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Trip to Alaska August 13-19, 2013

Jenny and Charlie visited Anchorage, Fairbanks, and surrounding areas

See also Trip to Anchorage Alaska in 2015

See also Trip to Juneau Alaska in 2017

See also Trip to Fairbanks Alaska (for Northern Lights) in 2018


Alaska is huge - even from the perspective of someone who lives in Texas. There is no "visit" that can see all of Alaska. Okay, start at the capital. But Juneau is an island down in the panhandle - what looks like the Pacific coast of Canada. A drive from Juneau to Anchorage (the largest city) takes 21 hours, including a ferry ride off the island, much of the drive through Canada. The general wisdom is that you cannot drive from Juneau to elsewhere in Alaska, even though it is the capital. Scratch Juneau from the list

How about Anchorage? It is about 10 times as large as Juneau and Fairbanks (the other two significant size cities). Of course Anchorage is just under 300,000 people, while Fairbanks and Juneau are about 30,000 people each (none of the other Alaska towns are over 10,000 people). The whole state of Alaska only has 731,000 people (the only state with fewer is Wyoming with 576,000 people and 1.2 million cattle). Our home town of Austin has almost 850,000 people. Guess you should go to Alaska for other things than people!

Trip Summary

We flew into Anchorage, then drove a rental car south to Seward for a glacier and whale watching day-long boat trip. We then headed north to Fairbanks (500 miles) to see the Alaska pipeline and Denali Park, and back to Anchorage - a total of 1142 miles in 4½ days. The scenery was stunning, but attractions were not as photogenic as expected. We saw whales on the boat trip, but there was no jumping on cue, nor glass front tank like Sea World. We saw a glacier, and heard it crack (like a gunshot), but no big ice fell in the 45 minute we waited. We should have seen Mt. McKinley (the world's tallest mountain from base to peak, and the highest peak above sea level in North America), but, as one guide book said, there is a 95% chance you will see a moose, but only a 30% chance you will see Mt McKinley, since it is normally hidden by clouds. We didn't see it, even from the reported best vantage points.

Getting There - August 13

We flew from Austin to Los Angeles to Anchorage. Travel hint - the connection from American to Alaska Airlines in Los Angeles is far less convenient that connecting in Seattle. Count on a whole day to get to Anchorage - it is a long way.

Anchorage - August 13-14

The city of Anchorage is quite attractive - perhaps the effort on flowers through the downtown streets is because there is so little summer time to be outside wandering and enjoying the flowers.

There were many cars with fancy alloy wheels, but I noticed that practically all the cars with plain wheels that would have hub caps, didn't have any - just the bare wheels, here and elsewhere in Alaska. Finally I realized that the hubcaps would probably be knocked off by the snow that is present much of the year.

Of course, we found the required quilt shop.

In March 1964 there was one of the largest earthquakes ever (magnitude 9.2) centered near Anchorage. Some areas were permanently raised as much as 30 feet, others permanently sank over 8 feet (putting highways below sea level). Roads, utilities like sewer and water pipes, and buildings didn't do well. Tsunami (waves) caused by ocean floor shifts were as high as 220 feet. Earthquake park in Anchorage was built in an area destroyed by landslides, and the park documents some of the coastal changes and geology, with walking trails through the nearby forests.

South to Seward - August 14-16

As we left Anchorage heading south towards Seward, we stopped occasionally to admire the tidal pools we had learned about in our lessons at Earthquake Park.

We stayed an hour outside of Seward at Summit Lake Lodge, officially in the Town of Moose Pass (although we never found a town beyond a couple buildings). It was a gem of a place to stay, with great owners (yes, it is small) and a fabulous restaurant (our best meals in Alaska).

In the main lodge was a bar, gift shop, lobby with WiFi, and a 75 seat restaurant, staffed with a professional chef from the basketball industry (off season). Like many places in Alaska, the lodge is only open May 1 to September 17. With such a short season, cheap rooms are rarely available.

A separate ice cream and snack bar is on premises so the riffraff that are just driving through wouldn't disturb us in the main lodge.

Kenai Fjord Cruise August 15

We scheduled a day cruise to look at wildlife and glaciers on this little 95 foot long, 200 passenger boat. If you are going to Alaska, we highly recommend "Major Marine Tours."

Not far away from the dock the wildlife show started, with this sea otter rolling to it's back to relax and watch us.

Everyone was excited that we got to see a fin back whale. It hadn't been through the Sea World training program, so not much was above the water at a time, but it is huge (the internet suggests 90 feet long and 80 tons). As it swam forward we watched the top of it's arched back go by, and go by, and go by. Overall it was about the length of our boat.

The humpback whales hadn't gone to Sea World school either. We saw several, briefly, more briefly than this photographer could turn on his camera and get a good picture. And none of the performers did the spectacular tail slaps that are supposedly common. Most migrate the 3,500 miles to Hawaii for the winter - then back to Alaska for the summer where the long days help grow the tons of marine plant life that they eat.

The scenery in the fjords was spectacular. Many places we saw rock walls covered with thousands of small birds... by the time the picture was wide enough to see the quantity, the birds were too small to appreciate. You had to be there!

A number of the rocks were covered with seals basking in the sun.

Seeing a glacier close up was a goal. This is one that came down to the water, and was likely to calve.

We got close to it - almost scary close. We could easily hear the groaning sounds that a glacier makes... then a loud crack like a gun. Crumbles of ice fell into the water, roughly where I drew the red lines. We waited for a big iceberg to fall. And waited and waited. Close and VERY cold. After about 45 minutes of minor groans and our teeth chattering, we gave up. The icebergs we saw from this glacier were suitable for our cocktail glasses. The Titanic would have been safe.

Not all the glaciers came down to the water in a cliff that was supposed to perform for the tourists.

Some didn't even make it to the sea.

Some dolphins caught up with our boat and played in the bow wave, jumping out of the water periodically for a breath. You could watch them just under the surface of the water, but the camera couldn't see them there. I have a lot of pictures of splashes where my reaction time was too slow. They didn't attend the Sea World training school for tourists either.

The scenery was especially spectacular north from Seward - then fairly flat (all is relative) north of Anchorage, then spectacular again as near Fairbanks.

On the road North - heading for our second night at Summit Lake Lodge - we encountered these "crossing gates" without a train track. Turns out that avalanches are so common, with snow coming off the hills next to the road, that they periodically have to just close the roads.

We returned to Summit Lake Lodge for another spectacular meal, and a good night's sleep, before departing towards Denali Park (near Fairbanks). This is the view from our room (middle room below)

North to Denali - August 16

This is the special spot on the highway where you are supposed to pull over and get the best view of Mt. McKinley, or as it is known locally, Denali. Look hard - perhaps behind that cloud. The peak is 20,310 above sea level, and about 18,000 feet above it's base. In contrast, Everest only rises 12,000 feet above it's base at 17,000 feet, making it the highest at 29,029 feet, but not as tall as Denali.

Steve Sletten provided the picture on the left from their trip in 2019 - taken from a nearby glacier. Since the top is often cloud covered, the park service suggests only a 25% chance of seeing the mountain (which is why we borrowed the picture) compared to a 95% chance of seeing a bear.

We stopped at a roadside park for viewing Mt. McKinley (Denali). The guide is below. Surely you can see it now.

We finally arrived at Denali Park and Preserve - a huge facility - a 6 million acre park and 1.3 million acre preserve. There is a visitor center (which we came back to the next day) and the entrance to the east-west road into the park.

This is the only road into into the park, and the road is only 91 miles long. But if you want to go in more than 15 miles, you have to ride a bus - the public can only go in as far as the little shed at the bottom of this hill. And during the winter (most of the year) only the first few miles are open. So how do you enjoy the park? Instead of signs that say "keep on the trails" visitors are told to go anywhere, but DO NOT walk single file, and make a new trail. If you get permission to spend the winter in the park, you will be serviced by government operated dog sled teams.

At the 15 mile point there are some walking trails so old folks like us can say we hiked in Denali Park. That didn't keep the wildlife away. I was criticized for calling this caribou a moose in our Christmas letter. Sorry. Some said it was obviously an elk. Sorry but Elk is what moose are called in Europe.

After wandering around ... er.. hiking for a while, we came upon whatever it is again in a stream.

We also saw these Willow Ptarmigan birds in the stream, of the Pheasant/Grouse family. They are the state bird of Alaska, here in their summer dress, but in the winter they become white.

Proof of life. Yes I still pretend to hike, as long as it is paved and down hill both ways.

The A&M hat that Jenny wore during much of the trip was recognized and acknowledged by someone at every stop.

The scenery was great - although I am glad a smooth path led to this view.

At the risk of being chastised again, I do think this is a lady moose.

And perhaps, maybe, we even saw the back of Mount McKinley, in the second row of mountains. Could it be true?

Return to Denali Park - August 17

The next morning we returned to see the Dog sled demo. Some dogs liked people, some were not as friendly to strangers, so visitors were welcome to "visit" some of the dogs but not others. Jenny really liked Nuna.

As the dogs were picked for the team, you could almost hear them shouting "pick me, pick me." They are so strong, that many had to be held up by their collar, so they only had two legs on the ground and couldn't pull over the handler.

The dog sled was dragged on a gravel path, to give the dogs a load. Each dog can pull about 50 pounds "all day." The number of dogs used depends on the load they are pulling - for the demo they used 5 dogs. They are not a distinct breed, except as they have evolved from successful arctic sled dogs. They all have a furry tail to cover their nose when they are sleeping in the cold. I expected them to be much larger animals.

Retired sled dogs make great pets - as long as their owners can give them several hours of exercise each day.

As the brief circuit was completed, they were each given a dog toy and harnessed in place for pictures. Four of the dogs played with their toy. One buried it for later. This free demo was one of the highlights of the trip.

The first person I told this story to, with excitement, said "yeah, we took our family on a two day dog sled trip."

On to Fairbanks - August 17-18

The Alaska Pipeline is an amazing engineering feat. The inside pipe, that carries the crude oil, is 4 feet in diameter, surrounded by insulation and a protective pipe (since the oil is hot so that it flows freely). The pipeline is 800 miles long, with 12 pumping stations, and crosses 3 mountain ranges and over 500 rivers, yet it only took 26 months, and $8 billion, to build in 1975-77. It goes from the sea at Prudhoe bay, where oil was discovered well above the Arctic circle, to the ice-free port - The Valdez Marine Terminal - in the Gulf of Alaska in the south.

Much of the pipeline is above ground - high enough that animals freely cross under it. It is critical that the ground holding the supports remains frozen in the permafrost, so it is stable. Therefore a clever cooling system (with radiators at the top) keeps the ground around the support post frozen, even in the summer.

The pipeline zig-zags so it can expand and shrink with the temperature, and can cope with earthquake tremors and ground shifts. In fault zones, the allowed shift is larger. The pipe is bolted to a sled (rusty, behind me) that slides sideways as required on the horizontal support. The big gray pad over my head protects the pipe if it reaches the vertical support.

Periodically it goes underground, below rivers, highways, etc., as it did here in Fairbanks. In avalanche and rockslide prone areas, it is buried underground in refrigerated ditches. If the soil is stable without being frozen, it is buried like a conventional pipeline. Note that this is the real pipeline, not just a model for the tourists. You can also see the zig-zag.

Okay, this section of the pipeline did accommodate the tourists, with a parking lot, a couple signs, and a model showing a pig. This is a pipeline "pig" that is pumped through the pipeline occasionally to clean and inspect the inside of the pipe, or to separate "batches" of material in pipes that carry different products. It makes a squealing sound like a pig as it goes through the pipe.

I called a friend from Fairbanks to see if there was another visitor center with more exhibits and guides. "No, this is it - the real thing" he said, "but if you want a guide just wait for one of the frequent tour buses and listen to the driver."

Be sure to see the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in Fairbanks - a free museum and visitor center that provides an outstanding introduction to the area (including an exhibit on the Alaska Pipeline). You can get a quick overview, but I bet you will be tempted to spend hours there, it is so interesting. Outside the center is this arch of hundreds of moose and caribou antlers that you can watch on a web cam - stand there and wave to friends at home. Aren't cell phones fun?

In Fairbanks we had an outstanding meal at the Pump House Restaurant, recommended by a friend who had lived there - worth checking out if you are in Fairbanks. In 2018 it had been discovered by tour buses, so you need to make a reservation a day in advance.

Southbound to Anchorage - August 18

We took the scenic casual route to the south from Fairbanks to our last night in Anchorage. The scenery was great.

On the way south we took a side trip to the little town of Talkeetna. During the summer it is a pleasant friendly food and art community. During the winter there are only a few hundred residents.

One of the restaurants is famous for their huge "biggest burger in the biggest state." It has two 1 pound caribou patties, 3 layers of sourdough bread, ½ pound of smoked ham, 12 strips of bacon, 6 ounces of Swiss cheese, 6 ounces of American cheese, grilled onions, fresh tomatoes, shredded lettuce, then smothered with their "infamous Fat Ass sauce."

We didn't try one! But we had a great pizza at a brew pub.

As with many small towns, the number of planes, especially float planes, is comparable to the number of cars.

As we approached Anchorage in the rain, the very low clouds with the mountains above were quite beautiful - something we normally only saw when we owned a plane.

I thought Texas had extreme limos. How about this Alaskan pick up truck!

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