Amazing Alaska! (2) – Land Tour from Fairbanks to Whittier

Our land tour includes one night at Faribanks Princess Lodge, coach ride the next morning to Denali Princess Lodge, two nights’ stay at Denali Princess Lodge, scenic ride by Princess Denali Express Rail on the 4th day from Denali to Talkeetna, transfer by coach from Talkeetna to McKinley Princess Lodge, one night at McKinley Princess Lodge and transfer by coach to Whittier.

We flew to Dallas first, from there to Anchorage and then Fairbanks. For most of the flight between Dallas and Anchorage, the earth below was flat and plain. Entering the last hour or so however, (somewhere over Idaho or Wyoming or Washington?), the landscape became more and more interesting, mountainous terrain rolled on, tiny ribbons of rivers/roads glistened and serpentine through here and there. Snow capped peaks and ranges came in and out of sight. These captivating views gave hint of Alaska scenery and I couldn’t help but wonder how everything would intensify there. Eventually we were flying over a dramatically beautiful coast. The shoreline, flanked by snow covered mountains, seemed to go on without an end until we veered off and started descending. Just like that, Alaska welcomed us with a grand first impression.

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (I believe we were near Washington at this point)

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (I believe we were near Washington at this point)

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (Before descending to Anchorage airport)

On route to Anchorage from Dallas (Before descending to Anchorage airport)

The coach ride from Fairbanks to Denali was about 2 hours and 45 minutes on Parks Highway. Nenana River, one of Alaska’s great rivers, links Fairbanks and Denali and runs parallel to the highway. First half of the journey, we traversed a part of Alaska’s interior that is relatively flat but lushly wooded. Green with gently rolling hills, majority of the trees along the way were slender, black or white birches and spruces. According to our driver cum tour guide, who was a college student from Nevada and came to Alaska only for the summer, those trees stay skinny because of low precipitation and long, cold winter. We went through forests, drove past river valleys and former mining sites. Minto Flats State Game refuge is also on the route. Second half of the way, vegetation appeared smaller and less frequent. Gradually, we drew closer and closer to big mountains. Until Denali, there were very few buildings along the way and of those we saw were sheds, cabins and tiny houses. A few times I noticed several mail boxes right by the road side but could not see anything else around but woods. They were probably for people who live in small sheds/cabins in the woods further off the road.

The road trip included a stop at Nenana Village, a tiny hamlet located at the juncture o f Tanana River and Nenana River, with less than 400 population and mostly small one storey buildings. Largest building in the village is probably its Cultural Center, which has an interesting collection of local artifacts and a gift shop that features some impressive handicrafts including exquisite bead works.

Nenana Village: Bridge

Nenana Village: Bridge


Nenana Village: The tripod

Nenana Village: The tripod

Princess Denali Lodge is a large complex situated right by the bank of Nenana River. There are other lodges and hotels nearby and right across the road is a strip of wooden houses that function as shops, restaurants and tour offices, including a gas station. Touristy but surrounded by spectacular mountains, it is a picturesque little village and a good base for visitors of Denali Park. Princess Denali Lodge includes several hotel buildings, multiple restaurants and many shops that together make a self contained little village on its own. There we stayed for two nights.

Denali Princess Lodge: Base Camp Grille by Nenana

Denali Princess Lodge: Base Camp Grille by Nenana


Denali Princess Lodge: Moose statue by the camp side of main building

Denali Princess Lodge: Moose statue by the camp side of main building

Glacier Landing

I booked a flight seeing tour for the afternoon of our first day at Denali. There are other sites available but I booked it through Princess’ website for convenience since the itineraries and prices are comparable. The hour long tour on a small airplane provides an opportunity to fly over Denali Park, around McKinley and to land on a glacier.

It was a cloudy day and I wondered if the flying tour was going to take place or how it would turn out. But we were picked up as scheduled and transferred to the take off site 30 minutes away from the lodge. There were 9 of us on board the airplane, including the pilot, who was from South Carolina and was there only for the summer.

We took off and as the airplane went further and higher, it seemed that we were out of the clouds and it was sunny and clear. The higher we climbed, the more snow there was and more spectacular the views. Eventually we reached an altitude of 12,000 feet, about half of McKinley’s height. The bird’s eye view of the park was incredible, putting viewers in perspective with the vastness of the land and its wondrous peaks and glaciers in myriad of shapes and sizes.

McKinley on that day however was shrouded in clouds and not visible to us. Having been forewarned about the 1/3 probability of seeing McKinley, I sort of accepted it at stride. There was enough excitement to keep me from feeling the disappointment. After circling around its north and south peaks a couple of times, we moved on to proceed with the glacier landing.

I guess no matter how much you read about it, it is hard to imagine what glacier landing is going to be like. The glacier we landed on, Roof Glacier, turned out to be a tremendous, seemingly flat and snow covered field that is surrounded by snow covered mountains, as if a sweeping, snowy valley. With the special boots provided by the tour company, which you pull on over your own shoes, we stepped out of the airplane. The air fresh and view magnificent, it was exhilarating! After a few gingerly steps, I explored around and clicked away on my camera. Every step I took I could feel the snow crunched under my feet and since it was slippery I couldn’t move as fast as I liked to. I figured that it was easier to follow the trails blazed out by the airplane, but only by a little bit. I got carried away and was trudging on, away from the plane, with a mind to check out the spot in the sun that did not seem too far ahead, till I got hollered back by our pilot. It was much further than it looked and somewhere way out there on all that glaring whiteness, there was a steep slope that my eyes could not discern. It was so far and deep it completely shielded another airplane coming in until it flew over the edge toward us. That is the visual illusion I noticed again and again while in Alaska. Alaska’s landscape seems to play a trick on the eyes and it is difficult for the naked eyes to discern the vastness of a tract or the distance of a path. And here the expanse of the snow seems to further that effect. While we were on the glacier, three other airplanes came to join us and all four convened one next to each other. It was quite an awe to realize the glacier can easily take a few more of those airplanes, if the size of it is the only measure. It got colder and colder after a while and while it was difficult to leave the glacier already, it was a relief to get back into the warm airplane.

On a different note, we noticed a wooden booth kind of structure on one of the lower peaks around the glacier, someone called it an outhouse. Quite a peculiar place for it to be whatever it is. It clearly is not functional being where it is. Why is it there and what for? It remains a mystery.

While my husband can get the thrill of his life out of this kind of flying, I get sick from helicopter and small airplane and my son is mildly nervous with height. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad on the way up. What helped was probably to take breaks from taking photo and from looking down or sideways every now and then to allow myself to rest by looking straight ahead for a few minutes. The return flight was more difficult to both my son and I, especially during descend. But we both survived. Glad we braved it; it was worthy.

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Two glaciers converging

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Two glaciers converging


Flight seeing tour over Denali: My wide angle not wide enough to capture the fourth airplane on the glacier

Flight seeing tour over Denali: My wide angle not wide enough to capture the fourth airplane on the glacier


Flight seeing tour over Denali: We landed on Roof Glacier

Flight seeing tour over Denali: We landed on Roof Glacier


Flight seeing tour over Denali: Breathtaking works carved out by nature

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Breathtaking works carved out by nature


Flight seeing tour over Denali: Heart shaped ice

Flight seeing tour over Denali: Heart shaped ice

Denali Tundra Wilderness Tour

The second day at Denali was slated for a day long tour in Denali National Park. The park offers multiple choices for visitors, camping or day tour. For same day visit, you can visit on your own by using the park buses or visit with a group. My goal was to maximize the chances of animal sighting and seeing McKinley, besides the general scenery. I decided on Tundra Wilderness Tour, one of the group tours. Tundra Wilderness Tour travels about 61 miles of the park road, the only road in the park, in 8 to 9 hours’ time. To me the other two tours available either does not travel far enough to have enough opportunity for animal and McKinley sighting or travel too far and possibly not allowing enough stop time.

The day started as a rainy and overcast one, and remained that way for the rest of the day. Wondering how the day was going to unfold under that condition, I boarded the big bus with my family, joining a bus full of tour mates, about 30 of us. Our bus driver cum tour guide was very good. She was originally from California, stayed and became full time Alaskan resident, and had been doing the tour for more than 10 years. Her expertise and enthusiasm for Alaska brightened the day.

Unexpectedly, a few minutes into the park, our driver stopped the bus and pulled over. It turned out we were having the first animal sighting of the day, a Moose feeding on some bushes not too far from the road. That got everyone on their toes, observing or snapping photos. It stirred up great expectations and the park did not disappoint us that day.

Between the driver and some experienced, eagle eyed tour mates equipped with excellent binoculars, wild animals were spotted often throughout the day. Anyone who spied anything would yell out the discovery and our driver would stop to pull over. There were a few false calls but the majorities were successful. We saw Grizzlies, Moose, Caribous, Dall sheeps, ducks, a swan, an eagle, a squirrel, a porcupine and a Willow Ptarmigan. Each encounter was a story by itself. The large animals we saw were usually some distance from the road, except that once.

Thirty minutes after the Moose sighting, we came to a sweeping valley and there on a dry stretch of the river bed, a grizzly mother bear and her cub were feeding on some scraggles of bushes. At about the second hour of the journey, we spotted a couple of grizzlies, one dark brown and the other light brown, on a field some distance to the left of the road, and they appeared as bundles of blurs without binoculars or tele lens. Under our curious stare, they stayed busy at feeding, with their heads down digging at some food. All the sudden, they started running. Our driver commented that they must have been startled by something from which they were escaping. Moments later, someone spotted them running through the low bushes and running towards our direction. I saw them in and out of the bushes then in a fleeting moment, they reached the road and were probably several hundred feet away from the bus. They were very fast and I was agog to see them that close up. Along with a few others, we must have let out some exclamations and elicited a reminder from our driver to keep as quiet as possible. For the rest of the time, the entire bus sort of collectively held our breath and our eyes glued on the bears. The bears however seemed oblivious to the bus. They stopped running once on the road, strolled ahead away from us on the road; in a moment paused, turned to look around and continued on; then out of the blue, picked up speed and started running again. At that point, they were turning around the bend of the road and we lost sight of them till the bus turned around the bend and we spotted them one more time amidst the low bushes on the hill to the right of the bus. The excitement continued for a little while and there was discussion on what might have started them off like that. There was however not conclusion to that.

After the exciting encounter, it was only apposite that our driver deluged on us information about bears of Alaska, including how to differentiate between brown bears and grizzlies and how best to react if, for some reasons, you run into one of them.

Animals come out to feed when it is cool and stay in the shade when it is hot. The weather on that day, although glum, did not affect the animal sighting after all. And glum it may be, the rain and clouds could not shroud the beauty of the park. Rocks, rivers, permafrost, fauna and floras, that had been obscure from the air, were now vividly alive with its details, colors and idiosyncrasies.

Splendid scenery coupled with wild animals in unspoiled natural setting, the park did more than inspiring me; it was an awakening for me the city slicker. The day passed fast and when it was time to leave the park, I realized we again missed McKinley. And yet it did not dim my gratification. A visit to Alaska is not complete without a visit to Denali National Park or similar experience. Denali National Park and its like are after all part of Alaska’s great success and attraction.

Denali National Park: A female moose

Denali National Park: A female moose


Denali National Park: Park view 1

Denali National Park: Park view 1


Denali National Park: Momma bear and cub

Denali National Park: Momma bear and cub


Denali National Park: Park view 2

Denali National Park: Park view 2


Denali National Park: A couple of grizzlies

Denali National Park: A couple of grizzlies


Denali National Park: A squirrel

Denali National Park: A squirrel


Denali National Park: A group of Dall sheeps

Denali National Park: A group of Dall sheeps


Denali National Park: A Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird)

Denali National Park: A Willow Ptarmigan (Alaska’s state bird)


Denali National Park: Five of the group of 10 Caribous

Denali National Park: Five of the group of 10 Caribous


Denali National Park: Park view 3

Denali National Park: Park view 3


Denali National Park: A swan

Denali National Park: A swan

A Glorious Day on the Rail!

(Denali to Talkeetna and McKinley Princess Lodge via railroad)

The next morning we woke up to a gorgeous day, the sun was high and bright and the sky, a crisp blue. Best weather since we had been in Alaska and that was the day we took the Princess Denali Express Rail to Talkeetna, where we were subsequently transferred by coach to our final destination, McKinley Princess Lodge.

Fitted to maximized viewing capacity, Princess Denali Express Rail is a double decked passenger train with glass dome surmounted on its upper deck, i.e. the picture window. Each train has a tour guide and an attendant serving beverage and drinks. Our guide was a retiree who had visited Alaska some years ago before retirement, fell in love and decided to move here after she and her husband had both retired. Our attendant was a female college student what was there just for the summer. The lower deck has a dining area, where we had a nice lunch, and an outside observation area.

The five hour ride traversed one of the most stunning scenic routes I’ve seen. The railroad meandered its way between magnificent mountains, which were sometimes green with vegetation and sometimes white with snow. It chugged along rivers, which were sometimes broad, sometimes narrow, sometimes full and sometimes low. Every turn a delightful vista emerged and there was never a dull scene. If we had missed McKinley before, we were more than compensated on this day. We made it to the 30% of visitors who get to see the Great One, McKinley. We saw McKinley not once, or twice, or trice, but many more time, multiple times during the train ride, then at Talkeetna, on the bus traveling to McKinley Princess Lodge from Talkeetna and finally at McKinley Princess Lodge. It was a triumph!

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 1

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 1


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 2

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 2


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 3

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 3


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 4

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 4


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 5 (McKinley)

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 5 (McKinley)


Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 6 (McKinley)

Princess Denali Express Rail Denali to Talkeetna 6 (McKinley)

Talkeetna

The train pulled into Talkeetna train station at about 5:30pm. Most of the passengers opted to go straight to McKinley Princess Lodge, so did my son Ben. My husband, I and a dozen others decided to check out Talkeetna. Among other things, our tour guide on the train had talked about and recommended Talkeetna as the model for Cecily of Northern Exposure and base camp for many who attempt to climb McKinley. Talkeetna is a tiny town with a population around 800. We walked about in the downtown area, Main Street from the train station to the edge of Susitna River, in 30 minutes or so. Fairview Inn, probably the largest building in the downtown area, is located right at the center of it. As a place where President Warren Harding had lunch before he passed away, it is now a historic Alaskan landmark. The exterior of the building itself is actually plain in comparison to the other wood log buildings around. There are some interesting shops to browse through. We stopped at Road House for water and picked up more than planned, some baked goods and bottled Alaskan syrup. It was in general quiet with small groups of visitors walking around. The most crowded place seemed to be West Rib Pub and Grill.

The big surprise came at the edge of Susitna River. The tide was low and we were able to advance far enough to be treated to a spectacular view of 3 of the peaks of Alaska Range, McKinley, Hunter and Foraker. Tide was low but a creek was on the way and we crossed over a tree log astride it, with the assistance of a lovely young woman. Her family ran a little gift shop, a simple outdoor booth by the creek. She was standing in the creek with her high boots on and a long tree branch as her support while her kids, two boys and an older girl, played in the shallower section of the creek. She found a way to offer needed assistance and a little tip money. And it turned out she and her family moved there from Monroe, North Carolina 3 years ago. We had practically been neighbors in NC. I asked how it’s been. She said the winters were hard. But it sounded like they were staying anyway.

Talkeetna: A store

Talkeetna: A store


Talkeetna: Susitna River and 3 great peaks of Alaska Range, Foraker, Hunter and McKinley

Talkeetna: Susitna River and 3 great peaks of Alaska Range, Foraker, Hunter and McKinley


Talkeetna: My husband crossing the creek with assistance from two lovely ladies

Talkeetna: My husband crossing the creek with assistance from two lovely ladies

McKinley Princess Lodge is located at Trapper Creek about an hour’s drive from Talkeetna. The lodge complex seemed to be a secluded compound with no other development around. It was the closest we had been to McKinley. At the Terrace restaurant we dined by a marvelous view of McKinley, Hunter and Foraker, the trio we had seen from Susitna River at Talkeetna. At 10pm, the moon was already half raised but the sun was still high up. I thought about waiting for the sunset but sleepiness got the best of me.

Anchorage, Seward Highway and Whittier

The next morning, we left McKinley Princess Lodge and started last leg of the land tour, a coach ride to Whittier where we would board Coral Princess. The road between McKinley and Anchorage was quite ordinary, wooded and flat. Environ started to change once in Anchorage, where we had a 2 hour stop, lunched, shopped and walked around near the visitor center. There were people around but not crowded and with no skyscrapers but low rise buildings, it was calm and pleasant. You can see bay of water to the west and from some streets, you can see Alaska’s Hallmark tableau, cityscape backed by snow covered mountains in the distance.

Anchorage: Visitor center

Anchorage: Visitor center


Anchorage: A gift shop

Anchorage: A gift shop

After lunch, we headed out of Anchorage and the scenery graduated into a beautiful coastal view. We were traveling on the scenic Seaward Highway. The road is set on low land that snakes along a narrow channel of water that separates the road from stately mountains, at times by only few hundred feet. Portage Glacier is on the way not long before Whittier and it is very close to a roadside look out. Shortly after, we stopped to wait for our turn to go through Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a tunnel for both trains and cars. Once we emerged from the dark tunnel into the light, there was, our mammoth cruise ship, towering over the pier at a picturesque bay surrounded by snowy mountains. At that our land tour ended and the cruise leg of our journey was to begin.

Seaward Highway

Seaward Highway

Seaward Highway: Portage Glacier

Seaward Highway: Portage Glacier

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Amazing Alaska! (1) – Overview

I don’t remember when I was bitten by the travel bug but it was probably at that same time that I was struck by the idea of traveling to at least one new place every year. Since then, I’ve had many fun travel experiences, some of them positively blew me away, and the big trip of the year is always something to look forward to. While the idea is to travel to destinations far away and experience cultures different from home, I find myself drawn and go to Europe more than anywhere else. But as it turned out, Alaska is the chosen destination for 2013 and school was no sooner out than my family was journey bound.

Alaska is amazing and here is to share with you my experience in this and subsequent two posts with photos.

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Most visitors to Alaska see it by way of cruising and that applied to almost everyone I knew who had visited Alaska. But once I started reading about Alaska, I realized a cruise itinerary alone would not be satisfactory to me; it does not provide enough land time or opportunity to explore one of those great natural areas that Alaska is so successful in preserving, like Denali National Park. As I looked into options for traveling independently, I however soon came into the impression that although it was doable, traveling in Alaska independently was not going to be as convenient as it would be in other destinations that I had traveled. I decided at the end to go with the land tour and cruise package with Princess Cruise. It worked out quite well. With the land tour we saw much more than we would have with the cruise only option. For the land tour, I chose the itinerary that allowed me more time around Denali for that was what I was most interested in but there are other options available allowing more time at Fairbanks or at McKinley Lodge, etc. Our land tour package essential takes care of lodging and transportation but not excursions. And it is through the excursions, you can tailor your experience to some degree.

With 20/20 hindsight, I now believe visiting Alaska independently is not as painstaking as I had concluded before, and if I go back, that is how I am going to do it. But the land tour package remains an easier option and I would recommend it for first time visitors. By its nature, Alaska is the 4th least populous and least densely populated of the 50 states with most of its three quarter million residents living in the Anchorage metropolitan area. Riding by coach from Fairbanks to Denali on George Parks Highway, traffic was light, few buildings came into sight, apart from those at the tiny village named Nenana that we stopped for a short visit, and I don’t recall seeing any gas station or rest area along the way. On top of that, our Verizon phones were either roaming or on extended network the entire time we were in Alaska. Wi-Fi connection at the lodges/hotels was sporadic till we arrived at Vancouver. The cruise ship did provide internet access, albeit expensive and slower.

I picked the south bound itinerary vs. the north bound because it does the land tour first and I like the relaxing on the cruise ship after the land tour, plus there are nuances associated with the options, traveling by coach or by rail for some certain part of the journey, etc. Our land tour started with one night in Fairbanks, continued on with two nights at Princess Denali Lodge that is a few minutes from Denali National Park, one night at Princess McKinley Lodge about an hour from Talkeetna and ended with a coach ride from Princess McKinley Lodge to Whittier, where our ship, Corral Princess, awaited. During the land tour, we visited Denali National Park and Talkeetna, had a lunch break in Anchorage while on route to Whittier and traveled through Alaska from Fairbanks to Whittier by bus and train. Cruising Hubbard Glacier, Glacier National Bay and visiting Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan, the journey from Whittier to Vancouver on board Coral Princess provided further opportunities and ways to appreciate what Alaska has to offer.

And what Alaska has to offer has left an indelible impression on me. Like none others that I had seen before, Alaska is a majestic land of distinctive characters. Snow capped mountain and ranges, including North America’s highest peak, McKinley, frequently grace this vast northern frontier throughout its interior and coastal areas alike. A rich number of glaciers punctuate the scenery as they have been since the ice age and at times they can be seen twinkling icy blue and setting off in uncanny action, thundering, breaking off or calving.

Against this backdrop of wondrous landscape, human stories unfold. You learn stories of the indigenous people, from their migration to Alaska tens of thousands of years ago to how their lives altered by the migration of Europeans hundreds of years ago. You are bound to come into stories of the gold rush era, which turned out not quite romantic adventures or overnight riches but rather times and times over arduous expeditions under what are considered by today’s standards grueling conditions. You hear stories of people who have moved to Alaska and remained. Most of the people you meet though will be seasonal, essentially summer time workers and vacationers.

Most fascinating to me was the opportunity to come in touch with the vast wilderness and to observe wild animals roam freely the way nature intends it to be. Landing on Roof Glacier, I couldn’t help but be moved by the magnificent surrounding that was at once pure, peaceful, powerful and precarious. Touring Denali National Park, I couldn’t help but feel this exciting sensation that I was as close to Mother Nature as I had ever been my whole life and tingled inside me was a desire to deepen that visceral feel, to embrace Mother Nature with abandon!

George and Joy Adamson of Born Free came to mind. Alas, I don’t have it in me to abandon civilization all together, nor have I the ability that true Alaskans possess to cope with the long dark winter days with only a few hours of sun to go by. But I contemplate a week or two’s camping in the depth of the wilderness, provided there is a way to emerge triumphantly at the end.

Until then, I’ll savor my memory of Alaska.

A few tips on practical things. Packing for Alaska can be tricky since the temperature there fluctuates within a big range of lows and highs, with average swinging from the 40s to the 70s. But layering did do the trick. I packed jeans, light weight tops, a couple of sweater/cardigans, a robust REI waterproof windbreaker type jacket. I had the jacket with me most of the days, added the sweater/cardigan for a couple of days (at Hubbard Glacier and Ketchikan). When in Skagway and Juneau, we had low 80s for two days in a row and that was record heat wave for Alaska.

A good mosquito repellant is necessary. Remember to take it with you on excursions, etc. Mosquitoes are huge in Alaska, a few times larger than I am used to seeing in the southeast. Although slower, they come in swarms. We ran into them quite a few times, first at Fairbanks airport lining up to get into our bus to go to Princess’ lodge, next was at a small airport 30 minute from Princess Denali Lodge waiting for our flight seeing tour. The most we ran into was at a musher camp high up in a wooded mountain in Skagway. I had packed but lost my repellant right at the start of my vacation to TSA at Charlotte airport. Luckily I found a replacement at Princess Denali Lodge, a repellant with Deet as one of the ingredients, which was recommended as a must have ingredient by someone we met at Faribanks Princess Lodge. It proved to be effective at the musher camp where the swarms of mosquitoes dispersed the instance I sprayed some on.

Alaska is one of those destinations where cruise and a cabin with balcony can be most advantageous. It is worth investing in a good camera and it can be an easy to use point and click. One that works reasonably fast, for part of the time there, you’d be taking pictures in a moving bus/train/airplane, and one that works reasonably well in cloudy days for clouds and sunshine can alternate quite unpredictably from day to day. In addition, a good pair of binoculars, especially for animal sighting. If you are lucky, you get an encounter close enough but the odd is that you’d be looking from some distance.
More posts on Alaska coming soon.