Our last day in Alaska was filled with driving. We had a lot of ground to cover to get Laura to her conference in Anchorage, and we made it harder on ourselves by taking a 175 mile detour to the Worthington Glacier as recommended by the East German woman who ran the roadhouse we had stayed at the night before. We also paused and took a brief hike to view the Matsunaka Glacier.
By the end of the trip, I was amused by the marked change in Laura’s outlook. When she picked me up in Anchorage, she kept commenting on how small it seemed. I kept telling her that we were in the big city, and she seemed skeptical. Driving back to Anchorage, we stopped in Palmer, which is almost an Anchorage suburb. “This town is so big! There are so many cars!” Ah, how quickly we adapt. When we checked in to her conference hotel — a Hilton — we were both shell shocked by the luxury. Fresh towels! A shower that is taller than me with real temperature control! An elevator!
Alas, I did not stay at the Hilton. I took a 1 AM flight back to SF. I thought I might see darkness from the plane for the first time since leaving the lower 48. But even though I didn’t really fall asleep, just as it looked like dusk might descend into night, the sun started to rise again. A starry night sky would have to wait until I returned to California.
Here’s Laura and I in our final Alaska minute…
… and lest you not believe us about the eagle, here is the amazing picture Laura’s DSLR got of him flying around above us shortly after we stopped filming the above video. That’s National Geographic stuff right there.
An eagle soaring above us
(Coming eventually: I will sort through the 1000s of photos we took and pick the best ones to put on Picasa. But nothing beats that eagle.)
Alaska Day 4 (Saturday)… our original plan had been to drive the Denali Highway, an unmaintained 135 mile dirt road that goes east from Denali National Park to a tiny little town (which we learned barely qualifies as a town) called Paxson. However, a morning rain storm and a bit of concern from the owner of the cabins we woke up at convinced that driving an unmaintained wet gravel road through the mountains in a Ford Fiesta was not the best idea. So instead, we headed north to Fairbanks and planned to take the Richardson Highway back south to Paxson — a fairly substantial detour.
Our first stop was in the tiny railroad town of Nenana, home of the Nenana Ice Classic, where you can buy a ticket guessing the day, hour, and minute that the ice will break on the river and earn a six-figure prize if you’re correct. Nenana is also home to Joanne Hawkins, who might be my favorite person that we came across on the trip. Joanne was the clerk at a little gift shop in town and she had plenty of stories to tell us — including the fact that her book was just published and she had autographed copies for sale. Only later did Laura and I figure out that this independent self-made woman owns half of Nenana. I really regret not buying her book, although it appears to be available from an independent seller on Amazon.
After Nenana, we drove to Fairbanks and stopped to visit the hometown of our old college friend Jay Schamel (who is now in Georgia, alas). Then we stopped at the North Pole. Okay, not the North Pole, but North Pole, Alaska, where we did find Santa and his reindeer. Deciding we’d had enough of the road, we took a break to go canoeing in the Chena Lakes before heading out to the Knotty Shop for some ice cream and souvenirs.
Shortly after we left the Knotty Shop (amazingly delicious butter pecan ice cream, by the way), we started seeing moose all over the place — we counted a total of seven.
After stops in Delta Junction to check out Rika’s Roadhouse (now a historical park) and get some dinner, we realized that it was 9 PM, but we were still too far from Anchorage to stop with any hope of getting Laura to her conference on Sunday. We also noted that we were 151 miles from the nearest town that had lodging according to the Lonely Planet travel guide. And so we did the only sensible thing — we made a pact to keep driving and hope that there would be something and agreed to sleep in the car if there was nothing. After all, we didn’t have to worry about it getting dark! We saw the midnight sun from the car, and after a few false hopes, we found the Meiers Lake Roadhouse, which doesn’t appear in any guides or maps that we can find. But it was a bed and a shower — both very welcome things at 1 am.
A much delayed report of day three of the trip because we spent the last few days at places with no wifi. But at least there were showers. Friday we woke up in the hostel and headed a few miles north to Denali National Park. We took the green shuttle bus out to the Eielson Visitor Center and then went on a hike further into the park. We saw quite the array of wildlife including:
- Caribou, probably about a dozen total over three groups. (Laura and I also saw one on the highway driving up from Talkeetna.)
- Dall sheep… soooo many Dall sheep. But the ones that were ten feet from the bus were the most impressive
- A brown bear — This was the only animal that excited the bus driver. “Bear on the road! Bear on the road, 12 o’ clock! Everyone roll down your windows and be quiet!”
- Golden Eagle
Sadly, the clouds blocked our view of Denali the mountain… (Note that in the following video, I am standing about five feet in front of Laura, and as a result, I look like a giant compared to her — or she looks extra small.)
On the bus ride back we met Cass. Cass is a clerk for the interpretive center at the park, but on Friday he was just taking the shuttle bus ride like any other visitor. He pointed out something that changed the way I viewed the park: “The star of the show is not the landscape, it’s the light. The mountains are a beautiful canvas, but the way they are painted by the midnight sun with its odd angles is what makes them more dramatic than any other mountain range.” I’m paraphrasing him, but it’s a remarkable (and true) sentiment.
After we were finished, we drove to Healy and stayed at a cute little cabin a mile up a dirt road. We were a little loopy at this point due to the lack of sleep caused by the strange psychological effects of the midnight sun… also, we hadn’t showered in a few days, so we don’t look our best.
Laura and I are outside of Denali National Park staying in a hostel in Carlo Creek. This is making Laura nervous because we are in a shared co-ed cabin with no locks. Luckily, no one else has checked in to our cabin, male or female, and no one stole our stuff while we went to dinner across the street. I suggested we get the tents, which came with cots and sleeping bags, but the look on Laura’s face said that was a no-go even though it was cheaper.
But hey, there’s wifi… slow wifi, but it works. Unfortunately, because it’s slow, there will be no posting of the Alaska Minute we filmed in Talkeetna this afternoon. Nor any of the pictures we got of the waterfall we hiked to or our Sarah Palin impressions in Wasilla (for you, Scott) or the Caribou we saw on the side of the road or the corn hole game we played at the bar across the street from our hostel along a mountain stream. (We lost, but there was beer and pizza so it was all good.) We also went running around a dilapidated old building, which we think was a hotel, called “IGLOO.” I don’t really know what it was or how to describe it.
Also, it’s still light out. It’s five minutes to midnight. We asked when we booked the hostel room when it gets dark. The guy kind of laughed and said “Never.”
And an Australian just offered us a vegemite sandwich. Hostels are great!
Edit: The hostel people restarted the router… it seems possible to upload a YouTube video now. If it works, the embedded video below will be functional in the morning.
Remember a year and a half ago when I went to Alaska and took an approximately one minute long video each day and video blogged the trip? No? Go to the right of the blog and look up the October 2010 archives… I’ll wait.
Caught up? Okay, good. Because I’m in Alaska again and video blogging again — this time with the lovely Laura Lopez. Here’s one of the highlights of day 1, when we saw moose at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Below that is a brief clip of one of the bears we saw there — not as cool as the time I saw the bear in the wild (you did just look through all the 2010 videos, right?) but still pretty neat to be that close to one… even if he was behind an electrified fence.
Also, it’s almost midnight here and it’s still light out. My internal clock is so very confused right now.