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.
* * *
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.
The actual town of Talkeetna, two miles away, is about three blocks long with a gold-rush-era feel about it.
From the lodge we booked our sightseeing flights around Denali. The boys opted for a single-engine DeHavilland Beaver built in 1960. Unpressurized, it was stuck at 12,000 feet, 8,000 short of the mountaintop but with a bird's-eye view of the mountainside and capable of swooping much closer than larger planes. My 11-year-old daughter opted out altogether, but I took a more modern twin-engine, pressurized turboprop that could buzz near the top of the mountain. Flights that land on a glacier can also be arranged.
The flights are expensive, about $500 per person. But there's nothing like it, not the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, not the Alps of Switzerland. Flying so close to the ice-blue paths of 4,000-foot-deep glaciers is like being on the moon, in technicolor.
Denali National Park and Reserve is yet another place that it's hard to imagine actually exists as unspoiled and untraveled as we found it. Individual cars can go only 14 miles inside, to the Savage River campground. Day-long bus trips are available, too. We opted for independence, saw the river and had our most memorable hike of the trip, up Mount Margaret. Denali also showed us elk, caribou and moose.
The Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, where we stayed, is part of the Princess cruise/hotel/touring conglomerate. It looks like an amusement park. But tune out the blue-haired ladies (who get my vote because at least they're moving around!) and you will hear the rushing Nenana River just steps away. Some of us went horseback riding on the tundra, while others checked out the all-terrain vehicles. Our family gladly jumped into a raft, and our sporty guide sympathized with our opinion of the lodge and its packaged tours. "Newly wed and nearly dead, that's most of the business here," he laughed.
* * *
From Denali we headed back south to Seward, 127 miles from Anchorage on the eastern side of the Kenai Peninsula. Founded in 1903 as the end of the line for the railway, Seward retains its role as the state's southernmost port of entry for people and freight. Ferry rides still connect it to Valdez, Kodiak, Port Lions, Homer, Seldovia and parts of the remote Aleutians.
Our otherwise adequate hotel, the Seward Windsong Lodge, fronted onto a river-dredging operation. Downtown was rather depressing, brightened by the two-room Seward Museum, which for $3 a pop displays the history of the famous Iditarod trail dog sled race. Down the street, like a surprise gift, is the magnificent Alaska SeaLife Center and boardwalk. Funded in part by the Exxon Valdez oil-spill settlement, it houses a marine research center and a fascinating oil-spill exhibit. The water bird exhibit is mesmerizing, with a glass enclosure that lets you discover the secrets of the birds' underwater life.
Seward also gave us our one cruise, an eight-hour ride into the Kenai Fjords National Park. The boat ride was fast and bumpy because the water was rough. But the day was unforgettable, with an entertaining guide who steered us close to thousands of horned and tufted puffins nesting on cliffs. We watched murres, football-shape birds that "fly" underwater to catch fish, and flocks of sandhill cranes in formation overhead. We also found Steller sea lions, harbor seals and otters, and pods of whales (orcas, fins and humpbacks) that seemed to move closer and "wave" when the captain turned down the engine and trolled.
We also had our first close-up look at a glacier, one of 10,000 in Alaska. From the deck, we watched it calve and heard the otherworldly, ear-splitting crackle of the piece splitting and plunging into the water. The sound's vibration was so strong it seemed the clouds should shatter like glass.
On the way back to Anchorage we decided to do a most Washington-type thing: stop in the resort town of Girdwood to take a photograph of the home of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who was on the front pages this time last year for possibly failing to disclose upgrades made to his home by contractors with whom he did senatorial business. As we approached the house, camera at the ready, my husband-driver shrieked with joy: "There he is! He's in the front yard!" Indeed, Stevens was standing in his driveway talking to what looked like . . . contractors! Or maybe gardeners. Or maybe neighbors. It was impossible to tell, but fun to imagine. The kids were thrilled. The vacation was almost complete. (One year later, Stevens is on the front page again, indicted for allegedly failing to disclose contractor favors.)
Our last evening in Alaska was spent on the rooftop of the Anchorage Hilton, surrounded by a glass wall that allowed another perfect view of an inspired sunset, and we plotted our return.
Dana Priest, an investigative reporter on The Post's National staff, last wrote for Travel about the Peruvian jungle.