Alaskan Adventures Continued-WildFire!

This post recounts more of our Alaskan travels during the summer of 2019.

August 18, 2019
We had just completed the Skinny Raven Half Marathon-our fortieth state race on our fortieth wedding anniversary.
The race had included crazy winds,

fallen trees along the race course,

and air-born canopies. We were ecstatic, famished, and ready to launch what we thought of as our “real” Alaskan travels. After refueling and rehashing our race we were on our way to Denali National Park.

We hadn’t traveled more than an hour north when we noticed this burned out area beside the road and commented that there must have been a fire in that area in the past.

Then we noticed the sky.

As we continued north, the smoke became more intense. Traffic came to a halt and the sky became darker. A reporter with a video camera walked by heading towards the fire. A teenager on a mini bike zoomed past on the grass beside the road only to return shortly. We were tempted to call out to him as he whizzed past to try to learn what was happening up ahead.

The line of traffic grew behind us. Periodically a vehicle would come down from the north and we’d feel hopeful that the road was opening up. Our goal was to get to Cantwell where we had an adorable Airbnb log cabin reserved so we could catch our tour bus trip into Denali early the next morning.

After almost an hour of sitting in traffic, watching the smoke billow into the sky, the driver of the 18 wheeler idling behind us came to our car window and told us we should turn around because the road was closed. The traffic we had seen traveling south was people evacuating.

Thanking him, we made a U-turn and I began searching Google maps for an alternative route north. When Google told me the alternative route would take a ridiculous seven plus hours I was certain there was a glitch and tried again. However, it turns out, there really isn’t another road north.

As the week went by and we monitored the situation about the Willow wildfire, we learned that families were separated for days when someone had traveled south for some routine business and then couldn’t return to their home. Tour buses were stuck at Denali and some passengers ended up being flown south.

It took us a bit to acknowledge that a major portion of our Alaskan itinerary, a trip to Denali National Park, the site of the highest mountain in North America, was not going to happen. Obviously it was time to regroup. As Mike drove us back towards Anchorage, I whizzed through TripAdvisor listings hoping to find lodging that would feel celebratory on this notable date-our fortieth wedding anniversary and the completion of a race in our fortieth state.

A listing for the Knik River Lodge, in Palmer, caught my eye and the more I read the more convinced I was it was just what we were looking for. After a quick call confirmed they had a room available we turned off the main highway towards Palmer. The road skirted the river and the surroundings became more wooded and clearly less populated. I think we would have worried we were lost if I hadn’t been able to track our progress on my GPS. Finally the road ended in a clearing lined with rows of identical, red-roofed cabins perched on a hill overlooking the river.

The main lodge was in good repair but not particularly fancy. But when I walked through the door I was met with a sophisticated interior and the soothing sounds of quiet music and diners around the corner. I was ecstatic! Truly this was exactly what I had unconsciously pictured for our anniversary night.

We settled into our own cozy log cabin with a deep sense of relief. Our day had started before dawn, we had run a crazy and challenging half marathon, had been waylaid by a wildfire and now were immensely thankful to be ensconced in a blissfully quintessential Alaskan cabin.

We were a tad stiff after our race and spending hours in the car but we happily made our way back down the hill to the main lodge where an absolutely delectable gourmet dinner was awaiting us.

The menu was filled with quintessential Alaskan fare. Throughout the meal I could not stop gushing about how perfectly things had serendipitously turned out.

To top off the meal we ordered fireweed ice cream made from a prominent Alaskan wildflower.

The next morning we awoke to very brisk temps in our cabin. The open windows and the plunging temperatures made for a bracing start to the day. I brewed a cup of steaming black tea and sat on our private porch to write in my journal as the sun came up.

Knit River Lodge offers a variety of helicopter tours including a glacier landing with a dogsled tour! An unexpected bonus to landing in this location was watching the small helicopters take off in front of our cabin.

After a quiet breakfast we were ready to venture onto the next phase of our TBD Alaskan adventure. Communication with the host of the second Airbnb we had booked in Talkeetna confirmed that the road north was still closed. With no chance of continuing with our original itinerary we drove south.

We pulled over to take a closer look at the milky glacier water of the river.

What would turn out to be our only sighting of wildlife on land occurred shortly after we had left the lodge.

If you look closely you can see a moose and her calf about to emerge from the roadside vegetation.

Still uncertain about our next destination, we returned to Anchorage to the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Learning more about the native Alaskan culture was a keen interest for us. Listening to James Michener’s “Alaska” audiobook on our travels had provided a vivid background to the area in which we were visiting. Our tight timeline in Anchorage hadn’t allowed for a trip to this fascinating center so we were pleased that our altered itinerary allowed for this detour.

A self-guided tour around the center provided us with extensive information about the culture and history of native Alaskans.

The hazy sky was due to wildfire smoke. It was unpleasantly pervasive.
Having a forecast for “smoke” confirmed the intensity of the conditions.

The details of how we settled on Whittier as our next destination are hazy now but Mike had been intrigued by the tunnel that leads to Whittier, so after lunch in downtown Anchorage we traveled south on the Seward Highway.

Just two days ago this drive was clear. Now smoke from the wildfires had changed the scenery.

The only way to get to Whittier by land is through this two and a half mile tunnel. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is the longest in North America. It’s a one lane road that burrows through a mountain. The road is also used by trains so drivers must straddle a set of tracks as they drive through the narrow, dark tunnel. Entrance to the tunnel is scheduled every hour, with the flow of traffic to and from Whittier alternating every 30 minutes.

We had been clueless about the procedure for getting through the tunnel but by chance we only had a short wait before we were plunged into the depths of the mountain. Thankfully Mike was driving because I am claustrophobic. I spent the drive perched on the edge of my seat, breathing deeply, and peering into the dark praying that I would literally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Not a great photo, probably due to the motion…of my trembling hands.

When we finally burst back out into the sunlight I wiped my sweaty palms on my pants and gasped at the beauty. Whittier is on Prince William Sound, surrounded by glacial mountains.

Clearly fishing is an integral part of life in Whittier. Multiple small businesses line the waterfront offering kayaking tours, Jet Ski excursions, and cruises.

We had reserved a room at The Inn at Whittier . Lodging options are somewhat limited in Whittier and this charming waterfront inn was just what we were looking for.

Although the interior was not fancy, it offered comfortable accommodations with a stunning view.

We appreciated being able to stroll downstairs into the dining room for a tasty seafood dinner with breathtaking views of the sound, glaciers, and mountains.

Whittier was an important World War II base. We took a self-guided walking tour that started at this tunnel that led under the railroad tracks that cut through the city.

As we walked from building to building we found it fascinating to think about the people who had made this remote area home and the era when Whittier was an integral military base.

One of the unique facts about Whittier is that almost all of the residents live in a single high-rise building called Begich Towers. Its soaring presence is a contrast to the scattering of colorful waterfront buildings. Although there are only a few hundred year-round residents, it is an area that is historically visited by thousands of tourists who arrive by cruise ship, boat, train, or car.

The number and variety of vessels moored at the dock was impressive. I coerced Mike into taking photo after photo until I had captured this image of my half marathon medal.

The next morning we were up before the hotel dining room opened so we strolled along the pier looking for a spot for some breakfast. The Lazy Otter was open and offering coffee and muffins.

We savored being able to start our day with this view.

The proprietor chatted amiably with several locals who strolled in. A quick confirmation that they were having “the usual” and their order was underway. Between customers he spoke to us about what life in Whittier was like. He was a transplant but seemed to be captivated by life in this small community. It was fascinating to hear his tales about deep snowfalls that transformed the city in the winter and casually contemplating the challenge an earthquake would present to this tunnel-dependent town. His story of sitting outside on a frigid winter night, sharing a bottle of wine with friends at the edge of the water while gazing at the aurora borealis overhead, fascinated us.

Our carefully laid plans had been thwarted by a wildfire but we considered ourselves fortunate to have detoured to two classic Alaskan destinations. Contemplating life in Whittier continues to captivate me. Thinking about the residents living together in the high rise building and going about daily life cut off from the rest of the state except for the tunnel fascinates me. I periodically peek at the Whittier forecast and marvel at forecasts that list six consecutive days of snow which deposits feet of snow on this little community. Contrasting their sunrise and sunset times throughout the seasons intrigues me.

Although our travel has temporarily ceased due to the pandemic, I am extraordinarily thankful to have memories of our time in Alaska. Our journey was not what we had originally planned but its unanticipated twists added rich dimension to our travels and reminiscing about our adventures fills the time while we wait to be able to venture out again.

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