This is my last night in Alaska on what has been a whirlwind of a family visit. The entire weekend’s focus was to visit my aunt and cousin, yet we still managed to fit in almost the entire classic Alaskan Grand Tour into my short time, minus the beluga whales. (There’s always next time.)
Flying into Anchorage is always like dropping out of reality into a magical mountain kingdom, as long as the cloud cover cooperates. For a while, it looked like we would be socked in, as dense clouds blanketed our approach across the Canadian plains and then up the Inside Passage. However, just as we began our descent into Anchorage, the clouds disintegrated and laid out before us was a visual feast. Every tourist in the plane gasped and cameras clicked. Ridges upon ridges of recently snow-capped mountains piled up on each other, until they plunged into the glistening Cook Inlet. Our plane banked past the iconic Sleeping Lady and there was the city of Anchorage, tiny and brave amidst all the majestic power of the mountains.
Yesterday the overpowering grandeur of the landscape continued to show off. It is the tail end of autumn here, with a few trees still desperately clinging to their brilliantly gold and crimson leaves as early morning frost etched into their branches. The weather is crisp, temperatures in the 40’s at mid-day in the sun. One of the last weekends of beautiful weather before winter arrives.
Taking advantage of the weather, we joined the stalwart hikers and bikers up in the mountains that ring the city. Only a 15 minute drive away from my cousin’s apartment was a popular hiking trail in Chugach National Park, called Powerline Trail. Bundled up in fleece, gloves and hats, accompanied by their dogs and binoculars, the locals hiked, biked and even jogged in the shadow of mountains.
The views from the trailhead parking lot were spectacular. Even my cousin, who grew up here, was amazed at how crystal clear the view was of the city below and the mountains beyond. She pointed out Redoubt Mountain, a volcano that has recently rumbled enough to sprinkle some ash upon Anchorage. The Sleeping Lady, a graceful elderly mountain, already lay beneath a thin blanket of snow, tucked in for winter. A magical moment for me was looking out over the huge expanse of the inlet to the sterling white and silver lines of mountains on the horizon and my cousin saying to me, “There’s Mt. McKinley.” Otherwise known as Denali.
Anyone in my family will understand why this moment is so special. My grandfather, a celebrated Alaskan poet, wrote of the majestic peak Denali, entwining Denali into his mystical poetry of long winters beneath the dark skies and dancing Northern Lights. I grew up drinking in the words of my grandfather and wondered at how powerful this mountain called Denali must be to inspire such prose. Now I can attest to her magic. Denali is a queen among mountains.
My spiritual moment having passed, we took to Powerline Pass. I recommend this trail to everyone, even non-hikers. It is a relatively easy hike on a wide gravel path through a valley surrounded by mountains. As is so often the case in Alaska, we happened upon a moment straight out of National Geographic. Keep in mind we were only 15 minutes away from the city. As we strolled, we came across a clump of people huddled around their cameras and binoculars staring transfixed off into the valley across the creek. They had spotted not one, not two, not even just three, but what turned out to be EIGHT bull moose. I’ve seen one at a time before, nonchalantly strolling through an Anchorage neighborhood, but never such a gathering as this.
It is the height of mating season, and we were in the prime spot for spotting the annual rituals of moose love. With so many bull moose in the area and the presence of one female, we stopped to quietly watch the inevitable action from a safe distance. It was a fascinating, although frustrating, lesson in patience. Apparently, bull moose are very slow and deliberate about their movements. Two males bulls would slowly approach each other, circling and eyeing each other up, until they finally made contact and tangled up their huge racks of antlers. We were too far away to see every intricate step of the dance, but we were close enough to see their shaking heads, their hooves paw at the ground, and one moose chase off the second. This ritual is called rutting. When one moose held his own against another, he would move on to challenge the next bull, until no other moose remained unchallenged. Then our gallant champion moved off into the trees with the female. At that point, frozen in solid sentinel from standing for so long transfixed by the action, we painfully made our way back to the car.
So many more highlights to share, but as I have an early flight back to the Midwest tomorrow, it’s time to hit the hay. Praying for clear weather for takeoff so that I can say a final goodbye to the mountains.