Alaska by Land and Sea

by Lithium Technologies ‎08-12-2015 04:43 PM - edited ‎09-01-2015 09:55 AM (1,128 Views)

After 11 days on a cruise-and-land tour of Alaska, AAA Living editor Lucinda Hahn shares excerpts from her travel journal.

 

Riding to Denali

After a day spent touring Anchorage, we leave the city behind and embark on a magnificent, eight-hour train ride to Denali National Park and Preserve. Within minutes of leaving the station, we’re enveloped by forest and speeding along a wide river, its crystalline water tumbling over boulders and bedrock. Someone spots a moose; soon after, a man next to me shouts, “Bear!” (About 300 bears—including 60 grizzlies live in the Anchorage area.)

 

Our train car has a dining room and a guide, too—an entertaining raconteur who tells us about Alaskan culture and the natural beauty we’re seeing. Wide-eyed, we climb north through three mountain ranges—toward Denali. Much of this landscape is inaccessible by car and, with our panoramic viewing windows framing the beguiling wilderness, it feels as though we’re being let in on Alaska’s secrets.

 

TIP: You’re more likely to see wildlife from the front cars of the train because the animals sometimes retreat for cover as the train is passing.

 

Flying to Yanert Glacier

I’m on a magic carpet ride—or so it seems. With four other travelers, I’m flying around Denali National Park and Preserve: 6 million acres of natural beauty and protected wildlife. I had wanted to see the park and its surrounding glories from above, so I chose—from the cruisetour’s catalog of excursions—a helicopter ride.

 

Our helicopter is soaring over the whitewater of the Nenana River into valleys along the east side of Denali. Below us, the land is verdant, unspoiled and glorious—the early-evening sunlight burnishes it to a luminous green. Farther on, the landscape changes into brown tundra and then to snow and ice. We land gently on Yanert Glacier, and carefully hike across its frozen crags and crevasses. In polar-blue depressions in the ice, water has pooled. Along with a fellow passenger, Maria, I crouch and cup my hands in the cold liquid, lifting it to my lips. I’m struck by its utter absence of flavor: Is this the taste of “pure”? Maria and I agree we’ve never tasted water so fresh, clean and wonderful.

 

TIP: Don’t worry about what shoes to wear if you’re visiting a glacier. Most excursions give you glacier boots to put over your own footwear; these provide tremendous traction on the ice.

 

Cruising Glacier Bay

A day after boarding our cruise ship in Seward, we sail into Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve—a visual spectacle of jagged mountains, sprawling glaciers and fluorescent-blue ice, peppered by groups of glistening seals.

 

Passengers line elbow to elbow on the ship’s viewing decks to snap photos of Margerie Glacier, the most impressive, with its mile-wide field of twisted, icy spires. We try to spot a “calving”—when a massive chunk of ice breaks from the glacier and plunges dramatically into the sea.

 

Remarkably, this area was a grassy plain as recently as 1700, and the native Tlingit people fished rivers coursing with salmon here. But “the Little Ice Age” set in, and by 1794 the plain had been engulfed by glacial ice some 100 miles long. Then the ice’s slow retreat began—and in 1879, the naturalist John Muir canoed in the bay waters left in the glaciers’ wake. Muir wrote about Glacier Bay with such lyrical passion that he changed Americans’ perception of Alaska—from one of forbidding cold to one of enchanting beauty.

 

TIP: A cabin with a balcony is especially nice to have on days like this—it provides a private place from which to enjoy the scenery.

 

Meeting the Wildlife Whisperer

Tiny Haines, nestled against the Chilkat Range, is our next stop. It’s the home of internationally renowned wildlife filmmaker Steve Kroschel. He’s made documentaries for the National Geographic and even introduced Johnny Carson to a wolverine on The Tonight Show. Along the way, he began taking in orphaned and injured wild animals, creating a sanctuary—Kroschel Wildlife Park—on his acreage in the woods.

 

This fanciful hodgepodge of cabins and clearings is home to animals from the wolf Isis, who gambols with Kroschel like a friendly golden retriever, to a bear named Kitty (brought here by a hunter who had accidentally killed its mother). Many of the animals are quite tame in Kroschel’s hands, so we touch the velvety softness of a reindeer’s antlers and stroke a furry lynx kitten. During the tour, he shares important messages about the cruelty of animal traps, the decline of the brown bear population and the importance of preserving natural habitats.

 

Tip: Bring your swimsuit to Alaska, where summers can be surprisingly balmy. I was lucky to find a shop in Haines that sold a few—finally, I could enjoy the ship’s pool and swim spa.

 

Whale-Watching in Juneau

Cruising into Juneau is breathtaking. Mounts Juneau and Roberts tower over the quaint buildings of a downtown wedged between the sheer rock-face and the sea. After a morning excursion at a dogsled training camp, I head for another classic Alaskan outing: whale-watching.

 

Near Favorite Channel, we spot a humpback and her calf leaping from the water. The giant creatures burst into the air and crash-land with epic splashes. It’s unbelievable at first—as if we’re in a film, and the whales just got their cue.

 

Our next thrill is watching a group of 10 humpback whales bubble-net feeding—a technique in which they blow bubbles to create an underwater “net” that traps fish, then swim up through it, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of prey in one gulp. It’s amazing to see so many whales at once erupt through the surface of the water, their heads thrown back and mouths still wide open. Then they each dive back into the depths, and with a flip of their flukes, seemingly say goodbye.

 

Tip: Don’t fret about what time to go. The whales—famished after their 2,800-mile migration from Hawaii—feed most of the day, so there’s no “best” time of day to spot them.

 

To plan and book your Alaska vacation ,visit your local AAA Travel ConsultantAnd to discover more of America’s Last Frontier, view this Alaska immersive experience complete with videos, slide shows and more.

 

A version of this story appears in the September/October 2015 issue of AAA Living magazine.

 

Image credit/source: Brown Cannon III; Brown Cannon III; Brown Cannon III; Brown Cannon III; Kroschel Wildlife Center; iStock

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