Go dogs go! Run doggies run! Thanks for showing how to run a good race.
Several weeks ago I wrote a really long post about being grumpy in August in Alaska. The fireweed had largely burned out and I was certain I’d be stuck under all those dark heavy rain clouds until they finally gave way to snow.
But then the unexpected happened. September showed up with record breaking warmth and dry air. We went 25 straight days without rain IN OUR RAINY SEASON. “I could live here!” I said repeatedly. So much September sunshine. It’s a weird thing to thoroughly enjoy what is not supposed to be. It felt a bit eerie. But also – what a gift!! We had a rather rough, cold summer, and an August that was a bit warmer than normal, but just as wet as expected. And so. Walking in warm September Sunshine!?! YES PLEASE.
Six years ago we moved to Anchorage in the middle of a crazy Labor Day rainstorm. That cold fall rain gave way to our first cold, dark winter. It was a challenging start, but I hung on and eventually emerged from the dark only to discover there were suddenly lots and lots of people also walking my neighborhood. All the emotional work I’d invested in surviving this place! and these people and their fancy cameras just drop in to soak in the glory. Alas, I quickly fell in step with the rhythm of life in a tourist town and, truth told, I like hanging out with the visitors. I’ve heard some interesting stories and gotten to tell my own #alaskamagic tales.
Living downtown through these years, I’ve had a front row seat to tourist traffic. Sometimes while waiting for dinner at a restaurant in the summer my boys and I entertain ourselves with a little observing and judging game we made up >> Tourist or Local? (Down coats in July are judged Tourist. Kids with names like Aurora and Denali are judged Local.)
I always feel bad for the people who show up during a rainy stretch of days. Hunkered deep inside their raincoats they soldier on, but watching them I can’t help but think they’re getting a rotten deal. I know how amazing this place can be. Alaska is a bucket list destination and it’s no small feat to get here. To stand in downtown Anchorage and not be able to see a mountain for the rain clouds is a rip off.
In mid-August this year we listed our downstairs apartment on airbnb and called it Fireweed and Snow. Summer and Winter. The seasons that give shape to our ways of life in this town. We caught the tail end of the summer tourist season with our little airbnb experiment, and we’ve had a nonstop stream of people coming through looking to find their own stories of #alaskamagic. Some of them have been so very lucky with sunshine and gorgeous Alaska views. Some of them…not so much.
Over the years that I’ve lived here I’ve often been asked, when should I come visit? I tell people that their chance to experience the breathtaking beauty of Alaska improves with every day they can stay. I do have insight and observations that can increase the possibilities for getting a taste of #alaskamagic. But that’s all I’ve got. And there’s a really good chance that I’ll be wrong. I’ve come to understand this as a sort of metaphor for life. Show up for ALL the days. Some of them will be so gloomy grey. There’s no way around it, a drenching is what you get. Some days are warm sunshine and mountains beyond mountains. Some days are goodness and joy. Others are a gut punch of disappointment and grief. Keep showing up.
Doing so, it turns out, teaches me to see #alaskamagic even in the storm.
A trip to Zambia, house hunting in Alaska, and a new puppy. Facebook has been serving me some life-changing “on this day” memories.
Six years ago David and I flew to Anchorage to find a house to rent. I was sooooo grumpy that weekend. David likes to remind me that just 10 months earlier I had happily agreed to move with him to Alaska with hardly a second thought. It is true that the previous fall, when he asked me what I thought about his opportunity to take a field engineering position for 2-3 years in Anchorage, I was all in. The adventure was appealing, the money would be good, I could be flexible. Unfortunately our move date depended on how the project timeline developed in Alaska and so I couldn’t even pencil a target into my calendar. Time ticked by and as our move plodded toward reality, my eagerness faded. We sold our house in preparation for the move and it was hard living in the in between. I was engaging new projects in the Portland area, friendships were deepening, and our kids were getting older. The move to Alaska felt increasingly like disruption.
I had just barely landed back in the country after a work trip to Zambia and was not at all interested in moving to Alaska a couple weeks later, but there I was on this August weekend, flying to Alaska to make decisions that would set the course of my life in ways I could not yet imagine. I got off the plane in Anchorage that Friday afternoon in a very bad mood. I was convinced we could not find a good place for our family to live with just this short weekend to look and decide. And besides, I didn’t want to live here anyway.
Poor David was caught between a good career opportunity and an angry wife who was convinced nothing good was about to happen. The grey sky matched my mood and hung heavy over our heads as we got our rental car and left the airport that afternoon. And then, while checking into our hotel near the airport, they casually mentioned that their wifi was down and it might not be up again till the following day. I KNEW IT.
But in fact, we managed to solve that problem quickly by booking an overnight stay at a downtown Bed & Breakfast – with wifi. On to the actual problem. How could we choose a neighborhood and find a house for our family in just three days? Against the cool August air, gloomy sky, and my grumbling spirits, the first thing we looked at, a bland midtown condo, was not the least bit tempting. Now, all these years later, I find myself driving by that place nearly every day and sometimes I remember what it was to look out those windows onto the busy highway and across the street to the high school. Angry, trapped, perched at the edge of panic. We quickly decided No and moved on to dinner where I studied Craigslist and David made a few phone calls and sent emails. I was in a rotten mood.
I suppose we drove around some neighborhoods later that evening. I don’t remember specifically looking at anything else, but perhaps we did. We had several appointments set for the next morning. First up, a house in south Anchorage. It was a newer home and nice. The yard was landscaped nicely and it was huge. The location was a short bike ride over to Kincaid Park. We imagined the layout, where would our family and friends stay when they came to visit as promised? We imagined what it would be like to live in the “suburbs,” a kind of a cookie cutter neighborhood with a nondescript, but nice, house and a landscaped yard and a huge play structure. The house we’d just sold had a long list of needed improvements and its “landscaping” suffered from my insatiable compulsion to dig holes.
Choosing a neighborhood from scratch raised all kinds of questions. What kind of people are we anyway? This house held interesting possibility even if it didn’t feel like an obvious fit. But we weren’t buying it. As renters, the stakes were much lower. This whole exercise was an exploration of self in so many ways. However, when we learned that the landlords were moving out of this house and into the house next door, our decision came clear. Our boys were accustomed to a semi-wild backyard where they could explore and play and even ride their bikes. Learning how to live in a structured backyard under the watchful eye of the landlord? No thank you.
We moved on to look midtown in the Roger’s Park neighborhood, an older community with nice sidewalks and trees and appealing yards, but the houses available there weren’t great options for us. There was another house or two in the mix. And then the house off of Goldenview Drive. That listing seemed pretty much amazing, but it was on the south edge of town, up the side of a mountain and we had no idea what that would actually mean. We made a phone call, but couldn’t see it until Sunday morning so we went to lunch at Fire Island Bake Shop.
I perched at a high table along the crowded back wall of the busy bakery and grumped about our situation, reviewing yet again the impossibility of our task. My mood had clearly not improved by running into the dead end of our morning work and having no afternoon plan. With nothing else to talk about, I flipped open my computer and clicked Craigslist again. But Wait! This is interesting, I said as I read a brand new headline listing a house on the west end of the Park Strip. It boasted views of mountains beyond the Inlet and lots of square footage. I called immediately and within the hour we were meeting the property manager at the house.
We started that house tour on the ground floor, seeing the recently remodeled master bedroom + bath, and large TV room, and then we went down to the basement where I was delighted by the wall to wall bookshelves. Wow! I honestly exclaimed, as if I’d actually ever want to spend time in a windowless basement. Oh, you just wait, the Property Manager said, and turned to lead us back up the stairs and then up another flight to the kitchen/dining/living room.
Sunshine had split the clouds to pieces by the time we stepped into that room, and warm light streamed through the three huge windows that hung across the south wall. The view looked over the houses on the hillside below, and out across the wide water to a horizon line of snow-capped mountains. It was breathtaking. Basement bookcases?Never mind. I can live here! I breathed in that gorgeous view. David breathed in sweet relief.
But there was one last property we needed to check. We had 24 hours to make our decision. The next morning we drove out to see the house up on the mountainside, south of town. Set on a fairly secluded 1/4 acre with 2-story floor to ceiling south facing windows the unobstructed inlet/mountain views were stunning. It was like a retreat center. Something you’d see in an Alaska travel magazine as you added bullet points to your bucket list. It was the same price as that house downtown. We were in a position to choose. But how?
We took a short walk around the block and studied the neighboring yards – this one had bikes in the yard, that one a trampoline. We imagined what our boys would experience, spending a couple years living way up here on the side of a mountain. We calculated David’s commute and considered the impact of snow and ice. We hadn’t come to any conclusions as we backed out of the gravel driveway and turned our car back toward town. Just about then a black bear cub scrambled across the road and alarm bells rang loud in my head. I don’t know how to be a mother in Alaska!
And so there we were. Sunday afternoon with a decision to make. While we worked on that, we took a tourist detour and drove down to Aleyeska for the tram ride up the mountain. The annual Aleyeska blueberry festival was in full swing and sunshine was beating back clouds to make a cheerful backdrop for our deliberations. My camera battery was dead, but this picture from my phone is what showed up yesterday in my Facebook memory feed. Back down from the tram ride, I phoned a friend and she listened as I quickly outlined our choices. What I’d seen. What I thought. She knows me well and heard the layers of fear and excitement, frustration and uncertainty all tangled in my words. She helped me sort through my weekend of thoughts and feelings, looking for some wisdom for this moment of decision, then she asked the illuminating question: What will you do in the deep winter dark? My answer was clear and strong: I would need lights. I would need streets I could walk. I would need access to people. We left Aleyeska and met the property manager at the house downtown.
I started writing this post because I’d been thinking about the rain that fell steadily out my window all day. That picture of the David and me had just come through my facebook feed, and I recalled the moment we exchanged our signatures and money for keys to the house. The property manager turned to me and said, Just remember, the blue sky doesn’t come with the house.
I never imagined I’d still be in Alaska, 6 years later. I don’t like Alaska in August now anymore than I liked it on that first hard August weekend. I still have mixed up emotions about living here. One moment you’ll hear me tell delighted stories of awe and wonder about the #alaskamagic of this place. But very possibly my next sentence will be a complaint about the rain or the bears or the very long way from home.
I’m feeling more grump than awe and wonder these days. The grey August sky has been hard. I’m grateful for our house and I love our neighborhood. Just a few blocks from where we started, it turns out we really could choose our neighborhood in just three days. But having bought a house near the Lagoon last fall, this is the first August that I’ve lived in Alaska and haven’t had the gift of a mountain view out my window. It’s also the first summer since we’ve lived here that I haven’t escaped for an Oregon fix of sunshine and produce and family and friends.
But I’m gonna be okay. I run in the rain and I watch for long views. I have walkable streets and lots of people. Sometimes the sun even breaks through and I rejoice in its warmth and sweet light.
Summer Solstice in Anchorage means 4:21a sunrise today and 11:43p sunset. It never does get dark.
Alas…..we make the turn here.
We drove 5 hours up the Parks Highway to Denali National Park with David’s parents in the middle of June 2012. That was our first summer in Alaska and we didn’t really know what to expect. From Anchorage we had often seen the Great One standing tall in the distance on a blue sky winter day, but I’d heard it is more common for visitors to NOT see Denali than to see her. In fact, on a Park Road tour, only about 1 in 3 do.
But no disappointments this time! On our drive up we locked in our Denali sighting with an amazing stop at Denali View South.
We had reservations at the Denali Princess Lodge (not to be confused with the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge – but that’s another story altogether!) and arrived late afternoon. That night we ate dinner outside on the deck of one of the lodge restaurants. Magical memories in a gorgeous landscape. We were just a few days from summer solstice at that point and I was deep into my fight with endometriosis – not sleeping much. So I got up and took a picture at 3am because…..light outside all night.
The next day we took a Park Road tour. You can only drive your car to the Savage River Trailhead, about 15 miles into the park and so one of the ways to see further into the park is to take a bus tour. We chose the Natural History Tour, primarily for its duration, thinking about required sitting time for our group (though there are a variety of stops where we got out along the way). As the description in the link indicates, this is a great tour for learning about the park. Not so great for seeing animals. And in that bit, I came away a little disappointed. I had a friend from Oregon touring the park on the same day – they took a longer bus tour and came back with wildlife stories. We can only tell you about the mosquitos that day!!! Perhaps that was enough drama.
Our Tour Guide/Driver was fabulous – he told interesting stories and offered a wealth of information. At the start of the tour our group was ushered into an auditorium at the Visitor Center (which is definitely worth a bit of your time) where we watched a brief orientation video about the Park and at the end of the video our Guide asked the group how many people were in Alaska for the first time. Most of the hands went up. The Guide then asked us where we were from and he told our boys to look around. “Many of these people have had Alaska on their bucket lists for a very long time – you are very lucky boys.” Indeed.
Later we drove back out to the Savage River Trailhead and the four of us scrambled around on a rock trail for a bit.
The Y below is the furtherest point you can drive your car on the Park Road. The NPS has a good overview here of the varieties of ways you can get in and see the park.
Last summer Ryan spent a few days working with Alaska Geographic and the National Park Service and he said their group did some fun hiking around Savage River. Ryan really loves it in the Park and Ethan is looking forward to his 6th grade class trip – camping at Denali in May. I am a bit more ambivalent. I’ve been in the Park a couple times now, but my experiences have been more limited in terms of boots on the ground and if it’s going to be that, combined with the high chance of not even seeing the mountain…..I’m not inclined to put the Park very high on a bucket list trip to Alaska. I think this article makes some pretty good points about all that. However, if you can get deeper in to see more animals, or have time to camp or hike, then I think it is a fantastic, worthwhile experience, even under clouds and rain.
Our first cruise was a spring whale watching cruise package with Major Marine Tours, and we’ve taken three different cruise itineraries with them since then. There are other companies offering cruises out into the same waters, to see the same sights, but for no particular reason, we’ve gone with Major Marine tours every time and have been quite happy.
In June 2013, David’s parents came to visit from Kentucky and rode the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Whittier where we took Prince William Sound Surprise Glacier Cruise. This Surf and Turf package is a really fun combination. The Alaska Railroad is a fabulous experience and we’ve enjoyed every trip we’ve taken that way. The Alaska Railroad employs Alaska high school students to serve as tour guides for their various routes and this is a great little video clip to hear a couple of them talk about that work. And another clip here to give a bit of the flavor of riding the rails.
David’s family came last July and we that time we drove down to Whittier and took the Blackstone Bay Glacier Tour.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Anchorage to Whittier. It’s a beautiful drive south, along the Turnagain Arm and then the road cuts through a mountain, east toward Prince William Sound. The tricky part is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel aka: The Whittier Tunnel. This 2.5 mile long (toll) tunnel is the longest in North America and the only way to get into Whittier by car (or train). It is also only one lane wide. So….there’s some turn taking to do. If you’re driving and have a cruise to catch, it’s critical that you check the tunnel schedule before you go! A little more info on all that here.
The Anchorage to Whittier 2.5 hour train ride goes through the tunnel too, but traveling this way you don’t have to figure out the details.
Once through the tunnel, you’ll find Whittier to be a very small coastal town. By small, I mean less than 250 people live there. But what stunning geography! Ocean, mountains, glaciers….this is what you’ve come to see and the Major Marine Tours are a very accessible way to do so.
The Park Service Ranger on board provides lots of information at various points along the way and then wanders the cabin for easy access Q&A.
The boat captain navigates right up close to the hanging glacier and idles awhile, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear/see a tremendous slab of ice crack and fall to the cold cold cold water below.
Drinks with glacier ice the crew fished out of the Sound while we were waiting and watching for ice to fall from the calving glacier.
Otters are pretty much my favorite.
In July 2014, my boys and I did a Surf and Turf package with my parents and rode the railroad to Seward where we took the 5 hour Kenai Fjords Wildlife Cruise. That was such an incredible day of whale watching. Even the crew could not stop talking about the magic show put on by the whales that day.
It was also the day I deleted most of my pictures.
We went on a grey whale watching cruise six years ago this weekend so I’ll start my “What To Do in Alaska” collection with that. We had just come through our first Alaskan winter (or so we thought – we were brand new to the way the winter/spring transition happens up here, and that was the year it snowed in May marking down as record for the longest snow season in Anchorage), and when we saw an ad in the paper for a spring cruise package with Major Marine Tours, we were ready to get out of town.
The deal (which is again available until May 13: Spring Fever Package) included overnight at a hotel, admission to the SeaLife Center, and a grey whale watching cruise. David and Ryan had been to the SeaLife Center for an overnight field trip in November, but Ethan and I had never been to Seward before this trip. As we headed out of town I snapped this picture of a dump truck hauling snow in spring snow clean up. The whole snow management process here was still so new and intriguing to me.
It’s about 2.5 hours drive time south from Anchorage through the Kenai Peninsula to Seward, a small harbor town opening out Resurrection Bay.
We’ve been to Seward several times now and we always take a couple hours while we’re there to see what’s going on at the Alaska SeaLife Center. From their website: “The Alaska SeaLife Center is the only facility in Alaska that combines a public aquarium with marine research, education, and wildlife response.” We didn’t get down there last summer, but this story about the rescue and care of a baby walrus was fun to follow in our newsfeeds.
As for the rest of the spring package deal….the hotel had a pool, which was a huge plus for our boys, aged 6 and 10. And the grey whale cruise with Major Marine Tours was fabulous. A few photos from that day:
Seward is a tourist town. Cruise ships dock here in the summer, but this particular grey whale tour package runs on the front edge of all that (It’s called shoulder season, we’ve learned since living in a tourist town ourselves.) so the town was very very quiet that weekend. Many shops and restaurants had not yet opened for the season. We managed to find an open coffee shop one afternoon and had a good dinner at Chinook’s restaurant across the parking lot from our hotel, but as I recall, there were not many alternatives.
We have really good memories of this trip and it feels like time to do it again.
We want to visit Alaska this summer, what should we do? I love answering this question and am delighted to have friends and family asking right now. As I find myself repeating my scattershot answers, it occurred to me that it could be useful to collect some thoughts here.
Until David’s Portland-based engineering company landed a contract in Alaska in Fall 2011, I’d never given any particular thought to the land of the midnight sun. I didn’t know very much about it, and didn’t particularly care I guess. Indeed, I had very little imagination when I landed in Anchorage for the first time in May 2012. I didn’t know #alaskamagic was a thing.
David and I didn’t have seats together on the plane as we flew in that night. My seat mate was returning home after some time away and he kept talking about spring as we made our descent. I had no context for the anticipation this guy was feeling. Having just left my home in Portland, a rich, green landscape bursting in full bloom, I didn’t know anything about living in a place that had snow and ice on the ground for month after month after month, and more. My seat mate said his wife told him the trees were beginning to bloom, and he was excited about the dramatic changes he promised I’d see during my few days of lots of light in Anchorage. I didn’t understand. And then we landed. At about 9:30p, it would still be nearly an hour and half before the sun set! David had to work the next day so we got our car and went to our hotel where we pulled the blackout curtains to make night. Weird, right from the start.
Before this trip, I’d asked a couple friends for suggestions for how to spend my time in Anchorage while David was at work. The Coastal Trail, Kincaid Park, Flattop, Turnagain Arm, the Museum, Snow City Cafe, Mooses Tooth, Fire Island Bakeshop. Their overlapping lists got me off to an excellent start (my afternoon drive down Turnagain Arm was life-giving grace – a different story for another time) and all this stuff is part of our family’s regular life, six years later.
A few pictures from my first trip to Anchorage…..
So. We want to visit Alaska this summer, what should we do? My first questions back >> What do you imagine when you think of visiting Alaska? >> How much time and money do you have?
Stay tuned – I’ll start posting some suggestions.