(The following was written as a guest blogger for the wonderful Shawnie Kelley of Wanderlust Tours – please visit her website http://www.wanderlust-tours.com/ and blog http://wanderlusttours.tumblr.com/. This post is long, but Alaska is HUGE.)
Initially, my girlfriend Marti wasn’t too keen on a spring break spent in Alaska. While the co-eds at Ohio State were heading off to hot, sunny locales to get drunk/swim in the ocean/dabble in sexual roulette, we were packing multiple layers of thermal clothing, and waterproof socks. I read Marti the Fairbanks weather report – negative 24 degrees (Fahrenheit), and she responded by shoving an extra sweater in her suitcase. I added that the Alaskan weather was a very DRY cold, and she whipped a bundled waterproof sock at my head.
Having never been to Alaska, I was skeptical of weather conditions during the shoulder season, as the plan was to drive through majority of the state. Weather, plus the off chance of a groggy, emaciated, Grizzly bear swatting my face-off weighed heavy on my conscience (and humble vanity), but, Alaska was the last United State in my quest for all fifty before my thirtieth birthday. It was 2010; I had a weeklong window between work and classes at Ohio State, an insatiable travel itch, and a bundle of extra Delta Skymiles. Adventure beckoned, capriciousness won out, and we were rewarded with one hell of a time
First visual impression of Alaska is not the greatest, flying through a massive weather system hanging oppressively low over the city. I rent a scrappy little car and drive in to the wet, dark, severely windy downtown to the mundane comfort of the Anchorage Marriott for a one-night stay. Our flight from Minneapolis was delayed, erasing the possibility of an evening exploring downtown. Famished from travel, we head to the Glacier BrewHouse (http://www.glacierbrewhouse.com/) for beers and King crab. (Leading up to our trip, Marti played non-stop marathons of ‘Deadliest Catch’; a show I quit watching because every time a crew brought up a pot full of Alaskan king crab, I started salivating/craving crustaceans like Discovery Channel’s own Pavlov’s dog.) Travel weary, travel drunk (where only two beers does the trick), we gorge on king crab and delicious Glacier Brewery micro-beers, barely making it back to the Marriott to crash.
Crack of dawn, we head over to the highly touted, vibrantly decorated, whimsical Snow City Café (http://www.snowcitycafe.com) – for some amazing, gut-busting grub. I eat reindeer sausage with eggs just to say I ate Sebastian from Little Mermaid, and Rudolph in less than 12 hours, quite a thrilling feat for a carnivore. The sun peaks out, unveiling the Chugach Mountains to the East. Weather clear, we make a dash for Homer.
Anchorage has a population density of approximately 40% of Alaska – meaning out of a state the size of one fifth the entire lower 48, close to half live in the Anchorage metropolitan-area. Take away the summer tourists, the locals who leave for winter, and outside Anchorage, there’s no one on the road. It’s liberating, serene, and a bit spooky. Heading south, Route 1 (AK-1) borders the Turnagain Arm, a body of water stretching east from the (James) Cook Inlet, hugging the Chugach Mountains on the left. Once you lap the Turnagain Arm, Route 1 snakes through the northern portion of the craggy Kachemak Mountains through small little gold panning towns like Cooper’s Landing, Clam Gultch, and Ninilchik where melting mountain waters gush turbidly into turquoise rivers and tributaries. Back flush with Cook Inlet you get a consistent view of the water, and on a clear day, the mountain-scape of the Lake Clark Park Wilderness and Preserve to the west.
Homer (Four hour drive from Anchorage)
The drive into Homer is stunning, literally stunning, as the sun doesn’t make a full orbit this late in the winter (latitudinal location as well), but sits heavy on the horizon, bathing everything in a blinding yellow-white. We coast along the Homer Spit, a huge section of glacial sediment stretching four miles into Katchemak Bay, passing beach goers, kayakers, joggers, and hundreds upon hundreds of Bald Eagles (for a fascinating story about the bald eagles, please read about Jean Keene, former stuntwoman and “bald eagle lady”, also the patron saint of the Land’s End Hotel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Keene).
The beach scene is magnetic. I park the car to take in some spring break action; splash around in the water to the amusement of the locals, who are all wearing shorts and t-shirts. Marti and I are bundled up in winter coats and boots. It’s ONLY 42 degrees, and the water is bone-achingly cold.
We’re booked for three days at the Land’s End, a clean, quirky, nautical themed hotel where you can sit in a hot tub on the back deck and watch the eagles (not the band) and falcons eyeing up the sea otters playing in the bay. After an evening of drinking with the locals down the street at the Salty Dog Saloon, I recommend the extremely fresh Halibut Panko-breaded fish and chips at the hotel’s Charter Room restaurant.
Most touristy attractions and some restaurants are either closed during the winter or adhere to weekend-only hours in Homer. If you’re the type of traveler who lives off tchotchke trinkets to fill the dining-room hutch, the shoulder season in Alaska might not be your cup of tea. Those adventurous enough to wing-it will be rewarded with an authentic experience and perpetual ego-boost by the warm questioning statement, ‘Whatcha’ doing here?!’ from the locals (not to be confused with ‘We don’t want yer kind ‘round here). I tell the proprietor of The Homer Bookstore we’re on spring break, and he gives a hearty laugh. After a minute of chitchat, he kindly invites us to meet up for a personal kayak tour around the bay. People are really this friendly in Homer. They truly want you to have fun, and be comfortable. Unfortunately the weather turns for the worst, churning up angry choppy waves and the tour gets cancelled before our launch. But we are doubly assured a rain check the next time we’re in town.
While majority of the art galleries are closed, there are still some great shops to visit with excellent food opportunities. The small but mighty Bunnel Avenue Arts Center in Old Town is a fantastic spot to check out local artists. Around the side is an awesome vintage/handmade clothing shop ‘The Fringe’. Next door is AJ’s Steakhouse and Tavern a smoky, old-timey saloon great for a quick beer. Down the street is Two Sisters Bakery, quite possibly the best breakfast spot on the planet. Their salmon/spinach danish quiche is simply divine, and I would seriously fight a small bear for it. I’m not sure what it is about Alaskans, but they know breakfast (http://twosistersbakery.net/Home.html).
Seward (sorry for now, Sewardines – Three hour drive from Homer)
The next day we head back up an empty Route 1 after stopping at Two Sisters again, for some sausage gravy biscuit-action, to Seward under an ominous sky. The town is named after William H. Seward who famously relieved (read: fleeced) the Russians of Alaska for $ 7,200,000, or 2 cents an acre back in 1867. This transaction was mocked by US officials at the time of sale; given monikers like ‘Seward’s Folly’, and Lil’ Willy’s Big Chilly (okay, I made this one up). It didn’t help that Mr. Seward spent his remaining days in the warmer climates of Florida, but he did state, and I paraphrase, “It will take at least a generation to realize the significance of this purchase.” He was so right.
Healy (Seven hour drive from Seward, Eight hours in blizzard)
No offense to anyone who lives in Seward (I will be writing a full piece about you soon, please be patient), but aside from the famous namesake, Exit Glacier (closed/travel budget casualty), the Seward Sea Life Center, a couple beautiful Russian Orthodox churches, and the launch point for summer cruises, this gritty town is not really a ‘must see’ for the winter traveler. If you’d like a crash-course in local immersion, spend a couple days at the Van Gilder Hotel, and hang out at the Showcase Lounge. The locals are a fun, interesting, and very entertaining crew.
The drive from Seward towards Anchorage is full of cursing, white-knuckle driving, and newfound beliefs in any higher power that will listen. The hour-long whiteout has no effect on the few locals racing passed our rental at 90mph, drinking coffee, texting, AND doing their taxes while steering. If you’d like a sense of what driving in an Alaskan whiteout is like, pull a heavy white sweater over your head, and watch between holes in the fabric, the scene from Star Wars where Han Solo kicks the Millennium Falcon into warp speed sending stars shooting at the cockpit. It’s eerily similar, and just as intense.
The weather finally clears and the drive back through Anchorage is sunny once again. Just outside Anchorage, we connect with Route 3 north. You can’t miss it. It’s essentially the only way to get to Fairbanks aside from flying.
A quick tip when driving through Alaska: if you see a gas station fill up your tank even if you’re close to full. There’s 134 miles between open gas stations in Trapper Creek to Healy in the winter. If you run out of gas through this stretch in Denali National Park, you’re pocket book is screwed by the tow company, and your face, by the Grizzly Bear ripping it off.
The road is empty. One truck passes us the entire 134 miles between Trapper’s Creek and Healy. Nature immerses us in warm sun with breathtaking scenery; mountains beaming bleach white, the sky crystal blue. There are turn offs every 20 miles offering gorgeous 360-degree vantage points of the ever-present Mount McKinley, the valley, and the rest of the Alaska Range arcing across a third the width of the state. Close to Cantwell, a seasonal town boarded up for the winter, Route 3 wriggles through the squeezed valley gorge dwarfed by 5,000 ft plus peaks jutting straight above our heads.
Healy isn’t the most hopping place in the winter; a one-night stay will do unless you have a multi-day camping excursion booked. The town is about 10 miles from the main entrance to Denali National Park offering a smorgasbord of recreational winter activities including; dog-mushing, winter camping, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. This is also the stop if interested in riding down Stampede Road to see the Magic Bus, the tomb of Christopher McCandless, made famous by Jon Krakauer’s ‘Into the Wild’, later developed into a movie of the same name (the stellar soundtrack provided by Eddie Vedder).
During the drive from Seward, Marti called her cousin Suann who just so happens to live in Healy. Turns out Suann, stepdaughter Ashley, and husband Phil all work for National Park system. They graciously invite us over for a delicious home-cooked meal, some adult beverages, and later tell us to stop by the park in the morning for a behind the scenes-tour. They invite us to crash at their place for the night, but we have accommodations at the Denali Dome Home (http://www.denalidomehome.com/), a geodesic, mini-Epcot Center looking bed and breakfast. Host Terry is very nice, tells us some tales about Denali (‘Denali’ is the Native name for white man’s ‘Mount McKinley’), and talks about how the Aurora Borealis is coming soon. Marti and I stay up like little kids, eyes pinned to the skies on the lookout for Santa, but there’s no magical night-light show, nor Kris Kringle.
In the morning, we grab a greasy bite at the Totem Inn down the street from the Dome Home, and drive just down the street to Denali National Park to meet Suann, who gives us a tour/introduction to the amazing people that maintain the park. She also gives a concise history on past curators/Park Rangers – shows us the kennel containing the Denali sled dogs – the coolest, cutest, yet sadly un-adoptable group of mutts I’ve seen.
Not wanting to keep Suann from work any longer, we say goodbye/thank you to her and Phil, and head back to the Info Center to meet with a Park Ranger who outfits us with (free) snowshoe rentals for wintry hike. Before our trek, the mischievous Ranger shows us a picture of a Canadian Lynx, taken the day before just outside the Info Center window. He jokingly tells us to jingle car keys and yell really loud if we happen upon the majestic but hungry looking kitty. National Park Rangers are regular comedians.
We shoe along the clearly marked trails wrapping through the arctic tundra. A couple of hikers before us left a small path through the snow, making the trek slightly less strenuous. It’s liberating – snowshoeing in negative 10-degree (F) weather – finding little pieces parts of various critters strewn about the trail, torn to bits by a large predatory cat. The old adage of a rabbit’s ‘foot’ being lucky is quite the opposite in this instance.
Faces frozen, breakfast metabolized, Marti and I finish up the hike, thank the Ranger, and load up for Fairbanks.
Fairbanks (Two hours from Healy)
Our next destination is The Northern Sky Lodge (http://www.northernskylodge.com/) a large, two-story log cabin B&B a half hour from Fairbanks just off Route 3. The trip from Healy is an endless view of skinny pines growing up through the snow-carpeted tundra. More cars are on this leg of the trip, as Fairbanks is the only/closest spot to go for groceries, or any general household needs. Off Route 3, down a snowy path cutting through the forest, a red golden retriever with a deflated basketball in its mouth greets us in front of the B&B.
Her name is Sid. She’s the security, manager, and wrangler of the fifteen sled dogs for Pascale, owner of Northern Sky Lodge. Pascale grew up in the French Alps, but moved to Fairbanks decades ago with her ex-husband to build the lodge. Her husband left her, and their young, autistic son Simon, to care for the property. How she does it all, I really don’t know. She’s just a total badass, naturally.
Pascale takes us inside the lodge introducing her mother who is visiting from Lyon, France for a few days. We say hello, and her mother makes us ‘sugary French toast’ with cappuccinos while we relax in the common room, looking out towards the bay windows to south. I jokingly ask Pascale how much money she wants for Sid. She smiles, says not a chance in heck, checks on her son, walks out the door, and tears off on a snowmobile to tend the property. Again, total badass. The lodge is a place of relaxation – a retreat for people to sit back, let their bustling lives melt away. The décor reflects the owner’s love for the Southwest: Santa Fe, Taos, and Arizona, rustic earth tones mixed with exposed wood. It’s quiet, peaceful, but Pascale’s mom makes one hell of a cappuccino, and I’m antsy to get out dragging Marti the half hour to Fairbanks for a look around.
There’s not much to see in Fairbanks, and it’s not the most visibly captivating town, but I give the citizens endless credit for braving the weather. According to http://www.climate-zone.com the average annual temperature in Fairbanks is 26.5 degrees (F). The average temperature in January is a balmy negative 10.2 degrees. Fairbanks is a few latitudinal clicks south of the Arctic Circle about even with Reykjavik, Iceland. Unfortunately Fairbanks does not have the advantage of the warm Atlantic Current, nor the consistent geothermal activity to heat the area like Iceland. Which is why it’s the perfect place for the Ice Art Championships. (http://www.icealaska.com/)
People from all over the world compete in the annual Ice Art Championships (currently sponsored by those zany accident-prone kids at BP) for cash prizes. It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to see Fairbanks, and was worth the drive up. How someone can take a chainsaw to a block of ice for a few minutes, walk away with a flawless sculpture is beyond my comprehension. I would be lucky to not saw a hand off, or spend too much time out there/end up like Jack Torrence in ‘The Shining’.
But these artists are highly trained/skilled, incredibly passionate about ice carvings. Some work in teams, creating awesome two-story scenes, others dabble in the intricacies of single pieces like my favorite: ‘The Colt Battling a Cobra’ (pictured above). Bet you’ve never seen that on National Geographic! There’s an ice maze, hot chocolate stands, heated bathrooms, and a gigantic light up ice slide for the um, children (or crazy tourists from the ‘lower 48’).
The next morning, Pascale convinces us to go dog-mushing. It all seems a bit too set-up for my taste – the whole dog-mushing through the property thing – but her first scheduled group cancelled, her dogs need to be run, and she charges us half of what it normally costs to help rein in the dogs. As we’re getting the dogs ready, the two morning mushers finally saunter in to the dismay of Pascale, who curses in French under her breath. We’re more than happy to help her set them up. She goes over instructions with the two wee, doe-eyed, giggling girls and has minimal patience for their lack of concentration, continuously expressing the importance of the pick-brake at the bottom of the sled; a little lever you slam down with your boot to slow the dogs down.
I’ve seen ‘White Fang’ – read the book – wasn’t full prepared for how powerful sled dogs really are. Pascale hooks up four dogs to the girls’ sleds, adding a stern ‘hold on for life’, hooking five dogs for her own sled. She takes off like a shot. The other dogs follow suit, darting towards the lead sled leaving one girl, who did not have her foot on the brake, suspended in the air like a cartoon. She lands hard on her butt nervously laughing off the pain while her dogs race away with empty sled.
Pascale is still upset at the girls not listening up their return, venting her frustration as they leave. The seriousness of safety is repeated to us before we take off. She hooks up five dogs on my sled telling me to wait a few minutes before going because I will catch up really fast. I hear Marti’s screams of exhilaration, as she races down the valley towards the woods. I yell ‘Yah! Mush!’ for effect, slowly taking my foot off the brake. The dogs go fast, really, really fast. The noise of the wind is deafening. My breath instantly freezes my beard in an ice sheath. The dogs whip the sled down a trail through the woods, then race left towards an open patch, and before I know it, I’m right behind Marti and have to slow down. Pascale stops off to the side to see if we’re okay and gives me an I-told-you-so nod. I let them go way ahead of me, holding on the brake. Alone for a moment, I wonder if dog-mushing would be as thrilling if it were the staple mode of transportation, if riding on a dog sled every day would become boring. Confident it would not lose the excitement I scream ‘yah!’ as loud as I can, taking off after Marti.
There’s an incredible spot for lunch, a Korean/Hawaiian joint on 5th Avenue in Fairbanks, called Aloha BBQ Grill. The outside is not very inviting. It looks like a Pawn Shop, converted from a house with barred windows. The inside is pretty kitschy, but clean, and the staff is incredibly helpful. And most important, the food is delicious. I order a teriyaki beef rice bowl with pineapples, and a side of kimchi; Marti has the same, but with chicken, no kimchi. Unless you’re one of the incessant whiners on Tripadvisor, complaining about every triviality of the dining experience including décor or how the music didn’t complement your highly developed palate, you will love this place. It’s delicious, cheap – portions are huge.
As aforementioned, Fairbanks isn’t abuzz with activity. One of the main entities is the University of Alaska, which curates the incredibly sleek and modern ‘Museum of the North’. The museum offers a comprehensive history of Alaska largely focused on native Inuit cultures. Old inspires new with fascinating modern pieces by descendant Inuit artists. It’s cheap – $10 a person – and a must when visiting Fairbanks.
Unfortunately, during our two days at Northern Sky the intensity in which the sun pummels the Earth’s magnetosphere with solar winds was at a minimum, and we didn’t get to see the Aurora Borealis. Pascale jokingly apologizes on behalf of the Sun, and Alaska for lack of cooperation. Marti and I are both okay with it, fully confident we would be back to Alaska soon enough. After another unsuccessful attempt at dog-napping Sid, we leave.
Fairbanks to Anchorage (Seven and a half hours through Talkeetna)
Driving back to Anchorage the weather is frigid, the scenery gorgeous. We pit stop in Talkeetna, a tiny little village full of hikers, and climbers all prepping for/coming down from Mount McKinley. There’s a general store, a couple pubs, a knick-knack store, and an excellent breakfast spot (again, Alaskans and their breakfasts!) inside the Talkeetna Roadhouse.
Clouds blanket the sky on the last leg back to Anchorage. The sun strains to punch through, giving us one last hoorah before hiding for the rest of the day. The evening is spent moseying about Anchorage, visiting the city’s main museum at the Rasmuson Center (http://www.anchoragemuseum.org/) hosting a Star Wars exhibit (at the time). Full-on nerdery, I realize, but Alaska does remind me a lot of the planet Hoth from ‘Empire Strikes Back’. One last meal in Alaska before our flight, at the Gumbo House (http://www.gumbohouseanchorage.com/) a bright pink house with green shudders offering authentic Cajun cuisine. A bucket of spicy-hot gumbo, with a beer concludes the surprisingly diverse food opportunities in Alaska.
The trip was a whirlwind tour of the biggest state in the union. There were so many places missed or skipped due to lean budgetary demands, or just lack of time, but I feel as though this was the first course to Alaska. There are a limited number of places I’ve visited in the US where I knew right from the start I would be back, promised to go back, and Alaska is absolutely one of these locations. There was a celebratory feel to this trip even before taking the first steps in Anchorage, as this completed my goal of visiting all fifty states by age thirty; a goal quickly relegated by the overwhelming beauty of Alaska’s nature, cuisine, and people. The immense landscape is what I deemed as Colorado’s crazy great-uncle – older, stoic, untamed, and slightly insane. Aside from the run-of-the-mill greasy spoons, the food was simply phenomenal.
Alaskans are a unique breed; they work hard, live hard, play hard, and thrive in an unforgiving environment. We encountered some of the nicest people I’ve ever interacted with – their gregariousness, and warm hospitality unmatchable. As much as I’d like to return in the summer for a glimpse of lush, verdant scenery, Alaska, to me, is a snow-covered playground, and it’s beautiful.
(all photos taken by mike bukach, and marti babcock [except the picture from the Shining, we didn’t take that, stanley kubrick did])