The Shed in Anchorage, Alaska featured this message on its sign (August, 2009). ‘Nuff said? You be the judge!
Woke up with the sunrise again; went out on the beach for one last wander up and down the rocky shore.
Packed up and headed out of Homer. Stopped at the Art Shop Gallery where I’d seen a Byron Birdsall print of Homer Spit (entitled “End of the Road”) the day before. My sister and I both ended up buying one as a memento.
My sister also surprised me with a pen-and-ink print of Cafe Cups done by a local artist. Such a great way to remember our visit!
Headed back up Sterling Highway to Seward Highway and Anchorage. Our flight out was around 11 pm, so we had plenty of time to enjoy more scenery along the way. Stopped for a little while at Kenai Lake–beautiful views all around!
Arrived back in Anchorage mid-afternoon. Visited a couple of shops for a few last-minute souvenirs, but mostly we just savored our last hours in Alaska. Went to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight (Anchorage to Seattle to Houston to Asheville). Although most people fell asleep on the plane, I was still wide-awake for some reason. Watched all that big, black sky outside the airplane and saw all the stars sprinkled through it. I could see the Big Dipper–the symbol on Alaska’s state flag–near the tail of the plane for a long time. Felt like Alaska was right over my shoulder, saying farewell. There was a lightning storm, too, as we neared Seattle–it was amazing to see the strikes and flashes lighting up the clouds beyond the wing of the plane.
Arrived back in Asheville with no further adventures. Read a little more of “Our Mutual Friend,” but would have to finish it later, at home. And so ended the adventure in our nation’s 50th state, and our celebrations of personal milestones. It was quite a trip, and one I hope everyone has a chance to take at some point!
Woke up before the sun was quite over the Kenai Mountains; enjoyed watching Katchemak Bay come to life. Seals, birds, boats–everything was beginning to stir, and as the sun arose it trailed silvery tracks across the water.
Had breakfast at the Land’s End Restaurant which looks out over the tip of Homer Spit and into the bay. We debated whether or not to take a wildlife cruise of some kind, or even go all the way over to Prince William Sound, but in the end, we just decided to wander around Homer and look at whatever was of interest (pretty much how we operate at all times).
Visited some of the shops and fell in love with a framed print of Homer Spit from Alaskan artist Byron Birdsall; thought it might make a really great remembrance of the trip. Drove up on the ridge above the Spit and admired the view–the whole area is beautiful.
Came back down a side road and I saw some red berries I wanted to photograph. We turned around to go back and a young moose came ambling out of the woods, right in front of my photo opp, so I incorporated her? him? into the scene!
Had lunch at Fresh Sourdough Express between the mainland and the Spit–really good food and an interesting atmosphere. Went on to Bear Creek Winery, which is one of only four wineries in the entire state and the only one in Homer. It sits about halfway up the ridge and looks out over the Spit and Kachemak Bay to the glaciers beyond–gorgeous views for the guest suites that are part of the winery. No, Alaska isn’t a grape-growing region, but they do have a fabulous berry season and the wines I tasted were definitely enjoyable–I liked the Black Currant and Port varieties best. The tour of the winery was interesting, too, and though it’s a small facility, they’ve got everything they need to make it work.
Back outside, my sister and her husband had discovered a sort of “Maypole” swing in the garden–a tall metal pole with a swivel “doohickey” on top that allowed the swings to turn around the pole. They were literally rolling on the ground laughing after trying it–and they hadn’t even had any wine! Seems like Bear Creek would be a delightful place to stay when visiting Homer…
All of a sudden it was time for dinner–where had the day gone? We wanted to go to Cafe Cups, which is probably the most notable restaurant in the area. The outside is distinctive for its food and wine mosaics made out of broken crockery. Mannequin heads line the eaves and the whole building is completely colorful, like a fairytale cottage out of Bon Appetit magazine. (And the fairy godmother has a whisk instead of a wand, perhaps?)
We didn’t have a reservation (surprise!), so we had to wait quite a while, but eventually got a table. I had that night’s fish special (which included a blueberry-lime pico de gallo, as I recall) and it was lovely. We were reluctant to leave, because it was our last night in Alaska–we were scheduled to fly out of Anchorage the next evening. (I was especially reluctant, because I wasn’t looking forward to re-packing the mighty “Bertha” for the return journey!)
The nice folks at the Best Western King Salmon Motel had a computer in the lobby, so I checked my work email, cleared up a few questions, and we left Soldotna heading south toward Homer.
It was a beautiful drive; the mountains receded and the landscape began to flatten as we approached the coast. Stopped for a good look at Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna–gorgeous!
Someone told us to check out Ninilchik, a rustic Russian fishing village on the way to Homer. We did, and the small church there was beautiful.
Tiny onion domes gave it a Russian architectural flavor, but it also looked “seaworthy,” perched on a hill above the stormy inlet.
Just outside Homer, we stopped at a rest area also perched on a ridge above the inlet. Some group had created a beautiful little garden there, and it featured both flowers and veggies. A big wooden sign welcomed us to the region and proclaimed Homer the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World!”
A nice lady offered the services of her son to take our picture with the Homer sign–the son had won a trip and was traveling with his parents through Alaska. They seemed to be having a lovely time and had just finished up some halibut fishing in Homer; we wished them well and drove the last few miles into Homer.
The road keeps dropping lower and lower until you’re practically at sea level. We wound up at Fat Olives for lunch and enjoyed squash bisque, Caesar salad, and toasted paninis–all delicious! Went to the Visitors Center after that and got a sense of some things we might want to see in town. We wandered around a little, but all I really wanted to do was take a nap–we were near the end of our trip and we’d done a *lot* of driving over the past eight or nine days.
Drove to the end of Homer Spit–a narrow finger of land that sticks out into Kachemak Bay (and the place of which Tom Bodett speaks when he says, “It’s as far as you can go without a passport”). As it gets closer and closer to the end, it’s finally just two lanes wide with a marina on one side and a strip of boardwalk and shops on the other. Since it was September, traffic wasn’t bad and some businesses were closed for the season. In the heart of the summer, though, we learned that it’s pretty much gridlock 24/7 as halibut fishers and tourists struggle to maneuver their RV’s and rental cars and fishing boats on trailers along the spit. Lawsy!
Lands End Resort takes up the very end of the spit. It consists of a weathered main building–complete with wooden figures of two fisherman and a mermaid–and a newer “arm” of rooms that stretches back along the bay.
In such a prime location, we weren’t sure if there would be rooms available (we were still flying by the seats of our pants without reservations) and if so, would it be affordable. My BIL went in to check; came back with good news: we had a suite with two bedrooms and a deck overlooking Kachemak Bay. Sweet!
We checked in, took a brief nap, and went out in search of dinner. Ended up at Crabbies Seafood & Steakhouse and I think we all had some form of halibut (we were, after all, in the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World!). My sister and I both ordered the halibut sandwich and the manager demanded to know if we planned to eat the buns. A little afraid to say “no,” we nodded in agreement; we planned to eat those buns. The manager (a former customer service rep for a major commercial airline, so you can *imagine* why we felt compelled to eat the buns!) said she was tired of tourists ordering the sandwich and wasting the buns, which were expensive, so if we didn’t want the buns, we should let her know before the kitchen fixed the sandwiches. (She was an extremely nice and interesting person, just a little forceful on the topic of buns.) On another interesting note, the background music in the restaurant was apparently on a CD, which got hung on one song–Michael Jackson’s “I’ll Be There”–and played it 13 times in a row (we counted)…
Back at Lands End, we were treated to an incredible show of the nearly-full moon rising over Kachemak Bay, and thus ended our first day in Homer!
Seward Highway is truly a scenic drive and we enjoyed it–everything outside our windows “looked” like we imagined Alaska would look. Mountains, rivers, glaciers, fireweed–the works!
We stopped along the way to see Portage Glacier. The Begich-Boggs Visitors Center, located on the shores of Portage Lake (left behind by the passage of the glacier), is a great place to take a break (nice indoor bathrooms!) as you head toward Seward. Beautiful views, marred only by some kind of irritating little gnat-beasts that hummed and buzzed and nipped at us as we ran for the building.
Arrived at Seward in time for lunch at the Apollo Restaurant, which was highly recommended in one of our guide books. Fresh seafood with pasta–yum! The town looks like a movie set and definitely caters to tourists–lots of cruise ships dock at Seward and send passengers on by bus or train to Anchorage and Denali. The Alaska Sea Life Center was a big draw for most visitors, but we chose to skip it in favor of just looking around and sampling the lovely home-made gelato at Sweet Darlings. This view over Resurrection Bay was a pure postcard:
but it was creepy to learn that the tsunami caused by the 1964 earthquake rolled into Seward, leaving casualties and destruction in its wake.
Just outside Seward, we stopped at Exit Glacier and walked to the viewing area. It was a warm afternoon, but as we got closer to the glacier, we could feel its icy “breath” flowing over us.
Picked up Sterling Highway and headed in the general direction of Soldotna and the Kenai River region, knowing that was as far as we wanted to drive that day. Back in Anchorage, a very nice shop-owner/photographer told us that even though it was late in the season, we might still be able to see bears slapping salmon out of the river at Coopers Landing. We arrived at the Russian River Campground in the late afternoon–they’ve installed a great walkway down to the water, and environmental matting to protect native flora, plus wooden fishing/observation piers into the river itself.
The last salmon of the year were still running, flinging themselves upriver against the current. We were amazedto see it, even though most of the fish were too exhausted to go much further. There was evidence of bears all along the river: wallowed spots in the ferns, wallowed trails disappearing into the woods (and huge, fishy “scats” — eek!), but no actual bears, which may have been a good thing! (There are warnings all over the area: don’t approach or feed bears; if a bear approaches you, give it your fish, etc.)
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear for our float plane trip to Denali! We arrived at Rust’s Flying Service a little after noon, purchased our tickets, and met our pilot Justin. Flights were coming and going pretty regularly from the Lake Hood Seaplane Base where Rust’s is located–hunters and fishers heading out to remote cabins, backpackers and campers coming back from their wilderness adventures, air taxi customers, and tourists who want a different perspective on the scenery.
Rust’s has a fleet of distinctive bright red planes trimmed in brown-and-white with their logo emblazoned on the side; our ride was a De Havilland ”Otter” which is a favorite with backcountry pilots . The Otter can hold 10 passengers and all their gear and still come up out of the water as if it had no load at all. In the words of the De Havilland Company, the Otter is prized for its “ability to be flown slow and in tight circles,” making it ideal for flight-seeing.
Our four-hour flight-seeing tour left Lake Hood, gradually climbing to about 10,000 ft. There were soft golden fields and small lakes below us, then more and more stands of dark pines. The farther we flew north and west, the thicker the trees and the flatness of the land gave way to rolling hills and ridges flowing toward the feet of the Alaska Range.
We could see Denali and its towering, snow-capped companions Mt. Foraker and Mt. Hunter long before we neared them. Denali is the original name of this tallest mountain in North America; it became Mt. McKinley after President McKinley visited the state in the late 1890′s to drive in the golden spike that connected both halves of the Alaskan Railroad. (President McKinley never visited the mountain that was renamed in his honor.)
As we got closer to those incredible mountains, our pilot told us that we’d be able to fly through the “North Passage” that day. He was surprises; he said there were only about three days each year that were clear enough to allow it. (Denali is often shrouded in clouds, even in fair weather.) The pictures that follow tell the story of our trip better than any words:
I love to fly, so this flightseeing adventure around Denali was one of the biggest highlights of our highlight-filled trip!
Got back into Anchorage; called Glacier Brewhouse and got a dinner reservation and enjoyed our final evening in the city. Strolled through Aurora Fine Art Gallery and fell in love with whimsical paintings of animals in human situations (can’t remember artist’s name at the moment) and Byron Birdsall’s work, as well.
Woke up Saturday morning with the Alaska State Fair right across from our hotel. The Noisy Goose was next door, so we breakfasted there. Full of locals and fair-goers, The Noisy Goose was definitely noisy, but the food was very good. We even tried reindeer sausage, which was fine (tasted like sausage).
Drove around Palmer a bit to see what the town was like, then joined the crowds entering the fairgrounds. Similar to state fairs everywhere, except for more emphasis on snow-related vehicles and truly GIANT prize-winning vegetables.
Left Palmer; headed back to Anchorage. Our mini-van was completely awash in snacks, maps, flyers, and whatever we’d picked up/purchased at the fair. Good weather predicted for the following day, so we planned to take a “flight-seeing” tour of Denali via float plane. Called Rust’s Flying Service and reserved a spot. Found out they had a special deal because of Alaska’s 50th anniversary of statehood–$50 off flights for anyone with a 50th birthday in 2009. Since we were in Alaska partially to celebrate my brother-in-law’s 50th birthday, he got to take advantage of the deal!