Exploring Alaska Part 2: Experiences
In the Part 1 of this discussion on Alaska, we recommended some places to visit if you are fortunate enough to visit this beautiful state. This post will talk about some fun Alaska experiences and adventures to have. In no particular order, here are a few things that I particularly enjoyed and would recommend to anyone visiting this area. (Remember, I’m centering this around Denali National Park and a few hundred miles radius.)
Denali National Park
Let’s just start with the Grand Poobah, shall we? This park is the reason loads of people go to Alaska. It is a pretty big area at six million acres, so roughly the size of Vermont. The biggest mountain in North America is found here: Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) which is a daunting 20,310 feet high. Besides the huge mountains in the Alaska Range, Denali also has meadows, glaciers, taiga and tundra. All ready and waiting for you to explore.
Some people are flown into the park, but the majority arrive by car. There is only one road into Denali and private vehicles can only go fifteen miles in before the have to turn around. (Can you imagine how different Yellowstone would be if it managed traffic like this?) Beyond mile 15, visitors explore the park by riding buses.
These buses drive all the way to Kantishna, 92 miles from the park entrance. They stop along the way, so riding a bus to Kantishna and back can be a full day experience. Some buses are narrated and are more of a tour; the others are shuttles, so people can hop off at stops and go explore and then make their way back to the road and a new shuttle when they want to join civilization again. The furthest I ever made it into the park was a few hours on a ranger hike.
Advice: I really like joining ranger hikes; many national parks do these. It seems like a 2-for-1 deal to me; I get to see the park past my steering wheel and I get to learn about history, wildlife, vegetation, etc. Most hikes I’ve been on have been free, so that’s nice too.
The whole reason I went to Alaska was to work at a helicopter company. I can’t recall ever riding in a helicopter before my arrival and it wasn’t ever really something I had as a goal. Instead I knew some people who recommended this job and it sounded like fun. That being said, I did learn to really appreciate these guys; it is a very different experience than flying in a plane.
I was pretty spoiled as a part of the crew and I mainly went for a ride when we didn’t have paying customers (this meant I would get a window seat-usually up front with the pilot). From this vantage point, helicopters have 180* views out the windows. They can do cool things that planes can’t like taking off straight up and hovering if you want to look at something.
Besides the pretty things you get to see along the way, our helicopters landed on glaciers and dropped us off to go heli-hiking. Unless you walked a very long way, you wouldn’t be able to reach these places. Remember, Alaska is huge. One of my favorite memories from my summers in AK was when our entire crew flew to a remote rustic resort that could only be accessed by air or water. We had a great time staying in the hotel before we had to fly back to work. I know places like this exist elsewhere (there is one on the Salmon River in Idaho), but it is just fun to be in such a remote area.
When I lived in Alaska, only planes (not helicopters) were able to land within the Denali National Park boundaries. These planes are mostly small (not like a plane you fly from L.A. to Chicago). I flew on two different planes, one held about six people and the other about 15. The bigger flight was on a plane that was specially outfitted with landing gear that were basically giant skis. We landed on Ruth Glacier, right underneath Denali.
Unfortunately, there was a bit of a storm going on that day so all I saw was snow. But I could imagine a super giant mountain looming above me, so that counts, right? Actually, this is a good time to mention that not very many people get to see Denali when they go to Alaska. That’s because it is so big it makes its own weather and most of the time that weather is stormy or cloudy. If you are lucky enough to see it on a bluebird day it is truly spectacular.
White Water Rafting
The Nenana river runs alongside the highway by Denali National Park. Unlike most rivers in the lower 48, but pretty common in Alaska, it starts at a glacier. This means the river is cold, cold, cold. One of the adventures you can have in Alaska is to go on a river rafting ride, but you’ll want to wear a dry suit. The ice on top of the river starts to break up around June and is open for business for three months. Brrr….
B had an adventure rafting in Alaska when her friends decided she was skilled enough (read never piloted a boat before) to take on the Eagle River on her own raft. Newsflash: she wasn’t. She ended up taking a swim in her dry suit, but like a boss held onto her oar.
The whole state of Alaska is like one great big hiking trail. At least when it isn’t covered in snow or ice. We had two naturalists who teamed up with helicopters to take guests on heli-hiking adventures. I would sometimes join them and learned all sorts of fascinating tidbits: lichens and mosses might look the same, but moss has stems and leaves.
After work I would venture into the Park and go for hikes or runs. Towards the entrance of the park there are loads of marked trails that you can hike. Several times when I was out and about I had to stop or go a different direction because moose were hiking on the trail with me. An interesting point about hiking deep in Denali is that they ask you not to walk in a single file line. This is categorically different from most other places I’ve hiked where they want you to stay on the trail to protect the vegetation. In Denali, they want the park to stay wild and untamed so people walking side by side prevent trails from forming and ensure it stays uncultivated.
Advice: if you see a baby moose, make sure you leave it alone. Mama will be around somewhere and won’t like you meddling.
Because I’m not really into seafood, I decided to spend my time off doing other things instead of fishing. But I am definitely atypical; loads of fisherman hit the state each year hoping for a good catch. There are two main fish that are caught in Alaska: halibut and salmon. Halibut are funky looking–they are diamond shaped and both eyes are on one side of their bodies. They can be gi-normous and weigh several hundred pounds.
To go halibut fishing you should go to Seward or Homer and join a charter boat. To fish salmon in Alaska you do something called ‘dipping.’ Dip nets are bag shaped nets that are no longer than five feet wide. You basically stick your net in the river and nab the salmon as they swim past. A lot of Alaskans use salmon as a staple to feed their family; my Alaska native friend said they ate more salmon growing up than hamburger because they couldn’t afford to pay for beef.
When visiting one of the coastal towns (Seward, Homer, Whittier, Valdez, etc.), you can find boats that will take you out into the ocean to look for wildlife and watch glaciers. I took two of these trips, one in the Kenai fjords in Seward and one in Whittier. Both were very nice and we were able to get up close and personal with glaciers. The boats pull in close to the glaciers and cut their engines so it is really quiet. You can hear the crack of the ice as the massive chunks of ice calve and splash into the ocean. We didn’t see any whales on these trips but we did see some puffins which are adorable little birds that look a bit like penguins.
At the helicopter office we came in contact with a lot of tourists. They all inevitably wanted to list off all of the animals they had run into during their visit. We called them Wild About Denali (WADs). I’m going to be a WAD and list off my favorite critters I saw during my time:
- Moose. Lots and lots of moose. In Idaho, I get lackadaisical about seeing deer because it happens so often. That’s how I felt in Alaska with the moose. I just couldn’t get excited about them after a while.
- Gray jays. When I retire I fully plan on being a birder. My affinity for our avian friends probably goes back to these gray jays. They were so mischievous and funny; they’d land on all the parts of the parked helicopters and sneaked closer and further from us.
- Beluga whales. We were driving along the Turnagain Arm by Anchorage and saw a bunch of things that looked like white dolphins. Turns out they were these guys.
- Wolves. Alright, I didn’t see these. But some of the pilots did.
- Dall sheep. Not many people know that Denali National Park was created to protect these sheep. They look like little pieces of rice clinging to the cliffs when you are flying past in a helicopter.
- Brown bears. I saw these a few times deep in the park and twice along the highway outside of it. The most exciting interaction though, was when one big buddy decided to visit our helicopter base. When a bear is pawing around outside your kitchen area, you stay in the kitchen. Brown bears are not to be messed with.
Glaciers are cool. (Ha!) They are giant sheets of ice and are sometimes covered with snow and dirt. They can be smooth or have deep crevasses. I think the prettiest time to see them is when they have little glacial pools. The water in these is generally a bright aquamarine color so it contrasts impressively with the white glacier. As I mentioned above, I did land on Ruth’s glacier once. But I landed on several other glaciers in our helicopters in all different spots, depending on where the pilot felt like going that day. You can also hike onto some glaciers, but where’s the fun in that? However you get there, make sure you tread carefully. Being as glaciers are made of ice, they can be pretty slick.
We at Jane Sees the World love train travel. If you don’t feel like renting a car in Alaska, you can hope on the AKRR and enjoy the scenery without the stress of driving. The train goes from Seward to Fairbanks and is kind of pricey, but it is well worth it if you are a train enthusiast. Interesting side note: the train will probably be smoother than driving. The temperatures in AK can be so harsh the ground under the pavement freezes and thaws, creating cracks in pavements and heaves so when you drive it feels a bit like a roller coaster. Crews are constantly doing repairs; the standing joke is there are two seasons in Alaska, winter and construction.
Alaska is a great place to see the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights. If you are there when it is dark, which being as I was there in the summer, it wasn’t really. Around the summer equinox in Denali it never gets really dark. It was very strange acclimating to this; at times I would go outside at 2:00 a.m. and it would still be light enough to see where I was heading. It is not as bright as day, instead it is more like dusk. Anyway, one night late in the season it was dark enough to see the northern lights. It was so cool. Our viewing was all green (reds and oranges are more rare) and sure enough, they dance across the sky just like you see in the movies. I’ve since tried to view them in other places, but haven’t been lucky enough to get a repeat performance.
I had a really wonderful time during my eight months in Alaska. I was able to see wild animals up close and personal, fly in helicopters to remote places, and whenever I could fit it in I would work a little too. If any of you get the chance to explore this incredible place, do it. Do it as soon as possible for as long as possible. Just remember, everything’s bigger in Alaska (sorry, Texas).