Can I Picture Myself in Alaska?
By Kathryn H. Kidd
Photography by Clark L. Kidd

People who have cruised Alaska will tell you that there is no greater travel adventure.  Nowhere is the air clearer, the mountains bigger, or the skies more endless.  Every breath you take in Alaska will tell you that you’re far away from the land that is usually under your feet and the air that you usually breathe.  When you turn the corner on a trail you have the sense that you’re the only person for thousands of miles, even if downtown is only a block or two away.  And when you look over the railing of a ship and see a hundred dolphins swimming in the waters beneath you, you somehow have a feeling that they came to the surface just to commune with you.  The quiet of a crisp Alaska morning is unlike anything you may have experienced for decades.  And nothing can beat the startled look of a moose if you come across one in the road, or the sight of a bear scampering away after you have disturbed him on his fishing expedition.

click to enlarge

A mountain lake between Skagway and Carcross, in the Yukon, smells as piney fresh as it looks. On this mountain road, a photo taken in any direction is as pretty as a jigsaw puzzle picture.

David A. Christensen will lead LDS singles to Alaska for an eight-day adventure on May 29, 2005, and Church members of all ages will have the opportunity to sail through Alaska’s Inside Passage and even see the British city of Victoria, British Columbia, together on a June 26 expedition.

Every trip to Alaska offers an opportunity to learn something new.  On one trip you may concentrate on wildlife.  On another trip, you may want to explore the Tlingit culture (pronounced CLINK-it) – or even the Russian culture, because Alaska was once owned by Russia and you can still find remnants of its Russian ancestry in some Alaska cities.  On another trip, you may want to pan for gold.  On another trip, you can concentrate on the scenery.

But most people only visit Alaska once in a lifetime, and it’s great to know you can do everything at once.  Your cruise ship will take you from one exciting destination to another.  All you have to do is walk off the ship and you’ll find yourself immersed in a different culture every morning.  Of course, there is always the temptation to just stay on the cruise ship and enjoy the fine food and the view of the scenery from the deck of the ship.  But if you venture off the ship you’ll find a different adventure every time you set foot on land.

click to enlarge

A new stop on the Alaska routes is in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

The scenery in Alaska is spectacular.  You may not go to Alaska with the expectation of seeing giant ferns and other primeval vegetation, but you’ll see them.  You’ll also smell land that is fresher than anything you may have ever inhaled before.  On a recent shore excursion in the Yukon, we got off the bus to inhale air that smelled just as strong and as fresh as the “piney mountain scent” air fresheners.  Who knew air really smelled like that?  Our tour guide joked that he kept an 80-pound aerosol can of pine air freshener strapped to the back of the bus, and released a spray of it every time we stopped.

Depending on where you are in Alaska, you can explore glaciers, fish for salmon, eat some fresh-caught salmon that has been cooked over the coals, look for bears or moose, pan for gold, shop for souvenirs, or even just sit back and breathe that mountain air.  Despite the advertisements that show impossibly healthy and fit people frolicking on glaciers and kayaking in the wilderness, you do not even have to be healthy and fit to enjoy the beauties that Alaska has to offer.  You can have a great time sitting on a bench out in the open air in Juneau or Skagway and watching the world go by.  Or you can take boat trips that will allow you to sit in the comfort of your boat and nibble on snacks while your guide takes you to see eagles or lighthouses or whales.  If you have enough energy to shop but not to walk to the shops and then do the shopping, you can get on trolleys in Juneau that will allow you to get on and off as often as you like.  When you’re resting between shopping excursions, you can listen to the guide tell you little-known facts about the city that is right outside your window.

click to enlarge

Downtown Juneau celebrates its gold rush heritage as well as its status as the state capital of Alaska.

This is not to say that Alaska is only for the sedate, however.  You can bicycle down mountains or hike on glaciers or kayak down rivers – just like the beautiful people do in the television advertisements.  You can go fishing for 300-pound halibut, or try your luck against whatever salmon are in season.  There is enough to do in Alaska to satisfy anyone, young and old alike.  In fact, there’s so much to do in Alaska that an Alaska cruise is an ideal opportunity for your family’s reunion or for a get-together with old friends.

click to enlarge

This old fishery off Prince Rupert offers spectacular water and mountain views.

Once you’re in Alaska, you’ll learn things that only people who have been to Alaska usually know.  You’ll find out that you can name the major species of Alaskan salmon by looking at your hand.  Your thumb stands for chum.  Your pointy index finger stands for sockeye, because apparently that’s what Alaskans think is about to happen when they see that outstretched finger.  Your middle finger is the king; your ring finger stands for the silver salmon, and your pinkie stands for pink.  You’ll also learn that in the salmon hierarchy, sockeye is the best and pinkie (at least according to the locals) is cat food.

click to enlarge

The hand in a Skagway window shows how to name the five species of Alaska salmon by counting them off on your fingers.

Looking up in the trees, you’ll see white golf balls if your eyesight is good enough.  That’s how you find mature bald eagles.  You’ll see a lot of those golf balls in Alaska.  In fact, a pair of binoculars should be on your packing list and the packing list of your travel companions.  If you’re going to look for the wildlife, you’ll want to see it to its best advantage.

You don’t even have to get off the ship to see the Alaskan wildlife.  It’s not unusual to see schools of dolphins that number a hundred or more, right off the side of the ship.  You can see humpback whales or even orcas, sometimes with their calves in tow, following you as you eat breakfast on an upper deck.  The Alaska itineraries that go to Glacier Bay offer an amazing opportunity for the ship to get up close to the glaciers as they “calve,” dropping icebergs off into the bay.  You’ll never forget the gunshot sound of the glaciers calving, or the sight of sea lions and otters lazing around on the ice floes in the cold water of the bay.

click to enlarge

A view off the top deck of the Norwegian Spirit shows some of the glaciers visible in Tracy Arm.

Another thing you’ll never forget is the blue of glacier ice, or the green of glacier water.  Seeing the color in glaciers and glacier water is somewhat like seeing the waters of the Caribbean, in that if you see pictures without seeing them live and in person, you naturally assume that the color in the photographs can’t possibly be accurate.  A few years ago, the big Alaska souvenir in Alaska was “glacier ice,” which was topaz that had been heat-treated until the color was impossibly blue.  That’s the color of a glacier, as you’ll learn for yourself on an Alaska cruise.

click to enlarge

The water of Tracy Arm reflects the green of melted glaciers.

There are only two requirements for enjoying a trip in Alaska.  For one thing, you have to be willing to take a little chilly air.  When you’re cruising past a glacier, with all that wind blowing off the ice and onto the deck of your ship, you’re going to get cold.  We always take our heaviest coats to Alaska, with ear bands and gloves to wear when we’re cruising Glacier Bay.  Although it seems silly to be packing heavy coats in August, once we’re on the cruise people will invariably come up to us and envy our winter gear.  But that’s only when we sail past the glaciers.  The rest of the time, the weather is no more bracing than on a crisp autumn day.  A flannel shirt is usually all the protection you’ll need from the legendary Alaska chill.  And if you want to avoid that glacier ice, all you have to do is watch the glaciers from inside the ship.  That’s what those terrific picture windows are for.

click to enlarge

Juneau gondolas offer a terrific view of the harbor, when it isn’t obscured by low-hanging clouds.

The other requirement for enjoying Alaska is a tolerance for – or even a love for – rain.  People who haven’t done their research are surprised to learn that Alaska is part of a rainforest.  The rain is what makes that Alaska air so clean and the scenery so lush.  One city that is featured on every Alaska cruise, Ketchikan, has as many as 300 rain days per year, and accumulates as much as 18 feet of rain yearly.  Some days the rain consists of a brief shower or two.  Other days you’re not going to have a glimpse of sun.  Although many people visit Alaska without ever seeing a drop of rain, the chance that you’re going to be caught in a rainstorm in Alaska is better than good.  In fact, rain is part of the adventure.  If the thought of rain puts a crimp in your day, go to the sunny Caribbean (but not during the rainy season). 

No Bad Time to Visit

There is no bad time during the cruising season to take an Alaska cruise.  Some people say that there are mosquitoes in June, or that there’s too much infernal sun in July, or that the salmon stink in August, or that it’s just too cold in May and September.  We’ve been to Alaska all those months and have never experienced anything but happy times.  We’ve never been bitten by a mosquito in Alaska.  That infernal July sun grows pansies that are six inches across.  (The record for a dahlia in Skagway was 22 inches across, which must have been something to see.)  Some of the most beautiful flowers in the world are in Anchorage in July, even though Fourth of July fireworks are worthless in the land of the Midnight Sun.  We’ve never smelled stinky salmon in August, and the two warmest times we’ve ever been to Alaska were in September.  In fact, we prefer September because that’s the end of the cruising season and souvenirs are up to 80 percent off the peak-season prices

click to enlarge

The gondola in Juneau goes from the pier through the mist, ending at a museum that teaches tourists about the Tlingit culture.

One time of year that would be great for an Alaska cruise would be around August 12, when the Perseid meteor shower illuminates the night sky.  If your ship were closer to Vancouver than up north at that time, and if you could find a place on the ship that was not illuminated by shipboard lights, and if the weather cooperated with you, you could see up to 50 meteors per hour.  But truth be told, there’s not a time during the cruising season when you wouldn’t have the time of your life on an Alaska cruise.  Whether you’re studying the totem poles in Ketchikan or learning the sad tale of Dead Horse Gulch in Skagway, your Alaska cruise will be the vacation of a lifetime for you and the people you love.

click to enlarge

The Norwegian Sky docked in Haines, Alaska, with lights beckoning its passengers to come aboard.

2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.