Alaskan Odyssey 2002  "The Adventure of a Lifetime"

By June M. Mayhew

I'm not sure when it happened. In fact, I am not sure if any of us could describe the exact moment when we realized it. Maybe it was the moment we crossed the border or maybe it was the moment we saw the icebergs floating in an ocean at the end of June as if it were normal. It could have been the first time we saw the breathtaking snow-capped Canadian Rockies or it could have been as late as the time we spent kayaking alongside sea otters. Although I cannot pinpoint the moment, I like to think that it was moment I put on my pack, the moment when I felt like a true adventurer, with only three changes of clothes (plus lots of warm outer layers) for 37 days in Western Canada and Alaska. Whenever it was, I was embarking on the "adventure of a lifetime"- I was going to Alaska, the "last frontier."

The 37-day trip started with a dream. Dave Barlow, the founder of American Odyssey envisioned an experience that would combine adventure and a love of the outdoors to allow high school and college students to have the trip of a lifetime. The first trip Dave ever took was the American West Odyssey, which has the same objective as the Alaskan trip, except it is shorter and of course, covers a completely different area. In the summer of 2000 however, Dave took his first group to Canada and Alaska to experience the adventures and learning experiences that only a place like that could offer. So, although the trip had been done before, ours was quite different. Unlike before, we were not going to drive all the way from North Carolina to Alaska and back. We would fly to Seattle, rent a van, build a roof rack and start trekking north.  And so our journey began

After getting off the plane in Seattle, we began our first task-building our very own roof rack to hold all of our packs and supplies, because there was no way we could all fit in the van. With a few little kinks, we finished and headed off on two amazing side trips. Although not planned, we decided that we all wanted to see Mount St. Helens. Only those who have seen this amazing site can truly understand how powerful it is. After seeing the flattened trees and the river that still looks like it is clogged up from the mudslides, the eruption seems like it was only days before. We spent as much time as we could taking it all in and then we journeyed on to our next site. After arriving in Mt. Rainer National Park at about 2:00 in the morning, we set our alarms for 4:00 AM (yes, 2 hours later) so we could witness the sunrise. The rolling hills of the Appalachians have their own majestic beauty, but there is something rugged and powerful about the Cascade volcanoes. This was only our first taste of weeks of mountains to come in the near future.

Driving up through the Canadian Rockies was breathtaking. Our first great adventure in Canada would be the climbing of Nigel peak, a 10,000-foot mountain in British Columbia. While we did not summit, we came very close and by the end of the day, we were all pleased with how well we had done as a group. Part of American Odyssey's philosophy is to teach how groups can work together and our climbing of Nigel Peak definitely fulfilled that goal. Climbing up scree, a geological term for what many of us would call pebbles and some larger pieces of sliding rock, we all learned that we would have to depend on each other to climb and be safe. Every ten seconds one of us would have to call out "rock" to warn the person below us that they needed to be on the lookout for sliding rock. We made camp on the shelf of the mountain, sleeping completely out in the open. We woke up to frost on everything and rain, so we headed back down the mountain, packed up the van and continued onward.

After our fairly tiring hike up Nigel Peak, our next stop would be some well-deserved tourist activity.  We were able to see the Athabasca Glacier up close and personal as we rode on SnowCoaches directly onto the glacier.  Monster trucks look like toy cars when put beside the machines we rode, as our van itself was about the size of the wheels on the coach.  After the glaciers, we rode into Jasper, a delightful small British Columbian town, and then reached the "Zero Milepost" of the Alaskan Highway.  The name of the highway is deceiving, as the Highway certainly does not begin in Alaska.  Interestingly enough, most of the highway is in Canada, NOT Alaska.  We all were ecstatic however, to reach something that suggested that we were getting very close to the great state of Alaska.

Watson Lake was our next destination, where we would visit the quirky and fun "Signpost Forest," a "forest" that dates back to the building of the Alaskan Highway when men were far away from their families and made signs pointing how many miles it was to their homes.  Over the years, people have made their own signposts when they visit and one can see signs from India, Africa, and Kalamazoo, Michigan!!  We made our own signpost, deciding to call ourselves the "Magnificent Seven," and hung it out in the rain  nothing could stop us now.  After many nights of sleeping out in the open, we were introduced to some traveling buddies that would join us on the trip - Mosquitoes.  A tent was absolutely necessary and for most of the trip, we became pros at putting the tent up in about 10 minutes or less.  We traveled onward into a part of Canada that most native Canadians have not even seen themselves the Yukon Territory.  Quite honestly, there is not much in this part of our Northern Neighbor's land, but then again, that is probably what is so mysterious and adventurous about it.  Only people who can survive a harsh winter and can live out in the wide open will be found in the Yukon.  We traveled through the capital of Whitehorse and excitedly drove into the town of Dawson City.  I am not joking when I say that we entered a ghost town.  There were a few little stops and some tourists, but all in all, it was a true honest-to-goodness ghost town, with a place even called "Diamond Tooth Gerties" where one can become a member of the Sour Toe Cocktail Club (Only those who venture this far into Canada have the right to know about this!).

The day we had all been anticipating finally arrivedafter much driving on the Top of the World Highway; we crossed the Canadian border and entered Alaska!  I think it was one of those moments that you don't realize until later, after the initial shock has worn off.  We spent a good while taking pictures on the Canadian-Alaska border, a line that literally can be seen in the landscape for miles.  We had reached the "Last Great Frontier" and we were ready for all the adventures that it was about to bring.  We then entered the town of Chicken, Alaska and we all began to truly feel that we were in Alaska.  The town consisted of a gas station and a gift store, where, as most would imagine, some pretty hilarious trinkets can be found.  There, some us were also able to pick up one of the most wonderful books I have ever read  Tisha.  Reading the story of a first-year teacher in Chicken with about 10 students made me realize that my first year of teaching might not turn out to be a complete disaster, but there will definitely be many lessons learned along the way.

We then traveled past Tok and camped at North Pole, where we found plenty of Santa Claus references and a Christmas Shop with anything one could imagine.  Fairbanks was our next stop to enter the real world just long enough to resupply.  Circle Hot Springs was our destination in the morning, after a full night of driving because of heavy rain.  When God was creating this world, he must have decided that his symbol of relaxation would be a hot spring, because there is nothing more relaxing and soothing than a natural hot spring.  We lounged as long as we could and then drove on for what seemed like the LONGEST day ever. maybe because it really was! 

We hit the Dalton Highway on the Summer Solstice, which was remarkable, considering it was the longest day of the year and we were crossing the Artic Circle.  Most people still don't believe me when I tell them that I have been VERY FAR above the Artic Circle.  They either think I have lost my mind or that I am just plain lying through my teeth.  Sometimes I don't even believe it myself.  Nevertheless, it is true.  We crossed the Artic Circle and drove 500 miles down a dirt road to reach Prudhoe Bay where the Artic Ocean lies.  We made one stop along the way for gas in a place called Coldfoot, where some of us ventured 10 miles from our campsite to the lone store of the Highway for something amazing: a glass of hot chocolate above the Artic Circle.  Hot Chocolate is worth any amount of mileage, at least in my mind!    We also managed to sneak a nice hike in late at night on a mountain we like to call "Mt. No-Name."  You can climb at midnight above the Artic Circle without any flashlights during the summer.  We drove the rest of the way the next day and reached Prudhoe Bay, where we toured the oil fields and did something that only a chosen few can boast ofwe swam in the Artic Ocean.  It was 32 degrees outside and about 27 degrees in the water, so it was more of a "run in, submerge your body, take a picture, and try to run out as quickly as possible" kind of swim.  After the coldest and one of the most amazing experiences of our lives, we drove back 500 miles (a total of 1000 miles on a dirt road), encountering snow and muskox along the way.  We reached Fairbanks, where hot showers warmed our Artic-chilled bodies.

After leaving Fairbanks, we journeyed towards the Nenana river where we went white-water rafting.  After politely explaining to the rafting company that we all wanted to be paddling (not rowed by a guide), we headed out in dry suits down a river in which the ice had just broken the month before.  After our Artic Ocean swim, we all thought nothing of jumping in this cold river while hanging on to the side of the raft, particularly since we had dry suits on.  People viewing us from a train seemed to think that we had lost our minds however.  Jenny and I began to think so as well, when we both found ourselves drenched because of partially unzipped suits.  Oh well, just another story to add to the growing list.

Although our entire trip was an adventure, it is here where the amazing part of our trip truly began.  We entered Denali National Park, the most amazing National Park I have encountered in my life.  We started our day by boarding the camper bus to travel all day to Wonder Lake, which is as far as one can venture into the Park by bus.  Along the way, we saw plenty of mountain goats, ptarmigan, reindeer, and bears.  We were even lucky enough to see a black wolf, which like most things, people still do not believe.  This wolf was the Alpha Male our bus driver told us  he had seen him before.  We reached Wonder Lake at about suppertime.  Let me just say two things about Wonder Lake:  it has the most amazing view of Denali when the skies cooperate; it also is the home of the Grand Wizard of the Mosquitoes of Alaska.  Although we all had to walk around to eat our noodles to avoid the kamikaze mosquitoes, the view of Denali was amazing.  Although it wasn't perfectly clear, we could see the bottom and top third of the mountain.  The top just looked as though it was hanging from Heaven, as though God was just dangling it from his throne.  After diving into our tents (to avoid the mosquitoes) and a night of rest, we jumped back on the camper bus and hopped into our van to drive closer to the greatest adventure of our trip.

We reached the town of Talkeetna and visited Talkeetna Air Taxi, the brave people who fly out to Denali to drop off climbers and adventurers like us off at the base camp on the Ruth Glacier.  We also spent the night before our flight in the TAT Bunk House with some other climbers.  We met some very interesting people at the Bunk House,  some Japanese climbers who had reached the summit, along with some Americans who had to head back down.  A man named Bill we met here will always remain in my mind as one of the strangest fellows I have ever encountered.

We divided up into two groups and our planes took us on a flight that most could only imagine.  Anne, Kyle, and I (the three college students) flew together and it really does rank in the 5 most amazing moments in my life.  With only a 5% chance of seeing the highest mountain in North America completely clear, we saw it clear as a bell.  I wasn't sure myself if it was a dream or not.  We landed on the Ruth Glacier and found ourselves to be the only people there to camp for the night.  We opened our mail right on the glacier and sunbathed on our tarps.  Some ninjas also managed to appear out of thin air.  The 24 hours we spent on the glacier cannot even be explained.  We heard avalanches around us, saw more snow than most of us had seen in a lifetime, and spent a glorious day in the "Throne Room of the Mountain Gods".  It made me truly realize how magnificent God's grandeur of the Earth truly is in a place like Alaska.  I also realized how enticing the mountain is, begging for climbers to try its treacherous climb, daring adventurers to try its ever-changing weather.  After sunshine for most of the time, the morning seemed pretty grey.  When the pilot came to pick up the first group, he asked if they were leaving all the food and the tent with us.  We looked at him funny and he informed us that it might start snowing after they left, which could mean that he might not pick the three of us up until a couple days laterwe were like, ha ha.  After they left, however, the sky turned black, some flakes started falling and he didn't come back for an hour, another half an hour and we began to joke about what an adventure THIS would be.  However, he did come back and we returned from our great adventure on Denali.  We ate in a small restaurant in Talkeetna, where we found out that only a couple years ago, about 60 inches of snow had fallen on this exact date Denali truly has a mind of its own.

Our trip continued into Anchorage to resupply and rest.  It also happened to be the Fourth of July, which we were ecstatic to find out that there would be fireworks.  We headed out to a site to watch fireworks and waited, and waited, and waited some more.  We looked at our watched and it was already 12:30 AM on July 5th!!  We watched fireworks on July 5th in daylight, laughing at the phenomenon we were experiencing.  Something about that took away from the whole idea of fireworks, but nevertheless, we were in Alaska.

We headed south into Seward where we went on a wildlife boat tour, seeing everything from puffins to sea lions.  We all found that sea lions are the fattest, most ridiculous creatures on this earth that spend their days burping at fighting with each other.  However, we saw a ton of bald eagles, which is amazing considering there aren't too many left in North America.  Our guide told us about a 1500-pound nest that fell and we began to watch our heads a little more closely.  We journeyed onward to Homer, Alaska for our great kayaking adventure, which ended up being one of the favorite parts of the trip for everyone.  With two great guides who were as young as most of us, we spent two and a half days kayaking in the Kenai Peninsula.  We plucked mussels off the rocks and thanks to some hardworking folks in our group, enjoyed some fish.  As we kayaked, sea otters would swim a few feet away from us, keeping us amused for hours. A few of us even hiked up a couple miles to the top of a mountain for a better view of the shoreline.  Only a few days separated us from the ice we had experienced and now we were enjoying fairly warm weather.

Our next and one of our last adventures would involve heading into one of the largest National ParkWrangell, St. Elias.  We passed through a natural rock "entrance" and journeyed down a 60-mile dirt road that would bring us to the "town" of McCarthy.  As we finally entered the town, we all had to admit that felt as though we had entered "Deliverance II."
The town seemed to have missed the Fourth of July and was having its celebration a couple of days late.  Although I grew up in a two-stoplight town, I was beginning to think that I was now a big city girl.  After waking up in the morning, we supplied our packs and headed off on the most rigorous hike of our trip.  After 5 miles on a mine trail, we found ourselves in the abandoned mining town of Kenicott, where we ate lunch.  Leaving the "tourists" behind, we hiked 4400 feet up for four milesnot an easy task with a full pack on.  However, with teamwork, encouragement, and lots of talking, we made it to our campsite and made sure to put our food away safely because of the bears.  In the morning we headed up another 1000 feet to the copper mine where Dave taught us some geology and we collected many rock samples.  The view of the glacier was awesome and we felt proud to look at the distance we had hiked.  We ventured down to finish our 20-mile hike in sweltering weather, but when we reached the mining town, we must have looked pretty beat, so the tram driver pretty much forced us on the bus.  15 miles was nothing to be ashamed of and we celebrated with pizza.  We had truly become a team and families, helping each other conquer a grueling, yet fulfilling hike.

With only a few days left, we drove towards Haines to catch a ferry back to Canada.  Otherwise, our 37-day trip might have turned into 57!  We spent a day in Haines and then at night, boarded the Alaska Marine Highway System.  Still wanting to hold true to our adventurer ideals, we slept on the floor in the ferry.  Keeping ourselves entertained as we had learned how to do quote easily, we played cards, read and viewed our last sights of Alaska.  Once we reached Prince Rupert, we sadly journeyed back to Seattle.  However, we still had our Christmas in July gifts to give, which were assigned at the beginning at the trip for each of us to make.  After some laughs and many tears, we know that our trip was drawing to a close and after a delicious Chinese buffet lunch, we boarded the plane for home.

There really is no ending to our trip.  You see, a part of us never left Alaska and we will always be a family.  Dave's dream of an Alaskan Odyssey was a reality and continues in each of our lives.  The trip taught us how to appreciate the world around us and how to savor every moment.  It taught us how to be independent and how to work as a team.  All of us have told many people about our adventure to Alaska, but only those who have experienced the Last Great Frontier can understand there is no place like it on this Earth.  Only in a place where the sunsets and sunrises occur right after each other can one appreciate a full day of living.  We all will try to capture that kind of living for the rest of our lives"The Journey is The Destination and the Adventure".

If you think you might be interested in traveling with the American Odyssey Program on similar trips feel free to visit the website: and contact the Director, Dave Barlow at  American Odyssey is currently offering Odysseys of Personal Discovery to Alaska, The American West, Florida, and New England.  There are plans to add expeditions to: Canyonlands and Utah, The Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and even a New Zealand Odyssey in the near future.