Ten Days in America’s Last Frontier
Updated: Dec 28, 2020
The sound of a calving glacier is difficult to describe. It starts with a loud crack, like the hands of an angry god clapping, but then quickly becomes a low rumble that you feel more than hear. It’s a sound and a feeling that seem to unfold in slow motion. It’s haunting. It’s powerful. It makes you realize how insignificant you really are.
It was only our second day in Alaska, and it was already earning its reputation as one of the most wild and beautiful places on earth. Leaving from Resurrection Bay in Seward, my wife, two teenaged sons and I were on a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park, which covers an incomprehensible 587,000 acres. The calving of the 30-story Aialik Glacier was the icing on the cake. That morning we had already witnessed Orca whales breech and swim under our boat, Humpbacks rise, spout and disappear, sea lions sunning themselves on island rocks, otters playing for the crowd, and black bears foraging along the steep cliffs of the off-shore islands – all the while surrounded by mountains capped in whites and blues and more glaciers than we could count. It was easy to get lulled into the idea that this was all part of some carefully choreographed show – until the cold wind would rush down over the glacier, you’d hear a loud crack and the hair standing up on the back of your neck assured you that this was indeed real, raw and very powerful.
Our trip was over a year in the making and now finally a reality. Alaska is so expansive and, in many areas, inaccessible that exploring it thoroughly would take the better part of a lifetime. We had just 10 days, so we had to hit a small sampling for our highlight reel. We would fly into Anchorage, rent an SUV and then travel down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward. After two days of exploring in Seward, we would make our way further south to Homer for two more days. We’d then journey up through Cooper Landing and on to Palmer for two days of recovery before we would push up to Talkeetna and on to Denali for our final three days. Along the way, we would hike, fish, raft, eat, drink, explore and soak up as much of the wildlife and jaw-dropping mountain views as possible.
The scenic village of Seward is located at the terminus of both the Alaska Railroad and the Seward Highway. Flanked by rugged mountains to one side and the sparkling Resurrection Bay on the other, this charming town of 2,700 is 100% Alaska. There is fantastic hiking nearby, including access to glaciers, a quaint downtown with shops and eateries, and an active marina brimming with fisherman. Overshadowing Seward is Mount Marathon, the scene of one of Alaska’s most famous and challenging foot races. On our last night, we sat out by the fire at our cabin, listening to the stream meander past, occasionally interrupted by the splashing of a salmon making its final journey upstream.
From Seward, we traveled Alaska Route 9 North to meet up with the Sterling Highway, where we made our way west towards the coast of the Cook Inlet before bearing south to the city of Homer.
Calling Homer a city feels kind of off, but knowing exactly how to explain it is difficult – it seems more like an experience than a place. Affectionately known as the Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea, Homer is one part fishing tow and one part hippie enclave, acting as both the Halibut Capital of the World and the end-of-the-road for people who just want to set up shop in a VW bus and go off the grid. It has a vibrant art scene, bustling docks, cloudy mountains jutting straight out of the ocean and broken-down buses (and boats) reconstructed by those with a vagabond heart. An article published byThe Seattle Times quoted that Homer is, “… a sort of Key West in a parka” – and that may come the closest to anything else I’ve heard.
In Homer, we spent time wandering the desolate beaches, exploring the local art scene and, of course, fishing. Our Halibut charter included a tranquil two-hour ride to the fishing grounds, followed by intense fishing for another two hours before heading back.
Halibut fishing is different than any type of fishing I have done before. Halibut feed near the bottom and we were fishing in 170 foot of water. The rods are short and very stout and use a 3-pound weight to get the bait, attached to a very large hook, to the bottom. From there, it’s three cranks up to wait for a strike, which typically happens within 30 seconds or so. Then, the arm-burning retrieve begins as you retrieve both the fish, which were running in the 12 to 25-pound range, plus the weighted sinker, from 170 feet of water. It’s work, but it’s loads of fun and some of the best-tasting fish anywhere in the world. We took some of our catch to Patty’s out on the Spit where they prepared it fresh for us while we watched eagles tussle over their dinner on the beach.
The next morning, we were up early. We were slated for a long travel day up to Palmer, broken up by a half-day fly fishing float on the Kenai River out of Cooper Landing. Cooper Landing (population 289) is located at the confluence of Kenai Lake and the Kenai River and immediately felt like a place I could call home, with its beautiful aquamarine rivers, rising slopes and laid-back mountain-town vibe. The town was first settled in the 19th century by gold and mineral prospectors, and has since become a popular summer destination thanks to its scenic wilderness location and proximity to the world-class salmon fishery of the Kenai and Russian Rivers. But we weren’t here for the salmon – we had our sights set on chasing wild Rainbows and Dolly Vardens. Though we were a little early in the season for the gigantic rainbow trout that follow the salmon spawn and have made this upper section of river famous, Cam from Alaska Troutfitters was able to put us on some great fish and we brought 18 of them to hand in our 4-hour float. We grabbed brisket and beverages at Sackett’s Kenai Grill, a local favorite, and then hit the road again.
Palmer lies on the north shore of the Matanuska River not far above tidewater, in a wide valley between the Talkeetna Mountains to the north and the Chugach Mountains to the south and east. It’s a beautiful little town and the last real “city” between us and Denali. We rolled into town in heavy cloud cover and a light, misting rain. While we took some short hikes and spent time moose-spotting and glacier-chasing, we mostly used these two rainy days to recover in our cozy two-bedroom cabin, play a few games, stock up on groceries and eat more of the halibut we brought with us from our fishing in Homer.
From Palmer, we took Hatcher Pass as we made our way to Talkeetna and Denali. Hatcher Pass is a beautiful and rugged 22-mile gravel mountain pass through the southwest part of the Talkeetna Mountains. It is named after Robert Hatcher, a prospector and miner. The pass divides the alpine headwaters of Willow Creek on the west from Fishhook Creek and the Independence Bowl on the east side. To the east, the road drops and follows the Little Susitna River canyon downstream, and south, some dozen miles to the abrupt mountain front at the edge of the broad Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
Once through the pass, we were on to Talkeetna, which sits at the convergence of three glacier-fed rivers: the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. Talkeetna began in 1916, when the area was chosen as a district headquarters for the Alaska Railroad. The core downtown area is classified as a National Historic Site, with buildings dating from the early 1900s, including Nagley's General Store, Fairview Inn and the Talkeetna Roadhouse.Talkeetna is the base for expeditions to Denali and certainly plays the part of old mountain town perfectly. Tourists travel to Talkeetna to fish, raft, mountain bike, camp, hunt and go flightseeing. On clear days some of the best views of Denali and the Alaska Range can be seen right from the end of Main Street. The town is an eclectic mix of railroad workers, bush pilots, guides, oarsman and tourists from all over the world. We soaked in its charm, hit up the Roadhouse for their famous cinnamon rolls and grabbed some lunch and beer (root beer for the boys) at Denali Brewing before getting back on the road.
For our time in Denali, we had rented a cabin in the town of Healy, just outside the National Park and Preserve. The cabin owner, Mike, it turned out, was a Michigan native, hailing from Grayling (population 1,900) who moved to Alaska to escape the “crowds” and traffic. Like all the Alaskans we met, Mike was a generous host with the kind of inner resilience needed to call this place home. Mike’s father was a famous builder of Au Sable River boats - unique boats found only in Grayling Michigan that have been used on the Au Sable and Manistee River Systems for the last one hundred and thirty years. With this connection, both geographically and through the addiction known as fly-fishing, Mike and I had a lot to talk about, until I finally relented so he could get back to his never-ending list of chores.
For our first day, we had planned a canyon-run rafting trip through Denali Raft Adventures. The trip promised two hours and 11 miles of scenic adventure through class III and IV rapids in 33-degree glacial waters. We would hit famous runs like “Cable Car”, “Coffee Grinder”, and “Ice Worm”. We donned dry-suits, neoprene boots, life jackets and helmets over our insulated layers. The expectations were running high. Maybe a little too high. While the scenery was amazingly beautiful and our guide, Jamie, was both knowledgeable and a lot of fun, the rapids (given the current flow levels) were a little more tame than what both my wife and I, and certainly our two testosterone-laced teenaged sons, had anticipated. It was enjoyable nonetheless, and set the table nicely for our first course of Denali.
When we finished rafting, we piled back into the SUV and headed into Denali National Park proper. There is only one road in to and out of the park and, despite that fact, it felt relatively un-crowded when compared to places like Smokey Mountain National Park, Yellowstone or Yosemite.
Denali Park Road is 92 miles long and parallels the Alaska Range while traveling through low valleys and high mountain passes. Along its route, beautiful landscapes can be seen at every turn, and there are many opportunities to view Denali - if the normally cloudy skies permit. Wildlife can often be seen too, though sightings are not guaranteed - they are, after all, wild animals roaming an unfenced 6-million-acre chunk of public land.
From late May through early September, private vehicles may drive the first fifteen miles of this road, to a place called Savage River. Anything beyond that requires a bus. The road to Savage River is paved, and features numerous pull-outs to stop and snap pictures. "The Mountain" can be seen as early as Mile 9, if the day isn't too overcast, which is roughly 30% of the time. So, this was our plan – drive into Savage River, do some hiking, hopefully see some wildlife and maybe get lucky enough to be part of that rare 30% club.
Our afternoon adventure checked all the boxes. On the drive to Savage River we caught quick glimpses of something tall and white peaking above the clouds. Could this be Denali? When we arrived at Savage River we found a trail ascending out of the river valley up to higher elevations and, of course, we took it. As we wound our way higher and higher, the views kept getting better and better. Soon, we spotted a slow-moving bus coming down the road out of the park and, upon further inspection, realized that the bus was following, at a careful distance, a large Caribou that had apparently decided the road looked like an easier route than anything else. Eventually, he dropped down into the riverbed and was joined by others. As we kept working our way higher we saw it: Denali, the Great One. Completely open and utterly breathtaking. We had officially joined the club.
We left the park that evening thoroughly worn out but amazed at our luck. We stopped for dinner at The Bake. The Bake is an endearing ramshackle place with legendary slanted floors and a kitschy laid-back atmosphere. We opted for fresh seafood, elk burgers and local beer. After our long day, it hit the spot.
On a tip from a seasonal railroad hand, we had made plans to take an early morning departure on the Green Bus the next day into the Denali Eilson Visitor Center (mile 66) and back. We knew this was an 8-hour commitment at a minimum, but the only way to truly access the wilder areas of the park, have a shot a seeing more wildlife and even better views, weather permitting, of Denali.
We were up early the next day to catch our bus. On the short drive from our cabin to the park, we passed a female moose and her two calves lazily feeding in a roadside pond just yards from our car. In any other place this would likely cause a pile up of roadside gawkers, but this was Alaska and just another typical Saturday. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to seeing wildlife in a place like this. Nevertheless, I took it as a good omen for what lay ahead.
The Green Bus is very much like a school bus - if your school bus was traveling a gritty single-lane dirt road 66 miles long along steep mountain cliffs into a 6-million acre wilderness and surrounded by things that could eat you. It has seats for two and those sliding windows that go up and down. No food is provided on the trip, so we had packed lunches just like those days in school. The protocol on the bus is simple. The driver drives, watching for buses coming the other way on the single-lane mountain road, working out, by some mysterious visual cue or secret system, which bus will slide as far over as possible and which bus will squeeze past. The passengers alertly watch out the window for wildlife or anything else that might be exciting. When something exciting is spotted you simply yell “STOP.” The driver will stop and you can get out (if the situation allows) or slide down your window to take your pictures. We were warned ahead of time that we would be seeing abundant wildlife (i.e. don’t yell for every caribou or 8 hours would easily turn into 12). At any point during the journey you could also give a shout and simply get off the bus, wander into the bush and, hopefully, make your way back to the road at some point to catch a ride out. For the most part we opted to stay on the bus and out of the bush until we got to Eielson.
Despite the school bus feeling, the drive is truly staggering as you climb and descend along the dusty road. You witness changing landscapes, navigate blind corners and cross braided rivers. And yes, you see wildlife. We saw numerous Caribou and Dall sheep along the first part of the journey and had our first sighting of a Grizzly sow and her cubs. Though they were a fair distance away, it was easy to distinguish the size and power of these magnificent creatures from our green roadside perch. Along the way, Denali appeared in several places – larger, whiter and closer than ever. I fought my urge to yell “STOP” at every sighting, but had a hard time believing that we were going to simply pass by these once-in-a-lifetime views. Nobody else seemed overly concerned, including our driver, so I anxiously bit my tongue, assuming it would somehow get even better.
It did. As we rounded the last corner to the Eielson Visitors Center, Denali and a portion of the Alaska range was laid bare before us – no clouds to offer even a scant shred of modesty. I literally lost my breath. I have been all over the country and have seen and hiked in numerous remarkable mountain ranges. I had seen pictures of Denali. I had read books and watched documentaries. Nothing prepared me for this. The mountain, all white, appeared like a powerful resting giant, alive, naked and breathing, daring any to awaken it – all within, it felt, arms reach.
We left our green school bus and reveled in the magnificence of the vista. Eilson offered the opportunity for hiking both on and off trail. We opted for the Alpine Hike, which travels up Thorofare Ridge some 1,000 feet in two miles. The hike was strenuous on this warm and sunny summer day, but delivered breathtaking views of Denali. When we reached the plateau of the ridge, I stopped to take it all in (and catch my breath) while my boys wandered on a little further over the green slopes. That moment, that image – my nearly grown boys heading up the viridian hillside, silhouetted, with Denali powerful, majestic, unmovable in stark white contrast behind them – will forever be burned into my memory of this trip.
We eventually made our way back down the ridge and wandered a few more trails at lower elevation as small clouds slowly began to clothe the mountain. We ate our lunch in the shadow of the mighty peak, overheard other guests talking about the bears they had run across on their hike and then boarded a green bus for our ride back. We saw many grizzlies as the afternoon drew on and we traveled the 66 miles back out, some as close as 15 yards. Occasionally, we caught fleeting glimpses of The Great One when we rounded bends. This would be our last night in Alaska and I could already feel a tinge of sadness, despite such a memorable day.
We slept in a little on our last day, packed up and prepared to make our way back to Anchorage for our flight back home. We made one last drive out to Savage River, were rewarded again with stunning views and up-close wildlife. We turned out of the park to head south, catching snapshots of Denali here and there in the rearview mirror, as it slowly became more and more clouded in, silently fading as our time together ended. Overwhelmed by the grandness, wildness and power of this place and this special time with my family, I grew reflective on how truly diminutive man is and how, if we choose, blessed we are to have this brief communal with the raw natural world, building memories with those we love.