We are driving north on the Talkeetna Spur when we come over a gentle slope and there it is — a snow-shrouded Mount McKinley, rising regally to 20,320 feet and dwarfing the surrounding peaks. It’s a vision you can’t see from a cruise ship, and my cousin, Panu Lucier, who is at the wheel, can’t pull over fast enough.
“The mountain is out!” she exclaims with enthusiasm that belies the fact that she has lived in Alaska all her life. It’s a phrase not heard that often because Mount McKinley, or Denali as the locals call it, is usually hidden by clouds.
“It’s so big that it has its own weather system,” says Panu’s partner, Mark Ransom.
In planning our 12-day stay in South Central Alaska, Mount McKinley was not on the itinerary. We just didn’t expect to get this lucky, but here it is: the view of a lifetime. After 20 minutes, I’m still reluctant to leave it, but we must continue to Talkeetna (population 800-something). A two-and-a-half-hour drive north, the town is a popular weekend destination for Anchorage residents and the halfway point between Anchorage and Denali National Park. The picturesque downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many say it’s the town after which the 1990s television series “Northern Exposure” was modeled.
For Panu and me, however, Talkeetna represents a bit of family history (our fathers were first cousins). Panu’s father, Charles Lucier, was the only teacher in the town’s one-room schoolhouse for a while during the mid-1950s. He and her mother, Grace, a Native Alaskan from a tiny Inupiaq settlement on the Bering Sea, lived in the apartment above the school room. It was Panu’s first home.
Charles eventually decided to leave because of “safety concerns,” according to records. The school sits next to the old village airstrip, and with no barrier between the two, he was afraid for both his daughter and the students.
Today, the apartment can be rented by the day through the historic Talkeetna Roadhouse (built in 1917), a half-block away. The owner was kind enough to let us into the apartment, and we try to imagine Panu’s family living there.
The former classroom below now serves as the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum, and a report card signed by Panu’s father appears on the museum’s sign outside. (Some weeks later, on a return visit, Panu met the then-first grade student whose name appears on the card.) We wander through the museum’s impressive collection of artifacts and documents from Alaska’s pre-statehood days, trying to grasp what it was like to live with now creature comforts or communication in sub-zero temperatures.
But it’s summer now and we are enjoying every last minute the 20 hours of sunshine. Beside the tall trees and colorful buildings, Talkeetna owes some of its beauty to the confluence of three nearby rivers — the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. The town rose in 1919 when the railroad arrived. It wasn’t until 1964 that it was possible to drive there; this was thanks to the Talkeetna Spur — a 14-mile stretch of pavement branching off the main highway that dead-ends at the town. It brings tourists and adventurers — many on motorcycles — to Talkeetna’s restaurants, bars and patios, which overflow on summer weekends. The sport of people-watching reigns supreme here.
It’s also a place where you should expect the unexpected — like the Mexican family selling jalapeño peanut brittle from a makeshift stand at the river’s edge; artists who craft jewelry from porcupine quills or moose droppings; wine from southern Alaska vineyards; and the occasional moose who hangs by the roadside to watch all the action.
Later, we back-track to the main highway and drive north for 15 minutes to our bed-and-breakfast at Trapper Creek (population 400-plus, not counting the unknown numbers “living off the grid.”) We drop our bags and head for the lake and our front-row seats for another view of Denali. It’s after 10 p.m. and we still need our visors and sunglasses. I struggle to stay awake until the sun goes down about midnight.