Alaska is a veritable Eden for travellers in search of an aquatic adventure. The region boasts national parks larger than many nations, 12,000 wild rivers, a whopping 3 million lakes, and 100,000 glaciers – some of them larger than U.S. states. The Bering Glacier near St Elian Wrangell National Park is bigger than Rhode Island! With mountains, glaciers, rivers, lakes and coasts all waiting to be explored, this is a state rife with opportunity for visitors who want to experience the great outdoors at its most inspiring.
This is a place where the natural world flourishes, particularly with species that can handle the extreme environment. Only the most impressive animals can survive the Alaskan wilderness without aid. As a result, anyone lucky enough to be boarding an Alaskan cruise can expect to see not only stunning landscapes but truly special creatures too, including the bears that, as Travel Alaska explains, are bigger than bison!
With the development of technology, many intrepid humans have also made a life in Alaska, enjoying the exciting adventures to be experienced here. So why not join them?
There are countless reasons why Alaska should be at the top of any watersports lover’s bucket list. As Alaska Outdoor Supersite comments, the state offers: “365,000 miles of rivers to float. 39 mountain ranges to climb, vast expanses of open tundra, thousands of square miles of taiga, all populated with an unparalleled diversity of aquatic and terrestrial species that staggers the mind. Fog-shrouded islands are covered with ancient spruce forests and surrounded with clear, cold waters teeming with salmon, halibut, rockfish and marine mammals. Alaska is indeed a slice of heaven.”
The state is home to many outdoor pursuits companies that guide visitors through the most amazing places and exhilarating activities Alaska has to offer. Dan is from one such organisation, Alaska Alpine Adventures, and he explains why the experiencing Alaska’s extreme edge is so unmissable:
“Alaska Alpine Adventures has been guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s great parks since 1999. From rafting to kayaking and from the Alaska Peninsula to the Arctic, our adventures offer transformational life experiences to our guests.”
Any trip to Alaska is life-changing, but if you want to inject a little adrenaline into the proceedings, here is our guide to the best watersports and ice-based activities in Alaska.
Easy-going activities in Anchorage
One of the first pit-stops visitors to Alaska make is often Anchorage, the state’s most populous city. Sitting under the cover of the Chugach Mountains, Anchorage offers the chance to immerse yourself in the metropolitan culture at an art gallery by morning and then head out to meet a moose at a national park in the afternoon. Anchorage is also over 13% water, with glaciers, rivers and the Cook Inlet which encompasses the mysterious Fire Island.
Julie Saupe, president and CEO at Visit Anchorage, explains why Anchorage is so appealing to visitors seeking an aquatic experience:
“Whether visitors are fishing in Ship Creek during the annual silver or king salmon runs, kayaking on a glacier-fed lake, or stand up paddleboarding on Eklutna Lake, a water-based adventure in Anchorage is the essence of an Alaska experience. Numerous options exist both within the city and nearby for adventure seekers of all ability levels, making it accessible and fun for everyone.”
If you’re looking for a destination that offers all the home comforts of the town with some truly dramatic landscapes and amazing activities on your doorstep, Anchorage is a perfect choice.
Kayaking in Kenai Fjords National Park
Comprising 587,000 acres of Alaska’s most impressive and impenetrable wilderness, Kenai Fjords National Park has attracted millions of visitors every year since it was established in 1980. The coast is carved into mesmerizingly intricate fjords by innumerable tidewater glaciers, all of which flow from the behemoth Harding Ice Field which feeds the whole park. Within the folds of the fjords, countless species make their home, ensuring the area is one of Alaska’s most popular national parks for nature enthusiasts.
As Lonely Planet points out, there are several levels of access that the park offers. Most tourists simply visit the Exit Glacier, as it is road-accessible and offers plenty of enjoyable hikes. More adventurous souls can ascend the Harding Ice Field equipped with ice axes and crampons. Once atop the field, 900 square miles of ice are at your disposal to ski and explore.
Real watersports lovers could brave the blue-water kayaking haven that is the coastal fjords – although this location is certainly not for beginners! The exposure to the Gulf of Alaska means that only experienced kayakers should attempt to venture into these waters. Some companies do offer guided kayaking tours of the coast, allowing you to learn about local ecology whilst paddling under expert supervision. One much more leisurely alternative is a cruise tour along the coast, where you can take in the sights and spot animals such as otters, whales and much more.
White water rafting
Kayaking not quite cutting it for you on the adrenaline front? Then why not try white water rafting?
As Alaska.org explains: “Because of our massive glacier runoff and rainwater drainage, Alaskan rivers serve up more adventure than most anything you’d find in the Lower 48 – from the Kenai Peninsula’s Sixmile River to Denali’s Nenana River.”
Sixmile Creek in the Chugach National Forest offers rafting of the most challenging difficulty levels, dropping over 50 feet per mile through three canyons, all surrounded by a lush carpet of old growth rainforest. Rafting in Denali, on the other hand, means you can enjoy a scenic 11 mile run in a boat totally controlled by an expert guide, giving you all of the excitement without any of the responsibility! You could even try out heli-rafting, which allows you to reach otherwise inaccessible regions of Nenana, viewing the stunning landscape from above in the process.
You probably wouldn’t immediately associate snorkelling with such an icy climate as Alaska’s, but this is, in fact, one of the best places in the world to try this watersport! As Snorkel Alaska explain, Alaska’s intertidal waters around Ketchikan provides a rich assortment of plants and animals to view underwater, including fish, barnacles and even the rare giant Sunflower Starfish.
With some of the most pristine waters and fascinating wildlife, there is plenty to see in the aquatic underworld of the area. If you’re worried about the temperature, don’t be. Snorkelling companies will provide you with all the gear you need to keep warm, including wetsuits, boots and gloves. As bloggers will attest, it is perfectly warm and well worth plucking up the courage to try. You could see sea cucumbers, urchins, jellyfish and crabs, all within arm’s reach. At the end of your subaquatic adventure, you can take a warm shower before being treated to a celebratory hot chocolate!
If all of this sounds a little too extreme for you, there is still one prime way you can immerse yourself in the aquatic world of Alaska. Whale spotting cruises are possibly the most popular visitor activity in all of Alaska, and it’s hardly surprising when you consider the views you can get from these tours. Head to the Mendenhall Glacier in search of Juneau humpback whales with Juneau Whale Watch and you will have the chance to see these fascinating creatures up close and personal. Along the way, witness the wonderful 1,500 mile Juneau Ice Field and sites such as Nugget Creek Falls.
Dave and Deb from the blog, The Planet D, described their Alaskan whale spotting experience much farther south in Ketchikan, saying:
“Ketchikan is the place to spot humpback whales in Alaska and home to a mass of bald eagles. What better way to see these fascinating creatures up close and personal than piloting your very own zodiac? Zip through the bay in the driver seat and follow your Alaskan guide along the rugged coast where you’ll view salmon farms, totem poles and experience life as a true pioneer when you stop for an outdoor cookout to roast marshmallows on an open flame.”
Ice climbing at Kenticott
If you are a lover of all things ice, Alaska is the ideal place to be. Here you can get a true explorer experience on an activity often thought to be reserved for the likes of Bear Grylls: ice climbing. This activity involves strapping on a pair of crampons (spiked traction devices attached to footwear), taking an ice axe in each hand and climbing ice as though it were rock. It might sound scary, but once you’ve got the hang of it, ice climbing is an exhilarating and empowering experience.
Simply hit the ice axe confidently into the ice face, balance on the points of your crampons, and begin to step vertically up the wall. Forget Spiderman – this is the stuff of the most intrepid gravity-defying superheroes. However, worry not, as you will be fully roped and harnessed up, keeping you perfectly safe in the hands of expert instructors. Kenticott Glacier is one fantastic destination for ice climbing. Situated around 27 miles from Mount Blackburn near McCarthy, the area provides variable terrain for climbers of different abilities, plus truly enviable views.
Alternatively, a summer visit to the Matanuska Glacier makes for an enjoyable day trip from Anchorage. About an hour from the city, you will find the glacier in the Matanuska River Valley where MICA Guides offer guided ice climbing. They teach groups the basic skills and help you to refine your techniques before scaling challenging and truly spectacular terrain throughout the day.
Mountaineering in Denali National Park
Denali is the highest mountain in North America, and for many, seeing it is one of the main reasons to visit Alaska. Formerly referred to by visitors as Mount McKinley, the mountain’s name was changed back to Denali in 2015, as it was called by the indigenous Koyukon Athabaskans of the area. The summit sits at an elevation of 6,194 metres (20,149 ft), but as Lonely Planet explains, it is the mountain’s isolation that makes it so special:
“What makes 20,237ft Denali (formerly Mt McKinley) one of the world’s great scenic mountains is the sheer independent rise of its bulk. Denali begins at a base of just 2000ft, which means that on a clear day you will be transfixed by over 18,000 feet of ascending rock, ice and snow.”
They continue to note that visiting the mountain is “probably your best chance of seeing a grizzly, moose, caribou, lynx, fox or wolf”. The mountain and its surrounding national park also offer plenty of waterborne activities, from fishing in Wonder Lake (which enjoys arguably the best view of the peak) to – for the seasoned mountaineer – alpine mountain climbing.
Climbing Denali is no mean feat. Denali’s altitude makes a summit attempt something that requires significant training, and the icy conditions make crampons, ice axes and guides necessary. In Alaskan mountaineering grades, the easiest ascent of Denali is given a grade 2, which, according to Summit Post, indicates a:
“Moderate fifth class climb that can be accomplished in a day, or a multiday climb involving third and fourth class travel. One or more of the following will contribute to the seriousness: altitude, remoteness.”
However, due to several factors, climbing Denali is still an incredibly trying task. Its proximity to the Arctic Circle means that weather can be extreme, and the mountain feels like it is at a higher altitude than it already is due to its placement in the northern latitudes. It is also the mountain with the highest vertical elevation gain in the entire world, with 5,181 metres (17,000 ft) to climb – more even than Everest! The Lonely Planet concludes that climbing Denali is “a severe test of personal strength, team work and logistics”, but “offers one of the world’s greatest expedition challenges.” So, only tackle this peak if you have the experience – otherwise, perhaps stick to the fishing! Either way, Denali National Park celebrates its 100th birthday in 2017, making now the perfect time to visit.
Image credits: Nicole Geils