Travelling alone and exploring the world on your very own is great, but travelling together with a close friend and sharing these amazing experiences with each other is even better. Lena, my dear friend from Germany came to Alaska to travel with me for the next 25 days. Our paths crossed for the very first time in Georgia when the both of us were working there as volunteers. Ever since she keeps visiting me no matter where I live. This time it was going to be a trip to the north…
On her first day in Anchorage, we went on a hike on Flattop Mountain. We did not inform ourselves if it was an easy or rather moderate hike. We just put something to drink and a little snack into our daypacks, entered Flattop Mountain into our GPS and arrived at our destination in the afternoon. We had no clue what to expect. The GPS directed us to a dirt road. Since there were other cars parking as well, we could not be entirely wrong, we thought. We started hiking and not even after five minutes, we realized that this is going to be a rather hard hike. Steeply uphill. This was going to be quite a workout…
We arrived on top of the mountain. The weather was wonderful. The sun was shining and the view over Anchorage and the low tides was just gorgeous. Even though we were hiking on top of the second peak, not on the actual flattop mountain. The hike was tiring and we did not have anything to drink anymore at that point, we decided anyway to hike over to the actual Flattop Mountain peak. It was even more beautiful there.
Why not going the another way back down?, we were thinking while we were watching some base jumpers. Sure, why not!
A huge mistake. First, going downhill was more like climbing down a mountain wall. It was very difficult and challenging. Second, we arrived at an entire different parking lot. We had no clue where our car was parked. Of course, in these kind of situations, we ran out of battery and could not even look for it on GPS. After a while of walking around and keep ending up in ‘dead ends’ we decided to ask for help.
At that moment, a biker just arrived at her car and started setting up her bike. I went over to her, explained our situation and hoped for help. She felt very sorry for us and offered us a ride to our car. She was our hero of the day! While we were in the car looking for ours, we started talking. She was interested what we are doing here and when we arrived. I told her that I arrived about six weeks ago and that I spent all this time in Homer as a ‘wwoofer’. And how could it be any different? It is such a s small world… Courtney, the name of our safer, is friends with my hosts in Homer. What a coincidence!
The next day Lena and I picked up our rental car for the next two weeks. We gave him the name ‘Willie’, our closest friend for our trip to the north. We decided to drive first up to Fairbanks before the actual cold was about to start. On our way there, we first stopped in Talkeetna and stayed there overnight. The weather was not the best, but staying in a cabin with firewood and beer was nice anyway. The next day we had some very good breakfast in the local restaurant ‘Roadhouse’ which is a total must-do if you are in Talkeetna. Everybody told me about it and strongly recommended to have breakfast there. And every one of them was totally right about it!
Denali National Park
The drive itself to Denali National Park on the highway is nothing but beautiful. We had to stop several times to take some pictures of the scenery view next to us. The changing colors of fall put the surrounding nature into the most beautiful dress you can possibly imagine: All the trees are turned into deep red and shining gold. Driving through the Tundra (Boreal Forest) is just breathtaking…
(If you have the chance, you should definitely rent a car in Alaska. There are several reasons for that. Firstly, there is almost no public transportation system. Secondly, flights within Alaska are really expensive and thirdly, the railroad is only connecting some cities in central and south Alaska. There are no busses running. So actually, you do not have another option than renting a car… However, it is totally worth it! Driving around Alaska is a lot of fun!)
When we finally arrived at Denali National Park in the early evening, we just put up our tent and had our first camping dinner. Lucky us, we had very friendly neighbors that just got the news that she is having a baby. So they had to give away their beer. Guess whom they gave it to… 😉
The next day Willie drove us as far as possible into the National Park. Unfortunately, after 30 miles you cannot drive with your private car anymore. The only chance to get further into the park is taking a park bus. So we parked Willie there and went for a hike. This time the Savage Alpine Trail, a 13km long hike. Again it was a rather moderate hike that was steeply going uphill at the very beginning of our hiking tour. The view on top of the first hill was already worth all the effort. Like usually in Alaska, it was just stunning! Looking over the endless beauty of the Tundra…
On our hike, we even saw plenty of dall sheeps, which seems to be quite special. After our trip to Denali many people were asking us if we had seen dall sheep. Yes, we sure have!
At the end of our hike, we had again the problem that we did not know how to get back to our car. Even though there are public busses running in Denali, the next one was supposed to stop at our station in over an hour. Lucky us, an RV stopped next to us. When the door opened, it was the German couple that we had met for the third time at that point. They were so friendly and took us back to our car.
(In Alaska, it is best not to plan too much. Somehow, it always works out. People here are great and always helping others. That is such a wonderful and comforting feeling 🙂 )
For the next day, we booked a tour into the deepest of Denali Park. It was an eight hour organized trip into the wild… We decided not to do the eleven hour tour to Magic Lake, but instead driving to the Eielson Wilderness Center. It would be a very, very long drive… Our bus driver was very experienced after 10 years of working in Denali and could tell us much about the nature and wildlife in the park. On our trip we saw dall sheep; an golden eagle which is very, very rare; caribou from the far; and 7 grizzly bears (!!!).
Things I learned during our bus ride:
- Interestingly a week before our road trip, Obama, the president of the United States, visited Alaska. Mount McKinley was renamed to its original name Denali shortly before Obama’s visit. He came here to talk about climate change and how it will affect the Native Alaskans, which are self-sustained eaters, living from natural resources like animals and berries.
- Alaskan Natives never talk about the beauty of the Alaskan landscape since there are no words to describe it adequately, in their opinion.
- Grizzly bears in Denali National Park are smaller than others in Alaska fish is not part of their diet. They are mostly vegetarian since there are many berries to eat. In general, the grizzly prefers the wide Tundra, while black bears rather live in forests. Grizzlies can run 35 miles/ hour – Humans 12 miles/ hour! So never ever run from a grizzly bear. You do not have a chance! Instead, make yourself tall and speak to the bear.
From Denali National Park, we drove up to Fairbanks, our final destination in the north. There, we visited my friend Kenji, a permafrost researcher that I met during my stay in Yakutsk, Russia, who invited me to come to visit him and help out on his reindeer farm. He tries to re-establish the traditional usage of reindeer as carriers in Alaska and to reinforce a forgotten tradition.
We stayed with him in his cabin in the middle of nowhere for about a week. On our first day, we were building a tipi, which was a lot of fun! We also splitted wood for him so that he can heat his cabin for the next couple of cold months. In the evening we were enjoying the beauty of the Northern Lights that we could saw almost every night; drinking wine and listening to extremely interesting, unique travel stories of our adventurous host. In the tipi, we had a campfire that we used for vegetarian hotdogs and chocolate marshmallows. During the day, we enjoyed the silence and loneliness of his cabin in the middle of nowhere. We were playing and cuddling with Shiro, a polar bear like, huge dog. After the reindeer got used to our appearance, we were also feeding and petting them. Every now and then, we needed to clean ourselves since a cabin typically does not have any running water. On one night we went to the Chena Hot Springs to enjoy the pleasant feeling of being in the water and becoming clean again.
During our stay with Kenji, I felt like a real Alaskan girl. Sometimes we did not take a shower for three days even though we were playing and working in the dirt all day long. I learned how to make a fire, how to drive a bulldozer and how to shoot in case there was an intruder. It was so much fun!
We even met a true Alaskan girl. Her name was Yvette. Together with her tiny little pocket sized dog, she came to Kenji’s property to dig a pond. Kenji hired her to drive the digger because in his opinion women work more precisely than men. ‘Men in general are stupid…’, I just love this statement. Alaskan women seem to be more emancipated in man-dominated fields of work.
Going south again
Unfortunately, the last couple of days in was pouring rain in Fairbanks which is why we decided to head back south earlier. We were planning to go to Valdez, but the weather was not good enough. We changed our plan and went straight back to Anchorage to go on different day trips from there. Again, we enjoyed a beautiful and breathtaking ride back there. This time we took the Richardson Highway that was layered in the different colors of a golden fall. For five minutes, we were even able to see the peak of Denali. It really is a huge mountain!
The following days we went on trips to Exit Glacier and Seward in the south of Alaska, furthermore we were hiking the Potter Trail close to Anchorage. Basically, we were enjoying our last days with a rental car and the last heat of summer. It was just wonderful!
The last week of Lena and my Alaskan journey, we spent in Homer to help my host family out harvesting the last vegetables and fruits of the greenhouse. Already on our drive back there, I felt like returning home. When we arrived, we were even welcomed with the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen. It was huge and it lasted a couple of hours! It was breathtaking!
The following days I was showing Lena all my favorite spots in Homer. Even though we already had the first snow up the hill, the weather got better and we were able to walk the 10 miles long Diamond Creek on the shore. I enjoyed my last moments there. It was just the perfect end for our little adventurous trip.
It is always hard to say goodbye. Even though with all my traveling I am more or less used to it, this time it is was harder than ever before… In Homer, I found a new home, a new family. My hosts took me in like I have always been a part of their family. Being part of this loving and trusting family prepared me well for my upcoming journey. They took really good care of me and made sure I am healthy and strong for my trip. I am very thankful for everything they have done for me and I am looking forward to see them again next year!
This experience is a good example of the beauty of traveling. If you are open to new experiences and if you are able to let new people in your life, you can have the most wonderful encounters that might even have an impact on the rest of your life. Alaska, I really fell in love with you! I will miss you!!!