Off the Grid and Into the Wild in Alaska

By Travel Writers

April 17, 2016 13 min read

By Lesley Sauls

The last time I was in Talkeetna was on a rainy day trip out of Anchorage. I tasted local beers, visited art galleries and museums, and ducked into gift shops. The quaintness of the town lured me back for a second look, and this summer my husband and I settled in for a few days to explore the area more fully.

Happily we arrived on a day when the clouds parted, and Mount. McKinley showed her majesty in the distance, the tallest mountain peak in North America. Ensconced in a hillside inn, our fourth-floor room boasted a wide view of the Alaska mountain range from one window and a salmon stream from another. Surrounded by a boreal forest, the stream was literally hopping with salmon, and we were as captivated by that view as if we were engrossed in a movie; it far surpassed any Oscar-winners we'd seen.

Tearing ourselves away from the view, we wandered into town and listened to live bands while we dined on light, thin-crust pizza and a variety of local brews at a pizza restaurant we'd been told is one of the best in Alaska; we completely agreed. Later we strolled through the evening streets and drifted in and out of galleries until we landed at a local pub for a nightcap. We knew the weather would deteriorate while we were in town, and we asked for some recommendations from the locals about how to make the most of our rainy visit. A zip-line experience and a jet-boat tour were at the top of everyone's list, so we headed out and booked our spots.

After a hearty breakfast the next morning, we found ourselves suited up and strapped into gear for my first-ever zip line escapade. This was unlike anything I had done before. We started with ground school, and our two guides teased and laughed with us as we learned the very serious safety rules of the game. Both experienced guides, they were a fun-loving couple who winter away from icy Alaska — in Antarctica! After testing out our abilities on the "bunny hill," a short zip only 6 feet off the ground, we were ready to roll.

We clipped into the safety lines, climbed to the top of a swaying tree and had our first real zip across a road. One at a time we zipped what we thought was a daunting line — until we got to the next one and the next. Each increased in length and speed until we were zinging through the branches like wild monkeys. Once aware of how to "cannonball," we all pulled our legs up tight and increased our speed down the lines. We braved suspension bridges and rappelled from one platform to another. Our hosts, Sandra and Loomy, took photos, told stories and created camaraderie for our group that made our fun complete. Despite this frivolity, however, they never once took their eyes or hands off our safety equipment. We zipped across an Alaskan lake and had only to worry about the wind in our hair and our reflections below. The rain began just as we loaded the van back to town, and although the company will zip in any weather except dangerous winds, we were glad to have had our zip on a cool, dry summer morning. Our guides explained that summer is over when the fireweed is finished blooming. This glorious calendar plant gets its name from its resilience after wildfires; it is always the first plant to return, blooming from the bottom to the top of long stalks. When the hot -pink blooms on the top come out, it's time for summer to end. We were in Talkeetna just as the last bright blossoms were beginning to fade.

My husband and I are both pilots, and we spent much of the rest of that day knocking around the local airports. We admired airplanes and talked to people who told us about the history of Talkeetna as an important aviation stopping point. It is from here that people are taken up to hike Denali or to land on its glaciers for a thrilling few minutes. Rescue missions are an important part of the airports here, but sightseeing is happily more frequent. Infamous bush pilot Don Sheldon developed the art of glacier landings from the Talkeetna airport, and he flew rescue and supply missions out of Talkeetna, too, in the mid 1900s.

Across the street from the airport is an old cemetery with chilling reminders of how remote and dangerous Alaska can be. Old propellers stick up from the ground to serve as tombstones of fallen pilots, and a well-maintained wall of plaques names every person who has lost his or her life on Mount McKinley and the Alaska Range. Mountain hikers have to check in at the ranger station in Talkeetna, and more than 1,000 come each year to face the challenges of Denali.

With the rain coming down at a steady clip the next morning, we downed our homemade breakfasts - B&Bs are wonderful for this - and showed up at Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures. Reviews online had me curious. The two words that kept reappearing in them were "amazing" and "boring." Which would it be?

We checked in and were shown on a map where our boat would take us. Talkeetna sits at the confluence of three rivers, and natives used to store their fish here; the name of the town comes from this bounty and literally means "place where food is stored near the river." The map showed the other rivers that merge at this point to make the Big Susitna that flows on down to the Cook Inlet and out to sea. Our five-hour tour would take us from the confluence up into the Susitna and ultimately into Devil's Canyon, where Don Sheldon once bravely landed a floatplane to rescue Conservation Corps workers from high rapids when their exploration vessel had smashed to pieces.

But first we had to get to our boat. A short bus ride away, we wandered through the woods with the man who designed the boats, although he kept this detail humbly to himself. He is one of only two men who have succeeded in navigating the high rapids of Devil's Canyon, and he designed steady, strong, high-powered jet boats so that others can enjoy the thrill, too. He passed us over to our crew, and we were off.

Capt. Isreal Mahay and his naturalist partner, Jennifer, shared details and history about the rivers as we launched, and they paused the boat periodically to point out wildlife and tell interesting and relevant stories. Mahay, for example, is the son of homesteaders who came to Alaska in the 1970s to stake their claim. The eventual birth of their son forced Mahay's parents into town with running water and electricity, but the family's love of the area never faded, and they have been on this river ever since. We could see Mahay's love of Alaska, the river and Talkeetna radiate in his warm smile.

As we moved deeper into the wilds, Mahay reminded us that we were completely off the grid. For more than three hours we had no cell service, and the nearest roads were many miles away. In some spots we could see the flag-stop railway that is used by people in the bush to get into town when they don't have access to roads. Deeper and deeper we went into the untamed wilderness. Trees scarred by spring ice floes bent into the water, glacial flour clouded the waves, and waterfalls splashed down rocky walls into the river. Our guides pointed out bald eagles, and we spotted a bear cub swimming across the river. In another spot, a bear was fishing for her dinner.

"I want people to know what we are doing and how remote we are out here," explained Mahay.

Mist hung on the Talkeetna Mountain Range to our right, and the air was crisp and clean when we opened the windows of our dry, cozy vessel. When asked how anyone could find this natural beauty boring, Mahay was truly puzzled. Perhaps we are too addicted to high stimulation video games and movies, and the instant gratification of cell phones and microwave meals. To be off the grid even for a few hours was both relaxing and stimulating.

But for the adrenaline junkies, just wait — there's more. At the upper end of the Susitna journey are Class 5 rapids, and this boat is made to handle them. Mahay expertly guided our group into strong rapids, where he held the boat steady so guests could snap photos of the raging water from dry safety. Once finished with the photo op, he spun the boat around, and we wooshed and splashed through the wild rapids back down the river.

"Every day I feel like I'm taking people on a big adventure — 'cause that's what we're doin!" Mahay beamed; I believe he was as delighted with the adventure as we were.

After a box lunch served as we shot back down the river, we stopped for a nature hike that included a replicated trapper's cabin and native encampment where we learned how the smoked fish from this abundant area was stored in a pit lined with sticks and birch bark. Our guide carried a gun in case we ran into an unruly bear, but we emerged unscathed. Unfortunately, this part of the tour was not off the grid, and angry cell phones were beeping, chirping and pinging as they demanded the attention of people who had ignored them for the previous few hours.

In an age of pounding video games, cell phone addictions and constant stimulation, our trip to Talkeetna offered us an opportunity to fly through the trees on a cloudy morning and delve into the wild for one afternoon of adventure. Boring? Never. How can wild nature, untouched by man, be boring? We had experienced more than just a view through the trees or a boat ride; we'd had a trek through time into the wilds of Alaska; boreal forests, raging rapids, wild bears and a nature hike were just the icing on the cake.

WHEN YOU GO

The drive from Anchorage is about two hours, so rent a car and plan to stay a while. Days are busy with tourists from buses and cruise ships, but evenings are quiet and peaceful. Be sure to drive Hatcher Pass between Palmer and Willow if you have time for a scenic route — but beware that most of it is a gravel road through alpine meadows and eye-popping views.

There are many B&Bs in Talkeetna. Ours had panoramic views of the Alaska Range from almost every room. Denali Overlook Inn: 907-733-3555 or www.denalioverlookinn.com.

Denali Zipline Tours: 907-733-3988 or www.denaliziplinetours.com

Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures: 907-733-2223 or www.mahaysriverboat.com

K2 Aviation: 800-764-2291 or www.flyk2.com

Mountain High Pizza Pie: 907-733-1234 or www.pizzapietalkeetna.com

Wildflower Cafe, where the owner is a former presidential chef: 907-733-2695

or www.talkeetnasuites.com

Denali Brewpub: 907-733-2537 or www.denalibrewingcompany.com

West Rib Pub and Grill: 907-733-3663 or www.westribpub.info

 Aviation is a primary means of transportation in Alaska, and Talkeetna boasts more than a dozen public and private airstrips that launch float planes full of fishermen and adventurers into the wilderness. Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls.
Aviation is a primary means of transportation in Alaska, and Talkeetna boasts more than a dozen public and private airstrips that launch float planes full of fishermen and adventurers into the wilderness. Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls.
 A woman zips through the forest and off the grid in lush Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls.
A woman zips through the forest and off the grid in lush Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls.
 The last flag-stop train in North America runs along the Susitna River into the wilderness where roads don't reach and the only way to get to town is by flagging down a train. Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls.
The last flag-stop train in North America runs along the Susitna River into the wilderness where roads don't reach and the only way to get to town is by flagging down a train. Photo courtesy of Lesley Sauls.

Lesley Sauls is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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