Denali diary I. Anchorage

A view east from downtown Anchorage, toward the Chugach Mountains. (Flickr, jby)

Notes on a trip to Alaska.

We landed in Anchorage at eight o’clock in the evening, but it might have been any time from dawn to almost midnight. High-latitude summer light is uncanny enough to a southerner such as me (flying in from Los Angeles via a long stopover in Seattle) when it’s still fully light out at nine o’clock in the evening; but then also a mid-July weather system had swathed the city in low clouds and persistent drizzle, filtering the sunlight down to a high-twilit grey.

C and I took a taxi to a rental apartment we’d planned to use as a base of operations for the trip. I had an academic conference in Anchorage, and we’d taken that as an excuse to fly up a week early and see some sights — Denali National Park, then the vicinity of Kenai Fjords. First, though, we had a day in town to settle in and get our bearings. The rental-apartment host and her husband met us and our heap of luggage on the doorstep of their house — which, in addition to having our apartment in the basement, appeared to operate both as a multi-unit bed-and-breakfast and as the local consulate of the Netherlands. Our host was, it developed, a Dutch transplant. She showed us around: kitchen, living space, bedroom, washing machine and dryer, sofa bed in the living room (I suspect she didn’t realize C and I were a couple), and an orientation to the city via a tourist map on the kitchen table. Downtown was a dozen blocks north, on the other side of a long east-west strip of parkland. We thanked her out the door, unpacked a bit, and then hiked into downtown to the nearest late-night food we could find, by-the-slice pizza with, it turned out, reindeer sausage — how local!

We woke at eight, and it was not perceptibly lighter outside than it had been when we turned in around 11pm. We made and drank coffee, and then struck out north toward downtown in our rain jackets, hoods up against the drizzle.

Anchorage is on table-flat ground, the central city laid out in a near-perfect grid between Ship Creek to the north, Westchester Lagoon and Chester Creek to the south, and the ocean, as represented by Knick Anchorage, to the west. The transition from the suburbs around our rental and downtown proper is patchy; single-family homes a block away from scattered high-rise buildings, which are mostly hotels, and all aggressively generic glass-and-concrete rectangles. Downtown proper is maybe a half-dozen blocks north-to-south, maybe a dozen blocks east-west. We walked all the way to it to find a well-rated local breakfast place, but it was packed (it was a Saturday), so we backtracked to a bakery (called “Fire Island”, for some reason) for croissants and lattes.

From there we walked the length of downtown, stopping at the occasional park or landmark. The rain was barely a drizzle, and mountains, the Chugach, were just visible to the east, though shrouded in clouds. We tried to descend to the river that forms the north boundary, where running salmon were rumored to be visible, but were stymied by poor pedestrian access. We spotted a gay bar, the Raven, at the eastern extreme, then backtracked west to the Anchorage Museum.

The museum is a very modern structure, probably the most interesting architecture in the downtown, fronting a small park lined with aspens and planted with wildflowers. It has a mix of state history and contemporary art; we saw both an extended exhibit of works riffing on maps — reimagining colonized lands, projecting climate-changed coastlines — and a large collection of Arctic native artifacts, jointly curated with the Smithsonian. Also an exhibit of maps of Alaska and Anchorage through the years of colonization and modern development. The city did indeed have its building boom in the 60s and 70s, as the North Slope oil fields opened up.

We found lunch, then went back to the rental for coffee and an afternoon nap, and struck out again about 1700h; the rain had stopped and things began to clear in the east. We found our way onto a paved pedestrian trail along the coast, after a lot of false attempts to find a way across the railroad that runs through the same right-of-way, and then walked a mile and a half or so down it to Westchester Lagoon. Along the way, we caught glimpses of shorebirds and some views over tidal mud flats and across Cook Inlet to cloud-muffled shores.

A red-necked grebe feeding in Westchester Lagoon, Anchorage. (Flickr, jby)

At the lagoon, though, things were spectacular — we arrived in time for a break in the clouds to admit nearly full sunlight, and the mountains were gloriously clear above wooded hills at the far end of the lagoon. I got lovely photos of a red-necked grebe fishing, and then some gulls and Canada geese with goslings. Retracing the trail to downtown, we almost immediately spotted two sandhill cranes out on the mud flats, and then as we neared the north trailhead a trio of magpies put on a show fighting over a strip of paper or cloth. Also along the trail: lots of bright-pink fireweed, which is everywhere in bloom; some big showy lupines; milkvetch; a lot of yellow toadflax; and exactly one patch of a sky-blue borage like the flowers we saw in a lot of local iconography. We ate dinner in downtown, at a noisy tourist pub that served good fish (halibut) and chips; then back to the apartment to pack for an early departure the next day, on a bus for Denali.