View Sidebar

A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

North To Alaska

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/19/2021
Occurred: 5/30/2009
Topics/Keywords: #Alaska #AlaskaAirlines #Anchorage #Denver #FrontierAirlines #Kennicott #KennicottRiverLodge #McCarthy #Photography #Travel Page Views: 441
I make my first trip to Alaska…barely.
A final view before McCarthy.

My daughter, Karen, became a flight attendant last year. That gave her mother and me privileges for flying almost free on the airlines that have partnered with her airline, Colgan Air (we just have to pay the tax on the ticket). That's how I made trips to New York, Virginia, Florida and Hawaii. That's also how I got trapped in Chicago and had to take a bus back home to Arizona; it doesn't always work out because "non-revenue" fliers go standby and anyone with a paid ticket can unseat us if there are no additional seats left. In all those trips I'd made, I'd only had one misstep. So I was pretty confident that this trip would work out perfectly.

I was wrong.

I sent in the paperwork for the tickets on Frontier to Alaska, not knowing that Karen, who was based in Virginia, had had to face the reality that her job as flight attendant wasn't actually paying her enough to live on, and had decided she would have to quit. (This was the same experience I'd had as a truck driver. Apparently the current idea is to get a government subsidy to train people, underpay them so they have to quit, thus getting a constant training subsidy, and cheap workers, at the expense of having no one with real training or experience. Even Frank, with over 20 years' experience and seniority, has been forced to take a 40% pay cut as his airline merged with another and "policies" changed.)

Fortunately, it seemed, my request got in under the wire. My tickets arrived in the mail about a week and a half after Karen had gotten another job.

I had chosen Frontier because they were a partner airline to Colgan, Karen's former airline. That meant I had to fly through Frontier's hub of Denver. Frank and Michael would be flying through Salt Lake City on Alaskan Air, on separate flights.

On Friday morning, Michael dropped me off at Phoenix' Sky Harbor airport; I bought a book (The Book of Lies, highly recommended) boarded without incident and slept without reading a word of it until we landed in Denver. I then had a four-hour layover. I went to the Frontier service desk and was immediately handed a boarding pass with a seat assignment. That's unusual for standby travel, but it has happened to me before, when the plane was nearly empty. So I just figured, cool, I wouldn't have to worry about whether I would get bumped. I read my book, had lunch at Quizno's, read some more, even dozed.

When the podium at my gate opened up for the flight to Anchorage, one of the first things the agent did was call my name. I went up and told her who I was. She then took away my boarding pass! "I don't know who gave you a seat assignment or why, but we are the ones who are supposed to do that for non-rev standbys!"

So, now a little nervous, I waited while everyone else boarded the plane. Finally, the agent called me again and gave me a boarding pass…for the same seat I'd been given originally!

—Which turned out to be in the very back row, unable to recline. I was going to be in a non-reclining seat for a five-hour flight. Still, I would be going to Alaska! So I tried not to mind.

And then a flight attendant came to the back of the plane and looked directly at me. "Mr. Cilwa?" she said, and I nodded. "I'm terribly sorry, but you've been bumped. Another passenger just showed up."

And just like that, my transportation to Anchorage evaporated.

After the plane had taken off, the agent tried to assist. But Saturday's flight was also oversold, and Sunday's as well. And even Saturday would put me too late for my reserved place on the rafting trip.

By now, Frank and Michael were already en route to Anchorage. And I wasn't going to be able to go at all. Michael and Frank barely even knew each other. But the safest, most logical thing to do was to go back to Phoenix.

The next Frontier flight to Phoenix was still a couple of hours from departure. That gave me a little time to think of alternatives.

I didn't have a laptop but there were computer kiosks in the terminal that provided internet access, 20 minutes for $5. I got onto Priceline and tried to bid for a last-minute flight to Anchorage from Denver with the money I had remaining in my account. Unfortunately I only had a couple hundred dollars and that bid was not accepted. Michael has a niece who lives in Denver and I knew I could call her—a lovely young lady—and spend the night. But to what purpose? I'd still have to go back to Phoenix.

I looked up all flights to Anchorage from Denver, and Frontier had the only one going straight there. All the others, including Alaskan Air, would go through Seattle or Portland. And then it occurred to me: If I could get Frontier to send me to Seattle instead of Anchorage, I might be able to bid on a less expensive flight from there directly. I returned to the Frontier service desk and they were willing to make that change. Moreover, they checked the flight's load status and there were over 20 empty seats. So I would be able to go to Seattle. I returned to the computer kiosk and Priceline and bid on a hotel near the airport. No rooms there accepted my admittedly low bid, but there was a hotel in Bellevue—a nearby suburb, according to the Priceline map—that would. I locked it in, a room for $50.

The flight was just leaving and a couple of hours later, nearly midnight, I was there. That's when I discovered that the cab fare to take me to the hotel was $65.

So now I didn't even have the money to bid on the flight to Anchorage.

Defeated, I called Frank (Michael was still in the air) in Anchorage to break the news: I wouldn't be able to join them.

But Frank, a veteran air traveler both as passenger and as flight attendant, insisted on looking up alternatives on his laptop while I waited. He left no stone unturned; I think he even checked out charter planes and cruise ships. Finally, he said, "Well, here's a one-way ticket for $571, first class, leaving early in the morning. You can take that."

"Frank," I explained, "I haven't got that." I had not left leeway for such a big expense on this trip.

"Well," he replied, "I'll just pay for it and you can just pay my ass back."

I don't think he meant that literally.

But it did mean I'd be paying him back an amount for a one-way trip, more than equal to what it would have cost me to simply buy a ticket, had I done so three weeks before instead of relying on my "free" standby flight.

Still…so much planning and anticipation had gone into this trip; it would be a shame to throw it away now. "Okay," I agreed. "If you're okay with it, so am I."

I slept for three hours, then was awakened by the very helpful night clerk who let me know the cab was there to return me to the airport. As I rode, I was acutely aware that if I had called Frank from the airport instead of the hotel, I could have saved $180 in room and ride—for three hours, I could easily have dozed on the airport floor. I've done it before.

Whenever I encounter adversity, I ask myself, what is the lesson the Universe is trying to teach me? And it seemed as if it must be to trust. If I hadn't panicked, perhaps I'd have called Frank before getting the hotel. I just hoped that now I got it, because the Universe has a way of hammering the same lesson at you until you do.

And so I rode to Anchorage in style, enjoying a first-class breakfast of asparagus quiche with sausage links and orange juice, then sleeping until the jet began its descent into Anchorage. I landed about 8:35 am local time. Michael and Frank were there to pick me up. I got into the rental car and off we went on the first "real" day of our Alaska vacation.

Map: Anchorage to McCarthy, Alaska

Alaska is a big place. As small as our route appears on the map above, it was, in fact, 306 miles.

Here's the first part of our route, traveled through Anchorage suburbs, bypassing Wasilla (home of Governor Sarah Palin and her self-described First Dude, Todd) and stopping in Palmer to shop for provisions.

Map: Anchorage to Palmer, Alaska

Even still, we passed some stupendous scenery on our way. Anchorage commuters have some beautiful views to occupy their minds as they drive into town for work.

From the highway between Anchorage and Palmer, Alaska. Michael and Frank load up enough food for a week.

I know the idea of getting "provisions" sounds like we were going on an Arctic expedition, but in a way we were. McCarthy, our destination, is so far—eight hours—from Anchorage that groceries there are staggeringly expensive. We'd been advised by Brad, the lodge owner, to buy for our meals while we were still relatively near civilization. We went nuts in the store, buying (as it turned out) enough food to last us a week. (We only needed enough for two days.)

From Palmer we drove along Glenn Highway, which for a time followed the Matanuska River. Of course, we stopped at nearly every opportunity for photos.

Michael and Frank appreciating the Matanuska River.

The rivers in Alaska are all glacial rivers, which means they are formed from melting glaciers. They begin flowing in spring, peak in the summer, and low water in the fall turns to ice in the winter. This yearly pattern forms what are called "braided" rivers, in which the flow breaks into braids that recombine and re-separate, not always in the same channels from year to year.

The Matanuska River shows off its braids. The Matanuska River shows off its braids.

The road, often no more than a two-lane highway, wound around the hills, always wooded and green.

There was something new to see beyond each curve.

The hills near us were generally relatively small and green, but behind them rose the volcanic behemoths that make up most of the state.

Ice-covered peaks poked above all in every direction.

And here and there we'd come upon a charming lake, unspoiled, saved by distance and latitude from the fate of condominium-itis.

Unspoiled lakes abound. Ice and trees. Slim firs reminded me of the Pines of Rome.

Along one pass, we were reminded how deep the snow gets here in winter. Poles, like bent metal telephone poles, lined the road so that snowmobiles could follow the route in the winter.

Poles mark the road boundaries in winter.

We passed only the occasional hamlet, in which the major landmark was the sign with the town's name. By comparison, Glennallen, where we stopped to refuel, was practically a metropolis.

Glennallen, Alaska, population 554.

This was a turning point for us as we drove a few miles onto the Richardson Highway, then onto the Edgerton Highway for the final 40 miles.

Map: to McCarthy, Alaska

As we approached the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, which incidentally is the largest national park in the United States by area, covering 20,587 square miles, or over 13 million acres, the mountains grew even more impossibly imposing than before. The three of us were very aware that we were privileged to enjoy a part of our country that none of the thousands of yearly Alaska cruise ship passengers ever see.

Impossibly high mountains.

By now the road surface was gravel, but it was in pretty good shape. We hit the occasional bump, but overall it seemed freshly graded. We learned later that was indeed the case; a state commissioner had come through the week before and it had been graded just for her—Alaskans' tax dollars at work.

The gravel road led through a narrow cut in the rock.

The road we drove had originally been a railroad line used to carry gold and copper from the rich fields out here. The tracks had been removed, but at one point we drove across a single-lane bridge originally used as a trestle.

A former train trestle now serves as roadway bridge.

The town of Chitina sits at the gateway to the great national park.

Chitina, Alaska

Inside the park, we drove alongside a 1919 trestle we were grateful was not now a roadway. Cars, so much shorter than trains, are able to drive into most gorges and cross on small concrete bridges, where trains required trestles.

1919 trestle.

By this time we were weary from traveling and overwhelmed by Alaska's beauty; fortunately we didn't have much farther to go.

The sign for the Kennicott River Lodge was a welcome sight.

It's hard to imagine that McCarthy, with a winter population of 18, has an outskirts; yet that's where Brad's Kennicott River Lodge was located. His was the second-to-the-last driveway on the left before the footbridge that is the main way into town.

Still early in the season, we were Brad's second guests that night. (A German couple were the others; they were leaving the next day.) He greeted us warmly and showed us the place: the main lodge with the big kitchen we could use, the cabins, his own private cabin and the new, larger home that is nearing completion.

The most amazing thing was of course the view of what Brad calls his "front yard". This includes the partially restored buildings of ghost town Kennicott, the former copper mining center that includes the world's largest wooden structure, and the mile-high Kennicott glacier.

Kennicott Glacier. Ghost town of Kennicott as seen through telephoto lens from porch of the main building at the Kennicott River Lodge.

Our cabin, #2.

We lost no time making dinner—after all, it was already after 9 pm and I never eat after 8. Michael prepared steaks and Frank fried up some potatoes and onions—a real hearty miner's meal, except they were beef steaks rather than moose. We invited Brad to join us, and also his buddy Patrick who had dropped by to visit. While Michael and Frank cooked, Patrick stoked the fire in Brad's sauna and I kept out of everyone's way.

After dinner the five of us, plus a girlfriend of Patrick's, went into the sauna where we roasted, basting ourselves with cold water, until we were well done, talking mostly about Patrick's penchant for killing bears, especially black bears, which are so plentiful in the area that they become potentially dangerous pests. When he learned we were going rafting the next day, he was shocked to discover that none of us was "packing". However, he was certain that the river guides would be armed, as only a crazy person would venture into the Alaskan wilderness unable to defend himself.

Please note that, so far, the largest animal we had seen on our trip was a rabbit, though I grant you it had been large enough to saddle.

Michael, Me, Frank

It had been after ten o'clock by the time we had eaten and I had cleaned up and yet the sun was still up. As we talked in the sauna (and went outside for occasional breaths of cool air) we could see that twilight was slowly approaching. Finally, I pointed out that we should be getting to bed soon—after all, we were supposed to meet at the rafting company's place at 9 in the morning; and surely it was after 11 pm by now. Brad laughed. It was after 1 in the morning! This time of year, and at this latitude, it never gets completely dark—they don't get to see stars, though the moon was visible.

Moon over McCarthy, Alaska, in the summer midnight twilight.

Michael and I took the king-sized bed on the ground floor of our cabin and Frank took one of the generous twin beds in the loft. He set his phone alarm to wake us in the morning, and we went to sleep in a building with no electrical wiring, and no sounds at all that weren't completely natural: the whisper of a night breeze, a few crickets. Did our snoring obscure the sounds of nature? We have no idea. We slept as soundly as the frozen Wrangell mountains a mile away.