“New York? Don’t you guys do Kilimanjaro-ish things in September?”
That was a friend’s reaction on our September 2014 plans. We relocated to USA this year and in the middle of the madness of settling down in a new city, there was hardly any time to think about a milestone trip. We thought it’s alright to give up on your special ideas once in a while, even though we felt sad about it. But as life would have it, some visiting friends inspired yet another spectacular September.
Somewhere in our ‘things to see before we die'(TTSBWD) list(or September list) was an Aurora, for which we had added Iceland long ago. In the beginning of July, I saw a series of pictures from Alaska by a friend. The title reminded me and I thought “Oh, Alaska has Auroras too!” When I opened the album, I don’t know if I blinked even once. The pictures were breathtaking even though there were no Auroras. Alaska went into TTSBWD because of Denali.
In the month of June, our friends from India decided to visit us in August and September. Recently smitten by Alaska, deprived of a concrete plan for the season, I found no better way to decorate their maiden visit to USA and to revive our September – Alaska it was.
Packaged Tour v/s Self-guided Trip
To plan a trip, there are many things one has to consider; to design a trip for 7 people, there are a few more.
- Group : 4 from India, 1 American and 2 immigrants
- Time to plan : 2 months
- Number of days : 6
- Experience in planning : None in USA
- Experience in driving : Plenty but no driver’s licence
The most logical approach was to hire a tour company to make a plan. Within 10 days, I had bugged the best travel agency for Alaska many times, had spoken to 3 friends who had visited the place before, and had budget-related conference talks with the travelers. The total estimated cost of the package for 6 days and 5 nights per person was approx USD 2000(without the flights). This included the Alaska Railroad, bus connections between cities and good hotel accommodations. While it sounded fair, we realised it was a bit lavish not only for those from India, but for us too. Also, we had to go by a fixed itinerary and had very little freedom for our own activities.
After another conversation with my friends, we calculated the cost for a self-guided trip. It fell from $2000 to almost $1000. The bus rides, the train ride and the whitewater rafting is what we had removed. We then added an approximate car rental expense. It was a saving of a $1000 per person with the gain of freedom and our own kind of accommodation options. I was going to put us in homes, cabins and lodges, since I have a personal dislike for hotel-stays unless it’s a business trip or a crowded city.
In the next month, Gopal & I got our licenses and we practiced driving around on two weekends. We contacted cabins, lodges, homes and B&B accommodations in almost all places (except our fly-in/fly-out city). Once everything was set, we jumped to the fun part.
We were most excited about:
- Wildlife sighting in Denali
- Kenai Fjords experience where we were eager to see ice-canyons, whales and more exciting marine action
- Tundra landscape
- Fall season
- Alaskan accommodations (home-stays and cabins)
- The Northern Lights
The following were our concerns :
- Driving inexperience and a monstrous Ford Expedition to maneuver
- Luggage space for all the bags in the car
- Accommodation comfort for everyone
- Group fitness for a hectic 5-day exploration
Anchorage & Denali
We landed in Anchorage on the 1st of September and after a not-so-smooth deal with the car rental company, we got on to our big, black car. To our relief, everything and everybody could fit in with some space to spare. One of us, the American, offered to drive to the hotel.
Eat lunch, go to Walmart and stock up grocery, discuss day-to-day activities – That’s what we did on our arrival day.
At around 9am the next day, we were all packed in the car and I was at the driver’s seat. Contrary to my concerns about the first long drive, it was the simplest and the smoothest 260-mile drive I ever did. We stopped over at Nancy Lake and Eklutna lake for short hikes and took some pictures. At Eklutna, we encountered a swarm of mosquitoes like never before and understood why we were advised by many to carry mosquito sprays in Alaska. For a late lunch, we stopped at Mary’s McKinley View Cafe , which was the first of many memorable pit-stops that we made during our trip. We met Mary Carey’s daughter who told us about her mother’s great achievements and how Mary Carey made invaluable contributions to Alaska’s tourism.
We left from the Cafe at around 3pm with 100 more miles to Denali. The drive from there was smooth and uneventful; except the left turn to Healy road. The turn was from the highway and I had to cut a swift left. I turned on the indicator at a safe distance and then slowed down from 65mph to almost 20mph (In India, even if everything is alright, we are conditioned to move quite slowly at turns.). Just when both ways were clear, I turned.
I looked at my rear-view mirror to see what had happened. A huge truck, at probably 80mph, had to hit the breaks due to my India-safe-slow left turn. “Woof!” We all were glad to have found a second chance at life.
We reached Denali National Park Visitor Center at 5pm and spoke to the park rangers about the hiking trails in the area. At around 5.20, we were at the railroad crossing – the trailhead for a short 2-mile hike to Beaver Dam and Nenana River.
The hike was a walk for all of us, and we saw, as expected, some beautiful sights on the way. What we didn’t know was what awaited us at the end of the hike – a dam made by Beavers. When one of us pointed out what we were looking at, we couldn’t hide our amazement. In fact, Vivek went ahead and tasted the water; which we found was a mistake, because the next day, we discovered a disease called ‘Beaver Fever‘.
As I write about our time in this place, I can’t help smiling. We had two suites and a cabin (shown in the picture). We met the guy, Ted, who runs the place with his wife Ann. I had read about Ann’s fresh, great bakery items, which the guests enjoy for breakfast. However, since we went in the shoulder season (just before they shut down for the year), we got discounted rates and no bread.
Ted told us that many animals visited their cabin, including bears. He also told us to expect a fox. A bit worried but once we got some understanding of the area, we settled into our rooms. After a brief rest, we headed out for dinner to 49th State Brewery.
The brewery, recommended by Ted, had the best salmon we had ever tasted, great fish and some Yak meat. Abhishek, who had trouble finding good vegetarian food in USA, was however, not very happy with his Quinoa burger. And the fact that the rest of us celebrated the food, rubbed the sorry taste of his burger all over his taste buds. I think, eventually, he was glad that he ate. Two of us began to feel sick at this time. We were sure it wasn’t the food because Vivek’s eyes were red and hurting; and A had been feverish since the evening. Vivek had also tasted the Beaver water (which can cause Beaver Fever!).
We finished dinner and drove towards our cabin. In the middle of our gossip, one of us shouted.
We all looked in the direction J pointed.
“Oh my god, that’s an aurora!”
From beneath the clouds, the solar storm seeped, almost showered the invisible horizon right in front of us. We pulled over to the right and salivated as we watched the lights move and change color; albeit for the most stunning 10 seconds of our lives.
It all happened so fast and without any warning that we were in a state of mild shock. Once it was over, we screamed together – almost inexplicably. I tried to call G, who had skipped dinner, but the Northern Lights got lost in the clouds before the call went through. What bewildered us was that we saw the magic despite an all-day overcast. That night, I am sure, all of us hit the bed with a smile of gratification.
On the morning of Sep 3 everything went according to the schedule, except for a 7-minute panic. We were to board a bus for a 13-hour tour of Denali National Park. Unfortunately, the pick up location wasn’t mentioned clearly on the itinerary and I didn’t have the contact details of the company. We hopped between 2 visitor centers for about 10 minutes and then someone directed us to a bus stop where there was no one other than us. After a quick online search and a phone call, we were informed that the bus was delayed. At 7:20am, a red bus, packed with a demographic in which we were probably the youngest, picked us up. For the first few minutes, we were worried about the long ride and the fact that we hadn’t packed breakfast for everyone. The worry only lasted those early moments, because we spent the next 10-12 hours, listening to the abundant knowledge that our guide had to share, witnessing the exciting wildlife of Denali and admiring the diversity of the park.
The snow-packed mountains formed a great background for the 9 grizzly bears, over 8 Caribous, Dall Sheeps and Moose. The fall colors and the Tundra region made for some unforgettable photographs and in the reel of breathtaking Alaskan landscapes, was a Red Squirrel. At the Kantishna Roadhouse, where we ate lunch, we did a short hike and watched a rather strange sled dog show, because the dogs pulled an ATV instead of a sled.
There was so much that we saw in Denali that our cup of satisfaction was overflowing already. But who knew that the cup was actually a giant jug?
The Northern Lights
That evening, we dined at Black Diamond Bar & Grill – an expensive dinner with mediocre preparations. Once we wound up our dinner, we set up the ‘North View’ suite – switched off all the lights, closed the doors and sat around the wide sky-view window. It was 11:15pm and within seconds of acquainting our eyes with the darkness, we spotted a stream of greenish light on the right side of the window. We jumped and shouted that it was indeed there, the active Auroras!
“You guys are making it all up!”
We all turned around to trace Tim’s voice in the darkness.
“See, this is how they are supposed to look.”
He showed us pictures of The Northern Lights on the internet.
“Dude, these are pictures shot with long exposure settings.” Gopal said.
Vivek set his camera and started the single long-interval shot. We all waited with wonder for the picture – Behold!
What I saw in the picture renewed my respect for cameras. It was unbelievable that right in front of our eyes, from our rooms, we could see so many colors and one of the most indescribable heavenly shows. We spent the next 3 hours taking thousands of pictures at different times, our eyes stuck on the sky and like they had forgotten to blink. At one point, we saw a faint red line and purple showers. The show got so intense that the entire ‘landscape’ of the sky was brightened up. We didn’t want to close our eyes that night. But sleep we did, at 2.30am.
Next day, we started our drive towards Talkeetna. We had signed up for ‘Mt. McKinley Flight Experience‘, along with a 15-minute glacier landing. Took it easy and we got to the town/city of Talkeetna at around 1.30pm. It was a rainy, humid day and the place was so green that the moisture made it look like a tropical place.
Personally, I have a pleasant and vivid memory of this town. We dined at Roadhouse which was yet another wonderful restaurant; it was like somebody’s home with many dining tables and families gathered around for a meal. There was a man playing the piano as well. We felt so good that we decided to visit again after our tour.
We boarded a red Cessna at 4:15pm – flew, gained height and the view underneath changed from brown and green, to white and blue. We reached a maximum height of 12000 feet before we landed on Ruth Glacier. There, we walked on the ice/snow and took quite a few exotic pictures. We were asked not to move too far away from the aircraft, since there were dangerous crevasses all around.
As we made our way back, it occurred to me that most of the time, we imagine mountains towering above and in front of us. Not sure if I had ever visualized peaks like a birthday cake.
We made it back to the airport at 5:30, with one us seated next to the pilot.
Once we returned, we tried to dine at Roadhouse but it was completely packed. So, we proceeded to another recommended dinner place called ‘Denali Brewing Company‘ but not before we picked some delicious blueberry pies. In Talkeetna, we also discovered the Alaskan Sauce, which is spicy (like Tobasco) but has a flavor of its own. Our hunt for the sauce in the grocery stores however, wasn’t successful.
Zombies at home
The night after the Talkeetna experience was spent at Palmer and we checked into Alaska Harvest B&B – a family owned stay. This, according to Tim, was one of the most entertaining places we had stayed in.
Every room had stuffed animal skins including bears, moose and Caribous. Each room had a music system that played a central jungle theme throughout the night (we shut it off when we were sleeping though). The strange decor kept us talking even as we managed to share a single bathroom.
After a rainy morning, we started our drive to Seward. We skipped interesting pit-stops including Matanuska Glacier (100-mile detour) and Portage Glacier (on the way) and headed straight to Exit Glacier. The drive was quite different from anything we had seen before. The misty views, coastal waters on one side and a drizzly day – south of Anchorage offered a new treat to our eyes. We made a brunch stop at Kava’s Pancakes, where we stuffed ourselves with their huge portions.
At around 5:15pm, we reached the Exit Glacier Visitor Center . One of the park rangers gave us a rather entertaining brief for a 5-mile hike. There were many bears reported that week, and there was a mother bear very close to the trailhead. We were told to raise our hands above our heads, in case we encountered a bear.
“Hey Bear! Hey Bear..!”
That’s how they cheer for the bear instead of running away from it. However, none of us were sure of our reactions in case we came face-to-face with a bear.
We assessed our options, calculated the time and everybody’s fitness levels. There were 3 points : Marmot Meadows (1.2 miles), Top of the Cliff (2.4 miles) and Edge of the Glacier (4 miles), one way, on Harding Icefield. We decided to get to the ‘Top of the Cliff‘ viewpoint, the estimated time for which was 4 hours. At around 5:40pm, we began our climb.
We soon discovered that the hike wasn’t a walk in the park. Wet rocks and leaps of 2-3 meters every now and then. For the five from India, it was their first real hike. As we walked along berry shrubs all over the area, we were cautious about bears. We also spotted some fresh bear poop. Despite the challenging walk and the dangerous pathway, every time we turned around, the view made us go on. To our sadness, after the first 30 minutes, my sister said she was going back. All of us asked her to be careful but we didn’t try to force her to endure.
We soon reached above the treeline and saw the melting glacier waters below. But just before Marmot Meadows, Tim decided to turn around as well. The remaining five of us made it to a pretty meadow point and got busy with the sight. As I looked back, I spotted the bright orange jacket that my sister was wearing. Yes, she had made it up! My happiness knew no bounds. After spending a few more minutes at that point, we started to climb further up. It began to drizzle a few meters before Top of the Cliff, and we took a collective decision to turn around, albeit reluctantly. We walked down far quicker than we had thought. Finally, we made it to our car and found Tim reading. The hike was a great experience for the first timers. For me, it was 3 hours of meaningful conversations.
The Log House
Seward turned out to be a crash-early town as we found all restaurants shut at 9.30pm. So, we picked up grocery for dinner and breakfast before we headed to our log house, Bear Paw Lodge. We thought we were tired but when we checked in to the house, which was entirely for us, we felt rejuvenated. The house was big and had an inspiring set up. Every room was cozy and pretty, and the kitchen was inviting. We spent a few hours sitting around the kitchen – chatting, laughing, drinking and digesting the ready-to-cook dinner. We retired to bed at around 1am. I checked a few details for the next day’s cruise before I crashed.
Early next morning, Tim and I woke up and had some interesting conversation along with the breakfast preparations. I lost track of time and panicked when I realised it was 9am and many of us weren’t ready yet. I set the breakfast ingredients for other people to cook and got ready. By 10am, we were set but we had to clear the trash, wash dishes and clean the rooms before we checked out. That moment of stress was handled by Tim and I am more than thankful for his proactive attitude. Although a bit worried, we made it in time to check-in for our cruise. In hind sight, I wish we had one more day to spend in that lodge – the homely stay.
What are Fjords?
Kenai Fjords Cruise was the tour I was most excited about. I hoped to see whales and Ice Canyons – many of them. We boarded our Catamaran and before we headed to the decks on the 3 floors, we found our tables and left our bags there. The day was bright and clear, the water looked like the perfect canvass for spectacular sightings. My heart was racing and about 15-20 minutes after the cruise began, an announcement was made for the Orcas – Killer Whales. There were about 6 to 8 of them around us, but we could only see their tails; they are the more shy of the whale family. Sometime later, just before lunch, we also spotted Humpback Whales. Here, I was lucky enough to catch one jump; and the view, although swift is vivid in my memory. We saw a number of puffins and sea lions before making a stop at Holgate Glacier. There, we saw a few Harbor Seals and witnessed ice falling off the active glacier. Somewhere between the Humpbacks and the Glacier, we dined and finished our lunch.
At Holgate Glacier, the captain announced that we were tracing our way back. “Where are the ice canyons?” I thought. I rushed to one of the rangers and asked her about it. She told me that the iciest form of the fjords is in the colder months. “So, the pictures that I saw?”, I asked. “They are of the glaciers that we stop at.” She said.
Was I disheartened? My misconception made me expect a different experience but I was humbled by the fact-finding and made up my mind to enjoy the rest of the journey. On the way back, we saw a huge family of Steller Sea Lions resting on rocks, a pair of otters cuddled up on the water (my favorite of the cruise) and some pretty puffin activity.
Our conversations, as we got off the boat, were amusing. Nearly everyone thought that the cruise didn’t match their expectations. It was strangely comforting to find that we shared our disappointments, and we laughed it off.
The happy-seven packed the car for the final 2-hour journey to Anchorage. The exploration was going to end soon, but the universe had a different plan for us. In the middle of our winding down talks, there appeared, the most majestic rainbow we had ever seen. The chemicals in our brains shot up once again. And we had no words to describe the grand culmination to an extraordinary trip.
Was this it? We weren’t sure anymore.