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.

↑ Back to Trav­el | Alaska’s Inte­ri­or

  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). []