Alaska Experience, 2011: AKontheGO Reviews the Year

This was going to be a typical “Top Five” list.  AK Fam had already engaged in a number of spirited conversations, arguing and pleading and lobbying for favorite destinations to achieve AKontheGO-greatness. But we couldn’t agree. AK Dad, Kid, and I were busy in 2011, traveling in all directions to expand our sense of adventure, so how could we possibly assign rank to a particular community that really isn’t located in just one spot, or place value to one wild scenario without at least mentioning another, 1,000 miles south? Turns out, we couldn’t, but that’s the beautiful thing about Alaska, we discovered. It befuddles, amazes, enlightens, and makes us wonder. Everywhere we go.

So, friends, below is our story of 2011. Slightly abridged, a little funky, but nonethess inspiring.

OUR 2011 ALASKA EXPERIENCE BROUGHT…

A SEASONAL SHIFT: AK Fam made a decided effort in 2011 to venture out beyond the boundaries of typical summer tourism, and found delightful experiences as a result. Spring kicked off with a trip to Valdez for a wacky weekend of Bush Pilot antics at the May Day Fly-In. With hundreds of spanking-bright Bush Alaska planes buzzing in the sky like a swarm of bees, we spent three days viewing acrobatic take-offs, landings, and stuff I never imagined an airplane could attempt. We took a helicopter ride over sharp ridges of the surrounding mountains, and got to rub shoulders with heroes of Alaskan aviation. Have a hankering to do the same? Read our post from the event and make reservations for the 2012 Fly In. You won’t be disappointed.

The Interior city of Fairbanks also delivered in 2011. Fall and mid-winter visits deposited us in temperatures that fluctuated between 65 F and -25 F, but also afforded us a rare opportunity to capture four seasons at Creamer’s Field, where year-round recreation opportunities are abundant and children receive a real-time look at the diversity of meadow and boreal forest environments. Late summer brought leggy, squawking Sandhill Cranes, fall was resplendent in yellows and oranges of fast-changing trees, and we experienced, firsthand, the throes of winter with a flat, gray-beige palette of color, beautiful for its stark contrast.

BIG ADVENTURES: If AK Fam gleaned one tiny bit of insight this past year, it was the realization that life is indeed made up of precious moments that somehow become a glorious tapestry of impressions later on.

As a Father’s Day present for AK Dad, and perhaps a reward for staying alive after a mountain bike accident nearly killed him,  K2 Aviation flew us around Mt. McKinley one fine summer day. A seasoned pilot provided narration and expert skills, the Mountain provided our backdrop, and all we had to do was stand on a glacier with our mouths hanging open. An ampitheatre of craggy granite, a creaking ice field, and we, smaller than small upon centuries of snow on a June day we thought would never be. You won’t get closer to North America’s highest peak, or heaven, than this. Do it.

I did BIG this year, all right. Right into the path of a water-soaked, protective, and slightly stinky Coastal Brown Bear sow and about 10 of her cohorts at Hallo Bay Bear Camp. This adventure was perhaps the most visceral; one half-day trip and one three-day immersion into the world of bears, on their turf and by their terms. Who do we think we are, anyway? Spend time with the bruins of Hallo Bay and your older child will begin to ask him or herself that question, guaranteed. This is the place for learning about bears’ habits and habitats with guides who not only know bears, they know how to explain it to people like me. Twice, in fact. Here’s why.

CULTURAL CONNECTIONS: Alaska is also made up of people. People whose ancestors lived and died hard upon the soil, sand, and mud; people who knew far more about the cycles of life than anything I could dream up, because their very survival depended upon it. Salmon, caribou, moose, bear, sun, moon; everything has a place and every place a story, and all are woven carefully into the First People. A visit to Alaska would not be complete without listening carefully.

Sitka National Historical Park is a 113-acre storyboard of epic battles and lives forever changed by a clash of cultures. The Totem Trail is a must-do, with nearly two miles of rainforest shielding tall totems that stand as silent sentries. Feel this place in your soul; hike it early in the morning or later in the evening when crowds are thinner and light filters gently between the hemlock branches. You’ll almost want to whisper. Take a detour to the beach and spy eagles resting among the trees or rocky outcroppings, and listen carefully for the splash of spawning salmon. We were charmed.

Sometimes we stumbled upon meaningful moments. It happened this fall at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center in Fairbanks. Void of crowds, the building was quiet that Saturday morning as we walked through a wonderful collection of Interior artifacts, information, and interactive displays. A cooperative effort among Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Center, Tanana Valley Chiefs, and Alaska Public Lands Centers, the facility is a transformational example of cultural character intertwined with visitor appreciation. I heard an example of this as I rounded a corner near the Hall of Elders, designed as a “talking circle” for various events and activities. Silhouettes from two fiddle players emerged, quietly playing an old waltz while life flowed around them. One was elder, the other, a young man, and both focused with rapt attention upon their instruments and the music they had created together. They never acknowledged my presence in the dark corner of the hall, and I never spoke to them, lest the magic be interrupted.

A UNIQUE VIEW: If I had to list one favorite trip for 2011, it would be exploring southeast Alaska courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Wrangell, and Ketchikan aboard a collection of AMHS vessels so integral to the fabric of the 49th state that their very existence is a worthwhile destination. We wound our way through the stunning Inside Passage, stopping at tiny communities like Kake, where the Dog Salmon Festival was in full swing and where our boat was greeted by Native elders beating drums and waving oars. We visited Wrangell, where the beating of Alaska’s heart continues in a decided rhythm that doesn’t change, even as the rest of the world urges it to do so. The ferries provided simple lodging, great food, classic service, and the gift of time. And time, AKontheGO’ers, is something we were eternally grateful for, this year. Follow our journey aboard AMHS ferries here.

Where will we go in 2012? Anywhere, I suppose. Or everywhere. Watch us and see.

EK

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