Those of you, who’ve been following Glass Wheels Travels for a while, know I am a Mama’s girl. And my Mom and I travel together, often and much. This time, after a hiatus of couple years, Mom-&-me came back as Baby-Mama-&-Grandma. Most of you also have caught on to the fact that my Mama, who I will refer to Grandma hereon, LOVES mountains. So Alaska was an obvious choice given we were staying domestic this year.
We had been planning on an Alaska trip for a while and after some changes and back and forth from May to August and back, we finally decided on June. In fact, I am writing today within 4 days of getting back, still heady with jet lag.
We had just gotten back from a long California trip, all of us tired of long car-rides by then; J faring the worst of all, loathing his car-seat. For days he would shake his hand and head vehemently just at the sight of the car door open…reminded me of Brownie’s road trips.
So anyway, tickets were booked and we packed a healthy dose of optimism and set out super early one June morning. After 2 uneventful flights and lots of compliments about a well-behaved baby, we reached Anchorage.
One word- meh. We were hugely underwhelmed by Anchorage. A city cradled by mountains and lapped at by water evokes expectations and they were just plain not met. We tried them all- Kincaid Park, Point Worwonzof etc. and I have to say Pinterest and Tripadvisor have never really let me down this bad. Even worse- the food scene was almost non-existent. Anchorage made Buffalo look happening. Yes, sad.
Still packing some of that remnant optimism, we set out, the next day, to go to Girdwood. You’ll notice in Anchorage travel tips and lists that they include all these areas- TurnAgain Arm, Girdwood, Portage etc. although I am not sure if these are really part of Anchorage or just potential day trips. Anyway, by the time Seward Highway reached Potter’s Marsh about 16 miles out of the city, both the view and our outlook had started changing. Potter’s Marsh was a lovely place – paved board walk stretched into the wide open marsh land. Fewer birds than we expected but such nice ambiance. I could while away here for hours. My little bird-spotting assistant (aka Baby Josh) sat in his Ergo, pointing “bird, bird!”, every time a gull flew past him. I saw a couple of bald eagles courting and clicked away at an elegant swallow who posed for us patiently.
Then the grey clouds started giving in and fat droplets threatened to take over the mist that was already soaking us. (And of course, I was traveling without rain gear and had only 1 fleece sweat ugh!) So we hurried back to the car again and headed towards Girdwood. The winding road, hugging the Cook Inlet was fun and I kept patting myself in the back for upgrading our rental car to a Subaru Forrester. I have driven flimsy sedans on crazy National Parks roads before and let me just say, that is not fun. So really at $15 extra a day, the upgrade was totally worth it. I digress.
By then, the wind had picked up and believe it or not it was blowing so hard, it was difficult to get out of the car for more than a few seconds. It felt like we were going to fly away (and not the metaphorical way you’d expect Alaskan natural beauty to sweep you off your feet). We widened our stance and bent our bodies to steady against the wind and withstand the cold and lashing rain, to take in the views and get some pictures. Yes the pics are lopsided and hazy but effective, because, even now when I look at them, I feel the sting of the wind and rain.I won’t say that the road was not scenic. It wasn’t as heavenly as widely acclaimed, but yes, it was scenic and made for a nice drive, once I added a ittle imagination and extrapolation on how nicer it would be on a clear day with blue skies. We trudged slowly up to Alaska Wildlife Center near Portage. I have so much respect for everything they are doing over there to help rehabilitate the hurt and orphaned animals and I don’t mind the entrance fee etc. going to such a good cause. I wish it was dry and sunnier, so we could walk around and take better pictures… maybe even interact a bit more too. But instead, we took the shuttle. The driver/ guide was fantastic, she was not only personable, but also knowledgeable and descriptive without being patronizing.
The Brown Bear pictured here was a special attraction. Going in the entrance personnel said “you’ll see all the animals but maybe not the bear because they are on some 20-30 acres and you never know where they’ll be”. But here he was, people-watching, just by the fence…Looking at all the interesting 2-legged creatures, in all kinds of 4 wheeled vehicles with cameras pointing at him. Overall we had a great 45 minutes ride in the shuttle bus. I knew going in this was no zoo or the San Diego Safari but I left feeling a little empty and more than a little dissatisfied. I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated… I heard Alaska was gorgeous from all my friends, of varying tastes and exposures. The prices of everything in Alaska sure lived up to it’s supposed-heavenly beauty. This was going to be an expensive trip and this was an awful lot of nothing to justify that kind of money. Frankly, the weather was playing havoc on my psyche. It was a miserable, cold, wet day- a good day to buy a new jacket- a bad day for that jacket to give way, even before I left the shop.
And it did, long enough for us to go on a short trail before breakfast. We kept it short, because there was homemade bread waiting for us at “home” for breakfast. I saw some wildlife there, but unfortunately don’t have pictures to show. I saw a mouse, not moose. Yes, that’s not a typo, as much as I’d like it to be…
Anyway, after breakfast, we packed J into the car and headed for Seward…a 4 hour round trip for a 2 hour visit to the SeaLife Center; after reading the reviews and weighing the pros and cons in bad weather we decided on passing on the 6 or 8 hour long glacier cruises from Seward. I wasn’t going to go with J anyway but I think even for Grandma, standing in the frigid cold (most say there aren’t enough seats) next to motion-sick cotravellers’ vomit, to watch ice break and fall into water and a knowledge that there’s wildlife that she can’t see without a binocular (which we didn’t have), eating semi edible food on a ship…didn’t sound very appealing. I’m sorry guys, but icecalving just does not fit my bill of cool. Maybe that’s where my misplaced notion of Alaskan beauty is.Our road to Seward was beautiful! So much nicer than ANC-Girdwood! Or was it the peekabooing Sun? The sky still wasn’t blue but so many shades of green, reflected on randomly scattered lakes. Of course the Mom in me was happy that Josh was so happy seeing the fish and especially the birds. Check out the amazing work the Alaska SeaLife Center does with rehab as well. Yes, no colorful tropical fish and this wasn’t the Chicago or Baltimore aquariums, but still totally worth the trip to the SeaLife Center. This is what traveling with kids is made of and I love it! J & I both found likeness of Brownie in the seals’ faces and Josh went far enough to keep calling them “Babum”- his name for Brownie. I was missing my son#1. But this was going to be a good day. I was almost determined to make it count. When was the last time I was so conflicted/ determined on vacation?
After a couple hours of fun at the SeaLife Center and procuring a new fleece lined rain jacket (that worked!), we headed home to Girdwood.Since we missed seeing glaciers, we thought going to the Seven Glaciers restaurant at the Alyeska Resort next door could make up for it. Boy were we wrong. The idea of dining up among 7 hanging glaciers is enchanting. Being seated in an empty restaurant with reservation, near the elevator shaft with almost no view + rude service that would put Massachusetts to shame + shamefully mediocre food was not enchanting at all. We did enjoy the 7 minute trip up the tram and the round house was a nice viewpoint… again imagining how much nicer this would be under clear skies helped. We met a very nice person (Josh?) who took us down on our trip in the tram. For a resort in high season, the whole place was dismally empty…maybe they’ve scared away all the customers and like us they would all go to taste Alaskan icecream next! Yes apparently there’s a ice cream company in AK, where food scientists take the local wild flower- Fireweed for it’s color and it’s honey and formulate Fireweed Honey icecream. It was floral, sweet and refreshing and it came from our B&B host’s ice cream shop. Our last night in Girdwood was truly relaxing, as we watched the light thin out over the hills- hills we could now see from both our windows now that the clouds had lifted. The next day we set out to go north to Talkeetna. We stopped in Anchorage to fill up our car to the gills with snacks and water and a couple small toys for Josh. This time around the road (to ANC) felt shorter of course but not that much prettier. The road from Anchorage to Talkeetna was sad! We saw more abandoned cars and run down dismal communities than anything else. Hardly 2-3 gas stations, no rest stops, no scenic stops. Nothing…I kept expecting to make a turn and see a mountain or a moose but of course Mt. Denali was socked up in clouds and nothing else was worth seeing. Eventually we reached our B&B in Talkeetna. The last quarter miles was unpaved and gravel and just when our expectations plummeted, we were greeted by Andi at the Talkeetna Chalet B&B, showed around her beautiful house, fueled with coffee and shown to our room. We then made it another 3 miles to where the road (Talkeetna Spur road) ends at the river…at quaint and quirky Downtown Talkeetna. Like I mentioned in my Alaskan Communities page, Talkeetna is where everyone comes to play. There are quite a few food options and historic buildings (but not your Old Cambridge style that we’re used to). The mayor of this town is a cat! Here in Alaska for the first time, I saw young families with little kids and people with dogs, playing in the park of leash. In my mind that signals “happy community” almost instantly. The whole place was like out of a hippie vacation, with stores as old (looking) as Nagley’s and as crazy sounding at Mexican Moose (we bought a wooden car for J from here and 3 packets of roasted warm nuts- yummy!)
Rain came again and we retired to a bowl of soup and reindeer sausage at the Roadhouse. The next day, Grandma went on a flight seeing expedition to the top of Mt. Denali (!) with K2 aviation and Josh and I went to walk around the town and to the river. Then early afternoon after a bad experience with mediocre pizza from Mountaintop, thinking aloud how cute this town was, we set forth for Denali National Park. Little did we know this nagging feeling of imcompleteness would soon be quenched when we would be forced to return here again!
Our next stop for the day was Healy and the sky still hadn’t cleared all the way but the mountains were peeking in and out of the clouds. We stopped admist a hoard of chattering Asian tourists at the South viewpoint and I soon left without taking many pictures only to be stopped intermittently by traffic and waiting for pilot cars to take us through the narrow single lane highways. There were stretches where again I was thankful I had the 4WD Forrester. The North view point was quieter and felt more scenic. And finally 5 full hours later, when I was almost ready to burst into tears myself- exhausted and still calculating if this trip is worth it, we reached our B&B in Healy. That turned out to be less of a B&B but what ever it was, the view was phenomenal. Do you see the rainbow? The photo deosn’t do it justice. AND that was only the first rainbow we had seen- it was 6PM. We were so tired, we set our alarms for 12:15AM and then 3:15AM for sunset and sunrise respectively, swearing all we’re going to do here was lie down next to the window/ deck, “bask” in the midnight sun and enjoy the scenery. And glorious it was, the midnight sun and the 12:25AM sunset. I have never seen a more beautiful, a more pink, a more heavenly view in my life. (Well not really, I did see a beautiful pink baby boy I gave birth to- the best thing I’d ever seen) In my almost 32 years of existence this was the northernmost I have traveled and the longest day I’d seen. I don’t know why the other things are so talked about and this isn’t one of them? As much as I love them, I’ve seen enough alpine forests and snowclad mountains, I’ve been to nicer National Parks and stayed in luxury lodgings, I have had my share of (glaciers) ice on water too…but this- this was ephemeral. How is this not a Wonder of the World? How is this not in brochures for traveling to Alaska? This is finally what made everything worth it.
Almost worth not even going to the National Park. But we did. Trudging along the construction-ridden, bumpy, unpaved road, we entered the park. NPS always interests me, but here it seemed to be more educational than recreational. Nonetheless we went to some trails and came back less than impressed. Almost 2 miles of hikes with a napping baby on my back- it isn’t easy traveling with kids, but it’s fun. And you do live to talk about it. My SLR camera died on the hike and I almost immediately knew we would encounter wildlife that evening…and after getting back to the hotel that night, we saw a mama moose with her baby at the lake (Otto Lake) and later a bear (which really I didn’t see very well).
The next day was going to be the longest drive, so we started early and tried to go as fast as possible within reasonable speed- you know, no photos, fewer stops. We only lasted about 10 miles before we wanted to stop for photos! Of course this was the clearest day so far. The sky was egregiously blue, the Sun hot on our heads, the snow clad Mt. Foraker, Mt. Hunter and Mt. Denali shining bright. We were going to hit a 90 degree that day. The cold wet windy day when we couldn’t get out of our cars seemed like a distant nightmare.We stopped to fill gas at the junction of Talkeetna spur road, exclaiming at the beautiful Mt. Denali in our rear view mirror and how nice it would have been had it been clear on our journey there. Then a sideways gland revealed Smokey Bear saying high danger of fire. I’ve seen that sign before but never an actual fire and I really didn’t give it much thought.
In no more than 5 minutes later, I thought the clouds looked different and I told Grandma, maybe there’s a fire ahead. Within minutes were were stuck on the road behind what we later learned was a 2 mile long train of cars. People had their chairs out camping in the Sun, hoping the road will open in a couple hours. We also learned there were no back-roads to get to Anchorage, something we are so used to in the Lower 48. You know that saying there’s always a way. Well there wasn’t. And with Josh sleeping in the car, I somehow didn’t feel right to wait those 2 hours. I quickly called our B&B reservation in Anchorage saying the road was closed with a 200 acre fire (later grew to over 7500 acres); she was reluctant to return our deposit, but eventually when we learned the road was not going to open for that whole night and in fact, it was indefinitely closed, she was gracious enough not to charge us.
I called and left a message for Andi at Talkeetna Chalet, Talkeetna being the closest place we could stay for the night, and then again called a couple other B&Bs who were completely booked. Turns out one of Andi’s guests was also stuck because of the fire, coming in from Anchorage, so she could in fact accommodate us. The upside to all this was we were going to spend one extra night in Talkeetna over boring Anchorage.
The downside was infinite. Very close to Andi’s B&B we had an encounter with a very creepy man with a combination of finger flicking and waving and smiling– gave me super heebie-jeebies. This wasn’t my urban neighborhood where I knew the roads and there were people I could call out to, this was a cabin in the woods, down the hill and away from the main house, alone with Grandma and Baby. Baby with a raging fever. This was a town with minimal to zero police presence, all of whom were probably focused on fighting the fire and relocating residents. This was a town where I saw 2 people openly carrying guns in holsters casually in their jeans and sun dresses, this was a town I later learned where there was a Militia conference that weekend! I have no opinions against them, I just want to say how far and unfamiliar that culture is to me. This was a place where I was essentially alone to fend for myself and 2 people I love most in the world. And I couldn’t find the fire extinguisher in the wooden cabin, 30 miles from where a forest fire by then had taken up 7500 acres. I had LTE connection on my AT&T, so I obsessively scanned the internet for news on the fire, tweeted CNN and FOX for their lack of updates and followed the Alaska Forestry page for updates, which were scant, to say the least. The rest of the world, said my husband and friends on Facebook, had no idea what was going on here. Houses were smoking, trees were flaming- the fate of acres of land in the hands of whimsical wind. Oh and that creep could show up at any time at the window. And my son was not feeling well at all. I just wanted us to be safe, I wanted to get to Anchorage, board our plane and reach Boston Logan airport. I wanted us to be home, with Brownie and A, away from this strange land. I wanted us to be in the heart center of rude, uncaring Massholeland and smack next to uncivilized neighbors- THAT was my civilization.
I was also amazingly eternally grateful to Andi for taking us in, to the other B&B owner for not charging us and to luck and my quick decision-making that we turned around in time…apparently Andi got 20 calls right after asking for a place to stay in. Other commuters had to go to shelters. I was glad we got a beautiful cabin, a cozy bed, a hot shower, coffee and the premise of a hearty breakfast the next morning.
With that we survived that night and after breakfast, we left for Anchorage. Smoke was everywhere, a feverish baby in the car, and charred skeletons of spruce stood for 22 miles along the Parks Highway near Willow, AK.
We eventually reached Anchorage, with half a day to spare. At over 90 degrees and few places that were comfortable, open and inviting, we headed to the airport early. United Airways personnel who knew full well (and expressed as much) our flight was going to be delayed (but it didn’t show on the displays yet) refused to get us in on an earlier flight unless we paid for it. Irritated and anxious about making our connection, we roamed ANC for a little bit. Ted Stevens ANC airport is a gem for a shabby town like Anchorage. Ample food options, nice artwork, people who were in awe of Alaskan beauty but wanted out of the state and best of all a nursery, where we could rest, change and play for 7 hours until our flight…7 hours theoretically was actually 9 hrs, which delayed our flight for the connection. . Thankfully again, our connection in ORD was late. Finally we were headed home. And we were home, 26.5 hours from when we had left our B&B in Talkeetna.
“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.”
…..If interested you can find our full itinerary and recommendations for planning here. And on the topic of planning, here are some cool places to stay and play in. Check out all our pics on my Flickr album