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BEACON Senior News

Big things in store when you visit Alaska

Jul 01, 2024 08:33PM ● By Victor Block

Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet above sea level.

When I started planning my trip to Alaska, three words immediately sprang to mind: “big,” which describes the size of many things in the 49th state, including Mount Denali (previously Mount McKinley)—North America’s tallest peak; “majestic,” reflecting some of the most stunning scenery; and “wild,” describing the abundant wildlife.

It wasn’t long before I experienced all these features firsthand. Alaska is big. It’s twice the size of Texas, with a coastline that surpasses the combined lengths of all other states. Denali National Park sprawls larger than Massachusetts, and the state boasts over two-thirds of the nation’s total national park land.


The breathtaking scenery first caught my eye. Snow-capped mountain peaks stretch to the horizon, including 17 of the 20 highest in the U.S. Rivers meander through valleys carved eons ago by glaciers.

Opportunities to observe wildlife are everywhere. My itinerary included Denali National Park and Preserve, a landscape of Arctic tundra and towering mountains. In addition to the “Big Five” Alaskan mammals—grizzly bears, caribou, moose, wolves and Dall sheep—this wilderness is home to a menagerie of other creatures.


Towns in Alaska aren’t far from the wilderness. In many places, they overlap with parks, starting within city limits and stretching into the expansive backcountry. It’s not uncommon for moose, bears and other wildlife to wander into urban areas, a sight that barely raises an eyebrow among locals used to such intrusions.

One Anchorage park provides an inviting habitat for bears and moose. Here, people gather to watch the spring-to-summer spawning run of salmon. As salmon battle their way up the rushing streams, hungry bears congregate to feast on their favorite meal.


A visit to the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage offered a deep dive into the lives of the state’s indigenous cultures, an integral part of Alaska’s heritage. The customs and traditions of the 11 major Native groups are presented there through dance, music, art and storytelling.

Authentic Native dwellings, representative of various indigenous groups, are arranged outside and staffed by individuals from villages across Alaska. They share their history, folklore and other fascinating details. 

Alaskan towns, each with their unique history and tales, are equally captivating. Juneau, the state capital, owes its existence to the discovery of gold in 1880, predating the famous Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon. I relived those exciting days through visits to several mining sites and even tried my hand at gold panning, which was fun but hardly lucrative.

Mendenhall Glacier is about 13.6 miles long and is located about 12 miles from downtown Juneau.

Juneau is also renowned for its proximity to the Mendenhall Glacier, one of the most accessible of Alaska’s roughly 10,000 glaciers. Towering over the town, it stretches about 12 miles from the ice field where it originates.

At the lake where the glacier ends, large chunks break off to form icebergs. I was fortunate enough to witness a “calving,” the term for this process, but I was saddened to learn how far the glacier has retreated in recent years.

The town of Ketchikan, situated where Tlingit natives once established summer fishing camps, claims the title of “Salmon Capital of the World.” The town is also famous for having the largest display of standing totem poles, found in organized collections and in front of private homes.


The atmosphere along Creek Street in Ketchikan is very different. A wooden boardwalk follows the stream that cuts through the town’s heart. During the Prohibition era and for about three decades afterward, some of the buildings perched above the water served as brothels. A sign playfully welcomes visitors to Creek Street, stating, “Where fish and fishermen go up the creek to spawn.” These historic structures now accommodate restaurants, galleries and gift shops.

In Sitka, the main attraction highlights Russia’s colonial efforts in what is now Alaska, which ended with the sale of the territory to the U.S. in 1867. The Russian Bishop’s House, built between 1842 and 1843, the onion-shaped domes of St. Michael’s Cathedral from 1834, and a replica of a Russian fort blockhouse stand as reminders of this chapter of history.

Creek Street is a boardwalk on stilts and is infamous as being Ketchikan’s red light district, built roughly between 1903 and 1954.

Beyond its stunning natural landscapes and colorful history, Alaska made a lasting impression through its abundant interactions with wildlife and the deep respect accorded to the cultures of its Native people. 

The renaming of Mount McKinley to Denali acknowledged the Athabascan Indian term for “Great One.” I noticed locals donning T-shirts adorned with totem poles and other traditional symbols. I was particularly moved by an Aleut guide at the Alaska Native Heritage Center, who proudly described how men from his village continue to hunt whales from kayaks. He also boasted about the exquisitely woven baskets made by the women in his community, reputed to be among the finest in the world.

Non-native residents express their pride and independence in other ways. This sentiment is reflected in the state license plate motto, “Alaska – The Last Frontier,” and a sign I saw in a small town declaring, “Where the road ends and life begins.”

These characteristics were personified by Elizabeth Arnett, a nurse who shared with me that moving to Alaska taught her the value of an independent spirit necessary to live far from family and friends. Similarly, a shopkeeper in Ketchikan, when I asked why she moved to the state, simply replied, “Adventure.”