I do not usually like to mix business with pleasure. I traveled across the globe for competitions during my 15-year professional shooting career, and I almost never went sightseeing or exploring during my trips to practice or to compete. My stance of not mixing business with pleasure applies to my other business endeavors, too. However, they say sometimes rules are meant to be broken, and I put my stance aside during a May trip when I went sightseeing in Alaska. I was there on a business trip related to my book, “The Most Unlikely Champion.”
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I had 2 days free at the end of my trip, and I decided to engage in some sightseeing. Along the way, I was reminded of a lesson: Sometimes the most memorable and powerful experiences are the ones you least expect.
One of my sightseeing days was an extravagant affair that included a helicopter ride that escorted me to dog mushing and Herbert Glacier.
The helicopter flight was exciting, because I got to ride up front alongside the pilot. During the dog sledding, I was part of a group of 4, including the guide, while 10 Alaskan huskies pulled us. Most of the time, I sat in the sled, but I stood on the back of the sled for a while. We capped our journey by landing our helicopter on Herbert Glacier. If you looked down the glacier cracks, you could see crystal clear blue water.
This became an enjoyable day, but the other sightseeing day, when I took a tour from a cab driver, will be the one that stays etched in my mind. My driver took me to see the governor’s mansion, educated me on Juneau’s gold mining history and offered me glimpses of a glacier, a waterfall and Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.
The highlight, though, came when he took me to see the Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux. The site is located on a small peninsula and offers stunning views of the Lynn Canal.
After we parked, I saw a structure and asked the cab driver if that was the church. He told me that was the caretaker’s cabin and to reach the church it was a 5-minute walk.
Once I passed the cabin, I was struck by an unbelievable view. I was facing the water, and you could see land across the water’s calm surface. The grounds featured beautiful flowers of yellow, blue and pink. The entire setting was surreal. It became clear that whoever does the landscaping puts a lot of heart into making these grounds look so beautiful and serene.
On the grounds, I saw a large cross with Jesus Christ hanging on it. It floored me. When I saw the cross, I told my driver I would have to stay there for a while. I sat in front of the cross for about 15 minutes – with the cab meter running, mind you. I remember thinking how thankful I was to be here. I gave thanks for all the good things that have happened in my life and the good health I have received.
After visiting the cross on the grounds, I went inside the church. Shrine Chapel is the lynchpin of the grounds. The chapel is unlike the grandiose churches I have visited on trips to Europe. It is a small church, built from beach stone gathered by volunteers in 1938. It could house perhaps 100 people. I went inside to enjoy more solitude.
At the front of the chapel hangs a cross with Jesus Christ on it. I sat in the church for about 10 minutes. I was happy to be there, but I also cried. I am a Christian, and I observe my faith through a personal relationship with Jesus.
Whenever I see a depiction of Jesus being crucified on the cross, I always apologize to Him for the suffering He endured while he was on earth. It’s a reminder of how He died for mankind’s sins. I always say, “I am sorry for all the pain we caused you. Please forgive us.”
Outside the church is a shrine of St. Therese, a French-born nun who is the patron saint of Alaska, missionaries, and the Diocese of Juneau.
When we arrived at the site, my cab driver wondered aloud why the Jesuit priests chose this particular site for the church and Shrine to St. Therese. But from the moment I saw the place, I felt I knew why they choose this location. It was absolutely beautiful and truly peaceful.
I picked up a site brochure, and on the front are the words: “Enter these grounds with a sense of oneness and enjoy the gift of God’s peace.”
It is a perfect way to describe my experience. It afforded me the opportunity to sit alone in quiet and be one with Jesus and to appreciate the peace God affords us.
I did not get a chance to explore the full grounds. There is also a walking trail, lodging and a stone labyrinth.
I have visited so many beautiful places and experienced top-tier vacations. However, never before have I left a place and thought, “I must go back there someday.”
That is the way I felt about the Shrine of St. Therese. I want to return there. Perhaps Carlos and I could go and stay in a cabin and enjoy the serenity together.
I told the cab driver that visiting the chapel and the grounds made the entire tour worthwhile.
Visiting the Shrine of St. Therese was not as grand as being pulled on a sled by Alaskan huskies or landing in a helicopter on a glacier. Rather, it was a reminder that some of life’s best moments occur when you venture off the beaten path for a time of reflection and solitude.
Vera Koo is a first-generation Chinese American woman. She’s a wife and mother, author, entrepreneur and retired competition shooter. Along with Vera’s fantastic memoir and life story, "The Most Unlikely Champion," she writes her column, Vera Koo, at "Women’s Outdoor News." View all posts by Vera Koo