Right place, wrong attitude

I stood on the walkway over Steep Creek, in the shadow of the Mendenhall Glacier. A popular spot for Juneau locals and visitors alike. This late summer afternoon, sockeye salmon finned in the clear shallows, flashing their deep red spawning colors; a bald eagle perched in a spruce, framed by the autumn-tinged slopes of Mount McGinnis: the whole scene a giant, living postcard. I gazed out, feeling my pulse and breathing slow to match my surroundings.  

An incoming clump-clump of footsteps signaled an end to my moment alone. No big shock. After all, the bus-packed parking lot for the Glacier Visitor Center lay just a hundred yards away. Amazing, I told myself, that this little chunk of country could absorb so much traffic, day in and out, and stay this good. 

“Where are the bears?” A New Jersey voice in the crowd demanded. “They said we’d see bayuhs.” I smiled and pointed to the trampled trails in the streamside grass and the scraps of salmon that showed at least one had been around recently—probably the young male folks had been seeing. Hang around a while, keep still as we can and maybe he’ll show up, I suggested. Meanwhile, there was the eagle, those fish, and that killer view. Many in the group were dialed in, totally thrilled; but the woman who asked the question glanced around, shook her head, and stomped off as if she’d been conned. 

Then there were those two young guys down in Seward a few years back. Just in from a sport fishing charter, they were griping loud enough for the whole dock to hear. Though they’d each caught a limit, their halibut ranged “only” from 30 to 40 pounds, while another boat had cleaned up on fish double that size. Most Alaskans would have a tough time complaining about a pile of prime, perfect eating-size filets, more than enough at supermarket prices to have paid for the trip. Their fish were more than respectable, the weather fine, and no doubt they’d scored some wildlife sightings and scenery. But no use saying anything; those dolts seemed determined to ruin their perfectly good day. The grievances continued to spiral skyward as I strolled out of earshot. 

Over the years, I’ve witnessed myriad versions of the same thing: folks whose expectations were out of sync with Alaska reality. Easy to see how that could happen. The Great Land is exactly that: a broad-shouldered, superlative-packed vastness that naturally encourages you to dream—not just big, but huge. The online ads for tours, lodges, charters, and excursions—salmon-snatching grizzlies, thundering cascades of glacial ice, cuddly baby otters, and northern lights blazing over Denali—further reinforce the notion that you, too, will see such things. Not only up close, but staged and cued, practically waiting for you to pull up and press the play button. How are those pictures not a promise, and anything less not a disappointment? 

Naturally, when experience doesn’t match expectations, there’s a letdown—or, worse, an entire trip-wrecking sequence of them: That dark speck was a moose? Where’s Denali? Who turned off the northern lights? Why are those whales just spouting and showing tails, not doing something exciting? And to top it off, it’s barely stopped raining since we got to southeast Alaska.

Never mind that wildlife tends to be elusive, and Denali’s crown more often weather-shrouded than not; that Alaska’s bright summer nights mask the aurora; that those whales were busy being whales; and Southeast is a cold rainforest, after all. Most miffed visitors don’t even know that they’re seeing Alaska exactly as it is. They spend most of their time looking right past it, wanting it to be something more, and—irony of ironies—missing the very thing they came to see. 

One thing to be over-expecting; I can understand that. But I’m totally baffled by the legions of people I encounter who seem oblivious to where they are—desensitized, even downright bored, after coming all this way. A recent, real-life example: there sit a couple dozen folks in a dim, windowless lounge of a cruise ship, playing board games or cards, staring into their cell phones, or chit-chatting.

Meanwhile, we’re a thousand yards off the furrowed, blue-white face of Margerie Glacier on a perfect June afternoon, nestled below the looming summit of Mount Fairweather. Seals and otters perch on chunks of drifting ice; gulls wheel and dive, and a distant grizzly mom and cubs forage along the beach, the entire land and seascape glowing in gorgeous filtered light. We’ll be here less than an hour. I know those folks can do what they want, but I just don’t get why that doesn’t include rising from their self-imposed zombiedom and lurching the dozen paces through the door to the outer deck, into that astounding scene. What’s wrong with them? I’m tempted to be insulted on behalf of the land I love, but I know it doesn’t notice, let alone care what any of us do.

A surprising number of visitors to Alaska seem to miss the point of their journey.

So, back to the other end of the spectrum, those who feel cheated by what they didn’t see. Were all those incredible images, videos, and glowing descriptions part of some hyped-up scam? Of course not. Extraordinary stuff happens across Alaska every day. Naturally, the visual swag online and elsewhere tends to capture those perfect instants—most of them the distilled products of weeks, months, even years invested by serious photographers and filmmakers. Small wonder that, in their fast-forward dash through a slice of the state, our visitors might have seen or experienced less than those pros did. 

What am I trying to tell you—Alaska, like marriage, will never be as good as you think it should be, so relax and take whatever you get? Hell, no. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big—and if not about Alaska, then what? You, too, can witness bubble-netting whales so close that you’re wrapped in the steam of their breath; have an out-of-body experience inside the otherworldly, prismatic dome of a glacial ice cave; hook a giant steelhead that catapults a yard above the water; or for an instant, stare into the eyes of a wild wolf.

Of course, it’s all totally possible. This is Alaska, after all. Trick is, you need to plan to match your dreams, put your best foot forward, and be ready for those big moments when and if they come. Meanwhile, stay focused on the incredible spectacle that’s always there before you, every day of your journey: the Great Land itself.  

The best advice I can offer any Alaska visitor is simple: Show up—every day you’re here. Not just physically but tuned into the ever-shifting moment. Set aside preconceptions and distractions and summon the sort of wide-eyed wonder that the last best chunk of large-scale wilderness on earth deserves. Slap your senses awake, vision most of all. Lean into the country and feel the distance; watch the light and weather shift across its dreaming face, feel time and the trifling matters of our lives fade back. Be curious. Is that a shadow on that hillside or a moose? What’s beyond that ridge? Of course, take along binoculars and cameras and use these vision-sharpening tools freely, but make sure you don’t spend your whole time peering into a screen or eyepiece. Many stunning vistas don’t translate into finite pictures. Don’t forget to make indelible images with the most remarkable and powerful camera of all—your eyes. 

Pay attention like that your whole Alaska trip, and it’ll be tough to end up disappointed. If you missed something or got bigger ideas from your time here, well, you’ll just have to come back. And remember, it’s not the bear’s job to show up. It’s yours.   


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