My family of six flew to Anchorage, Alaska to embark on the journey of a lifetime. Our family consists of my husband and myself, our three children ages eleven, eight, and five, and my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law’s lifelong dream was to see Alaska and glaciers, and it was time for us to make her dream come true. We landed in Anchorage at 8:30 on Wednesday night and found ourselves surrounded by craggy, snow topped mountains. I was instantly in love!
We left the international airport and were quickly fascinated by Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base. My five- year-old was enthralled as a sea plane came in to land just as we passed the lake. It was quickly apparent we were going to experience an entirely different culture than we were accustomed to in Georgia! By the time we reached the hotel, we had counted 6 seaplanes and small passenger planes taking off from the various Anchorage airports. I will never forget watching him stare out the hotel window at ten pm mesmerized with counting the planes in bright daylight.
DAY 1 Itinerary: Alaska Native Heritage Center
We arrived just in time for a dance demonstration by Native dancers. The dancers and drummers taught us about the cultural stories behind the dances, and my children were captivated by the story of the Raven and the Eagle described through dance.
The Alaska Native Heritage Center hosts tours of the six Native replica dwellings, we were able to join one given by a Native Alaskan who grew up in a village on the north side of the Arctic Circle. She walked us through the dwellings and told how the Native Alaskans lived in each different tribe. She told us stories of spending the summers hunting with her grandparents and about how her life changed when she grew up and moved to Anchorage. She discussed the foods she ate with her grandparents and she described the cold winter days with only a dim sun below the horizon. My children were front and center asking her about all the objects in the homes, and how they were used. She showed them the cooler she used as a child, which my eight-year-old quickly identified as a seal skin! My tween eleven-year-old was especially fascinated by the ways in which they cleaned their homes, and none of the kids were willing to hold the (clean!) Native chamber pot!
After our outdoor tour, we went back to the center where Native Alaskans are welcomed to share and sell their handicrafts. The artists were also happy to share the creative processes they enjoy with my children. We met a wonderful married couple who grew up on the island of Kodiak and spent half an hour sharing about our lives with them. The wife is a bead and jewelry artist, and the husband is one of the few Native mask artists still alive. He’s been all over the world teaching his craft to historians and museums, and he took the time to sit down with my creative eight-year-old and teach her how to carve a mask. He showed her his tools and the wood he uses, and then pulled out the notebook of his designs. He patiently told her about the different meanings behind the colors in his designs, why the eyes were carved a certain way, and answered any questions she had about his life. In the meantime, his wife shared stories and thoughts with me about their lives on Kodiak and what life was like growing up as a Native Alaskan.
Our day at the Alaska Native Heritage Center ended with a demonstration by several of the athletes in the NYO Games (Native Youth Olympics). The Games feature competition in ten events based on games Native Alaskans would play to prepare themselves for life in the harsh Alaskan environment. They use the games to test their hunting and survival skills. Presently, the Games are open to any Alaskan child from seventh through twelfth grade, whether they are an Alaskan Native or not. Before our trip, we had read books and watched several YouTube videos about life in Alaska, but I felt like the 3 hours we spent immersed in the Native history and culture gave us unparalleled insight into centuries of life in this cold landscape.
Day 2 Itinerary: Views of Denali
We started with a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Anchorage to the Denali Viewpoint South to see if we could see the Great High One.
Well….only about one-third of those who visit the viewpoint, or even the park, get to see the top of the mountain. The Alaskan Range that Denali is part of creates its own weather, and frequently is surrounded by clouds.
We did not get a full view of the mountain while we were at the viewpoint, but we were only slightly disappointed.
Now, while the Heritage Center was a rich cultural experience for us about the history of Alaska, Talkeetna was a rich cultural experience showing us the current heartbeat of Alaska. The small city, really the only city between the outskirts of Anchorage and Denali National Park, has every walk of life that thrives within the borders of the state represented. In the pub, we were surrounded by mountaineers, backpackers, and year-round residents. In the stores, we found everything from baleen carvings and vibrant paintings of bears and moose, to zip-lining and glacier flights. We enjoyed an afternoon of shopping and walking, and then drove back towards Anchorage.
Kahiltna Birchworks has a shop on the road to Talkeetna where they process the sap of the Birch tree and create syrup. They have a sustainable farm in the Alaskan interior where they tap upwards of ten thousand trees each year. The shop in Talkeetna has the equipment needed to take the watery sap and turn it into a thick, dark syrup. We were given a tour of the equipment and then we tasted the different runs of syrup. Did you know that syrup tastes different depending on when in the season the tree is tapped? I didn’t, but I do now! The earlier runs of syrup were very sweet, and as the season progressed, the syrup flavors became bolder and richer.
Day 3 Itinerary: a Reindeer Farm & Glaciers
On our final full day in Anchorage, we started the day with a visit to the Reindeer Farm in Palmer, AK. The farm sits in the valley between two snow-topped mountains, and was something unique to experience. Our guide started the visit by sticking the kids in the chicken pen, and letting them try to catch a chicken. Hilarity ensued (no chickens were harmed in the activity). Once our guide was ready, we were taken to the reindeer pen. Reindeer are very docile animals, and we were able to walk into the pen with the herd. It was a chilly morning, and the reindeer were all snuggled together, but when they realized we had food, about a third of the animals slowly made their way to us. Those willing to get up close to the reindeer fed them by hand. We could pet the sweet animals, and we even got to see several baby reindeer! After the reindeer were fed, we had the chance to feed some elk and see the rescued baby moose that lives on the farm.
We stopped for lunch at a little roadside stand named Jim Creek Fatt Burgers. The stand was tiny, and the ambiance of the location made me a little anxious about eating there, but it had great reviews online. The burgers were delicious, and we ate at the little bar on the porch with a gorgeous view of mountains right in front of us.
Knik Glacier Tours
Our tour started at the Knik Glacier Tour office, where we all boarded a fifteen-passenger van that was lifted on a 4×4 frame! My son was already thrilled and I’m pretty sure he would have been willing to give up all his toys to move to Alaska in that moment! We took off in the bus on trails through the back country, bouncing along the rocky trails and fording rivers like it was nothing. After four miles of real-life adventure, we arrived at the banks of the Knik River, where we embarked on an enclosed airboat for a four-mile trip up the river. We passed waterfalls, red streaked rocks, and even small icebergs on the journey up the river, stopping only when we came to the field of huge icebergs. There were icebergs as large as houses as far as the eyes could see! It felt like we were in another world as our boat cruised within ten feet of spectacular ice formations ranging from bright white to brilliant blue and even multi-colored stripes. There will never be words to describe the feeling of watching my children stare in wonder at the scene before them.
There were icebergs as large as houses as far as the eyes could see! It felt like we were in another world as our boat cruised within ten feet of spectacular ice formations ranging from bright white to brilliant blue and even multi-colored stripes. There will never be words to describe the feeling of watching my children stare in wonder at the scene before them.
We cruised along the icebergs for several minutes, then docked at the side of the iceberg field and disembarked the boat. We hiked thirty feet up the hill and all took shelter from the wind coming off the glacier at the glacier camp set up by the tour company. We spent an hour on the hillside hanging out, enjoying hot chocolate, searching the nearby mountains with binoculars for bears, and then hiking over the rise to stare in amazement at the two glaciers, multitude of mountains, and the iceberg field that were in view. The main reason we went to Alaska was to fulfil my mother-in-law’s wish to see glaciers, and as I saw the delight in her eyes while she took in the view, I knew her dream was coming true right in front of me.
Since all good things must come to some sort of end, we eventually boarded the boat to head back to our bus…but not until my kids had the chance to pick up a small iceberg, and take a lick! They are now thrilled that they can tell people they tasted an iceberg. The view as we rode the boat back to the bus was just as majestic as on the way in, and the ride back to the office was just as bumpy. As we drove back to Anchorage in the rental van that night, we all agreed that we had truly found the “real Alaska!”
-We knew we could not make it all the way from Anchorage, to Denali National Park, and back to Anchorage in one day, as the National Park entrance is 4 hours from Anchorage. We considered flying into Fairbanks and stopping at the park on the way to Anchorage, but the rental car transfer fee was over $700! The view point is 2.5 hours from Anchorage which became the next best option.
-At the Denali viewpoint there is an extra hiking trail that went a little way up the hill and the viewing area at the top gave us spectacular views!
-We stayed at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Anchorage for the four nights we were in the city. The hotel was wonderfully clean, well maintained, and we had plenty of room for our party of six. There is an indoor pool for guests that also has a large hot tub. They have a good restaurant on site, as well as salads and fruit available at all hours.