By Mike Mannelin Explorebigsky.com Columnist
The 100-year-old log cabin was as clean as it had ever been. My wife Erin and I closed the door one last time, shut the power off, and headed down the quarter mile, post-holed trail through the snow to the driveway. The truck squatted low with all our tools, ski gear and everything else we owned squished into the back. Our dog Ivan hopped in and climbed into the little cave we had created for him behind the passenger seat.
Our mission was to drive from Haines, in southeast Alaska, to mainland Alaska. We would drive through Fairbanks, then Anchorage, and finally to Homer, putting around 1,200 miles on the odometer. There, we would catch a ferry to Kodiak Island.
After we said our goodbyes at the guide house, we made the six-mile drive to the Alaska / Canada border.
The guard at the border looked into our truck with his trained eyes.
“Do you have any weapons in the vehicle?” he asked, looking me in the eye to see if I would flinch.
“Do you own any guns at all?” he inquired.
“Really? Well, that’s a first.” He was hunched over, looking at us through the open window.
“A first?” I wondered aloud.
“Have a good trip,” he said and handed back our passports.
A sign over the crossroads in Haines Junction read, “Alaska Highway: ←Anchorage Whitehorse →” with respective arrows directing traffic in two directions. We took a left, stopped to top off the gas tank, and continued north with the hopes of crossing back into Alaska again before stopping for a break.
Mountains rose on both sides of us, and the road ahead wound into them, disappearing like a path into an unknown labyrinth. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the skiable terrain.
We stopped at the beach on Destruction Bay and walked out onto the frozen lake. The air was calm and silent. We spun around 360 degrees with our chins to the sky, staring at the beautiful mountains all around.
Sometime around midnight we arrived at the border. The guard spent about two minutes swiping our passports, then sent us on our way back into mainland Alaska.
Driving into Fairbanks was a gradual change from wilderness, to military, to industrial zones. The town is the hub for most of the oil work that goes on in northern and western Alaska, and its streets are lined with pipeline service companies, heavy equipment rental shops and tool stores.
On the northern outskirts of town, many of the residents live in ‘dry’ cabins, where there is no plumbing to freeze up. Temperatures there drop down to the -60s Fahrenheit during the winter. These cabins have thick walls, few windows and are built up off the ground on three or four foot tall pilings to protect the permafrost. Erin’s brother lives in such a cabin, and we camped out in the back of our truck next to his place for two nights, then hit the road again, heading south to Anchorage.
We drove through Denali Park, a boarded up tourist town that comes alive during the summer. The road followed the mostly frozen Nenana River south, and soon Mount McKinley came into view. We enjoyed a few hours of staring at the 20,000 foot peak as we drove to town.
We picked up my brother and another friend in Anchorage, both of whom were eager to go skiing, and we all drove south to Alyeska Resort, about 40 miles away.
The sun was shining and the air felt hot as we booted up in the empty parking lot. The tram was similarly vacant, with just three others riding up to take part in some fun spring skiing. Ski patrollers were gathered outside their shack on lawn chairs, grilling in the sun. We skied laps in perfect corn until they shut the lifts down at 6 p.m.
With 1,000 miles down and 200 left to go, we got back in the truck and pointed it south. The ferry was waiting for us at the dock. It would take us away from the road system we had been relying on and put us in the hand of boat captains and airplane pilots until next fall.
Mike Mannelin is a skier with roots in Minnesota, Montana and Alaska. He gains his inspiration in life by spending time in the mountains with friends.