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Alaska: Up Close and Personal

Meet Denali, over 20,000 feet tall, Credit: copyright 1999, Warren LiebAlaska. Exhilarating and exhausting. Thrilling and terrifying. America’s Last Frontier boasts the highest mountain, longest summer days, biggest fish. They call it The Far North, a remote wilderness that’s more hospitable to bears, whales, wolves, and eagles than humans.


Don’t make the mistake of romanticizing Alaska: rain is incessant, winters long and dark, temperatures plummet to 40 below. Unlucky hikers get mauled to death by bears, climbers die scaling Mt. McKinley, rafters drown in frigid snowmelt rivers. Mountain men and gold prospectors still eke out a Spartan existence in one-room shacks.

Wild and wonderful Alaska is no place for sissies.

But where else can you get up close and personal with a 20,320-foot mountain and a Kenai King Salmon in the same week?

Mt. McKinley, Denali National Park

The Last Frontier, from the McKinley Explorer.  Warren Lieb, 1999"Ladies and gents, meet Denali, The Great One: at 20,320 feet, she’s the tallest mountain in North America," announces our helicopter pilot Clay Braun. Gliding over six million acres of glaciers and spruce forests, we’re eye to eye with Mt. McKinley’s perfectly triangular peak. Although we’re 18 miles away, her four vertical miles look close enough to touch.

"Some 15,000 climbers have made it up Denali," Clay continues. "About 91 have died trying. Yet the youngest climber was a 12-year-old boy; he got up in two weeks. The oldest climber was 71 years young. Takes all kinds, she’s quite a rock."

Spartan spectacular wilderness... Yet 35 miles back at base camp, Denali National Park is chock full of hikers, horseback riders, river rafters, nature lovers. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and gift shops to satisfy their creature comforts. But you’d never know civilization is so close out here in this forbidding world of ice walls 150 feet thick, undulating million-year-old valleys, dall Inside the comfy chopper with Clay.  Warren Lieb, 1999sheep clinging to sheer cliffs.

"This is not an Imax movie, folks," jokes Clay. "This is Alaska."

Although outside June temps are minus 13 degrees, I’m high and dry inside a comfy helicopter, up close and personal with North America’s highest peak. All I can say is "quite a rock."

Great Alaska Fish Camp, Soldotna, Alaska

I’m on the Kenai River, thinking about the King Salmon I let get away. Waited my whole life to fish Alaska, a place so cold so wild only moose stay year round. Had a great fishing guide today, Kent John, a Robert Redford look-alike who loves fishing so much he’s out eight days a week. "Ya never know what will happen on the river," Kent tells me. "Maybe you’ll catch seven fish in ten minutes, maybe you’ll wait all day, go home empty-handed. You know the saying, they call it fishing, not catching."

So cold on the river only the birds are out, and the diehards, layered thick in sweaters, coats, rain slickers, boots, gloves, winter hats. They just grit their teeth and cast.

Kent motors our powerboat through the river’s green rolls, around sharp black boulders. Seagulls whine for fresh fish heads. Arctic terns ride the wind like graceful ballerinas. "Terns migrate from the Arctic Circle every year, some 23,000 miles. They come for summer," explains Kent. What summer? I’m frozen solid as a glacier, and it’s June.

We talk about the salmon we’ve come so far to catch. How big will it be? We’ll ship it home, have a Fish Party on the deck. Broiled, baked, steamed, smoked, poached...so many ways to cook a salmon. How impressive to serve to your friends and say, "Taste this Kenai King I caught in Alaska for you."

Suddenly my husband Warren’s line jerks like a rubber band down to the water’s edge. "Got one!" he yells, snatching the rod out of the holder.

"Steady, steady," Kent coaches. "Take your time. Let it run ‘til it’s tired." Warren and the salmon are fine dance partners. The fish pulls the line longer and longer, flapping furiously out of the water. Warren pulls his rod high into the air, winding in tighter and tighter. They tango 15 minutes clear round the boat, in a dance where one partner will lose big. The fish flings high into the air. "Looks like a 38-pounder," yells Kent. "It’s gettin’ tired now."

Kent and Warren haul up the 38-pounder.  Warren Lieb, 1999Warren winds in his line for what seems like years, as Kent holds the net next to the boat. "Female," he pronounces, scooping up the massive red and brown creature. "Back to lay her eggs. They can smell their home river ya know."

I imagine this fish swimming uncountable ocean miles, surviving enemy attack from sharks, sea lions, whales. Mile after mile she perseveres, until some pre-programmed instinct says, "Turn at the Kenai River darlin’, you’re home sweet home."

Now she faces the final enemy: me.

"What’s the deal Sharon? Catch or release?" Warren asks. She’s gasping for air as I pretend to play God. Watching her fade, I fall hard in love. Her beauty, her stamina, her wildness. I’d trade places in a second to have her courage.

"Let her go. Hurry up she’s dying." Everyone on the boats thinks I’m strange.

Kent wrenches the hook out of her bleeding mouth. My first Alaska fish leaps away to freedom. The Kenai King is a Queen, queen of my heart.

"Welcome home sister," I whisper.

©1999, Sharon Lloyd Spence

Travel Information:

Denali National Park, six million acres of pristine wilderness and wildlife habitat, is 238 miles north of Anchorage, 120 miles south of Fairbanks. Visit the park by car, motorcoach or take the McKinley Explorer train. Hotels, restaurants, shops, entertainment and tours are available within the Park.

Great Alaska Adventure Lodge and Fish Camp is in Soldotna, on the Kenai Peninsula 148 miles south of Anchorage. Fish on two world-class salmon streams, the Russian and Kenai Rivers. A King salmon caught in 1985 weighing 97.25 pounds is still the world record holder. Consider that a challenge. The Adventure Lodge also offers river rafting, sea kayaking, hiking, canoeing, flightseeing, mountain biking and overnights to view wild Brown bears.

Travel Contact:

For all your Alaska adventures, transportation, tours and accommodations, contact Gray Line of Alaska at: 800-544-2206.