Alaska. For longer than we can remember, when vacation-planning season came around, one of us would say “How about Alaska?” And we would then spend the next month creating excuses to avoid it. Too cold. Cruise ships are disease factories. Can’t agree on which part to visit. Sarah Palin lives there.
Well, this year, we finally ran out of excuses. Ashleigh moved to Washington, so we had an excuse / mandate to visit the Northwest. We found a non-cruise solution that let us visit a variety of areas. Global warming. Sarah Palin is still there, but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. North to Alaska it was!
As usual, a pair of zombies left the house at 3:30AM to start the trip. One of these days we’re going to leave for vacation at a reasonable hour, like 5:30. Some day. Sigh.
Anyway, we arrived at the first leg of the expedition, Olympia Washington, in our usual semi-conscious state. We promptly loaded up Ashleigh in the car and headed out to the Olympic Peninsula for a couple of days on the “beach”. As you might guess, “beach” out there has a totally different meeting than the bathtub-temperature water on the Texas coast. But hey, this would let us get a little bit acclimated to a colder environment before we headed to the far north! That mission certainly succeeded.
Cold ocean water, cool temperatures and sunshine were welcome after the Texas summer heat. Anyway, after a few relaxing days at the Kalaloch lodge and a 4th of July Mariners game, we once again awoke at zero-dark-thirty and bundled-up for our trip to the first stop on the Alaska odyssey: Fairbanks!
Mere hours later, we deplaned and prepared to face the frigid arctic. Of course it was 85 degrees. Seriously. Uh-oh. And the plan was that we would spend more time in Fairbanks than anywhere else on the trip.
The plan was to visit Fairbanks for a couple of days, then head to Barrow for an overnight trip, back to Fairbanks for a day, then on to Denali and finally to Seward before heading home. This would expose us to the interior, north and maritime areas. This was all a part of an arranged tour, so we had more than the usual number of traveling companions.
Fairbanks. Geez. We took a riverboat cruise on the Chena river. Saw dog teams pulling ATV’s. Found the Alaska pipeline. Met with tribal elders. And the food. Let me tell you about the food. Other than a Middle Eastern place run by a pair of Bulgarians across from our hotel, most of the “local” places consisted of food preceded by the words “Farthest North”. Yes. Farthest north McDonald’s. Farthest North Pizza Hut. You get the idea.
We generally try to find local fare wherever we can. In this case, were looking forward to salmon, halibut, moose and other local delicacies. What we got, mostly, was farthest-north rubber chicken in the hotel, farthest north Chinese Buffet, and farthest north BBQ. (Sorry, but I could not eat the BBQ. Nope. I have standards, low as they might be.) The low-light was one place where the server was so flustered by our group that she managed to get every single order wrong. Every one. We all just sucked it up and ate whatever showed up on our plates or we would probably still be there. At least we managed to get our first taste of local food: reindeer sausage! Although, being sausage, who knows what it really was. Bye Fairbanks.
On to Barrow. Naturally, to get there, we had to fly first to Anchorage (way south of Fairbanks), then to Prudhoe Bay to drop off oil workers and then finally to Barrow. It has a local Inupiat name now, Utqiaġvik, and was one of the most interesting places we’ve ever visited.
The place actually looks pretty grim in the summer. Since its frozen most of the year, the roads are just gravel, and when it’s cloudy and foggy (like when we visited, of course), everything has a dismal, gray patina. The only sea ice we saw were a few small chunks washed up on the beach like driftwood. Climate change, anyone? Since everything comes in via barge or air, non-local products are exorbitantly expensive. Milk is more expensive than gas, and gas is $10/gallon. The people live mostly on what they catch and hunt, and buy as little as possible.
After a quick flight back to Fairbanks, (direct this time!) we headed to Denali via train. After wandering around the park entrance looking for moose (never saw one, although the people who stayed next to the train station and never went anywhere else saw an entire family of them. Go figure.) and only managed to spot a beaver that followed us around a small lake as we walked. Those suckers are big!
Next day, we took a 7 hour school-bus ride on a one lane dirt road into the park itself. Lots of wildlife, but no moose. Of course. We exited at the Kantishna Roadhouse some 90 miles later and spend the next two days on moose and Mt. Denali hunting patrol. We had high hopes for both, but…
Even though the temperature was mild and there was plenty of sunshine, there was no Denali. Turns out there was a big forest fire going on in the Yukon Territory in Canada that was creating haze. Hence, no Denali. I guess we would have to satisfy ourselves with the view of the very top that was sticking out of the clouds when we flew to Barrow!
As far as the moose hunt went, the best we could do was spot some certified moose scat, so we know they were there somewhat recently! Bummer.
After a couple of days of hiking and outdoor bliss, including more dog teams pulling ATV’s, we headed out for our trip to Seward to see whales and glaciers! Of course, “heading out” meant another 7-hour trip to the park entrance, followed by yet another 6 hours in a different bus to get to Anchorage. The highlight was going through the home of the Palins, Wasilla. Turns out Wasilla is kind of a dump / over-crowded (by Alaska standards, at least) suburban sprawl. I can see how they would fit right in. Fortunately, we didn’t have to stop.
After an overnight stay in Anchorage, we grabbed the train south to Seward. This trip was downright spectacular. Waterfalls, wildlife, mountains, gorges, tunnels. Green and lush. Heck, we think there was even a moose, but too far away to be 100% certain. We’ll count it anyway. As far as our transportation went, this was in a class by itself.
At Seward, we were finally able to get “real” Alaskan seafood. It was awesome. We then took a 6 hour boat trip the Kenai Fjord to see the local marine life and glacier. Whales all over. Nesting seabirds. Puffins gorging themselves (fun fact: if they are full of food, they can’t fly, and watching them try is endlessly entertaining). Sea Lions sunning. Even though it was a bit overcast, it was still spectacular.
But the highlight was the glacier. We came within a quarter mile and drifted in front of it. One thing we did not expect was how active and noisy it was, constantly making loud cracking noises and dropping off pieces of ice into the sea. Eventually, the boat went into the brash ice and scooped up chunks of glacier for some tasty on-board adult beverages. Yum!
After one last seafood dinner, the best of the trip, we walked the seawall (actually the original starting point for the Iditarod) and onto the docks for our final wildlife surprise, a sea otter happily chowing down on a salmon. Much larger than their river-bred brethren!
And so another summer adventure ended with the usual crappy airline flights (this time a delayed red-eye, yuck) and return surprise: a bird chewed up one of our patio cushions and made a nest with it inside our dryer vent. That was fun to clean out!
Anyway, we’re all doing well. The big change for us is that we were finally able to sell our house so we can begin the process of moving into something more suitable for just the two of us. Don’t be surprised if you see yet another address change from us next year! We still haven’t found that perfect spot. Ashleigh is out in Olympia working for the state of Washington and enjoying the great outdoors. Aleia, Matt, Charlie and Maeve are doing great in the Mad-City, Wisconsin.
We wish everyone a fantastic holiday season and a great 2018!
Diane & Gray
PS- Hey, this is the first time we’ve put this online. The idea is to save some trees and not burden the uninterested with our travelogues. If you actually read this thing, please leave a comment on the site!