John Green, I finally found her. (Anyone who gets that reference, I love you.)
The idea that I was flying to Alaska was still baffling me. It didn’t seem real until I flew over the mountains.
On Tuesday, my first full day, I woke early to catch the bus to Denali National Park. As you might imagine, the drive was nothing short of overwhelming beauty mile after mile. Our bus stopped at Talkeetna Lodge for break and snack. There was a loose moose sign which was my first big “Welcome to Alaska” moment. Though I didn’t see it on the property, I did see a moose on the side of the road shortly after!
Once we pulled in to the lodging areas outside the park, I immediately threw my pack in my cabin and headed out. I wanted to take advantage of every second I had, since I was only here a short time. First, I set off on foot to the Wilderness Access Center and the Visitor Center. From there, I took the Savage River shuttle deeper into the park and saw two more moose. Just as I was about to start hiking, it began to rain. I tried to wait it out, and debated whether or not to move forward, but finally I just went for it. And it was awesome. So awesome. The beginning was an immediate straight shot up loose rocks, and I had to take multiple breaks to catch my breath so I wouldn’t get dizzy. I’ve discovered since getting my pacemaker a year ago that I struggle a lot with elevation, which is frustrating. Once I reached the summit, the rain stopped and all the clouds cleared, breaking way for the most beautiful double rainbow. It was almost surreal.
I saw lots of squirrels, sheep, bunnies, and birds. No bear, though! (I wanted to see one, but from afar, of course!) I made a mental note of what to do if I encountered a wolf, bear, or moose. I talked to myself around corners, making noise to alert them of my presence. Luckily (or unluckily) I didn’t encounter any. Once I emerged from the woods to find the road, I crossed it and continued on to another trail. On the drive back, I was the only passenger. We saw caribou grazing and then a moose crossed right in front of us, framing the perfect shot!
Though it was already 8 p.m., I wasn’t ready to be done. I continued on Horseshoe Lake trail, passing a sign that warned of bears frequenting that area. I pressed on, and the first sight of the lake was well worth it all. This was God’s country, and I knew it. At the lake, I found a beaver dam and watched in awe at the many playful otters swimming. I followed the trail further to the Nenana River. I could’ve hiked for hours more, but it was already 10 p.m. and I hadn’t had dinner! I was starving, and if I continued to hike alone in the dark, I might end up being someone else’s dinner.
Once out of the park, I indulged in salmon, seafood chowder and a salad at the Salmon Bake, took a warm shower, and collapsed in bed. 17 miles done!
The next day, I didn’t have long to hike. I had to take the bus back to Anchorage at 2 p.m. For lunch, I got a reindeer hot dog at the Denali Doghouse, then an espresso Funky Monkey shake and cinnamon chocolate chip scone at Black Bear Coffee. Not the healthiest, but I treated myself. Best coffee shop in Denali! I urge you to check it out for yourself.
When we arrived back in Anchorage, I had a special treat waiting for me. My good friend, Stephanie, was also in Anchorage! When I first found out she was going to Alaska, I had tried to plan my trip so that we could meet up, but it just wasn’t working out. That is, until we realized she was flying out from Anchorage the morning after I’d be arriving back there, so on her last night there, we could! She was there for work, and they were having a meeting so I sat in on that. It was pretty neat to hear how much their experiences in Alaska had impacted their lives. After, we all piled into a van and drove to Earthquake Park by the airport and watched the sunset as planes flew overhead.
Having gone to bed after 1 a.m., I had the hardest time waking up on Thursday. But luckily, I was already packed up, so there wasn’t much else to do to get ready for my trip to Seward.
On the road there, we talked about the areas we were driving through. We saw the mud flats, talked about the dangers of them with the high tide, etc. We drove deeper into Chugach National Forest. As we were entering a small town, Moose Pass, the driver asked us to see if we could find what was “missing” from this town. Someone mentioned a gas station. “Bingo! There’s not a gas station because then it would be called ‘Moose Pass gas,'” he joked. We laughed.
Seward was the cutest port town, lots of brightly colored buildings near the water’s edge, boats bobbing in the harbor, otters popping their heads up, ever curious what we were doing.
One of the most popular things to do is take a wildlife cruise into Resurrection Bay to Kenai Fjords National Park, and I had the time to do it. It was beautiful being on the water. We saw more otters, humpback whales (look for the spout of water!) as we made made our way to Holgate glacier. On board, they had an all-you-can-eat salmon and prime rib buffet which was mouthwatering. They pulled a chunk of the glacier out of the water and made margaritas with the ice which was so cool.
The captain had received word from a small fishing boat that there were orcas ahead and sped up to reach them. It was so amazing to see their sleek black and white bodies glide through the water. I never thought I’d see that in the wild. They were swimming in a pod of about five, and were so peaceful and sleek through the water’s surface.
Once we pulled back into Seward, I boarded the bus back to Anchorage. The Turnagain Arm views and entire stretch of Seward Highway were just as magical driving through again. When I got back to Anchorage, I stopped at Humpy’s for some halibut dinner. Not wanting my trip to end, I decided I’d walk to see the midnight sun one final time. I walked to Elderberry Park and took the coastal trail near the water to Resolution Park and the Captain Cook monument, but couldn’t find it. Suddenly, I saw a cop car that was hidden to my left. I asked him for directions, and he offered to drive me there! You should’ve heard my mother’s reaction when I told her I was in the back of a cop car on my final night in Anchorage. The sunset was magnificent. Worth every second of sleep I was missing.
Even in this moment, I can still see it. I knew before it sank below the horizon that I already missed it, and would never forget it. On my walk back to my hostel, the pink sky reflected off the mountains in the distance, a final burst of beautiful light etched into my memory. I could have spent a lifetime here, but those four wonderful, awestruck, and wildly beautiful days were all I could ever ask for.