I grew up thinking of Alaska being a dark mysterious country of its own and a place I didn’t think I wanted to visit. However, as I grew older, tales of the old frontier and American wilderness became increasingly more interesting. There were actually places in Alaska where real people lived in houses, not igloos. Sound familiar? Of course it does! Eskimos, igloos, and sub zero temperatures are the thoughts that most likely came to mind for most of us. Before the internet, I had seen beautiful pictures of the magnificent mountains, beautiful bays, glorious glaciers and the wild wilderness. Before the cruise lines added Alaska as a cruise destination, most planned trips to Alaska involved wildlife hunting and fishing. Now an Alaskan cruise has become one of the most popular in the world. The most spectacular sights can be seen from the comfort of your own stateroom, while sipping your morning coffee. The beauty of a bay with floating glacier ice, spotting a whale and watching dolphins play in the distance is an experience of a lifetime. Cruising the inside passage brought opportunity to see bald eagles, sea lions and learn about the history of the totem poles of the Tlingit Indians, Russian settlers and lumberjacks. The sound of a glacier calving in the distance is more magnificent and louder than thunder. I had never heard of “calving”, but now I will never forget the majesty of the booming sound as a block of glacier ice 200 feet high crashed into the water.
Alaska’s beauty can be seen and enjoyed across the state, but the summer daylight is experienced mid-May through mid-September. The weather is un-predictable and can produce torrential rains and winds without notice. I had the pleasure to meet many Alaskans and one thing they all seemed to have in common was a love for their state and an ability to not let weather interfere with their lives. They had learned to appreciate the beauty and adjust to the uncertainty of the weather. I talked to people in their teens that planned to live their lives in the small town where they had been raised and I talked with some people who had left the state to obtain their education but had returned to the American wilderness. People were warm and friendly and very appreciative of the visitors and tourism brought in by the recent cruise lines.
Ketchikan is the fifth largest city in Alaska and is known as the rainiest town in southeast Alaska. It is also known as the “Salmon Capital of the World”. If you ever visit, be sure to walk one street over from where the ships dock. There’s a bridge that crosses the mouth of Ketchikan creek and you can catch salmon right off of the bridge. Across the street is a vendor where you can purchase a fishing license for about $26, catch a limit of 6 salmon and have them clean, pack and ship the salmon home for you for about $75.00.
Hoonah is the largest Tlingit village in Alaska and a very close knit community. Our tour bus driver boasted of his heritage and the many rituals and superstitions still practiced by many on this small island. About 70% of the 850 residents are of Alaskan native heritage. The zip line tour was the “talk of the day” and we watched and listened as the zip-liners made the 90 second trip down the cable. It takes 45 minutes to make it to the top of the zip line by bus.
Juneau had its charm, but seemed a bit more sophisticated and worldly-wise than the other towns we visited. Being the capital of Alaska, it does bring more tourism than the other towns, however there are still no roads that lead to Juneau. The only way in or out is by sea or air. The highlight of our trip was the float plane ride on Wings Airways to the Taku Glacier Lodge on Taku Island. This is a must-do if you ever visit Juneau. You’ll fly over breathtaking scenery and experience the sights of the glaciers from a completely new perspective. You’ll walk through the rainforest at the lodge and return for the most delicious meal of grilled salmon and sides than you could hope for. We even had a visit from a local bear named Lois, but she kept her place in the tree for all of the pictures.
Skagway – the gateway to the Klondike established in the great gold rush days. This was my favorite little town and had been restored with seven blocks of touristy shopping, eateries and even a Starbucks. The 3 hour round trip train ride to the top of the White Pass is an adventure to remember and the best opportunity for lovely photography. The White Pass and Yukon Railroad was built at the turn of the century to connect Skagway with Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. Prior to the completion of the railroad, prospectors had to climb the White Pass Trail from Skagway up into the Yukon’s promising gold fields.
Seward is a little resort town on Resurrection Bay surrounded by majestic and towering mountains. It is abounded by eagles, mountain goats, bears, seabirds and moose, all inhabiting the surrounding forests. The lazy little downtown area had a couple of wonderful local restaurants. I would recommend the Greek Restaurant for the best pizza ever and Nellie’s Roadhouse for more variety. Kim's Forest B&B is a little hide-away with awesome beds, a full breakfast and just a short walk to Bear's Lake.
Driving down the Seward Highway down Turnagain Arm is one of the most scenic drives in the world. You’ll see dramatic views of mountain scenery and the inlet. There’s possibility of seeing dall sheep, beluga whales or the tide coming in. Turnagain Arm’s bore tide is the second highest in North America, second only to the tide in Canada’s Bay of Fundy. While I can not personally attest to this, I have read that this drive ranks right up there with Italy’s Amalfi Drive and the highway along the Rhine, south of Coblenz. I hope to make that comparison some day.
My dark, mysterious thoughts of the Alaskan wilderness truly exploded into one of the most enjoyable trips of a lifetime and one we will never forget.
For more information on Alaska, visit www.amazon.com. You might find these recommended books of interest and enjoyment while planning your trip: Alaska, Saga of a Bold Land, by Walter R. Borneman or the beautiful photography in Alaska, A Photographic Excursion.