The Howards Go North – to Alaska

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Since we were unable to get a Space A flight to Alaska, we decided to use our Alaska Airline miles and fly there. It’s a long 8 hour flight to Anchorage from Houston with a stop at Seattle. We arrived after midnight and stayed at a motel near the airport which had a free shuttle. The next day, we picked up our Hertz rental car and drove over to the Alaska Zoo. This is an average zoo and has exotic animals such as tigers, camels, yaks, and alpacas. However, it does feature an assortment of animals that are found in Alaska. They include polar bears, wolves, musk oxen, moose, and caribou. Later that same evening, we drove north on Parks Highway to Wasilla which is about 50 miles from Anchorage. We stayed at Lake Lucille Bed & Breakfast which is located on the lake. It had some beautiful scenery and my wife and I enjoyed watching aircraft with floats take off and land.

The next day found us back on the Parks Highway driving the 300 miles north to Fairbanks. Along the way, we passed by places such as Talkeetna, Cantwell, Healy, and, of course, Denali National Park. That afternoon, we pulled into Fairbanks and headed to the pipeline viewing station which wasn’t far from the B&B where we had booked our lodging. We had seen photos of the famous Alaska Pipeline but this is the first time that I was able to actually see the real thing. The end running north went underground whereas the end running south seemed to run above ground forever. Following this, we drove over to Lizzie’s Nest, a bed & breakfast that is owned and run by a couple who are retired teachers.

Our next morning found us at the Large Animal Research Station which is part of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The place contains musk oxen, caribou, and reindeer. A biologist accompanied several of us around the site while she fed the animals and gave us information about them. Following this, it was a short drive over to the Museum of the North which was also located on the campus of UA. This museum covers two floors and contains artwork done by local artists. The place also has quite a few stuffed animals such as bear and bison. In addition, it has a number of exhibits which are pertinent to Alaska history, one of them being the WWII invasion of the Aleutians by the Japanese. The next day, we took a three hour ride on the Chena River on the Riverboat Discovery. Included was a stop at a Chena Athabascan Indian village where we were able to view presentations of native culture and take photos.

Denali National Park is about two hours drive south of Fairbanks. Fairbanks had shirtsleeve weather whereas the temperature at Denali was in the lower forties, cold and windy. We took one of the bus tours and was able to get a glimpse of Mount McKinley. The scenery there was spectacular but the weather was miserable. The only good part about being there was going over to where the sled dogs were housed and watching park rangers harness several dogs to a sled and pull it around the area.

Glacier Tour and Elmendorf Air Force Base Visit

Anchorage was more tolerable with the temperature being in the mid fifties. We drove over to Elmendorf AFB, named for Captain Hugh M. Elmendorf who was killed in a plane crash in 1933, and checked in at the North Star Inn  at a rate of $39 per night. The office is located on Fighter Drive but the Air Force Inn sign is small and can easily be missed. However, it’s located in Matanuska Hall which is printed in large letters on the building’s entrance. We were assigned quarters in Denali Hall which is next door. Our lodging consisted of two rooms plus a bathroom. One room had a bed and small desk and chair and the other one had a small sofa and easy chair. Both rooms had TVs, closets, sinks, refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee makers. The rooms also had internet service which is much better than WIFI. The laundry rooms were just down the hall in either direction and there wasn’t a charge for using them. The base dining hall, The Iditarod, is within walking distance of the lodging and retired military personnel are welcome there. We met quite a few retirees who either lived in Anchorage or were vacationing there from the lower 48. While driving back from the BX we had to stop and wait for a bear to cross the street. It was the only one we saw outside of a zoo or conservation center.

There are several good museums in Anchorage. We went to the Anchorage Museum, Museum of Natural History, and Law Enforcement Museum but the best one by far was the Alaska Aviation Museum which is located by the main airport. This has all types of aircraft both inside and outside as well as military vehicles. It has various exhibits and displays which depict the history of aviation in Alaska. There’s even a vintage Alaska Airline passenger plane that one can enter and walk through. One who has an interest in aviation can easily spend several hours here. The gift shop has an assortment of used paperbacks, all nonfiction, that cover just about every war that this country has ever fought. At $1 per book, it’s a good place where one can stock up on reading material for the long plane ride back home.

The Seward Highway runs through the small town of Girdwood and just south of there is the turnoff for Whittier. In order to get to Whittier one has to go through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This tunnel, built during WWII, is 2.5 miles long and has only one lane for traffic which alternates between north and southbound traffic. The Alaska railroad also runs through this tunnel. We drove through here in order to take one of the afternoon glacier tours by boat out of Whittier. Although the afternoon was cold and wet, it was worth it to be able to see glaciers up close. The next day, we drove south of Girdwood and toured the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. One can walk around this place and observe wildlife in their natural environment. The place has moose, elk, bison, musk oxen, bears, and other wild animals that are local to Alaska.

After spending slightly over two weeks in our largest state, it was time to say so long and board our flight back to the warm climate of Houston.

By Bill and Lise Howard, USCG Reserve (Ret)