“Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” With the camera and oxygen mask in my lap, that’s what I heard as I sat in the co-pilot seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo ready to depart from Talkeetna airport for a flightseeing trip to view Denali from high above.
But the story really begins a few days earlier.
Midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, off the main highway and on its own spur, sits the historical village of Talkeetna. It is full of log buildings, a railroad depot, a general store, various food trucks, cafes, and restaurants. It looks like a mining and gold prospector town right out of the 1800s, with a modern artsy twist. And the best part–the best part of all–is the buzz of all the flightseeing airplanes and helicopters overhead.
Unfortunately the popular (and what I thought was the only) campground was full by the time I rolled through town, so I turned back towards the main highway in search of a place to sleep–at 11 o’clock at night. Knowing I really should snap some photos of what little I had seen of Talkeetna and thinking I may never get back, something made me turn around in the middle of the road after I had completely left town. On my way back to town, I saw people parked–cameras and binoculars in hand–next to a “Scenic View” sign. With nothing but a big sun beginning to set behind the clouds, some gentle rain falling, and trees for miles and miles, I didn’t see anything that remotely resembled a scenic view, but I parked anyway. An older couple pointed out at the horizon, and asked me, “Do you see it?”. They sensed my confusion and said, “Denali. It’s right in front of us, 60 miles away, once the clouds disappear.” Excited to see the famed mountain in person for the first time, I asked the old man how long he had waited here to see it. He responded, “40 years, son, 40 years.”
It’s true. Denali is so big that it creates its own weather. Even if the surrounding area has clear skies, there is generally a cloud layer obscuring the actual mountain. In fact, the guide books say that only 25-30% of visitors actually get to see Denali appear. So, yes, I was pretty excited when–about 30 minutes later–the sun went behind the Alaska Range, the clouds parted, and there stood the 20,320-foot Denali flanked by the 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker and the 14,573-foot Mt. Hunter. The other peaks–many over 10,000 feet–look like tiny hills compared to Denali and the other two “big” peaks.
After talking with some of the others who had stopped to get a glimpse of Denali, I still had to find a place to sleep. At this point, it was well past midnight, so I took a chance and drove into town one more time, hoping to find a spot on the street to park and sleep. By chance, I found a not-so-published campground back in the woods, put my money in the honor box, and stumbled into bed. Little did I know I would spend the next two days in Talkeetna.
The next day, I ended up finding a spot at the main campground that was full the night before. And my campsite happened to back up directly against the Alaska Railroad Depot for the Hurricane Turn train. It is one of the last true flag stop trains in America. Instead of scheduled station stops, passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch simply flag down the train as it approaches. And passengers already on the train let the conductor know they want to detrain because their cabin, or lean-to, or fishing hole, or campsite is near. There are no other ways to reach these incredibly remote places. There are no roads, and the Alaskan Bush is too thick for airplanes in this part.
Since I was literally staying only a few yards from the depot, I bought a ticket impromptu, and stepped back in time for a six-hour roundtrip journey by rail. It was an experience! Honestly, the scenery itself started to look the same after a while, but the people I saw and stories I heard were priceless. Of course the train was full of tourists just like me, but it was also full of locals on their way to their property. In some cases, they were heading back to their childhood home. Some brought supplies: like two-by-fours and tools, beer and water, rifles and fishing rods. Some got off right away, did some fishing, and then got back on when we returned a few hours later on the inbound leg. There were two passenger cars with comfy seats and big windows, but there was a third car–a cargo car with doors wide open and a safety net strung across the bottom. In Alaska fashion, we would stick our heads out the open door as the train raced along the tracks–at speeds up to 60 mph! We even passed Alaska’s smallest town, population two. And at one point, the train stopped at a rail crossing so we could all get out to see a grizzly bear that had just been shot a few hours earlier. It was a crazy, crazy ride!
The conductor kept track of everything and everyone, yet still found time to share stories and answer questions:
“So why have I been saying Denali and what happened to Mt. McKinley?”, he asked. “Well, they are the same thing. Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning ‘The High One,’ is the official Alaskan name for the mountain. But nationally, Mt. McKinley is named in honor of President McKinley, a man who never even visited Alaska.” As he politely explained, “If you call it Mt. McKinley, we know you’re a tourist. If you call it Denali, we know you are a true Alaskan.”
So, from now on, I’m calling it Denali. Oh, and by the way, most of the locals pronounce it with a hard “a” sound: as in, rhymes with “alley”, and not “Molly.”
And that brings be back to “Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” As everyone was packing up to depart by the ubiquitous 11AM campground checkout time, my next door neighbors mentioned they were on their way to take a flightseeing trip to see Denali from above. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the co-pilot seat of a Piper Navajo, about to depart on a 90-minute adventure of a lifetime.
Since Denali is just over 20,000 feet in elevation, we would have to climb to just under 21,000 feet to see it from above. And since oxygen starts disappearing at around 12,500 feet, we would need supplemental oxygen and masks. I am pretty certain that it was my first flight in a twin-engine general aviation airplane, and it was certainly my first flight in a non-pressurized cabin in Class A airspace. The other passengers just heard white noise, but I could hear all communication with air traffic control in my headset. It was reassuring to hear “visibility greater than 10 miles, ceiling greater than 10,000 feet” when the pilot got the weather report from ATIS and verified with the Flight Service Station he had listened to the most recent report tagged “H”–as in “Hotel.”
Within 15 minutes after takeoff, the Alaska Range appeared below the horizon. And because it was such a great weather day, other airplanes and helicopters started to appear, too. There were close to a dozen aircraft in our airspace, and I got to help the pilot spot them as their positions squawked over the radio. We flew over some glaciers that had carved a river of snow, dirt, and ice out of the landscape. We flew over what looked like little tiny peaks of a massive meringue pie. And in just a few more minutes, with a cotton candy-like covering of clouds, we were staring at the South Summit of Denali, almost four miles above the surface of the Earth. We were five miles out, but it looked like we were just a few feet away. After circling the summits a few times, we started our descent to get a better look at some of the other buttresses and glaciers, like the Ruth and the Kahiltna. We flew through jagged black and white canyons, over bright blue water surrounded by white ice, over brown sandy glacial deposits, and along lush green vegetation. I took some 200 photos of that flight; it was like something out of a children’s storybook.
Almost 90 minutes later, we landed, the pilot closed his flight plan, and I shook my head at what I had just seen. And then I waited for my ears to pop.Read More
Just north of Anchorage is the town of Wasilla. Maybe you’ve heard of it? The former mayor, Sarah Palin, and her family still live in town. Thanks to Google, I noticed their house was just down the road from my campground. I had to go check it out! I drove up to the driveway expecting to find a gate, a security outpost, something. All I found were a few “No Trespassing” signs on a nondescript wooden fence just off the main nondescript highway full of chain restaurants and retail stores. The best word to describe everything would be–you guessed it–nondescript.
The next morning I waved goodbye to the Palins as I drove by again, starting my trek down to the Kenai Peninsula. The Seward Highway, rated one of the best drives in all of America, follows the ocean inlet and turns inland over a series of gentle mountain passes. Well, at least I think it does, because all I saw were clouds, fog, and sideways rain. For the next three days, I had some of the worst Alaskan summer weather yet.
I eventually rolled into Homer with plans to stay on the Homer Spit. Sticking out into the ocean on a skinny piece of land only a few hundred yards wide and a few miles in length, I finally reached the famed spit–only to find Alaska’s dirtiest tourist trap. Needless to say, after a long drive in horrible weather, I wasn’t too happy when I saw the overcrowded, overpriced, and entirely overrated campgrounds on the spit. I took a deep breath, did some quick internet research, and found a decent campground with a great view back on the mainland part of Homer. And when the weather did turn better for a few hours, I did have some incredible views of the surrounding seaside mountains. The town of Homer definitely grew on me as I stayed longer, but I still think the actual Homer Spit isn’t worth the high prices–at all.
With continued bad weather in all the forecasts, I made a quick decision to retreat and head back up north to a town I had read about in my travel research. This town would end up as one of my absolute favorite towns in all of Alaska.Read More
After politely answering all the customs officer’s questions, I entered Alaska again near the town of Tok. And, by “near,” I mean “almost 100 miles.” Other than the border crossing, there isn’t much at all going on in this part of the Alaska Highway. In fact, parts of it are actually a bit boring. At Tok, I turned off of the Alaska Highway with plans to head towards Anchorage. But, as usual, my plans changed.
While spending the night in Glennallen, I happened to notice the sign to Valdez. There is only one road into Valdez and it stops just on the other side of town; it would be a quick round trip. For the first hour or so–with nothing too interesting–I wondered if I had made a mistake. And then I turned the corner to head up Thompson Pass. With a bright blue sky and puffy white clouds, mountain peaks in every direction, waterfalls, glaciers, melting snow and ice, it was an arctic heaven reachable by automobile. Even other travelers I met (who had also driven several thousand miles to reach this place) were in awe of the scenery that day.
Just on the other side of Thompson Pass, and right on the Prince William Sound, Valdez is sometimes called the Switzerland of Alaska. I now know why. The mountains surrounding town rise from sea level to 7,000 feet, making them some of the tallest coastal mountains in the world. They offer a backdrop for the downtown harbor, full of fishing boats heading back and forth from the sea. I found a campsite with views of the mountains out every window and within walking distance of the busy harbor. It was a pretty good day!Read More
To get from Southeast Alaska to Southcentral Alaska, there is a little country called Canada that gets in the way. The Haines Highway (out of Haines, Alaska) and Klondike Highway (out of Skagway, Alaska) both pass through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. And to confuse things even more, there is a time zone change: the Yukon (on Pacific Time) is one hour ahead of the Alaska Time Zone.
To give you an idea of what it’s like to drive in the Yukon Territory, I took some photos as I was driving about 100 kilometers per hour up the Haines Highway. The scenery is incredible, but it is as desolate as the photos depict. Yes, I made sure to stop for gas in both “towns” I drove through. I had a little fog, a little rain, and a little sunshine. There were two 15-kilometer sections that were gravel. It is part of regular road maintenance to repair damage caused by the frost heaves. There were actually sections of the paved road that were in far worse shape than the gravel. You may have heard me yell a few times when the Touareg and Airstream caught some unintentional air.
Overall, it was a great travel day. I even saw some grizzlies on the side of the road. Busy eating grass, the bears were not at all bothered by me–this time.Read More
At a very bright and very early 7 o’clock in the morning, I departed Juneau on the M/V Malaspina for the 92-mile, 4-hour sailing to Haines, my last stop on the Alaska Marine Highway System and Alaska’s Inside Passage. As usual, the sights were pretty amazing. But, since I had to wake up at 4:30, I admit I dozed off for about an hour about midway through the sailing.
I know I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating; go see the Inside Passage! It seemed to get better and better as the passage narrowed, the mountains grew, the animals appeared, and the skies cleared. With decent food and alcohol options, observation decks, bathrooms, showers, cabins, and recliners, it was an extremely comfortable ride. I wasn’t on a luxurious cruise ship, but for the price, the ferries were a great alternative. The price is even better if you don’t drive your home on board.
Now that I’m back on the Alaska mainland, my journey to Southcentral Alaska continues by highway. But before I can get there, I have to get through Canadian Customs to drive through B.C. and the Yukon Territory. And then it’s a drive on the Top of the World Highway to get back into the United States.Read More
Did you know Juneau used to be called Harrisburg? Two gold prospectors named Harris and Juneau founded the town back in the late 1800s, but Harris “fell out of favor” with the locals and they changed the name.
As is the case with almost every single town in Southeast Alaska, Juneau has no roads leading into it. And it’s the state capital. It took almost eight hours to sail on the M/V Matanuska from Petersburg to Juneau. Finally, finally, finally the seas were calm and the skies were clear. In fact, it was so calm, we had glassy waters for several hours. With snow-capped mountains, glaciers, and icebergs all around, it almost felt as if we were gliding over ice.
The occasional humpback whale, orca, or porpoise would briefly break the surface and cause all kinds of commotion on the ship. I found the best way to get one to come up for air was to turn my back and head inside. I couldn’t believe the several times I missed seeing one. Eventually I saw a couple of whale tails in the air, even if none of them completely breached their entire body. We passed Admiralty Island, home to some 1,600 brown bears, but I didn’t see a single one. I am slowly learning it takes special (i.e. pricey) tours to get some of those “NatGeo-worthy” photos. Nevertheless, it was an incredible sailing through an amazing part of the U.S., and to a pretty scenic capital city.
Juneau sits right on the Gastineau Channel, surrounded by massive mountains and glaciers. I stayed at a campground just a few minutes from the famous Mendenhall Glacier, about 15 minutes from downtown. Downtown can be a little touristy, especially when the cruise ships are in town, but it has a charm about it. I did some whale watching at the Shrine of St. Therese (actually I should say “I watched for whales, but didn’t see any”), rode the Mount Roberts Tramway, did some hiking overlooking the city, ate at the Red Dog Saloon, and saw the Alaska Governor’s Mansion. If you ever find yourself in Southeast Alaska, be sure to make it to Juneau. But–and this is a big one–there isn’t a single 18-hole regulation golf course around! So, golfing in Alaska waits for yet another day.Read More
Petersburg, nicknamed “Little Norway,” is the next stop on my journey through Alaska’s Inside Passage. Founded by a Norwegian, Peter Buschmann, back in 1910, the streets today are still filled with Nordic flags and decorative paintings called rosemaling. Imagine an island with snow-capped peaks, glaciers, inlets, bald eagles, longliners, seiners, trollers, gillnetters, crabbers, harbors, seaplanes, friendly people, and a road that ends just outside of town. It easily makes my top five list of best isolated towns in America.
With a stopover in Wrangell, it’s an all-day ferry ride from Ketchikan to Petersburg. I was able to book another daytime sailing (because who wants to look out at total darkness) on the larger M/V Columbia. The crew clearly had different loading methods, because this time they made me back in to my parking stall. With a line of cars waiting to board, I managed to squeeze in between a wall, some motorcycles, and a cargo container. I didn’t realize it before, but the ferry terminal in Ketchikan is right near the famed “Bridge to Nowhere,” Alaska’s failed attempt to build a bridge from downtown to the airport/seaplane base. So, as we were waiting in port, dozens of seaplanes were taking off, landing, and circling overhead.
For everyone on board, it’s all about the view. And with a couple hundred eyeballs, it’s pretty easy to know when someone finds something worth looking at. It’s just hard to capture that quick moment on camera. I saw lots of mountains, some rain, several humpback whales, some porpoises, but no bears. The ferries are in much of the same waters that the cruise lines take, and get to see the same sights. In fact, because the ferries are much smaller, they get to take a special shortcut through the Wrangell Narrows. Without question, that was the highlight of the day. The locals call this narrow passage of shallow waters “Christmas Tree Lane.” Why? For a little more than an hour, we “slalomed” through the 70 red and green navigational markers. For this part of the sailing, I hung out in the heated solarium outside, running like a dog back and forth, checking out the sights on both port and starboard sides. Dotted along the shore were makeshift shacks, cabins, homes, and hunting lodges–some with the orange-colored glow of light and smoky chimneys as we passed by in the foggy dusk. It was something I will always remember.
Just before the end of Wrangell Narrows we passed by my eventual campground and successfully docked in Petersburg. I backtracked a couple of miles on the highway, found a campsite right on the water, and quickly went to bed after a pretty long travel day.Read More
If you’ve followed along at home, you know Alaska (the 49th state in the Union) is my 49th state in the Airstream. I think it technically counted when I passed through U.S. Customs and boarded the M/V Matanuska (a ferry owned by the state of Alaska) in the waters off Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. But I didn’t count it until I rolled off the ferry into the port of Ketchikan, Alaska and onto dry land.
And I’m not even to the main part of Alaska yet. I’m in southeast Alaska, a part only accessible by sea or air. In fact, to get to the rest of Alaska, I will have to hop on another series of ferries, and then drive through another part of British Columbia and the Yukon Territory before reaching the main Alaskan border. From Ketchikan to Anchorage: 1,120 miles.
Originally wanting to take the Airstream on a ferry (or even a barge) through the entire Inside Passage starting in Washington state, I reluctantly decided to drive the entire way because of insane ticket prices. I got delayed in some pretty wet weather in the middle of B.C., and to find some sunshine, headed completely out of my way to the coastal city of Prince Rupert. Bt the way, if you’re ever in Prince Rupert, be sure to head down to Cow Bay, a few square blocks of shops and restaurants right on the water. After seeing all the ships in Prince Rupert heading to Alaska, I decided to research the Alaska Marine Highway System and the Inside Passage again. I was happy to find the prices much more reasonable for just the Alaskan part of the Inside Passage, so I booked a spot on the next ferry heading north. With something called the See Alaska Pass, I can stop off at a few cities along the route, stay for a few days, and board the ferry again without having to endure the almost 30-hour journey from Prince Rupert to Haines in one sitting.
The ferry itself was pretty comfortable; I had a really good meal in the cafeteria, walked around outside taking photos, and spent most of my sitting time in the forward observation lounge. I had intermittent cellular internet service, but unfortunately no Wi-Fi on the ferry itself. Because it was only a 5-6 hour crossing, I chose not to get a private cabin, but that could be an option for the next trip–at least 18 hours if I choose to go straight to Juneau. Unfortunately, passengers are not allowed to go down to the auto deck (and sleep in comfortable beds) while the ferry is moving.
The first leg from Prince Rupert to Ketchikan was in somewhat open waters. The scenery was good, but honestly, I’m expecting it to get better as the passage narrows. That is, if the weather cooperates. Unfortunately, the forecast calls for more rain in this part of the state. For now, I’m happy in Ketchikan, where there just might be a floatplane for every person on the island, and where bald eagles are as plentiful as pigeons in Chicago. I’ll hang out in Ketchikan, try to find some good weather in the forecast, and then I’m off…exact port unknown.Read More