Clicking into his skis with a sigh of satisfaction, AK Kid snugged his hat a bit tighter and pushed off down Talkeetna’s Main Street with all the confidence of a backcountry expert.
“Where to?” I asked, being careful to avoid the pockmarked street, evidence of a lower-than-normal snow year in Southcentral Alaska.
“Out there, anywhere,” my son said, gesturing toward a stand of bare trees and scrubby brush bordering the banks of the Susitna River, one of three that braids its way around town.
The three of us, AK Kid, Dad, and I, were sliding headlong into a 30-hour family getaway in Talkeetna after our midday arrival on the Alaska Railroad that morning. Holiday-weary, work-stressed, and craving some snow time on the skinny boards, we had booked this precious weekend with glee. You’d think we were headed to Mexico for all the excitement Friday night as we tucked AK Kid into bed. But then, that’s what Talkeetna, Alaska does to people.
Only 2.5 hours by car, and 3 hours by train, Talkeetna is well-known among Alaska residents for its charm and low-key approach to just about everything, and that includes outdoor recreation. With Anchorage lacking much in the way of measurable snowfall in 2014, our family had not yet strapped on the Nordic skis and were anxious for a bit of post-Christmas trail time.
Skirting the not-quite-frozen river (another surprise; I’d never seen the Susitna running so open in December), we followed a snow machine track and the tracks of other skiers and snowshoers, a raw wind nipping at our faces. Mount McKinley tried to make an appearance to the north, but the top layer of clouds kept us from seeing the vast expanse of snow and rock. Never mind, Talkeetna provides eye candy no matter where one looks, and sure enough, a pair of eagles kept wary watch over us from the tippy top of a cottonwood tree, and a trough of packed snow led us to a bankside beaver lodge where, inside, a flat-tailed rodent was undoubtedly revelling in our exclamations of discovery.
Nordic skiing in Talkeetna’s downtown area is relatively simple, and accessible, especially for those visitors who show up on the train lacking any other transportation. Multi-use and sometimes groomed, sometimes not, skiing Talkeetna means watching for signs of true Alaskana, and liking it. For kids, that means interest-holding activity beyond that of skiing, and it’s important to recognize the entirety of such an experience.
As a ‘tween, AK Kid can carry on for at least a few hours, at least in theory, and Talkeetna provides places for reasonable stops and starts. For new skiers or families who just want to play around and get comfortable with Nordic skis, try Riverfront Park at the end of Main Street. Here, trails wind among trees, and kids will enjoy creating their own nature-based obstacle course on skis. When the river is completely frozen (check with the Talkeetna Chamber website for current conditions), head south, following snow machine tracks along the river, taking notice of animal tracks and chunks of ice. Watch for open water at all times, and when in doubt, don’t go. An alternative is to weave through the trees that lead to another community park/trail system at the end of C Street (south), where AK Kid enjoyed playing “follow the leader” with the grownups.
For a true trail ski, head north from Riverfront Park toward the AKRR train trestle, crossing the river on the multi-use pathway and connecting with the Chase Trail, a wide, multi-use trail frequented by both skiers and cabin/homestead owners. Watch for snow machines, four-wheelers, dogs, people, and other skiers, all of whom like to utilize the Chase’s flat terrain and wide girth. Truly, though, it’s generally an uncrowded experience, and very nice for kids, especially if a train powers by.
Apres’ ski is just as important as the activity itself, so don’t forget to hunker down at one of Talkeetna’s ski in-ski out establishments for a bit of sustenance. We love the historic, rustic Talkeetna Roadhouse for both lodging and food; the combination brings us to a comfort nirvana every time. Rates are low, low in the winter months, too, making this a perfect choice for a relaxing weekend. Twister Creek pub is part of the Denali Brewing Company, and presents hearty, well-loved dishes that satisfied our appetites after a few hours of skiing. Mountain High Pizza is always a hit, with by-the-slice or whole-pie options, root beer for kids, and craft ales for the adults.
The Alaska Railroad departs Anchorage at 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays, drops Talkeetna passengers at the section house depot by 11:30, and returns from Fairbanks on Sunday at 4:45 for the southbound trip. The getaway feels much longer, however, and our family consistently returns from our mini-vacation rested and ready to tackle the upcoming week. Make reservations HERE, or call 1-800-544-0552 (my personal preference) for tickets. The train can be crowded with package tour guests, so advance reservations are almost always a must.
Need Nordic skis? Try REI’s Anchorage or Fairbanks stores; both offer adult and children-sized skis, boots, and poles for reasonable prices.
AKontheGO may be back at home, today, but our hearts and rested minds are still in the village of Talkeetna. It took me about five minutes to decide we needed to go back, so, Iditarod weekend, we’ll be there.