What comes to mind when you think of our 49th state? Bears? Mountains? Glaciers? Me, too. And that’s why I went.
There were three reasons, actually, and all were on my Bucket List: Visit the only state I had not yet seen, go on my first cruise, and catch a halibut. Check, check and check.
My wife and I began our summer journey in Fairbanks, in what they call the “northern interior.” Our Trafalgar tour guide spent almost all of her 65 years in Alaska, choosing the “pioneer lifestyle,” deep in the woods with no electricity, running water or Internet. You can imagine the tales she told about living off the land where the winter sponsors three hours of daylight and 40 degrees below temperatures, including dodging bears on night runs to the outhouse.
We enjoyed 20 hours of daylight and warm 70s, but the famous Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are best seen during the long winter nights with 20 hours of darkness.
She took us to the Alaska pipeline and talked about its construction coming in under budget and ahead of time. The authorities had no trouble finding the genius who shot a bullet through it – they simply followed his snowmobile tracks to his hunting camp.
We traveled south by motor coach to see Mt. McKinley, which has now been politically corrected to Denali, the original native name for the tallest peak in the US, meaning “the tall one.” Temps now in the 60s.
The scenery along the trip on the Alaska Railroad to Anchorage was among the most stunning I have ever enjoyed. Double-decker rail car with glass roof, sleepy-comfortable seats and the personal dining area on the lower level with waiters in tuxedos.
In Seward, we took a side-excursion aboard a boat to see glaciers calving up close and to look for whales, which we saw in abundance. One performed spectacularly for us with a complete breach only 50 feet from our meager craft.
Then we boarded the Holland America cruise ship, the Noordam. Being our first cruise, we were expecting it to be like in the travel brochures, and it was! Impeccably clean, professional and courteous staff and wonderful food everywhere and all the time. Fifty degrees was now the norm, but we had virtually no rain at all over the two weeks.
Ports of call included Haines (no, they don’t make underwear there), Juneau (our only state capitol you can’t get to by road: water on the west, glaciers and mountain peaks surrounding the rest), and Ketchikan (where I caught my halibut – on the bottom, 320 feet down.)
In two weeks, we saw moose, elk, caribou, reindeer (which are domesticated caribou), black-tail deer, wolves, musk ox, bison, golden and bald eagles, various hawks and owls, mountain goats, Dall sheep, sea lions, whales, harbor seals, salmon, orcas, and sled dogs. Oh, and salmon – everywhere, the salmon – in the rivers and on the dinner plate.
I grew up fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and I’ve fished in the Pacific, but fishing 320 feet down on the bottom for halibut was all new to me. The gear was a stout rod and heavy duty reel spooled with 150 pound test braided line, 14 ounces of lead and a 6” rubber squid with two trailing hooks baited with chunks of pollock. After fighting a fish for 10 minutes when the leader snapped, the guide estimated the “barn door” at 150 pounds. The truly big fellas go up to 400 pounds. It felt like trying to reel in a sheet of plywood topped with a dozen cinder blocks. No wonder the side excursion was called “Halibut Hunting.” I was thrilled with my 38” fish, now in my freezer.
The knowledgeable, friendly folks at AAA in Bettendorf helped us select the itinerary, complete with optional side trips. There are many from which to choose, from the physically challenging to the mentally stimulating – something for every lifestyle. We rafted through category 3 rapids, toured active native villages, visited a sled dog camp and a raptor rehabilitation center.
We saved our nickels for years for this trip, and it was worth every one of them. It was everything we hoped for and then some. Indeed, you should add it to your own Bucket List.