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Alaska, Alaskan Brewing Company, Allie High, brewery, Changing Tides, Juneau, Lisa Moore, Uncategorized

Day 8: Juneau and The Alaskan Brewing Company


The tasting room at Alaskan Brewing Co.

Juneau, the capital of Alaska and home to about 31,000 residents. I’m excited to tour Juneau, a place only accessible by boat or plane, so it must be special. But, I must confess part of the reason I’m really excited to be in Juneau is because it’s home to the Alaskan Brewing Company. I’ve been excited about Juneau since my first Alaskan Amber in Fairbanks the day we landed in this great state.

Unfortunately, the day dawns cool and wet…again, and we’ve all succumb to the curse of the cruise ship – the common cold, but we rally to pull ourselves together and see some of this capital city. We bundle in our rain gear and disembark. Along with touring the brewery, I’ve planned to check out the Alaskan State Museum, which I find out is closed until 2016. That leaves us with town and the brewery.

At one end of Franklin Street, the main street in town, are the commercial cruise shops – jewelry stores and souvenir shops that are kitschy and over-priced, but a few steps up takes you to a more authentic collection of shops and taverns.

I stop in at the Alaskan Brewing Company’s downtown depot to pick up a few souvenirs and get information on the afternoon tours. And then, with an hour to kill before the shuttle to the brewery, we have time to sample some fudge from the Alaskan Fudge Company, take in the work of local artisans Allie High and Lisa Moore at Changing Tides gift shop, and pick up toys for my nephews at Imagination Station.


Lisa Moore’s ‘Quilts With a Twist’


Allie High’s beautiful and unique graphic prints.

By now, we’re thirsty and it’s time to board the Liquid Alaska Shuttle that will take us the 10 minutes outside of town to the brewery. Rob, our driver gives us a good overview of Juneau along the way. The city’s main industries are government, tourism, fishing and mining.


Arriving for our tour at Alaskan Brewing Co.

Rob comments on the weather, saying Summer is 54 degrees and rainy, and winter is 44 degrees and rainy… He follows this up with a couple of facts on the cost of living. Since everything has to be sent by barge to Juneau, a gallon of milk is over $5 and a loaf of bread is $7. A one-bedroom will set you back $1200 in rent. I’m not sold on Juneau, but we haven’t got to the brewery yet…

Rob drops us outside the doors of the Alaskan Brewing Company and we’re shuffled into a tasting room by John who will be our guide for the next 30 minutes. John, a Rhode Island native, starts by pouring us a sample of Alaskan Amber, and delves into a history of the brewery, interspersing the brewery’s history with important facts about the actual brewing process.

The brewery officially opened in 1986, with Alaskan Amber as its flagship beer. From then on, the founders Geoff and Marcy went on to revolutionize the brewing process, finding ways to use the CO2 emitted from brewing as energy for packaging and removing the oxygen from beer, eliminating the need for any additional CO2. They call this “beer powered beer.”


The flavors of Alaskan Brewing Co.

They are also the first brewery to use a special Mash Filter Press, which enables them to save 2 million gallons of water every year. So not only does their beer taste good, they’re constantly striving to find ways to make their production process more environmentally friendly. I feel less guilty about the next five samples already.

After a sample of Alaskan White and Free Ride IPA and some more history from John, we’re set free in the gift shop and tasting room. Here I meet Kenn, another east coast transplant who has lived in Juneau for 20 years. He spends the summers working at the brewery and the winters leading kayaking trips in Argentina.

Kenn is generous with the samples and I follow up the samples from the tour with a pumpkin ale, a marzen, a stout and lastly, a smoked porter, which they say is an acquired taste. I’ll agree with them on this one.


Alaskan’s draught selections.

After refraining from any more purchases in the gift shop, we thank the team at Alaskan Brewery and dodge the heavy rain as we climb back into the shuttle for our journey back into town.

With the weather getting increasingly worse, we head straight back to the ship. My cold has taken full effect and the generous beer samples are making me sleepy. I crawl into bed for a late afternoon nap, wondering what Ketchikan has in store for us tomorrow.

Alaska, American Bald Eagle Foundation, brown bears, Chilkat, Chilkoot, Eurasian Eagle Owl, Haines, Haines Brewery, harbor seals, Heather Lende, Holland America, Merlin, salmon spawning, totems

Day 7: On Land in Haines

The little bit of prep and research I did for this trip left me excited about Haines. While most cruise ships dock in neighboring Skagway, just a 45-minute ferry ride away, I felt fortunate to be docking in the so say less-touristy town of Haines.

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The welcome sign on Haines’ pier.

We dock around 9:30, but by the time we’ve had breakfast, got ourselves together and bundled up in our rain gear, it’s close to 11:30 before we leave the boat. The weather is still gloomy and gray, and we’re told if we want to stand out as tourists, carry an umbrella, so we opt for rain jackets and hats. Fortunately, while it looks like it’s raining, it’s really only a light mist that seems to hang in the air instead of soaking us.

With no scheduled tours, we’re on our own agenda today, and we stop at a little information booth at the end of the pier. A lovely big teddy bear of a man from Molokai, Hawaii is working the booth and tells us a little bit about what to see and do in Haines. Within minutes, we’ve planned the afternoon.

First on the agenda is to take the town shuttle around its loop. This won’t even take 15 minutes – so we’re told not to blink. We wait a few minutes for the shuttle, which is an old, painted school bus, and Tara picks us up and welcomes us in her bright, bubbly way. She tells us a little about Haines – a town that relies on tourism in the summer and commercial fishing in the winter. The population is 2,500 in the summertime, but drops to 2,000 in the winter. She says only those worth their weight in gold are allowed to stay. You get the sense that because of its size, Haines is a tight knit community.

Tara isn’t your typical bus driver. She’s probably in her late 30s, and besides from driving the shuttle, she escorts ambassadors and other political figures visiting Haines, chaperones the local soccer team on their away games (think Ketchikan and other far-flung Alaskan cities) and also heads up the Animal Rescue Center. She points out the things to see – the American Bald Eagle Foundation, The Hammer Museum, the brewery, the best place for fish and chips and the one grocery store in town.

Fifteen minutes later, we’re back at the info booth, and we have five minutes left before Viva of Anytime Taxi & Tours picks us up for our 2-hour tour to Chilkoot River. Bear and moose sightings are possible, and after Viva loads the eight of us in to the minivan taxi, she tells us we’re headed straight to the river to see Speedy, a brown bear, and her two cubs who were feeding there earlier in the morning.  I’d be lying if I said I wanted to see any more of Haines. What I’m dying to see is a brown bear, up close and in its own environment. We drive for about 30 minutes out of town, and all I can think is how there’s a pretty foul stench in the van. Maybe someone isn’t feeling well, but when Viva stops and opens the sliding door to let us all out, I realize the smell is on the outside.

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Speedy and one of her cubs at the Chilkoot River.

Viva explains that it’s the end of spawning season for the pink, or ‘humpy,’ salmon and the riverbeds are covered with dead fish. The next to spawn are silver, or coho, salmon, and near the riverbank, you can see schools of these salmon swimming upstream.

Not too far off in the distance are Speedy and her two cubs, working their way up the riverbank. Speedy is in the river most of the time catching fish for her two cubs that stay nearby. Viva explains how particular Speedy is, pointing out how she picks up a couple of fish with her paws and pads at them making sure the fish is not too mushy. If it is, Speedy might eat the eggs or the head and toss the body back, looking for a firmer fish body for her cubs. They work their way upriver, away from the bridge we’re standing on. Downriver are five or six harbor seals who are also making their way upstream.

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Chilkat Lake.

We jump back in the van and head further away from Haines to Chilkat Lake. Again, we see ripples as salmon enter the lake from the river and propel themselves out of the water. A couple of fisherman cast out into the lake, and a thick fog hangs in the air.

We stay for a few minutes to take in the view. Behind us is a campground and a couple of people are taking kayaks out of the lake and calling it a day due to the weather.

Viva takes us back down towards Haines, stopping to show us an eagle’s nest and a totem pole carved by a local artisan. She also points out the remnants of a landslide in the distance. This natural disaster occurred in 1902 and levled the old village. It was then moved to present-day Haines.

Viva makes one more stop on the way back into town to show us the view of Haines from across the harbor. Up above, a bald eagle circles, which she explains is good luck.

Back in town, Viva drops us near the ATM so we can pay her for the tour and points out the fish & chip shop across the road. We head there for lunch and split one portion of halibut fish and chips, complete with smiley face french fries. The food fills us and warms us and we set out to see a few of the attractions in the town.

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We walk to the American Bald Eagle Foundation which functions as a museum and a live raptor center, so not only are we able to see two captive bald eagles, a merlin (falcon) and a Eurasian eagle owl, we’re also able to see a collection of indigenous animals that have been preserved and put on display within the museum- bears, moose, elk, owls, and falcons to name a few. We learn that the foundation functions as a preserve for bald eagles, and it’s appropriate that they are situated here – after all, Haines has the largest concentration of wild bald eagles in the world.

From the museum, we’re a bit limited on time, so we opt for a trip to the local brewery instead of the hammer museum. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I do like a brewery and find it’s a place where you can often catch locals hanging out and mingling.


Haines Brewery.

The brewery opened in 1999, but they have just opened the new location, and they’re literally still moving in and decorating when we arrive. We have time to sample a few of the local brews. Our favorites: Eldred Rock Red, Lookout Stout and Spruce Tip Ale.

From here, we head back to the boat on foot, making a quick pit stop in the bookshop, Babbling Book, to pick up local Haines author Heather Lende’s latest book, Find The Good. Lende has published two other novels, but this book is a collection of the life lessons she learned while working as the obituary writer in Haines. We pick up a signed copy and make our way back to the Zaandam.

We walk with the water on our left and spot a Bald Eagle perched on a pier post. Twenty minutes later when we arrive at the pier to board the cruise ship, he’s still sitting there, perched and observing. IMG_2001

Haines has been our first stop since boarding the boat two days ago. It’s been nice to be on land, to explore and to see so much of what makes up Alaska, all rolled into such a small town, with little more than 2,000 people. We’ve seen here what many people spend weeks in Alaska seeking to see, and we’ve only spent six hours. It seems like life is simple here… alright, the winters might be long and brutal, but it seems like the people of Haines have figured something out… they have the ability to find the good.

Useful Links:

Anytime Taxi & Tours with Viva & David Landry:

American Bald Eagle Foundation:

Haines Brewery:

Babbling Book Bookshop:

Heather Lende:

The Bamboo Room:





Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park, glaciers, Holland America, Johns Hopkins Inlet, Marjorie Glacier, Tarr Inlet, Zaandam

Day 5 & 6: At Sea on The Zaandam & Cruising Glacier Bay

We are at sea for the next two days, so for day one, I decide to acquaint myself with the cruise ship. As an avid adventurer, most of my past travels have taken me to off-the-beaten-path kind of places where there are mountains to climb, hidden beaches to discover and historical ruins to explore. In the past, I’ve associated cruises with feelings of restlessness and claustrophobia, and despite hearing a number of good things about them, it’s taken me 34 years to find myself on one. However, when the Travelzoo deal for this Alaskan Land & Sea Package was delivered to my inbox back in February, I knew the deal was too good to pass up and it would be an ideal way to take in a lot of this vast state.


Deck 3 on The Zaandam.

We board the Zandaam after our Kenai Fjords Tour and attend the mandatory ‘muster drill,’ where we locate our life boat and answer role call. We then head to dinner in the Lodi, a buffet style restaurant on the 8th floor.


The Rotterdam Dining Room.

After breakfast this morning, I decide to walk the entire ship, starting on deck 3, of which the outside circumference is a walking track. Deck 4 is home to The Rotterdam, a fine-dining restaurant. On deck 5 is Explorations Café, the library, a casino, wine bar, and duty free shops.  Up on Deck 8 is the spa, fitness center, pool, hot tub and a bar and cafe. While finding the Crows Nest (another bar on deck 9), and the outside viewing area, the rain sets in and stays with us for the rest of the afternoon. I realize there is plenty to take in on a cruise ship, but after three action packed days, I opt for chilling out. With no wifi connection while at sea, it’s amazing what I find time to do – I pick up my book I’ve been trying to finish for a couple of months, edit some photographs from the first part of the trip and write post cards home.


Day 6 is also spent at sea, but today’s cruising is much more scenic than yesterday’s. At breakfast, we watch Glacier Bay Park Rangers approach in a small boat and board the Zaandam by ladder. At 10:30,they give a short presentation on Glacier Bay, mainly focusing on the wildlife in the area. They also give us an overview of what we will potentially see during our day.

map_of_glacier-bay-national-parkGlacier Bay covers over 3 million acres and we will spend scarcely a day exploring here. About 80% of visitors to this National Park arrive by cruise ship. Others travel in by sea plane or smaller boats to kayak and explore. I feel like this is the epitome of ‘untouched land.’

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                          Tarr Inlet, Glacier Bay.

The day is overcast, but I don’t feel so bad when I find out that in a month, this area might experience a total of four sunny days. We’re still afforded awesome views of Reid Glacier, Marjorie Glacier, and Tarr Inlet. Here, we stay idle for about 45 minutes, and we can hear the thunderous claps of glaciers calving around us. However, with limited visibility, we can’t actually see the movement today. We spot the occasional sea otter, and later in the day we approach Johns Hopkins Inlet.

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                  Johns Hopkins Inlet.

I’m feeling a little frigid from short stints of standing outside on deck to photograph glaciers, so I head inside to the library and take a seat in front of floor to ceiling windows and watch as we pass one glacier after the next. I learn there are around 600 named glaciers in Alaska, but there are thousands of others that are unnamed. We seem to continually pass more impressive glaciers and it’s no good trying to sit still. I end up back outside with the camera, trying to capture just how majestic this area is. I am back and forth from either side of the ship to the library for the rest of the daylight hours.

We head for dinner at the Rotterdam and dine on seared tuna carpaccio and rock fish. We sit with a couple from New York City, Maude and Carl. Carl is a professional photographer who has just returned from photographing bears in Kodiak. The other couple are Crystal and her husband. I sit next to Crystal and find out she has walked portions of the Camino, and returns each year for a couple weeks at a time to work as a hospitelaro, or volunteer. We share Camino stories and make plans for the day in Haines, hoping for better weather on land tomorrow.


Aialik Glacier, Alaska, Anchorage, bald eagle, glacial calving, Holland America, humpback whales, Kenai Fjords National Park, Kenai Fjords Tours, orcas, puffins, Seward, Seward Highway, steller sea lions, US National Parks, Zaandam

Day 4: Anchorage –> Seward: Touring Kenai Fjords National Park

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Scenes from the drive along Seward Highway.

We’re picked up early from the Anchorage Westmark to transfer to Seward. We don’t need to be on the boat until 8pm so with the extra time in Seward, we’ve booked an excursion with Kenai Fjords Tours. The tour is sold as a glacial tour, but they’ve raised my hopes with talk of whale sightings too.

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Seward Highway Rest Area Views.

It’s a brisk 34 degrees at 7:30, but the forecast is promising sunshine for most of the day and highs in the mid-50s. With coffee in hand, we leave Anchorage by way of Seward Highway. Our driver, Carl, explains that the 125-mile journey that covers Seward Highway is considered one of the prettiest drives in the US. It’s actually only second to the East Coast’s Blue Ridge Parkway.

Soon we’re traveling south, parallel to Turnagain Arm, named for the number of times the initial pioneers who discovered this area had to turn around (or that was one of Carl’s many jokes?) Carl tells us to keep an eye out for Beluga whales, and I immediately make a bee-line for a seat on the right side of the bus to be next to the water. The sun is slow to rise and a low hanging cloud sits just above the lake surface, hiding our view of the glacier in the distance. The water is as still as a pond, and I want to stop the bus, jump off and spend the morning in a kayak, watching this environment wake up.

I’m asking myself how this is the second prettiest North American drive, Shouldn’t it be the first? I’ve never been so awed by mother nature in so many ways. I keep uttering the word, “Stunning!” And in my head I’m thinking, “This is the place I will come back to.” As we round a bend with mountains on our left, Turnagain is now behind us and we enter Dead Forest, a place where now, only a few trees exist. After the 9.2 earthquake in 1964, a tsunami destroyed the land, causing it to take on the consistency of a milkshake. Buildings and homes collapsed and now, only a few trees stand.

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Dead Forest.

We pass through the Chulgach Forest with places you stretch to call a town, like Portage and Moose Pass, where fishing lodges, rental cabins, and RV lots dot the road. Luckily our driver needs a restroom break, so he pulls over and gives us a 10 minute photo opp near a valley- I’m thankful to get a still shot.


A sea otter having lunch in Seward Harbor.

Not too much longer and we can see Seward harbor, the sailboats, fishing vessels, catamarans and the Zandaam cruise ship, which we will be boarding later. We step off the bus and onto a boat where we will spend the next five hours exploring the Kenai Fjords National Preserve. From the boat, a sea otter is floating on its back, gnawing on the remains of a fish carcass.

We head out to sea with Captain Tim and his crew. To the left are the Kenai Mountains, the tops dotted with glaciers that slope down the sides. We cruise for about 20 minutes and turn a corner to see a long glacier sitting off to the right. Immediately, the temperature drops after being exposed to the glacial wind. Off in the distance, Alaskans are playing on jet skis and kayaks. Even a few surfers are out, milking the last of the mild temperatures before winter.


Kenai Fjords glaciers.

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Kenai Fjords glaciers.

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A Bald Eagle watches as our boat cruises by.

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A Steller Sea Lion about to go for a swim.

Captain Tim points out a black bear on the beach, but as soon as we’ve seen it, he hightails it to the forest behind the beach. Off to our right are Tufted Puffins amongst a flock of seagulls. We cruise further, keeping our eyes peeled for whales tails, as we make our way to the glaciers.

At our next turn, we’re afforded views of steller sea lions, perched high above the sea water on craggy rocks, bathing themselves in the sun. Directly across from the sea lions, a bald eagle sits, almost as if watching the world go by.


The fluke of a Pacific Humpback.

We are approaching the first tidewater glacier of the tour, Holgate, when Captain Tim catches sight of a whale in a cove nearby. We trail this whale for a while, watching the flume as she comes up to breathe a couple of times. She shows her tail a few times, and we head on to the next glacier.


We pull up quite close to the the Aialik glacier, and Captain Tim explains that this is one of the largest tidewater glaciers, measuring one mile wide. He continues on about how changes in the oxygen levels affect the color of the glacier – the more compacted the snow is, the bluer the glacier is, due to changes in the oxygen molecules. As Tim talks, we begin to hear sounds resembling claps of thunder, as the glacier begins to calve, or break away. At times, we catch splashes as chunks of the glacier fall into the water. Tim wants to stay put as he has a hunch we are going to catch some good glacial calving, and moments later, he is proved right, as we watch for more than a minute as massive chunks of the glacier calve and crash into the water, causing waves to ripple towards our boat. We leave before the waters get rough, in awe of what we’ve just witnessed.

We follow a couple more humpbacks, but they’re elusive and we only catch a glimpse of a tail here or there in the distance. Tim has other things he wants to show us, so we’re not overly persistent in our pursuit. We begin our journey back to the inlet where the sea lions were resting earlier in the afternoon, and Tim comes on the loudspeaker again to let us know that it’s our lucky day because up ahead are a couple of pods of Orcas cruising through the inlet. Up ahead, I catch a glimpse of two to three Orca fins, and then off to the right are about three different pods, each made up of about three whales. They are just cruising by with no interest in us or what we’re doing there. It is beautiful to watch these animals in their own environment, and I manage to count 13 fins cruising away from us into the inlet.

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A Pacific Humpback splashes on its side.

The trip has been epic, and Tim says it’s time to head back so that those of us who need to make trains and boats can do so, but even with limited time, we make two additional stops on the way back- one to catch the sea lions that are still lounging high on the same rocky outcrop, and two, to follow one last humpback that playfully waves at us and splashes on its side, showing its white pectoral fin.

The crew hands out freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and we make our way back to the harbor. I’m in awe of all we have seen on this ‘glacier tour,’ where we were expecting glaciers and hoping for a whale sighting. We’ve been afforded with so much more.

Captain Tim docks the boat back in Seward Harbor and stands above deck to bid us farewell as we disembark the Coastal Explorer.  A few hundred meters up ahead, Holland America’s cruise ship, the Zaandam, sits docked, dwarfing the surrounding boats.

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Boarding the Zaandam in Seward.

As we make our way to the cruise ship shuttle, a fisherman with a long, scraggly beard bikes by us. Over his shoulder is his fishing gear, and hanging from his bike handlebars is a freshly caught salmon. I think to myself, this must be the Alaskan equivalent of ‘picking up dinner.’

I could easily spend a few more days in Seward, exploring the surrounding villages and soaking in mother natures beautiful vistas, but we’ve concluded the land portion of our ten day Land & Sea Tour, and it’s time to board the Zaandam and cruise South.

Alaska, Anchorage, Denali National Park, Glacier Brewhouse, McKinley Explorer

Day 3: Denali –> Anchorage: All Aboard The McKinley Explorer

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Snow falling on the Nenana River outside McKinley Chalet.


                     The McKinley Explorer.

We wake to the sound of heavy rain. The weather has changed drastically overnight and the temperature is hovering around 34. By the time we sit down to breakfast, snow is falling and accumulating on the yellow birch trees outside. They say there are four seasons in Alaska: June, July, August and Winter, and well, it looks like Winter is here.

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Snowy conditions leaving Denali.

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               Hurricane Gulch.

We transfer from the McKinley Lodge to the train depot just outside of town. Here, we board the McKinley explorer, and settle in for the 8-hour train ride to Anchorage. By this point in time, everything is dusted in white. It makes for a picturesque departure from Denali. We hug the Nenana River for most of the morning, and by late morning, the snow has turned back to rain. We cross Hurricane Gulch on a trestle bridge 300 feet up, watching the riverbed snake through the mountainsides.  

We head down to the Explorer’s Dining Car and enjoy a lunch of wild salmon and quinoa salad, and we spend the afternoon passing through remote off-the-grid little villages and well-known towns alike. Two more notable places are Wasilla (Sarah Palin’s hometown) and Willow (where they tried to relocate the capital to in 1976).

We arrive in Anchorage and transfer to the Westmark, centrally located to Glacier Brewhouse, which has been recommended to me by a college friend who lived in Anchorage for a number of years. The Brewhouse is also recommended by the bus driver and the hotel, so we know it must be good and aim to get there early to beat the crowds. No such luck! It’s Saturday night and this place is seething.


The Explorer’s dining car.


Deep thoughts from Glacier Brewhouse.

We order a couple of beers at the bar while we wait for a table, a delicious Oatmeal Stout and an IPA. We find a few seats between a couple of pilots and an Alaskan couple. Dinner is Land & Sea Oscar, halibut and 28-day aged filet. Great food, beer and service and the place seems to be packed with locals and travelers alike.

As we leave the restaurant, the sun is setting, and the waterfront is only three blocks away. I hightail it down there with no camera and only 5% of power on my phone. By the time I arrive, the Alaskan Mountain Range is glowing pink, Denali sits off to the right, and unfortunately, my phone is completely dead. I find a park bench and sit down and watch as planes take off and head west to Asia and the sun dips below the mountain range. I sit with a man from Anchorage who flies seaplanes and he shares stories of flying north in the summer to lands where the sun doesn’t set, landing in places where one family might be the entire population of a place. He’s getting ready to head to Hawaii for the Winter.

I head back to the hotel and sit chatting with a lady who has made Anchorage her home for 44 years. She talks about winter – festivals, winter sports, conventions, the weather – says it’s not that bad. By the end of the conversation, I’m even saying “yeah, it sounds kind of fun.” Then I remember that comment about 40 below, and think I’ll stick to three of Alaska’s four seasons: June, July and August.


Alaska, Denali National Park, Fairbanks, Mount Denali

Day 2: Fairbanks –> Denali

My last Alaska picture for now... The rest of them will be up on the blog with stories over the next couple of days. But this was a very lucky shot. Apparently, only 30% of the people who visit Denali actually get to see the mountain. We were fortunate enough to get a glimpse of it on our morning drive out of Fairbanks and again en route to the National Park. Blink and you will miss it, because despite being the tallest mountain in North America, it's usually shrouded in clouds and totally blended in, which you can see happening on the left side of the mountain in this picture. #denalinationalpark #mountdenali #alaska #thelastfrontier #majestic

Mount Denali.

Today begins the land portion of our Land & Sea tour. We’re instructed that our bags need to be in the hallway at 6:30 and we’re scheduled for a 9:30 bus transfer to Denali. Plenty of time for breakfast and coffee. We’re picked up outside the Westmark by Tom, who tells us that he’s over 60 and he had coffee this morning, so yes, there will be a restroom break along the way. Tom tells us some history on Fairbanks, not named for the lovely riverbeds in and around the city, but after a ‘political shyster’ who wanted the city named after his friend.

Fairbanks sprawls, but yet still has a small town feel. Then again, the population is only 32,000. We pass The University of Alaska and catch our first glimpse of reindeer, which Tom explains are just domesticated caribou. Soon, we’ve cleared the city limits and are making our way South/Southwest to Denali. I am immediately in awe of just how much wide open space there is in Alaska. Bright birch trees, thick dense pine forests, and land seems to continue for miles and miles. Everything feels so majestic and large in scale, and I start to understand why they call Alaska ‘the last frontier.’

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The Nenana River.

We make our first stop in Nenana, population 386. There’s a general store, a bar, a book exchange, an

An old train car on the Nenana river in the small town of Nenana, about 1 1/2 hours from Fairbanks. I definitely had an 'Into The Wild' moment. Turns out Chris McCandless was not far from here when he made an abandoned city bus his Alaskan home. #nenana #alaska #intothewild #thelastfrontier

An old train car on the Nenana river in the small town of Nenana.

Episcopal church, a huskey training area and pen, and a school. Apparently, a town only needs 10 people to warrant a school being built.

We leave Nenana, looking for moose, but we’re afforded with a glimpse of something else instead. Up in the distance, almost blended into the white wispy clouds sit the double peaks of Mount Denali. Now, Tom tells us that only 30% of people visiting Alaska actually get to see the peak, so he pulls over for a photo opp. Back on the road to Denali, we later get that moose sighting. Tom tell us about Alaska’s resources, how the state has enough coal to power itself and all the other 50 states for 500 years, he points out wind turbines on the hill, shows us the town where Into The Wild was filmed, and tells us to take care of the seasonal workers at the hotels and restaurants we go to, who are wrapping up their summer jobs. He drops us at the McKinley Chalet in Denali and despite the previous day’s forecast for rain, the sun is still shining.

About a 2-hour drive from Fairbanks brings us to the entrance to Denali National Park. Here's the view from behind our rustic lodge. It's difficult to capture just how majestic the scenery is. I don't think I've ever seen so much open space. Everything is grand here, covered with dense pines, bright yellow birch trees and and dwarfed by mountains. Mother Nature at her best! #alaska #denalinationalpark #ormckinley #majestic

The view from behind our rustic lodge near Denali National Park.

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Inside Denali National Park.

We get checked in to the rustic, log cabin lodge that’s nestled between the Nenana River and a mountainside and book for an afternoon tour of Denali. We go 17 miles into the park on a Natural History tour with our guide Gary, who is the epitome of a naturalist. Gary provides us with the history of the park, noting people like naturalist Charles Sheldon and brothers’ Adolph and Olaus Murie who were key in establishing the park as a preserve and prevented the construction of hotels and resorts within. However, our guide focuses on Mardy Murie, the wife of Olaus, who was considered the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement. Even after her husband’s death, she continued to work to on the Alaskan Lands Conservation act, which protected millions of acres of wildlife land. Along with numerous awards, including the highest, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she is also the subject of the John Denver song, A Song for All Lovers.

He explains the landscape and tells us the importance of fires in the regeneration of certain plant and tree growth. He points out Dall Sheep, mountain goats, and moose. On our last stop inside the park, we get a third glimpse of Denali – as clouds swirl around the peak yet again.

On the way back to McKinley Lodge, Gary tells us his personal story of how he ended up in Alaska. He had come for a visit long ago, and when his kids were grown and marriage over, he wanted to come back. He researched jobs as a fish gutter, and was literally willing to do anything to get back. He says there are no coincidences, and somehow he landed on the park jobsite. With a clean driving record, he thought about applying for the tour operator position. He had driven high occupancy vehicles in the military, but for whatever reason, he wasn’t selected for the position. And then, weeks before the season was due to begin, he got a call and was offered the job. From behind the driver’s seat, Gary procures a laminated version of the travel section from the Sunday paper that his city ran the week after he got the job. It says ‘Destination Denali.’ Gary said he took it as a sign. That was 11 years ago.

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Denali National Park, near Savage River.


Denali National Park.

On the way out of the park, we stop and watch a moose feeding on the side of the road. The sun is beginning to set, and everything is still, quiet and harmonious. We have only covered 17 miles of a 53 mile road into the heart of Denali, seeing only a few hundred acres of the six million that make up this national park and preserve.

Gary drops us at the lodge at dinnertime, and we have some Denali Dollars to burn as part of our package, so we opt for dinner at Nenana Bar and Grill. In true spirit, we share the three Alaskan seafood dishes on the menu – wild salmon, rockfish and cioppino (prawns, rockfish, clams and crab). We head back to our lodge, feeling fortunate for three glimpses of the elusive Denali, for the weather that provided us with those glimpses and for the people that shared their love of Alaska with us throughout the day.

Alaska, Fairbanks

Day 1: Atlanta –> Dallas –> Seattle –>Fairbanks

Travel from Atlanta to Fairbanks

Travel from Atlanta to Fairbanks.

I know, I know, you’re tired just reading the title. Today was a really long day of travel, comprised of multiple flights, layovers and transfers… 15 hours and 5,000 miles to be exact.

We started the day in Atlanta around 4am, with a 4:30 transfer from the airport Westin to North Terminal, where we got checked in for our Southwest flights. I had been up 24 hours prior to check in online for a good place in the boarding line, which was sort of unnecessary seeing as the first flight was half empty.

On the second flight from Dallas to Seattle was a lovely old lady who had never flown. She wore a tee shirt that said, ‘No prayer is too small.’ The brave old gal took a window seat and three-quarters of the way through the flight looked at me and said, ‘There’s really nothing to it.’ We were taken great care of by our Southwest crew and upon descending in Seattle, were afforded views of The Cascades, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount Washington. In previous trips to Washington and Portland, I’d yet to see any of these mountains, so that was a real treat and we haven’t even arrived anywhere yet.

Aerial views en route to Alaska.

Aerial views en route to Alaska.

Mt. Rainier from Alaskan Airlines flight.

Mt. Rainier from our Alaskan Airlines flight.

In Seattle, we transferred to Alaskan Airlines. Finally it was sinking in that I’m going to Alaska, but we still had almost a three hour flight ahead of us. We took off, with stellar views of Mount Rainier behind us, and quickly passed over Vancouver Island. Now the landscape began to drastically change, and we were flying over mountains, glaciers, inlets and lakes of various shades of blue. We were meant to land in Fairbanks to wet conditions but the sun held on for us, and by the time we were descending, Fairbanks was illuminated in end of day light. It was literally glowing

An aerial view of Fairbanks

An aerial view of Fairbanks

gold, as all the birch trees have turned bright yellow here already.

We transferred from the small Fairbanks airport to the Westmark Hotel and were in our room by dinnertime. This left little time for exploring the city unfortunately. We were pretty exhausted from the long day of travel and opted for a bite and a beer at the hotel. On draft, two great beers from Alaskan Brewing Company – Amber Ale and Alaskan White. Come to find out the brewery is located in Juneau, where we’ll be stopping in a few days’ time.