It's hard to answer the obvious, "How was Alaska?" when nothing you say captures the soaring snow-capped peaks of the never-ending Saint Elias Mountain chain, the silent ocean horizons that never quite lost daylight, or the pods of whales surfacing in the fog of the ship’s ripple. I've resorted to saying, "It was unreal" or "It was so beautiful and untouched."Alaska proved to be a place of pristine beauty and demanded that one be present, allowing the experience to feel spiritual and grounded in appreciation.
No normal 23 year-old girl just up and goes on an Alaskan cruise. How did this trip happen? Basically, I'm just super lucky. We had unwrapped our final Christmas present in 2018 to find a map of Alaska followed by my parents announcing we'd be taking a 9 day trip through the Inside Passage and Denali National Park. Feeling like the luckiest kids on the planet, we anxiously awaited June 2019. Fast forward and we have arrived alongside our family friends— all 12 of us sporting matching “Alaska is calling and I must go” t-shirts, LOL thanks moms. We boarded Radiance of the Seas, the Royal Caribbean ship that would be our vehicle for adventure and headed off towards the beautiful Alaska.
After a day of cruising out of our starting port in Vancouver, BC, we'd made a point to explore the ship in it's entirety. From the movie theatre to the auditorium stage, casino to the pool deck, art gallery to the spa, and all the restaurants and bars in between, it became exceptionally clear that boredom would never torment us. Even with all the amenities and ongoing events throughout the ship, our room's private balcony emerged as my favorite, peaceful space. My first experience in open seas left me gaping out over the never-ending horizon, coffee in hand.
The next morning we'd be arriving at our first port town, Ketchikan -- but not before the sky put on an insanely beautiful "welcome aboard" sunset for us. When you are as far north as Alaska in the summertime (where the sunlight never completely fades), these things last for seemingly ever.
We awoke Sunday morning to an inlet surrounded by coastal mountains. Deboarding the ship, we climbed the ramp to the shore, leaning over the edges to get glimpses of what low-tide had left exposed - sea urchins, shellfish, and starfish bigger and thicker than anything I'd ever seen were bountiful. Though there were a number of tour guide stands ready and waiting to be approached as we walked into the main strip, a conversation was struck with a kind taxi driver idling in a spot. She offered to take the 12 of us, alongside another driver, Art, a lifetime local and tribe member in Ketchikan. Two taxis deep, we began winding our way around this mystical looking place.
Ketchikan is widely known for the Native American totem poles scattered throughout the lands, a collection of them being at our first stop, Potlatch Totem Park. The park was quiet, adding to the simple yet fascinating stories behind each of the towering poles. Recreated clan houses, native artwork, and totem poles in the process of being crafted were all free for us to wander. Fun fact: Art taught us that chewing on the needles of evergreen trees found here provides a wonderful source of vitamin C. *Eats all the pine needles.* This place also had a killer gift shop where I got a sweatshirt for $7.99 and free hot coffee. Beat that.
Ketchikan's Creek Street is a MUST. Think small zigzagged boardwalk held up by wooden pilings over Ketchikan Creek with unique and petite shops, restaurants, and private dollhouse-looking dwellings. All framed by the side of a towering, evergreen coated, bald eagle spotted mountain, the centerpiece being the creek through which salmon make their way home each year.
We had a taste of wildlife in Ketchikan as well: seals in the bay, bald eagles looking down at us from the trees, crabs, salmon - well, caught salmon but check out those 35 and 40 pounders! One turnoff: the seemingly endless amounts of jewelry stores around every corner - can anyone out there explain to me why there are so many tacky jewelry stores in Alaska??
Icy Strait Point (Hoonah)
Monday morning landed us in Icy Strait Point. After Ketchikan with it's bustling town, Icy Strait proved to be a place less touched by tourism. Less cruise ships are allowed to port in this small town, owned and operated entirely by Alaska Natives. Beyond the Point is the town of Hoonah, nearly an hours walk away along the bending shoreline. Immediately after debarking the ship, we spent much of our time exploring up close what low tide had once again exposed. An entire ecosystem of sea urchins, hermit crabs, mussels, barnacles, kelp, and crabs coated the shores rocks and tide pools. It was fun poking green sea anemones and watching them curl and release again.
The crown jewel of this stop: The ZipRider. The ZipRider is the world's longest zip line ride with a top speed of 65mph and total distance of 5,495 feet long. Essentially, we were taken up to the tippy top of the island and sent down a 1,320 long, vertical drop to the bottom. The whole experience took about an hour and a half as we rode up and were taught about the history of the island, the local population (the local school system had graduated 5 seniors that year!), and the local wildlife which outnumbered the human population by far - I'm talking 3 brown bears to every person. I highly recommend the ZipRider. Just as we were about to ride, the fog that had hidden the shoreline below parted and we were able to see everything around us from above as we raced down toward the port. I couldn't help smiling from ear to ear :)
If you find yourself in Hoonah, The Fisherman's Daughter has incredible clam chowder and I had myself an unreal salmon taco that really looked like a quesadilla. Probably more importantly, if you find yourself in Hoonah, be cautious of bears and respect the local community. Myself and Jane, one of my family friends, were exploring the seemingly deserted small marina, walking along the edge, when a local man pulled up in his truck unnerved. He asked if we were tourists. We turned around with our binoculars. He warned us that bears make themselves at home, very much outnumber people, and should be kept a safe distance from. Not that we'd planned on being up close to a grizzly (we were watching two cubs on the island across the way), but the man's warning was sincere and suggested we'd ought to be more careful than we had originally thought.
I was left with questions -- why didn't the cruise line offer more information/ warnings about local wildlife? How can you let a ship of 2400 people off in a small island town without as much as a debrief? How does the local community feel toward tourists lingering around town? I guess that's on us to be responsible tourists.
I must start out by saying Juneau serves the best fish tacos I have EVER had. And I have a lot of fish tacos. Just ask my boyfriend; I order them every time I'm out to eat. Deckhand Dave's Fish Tacos truck also happens to be in a super cool, hip looking outdoor seating area with adjacent crepe and glacial soap huts. I got the sampler with breaded salmon, rockfish, and beer-battered halibut. I'd fly back for it.
Anyways, Juneau was our first real hiking experience in Alaska. As the capital of the state, it has a population just over 32,000 and plenty of capacity for the cruise ships that frequent its port. That being said, we'd done our fair share of shopping thus far and wanted to fit in a hike outside of the downtown before a 1:00 pm whale watching and glacier tour we had booked. After checking out a map, we headed towards Perseverance Trail. We quickly ascended out of the urban setting of Juneau into what felt like a entirely different universe. Towering mountains covered in thick green treetops and sliced by the occasional thin waterfall had wispy clouds sweeping the sides. Suddenly it felt as though we were walking through a lush green version of the Swiss Alps. The river and smaller streams we hiked past were clear. So clear that we stopped to fill our bottles and scoop the water into our mouths. I could not stop marveling at the foliage and how beautiful the scenes were even in the consistent mist of the light rains. After hiking back down and through the steep-hilled neighborhood leading back to downtown, we stopped for the fish tacos and headed to the port.
At the port we boarded our bus tour and shortly after arrived at the double decker boat we'd be cruising on for a whale watching expedition. Many of the people running the boat were college-aged students who took off to Juneau for the summer, most delving into the marine life that Alaska offers access to - something we were about to experience for ourselves! The ride would have been STUNNING without the whales (... and seals!), but we were blessed with multiple whale tail sightings, the last ones no less exciting than the first.
We were told that studies were being done on the whales and how they react to the increasing numbers of tour boats seeking to catch sightings. The studies, thus far, have shown the whales surface more frequently out of curiosity! The tour was amazing... indescribably beautiful, and the fact that our fam-friend practically bought the entirety of the boats alcohol supply made it a pretty memorable time. Every Alaskan tour needs a party people crowd.
Finally, we made our way to Mendenhall Glacier. Unfortunately the glacier is rapidly receding, currently 13.6 miles long. The recession has revealed ancient forest remains and formed the Mendenhall lake, now home to an ecosystem of its own. Mendenhall has a visitors center where it educates visitors on the past, present, and future of the glacier and the surrounding area. It takes. your. breath. away. to be in the presence of an incredibly massive piece of climate change evidence.
The next morning, after some good times eating, drinking, magic-showing, and live music listening on the ship, we arrived in the port of Skagway. Skagway takes you back in time to the days of the Gold Rush, the entire town preserved as part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park.
The small town had a feeling of old western meets panoramic mountain adventure. Again, finished with our never-ending shopping, we decided to take to the nearby trails and ascend into the mountains. Long story short, our gorgeous adventure turned from a 1-2 hour hike, into a 4-5 hour grueling trek to find the waterfall most passerby's relayed was 25 minutes away. Did we take a wrong turn? Who knows. But knees were iced and beer was drunken post-descent. However, the hike was full of what felt to me to be a fairyland. Very few animals, but overflowing with small, terrarium-type ground cover and mossed logs. Plus, the most quiet environment I've been in a long time. The kind where you can hear your footsteps, thoughts, and nothing else.
Reaching the waterfall felt like reaching the promised land after endless twists and turns and burning legs. The hike back proved to be treacherous in its own way, steep inclines and rocky paths that made it necessary to have eyes down the whole way. A quick pitstop at Skagway Brewing Company, and we were boarding the ship once again - this time en route to the Hubbard Glacier.
This was the first day we'd woken up to ice drifting past the balcony outside our room. Surreal is an understatement as I ran up to the deck with my coffee to watch, alongside many cruisers, the quiet approach of Hubbard - a massive glacier (six miles wide where it meets the ocean) that is advancing (continuing to grow). It's a quiet giant, seemingly keeping everyone on the ship to hushed tones so as not to disturb its unbelievable beauty. We spent the good part of the day just drifting in circles in the ice-filled, milky waters near the glacier. I'll leave the photos to speak for themselves.
Denali National Park & Reserve
That evening we indulged in everything the ship had left to offer and reflected on the dance parties we'd started, the amount of time we'd spent watching Jack Wallis perform in Quill & Compass, the eerie never-fully-dark nights, and the vast amounts of food we'd consumed while pressing our faces against the ship glass to whale watch. Now, we touched down in our last port, Seward, and began our two-day journey on land to and through Denali National Park & Reserve.
After a breathtaking ride out of Seward and through Kenai Fjords National Park, we reached Anchorage. A quick stop and a reindeer dog (I do not recommend - v "gamey") and we were on our way to Denali.
Denali has been a dream of mine for quite some time now. Having now visited, I can only say that I need to go back. To spend more time. To immerse more deeply in what we scratched the surface of. Our only night in the park, we stayed in a beautiful log cabin-ish village nestled in a valley and adjacent to a rapid stream. There were trails all around and so as soon as we dropped our bags, we took off: Mom, Dad, Jake, Maggie and myself. The rain was on its way out, a rainbow taking its place as we began a hike to see some lakes. The scenes were perfect. Fresh and soft with foliage. Quiet as anything. We kept our eyes out for moose and bear but only saw a few squirrels along the trails. It was simply as peaceful as it gets. The next day we would get a guided tour of Denali, feeling the love of the place from each and every person who showcased it. Our tour guide Jen let us in our a particularly useful nugget of insight, "Be cautious of letting your checklist get in the way of seeing the beauty that is right in front of you," a testament Denali and her ever-changing ways. We were lucky enough to see Denali (Mt. McKinley), the tallest mountain in North America, as she peeked out from behind the clouds which make up a weather system of her own -- something that only happens 30% of the time.
After venturing back to Anchorage via bus and train, we fly out refreshed, grateful, and full of wonder. Our conversations revolved around how blessed we were for the opportunity and for how (surprisingly) well everyone got along -- I mean, you're on a boat with the same people for 7 days. Alaska called, we went. I have a feeling Alaska has more calling to do for many of us in the future as well. We'll have to wait and see!