North to Alaska: Post Cruise Trip Day 13

Healy. North Pole. Fairbanks.

Low clouds hung heavy over the mountains in the cool, morning air as I sat on the balcony. Swans honked and beat their wings as they flew over the calm water of Otto Lake. Wanting to linger still before we headed for Fairbanks, I sat on the end of the pier watching ducks create ripples as they dove under the water for breakfast. More honks filled the air as hundreds of geese (or maybe sandhill cranes) flew over head, making their way south, following the sun. As I would be inclined to do. As many who spend summers in Alaska do.

Our drive to Fairbanks on Parks Highway continued to glow gold—lined with alders, birch, and cottonwood in full color. We couldn’t pass up the picturesque town of Nenana on the south bank of the Tanana River.

And we stopped again when we saw some stunning color around Nanana City Pond.

Since it was only a two hour drive to Fairbanks, we decided to visit a must see place not far from Fairbanks (a stop not scheduled on the post cruise excursion): the North Pole. We visited the Santa Claus House where we saw Santa’s reindeer.

And I got a sneak peek at Santa’s list. Is it the naughty or the nice, I wonder?

And yes, we actually saw Santa and Mrs. Claus. They are a lovely couple. Mrs. Claus took a video of the four of us with Santa saying Merry Christmas to our grand babies. And yes, Santa will send letters to all of them this year.

On our adventure across Alaska, another animal we hoped to see was a moose. Thus far, it has been quite the elusive animal. Mrs. Claus said the best place to look for moose was out Chena Hot Springs Road. We needed to keep an eye out in the marshy areas and ponds, not the moving waters of creeks and rivers. She told us to drive slow, otherwise we’d miss them.

We also hoped (despite the cloud and rain forecast) to see the Northern Lights. Santa said he thought the best/easiest place for seeing them was to take Badger Road to Nordale Road and continue north to the second pull off.

The Santa Claus house was an amazing place to shop. I have to admit, Jon saved us a lot of money by hurrying me out of there so we would have time to moose hunt while there was still daylight. But not before a quick pic with some new frozen friends.

We followed the Claus’ directions, found the pull off Santa told us about (and I put a pin in it on google maps), then headed out Chena Hot Springs Road.

The beautiful, golden drive continued as we went on our wild moose chase.

We slowed down at every lake, pond, and marshy area looking for our elusive moose. We pulled over at all the places we thought would be prime moose hangout. Finally, after about 40 miles and an hour and a half, we decided to turn around. Maybe we’d see a moose on the way back. As we crossed a bridge we spotted a good turn around spot.

And there, in the marshy waters near the bridge, we found her—a cow moose. Our elusive moose.

We, of course, stopped and took a bunch of pictures, even though she was a bit of a distance away. While we were there, about three other cars pulled over when they saw us looking. They were on a wild moose chase, too.

The clouds thickened and some light rain began to fall on our return trip. After a not-so-quick stop at Walmart (which happens to be a great place for souvenirs), we checked into our hotel, the Fairbanks Westmark. We had an great room and for convenience, we ate dinner at their restaurant, the Red Lantern. They had a limited menu or the off season, but we were able to order coconut chicken Florentine soup and our last fried rockfish basket of the trip. 

Despite the clouds and rain, three of us had to at least show up just in case the clouds parted enough to catch sight of the Northern Lights. We followed Santa’s directions, hoping he’d grant us an early Christmas gift. But our persistence did not pay off. At least we can say we tried. Maybe we could catch a flight north in late spring. I’ve read March and April provide the best chance for clear skies to see the heavens light up.

No bears on our last full day in Alaska. But we did catch Jon trying to hide from Santa’s scrutiny. Santa’s sleigh probably wasn’t the best hiding place. I think Santa must have been looking at the naughty list.

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North to Alaska: Post Cruise Trip Day 12

Healy. Denali.

Our rooms at Denali Lakeview Inn came with a breakfast bar which included a microwave, a small refrigerator stocked with breakfast plates for two days (large blueberry muffin, apples, oranges, hard boiled eggs, grapefruit cups, milk and juices English muffin), a full sized coffee pot, and drawers filled with coffee, teas, hot chocolate, oatmeal, along with plate settings, wine cups, and extra large coffee mugs. It seems the owners/staff have thought of everything.

I took in the view from our balcony that morning, wanting to stay and not rush on to the next thing we had planned. Rather to rest and enjoy being present in the moment. But alas, after our breakfast we were on our way to Denali National Park. And truthfully, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the beautiful day.

On the way we pulled over next to the Nenana River for some autumn color and a picture of the railroad bridge.

The town outside the Denali National Park entrance with all the gift shops, stores, and restaurants —known as Glitter Gulch—was closed. So no coffee breaks, lunch options or treasure hunts. Unfortunately Jon couldn’t get his Denali sweatshirt because the store inside the park was also closed for the season. The downside of visiting during the off season.

The upside of visiting during the off season: we had driving access 30 miles into the park instead of only 15 during the summer season. And no crowds.

Denali means high and great in the Athabascan language. As I caught glimpses of the souring peaks, I couldn’t help but think, does that not describe our God? Denali. High and great. In any language. The glory of God’s creation was definitely on display in Alaska.

As we drove the 30 miles to the Teklanika rest stop and back, we pulled over many times to take in the views. The many layers of fall colors—reds, golds, yellows, and orange—in the mountain tundra took our breath away.

I suppose with the harsh winter climate in Alaska, it shouldn’t have been surprising to not see a lot of wildlife. I expected it to be more like Yellowstone, with elk, moose, and bison everywhere. But it was not. Just hundreds of square miles of Alaskan wilderness.

Occasionally the clouds would clear enough to get glimpses of blues skies and sunlight on the stunning snow-capped peaks surrounding us. I found peakvisor after we returned home and wished I would have known about it when we were trying to figure out which mountain was which. There are 121 named peaks in the park.

We headed back to Healy and our options were still limited so we ate at 49th State Brewery again. This time I ordered the artichoke crab dip with pita bread. As we ate we overheard discussion that the restaurant would shut down Sunday for the season. The staff would fly out of Fairbanks to wherever and whatever they had planned for the winter. Pretty much the only businesses that would be left open in Healy would be the grocery store and a small diner. It was kind of weird passing through these places as they shut down. I joked to others when we returned home and they asked about our trip, “Alaska was turning out the lights and locking the doors behind us.” My comment was usually met with confused looks or blanks stares. But that’s how it felt.

At the close of the day, we enjoyed a peaceful sunset reflecting on the mountains as we sat on our balcony. It’s hard to determine, but I think it was Dora Peak.

The town of Healy is not a tourist destination but definitely seemed like an excellent place to getaway and unwind. I could have stayed a week—kayaking on the lake, lingering on the balcony, enjoying time around the fire pits, hiking the many trails in surrounding country side. We will have to do that when we visit again.

Yes. We found our bear. A real one. We and about a dozen other vehicles stopped to watch a bear on a distant hill in Denali National Park. She foraged for food in the bushes to fatten up for the long winter ahead. Jon took some great pictures. Check out his bear here.

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North to Alaska: Post Cruise Trip Day 11

Anchorage. Wasilla. Talkeetna. Healy

We woke to a soggy morning in Anchorage but the clouds lifted enough to see the mountains as we drove to Wasilla on the George Parks Highway. There we met with friends from Mississippi for lunch at Taco Cancun. They had moved to Alaska seven years ago and saw on facebook that we were in Alaska. It was so much fun seeing them again and they are loving living in Alaska. I of course had to try a salmon taco and Jon had a chicken quesadilla. We hugged our goodbyes and left with open invitations to come back to visit and stay with them. Which sounds quite, well, inviting. And the more we explored Alaska, the more we want to take them up on their invitation.

We had a beautiful drive to Talkeetna despite lots of low clouds and rain obscuring the mountains. The autumn colors in Alaska are amazing. The leaves of alders, birch and black cottonwood cast the landscape in golden yellow. And what I think might have been ligonberry (from what I could find on google) lined the roads in rich red.

I found satisfaction in the moments of extraordinary beauty but it was challenging because I knew the grandeur of God’s glory was hidden behind the clouds and rain.

The soggy weather continued in Telkeetna, where we would have stayed had the land excursion had not been cancelled. Even though it was a about a 40 mile round trip detour, we wanted to check it out. I loved the little town, although many places were, of course, closed for the season. From what I understand it provides a great view of Denali, when the peak is not hidden behind clouds.

I texted our friend (the one who made our cruise arrangements). She has a cousin living in Talkeetna and I wanted to know about must sees in our short stop there. She recommended the Conscious Coffee. A most excellent choice. We had mochas, chai lattes and Nutella crepes. Nutella. On crepes. A little taste of heaven and another must-make.

The beautiful drive on Parks Highway continued on up to Healy. We oohed and aahed at the color and the small glimpses we’d get of the Alaskan range. The awesomeness of taking our own excursion rather than one through the cruiseline was that we got to stop (or even turn around) whenever we wanted. Which we did.

And again at the interesting, abandoned Igloo City

We arrived at Denali Lakeview Inn in Healy about eight thirty that evening. If you ever decide to stay there, be sure to keep an eye out for the sign to turn, otherwise, as you drive on, you’ll question your decision of the location.

However, when you find the place, you’ll absolutely love it. Cute rooms with lovely views of (and access to) Otto Lake. We stayed in the Denali Floral room with an adjoining balcony to the Blue Moose room where our traveling companions stayed. When I come back to Alaska, I definitely want to stay there again.

The only place open late for dinner (not that there were many choices in the middle of September) was the 49th Street Brewery. Jon decided to try the Yak-a-dilla (Yes, yak on a flour tortilla with peppers, onions, Monterey Jack cheese, salsa verde, and poblano cilantro Mayo. And of course I had to get their seafood chowder with salmon, halibut, and clams.

As we ate, the pub excitement picked up when an emcee led bingo with prizes such as
their Bavarian handmade pretzel and restaurant gift cards. Our server gave us some bingo cards and played a couple of rounds. Since it was called “drunken bingo” (with rules to encourage drinking) things got a bit louder than what we liked, so we decided to leave before the last round of “blackout” bingo. But I can say, I never thought I’d be playing bingo at a brewery in Alaska. 

We found our bear in Talkeetna.

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North to Alaska: Post Cruise Trip Day 10

Seward to Anchorage

A beautiful sunrise with the sun shining on the mountains and waiting the sky pink greeted me in the morning. I wonder, do the experiences we have that fade into memory live on as part of us, abiding in our hearts, becoming who we are, and providing places to refresh, to restore, to revive us?  

Our daughter sent me a satellite picture of the remnants of Typhoon Merbok hitting the northwest coast of Alaska. I find it interesting that a typhoon gone extra tropical would hit the state while we were there. Alaska is enormous, so of course the storm was over 500 miles away.

We checked out of the lodge and took the shuttle to the train station to check our bags for the evening train. Instead of eating lunch first, we decided to explore the twin lake trail just on the edge of town. The trail wound through the temperate rainforest tucked up against Mount Marathon with a mossy forest floor and plentiful mushrooms.

The short hike took us around two small lakes and had a pretty waterfall at the far end near a parking lot. However, the trail divided where we were to circle around back to the other side. Mud covered the low path but it looked like it went back the pond; the high path was drier and we thought it went the right way as well. Jon took the muddy path and the rest of us took the dry one. After the path started climbing, we decided it was the wrong way. So we back tracked, took the muddy one, but was alerted by Jon that it actually didn’t lead to the lake either. We ended up back tracking again. 

But we never did find if either path was the right one because Jon came after he encountered what appeared to be a very disturbed homeless person with a camp on the trail. We returned to the waterfall and to the parking lot, then took surface streets back to town as clouds rolled in. Our stomachs were telling us it was past lunch time.

We had our hearts set on Red’s Burgers on the edge of town, only to find them already closed for the season.  We went to the Highliner restaurant and unfortantely since it was one of the few places still open, it was an hour wait. Once inside, we found out that they ran out of burgers. I didn’t mind because I of course ordered a big bowl of hearty clam chowder. The others settled on loaded tots with cheddar cheese, bacon, green onion, lime crema (a recipe we’re going to have to replicate), and Rueben and BLT sandwiches. 

We took our last shuttle ride to the train station (although I hopped off nearby at a gift shop for some last minute shopping) and boarded the evening Coastal Classic train to anchorage on the Alaskan Railroad. I have to admit I was relieved to be on the train without any problems because it was the last train of the season. Do you see a developing theme here? There was quite the celebratory atmosphere among the workers.

We purchased the Gold Star fare which meant we sat on the second level of the train car and watched the passing scenery through domed windows. Although thick clouds had rolled in (and would persist for most of our visit), the views were amazing.

Autumn colors covered the snow capped mountains and we passed more rivers, waterfalls, glaciers. Despite the treat of large windows, I spent much of my daylight time outside on the rear platform enjoying the rhythmic sway of the cars as the train clickety-clacked over the tracks, the occasional train whistle, and open, expansive feel of Alaska.

Our Gold Star fare included dinner in the dining room below us. Since I’m not a huge fan of pot roast, I was a bit disappointed to find out it was the main entree (besides burgers) for the meal. But those who ate before us raved how good it was. So we ordered it and oh-my-goodness. It was the best pot roast I’ve ever had. The menu said it was slow braised pot roast with red wine demi. We were also treated to smoked salmon chowder. More recipes we’ll have to try to emulate. 

Too soon the landscape faded into darkness and we were cocooned in our tube of bright light. When a turn in the tracks gave me sight into the car ahead of us, I saw its row of white window arches extending into darkness. It kind of felt like we were in the belly of a whale—the white arches the vertebrae of the beast. 

We arrived into Anchorage train station late. Since our hotel informed us they did not offer a shuttle from the train station, Jon ordered an uber. But when we were notified of the car that was coming to pick us up, we were concerned at its small size. We didn’t think we and our luggage would all fit.

A few other passengers were loading a shuttle from our hotel! (It had been temporarily conscripted by their hotel due to a van breakdown.) The driver assured us he would come back for us. He was fast. So fast he arrived back before our uber did. We paid a 75% uber cancellation fee, but we had peace of mind that all four of us and our eight pieces of luggage and backpacks fit. And soon we were check into our hotel and settled into our rooms.

Since the Seward Visitor Center was closed every other time we passed it, we couldn’t get a picture with the bear inside. So, right before dinner we grabbed this photo of another downtown bear.

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North to Alaska: Post Cruise Trip Day 9


We woke to the gift of mountain peaks soaring above low clouds with more clouds stretching across the sky. My heart longed for blue sky to enjoy the majestic mountains I hoped to see on our excursion.

Our six hour tour to Kanai fjords National and glacier was through Major Marine tours and we boarded at the small boat harbor through the Harbor 360 Hotel late morning.

The low clouds began to lift as we departed, revealing other glaciers nestled in the valleys.

We cruised past Fox Island and saw a pod of Orcas with at least two pair of mamas and calves and one large male swimming about in Resurrection Bay. We spotted a few spouts and lots of iconic dorsal fins.

As we entered Aialik Bay a couple of rafts of resting sea otters floated by like a tiny fleet of canoes. Dozens of them. They looked small from the boat but the Alaskan sea otter males actually reaches about 120 lbs.

We continued into Aialik Bay and clearing clouds gifted us with blue skies for incredible views and scenery throughout the afternoon.

I was struck by how beautiful the water looked and how warm tropical waters and cold arctic waters can have the same blue-green quality.

Aialik glacier stunned us with its incredible deep blue and white colors. The occasional sight and sound of ice calving broke the stillness, and sea lions slugged about on the glacier ice.

I could have stayed there all day.

On our return trip we saw plenty more sea lions slugging about on the rocks of No Name Island along with lots of gulls, a few cormorants, and a bald eagle sighting on the other side of the bay.

Still no picture of our bear, but for our final gift of the day we saw the last puffin of the season floating about in the water. Not sure why he hadn’t left yet, but fun seeing him. I didn’t know what a puffin was until we saw the mural on the side of the hotel.

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