It was the best of times, it was just meh sometimes, it was an occasion for adventure, it was an occasion for boredom, it was a place of indescribable beauty, it was a place of insufferable kitsch – in short, Alaska was what we brought to it and sometimes what we brought just wasn’t enough.
Before leaving for Alaska I spoke with a woman who owns a campground that is a common launching point for road trips to the great white north. She said that people returning from their dream Alaskan excursion tell her they either loved the trip or hated it. Before actually going I couldn’t understand how anyone could hate Alaska. Now that I’m back, I can perhaps see where they’re coming from even if I don’t share the intensity of those feelings.
Alaska, as you know, is a wild and rugged place. You may have also heard that Alaska is wildly expensive. If you’re an outdoor enthusiast equipped and capable of confronting the elements mono a mono or, alternatively, if you have deep enough pockets to pay experienced guides to show you the way, Alaska can be an out-of-this-world travel destination. And that pretty much describes the first half of our trip.
We rented a car and drove some of the most dramatic scenery we’ve ever encountered. We hired experienced ice climbers to help us summit a glacier. We dug deep for transportation, equipment and guides to kayak Blackstone Bay. It was all both awesome and awesomely expensive. After a week and a half of such adventures we were exhausted. So too were our wallets.
We decided to give them and us a rest and pledged to forego any additional paid adventures for the balance of our time in Alaska. No flight-seeing, no dog sledding, no deep sea fishing, no whitewater rafting, no whale watching, no glacier cruising, no nothing. We’d travel pretty much as we usually do, cheaply and on our own. And while that normally suits us well, in Alaska we found it to be extremely limiting.
First of all, Alaska is huge. Two and one-half times larger than the “Big” state of Texas. And public transportation is rare. Saying that it’s hard to explore all of those miles on foot is an understatement. It’s impossible.
And the largeness of Alaska’s wilderness is reflected in the smallness of its towns. Most places we docked took about a half a day to cover on foot. And mostly what we found were ports lined with memorabilia shops trying to appear quaint and booths hawking the very tours from which we had sworn abstinence.
Normally in such places all you have to do is venture a few streets off the main strip to find local hangouts, good food and cool places that the harried vacationing hordes often miss. We found nothing of the kind at most of our Inside Passage stops (Sitka possibly excepted.)
Mostly locals pointed us back to the main strip. One man told us that most Alaskans simply eat at home because many restaurants only open a couple of months each year. And once summer arrives, he said, people would rather fire-up a back-yard barbeque than frequent the expensive restaurants catering to the cruise ship crowd. We can’t say we blame him. But that didn’t leave us with many good options. We left our grill in Seattle.
And so the back-half of our time in Alaska slowed considerably, which isn’t all bad. But we often found ourselves casting about searching in vain for things to keep us occupied; looking forward to the next stop only to find it similar to the one we just left. We were caught in a never-ending tourist trap.
Ironically, there were still plenty of things we wanted to do in Alaska. We just didn’t want to pay for them, and we weren’t equipped to do them on our own. Those limitations, we found, marked the dividing line between having an unforgettable time in Alaska and a far less memorable one.