A look of horror crossed my mom’s face. We stared at the petite woman standing in the pouring rain raising her hands over her head and making menacing faces.
“If you see a bear, put your hands over your head and start saying, ‘Bear, go away.’ If we do this all together, then he will be afraid and walk away,” said Tammy Smith, our hiking guide in Denali National Park. “Well, hopefully.”
The mud was sticky, the incline steep and droplets of rain stuck to our coats.
“Masada,” my mom said, “I don’t think this is for me.”
“That’s nice,” I responded. “Now let’s go.”
We grabbed walking sticks and set off, walking single file behind our guide on the Triple Lakes Trail.
Denali National Park in Alaska is a dream destination. The scenery is majestic, in both the rain and sunshine as it appears to be the land before time. It’s both pristine and rugged, and the magic only escalates when viewing a grisly bear at close range. (We saw a few, but out of a tour bus window in the park.)
But all of this came later. To start our three-week trek through Alaska — in search of both the scenic and Jewish angles — we landed in Fairbanks and worked our way south using nearly every mode of transportation possible: Planes, trains, automobiles, canoes, helicopters and a ship.
Fairbanks took us by surprise; it is charming and filled with unique places like the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum at Wedgewood resort. This living museum encompasses 78 vehicles ranging from the obscure such as the Hertel and Argonne to the legendary Peerless and Packard. It’s a walk through both automotive and American history. Many of the shiny cars are paired with figurines wearing the fashion of the period.
After exploring the fabulous ice museum, the fair and hopping on a riverboat cruise, but before dinner at the famous Pump House restaurant and saloon, we stopped by Congregation Or HaTzafon. Translated from the Hebrew, that’s the Light of the North.
Fairbanks has a small but vibrant Jewish community. The city started in 1902 and in 1904 a Jewish community formed with the arrival of Robert Bloom, a Lithuanian who came from Ireland via the Klondike in 1898. He ran a general store from 1906 to 1941 and contributed not only to the Fairbanks Jewish community but was one of the founders of the University of Alaska.
Next came a jaunt to the Arctic Circle with Northern Alaska Tour Company. We saw our first moose only an hour into the drive. The Alaskan pipeline rose and fell, guiding us along the way. We stopped to pick wild blueberries and bounced along the squishy Arctic tundra. In remote places we met people who lived by nature’s rules, mainly fishing and hunting for their sustenance.
Our tour then took a turn for the luxurious as we boarded the majestic Alaskan railroad. The gold-star service is premier in train travel, and sitting on the upper floor was a treat; the car was all windows, making the views phenomenal. Watching the world roll by is relaxing, and what could be more romantic than a lovely meal on bone china and fine silver on a train, a throwback in time but with all the modern amenities?
The train took us to Denali, where other than hiking, Mom and I ventured to unknown places that included walking in thigh-high wader boots in 34-degree water to go fly fishing.
We followed our fearless guide, Terry Boyd from Denali Fly Fishing, to the river. As new experts in picking wild blueberries, we grazed the entire way.
Mom gave me one of those “What have you gotten me into now?” looks as she started to walk through the near-freezing river running at around 20-25 miles per hour.
Of course she immediately caught a fish. I was not so talented, but I fell in love with the purple mountains and the serenity of the sounds of the river rushing around my feet.
Alaska has a freedom that’s easy to feel, perhaps because everyone seems to be up in the air, literally. The next day’s agenda included flying in a floatplane, and I was nervous. I had never flown in anything so small!
Talkeetna, Alaska is one of the prime locations to fly into Denali National Park. We flew over rivers, lakes and glaciers — it was like flying inside a painting. After an exceptionally smooth landing we were greeted with hors d’oeuvres before a hike in a seemingly untouched land.
It felt unreal, but Talkeetna surprised us in a few ways. We stayed at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, where we could see Mt. McKinley from our room and ate dinner at the Base Camp Bistro, where the food was remarkable both in presentation and taste.
Our next adventure included a new mode of transportation: The rental car. My mom had a map, but it was unnecessary. Driving in Alaska is much like its residents: Straightforward.
Upon our arrival at the Matanuska glacier, we received a safety briefing and our gear: Crampons and walking sticks. As our car bounced along the unpaved road toward the icy blue glacier, I got nervous. Was I pushing adventure too far?
The glacial mud path was sticky, and when the ice was mere steps away, we laced our crampons to our boots. But hiking the icy blue glacier was an unexpectedly incredible experience.
“There comes an age where you have to try everything,” Mom said. “It was one of the most remarkable and challenging experiences, as I had never climbed one.”
Once back on solid ground and starving, we drove to Sheep’s Meadows Lodge for a delicious home-cooked meal. Soon after we stepped into a fairytale called the Matanuska Lodge. This huge home turned into a bed and breakfast was filled with colorful art, couches and books — and, to our surprise, mezuzot on the doors and books about Jewish art in the living room. Even the guest book had notes written in Hebrew. This magical hideaway was known as far away as Israel!
Alaska is home to about 6,000 Jews and has long had a strong relationship with Israel. Rabbi Yosef Greenberg of Chabad of Anchorage explained how in 1949, Alaskan bush pilots risked their own lives to rescue thousands of Yemenite Jews and fly them in the dark of night to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet.
“The planes at the time could make the trip from Yemen to Israel in 10 hours, however could only hold enough fuel for nine hours, and there was no country they could stop to refuel,” Greenberg said. “They had to take fuel on the plane — and refuel it while flying from the inside. These planes were at times shot at, but the Alaskan pilots accepted the job. They flew 370 flights, and when Alaska Airlines had to pull out, their pilots carried on with the mission until it was completed.”
Additionally, the Alaskan Jewish community, understanding the importance of the continuity of the Jewish religion and culture, is working with native Alaskans to help them preserve their heritage and language, such as the Na-Dene language, which became extinct in January 2008.
Spending time with Rabbi Greenberg, who has lived in Alaska for 20 years, was an unexpected treat. He is filled with such a positive energy and light that listening to him was mesmerizing.
He hopes to complete an Alaska Jewish museum to highlight the beauty of the Jewish-Alaskan relationship. A gala and fundraiser in Anchorage in November will feature film stars Nicholas Cage and John Cusack.
Our royal treatment continued as we boarded the Holland America on an inside passage cruise. Our ship, the Statendam, had a cozy, intimate atmosphere.
With a never-ending selection of delectable food, much of it was surprisingly healthy — and fabulous. The ship caters to kosher passengers as well as those with food allergies. No request seemed too big, with abundant little extras like cute animals fashioned from towels and a variety of religious services onboard.
The ever-changing view from our deck was, of course, spectacular, and the ship itself is also a floating museum, with paintings and sculptures worth over $2 million.
My father joined us for the cruise, so Mom was off the hook, but a few shore excursions excited me.
In Haines, I opted to take a 30-foot canoe to Davidson glacier. Newfound friends who lovingly nominated me to sit at the front laughed as I got splashed with freezing cold water.
“I see you are getting the glacial facial, and for free no less,” said my friend Amy, sitting comfortably behind me. I chuckled as big chunks of ice banged into the canoe and we paddled close enough to the glacier to hear the ice cracking.
The next day, in Juneau, I stood atop Mendenhall glacier, arriving via a new mode of transportation. Never having been in a helicopter, the ride felt surprisingly smooth as the world of mountains, glaciers and waterfalls revealed itself below.
As my trip began to come to an end, reality rapidly approached. Alas, putting my hands over my head to try to scare it away was not going to work. Though I was done seeing bears, my Alaskan adventure with Mom will last in my photos and my memories.