What Alaska lacks is certainly not scenery. You can’t swing an Ulu knife around your head without seeing some sort of spectacular scenery. What it needs is direction, as in signage.
Sign Issue #1 – Directional Signage
Anchorage AK (pronounced by locals as “InkRidge”) is effectively Rockford IL (pronounced by locals as “Rockford”). Rockford has its special places, but so does Anchorage. However, Rockford has highways that actually connect to one another without the ‘aid’ of stoplights and has signage announcing said departure from one highway to another. Anchorage? A single highway rolls into another single highway, both running north-south. Does it make sense? Well, no. AK 1 aka “The Seward Highway” runs from Seward north to Anchorage. It goes from a two-lane 55 MPH road (it’s a coastal highway in an area where earthquakes are a given so this makes sense) to a 6-lane 65 MPH highway to a 4-lane “highway” with stoplights. The “C-word” (they do pronounce it Sue-word but I was calling it C-word because I’m a self-entertaining idiot) then runs its course by veering west to the Glenn Highway. There’s a sign indicating the Glenn Highway is coming up but it’s just labeled as “Glenn Highway” not “Glenn Highway next right” – which it wouldn’t be the next one – or “Glenn Highway exit 6th Avenue” – which in Anchorage it is 6th Avenue, then turns into the Glenn Highway once north of Anchorage.
Does this make any sense? No.
Sign Issue #2 – Moose Crossing
There must be at least 50 or so signs from Seward to Anchorage and beyond stating “Moose Crossing next 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 miles” or simply “Moose Crossing.” I assume they do cross the highway somewhere. Usually, it’s at night and there are skid marks slashing across the highway looking no less ugly than a toddler’s underwear to prove it, but do you think they cross where the signs are? Of course, they don’t. Moose can’t read.
Signage Issue #3 – Hey Kids, it’s Slick in Spots
Not asking for much here, just a simple set of signs to place at both ends of bridges, coming and going – “BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD” or “WATCH FOR ICE ON BRIDGES”. Personally, I like the first one because the second lends itself to too many dad jokes about Vanilla Ice hanging out on overpasses. Dammit I just aged myself.
A brief weather lesson – on the coast in Alaska, freezing fog called Advection fog comes in and turns the bridges into ice skating rinks every morning for pretty much 8 months out of the year. I, cheap-ass that I am, rented a Hyundai Accent which is not exactly America’s best car on ice (or Korea’s for that matter). However, being from Colorado and familiar with a Midwestern winter as well I countered the sliding like a pro and stayed on the road. A lot of cars did not. There were cars pinballing their way across icy bridges, some ended up on trails, some hit cliffs, some hit each other. None that I saw went into the briny sea and frankly that surprised me a bit.
If anything, those signs could slow people down. No one is really speeding (credit Moose Crossing signs for that anyway), but the weather would go from freezing fog to freezing rain to sunshine slapping your eyes to 8 inches of snow – and did in one 2-hour drive. It was so bad rather than drive back to my hotel in Anchorage one night I popped for a room in Seward just to avoid the drive.
Alaska – you can get these signs for less than $20 on eBay. Have at it.
Sign Issue #4 – Distance Signs Help So Much
A sign stating how far away you are from Denali National Park every, I don’t know, 20 miles or so wouldn’t hurt. It’s a 4-hour drive from Anchorage to the park entrance and there may have been four signs. And can you, Alaska, just place a sign at the last four-way where one, the road you do not take, is labeled Denali Highway and the other one isn’t labeled at all. A sign stating “Denali National Park 20 miles straight ahead” wouldn’t kill them. A moose might. Moose look gentle. They aren’t. You’re better off crossing a bear than a moose BTW. And I did cross a bear.
Not that bears don’t have their moments. The one I did see in the wild, a beautiful specimen of Alaskan Brown bear, I saw with a group of strangers most of whom were professional wildlife photographers. Glancing around the ten of us I quickly realized I could outrun at least half of them so if the bear did decide to charge I was good. Which BTW that was the only sign I considered a success. Chugash State Park personnel blocked a trail crossing the Eagle River because of a bear sighting and dropped a sign right there stating as such. Sure enough he was on the other side of the river as advertised. In fact, there was a moose cow and calf who went into the thicket (which I just saw and missed shooting a decent photo) and then he came out on the other end and looped around. I think they call that wildlife choreography.
Okay, so aside from scenery and wildlife what else did you see, Rick? I did not see the inside of every bar but I now know what they do when they don’t see direct sunlight for months at a time. There are a lot of bars in every town, large or small. Cooper Landing, population hovering around 500, has four with at minimum one open year-round.
Sadly, I did not have the time to change all the Cooper Landing signs to ‘Copper Landing.’ Perhaps next time.
And there are a lot of espresso stands – all with different names and all just sitting in parking lots on the side of the road with nearly just as many ‘unofficial’ signs for them as Moose Crossing signs. Different shapes too – the stands, not the signs. I saw a log cabin one (naturally), a mini travel trailer one (naturally), and one shaped like a coffee cup (very unnaturally). I thought about visiting them but for the love of Java a guy’s got to sleep sometime. Plus, I was stimulated enough with scenery. No photos taken of said bazillion espresso stands but I wasn’t there to shoot them. I was there to shoot scenery.
Since we’re all here allow me to run through a quick “DO & DO NOT” Alaska list:
Bring binoculars – if you want to see mountain goats and caribou you’re going to need them. For moose, you have signs… that don’t help.
Bring a camera – iPhone is fine, but a DSLR… c’mon borrow one if you have to or rent one before you get there.
Ask locals to point you to where you can see penguins. It’s fun just to see the looks on their faces.
Eat some reindeer sausage. It’s fantastic. Reindeer BTW, are just domesticated Caribou. Plus, they can fly and Caribou cannot (it’s a joke – relax).
Go on a Kenai Peninsula Fjord Cruise – it’s cold in September, but worth it. I saw Orcas, Dall’s Porpoises, Coastal Mountain Goats, Harbor Seals, Stellar Sea Lions, and a screaming woman who was very excited she saw a sea otter only to find out it was a floating log.
Eat with the year-rounders. They’re fucking rough people but fun. It’s said that a woman living in Alaska ends up becoming the man they always wanted to marry. No, they don’t grow beards, but they can sure chop up firewood and fix their truck.
Go during the peak of the summer season, unless you love following RVs. Trust me, you won’t as most of them are rented by people who probably shouldn’t be driving or towing them. I ended up following a Class B van the last 10 miles to Denali National Park. The road was ice and they slowed to 20 MPH going up a hill. I didn’t think I was going to make it but I did. Either go right when Denali National Park re-opens in mid-May or so or go right before it shuts down which is generally mid-September. BTW – I knew I wouldn’t get in when I got there as the icy road was a clear indication it would not be open, but I did it for the drive. There were quite a few disappointed people. Do you damn research, fellow travelers.
Lose your glasses on a trail – Happened on the final day. I didn’t find them and I’m pretty sure that chittering squirrel took my specs. I hope his eyesight is vastly improved.
Hike alone – I did and it’s really dumb. But if you travel solo like I did in September there are times when you are the only person on the trail for miles. Wasn’t like I could just pick up an Alaskan woman to go on a hike – they’d either hurt or humiliate me. I have writer’s hands. At minimum check the weather.
Worry you’re wasting your time watching the NFL. You may already be if the Bears are on (they were) but the noon game starts at 9am; Sunday Night Football is on at 4:20. In the first part of the season SNF is over before sundown.
Rent a Hyundai Accent. Rent something that doesn’t act like it’s a toddler on skates whenever it hits ice.