Alaska: Ice, Mosquitoes, and Cute Fuzzy Things

For those of you living under a rock, or just ignorant of my activities as seen on Facebook, I was in Alaska from the 18th to the 27th. It’s been an interesting experience, I honestly didn’t know what to expect going. We all have our conceptions about how it’s an unconquered frontier with grizzly bears and lots of snow and mosquitoes, but those notions really don’t do it justice. Alaska is a HUGE state that’s stitched by looming mountains, expansive forests, and a healthy dose of water via rivers and lakes. Towns are formed where they can be, and fishermen and campers are sprinkled almost everywhere else.

The general feel of life there is quite simplistic, sharply contrasted with bits of cutting edge technology. Drive across Alaska and you’ll find lonely lodges far removed from society, aging propeller planes bringing people to remote locales, and power lines traversing hundreds of miles of wilderness to bring electricity to distant towns. Yet every now and then, you’ll spot a Toyota Prius between dilapidated pickup trucks, or a new GPS navigation system on a float plane whose instrument panel is threatening to rattle itself to pieces. It’s these juxtapositions that highlights how no matter how advanced we are, the land of Alaska refuses to be conquered by time.

Before I start getting too abstract, let me switch gears to a description of my trip, which I’m sure you’re actually here to read about. I woke up, on that fine Wednesday morning of the 18th at 4:30 AM to catch our 7 AM flight to Seattle. Definitely not fun, but the sunrise helped burn away the residual sleepiness. We had an uneventful, and fairly on-time flight into SEA from EWR. Surprisingly enough, they served breakfast. I guess budget woes haven’t killed meal-service just yet, though I would’ve preferred a more exciting in-flight movie… After a light lunch, we continued into ANC. Also uneventful and on-time shockingly enough.

Upon landing, we grabbed out bags and embarked on a 4-5 hour drive down to the lovely town of Homer where we met up with my cousin’s family (they started their trip a few days earlier and had visited Denali National Park first). Dinner was had at a crude, but particularly ethnic Russian “café.” Gift shop fused with a kitchen would be more accurate, but I digress. Following that, we planted ourselves in our room at the Bay View Inn. It was a small place that could clearly have done with some bathroom renovations, but the view was nothing short of breathtaking. I thought it was awesome in twilight, but it was even better during in the morning sun.

We had a quick breakfast and drove further into Homer on day 2, stopping by the beach to snap closer shots of the mountain-rimmed bay, and then to a narrow peninsula jutting into Kachemak Bay for a stunning 180+ degree view of snow-capped mountains. We then drove an hour or so to go salmon fishing. That was an interesting, serene-frustrating-exciting activity. It was neat, just standing knee-deep in the turquoise (no, not ‘aqua’ or some other BS color) river, falling into a pattern as I cast my line. I got one bite, but in my inexperienced state, I lost the fish. Still cool nonetheless. I’d also sprung a leak in my waders, resulting in a complete drenching of my right leg. I just hadn’t noticed it because the cold penetrated the neoprene and numbed my legs.
For day 3, we drove to Seward, stopping in the morning for a dog sled ride. It was really just a glorified cart on wheels, but seeing as it weighed upwards of 600 pounds, carried 7 people, and was pulled at a running pace by dogs no taller than your waist, it was pretty impressive. Plus, we got to cuddle with Husky pups, so that was a definite positive experience (omg, they’re so soft and adorable!!!). We continued into Seward, and by the early afternoon, we were on a wilderness-wildlife cruise of the Resurrection Bay. Lots of snow-capped mountains, quite a few seabirds, and the occasional eagle and sea lion sighting.
The next day, we drove up to Whittier. It’s a town accessible only by a one lane tunnel, also shared by a train. The direction of traffic shifts every half hour, definitely an interesting place, and slightly unnerving, driving into a dark tunnel while straddling train tracks. We emerged into a town nestled on the coast of Prince William Sound, had lunch at a nice café run by a couple overlooking the bay, and boarded another cruise, this one for glaciers. This one was on decidedly calmer waters, as it was more sheltered from the sea. We got within a mile of two glaciers and chilled (pun partially intended) in ice-laden waters, listening to the glaciers creaking and groaning. After getting back close to 7, we caught the outbound traffic time-slot out of Whittier and planted ourselves in Anchorage for the night.

Day 5 was Sunday, and seeing as my relatives and their friends we went fishing with (on day 2) were Christian, my mom thought it respectful to join them for a morning service. Since I generally try to keep an open mind, I thought nothing of it until we actually got to the church. I should have known better. We’re Chinese. The congregation was predominantly Chinese. The service was therefore bilingual. The singing was Chinese. Oh the horror. My hopes for a straightforward service were dashed when I realized that after each reading of a bible passage, it had to be repeated in English, doubling the length of the entire procedure. But I survived, and we went to a flea market afterwards. Not quite my thing, and it was drizzling somewhat. Dinner was had at an Asian buffet.

The next day, we woke up early to fly to Brooks Lodge, a place noted for bear viewing. It was a two leg journey by small plane, and I was fortunate to commandeer the copilot’s seat for both inbound segments. The view was cool to say the least, most people never get a chance to look dead ahead when flying, much less cruise at low altitudes. Upon arriving, we encountered a drought of several hours without seeing a bear. The salmon run had not yet begun so the place wasn’t a bear hotspot yet (alas, nature cannot be predicted). But our trip was salvaged when shortly after lunch, when we saw a lone bear across a marsh, and then later, a mother and her two cubs lounging on the beach. We flew back and spent another night in Anchorage. My cousins & associated family flew back to sunny Cali.

And on the 7th day, dad said “let there be a glacier,” and we saw a glacier… Okay, maybe I’m paraphrasing, but we did go out of our way, on the way up to Denali, to visit the Matanuska Glacier and walk on it. That was kind of fun, challenging myself to run on ice without falling. It was cool, yet slightly disconcerting as I walked within a few feet of a multi-story fall into an icy abyss (and yes, I do have a slight fear of heights, but nothing against flying strangely enough). We continued a several hour long drive up to Denali and arrived at our lodge on mile 231 of the Parks Highway.

We woke up at 5 AM to get breakfast and catch our tour bus into the park. It was quite the cool experience, driving over 90 miles into the interior of Denali National Park. I’d never thought that we could see so much wildlife from a road, but we did. A dozen grizzly bears, scores of caribou, a smattering of moose, and countless snowshoe hares were encountered at some point on the day long trip. It really shows what nature’s capable of with a minimal amount of human presence (the only private vehicles allowed that far into the park were tour busses). The park itself was also spectacular. The scale and diversity of the land was completely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (short of Planet Earth on the Discovery Channel). Sprawling grass-covered valleys routed by steep mountains were spread out before us for the majority of the trip. We were also quite lucky to see Mt. McKinley, visible only 20% of the time due to cloud cover. Our tour (Kantishna Tour line) also gave us a choice of activities for after lunch, my parents opted for gold panning, so I was forced to hesitantly put on waders once again and step into the frigid waters. I had no idea what I was doing, but with a pair of experienced eyes overseeing my clumsy attempts to perform the task at hand, I uncovered a rather underwhelmingly tiny gold flake, a souvenir I suppose.

On our last day at Denali, we took a short trip to a lake on a ranger-led hike. Luck was strongly in our favor, as we found a moose and her calf grazing in the shallows of the beaver-formed lake. We were no more than 30 yards away, watching them go about life ignorant of our presence, very cool if I do say so myself. Following that, we dropped by the dog kennels and met the only husky teams in the national park system. Alas, the puppies weren’t available for cuddling, but I got to get close to a few other canine denizens. Visit concluded, we partially filled out gas tank and headed for Trapper Creek (Regular at that particular station was $5.33). We arrived at a trio of moderately sized cabins with a clouded over view of Mt. McKinley. As I write this, I’m hoping that we’ll have a clear view of the mountain for tomorrow morning, but we’ll see. (The date is 26.5.08, we are roughly 30 hours from home!!!)

Aaaaaaand… no. It’s cloudy on our last day in Alaska. No view of Denali. Oh well. Not that I cared to snap too many more pictures anyway. An uneventful pair of flights and I am home.
Overall, we’ve been quite fortunate. The only rain we’ve had to put up with was driving to Trapper Creek. The weather held up extremely nicely for the rest of the trip. I’ve seen quite a few things new and exciting, and crossed a few things off my nonexistent list of things to do before I die.

Final Verdict: Pretty damn good, but definitely glad I wasn’t the one driving for all those hours, and also not the one paying for it.

Rough Distance Traveled:
Map of Trip Route
Low-Res Album*:
*High Resolution Album to be posted eventually.

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