My Adventure to Alaska really began over a year ago when I was home visiting my family for the holidays. I was trying to have a real conversation with my retired father amidst the craziness of having all of my sister’s family and kids together at once. I asked him what was on his “bucket list” to do now that he was retired, seriously regretting saying that term out loud to my 77 year old dad. Once you get to be his age, you start thinking a lot more about “kicking the bucket” and now that I think about it, there has to be a better way to phrase this question. His response upset me more. He said, “I don’t believe in bucket lists. Your memories just die with you. I’m too old for adventures anyway”. That answer was so depressing to me and I took it as a personal challenge to change my dad’s perspective on life, old age, and that it is never too late to be an explorer.
In his later years, my dad has learned to dislike traveling. He doesn’t understand “e-tickets” and not having a paper itinerary and everything taken care of for you by a travel agent. He just learned what smart phone was recently and he was born a little too early for technology to facilitate his daily life. Instead, it is just a complication to him. So I was racking my brain to think of a place I could take my dad where we could both enjoy being adventurers that didn’t necessarily mean spelunking into caves and sleeping in hostels. I am not a teenager myself anymore, but I still don’t mind roughing it once in a while, but I knew that wouldn’t fly with my dad. So I said to him, “There must be somewhere you have always wanted to go see in your lifetime. Somewhere exotic almost mysterious”. He thought about it for a moment, and true to his almost morbid line of thinking these days he said, “Well, I’d like to see the glaciers before they all melt away and disappear”. I said, “Well, then that settles it! We are headed to Alaska!”
Alaska was purchased from Russia and was made a state in 1959 when my dad was just 20 years old. Imagine living during a time where there were only 48 stars on the American Flag. Alaska and Hawaii were added in 1959 becoming the two most exotic states in the United States. We never had volcanoes, and tropical rainforests, glaciers and polar bears before as part of our country, but now we did. Alaska has always been described as the Final Frontier and I never really understood why until I went there. Alaska is massive, plain and simple. Broken up into 5 sections: Far North, Interior, Southwest, South Central, and the Inside Passage, Alaska is 1/5th the size of the continental United States and can fit Texas inside of it twice! The landscape is gorgeous, but can be very harsh and unforgiving and to make matters worse most of it is inaccessible by roads. Unless you are on a cruise ship, train, or floatplane, you will most likely never have access to seeing some of the best quaint towns and landscapes that Alaska has to offer.
Alaska became famous and literally “got on the map” back in the late 1800’s when gold was discovered in the neighboring Yukon Territories. Explorers and prospectors young and old flocked there via Seattle, known as the “Gateway to Alaska”, where they would load up with over a ton of gear to survive in the wilderness for up to a year and take off on an open-ended journey with hopes to discover wealth, natural resources, adventure, and their life’s purpose. Ironically, as I sat in the airport in Seattle with my Dad almost 200 years later, I realized that we were no different. We, too, were on a quest for a great adventure into territory that is largely undeveloped wilderness and hasn’t changed much over the past two centuries. We had dreams of what we would find up there, like melting glaciers and wildlife, but beyond that we really had zero expectations on what Alaska would have to offer and in a way we became just like the Gold Rushers, the “bucket listers” of the past, but this time we were looking for riches of experiences.
When planning our trip to Alaska, I asked my uncle who is a lifetime “cruiser” about which cruise company was the best to take in Alaska and he said, Princess Cruises hands down. The reason they stood out over the rest to me is that they offer Off the Beaten Path Land and Sea vacations and offered seamless transportation by bus and rail between the two. Princess owns 5 land lodges next to some of the most pristine wilderness National Parks and if you truly want to experience Alaska, you have to do it by Air, Land, and Sea.
Because most of Alaska is vast wilderness, I decided to strategize how my Dad and I were going to be able to see the best of what Alaska has to offer in 2 weeks. How could I plan the ultimate adventure and adrenaline pumping kind of trip that I like to have, but taking into account the physical limitations my elderly Dad has? The fact that most of Alaska is not easy to access actually worked out in our favor, because there were so many excursions by float plane, helicopter, or boat that could get you exactly where you need to go, without having to work too hard to get there.
We started our adventure flying into Fairbanks, Alaska and jumping on a coach to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Set idyllically above the picturesque Nenana River, this lodge has shuttles that take you directly into Denali National Park, a 6-million acre national park larger than the state of Vermont, getting you up close and personal with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Moose, and quite possibly some of the best views of Denali and the Alaskan mountain range. Denali, meaning the “Great One”, is the tallest mountain in North America towering over the landscape at 20,310 feet! Formerly known as Mt. Mc Kinley, this mountain looks completely different from all angles and unless you are an experienced climber, you will never summit it, but that didn’t stop us from conquering it via a “flightseeing plane”.
Taking a small Beaver plane with K2 Aviation (http://www.flyk2.com/) was one of the highlights of my Dad’s and my trip. You jump into a small comfortable plane and for the next hour or so, you experience the wonders of Denali National Park, the Alaskan range and all of the glaciers, and can somewhat begin to comprehend the size and scale of these mountains as you flight through the jagged peaks and learn all about how the landscape was formed from the air. It may be the most spectacular flight I have ever been on and to be that close to the summit of “the Great one” made me bow down to Mother Nature a little bit.
Once my Dad got over his fear of flying, he was excited to take our glacier viewing up a notch and add a helicopter with a glacier landing to the mix. I wanted to give my Dad the most comprehensive view of the Alaskan Glaciers, so why not land on one and drink the best water on Earth straight from the source?
“You are never too old for an adventure”, I told my Dad as we put our headsets on and got cozy in our helicopter getting ready to land directly on a glacier. Even though I have been on many helicopters in my life, I was not prepared to be as awed as I was. Era Helicopters (http://www.eraflightseeing.com/) flew us over the most gorgeous Alaskan backcountry, crystal blue glacier lakes and lush green forests. Then the terrain turned rocky, and jagged and more dramatic, until we climbed over the mountain range and the entire landscape turned to huge rivers of ice. These giant glaciers are moving and pulverizing rock and carving out the landscape, some of them 85 miles long with crystal blue streams gushing down the ice. When our helicopter set down on the ice right on the bank of one of these streams it was surreal. We got out and just explored and knelt down and drank the glacier water and took in the majesty of this place. My Dad was in disbelief that here he was standing on a glacier, something he had dreamt about since he was young and we had the most perfect warm weather with blue skies that didn’t compare to the iridescent blue of the glacier ice around us.
The next day we were on the move again to drive for hours through Denali National Park. The park is so vast that the 5 smallest states combined can fit inside of it. The park offers bus tours since you are not allowed to bring anything inside of the park other than yourselves. They are extremely dedicated to protecting this this breathtaking wilderness and all of its wildlife and it shows through their tour guides and park rangers that have dedicated their lives to learning about and sharing their knowledge of the park. For hours we were on a school bus safari scanning the sweeping meadows and forested mountains on the look out for grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves and all kinds of other creatures. We were not disappointed as we got closer and closer to Denali and the landscape starting changing and so did our luck with spotting animals. Seeing a grizzly bear in the wild? My Dad and I checked that off our “Alaskan Bucket List” as well. Not only were we lucky with the wildlife sightings, but we were with the sunny, warm weather as well. Named a “Top 10 National Park Landmark” by National Geographic, we were told that many times you can’t even see the soaring peak of Denali right in front of you if the weather is not cooperating. So again I found myself saying another “thank you” to Mother Nature, but that night she gave my Dad and I her best show yet. The most intense light show on planet Earth, a glimpse of the Northern Lights!
As we made it back exhausted to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we were eating a late dinner and walking back through the campus back to our room, when the sky just started to glow brighter and brighter and then started dripping with green and fuchsia swirls. This show got more intense and more intense as the swirls streaked all the way across the sky and covered huge portions of it for about 20 minutes. I was actually shocked to see them, because normally you don’t see them unless it’s closer to winter, colder, more north of the Arctic Circle, the weather is clear, and there is crazy solar activity. We just happened to have all of the stars aligned and be outside at the right place at the right time to see this magnificent display of the disruption of our Earth’s magnetic field. It is hard to describe in words just how beautiful and magical the Aurora is. It is something that is very difficult to capture on film or video, and although I understand the science behind what is happening, it is still such a mysterious, magical experience and something so special that I was able to share with my Dad. We check off Denali, planes, helicopters, Glaciers, Grizzly Bears, and the Northern Lights? Alaska was giving us the full VIP treatment and it was only day 3 of our trip!
Our last stop on land before we would jump on the Princess Rail down to Whittier to catch our ship, was Mt. Mc Kinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. This lodge located in Denali State Park just 40 miles from North America’s tallest peak, is like a rustic campus of cabins with walking trails, broad viewing decks, outdoor fire pits, and amazing hiking. Since my Dad is not able to really hike, I thought signing us up for an off-roading adventure through back country trails would be the best way to experience some of the amazing meadows and forest landscape that my Dad would otherwise miss. So I signed us up for an Argo excursion with Denali Tundra Tours (www.denalitundratours.com) not knowing that this “trail ride” was going to be the land adventure of a lifetime!
I had never heard of an Argo before, but when we got there I discovered its an all-terrain vehicle with 6 oversized wheels and it can even float and tread over a lake! My Dad and I put helmets on, buckled up, and took off with our guides for 3 hours of the most intense off-roading trails through muddy rivers and rocky trails and forests. It was the ride of our lives and we even got stuck a few times and extremely wet and muddy, but I don’t think I have laughed that hard in a long time! My Dad was terrified half the time, but I reminded him if you are going to go on an Alaskan Bucket List trip, you gotta go big or go home!
We ended our land adventure in style by taking the exclusive Princess Rail service from the town of Talkeetna to Whittier where we would be boarding our cruise ship or as I like floating hotel for the next 7 days. Talkeetna is such a tiny quaint town with one stretch of Main St with shops, restaurants, and breweries. After having a couple of beers at the Denali Brewing Company, we literally pulled our coach up to the train tracks, got off with our bags and boarded the Yellow Alaskan Rail like you would back in the old days. No station, just a train and for the next 4 hours we would be inside of a glass enclosed car, eating and drinking in comfort as some of the most isolated, pristine scenery streaked past our windows as we glided along mountain ranges and through tunnels only to arrive at the port where our ship, The Princess Star (www.princesscruises.com), awaited us.
Alaska truly is the last existing example of the wild, American West, back when the United States was still growing and people still had not even mapped out all of the terrain. People settled here in some of the roughest, most unforgiving terrain and there are towns here that see over 300 days of rain. If you read about the history of some of the coastal towns like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan, life was tough and women had to work as hard as men to survive in these conditions. Even today, if you look at a map, the southeastern coastal strip, consisting of many islands and a strip of narrow mainland called the Inside Passage, is really only accessible by float plane or boat. Here, you will see that life hasn’t changed much since the days of the Gold Rush. People’s lives are still dictated by fishing, boating, the weather, and the tides. Technology and the outside world really only come into these people’s lives every time the cruise ships dock in their ports creating a shopping and tourist frenzy for a few hours, before sailing away and letting these towns go back to their sleepier existence.
This region has many glaciers and extensive forests. It is separated from Canada by mountains that rise sharply from the water's edge to heights of 9,000 feet, or more, through which run deep fiords—sea inlets with high mountain walls. Juneau, the capital city; Skagway and Haines important seaport towns, and Ketchikan, the largest salmon packing center in the world, are in this section. What makes this part of Alaska the most famous to visit via cruise ship is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Glacier Bay National Park is a 25 million-acre UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest marine sanctuary in the world. Here is where the landscape starts looking more like the Alaska we have read about in story books with huge glaciers meeting the ocean and cracking and breaking off to form icebergs. By 2030, this may be the only place in the United States where glaciers still exist, since they are melting at such a rapid rate. This marine preserve is highly protected and can only be reached by boat or plane which is another reason why taking a cruise on the Star Princess is not only one of the only ways, but the best way to experience the Inside Passage.
One of the coolest parts of sailing through Glacier Bay National Park is that they only allow 2 ships a day to go through and only one at a time, so literally you are the only people or vessel you will see within that landscape with exception of the small boat the brings the Park rangers to the ship. By law you have to be accompanied by 3 rangers aboard the ship and a certain level of education and protection has to happen while the cruise ship goes through. The rangers literally have to climb a rope ladder to get on board and they get on the loud speaker and tell you about what you are looking at and spot wildlife and explain the geology of the glaciers.
I never knew that cruising was so decadent! I had never experienced a cruise before and being onboard Princess Cruises was like being on a floating luxury hotel with restaurants, a gym, a spa, a casino, and every amenity you could think of enjoying while the most stunning, alien landscapes glide past your window. For my Dad who needs to rest a lot, this was perfect, and when we were not at port doing excursions he could take his pick of activities or just rest and watch the whales and wildlife from the decks of the ship. It was actually quite ridiculous that I could be on the treadmill, or having coffee in the hot tub on deck and be surrounded by glacier walls so tall that they are twice the height of the ship at almost 250 feet tall!
The highlight for both my Dad and I at Sea was when the Captain pulled our ship right up to Margerie Glacier for a couple of hours and just stopped within ¼ mile from the towering ice shelves. I cannot even begin to describe the experience of sitting on the decks and watching what I think could be described as the best spectator sport ever. Literally, along with all of the other passengers lining the decks we could actually hear the glaciers cracking and groaning and moving and breaking off into the ocean before our very eyes! It is hard to get a size comparison even when our ship was right up next to the walls, but imagine a piece of ice the size of an apartment building cracking and breaking off into the ocean. The sound it makes is like lightning following by a huge explosion thundering and echoing across the glacier walls and mountains. It vibrates your entire being and it is yet another example of Mother Nature demonstrating her majesty.
My Dad and I sat there for hours just watching in disbelief that we were there face to face with these huge glaciers, witnessing this amazing place in our lifetimes, and seeing FINALLY what all of the fuss was about in Alaska. We saw whales breaching as we had breakfast on our balcony, bald eagles floating by on icebergs, bears playing on the beaches, and just untouched wilderness all around us. We were literally dwarfed by this frozen landscape and its beauty. We are the lucky ones, the modern-day explorers and “bucket listers” who didn’t have to brave the storms, cold, and rugged terrain in order to witness this beauty first hand.
Now, as my Dad and I continued on our cruise and we ate and slept luxuriously, met new friends, educated ourselves, entertained ourselves, and even got lucky in the casino, while at the same time getting to experience this remote and wild wilderness, I did not take for granted the many moments that Mother Nature and Alaska gifted to my Dad and I. Even at his older age, I hope that my Dad still was able to learn a few things from his youngest daughter.