Alaska and Idaho – the Same, but Not

GUSTAVUS, Alaska – I always thought that if there was a state I’d never see, it would be Alaska.
Alaska, after all, is sort of a larger version of Idaho – mountains, forests, rivers, the kinds of things we have right here at home. Alaska is Idaho on a grander scale. Why go there to see the same things we have here only bigger?
And it’s so far away. You have to fly or drive across a sprawling immensity of backwoods Canada to get there, and let’s face it – if back woods aren’t your thing, there’s not much to do along the way. It’s not like driving from here to, say, Florida, where you can stop in Las Vegas to see a show or New Orleans for gumbo and beignets. On the road to Alaska, there are lengthy stretches where you’re more likely to see a moose than a restaurant or even a taco stand.
However … my wife has a friend who lives in Alaska and has repeatedly invited us to come visit. Every summer we talk about heading north to Alaska and instead fly south to blue skies and white beaches. The thought of lying awake shivering in a place where it never gets dark, rains buckets and high temperatures seldom exceed 60 degrees invariably sent us in the opposite direction.
Until this summer. After years of procrastinating, we accepted my wife’s friend’s invitation – and realized how wrong our preconceptions about Alaska had been.
We flew from Seattle to Juneau and from there to the little town of Gustavus, where we stayed for the next week. The flight to Gustavus was so short that the flight attendants didn’t unfasten their safety belts. I thought the least they could do was roll some beverage cans down the aisle, but no one seemed to mind the absence of drinks and pretzels. Everyone was mesmerized by the scenery – snowcapped peaks, forested slopes, sparkling bay.
And it wasn’t even raining.
At the Gustavus airport, which is roughly the size of a convenience store, ours was the only Alaska Airlines (or any other airline) flight of the day. Our captain was carrying a kid’s lunchbox, which seemed odd until he opened it and started passing out candy to the airport employees – all half dozen of them. The ticket agent seemed flummoxed when we told her our friend was late picking us up and didn’t recognize our friend’s name. Gustavus, apparently, was the sort of place where everybody knows everybody. It appeared from the outset that we were in for a new and different experience.
And we were. Quirky Gustavus could have been the inspiration for the defunct TV series “Northern Exposure.” The town, population 500, merits a column all by itself. (Look for it two weeks from today.) But the thing people come there to see, five miles up the road from Gustavus, is Glacier Bay National Park.
If you’ve never been to Glacier Bay National Park, put it on your bucket list. I thought I knew how beautiful Alaska would be. I had no idea.
To say that Idaho is similar to Alaska is like saying that Shafer Butte is similar to the Himalayas. We spent two days on the bay, one on a friend’s commercial fishing boat and the other on a park service tour boat, and came home both times with our jaws sore from dropping. Spectacular isn’t a big enough word.
I love Idaho – its mountains, lakes and rivers, even its deserts. I was born in Idaho; it’s home. But you could drop the Sawtooths and White Clouds into the mountains around Glacier Bay and hardly notice they were there. You pass one glittering peak after another, mile after mile after mile of them, hour after hour of them, all dropping thousands of feet from snowy summits to a shimmering sea.
And then, the glaciers. We’d never seen a glacier before and didn’t know what to expect. One was a mile wide, 250 feet high and 21 miles long. I’d always imagined glaciers as smooth rivers of ice. This one, white from snow that fell 150 years ago and streaked with blue ice and gray sediment, looked like a gigantic ice carving. With its skewed peaks and jutting ridges, it looked as if a deranged giant had tried to carve images of the mountains around it.
The sounds it made when it calved, dropping locomotive-sized chunks of ice into the bay, was all but indescribable. The native people, who had a way with names, called the upper bay “the land of white thunder.” Boats and ships can’t get too close to the glaciers. The waves created by the enormous chunks of ice falling from them were powerful enough to rock a nearby ship. A cruise ship with some 2,000 passengers aboard.
Wildlife? In the time it takes to watch a football game, we saw three bald eagles, four grizzly bears, seven mountain goats and scores, possibly hundreds, of sea lions, porpoises and puffins.
What we didn’t see were people. On our first day on the bay, in the fishing boat, it was after lunchtime before we saw another boat. It was just the four of us, surrounded by that vast, icy wilderness. Logic notwithstanding, it was easy to feel like we were seeing something no one had ever seen before, that this was the way the world looked when it was new.
True, Alaska and Idaho are similar. Both have mountains, forests, sparkling waterways, spectacular scenery.
Beautiful states – similar, but worlds apart.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Life section and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

2 thoughts on “Alaska and Idaho – the Same, but Not

  1. You’re right. Idaho is majestic for certain, but Alaska is amazingly, epically majestic! There ARE unending monster snow-laden peaks, I’ve only seen the likes of in The Alps – only Alaska has even more of them. Towering cliffs of blue glaciers at water’s edge, mini icebergs floating in the foreground, I’ve not seen in Idaho. Which is why I couldn’t resist wading into Portage’s icy water, fetching a tiny iceberg, packing it into a box of dry ice, labeled “Salmon,” and bringing it back to my daughters. We put it in the freezer, where it eventually shrank, and were astounded to see all the fossils in the bottom of the canning jar of water it eventually reverted to. Alaska seems so very primordial, reminding us of the teensiness of ourselves.


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