Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Last Frontier

Or is it the Final Frontier? I always get those two confused but there were times during our Alaska trip where I was sure the soft, mushy tundra was blanketing the MOON, so either one will do, really.

After 2 long flights made slightly less painful by Frontier Air's complimentary chocolate chip cookies, Nathan and I were greeted in Fairbanks by a sunshower complete with a vibrant double rainbow and my good college friend, Danielle, and her sleddog, Mohawk. Cookies, rainbows and dogs - this trip was off to a good start! Since it was late even by Alaska time, we tucked in early that night. Danielle graciously hosted us at her cabin and we were thus awoken to this incredible view:

And this extremely cuddly sleddog:

The next two days we spent exploring all that Fairbanks had to offer including the requisite visit to the Ice Museum and meeting the ambassador sleddog puppies before checking out the botanical gardens and Large Animal Research Center. We coincidentally ate at 2 restaurants featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-in's and Dives show on our first day - a fact that made me feel equally "in-the-know" and lame. But both establishments, The Cookie Jar and Silver Gulch Brewing, were delicious and homey.

On Saturday morning we embarked on the 8-hour drive down to Valdez along one of Alaska's 3 major highways. I use the term "highway" loosely as it's merely a two-lane road. We drove past more pine trees and mountains than I thought I'd see in a lifetime. (Seriously, I think my new expression of a large amount of something will be "more than all the trees in Alaska!") Looking out over the forests here gives you the same sense of infinity as seeing the ocean meet the horizon from a coast.
The name "Valdez" usually conjures images of huge tankers and sad, oil-covered ducks (or if you're like me and pronouncing it incorrectly, you think of a kind man named Juan and his trusty donkey). Today it's a small fishing town (yes, they fish these waters) and is still home to the last stop on the massive Alaskan pipeline and therefore many tankers and the fill station. But if I hadn't known the town's history beforehand I would never have been able to tell that remnants still exist and the cleanup is ever ongoing. The captain of our wildlife cruise told us the full story of how the spill happened and the cleanup efforts still happening today but we didn't see any of it firsthand.

We spent our first full day kayaking on Valdez Glacier, floating along opaque grey waters, in and out of bright blue caves melted into the huge chunks of ice. The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent thawing our thoroughly chilled bodies at the local bar.

Our 9-hour wildlife cruise the next day was a relaxing break from our active previous day and from being up all night watching for bears and plotting my counterattack methods. We were treated to sightings of sea otters, seals, a humpback whale, puffins, sea lions, bald eagles and a couple enormous glaciers. Danielle and I engaged in a race to see who could consume the most free hot beverages onboard and threw in the towel around 5 or so (and at least an equal number of trips to the "head").

After heading back to the campsite, we decided to practice our bear attack plan at the shooting range nearby. Danielle and Nathan were fearless and shot with zeal while I cowered near the car, needing to be coaxed to get within 50 feet of the gun. After I'd gotten used to the idea and the mindnumbing sound of the thing, I fired off a few rounds, during which I apparently looked like I was the one staring down the barrel:

After a few nights of camping and warding off demonic animals in the night, we were off to Anchorage. There we dedicated our night to finding the best beer Alaska had to offer and boy, did we! We stopped at both Midnight Sun Brewing Company and Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria. They both offered really unique beers that were pretty freakin' tasty. We stayed a single night in Anchorage in a very nice hotel, showered and rested our weary bodies and headed on to Denali National Park.

As cursed as 70% of the other visitors to Denali Park, we were unable to see Mount McKinley (called Denali locally) due to weather conditions but we did get to ride an old school bus through some treacherous mountain passes for several hours! We got up close and personal with a Mama Bear and her baby and stalked a wolf down the road for a good half hour. We got to see some caribou and dall sheep as well but could've used a telescope to get a proper view of them.

Equipped with numerous podcasts needing to be listened to, we began the journey back North to Fairbanks. Remarkably Nathan and I weren't ready to leave the pavement yet and left the next day for Chena Hot Springs Resort. It's a lovely little place with a picturesque lodge restaurant, its own Ice Museum, lots of activities and of course some stinky, sulfury hot springs to soothe your bones. If you're looking for summer camp for adults, this is your place. After a good soak and a short hike the next morning, we headed back into town only to leave again on an overnight canoe trip! Danielle's friend motored us upriver and dropped us off on a sandbar where we spent the night. It rained alllll night and all through our paddle the next day but the scenery was beautiful and the freeze dried food packets weren't half bad! We took a much needed trip back to Silver Gulch to load up on nachos, burgers and beers before we were destined to head back to the lower 48.

Overall, Alaska was a great place to spend 10 adventure-filled days trying things we never thought we'd do. From shooting guns to camping next to bears and eating elk burgers, it didn't fail in the "novel and life-threatening" department. The state is very spread out and roads are not what you expect from other states so take extra precautions if you plan to drive to several different places. Having a local plan our trip and show us the ropes was absolutely invaluable - the guidebook tended to stick to the beaten path, probably for insurance reasons! And an in-house sleddog was certainly a nice perk :)

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