We were looking for adventure without being eaten by grizzlies. We wanted rustic without having to walk through snow to the loo. And we wanted nature.
On our Alaska honeymoon, my wife and I got that -- and more.
In 10 days we covered 896 miles, watching this huge expanse of wilderness unfold before us -- from barren tundra to rocky coastlines teeming with wildlife.
Our self-guided tour by rental car took us on a zigzag journey, using a friend's home in Anchorage as a base. We made three separate trips north, east and south, to the foot of the tallest mountain on the continent, across seemingly endless miles of wind-swept tundra and along deserted coasts where eagles and sea lions played against a backdrop of mighty glaciers and snowcapped peaks.
We hopped a coastal ferry that pulled to within throwing distance of a 39-mile-long glacier. Farther inland, we tumbled over icy river rapids in a rubber raft. And in one heroic afternoon trolling for salmon on the Kenai Peninsula, my wife, Megan, landed a 40-pounder, a roast-sized filet of which we grilled and ate for dinner.
Landing in Anchorage past midnight, we couldn't help noticing that the sky still had not grown dark. The sun does set on Alaska in June -- but just barely -- and then only to leaven the day with a little dusk.
The next day we pointed our rented compact toward the coastal town of Seward, 130 miles southeast, where we had booked a day-long boat cruise into the animal habitats of Kenai Fjords National Park. Along the way we saw bald eagles swoop down to fish on the shores of Turnagain Arm, and an hour out of Anchorage we turned off the highway to visit Portage Glacier.
Glaciers abound in Alaska, but most are seen best from the ocean. Portage is a motorist's glacier, lumbering out of the mountains to empty into a lake only a short distance from the highway. The popsicle-blue icebergs that break off float silently to their doom at the edge of a parking lot scratched out for visitors.
Our friends had prepped us for Seward, and it lived up to its billing. There's nothing quaint or cute about most Alaska towns. They still have the frontier look, and Seward, pop. 1,843, was all business, a low-slung village butted up against a harbor that accommodates a local salmon fishing industry. The proprietress of the historic Van Gilder Hotel had booked us into the "bridal suite," a brass bed over the hotel's bar with a vintage bath that we shared with the suite next door.
The next morning we were up early and wolfed down breakfast at the harbor before boarding the 65-foot Spirit by 7 a.m. with about 20 other passengers. The boat's owner, Pam Oldow, introduced herself on the dock while her husband and pilot Don drank coffee at the helm.
Pam Oldow had helped federal naturalists plot the park in the 1970s and began scheduled tours on her boat four years ago. On each tour, the Spirit slips into Resurrection Bay surrounded by mountains and thick pine forests, and passes Bear Glacier and some of the state's largest bird rookeries before returning eight hours later. Naturalists flock to the area to study colonies of puffins and kittiwakes that roost on rocky islands and cliff-side lava formations. Cold-water mammals abound: sea lions, otters, whales and dolphins.
As we left the harbor, a sea otter lolled on his back, dipping in the swells and eyeing us cautiously. A pair of dolphins sped by, and we stood on the bow in our yellow rain slickers as Don maneuvered the Spirit to within feet of Rugged Island, where we roused about 100 snoozing sea lions.
The big males, their necks bulging, barked and snarled at the pack when we approached, keeping their harems of females in line.
We never made it far out of the bay, though. The weather hadn't been friendly all morning. The sea was gray under thick, low clouds and a light rain stung in the cold wind.
Don peered through binoculars at the white caps breaking out in the ocean where we were headed and decided to turn back. We pulled into the harbor four hours early with some copassengers looking green. Dinner was a pizza, and we turned in early that night, ready to hit the road back to Anchorage.
It was a full day's drive from Anchorage north to our next destination, Denali National Park and the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. We were busting to see our first moose, and about 40 miles outside the park Megan spotted a large cow browsing near a stream about 300 yards off the road.
We stopped the car and stood completely absorbed as the cow -- at least seven feet tall -- lumbered across the stream and stepped into a bed of grass next to her calf. Both stared back at us, ears pricked.
Only later did we learn that moose roam Alaska like rabbits. In fact, there was one standing outside the door at the park lodge when we arrived.
The area around the park is practically uninhabited. There are a few campsites, rental cabins and one large motel complex. But otherwise civilization has left Denali to its own devices.
The park's lodge routinely fills to overflowing with hikers and tourists in summer and some guests bed down in the small compartments of old railway couches parked outside the entrance. We had reserved a cabin at the Crow's Nest, a new guest-house development of a few pine cabins perched on a hillside overlooking the Nenana River about a mile from the park entrance.
Most who live in Alaska year-round have a story to tell. The couple who owns the Crow's Nest had moved into the valley in 1974 from Fiji. He worked on the Alaska Pipeline while she taught in the elementary school in a village about 10 miles down the road.
With the addition of a new bathhouse to serve the cabins, last summer they were celebrating their first year with plumbing.
This is hiking country and automobiles are banned from the interior of the park except by permit for camping. There's one 90-mile hard-packed road through the mountains and the Park Service offers a free shuttle service for hikers from one end to the other.
The bus drivers claim they're not operating a sightseeing tour on the shuttle, but they're trained in the local flora and fauna and usually stop when there's something to see.
A continuous drizzle dampened our hiking plans, and Mount McKinley for us was just a rumor hidden behind the clouds. But riding the bus for six hours we got our first close-up look at a grizzly, who sat on his haunches on a wooded hillside 200 yards from the road, apparently munching on a new kill. Herds of dall sheep grazed on rocky perches several hundred feet up the mountainsides.
The road winds through desolate areas of brush and sometimes broad, barren plains in the lap of the Mount McKinley foothills. Our sharp-eyed driver stopped the bus when he sighted a herd of caribou crossing a stony riverbed about a mile away.
Megan had been praying for weeks that the Nenana would be frozen so we could back out gracefully from our planned white-water raft trip that evening. Instead, it was running higher and wilder than usual with the spring melt. Our pilot assured us we would be safe, although one raft had tipped over a few weeks earlier leaving an elderly couple suffering exposure but not seriously injured.
Wrapped in waterproof suits, we climbed into the raft with four hardy tourists from Colorado. We were ready for the worst, but our pilot steered us deftly through 12 miles of treacherous narrows and around killer rocks.
That night, back at the Crow's Nest, we gorged on an all-you-can-eat feast of grilled salmon, deep-fried halibut and gigantic beef ribs, a real bargain, we thought, at $13 per person. We found a touch of home in the bar at the park lodge, where the hikers were drinking beer and watching a free movie: "Moscow on the Hudson."
We had heard intriguing reports about the coastal ferry trip across Prince William Sound between Valdez -- the southern terminus of the oil pipeline -- and Whittier. We were told the ferry books up weeks in advance, but we called on a chance and luckily found they still had room. It would take at least a day to drive there, first 135 miles east from Denali across unpaved highway, then south another 180 miles to Valdez.
Shortly after leaving the park area, we pulled to an abrupt stop when a moose calf emerged from the underbrush and walked into the road. Bewildered, the calf stared at us briefly, then ducked under a guardrail, scrambled down the embankment and plunged into an icy river.
Our hearts pounded as we imagined it being swept downstream to its doom. But it fought the current until it finally found a footing on the opposite shore.
We spent that afternoon dodging potholes as we made our way slowly across the tundra wasteland. What would happen, we thought, if we had a flat tire? We drove hours without seeing another soul, only a few empty hunters' cabins and beaver lodges off in the tiny ponds that dotted the broad, lonely plains.
It was deathly still and treeless, the snow-streaked mountains sullen in the distance, rivers cluttered with gray rocks.
We rejoiced at every sign of life. We found a pair of caribou grazing on the roadside and managed to sneak up close. Megan discovered antlers lying on the shoulder.
An hour later, we were relieved to come upon a road crew, who stopped their shoveling to watch in apparent amazement as we passed by.
Just outside Valdez, we pulled up at a bed and breakfast to spend the night, but the only room left had a huge skylight and the owner warned us we would not sleep much. We drove another two miles and found a motel/grocery store with a reminder of what we had left behind in Washington: color television.
The ferry between Valdez and Whittier is a major coastal link with Anchorage and a long line of autos and campers had already formed behind the M.V. Bartlett by 7 a.m. The Bartlett is not billed as a tour boat, but it does sidetrack its route just long enough to take passengers up close to Columbia Glacier. A National Forest Service ranger stationed on the ferry lectures on wildlife and glaciers.
One of the world's largest tidal glaciers, Columbia calves icebergs the size of houses into the waters of the sound. Chunks of ice thumped against the bottom of the boat while we followed through binoculars the bald eagles that swooped over the water.
In Whittier about seven hours later, we boarded a train that shuttles motorists through a mountain tunnel, connecting the small port with the highway back to Anchorage.
Our friends in Anchorage were avid sportsmen and had made a date for us with their favorite fishing guide, Smitty, a former Navy frogman who keeps a trailer on the Kenai River between Anchorage and Homer, to the south.
We left early the next day and when we arrived around 10 a.m., Smitty was pulling his skiff in to shore with one lucky group of anglers. They had snagged three big king salmon running up the Kenai to spawn.
The river is lined with cabins, houses and trailers and that day was swarming with dozens of fishermen who take their boats upstream to cast out their lines, then float downstream with the current, letting their hooks bounce along the bottom.
When the salmon are running, in early summer, you have to wait in line to get a licensed guide.
Smitty baited our hooks with clumps of pink salmon roe and we cast out. It was midafternoon before we got our first strike. One of our friends brought a good-sized fish up to the boat, but it slipped off the hook, leaving her only a souvenir: some previous angler's lure that this lucky salmon had been carrying inside its mouth.
Our hopes were dwindling, but Smitty wasn't about to go back empty-handed. Then Megan felt a sharp tug on her line and within seconds we were all scrambling to stay out of her way as she followed the fish from one side of the boat to the other, her pole doubled over.
Fifteen minutes later we were gutting the 40-pounder on Smitty's cutting table. The piece we grilled that night was the size of a pot roast, and we had plenty to fill a cooler to take back to Washington, where we're still feasting on some of our memories of Alaska.
We had approached our trip to the 49th state with trepidation. We had imagined frosty temperatures and exorbitant prices. We had heard about mosquitoes the size of B52s. We had pictured ourselves lost among hairy trappers in Arctic outposts far from civilization.
What we found was enough to soothe a voyaging yuppie's soul: The temperature in Fairbanks soared into the '80s in early June. We counted one mosquito. The price of food and lodging was higher than what we were used to, but not prohibitively so, and we met some of the friendliest folk this side of the Bering Strait.
And they take credit cards.