When I was home visiting my family for the holidays I decided to ask my 77-year old father what was on his “bucket list” now that he was retired.
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!”
After viewing Alaska by air, and seeing Denali National Park and glaciers up close and personal, we continued to explore Alaska by land and sea.
When planning my father and I’s “bucket list” trip to Alaska, I asked my uncle who is a lifetime “cruiser” about which cruise company was the best to take in Alaska and he said, “Princess Cruises hands down.” The reason they stood out over the rest to me is that they offer Off the Beaten Path Land and Sea vacations and offered seamless transportation by bus and rail between the two. Princess owns 5 land lodges next to some of the most pristine wilderness National Parks and if you truly want to experience Alaska, you have to do it by air, land, and sea.
The next day we were on the move again to drive for hours through Denali National Park. The park is so vast that the 5 smallest states combined can fit inside of it. The park offers bus tours since you are not allowed to bring anything inside of the park other than yourselves. They are extremely dedicated to protecting this breathtaking wilderness and all of its wildlife and it shows through their tour guides and park rangers that have dedicated their lives to learning about and sharing their knowledge of the park. For hours we were on a school bus safari scanning the sweeping meadows and forested mountains on the lookout for grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves and all kinds of other creatures. We were not disappointed as we got closer and closer to Denali and the landscape starting changing and so did our luck with spotting animals.
Seeing a grizzly bear in the wild? My Dad and I checked that off our “Alaskan Bucket List” as well. Not only were we lucky with the wildlife sightings, but we were with the sunny, warm weather as well. Named a “Top 10 National Park Landmark” by National Geographic, we were told that many times you can’t even see the soaring peak of Denali right in front of you if the weather is not cooperating. So again I found myself saying another “thank you” to Mother Nature, but that night she gave my Dad and I her best show yet. The most intense light show on planet Earth, a glimpse of the Northern Lights!
As we made it back exhausted to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, we were eating a late dinner and walking back through the campus back to our room, when the sky just started to glow brighter and brighter and then started dripping with green and fuchsia swirls. This show got more intense and more intense as the swirls streaked all the way across the sky and covered huge portions of it for about 20 minutes. I was actually shocked to see them, because normally you don’t see them unless it’s closer to winter, colder, more north of the Arctic Circle, the weather is clear, and there is crazy solar activity. We just happened to have all of the stars aligned and be outside at the right place at the right time to see this magnificent display of the disruption of our Earth’s magnetic field. It is hard to describe in words just how beautiful and magical the Aurora is. It is something that is very difficult to capture on film or video, and although I understand the science behind what is happening, it is still such a mysterious, magical experience and something so special that I was able to share with my Dad. We check off Denali, planes, helicopters, Glaciers, Grizzly Bears, and the Northern Lights? Alaska was giving us the full VIP treatment and it was only day 3 of our trip!
Our last stop on land before we would jump on the Princess Rail down to Whittier to catch our ship, was Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. This lodge located in Denali State Park just 40 miles from North America’s tallest peak, is like a rustic campus of cabins with walking trails, broad viewing decks, outdoor fire pits, and amazing hiking. Since my Dad is not able to really hike, I thought signing us up for an off-roading adventure through backcountry trails would be the best way to experience some of the amazing meadows and forest landscape that my Dad would otherwise miss. So I signed us up for an Argo excursion with Denali Tundra Tours not knowing that this “trail ride” was going to be the land adventure of a lifetime!
I had never heard of an Argo before, but when we got there I discovered it's an all-terrain vehicle with 6 oversized wheels and it can even float and tread over a lake! My Dad and I put helmets on, buckled up, and took off with our guides for 3 hours of the most intense off-roading trails through muddy rivers and rocky trails and forests. It was the ride of our lives and we even got stuck a few times and extremely wet and muddy, but I don’t think I have laughed that hard in a long time! My Dad was terrified half the time, but I reminded him if you are going to go on an Alaskan Bucket List trip, you gotta go big or go home!
We ended our land adventure in style by taking the exclusive Princess Rail service from the town of Talkeetna to Whittier where we would be boarding our cruise ship or as I like floating hotel for the next 7 days. Talkeetna is such a tiny quaint town with one stretch of Main St with shops, restaurants, and breweries. After having a couple of beers at the Denali Brewing Company, we literally pulled our coach up to the train tracks, got off with our bags and boarded the Yellow Alaskan Rail like you would back in the old days. No station, just a train and for the next 4 hours we would be inside of a glass enclosed car, eating and drinking in comfort as some of the most isolated, pristine scenery streaked past our windows as we glided along mountain ranges and through tunnels only to arrive at the port where our ship, The Princess Star, awaited us.
Alaska truly is the last existing example of the wild, American West, back when the United States was still growing and people still had not even mapped out all of the terrain. People settled here in some of the roughest, most unforgiving terrain and there are towns here that see over 300 days of rain. If you read about the history of some of the coastal towns like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan, life was tough and women had to work as hard as men to survive in these conditions. Even today, if you look at a map, the southeastern coastal strip, consisting of many islands and a strip of narrow mainland called the Inside Passage, is really only accessible by float plane or boat. Here, you will see that life hasn’t changed much since the days of the Gold Rush. People’s lives are still dictated by fishing, boating, the weather, and the tides. Technology and the outside world really only come into these people’s lives every time the cruise ships dock in their ports creating a shopping and tourist frenzy for a few hours, before sailing away and letting these towns go back to their sleepier existence.
This region has many glaciers and extensive forests. It is separated from Canada by mountains that rise sharply from the water's edge to heights of 9,000 feet, or more, through which run deep fiords—sea inlets with high mountain walls. Juneau, the capital city; Skagway and Haines important seaport towns, and Ketchikan, the largest salmon packing center in the world, are in this section. What makes this part of Alaska the most famous to visit via cruise ship is Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
Glacier Bay National Park is a 25 million-acre UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest marine sanctuary in the world. Here is where the landscape starts looking more like the Alaska we have read about in story books with huge glaciers meeting the ocean and cracking and breaking off to form icebergs. By 2030, this may be the only place in the United States where glaciers still exist, since they are melting at such a rapid rate. This marine preserve is highly protected and can only be reached by boat or plane which is another reason why taking a cruise on the Star Princess is not only one of the only ways but the best way to experience the Inside Passage.
One of the coolest parts of sailing through Glacier Bay National Park is that they only allow 2 ships a day to go through and only one at a time, so literally you are the only people or vessel you will see within that landscape with exception of the small boat the brings the Park rangers to the ship. By law you have to be accompanied by 3 rangers aboard the ship and a certain level of education and protection has to happen while the cruise ship goes through. The rangers literally have to climb a rope ladder to get on board and they get on the loud speaker and tell you about what you are looking at and spot wildlife and explain the geology of the glaciers.
I never knew that cruising was so decadent! I had never experienced a cruise before and being onboard Princess Cruises was like being on a floating luxury hotel with restaurants, a gym, a spa, a casino, and every amenity you could think of enjoying while the most stunning, alien landscapes glide past your window.
For my Dad who needs to rest a lot, this was perfect, and when we were not at port doing excursions he could take his pick of activities or just rest and watch the whales and wildlife from the decks of the ship. It was actually quite ridiculous that I could be on the treadmill, or having coffee in the hot tub on the deck and be surrounded by glacier walls so tall that they are twice the height of the ship at almost 250 feet tall!
The highlight for both my Dad and I at Sea was when the Captain pulled our ship right up to Margerie Glacier for a couple of hours and just stopped within ¼ mile from the towering ice shelves. I cannot even begin to describe the experience of sitting on the decks and watching what I think could be described as the best spectator sport ever. Literally, along with all of the other passengers lining the decks we could actually hear the glaciers cracking and groaning and moving and breaking off into the ocean before our very eyes! It is hard to get a size comparison even when our ship was right up next to the walls, but imagine a piece of ice the size of an apartment building cracking and breaking off into the ocean. The sound it makes is like thunder following by a huge explosion echoing across the glacier walls and mountains. It vibrates your entire being and it is yet another example of Mother Nature demonstrating her majesty.
My Dad and I sat there for hours just watching in disbelief that we were there face to face with these huge glaciers, witnessing this amazing place in our lifetimes, and seeing FINALLY what all of the fuss was about in Alaska. We saw whales breaching as we had breakfast on our balcony, bald eagles floating by on icebergs, bears playing on the beaches, and just untouched wilderness all around us. We were literally dwarfed by this frozen landscape and its beauty. We are the lucky ones, the modern-day explorers and “bucket listers” who didn’t have to brave the storms, cold, and rugged terrain in order to witness this beauty first hand.
Now, as my Dad and I continued on our cruise and we ate and slept luxuriously, met new friends, educated ourselves, entertained ourselves, and even got lucky in the casino, while at the same time getting to experience this remote and wild wilderness, I did not take for granted the many moments that Mother Nature and Alaska gifted to my Dad and I. Even at his older age, I hope that my Dad still was able to learn a few things from his youngest daughter.
You are never too old for adventure and Bucket Lists should always get longer not shorter.