Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Cold Quiet of Alaska in November

Originally posted on The SunBreak.

All photos HERE.
Slideshow HERE.

November is a strange time to visit our large cousin to the north. It's cold, but there's very little snow. Every new day loses another five minutes of daylight from the previous. The whales have gone south. The bears have had their fill of salmon and are working on making their dens nice and cozy for the winter slumber. You can count the number of actual vacationers on one hand. Most of the out-of-towners appear to be there on business, as was the case with my wife. I tagged along because I can't pass up an opportunity to go to Alaska no matter what time of year it is.

We spent our first few days in downtown Anchorage without a vehicle. We stayed at a bed and breakfast called the Copper Whale at the West end and spent most of our time walking the streets, ducking into shops, boutiques, cafes, and brewpubs. There was a lot of bundling up, covering the ears, neck, and hands, only to shed it all again minutes later.

The high temperature during our stay was 35 degrees, though at times it was much colder than that. Still, I felt kind of silly, wrapped up as I was inside my snowboarding parka while hardened locals strolled by in little more than a flannel shirt. I told my wife I was glad it was so cold. "It makes the trip seem more exotic," I said. Luckily for us, the sky was clear, even sunny, so we were able to keep an eye on the surrounding mountains to be sure they were not misbehaving.

If you visit Anchorage, I recommend you not leave until you've consumed the following: the Crabby Omelet from Snow City Cafe, the Big Orso Burger from Orso, beers from Glacier Brewhouse and Snow Goose Restaurant and Brewery, and trivia night at Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse.

After a few days in Anchorage it was time to drive south to the Kenai Peninsula in a rented mid-size SUV. This is a breathtaking drive. First one must drive around the Turnagain Arm, a large inlet ringed by snow-capped peaks which seem to launch straight up from the icy water. The highway then ducks into the mountains and snakes its way through the gorgeous Chugach National Forest. The road then nuzzles the turquoise glacial waters of Kenai Lake and the Kenai River before eventually straightening out into a more even landscape dotted by marshes and small lakes.

Moose love Kenai. I don't think a day passed without seeing one of these huge, goofy-looking things in someone's lawn, on the side of the road, or, as was the case once, crossing the road right in front of me. I'm happy to report that the brakes worked wonderfully in my rented Toyota.

Located at the south end of the peninsula is the beautiful town of Homer. If you believe the bumper stickers popular in the area, Homer is "a quaint little drinking village with a fishing problem." If you ever get the chance to visit the area, you must visit Homer. It is stunning. And it has a spit.

As my wife was busy working for two days, that left me with a vehicle, some magnificent country, and ample time for exploration.

I drove around the first day, somewhat aimlessly, without an agenda or a destination in mind. I took photos, watched the sun rise over the Kasilof River, visited an old Orthodox Russion Church in the town of Kenai, and then drove around some more. Feeling like I must be missing something, I decided that my second day of solo exploration needed to be a little more organized.

After having breakfast at a little diner in the town of Soldotna, where Fox News played on the television and a table of old men complained about big government, I drove to a wildlife refuge outside of town and stopped at a visitor's center to hopefully get an idea as to how to spend my last full day in Alaska. They told me about a nice scenic bypass off of the Sterling Highway out to Skilak Lake. I bought a good map, thanked them and set off on my way.

Now for a drive like this one, alone and in the woods on a winding dirt road, one must have the proper music to travel by. This meant a quick stop at the Soldotna Fred Meyer where, after a brief perusal of the CD racks, I found the perfect companion: a 2-disc collection of the best of Willie Nelson.

Willie and I hit the road and this was it. Perfection. This dirt road, taking us higher and deeper into the trees. It rose and fell and wound its way around many of the smaller lakes and beaver ponds surrounding Skilak Lake. The air was crisp and bit at my nose whenever I got out to look around and take pictures. It was quiet.

Very quiet. Not a soul to be seen, or heard, but for the geese flapping their wings on the other side of the lake. It was peaceful, and yet I couldn't help but feel like I wasn't supposed to be there.

I didn't feel threatened. Just small and alone. Some people never truly know solitude. It was thrilling.

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