In the winter, Alaska returns to its untamed, natural state. Jeff Wise braves icy temperatures and mountains of snow to take in the scenery between Anchorage and Homer.
Shoosh. we're standing at the foot of a towering wall of fractured blue glass, keeping absolutely quiet as our toes and fingers slowly go numb in the zero-degree cold. Shoosh. There it is again, a sound like a snowball thrown hard into deep powder. Fast and soft, like an exhalation.
"There's enormous pressure in that ice," says park ranger Mike Tetreau, leaning on his ski poles. I can believe it. We're surrounded by evidence of catastrophic force—gaping crevasses that shade from pale blue to turquoise-black, huge chunks split away and lying in sharp-edged jumbles at the foot of the glacier wall, like pieces of a giant decorative ashtray smashed by a hammer. It's a train wreck on an epic scale and in epochally slow motion, countless tons of ice sliding down from the Harding Ice Field at the rate of an inch an hour.
It's winter in Alaska. Though the prospect of traveling through America's biggest, wildest state can be intimidating—many reasonable visitors prefer to book a cruise along the coast and leave it at that—I've decided to take the plunge and visit during the quiet off-season, when tourists are scarce and the elements are in control. I've made a half-dozen summer trips to the northland over the years, but this time it'll be pure, cold Alaska, full throttle. My plan: to drive the scenic route from Anchorage to Homer. Over the course of four days and 600 miles, I will motor through scenes of unmatched, slightly menacing beauty: ranks of mountains so thoroughly buried in snow it's as if the whole landscape has been carved from a single piece of ice; the wind-lashed blue-black ocean; rivers half frozen, steaming in the subarctic chill.
Fittingly enough, I arrive in the teeth of a blizzard and drive the ﬁrst 40 miles south from Anchorage in a virtual whiteout. Anticipating such conditions, I'd reserved the heaviest 4 x 4 on the rental lot. An hour of ice and snow later, I arrive at Girdwood, Alaska's adventure-sports capital, and the Alyeska Resort, the best hotel in the state—a postmodern take on the traditional Alpine property, done in a simple geometry of red and gray. I celebrate my safe arrival with a long soak in a hot bath.
The snowstorm has its pros and cons. On the negative side, it eliminates any chance that I'll get a call from the hotel's aurora borealis alert service. On the positive, it leaves Alyeska's 1,000 acres of terrain covered in a buttery-soft layer of powder. (The resort gets 782 inches of snow per year, more than any other in North America.) I spend the next morning in downhill-ski heaven. From the top of the cable-car lift, at 2,300 feet, are views out over the mountains and the Turnagain Arm, a narrow ocean inlet heaped with chunks of ice. So spectacular is the scene from the summit that the Seven Glaciers restaurant there (open only on weekends) has become the obligatory question-popping spot for Anchorage couples.
My next destination is Seward, 90 miles away. The road follows the coast of the Turnagain Arm, then dips south to cross the mountains that form the spine of the Kenai Peninsula, a 200-mile-long fin of largely roadless wilderness projecting into the Bering Sea. Seward sprang to life a century ago as a rail terminus, a link between the interior and Alaska's northernmost ice-free harbor. It enjoyed its heyday during the gold rushes of that era, and today slumbers on as a blue-collar town of 3,000.
"In the last earthquake, in 1964, the whole town settled six feet," Tetreau says. "Eventually it will slide to the bottom of the fjord."
But not soon, hopefully. I love the town's Edwardian buildings, including the eccentric Van Gilder Hotel—my digs—and the Liberty Theater, a pocket-sized movie house that exudes the aroma of buttered popcorn. The whole town has a faded, old-fashioned gentility about it. The only modern structure I can find is the SeaLife Center, a $56 million state-of-the-art facility opened seven years ago with proceeds from the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement. Inside, I find exhibits about the Arctic Ocean and tanks in which seabirds flap and swoop underwater—rather gracefully, I'm surprised to see.
By 9:45 the next morning sunlight is just touching the white peaks to the west, and a few clouds stand out against the sky. "It's so much quieter in the winter," Tetreau says when he meets me for breakfast in town. "In the summertime it's all hustle and bustle—everybody wants to turn a buck. In the winter, the small-town attitude comes back. You help the guy who's broken down by the side of the road because next week he'll help you."
After Tetreau takes me out to the Exit Glacier, a nine-mile drive from town, I press onward along the 170-mile road to Homer, near the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula. In Alaska, Homer is famous for two things: halibut and hippies. The most famous among the latter is the singer Jewel, who was raised here. Her grandfather, a Swiss immigrant, was one of the original homesteaders, and Jewel grew up performing for tourists with her Age of Aquarius parents. Today, freethinkers and artists continue to thrive in the bustling coffeehouse and art-gallery scene and at bars like the Salty Dawg. "It's the end of the road," local writer Geo Beach says. "A sort of geographical and spiritual counterweight to Key West."
I meet Beach for dinner in the Café Cups, a warm, brightly lit restaurant with a tropical theme. The family at the next table, Beach informs me, have just returned from their second home, in Cabo San Lucas. Another group of patrons are fresh back from the Kona coast. The cosmopolitan energy is the opposite of what I'd imagined in a remote Alaskan outpost. All the same, the town is running at winter speed, with most of the galleries and nightspots shut for the season. As I head back to my hotel, I notice a glow in the northern sky. It's faint, and at first I suppose it's the light of a nearby city, until I realize that there is no nearby city. I pull over and for half an hour watch the green arc of the aurora slowly shift, expand, and fade.
In summer, tourists pour in by the thousands for Homer's legendary halibut, which can grow to more than 400 pounds. The Homer Spit, a natural causeway that thrusts 4½ miles out into Kachemak Bay, is lined with docks, marinas, fish-processing companies, tour boat operators—most of them now closed. Only a half-dozen charter captains work throughout the winter. One of these is gruff, ponytailed Norm Anderson. I can tell he's a serious seaman by the way he jams giant hooks through frozen bait with his bare hands. We'll be ﬁshing for salmon.
Huddled for warmth in the cabin of the 26-foot Sea Otter, we chug out to sea past a breakwater thick with bald eagles to Anderson's favorite fishing spot. Here and there, real sea otters bob among the waves, and after an hour we spot a pod of dolphins. Our quarry, though, proves more elusive. "Winter king salmon is the best fish you'll ever taste," says Anderson. "They're not expending energy spawning, so it's all stored in oils in their flesh. This fish tastes so good you don't need to put any seasoning on it at all, just throw it on a grill. But be careful; all that oil can go up like tinder."
I manage to land just one king that day, which Anderson summarily dispatches with a baseball bat. I leave the fish with one of the processing companies, which packs it in ice and FedExes it to my apartment in New York. I drive back to Anchorage that afternoon, spend the night near the airport, then fly home. A day later, I'm standing on my stoop in Manhattan, signing for a fish I last saw in the bilge of a boat 3,000 miles away.
I thaw a couple of meaty steaks and invite a friend for dinner. Following the captain's directions, I put the steaks under the broiler naked. No inferno erupts; after a few minutes on each side, they're ready, and with the first bite, all of Alaska's wildness comes rushing back—the briny taste of the sea, rich and wintry. As I eat the fish, I can almost see the view I had when I caught it: the low sun painting the distant volcanoes pink, the wind-whipped waters of the Cook Inlet churning, forbiddingly beautiful.
The rest of the fish I'm keeping in the back of my freezer. Trapped here in civilization, it's nice to have a fragment of wilderness hidden away—a frozen chunk of an untamed world, waiting in the ice to release its moment once again.
JEFF WISE is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
Day 1 Drive 40 miles southeast on Rte. 1 from Anchorage to Girdwood.
Day 2 Continue south on Rte. 1 50 miles to Rte. 9. Follow Rte. 9 40 miles south to Seward.
Day 3 Take Rte. 9 north 40 miles to Rte. 1, then go 170 miles west and south on 1 to Homer.
Day 4 Return to Anchorage on Rte. 1, 260 miles.
A four-wheel-drive SUV is recommended for trekking in Alaska during the winter. Local car-rental companies carry a wide selection.
WHERE TO STAY
1000 Arlberg Ave., Girdwood; 800/880-3880 or 907/754-1111; www.alyeskaresort.com; doubles from $175.
4786 Homer Spit Rd., Homer; 800/478-0400 or 907/235-0400; www.lands-end-resort.com; doubles from $69.
Van Gilder Hotel 308 Adams St., Seward; 800/204-6835 or 907/224-3079; www.vangilderhotel.com; doubles from $55.
WHERE TO EAT
Café Cups 162 W. Pioneer Ave., Homer; 907/235-8330; lunch for two $16.
Double Musky Inn Cajun food in a log cabin. Mile 3, Crow Creek Rd., Girdwood; 907/783-2822; www.doublemuskyinn.com; dinner for two $60.
Double Musky Inn
Van Gilder Hotel
Steeped in the heart of a glacier-carved valley, Alyeska Resort is the only North American ski resort with both mountain and ocean views. For adventure-seekers, the property is a veritable gold-mine—in fact, the town it’s located in played a large role in the gold rush. After a day on the slopes, guests can relax in the saltwater pool or whirlpool, or indulge in a treatment at the spa.