ANCHORAGE, Alaska — I'd always felt a bit guilty driving the stretch of blacktop between Turnagain Pass and the right turn towards Sterling Highway. Really, all I ever expected was a nice view from the car while on the way to someplace else. Sure, it's gorgeous, but could we find enough to keep a small child and his parents busy?
Yes, over and over. Our few days spent exploring the miles yielded not only up-close and personal relationships with those craggy mountains, but also with the people who live and work below them and sustain the experience for the rest of us.
After a last-minute cancellation of a previously planned trip, our family, now presented with four now-nebulous vacation days hemmed and hawed about where to go. Maps and Milepost guide spread out on the dining room table, AK Dad and I pored over the roadways and attractions, waiting for inspiration to strike. Ideas were considered and then abandoned for one reason or another, until we came to Summit Lake.
Situated between the Hope Cutoff and the "Y" that takes visitors towards Homer on the Sterling Highway and continues south to Seward on Highway 6, Summit Lake is a logical stop for weary travelers who have fished too long or driven too much. The lake is quietly nestled within pristine wilderness as if placed there by the gods, and Summit Lake Lodge sits just as peacefully by the north shore. An institution among Alaska residents for providing sustenance and serenity at an affordable price, it was here we set down temporary roots at the invitation of Marty and June Henderson, owners of the lodge, restaurant, and detached gift shop/ice cream parlor.
Not fancy yet absolutely perfect, Summit Lake Lodge kicked me back in time to childhood road trips across the greater Pacific Northwest. Knotty wood paneling brightened our tiny but very serviceable room, complete with private bathroom and shower, and even though we made AK Kid sleep on the floor, everybody was comfy and cozy. No phones, no internet, and no television meant prime family time as we played games, went for walks, and did a little fishing on the lake’s glassy water. Henderson says the lodge is scheduled for a complete renovation in appearance and style over the next year, where guests will be treated to an all-inclusive resort rather than the current motel model; meals, activities, and social hours will be a part of one package price still in negotiation.
No kitchenette and no refrigerator meant we had to rely on a cooler of snacks and beverages and utilize the lodge’s restaurant for some meals, but the food was good and kind attention by staff made a world of difference. Boasting a menu full of favorites, eating at the lodge meant we were assured a hot meal during the stormy days, and good company in the tide of travelers who stopped by.
Our first few hours at Summit Lake were spent exploring property's perimeter; a main reason for the restaurant’s popularity is due to the Tenderfoot Campground, an easy half-mile stroll away. Tenderfoot is operated by the Chugach National Forest and has been completely refurbished for the 2010 camping season, clearly in evidence as we walked in awe among brand new site pads, gravel pathways, and five walk-in sites that come complete with bear-proof lockers. Three day-use sites are along the shoreline in full view of the mountains and lake, perfect for casting a line to catch Dolly Varden or Rainbow Trout from a canoe. That’s my kind of fishing.
We didn’t stay quiet for long, however. The road beckoned and we responded the next morning, heading south to Tern Lake, a much-photographed bird hangout at the junction of Sterling and Seward Highways. Not just a turnout, Tern Lake is also a beautiful spot to picnic, walk the new gravel paths towards Dave's Creek and the lake (where a number of beavers work daily), or amble up Old Sterling Highway where hundreds of autos once accessed nearby Cooper Landing. It’s an interesting spot; birds and moose frequent the area and a walk up the old highway grade offered some insight to transportation many years before RV’s and trucks powered through with nary a glance backward. It’s worth a stop.
About eight miles west of Tern Lake is the bustling community of Cooper Landing simply teeming with people and fish, and where we combined scenery with action, thanks for Alaska Wildland Adventures. A 30-year veteran of all things outdoor, AWA launches daily rafting trips from its Kenai Riverside Lodge through the picturesque Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Offering guests the option of a two or five-hour float complete with narration by an experienced guide, our shorter trip down the Kenai was absolutely perfect with eagles, sunshine, and currents swift enough to be exciting but mild enough so my mother-radar wasn't too alarmed. In the span of two hours our guide Rachel provided us with a snapshot of the river and its wildlife (human or otherwise), something most folks miss while restricting themselves to cruising the roadways. Meandering streams, leaping salmon, and the occasional splash of water against our raft elicited a calmness not often found during the frenzy of fishing season.
To round out our Cooper Landing visit, we stopped by the quaint Cooper Landing Museum, home to a wonderful display of the area's rich history and (AK Kid wanted me to be sure and mention this) the complete skeleton of a brown bear reconstructed by local school children. An adjacent building, once the community store, houses artifacts from homesteaders and held our attention for some time. The day came to a close at the Quartz Creek boat launch and day-use area, where AK Dad and I plunked down our camp chairs on a pebbly shore in a mountain paradise, leaving AK Kid to amuse himself by skipping flat rocks into the brilliant blue water of Kenai Lake. A final overnight at Summit Lake Lodge and we were home the next day by lunchtime, refreshed from our clandestine getaway.
It wasn't the trip we had expected, but in the best way possible. Real, simple, Alaska.