By plane, Alaska’s not that far from Washington state. Three hours in the air gazing at mountains unfolding along the Inside Passage. It begs the question, why haven’t I spent more time here? It’s been almost 20 years since we were last in Alaska, and that was a four-day, let’s-drive-to-Alaska-in-two-days adventure with my 10-year-old nephew and my dad. We made it to Hyder, the state’s southernmost and easternmost town, and spent a day watching brown and black bears congregate at Fish Creek to feast on salmon.
Five years before that, while we were dating, Mr. Adventure and I drove up the Cassiar Highway to Fairbanks in my Honda Civic hatchback with our cocker spaniel riding shotgun, returning on the Al-Can Highway. While that trip was memorable for many reasons, the story that has endured in family lore is camping in northwest British Columbia. I dived into the tent to escape clouds of mosquitoes and thought I would deter the little pests by spraying repellent. Inside the tent. Mr. Adventure says at that moment, he wasn’t sure I was marriage material. Hey, I hadn’t even lived in the Northwest a full year at that point, so cut me some slack.
As the plane descended over Cook Inlet, I remembered that Alaska is about scale. Everything is bigger. Big mountains stretch down to the shore of Cook Inlet. Big tributaries pour into big rivers that twist and turn to the big sea. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t shirk from scale, but even our Olympics and Cascades look somehow tame compared to these peaks. Alaska, I mused, is where we go to see what the landscape used to be like, because human impact isn’t as obvious here.
Anchorage to Portage
Back to the present. We goggled at the stuffed and mounted wildlife scattered through the airport (I rode the escalator twice to get a good look at the musk ox) and headed into Anchorage in search of lunch. It was May, and the farmers’ market had just opened for the season. Munching on reindeer hot dogs, we browsed booths that sold pelts, hand-tooled gun holsters, and chain-saw carvings. Definitely a different vibe than our local farmers’ market.
We headed south out of town on Highway 1 toward Seward, our destination for the night. The highway parallels Turnagain Arm for 50 miles to Portage, a ribbon of pavement between the water and Chugach State Park, the mountains and forests of which would probably qualify for national park status in the lower 48. In no hurry, we pulled over frequently to snap pictures and fruitlessly scan for moose, bear, and whales.
Aside from lots and lots of eagles, especially on the tidal flats at the head of Turnagain Arm, we didn’t spot the wildlife that draws so many people to Alaska, but it was early days. We turned onto Portage Glacier Road, hoping to glimpse icebergs on Portage Lake. The eponymous glacier used to fill the entire valley, but now retreats at a rate of one foot per day and hasn’t been visible from the road for a couple of decades. If you want to see it today, you pay $40 and get on a tour boat. But remnants of the once-giant glacier are evident along the road, and we had fun exploring the edges of the snowfields.
Sunset in Seward
By the time we reached Seward, the clouds had become white puffs in a blue sky. The hotel was basic but clean, with a stunning view across Resurrection Bay. We walked into downtown Seward and found Thorn’s Showcase Lounge, a mid-century relic crammed with thousands of Jim Beam collector bottles. Housed on custom-built shelves, large sheets of plexiglass ensure they don’t fall onto patrons’ heads. The 1964 earthquake left a few bottles tipped forward against the protective cover. With just about every surface upholstered in tufted vinyl, the place is a MCM lover’s dream.
We had plans to explore Kenai Fjords National Park, so after walking along the waterfront to watch dusk creep across the sky at 10:45pm, we called it a night. Good thing the hotel had blackout curtains.