Well, I am back at the Captain Cook Hotel and feeling totally exhilarated from a day trip to the Kenai Penninsula. When I was in Alaska two years ago, my trip was primarily on the Kenai and when I think back to the brilliant and majestic turquoise river, I start to quiver. Excluding very bad weather, I was pretty set on getting back there again.
We woke up very early and walked to Snow City Café. At 7am, it was still dark, but as we sat there eating our Alaskan breakfast, salmon cakes and eggs, the sky slowly turned to dawn and into day. The food was pretty good and not the greasy spoon style restaurant that one expects in this neck of the woods. The interior was very bright and had colorful art on the walls. I believe this is what people need to do to keep themselves in good cheer in the winter months. Bringing the sunshine inside, so to speak.
We packed our bags for the day and headed out to the Kenai. Now, the Seward Highway starts in Anchorage (actually it starts in Seward and ends in Anchorage based on the direction of the mile markers) and in the beginning it’s just like any other ugly road going through Anytown USA. And then as soon as it hits the edge of the city limit, it starts to follow Turnagain Arm, which is the body of water that cut into the Kenai to create a peninsula and opens up into the Cook Inlet. The Seward Highway is thought to be one of the most scenic highways in the USA and, while I haven’t driven all of them, I have driven a lot of them and agree – it is an absolutely breathtaking experience. The Chugach Mountains have many peaks that average about 4000 feet, although the twelve highest peaks are in the 9,000 to 13,000 foot range. But 4000 feet is nothing to scoff at and to see many, many mountains alongside of each other that high above sea level is very dramatic. Combining this with the fact that the highway hugs Turnagain Arm and so the snow-capped mountains are reflected in the body of water – well let’s just say it’s a good thing there are lots of places to pull over to take pictures. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
We passed areas where there were lots of cars and it appeared as if it was a great place for winter sports. Like ants on the hillside, we saw in the distance people climbing up the mountains to do cross country skiing. This is the third mild winter in a row and so people have to go further and higher up in elevation to reach the snow. Also, snowmobiles galore in certain spots.
Now, once we got about an hour out of Anchorage, the human population was sparser and the snow was heavier in the mountains. We passed a snow blower that was unlike any other I had ever seen. This was something the size of a tractor that had a chute on top of it and it meant serious business, as it shot the snow up perhaps 20 feet in the air before it came down on the side of the road. OK, it’s true, everything is bigger in Alaska.
At the 37 mile marker, we hugged a right on the Sterling Highway, which traverses the Kenai running east-west and eventually will run south toward Homer, which is a cute little hippie town on the far end of the peninsula. Kenai Lake, the origin of the river is in Cooper Landing and once we passed through there, I knew the hike I was looking for was within fifteen miles. Once we turned off the highway onto Skilak road, the road was a literal sheet of ice. It was a very strange driving experience (for about one more mile), but soon enough we were parked and ready to get moving.
There is some part of me that doesn’t like to visit the same places again, only because there’s so many places to see on the planet – why double up? And then there are some places that left such an impression on me, that I simply can’t imagine never experiencing again. And this hike that follows the turns of the river while overlooking it, is in the latter category. The minerals deposited from the glacial erosion and deposits are responsible for the turquoise color and just looking at it is color therapy and probably other types of therapy as well.
The only difficult part of the day was that the trail was iced over in a lot of places. We compensated by walking off-trail wherever possible, as the snow was actually a lot safer to navigate. But in truth, we weren’t making great time in regards to distance walked. I would have loved to make more headway and huff and puff, but since we didn’t, frequent stops to admire the scenery filled in the gaps. The river is relatively gentle, no rapids to speak of. It is very meandering and circuitous, seems to be in no rush, very much having mastered the art of zen. A nature lover’s paradise no doubt.
When I hiked the Kenai in late May, I was out until 11pm with my flashlight that I had no use for. But this time, I was much more cognizant of the shorter days and so we limited ourselves to three hours on the trail and aimed to get back to the car by 3:30pm.
Dan had expressed interest in going to the Double Musky Inn in Girdwood, and so, I wanted to make sure we fit that in. Girdwood is about 35 miles south of Anchorage and so we drove about 70 miles back toward home until we reached it. Girdwood is a small resort community that is its own eclectic mix of Alaskans. It caters to those who ski, but is in no way limited to that.
OK, the restaurant opens at 4:30pm and we arrived at 4:45pm and had a hard time finding a place to park. In addition, the line was coming out of the door and we had to wait just to get inside and once inside, we were still on a line to be greeted by the hostess. Neither of us could believe that in the off season that it could possibly be so crowded. There were seats left only in the bar area (luckily there is no smoking allowed inside) and, while we were limited to the appetizers in the bar, it saved us an hour of waiting for a table to access the dinner menu.
I probably don’t need to keep repeating, but will anyway, Alaska is not a vacation one chooses if they are seeking a gastronomic tour, the national food Renaissance has simply not yet spread to these regions. So eating in Alaska is about finding great fish and in the summer, great veggies, and then getting by with the rest of the components. We had a halibut ceviche and coconut battered salmon chunks which embraced the local food. And then some gumbo and sausage stuffed battered mushrooms. Tasty and I can see that after a day on the slopes, it can hit the spot. We were seated right next to four women and I overheard them talking about the University of Oregon. So we struck up a conversation and learned that two of them live in Anchorage and two in Seattle and one of their daughters recently moved to Eugene. Small world.
The Double Musky Inn was a quintessential Alaskan experience and I was happy we went there. Back at the hotel, we took advantage of the Captain Cook Athletic Club, which is a gym for those choose to join it and it’s complementary to the hotel guests. The Jacuzzi felt wonderful after an afternoon of hiking in cool air.
I was sleepy, as I often am in the evening, but I knew I wanted to go out on the town for a bit and get a taste of those flavors. Mad Myrna’s seemed like it would be an offbeat venue, and honestly, I was shocked to find out that Anchorage even had a gay bar that did burlesque and drag shows. Who knew?? We didn’t know what was happening that night, but took our chances when they said that there was a fashion show. I believe it was a mixed crowd there and in no way exclusively a gay bar. It was warm in there and people were wearing tank tops. I have noticed this in general – since it is cold outside, establishments really crank up the heat and people dress in layers to be prepared.
Anyway, the MC’s were a man and a woman – I think he owns Mad Myrna’s and she owns a lingerie shop in Anchorage, and they joined forces for the evening. They had their shtick going on, and they cracked jokes as they introduced the five models who displayed lingerie. One of them was a man who clearly had been trained in dance and was a gymnast as well and he did some pretty impressive moves like back flips, which evoked a lot of cheering from the crowds. It was fun, yet we both thought it would go on and on with the same stuff for the duration so we decided to head out.
Our evening walk ritual followed, and again, the sidewalks had turned to ice. I don’t really know, but unless they get a lot more snow, this daily thawing and freezing cycle can go on until spring and it surely makes for an interesting experience getting around on foot! This being said, the residents must be used to it, life marches on, and we have yet to witness anyone falling. Alaskan’s are a resilient bunch.