My adventure to Alaska really began over a year ago when I was home visiting my family for the holidays. I was trying to have a real conversation with my retired father amidst the craziness of having all of my sister’s family and kids together at once. I asked him what was on his “bucket list” to do now that he was retired, seriously regretting saying that term out loud to my 77-year-old dad. Once you get to be his age, you start thinking a lot more about “kicking the bucket” and now that I think about it, there has to be a better way to phrase this question. His response upset me more. He said, “I don’t believe in bucket lists. Your memories just die with you. I’m too old for adventures anyway.” That answer was so depressing to me and I took it as a personal challenge to change my dad’s perspective on life, old age, and that it is never too late to be an explorer.
In his later years, my dad has learned to dislike traveling. He doesn’t understand “e-tickets” and not having a paper itinerary and everything taken care of for you by a travel agent. He just learned what a smartphone was recently and he was born a little too early for technology to facilitate his daily life. Instead, it is just a complication to him. So I was wracking my brain to think of a place I could take my dad where we could both enjoy being adventurers that didn’t necessarily mean spelunking into caves and sleeping in hostels. I am not a teenager myself anymore, but I still don’t mind roughing it once in a while, but I knew that wouldn’t fly with my dad. So I said to him, “There must be somewhere you have always wanted to go see in your lifetime. Somewhere exotic, almost mysterious.” He thought about it for a moment, and true to his almost morbid line of thinking these days he said, “Well, I’d like to see the glaciers before they all melt away and disappear.” I said, “Well, then that settles it! We are headed to Alaska!”
Alaska was purchased from Russia and was made a state in 1959 when my dad was just 20 years old. Imagine living during a time where there were only 48 stars on the American Flag. Alaska and Hawaii were added in 1959 becoming the two most exotic states in the United States. We never had volcanoes, and tropical rainforests, glaciers, and polar bears before as part of our country, but now we did. Alaska has always been described as the Final Frontier and I never really understood why until I went there. Alaska is massive, plain and simple. Broken up into 5 sections: Far North, Interior, Southwest, South Central, and the Inside Passage, Alaska is 1/5th the size of the continental United States and can fit Texas inside of it twice! The landscape is gorgeous, but can be very harsh and unforgiving and to make matters worse most of it is inaccessible by roads. Unless you are on a cruise ship, train, or floatplane, you will most likely never have access to seeing some of the best quaint towns and landscapes that Alaska has to offer.
Alaska became famous and literally “got on the map” back in the late 1800’s when gold was discovered in the neighboring Yukon Territories. Explorers and prospectors young and old flocked there via Seattle, known as the “Gateway to Alaska,” where they would load up with over a ton of gear to survive in the wilderness for up to a year and take off on an open-ended journey with hopes to discover wealth, natural resources, adventure, and their life’s purpose. Ironically, as I sat in the airport in Seattle with my Dad almost 200 years later, I realized that we were no different. We, too, were on a quest for a great adventure into territory that is largely undeveloped wilderness and hasn’t changed much over the past two centuries. We had dreams of what we would find up there, like melting glaciers and wildlife, but beyond that we really had zero expectations on what Alaska would have to offer and in a way we became just like the Gold Rushers, the “bucket-listers” of the past, but this time we were looking for riches of experiences.
If you truly want to experience Alaska, you have to do it by air, land, and sea.
Because most of Alaska is vast wilderness, I decided to strategize how my Dad and I were going to be able to see the best of what Alaska has to offer in 2 weeks. How could I plan the ultimate adventure and adrenaline pumping kind of trip that I like to have, but taking into account the physical limitations my elderly Dad has? The fact that most of Alaska is not easy to access actually worked out in our favor, because there were so many excursions by float plane, helicopter, or boat that could get you exactly where you need to go, without having to work too hard to get there.
We started our adventure flying into Fairbanks, Alaska and jumping on a coach to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Set idyllically above the picturesque Nenana River, this lodge has shuttles that take you directly into Denali National Park, a 6-million acre national park larger than the state of Vermont, getting you up close and personal with Grizzly Bears, Caribou, Moose, and quite possibly some of the best views of Denali and the Alaskan mountain range.
Denali, meaning the “Great One,” is the tallest mountain in North America towering over the landscape at 20,310 feet! Formerly known as Mt. Mc Kinley, this mountain looks completely different from all angles and unless you are an experienced climber, you will never reach the summit, but that didn’t stop us from conquering it via a “flightseeing plane.”
Taking a small Beaver plane with K2 Aviation was one of the highlights of our trip. You jump into a small comfortable plane and for the next hour or so, you experience the wonders of Denali National Park, the Alaskan range and all of the glaciers. You can somewhat begin to comprehend the size and scale of these mountains as you flight through the jagged peaks and learn all about how the landscape was formed from the air. It may be the most spectacular flight I have ever been on and to be that close to the summit of “the Great one” made me bow down to Mother Nature a little bit.
Once my Dad got over his fear of flying, he was excited to take our glacier viewing up a notch and add a helicopter with a glacier landing to the mix. I wanted to give my Dad the most comprehensive view of the Alaskan Glaciers, so why not land on one and drink the best water on Earth straight from the source?
“You are never too old for an adventure,” I told my Dad as we put our headsets on and got cozy in our helicopter getting ready to land directly on a glacier. Even though I have been on many helicopters in my life, I was not prepared to be as awed as I was. Era Helicopters flew us over the most gorgeous Alaskan backcountry, crystal blue glacier lakes, and lush green forests. Then the terrain turned rocky, jagged, and more dramatic until we climbed over the mountain range and the entire landscape turned to huge rivers of ice. These giant glaciers are moving and pulverizing rock and carving out the landscape, some of them 85 miles long with crystal blue streams gushing down the ice.
When our helicopter set down on the ice right on the bank of one of these streams, it was surreal. We got out and just explored. We knelt down, drank the glacier water and took in the majesty of this place. My Dad was in disbelief that here he was standing on a glacier. It was something he had dreamt about since he was young. While we had the most perfect warm weather, the blue skies couldn't compare to the iridescent blue of the glacier ice around us.
Stay tuned next week for part two, where we explore Alaska by land and sea.