Active exploration at Alaska's national parks

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Kayaking in Bartlett Cove at Glacier Bay National Park.
Kayaking in Bartlett Cove at Glacier Bay National Park. Photo Credit: Eric Moya

It was past the midway point of my weeklong press trip to Alaska last summer when our group spotted its white whale. Which was a moose.

The encounter occurred as our rented SUV sped along the smooth blacktop of Glenn Highway on our way to an airstrip in Chitina, where we would catch a couple of prop planes to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

There she stood, alongside the highway. (Our hosts had told us that moose sightings were common in the Last Frontier but this, alas, would prove to be our only one.) Flight time was minutes away, but our priorities were never in question.

We made a surprisingly nimble U-turn and got a long look at the hungry cow as she noshed on roadside shrubbery, her contented grunts and chewing coming through with home theater-like clarity from about five yards away.

Though it would be our sole moose sighting, we weren't slighted in terms of brag-worthy wildlife encounters: We'd had plenty up to that point during our trip, sponsored by the state to spotlight its national parks ahead of the National Park Service's (NPS) centennial in 2016.

Alluring Alaska

Days earlier, in Bartlett Cove at Glacier Bay National Park, a minutes-long breaching by a whale of the literal kind (a humpback) left even our guides from Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks in awe. From our vantage point on shore, the relentless lobtailing was first seen, then heard a second or so later, the way thunder can provide an intimidating coda after a flash of lightning. Overhead, bald eagle sightings were frequent enough to lend credence to some locals' downright blase attitude about encountering our national mascot.

But a few days later, in embracing the spirit of the NPS' Find Your Park campaign, I passed on the option for bear-viewing at Lake Clark National Park, choosing instead to hike at Denali National Park and take in a breathtaking view of what was then still officially named Mount McKinley, now Denali.

More from Alaska

 Our DeHavilland Beaver floatplane, operated by Rust's Flying Service out of Anchorage, touched down on a lake at the park, and our guide from Alaska Alpine Adventures led us up the rocky surface of a nearby slope to take in the view. The skies obliged during our few hours at the park, the clouds thinning to offer atmospheric yet reasonably unobstructed views of Denali.

There were opportunities throughout the trip to stay active outdoors, at a mostly relaxed pace. We kayaked again in Wrangell-St. Elias, which enabled us to get within touching distance of icebergs from the Kennicott Glacier, a leisurely row but for the occasional current sending our inflatable kayaks spinning.

The exceptionally warm temperatures last summer offered a climatic contrast to our hike atop Wrangell-St. Elias' Root Glacier the next day with St. Elias Alpine Guides: For this New Jerseyan, it felt like spring during the 2-mile hike through park woods to the glacier, where out came the winter gear. (Do heed your guides' packing list: windbreaker, fleece, gloves, mosquito repellent, etc.)

Crampons enabled sure footing during the half-day trek, which offered plenty of up-close peeks at dense ice rendered cobalt-blue by thousands of years of gravitational pressure. As our hike wound down, our guide offered up Red Vines as ersatz straws for drinking glacier water right from the source. We drank greedily and filled our bottles, the water's stunning purity miles away from anything one might find on a supermarket shelf.

As the week came to an end, it felt like each of the stops could have merited a visit of that length, perhaps longer. Find Your Park? Alaska makes it hard to choose.

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