Alaska by sea and land

Published: July 30th 2015
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It was another summer full of wondrous travel! After a quick week home to Denver in mid-June, my family set off for an Alaskan cruise and land adventure. Though I usually write blogs not long after a trip, the impressions made by Alaska are of such a grand scale that I hope I’ll be able to share some of the magic and wonder with you all even though it was over a month ago!

My dad and I have had Alaska on our radar for a few years now, since we each had visited the 48 continental states, it only made sense to see America’s 49th and 50th state, too! Armed with impassioned recommendations from friends, my mom bit the bullet and booked the trip for us from June 18-July 3.

As not all of us had been to Vancouver before, we decided to arrive a day before our cruise departed from there and take in some of the sights. Powered by an exceptional breakfast with local smoked salmon, we took off on a long waterfront walk to Stanley Park. The sea-planes were hypnotizing to watch, as they took off and landed with a backdrop of green mountains and blue sky. The city itself with gleaming apartment buildings was impressively quiet and easy to navigate.

Stanley Park did not disappoint for its beauty, though another time I think we would opt for bikes to cover more ground in a more reasonable amount of time. Instead we hoped on the park’s trolley. The totem pole park signaled that we were indeed off on an adventure and in a new part of the world!

Having never taken a cruise, we were a bit unsure of the boarding process. I decided that we might as well poke around a little early, which turned out great, as we were able to board the boat very quickly without many lines and wander around the boat a bit before departure.

Though the safety talk on an airplane is serious, I am not alarmed or on edge when it is given. Likely because this was the first cruise, our muster where we were given the safety talk and tried on our life vests made my stomach turn! But, soaking up the landscape and water soothed me!

Our first day was all at sea, so we took it slowly enjoying our joining balconies, the delicious Belgian waffles, and then responsibly visited the gym. While my mom and I were enjoying our lunch, we spotted some humpback whales! It was quite thrilling, though they were a bit far off. Seeing wildlife required a perfect combination of being in the right place at the right time, and each of us had moments of glory that others missed.

Ketchikan, our first port, did not disappoint! It was great fun to watch the docking process and see how skilled the captains are. We hopped on a bus to visit Saxman Village and Totem Park. The Tlingit shared a bit of their culture and history with us, before performing a set of songs and dances in an exquisitely built wooden hall. We were able to visit the shop where a master carver worked on totem poles, and learn a bit of the history of the craft in addition to the process.

We docked early in Juneau the next morning, and rejoiced to have yet another day of sun! Each of us took a separate excursion that day, with my parents enjoying the Mendenhall Glacier and salmon fishery, my sister having the extraordinary experience of seeing humpback whales bubble feed, and I went off for a sea kayak tour by the glacier.

In the calm waters and sun, we were approached by seals popping their heads up and were treated to many bald eagle sightings, all with a backdrop of a glacier in the distance. I returned to the ship on a real nature high! We enjoyed a local beer at the touristy Red Dog Saloon, before boarding the ship and slipping out of the inlet with a spectacular sunset.

We hit a little bit of a low point in Skagway, as we had not booked any tours for the day nor done research in advance. This resulted in us wandering the small and very touristy town for an hour with many others, before deciding to retreat to the boat and spend the day reading and relaxing. We later learned of nice walks and hikes and heard the praises of some of the tour options. So it goes! We did enjoy a dinner of Alaskan king crab legs, so our day was not a total bust!

Our day in Glacier Bay was wonderful and unlike any other national park I’ve visited. The temperature had dropped and the day was overcast, so we bundled up in warm clothes, turned the volume up on our TV where a park ranger explained about the glaciers, and parked ourselves on the balcony to take in the landscape. The bobbing ice floes, some so bright blue it looked artificial, mountains rising right out of the sea, and playful sea animals kept us happy enough to not mind the chill. The enormous Margerie Glacier was overwhelming with its streaks of black, from rock debris it picked up on its journey, and bright blue spots.

The next day was spent at sea, with what I think of as the jewel of the cruise, at the day's end. We entered College Fjord with no expectations or understanding of what was in store. Again we put on all of our layers, turned up the volume of the TV to hear the naturalist’s explanations of the passing wonders, and took in the stunning beauty of several different types and sizes of glaciers. The glacier at the top of the fjord, Harvard Glacier, captivated us with its size and sounds of cracking and popping as it calved. As we crept along the fjord, it kept presenting another glacier and more wildlife. It was a spectacular end to the cruise!

Our tour into Denali National Park involved an 8-hour train ride with a panoramic glass ceiling! Though our ride was less than peaceful than desired due to some very loud fellow travelers, the passing landscape offered solace with its raw and unaltered natural beauty. A fellow passenger exemplified childlike awe and glee as he constantly scanned for wildlife. We all jumped out of our seats when we were able to spot the summit of Mt. Denali in the distance! Only one third of visitors to the park are fortunate enough to see the summit, so we did not have very high hopes, making the
First port: KetchikanFirst port: KetchikanFirst port: Ketchikan

Rainiest town in America? Really?
sighting all the more thrilling. After arriving at the lodge on the park’s edge, we ate a delicious meal and marveled at the midnight sun before tucking in and preparing for a day in the park!

On a glorious sunny day, we decided to take a walk on Horseshoe Lake Loop to get our legs moving after many days of sitting and eating! As we hiked down to the lake, people coming up excitedly shared that there were three moose down in the lake! This put a little more spring in my step! Our first moose was about 20 feet away and was feasting on whatever grass or goodness lies at the bottom of a lake. Though we spent at least 5 minutes enjoying the majesty of it all, she seemed unconcerned and absorbed with her task. Around another bend, we were able to watch a mother and her calf feeding across the lake! By the time we made it to the ranger station, my feet were barely touching the ground I was so delighted by all the natural beauty and wildlife!

I could hardly believe that we had signed up for it because it was more sitting, we opted for an 8 hour bus tour of Denali National Park. We had been warned that the tour's default option of 4 hours was called by some friends the “squirrel tour” while the 8 hour tour was the “bear tour,” and we wanted to see bear! The park has one road running into its core, and on the deepest two thirds of it, only park buses are allowed to drive. The "bear tour" took us two thirds of the way down that road and back, so we were hopeful we might see some animals in addition to experiencing the beauty of the park.

Our guide had driven the route for 20 years and his love of the land radiated out of him! He educated us about the tundra and taiga biomes, spotted wildlife, shared about the history of the park, and generally shared in our excitement about being there! I kept my focus on scanning the stunning landscape for wildlife. I was not alone in this endeavor! Someone would call out a type of animal and a direction, and our guide would grind the bus to a halt and we would all stare in awe at the caribou, ptarmigan, Dahl sheep, and BEARS! We saw three grizzlies on our trip, two who were moving around looking for food and digging away at the ground. Watching their enormous shoulders and speed was incredible.

Polychrome Pass captivated us all. The road is difficult, winding with steep drop offs, but the views across the valley were extraordinary. Though the mountains and valleys looked impressive and huge, it all was called into perspective when a fellow passenger pointed at something in the middle of the valley and called it a rock; our guide shared with us that that “rock” was in fact four and a half stories tall! Even with that as a data point, it was impossible to comprehend the enormity of the mountains, so I instead focused on their beauty and let that nourish my soul.

Our guide had climbed Mt. Denali, and kept pointing out where, if we were lucky, we would have been able to see it. He did this maybe 5 times on our way in to our turnaround point, and each time I had a hard time grasping that the cloud bank was hiding a spectacular peak. Suddenly, as we made a final turn, he exclaimed that it was visible! He stepped on the gas and parked in the turnaround. It was hilarious how everyone, myelsf included, was so impatient to get off the bus with our cameras as though in those moments the summit would disappear! It indeed was marvelous to stand in the presence of such a mountain.

We moved to another lodge the following day, and were very disappointed that we were no longer able to get to the park to hike as we had expected-the downside of not doing extensive research and being part of an organized tour! We did take advantage of a visit into Talkeetna, a tiny little town which houses the ranger station which Mt. Denali climbers check in and out of, but mostly we were aching for more time out in the wild!

Our last day was spent in Anchorage. We took a walk along the water from our hotel toward Earthquake Park (an area of now young forest where a neighborhood once stood before sliding into the sea due to an earthquake). My dad spotted white movement in water, and as we kept looking, we saw them to be a pod of Beluga whales! What an unexpected treat!

Alaska is chock full of natural and wild beauty. When I look at a map and see how little of the state we have in fact covered in our few weeks, I can’t help but be excited that there is more for another visit!

Vancouver Eats:

-Water St. Café- great crab cakes and service, the rest of the meal was OK

-Breakfast Brioche Urban Baking and Catering- AMAZING breakfast! I had salmon over eggs on a croissant with a side of avocado…whoa!

-Alibi Room- Fun atmosphere on a Friday afternoon; great beer flights and good food

Additional photos below
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30th July 2015

It all looks so pretty!
31st July 2015

It's true!
It is gorgeous! It is amazing how nourishing it is for the soul, all that natural beauty.
30th July 2015
Moose in horseshoe lake!

Wow, what wildlife!
You were so lucky in seeing so many different animals--belugas--how fabulous! I cruised up there with a friend and then traveled on our own for a couple of weeks. Great train ride and so much to see. Congrats on your 49th state--I guess Hawaii is next!
31st July 2015
Moose in horseshoe lake!

Hawaii will be next :) We felt so fortunate with all the wildlife. Even though the landscape is stunning, seeing the animals is thrilling!
31st July 2015

I never thought of going to Alaska. Now I have to edit my bucket list!

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