Story & Photos by Terri Marshall and Vanessa Orr
As we approach the massive ice chute, I tell Terri that we need to be quiet. Though the avalanche has already happened, you never know what sounds or vibrations might cause more ice to break.
“I am being quiet,” says Terri. “I’m being very quiet.”
“You’re still talking,” I say.
“Would you rather I sing?” she asks.
Traveling to Alaska is always an adventure, and getting to the NATJA conference in Fairbanks this past May was no exception. Knowing that a week in the Last Frontier wouldn’t be enough, Terri and I decided to fly into Anchorage and road trip through Southcentral Alaska. We had quite the lineup on our itinerary, starting in Anchorage and then traveling to Seward, Homer, Whittier, Girdwood and Talkeetna.
If we survived the first avalanche.
Vanessa: Having lived in Juneau, AK for seven years, I felt pretty comfortable with my knowledge of the state and what to expect. What I did not count on was having a passenger who laughed in the face of danger…mainly because she didn’t realize that we were in it.
Terri: Having been to Alaska several times previously and made it out alive, I couldn’t possibly understand why Vanessa had so many concerns about avalanches. And bears. And basically anything that could kill us.
Vanessa: Because I don’t have a death wish. And I do have common sense.
The avalanche chute, which surprisingly did not kill us, was one of our stops near Whittier, a quirky little town that is only accessible by car through a one-lane tunnel shared with a train. Timed entry is required in order to avoid a most unfortunate collision. Our goal was to arrive on time – train free – and take a look at an abandoned apartment building where everyone in Whittier once lived.
Vanessa: Can you imagine? Everyone in town in one building? I couldn’t stand to have that many neighbors.
Terri: You can’t stand to have one neighbor.
Vanessa: One is one too many.
Terri: I wonder what lives there now that they’ve all moved to the new apartment building.
Vanessa: Bears. And no, we’re not going to spend the night.
We’re not sure if the rumor is true that bears have been seen in the building, though it wouldn’t be at all surprising. These massive mammals can be found all over the state, including at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), located about 50 miles south of Anchorage, where seeing grizzlies was a highlight.
We stood in torrential rain and whipping winds, desperately trying to keep our hoods on while watching a grizzly pace back and forth, inches away behind a fence made out of what looked like chicken wire. Visibility wasn’t great…and neither were our survival instincts.
Terri: I was paying attention (like a sane person should) and realized that there was a second grizzly walking up behind Vanessa. Intent on videotaping every animal in sight, it wasn’t until she saw my eyes get really wide that she turned around.
Vanessa: “Oh, #!!**&%#@!!!”
Terri: “That’s going to be some video!”
And it is. One moment there’s a bear…and the next, there’s a lot of running and swearing. It’s classic. Turns out, a 700-pound bear can be pretty darn stealthy when it wants.
Our wildlife days weren’t over, either. Though we spent hours scanning the landscape alongside the highway for moose on our journey, we only saw one during the first part of the drive, and it was a good distance away. Little did we know that by the time we reached Homer, there would be moose standing alongside the road like eager hitchhikers. For the record, we didn’t pick any up.
We encountered even more wildlife on the Homer Spit—and we’re not referring to the folks drinking alongside us at the Salty Dawg Saloon.
Vanessa: Where we may or may not have left a few dollar bills and/or our bras on the wall.
Terri: You have to honor the local traditions.
We walked down to the beach where the eagles and seagulls were having a turf war, gathered en masse and screaming like they were auditioning for the Albert Hitchcock thriller, The Birds.
Vanessa: I never liked that movie.
Terri: I like it even less in real life.
Oh, the Places We Stayed
We overnighted in a yurt in Homer, where we were greeted by a moose in the front yard. It was one of the more unusual places we’ve ever stayed—and it became even more intriguing when a 2.3 earthquake made our beds rock and the walls breathe. It might be a luxury tent, but it held up through the earthquake—so we are big fans.
In Seward, we stayed in an adorable cabin just outside of town. It was, however, precariously close to the Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park, where the glacier seemed to be making an exit from the mountain to head straight toward our humble abode. We were thrilled in the morning to realize that we had survived the night, though the road that we’d driven on was now closed to prevent people like us from getting too close to the icefall for photos.
Terri: It’s almost like they knew us.
Vanessa: At least someone’s got some common sense.
With the glacier on the move, we chose to spend the morning venturing through town instead of digging out from under the ice. In doing so, we discovered the original starting point for the Alaska Iditarod, as well as a highly entertaining flagger in the Seward Highway construction zone who kept motorists entertained with dramatic dance moves.
Terri: He almost distracted us from all of the avalanches taking place around us.
Vanessa: Not hardly. I was still quite aware that we were barely cheating death.
We journeyed on to Talkeetna, a charming town that is also an Alaska Railroad stop, where we discovered the Fairview Inn, built in 1923. Turns out that President Warren G. Harding died a couple of days after eating there when he was in town to drive in the Golden Spike in Nenana which signified the completion of the interior Alaska railroad. Since this story seems to be quite a point of pride among the locals, we decided not to eat there, though we did have drinks. We like to think we make good decisions.
We then drove to The Grove, located just outside of Talkeetna, which is a world-renowned bar turned Airbnb. There we were met by Zeke the Wonder Dog, who accompanied us to our rooms in what is known as the Sistine Chapel of Alaska—a former drinking establishment with a ceiling covered in colorful murals depicting heaven, hell, Alaska and numerous topless women. Turns out that a bar patron painted the art on the ceiling in lieu of paying his bar tab.
Terri: I’m not sure how I feel about these murals. They’re so…..strange.
Vanessa: I have died and gone to heaven. I’m just going to lie on the floor and look up all night.
The view outside was pretty incredible, too. The property is home to two reindeer that live in a pen next to the cabin, so you can get your wildlife fill without ever leaving the comfort of the couch.
One of our favorite things about road trips are the unexpected discoveries along the way, and Alaska did not disappoint. As we drove from Girdwood to Talkeetna, we came upon Eklutna Village and Eklutna Historical Park, which included a cemetery with over 100 colorful spirit houses built over graves. A combination of Russian Orthodox traditions and Alaska Native practices, the houses were painted to represent family colors. While some spirit houses were deteriorating, Athabaskan tradition says that what is taken from the earth must be returned, so the graves were left to crumble.
Other discoveries were anything but spiritual. On the Parks Highway, we discovered the abandoned Igloo Hotel, a never completed accommodation that was left to rot when the builder lost a battle with zoning laws. Now the only guests are of the grizzly variety, so we decided to leave them to their abode. Even we aren’t that stupid.
Which brings us to Skinny Dicks Halfway Inn.
Vanessa: Should we go in? It’s not like us to pass a weird bar by.
Terri: Look at the billboard. It shows a pair of polar bears doing the nasty.
Vanessa: I can’t even imagine what’s going on inside.
Discretion being the better part of valor, we journeyed on to Fairbanks, where we arrived safely at the conference, ready to explore even more of what the 49th state had to offer.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that in only one week, we got to experience moose, bears, avalanches, earthquakes and more, while taking thousands of photos, laughing until our sides hurt, and exploring all that Alaska has to offer.
Here’s to doing it all again on our next trip to the Last Frontier!