The Off-the-Grid Guide to the Alaskan Wilderness
RealClearLife adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps goes deep into 'The Last Frontier.'
I live in Los Angeles. Yet something in me is genetically programmed with a higher probability of booking a last minute trip to Alaska on a Friday night than making it to dinner in Hollywood. I’m Ok with that.
I picked Juneau as a four-day solo getaway last October rather spontaneously because of its reputation as the prettiest city in Alaska with excellent hiking, wildlife and proximity to water. I was also fascinated by the fact that Juneau is unreachable by car, so it’s a rather self-contained destination unless you’re coming by air or boat. A place has to offer quite a dose of something special if it’s that hard to get into … or out of.
Solo travel is nothing new for me. I’m actually an outspoken advocate of everyone, especially women, doing a good amount of adventuring on their own. It’s good for the soul and helps sharpen the senses. By that, I mean everything from a sense of direction to a sense of comfort eating alone to a sense of knowing when it’s time to hightail it out of a situation. All good things to have.
These days it’s not uncommon to meet solo female travelers, but the reaction to them varies significantly by region. In Southeast Asia, it’s quite normal to see women backpacking alone even though you might still get tossed in the eat, pray, love bucket. In Alaska, it’s a tad less common. Possibly you’re escaping something. A boyfriend, a job … or the law. The good news is that Alaskans don’t really care. Felony shmelony. I did find that I was a bit of a curiosity when I emerged from the woods at the foot of a glacier and announced that I had hiked alone for two hours. After a few follow-up questions to assess my mental sanity and lack of homicidal tendencies, I was embraced as a respected adventure traveler … until I took a selfie with bear poop and then my sanity was again in doubt.
On all trips, but solo ones, in particular, I like to keep my lodging options open. So I generally only prebook the first night. In modern travel, Airbnb is a total game changer. It’s not just the cost that’s attractive, it’s also the conversation. I do my research beforehand looking for longtime residents of the area with good reviews from other visitors. I particularly like to hear that the hosts had good suggestions on what to explore. No guidebook will ever beat local advice. The lovely couple I stayed with didn’t disappoint. Within an hour of my arrival, I had all four days planned with hikes, places to eat, best spots to see bears, an app for spotting the aurora borealis and all the local history, insights, tidbits and politics I could want. My favorite story they shared was that of “China Joe.” A Chinese-American merchant who opened Juneau’s first bakery in 1881 during the gold rush boom. He was known for his kindness and generosity in feeding down on their luck miners and children. When anti-Chinese sentiment turned ugly and people were harassed and forced to leave, Joe was protected by the pioneers he had spared from starvation and despair. Armed men stood in line in front of his shop to defend him. “China Joe” remained in Juneau as the only person of Chinese descent. If you’re thinking this would make a historically accurate, tear-jerker of a movie, I agree. As would the tale of Romeo, Juneau’s friendly black wolf, who lived side by side with residents and their dogs for six years. Stories are what make the world go round, and when you sit at someone’s breakfast table with their cat and black lab…you get them in spades.First on my agenda was the gem of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier. During the tourist season (May-September) you can helicopter right onto the ice, kayak up to it or take a guided hike. In the offseason, your only option is to hike in yourself. It’s about a four-hour round trip on the West Glacier Trail that reviews label as “dangerous” and “unmarked.” An ominous sign at the head of the trail states that around twelve people a year have to be rescued after getting injured or lost. That might be true, but you can probably avoid the discomfort and embarrassment of being a statistic with a good dose of common sense. You’re in the wilderness so be prepared. If you’re fit, have good shoes, a few layers to keep you warm, plenty of water and flags for marking the trail you shouldn’t have a problem. It does get steep in places, you do have to climb some rocks and toward the end, you make a rather aggressive descent down loose rocks to the glacier itself. But as evidenced by my writing this article, it’s survivable. I suppose that on the bright side of getting lost, the views from the search and rescue helicopter must be unbeatable. The trail winds through the gorgeous primeval looking temperate rainforest, for a while it follows Mendenhall Lake and then climbs upward offering rather ridiculously sweeping views of the expansive thirteen-mile long glacier. If you’re alone the trick is to bring a light tripod and roll video on your phone so you can later take screen grabs making it look like you had a professional photographer tagging along.
The glacier itself is otherworldly. This is where I will place my own disclaimer. Entering the ice caves is an at-your-own-risk activity. The ice can collapse, and large boulders can fall…but I’ll tell you this…standing in a glowing turquoise cave of frozen water is one of the most awe-inspiring things I’ve done…and I’ve done a lot of traveling. The blue light filtering through is surreal and you have a sense of timelessness knowing that the water captured in that mound of ice over your head has been there since the last ice age. A fun fact to impress your friends: a glacier’s striking hue is the result of dense ice absorbing all other colors of the spectrum, reflecting only blue. Whose the smartest one in the room now, eh? This Smurf colored wonder is also a sobering example of climate change confirmed by the date markers showing the glacier’s location going back to the early 1900s. Find the year you were born and see how far the glacier has retreated since. Sadly, Mendenhall Glacier and its ice caves might need to work their way up your bucket list before they disappear.
The wildlife in Alaska is out of control. In my first 24 hours, I encountered three bears, a porcupine and twelve bald eagles. I stopped counting at twelve. By the end of the trip, I was a professional porcupine street crossing guard, a trained bear-at a-safe-distance-observer and bald eagles got about as much notice as seagulls.
You can’t drive out of Juneau, but you can drive about 40 miles north of town to the end of the road. Literally. There’s a sign that says END riddled with bullet holes. Food for thought on if it’s target practice or frustration at not being able to go further into the majestic Tongass National Forest. The drive on Glacier Highway takes you past Auke Bay, the ferry terminal, the lovely Shrine of St Therese, along the channels and by countless coves that make you want to take up landscape painting. It also takes you past a little hole in the wall yet super hip eating establishment called GonZo that happens to make the best Banh Mi sandwich I’ve ever had. What a kick ass Vietnamese sandwich is doing in Alaska I don’t know but eating it is a must.
What’s truly delightful about Alaska is that you can camp and have a fire just about anywhere. This information to a girl from LA, where street parking is regulated like Homeland Security, was like the opening shot of the Oklahoma Land Run. I raced to the store…grabbed sausage, bread, wine and matches…and canvassed every cove until I found my perfect spot for a beach bonfire. My selection was Sunshine Cove for its perfect crescent shape and little accompanying island. Locals mentioned, and research confirmed, that it’s also a great scuba diving spot, but you’ve got to draw the line at what you’ll do solo, and that’s on the more-than-calculated-risk end of mine. Instead, I sat in solitary bliss roasting Polska Kielbasa, sipping wine straight from the bottle, playing music and watching the sunset over the water. ALONE. Honestly, people, it gets no better than this. Woman builds fire, woman roasts meat, woman has stupidly stunning Alaskan cove to herself without a care in the world… until it gets dark.
Every outdoor enthusiast is ingrained with the knowledge that dusk and dawn are prowling times of predators … bears, sharks, vampires, creepy humans … So like any properly paranoid individual, I stomped out my fire, left no trace and ran to my car like a cartoon character kicking up dust. Ironically, the only bear I encountered that night was the huge black bear waddling across the street next door to my bed and breakfast…which reminded me to take the sausage leftovers out of the trunk.The Best Western Grandma’s Featherbed is a steal in the offseason with a tasty breakfast and comfortable beds. I soaked in the tub and mused over how lovely it is that in this prodigious state people can be afforded such freedom to roam and enjoy the resources without destroying them. Even though Juneau sees an influx of visitors during tourist season, every trail, beach, park and street was pristine.
A full day hike took me up Mount Juneau. It’s not that the hike is long, it just happens to be up the steep face of a mountain. So steep in fact that if you have a fear of heights, it might give you the heebie-jeebies. It did me and I eventually waited for a friendly hiker to come down so I could walk with him and take my mind off the swirling in my head. The views of the city, surrounding mountains and Gastineau Channel are exceptional though so even if you have to creep along at a snail’s pace, stopping to eat blueberries along the alpine meadows and singing loudly to avoid surprising bears, it’s worth it.
When the Saints Go Marching In is my go-to fear song, so the local wildlife was treated to four days of serenading. Needless to say, no bears invaded my personal space. It’s worth mentioning that Alaska is both black bear and grizzly country so carrying bear spray and wearing bells to make noise are a good idea. Locals advocate bear spray over guns with the argument that it’s more effective, humane and easier to use. I didn’t test the theory but sounds logical.
On the opposite side of the valley from Mount Juneau is Mount Roberts. A beautiful five-mile hike through tall moss covered trees to the top of the tramway…which stops running September 31…so feet are your only option in the offseason. You can rest on the platforms overlooking the city and decide if you want to keep going along the ridge or head back to town for some lunch at local favorite Pel’meni for some Russian dumplings. Mount Roberts also offers a great perspective of the Mount Juneau hike, so if you did that one first you will have your “Holy crap, I cant believe I did that moment.” If you plan to do it after, you might think twice.
Besides the world class hiking, there is plenty of history to explore. At the start of the popular Perseverance Trail, you can investigate old mining ruins that at one time were among the world’s largest gold producers in the world. On the south side of Douglas Island are the historic Treadwell ruins, a complex of fern-covered structures that not that long ago housed four separate mines, workers and their families. Equally fascinating to the history of the mining era is the visual reminder that nature readily takes back her space as soon as our footprints have faded.
Alaska is wild. It says so right on the license place…the last frontier. Its nature and emptiness are so striking that if you stay long enough, you might disappear into the forest and forget about your old life. There really is a call of the wild that exists in places like this. The last bastions of pristine wilderness. It draws you back. Something very primal and stirring. It beacons to the fierceness and instinct in all of us. I contemplated trading in my condo for a camper van and living off the land. Not the worst idea I’ve had. The history even feels more recent, more vivid here. In Alaska, you sense it in the people.
Finding old-timers to talk to when traveling solo is the holy grail. Unless they are particularly ornery, they are delighted for the company and swapping of stories. For me, there is no better source of local history and flavor.
My old timer came with a bowl of clam chowder and a window seat … as most restaurants won’t seat you in the prime window booths if you’re alone … a great point of irritation to solo travelers … but in this case, it worked out in my favor since I was seated next to Tom. Tom was a delight and a gentleman. He has lived in Juneau since before Alaska became a state in 1959. He eats at The Hanger on the Wharf three times a week, brings his own peanut butter to add nutritional value to his burger and a full bag of candy for the employees who know him by name. He came as a civil engineer to Juneau when the streets were still dirt and there was a solid red light district on one end of town. He told me stories about the good time girls who would pay the young men to do their shopping for them since they weren’t allowed in stores for reasons of decency. He also told me about all the recent bear attacks, where the float planes used to be serviced and where to buy the freshest seafood.
These days the streets in Juneau are paved, and the red light district is gone, but the flavor of a former mining town turned seasonal tourist destination, and home to some hearty nature-loving citizens is in full bloom. The heart of the city is tucked between the mountains and the channel, offers enough saloons for good drinking, enough tasty spots for good eating and doesn’t yet feel like the cruise ship industry has turned it into a snow globe version of itself. That dose of something special I was looking for, I found it. A place to be still. Even when hiking 20 miles in four days. I got to be a wild thing again. It’s invigorating to remember how that feels.
I understand why Alaska’s people love their state. It’s wild, it’s pristine, it affords a sense of freedom as rare as the silence that comes with it … and best of all it’s delightfully unoccupied.
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