Well, not quite for me. Alaska is my 49th State visited, in the 49th State
I love to travel and, and also love to travel in various ways – be it by car, motorcycle, RV, plane, train or boat. This Alaska Adventure was a mix of planes and trains.
When I moved to the USA in April 1998, I wanted to “do it all” – travel all over and experience something in every state. Well, 24 years and 2 months later, I have just checked off my 49th state – Alaska, which also happens to be the 49th State of the USA.
Yes it was deliberate. I completed the lower 48 in May 2022 (Idaho). I wanted my 49th to be Alaska (and my 50th will be Hawaii).
Alaska was granted statehood on 3rd January 1959, becoming the 49th State of the USA, about 7 months before Hawaii, the 50th and final state. Alaska is by far the largest state by area – larger than the three next largest states combined (Texas, California and Montana). And it is also the toughest to navigate! The further north you go the fewer roads there are. On the Northern Slope, most villages are only accessible by light aircraft (more about that later).
My journey started in New York City. I wasn’t able to find a decent outbound route, so I started a 16+ hour journey via Atlanta and Seattle – finally arriving in Anchorage around 8pm local time.
As with all my adventures, this one started right from the time I hit the airport! No luggage to check (well, with 3 flights, I didn’t want my luggage getting left in an airport somewhere!), I sailed through the TSA pre-check lane and had some time to kill. So I did about a mile walk around JFK’s Terminal 4.
JFK to Atlanta was my shortest leg of the journey – a little over 2hrs. I had a pretty long layover, and so I decided that since I was TSA pre-check eligible, it would be easy to get back in when the time came. It gave me a little time to have a crafty smoke!
While outside I chatted with a number of people, all flying to one place or other, and all with a story to tell about their journey and experience. I love traveling, and love to hear about other folks travel stories too. So there I was, minding my own business, when this gentleman approached me, and told me I had the coolest haircut. OK – is he erm… hitting on me??? No! Don’t be silly. He was just a nice chatty gentleman, also traveling somewhere.
This gentleman introduced himself as a rapper – which I am afraid to say, I don’t really keep up with rap music and rappers, so I had no clue. He calls himself the Rappers with no curse words. This actually peaked my interest. He went on to tell me that he works with families to help kids who are into rap, to learn about the no curse words rapping of his creation.
Well, after about 3hrs layover, it was time to head to Seattle for the next leg of my journey. This was the longest part of the journey, just over 5 hours. It went by pretty quickly, I had a little nap and watched a film.
We landed in Seattle, and it turned out, that the plane I just arrived on, would be the same plane that would take me up to Anchorage. I was getting rather excited now – venturing to a place I had never been before. As we flew north, I could see the changing landscape – mountains upon mountains. Sometimes obscured by clouds, but little peaks peaking through.
We landed in Anchorage just about 8pm local time. Of course it was still very much daylight. I was excited to experience the “Midnight Sun” – well, sunset was about midnight, a little after.
I happen to have a very dear friend that now lives in Alaska. I have known Aries for nearly 30 years. We worked together at Southco. Aries is such a free spirit, and he has chosen an amazing path in life, that has led him to Alaska, which is where he says he is the most at home. It wasn’t hard to understand why.
Aries and I did what we always do when we meet up – go for a beer or two! A mini pub crawl if you will.
We ended the night around 1 am. Still light outside, but thankful for the “blackout” curtains in the hotel!
Sunday was a rise and shine early day! I had to be at the train station at about 7:30am, ready for my 12 hour journey to Fairbanks. I was traveling on the Denali Star. A train journey that takes you north through valleys, mountains, next to lakes and rivers. Rarely do you get to see Mt Denali herself, and alas, this was one of those times. But never mind, there was so much to see along the way. Of course we were on the lookout for wildlife too! We saw a lot of moose, some eagles, trumpet swans, ducks and other birds.
Below is a collection of a few photos I took on my journey northwards. The Denali Star, Goldstar railcar was very comfortable – upstairs are lovely leather reclining seats, a panoramic view with a glass ceiling. Downstairs is the dining car. There is an outdoor “balcony” to enjoy the views up close as the train meanders through the wilderness.
Our train left right on time at 8:20am. It was a little chilly and overcast, and the clouds finally dissipated when we were getting close to Talkeetna. Then it was beautiful sunshine for much of the way. As we were nearing Fairbanks, there was a haze, and the air smelled like a log camp fire – sadly this was due to wild fires in the area.
I spent a lot of time out on the deck of the rear of the railcar, taking in all the sights along this amazing journey. It was hard to get pictures of the wildlife – too far for my phone camera, and too fast too in most cases. I did snap this fuzzy shot of a moose heading through the bog (now I know why they are also called bog trotters!)
The terrain changes were amazing – from valleys, and rivers to bogs / lakes, to mountains and rocky terrain. At the halfway point, the train stopped, and we waited for the train heading southwards. This is where we also had a change of crew.
The crew onboard were amazing. We had supervisors that were also “tour guides”, telling us about the area we were passing, and giving us hints on what was coming up next.
The Denali Star is definitely an experience I would recommend. It is so relaxing, and although is a very long day, it is so worth it, to be able to see nature, wildlife up close. There is no way you would get to see such beauty by driving!
We arrived in Fairbanks at 8pm. Thankfully my hotel provided a free shuttle service to/from the train station (and also the light aircraft airport). That was a bonus!
We were given breakfast, lunch and dinner on the train, so I wasn’t particularly hungry. But I also wasn’t ready for bed. Right opposite my hotel was the only bar in town that was open – Mecca Bar – a very friendly place, where I sampled some local brew.
I was further north, which meant the sun was setting much later – but again, thankfully, the hotel had blackout curtains. I slept about 4 hours.
Monday was the day I was going to dip my toes in the Arctic Ocean, and travel around the northern most city of North America – Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow). It is also one of the northern most towns in the world!
When I was planning my Alaska trip, I wanted to be able to cram in so much in such a little amount of time. So although I didn’t spend much time in any one place, I did make sure I got the most out of my visit. Utqiagvik was no exception.
An amazing city right on the most northern edge of the Northern Slope, and the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean. As we came into Utqiagvik, we flew out over the ocean a little way, just wow! Although the ice was broken along the beach, it was only for a few yards or so. Our guide told us that it was one of the warmest days they have had in Utqiagvik – 66F (about 19C). The sun came out, and the sky was a gorgeous blue – not the same blue you get in the lower 48, much crisper and brighter.
Our guide, Shadow, was a native, his grandmother was born and raised in Utqiagvik. He was very knowledgeable about the city, the history. He had a full time job as a Customer Service Agent for the little airline in Utqiagvik, as well as being a guide for tours. He told us about how they took care of the outlying villages, that were only accessible by air. People relying on aircraft for their supplies. Spring months can be dangerous to fly though, as there is much fog around, and so sometimes the villagers will have to wait for days before any aircraft can reach them. This self sustainable life is quite something.
Whale hunting is no longer allowed commercially, however the people of Utqiagvik are allowed to hunt for sustainability. And the coolest part of this is that the whale meat is shared among the community. They have an open market, and the fishermen will bring freeze boxes of whale (and other animal) meat to share out with the community. Other hunters will hunt caribou, they will use the fur to make coats and blankets. Others will hunt seals, and use the skin for their hunting boats.
The city has a Tribal College, and is one of the only ones that allows the students to use the credits for other colleges in the lower 48, should they wish to continue their education.
As you navigate through the city, you will see many folks riding ATVs – much easier to handle the terrain. You will see what looks like a lot of “junk cars/atv’s” in peoples yards, but in fact they serve a purpose (as well as it costs a lot of money to ship them out!), the “junkers” can be used for parts on other vehicles as needed. It costs almost as much as the vehicle costs to have it shipped up to Utqiagvik, and so folks tend to keep hold of their stuff.
Most properties are raised above the ground. As well as most of the roads are not paved. This is due to the presence of permafrost. If a house is place directly on the ground, the heating can “defrost” some of the permafrost, causing the house to subside.
The one road that is paved (and cost over $8M), is a small stretch by the airport. A lot of work went into raising the road enough, before paving, so as not to be too affected by the permafrost.
Shadow took us all over the city, including very proudly showing off the new hospital. The people of the town have a say in how their taxes are used (for the most part), and are very proud of how they are so self sustainable in this wild arctic region. And while we were enjoying a sunny 66F day here, Shadow reminded us of their frigid winters. The Northern Slope is a frozen tundra much of the year, and the winds can be very harsh. He told us about last winter, where he was “holed up” for a couple of days, as the winds blew hard and the wind chill got to about -70C (air temp was about -50C). Those are days where you find something to do inside! Although folks still have to work! It was such an amazing experience to go around the town, and hear about daily life.
Owing to its location 330 mi (530 km) north of the Arctic Circle, Utqiagvik’s climate is cold and dry, classified as a Tundra Climate. Despite the extreme northern location, temperatures at Utqiagvik are moderated by the surrounding topography. The Arctic Ocean is on three sides, and flat tundra stretches some 200 mi (320 km) to the south. No wind barriers or protected valleys exist where dense cold air can settle or form temperature inversions in the lower atmosphere.
Shadow took us out to a peninsula, where we saw the frozen waters of the Beaufort Sea
Although Utqiagvik is on a frozen tundra, there are flowers that do grow. I am not entirely sure what flower this is, I have searched online, and still currently trying to find out what it is. I know for sure it is not a “Starfish Flower” (that was my first thought).
Around 3pm local time, it was time to head back to Fairbanks, where I would stay the night, and then take the train back to Anchorage on the Tuesday.
The visit to Utqiagvik will stay with me forever. And I hope to visit again, and maybe even stay a bit longer, with a trip on one of Shadows planes taking supplies to the villages.
Another early start – I got to the Fairbanks train station about 7:15, checked my bag, and patiently waited for the “Alllll Aboarrrrrddddd” announcement.
the first half of the journey was very hazy and smoky, from wildfires, and one that was pretty close (Anderson, AK), was particularly smoky – it smelled like a hickory campfire.
I stayed inside for a fair amount of time, as the smoke did tickle the throat a bit.
And then, just like that, it was blue skies and beautiful views. Heading south I saw many moose, moose calves and a lot of eagles. Also those beautiful trumpet swans. Unfortunately none of the photos came out well, the eagles were too fast, and going in the opposite direction of the train. The moose were easy to spot with the naked eye, but a bit too far for a camera phone. But the landscape was absolutely wonderful.
As we got closer to Anchorage the skies were blue, the valleys green. Having traveled quite extensively across the US, I cannot even begin to be able to compare Alaska with anywhere else I have ever been. I was rather fatigued, but also still alert, watching out from the train balcony, taking it all in. The beauty of nature is something I can never get tired of.
As we traversed canyons high above the fast flowing rivers, I captured the sign of our highest point. That is still about 17,000 feet below Denali! Alas, much like our journey north, Denali did not show herself on my return trip. I will certainly be making Denali a key point of my next Alaska visit.
Once back in Anchorage, I took some time to freshen up and relax. There was one last thing I wanted to do. A midnight sunset walk – along the coastal trail in Anchorage. And it did not disappoint. I did a 3.5 mile walk from my hotel, heading to Westchester Lagoon, and then along the coastal path to Elderberry Park, and back to the hotel. It was absolutely beautiful.
Although I have to say, I was surprised at the amount of homeless people here, and the number of homeless camps. I can’t imagine what it is like in the winter.
My journey home, albeit with delays, was rather uneventful. The cats were happy to see me when I finally walked in the door about 2:30am on Thursday.
When people have asked me what I think of Alaska, the first word that comes to mind is “mind-blown” – Such a vast area, so much beauty, and so much of it untouched. Long may that continue.
Thanks for taking the time to read my blog – please feel free to read about some of my other adventures and experiences.