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A Duluthian's travels in Alaska

Whale watching in Juneau. (Photo by Joanne Gerebr)

It took me three seconds to say yes when my sister suggested an Alaskan cruise. Weeks later, our first-time cruise became real. We landed in Anchorage late at night on May 29 and were greeted with sun-baked temps in the 70s. Welcome to Alaska, land of the midnight sun!

We grew up in Silver Bay. I moved to Duluth two years ago after living in Proctor for 33 years. My sister, Jeanette Smith, moved from Duluth to Las Cruces, N.M. 31 years ago but her love of Duluth has never wavered.

One of the most enjoyable parts of our trip was experiencing a different type of nature, a more rugged, less civilized environment. Yes, we have wildlife in Minnesota, but it is vastly different from the whales, seals and elk that populate Alaska.

Trips in and around Denali National Park gave us an opportunity to see Mount Denali (meaning "the great one" in Alaskan native language) in all of her majestic glory. At 20,320 feet, Denali (also known as Mount McKinley) is the tallest peak in North America. Normally it's shrouded in fog, but we were among the lucky 20 percent who had the thrill of seeing the entire mountain. A wilderness adventure took us deep into Denali National Park and was a photographer's dream. The park is one of the last bastions of pristine wilderness, not unlike our own Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Private cars are rarely permitted but sanctioned tour groups, hikers, backpackers and bikers are always welcome. We were treated to sightings of grizzly bears, moose, caribou and eagles.

We didn't want to leave Denali but additional adventures were to come and so it was off to Seward, where we boarded onto our ship. Life aboard the ship was busy and fun.

Glaciers abound in Alaska. One of the most beautiful glaciers is Hubbard Glacier, known as the "galloping glacier" for its relatively rapid movement. It measures 76 miles long, plunges 1,200 feet and is a beautiful azure blue.

Our first port of call was Icy Strait Point. While some of the passengers opted to ride the 5,330-foot zipline, we did something a little less thrill-seeking and attended a ceremonial tribal dance. We were introduced to the Tlingit tradition of oral storytelling as we learned "How the Raven Stole the Sun." The people were gracious and justifiably proud of their rich heritage.

Our second port of call was the capital city of Juneau. While in Juneau we went on a whale-watching expedition. The power of the ocean was obvious as our tiny boat navigated the rough waters. The tour company had a money-back guarantee if no whales were spotted. Their money was safe, however, as we found ourselves surrounded by humpback whales, porpoises and playful sea otters.

After sailing past Sawyer Glacier, we reached Skagway. A delicious outdoor barbeque with the finest Alaskan Salmon I've ever tasted was ours in a place called Liarsville. The weather was chilly in Skagway, but the pine trees in Liarsville provided protection from the elements and we had a very enjoyable time.

Our next port of call was Ketchikan. Ketchikan is known for its large collection of colorful totem poles. A visit to Saxman Native Village gave us an opportunity to watch a master carver at work. Totem poles tell a story; once the totem is carved the story is revealed. One such totem is known as the Unknown Totem because the carver died before telling the story.

Dawn was breaking when we reached Vancouver, British Columbia, on June 9. Our Alaskan adventure was coming to an end. Thoughts of becoming a stowaway flooded my head but with two cats at home and a job to return to, it was obvious that life aboard ship would have to end.

Alaska gets in your blood and I plan to go back some day. Until then, I have stories to tell and a heart full of memories. But Duluth is my home now and will be for some time.

Joanne Gerber lives in Duluth.

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