Our first stop in Alaska was to the quaint town of Girdwood! Ashley, a friend of ours from college moved here following graduation so we knew we had to visit while she was still there! The drive from Anchorage to Girdwood on the Seward Highway had incredible scenery. There were cliffs with lakes below on our left and snow capped mountains and avalanche warnings to our right. Ashley lives in the Alyeska Basin. The next three pictures are all within walking distance of her cabin. We have never seen a town so picturesque… YESSS!
Always wanting to see as much wildlife as possible, we took a 6 hour day cruise out of Resurrection Bay and into Aialik Bay with Major Marine Tours. The Seward Highway #9 was beautiful; single lane road through gorgeous, deserted landscape. We arrived in Seward with enough time to buy a very simple, but expensive breakfast and wonder if we had enough layers on. The captain and his crew were awesome about spotting wildlife and announcing its location. The boat had three floors, we stayed on the upper, open deck.
The trip was narrated by a lively, passionate park ranger that seemed to be immune to the freezing temperatures as she walked all around the boat in her short-sleeve uniform. She was excellent and later in the trip brought us a blanket to prevent us from turning into popsicles on the way back as we sat on the empty top deck, too sea sick to go down below. As we got out of Resurrection bay and into the open water the sea became rough. The sky became overcast although it never rained and the wind was really cold… we FROZE. Looking through the camera lens as the boat was moving, waiting for a whale to make an appearance did not help the sickness. We both took Dramamine before boarding but it had no effect.
The boat stopped in a cove in front of an enormous glacier and we watched it calve. It sounded just like distant thunder and I thought for sure the whole glacier was about to drop into the water at any second! Those are “fake smiles” in that picture below. I’m surprised we don’t look as green as we felt!
I have to say we were pretty excited when the trip was over and we reached land. Neither one of us have ever been sea sick before and we were a little unprepared for this day trip! We hopped in the car to thaw, this was definitely our coldest experience in Alaska!
The next morning we left Ashley and drove the 5-6 hours to Denali National Park. We got to the park around 2pm and went to the backcountry information center where we knew we had to watch a video on park rules and bear safety. We received our permit and bear resistant container and chose unit #10, Toklat River – the farthest point the bus could take us this early in the season. The bus ride was 3 hours to Toklat and was great with occasional potty breaks, photo opportunities and narration by the driver. We saw a moose in the road,caribou herds, and dall sheep. We also got many great views of Mt. McKinley. The driver said only 30% of the time the peak is viewable because of cloud cover, so we felt pretty lucky.
We began the 8.5 miles from Toklat to Stoney Dome (at around 5:30pm). About ¾ of a mile into the hike we saw an old truck coming up the road and, kind of as a joke, I put my thumb out and gave the guy a smile and he pulled up and asked us where we were headed. He was going back to the Eielson Visitor Center where he works as a janitor. This part of the park road was closed to bus traffic currently so only employees were allowed to drive on the road past Toklat. This guy was awesome and after a long day of hiking he was a life saver! He lives in such a remote place by himself. He was great company for the 20 minute drive on dusty, dirt roads and gave us lots of tips on where to camp and hike. He sped down the narrow roads, his old truck seemed to fish-tail around every turn and with no guard rail to prevent a tumble, we were tense. Finally he dropped us at the Stoney Hill Overlook! We set up our tent after eating a meal and were hoping our tent stayed upright in the wind tunnel we were in!
We think we got to sleep around 1am, we could still smell and taste the bear spray that had covered us and our packs. The tent held up, but staying asleep was difficult. We woke up Friday morning at 4:30am and got to see the “alpenglow” on Mt. McKinley.
We wanted to hike Stoney Dome in order to get some cool panoramas. The elevation is about 5500ft and it took us about 45 minutes. What an awesome view! The hike down was much easier of course and once we got back to our packs we had to hike through some brush to get to the park road. From the road the hike back to Toklat to pick up the bus was 8.5 miles and we just made it for the earliest bus, 10:30am. We moved much faster towards the end because we were hiking through a closed wolf den area of the park! You are allowed to hike on the dirt road but you can’t venture off on either side. The hike left us sore for the next couple days.
Leaving Denali was relaxing but sad at the same time. The park is majestic and untouched. It’s so vast and beautiful, if you can get over the fear of bears and wolves and you love to hike, it’s a haven!
On to the next adventure… We scheduled a late afternoon flight tour and glacier landing through Talkeetna Air. Aware of our motion sickness on the day cruise we were a little wary of the flight and took Dramamine beforehand. There were small Cessna planes everywhere and people that looked like high-schoolers were piloting them… WHAT? In Alaska many remote villages and areas of the bush are only accessible by plane, especially in the winter, so it seems everyone has a pilot license! We put on glacier boots for traction before boarding and a young guy who looked like he belonged on the beach in southern California came over to greet our group.
After flying through the mountains and weaving in and out of these huge canyons, we landed on a snow covered glacier. Everyone got out and we got to walk around for a while. You had to have sunglasses, at that elevation and with that much snow it was incredibly bright. Strangely enough, there was a cabin up there built by a pilot who passed away 20 or so years ago. His wife has been renting it out but apparently it’s already booked for the next 10-15 years. Talk about seclusion!
The next morning came early – we packed up and jumped in the car, driving the 4 hours to Chickaloon to go ice climbing! After gearing up, two climbing guides from New Zealand took our group of 6 to the Matanuska Glacier. We hiked out to the glaciers with our crampons on our feet receiving instruction the whole time. Steven and I were naturals. It was so much fun swinging an ice ax into the wall and pulling yourself up. It’s all in the legs though. It was a little scary trusting your life to these two crazy New Zealanders and some anchors drilled into the ice.
We have so much more appreciation for wildlife, preserving our environment and a desire to see other areas of the world in a way less traveled by tourists. We watch any show or documentary on Alaska we can get our hands on and talk about our trip and our return at least once a week. Every time I order a beer I wish it was an Alaskan Amber and when my toes feel numb from cold I laugh thinking about how I almost lost them to frost bite during those river crossings.