In my experience, people fall into one of two camps when it comes to Alaska: either they’re ambivalent, or they’re completely obsessed. When I was planning to take a cruise around the coast with my family, I got my fair share of, “Why there?” The reasons are fairly obvious: harsh weather, scarcity of people, remote location, etc.
Alaska may not be the most intuitive travel location for most, but there’s a reason for that second group of people. To put it simply, Alaska is amazing. The wild landscape paired with the state’s unique history and way of life brought it to the top of my list before I’d even gone. Once I got there, Alaska kept me pleasantly surprised and a bit humbled to have underestimated what I was getting into.
The night the cruise set sail, we encountered our first setback: 15–20 foot waves crashed against the boat, accompanied by gale force winds. The intense conditions lasted through the night and well into the next day and rendered roughly 75% of the passengers and crew sea sick or incapacitated. I was one of the lucky ones — I wasn’t the most comfortable I’d ever been, but I made it through alright. Looking back, it was quite the introduction, and admittedly kind of fun.
Our first stop was Juneau. We visited the Mendenhall Glacier, only twelve miles from downtown Juneau. It was unlike any other natural structure I’d ever seen, the older, more opaque ice breaking away to reveal the newer blue ice underneath. It stretched out far across the landscape, though our guide told us about the 1.75 miles the glacier has already retreated since the mid-1900s.
Following the glacier, we went whale watching. Even though I was expecting to see whales on our trip, I couldn’t have anticipated what I would feel really being there with them. Like most experiences with nature in the wild, the beginning was strangely easy to miss — someone pointed something out ahead, and after some squinting and rearranging, suddenly, there they were: breaching blue whales at close range. Their size combined with their calm rendered them both peaceful and forceful to watch.
Our next stop was Skagway, a very remote place compared to our previous stop in Juneau. We took an old mining train through the mountains near Skagway — the landscapes were beautiful and sweeping, picturesque shot after picturesque shot. The juxtaposition of the abandoned mining infrastructure and the natural beauty was a true time portal. Our guide explained that mining was key to the economic strength of the area and had been for years. It was a notable interaction with the history of the place, to be in the old train on the rickety tracks going through the beautiful natural landscapes.
Following our ride on the train, we visited a dog sled camp. Initially, the thought of a “working dog” was a bit foreign to me based on my own relationships with pets back home, but to my surprise, the huskies seemed quite happy. They were in their element, eager to be in these environments, winter or summer, and their chipper demeanor showed the quality of their care.
Next was Ketchikan, a very busy destination following the quiet of Skagway. The city is known for its Native American history and totem poles, so we took our time learning some of the history of the area and taking it in. As we spent time downtown, we picked up on local talks about the city trying to expand the port we were docked in to open the community and make it more accessible to visitors as well as those who live there, perhaps drawing more people to Ketchikan. We made our way out of the city on another hike, this time with the goal of seeing some bears. Although we did get to see more of the expansive Alaskan wilderness, we weren’t quite lucky enough to catch any bears on the hike.
Our last stop was Vancouver. While we were nearing the coast of British Columbia, our Captain shifted our course. He’d caught sight of dolphins and orcas swimming nearby, and soon they were on either side of our ship. Nearly every passenger of the ship stopped whatever they were doing to look overboard at our visitors. It was quite a remarkable sight to witness — both the wildlife and the way they captured the imagination and attention of everyone onboard.
Though our time in every place we visited on the trip was limited, I was sad to leave it, and felt like I’d been there for much longer than I had. Alaska presented not only endless natural beauty, but a kind of beauty I’d never really experienced before.