Conquering My Fears in Alaska on My 50th Birthday

by Noreen Nettles

Noreen and her husband, Rick, in the Yukon
Noreen and her husband, Rick, in the Yukon

They say it’s never too late to learn new things. I’d like to add to that saying: There is nothing like a milestone birthday – say, turning 50 – to propel one to actually take up that proposition. Ever since I saw a PBS documentary about Alaska’s White Pass Railroad, I really wanted to go there,  except my fear of heights and water made that dream seem all but impossible to fulfill.

However, as my 50th birthday approached, I began to want to face these challenges that had bedeviled me for years. I convinced my husband, Rick, (who had no desire to cruise because he used to work on cramped seismic ships) that I wanted to see the Alaska of that TV show, and the way to go was by cruise ship. Perhaps he was amazed by my bravery, but he agreed and we booked our Alaska cruise aboard Golden Princess. Could there be a more appropriate place for a “golden” birthday?

Of course, the first step was flying to Seattle – and I also had a fear of flying.  But I had been working on that one on previous flights, so it wasn’t too bad.  I was more apprehensive about boarding the ship.  But once aboard that big, beautiful (and very stable) cruise ship, I felt surprisingly secure and my fear of water magically evaporated!

I became so comfortable on the ship that soon, my favorite thing to do was sitting out on our balcony, feet up, gazing at the ocean, watching as the whale tails and spouts, eagles, fjords and other incredible wonders unfolded right before my eyes.

But the big day – the day I would face my fear of heights – came in Skagway, with my highly anticipated trip aboard the White Pass Railroad.  Surprisingly, it turned out to be the high point (literally and figuratively) of the cruise vacation, and even more amazing than the documentary!

The first leg, our Yukon experience bus ride up the mountain, was tough – I felt pretty buffeted from heights.  But when we stopped in Carcross for lunch, I relaxed a bit and got to play with sled dogs and watch for wildlife: including more eagles, the peculiar sight of a porcupine in a tree and even a bear crossing the road. But I was still pretty anxious for the train ride back down.

Somehow I ended up sitting on the side of the train that overlooked the most drop-offs. I could see straight down the steep mountain cliffs, thousands of feet below. Oh dear!  I prepared for the worst.  But somehow the sense of awe overpowered any feelings of fear.  It was thrilling to see the treacherous drops that would then segue to a snowy bank, dotted with colorful wildflowers breaking through. I had to laugh when someone on the train said, “Have you ever noticed how people who are afraid of heights are the first to look over the side?”

What better birthday gift could I give myself?  I really did feel “golden” – I had conquered fears that had limited me for 50 years!  My birthday became a celebration of new experiences.  Not to mention an opportunity to get pampered by the Golden Princess crew.

I knew I wasn’t the only person with a birthday on that voyage, but the crew made me feel like it was my special celebration alone. They made quite a fuss of my milestone birthday – balloons, singing … amazing chocolate cake.

Turning 50 wasn’t a day to feel old, but a truly golden day to begin seeing life in a new way and begin planning all the other challenges I wanted to conquer.  I learned a lot turning 50 – especially that facing your fears can be a lot of fun!  I can’t wait for my next adventure!

Noreen lives in Houston, Texas and has enjoyed one cruise with Princess.