Alaska…. Don’t let its midnight sun set.

We are concluding our Alaskan adventure. Our trip has taken us through the interior of Alaska starting at Fairbanks, passing through Denali National Preserve, Anchorage and eventually, Whittier where we boarded the Island Princess bound for Vancouver. Onboard the ship, we enjoyed stops at Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. We have taken a river cruise, a jet boat through class five rapids, a train through mountain passes and tunnels, a closeup experience with the Mendenhall Glacier and countless encounters with Alaskan wildlife. We have seen whales, dolphins, otters and sea lions, soared with eagles and respected the ravens and met countless native and resident Alaskans.

Rapids on Susinta River

I need to share my impressions of this beautiful land. I wrote in my earlier blog of the vastness of the land and the overpowering beauty and magnitude of its mountains, especially its crown jewel, Denali. In this attempt I would like to speak to the fragile nature of its environment. We came to see the mountains and the glaciers. We explained to anyone interested that we especially wanted to see the glaciers before they disappear. I will tell you that every ranger, guide and native will tell you that global warming is felt no more drastically than in Alaska. Average temperatures have risen by four degrees. Weather patterns that once produced heavy winter snows in many areas have been altered, in turn, lessening the chances for glaciers to, at the very least, stay stable. Higher summer temperatures have caused many mountains, once snowcapped all year long, to lose their snow before the summer season has ended. The warming is most evident in the glaciers. Alaska has most of the remaining glaciers of the world and yet only 5% of them are deemed, “healthy”, meaning they are still advancing or in most cases, staying stable. The other 95% are all receding and many at alarming rates. As a glacier recedes, it eventually becomes a hanging glacier, one no longer reaching water but rather “hanging” from the mountain basin high above the valley floor.

Glacier Bay entrance

Alaskans, to a person, request the visitors, their friendly term for tourists, to please take this information back home with them and then to make a promise to find at least one thing no matter how simple, that they can do to reduce their carbon footprint. When you stand in awe in front of one of these majestic glaciers, you can’t help but make the promise. It’s not a question of whether you believe the science, but rather can you deny what’s right in front of you. As a people, we cannot turn a blind eye to the problem. We must do what ever we can with our actions and our votes to protect our open spaces, rivers and streams, our land and its resources, not just for Alaska but everywhere they exist.

Hubbard glacier and cruise liner

If you go to Alaska, you will in fact encounter the “last frontier”. You will sense the vastness of the wilderness and experience the history and culture of its people. You will hear of their love of the land and their determined spirit to not only survive but to thrive. You will pass through areas that take you back to the gold rush days of 1898 and leave you feeling like that was only a moment ago.

Red Onion Saloon

Alaska will take you in, heal you and realign your senses. And as you depart, you cannot help but feel renewed. That is what wilderness does. It gets into your soul, reminds you where we all once came from and beckons you to come back. To come back to the wilderness, to the wildness that lies in each and every one of us.

Go to Alaska or at least to somewhere wild and then pledge to protect it.

20,310 feet of Majesty

The call came just before 6:00 am. The voice said, “The mountain is open.” When you are in the shadow of Denali, you don’t receive a wake up call, you get a call telling you the clouds that 60% of the time wrap themselves around the mountain like a cloak, have cleared and your view of “The Great One” is ready to amaze.

Denali at 20,310 feet is the highest mountain in North America. Some will argue that it is the highest mountain in the world, surpassing even Mt Everest. The reasoning is that Everest sits on the Tibetan Plane and has its base starting at 17,000 feet and rises another 12,000 feet from there to its summit at just over 29,000 feet. Denali’s base sits at 2000 feet giving it the greatest vertical rise of all mountains. Regardless, Denali impresses. The mountain’s height grabs clouds as they try to pass and holds them in place on her flanks. The sheer area covered by its base, overwhelms the viewer. When the mountain clears, Denali dwarfs everything in her shadow.

First summited in 1913, it has claimed the lives of over 100 climbers who would try later. Even today, with the west buttress route laid out with a rope line, five camps to supply and assist the would-be climbers and highly improved climbing gear, the summit still defies 50% of those that try. It is simply a force nearly too great to be reckoned with.

When the weather does clear and Denali releases the clouds captured by her sheer size, the view is spectacular, breath taking and humbling all at the same time. She fills your view with her size and challenges your eye with her height. You click picture after picture as the sun subtly changes her look, lighting a ridge here and shadowing a face there, but even as you review them, you see that those pictures cannot do justice to what only the eye can perceive. The whiteness of her glaciers, the darkness of the shadows cast by the ridges that outline the paths to her summit, your eye gathers in what no picture can depict.

Denali is one of the main reasons I came to Alaska. I have now viewed her from three sides; north, east and south. I have felt how she rules over the vast wilderness of Alaska. I have waited for the call and when it came, I was not disappointed. My wish for those who have not yet visited, is that you will at least consider trying. I promise that if you do, you too will be moved by the sheer vastness of Alaska and stand in awe of her crowning jewel, Denali.

Denali Sunset

Denali…”The High One”

My wife described the view from our plane as “vast and desolate.” A strange combination of adjectives. Rather like saying “he was an exceptional criminal.” In reality, it is a fitting description in that Alaska is vast and yet as you look out over the landscape from the air it appears empty of human inhabitants. That changes as you land and though sparsely populated, is full of extremely friendly people, both indigenous as well as those who have come here to make Alaska their home.

We are guests of Princess Cruise Lines and our accommodations on land are expansive lodges bordered by rivers and mountain backdrops. First stop was the city of Fairbanks where we took a river cruise and got an introduction to Alaskan culture. The most striking impact this far north, is the midnight sun. You can read about it or hear it described, but these descriptions cannot come close to the reality of its effect. I am a person who suffers from FOMO, the fear of missing out. After being up for 20 hours, including a three hour time shift, I still could not go to bed. It was 10:00 pm but the sun was still at the equivalent of 6:00 pm and the lodge was a buzz with activity. The sun finally set around 12:30 am and was back up at 3:15 am. I can testify to that because I witnessed both events.

Midnight sun

The end of day two found us in Denali, the village, not the mountain. After a dinner revue, we were headed for bed knowing we were facing a 6:00 am start time for our Denali bus adventure. The trip into our hopeful viewing point of the great mountain covered sixty miles of mostly gravel road winding its way through the Denali National Park Preserve and at times, precariously hanging on the edge of mountains over seven hundred feet above the valley floor. After riding for nearly three hours, we reached the end of the road roughly thirty-five miles from the base of the mountain. The indigenous people called it Denali, meaning “the high one.” On a clear day, the view is spectacular, as the snow capped mountain literally rises up to completely fill the horizon and live up to its majestic name. On a clear day, it does just that. But not today, not for us. None the less, the Alaskan Range and the surrounding scenery does not disappoint. With a little imagination and enough visual cues from what we can see, the mind does the rest.

Denali panorama

When visiting Denali, the quest is to sight the Big Five. That is the five biggest animals of the park; the wolf, moose, grizzly bear, dall sheep and the caribou. We were no more than a mile in, when the bus in unison yelled out moose. There on the side of the road was a moose cow and her calf. Another mile down the road and we spied a second moose. One down four to go and sixty miles to find them in. Our final tally turned out to be around twenty caribou in several herds, an equivalent number of dall sheep also in several flocks, four grizzly bears but unfortunately, no wolf. The grizzly bears were the most spectacular. With roughly three hundred grizzlies spread out through six million acres, seeing one is considered lucky. Sighting four, well you can do the math. Our first was spied up in a high meadow just barely within our ability to see it. We saw another, much closer this time, walking along the gravel bed of one of the many glacial rivers we passed. The last two were the winners. We spied the first high up on a ridge above tree line and were wondering what it was doing up there and why it was still climbing higher. That is when we spied the other bear climbing up some three hundred feet below. The only explanation was that the lower bear was driving the other bear off. It may have been a female grizzly protecting its cubs or possible a female grizzly driving off its own too fully grown cub so that she might mate again. The guide let it up to us to speculate.

Denali buss

Though not sighting a wolf was a disappointment, they are very rare. We did, however, replace the wolf with many other sightings; snow hares, ground squirrels and even a golden eagle. All this while seeing the changing eco-spheres of taiga forest, tundra, glacial kettles and rivers and of course the majestic peaks towering above tree line with some heading toward 17,000 feet and higher.

Tomorrow we head down range, crossing over to the eastern side where if we are lucky, we get one more chance to see Denali. It is possible that we will avoid two overcast days in a row and get an unobstructed view of the giant. The question is, do we feel lucky?

The Final Frontier

They refer to Alaska as the final frontier but I am sure we will always find new ones. I guess in 1849, it just seemed appropriate to think of it this way. In two days, my wife and I will be on our quest to explore it. We have planned this one out so my wife is comfortable that there will be no surprises. I personally will be looking for any and all the surprises I can find.

With the trip planned out and mapped by are AAA travel planner, Claire Christensen, Deb was ready to do her research. First there was the virtual tour of the cruise liner. Next came a YouTube video of whale watching and glacier exploration. At this point it seemed all the bases had been covered but there was one more, a YouTube presentation of what and how to pack for your Alaskan experience.

Somewhere in the middle of this research, while I sat dutifully at her side, she noticed that I was not watching. Now please understand that my wife’s planning skills have more than once and in fact on multiple occasions, saved me from certain disaster and on several occasions from missing the show all together. I knew better than to not be watching but I am a creature of my own restlessness. I need to be surprised as often as possible and this trip is clearly one of those times.

I want to walk onto the boat and have that aha moment when I take in the luxury and size of the ship. I will revel in the moment if we actually see a whale breaching alongside the boat but I don’t want to be disappointed if one never appears. Random thought, “breaching” is such a strange word. One would think its what a traveling evangelist does when you show up at the beach looking for a good sermon. I guess a whale doing its thing is a rather religious experience. And as to the packing video, well there’s my daughters’ favorite traveling with dad mantra, “they have stores where we’re going, right?”

So in two days, we will board a plane headed for Fairbanks Alaska. It leaves at a very precise airline sort of time that I am confident my wife knows. She will get us to the airport in plenty of time to clear security, find our gate and wait. I will drift about until the last moment when I will be beckoned to join her in the boarding line and eventually, take my seat. At that point, the captain, stewardess and Deb will all remind me to fasten my seat belt, sit back and enjoy the ride. All I can say is thank God for planners.