Talkeetna activities promote a 'together apart' state of mind
August 1, 2020
Just after Independence Day, I jumped in my car and for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began, drove beyond the boundaries of Anchorage to the village of Talkeetna, two hours north.
A devastating element of the coronavirus' grip has been its effect on Alaska's tourism industry. This seasonal boom of visiting humanity caters to nearly three million visitors each year, most of them fresh off cruise ships and tour buses, and many stopping in Talkeetna on their way to or from Denali National Park and Fairbanks.
Located 15 miles off the Parks Highway, Talkeetna's history is a well-known sidebar for visitors, even back in the early 1900s when the now-famous Talkeetna Roadhouse served up sourdough hotcakes and coffee to weary travelers. Today, its year-round population of 900 or so usually swells in the months between May and September, with a cacophony of flightseeing planes, bus engines and RV rigs navigating the town's narrow dirt streets or soaring the sky above. This summer, though, those same landscapes are much quieter, even as the State of Alaska's tourism bureau launched a campaign in early May called "Show Up For Alaska," designed to encourage Alaskans to explore their state during this decidedly unusual, and sometimes unnerving, summer of 2020.
Talkeetna has responded, though, thanks in part to its popularity with Alaska residents who have jumped on the staycation bandwagon, but also from a good amount of savvy planning on the part of several businesses in town. From slashing prices to reconfiguring activities in order to meet health mandates for physical distancing and cleaning, Talkeetna's tourism partners have put forth the effort with high hopes local visitors will follow. I tried out two of them.
Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures ( http://www.mahaysriverboat.com ): Operating on the glacially-fed waters of Talkeetna's river systems - the Talkeetna, Susitna and Chulitna - since the 1970s, owner Israel Mahay knew the COVID-19 pandemic was going to present a challenge for a company used to piloting 200 guests a day along the rivers. Pivoting from volume to value, Mahay created a series of shorter, more private experiences for guests. A one-hour tour takes guests on a quick tour of the three rivers and the greater Talkeetna area, showing off Denali in the distance on a clear day. A longer trip up Talkeetna Canyon takes 2.5 hours and is operating for the first time in 14 years, Mahay told me. Expect stunning views of the thick forest and rocky, narrow canyon, and enjoy a stop at the confluence of Disappointment Creek and the Talkeetna River to stretch your legs before returning back to town. All Mahay's crew and captains have clear guidelines for mask-wearing, seating in the boats, and pre and post tour cleaning. The tours themselves scratch the itch of adventure by leaving news reports behind in favor of the Alaska wilderness. Visit the company's website for a complete list of tours and pricing.
North Shore Cyclery ( https://www.northshorecyclery.bike/ ): Far more than the source for both vintage and modern bicycles, Far North is part rental and repair shop, but also part tour company, and all enthusiasm for Talkeetna's success during these strange times. Oh, and they are receiving rave reviews for their food delivery service, too. Thanks to the creativity and sweat equity of owner Shawn Thelen, Talkeetna visitors (and a healthy dose of locals, too) can take advantage of the only bicycle shop within 50 miles, and enjoy Talkeetna's rapidly-growing slate of mountain bike trails, too. And eat good food. I traveled with my guide, Andrew, along a new section of trails leading out of town toward XY Lakes, riding an e-assist bike that made pedaling a breeze when I needed a boost of power. Along the shoreline, we took a break for an expertly-crafted cheese board (sanitizing wipes included) and a soda before heading back to town along the Talkeetna Spur. The two-hour ride was exactly what I needed; enough terrain challenges to break a sweat but with plenty of chances to coast along through the dense cottonwood and spruce trees lining the trail. Want to ride on your own? Rent a bike from North Shore Cyclery and pair it with your own cheese board, sandwiches, or other goodies Shawn and his partner, Melissa, prepare in their commercial kitchen. Rental and tour rates vary, so be sure to check out the company's website. Don't see a particular adventure? Just ask. Shawn and his team are extremely accommodating.
Visit the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce website ( http://www.talkeetnachamber.org ) for a complete, updated list of businesses open for the 2020 summer season and beyond. Look for lodging, dining and activities, and make time to explore this little slice of Alaskana.
Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage-based freelance travel writer and author.