Alaska: State of Superlatives (Part Two)
Story & photos by Julie Snyder
On to Denali
Alaska Railroad rumbles through nearly 500 miles of the state’s most soul-soothing scenery and we traveled 360 of them. Rolling out of Fairbanks on a cloudy morning aboard the Denali Star, we settled into the dining car for breakfast with a side of sightseeing. Among those sights: the Mears Memorial Bridge, a 700-ft. mass of steel and one of the longest single-span bridges in the world with views of Athabascan fish wheels in the Tanana River below. And Windy Bridge, at 215 feet, the highest highway bridge in the state.
We didn’t miss a sight or critter or a photo opportunity because a cheery high school tour guide—a graduate of the Alaska Railroad-Anchorage School District Tour Guide Training program—offered loudspeaker commentary throughout our journey. Anticipation was palpable as we neared Milepost 400—our first potential glimpse of Denali mountain—as was the disappointment when our peak view was thwarted by clouds.
At 20,310 feet, Denali claims the title of the tallest mountain in North America. Called the “High One” by native Athabascans, the massif stands guard over the six-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. This trove of natural treasures features the stately Alaska Range studded with glaciers, swathes of spongy tundra, a broad river valley bisected by the park’s single 92-mile, mostly dirt road, skinny river canyons, hardy spruce, larch and birch trees, and even hardier wildflowers and grasses. Shaped by climate phenomena, including significant tectonic shifts, extreme weather and an ice age (16% of its landscape is glacial), Denali’s varied landscape harbors some 1,500 species of plants and a coterie of mammals (39 species), birds (169 species), fish (15 species) and 1 lonely amphibian—the wood frog, which freezes solid as a winter survival mechanism and thaws to join the living in the spring.
After our sleek navy-and-gold train eased into the pine-tree-rimmed Denali Depot at midday, we shuttled off to our lodging. With no national park lodge, and no affordable rooms available in the sprawl of cruise company-owned hotels near the park entrance, we opted for the Denali Dome Home Bed and Breakfast in nearby Healy. Anne and Terry Miller, who’ve owned the lodging for nearly 30 years, have created a spacious yet cozy haven “two turns and 12 miles from Denali National Park” per their brochure.
Not only is the congenial couple a wealth of information on the ins and outs of visiting the park but they are happy to be your concierge, making reservations for Alaska Railroad, restaurants and area attractions. Plus, they offer the most affordable (though still not cheap) car rental in the area. And in case you lodge there, yes, Terry did shoot all three of the bears whose enormous skins adorn the walls.
Our rental car immediately earned its keep. Our arrival day was the last time until season’s end that private vehicles were allowed on the park road beyond Mile 14.8. At the encouragement of our hosts, we headed out for an early evening drive and had our first taste of the vast Denali tundra and surrounding snowy peaks. We spotted a few moose dining in the trees but the best animal entertainment of the drive was the strutting male ptarmigans along the roadside, “kur-kuring” seductively to their lady friends. This crafty grouse family member dresses for the season—feathers turn pure white in winter and mottled brown in the summer, perfect tundra camouflage.
We boarded one of the ubiquitous green park transit buses the first day they started operations for the summer season and had a rollicking round trip to Toklat at Mile 53 with our gregarious pony-tailed driver, Paul. When he started driving 27 years ago, school buses were enlisted as shuttles—our transport, a 1-year-old propane vehicle, was considerably more comfortable. The solitary park road ends at Mile 92.1 in Kantishna and it would be several more weeks before this stretch opened. Snowplowing begins from park headquarters in March, and once plowed, the roads need to dry out to accommodate the heavy bus traffic. We were wowed by our journey, however, and didn’t feel the least bit short-changed because we couldn’t go the distance.
Paul’s perfect timing rewarded us with heaps of opportunities to observe animals and photograph stunning settings. The landscape shifted with the altitude, from thick spruce, birch and larch forest at the Denali Visitor Center (1,746 ft.) to the colorful volcanic rockscape (partially snow-covered) viewable from the Polychrome Pass overlook at 3,695 ft.
While the flora was evocative, our fauna encounter with a mama and baby bear digging up roots on a roadside hill was downright thrilling. Paul nosed our trusty bus within 15 yards of the snacking twosome, which bothered them not a whit. With iPhones in telephoto mode pressed to bus windows, we gleefully and safely snapped away. Denali has its own Big Five—moose, caribou, Dall Sheep, wolves and grizzly bears—and we witnessed them all, though (full disclosure) the wolves were in a sanctuary enclosure.
I expected that we’d take advantage of the transit buses’ flag-stop system to hike a selection of park landscapes. But once we discovered that hiking in most of the park is “free-range”—and watched a sobering visitor center film about bear country—we decided to stick to a well-traveled path along Savage Creek and the trail network near the visitor center. If we’d had another day, I would have joined a ranger-led hike into the untrammeled wilderness, trusting that bears go out of their way to avoid wilderness cops.
A local animal that’s plentiful but doesn’t require the same degree of caution as bears is the Alaskan husky—a sled dog popular for racing. At the recommendation of a couple staying at our inn, we headed to Husky Homestead, where four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King trains sled dogs and shares the racing culture with visitors. After snuggling with husky puppies (if only I’d had a bigger backpack), we watched some of his pack exercise their instinctive running and pulling on a specially-built treadmill and learned about the complex Iditarod logistics. “The dogs are the athletes,” contended King, who had guided 16-dog teams in the 1,100-mile Anchorage-to-Nome endurance race an amazing 28 times.
Alas, Denali mountain eluded us during our stay–the lofty peak creates its own ecosystem and was completely or partially shrouded when we were in position to see it. It’s also far away—72 miles from the first park viewing point at Milepost 9, but we were comforted by knowing that more opportunities to witness the High One were still ahead.
Dropping Anchor in Anchorage
During the blissfully uncrowded, eight-hour train ride from Denali to Anchorage, deep snow gave way to trees in bloom. We spent most of the journey in a dome car, heads spinning as our young guide alerted us to a swimming moose, beaver condo complexes and the exceedingly long drop off the Hurricane Gulch Trestle. Just before Talkeetna, we finally spotted a mostly cloud-free Denali as fat raindrops splatted on the dome car glass. Mountain majesty.
With just over 300,000 residents—nearly half of the state’s census—the Municipality of Anchorage may be Alaska’s largest population center, but it feels like a small town wrapped in wilderness and water. Cook Inlet and its two narrow “arms”—Knik and Turnagain—fill the city’s front yard with acres of steely water and miles of curvaceous coastline, while Chugach State Park and National Forest make up its 9,000-sq.-mi. backyard playground, easily accessible for rafting, hiking, kayaking, biking, and fishing. (You can even fish for salmon on Ship Creek right downtown.)
The official census doesn’t take in the city’s animal residents, an estimated 1,500 moose, some 400 bears (both black and grizzly), as well as Dall sheep, wolves and a host of others, with whom residents have learned to co-exist in this magical metropolis with a feeling of frontier.
The city began life in 1914 as a construction port for the Alaska Railroad, which remained the focus of the economy until air transportation and the military boosted its growth between the 1930s and 1950s. The 1960s brought the devastation of a 9.2 earthquake and subsequent rebuilding in time for the 1970s boom after oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay. Today, Anchorage bustles as a port for tourists and most of the state’s freight as well as hub for Alaska Railroad.
We left our Anchorage area sightseeing in the hands of friend Colleen, who we’d met two years earlier on our Inside Passage journey when she was traveling with her Anchorage-based son. Having visited the city on multiple occasions, Colleen knew how to make the most of our brief interlude, starting with breakfast at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop (killer scones!). Then it was on to the Alaska Native Heritage Center, where we fast-forwarded through 10,000 years of Alaska Native history and culture via art, dance and handsomely crafted exhibits. An open-air walking tour around a small lake led us through a half-dozen life-size traditional dwellings representing 11 major cultural groups, each with a host to share stories of their people.
At Eklutna Historical Park, we ducked inside the oldest building in the Anchorage area, a miniature log chapel that dates from the 1830s, and wandered amid 80 colorful spirit houses that sit atop Native Alaskan graves adjacent St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. When it came to shopping for local crafts, our guide in the know took us to the shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center Craft Shop for authentic items created by Native Alaskans. We also took in the museum-caliber collection of Native art showcased in stairwell displays.
We cruised along the 11-mile Tony Knowles Coastal Trail from downtown to the wilderness of 1,500-acre Kincaid Park, bypassing the 1964 earthquake fault line and keeping our eyes open for moose. Our whirlwind Anchorage tour didn’t allow time for the steep, three-mile hike to the top of popular Flattop Mountain (a relief to several in our group), but the views of the city, Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range—including a peek at Denali—from the mountain trailhead were spectacular.
Anchorage holds its own on the culinary front. We woke up at Kaladi Brothers Coffee, lunched on reindeer sausage right off a food cart, savored small plates and exotic entrees at Pangea and wandered back to the hotel with handcrafted ice cream from Wild Scoops. When it came time to say farewell to Anchorage, we felt well-informed, well-entertained and well-fed, thanks to our well-chosen tour guide.
Keen on the Kenai Peninsula
For the last leg of our adventure, we picked up a rental car in Anchorage and headed to the Kenai Peninsula, which juts southwest from the city and offers a superb sampler of the state’s natural riches in one accessible location. This “Alaska in miniature” features mountains, icefields, and glaciers, marshy plains, fish-rich river, lakes, islands and fjords. And just about any recreational opportunity, you can dream of: biking, hiking, kiteboarding, river rafting, charter fishing, dog sledding. No wonder the peninsula is a favorite getaway for active Anchorageans as well as visitors like us.
The scenic road from Anchorage to Kenai Peninsula parallels Turnagain Arm—so named when Captain James Cook’s crew needed to “turn again” in their Northwest Passage quest when the finger of water dead-ended. Today it’s a favorite spot for viewing bore tides, a phenomenon that can generate enormous waves when incoming and outgoing tides collide.
With no bore tide in the offing, we focused on breakfast. On friend Brian’s recommendation, we rolled into Froth & Forage, an unassuming eatery 25 miles outside of Anchorage known for its local and sustainable food. My sister and I shared the most amazing huevos rancheros: corn tortillas, farm fresh eggs, Tillamook cheddar, slow-cooked black beans with sautéed kale and roasted baby heirloom tomatoes, brown sugar fennel bacon, locally grown organic greens with pickled red onions, avocado and hot sauce. What’s not to love?
Curving around the end of Turnagain Arm, we soon picked up Sterling Highway and headed for Homer at road’s end on the peninsula’s southern tip. The glacier-punctuated Kenai Mountains form a rugged spine that extends over more than half of the peninsula’s east side, while the route to Homer on the west side along Cook Inlet tracks through an outwash plain dotted with lakes, rivers and swamps. Overlaying the 2 million acres of the peninsula is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1941 to protect the giant Kenai moose and now embracing several hundred species of fish and wildlife.
Paralleling Cook Inlet we had unimpeded views of Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna across the waterway in Lake Clark National Park. Both are over 10,000 feet and active volcanoes (Mount Redoubt last erupted in 2009). Sadly, even the strongest binoculars wouldn’t have let us glimpse the park’s main attraction, at least for me—bears who troll the coastline for vegetation and clams and the rivers for salmon. For that we would have needed a plane or boat as Lake Clark is a backcountry park not on the road system. From Homer, Alaska Bear Adventure (flying) and Chinitna Bay Bear Tours (cruising) are bear country travel options. Next time.
High on Homer
Homer (pop: 4,000) is long and lanky, spreading along the coast, into the low-slung hills and onto a small peninsula extending into Kachemak Bay. From its roots as a coal mining community and a haven for gold seekers in the 1800s, Homer transitioned into a small fishing and canning port in the first half of the 20th century. It was landlocked until 1950 when a gravel road that ultimately became the Sterling Highway at last connected the remote community with the rest of the state and beyond. Today’s economy is built on commercial fishing and tourism, to which we were happy to contribute.
With a nose for good bookshops, my husband discovered the pleasantly cluttered Old Inlet Bookshop, family-owned by third-generation booksellers and operating in a cozy Homer cottage. There’s a good excuse for the towers of books that dominate the interior as there are over 20,000 titles available. After chatting up the owner about the rewards and trials of doing business at road’s end for over two decades, we left with Minus 148°, an account of the first winter ascent of Denali (then Mount McKinley) and a few other irresistible adventure volumes.
Happily, the first Farmer’s Market of the season convened while we were in town so we breakfasted there—halibut tacos, fresh oysters, seafood chowder, and home-baked blueberry galette, all savored while standing under a tent during the only rain of our trip. Post-breakfast, we headed for the Spit, a 4.5 mile water-fringed finger filled with campers (people and vehicles), abandoned boats, mini-boardwalks of pastel candy and curio shops, water taxis, fishing charters and the Salty Dawg Saloon with its dollar-plastered ceiling,.
Our favorite spot on the Spit was at its very tip, the Land’s End Resort, where we could drink beer, nibble on seafood, play cards and take in the fishing action on the beach from its cheerful window-lined bar without an ounce of sunscreen. Later we drove along Skyline Drive (and down a few dirt roads the car rental company would have frowned upon) for a ridgetop, picture-postcard panorama of the Spit, Kachemak Bay and coastal peaks.
Before a stroll along Beluga Slough and view-rich Bishop’s Beach, we dipped into the Islands and Oceans Visitors Center for an introduction to the 4.9-million-acre Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which protects wildlife plus more than 40 million seabirds and marine resources in the Aleutian chain and remote Pribilof Islands. The Homer area itself is a birdwatcher’s paradise and the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival held in May—Spring migration time for some 130 species—is Alaska’s largest wildlife-viewing festival.
Sweet on Seward
A dearth of roads on Kenai Peninsula meant that we had to backtrack much of our route to reach Seward but no one minded a repeat of the glorious scenery. Ten miles shy of our destination, we turned up the road to Exit Glacier, the terminus of the massive Harding Icefield. The icefield blankets over half of the nearly 700,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park and feeds 38 glaciers, the Exit Glacier being the only one accessible by road. Others are visible on day cruises that head south out of Seward and into the deep narrow passages that separate gnarly fingers of forested and glaciated land, and are frequented by orca whales and porpoise.
Visiting Exit Glacier was bittersweet. We hiked to the outwash plain, past grim reminders of how much of the now 14-sq.-mi. glacier had retreated during the past century, then picked our way among the rocks to its toe to admire the blue ice beauty up close. Not even a pilgrimage by President Barack Obama in 2015 helped to slow the recent record-breaking melt on Exit Glacier. But there was a small measure of satisfaction in discovering a “Climate Change in National Parks” publication in the visitor’s center—at least the long arm of the current EPA hadn’t yet made its way to this corner of Alaska.
A pint-size port town cradled by snowcapped peaks, Seward (pop. 3,000) perches at the head of Resurrection Bay, a 35-mile-long, fetching fjord carved by deep coves with names like Thumb, Humpy and Bulldog. In the late 1700s, Alexander Baranov established a fur trading post and later a shipyard in the sheltered cove that ultimately was named after William Seward, negotiator of Alaska’s acquisition from the Russians in 1867. The town took off in the early 1900s with the construction of a railroad that would ultimately link it to the rest of the state. Today, with the addition of highway and air access to both urban centers and interior Alaska, and a deep-water, ice-free port, Seward’s well-positioned for maritime commerce.
After meandering through the cozy downtown’s collection of the usual suspects—a rather pleasing collection of gift shops, art galleries and cafes—we wandered to the waterfront and struck gold at the Alaska SeaLife Center. A public aquarium married with marine research, education and wildlife response, the center opened in 1998. A good chunk of development funding came from settlement monies awarded to the state after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound devastated economies and ecosystems along 1,500 miles of coastline in 1989.
The aquarium is all about interactivity with marine life. We stroked anemones and sea cucumbers in the Discovery Touch Tank and ogled the limber suction-cupped tentacles of a Pacific octopus. With noses to the glass, we tracked enormous Stellar sea lions Woody and Sugar as they gracefully glided around the circumference of their habitat. We watched birds we’d never seen before—like the King Eider, a hearty sea-duck with a bulbous yellow protrusion above its orange bill—as they paddled and splashed in an open-air pond. And we traced the life cycle of Pacific Salmon and spied on a sea lion rookery on Chiswell Island via webcam. We were so hyped up on aquatic life that we would have swam with the sharks if there were any to be found!
It felt a bit hypocritical to be revering marine life one moment and then dine on seafood—but a couple we’d met earlier in our trip raved about Thorn’s Showcase Lounge and its famous “Bucket of Butt.” We couldn’t resist. The dark, cozy venue was a throwback with red faux leather tufted chairs and banquettes and Jim Beam bottles of all shapes and sizes lining the walls behind glass. About those butts—1 oz. chunks of fresh halibut, dipped in beer batter and deep fried, served with homemade tartar sauce—which we paired with icy pints of Alaska White. Heaven.
Driving back to Anchorage the last morning to catch our flight home, we were treated to bright blue sky and multi-level cloud pillows above as well as lingering around snowy peaks and lounging over compact lakes. Cruising along Turnagain Arm, past fisherpeople, bicyclists and hikers, we all agreed that we would return again. But unlike Captain Cook, we would know where we were going.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.