Other photos of Alaska 


ITINERARY: Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Denali National Park, Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, Peterson, Wrangell

June 1999


In 1999, after 30 years of living and working in Hawaii, we retired, sold our house and most of our belongings and became homeless nomads. Where to go first? After all those years at the beach, someplace cold sounded great. So we headed off for three weeks in Alaska. But this wasn't the stereotypical retirement cruise with 2000 passengers and 800 crew on a ten-story "floating hotel."

Instead, we worked out an itinerary that included some of Alaska's best features, including wilderness hiking, wildlife, glaciers, sea kayaking, indigenous art (Sitka), sea coast (Seward, Kenai Peninsula, Homer), fishing towns (Homer, Petersburg and Wrangell) and ferries.


Thanks to the enthusiastic recommendation of friends, we spent four nights at Camp Denali - a wilderness lodge at the end of the 95-mile restricted-access gravel road through Denali National Park. There are only two ways to encounter the park's deep wilderness. The first is to obtain a park permit, catch the park bus and backpack into an assigned area. This requires a lot of stamina, plus a willingness to sleep with just a tent between you and the grizzly bears. Joan vetoed the bears. The other option is to spend big bucks (see details below.) We took a deep breath, scheduled lots of camping and mooching off friends and family afterward to help our budget recover, and signed up. We didn't regret it for a minute.

Camp Denali was founded by two female World War II pilots just outside of what was then the boundary of Denali National Park. When the park later was enlarged around it, the lodge was "grandfathered" in as a private wilderness resort. It's the only lodge in the park with full rights to access the road at any point, which means we could move around freely to reach hiking trails. The cabins are staggered along a mountain ridge, each with a fantastic view of Mt. McKinley or (as the native Alaskans call it) Denali - "The Great One." When we arrived, Lou asked the lodge keeper for the loan of a flashlight. He gave him one but asked: "What's it for?" Turns out it never gets fully dark in June - so a flashlight was totally unnecessary!

Waking in our cabin at 4 a.m. one morning, Joan shook Lou and asked him to go with her to the outhouse 80 feet down a forested trail, because she was afraid a grizzly might try to make breakfast of her. Sleepy and grumbling, Lou got dressed, pulled on his hiking boots and parka, opened the cabin door and nearly fell over. Spread out in front of us were Denali and the Alaska Range - strawberry ice cream pink in the "Alpenglow" of the northern sunrise! Joan was instantly forgiven for waking him up. (This photo of Denali was taken two days later from a flight-seeing plane.)

At 20,300 feet, Denali is the highest peak in North America. It creates its own stormy weather and much of the time is hidden from view. The summer before, the mountain was clearly visible only three days. We had incredible "tourist luck" during our stay in 1999 and saw it three days out of five. This gave us the chance to go flight-seeing around the mountain in a six-seat plane.  They loaded us in by weight - putting a huge guy in the seat next to the pilot. We were the smallest (!) passengers and sat in the back. The pilot explained what we were seeing via headphones. Small planes can't fly over Denali since they aren't pressurized, and fly only to about 12,000 feet. We flew all around the mountain's massive sides and up along its huge glaciers. It was difficult to gauge the scale until the pilot pointed out some "ants" below us - a line of mountaineers pulling sleds of climbing supplies.


Our tourist luck continued and we saw more wildlife diversity in a few days than some Denali park rangers see in several seasons. A rare experience was the sighting of two wolves stalking a young bull moose. The wolves crept over the hill, then separated and bounded over low bushes trying to surround him. We watched the drama for several minutes until the moose caught wind of his predators, trotted over the hill and out of sight. The naturalist told us that if there had been three wolves they might have had moose for dinner. 

We also had a close encounter with a large grizzly bear who came lumbering toward us as we stood near a visitor center. The nervous ranger tried to herd all of us into the restrooms, but we stood our ground with cameras clicking. Just then, the grizzly began running rapidly in our direction. Yikes! Grizzlies can outrun most horses for short distances. Suddenly he dived over the bank and clawed into the ground until he came up with a ground squirrel. He sat down in the middle of the road and gulped down his "bear's burrito." We were relieved not to be on his menu that day.

The two of us were the only ones in the hiking group to spot an elusive wolverine. We were riding back to the lodge when one of these ferocious creatures (40-pound wolverines have been known to take food away from 1000-pound bears) came to a small lake for a drink. He disappeared into the bushes so quickly we didn't have time to alert the others. It was definitely a wolverine, as we'd studied a wolverine exhibit just minutes before at the visitor center. The naturalist and lodge staff had never seen one and were astounded at our tourist luck. While hiking, our group also saw picas (small rabbits that "harvest" hay for the winter by spreading grass out to dry around their rocky home), marmots, bears, dall sheep, moose, caribou and different varieties of birds. Camp Denali was an awesome experience. It was a big splurge, but even economist Lou admits is was "good value."


A glum cruise director met us at the Juneau airport and said that he'd been trying to reach us for days. Our small cruise ship, the "Wilderness Adventurer," had run onto a rock in Dundas Bay. The abandon-ship procedure worked better than on the "Titanic" and everyone was saved, but the boat was out of commission for the summer. He'd managed to reach all the other passengers to cancel except us. UGH. Our faces must have been pretty woeful, because he decided to try to find us another cruise. He called the next morning and said he'd managed to squeeze us onto the "Wilderness Explorer" (WEX) - a smaller, more adventurous cruise ship.

Squeeze was right. Our so-called stateroom was an L-shaped closet-sized cabin meant for crew use. We entered through a 3x3' combination toilet/shower room. Once we'd put down our duffel bags in the bunk room there were only 8x20 inches of floor space on which to stand. The bunk beds had less than three feet of headroom, and when we lay down our feet stuck into a closet-like alcove. The cabin was rather claustrophobic, since the high porthole was fixed closed and not transparent, but we quickly adjusted, as we'd have been glad to sleep under a table in the lounge just to be aboard. Each morning, we'd wake up and debate whose turn it was to get dressed. Once dressed, the first one would have to leave the cabin or get back into his bunk so the other one had room to get ready. One morning, Joan awoke to see Lou standing in the doorway between the bunkroom and the bathroom. "What are you doing?" she asked sleepily. "The bathroom floor is too cold, so I'm peeing from here," he replied.


The WEX carries 31 passengers and 12 crew members, three of whom were our naturalist guides. Each day, three "pods" of six two-person kayaks were launched from a low aft deck. The pods went in different directions so we could experience the emptiness of the wilderness. (To add to this emptiness, our captain kept the WEX away from the "floating hotels" since he knew the routes of the huge cruise ships - only two are allowed into Glacier Bay at a time and then for only a 24-hour period.) We paddled 3-6 hours each day, taking shore breaks for picnic lunches and hikes. When we returned to the ship in the late afternoons, freshly-baked cookies awaited us.


While hiking one day, our kayak pod came upon a field of wildflowers with a black bear sow and her three cubs just 50 yards away. She saw us, too, but decided we weren't a threat to her - nothing is! Later, we paddled past 15 bald eagles fighting and feasting over the carcass of a harbor seal pup. Sad, but part of nature's cycle. Other sea life spotted: ravens, arctic terns, tufted and horned puffins, cormorants, pigeon guillemots, loons, sea otters, porpoises, orca whales and a "loser's colony" of bachelor sea lions with no harem. We sat silently while humpback whales blew, flippered and fluked around our kayaks. Several breached, but always when we weren't looking. Our tourist luck finally had run out.


 Other photos of Alaska

The landscape is vast, empty and magnificent - the huge glacial moraine above is covered with braided streams. Alaska was a great place to begin our retirement odyssey. Later that summer, we headed to EUROPE and Morocco.



GUIDEBOOK: Lonely Planet: Alaska   The Internet is almost as useful as guidebooks for pre-trip planning.  www.nps.gov/dena/home/visitorinfo/tripplanning/

FILM:  Dead Ahead: The Exxon Valdez Disaster

(1999 Prices)

ANCHORAGE: Coastal Trail B&B, 3100 Iliamna Drive;  Excellent breakfasts, friendly hosts; located next to a pretty, one-mile waterside walking trail into the city.  www.coastaltrail.com

SEWARD: One-day excursion from Anchorage to Seward on the Alaska Railroad domed car - past glaciers and mountain scenery. In Seward, visit the new Alaska Sea Life Center (paid for by the fine from the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster.)

HOMER: Birgitte's Bavarian B&B  Charming hosts, excellent breakfasts, garden setting. (907) 235-6620

(While in Homer, we  took a naturalist-led boat past Gull Island to rocky beaches for tide-pooling. Another day we visited a large artificial lagoon where fishermen were easily hauling in salmon who'd returned up drainage pipes to spawn at the place they'd been released years before.)

BACKPACKER SHUTTLE BUS: 5-hour ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park Visitor Center; met Camp Denali Shuttle Van for 6-hour ride to Camp Denali.

CAMP DENALI wilderness lodge:  The lodge accepts a maximum of 40 guests for a 3- or 4-night stay, all bussed in and out together. Each couple or family has its own small cabin; a shower/laundry building is used by all. Home-style cooking served family style in the main lodge; naturalist-guided hikes & talks. $300/night per person, 3-4 night minimum. (907) 683-2290   www.campdenali.com  (We took an optional flight-seeing trip around Denali ($125 each) from a nearby airstrip.) 

JUNEAU: Alaskan Hotel & Bar in downtown Juneau  Rustic old-timer has moderately-priced, clean rooms with bathrooms down the hall.  (907) 586-1000  www.ptialaska.net/~akhotel  

GLACIER BAY:  Glacier Bay Tours & Cruises has a fleet of four small cruise ships ranging in degree of adventurousness - the "Wilderness Explorer" (WEX) is the most adventurous. $300/night per person for the kayak cruise. Well worth it -  years later we vividly remember this experience! (800) 451-5952 

SITKA (old Russian seaport town): Baranof Island B&B is a comfortable B&B five minutes by taxi from town.  (907) 747-8306 www.baranofislandbandb.com

(In Sitka, be sure to visit Sheldon Jackson Museum - filled with indigenous artifacts such as sealskin kayaks and diving suits plus weapons, toys, cooking utensils, clothing and other beautifully-designed artifacts.)

PETERSBURG (Norwegian fishing village): Water's Edge B&B - double rooms with private bath, shared kitchen and living area, view of sound and mountains; free bicycles for riding to town two miles away. (907) 772-3736.




Joan and Lou Rose     joanandlou@ramblingroses.net