Have you ever said to yourself, “What’s so great about Alaska?” Maybe you’ve traveled the world and have taken in some spectacular sights like the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania, the Swiss Alps, or even the Grand Canyon. What could Alaska offer that compares with places like these?
I’d spent over 10 years in the Pacific Northwest. I’d lived among the giant trees, Mt. Rainier, and the beautiful rocky coasts. I’d been to Whistler in Canada. I’d even been to the San Juan Islands which are often considered the gateway to Alaska. Still, nothing had prepared me for the outrageous scope, the utter vastness, the sheer size, and breathtaking beauty of Alaska.
For my introduction to Alaska, I traveled on a small, 60-passenger expedition ship through the Inside Passage. We started our journey in Juneau, home to gift shops, restaurants, and my very first glacier, the Mendenhall Glacier, which was stunning. Yet this was only the start of our journey. It quickly became apparent to me, even in Juneau, that the mountains were too steep and the terrain too tree-covered to support a road system. Southeast Alaska had to be traversed by ship and a small expedition ship that could duck into tiny bays and coves was just the thing.
Tracy Arm, Chatham Strait, Frederick Sound: these simple place names conjure up my first awareness of the enormity of this place. Bright blue/green water lapped against sheer cliff faces and towering peaks. Berg-y bits floated by like melting ice in a giant martini. Glaciers three stories tall loomed above as we tiny people in our tiny rubber zodiac drifted: miniscule, overawed, and speechless.
After several days of massive mountains, glaciers, orca whales, bald eagles, brown bears, and moose, we came to a tiny island, Pelican, where people live in this enormous landscape. Pelican had no roads, only a wooden boardwalk that helped you get from one end of the island to another. People lived in yurts and small wooden houses. They had husky dogs. I kept trying to imagine what it must be like to live in a place where you would be so very dwarfed and dominated by a landscape. I could almost imagine having a need for that kind of isolation and deep solitude. Almost.
Somehow the previous days of grand scenery and plentiful wildlife still hadn’t prepared me for my arrival at Glacier Bay National Park. What seemed like city-sized blue/white glaciers five stories tall and as far as the eye can see made me think I had entered some kind of fairytale ice kingdom. And the loud crashes that shattered the silence when a glacier calved were also a surprise.
Another moving aspect of my trip was having a Tlingit storyteller on our ship. Her people believed when the Little Ice Age reached its peak in the 1750s, the glaciers of Glacier Bay were called to cover the land by a volatile teenaged girl, Kaasteen who agreed to stay behind to appease the glacier’s spirit when her people fled. This story and many others told by our Tlingit guide moved me deeply. I admired their profound connection to the land and mourned a bit for my own culture which lacks these kinds of connections to places.
Still, my most spectacular experience was yet to come. By day 6 or so, my fellow passengers and I were quite used to seeing humpback whales. The excitement would be palpable every time someone pointed and shouted. We’d rush to the top deck or out to the bow readying our cameras and peering into the mist. Our efforts were often rewarded as we’d spot two, four–maybe a whole group of them bubble feeding on krill or leaping into the air filling us with a kind of joy that’s difficult to describe. (This leaping is otherwise known as breaching and whales do it because they have parasites that cause itching on their sensitive skin.) To us it looked like they were having fun. And maybe they were! Maybe.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the ship’s lounge peering out a side window while everyone else was out on deck. Someone had spotted whales, yet I needed a little alone time so I was sitting by myself looking out. As I leaned my elbows on the windowsill, I said to myself, “I wish a whale would come along the side of the ship so I could see it from here.”. Just as I had that thought, two massive humpback whales breached in a “V” right in front of me. I couldn't believe my eyes! I didn’t have a camera and no one else saw. It was like they were breaching just for me! Well, maybe they were. Maybe.
As you can see, my 8-day trip through Alaska’s Inside Passage was both surprising and unforgettable. And I haven’t even mentioned other surprises that are waiting for you in Alaska such as on the Katmai Peninsula where you can safely watch bears from mere feet away, or the views of Mt. McKinley as you fly over it in a silver plane. Wildlife is everywhere including imposing moose, huge bald eagles, massive ravens, and goofily playful otters. Wildflowers, tidepools, forest hikes, and pristine lakes all beckon. Native people, artists, and an eccentric mix of modern day pioneers and gold prospectors populate the frontier towns. It’s an amazing place and if you’ve never thought of going to Alaska before, I hope you’ll think again.
Wild Nectar offers some fantastic itineraries such as the 8-day Exploring Alaska’s Coastal Wilderness program on the National Geographic Quest and Venture, The Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari, a land program with fantastic Alaskan highlights, and for a more service-focused experience, the Wilderness, Wildlife & Epic Grandeur program will be right for some. Contact us and we’ll help you find the Alaska adventure that’s just right for you.
As you can see, I love Alaska and I would go back there in a heartbeat. I hope you get to experience it too!