Alaska

First of all, the entire photo set for the trip can be found here, although I’m including a few photos in this article to save you having to switch between tabs.

Getting There

Actually, getting to Anchorage was quite possibly the least eventful trip Angela and I have taken. We had no trouble at the airport, weren’t really rushed at all, and the flights were all (nearly) on time and uneventful. The only slightly annoying thing was the Boeing 757 from JFK to Sea-Tac wasn’t the size that the airline had thought they’d be using. As a result, all the seat assignments got screwed up. I got put on the last row of the plane instead of with Angela in row 20. However, a very nice lady sitting beside Angela offered to trade seats with me and we ended up getting to spend the flight together. It was very nice of her and made out trip much nicer. Anyway, we landed at Ted The internet is a series of tubes Stevens Anchorage International Airport in the middle of that afternoon. It is, by the way, a very nice airport provided you are at the main, or South, terminal. The North terminal is quite another story, but one for later…

Anchorage

We drove straight out of Anchorage to what anyone from outside of Alaska might call it’s suburb of Eagle River and to our friend’s Wescott and Ann Marie’s home. Wescott entertained us with stories about life in Alaska, their dog Meg, and samples of Caribou sausage (which is very likely the best sausage I’ve ever had in my life). Ann Marie arrived shortly and we sat down to a nice home-made meal at their house. We hadn’t seen either of them in some time and hadn’t ever had the opportunity to spend that this much time with them. I have to say, that was our loss and we enjoyed rectifying that on this trip. They really made us feel at home and helped us get ready to experience even more of Alaska1 They were wonderful hosts and a great deal of fun to get to know better than we ever had while all still in Virginia.

Thunderbird Falls

Thunderbrid Falls near Eklutna as seen through the dense fog and mist.

The following morning, the whole area was covered in a dense fog. Undaunted by the chance that we might not actually be able to see it (and wondering if we’d see anything on this trip from then on), we set off to explore Thunderbird Falls just north of Eagle River at the recommendation by our hosts Wescott and Ann Marie. It was easy access from the freeway, being only a couple of hundred of feet from the freeway exit. The hike was probably on a mile or less and well worth the short effort. We scrambled over some of the wet rocks at the base of the falls in hopes of getting a better photo. After the camera got wet enough begin to freeze up, we decided perhaps we’d done as much as we could. We headed back to the car and on up the Glenn Highway towards Palmer, switching onto the Parks Highway2 Around noon, we decided to stop in at the Wasilla Fred Meyer’s for some snacks, water, and coffee. After a short time in the shopping wonder of the Western states, we came back outside to clear skies and nearly unlimited visibility. It was beginning to look as though we’d picked a perfect time to visit Alaska after all.

Within just a block or two of getting back on the highway, we figured we should stop and decide on a place to eat before we got too much further and possibly had to turn around. We were flipping through the Milepost as well as our Lonely Planet guide when we decided on The Great Bear Brewing Co. Upon looking back up and just out our windshield, we realized that was the very place we had just parked in front of. Serendipity? Possibly. Probably just as much that Wasilla isn’t that big of a place. Either way, they had some really great microbrew beer and I had my first deep fried hamburger: a beef and pepper-jack patty rolled in spicy crumbs and deep fried, then covered with a slice of pepper-jack cheese. Good stuff, but don’t tell your doctor you ate one lest you want a scolding.

Talkeetna & Denali Up Close

Approaching Denali

Our pilot, Danielle, flew us over a couple of massive glaciers and up to the Denali base camp.

Given just how clear and sunny day we had ended up with along with the fact that it could be a while before we get to return to Alaska’s interior, I decided a charter flight around Denali3 and the glaciers just below it would be a great idea. Angela wasn’t initially sold on the idea and was understandably nervous. Now, she was really nervous about the safety of such a flight but rather her potential for a irrational panic attack mid-flight (that’s the nature of irrational fears: even being aware of them and the facts won’t stop them, although at least you can plan around them). However, even if I and the lady at Talkeetna Air Taxi didn’t do enough to calm her fears, our pilot did a great job of distracting her long enough to let the natural distraction of an amazing view do the job for us all. I don’t care really how nervous you are of heights or flying, when you see that mountain up close, you can’t help but forget that fear and simply be amazed. We flew up to about 9,000 feet, which is still well short of the 20,320 feet summit but above base camp. This is how most climbers save time getting up there as well, although we didn’t land up there. The view was simply amazing and our pilot was really great. I mean, not only was she probably the best pilot I’ve ever flown with but she also was really friendly and knew a lot about the area.

Fairbanks

After a long drive, which ended up in fog nearly as thick as we had seen earlier that day near Anchorage, we arrived at Fairbanks to see our friends Christina and Steve about three hours later than we had planned on arriving. They took us out to dinner to a cool saloon. I had the salmon burger and Angela had the fish and chips (which is usually halibut up there). Afterwards, we stepped outside for what Angela had really looked forward to seeing: the northern lights. They were pretty hazy and all green (sometimes they are multi-colored, but green is the most common), but they were most definitely three green bands through the night sky4. I think Angela was looking forward to seeing them even clearer, but I’m pretty sure she went to bed satisfied that night. It’s not every day you get to see two friends after a long time, the continents tallest mountain up close, and a natural cosmic phenomenon.

The following day, Christina made us all a great breakfast before taking Angela out for a spa-day. Steve showed me around Fairbanks and we ran a couple of short errands. We stopped in their local favorite coffee shop and then we visited Fairbanks’ only camera shop so I could get a polarized lens for my Nikon (huge difference on those big sky shots and I really regretted no having one the day before on the air charter flight). Steve was finally able to locate a copy of Team America – World Police on DVD (wide-screen format, collector’s edition with bonus material) and we got back to their apartment to watch it. We got through the first scene when Christina called to have us come pick them up (That’s okay, since I had more fun hanging out with Steve tracking down the movie than I probably would have had actually watching it). We went over to visit Christina’s parents and their two dogs, a pair of miniature schnauzers named Rudy and Jean. Afterwards we went to downtown Fairbanks for a Thai dinner (really nice restaurant and great food) and some homemade fudge (not at the Thai place).

Chena Hot Springs & Areas Near Fairbanks

After dinner that night, our Fairbanks hosts treated us to the yet another of the local natural wonders: a natural hot springs just north of the city. It was a hour long drive down a very bumpy road (lots of frost heave in Alaska, as you might imagine) which led to Chena. The springs had been formed into a large pond-sized, open air sauna. While there was quite a bit of steam hovering over the lake, when a breeze moved it aside the sky just lit up with stars. If you’ve never been far away from urban lights enough to really see what the night sky really looks like, then it’s hard for me to describe. The best thing I can thing of is a cloud of diamond dust all around the brighter stars you normally see. To get to float in hot water and take that in was really fantastic. However, after about 30 minutes, Angela and I started to get the feeling we were being cooked so we slowly worked our way out. The four of us went over to the bar next door for some coffee and listening to that night’s guitar playing entertainment.

The next morning we went to see a small above-ground section of the Alaska Oil Pipeline. While anything but a natural wonder, I was really impressed with what an amazing engineering feat the pipeline is. We also visited a natural spring where many locals get their drinking water from on the way up to the Hilltop Truckstop for breakfast, which has some great food and really family kitchen atmosphere. We drove back down towards town and on to North Pole, Alaska to visit Santa’s home. That’s right, if you write a letter to Santa the USPS actually delivers it to North Pole, Alaska. We hung around the shop for a little while, reading some of the children’s letters, getting some coffee, and visiting with the reindeer out back (come to find out, reindeer are just domesticated caribou; I hadn’t realized until we were discussing eating them later on).

Denali and the Dome Home

After making out way back to Christina and Steve’s place, we said our good-byes and headed back South. It didn’t take us too long to make to Healy, AK where we had reserved a room at a bed and breakfast just outside Denali National Park. The Dome Home was a terrific B&B, probably one of the nicest we’ve ever stayed at, and if you ever choose to stay in a geodesic dome, I highly recommend this one.

We drove on down to the park to see if we could check out any of the visitor facilities, but everything was either closed for the season (most everything) or closed for the day (the Wildlife Center and Dog Kennels are open past Sept.). We stopped in at the Dog Kennel to visit the sled dogs as the staff were putting out their evening meals. I have to say that walking up to thirty or so wolf-looking dogs is really intimidating, even after you’ve been told they are specifically bred to be friendly to strangers at the park. Angela did end up petting every dog there she could get to (some were younger and in pens) and they were all really friendly (if scary looking) sled dogs.

We then drove on into the park and since there were no signs or barriers up, we just kept on going, even past the no private vehicles beyond this point; buses only signs at fourteen miles in. We continued on the gravel (and snow) road up until about twenty-five miles, where we stopped at the river valley to see if there was any wildlife around. Unfortunately, we saw no other living things in the park past the sled dogs. However, the view was really great and we were even able to see Denali off in the distance to the south.

Portage, Anchorage, & Heading Home

The next morning, we had a made-to-order breakfast at the Dome Home. We gave the rest of our store-bought provisions to a couple of women on vacation who were there to do some hiking (we certainly wished we’d had more time to do longer hikes ourselves) since we weren’t taking any of that on the plane that night. We drove on down to Anchorage, stopping back in Talkeetna for some great pizza at the Mile High Pizza Pie. We called Wescott to see if he and Ann Marie were free for dinner that evening, and so we made plans for that. First though, we decided the two of us would head down to Portage to see a couple of glaciers up close. Come to find out, the weather is almost always bad in Portage and our last day was no exception. Cold rain, gusty winds, and fog met us south of Anchorage for the drive along the inlet. However, getting up closer to the many glaciers in the area was worth it. The color of aquamarine blue in the ice there is really amazing. I wish we could have hiked up to see one, but given the fact that we really didn’t have the proper gear for that kind of weather, we agreed it wasn’t a good idea (if something happened, there probably wouldn’t be any other tourists until the weekend, when the visitor center is actually open). We headed back up to Anchorage for a short tour around the states largest city (where nearly half the state lives).

We met Wescott and Ann Marie at a local staple: The Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzaria (yes, that’s pizza for two meals in one day, but it was so good. Alaskan’s make a mean pie). We spent a couple of hours there, but we figured it was getting late for them and we needed to return the car and make it back to the airport. We ended up having several hours before boarding, and even then had three stops along the way until making it to Richmond. However, it was a really fun trip and well worth all the long travel time there and back. We both hope that we can return to Alaska sometime soon and see more of the state that is so vast it could cover up nearly half of the lower 48. Looking at a map of the state, it feels like we barely even scratched the surface of so large and varied of a state. All the more more reason to go back again. That, and actually taking a picture of a moose next time.

Map of Alaska (courtesy of Wikipedia), with areas we explored highlighted.

Map of Alaska (courtesy of Wikipedia), with areas we explored highlighted.

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  1. Just for the record, if you ever go to Alaska and plan to drive anywhere in the state (which you likely will), then you need to get The Milepost. It is a guide to literally every mile of every major highway in the state. I could try and tell you how detailed this book is, but you probably wouldn’t believe me. Just know that almost no one dares to drive around this enormous state without one.
  2. Interestingly enough, named for a man with the last name Parks, not for the numerous parks, including Denali, along it’s length.
  3. The mountain, which is in the park, so sort of the park as well. I’ve not been really consistent about saying either Denali (the traditional name) or Mt. McKinley (the American pioneer name). However, most all the locals call it Denali, as does the NPS and the State of Alaska, when they don’t simply call it the mountain. Therefore, I think Denali is the correct name and I’m going to try and stick with that for now on. Personally, I thin that a compromise of Mt. Denali would help clarify if one was talking about mountain instead of the national park.
  4. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera with me and we never got a better view of them while in Alaska than that night at the saloon. Even on a night when they weren’t so impressive (according to our Fairbanks friends), they still enthralled the two of us).