Little House on the Tundra

It’s currently 11 degrees in Chicago (feels like -7, according to In the last three days, I have only gone outside to shovel the front sidewalk and play with the dog in the backyard for a few minutes before my hands turn into icicles inside my Thinsulate mittens. Most of my Facebook feed is either threatening to move to Florida or posting Hoth/tauntaun/North of the Wall memes. Some who live in warmer climates are sharing screenshots of their weather apps with sunshine icons and temps in the 70’s; these types are kindred spirits to the people who purposely eat ice cream cones on the sidewalk in full view of Weight Watchers meetings. Schools, businesses, and airlines are shut down, hunkered down, and grounded. People might as well change their out of office emails to “currently on Netflix lockdown.”

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have a strange love of extreme storms and weather conditions, mostly due to a childhood obsessions with the Little House on the Prairie books. When Mother Nature gives us the business, I like to think I can tough my way through it. During these bleak winter days when polar vortexes descend on my city, I look at them as training. Not for some Snowpiercer-esque future apocalypse, as you may be thinking, but for my retirement days.

Kurt and I like to kick around the ridiculous idea of someday retiring in Alaska. We spent 10 days in an RV driving around Denali, Anchorage, and the Kenai peninsula in the summer of 2012 and both of us fell in love with the breathtaking scenery and the way of life. Since then, we’ve become hooked on a TV show on Destination America called Buying Alaska, which follows couples as they house-hunt in the Last Frontier. We like to talk about what trade-offs we’d be willing to make (could I live with an outhouse as our main bathroom if we could routinely see orcas breaching in the bay from our living room window?). I like to picture a cozy log cabin with big picture windows overlooking pristine nature. I’d have a comfy chair next to the wood burning stove where I’d read books all day and watch for moose or caribou passing through the yard. Kurt would do all of the shoveling. We’d grow vegetables in a greenhouse and store Alaskan beer in our root cellar. The only tough part would be getting through those long, brutal winters.

The tough weather we’ve been having recently give me a small taste of what an Alaskan winter would be like. Could I really deal with -30 degree temperatures, 80″ of snowfall, and 20 hours of darkness? I’ll let you know in a bit.

If not, I could also do Vegas.

Alaska, Day 9: Heading Home

Saturday, July 28: goodbye, Alaska

Since the RV had to be returned by 11, we woke up bright and early at 6:30 am to pack up, clean, and hit the road. After we got off the bumpy gravel road and back onto the main highway, we took care of filling the propane and visiting one last dump station. Kurt drove while I napped a little, and we had our two final wildlife sightings near Girdwood–a grazing moose and two large buffalo or oxen.

After we returned the RV, we had 7 hours to kill before we needed to go to the airport, so we had the rental place drop us off at Dimond Mall. We chowed down at a Mexican restaurant (there’s nothing less authentically Alaskan than a chimichanga) and walked around the mall for a bit. It was a gargantuan building with a bowling alley and ice skating rink on the lower level.

mall skating rink and bowling alley

We went to see Dark Knight Rises to kill some time. Somebody brought their dog into the theater, which was interesting. After the movie, we took a taxi to the airport and stocked up on magazines and snacks for the flight home to Chicago (once again, by way of Dallas-Ft. Worth).

goodbye Alaska

I’ve really enjoyed reliving the trip through these recaps, and it’s bittersweet to find myself on the last entry. It’s like saying goodbye to Alaska all over again. It was truly one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. While we were there, we couldn’t help but start planning the next trip in our heads. I’d love to go back to Denali and do some backcountry camping, visit Kodiak Island, try an overnight kayak trip, see the cat mayor of Talkeetna, dip into the hot springs in Chena, and so much more.

Here’s a few more of my favorite pictures from a truly incredible 9 days.

group shot during Savage River hike

Denali National Park

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Alaska, Day 8: Kenai, Soldotna, and Sterling

Friday, July 27, 2012: fishing frenzy


We woke up and headed out to explore our campgrounds, since we hadn’t been able to look around much the previous night. Kurt headed down to Swanson River to do some fishing, while I walked along the beach to check out the view of the active volcanoes across Cook Inlet.

volcano coast

After breakfast, we drove back down the coast to Kenai, where we stumbled upon a crowd of fishermen at the mouth of Kenai River. During the salmon season, net fishing is allowed for Alaskan residents only. The edges of the river were crammed with people holding nets as salmon seemed to literally jump right into them. The beach was covered with fishheads while people cleaned their catch on top of bloody coolers (I don’t want to imagine what their ride home smelled like). It was a real family event, with a bouncy tent set up near the end of the beach and kids running around dumping fish guts at their dads’ request. In the water, sea lions hunted the leaping fish, joining in on the big feast.

fishermen and families

this sight was typical

After watching for an hour or so, we walked around Kenai and checked out some souvenir shops, an art gallery, and split a reindeer hot dog. We had an RV site reserved for the night, but when we arrived we saw that it was along a busy road with no greenery nearby and no campfires allowed. Since it was prepaid, we decided to take advantage of the showers and water/electric hookups to load up the RV, then we left in search of a more scenic place to spend the night. And boy, did we find it. After a teeth-jolting ride on a bumpy, 13-mile-long backroad, we came to Dolly Varden Lake in Kenai National Wilderness Refuge. Our site was in a wooded area right next to the lake, with a gorgeous view. As our friend Thomas later said of this picture “You two get out of the way of the Bob Ross painting.”

me and Kurt at last campsite

We sat in camping chairs facing the lake, enjoying our last Alaskan beers, fishing, and watching wildlife on the lake. A beaver swam along the opposite shore; its head was so big at first we thought it might be a bear. The sky got dark enough for the North Star to shine through. It was a perfect final night in Alaska.

the moon appears

Wildlife sightings: sea lions, salmon, beaver, ducks

Alaska, Day 7: Exit Glacier

Thursday, July 26, 2012: glaciers and volcanoes

We said goodbye to our Seward campsite and otter friends and headed back towards Anchorage, stopping at Exit Glacier on the way. The glacier is derived from the Harding icefield in the Kenai Mountains.  We went on a hike on the trail that takes you close to the glacier itself. As we passed through the forested parts of the trail, the bugs were pretty terrible. It stood out because for the most part, mosquitos weren’t nearly as bad as I had predicted before the trip (everything we read ahead warned us to prepare for horrible bugs, even recommending headnets).  Besides the trip to Exit, the mosquitos in Alaska were not even as close to what I am used to dealing with while camping in Wisconsin.

Kurt in front of Exit Glacier

The closer we got to the glacier, however, the more the bugs thinned out. The air grew crisper and cooler to the skin, like walking into a large freezer. It was incredibly refreshing and felt amazing after the uphill hike.  We could see the glacial rivers and waterfalls up close, as well as the crystal blue color of the icy crevices.

glacier blue

After Exit Glacier, it was a straight shot to Anchorage, where we said goodbye to Bob and Amy who had a late-night flight home. They were excellent RV-roommates and I highly recommend them for your traveling companion needs.

me, Kurt, Bob, and Amy in front of Exit Glacier

On our own, Kurt and I headed back down the Kenai peninsula, this time heading to the other coast and the Kenai/Soldotna area. We had not reserved an RV park site ahead of time so we set out to explore and find a good spot to camp out for the night. I saw some pretty awesome-looking taxidermy shops along the road, which we sadly never got to check out on our crazy schedule.

After consulting our camping book, we decided to drive further north from Kenai and try Discovery Campground in Captain Cook State Recreation Area, along the Cook Inlet shore. It was a nice, secluded woodsy spot, exactly what we had in mind after the beautiful-but-RV-packed Seward site. We arrived later in the evening, and the skies were starting to darken as it was getting later in the summer, but beyond the trees lining our campsite there was a scenic view of active volcanoes along the inlet coast.

our site at Discovery Campground

We made an easy dinner of hot dogs on sticks over the campfire, and Kurt entertained himself by whittling a ‘bear-killing stick.’ We hardly saw any neighbors, except for a truck full of twenty-somethings who drove past shouting “The British are coming!” You never know what kids these days are going to be into.

Kurt’s ‘bear-killing stick’

you get used to this kind of sign, but it helps to have a bear-killing stick

Cool geographic sightings: glacier, volcanoes, temperate rainforest

Alaska, Day 6: Exploring the Kenai Peninsula by Sea

Wednesday, July 26, 2012: a day on the water

We started the morning by wishing Bob a happy birthday and making breakfast. Then it was on to our next expedition: a boat tour of Kenai Fjords that also included a kayaking excursion. We drove into downtown Seward (as the lady with the tour company said “We don’t really have street addresses here”) and found the boat company.

Early on into our boat ride, we had our first few wildlife sightings: sea otters, Dall porpoises, and a humpback whale. The boat took us to Fox Island, where we got fitted with our kayaking gear and met our guides for the day, one of whom used to work for Kayak Chicago. It was fun talking to her about kayaking on the Chicago River (a trip we all had done before). A few of the guides had found a humpback whale calf that had been killed by orcas (they like to eat the tongues) and showed us a piece of blubber they had kept in a plastic baggie.

The water was amazingly clear; we could see jellyfish bobbing along below us. In the kayaks, we were able to get close to shore to inspect starfish and rock formations, and paddled into alcoves filled with waterfalls and tide pools.

Kurt and a starfish, Bob and Amy’s kayak


We kayaked back to Fox Island after a few hours for a lunch of Wild Alaskan salmon, prime rib, and crab legs. After getting back onto the boat, we continued to explore Resurrection Bay. We came across more whales, including a mother and calf feeding near a beach and two whales ‘sleeping’ (whales rest portions of their brain at a time).  Near some rocky formation, we saw a large group of sea lions and tons of birds, including puffins, gulls, eagles, and many other species I can’t remember but got our captain all excited (the guy really loved birds).

whale tail

sea lions

puffin butt!

After an amazing day on the water, we went back to camp where Kurt prepared bacon-wrapped chicken breasts on the fire and Bob and Amy taught us how to play 42, a dominoes game.

It was a day that reminded us how precious and fleeting life can be, for quite a few reasons.

night sky

Wildlife sightings: sea otters, Dall porpoises, humpback whales, puffins, starfish, jellyfish, eagles, sea lions, lots of varieties of birds
baby animal alert!: humpback whale calf
lives saved by Heimlich Maneuver: 1

Alaska, Day 5: Seward

Tuesday, July 24, 2012: Old Seward Highway

Hello, Seward!

This morning, we said goodbye to Denali and hit the road to Seward, a small town on the Kenai Peninsula. This would be the longest leg of driving we would do on our trip, 7 hours according to Google Maps. Of course, everything takes a little bit longer in a large RV, so we got an early start to our day.

We arrived in Wasilla right around lunchtime, so we stopped for food and did some re-stocking of supplies.

Old Seward Highway (Hwy 1)  is one of the most scenic roads in Alaska. The road hugs the sound for a long leg of the trip, and sometimes you can see beluga whales surfacing in the bay. With snow-capped mountains looming above curving roads, it felt like we were driving into a postcard. We stopped to take pictures and gaze at the scenery.

with scenery like this, I could drive all day

Further down the peninsula, we got held up in traffic caused by torn-up roads and construction. It made for a bumpy ride for quite awhile, especially while passing through a blasting zone. The ride was worth it, however, once we reached our final destination, an RV park at Lowell’s Point right on the water. Our campsite was ‘ocean-view’ and they were not kidding. From our picnic table, we watched otters frolic in the water right in front of us. Eagles soared overhead.

me enjoying a beer at our campsite

There were plenty of fishermen staying at the campgrounds, and we watched many of them string up their catch and feed fish guts to the birds.


I think this pictures says it all–you couldn’t ask for anything more.

the life

Wildlife sightings: moose (along road leaving Denali), eagles, otters, sea gulls, lots of caught salmon

Alaska, Day 4: Journey into Denali

Monday, July 23, 2012: the day we saw ALL the animals

We purchased tickets for the 7:30 a.m. shuttle bus to Eielson Visitors Center, 66 miles deep into the park. I was especially excited about this part of the trip because I had read that the shuttle bus ride is one of the best ways to spot wildlife. They were not kidding around. We spotted pretty much everything, from either a far distance with binoculars to sometimes right up close along the side of the road.

Our first spotting was a small herd of caribou crossing over a ridge. (Click on photos to enlarge.)


Throughout the day, we probably saw the most Dall sheep. I particularly liked this spot where a group of males was sitting on a steep hill, just chilling out. With binoculars, you could see their faces in amazing detail. We watched one of them scratch his butt against the side of the rocks, leaving a big brown spot on his white hide.

Dall sheep

One of the most exciting sightings of the day was coming across a grizzly bear napping with two young cubs at her side. They were totally passed out in the middle of a meadow. With binoculars, you could see great detail and the texture of their fur. The mother was massive and as cool as it was to see her, I was definitely glad for the safety of being inside a bus. On our return trip they were further away from the road, up and about. The two cubs would stand up on their hind legs to look at us and we’d see their little brown heads pop out of the brush. Adorbs!

when you’re the top of the food chain, you nap anywhere

Two pretty awesome sightings happened simultaneously. The whole bus started gasping, and we were swiveling our heads to find out what had been spotted. On the right side of the bus, I saw a red fox trotting down the road towards us; on the left side of the bus Kurt witnessed the clouds parting briefly to uncover both peaks of Mt. McKinley (with the cloud cover as thick as it is, this is a rare thing to see). The fox seemed to be chasing a small mouse, and we saw him follow it into a ditch, pounce, and then run off to enjoy his lunch.

fantastic Mr. Fox

When we reached Eielson, we lucked out again with the sky clearing just enough to expose the north peak of Mt. McKinley. Look carefully to see it amidst the clouds.

Denali, a.k.a. Mt. McKinley

Another cool thing about the shuttle bus is that you can ask the bus driver to stop anywhere you want to get out and hike. When you are done, you just find your way back to the road and wave down the next green bus that comes along (one about every 30 minutes). We decided to hike near Polychrome Pass, a gorgeous mountain ridge bathed in color. Once again, it was somewhat slow going as we trekked through waist-high brush, climbed bluffs, and stopped to take a zillion pictures, but we ended up doing over 4 miles according to Bob and Amy’s GPS watches. Even after several days of being in Alaska, you don’t get used to the amazing scenery. At any given second, the views around you are postcard-worthy.


One of the most memorable moments during our hike was running into a young caribou. We had just reached the end of a small forest that opened up into a dried-up rocky river bed. The caribou was maybe 25 yards away and noticed us. We racked our brains trying to remember all of the instructions the rangers had given us for wildlife encounters (bears: don’t run, moose: run!, wolf: stand your ground, etc.) but could not remember ever hearing anything about caribou. The caribou started walking tentatively toward us, lowering his antlers a bit; at this point, we totally nerded out and pulled out our camping book to LOOK UP WHAT TO DO. As it turns out, caribou are not threatening, phew! We started walking the direction we wanted to go, but the caribou, watching us the whole time, cut us off and lied down on the ground. Even though they are not dangerous to humans, the book still said to avoid doing anything that would cause the caribou to change its natural routine, so we had to choose a different route so as not to disturb him.

the life-threatening caribou (not really)

After we finished our hike, we got back on the bus to return to the RV. We had a few more up-close Dall sheep sightings.

more Dall sheep, roadside

We also spotted several moose, including a mother and calf that suddenly popped up right next to the bus, and a gigantic bull moose grazing on a hill.

moose crossing

The best moose sighting of all, however, happened right at our campsite. We were sitting near the campfire after dinner when suddenly Bob jumped up and said “There’s a moose!” I thought he was kidding, but I got up to look and sure enough, a gigantic long-legged animal was casually walking by near our RV. Some other campers told us that they saw her sniff a tent. Moose encounters are actually just as dangerous as run-ins with bears, but we forgot that quickly as we tried to get a few photos. The moose continued on her way, slipping out of sight into the trees.

that’s our RV in the foreground

Also, Kurt and Bob saw a snowshoe hare. I was jealous. They are brown in the summertime, but it still has its telltale white feet.

snowshoe hare

For anyone planning a trip to Denali, I definitely recommend taking a ride on the shuttle bus. Start out early (the trip to Eielson was 4 hours each way) so you can make a day of it. The tour companies offer narration but use the same road and cost as much as 6 times the price. Even though our ride wasn’t narrated, our bus driver was very knowledgeable and shared tons of information. He stopped at each wildlife sighting long enough for everyone to get a good picture and use their binoculars. Afterwards, we all agreed that the bus ride was one of the highlights of our trip.

Wildlife spotted: grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, eagles, ravens, snowshoe hare, fox, pika, ptarmigan, ground squirrels
baby animal alert!: grizzly cubs, moose calf
notable scenery: Mt. McKinley

Alaska, Day 3: Exploring Denali

Sunday, July 22, 2012

hiking near Savage River

This was our first full day at Denali National Park, and we started it off by going on a hike near our campground at Savage River. There are actually very few man-made trails within the national park, so we found ourselves searching for a route through the shortest brush or over the calmest river crossings. Walking through brush is much more tiring than a regular trail, which explains why our book on camping in Denali usually estimated an hour per each mile on their recommended hikes. The ground near Savage River was also very spongey with moss, giving you the feeling of walking on pillows. We went out for about 2 hours and didn’t spot any wildlife but did encounter a giant bear paw print and many piles of moose droppings.

what big feet you have

After our lunch break, we took the roadside trail from the Visitors Center to the kennels for the sled dog demonstration. Before the talk started, we got to pet the dogs and explore the kennels. The sled dogs each had their own little dog house and seemed excited for people to visit them. One of the younger dogs, just past puppy age, got ahold of my watch strap and didn’t want to let it go.

“I loved you in Snow Dogs!”

We also finally spotted some wildlife–ravens the size of footballs were flying and squawking throughout the grounds.

The ranger asked the 4 of us to help her with a human demonstration before the dogs were brought out. Bob and Amy were ‘swing’ dogs, helping the lead dogs maneuver the pack, and Kurt and I were lowly ‘team’ dogs doing the grunt work. When the staff went to select the dogs that would get to be a part of the demonstration, all of the animals went nuts, barking like crazy to get selected. They really like their job.

On our way home, we had a wildlife sighting: caribou! It was pretty far from the road, but our shuttle bus driver pulled over so we could take pictures and check it out with binoculars.

just the butt

Back at our campsite, we had a much closer animal counter when a sneaky bird pulled a raw steak halfway off a plate; Amy and I saw it just in time to scare him off but it did get away with a good bite.

A ranger invited us to a presentation he was giving about wolves at the amphitheater right by our site. I’m pretty sure we were the only drunk attendees. He told us that he spends his summers at Denali and works in Hawaii for the rest of the year, which sounds like the most awesome living situation ever.

Afterwards, we went back to our Alaskan beers and Bota Boxes, made some s’mores, and went to bed to re-energize for our next day, which was a big one.


Wildlife Sightings: ravens, moose
Domesticated animals petted: sled dogs

Alaska, Day 2: On the Road to Denali

Saturday, July 21. 2012

We woke up and got breakfast at Snow City Cafe, a cute place in downtown Anchorage. I ordered reindeer sausage to keep it local, plus it’s delicious. Afterwards, we walked around and checked out some souvenir shops, received an ulu knife  as a free gift with purchase, and stopped into the Visitors Center (which I was banned from entering because I totally forgot the ulu knife was in my bag and tried to pass it through the government-operated building’s security screening.)

Finally, we were able to pick up our RV and get started on the 5-hour drive to Denali National Park. We stopped at the most scenic Wal-mart I’ve ever seen to pick up provisions for our 3 days in the Savage River campgrounds.

most scenic Wal-mart ever

The drive to Denali was wooded, gorgeous, and lined with a surprisingly large amount of fireworks stores. It rained throughout most of the day, and we didn’t see any wildlife during the drive minus some dogs running free near the street.

parked at our Savage River campsite, first night

inside view

After having dinner and drinks inside the RV while playing Cards Against Humanity, the rain finally stopped. We emerged from the RV during the bright midnight hour, and Kurt and I walked down to Savage River to check out the scenery. I don’t think we used our headlamps once during the entire trip. Seeing the vast open sky and mountains looming along the horizon, I realized that no camera was ever going to capture the true awe of being there, a feeling that I’d experience pretty much constantly through the rest of the trip.

this photo was taken at 12:30 a.m. with no flash

Wildlife count for the day: 0

Alaska, Day 1: Anchorage

Anchorage, AK

Friday, July 20, 2012: Our trip begins!

After a long day of flying, including a semi-ridiculous layover in Dallas-Fort Worth, Kurt and I arrived in Anchorage at around 8 p.m. We dropped off our backpacks at the hotel and immediately set out to explore a little bit. Anchorage is the biggest city in Alaska, with its population of 300,000 about roughly half of the entire state. We ate dinner (halibut tacos) and got some beers at Humpy’s Ale House in the downtown area.

After dinner, we walked around a little bit more, already thrown off by the daylight sky still bright well past 10 p.m. Considering it was later than 1 a.m. Chicago time, I was ready to head back to the hotel to go to bed. Our good friends and travel buddies, Bob and Amy, arrived from Houston about an hour or so later, so we called it a night to get some rest for the next big day.