After I mentioned to a friend that my son Milo and I were taking a long weekend in Alaska over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I was hit with two questions: Why visit Alaska in the middle of winter? And why do I travel so often with my children? I have so many reasons for the latter.
Traveling teaches meaningful life skills. Experiencing different cultures breaks stereotypes and facilitates cultural appreciation, and the ability to adapt to new environments is learned. Milo’s former science teacher loved the fact that when she spoke about savannahs, Milo would detail his experiences in Florida.
When she taught about the bayou, Milo displayed photos of his trip to Louisiana. And then there were the desert assignments in which Milo led the class detailing his time in Arizona. Thanks to baseball and hockey tournaments and vacations, Milo visited 49 states by age 15. All that was left for my younger son was, well, the 49th state.
Unlike most folks I know, Milo, 16, was excited about visiting Alaska when covered with snow and ice. The closest state to the Last Frontier is Washington, so it’s not that big of a deal to make such a journey. Flights are reasonable, via Alaska Airlines (alaskaair.com), at less than $300 round trip from Spokane to Fairbanks, with a stop in Seattle.
It’s about five hours of flight time, which matches how long the sun is up in Fairbanks during the first month of the year. The run through the winter wonderland had an indelible impact on each of us. In pursuit of the northern lights, we trekked via van courtesy of Northern Alaska Tour Co. (northernalaska.com) to Coldfoot. The experience was about the journey as much as the destination.
Along the way, we were edified by our driver, Robert, who provided detail about the history of Alaska and what we would see on our way toward the winter hinterland. While driving north on the Dalton Highway, we had a number of moose sightings and made a number of stops. We walked along the frozen Yukon River, strolled under the Alaska Pipeline and had hot chocolate at the Arctic Circle. We learned that only 5% of Alaskans have trekked above the circle.
We caught a glimpse of the aurora borealis, enjoyed a snowshoeing experience and had a baseball catch. Coldfoot, and nearby Wiseman, is stunning, but Fairbanks, where it’s also possible to see the northern lights, is a destination in its own right. We were surprised by the culinary scene. There are about 30 Thai restaurants in the city of approximately 30,000. Take that, Spokane!
I was taken aback by the quality of Bobby’s, a Greek restaurant, which featured delicious authentic Greek fare, tender calamari and spicy moussaka. And then there is Lavelle’s Bistro with its delicious, fresh-caught and pan-seared honey apple halibut and potato crusted salmon.
The highlights hit us in a fast and furious manner. There was the visceral thrill of dog mushing. The 30-minute run on a sun-dappled minus-10-degree day was exhilarating. We walked among reindeer at the Running Reindeer Ranch (runningreindeer.com). It’s fascinating how they gallop by without hitting anyone, but then again they run through the woods without touching trees.
Milo can’t stop reminiscing about his ice fishing experience. The final score of the salmon battle was Milo at seven to my three. Thanks to our guide Tyson from Alaska Fishing and Raft Adventures (akrivertours.com), we enjoyed a delicious dinner.
Another terrific dining experience was at Chena Hot Springs Resort Restaurant with Alaskan King Crab. The heat of the hot springs and the chill of the air at Chena Hot Springs (chenahotsprings.com) made for a perfect combination. The Hot Springs Ice Museum is as cool as one would expect. There are an array of inventive ice sculptures and a bar specializing in appletinis.
The place to stay is A Taste of Alaska Lodge (atasteofalaska.com), which sits on 280 acres of snow-covered land a stone’s throw from Aurora Pointe, where we experienced the northern lights. If you don’t have the energy to drive to the Pointe, hang out on the porch of the comfortable cabin for a jaw-dropping view of the Aurora.
We also squeezed in a visit to the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus (uaf.edu/museum), which features a 36,000-year-old mummified steppe bison, the state’s largest public display of gold and endless information on the history of the 49th state.
Alaska is much more than a summer destination. It’s a completely different state during the winter, and despite the plunging temperatures (20 below is no big deal since there’s no wind), it’s well worth the effort to head north. Beach vacations are wonderful, but if that’s the only getaway you enjoy, it’s akin to having the same dinner each night.
What was most fascinating about the experience was witnessing Milo’s evolution. My younger son, who used to find any angle to avoid homework, was keeping up with his assignments on the flight and whenever he had spare time. Milo has become a gentleman who engages adults and asks myriad questions.
“I want to know as much about Alaska since I’m here,” Milo said. “I also want to come back since there is so much to do in Alaska that we won’t have the chance to do since we need more time like driving to Denali and going skiing.”
Well, thanks to Alaska Airlines, we will return. Our outgoing connection was canceled, and we were bounced to the next flight. It wasn’t a big deal since we arrived an hour later, but Alaska sent $150 vouchers for our next trip due to the inconvenience. I was shocked since I’m conditioned that the new normal for air travel are delays.
After having a 90-mile radius as a child, perhaps the greatest gift I’ve given my children is the ability to travel. It’s a reminder that they are citizens of the world, it bolsters confidence and self-esteem, and my progeny face reality. Forget about life through the lens of TV cameras – it’s about witnessing as much as you can through your own eyes.
To travel is to immerse yourself in a different culture and perhaps deal with situations outside your comfort zone. A great place to start your journey or end your 50-state experience is Alaska, which is like experiencing a different world but is so close, relatively speaking.
Milo and I look forward to returning and visiting other locales, which reminds me of one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
It sounds like Twain could have penned his century-old observation today. Bon voyage!
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.