“It was all so magnificent, honestly. I can’t tell you what my favorite part was because I enjoyed it all!”
That’s Janie Ottinger sitting on her porch in the mountains of eastern Tennessee reminiscing about her trip to Alaska this past summer. From rock slides and snow to spotting bears and muskox, Janie and her family squeezed it all in during two unforgettable weeks. And she lived her long-anticipated Alaska dream.
When you need some help with Alaska
Like so many people, Janie had been dreaming about going to Alaska for years—it would be her 50th state visited. So Janie rallied her husband, daughter and daughter’s fiancé along for the adventure. After three years of researching, she didn’t want to waste any time or throw anything to chance.
“I’m one of those worrywarts,” she says. “It’s a complicated thing, planning a trip like this.”
Photo: Janie Ottinger (left) brought her family to Alaska this summer. It was a dream come true that was three years in the making.
So Janie connected with Sharilyn Moistner, an Alaska Travel Expert with Alaska Collection. Besides helping with every single tiny detail of the trip and offering loads of useful recommendations, the two became fast friends. “Any question I had, she answered it all with, ‘Don’t you worry about anything!’”
They even managed to meet up for an in-person hug in Anchorage. “She really is the sweetest person,” Janie says.
Off to a great start
Sharilyn and Janie had agreed that a few extra days at the start of the trip would help them adjust and recover from the flight. They had some free days set aside, so they rented a car and nosed around Anchorage. Then, they went dog-sledding near Girdwood. “We went by the Alaska Native Heritage Center also, and really enjoyed that,” she says.
Photo: Haley Ottinger (left) and her fiancé Eathan Gentry had the thrill of going dog-sledding in Alaska.
Next up, they took the Alaska Railroad south. Janie’s daughter, Haley, has a degree in marine biology, so she was “thrilled to bits” the whole time they were in Seward—from a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center to an unforgettable day cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours, where they witnessed a glacier calve, touched a piece of an iceberg, and spotted sea lions, puffins, Orca and humpback whales, which she calls “the gentle giants.”
“I’m 63 and I had never in my life seen a whale in the ocean. It’s something I’ve always wanted to see.”
Talkeetna and Big Rocks
Then, the Ottingers turned north, spending a few days in the quaint little ‘hippy town’ of Talkeetna. That’s where they took a flightseeing tour to see the mountains of the Alaska Range up close. When they first took off, Janie says the weather wasn’t fully clear. But it was a magical moment when the clouds parted and they got to see the top of Denali from such a close vantage point.
Next up, their day on the Denali Backcountry Adventure brought heaps of wildlife sightings and even a chance to pan for gold. “All I found were rocks, but it was fun,” Janie laughs. Then, they ran into snow on the drive out of Kanstishna, which she says added to the adventure. “It’s Alaska, after all!”
Photo: Haley Ottinger pans for gold in the Moose Creek at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna.
To the Far North
After Denali and a stop in Fairbanks, the Ottingers opted for a plane ride up as far as Barrow, north of the Arctic Circle and on the Arctic Ocean, where they spotted musk ox in the wild, as well as more grizzlies from the air. When they were unable to land due to weather, Janie says Sharilyn took care of all the details regarding rebooking, refunding and adjusting their itinerary.
Then, they popped into see Santa Claus himself in the small town of North Pole. Janie works with elementary school kids and she “had a ball” making a video for them with Santa.
Photo: Allen Ottinger (left) and his daughter Haley exploring Denali National Park on the Denali Backcountry Adventure.
Alaska Lessons Learned
Now back at home in the south, she’s keeping cool with her memories of Alaska. The constant light of Alaska in summer was something she says she’ll never forget. “I got up and took a picture of the sunset that never happened," she laughs. "Now I know what the midnight sun is. It was all spectacular to us.”
Sitting back now on the porch, reflecting on her trip, Janie has some tips and suggestions to offer other people contemplating their own “trip of a lifetime” to Alaska:
- Upgrade on the train. The Ottingers traveled Gold Star Class on the Alaska Railroad and loved it. “I’m sure Adventure class is fine, but it was worth it for us to upgrade,” Janie says.
- Get some help. Sharilyn “really knows her stuff” and helped Janie plan the exact trip she wanted. “We got along real good and I got to sit back and enjoy and know she had it all taken care of.”
- Expect some cold. It’s Alaska. It’s part of the adventure! Dress in layers but don’t over pack. The Ottingers took a time-out to do laundry at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge mid-way through their trip.
Photo: Janie Ottinger (left) and her husband Allen took the Alaska Railroad to Seward, following the historic route that unites Anchorage with the coast.
- If you can, do two weeks. Janie says that lets you have a few ‘buffer days’ at the start and finish of your trip, and gives you some time to explore on your own as well.
- Don’t fret. Janie, who has some mobility issues, says locals went above and beyond to help her at every point and it never kept her from experiencing Alaska. From boarding a small airplane to riding a river float boat, it was all doable. “Everybody was so nice and helped me out,” she says.
- No darkness, no problem. Janie says her family was always so tired when bedtime came, they’d close the dark curtains and be asleep in no time, even though it was still light out. “I didn’t even need my eye mask,” she says.