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Traveling with Jenna North to Alaska

Story by Jenna Wise Photos by Harold Leath

Was your trip to Alaska your favorite ever - or, are you dreaming of going there someday? Let me tell you, going North to Alaska this summer was amazing.

Come along and enjoy my two-part land/cruise adventure into what is known as The Greatland. The word Alaska originated from an Aleut Indian word meaning "great one." Visiting this land where we observed more glaciers than we could count, watched whales (yes, we saw many whales on several occasions) and experienced more interesting sites and tastes than you can imagine, was more than great -- it was spectacular.

Land of the Midnight Sun

First thing upon arrival in Anchorage, we noticed the magnificent Chugach Mountains. And, we could see them clearly even though it was nighttime when we arrived. We soon learned there is much more daylight to enjoy in that part of the world that seemed never to sleep - at least at that time of the year.

We did not have time to savor Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska, because we headed out the next morning for a scenic drive to the first of two lodges that became our home bases for the land portion of the trip: Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge and Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.

The names of those lodges were confusing, just like knowing what to call the tallest mountain in North America, that 20,320 feet tall giant located in the Alaska Range. We could see the mountains, but everybody said the tricky part was seeing the top of the tallest peak. Oh my, was it called Mount McKinley or Mount Denali?

Mt. Denali, the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve, got its name from native inhabitants who called it "Deenaalee," which meant High One. The mountain had been called various names until a gold miner in the late 1890s first named it Mount McKinley, after William McKinley, who was running for president at the time. The mountain remained Mount McKinley until President Obama officially changed its name back to Mount Denali in 2015.

One highlight of staying at the first of the lodges was going into the quaint town of Talkeetna, whose name means "river of plenty," although there are three rivers that converge there, along with funny moose statues, historic stores and art galleries. Eating lunch at West Rib, a restaurant that had been featured on The Travel Channel, and seeing Roadhouse, the establishment upon which the TV show "Northern Exposure" was based, were unexpected delights.

I thought taking a river excursion on the Talkeetna Queen jet boat, which included stopping to take a walk on a gorgeous nature trail to visit an authentic trapper's cabin, trying on raw furs and sampling red currant berries, was close to being as exciting as a tour option could be. Wrong. The chance to visit Sun Kennel, home of champion sprint mushers, and learning about grueling training for the Iditarod, the world's foremost dogsled race, before being pulled behind a team of Alaskan huskies for five miles was one of the most thrilling things I have ever done.

Time for the Tundra Tour

Upon arrival at the second lodge, it was time to go on the "Tundra Tour." Now, what exactly is tundra? Basically, tundra is a Russian word for treeless, open landscape. And, tundra is what you have to travel through in Denali National Park to see a great northern view of Mount Denali. We had been looking toward Mount Denali from southern views until this point.

It was worth all the hours of being on a school-like bus for our extended "Tundra Tour" because that is the time we had the best opportunity of the whole trip to see wildlife. We certainly had a lucky day, seeing caribou, Dall sheep, grizzly bears, moose and migratory birds such as Alaska's state bird, the unusual ptarmigan.

Before we knew it, we were at the well-known best spot for seeing Mount Denali. Regardless if you see the peak or not, it is worth making the trek to say you have been there. The bus ride back to the lodge was just as glorious and beautiful as the ride there, of course. The weather was 64 degrees - with no rain and no mosquitoes. In case you do not realize, that means it was perfect Alaskan weather.

The land portion of the trip ended with an unbelievable day-long train ride aboard an ultra-modern, glass-domed train, whisking us away from Denali National Park to follow the legendary Alaska Railroad Route to the port of Whittier to catch the Star Princess Cruise Ship - with stunning scenery all along the way. (Our 2-part land/cruse package: 11-DAY ALASKA DENALI EXPLORER, www.princess.com, with superior guidance by Jane Julian, www.janesjourneys.com.)

Cruising through Glacier Bay

A pattern developed quickly: eating; relaxing; eating; watching views from the ship and then eating some more. Guess you understand life on the cruise ship was exhausting and exhilarating. We did this for two whole days with no complaints, just stopping to look when there was an announcement to view interesting wildlife or glaciers (well-known Hubbard Glacier and others.)

By the time we reached the first port of call, we were ready to disembark and check out Skagway with interest. Located at the northern tip of Alaska's Inside Passage, it is nestled at the base of Coast Range with its lovely snowcapped mountains in view and the colorful town glistening with sunshine. Skagway, once known as the "Gateway to the Gold Rush," is still considered a town with lots of character.

Our choice for an excursion was to take the "Yukon Exhibition and White Pass Scenic Rail Way Trip" knowing that we had to forego spending time at the charming Red Onion Saloon in town to do it. It was worth the sacrifice to follow the route taken by thousands who flocked to that part of Alaska back in the day of the gold stampede.

Places with unusual sounding names like Dead Horse Trail, Bridal Vail Falls and Crater Valley were seen during our excursion into the Yukon, even passing into Canada for awhile. Tidbit: The Dead Horse Trail actually is another name for White Horse Pass, the notorious place where thousands of horses and some prospectors perished during harsh conditions of the Gold Rush.

Lunch that day was a cookout with the option of eating in a covered wagon - or, not - and then boarding the White Pass Rail Way which had vintage cars and ran on single gauge tracks, in no way similar to our earlier train ride to catch the cruise ship.

More ports, please

Juneau, state capital of America's 49th state, was founded on mining - and locals still like to say its early streets were paved with gold. Joe Juneau, infamous character and founder of the town, was credited with Alaska's first major gold strike.

Mendenhall Glacier, one of the most famous glaciers in the world, is just above the town. Salmon is plentiful for fishing and humpback whales provide some of the best whale-watching opportunities in the state.

Although Juneau is not exactly bustling, it does have sights, such as well-known Red Dog Saloon, bypassed to choose "The Best of Juneau" option for an excursion to whale-watch that included a salmon bake at pretty Orca Point Lodge on Colt Island, followed by an up-close visit to Mendenhall Glacier.

The whale-watching could not have been better, plus we saw a buoy-full of sea lions bobbing in the water that appeared to be posing just for us. We had photo opportunities galore for historic Point Retreat Light House located at the tip of Admiralty Island, considered one of the most scenic spots in Alaska due to the spectacular view of the mountains in the Chilkat Range.

Our last port to visit was Ketchikan, which actually began as an Indian fishing camp. Its name means "eagle with spread-out wings,, a reference to a waterfall near town. In the 1900s, fishing and timber helped establish this city, which has always had a rich, native heritage. Tidbit: Ketchikan has the world's oldest and biggest collection of totem poles, located at Totem Heritage Center.

Today Ketchikan is mostly known as The Salmon Capital of the World. Some folks even say it is The Rainfall Capital of the U.S. - but in a good way. The rainforests of the area cause the waters to be bursting with salmon and teeming with wildlife. The town has an interesting appearance with streets facing the shoreline built over a complex array of trestles and boardwalks. It certainly provided a good photo opportunity.

Misty Fjords National Monument is nearby. Choosing to go on the "Exploring Cruise to the Misty Fjords" was the choice of an excursion while in Ketchikan. It is hard to explain the magnificence of the granite cliffs and waterfalls seen on that tour or the good fortune we experienced that our boat just happened to pass a salmon boat hauling in its catch.

Another thrill of the boat ride through the Misty Fjords was seeing the New Eddystone Rock formation, a 237 foot glacier-carved basalt pillar that is a volcanic vent over 5 million years old, which is in the Behm Canal in the Misty Fjords area. Tidbit: Famed explorer Captain George Vancouver named the eerie-looking rock after a lighthouse he thought it resembled in Plymouth, England.

A whale of a cruise

On the last night of the cruise, just after we were served the traditional Baked Alaska dessert often served on the last night of Alaska cruises, I put on my "writer's hat" for just a little while and asked my new friends at the table to share what had been their favorite experience of the cruise. The answers were as interesting and delightful as the people in the group.

One shared that her favorite was seeing and hearing glaciers "calving," while another showed cell photos of her favorite early morning Alaska sunset, taken about 3:30 a.m. while she was running on the deck of the ship. The photo was breath-taking. A couple told of a plane trip they had taken soaring over Mount McKinley and the bird's-eye view they enjoyed. Another of our guests told of her delight in remembering all the differences in the trees back during the ride through Denali National Park.

One of our fellow passengers smiled and said he was happy to note how the tour had been composed of people from so many countries - and that none of them were "sore heads." In other words, guess he thought they were nice people. Harold Leath, POSH photographer, mentioned that he had loved having the rare chance to see a "bubble net" feeding formation while we were out on our whale-watch.

During all the answers I smiled and thought how lucky we all were to have made good choices during the trip. None of us had gone rock climbing, jet skiing or zip-lining - this time - but, we had learned, loved and grown together. That's actually what travel - and life - is all about.

Take a minute to remember your trip to Alaska, if you have taken one - or, plan a trip to Alaska or somewhere else. Enjoy. n

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