The rest of the world might be California dreaming, but when you live in the relentlessly warm SoCal climate day in and day out, you find yourself dreaming of snow.
A trip to Alaska makes an excellent reprieve from the arid heat at home—where the Californian landscape is parched and dusty brown, the Alaskan landscape is washed in blue and green and white. Summer in Alaska is about as cold as winter down here, but with more rain thrown in the mix. Where California is aching for water, Alaska is drowning in excess; the mountaintops are dusted with snow all year round, and as a result the freshwater streams are full all year round. Seriously, there are marshes and ponds and streams and rivers and waterfalls everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much freshwater in one place.
One of the most popular ways of seeing Alaska is by cruise ship, but it’s much better to get up close and personal with the Last Frontier by land. There’s so much that you don’t get to experience if you’re stuck on a boat. I really enjoyed hiking in the peaceful Chugach Mountains, where it’s quiet enough for you to hear your own heartbeat thumping away in your ears. During summer, the mountains are carpeted with all sorts of plants: vivid purple fireweed, lacy white yarrow, tiny blueberry bushes, delicate bluebells, red elderberries. If your footsteps aren’t too loud (the crunch of gravel under sneakers seems deafening in the perfect silence), you might even be able to catch a glimpse of an Arctic ground squirrel or a wild hare darting along the hiking trail, as I did. I didn’t get to see any moose, despite the fact that moose inhabit practically every part of Alaska and travel where they please, although I did get to familiarize myself with plenty of moose droppings. Given that Alaska records more fatalities from moose encounters than bear encounters every year, though, I guess that was probably a good thing. Moose have no qualms about stomping humans to death if they feel threatened, the signs by the national forest parking lot informed me in boldface print.
Another great way to see Alaska is to take a bike ride down the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. There’s plenty of places to rent bikes in Anchorage, and I highly recommend going down the Coastal Trail at least once–it takes you on a scenic ride through dappled forest along the Cook Inlet.
I never really felt tired or sleepy while I was in Alaska. Maybe that was because the air was so clean and fresh and well-oxygenated; there are more trees than people in Alaska, I think, which does wonders for the air quality. Or maybe that was because the sun rose early each morning and didn’t even begin to set until about 10:30 p.m. It was hard to tell the time just by looking at the sky, given that it’s just as bright at 9 p.m. as it is at 2 p.m.
The early sunrise makes sure that you’re wide awake in the morning (there’s no longer an excuse for you to not get up–the sun has long since begun its climb into the sky by 5 a.m.), which was a big help when you want to catch the early morning Alaska Railroad train from Anchorage down to Seward. The ride was supposedly four hours long, but it sure didn’t feel like four hours. I imagine that this is what taking the Hogwarts Express must be like, in a way; there was certainly a feeling of magic present as we rolled through the lush landscape, gawking at the dense, verdant forests and silver sky reflected in the still waters of the marshes.
In Seward, I paid a visit to Seavey’s IdidaRide Sled Dogs. The Seavey family has been competing in the Iditarod for generations, and they take a lot of pride in their dogs. The dogs train all year round for the 1000-mile race; since there’s no snow on the ground in Seward during the summer, they practice by pulling visitors on sleds with wheels over land. Truth be told, I was doubtful that a team of dogs would be able to haul our group of nine, but these dogs amazed me with their speed and strength. I was grinning throughout the whole ride; the dogs’ enthusiasm was contagious. They really love to run–even during their breaks, they’re raring to get back to running. You really have to admire these athletic dogs and their spirit.
One thing I learned from my visit there was that being an Iditarod musher is one of the toughest sports out there, requiring great physical endurance and tenacity. With temperatures that can plummet to sixty degrees Fahrenheit below zero, conditions are bitterly cold. Additionally, mushers get minimal sleep during the race, since they have to dedicate most of their break time to caring for their dogs.
Iditarod musher Danny Seavey explained that even though the Iditarod is a harsh competition, “There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with it. The dogs are kind of like your children. I mean, by mile 800 of the race, it’s not really fun anymore, but you see the dogs shake the snow off and keep on going, and you get a certain sense of pride from that.”
While in the Seward area, I went hiking through the Kenai Fjords National Park to get a close look at Exit Glacier. The glacier got its name after the first documented crossing of the Harding Ice Field in 1968, when the successful mountaineers walked across it to exit the ice field and arrive in Seward. Throughout the national park, there are historic markers that tell you how far Exit Glacier used to cover (glaciers advance and retreat at different periods of time; Exit Glacier has retreated a lot within the past century). At one point, the entire area was nothing but a wall of blue ice—that was pretty hard to wrap my head around.
You can see the Alaskan glaciers via day cruise, too—there’s a cruise that starts in Whittier, AK, taking you around Prince William Sound and through the various fjords so that you can see the glaciers up close. One fjord that stood out to me was College Fjord. Every single glacier in College Fjord was named after—you guessed it—an American college, with the women’s colleges on the northern side of the fjord, and men’s colleges on the southern side.
Another cool fun fact (no pun intended): glacier water is not actually something that you want to drink. As glaciers expand and contract, they end up grinding away the rock beneath them (glaciers are responsible for carving out the shape of Alaska’s landscape), and that finely ground earth—silt, as it’s called—runs down with the glacier water out to sea. Since the silt is so fine, it disperses in the water so well that it never really manages to settle. As a result, you can distinguish a stream fed by glaciers from a normal freshwater stream by the telltale foggy blue color.
I loved getting to chill out in Alaska this summer—there’s no place else like it in the U.S. if you want to beat the heat. My experience there was the antithesis to the hustle and bustle of daily life; being in touch with the serenity of nature allowed me to clear my mind of all the worries that usually plague me. I’m going to miss how easy it was to breathe in Alaska, with its crisp air and quiet magnificence, but I hope that someday I’ll be able to go back there again.