Finding Alaska Part 1

Rugged, untamed, natural. This is what I discovered on a recent trip to Alaska. Descending into Anchorage I was immediately struck by the topography which is unabashedly masculine, with muscular mountains, snow-capped glaciers and endless evergreens covering the vast, unobstructed landscape.

It’s easy to see why this is considered the final frontier of America—fur trappers, gold hunters, indigenous peoples, bootleggers and loggers made this place and its history is rich with tales of expeditions, tribal battles, competing interests of other countries, harsh weather conditions and unpredictable seismic activity. It’s no wonder the population is a hearty one.

I was visiting for a special social event and found the area captivating. The natural beauty of the land is everywhere and I was impressed with how untouched everything was, even in the city center, with its low rise buildings and stretched horizon.

Aboard the Alaska Railroad

One of the first activities I did was visiting the 26 glaciers in Prince William Sound onboard the Klondike Express. Trekking down to the Alaska Railroad to catch an early morning train, the day was crisp and overcast. The train takes its time traveling along a gorgeous, scenic route to Whittier. The conductor was keen to share animal sightings along the way (black bears, Dall sheep, moose and eagles) as well as pointing out flora and fauna along with interesting notes about landforms. After a two-hour ride, I disembarked and crossed the street to the piers where the boats are docked and ready for passengers.

The boat tour was conducted by a state forest ranger and he provided a tremendous amount of information, not only about the fjord we would be traveling down but local history as well. Once we were out of the pier and going into open water the staff served a warm lunch comprised of a fantastic salmon chowder, cole slaw, roll and some sweets for dessert. My assigned table was at a window and the landscape was striking with emerald green mountains intermittently altered by a glacier or a beautiful waterfall trickling through the forest on its way to the bottom.

Ice floes ready to bring onboard for sampling.

This particular fjord in Prince William Sound is known as College Fjord as the glaciers are peculiarly named after ivy league schools, Harvard Glacier being the largest and most impressive of the bunch. As the weather was cooperative and the water was calm the captain was able to get surprisingly close, which was exciting as a glacier up close is quite forbidding!

The mammoth Harvard Glacier!

Along the way there was land and marine life to discover and we saw black bears on the shoreline, a raft of sea otters and small groups of harbor seals on the ice floes as well as a couple of eagles.

One of the highlights of the day was the staff pulling up a small ice floe for sampling. They bring the ice onto the boat and use an ice pick to break it apart and then serve it either in drinks or hand out small cups of it to try raw. It was amazing in its organic clarity—it had no taste, just pure frozen water.

This is a popular area for commercial fisherman and there were many working boats bringing up the various species of salmon that inhabit the waters.

After several hours on the boat touring around, we returned to the pier and disembarked to catch the train back to Anchorage. It was a tremendously satisfying and memorable day. And, as the sun doesn’t really set until well after midnight, we had a sunny ride.

I took a similar expedition a few days later but this time traveling farther south to the town of Seward. I rode the same train on a longer four and a half hour journey covering different territory and climbing high up into the mountains before coming down again to sea level.

A very long S-curve in the tracks allowed for a photo of the front of the train from my seat!

Seward is larger than Whittier and much more of a tourist destination, boasting a large, beautiful hotel right on the water where the piers are. I boarded a smaller boat this time that went out into the Kenai Fjords. Soon after departing the staff served a lunch of heart turkey sandwiches, chips and a nice dessert.

This particular excursion was a little more exciting as the area was rich with marine and bird life. We tracked a mother humpback whale and her calf, a pod of Dall’s porpoises played around the boat and a fin whale also made an appearance (an apparently rare event at this time of year). There were horned and tufted puffins huntin on the water, black-legged kittiwakes in large numbers on the rocky outcroppings circling their nests, cormorants diving around and a raft of sea others floating blissfully. We saw sea lions basking as well as harbor seals. The fjord also had a massive glacier that featured a cave at one end and again, staff brought up some ice floe for sampling. After six hours touring around we returned to the pier and I was back on the train for a restful ride to Anchorage.

Sea lions sunning on the rocks.

Alaska was made for exploring and these two trips really exposed the biodiversity of the state and the expansiveness of the land. And if you’re an avid outdoors person there is no end to the activities you can pursue.