Alaska is big. Alaskans make fun of Texas for thinking that it’s big because you could fit Texas into Alaska two times. In fact, Alaska is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined. Are you getting the big picture?
I got to experience just how big, bold and beautiful Alaska is earlier this summer when my wife and I spent two weeks there on vacation. Disclaimer: This trip was not my idea and I grumbled about it more than a few times but our 49th state has long been on my wife’s bucket list. (More on the concept of the bucket list later.) I didn’t have anything against Alaska, it just wasn’t ever high on my travel radar.
For the record, I was stupid. Now, I’m just mad about Alaska.
We did a land and sea package and while I usually balk about a group tour (Are you sensing a pattern here?), this is really the ideal way to see a lot of Alaska. Also, you never have to carry your own luggage. Best idea ever.
Our trip began in Fairbanks, the most northern part of our journey and we were fully immersed in the Land of the Midnight Sun. Wow. This is a really weird thing to adjust to. On our first full day in Fairbanks, sunrise was at 3:09 AM and sunset was at, wait for it, 12:28 AM. And the few hours between the two were never really actually dark – more like grey.
I kept hearing “Sunglasses at Night” – that Corey Hart song from the 80’s in my head. One evening after dinner we were having a “nightcap” sitting on a bench overlooking the Chena River and I asked my wife, “Should we be wearing sunscreen now?” We slept with hand towels over our eyes because even with the curtains drawn, we felt like we were taking a nap in the middle of the day.
Remember when you were a kid and you would stay outside on summer nights until your mom would come to the back door and call for you to come in? I wondered how long Alaskan mothers wait to make that call. Kids? What kids?
And let’s talk about the produce. Freaky. We’re talking 65 pound cantaloupes! The growing season is short but because of the extended exposure to the sun, anybody can have a green thumb in Alaska. We passed some fields of cabbages that looked like something out of a sci fi movie.
The natives make the most of summer in Alaska and it seemed as if everyone we met had at least two jobs. Our tour director, Scott, is a middle school science teacher and spends his summers working for Trafalgar, our tour company. We did a riverboat cruise our first full day in Fairbanks that was narrated by a personable guy with a great voice wearing a nautical looking coat. The next morning, we turned on the TV and saw our “Captain” reading the news. Turns out he’s a longtime local radio and TV personality.
The next day we headed out for Denali National Park. Scott had warned us that only one out of three visitors ever see the mountain known as “The Great One” because of cloud cover. He was smart to undersell us because as we approached the park and saw the highest peak in North America in all its glory, we were all giddy. It’s pretty funny to see 50 people snapping the same shot. We just used our iPhones but at the end of the day, something that massively magnificent cannot be truly captured by any lens. At least that’s what I told myself that evening when I deleted about 37 photos of something that looked like a white blob.
Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses more than six million acres. Yes, million, and only one ribbon of road bisects the wild land. One of the most popular excursions in the park is the Tundra Wilderness Tour – a 62 mile, 8 hour bus ride that gives you up close and personal views of wildlife and more intimate views of Denali.
My brother and his wife did this tour last summer and I think it may have been the low point of their 35 year marriage. He was not happy. Granted, this is a man who usually flies first class and was probably 15 the last time he rode on a school bus. Alaska was on his wife’s bucket list (seriously, more later), too. Go figure. Anyway, his review of the bus tour that would not end was enough to convince us to spend the day in Denali on our own and I think it was probably my most favorite day in a fortnight of favorite days.
It was a spectacular morning drenched in brilliant sunshine and we set out on a hike along the Nenana River. We passed a park ranger leading a group back from this trail and he reported no bear sightings. This is a real and present concern while in Denali and we were briefed to not run if we encountered a bear. I liken this to the instruction the flight attendant gives you if your oxygen mask is ever deployed : “Place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally.” Sure.
So if you encounter a bear, you are supposed to stand your ground, wave your hands a bit and say things like, “Hey, Bear.” Apparently they really are not interested in humans unless we run and then they think we are lunch.
The only wildlife we encountered on our hike was some moose poop and we were able to differentiate it from bear poop because we paid attention to the poop display at the Visitor’s Center. We had our National Park swagger on after that.
Our trail led down to the rocky bank of the rushing river and we just sat for a few hours and breathed it all in. This has been a challenging year for me and my wife. I lost a job that I really loved in January in a perfect storm of misinformation and misguided decisions and it has been a painful and slow healing process.
I’m not a good enough writer to adequately describe our view that day and it was more than just what we saw – the sounds were almost reverent. The whooshing flow of the river, the echoes of birds in the trees, the breeze. I felt as close to God as I did in St. Peter’s Basilica and I felt more peace than I had felt in months. I sucked it in like it was that oxygen mask. I can smell that day right now – crisp and piney.
And I intend to hold tight to that day for as long as I can.
We ran into a few of our tour mates later that evening as they staggered off their buses in search of some dinner. Their reviews were mixed but we knew we had made the right decision for us. We were outside all day – beginning with breakfast on the deck and ending when we finally returned to our room for the night (which wasn’t dark, of course). I felt like a kid again and I’m sure I smelled like one, too. It was rather exhilarating to be that dirty from just knocking around outside all day.
Anyone that’s been on a tour to Alaska knows that wildlife viewing can be a competitive sport with bragging rights for the best find. It was like a game of wildlife poker when you ran into folks at breakfast the next morning after everyone’s day of adventures. “We saw two moose, three eagles and a bear,” said one of the women from New Zealand. Not to be outdone, a man from Canada said, “We saw a mama moose and two babies, three reindeer and four Dall sheep.” The ante got even bigger when we moved on to the cruise portion of our trip and whale sightings became the equivalent of a royal flush.
One of the best things about a tour is meeting folks from literally all round the world. I love hearing different accents and learning about places I haven’t been – which finally brings me to the subject of the bucket list. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the concept of the bucket list. I just think it should have a better name than that. “Bucket” seems like such a utilitarian and unglamorous descriptor for something you deeply want to do. I also don’t like the idea of being motivated to do something before you die. It just feels a bit morose to me.
My blog mate and bestie Carla and I had a discussion about this before I left on my trip. She agreed with me (she’s sweet like that) and suggested we change it to “dream” list or “wish” list. And yet, I was fascinated with the driving force of the bucket list so I got in the habit of asking people I met on our trip why they chose to tour Alaska. I bet I asked 30 people and I think about 28 of them lit up and said, “Oh, Alaska has always been on my bucket list.” There you have it.
Call it what you want but I have to admit that there’s something quite special about sharing a dream/wish/bucket list trip with a large group of strangers. You immediately have an unspoken bond and the excitement and joy emanating from everyone is almost palpable. It’s like you’re all on the same team, cheering for the same things – sunny days, multiple orca sightings and extra drink tickets at the group dinners.
We made our way on to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, via train on the Alaskan Railroad. I had an ear worm of one of my favorite songs playing over and over – “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked. It’s about an exchange of letters from two old friends, one writes to the other in Dallas and the return letter comes from Anchorage.
Hey Shell, you know it’s kind of funny
Texas always seemed so big
But you know you’re in the largest state in the union
When you’re anchored down in Anchorage
I love this song even more now that I’ve been there and my dear wife was so sweet to put up with me singing it (badly) every day.
Anchorage is a thoroughly modern city but one of the most interesting things we did there was visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center, a cultural center and museum designed to expand the understanding of Alaska’s Indigenous people. Many of the guides here were young people – high school age – and I was so moved by their reverence for their past.
These kids may have gone back to their iPads when they were done with their presentations of Alaska Native dance and games but they gave us such a rich and thoughtful narrative of their history. There was no eye-rolling or rote recitation. They spoke from their hearts and made us feel their deep connection to their beautiful land.
One of our young guides apologized that some of the staff were missing that day and explained that it was the start of salmon fishing season and they were fishing – not for sport but for food for the winter. You get the sense that Alaskans are not careless with their resources. I don’t think you can be a weenie and survive there.
The only bad weather that we encountered coincided with our whale watching tour on the last day of the land portion of our trip. Scott gave us all fair warning that the seas would be rough and that the faint of heart should probably find a nice bar and wait for the group to get back. My lovely wife is prone to motion sickness but she had double dosed on Dramamine and Bonine and was game. I love that about her. She’s fond of saying, “I signed up for the full experience.” Little did she know.
Our whale watching outing started off well enough with an almost immediate sighting of a humpback whale but soon turned into an episode of The Deadliest Catch as we left the bay and headed into the choppy ocean and some very big waves. I think about a third of the folks on our boat got sick. It wasn’t pretty and I’ll just say once again that my wife is a real trouper. Oh, and we will never go on a whale watching outing again.
After returning to land for about 30 minutes, we had to board our cruise. Yeah, the timing wasn’t great on that but this was my first cruise so I was pretty excited and the color was beginning to return to my wife’s face. We got through the embarkation process quickly with an alarming warning of a “slight” outbreak of the norovirus on the ship. Disclaimer: The crew of our ship did a great job containing the germs and only a few people were sick. That said, I think I have a permanent layer of Purell on my hands from over applying several times a day for a week.
The cruise ship experience was really fun. We loved breakfast room service and elegant dining at night but our most favorite thing was our verandah – cruise ship speak for balcony. It was so amazing to just sit and watch Mother Nature’s floor show as we sailed through Southeast Alaska, much of which can only be accessed by plane or boat.
No question the highlight of the cruise was our day in Glacier Bay National Park which happened to fall on the summer solstice. Forgive me if I pile on the clichés like breathtaking and amazing. We stood on the deck of the ship in absolute awe as watched – and heard – Margerie Glacier, one of the most active glaciers in Glacier Bay, calving. You heard what sounds a little like distant thunder and then a loud cracking and then chunks of ice breaking off the glacier and splashing into the water. It’s absolutely thrilling.
Later that evening after dinner, we returned to our cabin and I went out on the verandah. I first thought I was looking at the sunset and then I remembered that I was in Alaska. There was a beautiful band of light and unusual color in the horizon and then it dawned on me – I was looking at the Northern Lights. I screamed – really, I did – for my wife to come outside and we just stood in rapt amazement. It is extremely rare to see the Northern Lights in summer so we felt like we had won the Alaska Lottery. And it was a stunning exclamation point on the longest day of the year.
One of the other things I really loved about cruising was waking up in a different place every day. It was like Christmas every morning when I pulled open the curtains. Ta da! Here’s … Juneau! Imagine how exciting our real lives would be if we woke up to a change of scenery every day. And then someone knocks gently on your door and delivers your breakfast. I felt like Lady Mary only less entitled and without the 23 inch waist. Whatever. I’m nicer.
Our re-entry to the mainland of reality was painful – cancelled and delayed flights and 90 degree temperatures when we finally arrived home but we never got grouchy about any of it. My wife is pretty much incapable of being grouchy but I consider myself to be an advanced practitioner. I was on a post-Alaska high and nothing could melt my iceberg.
We’ve been back a couple of weeks now and Alaska feels a little further away each day and that makes me sad. I miss my unobstructed view of nature in all its glory. My time in Alaska was healing for me in ways I had not anticipated. I felt renewed and strong, cleansed from some of my burdens. The famous naturalist John Muir often wrote about these infinite powers of nature.
“Nature is always lovely, invincible, glad, whatever is done and suffered by her creatures. All scars she heals, whether in rocks or water or sky or hearts.”
That’s big. That’s Alaska.