Alaska – Exploring the Last Frontier

Hatcher Pass 2

Hatcher Pass

Winter night skies filled with dancing Northern Lights. Summer days glowing with seemingly endless sunshine. Getting up-close and personal with unsurpassed natural beauty and wildlife. Mustn’t neglect to mention the occasional ash-spewing volcanic eruptions and formidable earthquake rumblings. That was my life for 3 years as an Alaskan and I loved every minute of it!

Moose in Snow 1

Heavy Snow brought the Moose to the Walkway to our Front Door

Twenty years ago this month, I was in the process of moving to Alaska. It was a dream of mine that I never thought would become a reality. I am so happy I took the plunge.

(Read how I moved to Alaska in “Alaska – Job Lost, Found Love.”)

Moose in Snow 2

Knock, knock. Who’s there?

The first question everyone asks is what is it like to live in Alaska. They immediately think of the cold and darkness and want to know how people survive it. For many, it’s a challenge. For some it causes mental disorder. For me, no problem.

School children in the Lower 48 are taught that there are six months daylight and six months of darkness in Alaska. That is misleading. The real answer is that it depends on the location.

The state of Alaska is one-fifth the size of the continental United States. It’s bigger than the 26 smallest states all stuck together.

In Anchorage, yes, there is significantly more darkness in the winter than say… Charlotte, NC. But Barrow, on the North Slope, is by far, darker longer. On the darkest days, the winter sun does not rise above the horizon in Barrow.

Meanwhile, 725 miles to the south in Anchorage, on December 21st, the shortest day of the year, the sun officially rises at 10:14 am but doesn’t peak over the nearby Chugach Mountains until about 10:45 am. Mr. Sun goes back to bed a mere five hours later at 3:41 pm after skimming the southern horizon.

Most “Outsiders” are unaware that by the end of January each Alaskan day gains five minutes of daylight. That’s 35 minutes a week!

Then, of course, the opposite happens in summer. Gaining sunlight goes on until June 21st, the longest day, when sunrise is at 4:20 am and Mr. Sun is a hearty partier until almost midnight.

Moose and Dog

Mutt & Moose – From our Condo’s Balcony

I found summer much harder to deal with because it never really gets dark, making sleep difficult. Many people cover their bedroom windows with aluminum foil to darken the room but we toughed it out with blinds.

For me, the only truly depressing time of year was in October when it started to get dark but no snow had fallen. We really wanted snow because it reflects light and brightens the landscape.

For a couple of years, I rarely knew what it was doing outside because I was working for KTUU-TV, which at the time was in the basement of the Fourth Avenue Theater in downtown Anchorage.

This is the same TV station where Sarah Palin worked as a sports anchor, but she was there shortly before my tenure. In case anyone is wondering, I didn’t know her, and no one I know is giving up the dirt! Believe me, I dug.

After Mike moved up, we started to explore our new state. Our goal was to drive every main road in Alaska and travel to as many out-of-the-way places as possible.

Along the way, we saw stunning scenery, an array of wild animals, ate the freshest fish and veggies and stayed in some of the most unusual, rustic and expensive places. Just because they were expensive didn’t always mean they were good. It usually meant that they were the only game in town and either pay up or sleep with the mosquitoes and bears.

Hatcher Pass/Mat-Su Valley

Hatcher Pass 1

Hatcher Pass

One summer afternoon we took our 110 pound mutt Sandy for a ride. Our destination was Hatcher Pass just 60 miles north of Anchorage in the Talkeetna Mountains.

Hatcher Pass Independence Mine

Hatcher Pass Remains of the Independence Mine

Like most of Alaska, the short drive was rewarded with spectacular views and remnants of the abandoned Independence Mine. The gold in the mines might have run out in the 1950s, but the golden views live on today in the Independence Mine State Historical Park.

Not far (in Alaska terms) from Hatcher Pass is the Matanuska-Susitna Valley where the now-famous city of Wasilla is located.

We used to make regular treks to a farm outside of town to pick our own vegetables. All those “extra” hours of summer sun does wondrous things to gardens. Stuff grows bigger faster.

Not only did the “pick-your-own” farms save money but we had the freshest, most delicious vegetables available. There is nothing like broccoli cut fresh from the stalk or snow peas plucked from the bush.

Unfortunately that farm no longer allows the public to pick their veggies but there is another farm in nearby Palmer that does.

I am not a State Fair kind of gal but the state of Alaska’s is worth a visit. People told us that there were some big veggies there but we were not prepared for what we saw. This is a fruit freak show. A parade of peculiar produce!

The year we went there somebody brought in a mushroom cap with a diameter the size of a 100 year-old oak tree trunk. Really! This is no exaggeration. It weighed more than 25 pounds and that is still the world record. Last year’s winning cabbage tipped the scales at just over 105 pounds but that was nothing compared to the previous year when the same guy broke the world record with a 127 pound cabbage. That’s a lot of slaw!

Kenai Peninsula

Kenai Peninsula

Mutt & Mike by Kenai Lake on the way to Seward

South of Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula holds a multitude of delights. Seward, where a lot of cruise ships dock, hosts the Mt. Marathon Race every year on the 4th of July. We happened upon this grueling contest by accident one year.

At first we couldn’t understand why so many people were running down the main drag bloody and covered with mud. We learned that these goofballs run a mile-and-a-half up and a mile-and-a-half down the mountain. The elevation climbs just over 3,000 feet. It may be dry at the bottom but it’s muddy up top. I can only imagine what it’s like to have a horde of people pushing me up and down the mountain, tripping over branches, rocks and whatever. I think I’ll remain a spectator.

Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier Trail

The Beginning of the Trail to the Exit Glacier

About ten miles out of Seward is the spectacular Exit Glacier.

Exit Glacier Trail 2

The trail to the Exit Glacier

This is a place where people can get up close and personal with the ice without a helicopter or long hike. It’s easily accessed by a road and then a reasonably short walk down a gravel path, and because the glacier is in constant motion, the trails change so the park is different every visit.

Exit Glacier and Jill

Jill and the Exit Glacier

What doesn’t change is the feeling of being awestruck knowing that this silty, white-blue ice has been pushing forward for thousands of years just to get to this spot where it will finally calve off and melt.

Exit Glacier and Mike

Mike by the Ever Moving Trail Sign at the Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier and Cathi

Cousin Cathi at the Exit Glacier

Whittier

Whittier is a small town north of Seward. At the time, when we went there, it was only accessible by train. These days there’s a road. I’m sure that road changed everything there.

Whittier

The Building Where Everyone Lived in Whittier

Twenty years ago everyone in the whole town lived in one high-rise building with a tunnel that connected it to the school. The story was that by the end of the winter those hearty souls were pretty sick of being cooped up together and weren’t always very neighborly.

Homer

The Homer Spit

The Homer Spit from the Air

At the bottom of the Kenai Peninsula is Homer. The Homer Spit is a four-and-a-half mile skinny strip of land jutting out into the water. It is truly the end of the road, the westernmost end of the highway system in the United States.

View from Lands End

The View from the Land’s End Hotel on the Homer Spit

For our first wedding anniversary, we spent a few days in the area. The first night was at the Land’s End Hotel at the very tip of the Spit. At the time, the hotel itself was nothing to write home about, but the views were quite stunning. Rough, rugged and rustic! We were in town on a kind of gloomy day but that didn’t stop us from exploring the home of Motel 6’s spokesman, Tom Bodett.

We were a bit dismayed to learn that our national bird, the bald eagle was killing off other bird species, eating eggs right out of the nests on the Spit, including the adorable little puffins with their multicolored beaks. While we were there a fight had been brewing between people who fed the mighty eagles and others who found them to be a nuisance – just rats with wings to some.

Halibut Cove

On the Danny J

On the Danny J Ferry

Our big adventure began the next day as we boarded the Danny J ferry and set sail across Kachemak Bay for the tiny artist colony called Halibut Cove.

Halibut Cove 1

The Main Dock for Halibut Cove

Twelve blocks of boardwalk connect the numerous art galleries and homes. As with so many off-the-beaten-path locations in Alaska, there’s not even a beaten path to get there. The colony’s only accessible by boat or float plane.

Halibut Cove 2 The Saltry

The Saltry Restaurant in Halibut Cove

By boat, the noon six-mile crossing takes about an hour. Day-trippers can return to Homer at 5:00 pm but we booked a cabin at the Quiet Place Lodge and were staying the night.

The Danny J docks at The Saltry Restaurant. Our hosts from the lodge rowed over to meet us as we disembarked from the ferry. We opted to stay for lunch so they stowed our bags. We would check in later.

Halibut Cove boardwalk and gallery

Halibut Cove Boardwalk and an Art Gallery

This surprisingly upscale eatery had the freshest, most delicious food. The fish is caught outside their front door and the vegetables and fresh herbs are grown out back. The bread is baked in their oven. To sit at an outdoor table and feast on this fresh food orgy, in this setting is nothing less than divine! Of course this experience doesn’t come cheap but it’s worth every penny.

Halibut Cove 3

Animals (and Mike) in Halibut Cove

We wanted to walk off our lunch so instead of immediately going to the hotel, we decided to see where the boardwalks led us and to check out the local galleries.

Halibut Cove Mike

Great View in Halibut Cove

We walked up a steep hill and came across a llama, a pig and other animals on our way to the top. There was surreal feeling of having slipped down the rabbit hole and stumbling onto a strange new world. Around every corner there seemed to be something surprising or just seemingly out of place in this far away land. It was magical.

Halibut Cove The Quiet Place

The Small Yellow Cabin on Stilts with the Red Roof was ours at The Quiet Place in Halibut Cove

Once we had meandered as far as we could go, we went back to The Saltry and our waitress called the Quiet Place to have someone row across the cove to pick us up. Once we settled into the ‘Can Cabin’ – so named for the vintage cans on shelves – we set of to explore some more. Mike romantically rowed me around the cove in one of the rowboats set aside for hotel guests.

The only hitch in the stay was that there was a drought that summer and we had to be very careful about our water usage. Showers were frowned upon. I remember us complying but not happy since we paid $150 that night. Some quick research looks like prices have shot up. On Trip Advisor it looks like more recently someone paid $350 for a room at the Quiet Place.

Seldovia

Seldovia Sea Otter

Seldovia Sea Otter Greets our Boat

The next day we returned to Homer and took a day trip to the town of Seldovia. The ferry schedule didn’t allow for much time on the ground but still it was worth the trip. I don’t remember there being anything too remarkable in Seldovia itself but the wildlife along the way was pretty cool. Puffins, seals, sea otters and scenery put the excitement into that voyage.

Denali/Mt. McKinley/Fairbanks

Mt McKinley

Mt. McKinley barely visible in the distance (center)

Another trip took us north to Denali, Fairbanks and beyond. On a clear day in Anchorage majestic Mt. McKinley is visible 120 miles away. We were hoping to get a closer look.

Denali Princess Hotel

The Denali Princess Hotel

Denali is about three hours north of Anchorage. There we checked in to the Denali Princess Hotel. The hotel, a short drive from the main gate of Denali National Park, is nothing less than a huge stunning log cabin. Shortly after we were there, it burned to the ground but was quickly rebuilt.

We didn’t have time for the longer 12-hour tour of the park – so we opted instead for the shuttle bus that goes just a few miles into it. That was plenty good enough for us to see a bear off in the distance, a couple of moose and some good views of the usually cloud shrouded Mt. McKinley.

It’s another four hours from Denali to Fairbanks in what is referred to as the “interior” of Alaska. From there we drove as far as we were allowed without a permit. Up until the mid 1990s a permit was needed to drive The James Dalton Highway, also known as the Haul Road. This 414-mile long gravel road was built for trucks to haul equipment to the North Slope. Now, it’s on Google Street View!

We wanted to stay at Circle Hot Springs but that was a bit too far up the Haul Road for our time constraints so instead we opted for a summer night at Chena Hot Springs. When we were there it was like something out of the movie ‘Dirty Dancing‘, at a summer camp in the Poconos. Even though people joke that the state bird is the mosquito, this place didn’t have any screens on the windows. That, and the rotten egg smell of the sulfur from the hot springs made it easy to leave after one night.  Looking at their website, I barely recognize the place.

Prudhoe Bay

Yukon River

The Yukon River winds through Alaska

Both Mike and I had the opportunity to go to Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope. Mike was a reporter for the NPR radio station in Anchorage so he went to cover a story in the summer.

Brooks range 1

The Brooks Range

I had a less lofty job as co-host for the morning show on a classic rock station. My co-host and I went in the dead of winter. We flew up on a BP flight with a fresh crew of workers for the oil rigs.

Brooks Range 2

The beautiful Brooks Range

Deadhorse

The approach to Deadhorse Alaska

The flight over the Brooks Mountain Range was breathtaking. The Yukon River wove through the scenery for a while and then there was nothing but snow-capped mountains as far as the eye could see.

44 Below

Feels like 44 Below Outside!

We landed in Deadhorse and toured the beginning of the Alaska Pipeline and the rigs.

Beginning of Alaska Pipeline 2

On the North Slope of Alaska with my radio co-host

I stood on the frozen Arctic Ocean when it was 44 below with the wind-chill.

Beginning of Alaska Pipeline

Mile Zero of the Alaska Pipeline

Surprisingly it didn’t feel that cold…but I was only out long enough to snap a picture and jump back into the heated van.

Jill on the Frozen Arctic Ocean

Jill on the Frozen Arctic Ocean

 

Valdez

Thompson Pass Jill and Cathi

Cathi & Jill on Thompson Pass

 

Mike and I got a chance to see the other end of the pipeline, 800 miles away, when my cousin Cathi came to visit.

Valdez End of the Pipeline

Mile 800 – the End of the Alaska Pipeline in Valdez

We traveled to Valdez over Thompson Pass where they get an average winter snowfall of 550 inches, or nearly 46 feet! At the time, Stephen Segal was there filming the movie “On Deadly Ground.”

Valdez Oil Tanks

Valdez Oil Tanks

In Valdez we stayed at a so-called bed & breakfast that was little more than a couple of rooms in somebody’s house. Kind of weird but that’s what’s available when traveling in Alaska.

Valdez B and B

House on the right was our B&B

Kodiak Island

One other wild trip came after we moved to Colorado. We had accumulated enough air miles to go to Juneau, a place we never made it to while living in Alaska.

Kodiak sign

Mike & Jill in Kodiak

The state capital is in the southeast panhandle and not accessible by car. That’s right. There is no road between Anchorage and the state capitol. You fly or swim.

Kodiak Coastline

Kodiak Coastline

Days before our trip, the airline stopped service to Juneau! Since we already had tickets to Anchorage for this crazy long weekend, and time taken off from work, we decided to go anyway and switched our tickets to go to Kodiak Island.

Kodiak Cows on the Beach

Kodiak Cows on the Coast

Heidi, good friend from Anchorage, tagged along for the adventure.

We had only 24 hours on the ground and we were determined to see some Kodiak bears. It was April so it was dreary, rainy and damp, but, oddly, still fun.

An Eagle on Kodiak Island

An Eagle in Flight

Tourist season had not started yet. We rented a car and traveled all four main roads. Each was distinctly different. Some hugged the coastline where we saw longhaired cows grazing on the beach as eagles swooped by. Another rough and bumpy road took us through mountains that offered majestic vistas.

Kodiak Anton Larsen Bay Road

Kodiak’s Anton Larsen Bay Road

That night, the three of us went and hung out at the city dump where bears were known to congregate. Mike & I traveled more than two thousand miles from Denver so we could hang out at a dump. We all thought that was hysterical! Never did see a bear but it was well worth the trek.

Kodiak Roads End Cafe

Road’s End Cafe on Kodiak Island

About Journeys By Jill

I have spent most of my adult life working in and around TV, film & radio production. As an avid traveler, I have a goal to visit at least 100 countries using the Century Traveler's Club Country List. At the moment, I have 54 to go. My favorite form of travel is to get off the beaten path and discover weird & wonderful attractions. Basically, I wing it. I'd love for you to come along for the ride.
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