Alaska on the Fly

By Dana Priest
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Alaska is the deepest, most varied hues of green and the most sensual shades of blue. A sparkling iceberg rounded by the sun. The sunset's orange nudging away the day's light. The air is clean. Alaska is Maine on steroids.

I know that now. But at about this time last year, Alaska was nothing but an idea. Our family of four still hadn't decided on a summer vacation, and panic had taken hold. Alaska was on the table, but we didn't want to take one of those big cruises. As it turned out, a map, a credit card and a couple of hours on the Internet were all it took to break free of the notion that Alaska means big buses, big ships and big fish.

To craft an easy two-week itinerary, we limited our trip to the Kenai Peninsula, a teardrop of land the size of Belgium just south of Anchorage, and to Denali National Park, 237 miles north of Anchorage.

We splurged on things that carried us somewhere: the plane ride around Mount Denali; the eight-hour boat trip in Kenai Fjords National Park; whitewater rafting down the Nenana River; kayaking on Skilak Lake; three half-day horseback riding trips; and the single most expensive part of the trip at $1,200 for two weeks, a roomy four-wheel-drive car.

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In the summer months, Alaska's gift is light for 16 hours a day. By August, the weather starts to turn brisk. When it's clear, planet Earth has never looked so good. When a thick curtain of fog or rain descends, it feels like a tiny gray box, with no mountains, no rivers, nothing but the patch of pavement below your wheels.

Our first day was crisp and clear and spent on the Sterling Highway. As we drove south out of Anchorage, I blinked a lot, trying to adjust my eyes to the new scale. Skirting the Turnagain Arm, a bay of dramatic high tides ringed with chocolate-brown, ice- and snow-capped mountains, I asked myself a dozen times: Is this real? Could that really be a towering glacier? A meadow the size of the District? A patch of purple fireweed as long as the Potomac? Has someone covered our car windows with magnifying glass?

The highway took us to Homer, a town frozen in the 1960s. The action is on the Homer Spit, a 4.5-mile-long narrow strip of land that is supposed to be geographically relevant for something. It's rather scruffy, lined with hippie shops, VW buses, tie-dyed campers and a fleet of beached contraptions straight out of "Howl's Moving Castle." The hotel at its tip, the Land's End Resort, had an unbelievable view of Cook Inlet and the mountains beyond but was surrounded by oil tanks and flimsy condos that looked as if they would blow over in the first tough winter storm.

But Homer grew on us once we found the fishing hole (a salmon spawning hole, to be exact, only we didn't figure that out for a while). Instead, this non-fishing family spent the entire day trying to catch salmon with bait during the only time in their short lives that the fish are uninterested in food.

The real reason we came to Homer, though, was to ride horseback along Kachemak Bay, a 400,000-acre reserve and an arm of Cook Inlet that partly dries up in the summer, leaving an expanse of soft soil and tall grass, crossed by gentle rivers easily forded on horseback. Because it was mid-August and the crowds were gone, we had the ride to ourselves. Our guide, Mark Marette, is the last Marlboro man and the only cowboy within hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.

Mark, of Trails End Horse Adventures (he of no Web site, heck, no indoor toilet), entertained us with his dilapidated pickup truck, his poetry and songs, and an occasional long gallop in the warm wind, with majestic Grewingk Glacier and Poot Peak over our shoulders. We lunched in a meadow of white daisies. Five hours later, we could barely walk to the car. The soreness was softened by a surprisingly good restaurant, the Homestead, where we dined as we watched hummingbirds dig into a garden of giant toadflax flowers.

From Homer we made the long drive north toward Denali National Park, stopping first in Talkeetna, 30 miles south of Denali, and by far our most beautiful lodging. Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge gave us a dead-on view of The Mountain, which the U.S. Board on Geographic Names continues to call Mount McKinley. A gigantic resort, the lodge is manicured to a fault; the more irreverent in the family dubbed it the "drug rehab center" because every blade of grass is green and straight, and all the adults wear grins. I choose to believe they were awestruck by the scenery.

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