Alaska is special. We know this. When we first move here, we suffer all manner of hardship to glimpse God from a mountain ridge or pull up a halibut that can feed five. Yet, kids come, kids grow, career ladders are climbed, months blur, years fold into decades, and we neglect to keep creating those magical Alaska memories. Our lives — coffee, kids, commuting, and house cleaning — are no different from those of Iowan flatlanders.
With this in mind, I decided to treat (force) my family to a two week Great Alaska Staycation. We would use car, rail, and boat to take a tour of “the rest of Alaska.” Ferry to Haines, drive 930 miles to the Kenai, train to Denali, and ferry home. It began by playing vehicular Tetris and packing our gear to the roof. No rear views were possible. I tried not to back up for two weeks.
Arriving in Haines, we set up camp in a light rain at Chilkoot Lake State Park. The campground is nestled where Chilkoot Lake transitions into the Chilkoot River. In the morning, I watched a family of fishing mergansers dive in quick succession and pop up onetwothree seconds later. Plentiful fish mean plentiful bears. Cautioning signs were everywhere. There was even a sign recommending against tent camping. Of course, I didn’t see that sign until after a night in the tent with wife and children.
After coffee and breakfast the morning of day two, we started driving. A few helpful tips for road tripping through Canada:
• Call your the credit card company and tell them you are traveling to Canada. The first time I tried to use my credit was in Haines Junction and the gas pump kept declining my card. I soon noted a text from Bank of America, “Are you in Canada?” Yes, it’s a little creepy, but I responded as instructed over an intermittent internet and the card was good.
• Bring fruit. The Alaska Highway is where gastrointestinal systems go to die. All of us were suffering and I’m sure it had something to do with sitting for hours, fried food, and looking at the soaking wet polyester pants of RV enthusiasts thinking, “that’ll be me someday soon.”
• There was quite a lot of construction along the road and you need to be patient. We were stuck behind semis on long stretches of twisty two lanes. You can never seem to get around these trucks, so I deemed them “Gandalf Trucks,” as in, “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”
We spent our first night on the road in Tok. It was raining, as it would for most of the trip. As I am old, and not as sturdy or cheap as in my youth, we sprang for a cabin. We stayed at the well apportioned Young’s Hotel and Cabins. They were, for Alaska, not the most expensive night out there.
Eventually, we made it to Kenai. We met my parents at The Log Cabin Inn just off Kalifornsky Beach road, a mile past the bridge to the city of Kenai. This lodge is run by Theresa, who makes a breakfast every morning. The lodge has spaces for games, places to dry your chest waders, and a bank of movies on VHS. It is charmingly worn and has become our go-to lodging for dip net season.
After a weekend of visiting friends, dad and I finally pushed our four-foot diameter nets on 18-foot long handles. It was a Monday, but still crowded at the river’s mouth. We guided our nets between other fishers like you might insert a floppy disc into an Apple IIe. (Email me on that reference if you’re younger than 38). Then you wait. About an hour into the experience I noticed the netters downstream pulling in sockeye and then BANG! my net bounced with a three-pound pink. Not to worry, in the next five hours dad and I pulled in 14 sockeye, and each of my girls pulled one in each. These were their first sockeye ever.
Given the three-year life cycle of a sockeye, this trip’s fish are the great great great great great great great great great great grand salmon of the sockeye that slipped passed me as a ten-year-old fishing the Kenai in 1982. That I can share this experience today with my ten and eight year olds is wonderful. Have you hugged your fisheries biologist today? These scientists who determine, set, and enforce escapement goals are my heroes. They’re why I can share my history with my kids and, if we’re smart, my grandkids and, if we’re really smart, my great great great great great great great great great great grandkids will fish as well.
Fishing works up an appetite. We ate two dinners at the Flat’s Bistro, a place within walking distance (on a bike trail! in Kenai!) from our lodging. This place was my favorite discovery of our two weeks and 2,000 miles on the road. The well made steak, seafood, and vegetables with a nice selection of wine and Alaskan beers were appreciated after five days of food fried beyond recognition.
We stayed in Anchorage between trips to the Kenai and Denali. For my little water nymphs, Anchorage means only one thing…H2Oasis. The mere mention of the place sends my Anchorage parent-friends into shudders. Words like “gross,” and “fungus” dominate the conversation. I took my girls anyway. As former sanitation scientist, I figured the chlorine would kill any E. Coli that might try out the water slides with my kids. I even donned a bathing suit and swim shirt. (To shield innocent eyes from a blast of rainforest derived, melanin deprived paleness). Guess what? The Master Blaster is a truly fun ride.
We also discovered Get Air Anchorage. This is a moderately more hygienic choice for parents when foot rot haunts their dreams. America Ninja Warrior reigns supreme with my girls and this trampoline-obstacle course facility with padded walls and floors is now their Anchorage training ground.
From Anchorage, we took a train to Denali on a Princess Tours rail car. A Princess rail car has an upper level glass dome providing a 360 view of the landscape. This comes in handy when you get up past Talkeetna, climb out of the trees and start seeing some fantastic views. It helps the tour guide was excellent and paced his spiel well, talking just enough to engage us in the scenery but not so much he became grating.
We stayed two of three nights at the Denali Cabins nine miles south of the park entrance. They were perfectly serviceable and cozy little cabins.
For the day of the park tour, I was excited my girls would finally see the inside of Denali National Park. A nice guided tour would surely interest my little ones. Our bus driver and guide was initially very nice. She told pleasant tales of her garden and rubber ducky races on the Chena. Then she diverged into a stream of consciousness about her love-hate relationship with her home of Healy. “I love living in Healy. But, oh, I’ve lived there for 50 years… But I love it! But the winters are so long…The summers are great! Love this park! But the winters are so cold…so long…so dark…so cold…” and I’m thinking “This isn’t good. This is an internal conversation between the light and the dark and it’s being broadcast over the bus speakers.” I look at my kids and hope today isn’t the day she decides to end it Thelma and Louise style with a busload of tourists.
Then she got political. She started questioning the expertise of park biologists and their recent decision to shoot a problem bear that had bitten park tourists. She criticized the recent shooting of the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla tearing apart a four year old. She talked about gun control. She talked about bears reabsorbing their fetuses when malnourished. We were trapped! Rants started with “I don’t want to be critical,” but went on (and on) to be very critical. I felt like I was trapped inside the studio of some unholy hybrid of Animal Planet and Fox News.
It was kind of entertaining.
Now all this said, let’s look at the trip into Denali by the numbers:
Moose – 14 (with some next to the bus)
Sheep – 4 (in the distance)
Caribou – 20 (with one next to the bus)
Bear – 6 (including a momma and two cubs close to the bus)
Willow Ptarmigan – a bunch
In this way, it was a very successful day in the park.
Eventually we had to come home to Juneau. To do this we took a ferry from Whittier. For two days we ferried home, across the Gulf of Alaska, under a gray dome that kept pace with the boat. The clouds surrounded, drowned out views, sound, and forced – ugh – introspection and – double ugh – poetry.
This whole vast ocean
No Inside Passage
Just waves to Hawaii’s islands
And bottomless depths to die in.
A dreary grey dim dome
Ends at a limited horizon,
Only broken by tipped white caps,
Alas, poetry is hard…
I think I’ll take a nap.
I wanted this trip to be a greatest hits tour of my youth: fish for Kenai sockeye, ride the train, glass Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park. The fact the trip succeeded should be cherished by us all. I am in awe of the sustained greatness of Alaska. My heart and thanks goes to those professionals behind the scenes who keep the Denali wild and the Kenai teeming. You made one daddy very happy.
And I just want to say, I’m sure Iowa is great. Iowans have to be some of the best people around. It’s just, in terms of a state that is the opposite of Alaska, Iowa has to be it. (The Iowans are totally coming after me for that one.)
• Clint J. Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Camping and Lodging
Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Site, Haines - http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks/aspunits/southeast/chilkootlksrs.htm
Young’s Motel, Tok Alaska –
Log Cabin Inn, Kenai Alaska –
Denali Cabins – Milepost 229 on the Parks Highway
The Flats Bistro, Kenai Alaska
Jack Sprat, Girdwood Alaska
Alaska Marine Highway System
Princess Alaska Rail
Get Air Trampoline Park, Anchorage
H2Oasis Indoor Water Park, Anchorage