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 THREE | Virtually every restaurant menu thus far has included at least one form of eggs Benedict, but the airy Snow City Café serves them with king crab cakes, so you give theirs a try. A few bites in, you decide that your decision to opt for the dish is fully justified, as is the line that’s now snaking out the door.
Meal complete, you wend your way past the brunchers and down the street to the glistening Anchorage Museum to take in an exhibit featuring Native Alaskan artists who provide a contemporary twist on traditional visual motifs. You’re particularly struck by Jerry Laktonen’s Here Comes the Sun, an ominous black mask made of cedar, amber and goose feathers. For sheer resourcefulness, however, it’d be tough to beat the artifacts in the museum’s Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center: Sheep hoof snow goggles, a lynx tooth necklace, seal intestine raincoats…. Between these and the mask, Lady Gaga could outfit her next tour.
Another exhibit, “Arctic Flight: A Century of Alaska Aviation,” inspires you to embark on another aerial adventure. At Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the largest airport of its kind in the world, you sign in with Rust’s Flying Service and a few minutes later you’re sitting next to Jeff, another mustachioed pilot in aviator glasses.
As the Cessna follows the Susitna River north, you start to notice lots of little planes scattered around the landscape in odd, remote places. “That’s how Alaskans go camping,” Jeff informs you through your headset, before turning your attention to Mt. McKinley, aka Denali, “The Great One,” which has been looming in the distance since takeoff. With a peak at 20,320 feet above sea level, it’s the tallest mountain in North America. Seeing it up close eradicates all sense of scale. You circle it for a while as Jeff, who casually refers to the extremely dramatic peaks of the Alaska Range as “hills,” points out the routes climbers take to get to the top.
You learn that McKinley’s north summit was reached for the first time in 1910, after a bar bet, which seems very Alaskan.
Back in Anchorage at Middle Way Café, whose mission statement on its website praises the virtues of organic, locally sourced ingredients, you have the quinoa-and-veggie “Unicorn Bowl,” a welcome respite from the surf and turf you’ve eaten almost exclusively for days. You pair the kale-heavy dish with an orange and pineapple smoothie. Balance found, you drive over to the Alaska Native Heritage Center to catch a dance performance by a group of teenagers in traditional costume. You’re charmed by just how proud the youngsters are of their heritage—so much so that when they invite the audience to sing and dance with them onstage for their last number, you oblige.
Inspired by the performers’ colorful outfits—their jewelry in particular—you head back downtown for a stop at the Alaska Native Arts Foundation to pick up more souvenirs (you’ve decided the jerky won’t last the trip) before dinner at Simon & Seafort’s. Inside, the cavernous space is drenched with sunlight and offers a gorgeous view of Cook Inlet, with Mount Susitna and the Alaska Range off in the distance. You’re told you’re lucky to be there for the first shipment of sockeye salmon from the Copper River in Southcentral Alaska, an event that tends to inspire breathless TV news segments, so your decision is made for you. You’re pleased to report that the bright red fish is deliciously light and moist and entirely worth the fuss.
Flattop Mountain is back on the table tonight, and apparently you’re not the only one with that idea. On summer nights, the place is crawling with hikers, who, like the curious rock chucks you spot peeking up out of rock piles and crevices, know better than to let a sunny evening go to waste. At the 3,510-foot summit, you feel as if you’ve climbed McKinley itself, and you sign your name onto a plank stuck into the ground. You stay up there awhile, breathing deep, looking past the city down below, across the water and toward the mountains reflecting the warm late-evening twilight.
Just then, a paraglider launches himself off the edge nearby and sails down toward the trailhead, looping around in lazy circles till he reaches the bottom. Wild, you think. You’ll have to try that next time.
Editor at large SAM POLCER can’t remember his most recent bar bet, but he’s fairly certain it did not involve crampons.