Alaska—remote, mystical wilderness—home to glaciers, caribou, brown bears, dogsleds, Inuit people… Diane and I both felt the magnetic pull of that place. In Seattle, we read descriptions of our city as the jumping-off point to the Alaska wilderness, and we felt we were almost there. One Fall morning, we watched a newly-launched crab boat depart the fisherman’s harbor from Seattle, headed for Alaskan waters, and we read in fascinated horror when that same boat was later found drifting in the Gulf of Alaska, covered in ice and abandoned by her crew, who were never found. Diane’s brother-in-law Ron spent several years mountaineering, climbing peaks in California, Washington, Ecuador, Mexico, and finally in Alaska on Denali, where he was trapped for days in a blizzard that wiped out several climbing expeditions who were there at the same time. We wanted to go to Alaska for many years, and finally set out to do it.
In 1996 we read about traveling the Inside Passage on the Alaska Ferry from Bellingham, Washington north to Juneau, Alaska. We decided to go the next summer. To book a stateroom on the ferry at that time, we had to contact them as soon as reservations opened for the year on January 1, because they sell out by the end of the month. The first week of January 1997, I called and reserved a room for four in the last week of July. A stateroom on the Alaska Ferry is a small room about eight or nine feet wide, with pale brown metal walls and two metal bunk beds along each side.
Our trip took us through the Inside Passage to Alaska, gliding past incredible scenery that beggars description in words: white-capped mountains that plunge steeply down thick forested slopes to the water’s edge, whales breaching a hundred yards off the side of the ferry, small icebergs with topaz blue facets drifting past, an island with eagles perched on almost every treetop. One gray morning before dawn we walked through a totem pole museum in Ketchikan, Alaska. The buildings were closed. So was the rest of the town, but the tour guide gave us a rundown on the history of the gift shop (open for souvenirs) where a whorehouse once thrived.
Juneau looked more like a logging company town than a state capital. We drank a beer in the Red Dog Saloon, crowded with patrons like the six-and-a-half foot tall Russian wearing a nickel-plated revolver on his hip. We rented a car and drove up to the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier, shrouded in mist on that overcast day. I sometimes look back at one photo I took of Jennifer there, where she stands framed by the fog and the glacier, peering absently into the distance as though contemplating a future beyond our knowledge. We turned in our car at the airport and boarded a flight to Anchorage.
In Anchorage we took a taxi to our hotel for an overnight stay before our train left in the morning for Denali National Park. The train passed whistle stops at highway crossings where the only man-made objects were the railroad, a highway, and a tiny coffee stand in a graded gravel parking lot, all surrounded by impenetrable forest. The train stopped once to pick up a passenger standing next to the track, with no station anywhere in view. Our route passed boreal forests, braided rivers, and mountains stretching to the horizon. We strained for a view of Denali to our west but it remained hidden by heavy clouds the whole time, except for one brief glimpse of a gleaming white peak in the sun that may have been Denali, or may not. The train cruised slowly alongside a crystal-clear river below us, where two-foot-long salmon slowly swam parallel to us. I chuckled at one woman who tried to snap a photo of the fish with her Instamatic.
At Denali Park we checked into our hotel, a no-frills row of one-story buildings near the Park headquarters. The curtains in our room failed to block out the light that kept us awake through the night. We were south of the Arctic Circle, but it never got dark at night. Jennifer, Lauren and I took a whitewater rafting trip, on a river filled with gray glacial runoff. Before embarking the guide gave us a detailed safety lecture. The advice boiled down to this: don’t fall out of the raft into the river. It’s cold. You’ll die. Diane declined to go. The park was swarming with tour buses and RVs, where a ranger taught us to identify the Great Gray Wandering American Geezer. I thought that was pretty funny. I didn’t expect to become one someday.
Why does this trip stand out in my memory?
Two reasons: the obvious one, that the sights and experiences were vivid and unforgettable, unlike anything we’d ever seen before or since. The second, more important reason: it was an interval in our lives where all of us were together, healthy, and fully cherishing each other’s company. We functioned as a family and we were happy being together. It stood out in contrast to other times and places when we were separated by distance or division. Our time in Alaska was one of those periods we all shared in the fullest enjoyment and appreciation of one another and the world around us. I used a lot of the photos I took then in the memorial service we held for Diane after she died. They captured us at our best.