It’s been about three weeks since we returned from Alaska, and about two weeks since my last post. There are moments in life where things just feel hectic, and that’s what happened for me after we got back home.
The first week we were back, I was basically playing catch up - catch up at work, at home, with my running plan, and everything else. I was also trying to squeeze in the completion of CPR and first aid certification whenever I had free time.
The first weekend we were back, I had classes on both Saturday and Sunday. With those courses, there also came a final exam. Last week, I studied and took the final exam - and can now say that I am officially an RRCA certified running coach!
Only a runner would think, well, what better way to celebrate that accomplishment than by running my first marathon? I became a certified running coach and completed my first marathon within the same week, and could not be more ecstatic to be able to say that.
I knew it could’ve been a lot to manage in the first few weeks after returning home from vacation, but it feels great to have both things completed. Now that they’re both completed, I’m back to the writing game, and ready to plan some new adventures and goals for the future.
Until then, though, I want to reflect on some of the takeaways that we had from our trip to Alaska. The trip was incredible, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Even so, there were some things that surprised us even after our hours and hours of research for the trip that I feel could be beneficial for future travelers.
The Plane Ride
Neither of us had stepped foot in an airport since COVID. I knew there were mask mandates, but didn’t think much of it. I’ll be honest - I have not had to wear a mask for an extended period of time at all since the pandemic (and for that, I am so thankful for the option to work from home). It was more exhausting than I expected wearing it from the time we got to the Des Moines airport at noon to the time we got our rental car in Anchorage at 7:00 (a total of ten hours with the time change).
I would highly recommend a very comfortable mask - or even a few different masks in case one bothers your ears after a while, etc.
Don't forget comfortable headphones too! I used older headphones to plug into the airplane for music and movies, and within a few hours my ears were so sore.
I still remember our first plane ride, years ago for our honeymoon. We wanted to live the “go big or go home” lifestyle, so we chose to fly to Hawaii for our first time ever on a plane. Being the noobs that we were, though, we didn’t exactly know how (or missed the step) to choose seats next to each other.
On our flight to Alaska, there was a couple about our age on the plane from Minneapolis to Anchorage (a six hour flight). I heard them talking to each other from two different sides of the plane, just a few rows apart from each other. One of them said, “Maybe we can ask whoever is sitting there to switch spots with me.”
Of course, me and my big mouth decided to butt right into their conversation because that’s just the type of person I am. I told them, “Just sit next to each other and wait for the other person to claim their seat. If you ask nicely to swap, they usually will be fine with it.”
We had had this happen on our flight to Alaska, and were told to do this exact same thing. Each time it happened, the other person was completely fine with swapping seats.
We have since learned from those flights, so my other, bigger recommendation would be to try to make sure to purchase seats next to each other so there is no concern about potentially sitting by a stranger for a 6+ hour flight.
Food, Prices, and Saving Some Money
Be prepared for the food prices to be higher, especially if you are used to being in the Midwest. With that, though, they weren’t as high as we had expected. Higher prices typically come with the territory in regards to islands or places that are off the beaten path like Alaska.
Since our trip was primarily a hiking and adventuring trip, with some road tripping bits, we decided to go to the store right away and stock up on snacks, easy meals, breakfasts, drinks, etc. We probably spent $100-$150 for our grocery store food over the course of the week.
When we ate out at restaurants, though, the prices were typically upwards of $60 or more per meal for the two of us. In my opinion, grabbing quite a few options at the grocery store helped save us a lot of money in the long run. What we didn’t eat on vacation, we were also able to bring back with us on the plane home. This helped save more money by avoiding a bunch of expensive airport food.
Packing List Reminders
I had someone ask me if there was anything I would change or add to my packing list after we returned. There were really just a few things that I would’ve changed - besides maybe finding a way to condense the winter coats and warm clothing to make packing for cold temperatures easier.
Alright, remember my packing list that was supposed to be all-inclusive? Well, I still forgot a few things. I read a Lonely Planet book about Alaska that provided a recommendation and friendly reminder to think about packing binoculars for wildlife viewing. In my defense, we did not own a pair of binoculars before this trip. I think I would chalk this one up to being a forgotten purchase, not a forgotten packing list item.
We also forgot something that was on the list, even though I had checked and rechecked it before leaving. I had listed “medication” but forgot to pack anything more than my prescriptions. Thus, we found ourselves purchasing some Acetaminophen as well.
Shoulder Seasons and the Impacts
Now, one of the biggest takeaways we could probably pass on to others is that of the shoulder season, defined as “a travel period between peak and off-peak seasons.”
Shoulder seasons certainly have benefits, which include cheaper flights, hotels, rental cars, and sometimes even cheaper menus at restaurants. We knew going into our trip that we were traveling during a shoulder season - right at the end of their summer season but before things really picked back up again for winter.
We have traveled during shoulder seasons before. For example, our trip to Switzerland was during a shoulder season as well. The biggest impact there was that they had somewhat drizzly weather, which made some of our hikes foggy and cool. That seems to be about the norm when talking through shoulder seasons - things are cheaper, but the weather might not be ideal.
That wasn’t necessarily the case for Alaska. Apparently, for their shoulder season, they have entire towns and areas close down. We actually didn’t notice it until we got toward our second destination in Healy. Anchorage still seemed to be in full swing, and some of the towns along the way looked to be operating as normal.
It was when we attempted to find something for lunch that we really noticed it. We used good old Google maps to find the nearest restaurants to us. We found quite a few, the majority of which said they were open. We headed toward our first choice. Not only was it completely closed, but it was boarded up - despite Google saying it was open.
We thought that was weird, but went right along to our second choice, which was the same thing. Then, we drove through a small area/town that had a giant bear statue right along the highway. I took a peek at the sign the bear was holding, and was shocked that it read “Bear with us, we are hibernating until 2022.”
This entire town had boarded up and jumped ship for the winter. In Alaska. We were absolutely floored. Nowhere had any of my research told me that this would be something to look forward to during the shoulder season, and we were absolutely not prepared.
Finally, we did find the one and only open restaurant in Healy, and stopped at the only grocery store they had to get some food as well before we headed to our cabin for the night.
Again, we would not change our trip for the world. It was absolutely amazing and we loved every second of it, even if there were a few times where I might’ve been a bit hangry while we searched for a restaurant. The takeaway here is that there are pros and cons to shoulder seasons, and it is up to each traveler to decide what they want to do.
We may have had to eat snacks for meals a few times, but man, did we see some of the most incredible fall views while we were there. We would’ve never seen those beautiful colors if we had gone in a peak season.
We also love to be out on the trails when they are not crowded, and they certainly are not crowded during shoulder seasons. Even when we hiked in Denali National Park, we made it through an entire hike without seeing a single soul. In Kenai Fjords, we saw probably a total of 10 other people or groups on the trails. I am thankful for our opportunity to hike around Alaska with less people - allowing us to focus more on our surroundings.
I’m itching to start planning our next trip, but will have to wait a few months before I can. Zac gets to pick out his 2022 vacation in January, so we will know exactly when each of our trips will be by then. After that, it’s game on for researching and preparing.