Waiting for the end in Alaska

In Alaska, they save the best for last.

Whether it’s the final boat tour of a glacier, the last nights in a cabin outside a remote national park, or the final Inside Passage cruise of the season, the Last Frontier loves its endings.

It’s not as if the state breathes a collective sigh of relief as the tourists leave in mid-September — although some certainly do. It’s more that things are about to get a little quieter, which is what makes Alaska Alaska. And the 49th State is all about peace and quiet.

I arrived in Anchorage in late August with my three kids, ages 10, 12 and 15, and even then, the tourism show had started to wind down. The days were still long but there was a chill in the air and the summer crowds were thinning. Before dark, the street noise below our room at the Historic Anchorage Hotel was so negligible, we could sleep with the windows open. “LAST WEEK!” a sign in front of the Alaska Naturally Aurora Show the next block over-warned. It felt like Anchorage was about to close for the season.

The small town of Girdwood, about an hour drive south, was eerily silent. One or two destination weddings were wrapping up at the Alyeska Resort, but the town looked abandoned. Alyeska is one of the great North American ski resorts, so things don’t really come alive here until the snow begins to fall. My oldest son and I found a moose blocking one of the hiking trails that wound its way up a steep mountain path, as if to say, “This is my trail. Get your own.” Only the Bake Shop, with its famous sweet rolls, had anything resembling a crowd.

 

We pushed south to Whittier, through the claustrophobia-inducing, single-lane Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, for a tour of the Blackstone Glacier. In the protected waters off the legendary Gulf of Alaska, the first signs of winter were already visible. A light dusting of snow capped the peaks around the bay. This would be one of the final runs of the year, and we were fortunate to have calm seas on the day we set out with Lazy Otter Charters. The waters in the bay are entirely protected, so you don’t have to worry about Deadliest Catch-size waves hammering the vessel — which was good, since we are prone to seasickness.

Seeing a glacier never gets old. On a cloudy day, the diffused light makes the ice appear dark blue. We waited quietly at a safe distance for the glacier to calve, an unforgettable moment that sends water spraying high into the air and sounds like a thunderclap.

The experience left us wanting more, so a few days later, we found ourselves on a train bound for Seward, where we caught another boat to Resurrection Bay with Kenai Fjords Tours. This time, the vessel ventured farther into the rough waters, but, as they say, more risk equals more reward. Whale, dolphin and an almost indescribable number of birds greeted us at every inlet.

And where were the people? Gone, for the most part, since September isn’t exactly the most popular month to visit Alaska.

The drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is long and desolate, but on a clear day it is also spectacular. There are mountains already covered by a generous amount of snow and bright orange and yellow foliage, and only a few cars passing you on the two-lane road that leads past the park to Fairbanks.

Our next stop was the Denali Education Center, a nonprofit dedicated to helping visitors form lasting connections to Denali and their natural world. We were part of the final group of guests for the season, and the cabins were already being shut down and shored up for winter. If you want to visit Denali without feeling like a number, this is the place to go. You’ll quickly get to know everyone on the small property. The highlight of our visit was an invitation to a fundraiser for a local dog sledding team. It featured live folk music and fresh sourdough pizza made in a brick oven from a Fairbanks food truck. My kids and I were the only non-Alaskans in attendance.

Of course, you can’t visit Alaska without seeing Denali National Park. But if you go, make it late summer, when the crush of visitors loosens its grip on the area. There are so many ways to see Denali. Try catching a bus, which takes you deep into the park and offers a helpful guided tour by a park ranger. You can also drive yourself, as we did. Then we hiked a loop around Savage River, taking pictures of marmots and birds.

You can also ride the nearby Nenana River rapids with a tour operator like the Denali Outdoor Center, which is an exhilarating (and in the early fall, a chilling) experience. Or, if you prefer to fly, try driving to Talkeetna and catching a flight around Mount Denali with K2 Aviation, which lets you see the incredible mountains and glaciers up close.

For my family, the ultimate curtain call came when we boarded the last cruise of the season with Alaskan Dream Cruises in Sitka, a short flight from Anchorage. The mood on the small ship was almost festive, with the crew eager to share details of where they were headed for the winter. The Chichagof Dream, a 74-passenger vessel, sailed through Inside Passage waters that were clear as glass on a late summer. Every room and public area on the ship has a pair of binoculars or a telescope to get a good look at the whales, bears or birds along the uninhabited shores of these islands. It felt as if we were in a movie.

Early one morning, the Dream dropped anchor in a cove. We slid into the flat-calm, ice-cold water in tandem kayaks and followed a playful pair of sea otters until the ship called us back for breakfast. It was the best kayaking, ever. As we churned toward Juneau, there was a sense that this really was the end, not just for the crew, but for us as well. We’d spent almost a month in Alaska and now it was time to follow the other visitors back to the Lower 48.

Alaska will always be about endings for me. I’ve seen this place in the spring, when the first tourists start to arrive, and I’ve been here in the middle of summer, when everyone is here. But my favorite time will always be early fall, when the chaos of tourist season is over and people have a minute to slow down and appreciate the stunning beauty of Alaska.

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