The big chill
Faced with the daunting scale of Alaska, Mark Hume sets out to see the mightiest wonders of land, sea and sky in the state where everything's bigger
They say everything is bigger in Alaska. Moose weigh 500 kilograms; the Bering Glacier is the largest in North America; and towering over all is Denali, a white giant in the wilderness 380 kilometres north of Anchorage. Measured base to summit, it is the tallest mountain in the world, with a vertical rise greater than Everest's.
Despite such grandeur, however, nothing is bigger than the weather. In a moment, an impenetrable veil of clouds can fall across this vast landscape. Forget about seeing moose. When the weather gets bad, you won't even see the mountain the moose live on.
My companion Maggie and I, hoping to experience the majesty of Alaska and its vast wilderness, had signed up for a trip offered by Princess Cruises out of Anchorage – a five-day road tour to Denali followed by a seven-day "Voyage of the Glaciers" cruise aboard the Star Princess that would take us 1,500 nautical miles from Yakutat Bay south to Vancouver, with stops in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. For a couple that prefers to travel independently and cherishes the solitude of the wilderness, a cruise with 2,000 other passengers was an unusual choice. But faced with the daunting scale of Alaska, which is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined, it seemed a good way to see a lot in two weeks.
So here we were on the initial, land-based leg of the tour with a pack of fellow travellers following the George Parks Highway north from Anchorage, by bus, through forests glowing with the vibrant reds and yellows of fall, in search of a behemoth of a mountain.
Along the way, we pass through former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla (a tough place where it's said they check you for firearms at the bar – to make sure you have one) and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a rich agricultural belt that has grown, among other outlandish things, a 62.71-kilogram world-record cabbage.
Just south of Denali National Park on the viewing deck at Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge (Denali was officially known as Mount McKinley from 1917 to 2015), we join a cluster of tourists at a panoramic map that points to a series of mighty peaks in the distance. But we only see layers of grey. People shake their heads in dismay. They came to see Alaska – and for days clouds have hidden it all.
Jack Marsh, the resort's cheerful restaurant manager, tells us Denali makes its own weather and many visitors never do get to see the great mountain. Of the 1,200 climbers who tried to summit it this year, he says, 700 failed because of high winds, ice fog and snowstorms.
But Carlos Gomez, the unflappable tour guide leading our group, reminds us that whether you are a soft tourist or hardened climber, just trying is an accomplishment. "You know," he says, "3.4 million people visit Yosemite every year, but only about 600,000 make it to Denali because it takes a lot more effort."
He routinely checks his cellphone for weather updates but doesn't make any promises.
While the mountain hides, there are lots of distractions in Talkeetna, a small village a short bus shuttle from the Princess lodge. It's a place where the locals roar past on quads, rifles slung across their backs just in case a moose steps out of the woods.
"I like to think of Talkeetna as the Haight-Ashbury of Alaska," Gomez says. "A lot of free thinkers here."
Among them, we meet Shawn Standley of Denali Brewing Co., which was founded by mountain guides in the middle of nowhere and is now crafting award-winning brews, all of which have colourful names such as Twister Creek and Slow Down Brown.
The town gets overrun with tourists when several buses stop, but behind the gift-shop façade there is an authentic place, Standley says.
"This is a real Alaska town. It's not Disneyland," he says.
Just outside town, we meet Jerry Sousa, a musher with 60 sled dogs and dreams of winning the Iditarod, a 1,600-kilometre dogsled race through the Alaska wilderness.
"Do not walk into the dog lot unattended to pet a dog," Sousa barks. "It could be dangerous to your health. You could get a dog chain wrapped around a leg and get dragged around, and from there it would get worse."
His dogs run more than 6,000 km in training and the race takes about 10 to 20 days to complete, depending on the weather.
"To run day in, day out like that, it's crazy," says Sousa, who has made the top 20 in the race but never won. "You cross the finish line, you feel like a winner."
We also meet Boone Scheer and Bryce (Wingnut) Smith, two "professional timber sports athletes" who tour Alaska competing for the top-lumberjack title. They are in town for a ceremony at the lodge and were hired to throw an axe to cut a ribbon held by two nervous executives.
"We don't work in the woods but we've turned the old skills into a profession," says Scheer, who teaches us how to throw a double-bladed axe while he's drinking a glass of champagne.
The weather continues to hide Denali, but Gomez says there will be a clear sky when we reach Healy, population 1,000, on Denali National Park's northwest shoulder. That means a chance to see the aurora borealis, one of Alaska's leading tourism draws.
"You can get a Northern Lights wake-up call here," Gomez says as we check in to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge.
The next night as we head off to bed the sky is indeed clear and the mountain north of town starts to glow. Curtains of luminous green lights undulate in a black sky. It goes on for hours and all around town people, some dressed in pyjamas and down jackets, stand in silence, looking up in wonder.
The next day, clouds fall again and Denali stays hidden. We go into the park anyway, hoping for big game, but the moose, grizzly bears and wolves are nowhere to be seen.
"This is not a wildlife safari," declares the woman driving the wilderness tour bus on the only road in the park. "I can't make the animals come closer. They will do what they want."
What they want, apparently, is to hunker down out of sight.
On the cliffs, we see tiny specks of white. Dall sheep, but at such a distance the "everything is bigger in Alaska" slogan seems to mock us.
Then we turn a corner – and Denali emerges from the clouds. People on the bus gasp at the dazzling wall of white peaks; one of the world's natural wonders is laid before us.
"Wow," the driver says. "I haven't seen Denali like that all summer."
It's as if someone has whipped back a curtain to reveal the high mountains of the Himalayas.
Our journey through the hidden landscape of Alaska is full of such sudden revelations.
As we shift to the seven-day ocean-going portion of the trip, beginning with a nine-hour train ride south from Denali to the port of Whittier, we are surrounded by dramatic landscapes. Approaching the harbour, the train stops so people can watch a pod of beluga whales surfacing.
We soon board the Star Princess and, as the cruise gets under way, the ship's master, Captain Stefano Ravera, says the weather should be good in Glacier Bay, where a great ice sheet hits tidewater. His plan is to run "the white lady" as close to the ice face as is safe, given wind and tides.
A soft-spoken, modest man, Ravera explains, as he paces the bridge, that steering a big vessel in confined waters requires constant vigilance.
"The duty officer always knows where I am. If I take a shower, I have a phone in my shower," he says.
As the ship churns down an inlet that ends abruptly at the 45-metre-high ice face of Grand Pacific Glacier, the captain says the ship takes two kilometres to come to a stop. "So you have to think at least six minutes in advance," he says.
Glacier Bay National Park ranger Nicole Schaub, who has come aboard as a nature guide, says we will get close enough to hear the glacier move.
"It pops. It cracks. It groans. It's like gunshots. It's amazing," she says.
We are surrounded by drear fog, but the bedraggled clouds lift as we draw closer and the glacier is suddenly bathed in light. Rugged mountains march into the distance.
Schaub says the break in the weather is giving us the best view in weeks.
"You are not going to see highways. You are not going to see shopping malls. There aren't even trails. It might be the 'wildest' you are in your life," she says of the park. Incongruously, we are experiencing this wilderness from the comfort of a luxury cruise liner, where award-winning chefs create meals and contemporary jazz plays in the lounges. It seems a bit surreal as the Star Princess idles among small icebergs, some of which are dotted with sleeping seals and sea otters.
A frigid wind sweeps down on us from the glacier but we stay on the outer deck, shivering and transfixed. You can hear the ice cracking and slushing into the ocean.
"Amazing," people say in hushed voices. "Incredible."
You might come to Alaska expecting grandeur, but when you finally see it up close it is breathtaking and humbling. There is a sense of loss here, too, however, because climate change has most of Alaska's 100,000 glaciers in retreat. They are losing an estimated 75 billion tonnes of ice every year and some will soon be gone.
As the ship moves on to Skagway, we study the shore excursions available, hoping for a chance to escape the crowds and book a hike up a Klondike gold-rush trail, with a float back on the Taiya River. Just two other couples make the outing and for a few hours we feel immersed in the quiet of the Alaskan wilderness.
In Ketchikan, while cruise-ship tourists throng the local gift shops, Snorkel Alaska provides another chance to get away. Two guides take four of us into the frigid waters, where we are surrounded by schools of silver perch and the sea urchins glow neon colours. Guide Kurt Trennert promises the seven-millimetre-thick wetsuits will keep us warm, and he is mostly right, but a bucket of hot water poured inside the suit at the end of the dive is sublime.
That night, Maggie and I sleep with the sliding glass door in the cabin open so we can hear the sea and the calling of night birds as Alaska slowly melts away behind us.
While looking at Alaska from a tour bus and cruise ship – instead of a canoe, our usual wilderness choice – didn't allow us much chance at intimacy with nature, some shore excursions did offer quiet moments and, faced with the huge scale of the Last Frontier State, it was a remarkably fun way to experience a place of overwhelming scale.
There is also a lot to be said for the pleasure of sipping martinis in a cocktail bar while the rugged wilderness drifts past.
Alaska is huge, but we got a true taste of it. In two weeks, we travelled to the heart of Denali, visited remote glaciers, swam in icy seas and met colourful Alaskans who seemed almost as mythological as the landscape itself.
If you go
In the summer of 2018, Princess Cruises will have seven ships sailing in Alaskan waters, offering 130 departures.
The cruise ships, most of which include Glacier Bay National Park in their itinerary, depart from Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Anchorage (at Whittier).
The cruise line will also offer more than 20 land trips that venture into the interior of Alaska, where there are five Princess Wilderness Lodges.
The 12-day Denali Explorer land and sea tour (featured in this article) starts at about $2,600 (U.S.) a person for an interior room on the ship, but prices range to more than $5,000 for a suite. The tour, which includes a five-day land trip by bus and train, and a seven-day ship cruise, is available from May 7 through Sept. 7.
Detailed information on the various itineraries and price options available can be obtained through a travel agent or at princess.com.
The writer travelled as a guest of Princess Cruises. It did not review or approve this article.