I can’t believe that a week ago, I was in Anchorage with two great friends. It seems like we just got home. It took me awhile to go through the many photos I took, selecting those I want to share with you all, and reliving the adventure. We had such a fabulous time!
Julie was the driver, so Amanda had her husband drop her off at my house on Friday morning, where Julie came to pick us up. We loaded up the back of her truck in the pre-dawn darkness. The goal was to be on the road by 8am. We ran a little behind, but that’s to be expected when we’re trying to pack the back of the vehicle with bags of different shapes and sizes. We also had emergency gear (blankets, candles, etc), and extra coats and boots. Although Anchorage isn’t as cold as Fairbanks (temperature-wise), it can feel a lot colder due to wind chill and humidity.
We stopped on the way out of town to top off the gas tank and pick up breakfast sandwiches at Sunrise Bagel. The roads had a thin coating of ice on them, but Julie’s tires did well for the most part. There were some areas that are always slick as the road sits in the shadows most of the winter. We weren’t in any rush, so slow and safe was our motto for the weekend. Those who were in a rush (and there were plenty!) used the truck passing lanes to go around us. I don’t understand why people insist on driving so fast on treacherous roads. Ice is ice, no matter how good your tires are.
We could see Denali in the distance as soon as we got close to the Parks Monument, and by the time we reached MP286, the mountain was bathed in the orange light of sunrise. Of course we stopped many times along the way.
When we reached Anchorage, the first thing we did was have dinner at Olive Garden, which is just outside the gate to JBER (Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson). We don’t have an Olive Garden in Fairbanks, so it was a treat for us. We all wanted the unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, but discovered that the Anchorage Olive Garden has taken it off the dinner menu - but the waitress told us we could have it for a higher cost ($12.99/pp). Uh, NO. Not when a full meal was the same price and came with salad (or soup) and breadsticks. Crazy!
I wish I could say I was pleased with my meal, but I wasn’t. The salad was good, but my entree (Five-Cheese Ziti al Forno) left a lot to be desired. It was cheesy, but it was so very bland. The pasta and cheese all blended into a thick glump of *blah*. I ate about 1/3 of it, and asked for a To-Go box for the rest.
After dinner, we stopped at the gas station to top off the tank again, and then ran into the commissary to stock up on food for our weekend. We travel on a budget, so buying cold cuts and other food - and splitting it 3 ways - was the most affordable way to go. We checked into Guest Lodging and were given the keys to our townhouse.
The house was a good size with a living room, full kitchen, two bedrooms, and one bath. There was a sofa bed in the living room, which Julie claimed. I took the master bedroom with a queen bed, and Amanda took the second bedroom with a twin bed. Space wise, it suited us perfectly. An extra half bath would have been nice though. Three women sharing one bath was pushing the limits a bit. But I’m not complaining at all. Because we are all military ID holders, we got the house for only $55/night. Split three ways, our three night stay was only $55/each.
We unloaded the car, put away the groceries, and then grabbed our camera bags and drove out to Earthquake Park for some night photos of the Anchorage skyline. It was so cold out there, and we shivered despite our warm clothes. The wind was strong and the cold air blew right through us and settled in our bones. We longed for the dry air of the interior! We didn’t stay out long, as we were all feeling the fatigue of a long day driving. We went back to the house, changed into warm lounging clothes, had a cocktail, chatted a little bit, and were in bed by midnight.
The next morning, we were up early so we could have coffee and breakfast before making the drive down to Seward (about 135 miles from Anchorage). The Polar Bear Plunge was scheduled to start at 12:30pm, and we wanted to make sure we allowed ourselves plenty of time to stop for photos along the way.
The weather didn’t look all that good, and light snow was already falling. But we had plans, and we intended to stick with them! The drive around Turnagain Arm was scary at times. The road was very slippery in places, and people were driving like crazies! Once the sky brightened, it was a little easier to manage.
We stopped frequently along the way, as the views were stunning - especially near Turnagain Pass and the Hope Cutoff. Despite the many stops, we got to Seward and found a place to park near the small boat harbor with about 30 minutes to spare.
One hundred fifty participants signed up for the Polar Bear Plunge. The water was 36F. Brrrr! The boat that the announcer was in, had to break up the thin layer of ice on top of the water before they could start jumping. I can’t even imagine the heart-stopping shock of being in water like that! There were rescue divers, coast guard, firefighters and EMTs standing by just in case.
The costumes on the participants were great. Some were quite creative. Others were hilarious. No matter what they were wearing, the fact that they jumped into frigid water made them all courageous heroes. All to raise money for cancer. It was a good day for raising funds. I believe they raised about $30,000 between them.
When the Polar Bear Plunge was over, we drove down to Lowell Point for more photos. By this time, the snow was falling again. It truly was lovely with the backdrop of mountains and water.
Several other people showed up at Lowell Point for a walk on the black beach. There were families, people with dogs, and others with cameras too. The three of us went off in our own directions, photographing things that caught our eye. We discovered (as we usually do) that we took very similar photos.
We made a couple of sandwiches for lunch and did a quick drive around Seward to point out landmarks to Amanda (this was her first visit to Seward). The snow began to fall again, as we left the town behind and made our way back to Anchorage.
The Seward Highway - especially around Turnagain Arm - is treacherous. It’s one of the most dangerous drives in Alaska. By the time we reached the Arm, it was dark. Julie reduced her speed, as others zipped around us dangerously. I later read on the police blotter that there was a bad accident that night and a man was killed. As we got into Anchorage city limits, a car came up the on-ramp, lost control and went into a 360 degree spin across four lanes of traffic before coming to rest in the median ditch. All RIGHT IN FRONT OF US! We were happy to get back to the house (after a stop at Red Robin for dinner).
On the way back to Anchorage, we stopped to get coffee, and the wind was so strong, Julie and Amanda were nearly blown away (giggle):
On Sunday morning, we weren’t in a big rush to leave so the morning started a little slower. We enjoyed our coffee and some microwaveable breakfast sandwiches before packing the cooler for our drive to Portage Glacier and then back to the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood.
The weather was horrible with heavy snow and poor visibility. By the time we got to the turn off for Portage the day was brightening, which helped with seeing, but the road had a couple of inches of snow on it, which hid the slippery conditions beneath. We drove all the way out to the tunnel to Whittier, but there really wasn’t much to see with the weather being as poor as it was. We did stop to photograph a pretty footbridge over Portage Creek, but that was about the extent of our Portage photos.
On the way to Girdwood, I directed Julie to drive to the trailhead for Virgin Creek Falls. Pam and I hiked this trail when she visited back in July. I wasn’t sure if the trail would be open in winter, but hoped it was so the girls could see the beautiful falls.
When we got there, the snow berms were so high (from snowplows), that you had to climb up over one to get to the trail. Amanda went first to check it out and it was a slippery mess. I opted to wait in the car while the two of them took off walking. We had cellphones and reception, and the trail is only about 1/4 mile so I wasn’t worried about them. When I saw them coming back a lot sooner than I anticipated, I figured the trail wasn’t open. While they did get photos of the pretty creek, they couldn’t go much further. They plan to stop there this summer when their travels take them down to the Peninsula again.
Things looked a lot different at Alyeska in the winter, than they do in the summer. I wasn’t quite sure how to get to the Winner Creek Trailhead - or if it was open. We saw quite a few x-country skiers, and a handful of skijorers on one of the groomed trails, but foot traffic wasn’t permitted. Amanda ran inside the lodge and found out that the Winner Creek trail was open, but we’d have to park and then cut through the lodge to get to it.
We pulled on our many layers of clothes, but opted to just carry our cameras and a few extra memory cards, rather than our entire backpacks. The boots I was wearing are pull-on Columbia boots, which are warm enough in 20F weather, but certainly not sturdy enough for hiking. For some reason I thought the trail was only about 1.5 miles in for a total of 3 miles. WRONG! It was actually about 5 miles roundtrip, and by the time we got back to the lodge, we were almost out of daylight.
First of all, I can’t believe I made that 5-mile hike. Especially in the boots I was wearing. The trail was rather narrow (about a foot at most), where other traffic had tamped the snow down. But on either side of the trail, the snow was very deep and soft. If you stepped off, you were buried to your knees. The trail went up over hills, hugged steep hillsides, and climbed and dipped repeatedly. My poor knees and calves were killing me by the time we got to the end. I was worried I wouldn’t make it back. Thank goodness for cellphone reception in case I needed rescuing! But I made it. This 50-something year old body survived. I could barely move, but I made it. This is what peer pressure from younger gals does. *grin*
The drive back to Anchorage was again a little scary. People drive like maniacs down there! Before going back to the house, we ran into a couple of stores to have a look around. The gals found some toy items on sale for their 4-year-old sons at home. I found toiletries for a dollar or more LESS than what they are priced in Fairbanks. We get so ripped off here.
I took a Motrin before going to bed. I knew that without it, I’d never be able to get out of bed the next morning.
Turnagain Arm after sunset:
On Monday, we were up at 7am to pack our bags, straighten up the house, and load the car. The drive back to Fairbanks would take at least 7 hours, and we planned to drive up to Hatcher Pass on the way. It was going to be a L-O-N-G day.
I had Julie take the exit for Eklutna. I wanted to show the two of them the Spirit Houses at Eklutna Historical Park. We were able to get in and take a quick walk around the burial ground, but with all the snow, the beauty of the spirit houses couldn’t be fully appreciated.
We turned off on the Glenn Hwy and headed toward Palmer. We pulled off at the Matanuska River scenic overlook, but the light was a challenge. What we saw with our eyes, was difficult to capture with our cameras. Sometimes the photos in our brain are much better than the ones in our camera anyway.
We turned onto Palmer-Fishhook Road to head up to Hatcher Pass. On the way, we passed a bull moose grazing along the side of a cross road. Julie made a U-turn and we went back to him. He had a very small rack, which leads me to believe he’s a teen or a young adult. That rack will no doubt be much bigger by the end of summer. I don’t think he was a yearling. I’ve seen yearlings this time of year, and the most they have are nubs on their head.
He allowed us to snap a few photos from the car windows. Then the hair on his back stood up and we knew he was tired of our presence. We moved a little further away, but that wasn’t far enough. He began to stomp and paw at the ground with his back legs. He didn’t need to do anything more. We knew we had overstayed our welcome and left before the car became a target.
The drive up to Hatcher Pass was amazingly beautiful! The sky was a beautiful shade of cobalt blue. The mountains glowed white in the morning sunshine. And it was warm, too - about 25F. The further up the road we drove, the more people we passed or saw along the way. Everyone thought it was a good day to be up at Hatcher Pass.
We saw snowboarders taking advantage of the steep mountain and hillsides. We saw x-country skiers. We saw skijorers, snowmachiners, people playing with their dogs, families with young children sledding. It was a gorgeous morning to be up at the Pass. It was Julie and Amanda’s first time up there. I can’t wait to hear what they think when they go back in spring or summer and see the beautiful wildflowers up there.
We came back down on Wasilla-Fishhook Road, which brought us right into the middle of Wasilla and in close proximity to the Dairy Queen (we also don’t have a Dairy Queen in Fairbanks). We just HAD to stop for ice cream. (Did you know that Alaskans eat more ice cream per capita than any state in the US? The average Alaskan eats 6 gallons a year, whereas the average American only eats 3 gallons per year. Steve and I do our part to uphold that statistic.)
Heading north, there it was again - DENALI! Visible from top to bottom, it glowed against the blue sky. It made the drive even more enjoyable. We stopped at Willow Lake to get some photos, and then again at MP136 (Denali South View), where we trudged out to the info signs for photos of the mountain standing tall on the horizon. I sure wish the DOT kept that wayside open and plowed in winter. It’s such a glorious view.
A little while later, the sun began its descent to the horizon. The tops of the trees were painted a brilliant orange-yellow and everything took on a glow. Gradually, the orange disappeared and the pink Belt of Venus appeared on the horizon. The surrounding sky turned brilliant shades of blue, and lavender. With the white mountains in the foreground, it was one of the most beautiful evening skies I have ever seen.
I took photos out the window as long as I could before it got too dark to see clearly. I was dropped off at my house at about 8:30pm. The weekend flew by, but we saw and did so much. I had a real blast and I’m glad we were able to do it.
Look at this gorgeous view as the sun dipped down behind the mountains. The pink band is called the “belt of Venus”:
It was such a marvelous getaway with my friends. We did a lot of talking and laughing and exploring. I hope you enjoyed going along with us.
Until next time…