Greetings! This is the first of our (hopefully) many blogs about Alaska. aptly titled our First Impressions of Alaska. Below are some links that may interest you if you want to read more about Alaska. Just a note: all these photos (including the wildlife ones) are taken by either me or Ruby. Some of them look like they are close encounters with wildlife, and trust us, they are close encounters. You can also read about how we fund and afford our travels, or about travel hacking, which was how we scored our airline tickets to Alaska in the first place. If you have any other questions, feel free to leave some in the comments below and we’d be glad to help!
- First Impressions of Alaska
- An Alaska Itinerary
Imagine the scene: you just step off the plane in Anchorage, Alaska after a very long day of flying (Jax to Chicago, Chicago to Seattle, Seattle to Anchorage) and are walking around, sleep-deprived, in a small city park called Earthquake Park (of all the names to call a park…). It’s rainy and a bit cold and you just want to fall asleep, and then you turn around and see a giant, eight-foot horse staring right at you, only a few feet away, chewing on some leaves. Initially, you think you’re dreaming this all up, and half-expect to see the giant horse say, “What are you looking at?”, but then you see other people stare at this giant horse and they’re all taking pictures of it.
And then you realize you really are in Alaska, and what you’re staring at is not a giant horse but a moose, and the moose in Alaska certainly don’t mind foraging for food right in the city. The moose, a female, kept on chewing her willow tree, and then moved away and vanished as suddenly as she appeared. Quite the introduction to one of the most unique places in the world.
Alaska is massive. It’s the biggest state in the US and the least dense in terms of population density. It was bought from the Russians in 1867 for a measly $7m, because the Russians were mainly there to hunt sea otters for their valuable fur. Once the sea otter population declined, Alaska wasn’t so interesting anymore. Of course, no one knew at the time that Alaska had tons and tons of oil stored deep-down in Prudhoe Bay. Once that was discovered in the 1960’s, Alaska’s financial future was secure.
Alaska receives millions of visitors every year: city people who gawk at bears as if they’re ghosts, people who love wildlife, rural people who don’t get much animal diversity, and tons of bird-watchers and whale watchers and watchers of all kinds. In short, over 2 million people visit Alaska in the five summer months between May-September (most visitors come between June-August), so you see a lot of what I call “polished wilderness”, where tour guides take cruise ship passengers on safe hikes to spot the odd bear and moose. A good example of this is at Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, which is a lovely, though sadly fast disappearing glacier. One of the “trails” (it’s like a minute walk, so I hesitate to even call it a trail) there is literally called “Photo Point” (commence eye-roll).
Unpolished Wilderness – our bear encounter
And then there is the raw Alaskan wilderness for the truly adventurous. Want to see bears up close? Fly a seaplane into Katmai National Park and you can live among hundreds of them, if you so choose. Then again, sometimes a bear will appear in front of you in the most unlikely of times.
Case in point: we drove to Chugach State Park near a place called Eagle River (about an hour north from Anchorage) and did a short, 1 mile hike from the visitor center. There were other visitors there, plus a group of schoolkids, so we thought the bears would hear the noise and stay away. About half-way through the hike, however, we came upon this:
30 yards away was a foraging black bear, oblivious to all the noise coming from the schoolkids nearby. We took some pictures, watched him for a while, and then continued the hike. At the time, I thought we should have probably gone back to the visitor center, in case the bear decided to go back our way (you never know which way a bear will go). So we continued the hike, finished it and began looping back on the same path to the visitor center. Imagine our surprise when we saw the same bear approach the same road that we were walking on. He literally stood between us and the visitor center, as some sort of symbol of uncertainty between us and safety. This time, though, he wasn’t 30 yards away, it was more like 15.
We could clearly see his entire body, face, and even his sharp claws. He sniffed the road, but before he could look our way, either a dog or a wolf howled loudly somewhere in the distance, and he literally ran across the road in mild panic, crossing to the other side. He was a big guy, but if you’re a bear and you hear the howl of a wolf, that’s not good news for you. He sniffed some bushes and began walking in our direction, very slowly. I began to think of what to do in case he charged us (black bears charge people more often than the bigger brown bears, but they are also more easily scared off): either yell to try and scare him off, get on my knees as a sign of submission, or throw a stick or rock at him. After a ten-second pause that seemed to take hours, he changed course again, turned to his left and went deeper into the forest, leaving us behind.
We took a deep breath and went back to the visitor center, both thrilled and relieved.
Bears and moose are Alaska’s iconic animals, but there are many other fascinating creatures here, including whales, orcas, sea otters, seals, sea lions, porcupines, musk ox, and of course the ever-present caribou (also known as reindeer). There are actually more reindeer in Alaska than people, or so we were told. There’s even a great Reindeer Farm in Palmer, Alaska, where you can tour a reindeer farm and feed them, and also learn about the animals themselves.
Beyond animals, there are, of course, the glaciers. Alaska has over 100,000 glaciers, and they are a magnificent sight to behold. We saw a few big ones, including the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay and Surprise Glacier in Prince William Sound. The glaciers have a beautiful cyan shade to them (due to our visual perception, not because the ice is blue) and they crack and calve and send chunks flying into the water. Some of these chunks become protective floating vessels for sea otters and seals from their main predator, the orcas.
The glaciers are fast retreating, however, and nowhere is this more visible than Mendenhall Glacier in the Juneau Icefield. This glacier used to retreat (shrink) by an average of 60 feet a year since the 1700s. Last year, it retreated by almost 500 feet due to global warming. We talked to a park ranger and he mentioned that scientists predict that the entire Juneau Icefield, which has been around for hundreds of years, could be gone by the end of this century, far earlier than it should have been.
If you ever get tired of staying in a hotel or another person’s house, how about… a yurt? Yes, there are yurts in Alaska, and we stayed one night in one of then, near the small, quaint town of Talkeetna.
It was equipped with a fireplace, gas stove, fridge, sink, a few gallons of water for cooking and cleaning, as well as utensils and a comfortable bed. Since I focused on the cooking, Ruby worked on setting up a fire, and got it to work pretty quickly (thanks to some magazine pages!). There was a latrine outside as well as a grill, so we had pretty much everything that we needed. The night we stayed at the yurt was rainy and cold, and thanks to the long summer hours, there was still light outside even at midnight, which is kind of an amazing thing to experience. We’re not used to it down here in Florida, so whenever I’d wake up in the middle of the night and see light outside, I’d think it was morning, but in reality it was something like 3 a.m.
We hiked to a lake the next morning and saw bear and moose tracks, so that was kind of neat. And also time to leave!
Haines River Rafting Trip
Our first port of call was a tiny village called Haines, which has about 200 people. Since we had all day at port, we chose to do a 3-hour rafting trip with a local company, Haines River Rafting Company.
The trip meanders through the Chilkut River and we were lucky enough to have the raft all to ourselves, along with our guide, who guided the raft. The river is home to salmon and trout and other fish, so it is a very popular area for eagle spotting. Not only did we see 6 or 7 eagles, some of them sat on the riverbank only a few feet away, oblivious to our presence, far too busy with trying to catch something in the water.
It was a warm and sunny morning, which is pretty rare for Alaska, so we were quite lucky. The most interesting thing we saw was a tree log in the water with clearly visible scratches that could have only come from a bear and his sharp claws. You can see it from Ruby’s picture below.
We spent two weeks Alaska, one on land and one on water, and we still barely even scratched the surface of this incredible place. Other states in the U.S. have great national parks mixed in with big metropolitan cities, but Alaska is different in that the entire place is one giant national park, occupied first and foremost by animals. The people in Alaska, even those who live there permanently, are merely guests.
We saw almost all of the major animals, both in water and on land, that call Alaska home, with the exception of one: polar bears, the greatest land predator on Earth. When we come back to Alaska in the future, I think that is what I would love to see. It was an incredible trip, and no amount of rain, hail, cold weather, and a brief bout of seasickness, was going to sour our experience.