It starts when I look out the plane window: Jagged white peaks loom up, practically touching the wing — glacial pyramids, forbidding, majestic, taking the radiant blue of the sky for granted, perhaps a little annoyed by the hum of Alaska Airlines Flight 91 to Anchorage, as though a fly had broken through the screen door to interrupt a nap.
My eyes are glued to the window. One amazing snow-capped peak after another. Awesome, I think, and I smile to myself. Grandchild speak: Awesome. Getting close to existential wonder here, just like the brochures say. Then another Far North reference comes to mind, and a frisson goes through me: Awful! Remember “Call of the Wild?” First the scream and then wolf-dog Buck saw “a whole section of ice give way and dogs and humans disappear. . . . The bottom had dropped out of the trail.”
Local time when we land in Anchorage is four hours behind Eastern time. The sun is startling. Crocker, my traveling companion, rents a bright red, “small but mighty” Toyota Yaris. We’ve been awake for 16 hours when we go to have dinner with friends. The sun is (still) up and we are now on High North Solar Overdrive.
Crocker has been to Alaska many times, and his son is the principal of a Native Alaskan school in Fairbanks. Crocker wants to show me some of the high points in this vast, wild land. By the end of 10 days, we will have driven nearly 2,000 miles and explored the landmarks of geologic time the way tourists visit castles in Europe. Our route is a kind of circle, taking us from Anchorage to Whittier for the six-hour car ferry east to Valdez. Then north to the Copper River Valley; continuing on the Richardson Road to Fairbanks to visit the family. Down to Denali; off onto the Glenn Highway for a bit and then back south to the Parks Highway to Anchorage.
It is May — before the summer rush but in time for mostly mild weather. We can play it by ear because it’s not high season. We stop when and where we feel like it. We make reservations in advance only at the Copper Whale Inn in Anchorage; everywhere else we just drop by and are able to get a room or a meal. We’ve done our research and know to reserve a space on the ferry to Valdez a day in advance. Otherwise we just . . . drive free.
We relax on the ferry as it glides past blue-shrouded islands in the distance. After a night in Valdez, we head up the Richardson Highway toward Fairbanks and take a detour on a dirt road to the copper mining ghost town of McCarthy. Suddenly, a mama black bear ambles out on the road with her cub. Four people have recently been mauled by bears, according to news reports. Brown grizzly bears are the most dangerous. Mama Bear pauses; she seems happy. I take a picture . . . from inside the car. We hang out for a while . Then the bears waddle back into the scrubby trees and disappear.
We start up again. Then we see it: At first, the flash of a tail, like a fluffy white and black peacock tail — a skunk cousin? We get closer. The creature flips around: squinteyed, scissor-nosed, wolf-toothed. “A wolverine!” Crocker shouts. “It’s a wolverine!” Crocker is ecstatic. He has never seen one before. It slips away before I can take a picture.
Crocker loves all creatures — fish, fowl and animals — tame and wild. He calls out the names of all the birds: “See the mallards. The males have green heads.” (The females are pretty colorless.) “Look at the wigeon . . . the teal.” Birds are doing acrobatic mating flight dances, swooping up and down. This is honeymoon season. “See . . . Arctic terns, regular terns.” And Canada geese, of course. Bluebills. Ravens. Crocker points out two eagles. (I spot only one.)
I am a disappointment to him. A duck? I can barely make out a blob at the edge of a pond. “You might see another eagle,” he says. “You know eagles can swoop down and pluck out the eyeballs of a fish!” I shiver. Awful. Crocker is thrilled. Nature is awesome. As we drive up the highway bordered by cliffs, he shouts: “Look up there and see if you can spot a sheep!” The famous Dall sheep with curly horns. I see nothing.
We come to a big river where the courageous and hungry go dip-netting. They say you can catch fish like picking a bunch of grapes. We’re also told that someone dies dip-netting every few years — they fall off the cliff or out of their boat or get swept away by the current.
This site is a personal-use fishery: None of the fish caught in the area can be sold commercially. Crocker’s son, who has lived in Alaska for almost 25 years, says he usually catches sockeye salmon (called reds because of their bright-red flesh). Copper River Reds are shipped to the Lower 48 and served in high-end restaurants. On a good day, he catches his daily limit of 40 fish in a couple of hours.
You can come in on a charter and get dropped off by boat. Or you can trek from the campground to the river via an old railroad bed along a cliff that plunges 200 feet to the raging water below.
At its most fundamental, this kind of fishing is “producing the family protein source,” as Crocker’s son puts it. “I think this taps an instinctual vein deep in my evolutionary being that we have mostly lost in modern society. It is very similar to the way I feel about moose hunting. I can enter a ‘zone,’ ” he says, where he is alone with his thoughts as he tries to “find new ways to appease the gods and bring home the bounty.”
How to appease the gods? On the Richardson Highway, Crocker and I stop at the Bridal Veil Waterfall, an 800-foot drop of thundering lacy white. Just the two of us, standing in awe of this vertical river of fluid ardor, watching it crash down and spread over the landscape.
I am pulled back billions of years: tectonic plates in the Earth’s crust pushing and heaving, sparking volcanoes and earthquakes and continental mud slides, creating the circle of mountain ranges with the steppe basin in the middle that is now Alaska. Or maybe a giant meteorite smashed into the nascent Earth and the state is simply the giant central uplift peak of an ancient catastrophic strike from space?
For Crocker, Alaska is about wildlife in the moment; for me, it’s about geology and billion-year time frames. I stare at the Bridal Veil falls and ponder its name. Perhaps the power of love is a way to appease the gods.
We make it to Chitina, population 126, on the banks of the Copper and Chitina rivers. I race into the only hotel in town, which doesn’t officially open for a week, but am told: “Okay, you can stay in a front room for the night.” The grocery truck doesn’t get in very often offseason.
Once, Chitina was a metropolis with stores, rooming houses, bars, restaurants, a pool hall, a movie theater and five hotels. That was during the copper boom that began in the early 1900s when the Copper River & Northwestern Railway turned Chitina — and McCarthy — into overnight “cities.” When the mines closed in 1938, the town was abandoned. “People left with plates still on the table,” explains the friendly blond woman who manages the hotel. Now, Chitina is a tourist destination and mecca for dip-net fishermen.
Everybody speaks slowly. Like a transatlantic telephone call in the 1960s: Question. Pause three-to-five seconds. Answer. At a roadside store, we ask: Do you have sandwiches? Silence for a few seconds. In the freezer. The attendant is Athabaskan — Alaska Natives who have lived in this area for maybe 7,000 years, predating by a few millennia the barbaric Greeks who sacked Troy in “The Iliad.’ But for these once seminomadic people, “the bottom had dropped out of the trail.” At the hotel, we ask if we could get a beer with dinner. Silence for a few seconds. Across the street. . . .
Uncle Tom’s Tavern Inc. is a long, low-slung green building with salmon trim around the windows and big signs: Ice Fishing Derby and Free Community Pig Roast. Manning the bar is a very pretty woman wearing jeans, a sequined black T-shirt and baseball cap turned backward. The crowd this evening is mellow. On one stool sits an EMT; he came here on vacation, fell in love with Alaska and never left. We hear that a lot. The mother of the hotel manager came up for a bluegrass festival in the ’70s and never left.
Throughout our snapshot road trip, we stop at the local bar for food and friendship. The distinguishing feature everywhere is the stuffed moose head. The biggest one we saw is in the Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway overseeing the glacial valleys of Chugach and Takeetna. We eat a gourmet lunch under the antlers sticking out like antennae on a space ship.
In Valdez, the bar with a massive picture window looks out on the boat-stacked harbor with snow-peaked mountains in the background. Main Street is like a movie set for an old Western. Instead of horses, boats. Preseason is for the noncommercial fishermen. On the boardwalk, seaboys hang up their fish to be weighed. Halibut: $14 a pound.
There are no obvious signs of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, when nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil were dumped into Prince William Sound. But the catastrophe hovers in the background. Oil is king in Alaska. The pipeline is the country’s life line: 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in the north down to Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the United States. But the price of oil is down. The pipeline is running way below capacity. We meet two guys at the bar; they’ve just been laid off from the North Slope. . . . There’s always fish. And moose. Craft beer and irreverent jokes.
After several wonderful days in Fairbanks with Crocker’s son and his family, we set off to Denali — and it is snowing! The light gray canvas turns the sharp, angular vistas into a fuzzy Monet painting. A week ago, it was shirt sleeves in Valdez. Mount Denali, the former Mount McKinley, is the highest peak in North America, soaring 20,310 feet above sea level. (Mount Rainer, to the south in Washington state, hits 14,409.) But we can’t see Denali in the continuing drizzle. I’m not disappointed; I already get the bigness of Alaska’s mountain ranges.
The tourist season is about to start. I see a few RVs in the vast parking lots around Denali. It’s like spotting a robin to herald the end of winter. What draws tourists and trekkers is Denali National Park and Preserve — about 14 million acres of wilderness to explore. Call of the wild. Crocker smiles. We eat breakfast in a diner that boasts the biggest blueberry pancake in the world.
As Alaska gears up for the summer rush, foreign accents are the norm among the staff. The hostess at the bar is tall and sparkly, with black eyes and blacker hair. “I am from Serbia. People always say Siberia,” she says and laughs. “No, Suhrrbeea!” In another bar, the waitress comes from Albania. This population of “seasonals,” mostly young men and women looking for job adventures, is about to recast the face of Alaska for the summer.
Before heading back to Anchorage and our flight home, we spend this drizzly day in the Denali museum with its massive tableaus of stuffed wildlife. I get up close to a bull moose — 1500 pounds of power with white-sock legs and a long, ugly, sweet face. Crocker likes to go moose hunting with his son. But I prefer wildlife in a museum. And nearby in another display, I finally see it: On top of a cliff, the famous chubby white Dall sheep with curly horns!
Trafford is a writer based in Boston and Vinalhaven, Maine. Her website is mytimegeneration.com.
More from Travel:
The Copper Whale Inn
440 L St., Anchorage
A cozy bed-and-breakfast that’s conveniently located close to the Anchorage Museum and restaurants. Room from $199. Open May 1 to April 30. Special rate during the annual sled-dog race, the Iditarod.
Downtown Chitina at mile 33 of the Edgerton Hwy.
907-823-2244 or 907-835-5542
Charming, family-run hotel in renovated building from the copper boom days. Rates from $165. AARP, AAA, military and government discounts available. Open May 1 to Oct. 15.
Sheep Mountain Lodge
17701 W. Glenn Hwy., Glacier View
Cabins on the hillside overlooking Matanuska Valley and the Chugach Mountains. Rates from $99 with the use of a shared bathhouse.
Muse at the Anchorage Museum
625 C St. Anchorage
Expect superb dining here. For lunch, try the Creole seafood linguine (a Cajun spiced shrimp with a creamy Creole sauce) and salad for $16.95.
Sheep Mountain Lodge Restaurant
17701 W Glenn Hwy., Glacier View
The restaurant offers homemade bread, soups and desserts, along with Alaskan seafood and steaks, and beer from Juneau. The restaurant is open daily May 15 to Sept. 15; open only on weekends during winter.
Pump House Restaurant and Saloon
796 Chena Pump Rd., Fairbanks
The saloon has a 1890s Gold Rush-esque atmosphere. Offerings include herb-crusted Alaskan halibut on creamy polenta and grilled asparagus for $32.95, and elk meatloaf wrapped in bacon, with mashed potatoes and vegetables for $23.95. Open daily in the summer, starting Memorial Day weekend, with brunch on Sundays. In winter months, from Labor Day on, the restaurant is closed on Mondays.
625 C St., Anchorage
This must-see museum explores the social, political, artistic and historical narratives of the state from its Alaska Native roots to the impact of climate change. Multimedia exhibits and tableaux of Alaska Native life. Open daily May 1 to Sept. 30, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission costs $16; $12 for Alaska residents; $10 for seniors, students and military; $7 for children. The museum restaurant is superb.
University of Alaska Museum of the North
907 Yukon Dr., Fairbanks
Another must-see museum located on the university’s campus. A treasure of artifacts and specimens, the exhibits range from archaeological finds to the scientific examinations of birds, plants and insects. The art gallery features 2,000 years of creative works from ancient ivory carvings to contemporary paintings and sculpture, along with a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison. Open daily Sept. 1 to May 31, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission costs $12; $7 for kids ages 5 to 14; free for younger kids.