Don’t let the endless vistas of rugged wilderness fool you—the Last Frontier can be tamed. All you need is a plane, a helicopter, a boat or a train. Preferably all four.
Author Sam Polcer Photography Sam Polcer
DAY ONE | Alyeska, the mountain resort situated in the crunchy town of Girdwood, located just 45 minutes south of Anchorage, is referred to by locals as “Alaska’s base camp,” an expression that brings to mind tent flaps whipping in the wind, maps spread over barrels and lumpy bedrolls on muddy plateaus. Fortunately, the majestic Royal Suite at the chateau-like Hotel Alyeska is nothing of the sort. Mechanical curtains rise to reveal a floor-to-ceiling panorama of the surrounding mountains, with its emerald spruce trees and dramatic white peaks towering above. You ease into a chair in the center of the suite’s domed parlor and, doing your best Captain Kirk, beam up a breakfast spread that includes lox so fresh you swear you can see them flinch.
Today you’ve lined up a helicopter expedition with adventure tour outfitter Alpine Air Alaska, and soon you’re sitting shotgun in a Robinson R44, soaring through an otherworldly landscape. Below, rivers have carved serpentine routes through what seem like endless valleys. Glaciers like massive ribbons connect craggy cliffs with swirls of white, while mountain goats below eye your craft warily.
Forty-five miles east of Anchorage over the Chugach Mountains, you arrive at Colony Glacier, where you take in crevices of jagged, blue-tinged glacial ice cradling a pool of melted topaz.
“Where you can see blue ice, that means it’s solid,” says your pilot, Jared. “You can’t be sure what’s under the snow, though.”
You freeze his words in the front of your mind. The ice is blue, he explains, because it has been so compressed over time that pockets of air have been forced out. It now only reflects light at the blue end of the spectrum. Each car-sized chunk looks like a piece of broken sky. You wander the alien landscape in disbelief, not straying far from the arctic blue pond, which is the most mesmerizing thing of all.
Later, back in Girdwood, you’re still exhilarated (and a bit wobbly) from your IMAX flight sequence, so you head to the Double Musky Inn to right yourself with a hearty lunch. The walls of this lodge-like eatery are decorated with what appears to be the detritus of a dozen Mardi Gras (beads, masks, souvenir mugs), and the cuisine—Cajun-style dishes featuring fresh Alaskan seafood—follows suit. You toast your first-ever glacier walk with a spicy salmon Bloody Mary and dive into an ambitious array of apps, including pepper steak tips, halibut ceviche, spicy crawfish dip and crab legs the size of baseball bats.
There isn’t time to take to the air for more animal spotting—nor could a chopper hold you after that meal—so you head to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a sprawling refuge for orphaned and displaced alpine creatures, including grizzlies, black bears, caribou, lynxes, moose and wood bison. There, you take a shine to two musk ox calves, who seem more bear-cub than cow, along with a proud one-winged eagle named Adonis, before bidding your new friends adieu.
Up a rutted road, you find the Crow Creek Mine, the state’s most popular recreational gold mining area and the spot that first put Girdwood on the map. During its peak nearly a hundred years ago, the mine produced more than 700 ounces a month, and folks today are still finding not only the smaller bits missed by the miners of yesteryear but some untouched stores of nuggets. When two men with beards longer than your forearm saunter by with metal detectors, buckets and—you can’t help but notice—a six-shooter loaded for bear, the Wild West picture is complete. A site employee shows you how to pan, but after a few tries you’re left with what looks like something your kitchen sink once coughed up.
One thing you’re fairly sure that you can handle is dinner. At Alyeska’s mid-mountain Seven Glaciers, Chef Jason Porter’s five-course tasting menu is illuminated by a sunset that’s two hours in (remember, this is summer in Alaska, where dusk can last after midnight). Again, Alaskan seafood—here, in the form of a king crab salad, a Kodiak scallop and wild salmon—takes center stage, although the crispy pork belly almost steals the show.
It’s bedtime now, and the sun finally seems about ready to call it a night. You take the tram down to your luxurious base camp, lower the blinds and sack out.