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Alaska trip offers Denali views, visit with Iditarod legend: Susannah Gal

Posted 7/24/19

Well, how was the trip to Alaska, you may ask? It was wonderful.

There were so many interesting sites and experiences that I won’t be able to cover it all in one column. I applaud LaVonne …

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Alaska trip offers Denali views, visit with Iditarod legend: Susannah Gal


Well, how was the trip to Alaska, you may ask? It was wonderful.

There were so many interesting sites and experiences that I won’t be able to cover it all in one column. I applaud LaVonne Ackerman for describing each day of her trip to Israel in her weekly column of late.

I know that it’s not always practical to take some time off, although I want to encourage you to do so if you can. According to a story on NPR last August, more than 700 million vacation days went unused in 2017 by Americans, and a bunch of those were lost by the workers as they didn’t roll over into the new year. The story said that besides the fact that vacation can make us feel good, apparently there are health benefits as well. 

The upshot for my trip was that all of the arrangements worked perfectly, we stayed friends with our daughters and my husband enjoyed the cruise. I did gain a bit of weight, though, which was not my goal. I’ll just try to refuse more of the desserts than I did during the trip.

Here’s a brief synopsis of some of the highlights of our first week, which was on land.

We flew into Fairbanks through some smoky haze and smell because of the forest fires raging not too far away. The first day, we had a wonderful visit with Mary Shields and her dogs. Mary was the first woman in 1974 to complete the Iditarod dogsled race (then in its second year of running). Later that day, we took a hike and visited an ice museum with some fun sculptures. The next day, my friend took us on a private tour of a permafrost tunnel built by the Army Corps of Engineers. In the tunnel, we could see plant and animal remains from 11,000 to 32,000 years ago.

We then drove two hours to the area around Denali National Park. The first day, we got our bearings and met the sled dogs used by park rangers to cart supplies to campers in the winter. The next day, we did a 2-mile hike around the Savage River, about one-tenth of the way into this enormous park. We saw moose, caribou and a cute ground squirrel.

After Denali, we drove the four hours to Anchorage and on the way got a marvelous view of the crown jewel, Mount Denali (aka McKinley), the highest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet. We hadn’t been able to see it when we were inside the park because of the cloud cover, so we felt very fortunate to be one of the 30 percent who actually see the peak. During the trip to the largest city in the state, we had some great views of other mountains and rivers as well.

Anchorage was much flatter than I expected, and certainly felt like a “big city” after our treks in the small, rural areas since leaving Fairbanks. Our first full day, we explored a lovely Native Heritage Museum that had displays and houses of various native Alaskan peoples, plus a presentation on the sports they engaged in. These all seemed to take a lot of skill. We also visited the Anchorage Museum, which had some interesting displays of native Alaskan peoples gathered by the Smithsonian Institution. There was also a lot of art work by locals and by non-native people who had visited and fallen in love with the state. That day was the Fourth of July, although we would have no opportunity to view fireworks. This was due in part to the severe drought they were having (hence the forest fires) and the fact that it doesn’t really get dark there in summer – there’s about 20 hours of full sunshine each day. My husband found video of fireworks online from New York City, but it wasn’t quite the same.

The next day, we had to get up early to be out by 8 a.m. We had to be in Seward, Alaska, by 11 a.m. to meet a tour. That town was another 2½ hours away and I didn’t want to take any chances. This trip was also gorgeous — with the road going along one side of an inlet, then the other, with misty mountains on all sides. We found the hotel where we could leave our car and walked over to the train station to meet the tour group.

The tour in Seward involved a cool visit to yet another dogsled place, this time the one run by the Seavey family, who have won several of the Iditarod races in the recent past.

We got to hold several puppies that were about 8 weeks old and ride in a cart pulled by 14 very eager dogs. We were able to see the gear they use and hear about the challenges of racing to win. Then our group went on a 1½ mile hike up to Exit Glacier with more beautiful views and scenery. We also saw some salmon along a small stream, trying hard to jump up the falls toward their home lake where they spawned. It was a great tour, and our guide was super friendly.

We had a good part of the next day to explore Seward before boarding the boat (ship!) in the afternoon of our eighth day. The girls wanted to visit the aquarium in Seward, which touted otters, puffins and seals. I had to wait for the ship luggage drop to open at 11 a.m. and then joined my husband down by the water to enjoy our picnic lunch. We then walked back through town seeing a small quilt yard sale that tempted me with their fabric swatches.

Finally, we took a small free shuttle from the town to meet the cruise ship and boarded it at about 4 in the afternoon for our week on the water.

I’ll tell you about the cruise part in my next column.

Susannah Gal is a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at