Hiking, hot-tubbing through Alaska

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ANCHORAGE -- If there is a problem with the excursions Princess offers as part of its cruise tours, it is this: There are too many.

With more than 90 options, it can be difficult to choose.

In eight days, my adventures included flying north of the Arctic Circle, landing on a glacier in a helicopter and kayaking to Shoup Glacier.

I could have chosen to soar over Mount McKinley in a small airplane or mush with sled dogs. Fellow travelers raved about a Denali Heli-Hiking Adventure, during which they danced with arms posed like antlers to attract nearby caribou (it worked).

Of course, every excursion can't be a winner. A fellow traveler complained his horseback riding trip at Denali seemed more like an amusement park ride. I found the Natural History Tour in Denali National Park tedious, dominated by lengthy stops without much to see.

Also, flight tours can be canceled by weather, so have backups in mind.

Such disappointments, however, paled in comparison to the joys of most of the excursions.

For my 14-year-old cousin and me, nothing topped the kayaking trip to Shoup Glacier with Pangaea Adventures. It's a two-hour ride from the Copper River lodge to the starting point in Valdez, but the travel time was worth every minute.

After a quick kayaking lesson, we took a motorboat to our drop-off point about 2.5 miles from the glacier. From there, we kayaked by thousands of cacophonous, black-legged kittiwakes (a type of gull) nesting on the rocks, maneuvered between floating pieces of ice as we approached the glacier, and heard the thunderous sound of the glacier calving.

We picnicked on rocks the ice had covered until recently. Shoup Glacier retreated 400 feet in the past year, Pangaea owner Kenny Blum told us. The glacier appeared tinged in blue, as it is the only color of the visible light spectrum the densely packed ice doesn't absorb.

HOT TIP: On the motorboat trip back to Valdez, four of us jumped into frigid Shoup Bay. Back on board, a makeshift hot tub awaited, and we savored an hour enjoying Alaska scenery in 90- to 100-degree water.

Agents can request the hot tub option for a special client (send e-mail to [email protected]). Pangaea can't guarantee it, but it's worth a try.

The helicopter landing at Yanert Glacier was spectacular. The glacier surged a few years ago -- not many do -- and the movement caused the surface to buckle and crack, creating peaks and crevasses unlike most glacial landscapes.

In good weather, the Arctic Circle flight out of Fairbanks should offer great views of the White Mountains and Yukon Flats. Travelers fly north to the Athabascan Indian village of Fort Yukon for a slice-of-real life tour enlivened by the wry humor of Alaska Yukon Tours owner/guide Richard Carroll.

Our seven-mile Byers Lake Back Country Hiking trip paid off with a stop at Cascade Falls and an overlook of the Alaska Range. But serious trekkers beware: An unfit participant could shorten the hike.

With so many options, agents interested in repeat business should also keep this in mind. There's only one option for visitors who want to try even more excursions: Come back.

To contact reporter Andrew Compart, send e-mail to [email protected].

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