The Last Frontier: A Virginia Writer Goes West, Part II

I can’t remember that I thought much about Alaska before I met Graham.  Maybe that it was cold in the winter and light in the summer and I’d heard there were mosquitoes?  I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I’d never had any strong desire to travel to Alaska.  I think certainly Sarah Palin as a politician/media personality didn’t help – why would I want to visit a place that churned out hair-sprayed hockey-mom crazies like that?  That kind of thinking was uncharitable and unfair, of course, and I should have known better, since I’m from an area of the country that more often than not doesn’t get a fair shake in the ugly and mean-spirited stereotypes department.

I think it was in the first month of our relationship that Graham, who hiked through the wilderness there for a couple of weeks when he was eighteen, noted for me all the myriad reasons we should make a trip to Alaska, and, being too in love with him to see straight (this is still the case, by the way), I listened.  We resolved to plan a trip, whenever the opportunity came along.  Which it did, about a year ago.  One of our friends invited us along on an Alaska cruise her family was planning, and we said yes immediately.  In unison, if I’m recalling correctly.  It was a beautiful moment.

I wasn’t sure what to expect – I’d never cruised before, and I’d never been to Alaska, so it was like a double whammy of the anxious uncertainty and nervous excitement that I always feel before a big trip.  I don’t know how a trip can live up to your every expectation when you don’t know what your expectations are, but this one did.  So, for those who, like me, have never cruised and have never been to Alaska, here are some of the things I learned.

Cross Country Flights Are Pretty Much the Worst

Five and a half hours.  That’s nearly a flight from Dulles International to England.  That is a flight from Dulles International to Iceland.  Five and a half hours.  No meal, no free booze, no complementary pretzels or cookies, no free movies or television (seriously, we even had to pay to see the flight path and progress).  I don’t know if every airline does it that way, but the flights to and from the West Coast were just awful.

Cruises Are Fun!

Yep, they sure are!  Food and alcohol readily available and easily accessible at all hours, a casino, several different bars, a karaoke lounge, a dance club, a spa, pools and hot tubs, decks for relaxing and taking in the passing scenery…a cruise ship is really like an all-inclusive resort that just happens to float.  Add a few good friends, some beautiful Alaskan mountains, and a couple of family costume parties, and I had a great time!

But, They’re Not Really My Thing

Don’t get me wrong here.  If we got another opportunity to take a cruise, especially to somewhere tropical, I certainly wouldn’t say no!  And, just like we did this time, I would spring for the balcony room.  But, as a traveler, I like to plan my own schedule, see what I want to see when I want to see it, and try my best to blend in with the locals.  I don’t really like being labeled a tourist, and I would like to think I don’t behave like one.  Gift shops?  No, thanks.  What’s that weird looking building over there that the locals are walking into?  Let’s go see that.

The truth is, when you step off of that cruise ship, you are immediately identifiable as a tourist, and almost every shop and attraction within site of the ship is operated specifically for the ship.  My recommendation, if you find yourself in this situation, is to get farther away from port, and explore the “real” place you’re visiting.  We did this in Ketchikan.  We visited Dolly’s House Museum, an interesting piece of America’s more sordid history that belonged to the town’s most acclaimed and industrious prostitute, and walked the Married Man’s Trail behind it (so named because a married man could walk back to town on that trail with little chance of being seen).  Here’s a little more information on Dolly’s House Museum, if you’re interested: Dolly’s House Museum on Alaska.org.

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We also stumbled upon an easy trail that ran along the shoreline and had fantastic views.  We were able to walk a little more than a mile out, and make it back with plenty of time to get back on the boat.

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Towel Animals Make Me Laugh

Who knew?  Shout out here to Dennis, our housekeeper on the Norwegian Jewel, who did a standup job of keeping our room tidy, and also made the cutest towel animals.  Little gestures like that just make my day, and good for Dennis and Norwegian for taking the time.

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Harley Davidson Shops Are Everywhere

My dad rides a Harley, and I really wanted to get him some Alaska souvenirs.  I thought it would be hard to do, but there was a Harley shop in every port.

Starbucks, Not So Much

Our friend Anthony had a little more trouble with his souvenir hunt.  He collects Starbucks mugs, and the only Starbucks in Juneau was twenty miles away from the docks.  Unexpected, but true.

Water Taxis Are a Thing

Did you know this?  I didn’t.  One of our stops was Victoria, British Columbia, and taking a water taxi was such a fun way to get from place to place!

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Unexpected, Out of Place Surprises Are Little Gifts from the Universe

Allow me to present to you, a photo of a fiddle group.  Playing Scottish reels.  In one of North America’s oldest Chinatowns.  In Canada.

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It’s like the universe said, “Hey, Katie, this weirdness is exactly what you need! Enjoy!”

My Body Is Strong

I’m a little self-conscious about the weight I’ve gained since college, and coming to the end of my twenties, I don’t really take care of myself the way that I should.  But in spite of all that, I was still able to paddle a canoe out to the Mendenhall Glacier, and I loved it.

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I was still able to hike the rocky, four-mile trail up to the Laughton Glacier, and I loved that, too.

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I might be a little chubby, but my body is strong, and I’ll never doubt my physical capabilities again.

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But, It Is Wise and Necessary to Invest In the Right Equipment

I hiked a lot in college, and somehow never bought good hiking boots.  For this trip, Graham pretty much insisted that we fork over the loot for a good pair, and I’m glad I listened.  I don’t think I would have made it up the trail to see the Laughton Glacier without my Merrills.  I should also commend Packer Expeditions and our guides Wyatt, Megan, and Ruth, for making sure we had trekking poles, creepers, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, and really anything else we needed for our glacier hike.  If you’re ever in Skagway looking for something to do, I would definitely recommend checking out their list of activities: Packer Expeditions.

Glaciers Are Awesome Forces of Nature, and We Should Take Care of the Environment So That Future Generations Can Enjoy Them

Seriously, look at them.

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Really, really look.

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These ice giants are ancient.  They’ve carved out mountains.  They’ve created rivers.  And they’re still here.  I feel very lucky that I was able to see so many of these beauties in Alaska, and I hope that my children and their children and their children’s children’s children will have the same opportunity.

But Even If You Don’t Get a Chance to See Glaciers, Alaska Is Still Heartbreakingly Beautiful, and You Should Go There

I felt like I’d stepped into a painting pretty much the whole trip.  I didn’t know the earth could look like this in real life.

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Plan a trip to Alaska.  Unless you’re just an unhappy person who hates life, you absolutely won’t regret it.

And, If Your Friends Go With You, So Much the Better!

I’d never traveled with friends before, and man was I ever missing out.  I’m lucky to have such amazing rock stars in my life.  Here’s to the next one, guys!

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3 thoughts on “The Last Frontier: A Virginia Writer Goes West, Part II

  1. Pingback: Hope for a Hot Day – The Snarky Glacier

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