Truly the last frontier and home to many of the country’s National Parks, we thought visiting the great State of Alaska would be a perfect way to honor the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service.
We arrived in Anchorage late at night and found our way to the Sheraton, followed by an early morning pickup by the Great Alaska Adventure lodge shuttle. The Sheraton is conveniently located downtown and worked well for us after a long flight.
The 2+ hour scenic drive to the lodge follows the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, famously named by Captain Cook after his misadventures in this beautiful but treacherously shallow waterway which becomes a broad mudflat at low tide. Just a short distance from Anchorage, Turnagain Arm is known for its Beluga whales, glacier views, bike paths, hiking, world-class skiing, and numerous salmon rivers. Bird Point — just off the highway — is a great stop to take in the grandeur and the Belugas, if you’re fortunate. From there, you get a first glimpse of the Portage and Spencer glaciers (on a clear day) which will dominate the view in a few more minutes as you travel further East. Fireweed is abundant this time of year, and it lights up the roadsides and adjacent valleys with colors ranging from rose to purple. Locals use fireweed to make everything from soap to ice cream.
Leaving the flatland of Turnagain Arm for the Kenai Peninsula, the road takes you over the highland area of Turnagain Pass — great for hiking, bird and wildlife watching, and grand vistas. A short time later you come upon serenely beautiful Kenai Lake with its 300-foot deep, glacier-fed, blue-green water. This is the source of the Kenai River, world famous for its massive runs of King, Coho and other salmon species. You also pass through Cooper Landing – the first Alaskan gold strike was found here. Feeling lucky? You can try your hand at gold panning if you’re not completely distracted by the many fishing opportunities along the fast-moving Kenai River.
We finally arrive at the lodge but our stay is short as we are headed to Bear Camp. The lodge is basically a jumping off point from which to enjoy different Alaskan adventures, all prearranged by the lodge on your behalf. The rustic accommodations are on par with a budget ski lodge. While we wait for our afternoon flight to Bear Camp, Mark does a bit of fly-fishing for salmon on the Kenai River. He caught an 8-lb pink salmon in the fist half hour, followed by at least nine others and one 12-lb silver salmon.
We took an evening flight in a small prop plane to Bear Camp, departing from Kenai and flying over the Cook Inlet and Kalgin Isle to the very remote Chinitna Bay. The flight took us by Iliamna Volcano, one of four active volcanoes in the area, where we rewarded with outstanding views of multiple glaciers on each slope of the volcano. Our destination was the southeastern end of Lake Clark National Park, home to three mountain ranges, rainforests, tundra, glaciers, waterfalls, abundant salmon-filled rivers, and, we learned, the protected habitat of the Brown bear. After a stunning 45-minute flight and a quick pass over 50+ bears in the Chinitna mudflats, we landed on an isolated beach only to be greeted by a pair of bear cubs who scurried off the beach only after our plane came very close to them.
Bear Camp is a former homestead property, and is one of the few private properties within the National Park boundary. The camp itself is steps from the Chinitna Bay beach and consists of 10 or so tents on a raised platform, plus a common mess tent and several perimeter outbuildings for staff. A few things you should know about Bear Camp before your decide to go: (1) the only access in or out is by bush plane landing on the beach or by float plane; (2) there is a very real risk of getting delayed or stuck at camp as access requires a combination of reasonably fair weather for VFR flying and lower tides — that combination is iffy at best in August; (3) accommodations are rustic, including single beds, no electricity or light in the tents, propane heaters to keep you warm at night, 2 outhouses, and shared shower facilities are available for those staying more than one day; and (4) there is a minimalist electric fence around the compound to hopefully keep the bears out and you in. Given the remoteness and rudimentary facilities, the meals are surprisingly good. All the camp staff are welcoming and clearly enjoy living in this remote and beautiful part of Alaska. if you’re up for adventure, love bears, enjoy rustic living and have a schedule that permits extension or change, this is the place for you. If not … well, choose wisely.
Shortly after we arrive, our guide escorted us down a bear trail to a blind overlooking a meadow and a glacier-fed salmon river, giving us a close-up view of two cubs trying their best to learn how to fish. They’re adorable, but don’t have the patience needed to catch the teeming salmon. After dinner we took a walk (appox. 2 miles) in hip waders across slippery mudflats at low tide to reach a sliver of land where large numbers of bears gather. (Of note, the mudflat walk is challenging as your hip waders can easily get stuck in the mud and cause you to lose balance. This is not for everyone.) Along the way, our guide instructed us what do if we had an encounter with the massive bears. We soon found at why. Within minutes, we were face-to-face with a mother and her cubs not more than 10 yards away. Thanks to our guide, it was an amazing experience.
Our first morning we woke to gentle waves and a beautiful fjord-like view, complete with leaping salmon, seals, eagles, and numerous shore birds. Hearty, well-prepared meals set you up for the day, after which we went to the end of the spit where we watched many bears but focused on two adorable cubs. The afternoon trek was a good long hike with a pair of frolicking bears at the end. After dinner another bear hike on the mudflats. We were able to see bears on all our hikes – some more abundant and closer than others. Thanks Casey, Clint and Mark for the amazing experiences.
Click here to enjoy Dana’s 1 1/2 minute video from Bear Camp:
On day 2 we were scheduled to depart in the afternoon, but were grounded because of inclement weather, which can be severe and changes quickly. The lodge emphasizes the need for flexibility if you visit Bear Camp. We would add that the potential for being stranded is very real and can affect the balance of your Alaskan adventure. Our 2-night stay turned into a 4-night adventure with rising concerns about the rest of our journey. On day 5, we needed nothing short of a miraculous extraction from Bear Camp by a Vietnam Vet pilot to return to the lodge. Looking back now, Bear Camp was a truly unique experience not to be missed, even if we did spend more time using outhouses than we would have preferred.
After a good night’s rest in a dry bed, we spent the morning salmon fishing on the blue-green Kenai River. We landed quite a few pinks and silvers thanks to Cap’n Mark. Of note, the lodge has an arrangement with a local company to pack and ship your fresh caught fish anywhere in the U.S. It’s pricey but so nice that you can share with family and friends.
Our next morning started with a visit to the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward, established after the Valdez oil spill. A great aquarium overlooking Resurrection Bay, the Sea Life Center is also a marine mammal rehabilitation facility. A must see is the aviary for some up close viewing of adorable Horned and Tufted Puffins. We enjoyed a fab lunch at Chinook’s restaurant – the smoked salmon board and halibut cheeks were delicious!
Next, we are off to Godwin Glacier for some heli dog mushing! We had no idea what to expect, but it was amazing! Turning Heads Kennel is home to two Iditarod Mushers, and home to many, well cared for mushing dogs. The tour begins with a scenic helicopter ride up to Godwin Glacier and the training camp. The camp is run by two Mushers in training who welcome you with some puppies for cuddle time, followed by a tour of the camp and and an awesome dog sled ride. By taking the tour you help in the training of the dogs while enjoying a sled ride – they need it to prepare for the annual 1000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome. The tour ends with a scenic heli ride off the glacier. Well worth the price.
Another morning, another adventure. We begin the day with a short hike up to Exit glacier for a close view of the ever moving ever changing glacier. In the afternoon we enjoy a 5-hour boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park. Kenai Fjords on the Kenai peninsula, protects the Harding Icefield and other glaciers/fjords. Major Marine Tours offers a very nice tour narrated by a National Park Ranger who provides a bit of history and ecology en route.
It’s time to say goodbye to the lodge and head North. On the way we make a short stop at Alyeska Ski Resort for a scenic tram to the top of Mount Alyeska. The view from the summit is stunning with the sun burning off the morning fog. Back on the road, our destination is Talkeetna for hopefully our first view of Denali. Along the way, we were fortunate to see a few Beluga whales and the incredible Boar Tide — a 3-foot tidal wave that travels down Turnagain Bay and is a favorite of local surfers.
In Talkeetna, we have favorable weather and take an amazing flight over Denali National Park and Preserve in a 1957 DeHavallind Beaver! The 90 minute flight offers truly breathtaking views of Denali and its many glaciers and surrounding mountain spires. At 20,310 feet, Denali is the highest peak in North America. We learned that only 30 percent of visitors to Denail actually get a chance to view the entire mountain. We did … and it was unforgettable. We highly recommend a flyover tour with K2 Aviation. Our pilot was informative and the flight and views were nothing short of epic.
Talkeetna is a small town on the perimeter of Denali National Park, and is the starting point for mountaineers who brave the challenges of climbing Denali. Our home here for the night was Susitna River Lodge. Located on the river the lodge is comfortable and clean, with a few chairs on the deck or riverside for just kicking back.
Our adventure-packed trip winds down with a drive to Denali National Park and a 7-hour bus tour through the park. The scenery of the park is beautiful but the bus ride was too long for us. (Of note, cars are only allowed in a portion of the park. In order to go deeper into the park, you must take a bus.) The National Park and Preserve encompasses 6 million acres of tundra, spruce forest, and glaciers – hard to fathom! – its centerpiece is Denali. While we did not see any wolves, we did see Grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and Dall sheep (they were quite far away so we jokingly referred to them as micro-Dalls!), all of whom make the park their home. The reward at the halfway point is a grand view of Denali. As you stand in awe of the famous peak, one can’t help but be struck by the size and scale of everything in Alaska — it is truly massive and requires advance planning and/or an experienced guide service.
Our last day in Alaska. We say goodbye and a big thank you to Durhan, a great guide with a terrific sense of humor from Great Alaska Adventure lodge. We begin the long journey home with a 7-hour train ride through Denali National Park, en route to Anchorage via the Alaska Railroad. Be sure to opt for the GoldStar car with its large viewing windows and open air deck. The Alaska Railroad extends from Fairbanks in the North to Seward in the South; it is the only “flag” train in the country. For those living in rural Alaska off the grid, they simply stand by the tracks with a white flag and the train will stop. They can then board and venture into the city for food, medical, etc. Only in Alaska!
Three airplanes later we arrive in Toronto with new friends and some fantastic memories.
Dana created a 2017 desk calendar with some of her images from Alaska, which is available here:
… Mark & Dana …