ITINERARY: Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Denali National Park, Juneau, Glacier Bay, Sitka, Peterson, Wrangell
NO "FLOATING HOTELS"
In 1999, after 30 years of living
and working in
worked out an itinerary that included
Thanks to the enthusiastic
recommendation of friends, we spent four nights at
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
flashlight was totally unnecessary!
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
At 20,300 feet, Denali is the
highest peak in
Our tourist luck continued and we
saw more wildlife diversity in a few days than some
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.
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.
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
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
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 email@example.com