“John Muir, the famous naturalist, wrote in his journal that you should never go to Alaska as a young man because you'll never be satisfied with any other place as long as you live. And I think there's a lot of truth to that.” - Tom Bodett
“I wanted the gold and I sought it, I scrabbled and mucked like a slave. Was it famine or scurvy - I fought it; I hurled my youth into a grave. I wanted the gold and I got it - came out with a fortune last fall; yet somehow life’s not what I thought it - and somehow the gold isn’t all” -The Spell of the Yukon, Robert Service
"It’s 10:15pm right now, look outside,” my friend commented, alluding to the fact that despite us being hours deep into a “night out on the town” and a few adult beverages under our belts, the sky still looked like it was midday; the sun on full blast with no signs of stopping; not even a hint of darkness on the horizon.
“I know, it’s weird. Where are we again?”
“Look now, it’s 10:31pm! What is going on!”
My friend? Another Alaskan amber deep. The sky? The same as it was an hour ago and the same as it would be an hour later.
We went across the street to Nagley’s Store and snapped a few photos, as if the timestamp or actualization of the moment in photo form would somehow capture or elucidate our confusion associated with the time of day and degree of light.
What seemed like only a few minutes later, my friend looked at his watch; “now 11:15pm!”
“It’s so light still - very disorienting!” we ruminated, just as the band was getting on stage for the evening.
It was a warm early June evening, and a large group of us stood around in the famed Fairview Inn in Talkeetna imbibing in a few beverages and fully soaking in the climber town vibes. We had just met and struck up a conversation with a handful of guys who earlier that evening had come down from attempting to climb Denali, and were revelling in their tales of long days and cold, sleepless nights on the mountain.
For all of us, it was hard to tell at that point whether we felt like we were in a twilight zone due to the jetlag, the sun, the brews, or because oh, some of us had just spent weeks climbing Denali, but a perfect concoction of circumstances led to us all feeling quite light-hearted and jovial, and we exchanged stories late into the evening.
With every quick glance out the window, the “midnight sun” as they call it, was a stark reminder of where we were in the world. North, very north. The land where at this time of the year, the sun only sets for a mere few hours before starting another day. “Light, and work; that was summer in Alaska,” describes Kristen Hannah ever so accurately in her novel, The Great Alone.
It is further said that the name Alaska is probably an abbreviation of Unalaska, derived from the original Aleut word ‘agunalaksh,’ which means "the shores where the sea breaks its back." The war between water and land is never-ending.
“Waves shatter themselves in spent fury against the rocky bulwarks of the coast; giant tides eat away the sand beaches and alter the entire contour of an island overnight; williwaw winds pour down the side of a volcano like snow sliding off a roof, building to a hundred-mile velocity in a matter of minutes and churning the ocean into a maelstrom where the stoutest vessels founder.” - Corey Ford, renowned Alaskan author.
You feel a bit insulated from the water in Talkeetna, but you know it’s there by the weather patterns brewing overhead that rip and roar through the Denali range. And the fast-moving Susitna River running through town beckons you to follow its current, and reminds you of the great wild to where it leads.
This was my first trip to Alaska, and will certainly not be my last. I’ve wanted to go for so many years, and as a mountaineer, have certainly had Denali on my climbing radar for the last few. But I somehow also knew Alaska wasn’t a place you could just casually visit. It deserved my full attention.
With only a week to spend, I had resolved to approach this trip as a scouting trip; an opportunity to see a lot, and dig just deep enough to figure out where I’d like to spend more time in the future. As with all prior trips, it was also important (maybe moreso?) to focus less on checking off the touristy must-do’s, and instead on getting to know the people, their stories, and at least scratch the surface on understanding the politics, the industry and fishing culture.
Alaska is the kind of place where people are rumored to have gone “just for the summer” about 30 years ago - and then never leave. I can’t say I blame them. Marcus Sakey once said that “nobody is accidentally in Alaska. The people who are in Alaska are there because they choose to be, so they've sort of got a real frontier ethic.” Intentional, conscientous people fed up with convention? Certainly sounds like my type of people, so I set out to see if it was true.
Spoiler alert: it was. And I don’t think I’ll ever be the same knowing that so many of my type of people exist here.
And so the journey began. We landed in Anchorage and immediately set off for a quick tour of Denali National Park before heading to its charming mountain town, Talkeetna. Next up, the much more remote, less oft visited Tutka Bay and Macdonald Spit on the Kenai Peninsula. A bit on the beaten path, and a bit off: the perfect recipe for a true adventure. Without further ado…
Denali National Park / Talkeetna
To get to Denali National Park, you have one of three options: car, bus or train. While the train rides are said to be scenic and run often, we opted to rent a car, as it would give us the freedom to roam around the park for a day. There are certainly a fair amount of tourist lookout points and scenic stops (even a chance to meet some of the dogs which compete in the Iditarod) but we only had a day, so decided to just drive around and take in as much nature as possible, periodically stopping to get out and walk at a visitor center or lookout point.
If you’re lucky (and we were), you’ll see some moose and other critters along the way. Looking for a quick bite? We stopped just 15 minutes south of the Denali NP entrance at the Creekside Inn & Cafe for a sandwich and beers by the water. Simple and satisfying. After a full day of driving around, we headed to Talkeetna for the next few days.
A bit of background:
Talkeetna today is most known as the kick-off point for Denali climbers and anglers. But there’s a lot of history to the place. The town itself is situated on the confluence of three wild, glacially fed rivers: the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna. According to the Talkeetna Historical Society, the town has been an important location for fishing and trading by the Dena’ina, a subset of the Athabaskan people for decades. Because of their prominence here, the village’s name comes from the Athabaskan word , K’Dalkitnu or ‘food is stored river’. They certainly don’t beat around the bush when it comes to naming conventions.
In 1915, Talkeetna was chosen as a divisional headquarters for the Seward to Fairbanks government railroad route, approved by President Woodrow Wilson. During the railroad’s construction, Talkeetna’s population peaked near 1,000. Despite an influenza breakout and economic hardship over the early years of its infancy, Talkeetna continued to survive with a combination of miners, trappers, homesteaders, and railroad workers who called it home.
Fun fact about the Fairview Inn, everyone’s favorite watering hole: zoning regulations state no building in downtown can be taller than the Fairview. It has traded hands quite a few times but continues to remain a prominent fixture in the downtown.
Things to Do:
There are a plethora of activities for anglers and outdoors enthusiasts alike, from day fishing trips to backcountry trekking to, heck, even climbing Denali (I see you and I’ll be back for you next year). Talkeetna is a place which definitely allows you to “pick your poison” and let it kill ya.
We opted to spend time just wandering around town checking out the boutiques and weekly artisanal market, and indulging in the social scenes (favorite restaurants were: Mountain High Pizza Pie, West Rib Pub & Grill, and Denali Brewpub, though you can’t really go wrong with any options in town).
The major activity of the week, though, was taking part in a Denali sightseeing tour through the National Park. I had heard excellent things about Talkeetna Air Taxi from friends and guides who have used them for trips on Denali (they fly the vast majority of climbers out to the glacier to start their climbs), so reached out to see what types of trips they had available. Fortunately, they have plenty of options, depending on what it is that you want to see and do - and with any trip, you can always add a glacier landing as an add-on. Needless to say, it didn’t take much convincing to sign me up.
After grabbing a much-needed breakfast burrito in town at Talkeetna Spinach Bread (I mean cmon, their food is served out of an old school airstream!), we showed up at the TAT office on the edge of town and geared up for their Grand Denali tour with a glacier landing. Chris, our pilot, was top notch, and clearly knew the range inside and out. He was keenly attuned to the weather patterns, and subtleties of the landscapes over which we flew. We were lucky enough that on this particular day, TAT was tasked with picking up two climbers who had just successfully summited Denali from base camp, so our “glacier landing” was actually right at Denali base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. Best experience ever - and certainly aggressively scratched my itch to return to climb the mountain next season.
Where to Stay: Talkeetna Inn ($$)
When searching for a place to stay in Talkeetna, I found that there were either places immediately in town (but many of them quite expensive), or AirBnB’s which were out of town by anywhere from 5 - 10 miles. Ideally, I thought it made sense to be walking distance to the shops and restaurants, without breaking the bank, but struggled to find an option which satisfied my wishes. Enter: Talkeetna Inn.
By some stroke of luck, I stumbled upon Talkeetna Inn just a couple of weeks before I was scheduled to arrive in Alaska. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was actually brand spankin’ new, and a project which had just been undertaken by Billy St Pierre, possibly the most charismatic guy in Talkeetna. Having traveled around the world his whole life and having had grand success in more business pursuits than I can fit in this space, he ultimately decided to settle into a life split between Anchorage and Talkeetna. Not one to miss an interesting opportunity, Billy started to wonder if he might be able to create an abode for climbers and visitors to Talkeetna which would satisfy an unmet need. Plus, the particular location he had his eye on meant that adjoined to the inn would also be a very quaint A-frame tavern, which had long been favored by locals and tourists alike as the best place to meet interesting people (if only the walls could talk...).
Billy was sold - and so was I. As soon as I saw the very instaworthy A-frame and read that each of the Inn’s rooms has its own private bathroom (remember, it’s Alaska… outhouses are the norm), I knew I had found what I was looking for.
Every single member of staff on site was extremely attentive, and went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable. Billy gave us the run down of nearly every spot in town, explaining the ins and outs of each scene (and even invited us to rib night with his friends from out of town!), and by the end of the trip, felt like a close friend.
After my couple of nights there, I cannot imagine staying anywhere BUT Talkeetna Inn. Plus, right out the backyard was the raging Susitna river, which made for an excellent place to enjoy a mid-afternoon walk and beverage. If you’re looking for a rustic, cozy, cabin-feel and good company/hospitality, look no further.
A bit of background:
A few distinct regions had stood out to me when planning the trip to Alaska. Denali being the obvious one; but the others a bit more remote and off-the-beaten-path. In most cases, the other regions would require another small plane from Anchorage, as well, so I had be choosy about where I went given I only had a short period of time. Between Juneau, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Seward, Homer… how was I to choose?
I ultimately settled on the Kenai (pronounced kee-nye) area, using Homer as the jump-off point. From Homer, I would take a water taxi to each of my destinations on the peninsula. Additionally, Homer is known as the fishing capital of Alaska, which seemed like the natural best place to dive into understanding the commercial fishing culture (and lets be honest, eat a lot of delicious fish). It wasn’t a difficult decision to pick this region.
Homer is on the shore of Kachemak Bay on the southwest side of the Kenai Peninsula. Its distinguishing feature is the Homer Spit, a narrow 4.5 mi long gravel bar which extends into the bay, on which is located the Homer Harbor. Homer first appeared on the 1940 U.S. Census as an unincorporated village but was not formally incorporated until 1964. It is part of the Alaskan marine highway (the state ferry system), and is the southernmost town on the contiguous Alaska highway system.
Though I did not have a chance to explore, since it was merely a launching point for my trip to two lodges, I had researched and heard very good things about the following spots in Homer itself and would highly recommend you investigate on my behalf: Homer Spit La Baleine (the brain child of Tutka Bay Lodge owners, where I stayed), Cosmic Kitchen, Homer Brewing Co, Two Sisters Bakery, Fresh Catch Cafe, Little Mermaid, and Coal Town Coffee & Tea. Another non-negotiable stop is the AK Salmon Sisters shop, and if you aren’t already aware of their company and story, spend some time informing yourself here.
I would fly a short and easy 35 minutes from Anchorage to Homer via Ravn Alaska (a partner of Alaska Airlines) and kick off part 2 of the Alaska journey.
Or so I thought…
Unfortunately (or fortunately) for me, our plane took off bright and early (6am) from Anchorage and tried to land in Homer, not once but twice, but the pilots had virtually zero visibility due to very low fog, which forced us to turn around and fly back to Anchorage. Not the best start to the trip, but remember what I said about making friends in Alaska? Turns out I already had the right ones, as my host at Tutka Bay Lodge was sitting in the row behind me on the plane, and had another idea in mind, rather than waiting for the next day’s flight to get us there. Enter: Rust’s Flying Service, based out of Anchorage. The slogan on their website is “Make it Epic!” They certainly aren’t wrong. While not the original plan, taking a bright red seaplane over to Tutka Bay as an alternative made all of my Alaska dreams come true and allowed me to gain a deeper appreciation and context of where we were headed.
Where to Stay: Tutka Bay Lodge ($$$)
To reach Tutka Bay Lodge, I normally would have boarded a water taxi (the “Uber” of Alaska!) which would have brought me from Homer to the remote peninsula. However, because we ended up taking Rust’s plane over, we landed right at the Tutka Bay dock, and were greeted by a lovely sea otter out sunbathing on a large rock. Quite the welcoming committee. The trip was already off to an unexpected, but incredible start.
I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours with Kirsten Dixon, half of the husband/wife duo that owns Tutka Bay (and its sister lodge), as a result of our travel inconvenience. Kirsten immediately strikes you as one of the kindest, most humble people you have ever met - and you would never know from meeting her that her life resume stretches a mile long and she is a complete culinary genius.
Tutka Bay Lodge (and it’s sister resort, Winterlake) are the brainchild of Kirsten and her husband Carl, who met many decades ago when in a very different chapter of their lives (Kirsten was an intensive care nurse, Carl was an audiologist - with a pilot’s license). I guess what they say about moving to Alaska and never leaving is true, because their story completely fits the bill. Never imagining that they would end up building their lives there, the couple found themselves in complete awe of the beauty of the Kenai, and over time, it creeped into their souls. They slowly started looking for land, investment homes, and eventually (accidentally?) lodges where they could build out their dreams. They started a family in Alaska, started pursuing their passions with a fervor, and never looked back.
Their story reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about Alaska: “But when she gets her hooks in you, she digs deep and holds on, and you become hers. Wild. A lover of cruel beauty and splendid isolation. And God help you, you can’t live anywhere else.” After mere days here, even I’ve almost bought in.
Despite all of life’s trials and tribulations, Kirsten has relentlessly pursued her greatest dreams: she went on to become a Cordon Bleu trained chef, and has brought her own carefully curated fusion of Alaskan wilderness + culinary delight to this remote region of the Kenai.
Integral to the menu at Tutka Bay is the fact that the chefs forage on site and pride themselves upon buying local ingredients whenever possible. They hope to both surprise and delight guests by showcasing the region through a thoughtful appeal to the palette.
As if running two lodges full time isn’t enoough, Kirsten and her daughter Mandy opened La Baleine as a passion project over in Homer, and in their spare time, develop cookbooks to share their culinary treasures around the world.
But eating isn’t all you do at Tutka Bay; there are also a plethora of activities, from cooking classes in a rustic kitchen on a repurposed crabbing boat to sea kayaking / hiking around the bay itself, or even indulging in some of the spa/massage services on sight.
There is truly something for everyone and the staff go above and beyond to ensure your needs are met at every step along the way. I will never forget my very last memory of the excellent staff at Tutka Bay as I departed in my water taxi on my last morning: Gus, Karen, and Henry all stood out on the dock and told me as the boat took off that they would, as tradition, continue waving to me from the dock until my boat was no longer in sight. And that they did.
Where to Stay: Between Beaches Alaska ($$)
As I looked for the final place to finish up my trip, I knew I wanted something as *authentic* as it gets, but which would also afford me the downtime to do some exploring on my own terms. Since I was already over at Tutka Bay Lodge, and still within shooting distance of Homer, I started scouring the region for a place that would have that certain je ne sais quoi to round out my experience. After an aggressive Googling session, I stumbled upon what almost seemed too good to be true: a place called Between Beaches which quite literally, by its name, sounded like exactly the place where I would love to spend my very last night in Alaska. A place to stay which is ever so aptly named, given that its accommodations jet out on the Macdonald spit and boasts not one, but two beachfront views on both sides; one of the only places in Alaska where you can get both sunrise and sunset (granted, at 3am and midnight respectively in the summertime).
The more I looked into it, the cooler it sounded, and I just had to go find out for myself if it would live up to the hype.
Between Beaches is a place which has a boatload (literally) of history to it, and has been built by the McLean family over generations. Kristi McLean, though unassuming when you first meet her, is the type of woman you spend 5 minutes with and instantly think, “how can someone be this cool?” You just can’t help but be in complete awe - and I’m not even yet talking about the lodge itself. But, in a way I am, because talking about Kristi is talking about the lodge, as its character, coziness and attention to detail is an embodiment of Kristi herself. In the words of the great Kristin Hannah, “Alaska didn’t create character; it revealed it.”
As noted on her website, Kristi, a lifelong Alaskan was raised in a log cabin by her pioneering parents who came to the “Last Frontier” in 1955. By the age of twenty, she had coached skating and skiing, commercial fished, and was running her own boat and crew. Commercial fishing for salmon, halibut, crab, and herring took her throughout Alaska's coastal waters. She is a highly respected Alaskan artist, drawing her inspiration from the abundant sea life that surrounds her home. Working primarily with clay and wire in her onsite studio, she creates unique and beautiful one of a kind art pieces and large installations.
Kristi’s sweet mother and son still live on site with her, so Between Beaches Alaska’s accommodations and hospitality is still very much a labor of love and a family endeavor. In fact, the family element is so much of what makes up its charm and makes you instantly feel at “home.”
As part of my short visit, I was also fortunate enough to spend an afternoon commercial fishing with Kristi out on the water - learning about the fish, the tides, the dynamics of this part of Alaska. Her vulnerability, humility and willingness to share with me the ups and downs of life on the peninsula made me love her even more. She showed me which lines were the good ones for catching fish, and explained why some were better than others at different parts of the year. We scoped out potential fun spots for future expansion of Between Beaches lodging and activities, and both giggled in excitement for what the future could (and undoubtedly, will) hold. I told Kristi that I wanted to invest - maybe even move to Kenai - and that we should stay in touch. I meant it.
As of June 2019, there are a handful of cabins and 2 glamping tents on site. Each one is very artfully designed and meticulously adorned with the necessary fixings. You are meant to bring your own food to prepare here (though Kristi provides all of the cooking equipment, coffee, and water you might need), which provides a bit of autonomy - exactly what I had been seeking. Your experience is what you make of it and that’s what I love the most; you can either spend your days reading a book in your tent by the sea, or embark on some adventures: hiking on a local trail, going fishing, checking out the local town of Seldovia. Or gorging yourself with freshly-caught Sockeye, which of course, you can buy from Kristi and consume to your heart’s delight.