Alaska in July

There’s something really magical about Alaska. Maybe it’s that you can go from 105 degrees in Iowa and in half a day be climbing a mountain pass in 45-degree weather. Or maybe it’s that everything is so damn BIG in Alaska. Or maybe it’s just the fact that no matter how many times you visit the state, you still feel like you’ve only seen like one-millionth of it.

Whatever the reason, I love love love Alaska. I spent six days there recently (if you count the travel days), and it was fabulous. Except for the pit toilets, which were not fabulous.

I traveled with my friend and magazine photographer Jim Heemstra to cover Iowa State alumni for our 50-states magazine project. But, as always, we crammed as much adventure into our travels as we possibly could between work assignments. And even the work assignments in Alaska became part of the adventure.

We arrived in Alaska on the Fourth of July. We had taken a relatively short 5 1/2-hour non-stop flight from Minneapolis and arrived in Anchorage before 11 a.m. That was great, because it gave us the better part of the day to explore. The first thing we had to do after we got our rental car (well, rental Jeep) was to find some food. I had done some research online before we left, and one place I thought sounded good was the Yak & Yeti Himalayan restaurant. I mean, how can you resist a place with a name like that? Amazingly, we found it without our GPS (which did not recognize Alaska as a state so was no good to us the entire time) and enjoyed bowls of rice with lentils and chickpeas.

We had originally planned to use our arrival day to scout locations for a later photo shoot, but unfortunately one of our alumni had cancelled on us right before we left Minneapolis. So we had an extra day. We decided to drive up to Talkeetna, a historic Alaskan village that is the jumping-off place for Mt. McKinley/Denali adventures. On the Fourth of July it was crazy with tourists and not the funky frontier town I expected it to be. We took pictures of the chaos and then settled on bar stools for beer and an hour-long chat with a local artist who was fed up with the tourists and ready to relocate to the Big Island of Hawaii. I bought a hiking stick from a crazy man.

Talkeetna didn’t hold our interest for very long, so we headed on to bigger things. Much bigger, as it turned out.

Jim had done some research and thought it would be fun and scenic to drive Hatcher Pass Road, a 49-mile drive (about an hour north of Anchorage), about 13 miles of which is paved. The pictures looked pretty. So off we went, ignoring signs that warned us that the road had just opened for the season on July 1 and suggested it might still be impassable and more signs that implored us to tell someone where we were going before we started this apparently death-defying drive.

It started out innocently enough. And then the pavement turned to gravel and then turned to dirt and the nice edges went away, leaving a narrow path of a road with no shoulders and sheer drop-offs. And did I mention the hairpin turns? It was terrifying. I clenched my jaw so hard that my face hurt. But we (along with many other foolish tourists) made it across the pass without hurtling down the mountain to our deaths. We were very glad to see paved roads in Palmer on the other side.

DAY 2

We started the day, like every day in Anchorage, by walking across the street from our hotel (the Inlet Tower Hotel & Suites at 12th and L) to the New Sagaya City Market, where we ate coffee and breakfast pastries and bought picnic supplies for later in the day.

Our plan for today was to scout photo locations for Saturday. We figured it would take a couple of hours. But it ended up taking all day.

We had been given some suggestions by our Anchorage alum about good views in town. We started on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, an 11-mile bike trail that follows the Anchorage Coastline from downtown to Kincaid Park. The first place we stopped was rather unattractive and smelled funny. Then we went to Earthquake Park and Point Woronzof and were treated to excellent views of the Cook Inlet, Knik Arm, the Anchorage skyline, and low-flying jets coming from Anchorage International. But no great places to photograph our alum.

Next we went to Kincaid Park, where last time we visited Alaska we got to witness moose, um, mating.  This time, we had no more than started our walk when we were approached by a local cyclist who stopped to tell us there was a huge bull moose up ahead on the left and a smaller male moose on the right of the trail. Yay, moose! What Midwesterner doesn’t crave the sight of wildlife that’s not deer, rabbit, or squirrel?

These moose did not disappoint. We had full access to the largest moose I’ve ever seen, munching away on vegetation right next to the bike path. And, as promised, a smaller guy was on the other side, trying to eat a tree. We took pictures of the big bull until we decided we might be pressing our luck being so close to him with clicking cameras, what with the death-by-moose warnings lurking in our heads. The smaller one seemed friendly, and we watched him walk unhurriedly across the path.

That encounter was sort of the highlight of the day. We did a few high-fives and continued our walk but eventually determined that this, too, was not the best spot for the photo shoot.

So we headed down the Turnagain Arm, which is about as spectacular a drive as there is anywhere in the United States. If you do it without stopping to take pictures (which is impossible) it takes about 45 minutes to drive the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Girdwood. Driving down this ever-curving road, you have the 3,000-foot mountains of Chugach State Park jutting straight up on your left and spectacular views of the fjord-like Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet and more distant, snow-covered mountains on your right.

The first stop has to be Potter Marsh, where boardwalks allow you to walk through the marshy area to spot migrating birds and waterfowl, including eagles. We also got to see a great view of the mountains reflecting in the ponds. At that point, it was a pretty day.

We stopped a dozen times to take pictures along the highway, and the weather kept getting worse. By the time we had our eureka moment around the Bird Creek area (when we finally found our perfect photo shoot location), it was full-on raining. And cold. And windy.

We stopped at Bird Point because we were starving and could no longer wait for sunshine and a dry picnic table to enjoy the picnic lunch we’d packed so many hours earlier. So we sat in the back of the Jeep and ate bread with cheese and avocadoes. A van-load of German tourists took pictures of us.

The rest of the afternoon was spent finding alternative photo shoot locations (in case our top choice was too windy), taking pictures in the rain, stopping at Girdwood for coffee, and driving all the way to Portage Glacier only to view the glacier momentarily from the car window because the weather was so horrible.

By the time we got back to Anchorage, it was warmer, less windy, and practically sunny. Hmmm…maybe it’s a Turnagain Arm thing?

Tonight we went out to dinner at Sacks restaurant with Lisa Olson, a friend of mine who lives in Anchorage, and her husband Jerry.

DAY 3

Finally, a real working day.

We met ISU alumnus and Fed Ex pilot Darrell Holmstrom in Eagle River. After a few pleasantries, he took us for a floatplane ride to his cabin, located sort of north and west of Anchorage (I honestly was never sure exactly where we were). The flight was awesome, once I managed to get myself into the plane (I required a push from behind) and get all hooked up in the back seat with my seat belt and headset.

Our first view was of Knik Arm at high tide, with the towns of Palmer and Wasilla off to the right. We could see the town of Willow, the starting point for the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race, and the Iditarod Trail itself, which in summer is a twisty river. (In winter, Alaskans apparently use the frozen river like a highway to travel by snowmobile.)

We had a good view of Mt. McKinley/Denali, even though the top was obscured by clouds. We saw fishing lodges, lakes, a glacier, Mt. Susitna (“The Sleeping Lady”), and rivers made from glacial silt. But no roads. I realized then that you don’t know what Alaska really looks like until you fly over it.

I was happy that I remembered to take Dramamine and wear my motion-sickness bracelet.

We landed on Darrell’s lake and went to his cabin, a beautiful thing with running water and flush toilets. We sat on his sunny porch, swatting mosquitoes. I could live like this.

The floatplane ride did not frighten me, but a quick boat ride across the lake to visit one of Darrell’s neighbors did alarm me a bit, given that the boat didn’t really have sides and I don’t have any swimming skills (nor was I wearing a lifejacket). But it turned out OK, and the day was just breathtaking: sunny and warm.

The flight back to Eagle River was uneventful. I was in the front seat on the way back and I liked talking to Darrell and having him point things out as we flew. It was awfully nice of him to give us this treat: a view of Alaska that we certainly wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

By the time we got back, it was something like 3 o’clock in the afternoon and we were once again starving. We found an Asian fusion restaurant in Eagle River that was open at that odd hour and shared veggie fried rice and tofu curry dishes.

After that we were ready for a hike. We headed for the Eagle River Nature Center, just a few miles from town. Saw more moose on the way. The center is located within Chugach State Park and is the jumping-off point for a number of trails. We took the easiest one, and it turned out to be just the right length and level of difficulty. The trail featured really spectacular views of the Chugach Mountains framed by wildflowers, a beaver-viewing deck at which we saw only ducks, and a salmon-viewing deck at which we saw no salmon. It was lots of fun.

Apparently the Crow Pass Trail is a really good hike (25 miles) all the way to Girdwood. There’s no way I could have done that, even if we would have had the time, and besides, the trail is closed due to a brown bear feeding on a moose kill right on the trail. Yikes!

Afterward, we drove to the tiny town of Eklutna to see an old Russian cemetery.

Since we ate such a late lunch, we opted to drink beer and eat fries for dinner at a downtown Anchorage Irish pub.

DAY 4

Early morning meeting with Laura Tauke, our alum for whom we’d been scouting locations. We met her at New Sagaya for coffee and then took off in both vehicles (me with Laura in her “Alaskafied” pickup, Jim in the Jeep) down Turnagain Arm. Thankfully, the weather held and we were able to photograph Laura at Bird Creek with blue skies and no wind. (When it comes to photo shoots, I am the weather fairy.) That’s Jim, Laura, and me above.

After the photo shoot and an interview conducted mostly in the truck, Jim and I were finished with our work. We headed north for the Glenn Highway.

We almost immediately left behind the sunny skies, and our drive along the Glenn and eventually the Richardson highways en route to the port city of Valdez was in the rain, with low-hanging, heavy clouds obscuring most of our views.

That didn’t make it any less cool for me. I always love rainy days, and after the heat we’d been having in Iowa, the 40s and 50s felt wonderful. We stopped a gazillion times to take pictures of glaciers and streams and overlooks. Stopped in Glenallen for gas and a quick bite of food out of the back of the Jeep.

The drive to Valdez from Anchorage is said to take 6-7 hours, or all day if you stop and hike and gawk at the scenery a lot. We knew we’d be coming back on the same road the next day, so we tried to make good time. Our only lengthy stop was at the Worthington Glacier (in the rain). We wanted to explore Valdez tonight.

We arrived at our lodge on Robe Lake just north of Valdez at about 6:30 p.m. and got checked in. Then we drove the six miles into town.

Valdez is a fishing port located on Prince William Sound and surrounded by the Chugach National Forest. I get the feeling that most people in Valdez are working – either in the fishing or tourist industry – or they’re tourists there for a sightseeing excursion. You can book tours for fishing, wildlife viewing, glacier hiking, and lots of other outdoor recreation. We didn’t have time for any of that. What we did have time for was taking thousands of pictures of the most picturesque fishing port imaginable and then following the advice of a local diner and going to the fish hatchery area where there were more boats, plus eagles, sea lions, sea otters, and (theoretically) bears.

We spent hours hanging around the inlet, watching the birds and the fishermen and just being basically awestruck at the beauty of the place. We went there on the first night and then three times the next day. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.

DAY 5

So last night we met this local guy at The Fat Mermaid, where we were drinking beer and eating pizza. He knew we were tourists and wanted to know if we had seen any bears. We had not. So he told us to go to the fish hatchery at high tide the next morning. (High tide would occur at 4:52 a.m.) The high tide brings in the salmon, he explained, and then as the tide went out, some of the salmon would be left behind and out would come bears to eat it.

This sounded like a great idea. So we took a look at the place the night before and planned to be back this morning at 5:30 a.m. His advice was not exactly correct. For one thing, it takes HOURS for the tide to go back out. And we never did see any bears, even though we went to the spot three times (at 5:30, after running back to the lodge and checking out, and then again after eating breakfast in town). But we were so pleased that he had told us about this place, because it was so spectacular, bears or no bears.

We watched eagles and seagulls feed on the fish, watched the sea lions play, and got to witness Day 1 of pink salmon fishing season, for which 240 fishermen had secured permits. At 6 a.m., they all put down their nets at exactly the same time and commenced fishing. The permits gave them 14 hours to harvest as many pink salmon as they could. A guy we met on there said the fishermen could make up to $25,000 in one day. It was quite a sight.

We could have stayed all day in Valdez, but we had a long drive ahead of us. Fortunately, the weather today was the total opposite of yesterday, with blue skies, sunshine, and high, fluffy clouds.

We started north along the Richardson Highway, stopping dozens of times to photograph the vistas, especially the ones along Thompson Pass. It was truly amazing that this was the same pass we’d crossed the day before in the low, view-obscuring clouds. My friends Lisa and Jerry described this section of the drive as “otherworldly” and it was indeed that, both in clouds and in sunshine.

Midway down the Richardson Highway, we turned right on the Edgerton Highway and drove toward the town of Chitina, with views of the Wrangell Mountains and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. This is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for awhile now, and, like the rest of Alaska, now I’ve seen just a tiny piece of it and want to see more.

At 13 million acres, Wrangell-St. Elias is America’s largest national park. It’s larger than the entire country of Switzerland. It’s about the size of Nova Scotia. It’s six times the size of Yellowstone. Nine of the 16 highest peaks in the U.S. are in the park. The Wrangell-St. Elias Wilderness is the largest designated wilderness in the United States.

So, needless to say, we didn’t see much of it. But what we saw was spectacular. We drove as far as the town of Chitina, crossed the bridge, and then turned back. The road continues to Kennicott (an old mining town) and McCarthy, but we were told it’s a very difficult road. The park can also be accessed from the Nabesna Road to the north. Most of the park is not accessible by car. There are a number of landing strips for small aircraft.

We visited a small National Park outpost in Chitina and a very nice, new visitor center near Copper Center (on the Richardson Highway). The visitor center has all the usual things, plus a theater, an exhibition building, and a nature trail that would have been lovely if it were not for the 50 million aggressive mosquitoes that call the area home.

I didn’t expect the rest of our drive back to Anchorage on the Glenn Highway to be very interesting, but since we’d missed all the views the day before in the rain, I was pleasantly surprised. We were astounded at the views and stopped again and again to take pictures. We were able to see the Matanuska Glacier in much different light than the day before. We saw a wolf and one last moose.

We checked back in to the Inlet Hotel in Anchorage, sort of sad that our big driving adventure was over. We ate dinner that night at a very good restaurant called Orso.

DAY 6

The flight home was uneventful. In fact, the whole day would have been uneventful if the brakes wouldn’t have gone out on Jim’s van. Well, maybe “out” is too strong of a word. We still had brakes, but there was something wrong with them, causing the left rear wheel to heat up. At any rate, about 10:30 p.m. we determined that we would have to stay the night in Albert Lea, Minn. Our fun was over. We arrived back in Iowa the following day.

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