A Jersey Boy Falls for Alaska

Earlier this month I satisfied a longtime yearning and made a two-week trip to Alaska. That’s about as far as you can get from the Garden State without leaving North America, but I just had to share the excitement with my Jersey readers.

I suppose my greatest fear upon landing in Anchorage on July 31 was that the state simply wouldn’t live up to my high expectations. A close friend of mine is a traveling nurse who has lived in Anchorage intermittently throughout the last five years, and many of my closest companions have made trips to see him, returning each time with glorious photos and gripping tales of their travels. When my girlfriend and I finally got around to planning our own trip earlier this summer, I had it in my head that Alaska was supposed to simultaneously take my breath away, urge me to adventure, make me weep with its grandeur, and lure me to stay stay stay!

Well, that’s exactly what it did—and more.

Using our friend’s Anchorage apartment as home base, my girlfriend and I covered as much of the state as we possibly could. We took a four-hour train ride through the Chugach Mountain Range and camped three nights in the small fishing village of Seward. Next we observed the aquatic life of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, embarking on an eight-hour boat tour that brought us face to face with humpback whales, orcas, sea otters and countless bird species.

We also journeyed north of Anchorage, driving nearly 1,300 miles through some of the most primitive and expansive landscapes I’ve ever seen. We spent a night in the tiny village of Talkeetna (if you go, make sure to have a drink or two at the Fairview Inn…and stay late). From there we hopped on a single-prop airplane for a sky tour of Mt. McKinley (known locally as Denali, “the High One”). At 20,327 feet, it’s the tallest peak in North America. Our pilot landed us on a glacier. There we played in the snow for nearly 30 minutes and shouted into the echoing infinity.

We camped almost everywhere we went, including the gorgeous Denali National Park (take the green bus all the way to Wonder Lake for an incredible primitive camping experience) and the Chena Hot Springs. But perhaps the most exciting place of all was a town called McCarthy.

Getting to McCarthy is no simple task. It’s tucked deep inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and the only access is by way of a 60-mile dirt road that runs through the national park and requires about three hours of deep concentration on the driver’s part. Once you get to the end of the road, you need to pack up your things and hike about a mile-and-a-half until you get to the town itself.

We spent two nights in McCarthy, where the vibe is constantly charged with Wild West, end-of-the-world electricity. Built as an annex to the once booming Kennecott Mine, McCarthy boasts a summertime population of about 200. In the winter, that number drops to 12. Not only is McCarthy a great place to get lost in history and converse with local eccentrics, it’s a perfect spot to hike the gorgeous, unforgettable Kennicott Glacier.

My feelings and memories from Alaska are far too grand to contain here; I urge you to try and visit the place yourself. The experience has changed me forever.

I’ll close with something I wrote in my travel notebook while sitting on a large piece of driftwood on the banks of a river just outside Talkeetna at sunset:

“This afternoon, as we sipped our beer and ate a late lunch at the Denali Brewing Co., Cydnee said that she feels more at peace in Alaska than perhaps anywhere else in the world. That she feels an overwhelming, natural ease here, and I can understand why. Here in Alaska, surrounded by such intense majesty and infinite energy—towering mountains everywhere; clear, ferocious rivers; life more wild and unfamiliar than any I’ve ever seen—the small ticklish anxieties of my life suddenly seem beyond trivial. Almost insulting to consider. You can’t be a part of something so much larger than yourself and still remain a huddled, cramped, self-centered being. By coming here you have surrendered to a world that doesn’t know you as you, but only as something perfectly significant in your insignificance. It’s beautiful to behold and be a part of. I know one day I’ll be back.”

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