A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Summertime is hammer time in Talkeetna. Travelers, climbers, summer employees and outdoorspeople show up in van loads, train loads, bus loads and plane loads to soak up the surrounding countryside within the vast and sometimes impenetrable footprint of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.
But by winter, Talkeetna feels like a sleepy village caught in the timeless lassitude of bone-cold hominess, a snapshot of darkness and snow, stillness and quiet.
Ah, but a lot happens outside the lens of the summer visitor. The Talkeetna Roadhouse hums right along, for example, churning out cinnamon rolls and humongous omelets as locals plaster their souls into community meetings and school events, fundraisers and summer planning. Artists practice and paint their lines, musicians strum their instruments, cabin dwellers burn summer-cut logs, old-timers tell stories, kids wax skis and sharpen skates, and most everyone wraps up in wool, polypro, denim and down.
"A lot of people here don't have TV, but there's never a dull moment around here, that's for sure," said Julia March Crocetto, an artist who heads the Talkeetna Artist Guild.
Consider the quaint and quirky Wilderness Woman Contest and Bachelor Auction and Ball, a fundraiser for several art, sports, school and social organizations. If you're looking for a picture to describe the word "hoot," look no further than here.
Winter may seem long as it unfolds, but it passes in the blink of an eye and, before long, the Iditarod comes around in March, then the climbers, travelers and tourists.
"By the time May hits, it's full on around here because the climbers come right during breakup," said March Crocetto, "and climbing season precedes the tourist season, though they overlap in May, and then the town just keeps rocking until the last train goes out of town in September."
In January, folks can choose from two eateries for dining, but by June, they can pick from over a dozen.
Hammer time might make the locals nervous for a spell, but it also means play time for everyone off the clock.
The options appear boundless when you scan the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce Web site, www.talkeetnachamber.org, which serves as a community bulletin board for postings about activities and events, and offers links to member businesses that offer flightseeing, fishing, boating, hiking, climbing, biking, shopping and even riding behind dog teams. Winter has its own delights, with miles and miles of ski and snowmachine trails and mostly clear, empty skies.
Speaking of which, visitors can even take the controls of an airplane during a multiday flying course with Above Alaska Aviation (355-4808, www.abovealaska.com), a company that offers flying opportunities for the experienced and novice alike.
Andrew Haag came to Alaska in 1996 and quickly began hanging out with other pilots in the area, learning the skills of Bush and mountain flying. Above Alaska, now in its fourth year, gives others a chance to learn the ropes, too, through equal measures of land and air instruction - about four hours each in a standard two-day course.
"Alaska has a draw to the aviator," Haag said. "It's what brought me up here. I wanted to fly like flying used to be."
He designed several courses with the traveler in mind, allowing time for other activities, like fishing or hiking, and pricing these classes between $1,199 and $1,400, four to six flights each. Instructors handle take-offs and landings, but students get a chance to handle the controls in the air.
"It's different for everybody," Haag said. "If they just want some Alaska flying experience, the two- to three-day bush pilot course is popular. We do ground training, look at runway conditions, look at rocks from the ground and the air. We'll do a morning and afternoon flight with lunch in between, giving them a book to read, and time to go fishing or rafting."
Unlike most businesses that teach flying skills, Above Alaska teaches students to fly tail draggers - a plane with the third landing wheel at the tail instead of the nose. Few people get exposure to this kind of aircraft, Haag said, but most bush pilots use tail wheel planes because of increased maneuverability on the ground, potential for improved wing lift and reduced chance of hitting weeds or rocks with the propeller.
Flying these planes takes more rudder control during take-offs and landings, Haag said.
"The tendency is to go backwards, but you want to prevent that and keep the tail behind you," he said. "It's similar to trying to go backwards in a car at 60 mph and try to go straight."
Pilots who learn to fly tail draggers tend to understand their controls more thoroughly while also getting experience they might have to pay for later, he said. (Above Alaska offers a tail wheel course, too, for $800.)
People who want to make flying a part of their lives rather than a short course while on vacation can get private lessons at their own pace in anywhere from three to four weeks to several months.
"I've had someone do it in 24 days, flying twice a day and studying in between flights," he said. "I don't recommend it. No pun intended, but that's a crash course. I recommend flying once a day or, even better, every other day."
Other options include taking flying lessons on weekends or hanging out in Talkeetna for several months.
Of course, some people prefer to learn something new while firmly planted on the ground. Making rustic furniture requires its own set of tools, skill and time, so Debbie Filter of Alaska's Northland Inn in Trapper Creek offers several options, one- and two-day classes for $80 and $160 respectively, with accommodations and breakfast included in the overnight course. Most people can finish a bent willow chair in eight hours, though the extra day allows them to relax and spend more time shaping their bent willow chair, said Filter, who moved to the area with her family in 2000.
"I have taught folks who have never swung a hammer at a nail all the way to professional carpenters," she said.
This year she wants to branch out by doing student-selected projects: "Miniature dog sleds, small-planter size chairs, end tables, foot stools, benches, trellises, wall baskets, floor standing planters or adult size chairs can be built."
Trapper Creek is just a few miles from Talkeetna. To find out more about rooms, ski or snowmachine trails, or about classes, go to www.alaskasnorthlandinn.com. Contact Filter directly at 733-7377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
When all the hands-on learning is done and the outdoor adventures complete, downtown Talkeetna promises all that's good about tiny, dusty, quirky villages, like loads of local goods and art at the galleries and shops and surprises that can be only discovered, never planned.
Every once in a while, a local play will "just blow me away," March Crocetto said.
Look for your own chance to be blown away by walking around and talking to people, dropping into the Sheldon Community Arts Hangar or stopping by a visitor information stand.
Hammer time or not, everything's in walking (and sometimes shouting) distance in Talkeetna.
Freelance writer Dawnell Smith lives in Anchorage.
- See the mountain: Talkeetna is abuzz with flightseeing operators. The destination? Denali. The trip will generally cost $200 to $300 per person, depending on the route. If you've come this far, why not splurge on something truly memorable? Add the glacier landing and actually walk around on the mountain.
- Play hard, eat hearty: Talkeetna is full of fun restaurants. One of the best is Mountain High Pizza Pie (www.mhpp.biz ) on Main Street. We usually get the white pizza, but you've got to love the names of some others - Yentna, Kahiltna and Roadhouse. In addition to great food, there often is live music during the summer.
- Take a walk: It's easy to stroll around the small town, talking with locals and other visitors. Early in the year, you'll meet mountain climbers preparing for their ascent of Mount McKinley or recovering after their trip.