Talkeetna Bound

A far-out town delivers a knockout adventure

By: Christopher Batin

Talkeetna means “river of plenty,” and each year, many visitors miss this staging area for some of Alaska’s greatest day tours.

The Alaska Railroad makes regular stops at Talkeetna, and is perhaps the best way to reach this blink-and-miss Alaska town. Once there, forget traffic jams or bustling train terminals. Quiet and unassuming, it has the appearance of holiday rum cake: Nothing spectacular to look at on the surface, but take a few bites and expect a one-two knockout punch of Alaska adventure.

Mahay’s Riverboat Tours

Talkeetna exudes Alaskana in its tours and the people who live and work there year-round, such as Steve Mahay of Mahay’s Riverboat Service.

There isn’t a finer captain running Alaska’s rivers than Mahay, who began his Alaska lifestyle as a river rat and trapper. In the 30 years I’ve known him, I have watched him grow from a single-boat operator to one of the most successful riverboat operators in Alaska. He knows Alaska’s rivers better than most, and is one of the giants in the Alaska tourism business. He is as close to a perfect tour operator as you will find, and his river adventures are a major attraction among Princess and Holland America landtour guests. Have your clients talk to him. Get to know him. He is one of Alaska’s living legends.

Mahay’s Devil’s Canyon Tour is my favorite. The riverboat rides the roily Susitna River as smooth as if driving a paved highway. Spacious seats and aisles allow room to move around and see the sights. The sound system is excellent, with no problem hearing the onboard naturalist describe the area’s highlights.

Along the river, a stop at their “safari site” offers an authentic trapper’s cabin with its original furnishings and examples of how trappers lived in “Bush” Alaska at the turn of the century. Naturalists show the edible plants local natives used for cooking and medicines. We observed black bear and moose roaming the shoreline, and schools of salmon holding in the clearwater current. The most exciting part of the trip is the entrance of Devil’s Canyon, with its Class VI whitewater, it is an adventure in itself.

The tour offers great value for the dollar. For $135 for adults, and $67.50 for children, enjoy a seven-hour, 130-mile river tour that includes a box lunch and beverage. A lavatory is onboard if needed.

Denali Flightseeing

K-2 Aviation is a leader in flying mountain climbers to Denali as well as some of the most spectacular flightseeing tours of Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park. Talkeetna is about 65 air miles from Denali and a flightseeing tour based from there offers your clients more bang for the buck. Your clients fly around the mountains and glaciers longer, instead of spending valuable airtime traveling the flatland distances from Anchorage or Fairbanks.

K-2’s ski-equipped Bush planes allow glacier and base-camp landings. The flightseeing tour begins with a gradual transition from the rich Talkeetna River Valley and the foothills of Denali before the plane is dwarfed by the gargantuan peaks, monoliths and glaciers of Denali and the Alaska Range West. The tour is one where eyes become like sponges, soaking up the rugged danger of mountains and glacial crevasses that are in-your-face close. Only the climbers were barely perceptible; as small as fleas on a sidewalk.

Your clients walk away from a K-2 flight as I did, having seen the many faces of Denali that no land-based tourists see. The final word here is a K-2 flightseeing trip from Talkeetna, with a glacier landing, is worth the money, which is about half the cost of a Denali bus tour, with its crowds and limited view of the mountain. If the weather is clear, strongly recommend a flightseeing tour.

Spending the Night

Talkeetna Alaska Lodge offers five-star comforts and elegance that delights anyone overnighting in the area. Spacious grounds, close proximity to Talkeetna attractions, good views, food and entertainment make this my favorite choice in Talkeetna-area lodging. Located on 35 of 640 private acres of remote Talkeetna bottomland, this is the epitome of an Alaska hotel: Expect huge viewing windows and outdoor pavilions to Denali and the Alaska Range with spectacular sunsets and ample wildlife. The panorama is so inspiring that the lodge books many weddings each year.

“We encourage travel agents to book reservations with us online,” says lodge tour manager Dee Dee Kay. “We offer 10 percent to start, and increases with volume. Our tour desk can help with accommodations and local bookings.”

Ask for a free upgrade, if available, to a view room. Executive suites and mountain-view rooms are plush with complete amenities, with an elite price of $345 to $500 per night. Non-view rooms start at $145. The hotel is open from May through September.

A geocaching course is on the lodge grounds, along with various hiking trails.

“There is a lot of soft, cushy chairs throughout the lodge or in front of the fireplace,” Kay points out as we walk the grounds. “No matter what time of day, people are enjoying themselves here.”

True to her word, a guest was asleep on the main lobby couch.

An overview of the staff reveals that most of the chefs and managers have worked over six years on average for the hotel. Staff stability ensures quality and people skills for handling the often-fickle requests of tired tourists. The various dining rooms offer excellent food traditional fare as well as Alaska salmon and seafood are not to be ignored.

Talkeetna is indeed a land of plenty, which will translate to plenty of thanks from your clients for suggesting that they make this subtle but impressive stopover on their Alaska tour.


Alaska Railroad

K2 Aviation
Mahay’s Riverboat Service

Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge