By MARIE GILBERT
5:28 PM EDT, May 20, 2011
Alaska has a soundtrack all its own — the thunderous groan of a glacier, the splashing tail of a king salmon, the deep baritone of a moose.
It's an unparalleled performance on a stage that is bigger, wilder, more spectacular than anything in the Lower 48.
With its vast expanse of nameless peaks, cobalt rivers, woodlands and tundra, it's a dream destination for many nature lovers.
It's also a second home to Drs. Fred and Rebecca Wagner Bye.
For the past four years, the Hagerstown periodontists have been traveling to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska, with their children, Natalie, 14, and Mark, 10.
Populous Anchorage lies to the north. But Kenai is more rural, the Byes said. Their fly-in town of Soldotna has about 4,000 people.
"Until recently, there were no hotels or grocery stores there," said Rebecca Bye. "It's like stepping back in time."
Each summer, the family spends two weeks in Alaska fishing, hiking and relaxing.
They catch, clean and cook their meals of salmon, visit with relatives who also make the trip from Michigan and take photos of Alaska's unique wildlife — while living in a 200-square-foot trailer.
Though it's a chance to get together as a family, it's also a bit of a working vacation.
During each visit, the Byes present lectures for the Kenai Kodiak Dental Society, observe surgery and do consultations.
"There are no periodontists in this area," Rebecca Bye said. "The nearest specialist is in Anchorage, which would mean having to spend $250 on a flight or a three-hour drive. So whenever we're up there, we try to provide the local dentists and hygienists with techniques they can use in their office."
"We do what we can to help — either hands on or through consultation," she said.
People might ask why they do it. The answer, Rebecca Bye said, is simple.
"We've had mentors in our career —people who were very good to us. We want to pass it on and help others," she said.
Even after they return to Hagerstown, the couple said they stay in touch with Dr. Jerry Hu and other members of the dental group, and make themselves available to offer advice.
After all, they said, Alaska is part of them.
That's evident when you walk into the Byes' Fountainhead home.
There are maps of Alaska hanging on the wall, as well as mounted fish that family members have caught and a painting of bears. Even their dog has an Alaskan name.
And there's always a well-stocked freezer of salmon shipped back home after a successful two weeks of fishing.
While the local family has been visiting Alaska for several years, there has been a Bye presence in the Kenai region for about 26 years.
Fred Bye said his parents began making trips to Alaska when his father was superintendent of schools in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
"They would go for 10 weeks in the summer and absolutely loved it," he said.
Fred Bye started going to Alaska about 10 years ago and several years later, he, Rebecca, Natalie and Mark, began making it their summer destination.
They are joined each year by Fred's adult son, Kyle, as well as Fred's father and several of his friends.
Fred's mother died recently, but her love affair with Alaska lives on in a photo the family has hanging on its wall.
"That's mom with a 52-pound king she and I caught," Fred Bye pointed out.
Rebecca Bye said Alaska is an experience like no other.
The family flies out of Baltimore to Salt Lake City to Anchorage to Soldotna.
While their first year was all about camping, the family now owns a trailer, which they return to each summer.
"It's about 32 feet long — it's little," Rebecca Bye said. "And the kids sleep on 6-foot berths. But ask any one of us and we'll tell you we love it."
"It's like time stops," Fred Bye said. "It's nice to literally get away to a different world."
While her friends are vacationing at the beach, Natalie Bye said she returns home with unique stories — like fishing at 1 a.m., encountering a grizzly and eating fish heads with an Eskimo woman.
"Everyone thinks it's really boring in Alaska, that there's nothing to do," she said. "In reality, there's so much to do. It's fun. We're never just sitting in a camper."
Mark said he had to do a school project in fifth grade and decided to focus on his experiences in Alaska.
"My teacher was amazed at everything we do — all the wildlife we see and the people we meet," he said. "I love to whittle sticks, play in the river, play with friends I've made."
"You go all day. It can be exhausting, but in a good way," Rebecca Bye said.
The family's favorite activity in Alaska has to be fishing, especially for salmon, they said.
"The taste is so different from what you get in a store, which is usually farm-raised with no flavor to it," Fred Bye said. "These salmon are about 2 days old when we catch them — going from salt water to fresh water. And they're very acrobatic, jumping out of the water."
Fred Bye said they catch, net, string, clean and fillet the salmon, then have them vacuumed sealed and taken to a commercial freezer, where they are shipped back home to Hagers-town.
The periodontists said they sometimes share their salmon with patients who have undergone extensive treatment.
"It's kind of a reward for all they've been through. They often come back hinting for more," Fred Bye laughed.
The Byes recently hosted a Northwestern-themed dinner for 12 people, they said. The couple donated the salmon dinner as part of a Maryland Symphony Orchestra fundraiser.
But they don't save salmon just for special occasions.
"We eat it all the time," Rebecca Bye said. "I love to poach it, grill it. It's good every way you can think of."
Self-proclaimed "neat freaks," Fred Bye said some people are surprised that the family enjoys spending two weeks in such a rustic setting, almost always cleaning mud and dirt off their shoes and clothes.
"But I start getting excited about two months before we leave home," he said. "It's so different from what we are used to. I think that's what makes it so special."
"I love the outdoors," said Rebecca Bye. "I was an explorer scout in high school and went camping in Wyoming and Florida, whitewater rafting on the Colorado River and backpacked in Europe. So Alaska is my idea of a good time."
"We develop a wonderful rhythm of life while we're there," she said. "There is fishing, meals, cooking, chores and no television or wireless in the camper."
But even in the Kenai region, the Byes said modern civilization is gradually creeping in.
"There's now a Starbucks," Rebecca Bye said. "But there also are caribou, bears, moose, eagles, Dali sheep and tons of birds."
"We'll be spending time in Alaska for many years," said Fred Bye. "My father, who is in his 80s, has talked about the importance of passing the Alaska tradition on to our children and, eventually, their children. It's that special to us."
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