When you mention vacationing in Alaska, most folks envision being extremely cold, boarding a cruise ship to see glaciers and beautiful snow capped mountains. It’s true, Alaska is all that but so much more! Our 49th state is filled with some of most breathtaking scenery, world class fishing, abundant wildlife for hunting and viewing, and if you’re lucky, you might witness the beautiful aurora borealis, or Northern Lights.
My husband and I first visited Alaska, way back in 1996. Since it was our first time in Alaska, and not knowing our way around, we opted for a 14 day cruise tour. We spent our first week traveling via the Alaska Railroad, as we made our way south towards Denali National Park. We started in Fairbanks, panning for gold and visiting a native Athabascan Indian village, before boarding the glass domed train for the ride of a lifetime. We were treated to jaw dropping vistas around every bend of the track. The remote backcountry lodges were some of our favorite places we visited on our way to Anchorage. The second week, we leisurely cruised towards Seattle, Washington, while we watched a multitude of glaciers, whales and other sealife, glide past our window. Of course, we stopped at the famous ‘tourist towns’ we had read about from the Klondike gold rush stories and bought the ‘ultimate Alaskan souvenir’, the Ulu knife. The trip was over way too soon and we realized we had only ‘scratched the surface’ of all Alaska had to offer. On our flight home, we began making plans to return to Alaska the next year, for we knew this beautiful state had stolen our hearts.
In the fall of 2015, we returned for our 6th visit to Alaska and we are still finding new places to explore and photograph. Rather than crusing or trains, we prefer to rent a car, or RV, and chart our own course. John Denver once sang, “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly”. Those words certainly ring true as you stare in awe, as an eagle soars over the Alaska range, or you sit quietly while a beautiful bald eagle perches in a tree, watching brown bears catching salmon in the river below. I can’t think of much that will compare to the beauty and enchanted wonder, as you watch the Northern Lights dance overhead. Luckily, Lady Aurora has put on quite a show for us on 5 of our 6 visits.
Though not for everyone, a visit to our largest, but least visited National Park is a must for photography enthusiasts and nature lovers! Wrangell St Elias has 13.2 million acres of mostly untouched beauty that must be seen to be appreciated. I’ve never seen an image do justice to this beautiful park. Inside the park, and reached only by air or a 60 mile rough, dirt road, is the town of Kennecott. During the early 1900’s, copper ore was discovered and a small mining community sprang up. From 1911-1938, copper was transported by railroad from Kennecott to the port in Valdez. Once the copper ore was mined out and the prices continued to drop, the residents and workers were given 4 hours to leave the area on the last train out. What they left behind is now the ‘ghost town’ of Kennecott. Most of the buildings were painted red, making them easy to find in a blizzard. These same buildings, most in ruins, still stand as a silent witness to the booming copper industy and many are open for tours. You feel like you’ve stepped back into another place and time, and truly a dream location for shutterbugs!
Each fall, during four days in September, you can apply for a road lottery ticket to drive your own vehicle into Denali National Park. We were lucky enough to secure a ticket in 2015, and drove the entire route from beginning to end. Our morning started by seeing a herd of Dall sheep and several moose. By midday, we had added grizzly bears and cubs, ptarmigans (the state bird of Alaska), marmots and countless birds to our list of wildlife we had seen. To spend a day in Denali, at your own pace, is truly a rewarding experience both in mind and spirit. Who knows, you might have a few of those “National Geographic” wildlife shots, too!
Alaska is such a diverse state, filled with natural beauty and virgin forests just waitiing to be explored. There truly is something for everyone to enjoy and cherish forever, either in your memory or digital memory card. I encourage you to go see for yourself, Alaska might steal your heart, too. (Teresa Houze)