Behold: Adventure and Beauty in Alaska

Holland America’s ms Westerdam, with a quintessential Alaskan backdrop. (Photo: David Handschuh)

After disembarking from Holland America’s ms Westerdam in Juneau, I boarded a helicopter in search of an epic Alaska adventure.

Up we climbed, over the dramatic coastal town, passing the ship at dock. After flying past the lush mountainsides, the helicopter banked left. A frozen river of blue peaks worked as a beacon for the pilot, guiding him to the legendary Mendanhall Glacier. The pilot set down on the packed snow and ice, at what looked like a National Geographic exploration base camp. A bright yellow tent and rows of red, waterproof jackets and protective helmets awaited the group. Three other helicopters were on the ice, blades still turning, picking up intrepid adventurers who had just finished a similar flight-seeing and glacier trek.

Hiking on Alaska’s Mendanhall Glacier. (Photo: David Handschuh)

An Alaskan cruise is a popular getaway from early May to late September. This year, more than 500 ships of all sizes are expected to carry 973,000 passengers around the state, according to Francesca Arminio of Cruise Lines International Association.

Cruise passengers account for 58 perfect of all visitors to Alaska each year, but travelers who want to truly experience the wild of our 49th State, hop off the ship at every port for mind-blowing shore excursions. And that’s exactly what I did on a recent Holland America cruise — I took at least one land excursion at each stop on the seven-day adventure.

Related: 12 Things You Need to Know About Taking a Cruise in Alaska

The scenery from aboard the ms Westerdam. (Photo: David Handschuh)

On the glacier trek with Northstar Trekking, I headed out on the Mendanhall Glacier after a quick lesson, excitement in my step and an ice axe on my belt. I crossed the blue tinted ice and started the first climb. It wasn’t Mt. Everest, but my confidence grew as the crampons on my boots helped me push up the side of the glacier.

Using an ice axe in each hand, I dug into the frozen face of the glacier and scrambled upward. Well-secured ropes and the climbing instructor’s encouragement helped me defy gravity and complete the 40-foot climb and rappel back down to a flat area of the Mendenhall Glacier.

It was breathtaking.

Related: 50 Fascinating Facts for 50 States

Conquering some serious glacial ice. (Photo: David Handschuh)

In Sitka, while on an excursion with Allen Marine Tours, I watched a pair of eagles in a tree and a family of playful otters frolicking in the water. The three-hour tour on a small catamaran offered plenty of deck space for wildlife viewing, photography, and just inhaling the fresh, clean air. It also included an easy hour-long walk on an island.

Eagles in a tree in Sitka. (Photo: David Handschuh)

In Ketchikan, I tried out salmon fishing, which is fun for novices and experts alike. Along with other small groups, we were chauffeured from the cruise dock to the fishing dock and met by local captains, many of whom are second and third generation fishermen.

Related: Cheaper Ways to Visit Alaska this Summer — From a Local

In Ketchikan, the salmon capital of the world. (Photo: David Handschuh)

The experienced boat captains have their favorite “secret” spots for fishing the cold, clean waters on their privately owned small boats. Ketchikan is called the “Salmon Capital of the World” for good reason. The king, or Chinook, salmon is prized here and often weighs in at 40 pounds. Cries of “fish on” and the scream of the reel meant a visitor was wrestling with a catch.

Grilling the day’s catch aboard the ms Westerdam. (Photo: David Handschuh)

When the boats came back, happy fishermen lined the docks with the Chinook, coho, sockeye, pink, and chum salmon they’d landed.

Now, every time I open my basement freezer, the rows and rows of frozen salmon I caught remind me of my thrilling Alaskan getaway.

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