Within a week of returning from Thailand, we found ourselves back in Minneapolis and a few days later, in Anchorage, Alaska. The trip was long awaited and bound to be momentous for several reasons: 1. It’s been about eight years since I’ve traveled with my Mom and Step-Dad (that is, outside of Michigan and Minnesota) and my husband’s first time; 2. It’s our first family vacation outside of Michigan ever (my hardworking Step-Brother and his girlfriend took a week off work for the first time I can remember!); and 3. It’s Alaska, a totally new place for all but one of us.
The weirdest part of the trip happened right away, but recurred every night. Since we visited in summer, the sun really doesn’t disappear much. We flew in at 1 AM and I could still see light on the horizon. Each night, we had to artfully arrange the blackout curtains to keep little seams of radiant light from pouring in the room when we tried to fall asleep around 11 PM and to keep us from waking up at 3 AM when it returned a new!
My Mother is an excellent trip-planner and had exciting activities for us to do each day; these primarily involved different types of transportation to see diverse parts of Alaska. We rode the Alaskan Railroad through flat, open grassy areas enclosed by mountains to Talkeetna, our first destination. The town is best known as the base for exploring Denali, the highest point in the United States. Twenty-eight days of mountaineering to the peak sounded a little long and intense for us, so we cheated and flew on a small plane around Denali and the surrounding peaks. I managed to suppress the persistent fear of plummeting to my death just before reaching the mountains (deep breathing exercises work wonders for much in life). The views were unprecedented. The dark grey mountains looked sharp, freshly made, and barren—surprisingly different from the Rockies. Vibrant blue glaciers nestled in many of the shaded crevasses. We even spotted some tiny ants departing from some of the various base camps in their climbing pursuits. By far, this was my favorite experience in Alaska.
While in Talkeetna, we took a jet boat tour up the Susitna River to a spot called Devil’s Canyon. The trip brought us close to some Class 4 and 5 rapids, which felt like a great rollercoaster ride! We took another boat tour in Seward, a town reached by train offering picturesque views and dynamic landscapes during the journey. We were supposed to see the Kenai Fjords, but 15’ swells that day kept us in the bay for a wildlife tour instead (definitely for the best, we got to the opening of the bay at one point and the intensity of the waves had some people turning green). A bit disappointing because I really wanted to see some glaciers and icebergs up close. However, we saw a variety of terrestrial and marine animals including otters, humpback whales, porpoise, sea lions, mountain sheep, eagles, and a lot of other birds. Later in the day, my husband and I walked around the harbor, observed some otters enjoying their shellfish dinners, played hide and seek with a harbor seal in the water, and followed the shoreline for a few miles for a relaxing tour of the town.
We also saw a tiny bit of Alaska via sled dog! Now this wasn’t dog sledding exactly. We saw the training camp for one of the Iditarod racing dynasties, learned about the dogs they train, and got to hold some puppies! A spirited team of 13 dogs, made of pure muscle, pulled us in a wheeled cart for a brief tour of the surrounding forest; it was not quite the typical sled dog experience, but still thrilling to see them work as a team.
This tour also had us hike to Exit Glacier. The path into the park is lined with dated signs, each marking the boundary of the glacier for that year. The first, from 1918, is about a mile from where the glacier is now. When getting close to the glacier it is easy to spot two lookout points – one is from 2005 and is about two hundred feet from the current lookout next to the glacier. It offers a visual illustration of how much our world has changed since the Industrial Revolution, how rapidly these cold spots on Earth are melting, and how significant the impact will be as it continues to happen.
For the last bit of our trip, we were based in Anchorage and the surrounding areas. We moved around by car along some scenic highways looking for wildlife (and succeeded in spotting a black bear, mountain sheep, and a moose) and took the Alyeska Tramway up to the resort for a great view of the surrounding area. There are a few spots in Anchorage that are worth checking out: Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, The Kobuk Café and Gift Shop, and the Anchorage Museum. The museum has some amazing exhibits! The Alaska Native Cultures exhibit (permanent), features a breathtaking and priceless collection of artifacts from the various native groups who existed and still live in Alaska. Many of the artifacts came from the Smithsonian and are truly remarkable in their preservation and diversity (intestine parka anyone?). Another great exhibit, albeit a temporary one, is Polar Bear Garden, which presents the shared history and culture between Alaska and Russia. The similarities and differences were really fascinating, like learning the true differences between a Siberian Husky and an Alaskan Malamute, as well as how the United States came to purchase Alaska and if we legally own it since we never paid it off apparently!
Half of our family got super sick with a cold/flu mix for the last three days of the trip. My husband and I were taken out for an entire day (it truly was one of the worst illnesses of my adult life). And moms never stop taking care of their kids (no one will ever be as good as my Mom at taking care of me when I’m sick!), which means my poor Mom got it too. Half of us being ill made for a funny plane ride home. My husband was coughing a lot on the flight and the woman across the aisle from him kept giving him looks of horror and hate every time he did so. She covered her nose and mouth with her parka the entire flight home and eventually asked the flight attendant for a surgeon’s mask. I just laughed because her reactions were so comical.
Throughout the trip I continued to wonder what made Alaska so special and why so many people from Michigan and Texas find it appealing (over half of the people I overheard talking were from these states, it was really bizarre)? The wildlife and parts of the state look like Colorado or spots along the Rockies, what makes it different? Then it hit me – you don’t see houses surrounding lakes in Alaska, it is untouched in many ways. It is appealing because it represents freedom, independence, the need to be self-sufficient, and offers a glimpse of what our country probably looked like before we tamed nature and established permanent communities. It is a resource rich area that maintained its beauty and purity through isolation.