Thirty years ago I rented an apartment from a couple who raved about their cruise and land trip to Alaska. For 30 years I dreamt about going there and witnessing firsthand the blue tinges of ice glaciers and hearing the muffled roar of calving. I yearned to see whales diving and spewing geysers of water or of otters frolicking in the icy water or of seals splaying their rotund bodies on broken bits of bergs that floated and bounced off one another like bumper cars on a slow track. When my husband and I finally took our cruise to Alaska as our early anniversary present to ourselves, it was all that and more, and very nearly the ship sailed without us when a misplaced hyphen in my name (that our agent thought he had corrected but apparently didn’t) caused the agent in Vancouver to question whether I’d be permitted to board.
We felt ourselves ridiculously lucky to be going on this trip at all. With the naïve and blissful unawareness that people book trips to Alaska a year in advance, we decided in June that we were going to finally follow our hearts, close our eyes to the expense, and just “do it.” My husband mentioned to a group of men at work that we were going to book a cruise to Alaska for July and they laughed uproariously. Fortunately, one of the men was a part-time travel agent and though he believed it impossible, he said he’d try to book our cruise. Within two hours, he’d discovered a couple had cancelled their reservation, which included a balcony and was located mid-deck on the starboard side of the ship that would be most likely to best the ice bergs, glaciers and ocean life. Was this karmic or what? Not only did we have our cruise of a lifetime but we added a trip to Denali, another dream we shared.
Every day of our 10-day adventure was an educational and entertaining experience. Our ship had onsite rangers who alerted us to whale families that played and waved their tales with graceful dives, sharing knowledge such as the reason otters float face up is that the only place on their bodies not covered in warm hair is their feet. We could brace ourselves against our balcony to hone our binoculars, running into our room to view the alerts given out by the rangers as to where we should be searching. Our ship was privileged to be one of those that were able to move close in to Glacier Bay. We heard the crush of the ice breaking off from glaciers. The day was grey with low slung clouds. We were devastated thinking we’d come this far and wouldn’t see past our muffled faces, but as soon as we entered the Bay, the sun burst through like a Hollywood spotlight showing off its stars. We saw first-hand what climate change is doing to the shrinking glacial landscape and wildlife and later talked to Alaskans who confirmed their trepidations of the environment destruction. Our ship made port in a variety of cities. My husband and I are adventurers (though not extremists). We were less interested in tours than in exploring areas on our own. He had researched what to visit, how to get there and how much time one would need. On the day we were in Juneau, we took a local bus to Mendenhall Glacier. Instead of a hurried visit to peek through a telescope (as some of the tour visitors did), we walked two miles out to the glacier… something few others were doing. We carefully climbed over a slippery jetty of rocks and stood as close as one could get, near a tiny slit of land close enough to feel the spray misting our heads and hear the waterfall’s thunder as it cascaded from the glacier. We learned the only transportation into Juneau other than ships, are small planes. Skagway looks like a small city Disney had built. It is charmingly preserved, picturesque in its colorful buildings and colorful characters. We learned people are brought in from across the globe to work the summer months because there aren’t enough people in the area to (wo)man the shops, drive the buses, or wait tables at the packed restaurants. In Skagway, doctors and vets pop in once a month doing rounds, but these are a hardy lot who relish their space and scenery. One of the absolute highlights in Skagway was taking the White Pass train through its winding ascent over treacherous-seeming trestles. The views weren’t just breathtaking unto themselves, but we saw the eroded narrow rocky path that miners traversed in their addictive search for gold.
Alaska’s tourism bureau does things right. Every mode of transportation, from boats to trains to buses, has trained guides onboard who dispenses personal, humorous and fact-filled details about living in Alaska. On our train trip to Denali, our train guide was the daughter of a legendary Iditarod musher. En route to Denali, she regaled us with the harrowing and rewarding tales of racing through treacherous landscape and horrific weather conditions. We examined totem poles of iconic figures, failed to see McKinley in the shroud of fog (and heard it’s really only visible 23 days a year), and saw dog teams put through their paces in preparation for the next race. In Fairbanks, we took an amazing boat ride through a replica of a native village, watching their history as if it were occurring in real time. We saw the tiny cabins that shielded warriors on the hunt, dugout canoes that didn’t seem very sturdy, and rooftops covered in colorful flowers and fauna. Aleut girls showed off their hand-sewn furred garments that protect them from the blistering winds and bitter cold. We tasted some of the best salmon I’ve ever had, simply served mixed with cream cheese atop crackers.
Our flight home from Fairbanks through Minneapolis and back to Florida was uneventful… thankfully. We came home tired and enervated. Our hundreds of pictures of the stunning place that is Alaska attest to a vacation etched forever in our hearts.