A Trip To Alaska

Alan and Lila Letow

 

        We were often asked why we decided to go back to Alaska since we had already concluded a cruise to the Southeastern area of Alaska.  What other parts of Alaska did we want to yet see and experience?   I guess the simple answer was to experience what Alaska had to offer…to see the landscape, understand the culture and to learn about the history of the people.  We wanted to sense the adventure of this 49th state. 

 

In summary, we:

1. Traveled on an active sternwheeler ship that was actually propelled by the stern wheel;

2. Visited a native Athabascan Indian village and had lectures on their life in the days of old and, also, how these people lived today;

3. Stayed ninety miles inside Denali National Park and lived in an authentic log cabin with few amenities;

4. Flew on a small plane up to and around Mount McKinley;

5. Hiked in Denali National Park and saw the flora and fauna, as well as the wildlife that makes this park unique;

6. Hiked on a glacier and learned what millions of years contributed to its creation;

7. Flew on a small float plane to a natural wildlife reserve;

8. Sailed through some of the many fiords on Alaska’s coast and to some of the many glaciers;

9. Watched the Mountain Marathon as the participants raced to conquer a mountain in Seward;

10. And, we also visited the major cities in Alaska and the people of this great state.

Planning and Itinerary

          As I mentioned above, we had wanted to plan a land trip to Alaska ever since we had been on a cruise through the Inside Passage with our daughter, Deborah and grandsons, Greg and Kevin.   That trip gave us only a taste of the rugged beauty and ecological features of this amazing state.  Its size and location provide such a vast difference in what we can see in the lower forty-eight states.   Eighty percent of the state is owned by the federal government, whether it be by the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Agency, Bureau of Land Management, etc.  

 

            There is also a vast amount of land that is owned by Native Americans, tribes of Indians and Eskimos who preceded the arrival of western man to this area over thousands of years ago.   These include multiple tribes of Eskimos, Indians and the Aleuts, the latter who live in the Aleutian Islands.   Later, Russians also settled much of the north western area that at its closest point is only fifty-three miles from Siberia.  The Alaskan History is cast upon many different cultures and over a long period of time.

  

          Alaska also offers a vast difference in weather across much of the state….it is arid in the desert-like interior sectors to being cloudy with rain near the coast.   Snow fall is limited in the interior, but cold temperatures and wind are a reality with the arrival of winter.   In Fairbanks, the temperature is in the nineties during summer and minus sixty degrees in winter...the greatest range in temperature change in the northern part of this continent.  

 

Early settlers to this harsh environment came to prospect and mine for gold as well as for fishing and hunting.   Fur trading was a major industry and many of the animals were either brought to extinction or seriously reduced in number.   The state population is about 650,000 with almost half of that population residing in Anchorage, its largest city.   The population above Fairbanks is minimal and there are almost no roads in the northern region.   People depend heavily on aircraft to provide transport and  goods to the many small towns and villages.   Bush pilots are many and can land on the tundra, the many waterways and even ice, in completing their tasks of transporting people, supplies and visitors. 

 

Our trip was planned many months before our departure.  And for this trip we once again used a travel agency ...one located in Alaska… to help us learn about the accommodations, travel arrangements and the tourist attractions to visit…we must be getting lazy as we would have normally prearranged all these facets of the trip ourselves.   But, we wanted to make sure that we made the right choices and optimized our time in Alaska.   In fact, the cost of using a travel agent is not an onerous expense and may even save money in the long run since they can book accommodations at reasonable rates.

Getting There

            We booked our own flight arrangements into and returning from Anchorage, Alaska.   The Travel Connection booked a one way air trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.   From Fairbanks to Denali National Park and from Denali to Anchorage, we traveled on the private Princess car...in a domed sightseeing car on the Alaska railroad.  We then rented a car in Anchorage for our touring of the Kenai Peninsula and the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, before returning once again to Anchorage.   From Anchorage, we flew home after sixteen full days of sighting and adventure, but more about that below.    

Accommodations

            Alaska is a relatively new area to tourism and as such it still does not have all the amenities that we expect in the lower forty-eight states.  But it is moving fast to be able to accommodate the ever increasing number of tourists that are coming to visit.  The availability of good restaurants is growing steadily and we were extremely satisfied with the quality of the dishes that we experienced.   The prices of food and accommodations were not as high as we had expected ….almost in line with the cost of food in any big city. 

            We chose to reside in small inns or B&B’s, rather than large hotels, but that was not always the case.  A summary of our accommodations is as follows: 

Fairbanks

Bridgewater Hotel

www.fountainheadhotels.com

Small boutique inn, situated in downtown

Denali Park Kantishna Roadhouse www.kantishnaroadhouse.com Beautiful log cabin lodge and cottages in a very rustic setting, guides and nature events were excellent, food and food service was limited and generally quite poor.
Anchorage Copper Whale Inn

www.copperwhale.com

 

Excellent location downtown, very good service, excellent morning breakfast, but rooms have limited amenities. 
Seward Hotel Edgewater

www.hoteledgewater.com

 

Extremely pleasant inn located right on Resurrection Bay in downtown Seward, nice breakfast service.
Girdwood Alyeska Prince Resort www.alyeskaresorts.com Five diamond resort w/ extensive facilities; not very guest friendly
Anchorage Captain Cook Hotel www.captaincook.com Large full service upscale hotel located in downtown area

Fairbanks

            After hours of flying and waiting at airports, we finally arrived in Fairbanks….a total time of at least eighteen hours of travel had elapsed.  Tired and hungry we struggled to stay up until a normal sleep time, so that we would not then be up most of the night coping with the four hour time difference from the east coast.    We went to Alaska to escape some of the Maryland heat and humidity…but we were only partially successful.  Upon landing we were met with 90 degree weather…never happens here, very unusual, but they did not know that I was coming.   

As I stated above, Fairbanks has the widest temperature spread from winter to summer in the country…about 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  What made matters even worse is that we arrived one day after “midsummer’s day night” when the sun never really sets, thereby making the temperature even warmer.  The sun goes down around 1:00am; it never really gets dark, and then begins its climb back into the sky about 3:00am.  Imagine walking at almost midnight and the sun is low on the horizon, but it is still daylight.  However, comes the winter not only is it 60 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, it is dark almost twenty-one hours for each day in the winter.   

            As we were traveling here, I had asked other Alaskan natives about Fairbanks…there reply was almost always…why would you want to go there?  It is not a big city and it is not a particularly pretty city.   You can see most of what you want to see in Fairbanks in just two days…and that is what we had planned ....it was certainly sufficient.    On the first day, besides trying to acclimate ourselves to the time difference, we arranged for a ride on the Discovery River Boat Cruise using one of the very few authentic sternwheeler operated boats in the country, for a river cruise on the Chena River. 

 

The Chena River in Fairbanks

The Sternwheeler "Discovery"

 

During the cruise, we learned about the ecological features of river life as seen by the Indians who originally settled the area.   We had a demonstration by a bush pilot taking off and landing on about two hundred feet of a very small airstrip.  The following day, this same bush pilot crashed while taking off, but the demonstrations continued the day after that.  The lives and fortunes of bush pilots are very precarious, but their missions are so incredibly important to life here in this region.   

During the riverboat cruise, we heard a presentation by Susan Bucher, who competed and won the famous dog race known as the Iditarod and had participated in that event many times.   We visited her dog training facility and were able to see a dog race demonstration where ten dogs pulled a tractor around the lake.   

 

Bush Pilot Taking Off

Susan Bucher and her Dogs

 

Also, as part of the riverboat trip, we visited a recreated Athabascan Indian Village while listening to a series of lectures on Indian life and hunting methods.   This is a village where some people live during the summer months, but the facilities are as they were during the original period for the village....no running water or electricity!   At the village we learned how the famous beaded fur coats are made ....in fact, the woman who made the presentation to us actually was asked to make one for display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.   In addition, we observed demonstrations with animals and birds and learned about the construction of the buildings in the village.   

While in Fairbanks, we visited the University of Alaska Museum…which displayed a historical record of life and evolution in the varied sections of the state.  We were able to see the influences of the Russian settlements, the Aluets, the Japanese, Eskimos and the Indians in addition to the people who came from other parts of the lower forty-eight to settle in Alaska.   

Our first night in Fairbanks, we had a light dinner in an Italian restaurant which was highly rated by the locals and it did serve a pleasant meals.  We also found a continental restaurant in town where we enjoyed an excellent dinner that was certainly consistent with good restaurants in a city in the lower forty-eight states.   Our last evening in Fairbanks, we went to a salmon bake dinner which may have been somewhat commercial or touristy, but again had been highly recommended by the locals.  The theme of the dinner at Pioneer Park was intended to present food that is customary to Alaska and prepared and cooked the way that the Indians prepared their food at times past.    

Fairbanks is not truly a tourist destination…it is not particularly a tourist friendly city, but the people were certainly very nice and pleased that visitors come to their city.   It is not a city that I would once again visit, but it is one of the gateways to the Denali National Park that almost all visitors have on their schedule. 

 

Athabascan Indian Village Log Cabin

Susan Bucher Dog Race Demonstration

Denali National Park

            Traveling from Fairbanks to Denali National Park by train…we rode on the Princess cars but using the Alaska Railroad.   In fact, Alaska Railroad operates the train system and pulls cars from many different tour companies including their own cars.  Each tour company services their own customers with regard to meals and other amenities.   The Princess “train” is a series of about four large domed cars, each with an excellent viewing capability and a dining room on the lower level.  The trip from Fairbanks was four hours and a very pleasant journey. 

            Arriving at the park.   At the train depot near the entrance to the park, about two thousand passengers departed from the train for their hotels just outside the park as other tourists then board the train for the continuing trip to Anchorage.  Within thirty minutes of our arrival, the station was empty except for Lila and I and one other couple.   We were waiting for the bus to take us to the Kantishna Roadhouse...it had not yet arrived….and it seemed, as we were now waiting in this isolated train station, that we were awaiting the arrival of the stage coach….but it was a bus and it arrived an hour later.   The bus was a converted school bus, but with seats for adults and most importantly it was air-conditioned, at least when the windows were open.  

            We were headed on the only road deep into the park …ninety miles to be exact…and it took us an unbelievable six hours to make the journey.   Going sixty miles an hour would have only required about ninety minutes for the complete trip.   But, at ten miles along the road, we left the pavement behind and then continued our trip on a gravel road.  And, then about thirty miles further along the two lane road became a single lane dirt road, if you can call it that.   We stopped along the way numerous times to give way to oncoming buses and also in response to sightings of all types of wildlife and birds.   I heartily recommend this ride for all who seek to commune more closely with nature and who want to cast aside all the comforts of city life.  

 

Princess Domed Car Moose Creek in Denali National Park

 

            The Kantishna Roadhouse.  We arrived at the Kantishna Roadhouse in time for dinner...if you could call it that....I had better meals at Boy Scout camp... and a little time to acquaint ourselves with the place.   It is no doubt the most remote and isolated place we have ever visited…ninety miles from civilization and totally ensconced in this most beautiful protected park.  Lila asked for a key to lock our cabin and we were asked “why?”.  There were no locks...they are just not needed.    

The meals were not consistent with the lodge brochure that indicated that dining was intended to uphold the tradition of Frances Quigley who was the manager of the original Kantishna Roadhouse in the very early 1900s…just about 100 years ago.   They either lied in the brochure or Frances was just a terrible host. 

For about a two year time period during that early 1900 period, prospecting for gold in Moose Creek (next door to the Roadhouse) was very popular.   Of course, nobody became wealthy as the gold was not very plentiful, but it set in place the foundation for this region to become a national park and natural wildlife reserve.  During our stay at the Roadhouse, we did pan for gold wearing our boots in Moose Creek…an activity that guests may take advantage of during their visit….and we actually found some pieces of gold that were then laminated as a memorial of our accomplishment.  We panned for about thirty minutes for what the old time prospectors did for long hours…searching for that elusive gold.  Don’t get too excited to head out to this region in search of gold....our gold “nuggets” we believe were actually placed in our sample. 

One morning we hiked up Blueberry Hill near Wonder Lake to view the peak of Mt. McKinley which is often shrouded in heavy clouds.   We were very fortunate to have had a clear sky and we were able to see the majestic peak twenty three miles away.  It was particularly interesting to learn about the history of Denali National Park and exhilarating to view the highest peak (20,350 feet) in the North American continent.  We also attended a lecture on the sport of dog mushing at the lodge and once again watched a demonstration of the dogs pulling a tractor.    

Each evening at the Katinshna Roadhouse we had lectures from guides and naturalists about the lives of Native Americans in Alaska and about the animals and plants in Denali National Park.  On one other morning, we hiked out along Moose Creek to see the result of beavers at work… they may have been resting when we arrived.  We were able to see the fruits of their work….their lodge, where they live and the dams that they built to sustain the living environment.    

We also participated in a sketching exercise and learned how to keep a journal of flowers and animals that we see in the park.  We used a Fireweed plant that grows extensively in the park in soil that is damaged or disturbed, as our model.  This purple plant is frequently seen adjacent to roads and trails. 

 

Blueberry Hill at Wonder Lake Beaver Dam in Moose Creek

 

At Wonder Lake in Denali Park …about one mile from the Kantishna Roadhouse …we had some amazing views of McKinley’s peak reflecting from the lake and were extremely fortunate to have had three days of clear blue skies.  During our hikes we had great views of the snow covered mountains all around the McKinley peak.   We wore long sleeved shirts and long pants when hiking, as well as head nets to keep the mosquitoes away.   We were told that because of the warm temperatures and dry conditions, the mosquitoes were not as much of a problem as we could have experienced.   Not sure what bothered me more -- the mosquitoes or the hot weather, but it was quite warm being as tightly clothed as we were.  

Another interesting part of our hiking experience was the “bear” lecture...everybody gets a ‘bear” lecture in Denali National Park.  We all start off thinking it is a joke and we kid about it, but then we learn it is the real deal and well, it scares us.   What it is ...is that we have to make sure not to run away from the bear when we are confronted....right, try it sometime.   If a grizzly bear approaches or charges you, then you lay down on the floor with your hands clasped behind your neck in a fetal position.   If, however, it is a black bear...you can stand and attempt to strike the black bear in the face to make it back away.   If you mistake the grizzly for a black bear, not a problem...just hope your will is current.  And finally, if a moose attacks you, run like hell and hide behind a tree...moose kill far more people than bears ever do. 

While at the Kantishna Roadhouse, I arranged for a flight in a small plane up to Mount McKinley …we flew so close to the McKinley peak that I felt like I could just reach out and touch it.  Starting from almost twenty miles away, as we approached McKinley it became wider and wider until it seemed to completely fill the scene ahead of me.  And when it appeared that we might hit the mountain, I learned that we were still about six miles away.  As we flew around from the north face to the south face, we saw the base camp for the climbers and even could see climbers on their way to the summit.  The flight was after ten o’clock in the evening, so the setting sun provided the alpenglow that is often talked about. 

The time came for our departure and the bus ride out of the park.   After a very early breakfast, the saying of good-byes preceded our boarding the bus with about fourteen other guests.   Back on the one lane dirt road, traveling at around fifteen miles per hour we continued our search for a last look for a sighting of the many animals that make the park their home.  We also try to gleam a final look at the elusive Mt. McKinley, but smoke from a fire north of Fairbanks has finally worked it way down into the park and has totally engulfed the park with heavy clouds. 

During our visit, we did see many of the birds that are unique to the park...but there are more bird species than I could ever write about.   We also saw a muskrat, beavers, black bears and even a caribou.  Each time the bus would stop abruptly as each person scurries to a window for what may be a last look at the wildlife.  Then up on a hill we see a grizzly bear but it is almost a microdot being that far away…but then a little distance further down the road we would see another grizzly this one moving rapidly in the tundra just off the road.   The grizzly crosses the road to the other side and then once again it comes up on the road as it moves right in front of the bus before it once again heads into the tundra and away from us.

 

Mount McKinley from the Plane

Anchorage

            We picked up a rental car and began our one hundred mile journey north of Anchorage to the town of Chickaloon in order to reach the Matanuska glacier.   After signing all the necessary paper work…to assure our outfitter that we will not sue them if we fall into a hole on the ice....yea right.  We collected our boots and drove to the glacier along a silt filled road to the trailhead -- silt is a fine powder residue that is washed down from the glacier.  On the horizon we see the glacier ahead of us with the Chugach Mountains on one side and the Talkeetnas mountains on the other side.  After a one mile hike and with our naturalist guide, Wes, who provided constant guidance and information, we reached the beginning of the glacier, but in fact we had already been walking on the glacier for most of that distance…but by this time we reached the “white” ice.   Up until then we were walking on frost levels that were probably a hundred feet thick.. 

            At this point, we attached crampons to our boots and headed onto the white ice.   What looked like a bluish-white glacier from afar was actually ice filled with rocks and stones that were carried thousands of miles along the glacier’s path by the movement of the glacial ice.  We crossed over crevasses and moulins …crevasses are sheer cuts in the ice that may go down hundreds of feet and moulins are water paths that “drill” holes into the ice with swirling water.   We could also see water chutes ....surging water paths that are exiting the ice from below the water level. 

            Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and is home to about half of the states population.   For its size, it has many excellent restaurants, malls, a performing arts center and many other big city amenities.   A new Starbucks coffee shop will open this month....so Anchorage is now really on the map.  The people who live here almost to the person would rather live here than any other place in the country.   It is not cheap to live here, but without state income tax and no sales tax, the cost of living is somewhat marginalized.   The state depends heavily on revenue from tourism, the presence of federal government agencies, and fishing to support its operating expenses.  Actually, Anchorage is a place that I could live…no crowds and no traffic….but I have not experienced the cold weather and the winter darkness.  So until further notice I am not making any moving plans, but I would like to visit Alaska sometime closer to the winter season....maybe to watch the Iditarod races.     

            We had scheduled a trip to the Redoubt Bay Lodge at the Lake Clark Wilderness Preserve to view bears in their native habitat.   Waking early we headed to the airport, which was near a small waterway, for our transit in a small Cessna six passenger plane on pontoons.   After taking off and flying for about forty minutes at about three hundred feet above the tree tops, fog interrupted our trip and we had to return back to our base.   After waiting about an hour, conditions still did not improve, so we had to cancel our plans.   It was an unfortunate situation as we were finally able to get Lila into this light/small/float plane...that confluence of events may never happen again. 

 

Matanuska Glacier Float Plane

Kenai Peninsula: Seward and Girdwood

            The Kenai Peninsula is bordered by the Cook Inlet, the Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska in addition to the Chugach Mountains coming down from the north.  From Anchorage, our drive to Seward on the Kenai Peninsula was an easy one and just under three hours, and the scenery was extraordinary.  We drove around the Turnagain Arm ...a waterway off the Cook Inlet that experiences tidal bore currents.   These currents cause the flow of water in Turnagain Arm to reverse in response to the tidal action and may be the basis for the waterway’s name.    

A low cloud cover, typical to the region so close to the water, obscured the tops of the mountains the entire drive to Seward, but it could not mask the matchless splendor of the Kenai Peninsula.  We continued through to Seward, wanting to stop at each of the many viewing points…each one better than the last…but the low clouds made taking pictures especially difficult.   Once in Seward, the sun came out for a little while but the standard weather for this area is what we got….cloudy and possible rain.   The only constant here with regard to weather was that it will soon change.    

            There were two large cruise ships in port, but they and their thousands of guests left by evening…the town was quieter but only for a little while.    July 4th is a most popular time here in Seward…not only for the fact that it is the nation’s birthday, but it is also the date for the Mount Marathon Race…..a competition of runners from afar as well as those local to Alaska.  Open to hundreds of men, women and juniors who meet stringent entry standards…they run an amazing race that is only three and one tenth miles, but it is over a course that experiences an astounding 3,000 feet elevation change with an average slope of 38 percent and a maximum slope of 60 percent.   An amazing feat, that takes less than an hour to complete for the winners.   

            But the highlight of our visit was not the fact that I was entered in this race as a senior…only kidding….was a cruise through the many fiords that make the Kenai Peninsula so exceptional.  The eight hour cruise would take us to see glaciers, wildlife and sea life that is unique to this area.  We left the port in Seward at ten o’clock and returned early evening having traveled over 125 miles, but not before we had dinner at a rustic log cabin lodge on Fox Island.   

            During this cruise we saw a black bear traversing a steep incline, two humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, many birds of the region…and the world’s largest tide water glacier.  The Aialik Glacier rose over four hundred feet above the water surface and was at least one-half  mile wide.   As we hovered in the ice filled bay less than a half mile from the edge of the glacier, we watched and listened as the glacier would calve and huge pieces of ice would fall into the water.   The water temperature was quite cold and we were told that a person falling into the water would last only about ten minutes. 

            Our last visit before returning to Anchorage was to Girdwood...Girdwood is a ski resort village (probably the only ski resort in the state, but one sporting some of the steepest slopes I have ever seen) that is totally surrounded with beautifully snow covered mountains ...even in the summer.  We stayed at the beautiful five diamond resort ...the Alyeska Prince Hotel!  We had planned one night there before we would then drive to Whittier to catch another cruise...a cruise of the many glaciers in Prince William Sound.  The hotel was quite elaborate with many guest facilities especially a tram to the top of the ski slope and its recognized restaurant, where you could eat well and see well all at the same time.    

To reach Whittier we had to drive through a one way tunnel, about three miles long, that changes roadway direction every half hour except for the noon hour where the train uses the same roadbed.   Neat idea, if you make the schedule, which we did, but upon arriving in Whittier we found “nothing” except a small port area where our boat would be arriving later than expected, so we cancelled our reservation and made the tunnel schedule out of Whittier...whew, that was a close call!   Great cruise, but “nothing” else awaits anyone in Whittier.

 

American Eagle in Kenai Peninsula Caribou in Kenai Peninsula

Headin’ Home

            Back on the main road we were in Anchorage within an hour’s easy drive and made the final plans for our return to the lower forty-eight.  Alaska was not exactly what we expected, probably because it is so different from the places that we normally visit.   Alaska is very large and relatively thinly populated.   Those people that make Alaska home are rugged minded people that have been subjected to harsh environments.  They want and expect the freedom to have a lifestyle using the means that they have available to them.   They are openly friendly and they seem to love their life.    

            The land is exceptionally beautiful in a very rugged way...it is strong and hardy and it has a way of calling out for you to be a part of it and to share in what it has to offer.  Life in Alaska is an adventure, and it is simpler than the intense and competitive life style we live in the lower forty-eight.   It is for a tough, independent people who can handle the weather and daylight changes and the resources that exist in the untamed areas of the state where there are not too many people around, somewhat like our lives were forty or so years ago in the lower forty-eight.   There is no question that more people will one day live in Alaska but I do hope it always retains that easy, unfettered life style.

 

The Letow's on Ice Lila in Fairbanks