Surviving a Smokey Summer in Alaska

By Brandon Fralic

Summer weather in south central and interior Alaska is usually pleasant, with highs in the 60’s. Tourism booms under the midnight sun.

Not so in 2019.

Anchorage saw an all-time high of 90 degrees as wildfires raged across the state. Among the worst of these was the Swan Lake Fire, which burned more than 167,000 acres. Air quality plummeted, trips were cancelled, and locals opted to stay indoors.

As luck would have it, my sister’s family and I had booked non-refundable flights to Anchorage during the worst of the heatwave.

Rather than eating the cost of flights, we packed our bags and hoped for the best.

Upon arriving in Kenai by prop plane (our original plan to drive from Anchorage was thwarted by the fire), our local family met us with big hugs and developing news. Our trip would be dictated by the fire.

We’d planned to do Alaska the right way: Watching grizzly bears fish in the Russian River and standing face-to-face with a glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park were top experiences on our bucket list.

Dune buggy riding the beach at Captain Cook State Rec Area. Photo by Cassi Arias

But Mother Nature had other plans. The Sterling Highway — the only road connecting the Kenai Peninsula to the rest of Alaska — was choked with smoke, causing closures and hours-long delays.

With access to our bucket list items cut off, it was time to improvise. Fortunately, my ever-resourceful father and stepmother had a backup plan.

We would see their slice of Alaska. When the smoke cleared enough to get outdoors, we met some friends at the Captain Cook State Recreation Area.

In all my dreams of Alaska — moose, bears, mountains, and snow — I never imagined I’d be cruising the beach in a dune buggy, generously applying sunscreen in blazing t-shirt weather.
It was just one example of the “real” Alaska I knew so little about. A not-so-subtle reminder that The Last Frontier remains an unpredictably wild land, governed by the laws of nature alone.

Brandon Fralic is the author of Beer Hiking Pacific Northwest. Based in Bellingham, Washington, he writes about trails, ales, and travel for a handful of regional publications. Find him on social media @beersatb (Beers at the Bottom) and online at BrandonFralic.com.

Playing at Captain Cook State Rec Area. Photo by Cassi Arias