Thursday, March 11, 2010
Alaska: The Great Adventure Beyond the Cruise Ship
Someone asked me recently to describe my perfect day. This is a tough question to answer, not only for all the philosophical arguments against a ‘perfect’ ideal, but also because there have been many times in my life where, philosophers aside, I have had a perfect day. Like many other people, my best days usually involve being surrounded by family and friends, and often involve either a memorable occasion or traveling.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to one of the most remote places in North America: Alaska. When people think of Alaska, a few things immediately pop to mind. Cold. Dark. Cruise ships. These are all true of the majority of Alaskan travel; however, we decided to rough it on our own, opting instead for a car rental and a map.
We were a minority in many other respects too. First, most people who travel to Alaska are American, or come from distant places like Israel. We did not meet any other Canadian travelers while we were there. This is a shame, since Canadians are connected with both the people and places in Alaska in so many ways. Much like Canadians, Alaskans pride themselves on a friendly and laid-back attitude; they lead rich lives filled with culture and good storytelling, and hold a deep respect for the natural environment. Not only this, we were also the youngest traveling couple by several years, often decades, which is surprising in a state that is so active, and affords an endless array of outdoor pursuits.
In fact, in the coastal town of Seward (2.5 hours south of Anchorage), only 10% of tourists choose the all-day sea-kayaking adventure amidst the glaciers of the Kenai Fjords National Park. It is a rigorous experience, with a 5 a.m. wake-up call and 8 p.m. return, but the grand views and untouched wildlife are what make this day one of my top ten perfect days of all time.
Seward is a fishing town on the south coast of Alaska, with much charm in its history, and many fascinating natural wonders to behold nearby. We stayed on Lowell Point on Resurrection Bay, a small hamlet of vacation homes, B & Bs and campsites, surrounded by calm, dark blue water, and mountains upon mountains still covered with snow in August.
Although it is still part of Seward, Lowell Point has a very unique style and comfort; it is set apart by a dirt road pocked with potholes, that careens dangerously between cliff side and bayside, where fishermen (and women) are perched for the day’s catch (usually Halibut). Fishing derbies are common in the area, and fishing charters leave regularly from both Seward proper and Lowell Point.
We stayed in a B & B called Angel’s Rest, decorated in a style reminiscent of the coziest Canadian cottages. It is a place so popular the owners had to build more accommodation across the street from their original three cottages on the water. Luckily, we did most of the planning for our summer trip in the winter months. You can imagine that when you plan for a place like Alaska, which boasts a population barely over 50, 000 in its biggest city, the best places fill up quickly.
Our tour was organized by a place called Miller’s Landing, a place that offers fishing and other boating tours. It is a mid-sized cabin surrounded by fishnets and buoys in bright oranges and blues, and exudes an atmosphere of humility and well-being. Inside you will find the friendly faces of the Miller’s Landing staff, who offer warmth not only in their demeanour, but also in their offer of free coffee and tea to fend off the chill of the Alaskan waterfront. There is also an immense wood-burning stove crackling brilliant flames, where tourists hover around, warming their backsides.
Alaska is known as the land of eternal daylight in the summer; however, this did not always translate into eternal sunshine. After many overcast days full of clouds, rain and even snow in Denali National Park, we awoke to clear skies and sunshine on the day of our sea-kayaking trip. We packed on the layers, Alaska is the place for ever-changing weather, packed our dry bag full of snacks and extra clothing (toque, mitts and rain pants included), and headed off to Miller’s Landing to meet our guide for the day, who was young, down-to-earth and knowledgeable.
The Kenai Fjords National Park can only be accessed by boat, since the park is teaming with glaciers that stream off the Harding Icefield. Our destination within the park was Aialik Bay; our mode of transportation: fishing boat! It was a chilly 3 hour ride, but Captain Joe was brimming with energy and personal stories. Most people who live in Alaska have a story to tell – many of them are from “the outside” (anyone outside the state of Alaska) and travel to the northern state to work and live for the summer months.
We found that these wanderers venture north for a variety of reasons, but the common denominator is that they come to Alaska for the natural environment and its wildlife. Captain Joe was no exception, and took his time to stop and enjoy the myriad wildlife along the way. Sea lions lounged lazily on the rocks; sea otters went belly up as they relaxed in the ocean; puffins floated along silently; and porpoises jumped playfully in the wake of the boat. And all the while the lesson was clear – do not disturb the wildlife or their natural environment. Alaskans do their best to preserve the precious and rare species that flourish north of 60 degrees.
We got dropped off on a stony beach, our yellow and blue kayaks glistening in the mid-morning sun. Our progress to Aialik Glacier was quick and the waters calm, our anticipation growing stronger as we heard the thunderous roar of the calving glaciers (as the glacier melts, huge chunks of ice fall off into the water, mimicking the sound of thunder). This spectacle is one of the great wonders of the world; a massive ice mountain carved over hundreds of thousands of years, turquoise blue rivers seemingly dancing on its surface.
Our next destination was Pederson Glacier, a two-hour paddle from the tip of Aialik Bay. On the way, we stopped along a cliff side to admire the many puffins, flying back and forth across the channel, and learned that these birds can barely fly! (They either need to ride a wave, or take-off from an elevated landing, in order to get enough momentum to soar into the air). We also discovered that sea kayaking in the fjords, and indeed traveling in Alaska in general, is a practice in the art of silence. You take in nature quietly, appreciating its beauty, holding your breath without realizing it. And then there’s the wildlife. In order to get a true sense of who these animals are in their natural environment, we must creep along slowly and without sound, our eyes and imaginations quietly active.
When we arrived at Pederson Glacier in the afternoon, we had to paddle through colossal chunks of ice, small islands in themselves, which create a mind-boggling maze of dead ends as you try to reach the glacier. We were left to view the glacier from afar, but the water was so crystal clear and calm that the whole inlet – dark mountains, green hills, snow, ice – was reflected as a mirror-image. Most of the time, we floated along silently, as the melting ice floes ‘plipped’ and ‘plopped’, making ringlets in the glassy water.
By the end of the day we were a little sun burnt and very much exhausted by the exhilaration that comes with spending an unforgettable day in the pure outdoors. We felt both satiated and calm. Even if you are not an extreme athlete, I encourage you to try an off-the-beaten path trip such as this one, because it will truly be an unforgettable one.
Sea-kayaking in the Kenai Fjords is not the only Alaskan travel experience that makes it onto my list of ‘perfect’ days. There are so many other wonderful outdoor pursuits for those who thrive on being active while they travel: camping and hiking in Denali National Park; biking the many trails in Anchorage; canoeing and portaging through the Swan Lake Canoe Route; the list is infinite and can be made to suit whatever you believe to be your perfect getaway. Now, when you think of Alaska, I hope you are inspired by some other words that come to mind: adventurous, untouched, rejuvenating.