Exploring Alaska at your own pace gives freedom a whole new meaning.
By Gary Peterson
“I can’t see it,” my sister sang as we walked toward the main building of the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. It was early in the morning, and I wasn’t processing what she was talking about. “Can’t see what?”
In title: The beauty of Resurrection Bay near Lowell Point in Seward.©DeYoung /Alaska Travel Industry
Above: UAF Botanical Gardens have stunning floral specimens, such as this red cosmos. Kristen Kemmerling
Below: This puffin makes its home at Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. ©DeYoung/Alaska Travel Industry Association photos
The mountain was McKinley, the tallest on the continent at 20,320 feet, and the one locals say is only fully visible 25 percent of the time.
I couldn’t see it either, but when we stepped into the lodge, there it stood, glistening against the blue sky. Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge is set up perfectly to give McKinley its close-up when the clouds cooperate, with an enormous wall of windows that smartly frame the giant. Seeing McKinley from the inside didn’t do it justice, though, so we stepped out onto the patio and grounds to take in our discovery.
We were lucky. We later heard that McKinley was obscured the rest of the week. It seemed poetic in a state birthed and nurtured by the luck of discovery.
That was the theme of our entire time in the Last Frontier. Our luck was aided by a program from Gray Line of Alaska that blends self-driving and luxury accommodations with an optional return trip by train. Instead of riding motorcoaches–the normal sightseeing mode for most tour companies–and being held captive to their agenda, visitors can head out in a rental car.
Have car, will travel
We were able to set our own pace and let whimsy direct our course. For instance, we suddenly pulled off the George Parks Highway on the way to Fairbanks to gawk at our surroundings and take a photo of what we think was 12,339-foot Mount Deborah. (My sister’s name is Deb.) On another occasion, we pulled into a state park to get a look at Mount McKinley’s north peak. It was this freedom and mobility that makes Gray Line’s program such an attractive option.
Without the car, we wouldn’t have discovered the sprawling University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus. It lords over the Chena River Valley that hosts the city, and is fashioned of impressively shiny modern architecture. We lingered at its Museum of the North, where we delved into the Gallery of Alaska, an exhibit detailing Alaska’s beginnings, people and growth. We saw giant cabbage and other gargantuan plants at the university’s Georgeson Botanical Garden on campus, witnessing how long summer days and moderate temperatures can do good work.
Having the car also let us discover North Pole, about 14 miles southeast of Fairbanks and home to the Santa Claus House where it’s Christmas year-round. There are even reindeer outside. And it allowed us to seek out a summer dogsled ride in the temperate rainforest near Seward. There, Ididaride sled dog tours are operated out of the home complex of Mitch Seavey, the 2004 Iditarod champion. The tours follow paths through the woods and along a stream aboard a wagon-like vehicle and include a tour of the kennel, a Q&A about mushing and a chance to frolic with sled-dog puppies.
At the water’s edge
Seward is where luck and discovery initially intersected for us and set the tone for our adventure. As we wound down our first full day in Alaska by strolling near Resurrection Bay, we were startled by a bald eagle sitting atop a light pole. When we were as near as we get to a robin back home, it calmly and majestically flew away, right over the top of us. It was so stirring, I immediately called my wife. My sister and I had the same reaction–something like, “That was so Alaska!” The feeling struck again the next day.
We were nearing the end of a six-hour cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours that had us venturing so close to a tidewater glacier we heard it groan and thunder, and so close to a stony bastion in the Chiswell Islands we saw nesting puffins. We had seen sea lions lounging on a rocky outcropping and harbor seals that nervously eyed our vessel, the Tanaina. And we had thrilled to humpback whales that breached and dove, showing us their famous fluke wave before slipping beneath the surface.
Tanaina’s skipper had shared every spotting he made and had offered tidbits about the area’s geology (such as how a 1964 earthquake changed the topography of some of the islands) and history (such as where World War II gun emplacements were set at Caines Head). He had kept passengers repeatedly leaving their seats and clinging to the rails in hopes of seeing something spectacular.
With Seward back in view, the skipper told us he was happy with how we had braved chilly weather to be outside so often during the cruise. So happy, he said, “I’m not going to tell you that you need to grab your coats and head outside to see the orcas.”
His delivery was so perfect that no one reacted for a moment. Then we sprinted like we were late for the last lifeboat. And there they were–two pods of killer whales intermingling, hunting and being studied by scientists from Seward’s Alaska SeaLife Center. We were lucky the orcas were in the bay this day, the skipper told us, but I already knew that.
It was so Alaska to see an orca’s slender dorsal fin protrude from the water, followed by an arch of the back that revealed its sleek black body and telltale white splotch. And to hear the skipper exult in the sighting let me know the thrill of discovery is probably what keeps Alaskans there and the rest of us coming.
Gary Peterson is editor of Home & Away magazine in Omaha, Neb.