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 TWO | Rule No. 1 when exploring the wilderness: always do so on a full stomach. So before today’s adventure, you head to The Bake Shop, a homey decades-old breakfast and lunch spot known for sweet rolls that really ought to have a fancier name. You order one of these sugar bombs along with the “Summer of ’76” special, which includes three sourdough pancakes, eggs and bacon. After polishing off the latter with gusto, you wrap up the bulk of the former and take it to go. There’ll be plenty of time to lick your fingers during the next stop on your itinerary.
You’ve booked a seat on one of the second-floor cabins on the Alaska Railroad’s Coastal Classic Train, which offers windows that turn a three-hour train ride into a jaw-dropping sightseeing expedition. A guide points out environmental features along the way—glaciers, waterfalls, river valleys and, interestingly, trees petrified by salt water that flooded much of the area following a major earthquake in 1964—and occasionally imparts bits of trivia (“around here, if someone calls you ‘skookum,’ it means you’re cool”). You grab a can of Denali Brewing Company Single Engine Red from the bar and head to an outdoor viewing deck where your gaze is drawn to distant mountains reflected perfectly in placid glacial lakes. You breathe deep, sucking in air that’s been squeezed out of ice and further purified by miles upon miles of alpine wilderness.
Long after you’ve lost count of black bears, porcupines and eagles, the train arrives at the port town of Seward, where a boat, courtesy of Kenai Fjords Tours, ferries you into even more breathtaking scenery. You slip into a fog bank dividing the waters of Resurrection Bay from coasts worthy of a Peter Jackson epic, but soon the sheer rock faces and strange little spruce-covered islands and outcroppings come back into view.
You’re pleased to discover that you’re not alone: Playful humpback whales, stealthy orcas, canoodling sea otters, lounging sea lions and clumsy puffins all swing by to say hello. After a few short hours of this, the vessel pauses beneath the massive Holgate Glacier long enough for you to witness a very large chunk of ice break off with a thunderous crack and a splash to match. With that, the captain sets a course back to Seward, where you re-board the train and doze off to the steady rhythm of the tracks, occasionally waking to blink your eyes at nature so relentlessly beautiful it’s as if you’re dreaming the whole time.
What you do actually dream about, of course, is eating. So, en route from Girdwood to Anchorage in your rental, you swing by Indian Valley Meats for the ultimate road food: jerky. You grab one of everything for souvenirs—nothing says “I was thinking of you” like dried meat—and tear into a package of maple garlic elk, which you gnaw on until the end of the drive and before heading to dinner.
Perhaps it’s because your jaw is primed from the jerky, but the light, buttery black cod that you order at Jens’ Restaurant in Anchorage is as soft and velvety as anything you’ve eaten in your life. You savor every strawberry gastrique and berry salsa-drizzled morsel like it’s the last time you’ll ever eat seafood this fresh, which is a possibility.
Even though you’re on the verge of collapse after a blissfully long day, you stop by the hipster hangout Sub Zero Bistro & Microlounge, if only for the novelty of an after-hours nightcap in twilight.
One whiskey- and honey-flavored cocktail later, a rugged-looking outdoorsy type almost convinces you there’s plenty of time for a hike up nearby Flattop Mountain, but your bed at the quaint Copper Whale Inn beckons. You’ll be going a lot higher than that tomorrow, anyway…