Written by CJ Marino

I have been fortunate enough to travel to many different places. Usually my trips have been historical in nature, so when I planned my Alaska cruise last year, I was a bit nervous. It was all about nature and adventure. What an exciting trip it turned out to be.

In my opinion vacationing in Alaska, by booking a land and sea tour is one of the best ways to experience it all. I was doing a southbound trip, beginning in Fairbanks and ending in Vancouver. As mentioned in last issue's article, Vancouver was so much more than I expected. The main reason to do a southbound trip is that the land portion is more exhausting and strenuous than the cruise portion. You get the "work" part out of the way and get to relax and party during the second half of the trip.

My Alaskan jaunt began in the "Golden Heart City "of Fairbanks. Fairbanks is Alaska's second largest city that enjoys a sense of stability that has outlasted both its rapid urbanization and economic fluctuations. On the first day of the tour we sailed on the Riverboat Discovery sternwheeler cruising on the Chena River. The three hour cruise gave us a sense of what life is like in this city. We saw many different types of homes and even got to see dogs that are trained for the Iditarod. These very mellow but strong dogs showed us how they are trained to pull a sled all follow the lead dog in perfect precision. There were locals that came aboard to show what the style of dress was for this part of Alaska. A cultural excursion would not be complete without a taste of delicious local salmon. It was intriguing to hear how the people of Fairbanks live in the wintertime.

Panning for gold is a must do, at least once activity when in Alaska. The tour took us around the gold dredging site and was very informative as to how the whole process worked. It was also enlightening to hear about the attraction to gold dredging that so many experienced. We got to pan for gold. I wound up with $17 of pure gold….I would not say that I struck it rich!

Denali was the next stop after a beautiful train ride along a route that brought us closer to the unspoiled wilderness that Alaska had to offer. The wildlife, such as bear and moose, along with the forested mountains and grassy valleys were simple breathtaking. We traveled in glass-domed rail cars with open-air observation platforms which traced the exact route of the historical Alaska railroad. The hotel was right at the entrance of Denali National Park. Whitewater rafting on the Nenana Gorge was the first adventure on this part of the trip. It was an awesome experience to be floating in water that had just been a glacier a few hours prior.

Denali National Park was on the agenda the next day. We decided to do the full day tour which brought you in as far as you could go by bus into this expansive park. This is Alaska's top attraction which sprawls across 9,420 square miles and is larger than the entire state of New Hampshire. Its highlight is, of course, the 20,320 foot Mount McKinley, which dominates the surrounding landscape and is North America's highest peak. As the bus traveled on winding roads with hairpin turns along the side of mountains we were able to view much wildlife. We witnessed a mother bear and her cubs running through the brush not to mention when the bus driver had to stop because a bear was headed right for us. The bus driver stopped the bus and the bear just trotted right past us. Apparently it had it sights set on something else. Wildlife viewing is one of Alaska's major attractions, and Denali National Park offers excellent opportunities to see Alaska's "Big Four"- grizzlies, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep.

Our next stop was the small town of Talkeetna. Talkeetna, meaning "meeting of the rivers" in local Athabaskan language, began in 1896 as a trading post and eventually grew into a riverboat port supplying the 1910 Susitna Valley Gold Rush. This tiny town does not have many inhabitants but in the summertime is bustling with tourists. They are most famously known for having elected a cat as their mayor. Once again it was intriguing to hear how the locals of Talkeetna lived through the winter. It is important for the locals to spend time outside in the light, although it is not what we would be used to, it is more like dusk. People actually get sick if they do not spend the time outside in order for the body to produce Vitamin D. While staying in Talkeetna for two evenings an ATV adventure and flying to land on a glacier were on the "to do" list. The ATV adventure was just that. It was amazing! The landing on a glacier did not fare as well. We flew to and over the glacier but the cloud cover was quickly descending and our pilot advised against it, unless we were okay with spending the night there. The lodge that we stayed at was in the south part of Denali National Park and was up a mountain. One morning, very early, we were part of the 5% who is lucky enough to see Mount McKinley. What a sight to behold!