A Town at the Edge of the Wilds
Three years ago, outdoor writer, photographer, and consummate sportsman Peter Mathiesen left his hometown of St. Louis to start a...
Three years ago, outdoor writer, photographer, and consummate sportsman Peter Mathiesen left his hometown of St. Louis to start a new life in Alaska. Here’s why he made the move, what everyday life is like, and how it feels to have Denali right outside your window.
My new hometown of Talkeetna is two hours north of Anchorage and fours hours south of Fairbanks. The community is a stop on the Alaskan Railroad at the confluence of three large glacial rivers: the Susitna, the Chulitna and the Talkeetna. Settled in 1915, Talkeetna was a supply depot for the gold mining camps in the foothills of the Alaska Range 40 miles to the west. The only way to reach the town was by rail until the mid-1960, when the Parks Highway was built and a 14-mile dirt spur was put in.
Talkeetna has several historic buildings and an honestly quirky feel. Its residents were briefly made famous in the 90’s television show “Northern Exposure.”
As the closest staging area to Denali (no local calls it Mt. McKinley), you will find one of the most impressive collections of vintage aircraft in the world servicing mountaineers attempting to summit Denali. The mountain is formidable, killing an average of 12 climbers a season. The same air flight companies take tourists landing on skis to glaciers at 7,000 feet.
There’s a Park Service building, the famed Fairview Inn, and a bar that hasn’t changed a nail or been painted inside since its construction in 1923. At the Roadhouse, you can get a sourdough pancake the size of your head. Nagley’s General Store is there, and even a public library.
The town is famous for its sweeping views of the Alaska Range. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see Denali’s forbidding 20,000-foot vertical rise. That makes it the largest visual vertical wall in the hemisphere.
Nearby at the Parks Highway junction, there’s a large truck stop with fuel that’s only ten percent more expensive than in Anchorage; Cubby’s, a recently constructed grocery store saving you a one-way, 70-mile trip to Wasilla; and Moore’s, a large hardware and lumber yard. There’s even a family clinic with a dentist, and an auto parts store less than a mile from my home.
Travel any farther north and you’ll have a tough time finding a 2×4 or a gallon of milk that costs less than $7 unless you’re willing to drive 150 miles.
Our community is literally on the edge of the wilderness in three directions. To the southeast the isolated and forbidding Talkeetna Mountains separate us from the growing suburban sprawl of the Matsu Valley, where they even have a 24-hour Wal-Mart.
We have thousands of miles of rivers in the Northern Susitna Valley, with trout and salmon seasonally just about everywhere there’s water. You can still get away from the crowds, but admittedly it’s getting more challenging without a boat or aircraft.
In summer, our population swells seven times from its winter size of 800, and we see our fair share of tour buses heading to Denali National Park.
I see moose every few days, and a black bear was shot next door as it was raiding a beehive. Although grizzlies often come though my yard at twilight (2a.m.), we rarely see them except when running the rivers by jet boat.
It’s an idyllic place that struggles to stay quiet while offering needed services to the community and keeping its wilderness status intact. It may just be the perfect compromise of accessibility to the “bush” and life with some modern conveniences.