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In Alaska, a City Girl Goes Wild

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2003

I had been in Alaska less than 24 hours and nature's wrath had come upon me in full force. Tucked into a single-person kayak, I was trying -- in vain -- to make headway against 15-knot winds as waves crashed against my boat, about a mile off the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

"Are you okay?" my instructor, Heather, called out.

"I'll survive," I yelled back gamely.

In reality, however, I had no idea how I was going to make it back to shore. I was paddling furiously, but kept edging toward the rocks. I pressed on pedals that shifted my rudder, but it appeared to have little impact.

My eyes scanned the bay as I tried to fix on the tiny dot that represented our goal, the bed-and-breakfast where I was staying. Then Heather came up with an inspired plan.

"Pull up your rudder," she ordered.

I took a breath, pulled up the rudder and resumed paddling. It worked. Now that I was no longer manipulating my rudder back and forth, the kayak glided more easily through the water, leading me back home. While it took another half-hour to return to shore, I had made it through what can best be described as a sort of nature-hazing for an inexperienced city girl who decided to venture into the great outdoors this summer.

Camping and outdoor sports are not exactly my forte. But I've always wanted to see Alaska, a state where each resident can kill two bears a year by law (one black, one brown), whose single representative in the House once shook a walrus penis bone at an Interior Department official, where volcanoes are plentiful but people are not. So even though I'm not much of an outdoors person, when my two best friends from college announced they were planning a hiking-cum-driving trip in the 49th state last month, I couldn't resist joining them.

Our challenge: to construct an outdoorsy, wildlife-oriented vacation without excessively roughing it. Alaska, we discovered, can accommodate this demand.

Our nature- and food-filled (but somewhat animal-deprived) expedition took us to some of Alaska's most scenic spots. We focused our efforts on the Kenai Peninsula, which encompasses about 16,000 square miles in south-central Alaska. I spent nine days in Alaska, all of it along a route that spanned roughly 220 miles. Roaming Highway 1 in a rental SUV large enough to seat at least two suburban families and fueled by plenty of lattes, we stopped where we liked and gawked shamelessly at the scenery. And with roughly 18 hours of daylight every 24 hours, we quickly caught on to one of the best things about Alaska in August: You never pay a penalty for sleeping late.

Roughing it does take some effort. After flying into Anchorage, I rented a car and drove about four hours south on Highway 1 to Homer, a pretty port town, where I hopped a 30-minute water taxi ride across Kachemak Bay to my first stop, a tent camp on a cove called Kasitsna Bay. Across the Bay features five canvas tents on platforms with screened windows and doors (guests bring sleeping bags to put on perfectly comfy beds). My tent was beside a creek and across from a wood-heated sauna.

There were outhouses, yes, but also hot showers, sumptuous breakfasts (my first morning, owners Tony and Mary Jane Lastufka served red salmon they had smoked themselves, a treat that put East Coast smoked salmon to shame) and equally tasty dinners. The first night's fare was a fabulous nettle pesto appetizer, grilled red salmon with potatoes and tabouleh, and fresh salad from the garden. Lunches featured halibut and salmon salads.

But even better than the food and amenities were the nature offerings: kayaking tours, mountain hikes, halibut and salmon fishing trips, and workshops in poetry writing, photography and watercolor painting. Rocky waters aside, Kasitsna Bay offered the nature-gazing I was seeking. Otters romped as eagles swooped overhead, and Heather was quick to point out the sea starfish and other creatures that clung to the rocks we passed on our way to the Herring Islands.

Mary Jane, who grew up in a small Indiana town but moved to Alaska years ago, said she organized her B&B around a simple goal: "I've always wanted people to have a chance to see Alaska and how beautiful it is, without having to spend incredible amounts of money on lodging."

From Kachemak Bay, I headed back to the big city of Anchorage to meet my friends Dan, Kim and Dave. While nearly half of Alaska's population of 630,000 resides in Anchorage, the city feels amazingly small, with few tall buildings and a close network of restaurants, shops and government buildings. From our downtown hotel, we could walk to a nearby park, deli, shopping mall and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, which has a detailed display on the state's history as well as Eskimo and modern Alaskan art.

After coming together from our far-flung spots -- Dan and Kim, my college friends, had spent a few days in Denali National Park, while Dan's pal Dave had gone kayaking and salmon fishing in Whittier and Seward -- we were eager to swap stories. The Moose's Tooth offered a perfect spot. This seven-year-old hangout -- the No. 1-grossing independent pizza restaurant in America last year, according to waitress Kate Sangster -- offers a slew of handcrafted ales and creative pizzas in a lively atmosphere. The crowd was young, and the restaurant buzzed with energy.

Sangster told us we would be wise to come back on Thursday night, when the restaurant featured live music and would unveil a new ale (it does this once a month). "It's the place to be in Anchorage," she promised.

But we were focused on hitting the road and collecting new adventures. Dave had managed to catch some serious fish in Seward and I had survived kayaking, but Dan and Kim had the best stories, having spent a few days among the moose, caribou and lynx in Denali. Their most engrossing tale involved a head-to-head confrontation with a grizzly bear. The two had been mountain biking when they came upon the bear, which stood 50 feet away. Kim's first instinct was to drop the bikes and run; Dan reminded her this was exactly what they had been taught not to do. They dismounted, waved their arms and yelled, backing up all the while. The bear kept coming, at one point getting within 15 feet, then suddenly turned and retreated into the woods.

"Wildlife viewing takes on new meaning when you're a mere lunge away from being mauled," Dan said.

The tale was scary, no doubt. But it also made us eager to venture out, to see what else Alaska had in store.

The next morning -- after a failed attempt to spot moose in Kincaid Park, a pretty Anchorage recreation area -- we set out on Highway 1 for Bird Ridge, a half-hour south of Anchorage in Chugach State Park. We had simple goals: a strenuous hike amid good scenery, preferably with a few animals thrown in.

It was an easy drive, although with just two lanes, a single slow truck could cause an instant traffic jam. The highway curved gently for miles, past bright blue or green bodies of water ringed by mountains, and later, grassy expanses dotted with purple fireweed, the flowers that dominate the state's summer landscape.

Bird Ridge is a steep uphill climb above Turnagain Arm, a shimmering body of water with attractive mud flats that are actually deadly: If you step into them, you risk drowning, as if you were swallowed up in quicksand.

With an elevation of 4,650 feet, Bird Ridge is a serious hike. There was some disagreement among our group on whether the hike could be classified as "strenuous" -- let's just call it challenging, particularly if you don't bring enough water along (that was my mistake, I'll admit it). Of course, there were a couple of hikers who passed us running straight up the mountain, but those people are crazy.

One of the saving graces of Bird Ridge is that there are a few false summits, so you can quit early. After about three hours, we got three-quarters of the way up, while still having the satisfaction of surveying the entire expanse below. Everywhere we turned we could see mountains -- grassy up close, blue and icy from a distance.

This hike was surpassed, however, by the next day's trek on Crow Pass Trail, also in Chugach State Park. The eight-mile hike to Raven Glacier along the Chugach Mountain Range is said to be among the most stunning Alaska has to offer. Starting out amid vegetation that resembles overgrown hedges, we wound around the mountain for more than an hour, taking in distant glaciers and mountain views. At three miles, we hit Crystal Lake, surrounded by a grassy field that's perfect for camping as well as just lounging, which is what we did. A mile later, after crossing a snowbank, we reached Raven Glacier, a beautiful, craggy site.

As we stood near a stream, cool air rushed off the glacier and enveloped us, wiping out the heat that had baked us all day. We could see the many colors of the glacier: pale blue at some points, sooty black in others.

And the walk back was even better. The shorter, steeper route down immersed us in a lush green valley, with multiple cascading falls behind us -- a scene straight out of "Lord of the Rings."

The Russian River, which intersects with the Kenai River and is roughly an hour south of Girdwood, is a magnet for spawning salmon. It's an easy four-mile round-trip hike to the Russian River Falls, with a huge payoff: a massive falls filled with jumping salmon trying furiously to make it upstream. You can't help but exclaim at the sight; there's something so thrilling and unexpected about it.

From the falls, we headed two hours farther on to Homer, the port town where I'd started my trip. Homer is a hip fishing village, with about half a dozen cafes (it's worth noting that you can get lattes in the most obscure Alaskan towns, a convenience that provided us with more pep than trail mix), a movie theater and a smattering of galleries.

In relaxation mode now, we spent our last day reading and going for a leisurely beach walk. An Alaska beach is unlike your typical East Coast retreat: There are no sunbathers, and you'd freeze if you actually went for a dip. But our walk offered the same startling vistas we'd spied on our hikes: ice-capped mountains (in this case the Kenai Mountains), shining cobalt water, jagged cliffs.

After a massage at our hotel spa -- a welcome perk after a week on the hiking trail -- we were excited to take an evening boat trip to Halibut Cove, an idyllic retreat across Kachemak Bay. The cove's main feature is a seafood restaurant, but it was even more fun to explore the water hamlet by walking the boardwalks that ring the cove. In typical fashion, we eschewed the trail at one point in search of a natural rock arch by the bay, and after inadvertently stumbling across a horse farm, we found it.

Heading back up Highway 1 the next morning to catch our respective flights home, we mused about moving to Anchorage, but promptly jettisoned the plan. We had come to experience something totally removed from our hectic, urban daily existences, and we came away fulfilled, bathed in both serene and rugged landscapes.

Yes, we could have pushed ourselves harder, but the trip did make us eager to do more. After all, I survived kayaking, Dan and Kim faced down a bear, and Dave -- well, Dave caught multiple fish. We may not be the hardy adventurers Alaska is known for attracting, but we proved we could be just as nature-lovin' as the next person. And that's really all that counts when you're out in the Last Frontier.

Juliet Eilperin is a reporter on The Post's National staff.

Details: Kenai Peninsula

GETTING THERE: Many major airlines, including Continental, United, Northwest, Delta and Alaska Airlines, offer service between Washington and Anchorage. Current lowest round-trip fare is $479 on Northwest, but summer fares may be slightly higher.

GETTING AROUND: For my individual travel, I rented a mid-size compact from Avis for $325 a week. My friends rented an SUV for $110 a day, but that's overkill unless you have many people traveling. To reach Kasitsna Bay from Homer, you can take

Mako's Water Taxi (907-235-9055) for $50 per person round trip. Transport from Homer to Halibut Cove was via Central Charters (907-235-7847; $22 for an evening tour, $45 for a day tour).

WHERE TO STAY:

• On the Kenai Peninsula, Across the Bay Tent and Breakfast Adventure Co. (907-345-2571 from September to May, 907-235-3633 from May-September, www.tentandbreakfastalaska.com) is a tent-and-breakfast camp reachable only by water taxi, air or tour boat. A tent and breakfast cost $63 per person per day, or $95 with all meals. Guided sea kayak tours are $95 a day, mountain bike rentals $25.

• In Anchorage, the Historic Anchorage Hotel (330 E St., 800-544-0988, www.historicanchoragehotel.com) is a conveniently located downtown hotel. While older than most Anchorage buildings, it lacks charm. Summer rates (May 16-Sept. 15) start at $199 a night double, winter rates (Sept. 16-May 15) $89.

• In Girdwood, Alyeska Accommodations (Olympic Circle, 907-783-2000, www.alyeskaaccommodations.com) offers 50 units, from studios at $105 per night to three-bedroom chalets with full kitchen and hot tub for $298 per night.

• In Homer, Land's End Resort (4786 Homer Spit Rd., 800-478-0400, www.lands-end-resort.com) has small rooms but scenic views at the end of what's known as "the Spit," a slice of land jutting out into Kachemak Bay. Summer rates (May 16-Sept. 15) range from $119 to $198 double; shoulder season (March 16-May 15, Sept. 16-Oct. 31) rates are $93-$145, and winter (Nov. 1-March 15) $76-$110.

WHERE TO EAT:

• In Anchorage, Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria (3300 Old Seward Hwy.) has a tasty wild mushroom pizza (portobello and cremini mushrooms with goat cheese) and meatball, parmesan and Italian sausage. Appetizers $1.95 -$7.95, pizzas $5.50- $21.95. New Sagaya City Market (900 W. 13th Ave.) is a good gourmet grocery with sandwiches for $6.95, berry scones for $2.

• In Girdwood, Chair 5 (Limbaugh Street, Girdwood Town Center) is a laid-back hangout that offers surprisingly good food (halibut Caesar, ribeye steak, etc.) at reasonable prices, along with a well-stocked jukebox. Entrees $13.75-$19.75.

• In Homer, Don Jose's Mexican Restaurant (127 W. Pioneer Ave.) serves a great halibut ceviche, a tasty marinated dish with plenty of firm fish. We also liked the halibut fajitas and the devil's shrimp, smothered in a slightly spicy tomato sauce. Entrees $10.95 -$12.95.

• In Halibut Cove, the cook at the Saltry took full advantage of local seafood and meats -- Kodiak buffalo, red salmon, the ever-present halibut -- and served them with flair, marinating shrimp in a Korean chili garlic paste with seaweed, for example. Chocolate cheesecake, along with some margaritas, rounded out the meal. Entrees $14.95-$21.95.

INFORMATION: Alaska Travel Industry Association, 907-929-2200,www.travelalaska.com. Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau, 907-276-4118, www.anchorage.net.

-- Juliet Eilperin

© 2003 The Washington Post Company