My latest Alaska Wildland Adventure reminded me why we have been coordinating trips and guiding in what native Aleuts call "The Great Land" since the early 1990's. With hundreds of Alaska vacations under my boots, I can truly say this Alaska adventure vacation is one of the most exceptional. The weather, wildlife, itinerary and people (including my mother), all came together to create what I consider a "Grand Slam" trip.
The first factor of a grand slam trip is weather. In a word, the Alaska climate is unpredictable. Before a trip departs we spend considerable time preparing our travelers for rain. We mail everyone an extensive pre-departure booklet with Alaska climate, temperatures, average rainfall and a detailed packing list. Over the phone we ensure you are bringing suitable rain gear, that you dress in layers and have waterproof footwear. Despite all this preparation, when your trip is ready to depart we silently pray for sunshine. On this trip the weather looked grim. Everyone in Anchorage was talking about the big storm that was blowing in. It was only August 24th and temperatures were still in the 100's in the lower 48, yet word in Alaska was that summer was over. As our group arrived under drizzly skies, the first question I heard was, "What's the weather forecast?" "Rain", I said, to which they would respond, "Well at least I didn't bring all that gear for nothing!"
During breakfast at the Copper Whale Inn our discussion of the weather was interrupted by the excitement of Beluga whale sightings right from the dining room. Our omelets were interrupted when the innkeeper ran out from behind the stove to give us a dissertation on the life history of the Beluga. We boarded the scenic Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to the port town of Whittier. As we passed through the three mile tunnel under the Chugach Mountains and emerged along the shores of Prince William Sound, the sun was emerging. We boarded the M/V Babkin, a comfortable 60 foot yacht that would be our home for the next five days as the Whittier sky turned crystal clear.
The incredible and unusual weather enhanced the second element of our grand slam trip, the wildlife. During our five days exploring Prince William Sound we experienced several once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters. Early one morning our tiny flotilla of eight people in single and double kayaks got a close up view of a black bear fishing in a salmon stream, too busy gorging itself on salmon in preparation for the long winter ahead, to pay us any attention. A lone male killer whale was spotted patrolling the icy waters at the face of the immense Chenega Glacier, stalking the harbor seals hauled out on the many icebergs. On a hike to the Nellie Juan Glacier we watched a playful river otter with two pups. Other encounters included Humpback whales raising their enormous tail flukes, Steller sea lions growling on rocks, rafts of Sea otters inhabiting secluded coves, bears along the shoreline as we idled by and salmon filled every stream we chose to fish or hike. Colorful puffins, cormorants, and other seabirds were spotted on the water and majestic Bald eagles, the source of unbridled excitement on the first day, became too many to count.
Wildland Adventures has maintained a relationship with the vonWichman family for over 15 years. Alex, along with brother Brad and his wife Kjersti have operated dozens of charters for our small groups. Their father was a respected doctor in Anchorage and mountain climber on the first winter ascent of Mt McKinley. He purchased a commercial fishing vessel in the 1970's and presented it to his teenage son and daughter, Brad and Alex, with specific instructions to "make yourselves useful." So began a lifelong relationship and love affair with Prince William Sound. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground, Brad, Kjersti and Alex were among the first to respond. In the years since, when they are not carrying our travelers, they continue to work closely with researchers from the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Corps of Engineers, universities, and the US Geological Survey, mostly supported by the Valdez oil spill fund.
Upon our return to Whittier it was raining. We spent our free day in Anchorage at the museum, the Native Heritage Center and buying gifts for less fortunate relatives who could not make the trip. After a day in town and fresh laundry, we were ready for wilderness again and my Alaska weather visualizations were in full swing. The next day we had a charter flight from Anchorage to our remote lodge in the heart of Denali National Park. The flight shortens the long drive and provides a bird's eye flight see of Mt McKinley, North America's tallest peak. It was too cloudy to fly so we elected to take our backup option and traveled by land instead of flying. We would have one more chance to fly back if the sky cleared after four days in Denali.
Our drive took us past the gargantuan hotels where most commercial tour groups stay at the entrance to Denali National Park, affectionately named "Glitter Gulch". I gloated as we passed, knowing we had something special in store at our wilderness lodge. The 90 mile drive from the park entrance to Kantishna takes five hours, partly because of the dirt road that has remained much as it was when the park was established, and partly because of numerous stops to view wildlife. Private cars are not allowed on the road and the wildlife within Denali has become indifferent to the predictable parade of official Park Service buses plying the road. Our driver began his narrative explaining the history of the park and the key players in this area's preservation when he was interrupted by a shout of "Caribou!" The bus slows to a stop as we watched a half dozen animals grazing on the autumn colored tundra. So it went, a few more miles down the road and the cries of "Moose! Ptarmigan! Fox! Dall sheep! Golden eagle!" Even "Ground squirrel!" All unique and wonderful sightings on this Alaskan safari.
There were two cries that were distinguished from the rest. The first was "Bear!" or "Grizzly! Of the four grizzly bears we saw on this drive, one was so close that when the bus rumbled to a stop we could hear the crush of the tundra under its feet. The blonde bear was illuminated by rays of sunlight that had begun to appear. Set against the brilliant orange, red and yellow of the turning tundra leaves it was an incredible picture. Our driver David, a man I have known since my first trip to Denali in 1996, patiently waited as we finished our film and stared in awe. The second remarkable sighting came moments later when someone screamed "There's the mountain!" And there indeed was Mt McKinley, poking through the clouds higher than anyone had imagined it would be. We stopped for more photos as the clouds streamed by the majestic peak in an ever changing tapestry of ice, rock, sky and mist.
For the next three days we were again blessed with clear skies and sunshine. Our Camp Denali backcountry cabins are steeped in Alaskan character and history, dating back to the mining claims and wilderness enthusiasts that first drew hearty souls to this remote and rugged landscape. The naturalist guides and staff here are descendents of the original family that settled on this inholding in the Park. Our hike the first day was led by Ben. What began as a leisurely stroll identifying plant species and discussing their use by native people ended as a cultural immersion into life, subsistence and survival on the frontier in his hometown of Arctic Village Alaska. Another impromptu hike was led by Stan, the lodge maintenance man. He led us across Moose Creek to an old dilapidated trapper's cabin. Stan's stories of his own experiences trapping brought life on the frontier full circle from pioneers long forgotten to modern day existence in remote Alaska. His tales were brought to life when we made our way past the cabin to a nearby beaver pond and he skillfully called the beavers to the center of the pond so we could all take pictures. On an ambitious hike up a nearby ridge, another Kantishna guide Melissa, a local student in Fairbanks, lead our group on hands and knees picking fresh berries from the tundra.
Our final day in Denali National Park was spent pursuing individual activities. Some took mountain bikes to abandoned mining cabins throughout the Kantishna hills. Others chose to horseback ride. Each evening after dinner we would adjourn to the lobby to hear more from this interesting cast of Alaskan characters.
As we departed the lodge, Denali had one last surprise in store for us. Making our way back toward the park entrance we were treated to what few visitors ever see. At Wonder Lake the sunrise was illuminating the great mountain from base to peak. Over twenty thousand feet of ice and rock seemed to glow as if it were burning from within. We stopped for photos and enjoyed this dramatic backdrop as we made our way back to civilization. Once at the park entrance we embarked on our long awaited flight. The sun, now high in the sky revealed a perfect cloudless day to fly over McKinley. We felt small and insignificant in the presence of such grandeur. Our plane passed over the spine of the Alaska Range to the shoulder of the mountain, through valleys that could swallow 100 Yosemites and over unnamed peaks larger than the tallest mountains at home.
As our plane touched ground back in Anchorage I reflected on our grand slam journey. The weather was unbelievable, the wildlife exceptional and our route had taken us to Alaska's greatest wild places. There is, however, an additional element of all our trips that makes them extraordinary, and that is the people: both our Wildland travelers, and the local Alaskans we met along the way. The Wildland travelers I had the fortune of leading were exceptional. An active semi-retired couple from Southern California (Wildland alumni) were avid environmentalists and had recently taken up birding. The group also included two friends from Milwaukee who were members of the Milwaukee Public Museum travel program, a third-time Wildland Adventures alumni who is a veterinarian and amateur photographer from New York. Last but not least was my mother, a former school teacher turned housewife from Northern California. This group was a testament to how well we seem to describe our Wildland Adventures so that we attract travelers who seek authenticity and appreciate in-depth nature and cultural experiences. The farewell dinner in Anchorage provided a chance to share our personal experiences that touched us the most. We were thankful for Alaska's wilderness and its wonderful people. Friends were made and a few tears were shed.
Any tour operator can show off the beauty of Alaska but it takes one with enough experience and knowledge, to introduce travelers to the Alaskan wilderness and the superlative people who have established a life within this wild land. It is a place, as good as any other Wildland destination in the world, that never disappoints. Beyond the amazing wildlife encounters, this trip reminds me that what distinguishes a Wildland Adventure in Alaska are the local people with whom we work. We have established direct relationships with charter boat captains, bush pilots, wilderness guides, and back country lodges, enabling us to craft superior itineraries that provide a truly in-depth and authentic Alaskan experience. I know this may sound corny, but I can't resist, because it's true: If this trip was a grand slam, then our Alaskan team wins the game, year after year.