It's 11:30 p.m., and the sun has yet to set near the 62nd latitude. The five of us sit awe-struck, wowed by the late hour and the clear view — all-too-rare in July — of North America's highest peak, Mt. McKinley, kissed by radiance in a sky that simply refuses to go dark. Not one of the boys — ages 20, 18 and 14 — has reached for earbuds.
That, in and of itself, would have justified our 10-day trip to Alaska. This wasn't a cheap venture; even with favorable cruise prices and a few frequent-flier air tickets, the tab nudged $8,000. But with two kids in college and another hurtling through teen-dom, this might be the last opportunity for real family togetherness. If there was a time to go for broke, this was it. The frontier idea of Alaska — wild spaces, a truck in every driveway and a husky in every truck — met with general approval.
And so it was that we cruised through this Brigadoon place to snag a brief moment of summery glory before the dual deep freezes of an Alaska winter and impending adulthood set in again.
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Glory there was: the flash of humpback whales breaching through the viscosity that separates sea from air; elk sporting full racks of antlers; standing triumphantly atop a glacier (no matter that we came here by airplane instead of crampons and ropes.) Secluded in one of those rare zones where cell service rarely existed, we spent hours talking to each other, surprisingly open about the things that frighten us and those that make us wild with temper. We clutched at rafts rocketing through the rapids of the Nenana River, sped down the better part of a mile-high mountain on bikes and played a dinnertime symphony with water glasses filled at just the right tonal levels. Not exactly classy, but a lot of fun.
LAND AND SEA
To get a taste of Alaska, you need to travel by both land and sea. Our original plan was to go on our own, traveling on Alaska State ferries through the Inside Passage and then by rail or car to the north. But once we figured the costs of a ferry-rail pass, hotel rooms in Alaska's pricey summer season plus feeding five hungry mouths, we decided a cruise ship was a better value. And it offered other advantages: the simplicity of packing but once, easy-to-follow sailing schedules, activities for both adults and kids that allowed each to wander at will.
Ultimately, we opted for a one-way cruise from Vancouver to Seward aboard Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, with a land trip to Anchorage and Denali National Park on our own via rental car — less glamorous, perhaps, than taking the train, but more practical for letting us stop along the way.
To get the most for our dollar — and to try to satisfy the whole crowd — we worked out a careful plan.
If you've ever looked at the price of Alaska's land-based activities, you know they can be painfully expensive. This is Econ 101 in action: Many places are inaccessible by road, meaning all gear has to be brought in by ship or rail. And the visiting season is short, so companies have only a few months in which to cover those monstrous costs. The result: $90 for a float trip, $69 for a bicycling trip, $124 for horseback riding, $189 for a chopper ride. Such dollars do buy security: pre-vetted companies, knowledgeable and safety-conscious guides, and communication with the ship if something goes wrong. But when you multiply any of these prices by five, you're looking at a gross family debt equal to that of a small country.
So with guidebooks and the cruise line's shore excursions booklet in hand, we ascertained which ports offered in-town attractions and in which we'd want a rental car. The kids voted on the ship-arranged excursions that interested them most.
Our comfortable balcony cabin was plenty big for all to enjoy, with kids in a surprisingly large inside cabin just across the hall. The food — lobster, salmon fillet with lemongrass sauce, mushrooms in pastry — was far better than we'd expected. The friendly staff was superb.
The views were spectacular: sheer walls of snow-crusted rock plunging to sea; vast sheets of ice suspended in mountain crevices hundreds of feet in the air; waterfalls flitting from rock sides to wildflowers bursting below. We stood on deck for hours, staring through binoculars for a glimpse of a breaching whale and marveling at the vastness of a place that represents one-sixth of the entire U.S. land mass. "It's the best vista I've ever seen. It changes all the time, " said Drew, 20. "I've never seen so many mountains, " said Cary, 18, Miami-born and reared. "I'm awed by so much uninhabited land, " The Husband said.
One night, while sitting on our balcony, we caught sight of a quick flash of black and white. Then another, and another. It was a pod of baby killer whales, playing alongside the ship. We'll never view Shamu quite the same way again.
Each of the towns we visited had its own character and unique attractions.
Ketchikan, for instance, (see story, 1J) was quickly dubbed catch-'em-if-you-can by 14-year-old Devin, who spent a couple of hours with Cary trying to snag one of the salmon leaping from the fishing harbor on poles rented dockside for $10 per hour. A couple of bites and the one-that-got-away later, they were ready to hang up their lines, but they'd had fun.
While the boys fished, Drew, The Husband and I walked the easy mile to the Totem Heritage Center, an intriguing little museum created to preserve 19th Century totems and fragments of Tlingit Indian house posts from surrounding areas. Nearby, at the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery and Eagle Center, Drew was wowed by up-close views of injured eagles sent to the center for rehab.
Juneau, Alaska's capital, offered some of the best shopping of the trip, with high-quality crafts, furs and gemstones sold by Little Switzerland plus some funky local bars where we longed to play pool but couldn't since our kids were under age. We bypassed the town's signature attraction, the Mt. Robert's Tram, and headed out in a rental minivan for the 12-mile-long Mendenhall Glacier. Many of our co-cruisers would see it from above, on flight-seeing tours and helicopter visits that landed them atop the ice. We opted for the views from below of the face stretching a mile and a half across.
On we sailed through an azurine evening, beneath icy cliffs and past postcard lighthouses, to the gold-rush town of Skagway.
Most visitors opt for a ride aboard the White Pass & Yukon Route narrow-gauge railway, a century-old engineering marvel through treacherous mountains between the gold fields and the sea. Instead, the boys had chosen a two-hour bike tour from the top of the Klondike Pass summit at nearly 3,300 feet and down through the mountains. An afternoon tour that allowed them the requisite teenage all-morning sleep-in and included a van ride to the starting point, so we didn't have to slog uphill.
By the time we reached the once-Russian town of Sitka the next morning, the weather had turned, and the onion domes on St. Michael's Cathedral were draped in fog. We had opted for kayaking, forgoing the ship-sponsored trip ($94 each) in favor of renting our own for a $90 total from Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures, arranged in advance by e-mail.
We should have forked out for the ship tour. Within minutes, our Boy Scout-trained family — two Eagles and a troop leader — was vaguely disoriented. The weather was getting snottier by the minute, and we decided to stick closer to home base than we might otherwise have done. This wasn't all bad; a sea lion had the same idea, and for a half hour he ducked and bobbed among us, as curious about these human fools as we were about him. An hour after we'd first set out, we were drenched and cold, happy we were on our own and not committed to a three-hour group tour.
By the time we hit Seward, we were ready for a few days on our own. We stopped only briefly in Anchorage, then headed north to the funky little town of Talkeetna.
Like the Northern Exposure town of Cicely, the early-20th Century frontier town of Talkeetna isn't much, just a few little stores and eateries, a train depot, tackle-and-guide shops and Grandma's Video Rental. We didn't see a single moose in the town, though we did stumble across several climbing parties who had come here to pull permits for Denali treks.
Expedition permits are one reason to come here; roughly 700 try to summit McKinley each year, and in a good season, about half make it. Another is the annual July Moose Dropping Festival, a wacky event that gives rise to moose nugget swizzle sticks, earrings and the like.
Next, Denali National Park. In our few short days there, we joined ranger walks, visited the park's vacationing sled dogs, caught sight of a cow moose and her calf feeding at a wooded lake.
But the centerpiece was the daylong trip into the heart of the park aboard one of the park's school buses-turned-visitor transport. Traffic within the six million-acre park is tightly restricted, and for most visitors, the only way in is via the park shuttles or an authorized bus tour.
We boarded at the dawn of a crystalline day in the care of Peter, one of the shuttle service's engaging, hawk-eyed drivers, who filled us in on park wildlife (300 grizzlies, 1,800 moose, 2,500 caribou), the road system (dug by hand during the Depression) and foliage (45 types of willow, more than 20 kinds of berries) clinging to the brushy tundra. This land was called taiga, he said, meaning "land of little sticks, " and we could see why. It is an unseemly place, an endless and scraggly meadow punctuated by stands of leaning trees called drunken forests whose roots slide as the permafrost thaws.
As we bounced along the rolling road, we saw only a few official vehicles or an occasional other bus. For more than an hour, we saw no wildlife: none of the hundreds-pound grizzlies — Peter said he'd seen as many as 14 in a single day earlier in the season — or caribou with those stellar antlers weighing up to 40 pounds.
And then we got lucky. Someone spotted a rare falcon on a ledge. A few miles later: a quick flash of a hoary marmot. And then came the big show: caribou sitting just feet from the bus, in a curve in the road, and later, a grizzly with her two cubs grazing just yards from us.
By day's end, we'd spotted the bear family twice, seen a herd of Dall sheep on a mountainside and counted more than half-dozen caribou. We'd strolled through the spongy taiga, been attacked by mosquitoes at Wonder Lake, enjoyed our picnic lunch in the warmth of a surprisingly sunny day.
Disappointments were forgotten, lost in the endless day of a summer soon gone and a time in our lives that can never be reclaimed. Once home, the kids clamored for copies of photos and proclaimed the trip a success. In our parents' book, it goes down as a golden memory in a land of white.
Susan Klein is a long-time travel journalist. Her double cabin was supplied gratis by Royal Caribbean cruises; she and her family covered all other expenses.
IF YOU GO
Several major cruise lines offer Alaska itineraries, both one-way and round-trip, from Seattle, Vancouver and Seward, Alaska. We chose Royal Caribbean for its teen-friendly amenities. Our ship, the 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas, included a giant outdoor movie screen, rock-climbing wall and mini-golf course.
In 2017, Radiance of the Seas offers a 7-night itinerary similar to ours, from Vancouver to Seward, with calls in Ketchikan, Icy Strait Point, Juneau, Skapway, a visit to the Hubbard Glacier. Prices for the June 17 sailing start at $880 per person, double occupancy including port fees, for an inside cabin. We went with one inside cabin for the kids and a nearby balcony cabin for us ($2,272 per person, including port fees), for a total tariff of $7,184.
Our best advice: Splurge on at least one glacier or flight-seeing excursion. While they are expensive (around $360 per person), this is the reason you’ve come to Alaska, after all.