America’s largest state is brimming with wildlife, breathtaking vistas, ancient glaciers and friendly folk who prefer life untamed.
After years of stressing over my annual commercial pilot proficiency test, I devised a system to reward myself: a vacation. This year it was six days in Alaska. I asked a friend to join me. Ann is a New Yorker, so I figured she’d have the hutzpah to handle the wild tundra and a few bears.
In keeping with my travel philosophy of minimal planning — I secured a hotel just as we boarded our flight. The five-and-a-half-hour flight departed Denver at 7:30 p.m. and landed in Anchorage at around midnight, just as the sun was beginning to set. This phenomena of four hours of darkness and 20 hours of light is somewhat disorienting but a great asset; where else can you enjoy a backwoods stroll late at the night?
Anchorage was just a place to rest up and pick up our rental car. Our real Alaskan adventure began the next day when we headed south to Seward, a small coastal town on the Kenai Peninsula. Ann, my capable navigator, kept an eye out for caribou and other wild pedestrians that might cross our path — a likely occurrence when you’re driving on Alaskan highways.
Main Street in Seward is just three blocks long. Tourism is the town’s money maker and the harbor has a bevy of boats that take tourists to see wildlife and glaciers. We opted for a 6-hour cruise that provided our first views of breaching whales, sea otters and aqua and teal-colored glaciers. When we got back to Seward, we convened at a coffee shop to map out our next move. We needed to find accommodations for the night and decided to try our luck in Hope, population 195, a one-and-a-half hour drive north and 15 miles off the main highway.
A couple hours later, we passed a gas station on the outskirts of the town. The only hint was a hose and tank by the roadside. We learned later that an attendant will come out — if you call him — but since business is light, he prefers to stay home. Hope’s main street is an unpaved road that dead ends at the south shore of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. There’s a bar, a couple of stores, a community center, RV park and a campground.
I saw a flyer for a log cabin for rent and called to arrange a viewing. It was postcard perfect; situated next to a babbling brook with a loft and queen bunk beds. It had been built 20 years earlier by the owner and her husband who had given up life in the lower 48 for the serenity of Alaska. I agreed to rent it, no keys required, after all, you’re in Hope! (The owner asked me not mention Hope in my story fearing civilization would follow and destroy her little paradise. So please don’t go to Hope, let paradise live on.)
The next morning, a sense of excitement was in the air. Hope was hosting their annual fund-raiser with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the community center. We indulged. The pancakes were thick, some with plump blueberries or chocolate bits. I pictured a meadow of pristine Alaskan blueberries being picked fresh for our scrumptious breakfast. During one of my many visits to the serving table, I asked where the blueberries were grown. “Costco,” was the reply.
Our next stop was further north, to the Denali National Park, a five-hour drive away. Let me remind you that Alaska is enormous, over twice the size of Texas and big enough to contain four Californias. The park alone is the size of Massachusetts. Stopping for various diversions along the way, we decided to spend the night in Talkeetna (population 770), still two hours from the park. The town is bustling with restaurants, souvenir shops and tour operators. I busied myself on Airbnb and found a log cabin that overlooked a dense forest in a secluded area near Christiansen Lake.
With that night’s lodging secured, we decided to take a guided trip on a zodiac boat (a large inflatable raft that allows you to get close to nature and other sights). It was a relaxing ride down the river with occasional stops to explore the surrounding plant and animal life. But the surprise was midway through when we stopped to listen to a gentleman sitting on the shore in a folding chair under an umbrella, playing guitar and singing original tunes. The lyrics were poignant, reflections of living in a cabin and growing a family amidst an inhospitable climate. The woodsy background made for a perfect acoustical setting and the flowing river reminded me that time moves on and lifelong memories are built from moments like these.
The next day, we continued our drive north for two-and-a-half hours and arrived at Denali National Park, just in time to hop a bus that would take us 15 miles into the park where we enjoyed a hike along the river. It was the perfect introduction to Denali, an easy, fun walk with a clearly marked path.
After the hike I did a quick search for a “flight-seeing” operation and found one 15 minutes away. They had two seats left. Perfect. I booked it and we soon found ourselves strapped into a twin-engine Piper Navajo on our way to see the tallest mountain in North America, Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley).
It’s an imposing mountain with nearly vertical granite walls, inhospitable winds, deep snow and man-eating crevasses. I make my living flying planes and found our flight disconcertingly close to the granite walls with unpredictable wind shears. I kept a poker face for Ann’s sake.
Obviously, we survived our spectacular flight, but once again we found ourselves homeless and turning to Airbnb. I found another cabin about 20 minutes outside Denali National Park; this one called Earth Song Lodge, had the advantage of also being the home base for a kennel of Alaskan huskies. Ann and I love dogs so this was a big bonus. The lodging was magnificent, 12 cabins set up in an open space with every imaginable detail perfectly crafted. From the artwork to the linen to the rubber ducky in the bathroom, the owner’s forethought was impressive, and every morning the establishment has a sled dog presentation with demonstrations for their guests.
Our impromptu plan for the day was to travel deep into the Denali Park and hike. Denali doesn’t allow private cars past its 15-mile border. To go farther in, you have to take a large school-type bus or hike. The bus ride would take us 66 miles in to the Eielsin Visitor Station where we would join a ranger for a guided hike.
The buses fall into two categories, one has drivers who give a narrative and stop to witness wildlife, and the other is strictly transportation for about half the price. We opted for the later but fortunately had a driver who was a wannabe tour guide and provided interesting anecdotes with frequent stops along to way for bears, wolves, caribous and eagles.
When we reached the visitor station, I rushed in to sign up for the hike — since it’s first come, first served with space for only 11 participants. The hike is steep and led by a National Park ranger with impressive knowledge. To truly appreciate Denali, one must travel deep into the park and experience its natural beauty on foot. The rangers are adamant about keeping the park a pristine natural wildlife refuge with a minimum of human interference.
Returning from our hiking adventures, it was time again to turn to Airbnb for our final night in Alaska. This last housing choice was unique to say the least; it wasn’t a cabin … it was a converted school bus. The description on Airbnb said “dry bus” which meant no plumbing. The bathroom facilities were an outhouse and an outdoor shower. The owner kindly explained how to use of the shower: first you boil water on the bus’s stove top, then empty the hot water in shower bag and enjoy. It worked surprisingly well and the bus was quite comfortable.
The plan for our last day was to drive back to Anchorage, return the rental car and fly out. But after looking at the map, I realized we were only an hour and a half from Fairbanks and could fly home from there. I called Enterprise and was informed I would incur a whopping $350 drop-off charge if I returned the car in Fairbanks instead of Anchorage. Ouch! But I don’t like retracing my footsteps so I agreed.
Fairbanks is a quiet, unremarkable town of 32,000 people with a history of gold prospectors and traders. The highlight of our unexpected visit was the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). We were fortunate to attend this event on its first day and witnessed young men and women compete in sports that emulate skills necessary for survival in the wilderness. I couldn’t have planned a better outcome for my first adventure in Alaska.
Copyright © Carl Paradise/2017 Singular Communications, LLC.
Carl Paradise is a professional pilot for a major airline, a member of SingularCity and an occasional contributor to Singular magazine. He does not work as a journalist or reporter, but enjoys traveling, dancing the tango, practicing yoga, fine vegetarian cuisine and sharing his experiences with our readers.
Last Frontier Factoids
Alaska is the largest and most sparsely populated U.S. state with about 740,000 residents.
Alaska is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined.
The best time to visit Alaska is May 10 through September 15. Peak season is mid-June to mid-August.
There is no state sales tax or income tax in Alaska.
Residents receive a check from the state every year ranging from $800 to $1200 from an oil royalty fund. Alaska produces 25 percent of the oil produced in the United States.
Nearly one third of Alaska lies within the Arctic Circle.
Seventeen of the 20 highest peaks in the U.S. are located in Alaska.
Aurora borealis (northern lights) can be seen an average of 243 days a year in Fairbanks.
Alaska is less than 50 miles from Russia.
More than half the world’s glaciers can be found Alaska.
Giant vegetables are common in Alaska due to the extremely long days in summer. Alaska has grown a record cabbage weighing in at 94 pounds.
About 52 percent of Alaskans are men – the highest percentage of any state.