Destination

Anchorage, AK, USA

No Northern Lights, Yes Sledding Dogs, and … an Explosion?

Alaska has always captivated my dreams. Grizzly bears, the rugged wild frontier, and icy landscapes have been what I imagined the state to be like. To my surprise, I discovered a warmth that the state’s cold stereotypes had not prepared me for. A few notes and lessons, though:

  • If you come in January, bring three pairs of shoes – heavy snow boots, walking/hiking boots, and tennis shoes.
  • If you’re looking for the Northern Lights, you need to go to Fairbanks or further north.
  • Do not underestimate both distances and seasonality – it’s not a close drive from Anchorage to Fairbanks and because of the time of year, a lot of things are shut down (plus we also had the misfortune of not being able to see Denali National Park due to the Federal budget shutdown)

You’ll see in the write-up below that the trip was disappointing, incredible, and shocking all around. I would definitely go back to Anchorage after this trip, but not for the reasons you might think. Read on!

 

TL;DR

Anchorage

  • Stay
    • Fairfield Inn and Suites Anchorage Midtown, 5060 A Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99503 USA
      • Comfortable place to stay in Anchorage with a typical breakfast. Friendly staff and convenient parking (aka unremarkable but safe place to stay)
  • Eat/Drink
    • Moose’s Tooth, 3300 Old Seward Highway | Anchorage, AK 99503
      • Let me cut to the chase – order any of these and you’ll be in heaven:
        • Mac and Cheese pizza (Reindeer Sausage, Macaroni Noodles, Parsley, American Cheese, Cheddar, Mozzarella, Provolone, Garlic Oil)
        • Call of the Wild pizza (Reindeer Sausage, Steak, Bacon, Portabella & Crimini Mushrooms, Red Peppers, Green Onions, Garlic Cream Sauce, Mozzarella, Provolone, Garlic Oil)
        • Beer Flight: Gandalf the Gold (pale lager), Pipeline Stout, Hefeweizen, Chugach Session (Cream ale/Kolsch)
    • Anchorage Brewing Company, 148 W 91st St, Anchorage, AK 99515
      • Try the Anadromous, a black sour with marionberry. It may look like a stout but the flavor will pleasantly surprise!
    • Fire Island Rustic Bakery, 160 W 91st Ave, Anchorage, AK 99515
      • Step inside here (across from the Anchorage Brewing Company) and if you’re there on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, order a Challah knot. It is magnificent. Also get an apple bourbon pecan scone.
    • Midnight Sun Brewing Company, 8111 Dimond Hook Dr, Anchorage, AK 99507
      • If they’re still serving these, try the Das Fest, Alpenglow (basically Das Fest, Beach Bum
    • Glacier Brewhouse, 737 W. 5th Avenue, AK, Alaska 99501
      • Salmon, pretzels with cheese, Bering Sea Crab
    • Snow City Café, 1034 W 4th Ave, Anchorage, AK 99501
      • Crab omelette!! Served in a charming downtown diner.
    • 49th State Brewing Company, 717 W 3rd Ave, Anchorage, AK 99501
      • Yak burger!
  • See/Do
    • Anchorage Museum, 625 C St, Anchorage, AK 99501
      • An impressive modern building that holds an even more impressive collection of modern and thoughtful artwork and exhibits.
    • Kincaid Park, 9401 Raspberry Rd, Anchorage, AK 99502
      • If you stop at the Raspberry Drive parking lot, you can explore for a bit, but for the sweeping views, head to the Chalet (the end of the road)
    • A raging building on fire
      • For details, see below on Day 3 (January 26, 2019). Words are not enough!
    • Alaska Mushing School, 19391 W Lakes Blvd, Wasilla, AK 99623
      • 90 minutes of pure bliss on a sled and a pack of loving, social dogs will set you back $169 per person ($269 if you want them to pick you up) and it will be well worth it

 

Trip Background

Back in December 2018, my wife and I were expecting our first child, who eventually was born in April 2019 (huzzah!). As a result, I knew that I would be on travel lockdown starting in March 2019 and that the Alaska Airlines credit we’d held for awhile that was going to expire. So having found a decently priced roundtrip to Anchorage (and knowing Alaska was high on my priority list), I bought my ticket without having the slightest clue on what to do or where to go.

Fast forward a month. Over dinner with Ellen and Paul, two of my wife’s friends from Wisconsin, I mentioned that I was about to take this little Alaskan adventure – and Paul immediately asked if he could join. Within a couple weeks, we both had our tickets purchased and were researching things to do!

 

Day 1 (January 24, 2019): The Warmest Welcome Ever

My day began bright and early. Given that our flight was set to depart at 8 AM, I opted for an extra early wake up alarm at 4:30 AM Central time. I arrived at O’Hare and breezed through security, which was a welcome surprise given the government shutdown was still in effect and the TSA had been dealing with staffing shortages. I also learned a time saving lesson while waiting to board the flight:

If you need breakfast and the restaurant offers an app, download it and see if it lets you cut the line. Below is the line I avoided by using the McDonald’s app to order my morning coffee.

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Waiting for McDonald’s is not a smart idea. Use the app to cut the line!

Paul arrived shortly before my coffee lesson, so we groggily shot the shit before we boarded. To my delight, our flight on Alaska from O’Hare to Seattle had an open seat next to me and the 4+ hour flight allowed me time to finish my book on fatherhood.

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#dadlife

The flight from Seattle to Anchorage, however, saw no such luck. It was packed, but my window seat enabled me to get some of the stunning views upon landing at Ted Stevens International Airport:

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Landing at Ted Stevens International Airport

We grabbed our bags and headed for the Dollar Car Rental desk and ran into the nicest customer service rep ever. As we told him of the spontaneity of our trip, he upgraded our car and sent us on his way with well wishes and upbeat words.

We headed to the Fairfield Inn and Suites Anchorage Midtown to check into our room and plan our adventure, which to my surprise was a bit tricky. This time of year in Anchorage is not the high tourist season so a bunch of companies whom we’d hoped to use were closed for the season. In addition, the weather conditions all but prevented our goal of seeing the Northern Lights. As several tour companies told us, we needed to go further north (to a place like Fairbanks) – but part of it was just bad timing on our part. 😦

Instead, we crafted a plan to head south to Seward to see Kenai Fjords National Park on Day 2 and then dog mushing on Day 3, but as you’ll read shortly, nature and life have a way of deviating even the best of plans. To end our night, we took my colleague Pat’s recommendation and went to Moose’s Tooth for some outstanding pizza (try the mac and cheese pizza or the call of the wild…so so so good!) and a beer flight if you’re paralyzed with curiosity or indecision.

The food though was not the only reason we loved this place. Our wonderful server, upon finding out this was our first time in Alaska, took the time to give us recommendations for things to eat, see and do between Anchorage and Seward! +1000 points for this server. And at one point, the manager told us they’d made a mistake on our order and added some meat to one of the pizzas. To rectify this, he promised to take part of the cost off our meal. We pleaded with him to not do this, but they did it anyway. So naturally we left the team a very well deserved tip. Honestly, this place is the ONE PLACE YOU CANNOT MISS IN ANCHORAGE. There, I said it.

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Suggestions from the thoughtful server at the Moose’s Tooth

 

Day 2 (January 25, 2019): A Traveler’s Greatest Nemesis – The Weather

Well, that whole plan bit was fun while it lasted. Icy roads had closed Anchorage schools, but we didn’t realize this until we were already out of the hotel and on the way toward Seward. We saw three spun-out cars, one on the side of the road. We pulled into a Target to get some snacks for the road and only then did we realize that the road to Seward had been closed by rockslides. When asked what she thought, the cashier at Target simply said, “I wouldn’t be out on the roads if I had a choice.”

With that, we sprung into action to find a backup plan for the day. We settled on the Anchorage Museum and were pleasantly surprised by sleek look (courtesy of the 2017 renovation), the beautiful artwork and thought-provoking galleries.

We learned about the natural history of Alaska, took a brief wander through the science part of the museum (which is definitely a great stop for kids), and heard about man’s relationship with one another and the local plants, animals, and environment.

Also watch this snarky animation reflect the overfishing by man.

One last thing worth mentioning. The museum featured a short film called The Walrus by Luke Randall. I don’t know why but when I walked by, I felt compelled to sit and watch the entirety of the film. While an odd piece about depression does not often capture my attention, I found the visuals compelling and oddly hypnotic – maybe I just don’t see enough walruses in my life. Consider reading more about the film here.

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There are some other compelling pieces of art located here (along with beautiful views of snow capped mountains), and I have included a few for you to enjoy:

 

Oh and did I mention a bit of subversive, ecologically-motivated art? Look at each of the next three images.

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Funny how Denali and Denial are so closely written…

 

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We finished our rounds at the museum around 1:30 PM, but you’d think it was nearing sunset anywhere else in the world. With the sun so low in the sky, we hurried to Kincaid Park for a chance to see the natural beauty of Anchorage…and maybe some wildlife.

The trails were a bit slick even with our winter boots but it is a great place to go for a hike. You’ll see non-human tracks and prints all over and the sweeping views across the park will both inspire and take your breath away.

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As the winter sun began to disappear, we headed out of the park and decided to begin a tour of some of Anchorage’s fine breweries. Our first stop, the Anchorage Brewing Company, featured the Anadromous, a black sour with marionberry. It may look like a stout but the flavor will pleasantly surprise!

Across the parking lot from the Anchorage Brewing Company is one of the best pastry shops I have ever been to – Fire Island Rustic Bakery. If you’re there on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday, order a Challah knot – it is magnificent. Also get an apple bourbon pecan scone.

Next stop: Midnight Sun Brewing Company. If they’re still serving these, try the Das Fest, Alpenglow (basically Das Fest), or the Beach Bum. And please, for god’s sake, check out the merch station on the first floor. $18 for a handmade beer coozie was too expensive for me, but look at that craftsmanship!

For dinner, we went to Glacier Brewhouse where I opted for salmon and we split pretzels with cheese. I forgot to get a photo of Paul’s Bering Sea Crab, and that was a mistake. He ordered a POUND AND A HALF of Bering Sea Red King Crab legs – they were beautiful and he gave me a taste – simply delicious.

What a great way to end an unplanned day! What could top that?

 

Day 3 (January 26, 2019): A Monstrous Fire and Dogs (two unrelated things)

You know how I just asked what could top that?

The answer: THIS DAY.

Day 3 was an odd day. I went to bed around 9 PM because of that wicked time difference between Anchorage and Chicago. Both Paul and I awoke at 5 AM after we heard a loud bang, and when we rushed to the window to see what it was, this is what we saw:

I think Paul’s words, cut off by the phone, were “Should we get out of here?” A legitimate question, but we were both enthralled by the spectacle in front of us.

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This was the first pic from my SLR of the blaze, but would not capture the magnitude of the fire

We stood there for about 10-15 minutes, concerned about our safety but also completely absorbed in the smoke, the raging fire, and the slow disintegration of the building, a soon-to-be opened Courtyard by Marriott. Our windows faced the fire, but our hotel entrance was on the other side of the building. We made the decision to descend to see if we could get closer, and upon coming out the front entrance of our hotel, the reflections of the flames were immediately visible on the next hotel over.

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We turned left, swung around the corner of our hotel, and this was our first glimpse of the hotel fire from the ground level:

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The first video I snapped with my phone:

Then I took this and sent it to my friends:

Whoa.

While all of this was going on, there was a steady stream of people from the Motel 6 (the building in between the burning building and our hotel. Our hotel staff deserves a shout out as they accommodated the displaced from the Motel 6 (whose windows were popping from the heat) and gave them coffee and breakfast. My Facebook post is below:

And finally, these pics below are what I sent to the Anchorage Daily News for inclusion in their coverage.

If you’d like to read the official press article on it (in which my photos were front and center!), click here for the Anchorage Daily News story. 

After all of that drama, Paul and I took some time to get some coffee and decompress. Although we were never really in danger (certainly not like the Motel 6 guests), it was still an anxiety-inducing morning!

We headed off to breakfast at the Snow City Café, which I had heard was a charming diner experience. I had a super tasty crab omelette and the service was super responsive and warm.

From there, we drove to Wasilla (yes where Sarah Palin once was mayor) to the Alaska Mushing School where we eagerly prepared for the experience of a lifetime. Just getting to Happy Trails Kennel was a bit tricky as the same slick conditions that had prevented us from going to Seward were still keeping the roads slippery. Once we arrived, we were given a quick intro video where we learned about Martin Buser, a 4x Iditarod champion who founded this school and the course of the Iditarod itself.

Our guide introduced us to the dogs would be taking us out for the morning:

 

And here is my first reaction to riding with the dogs!

What’s the view like looking forward?

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To say that this was a fun adventure would be a wild understatement. The dogs are warm and friendly and the staff knowledgeable. Paul and I both left quite happy and would highly encourage others to check it out!

Our meal plans included, yes, another brewery. We went to 49th State Brewing Company where I decided to try the Yak burger and a pretzel the size of my face. Both were good but the service here was crap – the bartender who was helping us would leave us for stretches of 30+ minutes and it took forever to get our check.

Upon our return to the hotel, we got to see the charred aftermath of the hotel fire:

 

Day 4 (January 27, 2019): Heading Home

Our last morning in Anchorage included a quick jaunt back to Fire Island Rustic Bakery where the staff broke my heart by telling me they don’t serve that challah bread on Sundays. But before that, I had what I consider to be a lifetime achievement award:

The publication of my photos above the fold on the Sunday Anchorage Daily News!

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Above the fold!

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We drove to the airport and to my surprise, Ted Stevens International Airport is a beautiful modern place to come through and it blends a variety of good amenities with a tasteful nod to Alaska’s roots.

Our flight to Seattle then continued onto Chicago where Paul and I parted company, with amazing memories to last us a lifetime.

 

Final Thoughts

Of course, my last image of Anchorage would be this:

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So we didn’t get to see the Northern Lights. Note to self: next time go to Fairbanks too. I imagine that our choice to come in January did not help our case, thought it sure was easy (aka cheap) to get to Anchorage at this time of year. I keep hearing how amazing it is to visit in summer and I imagine a summer cruise is an awesome back to see this place. I just can’t wait for that next trip and hopefully seeing Denali, the lights, and Kenai Fjords!

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