Alaska trip: Exploring the last frontier

Alaska, as many of us know, is a land of extremes. This was made all too clear to us almost immediately upon landing in Fairbanks. As my cousin, Alex, drove us from the airport to their home on the Fort Wainwright Army Post, she remarked several times, “I can’t believe it’s dark! I haven’t seen darkness in so long!” It was 12:30 am.

We had heard the stories of endless sunlight in the Alaskan summertime, and extremely low temperatures in winter, but somehow it didn’t sink in until we saw the blackout curtains and plugs hanging out of the fronts of car grills — a necessity when you have to start your car in the -50° weather of Alaskan winters. Luckily, we had planned our trip to see Alex and her family in August, and we were greeted with mild (if drizzly, in Fairbanks) temperatures and only stories of the dark days of winter.

Alaska has always been on our list of trips to take, but only when Alex’s husband, Tim, was stationed in Fairbanks did we actually consider taking the trip sooner rather than later. Knowing some “locals” in a new and strange land can always make a trip more enjoyable, and Tim and Alex’s hosting abilities did not disappoint. We hadn’t made a list of must-see’s, but to our delight, our hosts were prepared for our indecisiveness and plotted out a full schedule for our time spent with them in Fairbanks. We awoke Saturday morning to a beautiful, home-cooked brunch, including local smoked salmon, as well as a deliciously adorable little addition to their family. Miss Samantha’s sweet smiles may or may not have been a highlight of our time in Fairbanks.

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After playtime, we set out to Chena Hot Springs, where Alex and Tim convinced us to head into the “ice museum” at the resort. While it felt thoroughly touristy to suit up into the provided parkas and enter the 20º building, moseying up to the bar for an appletini out of an ice glass, it was actually pretty cool. Originally built as a hotel a couple decades ago (but failing to be able to secure the permits necessary to house humans overnight), the sculptures enclosed within the small, cold building were really quite fascinating.

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After the ice museum, we met back up with Tim, Alex and Samantha and took a quick dip in the natural hot springs. As a cool drizzle moved in, we retreated to the local brewery for a couple of beers — a natural stop for us on a visit anywhere. After the brewery, we enjoyed a delicious dinner cooked by Alex and a game of Settlers of Catan, which we were delighted to discover was a mutual favorite.

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The next morning greeted us with more grey skies, so we decided to have a rematch of the prior evening’s board game, followed by a tour of the post and some highlights of town. We enjoyed a leisurely hike up the nearby ski hill to get a view of the post and Fairbanks, and  then relaxed back at the house for a bit before saying our goodbyes and heading back to the airport for the next leg of our trip.

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While it was hard to say goodbye to family after such a brief time together, we were very excited to see some more of Alaska. To our delight, we were treated to some of those extreme views right away, from the windows of our flight. Between the late sunset (around 10:30 pm) and the low clouds, we were treated to a gorgeous view of the striking Denali (which only recently became the nationally-recognized name for this looming peak). As we sipped the complimentary wine and scooted between seats on the nearly-empty flight, in order to capture the best shot of the mountain that seemed to hover at the same height as our small plane, I was nearly giddy with excitement.

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The next morning, we woke up early in our hotel room to head to the train station in Downtown Anchorage. We had booked a glacier cruise in Whittier, and had opted to take the train through the mountains in order to take in the views, which did not disappoint. Not only did we check out a variety of landscapes on this short trip, but also got the chance to spot some beluga whales swimming off the coast.

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The glacier cruise, itself, was incredible, narrated by a very knowledgable and enthusiastic parks services member. We were blessed with gorgeous blue skies and mild temperatures to accompany the spectacular mountain and glacier views on the Prince William Sound. The cruise included a meal of local fish, and we treated ourselves to “glacier margaritas” (aptly named due to the radioactive color pumped into them — hopefully from blue curacao and not real glacier melt…).

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At one point, standing on the roof of the boat, I swore that I saw movement out in the water. Having spent the day scouring the landscape for signs of wildlife, I thought for a second I might have been imagining what looked like orca whales skimming the surface. However, sure enough, a moment later, the captain came on the intercom to announce that we were circling back to take advantage of a unique wildlife viewing experience. It turns out that they were not orcas, but dall’s porpoises, which were equally entertaining as they played together and leapt around the boat.

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As the cruise came to an end and the boat circled back to the dock, the captain announced one last wildlife view to our right. As the thousands of birds came into view, I quickly retreated back into the dining cabin, completely convinced that if I didn’t seek shelter I would bring this trip to an unfortunate end as one of the “kittewakke’s”, which were so fascinating to the rest of the cruise’s participants, would surely be divebombing me from my post. Nesting birds, in my extensive experience, are nothing to mess around with.

Anthony took this photo

Anthony took this photo

After my narrow escape from the glacier birds, we hopped a semi-private shuttle back to our hotel, for a quick freshen-up before heading to dinner. At the recommendation of many locals, we walked over to a brewery/pizzeria for a delicious dinner and drinks to end our day. While the pizza was good, we personally felt the beers at the Moose’s Tooth were the main attraction. Surprise, surprise?

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After getting up close and personal with the glaciers from the waters of the Prince William Sound on our glacier cruise, Anthony kept remarking how he was interested in seeing the glaciers from a different angle. Lucky for him, the next day we had booked a semi-private float plane tour to do just that!

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We took off from the water near the Anchorage airport, and were very quickly treated to some of the most amazing views either of us had ever seen. With a seasoned bush pilot as our guide and educator, we learned even more about the glaciers and were able to understand them a little better by seeing them from above. We were both intrigued by the vibrant blue hues created by light and color filtration, and the deep fissures caused by years of movement, melting and erosion. Above all else, the enormity and, yes, extreme-ness, of Alaska was overwhelming and beautiful.

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After our flight, we were shuttled back into Downtown Anchorage, where we were able to explore a little more of the town. Perhaps inspired by our adventures, we indulged in a little outdoors-wear shopping and took advantage of Alaska’s sales-tax-free merchandise. Afterward, we visited yet another brewery, Glacier Brewhouse, where we got our last seafood fix and indulged in some ultra-rich (but delicious) chocolate peanut butter pie. *Anyone who knows us knows that I devoured the dessert and Anthony humored me by taking a couple tiny bites. Good thing I have enough of a sweet tooth for the both of us!

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Alaskan Snow Crab and Rockfish

After these 4 short days, our trip was already over, and we headed back home the next morning. I have to say that the trip to Alaska definitely exceeded my expectations. While I hacw always heard great things about this far-removed northern state, I had also never really known what to expect. I live in a beautiful, mountainous state (minus the extreme temperatures and daylight hours), so I figured it would just be more views of snowy peaks and nice landscapes. Going into it with this mindset, I was blown away by the actual scenery that we took in, and I’m not sure the photos really do it justice. We only scratched the surface of this land of vast extremes, and I can’t wait to return and see more.

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