ALASKA DIARY

STORY AND PICTURES: TOMI HINKKANEN – ALASKA

Kenai Peninsula in Alaska has breathtakingly beautiful scenery

Kenai Peninsula in Southern Alaska offers breathtakingly beautiful vistas.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 15TH, 2013

I am on a non-stop Alaska Airlines flight 157 from Los Angeles to Anchorage. Exciting! The estimated duration of the trip is 5 hours 45 minutes, but we start landing about a half an hour early at Ted Stevens International Airport. From the plane window I see snow-glazed mountain tops everywhere.

Snowy mountaintops near Anchorage.

Snowy mountaintops near Anchorage.

The weather is crystal clear as we touch down this state billed as the last frontier. There are stuffed animals – a bear and a buffalo – on display at the airport. Not in a million years would you see something that in the politically correct California.

Stuffed animals "greet" travelers at ted Stevens International Airport.

Stuffed animals “greet” travelers at Ted Stevens International Airport.

I march to the rental car counter. After refusing the obligatory sales pitch for insurance, I pull my luggage to a brand new red Toyota Corolla. This will be my sweet ride for the week. The weather outside is about 60 F / 15 C. Although it’s only September, it feels like October in Southern Finland (Anchorage is on the same latitude). I have an appointment in the southern outskirts of Anchorage to meet some local Finns at their club house. The streets are straight, wide and well-maintained. Suburban Anchorage looks like outskirts of any city in the U.S.

The scenery outside Anchorage looks nondescript.

I stop for a bite to eat at a fast food restaurant. It is about 4 pm and it looks like the sun is setting. I better get to my destination before it gets dark (As it turned out, the sun wouldn’t set for hours. At this time of the year, the sun in Alaska appears to be in a perpetual sunset position low on the horizon). The Finnish Hall looks exactly like dozens of others around the U.S. It could be a town hall somewhere in rural Finland. Birch trees in front of the building are starting to turn yellow. I park my Corolla and step in.

Alaska Finns have their own club house in Anchorage.

Alaska Finns have their own club house in Anchorage.

 

There are about a dozen people inside. Jyri and Riitta Larm are running a cleaning service. The are in their 40’s and have lived in Alaska for 20 years. As a result, their teenage kids don’t speak more than a few words of Finnish. The 70-somethings Seija and Matti Raja have braved the subarctic weather for the past 45 years now. Matti made his career in construction, Seija was a homemaker. Both are now retired. Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, 50, found a wife and career in Alaska. He is a physical therapist, who enjoys fishing and hunting in his spare time. The couple has three children and a beautiful house near a lake. Many of the Alaska Finns – there are said to be about a hundred in all – are from Western Finland. Oftentimes they first migrated to Canada and then found their way to Alaska. Many work or worked in honest-to-goodness blue collar jobs. Many felt they were somehow left behind in the Finnish system.

Inside the Finnish hall.

Inside the Finnish hall.

Winters here are awfully long and cold. One needs to keep oneself busy in order to maintain sanity in such harsh conditions. So people belong to church and different kinds of clubs. Anything to keep themselves occupied on those dark winter days. I am being escorted to my downtown Anchorage hotel by Ulla Rantalainen. More of this interesting woman later. Downtown Anchorage is ugly. There, I said it, but there is no other way to describe it.

Downtown Anchorage

Downtown Anchorage

One-way streets are lined with sterile 1970’s hotels and office towers. There is no street life. A massive 9.2 magnitude earthquake destroyed most of Anchorage back in 1964. After that, the city was quickly rebuilt with little thought for aesthetics. The city leaders ought to be ashamed of themselves! Everything quiets down at sunset and this city of 300,000 turns into a ghost town. My hotel is the Econo Inn on one of the main fares. It is a somewhat drab place that has seen its best days but it’s clean and hey, at 70 dollars a night, who’s complaining. Besides, I only intend to sleep in my room and it’s for two nights only. Since there’s nothing else but fast food places open, it’s a Big Mac meal for dinner. After watching the local news I call it a night.

Econo Inn in downtown Anchorage offers modest and cheap accommodation.

Econo Inn in downtown Anchorage offers modest and cheap accommodation.

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 16TH

This morning I have a date with Tuomo Latva-Kiskola, the physical therapist. He and his wife have a comfortable two storey house on the southern edge of Anchorage in the Sand Lake district.

Tuomo Latva-Kiskola in his yard. Tuomo enjoys fishing and hunting.

Tuomo Latva-Kiskola in his yard. Tuomo enjoys fishing and hunting.

Tuomo drives us to the lake where rich people have their houses at the water’s edge, complete with private seaplanes docked at the end of their piers, ready to take off at their owners’ pleasure at any time. In fact, other people are clearly uninvited to enjoy the lake. There are signs posted everywhere declaring it’s a private area.

Sand lake - the stomping ground of the Anchorage well-heeled crowd.

Sand Lake – the stomping ground of the Anchorage well-heeled crowd.

Only winter brings a little bit of equality to this affluent suburb. As the lake freezes over, the locals get to go ice skating and skiing on the lake. Anyway, by that time, most of the rich people have taken off on their planes to Florida or somewhere else for the winter. After I bid adieu to Tuomo, I stop at City Diner for lunch. At $16.95, the old-fashioned pot roast with mashed potatoes sounds a bit pricey but I decide on it anyway. After waiting for what seems like an eternity, my entrée is brought to me. It is delicious.  After lunch it’s time to explore the city. Not much to see in Anchorage, unless you’re into a mall or a museum. I find the charming little Elderberry Park at the end of the 5th Avenue. With a paper cup of hot coffee, I sit down at one of the park tables to write my assignment for that night, watching people walk their dogs and kids play at the playground. Another fast food dinner, TV and bed.

Tomi Hinkkanen in Eldenberry Park, Anchorage.

Tomi Hinkkanen in Elderberry Park, Anchorage.

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 17TH

I am up bright and early at 6.30 am, since I have a long drive ahead of me. I am heading to Denali National Park, some five hours to the north. It is the shoulder season, so regular tours of the park are not offered at this time of the year. However, I have reserved a five-hour bus tour with Aramark Company, still offering some of the last tours of the year. I check out of my hotel, since I have another accommodation for that night. It is freezing outside. The rowan trees on the parking lot are full of blood red berries. Old-time Finns know it means it’s going to be a cold, snowy winter.

Rowan trees are full of berries in Anchorage - a sure sign of an upcoming cold and snowy winter.

Rowan trees are full of berries in Anchorage – a sure sign of an upcoming cold and snowy winter.

I head north on Glenn Highway. It’s starting to drizzle. After about 20 minutes I pass Wasilla, a small town perhaps best known for its one-time mayor, Sarah Palin. I fill the tank – wouldn’t want to get stuck in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank. After about a half an hour, the four-lane highway turns into a two lane country road. There are very few cars anywhere. The fall colors are spectacular. As I get close to the park, I stop at a vista point to take a picture of the mountains.

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The tallest peak in the entire North America is here – Mount McKinley. Most days the park is overcast, but I think I manage to capture it before the clouds set in. The Denali National Park is huge – six million acres. That’s over 24,000 square kilometers, folks – larger than the state of Massachusetts. As I enter the park grounds, I feel the same vibe as the in the Stanley Kubrick horror film The Shining starring Jack Nicholson. There’s even a hotel on a mountainside (The Grande Denali Lodge), that looks like Overlook Hotel in the movie.

The Grande Denali Lodge can be seen on the mountainside.

The Grande Denali Lodge can be seen on the mountainside.

As it turns out, my comparison is not so far-fetched. I and about 25 others that are taking today’s tour are one of the last visitors to the park this season. After that, the tours end for the season, the visitors center, hotel (buu) and most activities shut down. Only a small skeleton crew remains over winter as caretakers.

Denali National Park visitors' center.

Denali National Park visitors’ center.

Tour guide Caroline welcomes our group gathered in the visitors center. We are given box lunches and onto the bus we step. Caroline doubles as a driver as well. With a headset on, she narrates through the five hour tour, talking about the flora and fauna of the park.

Denali bus tour takes you through the national park.

Denali bus tour takes you through the national park.

The mammals that make their home here include bears, moose and wolves. It is a tough place to live. The temperature hovers around the freezing point and it’s only mid September.

Fall foliage of Denali.

Fall foliage of Denali.

The fall colors in different shades of rust are mesmerizing. Twice we disembark the bus and take a little walking tour through the wilderness. At the end of the tour we spot a moose by the road. Cameras click as everyone jockeys to capture the animal on their memory cards.

Tourists view Denali's natural wonders from a vista point.

Tourists view Denali’s natural wonders from a vista point.

After the tour I thank and shake hands with Caroline, who has been such a knowledgeable guide. The shy woman doesn’t want to be photographed. Even though I had an inkling of Alaska’s vastness, it still took me somewhat by surprise. I booked myself a cabin for the three remaining nights in Cooper Landing, located in the Kenai Peninsula, 200 miles (320 km) away. And we are not talking about freeway miles either. The estimated travel time is six hours.

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As it turned out, at this time of the year the road construction workers are frantically trying to finish repaving roads before winter sets in. So, I had to wait about a half an hour in one spot before we motorists were let to proceed. I strike up a conversation with two fellows, who had been moose hunting. Their catch lay in pieces in the back of the guys’ pick-up truck. This topic is definitely out of my comfort zone.

Hunters and their catch in the back of their red pick-up.

Hunters and their catch in the back of their red pick-up.

Even though it is already pitch dark as I get to the Kenai Peninsula, I immediately realize I have come to a very special place. At 1.30 am I pull in the parking lot of the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge in Cooper Landing, a township of some 300 residents. The manager kindly comes out to hand me the keys to my two storey cabin named after the late George Nelson, a game warden, hunter and trapper.

Kenai River Lodge sign at night.

Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge sign at night.

My cabin has all the comforts of home. On the first level there’s a bathroom with a shower, a kitchenette with a stove, microwave and a refrigerator and a living room area with a couch, table and chairs.

The cabin has all creature comforts.

The cabin has all creature comforts.

A sliding door leads to a balcony overlooking the Kenai River. I stock the fridge with food items I purchased on the way. After a hot shower and a snack I climb upstairs and fall asleep in my queen-sized bed.

My cabin  Jack Lean on grounds of the Kenai River Lodge.

My cabin on grounds of the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge.

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18TH

After yesterday’s long drive, I wake up late. I walk down the path to the green Kenai River flowing fast by. This is a prime area for fishermen. In fact, the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge organizes fishing expeditions that leave early in the morning. One such trip has just concluded and the happy fishermen walk past me with their catch. I have a chat with one of the lodge maids – a California girl from San Diego. She has spent her first summer in Alaska and intends to stay over winter at another resort. The River Lodge will close in two weeks for the winter.

You can rent a cabin at Kenai River Lodge.

You can rent a cabin at Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge.

Later on I see many places that are already closed. To me it’s a plus. It is peaceful and serene. I feel far, far away from civilization and all its troubles. I take a little drive, keeping the radio turned off, take in the breathtakingly beautiful scenery – and take lots of pictures. The clouds hang low on mountainsides. At one moment it’s sunny, the next it rains. A perfect time to cuddle on the sofa with a good book and to just relax.

Kenai River

Kenai River

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 19TH

I am on my way to Seward, a town an hour and a half away from Cooper Landing on the southern tip of the peninsula. Again, I run into some road construction and have to wait, but no worries, I have all the time in the world. Seward was named after the Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for 7 million dollars in 1867. Seward was ridiculed for this and the deal called “Seward’s Folly”. It goes down in history as possibly the best real estate deal ever and Seward himself as one of the best secretaries of state because of it..

Seward is located on tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

Seward is located on tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

But Seward the town is a small place of some 2600 people nestled in an inlet surrounded by snow-capped mountains. In the nearby small boat harbor there are fishing vessels and tour boats ready to take you for a ride. It’s time for lunch. I settle for Alaska Nellie’s Roadhouse – a modest-looking diner on the town’s main drag. As it turns out, a big mistake. Without thinking twice or looking at the price, I order fish and chips (after all, one should have a sea food meal here). The food is mediocre, but the bill is not – 27 dollars for the meal and a Coke! So, with a small tip that comes to 30 bucks! As I leave, in front of the restaurant I see the manager (Nellie herself, I presume), talking to a friend about her plans to winter in Florida (Yes, with money from suckers like me, I fume to myself). I walk around Seward. At summertime this is a touristy town and also the cruise ships stop here. So there are plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants to choose from.

Downtown Seward is small and touristy.

Downtown Seward is small and touristy.

At the waterfront I run into an interesting bearded man. He is working for Nokia’s Here Business, mapping the highways of Alaska. Here Maps is a similar service to Google Street View. The man says it takes him five weeks to map all Alaska highways. Once in a while he runs into a bit of trouble in his business. In certain neighborhoods people don’t appreciate their homes being photographed. Ironically, the resistance normally happens in either very wealthy or very poor neighborhoods.

This man is mapping Alaska highways for Nokia's Here Business.

This man is mapping Alaska highways for Nokia’s Here Business.

I have a date with Tuula Hollmén,  a professor at Alaska University and bird researcher at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. The center is located in a foreboding-looking concrete building. My guess is it never won any architectural prices. The interior is more interesting. It contains everything you ever wanted to know about Alaskan sea life. Aquariums have different kinds of fish swimming about and there is a large pool for sea birds that the audience can see. Tuula Hollmén is a delightful woman in her 40’s. Like her subjects, she is tiny and bird-like herself. She has made a stellar scientific career researching sea life, sea birds and eiders in particular. I interview her for a newspaper story.

Bird researcher Tuula Hollmén sits outside Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

Bird researcher Tuula Hollmén sits outside Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

She is married to an American judge. They live in town. She has lived here for ten years and describes summers here as “cold Finnish summers” (Burrrr). The plus side is that since it is windy year round, at least there are no mosquitoes. Alaska is a bird researcher’s paradise.

Tuula Hollmén has carved out a career of researching birds in Alaska.

Tuula Hollmén has carved out a career of researching birds in Alaska.

Tuula can’t wait to embark on one of her bird expeditions that take her to all kinds of faraway places in this huge state. After saying goodbye to Tuula, I decide to take a long drive to the other side of the peninsula, to a town called Homer. After all, this is my last full day in Alaska.

The northern side of the Kenai Peninsula is sparsely populated.

The northern side of the Kenai Peninsula is sparsely populated.

My trip takes me virtually almost completely around the peninsula, the reason being that the road doesn’t go completely all the way around. The northern side of the Kenai Peninsula is even more sparsely populated than the south side. I drive miles and miles without seeing any human habitation, only scrawny small coniferous trees. Caroline at Denali National Park had told us those trees can be 200 years old but remain small due to the subarctic weather. I reach Homer at sunset and stop at a vista point to take this picture, which by the way is not altered or color enhanced in any way.

A view from Homer at dusk.

A view from Homer at dusk.

Next I head to the beach. There are some locals there, walking their dogs, but as it is getting dark, they too hurry to their cars. After my long drive, nature calls. There are plastic lavatories on the beach. I check into one of them. After finishing my business I try the door. It won’t open. I already envision the headlines: A man freezes to death in Alaska restroom. Is this the end for me, in a place that seems to be in the end of the world? Thank goodness, no. The door was just a little tricky. I get out safely.

Homer, Alaska seems like the most faraway place in the United States.

Homer, Alaska seems like the most faraway place in the United States.

Now I’m hungry. I drive aimlessly the streets of Homer, population 5,000, but everything seems to be closed. There are all kinds of houses of worship to satisfy any creed from Christian Scientists to Jehovah’s Witnesses but no place to eat. There is a roadhouse, but it looks kinda rough, and I don’t think I would fit in very well, so I pass. On the long trip back to my cabin I come to a town called Soldotna. By now it’s late and dark. I stop to ask a local man if there’s a restaurant nearby. He directs me to the Caribou Family Restaurant. There are only a handful of people in this cozy-looking place. I order a chicken dinner. It turns out to be the best meal of my entire Alaska trip. The satisfaction of a good meal washes away bad memories of Alaska Nellie and her outrageous prices. This dinner is half the price and ten times better. Again, I arrive at my cabin late and turn in.

This hungry voyager found a delicious meal at the Caribou Family Restaurant in Soldotna, Alaska.

This hungry voyager found a delicious meal at the Caribou Family Restaurant in Soldotna, Alaska.

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 20TH

The final day. After packing up I go to the office to thank the manager of the Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge. It turned out to be a wonderful place to stay at a very reasonable cost of 150 dollars a night. The nature around the cabins is beautiful, the sounds of the river soothing and everything is very peaceful. The management didn’t make a fuss but left me alone, which is exactly the way I prefer.

Kenai River Lodge offers a peaceful place to stay.

Kenai Drifter’s River Lodge offers a peaceful place to stay.

My final date is with Ulla Rasilainen. Her story is the most interesting of all the people I met in Alaska. Ulla started her career as a streetcar driver in Helsinki but yearned to be a pilot. At 25, Finnair said she was too old for their pilot training! So, Ulla moved to San Francisco and got her pilot’s license there by taking private lessons. After working as an entrepreneur and flying FedEx cargo planes, Ulla moved to Alaska and worked as a bush pilot, delivering people and supplies in small villages in Alaska. About a year ago she got a job as a medivac pilot with a company contracted by the Alaska Regional Hospital in Anchorage.

Captain Ulla Rasilainen at the helm of her plane.

Captain Ulla Rasilainen at the helm of her plane.

She rescues sick people from dangerous and faraway places and flies them to the hospital. We tour her twin turbo engine plane at a hangar in Ted Stevens Airport. It accommodates a crew of four and there are two sick beds in the passenger compartment. She has landed this plane in -50 degree temperatures and inclement weather, rescuing among others, elderly cruise ship passengers, who have broken a hip or suffered a heart attack. It takes a special person to do this kind of a job and Ulla is that person. I truly feel we became good friends.

Ulla on a mission in Sitka, Alaska. Photo courtesy Ulla Rasilainen.

Ulla on a mission in Sitka, Alaska. Photo courtesy Ulla Rasilainen.

Then it is time to head to the passenger side of the airport, turn in my car (no accidents, thank you), and fly back home after a marvelous trip. Looking through the plane window the icy mountain tops disappear into the distance, I say to myself: I will return to Alaska.

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