As I wrote these words on a warm mid-August afternoon, I was gazing through a window at the tranquil surface of Westchester Lagoon, a small urban lake that is about a mile from downtown Anchorage. Not a ripple stirred, and the image of the urban office towers hung in inverse reflection in the unruffled water.
An hour before, my wife and I had taken a short stroll over to the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail to look for salmon entering the freshwater lagoon through the spillway from the salt water of Cook Inlet. The intrepid silver (coho) and pink (humpback) salmon will swim across the lake and make their way up Chester Creek to spawn.
I was casually observing the various species of ducks, grebes, loons, terns and other waterfowl that make their summer homes on the little lake. As I watched, one of the smaller birds frantically hazed away a snow-tipped bald eagle that had approached its nest too closely. This brought to mind a human incident a few days earlier, when my son and his girlfriend got too near the nesting island in their kayaks and were chased off in a similarly strident fashion, their hasty retreat as undignified as that of the raptor on this day.
I thought back to a winter’s evening a few years before. My daughter had just moved to Anchorage, where she still lives, and I had flown up from the lower 48 to help her get settled in. We were discussing her hopes and dreams for her new life in Alaska. “I hope I see some moose,” she said. Not five minutes later, two dark shapes detached themselves from the opposite shore of Westchester Lagoon and started moving in the direction of the window from which were looking out on the frozen lake. Sure enough, they proved to be a cow and calf moose, and shortly emerged from the ice cover of the lake, climbing the small slope near the house and walking quietly off into the adjoining wooded area.
It is remarkable that I can sit in my Anchorage home, within easy walking distance of the major downtown hotels, stores and restaurants, and see salmon in the water and eagles in the air, not to mention the assorted beavers, muskrats, moose and other animals that are commonly encountered around the perimeter of the lagoon. Even in the heart of Alaska’s largest city, wildlife is part of everyday experience.
I used to subscribe to the theory that Anchorage isn’t really part of Alaska, but you can see it from there. As a result, I often minimized my time in the city, even to the point of staying at hotels near the airport on overnight stops. I now consider that strategy a mistake and I have come to appreciate Anchorage on its own terms. It is well worth spending a day or so in town: there is plenty to do and a layover upon arrival will also help you adjust to the change in time zones from your home location.
Stay at a downtown hotel, not out near the airport. It is only a 15-20 minute cab ride and will significantly increase your range of options. There are many good hotel choices downtown. While you are there, check out the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, especially the Smithsonian exhibition on native cultures and the great galleries of Alaskan visual arts. Then, hit the Coastal Trail on foot or bicycle, or drive up into the Chugach Mountains.