Having explored the Kenai peninsula we were keen to fit as much into the ten days we had left of our Inca to Inuit adventure. Desperate to venture as far north as our little car would take us we headed up highway 3 towards Fairbanks.
Alaska is pretty much the antithesis of the UK. With only three main roads that create a triangle around the East of Alaska, you can pretty much follow your nose toward your next location. There are no traffic jams here. No complex road systems or junctions. In fact, in places you’d be lucky to see another car for three hours at a time. The distances are vast.
In Alaska, there are more glaciers and mountains on the roads than traffic lights or junctions. Mountains and glaciers weren’t new to our Inca to Inuit trip but none of what we had seen so far could compare to the sheer scale or overpowering beauty of those in Alaska. Everything about Alaska is monstrous. Mt McKinley (Mt Denali) is the highest peak in North America. The Bering glacier is larger than Switzerland and the Yukon River and the third longest river in the USA. In Alaska, the bears have been known to be 14ft tall, the Whales up to 50ft long and King Salmon up to 70lbs.
On the hunt for our first monster, Denali, we were fortunate enough to catch it on a clear day and able to see its snowcapped peak, peek through the cloud. You can see the peak in the picture above just left of my head through the clouds. Staying in nearby historic Talkeetna at the base of Denali, we were fortunate enough to get a room in the town’s roadhouse. Talkeetna has an incredible panoramic view of the Alaska range that we were fortunate enough to experience in baking hot sunshine, the first rays of our Alaskan adventure. Talkeetna has a laid back, bohemium vibe that is more similar to Santa Monica than anything we had experienced in the Alaskan wilderness. Bursting with tourists on their way to or from Denali, Talkeetna is serviced by young and beautiful spirulina drinking, yoga bunnies. Built in 1917 the town’s roadhouse offers up the best bakery in town serving up fresh pastries and pasties every day alongside the biggest breakfasts in town.
After a couple of days exploring the area and eating as much reindeer sausage (our new favourite) as we could get our hands on we headed North toward Fairbanks. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Alaska is EXPENSIVE. A whole other league to anywhere we had visited in the last eleven months. As such finding, any form of accommodation other than our car was a mighty feat. Having lucked out with the roadhouse in Talkeetna we were now on a roll and heading for an Airbnb cabin in the hills surrounding Fairbanks.
At $45 a night the place was a steal. A first floor flat complete with a 6-inch tv and VHS collection meant that our nights were spent watching 90’s throwbacks such as Four Weddings And A Funeral and Last of The Mohicans on whirring scratchy videotape. It would be in Fairbanks where Jake would fall in love with gold panning. A trip to Gold daughters north of Fairbanks saw both Jake and I elbow deep in muddy clay and ice cold water trying to find a nugget of gold the size of our heads. Four hours, two sodden wet anoraks, two woolly mammal teeth and some flecks of Gold later and Jake was itching to get his own gold pan. He was hooked!
In an effort to sooth, our cold and wet souls we drove North to the Chenna Hot springs for some thermal warmth. The following day Jake and I would go and see Father Christmas in the North Pole. Yes, that’s right, the North Pole. On the outskirts of Fairbanks, you will find the small town of North Pole. A year-round Christmas town, this is the home of Father Christmas and his reindeer 365 days a year. Having told surreally sat on Santa’s lap and told him what we wanted for Christmas, we headed South towards Valdez.
Claimed to be the Switzerland of Alaska, Valdez is a small town set in the basin of 360-degree ice capped mountains. Known to be the home of waterfalls, the summer’s melting ice causes the grassy mountainsides to spout water for their every crevis.
Now down to our final dollars, we opted to brave the bears and camp for the next four nights. Wedged between our two new friends Ken and Tom both fellow travellers we spent the nights in our Floridian tent cuddling hot water bottles. Ken, a Floridan himself had driven on his motorbike from the Florida Keys to Prudhoe Bay. Needless to say, we had a lot to talk about. We sat for hours watching the sun go down (as far as it does in the Alaskan summertime) over the mountains and comparing stories of our adventures.
The crown jewel of Valdez was to be the local Salmon hatchery. Operating since 1981, the hatchery incubates 230 million pink salmon a year, releasing up to 218 pink salmon back into the Pacific Ocean every year. Arriving in Valdez at prime spawning time, the hatchery was now buy fake rolex sea dweller overflowing with fully grown Pink Salmon who had travelled the thousands of miles from the pacific ocean back to the hatchery to spawn. Never in our lives had we seen so many fish, never mind salmon. The waters in the surrounding bay were so full of salmon that you could see them swimming from the roadside.
Naturally, where there is Salmon there will be other signs of life and in Alaska, they come in the form of humongous sea lions and grizzly bears. We drove down to the hatchery at dusk hoping to get a glimpse of a bear however what we saw completely surpassed any expectations we had. With low lying cloud, misting up the waters, small grey heads appeared out of voopoo drag x the water. There must have been over thirty huge sea lions swimming and diving amongst the large shawls of salmon that were swimming amongst them.
Content with the fact that we had seen sea lions and sea otters as well as our life quota of salmon we were balled over when we had the privilege of seeing three bears by the water front. One black bear and two brown, grizzly bears, they were each on the hunt for salmon to fill their stomachs before their imminent winter hibernation.