Dispatches from the Far North: Part IV (South to Kenai)
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Day 3 dawned, cold and clear. It was time to depart Trapper Creek for the splendors of the Kenai Peninsula. Before doing so, however, we figured we'd stop one last time at a Denali viewpoint on our way south. We had seen the great mountain twice already, but the pinnacle had been obscured both times.
We arrived at the nearly-deserted viewpoint, and lo and behold, there it was. The king of all North American mountains - 20,310' - top to bottom. We had heard beforehand that Denali's summit is only visible 30% of the time, and had prepared ourselves to not be able to see it. I immediately felt a wave of thankfulness, as the magnificence left me spluttering for words. It still does, 20 days later, and I'm guessing it will 20 years later too.
We stood there for at least 45 minutes, in absolute awe. I knew that millions of people had seen this before, but I also knew that many millions have visited Alaska and not seen it. It felt like we had discovered a priceless treasure, and there it was in front of us, in all its grandiose silence. No tourist throngs, no background noise, nothing. Dad, me, and Denali.
There are few times in my life that I have been so utterly blown away by a single view. It was a moment of pure, primal respect for nature, for the creation of this craggy behemoth and for our ability to appreciate it. We were beyond blessed.
An hour later, I was back in the Wasilla Target. It was time to restock on water and snacks, as our next lodging was similarly isolated. I hate to say this, but the road into Wasilla was as ugly as sin, especially after the grandeur we had just experienced. Strip development of ATV stores, a creepy fireworks emporium, and other industrial sprawl made me shake my head that anyone could bring the ugliest bits of the lower 48 and superimpose them on Alaska. Thankfully this was but the most minuscule of blips on the landscape. Nature cannot be tamed here.
Still reveling in the pure Denali vibes from earlier, we passed back through Anchorage and turned the van southeast, along a channel of water known as Turnagain Arm. I wasn't prepared for yet another spectacle of nature as the Kenai Peninsula introduced itself to us from a distance.
The grandiosity of this otherworldly landscape tested the limits of my comprehension. Constantly. I've seen countless places of magnificence in my life, but somehow this topped them all. I stared out the van's windows from within my Lilliputian being, surrounded by a fantasy. Jagged peaks, some snow-dusted like prodigious, craggy pastries, rose sharply, 5,000+ feet from water's edge. This primeval tableau went on for the duration of the drive from Anchorage to Seward - well over an hour.
To top it all off was the celestial drama of the lighting. One second an apex was shrouded in cloud, the next it pierced the blue beyond. The peaks themselves looked far different from the ones we'd seen 100+ miles north that very morn. Here, their bases were a lush green before fading to brown and, at their summits, glowing white. I simply couldn't stop staring - it was too much to comprehend, physically and spiritually. Ordinarily I try to temper my bluster and awe, but this was, unequivocally, the most heart-stoppingly brilliant drive I'd ever done.
We found lunch at the haphazardly-strewn "town" of Girdwood, actually part of Anchorage despite it being 35+ miles from downtown! I had another tasty but eyebrow-raisingly expensive cheeseburger, listening to mellifluous island beats on the speakers. Contrary to the laid-back vibe created by the music, 2:00 was a fire drill of activity as the staff bustled around to close the place quickly, and remaining patrons scampered out the door. Our plan from here was to take the Alyeska Aerial Tram, a 5-minute journey up to the summit of Alaska's only (!) ski resort. However, given the weather's variability, we weren't about to spend beaucoup bucks to sojourn in a cloud.
Before continuing to snake in a general southerly direction toward Seward, we had another stop to make, at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This expansive haven for animals and animal-lovers both was situated dramatically at the southeast tip of Turnagain Arm, at the Gateway to the Kenai Peninsula. Monumental, jagged peaks surrounded us, stony sentries over this superlative-defying region.
We walked among moose, caribou, and other Alaskan wildlife, their "enclosures" some of the most generous I'd ever seen. The highlight though, for me, was the bears. In a zoo you often see bears, 100 yards from the viewing area and/or asleep in a ball. Here, they were both active and mere feet from where we stood.
Dad got up close and personal with a grizzly to the point where he could almost touch it. I watched from a bit farther back. I was able to get several dramatic shots of a brown behemoth atop a hill, including this one, my favorite.
Unfortunately, for all the wondrous sights on this trip, we would see no bears, moose, or any land animal larger than a bird in the wild during our time in Alaska.
Later that evening (not before an exquisitely delicious bowl of salmon chowder in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Moose Pass), we arrived at our third lodging. This was the one at which we'd spend the most time: a log cabin about 20 minutes north of Seward. Part of Renfro's Lakeside Retreat, a handful of cabins that were simultaneously rustic and surprisingly well-appointed, our abode for the next three nights was a 2-minute walk from the water. Not just any water, either. Bucolic Kenai Lake, yet another symphony for the senses and the soul.
We ambled lakeward at several different times during the morning and evening to revel in the dramatic light. The mountain across the way was rugged and vaguely volcanic-looking. I never bothered to look up its name or height, and it hardly mattered. This was more quintessential Alaska, and I enjoyed the mystique of being surrounded by untamed nature.
On our first night, Dad and I crunched slowly and reverently across the pebbly road to explore the environs; the air was damp, straddling the border between cool and cold. Other than some sporadic distant road noise, there were no sounds but our footsteps.
Coming around a bend, I whispered "stop", and held my left arm out straight. There, not 50 feet away, was a Great Horned Owl on the roof of a small utility shed. Its massive, piercing eyes were fixed on us. We both grabbed our phones to try and capture this beautiful creature before it inevitably left us. I managed to get a decent shot, just before it whooshed off with a great flourish, one of the most majestic birds I'd ever seen in the wild.
It may not have been a moose or a bear, but it was a classic encounter nonetheless. Feeling fulfilled, we retired early in preparation for two days in and around what would become one of my all-time favorite small towns...