Long before the phrase “bucket list” became part of American pop culture I had already made up my mind that Alaska would be on my list. Why Alaska? I contemplated that question, often out loud to anyone who would listen as I sat in one of America’s large concrete jungles, where the hustle and bustle of city life was like an added appendage I thought I couldn’t do without.
Did I harbor some secret yearning to escape my circumstances, or was it my need for a break from my rather hectic life. Then I was reminded of my youth by of all people my then 20-year-old son. “Dad didn’t you spend four years growing up in the Maine wilderness?” He was referring to the four years our family spent in northeast Maine when Dad was stationed at Loring Air Force Base, just minutes from the Canadian border.
Winter snows were measured in feet and temperatures hovered near zero from mid-December to early March, but those chilly temperatures never bothered us kids. There’s a certain rhythmic pulse to life in the wilderness that always appealed to me.
I remembered lying on the snow banks outside our home in Maine during the early evening hours with my elementary school-age friends, staring up at the sky as stars flickered about. I hadn’t seen stars in years living in the concrete jungle, their sparkling beauty blocked by city lights.
I remembered how quiet it was in Maine; so quiet one could easily believe they heard the snow hit the ground—not true of course. The air in Maine is pure. The canvas of beautiful pine trees juxtaposed against the white snow—exquisite and unspoiled. Wildlife abundant. This is how I imagined Alaska.
We had a week at our disposal so we opted for Alaska by cruise ship. My girlfriend and I were already pushing our luck with the calendar. We left in September on one of the last ships of the season.
Our first stop was Ketchikan, along southern Alaska’s inside passage. Known as Alaska’s “First City” because it’s the first major city in Alaska as travelers’ head north. We opted for a bus tour of the region. I wanted to see some wildlife, especially the black bears as they gorged themselves with salmon in preparation for hibernation. Sadly, I didn’t see a single bear and the salmon had disappeared—we were a little late in the season. The weather on the other hand was perfect—pure air, cool but not cold, lush green pine trees. A few eagles and their expansive wings hugging the treetops. Some took flight, their awesome wingspan casting a brief shadow over the ground below. We journeyed to Totem Heritage Center and visited some of the world’s oldest collection of totem poles. It’s part of the regions rich Native heritage that includes the Haida, Tlingit and Tsimshain people.
Tracy Arm Fjord
This day started early, around 6 am as we made our way on a scenic boat tour of Tracy Arm Fjord. We entered the fjord through a narrow passageway that felt like we could easily reach out and touch land on both sides. The fjord featured blue-tinged underwater glaciers—some protruding above the waterline along with floating chunks of ice. It was cold and misty on the deck and wonderfully quiet. The two-hour journey into the fjord ended at a tight cul-de-sac surrounded by tall peaks. We spotted a couple of baby orcas playfully swimming about. The melting glaciers carved wonderful waterfalls into the surrounding rock.
After the fjord, we continued our journey northward to Alaska’s capital city Juneau—the only state capital bordering a foreign country and accessible only by plane or boat. Our first stop was Mendenhall Glacier about 13 miles north of Juneau. It’s 12 miles long, a half-mile wide and 300 to 1,800 feet deep. Standing next to such a large mass of ice left me in awe, yet I’m told by locals this glacier was easily twice this size just a decade ago and closer to Juneau. It is here at the museum that I learned about the size difference between a black bear, brown bear and grizzly bear.
Easily the highlight of our trip—one simply cannot appreciate the massive size (40 to 50 feet long, weighing between 25 and 35 tons) and majestic beauty of these creatures. Alaska is their feeding grounds between March and November.
We boarded a sightseeing boat and headed to the waters along the inside passage. I was struck by how calm the waters were—the only ripple; the wake from our boat. Spotters were perched on the upper deck looking for blowholes as the humpbacks breached for a breath or air. It didn’t take long as a group of humpbacks broke the stillness of the water ever so gently and submerged without causing the slightest movement in the surf. One whale could have easily submerged our boat—a boat that held 75 people, but that’s not their nature. I was struck by how close the humpbacks were to the shore, which told me the body of water we skimmed was deep.
For the next two hours we enjoyed a spectacular display. Several waved their massive tails (up to 18 feet) in the direction of our boat as if they were speaking to us. A few managed to get a significant portion of their massive bodies out of the water and landed with a thunderous splash. We were rapidly running out of sunlight and headed for shore when a single humpback provided what many had come to see—the fin slap (fin measures up to 16 feet). We easily heard the slap of the water surface from a mile away. All I can say is Wow! Unfortunately, I’d just turned off my camera.
Our final stop in Alaska was the small town of Skagway, population less than 1,000. Skagway was the gateway to the gold rush in the later part of the 19th century. I gorged myself on the best salmon I ever tasted. There are several kinds of salmon, which one I had I’m uncertain, but it was delicious.
When not in port, we spent as much time as possible enjoying the open air and cool sea breezes of the Alaskan coast. A good cup of hot chocolate and several blankets allowed us to enjoy the majesty of Mother Nature. Did I mention how still and quiet everything was, even from the deck of our cruise ship. It seemed like many passenger had the same idea we had, to sit outside in absolute silence.
This “bucket list” fulfilling adventure left me feeling as one with nature. I truly missed the great outdoors of my youth, something I hadn’t realized until this trip. I also realized such a short trip hadn’t done Alaska justice. I yearn for me, yes, even the cold.
Alaska cruise season typically starts in April and ends in September. Several lines offer this journey including Norwegian, Celebrity, Carnival, Seabourn, Royal Caribbean and Princess.
For a closer look at Alaska CLICK HERE.