First Impressions of Alaska

View of Turnagain Arm from Bird Ridge.  Note the mix of firs and spruces that give the Alaska air its delicious scent.
View of Turnagain Arm tributary from Bird Ridge. Note the mix of firs and spruces that give the Alaska air its delicious scent.

After 28 hours of a winding web of air travel from Peru to Alaska, I finally arrived in a land whose air I can’t stop sniffing. That’s right, I’m the girl locals see riding down the coastal bike trail with a smile on my face and my nose toward the sky. The air here smells, tastes, feels, sounds and looks fresh. Yes, you read correctly. I’m talking about air so crisp and clean you can see it. If you’ve never been to Alaska, you think I’m crazy. If you’ve visited this magical pocket of glaciers and evergreens far, far away, then you know what I mean when I say all five of your senses are on overdrive. And it’s absolutely magnificent.

My trip has yet to take off beyond the quaint margins of Anchorage, and still I’m already impressed. A friend I’ve known since gradeschool in Ohio happens to reside here and she has graciously offered me a place to stay, her bike, and numerous travel tips to begin my adventure. And soon, I’ll be setting off on an RV/camping road trip with my sister and her boyfriend’s family. But the past few days, I’ve enjoyed pedaling solo around Anchorage, sometimes directionally but more often aimlessly.

Landscape along the Tony Knowles coastal bike trail.  Cottonwood is out for revenge at this time of year!
Landscape along the Tony Knowles coastal bike trail. Cottonwood is out for revenge at this time of year!

In a grid marked by numbered avenues and lettered streets, downtown Anchorage is by all intents and purposes, cute. Grizzly bear statues and local restaurants touting all things winter-related in their titles line the tiny streets. This is a city that feels like a town. Despite Juneau being the capital, Anchorage boasts Alaska’s largest population. Nearly half of the state’s inhabitants reside here, but with Alaska’s tally barely pushing 735,000, that’s not saying much. Thus, it comes as no surprise that rush hour and crowds are seemingly non-existent here. Anchorage is a place with the perks of city life without all the chaos. And a gorgeous landscape to boot.

My first day riding around, I stopped at a sandwich shop for lunch. (I must say, after 6 weeks in South America, the plethora of vegan options made me squeal inwardly with delight.) While chomping on a portabella mushroom concoction at Brown Bag Sandwich Co., I felt my chair wobbling. I looked up and the lights were shaking; even the street signs outside were moving.

“Looks like we’re having a tremor,” said a 30-year-old guy next to me.

“What? They have those here?” I said.

“Quite frequently,” he stated.

After experiencing the occasional tremor back in Lima, Peru, I was expecting to leave the “earthquake experience” behind. But a 5.8 on the Richter scale hit Anchorage, Alaska, launching me into discussion about all things Alaskan with a local guy at the local sandwich shop. Like many natives and transplants, he works for the oil company. He also loves to travel, so we swapped travel stories like travelers are prone to do, and I gleaned some advice for venturing out into the Alaskan wilderness. It was quickly becoming apparent how genuinely nice and dreamily happy people in Alaska are. I guess it’s not hard to do in the summer time when you have 20 hours of Vitamin D to keep you perky.

That evening, my Ohio friend and I enjoyed a steep but short hike to Bird Ridge overlooking a tributary called Turnagain Arm. I had my eyes peeled for beluga whales that pass through the waters. Though I didn’t see any, the view was expansive and so nature-filled I wanted to paint it right then and there. (If only I had good painting skills.)

The following day was spent on a 20-mile bike ride following the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. It was there that I saw my first ever wild moose. I kid you not when I confess that I jumped off the bike upon my first encounter out of sheer excitement. I still had my wits about me, so worry not, but I took in the chomping calf and its brother with a mixture of awe and elation. For natives, seeing moose in Alaska is comparable to viewing deer in Ohio. They are plentiful and therefore locals have affected a nonchalant attitude toward their presence. But whatever, I still get excited when I see deer in the backyard. So naturally, I nearly wet my pants when I saw my first moose.

Moose calf, aka my new best friend.
Moose calf, aka my new best friend.

In addition to the company of large mammals on my bike ride, I also met an old man who was visiting his son. A St. Louis denizen but born into Red Sox country, he was enjoying his last day in Anchorage before heading to Juneau. We stopped to watch a pheasant together. (I’m a sucker for wildlife, in case you’re slow to notice.) I passed him again on my return route and rode slowly next to him while we discussed books, hopes, dreams and hiking. While I still have to keep my common sense in check while traveling solo, I’ve learned that most people in this world mean you no harm. We only see the bad stuff reported on the news; this world really is a beautiful place. But I digress…

To wrap up my week, I met up with a friend I crossed paths with back in the Florida Keys a couple years back. She is traveling with her mom and sisters through Alaska and Canada. She had since moved to Maryland, while I’m still the girl with no address. And we reunited near tundra and polar bears—proof that it’s a small world after all.

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