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Denali

The last time I traveled

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posted March 9, 2021
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I still have the candy. In my black satchel that I take on trips, I have a 10-ounce bag of Alaska Gold Nuggets—birch cream caramels made in Talkeetna, Alaska. My wife and I spent a remarkable 24 hours in the village, 100 miles north of Anchorage. We dined, we wandered, and we walked down paths through shoulder-high snow into shops filled with local artwork, crafts, souvenirs … and candy. 

Candy in Alaska
Birch cream caramels from Alaska

I had intended to take that bag of candy to NTA Headquarters and share it with my colleagues, but I never made it back to the office. On the same day I bought those birch cream caramels, March 12, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of North America to a standstill. The trip we made a year ago was the last time I traveled.

Contact ’20, the NTA conference set for Anchorage that had led me to Alaska in the first place, was abruptly canceled. All the basketball tournaments I was following were canceled. College campuses—including our son’s—were closing fast.

So there we were. Alaska’ed up and no place to go.

On one hand, Mary Beth and I were anxious about airlines shutting down and borders closing that day, trapping us in Alaska. On the other hand, we were having a most enjoyable lunch in a snowy, sun-filled fairytale village. From our window seats at the Denali Brewing Company, we watched a tank-topped chap shovel thick slabs of snow from the brewpub’s deck.

Sipping a Louisville Sour beer, the brewery’s tasty tribute to my home state, and feasting on reindeer meatloaf, I was not exactly dreading being trapped in Talkeetna. And after we explored the little shops and talked with the locals, I started wondering if I could get a good monthly rate at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge.

Snow shoveler at brew pub
Clearing the deck at Talkeetna's Denali Brewing Company

The lodge sits just outside of town, and shuttle service is just a phone call away. The views of Denali, North America’s tallest peak, from the lodge are spectacular, and the folks at the front desk told us we were lucky to have a clear, cloudless look at the mountain that day. From our mountainside room—as well as from the lobby with its enormous fireplace—we spent a good deal of time … just gazing.

That night, we asked the front-desk staff to call us if the northern lights fired up, but we weren’t that lucky. When we woke the next morning and sized up the COVID closings all over the United States, we changed our flight home and were set to fly out of Anchorage just past midnight.  

We would be leaving Talkeetna the same way we arrived—via Alaska Railroad—and a midafternoon departure afforded us several more hours to roam around town. For lunch, we followed the advice I got from Casey Ressler of the Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau (in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley).

“Talkeetna Roadhouse has a ton of charm,” he said. “It’s a unique atmosphere, and the pancakes are literally bigger than a plate. Their sourdough starter dates back to 1902.”

They serve breakfast well past noon at the Roadhouse, and Casey was sure right about the pancakes, which are as delicious as they are ginormous. We tried Mixed Berry Barb, with four types of berries plus some rhubarb. There were plenty of non-breakfast items on the menu, each one quirky, creative, and enticing.

After our midday meal, we stopped by the Walter Harper Ranger Station at the end of town, where all the climbers go before they head out for Denali. I have zero intention to climb even small mountains, but I sure enjoyed chatting with the ranger on duty, and Mary Beth and I even watched a video on what it takes to reach the peak.

We also hit a few more shops. Dancing Leaf Gallery features local artists and makers; I skipped the art and soap and such and headed straight for the aforementioned candy. Talkeetna is the world’s largest producer of birch syrup, and the supply is limited (so I really hope the candy in my bag is still good). At Aurora Dora, we talked with Dora herself about her fantastic photos of the Northern Lights.  

Our return trip south to Anchorage was just as fascinating as our ride north the day before. The game that everyone aboard the rail cars plays is spot-a-moose. When the snow is deep, as it was during our visit, the long-legged creatures use the railroad bed (as well as roads) for the same purpose that humans do: to travel faster. Calls of “Moose on the left” or “On the right” rang out frequently, and we looked out the huge windows to see the beasts lumbering through the snow to get away from the train.

Alaska Railroad
Talkeetna is a stop along the Alaska Railroad’s main line, 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks. 

Mary Beth and I were thoroughly impressed with Alaska Railroad—the cars, the staff, and the trip itself. It provides a fascinating look at desolate wilderness as well as small towns. It’s a smooth ride with easy movement within and between cars. My only frustration was my inability to keep an eye out for moose and still spot all the bald eagles and gorgeous mountain views along the way.

We reached Anchorage at nightfall and started our anxious flight home with stops in Seattle, already the site of the first U.S. deadly outbreak of COVID-19, and in Minneapolis, where two months later, the world would focus on racial injustice after the death of George Floyd. That trip was 2020 in a nutshell.

A year later, and a couple of weeks removed from a Kentucky snowstorm, I’ve been thinking about our magical time in Talkeetna. I asked Casey what’s happening in the cool little town as spring returns—and the pandemic recedes.

Mary Beth Rouse
Mary Beth Rouse at a Talkeetna shop

“Talkeetna is doing well, all things considered,” he said. “It was a surreal year, but Alaskans spent time exploring their own backyard last summer—supporting each other—and it helped keep many of our smaller members afloat.”

Casey said the cancellation of the 2021 Alaska cruise season came as devastating news, but with expedited vaccine rollouts in Alaska and pent-up demand for travel all over, he expects to see a return of the independent traveler segment later this summer. Those visitors see part of Alaska they never would see on a standard packaged tour, and that’s been a big part of his organization’s messaging.

“Yes, come to see Denali, but along the way don’t miss things like Knik Glacier or Matanuska Glacier, because they are spectacular sights,” he said.

After a year without traveling, I’d sure like to spend time with those spectacular sights … and with Alaska’s friendly people and craft beers. And because NTA rescheduled its Contact event for Anchorage in 2022, I’m hopeful that I’ll be back up north a year from now. In fact, I’m pretty certain I’ll return to Talkeetna.

Top photo: Denali
Photos by Bob Rouse

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