“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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!”
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.
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: