Sunday, September 26, 2010

Travels in Alaska: The Road North to Denali

We leave Anchorage in a light rain, driving on blacktop with our little rental Nissan wedged between SUVs and big rigs worthy of Ice Road Truckers. The suburbs don't linger, but stoplights do slow us down in Wasilla, where the banner outside a coffeeshop proclaims "Palin Fever!". We hit the liquor store inside the Fred Meyer early in the morning to pick up a bottle of whiskey for our relatives. You don't show up empty-handed in rural Alaska, where the nearest Costco may be over 100 miles away.

Getting off the highway, we snake around back roads and climb slowly toward Hatcher Pass. At Independence Mine State Historic Park, we're almost the only visitors walking along the wind-whipped trails through a ghostly settlement once gripped by gold fever. The road turns to crunchy gravel before summiting the pass, then sails down into the valley. Hunters in their pick-ups and RVs chew the fat by the roadside. A moose rockets across the road going 30mph, maybe sensing that hunting dogs might soon be hot on its hooves. That quick flash of wildlife is all we'll see of Alaska's megafauna for days.

Grizzlies? Forget about seeing 'em, though signposts in Chugatch State Park warn us off certain barricaded hiking trails along the Eagle River, where bears are chowing down on late salmon runs. Same thing goes for moose in Denali National Park: signs along the main park road tell us to stay out of certain areas of the wilderness, because the beasts are rutting now. (Apparently, they value their privacy.) Almost a week in Alaska, and our wildlife count is still laughably low: 4 fat squirrels, 2 bald eagles, 1 shy snowshoe hare, 1 moose on the run, and zero caribou, bears or Dall sheep.

But in no way is Denali disappointing, even if we can only drive the first 15 miles of the park's winding road into the wilderness. We tumble along the Savage Canyon Trail through a valley cloaked in a rustic palette of autumn colors. Summer has lasted longer than expected, with blue skies and strong sunshine that made putting on the Capilene base layer this morning pointless. None of the dozen straggling hikers on the trail talks very much. We all beam with beatific, even idiotic smiles.

It's mind-boggling how
many millions of acres in Alaska are even more remote, remaining almost perfectly in their natural state, than this small river canyon. One human life is not enough to even get to know the Last Frontier. Even John Muir only explored a tiny corner of it, in an obsessive quest to finally prove that glaciers carved the Sierra Nevada. To see those blue-ice glaciers calve into the sea is where we're headed next.

But not before we stop by the park's sled dog kennels to give the canines a scritch (most prefer to just bark at us from atop their little log-cabin doghouses). Then we detour for a late-afternoon hike alongside the railroad tracks down to Horseshoe Lake to see the beaver dam. Oh yes, and grab microbrews at the hilltop Salmon Bake bar. Luckily, we still catch the alpenglow over Denali, the mighty mountain itself, before heading back to bed in Talkeetna, where the howling of a pack of Iditarod dogs rings out as regularly as church bells all night long.

Related links:
Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage
American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?
National Parks in 2010: Looking Forward

Photos: Alaska (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Travels in Alaska: A is for Anchorage

After navigating the tight corkscrews of Anchorage's airport parking garage, we ease into traffic drifting toward downtown. The first thing we notice are the ancient Subarus turned into all-weather taxis. This is Alaska, and you need a road warrior's car to make it through the winter.

But we're here at the tail end of summer. Good-bye, cruise ship tourists, RV-driving retirees and Asian package tour groups. Hello, shaking yellow aspen trees, arctic winds and riled-up moose in rutting season. Anchorage is draped in a cloud blanket of fog and mist, bracing and salty as any other fishing town up or down the West Coast.

Reminders of w
inter are scattered about. A sign on the stairway leading down to the train tracks warns pedestrians not to wear high heels because, "You could be injured or, God forbid, die." Alaskans tell it like it us, without mercy. Nobody is sitting on the brewpub deck overlooking Cook Inlet. A rainbow arcs over the tidal flats at sunset, while skater teens trade money for drugs in Resolution Park below the monument to Captain Cook, who anchored here in the late 18th century.

First Nations were already o
n the scene for centuries before Europe stumbled across Alaska's chilly coastline. Inside the Anchorage Museum, Native Alaskans and the Smithsonian (the USA's benevolently imperialist cultural curator) put birdskin parkas, spirit masks and weapons on display. TV screens roll endless loops of oral history and sneak peeks of the landscapes in Alaska's wildest places, where most outsiders can't, won't or don't go.

In Alaska's biggest shopping mall, there's a post office so folks can mail back essential supplies to the bush. The cheerful postal clerk says he can't wait for his upcoming trip to Maui. Like most Alaskans, he makes an escape to Alaska's doppelganger, Hawaii, every winter. America's 49th and 50th states are bound together as tightly as siblings, though one proudly calls itself the Last Frontier -- a motto meant to drive folks away, especially "city sissies," as my uncle-in-law calls 'em -- while the other's nickname is the Aloha State, meaning they'll welcome just about anyone.

Anchorage (or, "Los Anchorage," as that same uncle disparagingly calls it, probably for its urban grit reminiscent of LA, my husband theorizes) is a frontier city. Don't believe that? Drive around Lake Hood seaplane base, the world's largest floatplane lake, and watch the planes with pontoons (or in winter, skis) come in for a landing or take off to soar back to the wild places their pilots call home. We stare wide-eyed at the crazy, but brave feats chronicled in the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, then scarf down a reindeer hot dog as we watch the short take-offs and landings on the lake. All the while day-dreaming of Denali, our next stop on the road north.

What are your fave spots in Alaska? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Photos: Anchorage (Michael Connolly, Jr.)