Alaska in the fall is glorious. All oranges and yellows, subtle shades of greens, dusty purples, and a palette of browns and grays. Most of the deciduous trees have already shed their leaves, but the few who cling on into the early morning frost still bravely display their autumn glory. Set against the deep forest green of the evergreens and the towering walls of mountains just beginning to slumber a dusting of snow on the very tips of the peaks, it is a stunning panorama that very few tourists ever see of Alaska. By now they have all scattered back to their homes, with a few hardy exceptions.
Apparently this past weekend I was among those exceptions. I count myself one of the privileged to experience the last gasp before nature’s annual slumber descends on the North. This is a side to living in Anchorage that is a secret to all but the locals and those in the know. Without my family connections in Anchorage, I would never have glimpsed an Alaskan autumn.
Last Sunday my cousin Elizabeth drove me along the Seward Highway, which hugs the Cook Inlet between Anchorage and the fast-receding tongue of the Portage Glacier on the way to Seward. I have been down this stunning stretch of highway before on previous family visits, but if it is actually possible, this drive surpassed them all. There was a surprising lack of visible wildlife – no spotting of Dall sheep clinging to the sheer cliff faces or beluga whales cresting in the inlet’s glistening waters. However, that didn’t seem to matter. The star attraction was the autumn colors, set off against a landscape of never-ending mountains and sea. I amused my cousin with my constant wonder and excitement as new vistas appeared around each bend in the road.
The Seward Highway is one of America’s great drives. So many secrets lie hidden among the scenery, which easily overpowers all notice of them for most tourists transfixed by the view. With my cousin as a guide, we sought them out. Shortly after leaving Anchorage, we came across Potter’s Marsh, a wetland normally blazing in greenery, wildflowers, and birds. This time, it was a stark, but poignant landscape of golden marsh grasses, the mountains reflected in the waters, and a number of wild swans rudely flashing their backsides as they ducked under the surface for food.
A little further along the highway we began to pass forests of gray, dead trees rising out of the marsh. In one tree graveyard, we spotted a weathered house caving in on itself, like a relic of a lost era. However, these are all reminders of a tragic event in Alaska’s recent history – the 1964 Good Friday earthquake that hit Anchorage with devastating force. It is believed to have been a 9.2 on the Richter scale. Areas of the city built on soil full of clay liquefied and literally turned into a rolling sea of mud and houses flowing into the sea. (Today, this area is now Earthquake Park). In downtown Anchorage, a section of 4th avenue dropped 25 feet. My aunt and uncle were living only a couple blocks away from there at the time and took cover as their apartment building collapsed around them. Landslides took out homes and the earth buckled and shifted. The damage was extensive – the entire façade of the J.C. Penney department store fell away. Elsewhere in the Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, sudden tsunamis – giant waves created by the earth’s tremors displacing huge amounts of water – roared through towns, crashing into Kodiak, Valdez and other coastal towns, drowning people, sweeping away buildings, and instantly killing the trees as their roots absorbed the salt water. To me, these ghostly dead forests lining the Seward Highway that most tourists whiz past completely unaware are memorials to the estimated 117 people who lost their lives. (This number does not include the 14 who were killed in tsunamis hitting the Canadian, Oregon, and Californian coasts.)
The mood didn’t stay somber for long, however, as we pulled into our destination at Girdwood for lunch – The Bake Shop. Over bowls of homemade soup and huge buttered rolls, we rested from the drive and enjoyed some cousin time so rare for a family that is dispersed throughout the country. Just a small restaurant in the former lodge of the local ski resort, The Bake Shop is a casual, unpretentious establishment of simple, hearty fare. Steps away are some of the ski lifts in the shadow of the mountains. One can only imagine how soothing a bowl of steaming soup here must be after a long day of skiing. For now the ski lifts stand empty and silent, but very soon they will groan to life as the first snows of Alaskan winter grace the mountains.
We weren’t going to stick around Girdwood long enough to see that, so back into the car we went and pulled onto the highway to retrace our way to the city. The following morning I would be boarding a jet plane back to reality in the lower 48, but for now I could savor the autumn views and – to this native Oregonian – the comforting presence of the mountains.