Whenever I tell people that I teach in Alaska usually one of the first things out of their mouths is a variation of “Oh I’ve heard Alaska is so beautiful!” My response has been, “I’ve heard good things.” To be fair, western Alaska is nice to look at. The gradual transition to fall with the various tundra plants changing from deep green to oranges and reds and finally to a very fall-like brown does attract my attention when the sun is shining and the winds are calm. But the gentle subtlety of the tundra is not what the people I’ve talked to have in mind. They picture eye-popping mountain vistas. They see calving glaciers splashing to the sea. Above it all the bald eagle surveying the scene as whale and grizzly command the water and land.
So we decided that we should do the Alaskan adventure that everyone assumed we did during the nine months a year we spent teaching.
|Glacier National Park - pretty place...until you go to Alaska. I jokes.|
|Lake McDonald - Glacier National Park|
|Mountain goats. Glacier National Park.|
|And without a car we wouldn't have had the opportunity to drive on leopard roads!|
|And in case you are lost in the woods. Okay, it was on the side of the road.|
Denali National Park is huge. Most people (including us) only get to see a very small part of it. There is only one road in the park, and most of that road is closed to the public. That's where the buses from above come into play. Forcing visitors to use the buses cuts down significantly on traffic in the park. It's a little annoying if you want to move at your own pace, but it's pretty awesome if you want to see animals. From the bus we saw caribou, sheep, fox, bear (finally), even a lone wolf one evening running off in the distance. It's amazing how safe you feel observing the wildness of Alaska from within a metal walled bus. This changes dramatically when you see a bear and you are not in the bus anymore (this is a story for later). Hiking with the buses is also very convenient. When you want to get off and start a hike you simply signal the driver. Without any officially maintained trails, this is theoretically possible to do anywhere. In reality, there are more or less unofficial trails that tend to earn reputations from other hikers or recommendations from the bus drivers. We took advantage of the wisdom of others and took a few of these hikes.
|Hiking - Alaska style.|
|"Ah! What a lovely couple!" - Kurt Jones circa 2011|
|Just some mountains. No big deal.|
After Denali we headed over to the bizarre hippy/middle-aged tourist haven known as Talkeetna. It was a weird mix of awesome. The thing about Alaska is that it attracts well-to-do middle-aged couples (we met a 50-something newly married couple on their honeymoon) seeking the Alaskan experience (gold panning, salmon fishing, big game hunting) and at the same time it attracts those of the younger generation with interests in the fields of hippie-dom, alcohol fishing, and hitchhiking. Imagine Duluth+San Francisco in 1969. These two groups of people, along with the third group – the locals (think the “keep it local and organic” crowd + the NRA’s most vocal advocates) all intersect in Talkeetna. The sum of all of this is a large number of locally-owned shops, restaurants, and tour companies staffed by scruffy looking gen-y’ers tending to every whim of the baby-boomers’ desires. We, like everyone else we met or had talked to, loved Talkeetna.
|Flight-seeing. So baller.|
From Talkeetna, we drove to Valdez. A small community ringed by massive mountains and the Pacific. Valdez is gorgeous. Valdez is a pretty eerie place. It is famous for its catastrophes. In 1964 the town was demolished by the infamous Good Friday Earthquake. The quake was the second largest recorded earthquake on record (magnitude 9.2), and it caused a landslide-induced tsunami that swept away much of the old town’s buildings. Twenty-five years later, again on Good Friday, the Exxon Valdez ran aground spilling oil just outside of the town polluting the shoreline for miles and killing sea birds, mammals, and fish. Despite these two events, Valdez is home to the terminus of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. We spent a few days bumming around Valdez before heading to Anchorage and from their flying back to Tununak to start year five.
|Popular dinner spot with the Valdez locals. We found the food to be overrated and underdone.|
|The end of the line. Way up there on that hill.|
|And you are definitely not allowed to visit.|
|Denali from Talkeetna.|