Alaska was at the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. My father had fostered my love of wildlife and wilderness during my childhood in Pennsylvania, and I expected that Alaska would hold an abundance of both. Well, I was right. In 1983, at the age of 28, I followed my dream to visit Alaska and cruised from Vancouver to Whittier.
The untouched, spectacular beauty of Alaska deeply impressed me, and as my flight home from Anchorage took off over the snow-capped Wrangell-St. Elias mountain range, my fate was sealed. I knew with absolute certainty that I would come back to this place. I had not seen Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America. I wondered, though, how I would afford to return.
Two months later I began my first day of employment as a district sales manager with Princess Cruises, where I would have the opportunity to share my knowledge of and enthusiasm for Alaska. And, since we offer land tours into the interior of Alaska, I knew one day I’d be able to see Mt. McKinley.
It was three years and one month later when I finally set my eyes on this great 20,320-foot mountain, the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve. The mountain was named after President William McKinley in 1897, but most locals refer to it by its native Athabaskan name: Denali, meaning “the high one.”
In 1913, a four-man team led by Harry Karstens (who later became the park’s first superintendent) reached the summit of Denali. Harry’s team included Walter Harper, an Alaskan native, and he was the first man to set foot on the summit. Since then, more than 16,000 climbers have reached the summit and twice as many have attempted the climb but turned back. When I first saw the mountain, I knew that I’d never climb it but I’d never tire of gazing up at its majesty.
Denali National Park and Preserve encompasses 6 million acres of forest, taiga, tundra, glaciers, rock and snow. It’s also home to a healthy population of grizzly bears, black bears, caribou, moose and Dall sheep. The park has its own rhythm of movement that changes with the seasons and has influenced my life in one way or another with each subsequent visit.
Closest to my heart, my Alaska story leads to love. As my passion for this place increased over the years, I have the 49th state to thank for introducing me to my husband, Barry, also a lover of the “Great Land.”
I was doing the online dating game when I came across his profile picture. Before I noticed his handsome face I was drawn to the backdrop of his photo, which was a glacial terrain. I immediately asked him, “Was this photo taken in Alaska?” That question and his “yes” response opened a dialogue that resulted in our marriage. He had also visited Alaska and longed to return.
So, it was fitting that we honeymooned in the interior of Alaska, visiting three of our lodges – Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge to fish for salmon; Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge so we could visit the park and see Mt. McKinley; and Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, to experience the Kenai Fjords.
First, we visited the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge near Copper Center, where we fished for King salmon on the Gulkana River. As luck would have it, I got a bite — a big bite! I caught a 40-inch, 25-pound King that neither my husband nor the outfitter would help me reel in so in the end when I landed the huge fish, I’d truly caught it all by myself!
Our next stop was the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, just moments away from the entrance to Denali National Park. Although I’d been there before, this time we’d travel all the way to the end of the park’s 92-mile road in Kantishna. This roundtrip excursion would take 12 hours as we passed through the most pristine wilderness in our National Park System. Our guide drew us into the heart of Alaska with knowledge and insight that only 25 years of experience could foster. My husband had insisted upon bringing a heavy, high-powered pair of binoculars that, I reminded him, would have to be carried in our hand luggage. But as we focused in on bears frolicking in the underbrush and Dall sheep scaling the craggy cliffs, I was thrilled.
The animals were second only to the moment when we turned the corner at the end of the road in Kantishna to gaze at Wonder Lake. I recognized the view from the famous Ansel Adams shot of the reflection of Denali in the lake. As we left the park that evening, we were tired but filled with the certainty of knowing this vast wilderness would always remain just that.
It’s a gigantic park and 400,000 people have the opportunity to visit it every year. Due to the genius of the National Park System, guides driving school buses carry us all in, teach us to understand and appreciate what we’re seeing, and carry us back out to our own worlds with lighter hearts and broader minds.
What could top a King catch and an inspiring day in Denali? Yet another of Alaska’s national parks: Kenai Fjords National Park.
We took off from the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge, located at the end of the Kenai Peninsula, to head for one of our nation’s few water-based national parks. This park is abundant with spectacular scenery, glaciers and every type of marine wildlife Alaska has to offer, including sea otters, puffins, seals, dolphins and, of course, whales.
The highlight of the day was observing whales engaging in cooperative feeding, an activity that had never before been recorded by scientists in this area. The naturalist commentating from the bridge explained that this activity was accomplished by several humpback whales working together. One whale creates a bubble screen that confuses and immobilizes the fish. Then, all together, the other whales dive through the bubbles with mouths open to scoop up the fish. We saw four whales jump into the air with their mouths open! We left the boat mesmerized, a little sunburned and once again deeply moved by Alaska’s natural wonders.
In most men’s wallets you’ll find nice posed pictures of their wives. My husband carries a picture of me with my King. No one could argue that we’re a match made in heaven — our relationship was sparked by a place that could easily be considered heaven on earth.
Following my bucket-list dream influenced my whole life. It led me to a rewarding career and a wonderful husband. What will you miss if you don’t pursue your bucket list?