Alaska – Days 1-5: Perpetual Daylight, Natural Wonders, and Wildlife Sightings

My flight into Anchorage landed a little before 1 a.m., not that I could tell. The clouds in the sky were a brilliant pink and I didn’t know if the sun was setting or rising. I’d completely forgotten about Alaska’s perpetual daylight in the summers. I must say, it’s pretty trippy.

Since I got in so late/early I spent the night at the airport rather than bother a Couchsurfing host or get a hotel for half the night. I didn’t end up doing much sleeping. I looped my bag’s straps around the chair and my other bag, took off my shoes and tied them to the bag and hunkered down for the night. Every twenty or so minutes I’d jolt myself awake convinced that whatever sound I was hearing was someone right next to me trying to steal my stuff. No one was ever within a hundred feet of me when I woke up…Oh well, so much for sleeping.

At about 4:30 a.m. I really had to pee. I reasoned that it’d be a waste of time to continue trying to sleep with such a full bladder, so I put my shoes back on, unhooked my bags, and schlepped them to the bathroom with me. Once I returned to my napping spot I gave myself permission to pass out and not be bothered with my bags. No one had touched them yet, so why would they now?

I woke up just before my alarm at 5:40 a.m., went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and headed to pick up my rental car. I’d never rented a car before. I was nervous. I wanted to tell the lady helping me, but I got the feeling she’d be more judge-y than welcome-to-adulthood-y, so I kept that to myself.

I arrived at Denali National Park just in time to catch a shuttle bus to the Sled Dog Kennel and see the sled dog demonstration, so that is exactly what I did. Before the demonstration started I was able to walk around and say hello to some of the dogs. They’re so cute!

Sled dogs - clockwise from left: Zahnie, Sylvie, S’more, Tatum, and Carpe, Sled Dog Kennel, Denali National Park, AK.

Sled dogs – clockwise from left: Zahnie, Sylvie, S’more, Tatum, and Carpe, Sled Dog Kennel, Denali National Park, AK.

These six lucky dogs were harnessed up and did a loop around with one of the park guides. It looked like so much fun I immediately added “ride on a dog sled” to my bucket list. Did you know: Sled dogs can travel up to 50 miles a day and travel at speeds of 8 mph? Yep, and every year about 6-8 puppies are born at the Sled Dog Kennel in Denali. How neat is that?

After going around again and seeing all the sled dogs I hiked the Horseshoe Lake trail. I was going to do a summit view, but I was running out of time to do the hike and meet my host on time, so I decided to skip it. My host ended up being later than he thought, so it wouldn’t have mattered, but the Horseshoe Lake trail was really beautiful and I’m glad I did it.

Horseshoe Lake, Denali National Park, AK.

Horseshoe Lake, Denali National Park, AK.

Throughout the day I overheard multiple people talking about having seen a moose that day. As I left Denali I was really bummed I hadn’t also gotten to see a moose. I really figured I’d get to see one in Alaska since I hadn’t seen one in Montana or Wyoming.

Well, dreams do come true, not five minutes after I left the park I saw two baby moose on the side of the road. All the cars were slowing down and some were stopping, so I stopped too. When I did I looked through the trees and I could see their mama moose too! Not one, but THREE moose, and two were babies! Moose are so cool! I’m so glad I finally got to see a live one in person!

My host in Fairbanks had a full house. I was one of FIVE surfers at his place that night! He also had three friends over for a bit. After the friends left and no one else showed any signs of calling it a night, I caved and headed to bed myself. It’s really hard to go to bed when it’s daylight all the time. It makes you think, oh, it’s probably only like 8:30 p.m., nope, it’s nearly midnight. So. Weird.

This is what 11:08 p.m. looks like in Anchorage, AK in the summer...

This is what 11:08 p.m. looks like in Anchorage, AK in the summer…

Despite having gone to bed at two in the morning I got up a little before eight to head to North Pole, AK. Yep, North Pole, Alaska. It’s a real place. It’s small and kitschy, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I really enjoyed the whole Christmas in June thing.

Never thought Id make it to North Pole, but I did! North Pole, AK.

Never thought Id make it to North Pole, but I did! North Pole, AK.

Turns out there wasn’t much to do in Fairbanks, so I headed back to Anchorage. Two of my fellow surfers hitched a ride with me. One was headed into Denali to go backcountry backpacking (I literally could have fit in his backpack – it was huge!). The other surfer came with me all the way to Anchorage and was trying to buy a car for his own cross continent adventure. Originally I had also planned to spend part of that day in Denali, but it was cloudy and looked like rain, and I wasn’t too keen on hiking in the rain, so we just drove straight through.

I dropped the other surfer off at seven, but my host wasn’t getting back until midnight, so I went to Starbucks to FaceTime with Alex. Despite the ridiculous amount of daylight Starbucks closed at 8 p.m.. I drove to another that was open until 9 p.m. and just hung out outside so I could continue using their Wifi after they closed. Eventually Alex went to bed, you know, because it’s three hours later where he is… and I went to a Walmart parking lot to take a nap until my host got home.

The next morning my host took me to a couple different parks so I could see the Anchorage skyline and learn about the 1964 earthquake that destroyed the city. We started at Airport Park, then went to Point Woronzof Park and finally landed at Earthquake Park. Earthquake Park was my favorite because it had the best view of the Anchorage skyline and I learned a lot more about the 1964 earthquake.

View of Anchorage from Earthquake Park, Anchorage, AK.

View of Anchorage from Earthquake Park, Anchorage, AK.

Next we went to the Anchorage Market and Festival. There were some cool local artists and crafts and I learned what an ulu was. An ulu, in case you are unaware, is an all purpose knife and my host raves it is absolutely perfect for cutting pizzas. Hmmm, interesting.

Ulus, multi-purpose knifes, at Anchorage Market and Festival, Anchorage, AK.

Ulus, multi-purpose knifes, at Anchorage Market and Festival, Anchorage, AK.

While at the Market I was famished, so I tried the vegetarian taco at the Two Fat Guys Catering food stand. It had yams, black beans, slaw, pico de gallo, and was surprisingly spicy. After lunch I walked over to the Anchorage Museum. It was $10 for a student ticket and worth every penny. On the top floor they had an exhibit about polar bears, my favorite animal (though, perhaps still only because I did a report on them in the fourth grade…) They even had cool glass sculptures of what a few polar bear dens looked like, which I found particularly cool.

Glass sculpture of a polar bear den, Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, AK.

Glass sculpture of a polar bear den, Anchorage Museum, Anchorage, AK.

A couple levels down from that I learned more about the Alaska Permanent Fund, which my host had briefly mentioned earlier in the day. Apparently, the original Alaskan politicians were baller because they wrote into Alaska’s constitution that the land’s natural resources belong to the people. Therefore, if (when) the government decided to sell those resources, oil, let’s say, then they had to keep a percentage of the profits and give that money back to the people. So basically, every single Alaskan gets a check every year for their portion of the state’s natural resource profits. How. Cool. Is. That?! It kind of makes me want to move to Alaska… Yes, please I will gladly accept your bribe money. Thanks!

I wandered to the other side of the floor and peeked around the wall by the windows in case there was anything there and to my surprise there was! It was a Listening Space, where they had recordings of native Alaskans telling stories over nature sounds. There were wide cushioned benches partitioned off every few feet and no one was really back there, or seemed to even know there was anything back there. I was still exhausted from my night at the airport and subsequent late nights and early mornings, so I laid down on a bench. I closed my eyes and covered my arms with my head and I fell asleep. I fell asleep at the museum and it was wonderful! Peaceful background noise, and I think only one person walked by while I laid there.

I woke up in disbelief. I guess not having a bag to protect makes it easier for me to fall asleep anywhere. I checked my phone and it was a little after 4. I thought I sat down on the bench around 3:30, so I figured it was time to move on. As I was about to round the corner back to the rest of the museum a man in a suit with an earpiece turned the corner and looked at me, then to where I’d just been, and then back to me. I’m pretty sure they’d either seen me fall asleep or were told I fell asleep and he was coming to wake me up. Awkward.

But the main floor of the Anchorage Museum…the main floor is why the museum was worth every penny. Because on the main floor is the Imaginarium Discovery Center aka the place for hands-on science learning aka The. Coolest. Place. Ever!

My first experience in the Imaginarium was with a lava simulator. It was set up like an ant farm with sand and boiling water between two pieces of glass so I could see what happened beneath the surface as I increased the lava (hot water) flow. It was so cool to watch the sand slowly melt away from underneath the surface. I also got to make an earthquake shake mini houses on sand.

The Imaginarium had light spectrum tests that charted on a computer and a chair to hoist myself up in. It also had a kinetic ball obstacle course, which was sweet. There was a video to show me when I was flying (airborne, after jumping), and one of those air blasters I had to balance a ball on. My favorite part was, of course, the bubbles. They had a platform surrounded by soapy water and a hoop attached to a string so I could STAND INSIDE A BUBBLE. Probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done!

Me in a bubble at the Anchorage Museum Imaginarium Science Center, Anchorage, AK.

Me in a bubble at the Anchorage Museum Imaginarium Science Center, Anchorage, AK.

Earlier my host had informed me that Alaska Wild Berry Products has the largest chocolate waterfall, so naturally I went there to check that out. It was not as large as I thought it’d be, but still relatively impressive nonetheless. I sampled some chocolates and ended up getting Alaska Wild Berry ice cream.

Chocolate waterfall at Alaska Wild Berry Products, Anchorage, AK.

Chocolate waterfall at Alaska Wild Berry Products, Anchorage, AK.

That night my host made dinner for us and we watched Ride Along 2, which wasn’t as terrible as I’d assumed it would be. The following morning I headed to Seward on the southern coast. I stopped at the Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk, but all I saw were some birds. I continued on my way and detoured to Whittier, which wasn’t what I expected, but still pretty interesting.

Before I went to Alaska Alex had told me that there was a place in Alaska where the whole town lives in one building and everything they need is also in that building – the school, the hospital, the post office, everything. I looked it up, and thought it was the town of Seward, hence why I was going there. Before I left my host’s house that morning he informed me that Whittier was the town I was thinking of and a Google search confirmed it. – No idea how/why I thought it was Seward the first time, but whatever, it worked out in the end.

Driving to Whittier is a feat. It’s an old military base, so naturally, it’s nearly impossible to get to. It sits in the valley of multiple mountains, and for a while was only accessible from the sea. Eventually the military built a tunnel through a mountain so the train could get there. Some time after that they made it so cars could take that route too. The tunnel is nearly three miles through the mountain. It’s only wide enough for one car/train at a time. As such, if you plan to go note that to get to Whittier you should get there around the 1/2 hour and plan to leave Whittier on the hour.

As soon as I made it through the tunnel and saw the town I was like, wait a minute…An abandoned-looking building up on the hill looked like what should have been the whole town. There was a newer high-rise not far from there, but there seemed to be too many buildings for the whole town to still all live in one…

I drove up to the abandoned looking building where I learned it was called the Buckner Building. And, indeed, it was abandoned. I learned that it had, in fact, housed a self-contained town at one point, but clearly didn’t any longer. How disappointing. The building was eerie; the whole town was eerie.

Buckner Building, where all the people of Whittier, AK once lived and worked and existed.

Buckner Building, where all the people of Whittier, AK once lived and worked and existed.

There were signs posted around town and notes in the pamphlet they gave me before entering the tunnel saying visitors would be monitored (to make sure we parked in the right place). I’m not sure if it was just because I knew I was being watched, or because my gut was telling me something else was happening there that they weren’t telling us. Either way the place gave me the heebeegeebees. Maybe it was because the pedestrian tunnel was my second introduction to the town (the first being the Buckner Building) and it was just as sketchy…

Not creepy at all...pedestrian tunnel in Whittier, AK.

Not creepy at all…pedestrian tunnel in Whittier, AK.

I took the walking tour of the town, but I’d pretty much seen everything when I’d driven around earlier. I walked up behind the school to check out the waterfall up close though and that was pretty sweet.

Waterfall behind the school in Whittier, AK.

Waterfall behind the school in Whittier, AK.

I had just enough time before the top of the hour (when I would be able to leave) to stop and try some Whittier fudge. I tried the Tunnel Special – chocolate, vanilla, and caramel and it was delicious, so I got a little piece to celebrate my personal 50th state (I’ve already been to Hawaii).

I finished driving to Seward and reveled in its surrounding beauty.

View from Seward, AK.

View from Seward, AK.

I was hungry and decided to splurge and get a beer and a veggie burger. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a reasonably priced veggie burger, so instead I opted for the overly expensive adult grilled cheese which came with kale and tomato. If I had known how skimpy they were going to be on the kale and tomatoes I would’ve skipped it entirely. Ridiculous. Who charges $15 for a fancy grilled cheese and then only puts one leaf of kale on it?! To top it off, my waitress came over when I was mid-chew to ask how my food was, and then, realizing I was mid-chew said, “oh, I’ll assume it’s all good then,” and walked away and didn’t come back until I’d already laid my credit card on the table to pay. Whatever. I guess I should have expected as much from a tourist town.

On the drive back I thought I saw a dog on the side of the road, and slowed down so I wouldn’t hit it. It turns out it was a baby grizzly bear. Whoa. Definitely not a dog. I saw another grizzly bear a bit later too. That one was fully grown and hanging out in the water right off the road. A number of people had gotten out to look at it. What a bunch of crazies, that seemed way too close for comfort to me…

I also stopped by Kenai Fjords National Park and did a short hike to see Exit Glacier on the way back to Anchorage. See a glacier – check! Take a good picture of glacier – fail, sorry.

That night I just chilled with my host and had a beer with him before heading to bed. The next morning I repacked my bags, re-gassed and returned the car, and headed to Hawaii.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *