I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and always longed for four seasons and tall, tall trees. One day, my brother looked out the kitchen window and saw me carrying a red gas can and matches. He rushed out to stop me just before I doused a small pile of leaves. I had wanted to smell burning leaves in the crisp autumn air, only it was 85 degrees in October so I was improvising.
I’ve now lived in Seattle for nine years and I still am in awe of the 100-foot trees, snow-capped mountains and fresh, fresh air. Even with this as my new hometown, my geographic imagination was unprepared for the abundance of natural beauty as my extended family and I set sail on an Alaskan cruise.
Alaska wears the crown jewels atop the abundance of the United States. It’s regal with an understated elegance and it envelopes you into an organic hug. It’s as natural as you can get, no Whole Foods required.
The Comfort of Disney, the Beauty of Alaska
Our trip began in true American style, sailing aboard the Disney Wonder cruise ship. Sixteen family members across three generations embarked on the nearly 1,000 foot long ship. Our first two days were at sea so we were able to take in the comfort of the ship, attending magic shows, seeing first-run movies, and stretching our stomachs to sample some of the 5,000 eggs and 2,600 cups of coffee served every day. Cruises are known for abundant food but this one has Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles.
This was our second cruise as a family and one benefit I’ve seen is that our kids are much more adventurous in trying new foods. Maybe it’s the exotic vibe of vacation or maybe their taste buds are simply more refined when we’ve paid thousands of dollars to float on water. This trip introduced them to escargot, King crab, lobster, and calamari (all of which my husband would not sample).
My just-eats-snacks-all-day 11-year-old Brady took to ordering steak every night because our amazing server, Hernan, would cut it up for him and put the first piece in his mouth to sample. That’s a level of service he will never get at home so bon appetite, my child.
Nature in Its Original Form
My first glimpse of floating glacier ice was when I was on the treadmill in the gym. Baffled, I went to a lower deck to get a closer view and was struck by the pure blue of the ice. The ice is so dense that it absorbs every other color on the spectrum and blue is the stunning result. Based on the weather, the ice can appear as navy blue and, other times, more turquoise.
Waterfalls weave along the mountains, which appear more like giant boulders decorated with green paint and splash of fog. Vast chunks of ice, the actual glacier part of this scenery, sit solemnly among the rock and you get a clear sense of the geographic evolution of our land.
Beyond borders and country flags, Alaska is a clear reminder than we are merely visitors in a brief period of time and the land and ice will keep moving long after our footprints have faded.
Outdoor Excursions – Skagway
Our first stop was in Skagway, the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s. Stretched over 7 blocks, the historic town is home to about 800 residents and tourism is today’s gold. We boarded a train for the White Pass & Yukon Route and traveled more than 50 miles across the landscape. We went so high that we passed into British Columbia and handed over our passports to a customs agent who ambled down the aisle of the train.
To create the route, workers had to dig through glaciers, mountains, and gorges. Each mile showcases the wilderness from plains of wildflowers to streams of melted water. It was like being in the freshest campground without any other campers to spoil the view.
Since our group included five kids, we opted to stop at a spot to pan for gold. Staffed by professional actors, the scene was about as authentic as the gold in the pans but it was all fun for the kids. In fact, my 13-year-old son Zack, carefully placed his flakes (along with his brother’s) into plastic baggies and then locked them in our room safe. That alone was worth the activity.
Our Juneau stop was our most adventurous, touring the glaciers from the skies via seaplane. The travel nerd in me had always wanted to go up into a seaplane and it was fantastic. Every seat was at a window and you listened to a recorded history of the area with your nose pressed to the glass. It was like skipping along the clouds and we had gorgeous weather, not always a guarantee, so it felt like an extra perk.
We stopped for an outdoor salmon bake at Taku Glacier Lodge, a family-run center that was originally built in the 1920s as a hunting and fishing retreat. As we walked around the grounds, we spotted a bear cub hanging out in a nearby tree in hopes of some salmon droppings from the grill. We hiked along a rooted and rugged path that ran along the Taku River and returned in time for our lunch feast.
The salmon was all freshly caught in nearby waters within the last couple of days and simply prepared. It was, by far, the best salmon I have ever tasted. My picky husband opted for chicken. I pretended not to know him and ate his portion of fish.
After another hike in the woods with a guide, I settled into a wooden bench overlooking the grounds. The day was rich with colors and smells and the sun spread across the sky and it was in that moment that this trip turned into a vacation.
There are times during travels when the details and mileage fall away and you are truly present in the experience of the new place.
Moments turn into memories and the mind takes a mental snapshot of the here-and-now. Juneau was that day for us and my inner child from a desert was in travel heaven.
Where better to go after an amazing salmon meal than to the Salmon Capital of the World? Enter the lovely Ketchikan. And what’s cooler than glacier ice? Going ziplining with our 22-year-old cousin Levi.
We were the only group on our outing so we got to set the pace with our zip guides. Skimming treetops 135 feet off the ground across 6,000 feet of cables made us all feel like lumberjacks (and one lumberjill).
After a fun couple of hours pretending to be a monkey, the kids tagged along with Levi to hunt Pokemon while we headed back to the ship.
Moments Beyond the Map
Every night, our family crew would gather for dinner and share pictures and stories of our wilderness adventures. While together that week, we toasted a special 50th wedding anniversary and four summer birthdays. We laughed, dined, and toasted from the deck of the ship to the belly of the bar to the land and sea all around us. We shared a common space for our travel yet each experienced it in different ways all within the proximity of family.
For me, Alaska marked a new way of seeing the natural beauty that often gets lost in the technology tethers, barista lines, and carpool lines. It reminded me of the simplicity of beauty that can’t be manufactured (or lit on fire in a small backyard leaf pile). It is natural nature and it brings you back to that foundation of yourself.
It’s fresh air and a fresh start. I have several friends who grew up in Alaska and I have a deeper understanding of their world view. I came away from Alaska humbled and awed. Rarely do we get to re-set our internal compass and simply experience the land (and ice and water) around us.
It was an amazing reminder of the simplicity – and power – of nature. Removed from politics, economics, and industry, it simply is and one can simply be. And that’s a trip worth taking, at least once, to remind us of that time, once, when it all simply was.