For the next month, I’ll be writing from Alaska. Originally, I had planned a shorter visit, two weeks of a whirlwind tour with my nine-year-old. We found cheap tickets and the poor guy has been trapped in the house watching the entire run of Full House and Modern Family for three months. I bought the tickets on an impulse back in the early days of Covid, when I quaintly thought the plague would be a finite historical event that would one day end. I thought for sure people would be over it by June. Then I slowly came to realize that Alaska was only ending a quarantine order at the beginning of June. We needed a backup plan, and that plan was not going to be staying in New Mexico watching more Full House.
My amazing wife came up with the idea of renting a cabin for the additional two weeks that we might need to quarantine, so that’s what we did. We had to get tested for Covid before we left; negative of course. There was a whole complicated procedure for clearing the airport in Anchorage, on paper that is. In practice, I showed up and talked to a teenager who was doing the screening. He glanced at our documentation and said, “You good.” For a beat, I was about to argue, then I smartened up and we left the airport, hustling like twelve-year-olds who had just stolen a pack of baseball cards from 7-11.
And I was in my 49th state. I’ll be doing these last two in the same order they were admitted to the Union. I guess I would have had to be born in Delaware to do the whole thing that way. There’s a part of me that regrets that.
Backing up a bit, I have to describe flying into Anchorage. It’s hard to capture the immensity of the Alaskan landscape. The clouds broke somewhere around Juneau and we got to see the approach across Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Prince William Sound. It is one thing to know in an academic way that Alaska is big, that it is mostly composed of mile upon mile of trackless wilds. It is entirely another to see that landscape, covered in glaciers and mountains that have almost never seen a human presence. New Mexico seems big and empty to me, but it is dwarfed by Alaska. I’ve gotten used to needing four-wheel-drive to navigate the seldom used back roads of the Land of Enchantment, but here in the Last Frontier, they don’t exist. The desert seems welcoming in comparison to this landscape. Flying over a thirty-mile-wide glacier, calving thousands of ice bergs into the ocean, you know that to end up there would mean death. Alaska is big, beautiful, and terrifying to contemplate.
But we were in Anchorage, which feels like a completely normal city. That is except for the fact that it was nine when we landed, and the sun was still high up in the western sky. We got an Uber with an Albanian driver (I’d like an insight into his state selection process) and the sun was still up. We checked into our hotel, still up. We dropped off our things and walked to find something to eat, still up. Ate teriyaki by the side of a small lake filled with float planes, still up. It really wasn’t going down. So, I very carefully tried to pin the curtains as widely as possible to block out the light, and we slept.
And amazingly, we slept through until nine o’clock the next morning. The night before leaving I had lain awake in bed like a kid on Christmas Eve. Jet lag and the midnight sun hadn’t stood a chance against my exhaustion I suppose. One of the joys of being a grownup is the ability to just spring for a nice place to stay on the first day in a new place. I have many memories of attempting to survive on zero sleep, or sleeping in a car after first arriving in Europe. No more.
The extra sleep fortified us for the drive to Nikiski, a speck on the map of the Kenai Peninsula that I chose for no other reason than that it was the last reasonably priced Air B and B property in the entire state. I wasn’t choosy, we just needed a backup plan. Now we didn’t, and I was worried about what we were getting into. Thirty miles out of Anchorage, we saw our first bald eagles. By the time we were fifty miles away, we were saying, “Oh look, another bald eagle,” and driving on. They’re as common as rock pigeons in New York. Still beautiful and majestic mind you, but not worth pulling over to the side of the road. We stopped at a short scrambling trail called Beluga Point at the urging of my son. He was absolutely sure we would see the whales there, but I grew up near Wolf Trap and I know better. The views of Turnagain Arm were breathtaking though. Even after days I still haven’t gotten inured to the 360 surrounding views of ice-capped mountains and glaciers.
We drove on through Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which has had a serious series of fires in the last decade. All along the Sterling Highway, from Cooper Landing to Sterling, the hills are brown and burnt. We saw no wildlife and wondered at the dozens of cars parked along the road, their drivers wandering into the blackened forest. Were they collecting something? It was late afternoon by the time we found our house and it was a pretty big disappointment. One big surprise, we’re sharing it with a family. We have our own little side unit, but there are family noises, and dogs barking all through the day. Also, while we met the owner, all three of us were coated in mosquitoes after a two-minute conversation. The mosquitoes did not agree to stay outside during the night.
And I use the term night loosely. There was no way to stop the sunlight coming in through the glass-paned front door, so even at two in the morning, there was daylight coming in. I still haven’t figured out what to do about that. There is also only one room and we have no proper range, just a hot plate on top of a strange oven hybrid whose instructions were crafted in some inscrutable country like Finland. It was only by day two that I figured out how to make eggs.
But I don’t want to end on a down note. We’re thrilled to be in Alaska. We dropped off our things at our hellhole… I mean cabin, and took a walk around the neighborhood looking for a view of the sea. There wasn’t one, so we drove up the coast a short way to Captain Cook State Recreation Area. Yes, that’s the same Captain Cook from Australia. He also “discovered” this part of Alaska for the British. Right as we crossed into the park, I slowed down so we could see the startlingly immersive greens of the temperate rainforest. As I did, a weasel ran across the road. I can’t remember if I’ve seen a weasel before, but I was a fun sighting. We parked and walked carefully, bear spray at the ready, down a verdant trail to the beach and could finally see Cook Inlet up close. We said hello to a squirrelly guy who was wandering the beach alone and spooked him away. I wasn’t sure why he acted so weird until I realized it was already past ten at night. God knows what he was up to out there.
We poked around in the mud and stones looking for strange tracks. Lake Clark National Park was on the other side of the inlet, with Mount Redoubt’s cone just poking through the clouds. These are places I’ve wanted to see my whole life. Our month-long adventure begins!