After leaving the true wilderness of Denali park we took the advice of some locals and decided to check out Talkeetna, a small climbing town located on the south side of the Alaska range at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna Rivers. Talkeetna is an eclectic collection of businesses and people that you can only find at the end of the road in Alaska; filled with those that sustain themselves on the bustle of summer tourism and the early spring arrival of climbers setting out for Mt. Denali or Mt. Foraker. Although the climbers had long since departed (climbing season is usually May-June), there were still plenty of the locals left and we happily stayed up much past our usual bedtime to enjoy the local music scene and drink beer with them in the little local bar where drinks are served in mason jars and local wildlife adorns the walls.
Heading south from Talkeetna we chose the road less traveled and made the climb over Hatcher Pass, a narrow dirt road that wanders into the alpine of the south Talkeetna Mountains. Fingers crossed for some great wildlife sightings, the purr of the diesel seemingly drove them off again, and we were left with only a distant shot of a cow moose and her calf hiding out in some small spruce trees far off in the distance from the road. Although Hatcher Pass was originally built as an access road for the many mines in the area, those mines are now abandoned, and all that is left is the relics of twisted steel and iron doting the mountain sides. These days the bulk of the pass is only open in the summer for hikers and sightseers, and the southeastern 20 miles is maintained in the winter to allow access for backcountry skiing.
We rolled out of Hatcher Pass through Palmer and onto Anchorage. Anchorage was a bit of a culture shock as we hadn’t seen a traffic light in 3 weeks, let alone city traffic. Needless to say we stocked up on the essentials for van life and quickly headed out of town south toward the Kenai Peninsula. We arrived in the Kenai at the right time, as all of the rivers and creeks were jammed with returning salmon, a spectacle of Mother Nature that really has no equal. We spent the evening and the following morning catching (and releasing) Dolly Varden trout, a fish which takes advantage of it’s returning salmon brethren by feasting on the very eggs they traveled so far to lay. The Portage Valley in which we chose to camp features several prominent glaciers, and we took advantage of their easy access by climbing to the base of one of it’s most famous ones, the Byron Glacier. After a few hours tromp from the parking lot we found ourselves shivering in broad daylight under the hot sun as blasts of frozen air whipped around us, emanating from the river of water cascading through the ice cave we had found hidden in it’s side.
With the Alaskan afternoon sun blazing over us we headed toward Seward, where fishing and summer cruise ship arrivals sustain the locals of this small sea-side town. It had been awhile since we had seen the ocean, and with glorious weather before us we decided a water-taxi to one of it’s nearby islands would be the best way for us to spend the next couple of nights. We settled on Fox Island State Park, which was at the outer limits of the inlet and our water taxi budget. The next morning, with the sun high overhead and the beach to ourselves, we spent the day working on our tans and trying to land some on the salmon which continuously taunted us as they jumped just a few feet from shore. With impeccable timing, Alison hooked up with a perfect pink salmon just before dinner. Although our fishing gear was purchased for Arctic Grayling and Trout (and much of it had already been donated to the sea due to large fish and inexperience), Alison vowed to bring this one in. With patience and energy she brought the fish in close, where our hungry eyes marveled at it’s beauty, and perfect dinner-time size. Unfortunately the fish seemed to catch on to our motives at this point, and took off like a sliver streak leaving us with only the sound of the line flying off the reel. And boy did it run. At one point, we both started to worry that it was about to hit the end of our supply of 6lb test line, and that would be the end of our dinner as we knew it. Finally though, the fish slowed, allowing Alison to take back some ground and slowly work the fish back to shore. This time there would be no running away, as I quickly waded into the chilly north pacific and tackled our dinner onto the beach. We cleaned it right there on the beach (much to the seagulls’ delight) and proudly walked back to the campsite to prepare what will go down as one of the finest meals we have ever enjoyed together. With full bellies, we build a huge beach fire and watched the sunset and the end of our good weather roll in.