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Published: October 22nd 2013
Ever since I made my first western US road trip I have wanted to go to Alaska. The Last Frontier. There's an aura around the state that no other place in the US really has. Untamed wilderness. Open lands with more grey wolves than people. And there aren't a whole of grey wolves left these days. Living in Washington DC, it's a pretty serious trip though. Nothing you can do on a weekend. Hell, it's further than Europe. But after making my last four big vacations international I decided that I would finally go to Alaska in the summer of 2013.
I gauged the interest of my friends and family and was able to recruit my friend Bryan from grad school and my mom. The next step was to decide where to go. Alaska is a big state. Over twice the size of Texas. You could spend a year there constantly on the move and still not cover the whole state. And it doesn't help that the majority of the state is inaccessible by road. I decided to start with Anchorage, since that's the base for most travel to Alaska. I found a one-stop flight from DC through Minneapolis. Not
bad. The main thing I really wanted to see was Denali National Park, which is where Mt. McKinley stands. At 20,320 feet, it's by far the tallest mountain in North America. And believe it or not it's actually taller in prominence that Everest, meaning from base to summit it's a greater elevation change. Denali was a must see.
As for what else to do I had to do a bit of research. I spent countless hours on the internet while work was slow over the 2012 holiday season and ended up deciding that I wanted to go above the arctic circle. There's only a few places in the world you can get above the arctic circle, and luckily for me, there is a highway in Alaska that stretches from Fairbanks all the way to Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. It's called the Dalton Highway, and it's famous for being the Ice Road Truckers road in the winter. It was created in the 1970s as a method of haul-road to serve the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries oil from the oil fields in the Arctic down to Valdez in southern Alaska (we all remember the famous oil spill in Valdez
in the late '80s, right?). For many years it was only used by trucks, but in the 1990s it was opened to private vehicles. While being open to the public, there still aren't too many people that travel the Dalton. Mainly because there is really nothing up there except wilderness. And polar bears if you get up far enough. But I wanted to spend a night above the arctic circle, where the sun would not set, and I could truly experience the midnight sun.
After planning to drive the Dalton, I still had a few more days to fill. The easy accessibility of Kenai Fjords National Park in southern Alaska seemed like the ideal place to go, as we could drive there from Anchorage and take a boat tour of the park. And I'd be hitting another national park. Combined with Denali and Gates of the Arctic off the Dalton that would make 3 of Alaska's 8 national parks for this trip. Have to hit the other 5 in the future it looks like.
We booked our flights and all the accommodations right away. I got a good deal on a rental car using my Chase Sapphire website
and saved a couple hundred bucks. But that excitement was short lived when I found out that just about all car rental agreements in Alaska forbid driving on dirt roads. And the Dalton is a dirt road. Damn. But I wasn't going to let this deter me. Turns out there are two rental agencies in Fairbanks that rent vehicles specially equipped to drive on dirt roads in Alaska. At over $500 for a two day rental Ford Escape it was a steep price to pay. But we all decided it was worth it. Flying or taking an organized tour would have been much pricier.
As time for Alaska approached some major changes occurred in my life. I accepted a job in Wellington, New Zealand and left my job in Washington DC. It's Friday June 28 and it's my last day of work. People ask me if I'm excited about New Zealand, and I say of course, but let's take this one step at a time, I'm going to frikin' Alaska tomorrow! I move what's left of my stuff out of my house and bring it to my parent's house, which will be my summer base of operations till I
leave for New Zealand at the beginning of September. We have an early flight to catch in the morning to Minneapolis so I'm in bed early. The Last Frontier eagerly awaits my arrival.
By the time I get to the airport on Saturday morning Bryan is already in Anchorage. He has a friend who lives there that he is able to stay with Friday night. Yes, that's how early my flight is. But the great thing about the early flight is even with an hour layover in Minneapolis we land in Anchorage before noon. We still have a full day ahead of us. Even if we've been up since midnight local time. The clerk at Alamo lets me get our rental car early and we are off. After checking into the hotel and getting a quick lunch we head off to hike Flattop Mountain, a popular hike in the mountains just outside of Anchorage. Bryan has already started the trail with his friend so maybe we'll run into them out there.
The hike is steep and it's a bit wet, but it's less than 2 miles each way so even mom does it with no problems. The only
real problem is that it is so damn cloudy and foggy that you can barely see anything. We get a decent view of downtown from one point on the mountain, but with no sunlight and a ton of grey clouds it's unfair to judge how the city looks. By the time we reach the top of the mountain you can't see anything, just fog every way you turn. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is so I try not to complain too much. We reach the bottom of the mountain without running into Bryan and his friend. They ended up taking a different path down. And with all the hikers on the mountain we could have just missed them. I've never been on a more crowded trail before!
We stock up on some things at Walmart and head over to Bryan's friend's house to pick him up. It will be the three of us in this rental car for the rest of the trip. We're in a Chevy Cruz, so it's small, or some might say cozy. Luckily our luggage all fits in the trunk so the backseat isn't too cramped for Bryan. Our room at the hotel
is actually pretty nice, and has three separate beds. Perfect.
Anchorage is a pretty small city. With a population of about 300,000 it is where almost half of permanent Alaska residents live and is by far the largest city in the state. But compared to the places we live (DC and San Francisco) it's quite tiny. We walk the streets of downtown and can't help but notice the horribly ugly architecture on all the downtown buildings, save a few newer ones. I don't know what kind of acid architects in the late 60s and 70s were tripping on, but every building from that era is terrible. And most of the buildings in Anchorage are from that era, due to a huge earthquake they had in 1964 that destroyed the entire city (It was actually closer to Valdez, second most powerful earthquake ever recorded in the world, you can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1964_Alaska_earthquake
). We decide that the entire city needs a facade upgrade and head off to find somewhere to eat.
Being a small city, there aren't too many options for dining and drinking downtown. But we find a nice place called the Snow Goose Restaurant and settle
down for our first Alaskan meal. Like many places in Alaska, they brew their own beer. Beer is huge in Alaska. For a state with barely 600,000 people it's amazing how many breweries they have. And it's good beer too. My favorites are the IPAs. I don't know why but when I think of Alaska and beer I just think of drinking IPAs while eating Salmon or something like that.
The IPA is delicious and I order a reindeer meatloaf. Reindeer meet is used a lot in Alaskan cuisine. As well as a few other exotic animals I'll get into later. By the time we're done with dinner and drinks it's about 9:30. And, of course, it's still light out. I'm not exactly sure what time the sun will set tonight but I am eager to enjoy the "day" light as much as possible.
After walking my mom back to the hotel Bryan and I head out on the town to see what Anchorage nightlife has to offer. After stops at some dive bars we make some friends who are among the many seasonal residents of Alaska and they take us to a big outdoor bar where we
close out the night. It finally gets dark just after midnight and when we walk home it's just about pitch black in the sky. I get a reindeer sausage from a street vendor and call it a night. I don't remember what it tastes like.
Sleeping in is a luxury we don't have on this trip. We have about 250 miles to go today to reach Denali National Park. After a hearty breakfast we're on the road a bit after 10:00. The drive isn't bad, but would be much better without the endless grey clouds and fog. We can see some of the mountains in the distance but most peaks are not visible. We pass through Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla, refusing to stop there, and see that it's really just a suburb of Anchorage. I look for Russia but it's too cloudy (
Every road in Alaska seems to be under construction and the 2 lane highway to Denali has two locations with flaggers leading one way traffic. It sets us back about an hour and we finally arrive at Denali at about 3:00 in the afternoon. As expected given the dreary day, clouds are blocking Mt.
McKinley. Apparently the mountain is only visible 30% of the time, so most visitors never get to see the mountain. Add us to that category. We check out the wilderness center and book a spot on the shuttle bus for the next morning. All of the Denali Road is closed to public vehicles except the first 15 miles, which is the only paved portion. After that you have to be on an organized tour or shuttle bus to go the next 60 miles. The shuttle bus is pricey but it's the only way to see the interior so we book a 7:30 AM bus for tomorrow.
With our remaining time we drive the 15 miles of paved road, where I see my first moose. She's just eating away in the brush. I will soon learn that this is all they do. Back from the drive we check out the visitors center and decide to do the Mt. Healy overlook trail, about 2 miles each way. They claim that this trail takes 3-4 hours to do, but I know better. Those estimates they give are for overweight lazy people who they don't want to have to helicopter rescue off the
mountain. 4 miles, even with a 1800 foot elevation gain is two hours tops.
It's almost 6:00 by the time we actually get on the trail. Usually this will be a problem, but we're in Alaska. The sun won't set tonight till after midnight, and up here it won't actually get dark at all. Daylight is not an issue. It's a steep trail featuring many switchbacks but mom manages to not slow Bryan and I down too much. On this trail I get my first sense of the famous Alaska mosquitoes. We pass a creek with some sitting water and all of a sudden we are swarmed with mosquitoes. I pull out my repellent and douse my legs and arms in it. They fly off but some damage has already been done. I'll have to wait and see just how many bites I got.
As we approach the top of the overlook the mosquitoes fade and the wind picks up. We are greeted at the top with a gorgeous view of the valley below and Denali Village. I snap a few photos and Bryan and I decide to run along the ridge up to the top of Mt.
Healy, about another mile away, where it manages to be even windier. By the time we set down from the mountain it's almost 7:30. But we make good time on the way down and we're at the car around 8:30, managing to not get attacked by too many more mosquitoes.
For a really late dinner we head to 49th State Brewing Company near our hotel in Healy (http://49statebrewing.com/index-0.html
). The restaurant has a big outdoor beer garden that also contains the bus used in the movie "Into the Wild." If you're not familiar with the movie, it was originally a non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer about Chris McCandless, a young man who gave away all his possessions and moved to Alaska to try to live off the land. He found shelter in a old abandoned bus, where he eventually died. The bus is still out there in the bush, but the replica made for the movie is kept at the restaurant. The story holds a unique significance for me since McCandless grew up down the street from me and is probably the most famous alumnus from my high school, W.T. Woodson in Fairfax, VA. I get my picture taken in
the chair in front of the bus trying to replicate the famous picture McCandless took of himself before his death. Satisfied with the picture, we head in for some more microbrewed beer and food.
Monday morning we're up early. I would say the crack of dawn, but dawn was about 2 AM, so at 6:30 it's pretty darn light already. We have to check in for the shuttle by 7:15 so we have to get back to the park pretty early. Our shuttle bus is packed with families and a lot of Indians. The Indians really like Alaska, we seem them all over the place. Even more than the Germans! At 7:30 sharp the big green bus sets off down Denali Park Road. The driver drives slow, giving us some history of the park and looking for wildlife. We stop for a few moose, but I've seen tons of moose by now so not too exciting. Then about 20 miles in we spot our first grizzly. He's brushing around the bushes, just eating away. He's pretty far off in the distance so I can't get a good picture. Oh well, time to move on.
We have a few
breaks from the bus at designated stopping points, but other than that we're on the move the whole time, looking out the windows for wildlife. We round a corner and a see one of the other shuttle buses is stopped. This usually means they've spotted something. And sure enough, we see a family of grizzly bears off in the bushes. It's a mother with two cubs. The cubs are just hopping around enjoying the bush as mama watches cautiously. We're about to head on when the bears start heading down towards the road. Next thing we know they're right in front of the bus. Mama stops for a while and sniffs our bus and the other bus, just checking them out. Then she leads the cubs right by the bus, just about a meter from me on the other side of the glass. I'm thankful that I'm on the bus because you don't want to be around a mother grizzly with her cubs. It's a good way to suffer a painful death. And just like that they are gone, walking down the road back in the direction we came from. I don't think I'll ever come that close to a
wild grizzly again, which is fine with me. It was pretty cool seeing them up close. Definitely the highlight of the trip.
At mile 65 on the highway we get off the bus. We're at the Elstrom Visitors Center. This is as far as we have paid for. The bus continues on but a ticket all the way to the end is more expensive and takes considerably longer. At the visitors center we have a straight view right to Mt. Mckinley. Well, that is to say we would if it wasn't totally overcast. We know the mountain looms behind the clouds. The amazing thing is that we're only about 3000 feet above sea level at the visitors center. Mckinley really does rise up from the lowlands. It would be amazing to see, but we've been warned multiple times already that most people never get to see the mountain, so we didn't get our hopes up. After checking out the visitors center we get back on the bus and head back towards the wilderness center.
There are less stops for wildlife on the way back, as all we see are some caribou and some dall sheep way up high
in the mountains. We decide to get off where the paved road begins and do a short flat hike along a river. It's pleasant, but very windy, and we quickly catch another bus back to the wilderness center after the hike. It's about 4:00 now and we still have to drive to Fairbanks today, about 120 miles up the road. It's been a successful trip to Denali. We didn't get to see the mountain, but the grizzly family was pretty unique. We stop at some gift shops in Denali Village before getting back on the highway north to Fairbanks.
We're in Fairbanks for really only one reason: it's our base-camp for our arctic adventure. We check out a barbecue joint that my mom saw on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Travel Channel for dinner. It's not bad, but after living in Texas for two years just about all non-Texan barbecue disappoints me. But they do make a mean potato salad. By the time we leave the restaurant it's past 10:00 and we're tired. We have a big day tomorrow. In 24 hours we'll be 62 miles north of the arctic circle in the village of Wiseman, AK. Population:
As mentioned before, the Dalton Highway is a mostly dirt road that takes you from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean at the northern tip of Alaska. Unfortunately, just about all rental car agencies in Alaska strictly forbid you from driving your rental car on dirt roads, as damaged vehicles are typical on these roads. So in order to drive the Dalton, we had to rental a specially equipped SUV from Arctic Outfitters in Fairbanks (http://www.arctic-outfitters.com/
). The price tag for a two day rental is steep. But it's the still the cheapest way to get to the arctic so we are happy to pay the $250/day. After signing seemingly millions of forms and waivers we load up the Ford Escape and head off to the arctic.
The Dalton doesn't actually start until about 90 miles north of Fairbanks so we are on a paved highway through the rolling hills of central Alaska for the first couple of hours. And yes, it takes a couple of hours as we get stuck behind some trucks that can barely do 20 mph as they climb the windy hills. Just after noon we make the turn onto the famous dirt highway. This
is one of the least traveled roads in the US. And I'm really looking forward to the solitude.
After a brief stop at a flagger a few miles into the highway, it's smooth sailing from there. We've read numerous things about how the highway is dangerous and rocks are flying everywhere. This is all designed to keep morons from driving on the road and breaking down. In reality, the road is actually in pretty good shape, probably the smoothest dirt road I've even been on. The speed limit on the Dalton is 50 its entire length. And for the most part you can actually do 50. Most of the road is compacted dirt. There are some rocky parts where we have to slow down, but for the most part the drive is pretty smooth. And on top of that, there are multiple portions of the road that are paved, where you can really go as fast as you want. There are no speed traps out here. You're hundreds of miles from the nearest law enforcement official. It really is the wild west.
After about 56 miles on the highway we reach the Yukon River, the mighty river that
stretches from Alaska 2000 miles down into Canada. This bridge is unique because it is the only bridge across the Yukon for those 2000 miles. The bridge is nothing spectacular, but it's neat knowing that this is the only way to cross the entire river. We stop at Yukon River Camp and have a little lunch of cold cut sandwiches we have in the cooler. We also fill up the SUV with gas. Our rental company recommended filling up at every location where it is possible to get gas. And there are only three places: here at Yukon river crossing, Coldfoot Camp (near Wiseman) and Deadhorse (end of highway). We weren't about to temp fate.
With a full tank of gas we are back on the Dalton heading north. Our next stop is the arctic circle. A small sign marks the location of the arctic circle, an imaginary line around the globe 66.5266 degrees north of the equator that signifies the point the where the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. The arctic circle is not easy to reach, and it only bisects a few countries (USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland,
and Russia). We pose for pictures by the sign then eagerly drive north further into the arctic.
The land is relatively flat for a while. We are in the tundra. There are not too many trees but many arctic bushes. Prime real estate for caribou. As we continue north we reach the southern end of the Brooks Range, the northernmost mountains in the US. They take us into a boreal forest full of spruce trees. And mosquitoes. We are first greeted by these little bastards when we get out of the car in Coldfoot at the Arctic Inter-agency Visitors Center, which is basically the visitors center for Gates of the Arctic and the other federal lands above the arctic circle. We talk to the ranger and soon realize that she's the woman in Wiseman who's cabin we are staying in. She gives a few recommendations about the area, including to drive north of Wiseman up to Atigun Pass, which she says is the most beautiful part of the Dalton. We thank her for the information and head up to Wiseman to check into the cabin, with a stop of Coldfoot Camp for gas first.
The village of Wiseman
is an old gold mining town from the turn of the 20th century. While many old gold mining towns have become ghost towns, Wiseman has stayed continuously populated, however sparsely. It technically has a population of 16 these days. There are a few cabins, a general store, and an old post office that is no longer in operation. And that's pretty much it. It's the simple life up here. Everything is run off of generators. The locals make a few shopping trips a year to Fairbanks, but for the most part they live off the land.
It's July 2 and the sun won't set until July 15. Even then, it won't get dark until sometime in August. I find this fascinating and I'm excited about seeing the sun up in the air at midnight. After checking in to the cabin we have to deal with how to get into the cabin while keeping out as many mosquitoes as possible. They are everywhere, swarming in front of my face and biting through my clothes. We come up with a scheme of having one person inside open the door real quick while the others hand off one suitcase at a time.
This works relatively well, but about 40-50 mosquitoes still make it inside. Now we have the task of killing all these little annoying bastards. Luckily we do decent job and it only takes a few minutes. Safely inside the cabin with no bugs, we unwind and enjoy the views from the skylights.
Dinner tonight is some sockeye salmon we picked up from Safeway in Fairbanks earlier. We already knew the cabin would have a kitchen so we brought our own food to cook. Plus it's not like we can run around the corner to McDonald's. We make use of the limited kitchen utensils we have and actually make a damn good salmon. We've also picked up some six packs of local Alaska beer, but decide to wait till after the drive north to indulge in those.
After dinner we head out north again to drive through the Brooks Range to Antigun Pass. The woman was right, the scenery is breathtaking up here. We are driving north through a valley with jagged peaks of solid rock on either side. To our left is Gates of the Arctic National Park. To our right, the Arctic Wildlife Refuge is off in
the distance. It's about 9:00 and the sun is still above the mountains, making this beautiful drive possible.
About 30 minutes into the drive Bryan yells out from the backseat: "WOLF!" I jam on the breaks as fast as I can (kind of dangerous on a dirt road) and turn the car around. Bryan points out the spot where he saw the wolf and there it is, just staring at the car, looking right in my eyes. Wolves are one of the most elusive creatures in the wild. Not a whole lot of people see them, so this is a very rare occurrence. I get a few decent pictures in before he turns and heads back into the bush. We've now seen just about every land mammal in Alaska. The musk ox and the polar bear are further north, so we probably won't spot one of those.
I turn the car back around and we head north again up into the mountains. The highway is even more sparsely populated this time of night. We pass a few trucks going the other way, but that's about it. We pass the furthest north spruce tree and now it's just arctic
The elusive grey wolf, not too many roam these parts these days
tundra. There are no trees up at this point, all the way to the Arctic Ocean. We climb the hill of the valley up to Antigun Pass and we are immediately greeted by heavy fog. We are amazed by this, since we haven't seen fog this whole drive. Antigun Pass, at about 4500 feet, is the highest road pass in Alaska, which we find surprising since you can drive almost that high in Virginia. Driving into the fog beyond the pass intrigues us, but we have to get back to the cabin. Each mile in the car cost us 35 cents at this point.
The drive back south gives us a whole new perspective of the valley. The sun is now on the other side and we get to see the jagged rocky mountains from another view. We don't spot any wildlife this time, but we get some great views of the clouds breaking in the sky with the sunlight shining through just before 11:00 at night. We arrive back at the cabin before 11:30 and run in with few mosquitoes to kill. I have all along wanted to sit outside in the sun at midnight and drink a
permanent ice below the tundra
beer. But these mosquitoes don't want to let me do that. I settle for drinking under the skylight on the couch in the living room of the cabin. It will have to do.
Sleeping in the midnight sun is easier than I thought it would be. The cabin has some decent curtains so we're able to get it pretty dark in the cabin. I pass out pretty quickly and sleep soundly thought the night. The next day I'm up early. I want to hike into Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of the last true wilderness areas in the United States. There are only a few ways to get to the park. You can charter a small plane from Fairbanks that will drop you off in the Inuit village of Anaktuvuk Pass, or you can hike in from a few spots along the Dalton. One of these spots is not too far from Wiseman and Bryan and I set out to drive down a bumpy dirt road up to the edge of the park. There is supposed to be a rough trail, but if there was a trail at one point it has been take over by the
bush. We find a semi-clearing in the bush which we figure must be the path and forge our way through the mosquitoes across the arctic tundra and towards the boundary of the park.
Walking on the tundra is one of the toughest surfaces I have ever walked on. With each step my feet sink into the thick vegetation of the tundra. It's like trying to run on a beach of thick, soft sand, or run through a swamp in southern Florida. But we continue on to a small pond we can see that we know is in the park. There's no sign that says "Welcome to Gates of the Arctic" so after a while of hiking through the tundra we decide that we made it. I give myself a figurative pat on the back to congratulate myself for making it to one of the most remote national parks in the world, snap a few pictures, and turn around to head back to the car. The mosquitoes are awful. If it wasn't for them we probably would have hiked longer. But even with head nets they are hard to handle. I won't miss these little blood sucking pests.
at the cabin, we pack up our stuff and fight of the mosquitoes as we load the car. It's time to head back to Fairbanks. The drive back down the Dalton is just as easy as the drive up. The weather is great, and we make fewer stops, as we have seen most everything on the way up. We spot a baby moose and the mother, but other than that we see no wildlife. We do make a stop just north of the Yukon crossing to get some food at the Hot Spot Cafe, which isn't so much a cafe as just an old bald woman who makes burgers and hot dogs on her grill and sells them out of a cart. My favorite part about this place, though, is the gift shop. There are all sorts of things you can buy with the Hot Spot Cafe logo on it, which features a silhouette of a naked woman. I opt for the trucker hat, which I've worn just about every day since. Hope I don't lose it though. It's not like I can just go buy another one!
As we turn off the Dalton and back onto the paved
highway we discuss how the drive was not nearly as treacherous as the articles on the internet made it sound. There are not huge potholes everywhere. It is not bumpy. There are no dangerous or blind curves. There really aren't even that many trucks. (Disclosure: we did this in July so we cannot speak for the winter time when it becomes the ice road trucker route). When a truck comes, slow down and pull over as far right as you can go. Other than that, you can sustain the 50 mph speed limit just about everywhere. And on the sections where it is paved, like near Wiseman, you can go as fast as you want really. Just enjoy the scenic views on one of the loneliest and most isolated and beautiful roads in the world. For more information about the Dalton Highway check out the BLM website (if it's ever up and running again due to the government shutdown) or the wikitravel page (http://wikitravel.org/en/Dalton_Highway
Back in Fairbanks for the night it's Independence Day eve, so you think there'd be quite a few people out getting some drinks celebrating not having to go to work in the morning. But not
Almost 11:00 at night
in Fairbanks. It's a decent sized city but we can't find anywhere to go that isn't a total dive bar full of sketchy people. There's one country western type bar with a mechanical bull that is open but when 11:00 rolls around and there are 4 people in the bar, including Bryan and I, playing pool, they decide to close and tell us to go next door. We get a beer next door where there are maybe 20 people, all of two whom are male. We sit outside in the midnight sun having a beer and end up talking to this kid named Marcus, who is from Fairbanks but spends most of his time in Hawaii. Marcus explains to us that there are three men for every woman in Fairbanks. He likes Hawaii a little better... Marcus bids us farewell and we head back inside. A few minutes later I head into the bathroom and encounter Marcus again. He asks me if I have any "white girl." I have no idea what he's talking about, thinking maybe he's into white girls (Marcus is black) and is wondering if I know any around. I say no and wish him luck while
Bryan me a look like "WTF are you talking about." Apparently "white girl" is slang for cocaine. How the hell why I know that? My cocaine lingo is limited. So Marcus just wanted some coke. Hope he finds it...
Destined to not give up we head across the street to one more bar. This one is the diciest bar yet. The patrons looks like something out of a horror film. Or a Walmart employee directory. Some sketchy people start talking to us as we hurry to finish our beers and get the hell out of sketchbar. It's midnight, July 4th and the sun is shining on Fairbanks. But after countless attempts to forge a good night we give up and head back to the hotel. Tomorrow we drive back to Anchorage, where we'll spend a night before heading down to Seward and the Kenai Peninsula.
The drive back down to Anchorage is uneventful. It rains almost the entire time, so needless to say once again we do not see Mt. McKinley. We're at the same hotel in Anchorage and grab a decent dinner before Bryan and I head out to see if anything is going on for July
4. And by that I mean we head to The Great Alaskan Bush Company, only the finest gentleman's club in the great state of Alaska. I had seen advertisements for it all over the place and figured I'd check it out.
There's no cover, which is nice, and beers are only $5, about the same price as a normal bar. There is some decent talent, but it's the only strip club I've ever been to without a pole. What are they supposed to dance on!? They do an alright job without the pole. After a couple beers each we're ready to go. Pretty good for Alaska standards I conclude, as there are quite a few gorgeous girls there. But not worth spending more money.
Before heading home we pop into Chilkoot Charlie's for a few minutes to scope it out for Saturday night when we're planning on going there for the night. It's one of the biggest bars in the world. It's website actually has a floorplan so you can find your way around ( http://www.koots.com/
). The place is massive. There's a band playing in one room, a DJ in another, a different DJ in another room, an
outdoor patio. Some of the rooms are closed, as it's not that crowded on a Thursday night. We decide Saturday will be crazy and head back to the hotel. We have to get up extremely early to drive down to Seward in order to make our boat departure at 9 AM.
We're up around 5:30 and on the road by 6. There's a decent amount of traffic heading down to Seward on the one lane highway. This is supposed to be one of the most scenic drives in America. And it definitely looks like it would be if there was no fog. The base of the mountains is barely visible, so needless to say we couldn't see the top. We do spot a baby grizzly roaming the side of the road though, the highlight of the drive.
By the time we reach Seward the fog is a bit clearer, but it only clears the way for low sitting clouds. Clouds everywhere. Maybe it will clear up later. We have booked a Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour leaving from Seward. It's an all day event and ends with a Salmon dinner on a small island off the mainland.
With a discount we got from our hotel in Seward it was still $160 each. So yeah, not for those on a strict budget. But it's one of the only ways to see Kenai Fjords.
The boat heads off at 9 and we're floating towards the fjords. There are some clear(ish) areas of the sky as we head off, but it's still tough to see the tops of any mountains. One of the main attractions of this tour, however, is the marine wildlife. And right from the start we spot some sea otters, just relaxing, floating in the water, not a care in the world. The don't hang out in packs but they are everywhere. My mom says they are "cute."
We are headed for Aialik Glacier, a good ways away. On our way we spot some humpback whales. They are jumping in and out of the water. Our guide says when they dive back in the water it's called a "fluke." She knows a lot about humpback whales that I figure I'll never remember, but it's impressive seeing these massive creatures up close. I have never seen a whale before, so this is a first (if you're
keeping track I've now seen my first wild moose, grizzly, wolf, and whale). We spot a few more whales and some dolphins as we make our way to the glacier, passing some smaller glaciers in the distance.
As we make our final path towards Aialik I start to notice small icebergs in the water. Pieces of the glacier that have broken off and are now floating in the water. They are everywhere. Some seals are chilling on the larger ones. For a moment I feel like I'm on the Titanic, but our boat is kicking these miniature glacier's butts so I think I'm okay. Aialik Glacier is huge. With the overcast skies it appears a sharp light blue color. We get about a quarter mile from it, as far as we can get according to the guide. It's an impressive sight. I've never seen a glacier this close before. Just a solid block of ice, slowly melting into the ocean. While we're stopped a massive chunk of the ice comes crashing down into the water. The noise is deafening as it jolts the water and wakes everyone up who wasn't paying attention. Some smaller chunks fall off as we
sit parked for about 30 minutes, but nothing as grand.
Most of the afternoon is spent driving around in the boat looking for wildlife. It has become so cloudy that the mountains and the shore are not even visible anymore. We're not far off the coast, but the overcast skies are so thick we could be in the middle of the pacific for all I know and I wouldn't be able to tell. It's unfortunate to not have a day where we could enjoy the surely gorgeous scenery of the Kenai Fjords. But we have to take what we are given and make the best of it. We see some flocks of puffins (first wild puffins I've ever seen), some other birds, tons of sea lions on the rocks, and even a few more whales. Otters and seals are everywhere.
As 4:30 rolls around we get dropped off on Fox Island, where there is a large log cabin banquet room where we will eat dinner. There is another boat that joins us, so it gets pretty crowded. Dinner is a buffet of salmon and prime rib, two of my favorites, with various vegetables. The dinner is pretty good,
but the salmon isn't sockeye. The prime rib is surprisingly delicious though. As we eat the rain really starts to come down. The island looks like a rain forest and would be cool to explore for a little bit in the 30 or so minutes we had after eating. But it's really pouring. Everyone huddles inside and watches the rain waiting for our call back to the boat.
And just like that our day at sea is done. We thank the guides and head back to our car. It's still raining, but not as hard, when we check into our hotel, which is actually a hostel that has a few private rooms. We have reserved one of the private rooms. It's got two full beds and a mini-kitchen. Everything in Seward on July 4 weekend is ridiculously expensive, due to a huge mountain race they have on July 4. We get the room at the Moby Dick Hostel for under $100 for the night though, a steal compared to the $300 the Holiday Inn was charging. It's not a bad little place too. We walk down to the main downtown area, which is tiny (only about 3000 people live
in Seward), and head into a bar to get a few local beers.
Like everywhere else in Alaska, the local microbrews are excellent and I try a different one every time. We talk to some locals at the bar and they tell us stories about living in Alaska. One kid grew up in an Inuit village in the arctic. After chatting with some locals for a while we head back to the hotel to relax. Bryan and I think about going out for some more beers. It is a Friday night after all. But after walking around Seward for a bit it appears to be pretty dead. We figure it will be a long night in Anchorage tomorrow so we get to bed early. Only one more night left in our Alaskan adventure.
It's Saturday morning, but before heading back to Anchorage we make a stop at Exit Glacier, the only part of Kenai Fjords National Park accessible by land. It's right outside of Seward so we don't even have to go out of our way to get there. As we're driving in I notice signs that seem to have random years on them. 1859, 1915, etc. We
ponder what these years mean as we approach the glacier. It's about a 15 minute walk to the glacier, and we pass a few more of these signs. We later learn that they signify where the glacier was in that particular year. It's quite amazing/sad at how much the glaciers have receded in the last 100-150 years, and the rate of recession over the last 20 years is mind-blowing. Clearly people who don't believe in global warming have never been to Alaska.
We can't actually walk on the glacier, since it's protected, but we get pretty close and take some good pictures. Bryan thinks he sees a way he can get down to the base of the glacier. I tell him he's crazy, but he jumps a rope fence and heads down a hill. A few minutes later he catches up to me and mom as we're on our way back to the car. "Not happening" he says. Like I said.
The drive back to Anchorage is as cloudy and foggy as the drive the day before. It's extremely unfortunate for us once again - The Seward Byway, as it's called, is supposed to be one of the
most beautiful drives in the world. Maybe next time.... We stop at a wildlife sanctuary near where we saw the baby grizzly the day before to get an up-close look at some Alaska wildlife. The sanctuary takes animals that are injured, or have been found incapable of fending for themselves in the wild. There's a blind bald eagle, who is apparently a movie star, having appeared in Into the Wild
We roll back into Anchorage around 5 in the evening. This time we are staying at the Downtown Marriott, probably the nicest hotel in Anchorage. My mom is a member of the Marriott rewards program, and gets a ton of free nights, since she only stays in Marriott's and has their credit card as well. So we have a nice free room at the hotel. I decide I need some real exercise and hit the gym at the hotel for a little before heading over to a nearby high school to run on the track. Bryan ventures off to Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse (http://www.humpys.com/
), a locally famous seafood and beer joint while mom relaxes in the room.
After a week of incredible seafood and game meat, we decide
to take a break from Alaskan fare and head to a small Himalayan restaurant called Yak and Yeti (http://www.yakandyetialaska.com/
) just outside of downtown. The menu has a mixture of Nepalese and North Indian food. We each order different things and a few appetizers and share. Everything is excellent, and on top of that it's BYOB. I highly recommend this place for anyone visiting Anchorage. Fully satisfied with dinner, it's time to head out for our last night in Alaska.
Bryan and I arrive at Koot's, as the locals call it, right around 10:00. It's not crowded yet so we grab some beers and catch the end of a music trivia game. I win a few raffle tickets for correctly identifying "Take My Picture" by Filter. I feel old. But I look around and see people of all ages at this place. There are kids that barely look 18, let alone 21. Then there's a woman old enough to be my grandmother. The crowd is very eclectic. No one feels out of place. I decide I like it here. I don't win the raffle.
More beer is consumed and eventually we find ourselves watching a young DJ give his
first "performance" ever. He's got 4 face-painted girls dancing for him with hula-hoops. I'm not complaining. At one point I come back from the bathroom and Bryan has picked up a dude. Our new friend Rodney is sitting at our table. I ask Bryan where this guy cam from and he says the dude just sat down. Rodney asks us if we like Budweiser. I say I could drink Budweiser even though I don't particularly like it. And he orders a pitcher. We offer him money to split the pitcher but he says it's on him. Okay, thanks Rodney. Rodney is very awkward and not good at making small talk. He's also kind of creepy. We drink our beers fast, thank Rodney, and head off to another room. I'm sure we'll run into Rodney again.
As the sun sets we somehow start talking to two girls around our age - a nice married one and a not so nice single one. It's clear why the nice one is married and the mean one isn't. We end up hanging out with these girls till closing time, when someone decides it will be a good idea to go get some breakfast
at Denny's. I mean the sun is up now, it's clearly breakfast time. We roll into Denny's at about 3:30 AM and proceed to stuff our faces with poor quality breakfast food. I fall asleep at least 3 times at the booth after eating and finally we decide that it's time to end the night. We bid farewell to our new Alaskan friends, even though we only like the married one, and head back to the hotel, where we roll in around 5 AM. I try not to wake mom up but it's a futile effort. "Yes I know it's late," I say. Time for some sleep.
Sunday greets me with a mild hangover, but it's nothing compared to what Bryan's going through. He looks like death, and says he feels worse. I'm not too bad, but could use a few more hours of sleep. We hit the local farmer's market after checking out of the hotel. I'm intrigued by the stand selling T-shirts about how much bigger Alaska is than Texas. I snap a photo of the "Cut Alaska in half to make Texas the third biggest state" shirt and send it to some friends in Houston.
Bryan says he needs more sleep and leaves to go find some grass in a park to sleep on. Hopefully he'll be alright. The rental car isn't due till 7:00 so we've got some time to kill. Mom and I decide to head to the zoo to see the polar bear. He, of course, is sleeping, but we do see him. It's a moral victory since we didn't get far enough north to see any wild ones. The zoo is mainly Alaskan animals (don't think others can survive the winters) but it's cheap so not a ban thing to check out if you have some free time in Anchorage.
We meet back up with Bryan, who has been sleeping all afternoon, and he says he feels a lot better. We drop him off at his friend's house since he doesn't fly out till very, very late and head back to the airport. The Great Alaskan Adventure is a success. I hope to return to Alaska some day not too far in the future to check out Katmai National Park, the Panhandle, and the other National Parks I didn't make it to. My summer is only just getting started though.
I don't currently have a job, so after quick trips to Indianapolis and Austin it's off to the pacific northwest, where I'll spend about 4 weeks traveling around. See you there!
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