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Whales, bears, glaciers — and no graffiti


In 1979, I got on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry and rode north to Ketchikan, Alaska. I went just to see something unusual and to be able to say I’d been to Alaska. At the time, I thought just seeing a corner of the state would be enough, but for decades after that I’ve dreamed of someday returning and seeing more of this huge state.

Alaska is not called “The Great Land” for nothing. It is an impressive place, with dramatic forests and iconic wild animals. We sometimes hear Texans bragging about how big Texas is, but those living in Alaska have an old saying that puts Texas in its place: “If you divide Alaska into three equal parts, Texas would be the fourth-largest state in the Union.”

This summer, I decided it was time to dust off my Alaskan dreams. With a daughter getting closer to graduating from high school and heading off to college, I figured this year might be the last, best opportunity my wife, daughter and I would have to venture far away on a family vacation.

We settled on going north to Juneau and Skagway, and added a further twist: a visit to the Yukon Territory. The Yukon border is only about 50 miles north of Skagway, Alaska, and Yukon’s capital city, Whitehorse, is just another 60 miles up from there. To seal the deal, my wife even bought me a bottle of “Yukon Jack” to toast our upcoming adventure.

In mid-July, after about eight months of planning, we boarded a ferry in Bellingham, Wash., and got our trip under way. We’d been warned about rainy weather and ravenous mosquitoes, and my parents and brothers repeatedly cautioned us to watch out for bears and stay away from “bear areas.”

I laughed. Alaska and Canada are bear areas. You can’t stay away from the possibility of encountering bears unless you stay indoors, and that’s not my approach to life. I think the concept of staying away from possibly risky areas went out the window about the time I was 5 years old.

I am willing to take a lot of risk in my travels, yet I also have to admit I have long held an active fear of bears. So I was surprised when, even though a black bear ran through a stream roughly 12 feet away from the three of us as we made our way along a trail near the Mendenhall Glacier, I felt no anxiety at all. It seemed clear the bear’s keen focus was on the salmon meandering up the stream — and not on the family of humans passing by. Seeing a bear in the wild splash through a stream and grab a salmon in his jaws was an unforgettable experience, and a highlight of Alaska 2013.

Whales were also on our agenda. In Juneau, our daughter talked us into springing an extra $100 each to go out on a boat to get up close to humpback whales. We were rewarded with the sight of a group of whales surfacing and feeding together, another awesome scene.

We also saw numerous porcupines. We encountered them crossing trails, waddling across roads and up in trees. On one trail in Kluane National Park in the Yukon, we hiked around a corner to see a big porcupine, which promptly fled up a tree to evade us. The animal climbed excitedly higher, whereupon he got too frantic and fell, snapping branches as he dropped near our feet. He scrambled away, and we were grateful he had not fallen on top of us.

A final point I want to mention may hit home for residents of Hillsboro and Forest Grove: Through all our rambling around several Alaskan cities — Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Haines, along with Carcross, Whitehorse and Haines Junction in the Yukon — we saw essentially no graffiti. There were many totem poles, but graffiti was noticeably absent, and that may have been the most striking discovery of all. What a difference from the Lower 48!

Alaska’s official state slogan is “North to the future.” Given the absence of graffiti and the abundance of incredible wildlife, we can only hope.

Doug Burkhardt is associate editor of the

Hillsboro Tribune.