If a moose charges you, run as fast as you can and zigzag. If a bear charges you, never run, just stand still. These warnings serve as your official Alaska greetings and they make you realize that you're not in Kansas any more.
Over the years I have been tantalized by Alaska travel posters showing images of snow-clad mountain ranges and abundant bears, moose and bald eagles, so finally my wife and I set out to discover, during ten days in early June, if we could find these images in "the real Alaska".
Rather than rely on a cruise ship, we chose to fly to Anchorage, take the train to Denali National Park, then use a rental car to explore the area south of Anchorage, all of which resulted in an unforgettable trip.
Some basic pre-trip research revealed some surprising facts about Alaska:
- Minnesota's marketing folks brag about their 10,000 lakes, but Alaska has over three million lakes
- Alaska is twice as large as Texas, the next largest state, and its 586,000 square miles makes it larger than all but 18 countries in the world
- The population of the whole state (625,000) is about one-fifth of the population of San Diego
The eight hour train ride from Anchorage to Denali National Park gave us a chance to acquaint ourselves with Alaska from the comfort of our Goldstar dome car with its wrap-around windows and outside viewing deck. This was a great way to travel, and the train trip back to Anchorage gave us our only clear view of the famed Mt McKinley (aka Denali).
DENALI NATIONAL PARK
....is famous for its unspoiled six million acres of tundra, mountains and wildlife. We stayed at the McKinley Chalet just outside the park entrance, and took two of the park-run bus tours (the 6 hour Windows Into Wilderness and 8 hour Tundra Wilderness) in order to get acquainted with the park. These bus tours are a necessity since private vehicles aren't allowed into the park past the 15 mile mark; the rest of the 90 mile park road is for park buses only. During our tours we saw wildlife, but not quite the abundance I had hoped for. The hiking options were different from other parks: you can choose one of the few maintained trails or march across the tundra anywhere you want to go.
The tourist season is remarkably short, extending from only late-May to mid-September. By visiting in early June, we had no mosquitoes, smaller crowds and not much rain. We experienced weather that varied from cold, rainy and windy with a high of 48 degrees, to clear and sunny with a high of 80.
After our train ride back to Anchorage, we picked up our rental car and drove south to Girdwood, tucked away among snowy mountain ranges. Our bed and breakfast (the Glacier View B&B) spoiled us with postcard type views of the mountains and sumptuous breakfasts, complete with homemade bread and just-picked berry jams, eggs and more.
While we enjoyed the Denali Park visit, we were doubly excited about the region south of Anchorage. The sunshine, spectacular scenery and wide range of attractions made this the highlight of our trip.
For our first excursion, we decided to take the 26 Glacier Cruise's five hour journey through 145 miles of Prince William Sound. The tour departed from Whittier, a tiny town only reached by a 2.6 mile one-way tunnel through the mountains. There wasn't a boring minute on this tour as we observed the myriad glaciers, with chunks of glacial ice crashing into the sea, and the occasional bald eagle, sea otters, whales (saw one from a distance), and sea gull colonies with thousands of birds nesting on the cliffs by a waterfall.
One day while watching fishermen catch large quantities of silvery hooligan fish (a kind of smelt), I met Andy Morrison who signed us up for his jetboat/kayak tour that turned out to be our favorite outings. We joined the two guides and four other passengers at the mouth of the Twentymile River (not far from Girdwood). If you have never experienced the speed and maneuverability of a jetboat, you have something to look forward to. The boat flies upriver, even in shallow water, and it can turn in an instant. This adrenaline rush was only interrupted when we paused to watch bald eagles or a prickly porcupine. My desire to see bald eagles in Alaska was quenched on this tour--I stopped counting the number of eagles after I reached thirty.
Twelve miles later, we reached Lake Carmen, a secluded lake where we leisurely kayaked and ate lunch while taking in the scene: the lake's blue water mirrored the nearby snowy mountains; in the distance a glacier clung precariously high up a craggy mountainside; a stream plunged down the slope near our kayak and emerged eerily from the underside of an old avalanche snowfield where it joined the aquamarine lake.
I had mixed emotions as we left the lake and headed back down the river. On the one hand, I loved the adrenaline rush of the aptly named jetboat careening down the river, with the wind streaming across my face, but at the same time I was sorry to see this tour end after four hours of unforgettable adventures.
During our final days in this area we visited the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, explored Seward, and hiked near a glacier in Kenai Fjord National Park, all of which are highly recommended.
So, did we find "the real Alaska"? In most ways we did. We came away with the feeling that while this was a great trip, we had just scratched the surface of what Alaska has to offer. We've already decided that we'll be back for more.
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer in Carlsbad, CA. You can find more photos and articles at www.HansenTravel.org
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Alaska Railroad Reservations: www.alaskarailroad.com
McKinley Chalet Resort: www.DenaliParkResorts.com
or 800-276-7234; front desk at the hotel: 907-683-8200.
26 Glacier Cruise in Whittier: www.phillipscruises.com/experience.htm
or call 800-544-0529
Girdwood Glacier View Bed & Breakfast: www.glacierviewbnb.com
or call Connie LaRose at 907-350-0674
Alaska Backcountry Access tours: www.akback.com
or talk to the owner Andy Morrison at 907-783-3600
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: www.alaskawildlife.org
or call 907-783-2025
Seward Sealife Center: www.alaskasealife.org