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Alaska Top Ten


Back from a wonderful two week adventure in Alaska. The photos and reflections below are a slim sample of those gathered, but a means of helping me remember the trip.

The well-organized guided vacation was a very generous gift from my friend Heidi to me, to her daughter and daughter's partner, and to herself to celebrate her retirement. Great thought, care, and planning went into making this a "once-in-a-lifetime" experience. And it was.

The trip consisted of two parts - a land trip from Anchorage to Denali National Park by train the first week; a cruise on a small ship through the Inland Passage from Ketchikan to Juneau the second week. The photos below are in somewhat chronological order.

1. Food and drink.

I came back about five pounds heavier than when I left. The breakfast above of blueberry pancakes with birch syrup and reindeer sausage that was served on the Anchorage to Talkeetna train helps show why. Meals were included for the most part (as were alcoholic beverages on the cruise ship) and we ate and drank well indeed. And often. Among the more memorable meals was a plate of barbecue ribs that was the largest I'd ever seen at a restaurant in Denali Village. 

2. Into the wild

Our guided walks and kayaking were always given by a naturalist. Usually one who enjoyed eating wild stuff, especially berries -  a half dozen different kinds. Most of our walks included bird and tree identification and explicit warnings on how to deal with any bears we might encounter on the trail. Sadly, we only saw bears at distance from the bus in Denali. Introductions to the native American Tlinget culture were also made several times. I was in awe of just how little of the land was actually used by the human creatures in the state. (Of course most of the cruise was in Tongass National Park and the land trip was in the gigantic Denali parks.) 

3. Paddling and hiking

Those who know me, know I enjoy active vacations of hiking and bicycling. Happily, watching scenery from the windows of a ship, train, and boat was broken up with opportunities for hiking and kayaking this trip. A morning's kayak on Byers Lake in Denali State Park through a quiet, misty landscape was enchanting. Schools of spawning salmon seemed to fill every body of water we passed through. Salmon leaping ballets (to loosen their eggs) in bays near the inlets of rivers were amazing.

4. Denali National Park

Visting Denali has long been on my bucket list so I was especially excited about this part of the trip. Denali National Park (not to be confused with Denali State Park) is kept as unspoiled as possible. There is only one long road through the park and traffic on it is limited to park buses. This is one pretty scary road, often leading high on narrow mountainside paths that tend to have a lot of landslide issues. (The day after week took the tour, the road was closed and again the next week due to heavy rains.) During the bus ride we spotted lots of caribou including an entire herd proudly charging over a hill an arm's reach from the road, several lonely moose, a flock of Dall sheep, and six grizzly bears - one a cub. Very cool. The park has no formal hiking paths, but does allow back country camping. Maybe next time.

5. Weather

 Photo by Corey Quick 

We are among the 3% of visitors who actually got to see Denali Mountain in its totality. About 30% see some part of it during their stay. For the rest, clouds hide this peak. Out of the 14 days of our trip, only two were rainy - the day we rode the Denali bus and the last day in Juneau before our midday flight. Clouds and mist on the mountains added to the beauty of the scenery, but we spared the need for the raincoats and rain pants we were strongly encouraged to bring. Temps were great and bugs not a problem.

6. Cruising

Heidi quite deliberately chose a small cruise ship for this trip. Cruising in southeast Alaska has been a thing since 1898 when steamboats made 14 day round trips from San Francisco carrying passengers who complained of over eating. Our small ship, the Wilderness Explorer, had only 40 passengers (could have held 60) and a paltry crew of 27 to cook, serve, guide, clean, and navigate. It took two crew members just to tend bar. The cabins were small but adequate, the lounge was comfortable but always busy, and the meals were gourmet quality. Our ship docked only once at Wrangell during the week. Except on the last day, we saw no other cruise ships except in port. The bulk of Alaskan cruisers travel on these 2-4000 passenger monsters from Carnival and Disney. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

7. Scenery

The photo above is not of an exceptional view from the ship, but just what one saw day in and day out during the entire voyage. The advantage of the smaller ship was it could get into the fjords and bays that the big ships could not. Our views were unspoiled by other ships in the area and allowed us day trips by kayak or on foot where no other tourists were around. Amazing.

8. Hiking in boots

One strongly encouraged article of clothing recommended by the company was a pair of calf-height rubber boots. I found a pair at Fleet Farm for $35 and grudgingly packed them. I'm glad I did since our shore landings by skiffs put us into water that was up to six inches deep. We also used them for long hikes, including a very rugged five mile scramble to a hot springs early in the cruise. The picture above is a representative portion of that trail. The remaining hikes were relatively short and easy. 

9. The ocean

It was easy to forget that the ship was sailing on salt water bays, not fresh water lakes on this trip. Cold clear waters in narrow passageways made me think of the Boundary Waters here in Minnesota. Until, that is, one glanced up to see the mountains that surrounded us. Kayaking and shore walks allowed us to get close to the tidal areas to view sea stars, mussels, anemone, and other interesting creatures. Oh, we also saw breaching humpback whales, otters, and seals. Eagles, of course, were everywhere you looked. 

10. Glaciers

The iconic Alaska experience did not happen until our last full day of the cruise - viewing a glacier from very close up. The South Sawyer glacier has been steadily retreating for a number of years. and on this viewing we saw great chunks of blue ice calving every five to ten minutes. One piece was so large it created a huge wave that rocked our skiff and the hundreds of seals nonchalantly snoozing on the icebergs in the bay. A very memorable finale to our trip.

Guided group trips have their positives and negatives. You are well taken care of and don't need to worry about making reservations and connections. One can relax. On the other hand, there is little freedom and flexibility from the schedule and you are with a group of strangers for very long periods of time. I am not a great socializer. Next time I'll bring a shirt that says "GO AWAY AND LET ME READ MY BOOK! But I learned a great deal, ate wonderful meals, saw amazing sights, and got to spend time with some of favorite people.

I could not have asked for a nicer gift. 

Other photos

Week One

Week Two


Alaskan anticipation

Anticipation matters. Gilovich also studied anticipation and found that anticipation of an experience causes excitement and enjoyment, while anticipation of obtaining a possession causes impatience. Experiences are enjoyable from the very first moments of planning, all the way through to the memories you cherish forever. "Why You Should Spend Your Money on Experiences, Not Things," Forbes, August 9, 2016.

The Wilderness Explorer

I packed my bag yesterday although the flight does not leave until the day after tomorrow.

I must be looking forward to this trip.

My friend Heidi has given herself a retirement gift - a first class vacation to Alaska, not just for herself, but for her daughter and her daughter's partner. Oh, and me. When I told a friend that she was taking me to Alaska, he asked, "But is she bringing your back?" I hope so. 

One observation that retirement gurus make is that those of us who have spent our lives saving money for retirement, often have a great deal of difficulty then spending when we do retire. While Heidi claims this is a once in a lifetime trip, I admire her for her generosity and ability to overcome this fear of using her savings. I hope to be good enough company that she does not regret the invitation.

While I have been to Alaska twice to speak at conferences, this will be the first time I'm going truly as a tourist. The trip consists of a week of exploring the Denali/Talkeetna area (via train from Anchorage) and then a week cruising on a 74 passenger ship (Wilderness Explorer) from Ketchikan to Juneau. The ship is small enough to get close to glaciers and holds kayaks and paddle boards for even closer looks at glaciers and moose and bears and whales and orcas and sea lions and who know what else. There will be hikes.

As the article from which the opening quote is taken suggests, I have already gotten a great deal of pleasure from this trip without even having stepped on the plane. I've re-read, to great delight, Michener's tome Alaska, Nickerson's reflective Disapperance: A Map, Doig's historical fiction The Sea Runners, and Horowitz's retracing of Jame Cook's travels Blue Latitudes. I've read and re-read the suggested packing list and itinerary and searched TripAdvisor for sights, restaurants, and activities. (Anchorage has a Dairy Queen.)

And there is no doubt the recollection of the experience will still be strong even as a I lie in hospice in a few short years.

Here's to money spent on experiences, rather than things. And to brave, generous friends. 


Into the VOID - a Star Wars VR experience


The Johnson/Roberts crew returning from a mission to capture a secret weapon in the VOID Star Wars experience.

I know of few greater Star Wars experts (nerds?) than my grandson and son-in-law. Unlike this shallow grandfather who has only seen the movies a few times, Aaron and Miles have absorbed all the TV shows, animated features, and books - and happily converse for hours using their encyclopedic knowledge of these worlds from "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."

So when The VOID opened in the Mall of America last Saturday, Miles wanted to go. I knew nothing about it, but, being both a doting grandfather and being a sucker for new experiences, I got tickets for Aaron, Miles, my son Brady, and me for the 2pm adventure.

I have to say that despite the cost ($35 per ticket), the experience was pretty much mind-blowing. Billed as "a whole-body, fully immersive VR experience," the 30 minutes spent looking through a VR helmet,  wearing some kind of electronic vest, and carrying a ray gun, was about as far from the Google Cardboard experience as a iMax movie is from a picture book.

Viewed through the VR helmets, the small, dark rooms of the area we walked through became corridors of spaceships, walkways suspended above firey lava flows, decks of transporter vessels, and storage rooms filled with Storm Troopers firing laser beams. So convincing was the VR, I was actually a little dizzy and anxious when I needed to cross a narrow plank onto a hovering spaceship. Winds and the smell of sulfur, along with a soundtrack lifted right from the movies, added to the realism. There was lots of shooting, a couple codes to enter, and a narrow rescue from Darth Vader as he menaced with his light saber. 

I have rarely seen my kids as excited as when they left the simulation. (OK, I was sort of jazzed too.)

I kept thinking what a powerful educational tool this might be - especially for history classes. How might one's empathy for our ancestors or the ancestors of others be if The VOID sent us into the hold of a slave ship or the trenches of WWI? What would it feel like to ride with Marco Polo on the Silk Road or view the Spanish conquistadors through the eyes of an Aztec noble? Would such technology allow us to sit in on a Socratic dialog - with Socrates or hear Confucius expound in real time?

Empathy is often described as the ability to place oneself in another's shoes. Believe me, next time I see a Star Wars movie, I will be wearing the boots of a rebel on a mission.