Talkeetna, Alaska: A Solo Vacation

I kid you not, I almost forgot how to log-in to this blog. I’m here, albeit sporadically. I’m currently caught up on all my paid-photography, so I’m finally chipping away at all of my personal work.

I think I need to get everyone up to speed on what’s been going on in my neck of the woods. First, my dear husband Isaac has been in the process of applying to Officer Candidate School (OCS); a process proven to be quite grueling in both the volume of paperwork required, and the demanding prerequisites required of all applicants. It has been about 8 months since he started the process. For months we sat around, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for our orders to Korea to come down (it was the only place with open slots for his MOS), or waiting for an acceptance to OCS.

Second, we recently we heard that he was accepted! Instead of the year-long waiting period for the class date to roll around, Isaac was notified that he would have only 6 weeks to prepare for his departure. Normally this wouldn’t be too problematic, however OCS requires a 3 month training period at Ft. Benning, Georgia. That’s a really long distance from interior Alaska, and a long period of time to be solo-parenting on my end.

Hence the solo vacation (the third order of business). Knowing a summer without Isaac assuredly means very few outdoor opportunities; remember when we attempted Granite Tors, a 15 mile hike while babywearing? Yea, not so successful, I wanted to take off on my own for a little bit, as a sort of motherhood Rumspringa.

I almost went to Ecuador, but I’m certainly glad I didn’t because the earthquake that hit there recently would have definitely occurred while I was there! I fortunately opted instead to stay closer-by, and headed south on a 5 hour drive to Talkeetna, Alaska; my favorite town in Alaska.

Far too much time was spent in my car (my new car, a 2016 Subaru Outback! – so much new information for you all if you don’t follow me on instagram) the first day. The Denali Park Road was open to personal vehicles to mile 30. Typically the park road is open to Savage River at mile 15. I was excited to go further into the park from the comfort of my own car as opposed to a bus, but I didn’t take into consideration the 35 mph speed limit. This added about 2 hours of drive time to my road trip. Well worth it since I saw three grizzlies and a small caribou herd and still made it into town in time to grab food and meet up with my dear pal Jo of Oma + Jo. We’ve bonded a lot over the last year and I count her as one of my closest friends. Anyway, I arrived in Talkeetna a little stiff, but eager to start my vacation.

Jo taught me how to play cribbage, an incredibly archaic yet fun game that probably had originally asinine, made-up rules. I caught on quicker than I would have expected myself to, given my poor math skills, and enjoyed playing rounds at the Pizza place patio over beers and Hummus platters. We had fun drinking, and chatting, and visiting the historical museum. Good company, and the only (temporary) company I’d have the entire trip.

I booked a room at the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Central to all town activities, I was able to watch the tourists and locals walk the town from my window. I was in walking distance to everything except for my massage which took place up the Spur road and in a blue Yurt, of all structures. So cool.

Despite a wonderful time at the local eateries, bars, museums and hiking trails, the main event was reserved for one of my final days in Talkeetna.

I purchased a flightseeing tour over Denali which included a Glacier Landing on the famous Ruth Glacier. The morning of I took a trail run along the river, ate a big breakfast at the Roadhouse, and got a call from K2 aviation about my flight; would I like to come in an hour early and get an upgraded flight for a longer tour with a glacier landing? Sure! I showered and rushed over to the ‘airport’, eager to gain some life changing perspective about the land I intend to call home for good.

I don’t want to bombard you all with a basketful of cliches about how my life has changed from a single flightseeing tour, but I really want to emphasize how mind-blowing this experience was. Alaska is vast, I knew that empirically before this trip, but I didn’t understand it in practice. Flying at low altitude, through the neighborhood of Denali, among the monsters like Mount Hunter, and Mount Foraker and then Denali, I finally understood the gravity of the mountaineering undertakings from the adventure books I’ve been reading for a year, and understood the zeal everyone holds for this mountain range.

Don Sheldon’s Cabin is over my Right Hand!

Structures that looked to be the size of small stones were in reality the size of ranch style homes.  Ripples in the glaciers were evidence of crevasses deeper than the the tallest skyscrapers in midwest cities. My mind still has trouble comprehending the scale and scope of the experience, but I’m still contemplating it regularly.

Of course I had all the confidence that our pilot would get us through the tour unscathed, but a naive (or pragmatic?) part of me felt I would probably die on this trip. I was super relieved to land safely on the glacier, to pose awkwardly on it for a photo, to walk around suspiciously on its crevasse-riddled surface, and ultimately re-board the plane, this time riding shotgun.

We flew back the way we came, over semi-frozen tundra. The twisted rivers, partially melted, gave way slightly to spring. The landscape has since turned lush and green.

Homesteads below spread far and wide, connected sometimes only by rivers.

I was exceedingly happy to disembark the small aircraft, if only from a place of self-preservation. I’m an anxious person, and prefer to have my two feet on the ground, fair enough?

I spent the rest of the day decompressing, playing over and over again the sights and sounds of the day in my mind. I went to happy hour, read a book and kicked around some local lakes for a quick hike. My trip ended with a cinnamon roll from the Roadhouse and a long, contemplative ride home to my family, presents in hand; ready to start my summer of solo-parenting.


Fairbanks in Summer

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Raspberry picking, fireweed harvesting, Fourth of July hiking & location scouting. This summer is rounding out quite well, but I have a feeling it’s going to run short this year.

All the more reason to take advantage while it’s here.

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Denali National Park | Savage River

Savage River | Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali National Park Visitors Center | Yea Yea Pueblo

I’ve never been to the mall of America, but I imagine that if I did visit, and only stepped into one or two shops, I’d be disappointed at the missed opportunity of enjoying the scope of its offerings. It would definitely be a challenge to visit all the stores in a day, but with some work and a weekend, you could probably see a few things, right?

Denali National Park is a lot like that.

First of all, personal vehicles are only allowed in the first 15 miles of the park. Buses shuttle visitors beyond that guarded mile post, and back country permits are required for anyone camping beyond Savage River (located around mile 15). In a day, an avid outdoorsman could probably take on several shorter, lower elevation hikes before that mile post. But to really comprehend the beauty and vastness of Denali National Park, several weeks, maybe months or years of exploration would be required of a visitor. It’s cruel how little of the nation’s greatest national park we can see in a short weekend visit.

I’m still in the throes of a DNP withdrawal, obviously.

Denali National Park Visitors Center| Yea Yea PuebloDenali National Park - Shuttle Bus | Yea Yea PuebloDenali National Park  - Visitors Center | Yea Yea Pueblo

Beyond mile 15, all the way to mile 92 (an end point I may never see), endless mountains roll along the horizon. Snow melt and rain water dribble to the valley floor, tumbling into icy rivers varying in width and current.

Wildlife freckles the landscape; a few branchy antlers poking up from a riverbed — a resting caribou herd, white dots drifting over a grassy knoll — dall sheep traveling, a lanky, lumbering animal crossing the road — a hungry moose grazing; all normal sights in DNP.

Savage River - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

After a day of travel and visiting the entrance trails at the Park, we all checked in at Denali Cabins, 8 miles north of the DNP entrance. My in-laws had the cabin next to ours, and volunteered to watch the kids for Isaac and I while we grabbed a hot meal at the on-site restaurant Prey.

Traveling with our kids’ grandparents was great. I don’t think I changed a single diaper the entire weekend, and entertaining the littles was completely taken off my to-do list. It was a wonderful break from my normal duties, especially since I’m currently back to single mom life while Isaac is working in Mongolia for a few weeks.

Denali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

Vegan food was not hard to come by in the local restaurants, thankfully, and I think Margot had a nice break from the vegan cheese I give her — as evidenced by how quickly she downed vegetarian mac ‘n cheese.

Our cabins were comfortable, with wonderfully upscale linens, and thick blackout curtains (something we still need to invest in to block out the midnight sun in Fairbanks). By the way, travel with kids is not easy, but Isaac and I have fallen into a travel rhythm of each co-sleeping with one child in a bed, and compromising their bedtime and ours at a middle-ground of 10pm. It’s not a perfect system, but it works.

Denali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali Cabins - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

Our second, and final day at DNP was well rounded out. Starting off with the creature comforts of lattes and hot breakfasts at the Black Bear Coffee Shop, we headed into the Park for a leisurely two mile hike along the Savage River. The alpine hike towered above, almost disappearing into the rain clouds at times.Rainy Hike - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloSavage River - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloSavage River - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloSavage River - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloRain - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloSavage River - Apline Trail - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

After a fierce debate with Isaac the day before, on whether or not we should take the Mount Healy trail four miles up into the stratosphere, I finally convinced him there were plenty of opportunities for us to hike strenuously in the future. Following a long car ride with two unpredictable kids, rainy weather, and in-laws on vacation was just not screaming we must summit! to me. I’m going to go ahead and assume I saved us from a bear encounter, or a really bad leg injury with that call.

The sled dog tour sounded appealing to all, so we hiked Savage River and made our way to the shuttle bus stop for a ride to the kennels.

Denali Shuttle Bus Interior - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloKennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloKennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloKennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloKennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloKennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

To see real dogs doing real jobs was a little bit of a disappointment, only in the sense that I couldn’t help but compare my senior beagle Sally to this pack of working dogs, and let’s be real — Sally is a lazy non-dog with a serious superiority complex by comparison.

Denali Sled Dogs travel hundreds of miles in the fierce Alaskan winters to patrol the park from poachers, to rescue citizens in distress, and to deliver goods to rangers in the back country. My Sally won’t even go outside to pee if it’s raining or cold.

But I guess if you put a raucous sled dog in my house for a day, I’d seriously appreciate how laid back and content my shelter pet is.

Kennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo       Kennel Tour - Denali National Park | Yea Yea PuebloDenali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

After a busy day on the trails, and at the kennel, we popped over to the 49th State Brewery for libations and grub. Christie sat with a sleeping Margot in the van while the rest of us ate inside. Heavy rains and then hail fell in a downpour while we were in Healy, but it dried up enough on our two hour ride home to let us all snooze if only for a bit.

Sally welcomed us home with whiny excitement, and I’d like to say the kids settled back into a routine, but Margot asks to go hiking or camping on the reg, and Woods is keeping me on my toes with his wild sleep patterns and calamitous teething cries. Both are soothed by long walks outside.

Denali Shuttle Bus Interior - Denali National Park | Yea Yea Pueblo

When Isaac comes home from Mongolia, we’re going back out for more.