amtrak train travel in the United States.

Kaffen has monitored elections for the UN and performed for UNICEF a review of its vaccination and education programs, and he worked for a spell in radio broadcasting. He’s a regular World Cup attendee and, when the U.S. hosted the event, he wrote its operating procedures.

Kaffen served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Russia in the mid-1990s. Returning to the Peace Corps a decade later as Assistant Inspector General and Senior Auditor, he personally reviewed the operations in half (35) of its countries. The best part of the country visits, per Kaffen, was getting to know hundreds of dedicated staff and volunteers, and he keeps in touch with many of them through the National Peace Corps Association.

He acquired an explorer’s curiosity early on. His mother would send him off to buy fruit down the streets of Brooklyn, New York, and he’d return hours later with the fruit plus a cookie and lots of neighborhood stories. His family moved to the Bronx, and when he was able to slip away from after-school gardening, he’d take the subway into Manhattan, to the Central Park Zoo, to Harlem for street jazz, or if it was Wednesday, to Broadway for the second act of a musical.

“Theater staff saw me at the door at intermission, grabbed my hand and escorted me to a seat, sometimes in the front row, propped me up with a cushion, and handed me a Playbill.” Those were the days, Kaffen recalls, when a kid could feel at ease wandering alone.

His interest in bus travel began during college. “My roommate and I rode Greyhound into D.C. to the Howard Theatre and saw amazing shows by artists such as The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown.” At the renovated Howard Theatre, Kaffen buys dinner and sits up against the stage. “Chaka Khan shook my hand, Little Richard smiled back from his piano, and Martha Reeves gave me a ‘do I know you’ look from her time with the Vandellas.”

His first book, Unexpected Journey, published in 2015, begins “I quit.” Kaffen resigned from his job at Levi Strauss in San Francisco, burned out after years of uninterrupted school and work, and he left on a six-week trip of language study and touring in China. The tour went home, and he continued on for four years, country-by-country, around the world. His book describes the trip’s evolution and experiences, often humorous, on the road.

Interestingly, as part of the above trip, he crossed from Africa (Cape Town) to South America (Rio) on the Queen Elizabeth 2 ship. Fifteen years later, on the QE2 from Los Angeles to Sydney, he encountered staff from his previous voyage. “They asked me if I had made it around the world and held a party for me in the library.”

His 2018 follow-up book, Asia Without Borders, recounts his adventures across what he calls “The Great South Asian Expanse” and ends with a prophetic encounter in the cockpit of a 747 with the pilot. The book’s appendix has photos from all the countries and some very funny “Letters from the Road.”

Just before the 2011 “Arab Spring,” Kaffen overlanded through the then-tranquil Middle East. Several years later, he circled India by train and detoured to the Kingdom of Bhutan, known for its Gross National Happiness Index. His 2019 book Incredible India and Boundless Bhutan  spotlights these two countries.

European trains had been Kaffen’s mode of travel from the time that he lived and worked in Paris. In spring 2017, he decided to try Europe’s buses and returned several times for additional bus travel on different carriers. His last bus trip was critical: he had a ticket to the Spain vs. Russia World Cup match but could find no available transport to Moscow. At the last minute, he located an overnight bus. “No one considered overnight buses, but by this time, I knew them well!” The result of his travels, Europe by Bus, describes 50 interesting bus trips and city visits at the trips’ destinations. It’s supplemented by 600 photos of the trips and cities. Peace Corps Worldwide named it the “2020 BEST TRAVEL BOOK.”

In spring 2019, he returned to Eastern Europe, and after spending time in Russia and the Baltic countries, attended the European Athletic Games in Minsk, Belarus. “Minsk and the European Games” presented the places, people, and local color of Minsk, the athletic games, and the grand finale. The 2019 European Games in Minsk offers dramatic photos of the Games, most events of which were qualifiers for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

In early 2020, Kaffen went “Down Under.” His books Australia Adventures and Encounters and Splendors of Sydney contain photographs, descriptions, and observations that capture the scenic beauty, local events, and diverse cultures of the country that he calls “The Land of Wows” and the city that he calls “The Everything City.”

In November 2020, Kaffen turned his attention to Africa, which he calls ‘the last frontier.’ In the introductory note to “Botswana Wildlife & Waterways,” he comments: “I love the feeling of freedom, the open spaces, the unfiltered conversations and hospitality, and the naturally beautiful places.” Botswana has the largest concentration of wildlife in Africa, and the world’s largest elephant population. Per Kaffen, “You can’t go more than a few minutes without spotting one, then several, then the herd.” He added, “An elephant walked past me in a cafe, doubtless looking for something sweet, but all I had to share was coffee, and it moved on.”

Kaffen’s travels have not been without risk. He spent weeks in traction, stretched in both directions, in a Kolkata, India, nursing home after falling out of a rickshaw in Bangladesh. He hired a prop plane to fly him into Borneo’s interior and, upon arrival during a drought, learned that onward transport was a ten-day walk to the nearest waterway. A first-time diver in a boat of scuba pros, Kaffen—to save face—followed them into the waters of the Maldives’ Shark Point and spent the longest 20 minutes of his life encircled by 14 of them.

Kaffen arrived in Tanzania intending to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but no guides were available. He entrusted a local boy, and together they experienced sunrise over Africa. In Rwanda, he joined a ranger and others to track the “Susa” mountain gorillas, the group studied by Diane Fossey. Kaffen returned 25 years later, and the ranger, now a senior official, recognized him. “Susa group!” the official exclaimed, and added, “I’ll bet that some will remember you.”

In Panama, Kaffen met a South African family that was emigrating by sailboat to Los Angeles. He joined them through the Panama Canal, helping stabilize the boat by holding onto the side ropes. “It was pretty intimidating,” Kaffen recalls. “This little sailboat in line with enormous freighters and cruise ships.” In the southern tip of South America, Kaffen sought a ship to Antarctica and was invited by the Captain of a Chilean Navy vessel to join the voyage as his guest. “Americano OK” was the clearance message from Santiago headquarters.

Along the way, Kaffen recalls close encounters with the Rwanda mountain gorillas, Sumatra orangutans, Nepal yaks, Australia kangaroos, Botswana elephants, India camels, and a herd of buffalo in South Africa’s Kruger Park all staring at him, plus Antarctica’s penguins and the sharks.

To visit America, Kaffen has used Amtrak rail passes. His favorite train journeys have been the Empire Builder across America’s northern expanse, the Coast Starlight hugging the West Coast, the Zephyr over the Rockies, and the City of New Orleans paralleling the Mississippi River. In the 1990s, Amtrak extended the Sunset Limited to be transcontinental between Los Angeles and Miami and invited him on the inaugural run.

Kaffen attends soccer’s World Cup every four years, the last being in South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014), and Russia (2018). He does advance planning to coordinate country visits and soccer matches. When the U.S. hosted the event, Kaffen, who had been in charge of policy at Levi Strauss, volunteered to write the Cup’s operating procedures and also served as Rose Bowl finance manager.

Professionally, Kaffen, an MBA and CPA, has held management positions in public accounting (with Deloitte and Ernst & Young), private industry (with Levi’s and Pathe Films), and government (Peace Corps, USAID, and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission). He says his work experience has enriched his travel skills in trip planning, problem-solving, and notetaking.

Kaffen grew up in New York City and has also lived in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, and now Washington, D.C. When at home, he continues his involvement with transport on the Accessibility Advisory Committee, the Bus/Rail Subcommittee, and the Bus Transformation Project of the Washington, D.C. Transit Authority.

His travel and life experiences, the focus of his books, may have led the University of Maryland, in its “Alumni Spotlight,” to state that “Steve Kaffen might well be the most interesting man in the world.”

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