The plan was to retire, buy a truck, take my camera, and head north to Alaska. Two weeks later, COVID hit …
In September of 2021, just a few days after the first opening across the British Columbia border, I was finally able to start on what turned out to be a month-long, 8,000-mile trip of a lifetime, made only sweeter by the delay and depravations of the intervening two years.
As others have said, when traveling alone, “your mind looks inward while your soul looks outward.”
There is something special about a solo, extended road trip. So many memories, milestones, and adventures to savor. As I headed to Alaska, through British Columbia and the Yukon, the round-every-bend, vast-without-number cavalcade of visuals constantly fed my soul: Snow dusted mountains, clear lakes, sunsets, sunrises, and herds of caribou.
Traveling alone, one dives deep and waxes introspective. Long stretches with no interactions and few distractions—silent for extended periods, aware, and constantly and acutely present. Traveling alone is a powerful experience; you see the surrounding mountains, lakes, and roads through your own lens. You are wide-eyed, amazed, and in the moment. As others have said, when traveling alone “your mind looks inward while your soul looks outward.”
Autumn in the north country is magical and poignant, as the seasons turn so quickly, heralding the inevitable approach of the winter season with its snow, ice, and cold. As the nights grew longer and colder, the comfort of a puffy jacket was a joy rediscovered.
Denali National Park’s fall season is short, usually just seven to ten days. Gazing upon the Alaska Range with The Mountain rising above the sub-alpine tundra, lower-elevation taiga forest, and freshly fallen snow, I knew I had timed my trip perfectly. The 360-degree views of yellow willows, red dwarf birch, brilliant golden aspen, balsam poplar, still-green firs, and clear views had my head spinning and my eyes aching. Which is more beautiful? What do I photograph? How do I decide which variation on a theme of ‘spectacular’ best captures this northern autumnal beauty?
Driving and hiking were difficult. The breathtaking views and colors all around forced me to stop, seemingly, every few feet, to drink in new Alaskan vistas or awed, watch the magnificent wildlife. Then, turning around to go back to my campground, I found it amazing how different life and landscapes look when changing direction and perspective, to see all you missed by not looking back earlier.
Highlights, of course, included those uncountably vast and beautiful vistas in BC, the Yukon, and Alaska: The fall colors on the Denali Highway and Denali Park Road; flying out of Homer and heading across Cook Inlet, above the clouds, bears, and herds of caribou along the Aleutian Range to Katmai National Park; passing through rafts of sea otters; heading towards two immense, active volcanoes (Redoubt and Iliamma) in the Chigmit Mountains and Lake Clark National Park; finding some of the most beautiful camping spots of my life in Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, with amazing light and sunsets, framed by the Alaska Range.
But closer, more intimate encounters were also memorable, like watching a solitary grizzly wandering near Kluane National Park and the headwaters of the Tatshinshini River. Other experiences defy description, such as a harsh bug-infested night camping at Goat’s Pass, which, after a closer look at the map, turned out to be the more aptly named Gnat’s Pass. No hotels, no internet—but millions of gnats! I counted this as a highlight because I was now definitely in the North Country, comfortable with bug nets that held strong.
But the best part of the trip, better than the bears, otters, or spectacular landscapes, was the people I met.
From my experience, if you want to travel during a pandemic, you need to bring plenty of patience and grace. Go knowing that everything is messed up (fires, landslides, devastated communities, and road closures), nothing works, and no one knows what is going on. Everyone is stressed and trying to figure it out one step at a time. At the end of the summer season, locals were exhausted and dispirited by how rude and cruel tourists can be, but they were absolutely thrilled to find visitors that did not fit that mold. It was a mile-by-mile roller coaster for sure.
About a week into the trip, the road and community closures got me down, and I considered giving up and turning around. Then, I found a US Customs officer at Beaver Creek, who convinced me to keep going, telling me it would all work out. A young woman at the “Moose is Loose” ice cream drive-in between Homer and Sterling gave me a free milkshake just because I was nice to her. Kim, who told me her life story and then hooked me up with a flight out to Brooks Falls after my original trip was canceled due to wind and rain (which continued for the next week, effectively shutting down the off-peak season for the coming winter).
There was the fisherman on the Ninilchik River who had lived in Alaska since 1973 but who was moving to Florida in just a week, or the host at the Homer Spit campground with her sign “Be Nice or Leave,” which really sums it up, in my view.
Coming home, at the Peace Arch crossing, the customs officer looked up after glancing at his computer and said, “You’ve been gone a long time; welcome home!” Quickest and most friendly crossing ever.
Great people, great beauty, time with my camera, readjusting my own personal lens on life and who I am, understanding the pure love of travel and plotting to go back as soon as possible.
If you live anywhere (but especially in the Pacific Northwest) and have not yet gone to the far north—Go! Book a small plane into Bella Bella, Sitka, or Homer. Take the Alaska Ferry System from Bellingham to Juneau, Haines, or Skagway, and enjoy three to five laid-back days camped in a lawn chair watching mountains, whales and otters slide by as you sail up the Inside Passage.
Load up on extra gas, bear spray, check your tires, and cruise along the Alaska, Richardson, and Parks Highways. Get deep into the woods along the Grand Canyon of the Stikine—one of the greatest whitewater rivers in the world.
Take time to meet, understand, and talk with those who live in these unique places and to understand day-t0-day life in areas you have always dreamed about!
However, you travel, be sure to pack your smile and patience.
Be nice or don’t go.
Rich Bowers moved to Bellingham twenty-one years ago and has been a Director, Board member, and volunteer for a number of conservation organizations. Today Rich is retired, focused on wildlife and natural landscape photography and how people can help protect and enjoy wild resources. Learn more at Northwestriversphotography.com