Word is around here that if you’re going to see Alaska, do it before it’s cold. September is said to be the best month, as the mosquitoes are gone and the fall colors are lovely. But it takes a long time to drive anywhere. Which is why I spent Labor Day weekend in Anchorage. It’s a 400-mile drive each way. We left that Friday, driving first east to Delta Junction, then south along the Richardson Highway, which follows the oil pipeline. The latter is a major piece of construction as it goes along the highway for hundreds of miles. We drove 252 miles to Glennallen, a small town. It had been raining but midway through, the clouds lifted just enough for us to see some lovely peaks. One, called Rainbow Ridge, is famous for its red and green volcanic rock and yellow/pastel siltstone and sandstone. I rounded a corner and saw this unbelievably steep ridge in the early evening light, shimmering with mustard yellow, ochre, orange and brown hues. An orange and white cloud hovered above, reflecting the sunset. It was unearthly beautiful. The next morning, we set out along the Glenn Highway, an east-west thoroughfare through various mountain passes, past glaciers and through lovely tableaux. Veeka and I took a short walk among the quaking aspens, which were golden against the blue sky. The beauty was immense. We loved Mt. Pinnacle as well, as it looked a large pencil against the sky.
We ended up in Palmer, the site of the annual state fair, which was packed with people. The folks at the visitor’s center showed us the back way to get there (saving us nearly an hour) and we wandered about, enjoying the pumpkins the size of a small car (the growth season for veggies there creates huge cabbages, pumpkins, gourds and so on) and lots of rides to go on plus tons of junk Veeka wanted to get and free magic shows, a jousting tournament and so on. The weather could not have been better. We drove a very pretty 40 miles to Anchorage where we holed up in a B&B. They lent us bikes the next day to ride a path known as the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a very pretty paved trail crammed with bikers, joggers and two moose that showed up at one point. Then we found Fire Island Rustic Bakery, a great spot a few blocks from the B&B – for lunch. With all the bikers and hikers sitting outside sipping their coffee and munching on organic breads, it felt like the Pike Street Market (Seattle) or the Pearl District (Portland). That afternoon, we drove to Girdwood, site of the Alyeska ski resort. The pitches are quite steep and I
wondered if that was a good place to bring Veeka after all as I can’t imagine her learning to ski there. I had thought it’d be cool to at least try skiing in Alaska but there are several barriers to it. Bu we shall see. The drive along Turnagain Arm (the inlet south of Anchorage) there was lovely too as there were stops for people to look at Beluga whales, various waterfalls or just enjoy the views. The next day, we drove back north towards Palmer but through Wasilla – at one point driving past the tiny city hall where Sarah Palin had her office as mayor once – and then north towards Denali, aka Mt. McKinley. The drive is supposed to be spectacular but it was cloudy and we got rained on midway through. We stopped at a small town – Talkeetna – for lunch. Never again. What a tourist trap and there were loads of tourist busloads there. Arrived home in the rain and fog – exhausted.
However, by the middle of the following week, I saw that the weather report for the following weekend showed that the middle of the state would be sunny. It so happens that everything in Alaska seems to shut down as of Sunday the 14th. It’s the oddest thing; it’s as if someone turned off the lights. Everything that is remotely tourist-related stops functioning as of Sept. 15. And I knew that if we didn’t see Denali this month, it’d be May before we got up there, as nothing opens around there until May. That’s 8-9 months away, not long from when we’ll be leaving Alaska for good. (I hope to linger for mid-summer, provided I can find enough friends to take trips around Alaska and western Canada with me!) And this was the time to not only see the fall colors (blazing yellows, reds and oranges covering the plains and slopes) but there were no mosquitos! Plus I also knew that the weekend of Sept. 12-14 was taken up with something called the ‘lottery;’ that is, people can win a statewide lottery allowing them to drive about Denali National Park for themselves. (Usually one has to take buses to get about). So that left the weekend of Sept. 6-7 to go there and Sunday looked to be totally sunny according to the Weather Channel. We’re only 117 miles away from the entrance (which is next door compared to typical distances in this state), so I booked a hotel for Saturday night and drove down. That was Earthsong, a collection of cabins and a lodge in the town of Healy, just south of Denali, was like visiting Hobbiton in Middle Earth. All these cool cabins with water fountains and mossy plants
and clever sculptures and wooden walkways above the permafrost were charming plus we got the loveliest sunset that produced “alpenglow;” the red light that illuminates a mountain range just before the sun sinks below the earth. The sky was in red and purple flames and we could just see a few peaks.
The next morning, I peeked out the window and majestically arrayed in front of me was 20-30 snowy peaks known as the Alaska Range, which bisects the state just south of Fairbanks. It’s what blocks the really nasty weather from us and keeps any wind from blowing during winter months. That and the Brooks Range to the north (which shields us from Arctic winds) keeps Fairbanks livable. Veeka too was awed by this march of white mountains. We gulped down breakfast and got back on the main highway to reach the park so as to catch a 9 a.m. bus. There being construction simply everywhere in the state during the dry months, we fortunately only got held up a tiny bit; road crews can slow you up for a half hour or more. And so we jumped on a green shuttle bus at the Wilderness Access Center for the Eielson Visitor Center about 66 miles into the park. The bus was packed with folks from overseas who wanted the driver to stop at
every squirrel, moose, wolf, grizzly, golden eagle and caribou siting. Even if there was a Dall sheep two mountain ranges over, they wanted to jump out and snap away. The ride into the park took 4 hours and there were portions of it where sheer cliffs were on both sides. We started seeing a huge snowy peak in the distance and finally after rounding a bend there was Denali, looking like a huge vanilla ice cream cone you could jump into. We were finally at the visitor center, which had lovely large windows from which you could gaze at all the peaks or take hikes. It was hard to take my eyes off all the mountains, which were just magical. We didn’t stay long enough there for my taste; and pretty soon we were back on the bus. We still didn’t get home until dark, but it was a glorious day.
When we’re not tromping about mountain peaks, life is interesting here. One of the professors does photo shows and he invited people in the department to the opening of his exhibit about zoos. I’d heard about how, in some cities like Houston or Alexandria, Va., artists take over a warehouse district and turn it into a warren of studios. Never thought I’d see that in Fairbanks but sure enough, we found a section near a railroad yard called Well Street and it was a true warehouse district with two galleries. The one with the UAF professor’s photos in it had run out of food, so Veeka and I wandered over to the other gallery, which also had a show going (was the first Friday of the month, which is when such events typically happen) and they were dishing up hotdogs and soft drinks. Much better.
Veeka catches a bus to school, which is less than 2 miles away. There’s quite the menagerie of parents who meet at the stop each day. Along with us, there’s a Korean family and then two new arrivals: a family from Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories and another from Nome. That is, the husband is an Inuit from Nome, the wife is Caucasian and they’ve been in his hometown for years where she said the kids are used to having the run of the place because it is ultra-safe. And now she’s got an all-expenses-paid two-year MA program in northern languages at UAF, so our families are becoming friends. We all live in 60-year-old apartments on a north-facing slope that allows us a nice view of the Northern Lights, which I’ve only seen once as a green haze hovering in the sky. Unfortunately they tend to appear in the middle of the night when I am not up.
I’ve gotten a card at the local library, which is the only library serving the entire city. And the breadth of their CD collection is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Ditto for their children’s DVD collection. It dwarfs anything I’ve seen in the lower 48. I’ve started wandering about the UAF library as well, which has two floors devoted to its Alaska collection. I’m checking out as many books as I think I can get through.
One of the nice parts about driving the AlCan are the cool visitors centers along the way. There’s a book “The Boreal Feast” that is sold in every one, so I thought I’d splurge and get it. It claims to have recipes from various Far North climes, ranging from Scandanavia to western Canada to Alaska (must see if they have Iceland and Russia anywhere in there) but the one problem has been the exotic ingredients. I’ve been visiting various stores and markets looking for spruce tip oil (which only seems to be sold in Whitehorse), birch syrup (like maple, but thicker. Finally found it at an outdoor market); honey ale, mead or lager (had to scour Fred Meyer’s liquor department for apricot ale which was the closest I could get); wild blueberries (bought some from a Russian at aforementioned market), lingonberries, which are known locally as “low bush cranberries,” and so on. All sorts of cranberries are out this time of year, most of them pretty sour. Currants are big here, too. I’ve also bought a book on Alaskan wildflowers and plants. We’ve seen watermelon berry, high-bush cranberries (which shine more), fireweed (a chartreuse-colored flower that is simply everywhere); bluebells, yarrow, squirreltail grass and more. The leaves here have all turned a lovely golden color that reminds me of high-altitude Colorado.