Alaska has always been somewhere I have always wanted to visit and when my colleaugue Iain returned from his 13 day Alaska, Wildlife & Wilderness tour, I couldn't wait to hear all about it! Here are a few of the questions I asked him...
What was it about this vast wilderness that drew you in and inspired you to book the flight and go explore?
I saw a documentary on Alaska when I was eight years old in New Zealand. The show was about an Alaskan fisherman who crashed his float plane in the wilderness and survived by finding an abandoned fishing cabin. Even at a young age I remember looking at this incredible wilderness and hearing of his fear of marauding bears. Since then, I’ve always viewed Alaska as a true bastion of wilderness with a harsh weather environment which fails to comply with the changing desires of humans. I went with high expectations of what Alaska had to offer and each consecutive day exceeded them more than I imagined possible. After leaving Anchorage it truly feels like a wilderness state and very much un-American.
What did it feel like to soar above America’s largest state on a Mt McKinley sightseeing flight?
EPIC! It’s expensive no doubt it and certainly wasn’t in my travel budget but I always say budgets are created to be blown. Why travel if you don’t get the most from your trip, right? Mt. McKinley is the tallest mountain in North America and typically the summit can be seen once every three days. Funnily enough it was the third day I saw it peering out from the clouds following a particularly ferocious mountain trek. The flight departs from the borders of Denali National Park in a six seated plane with a guided commentary throughout.
Riding the wind currents and sweeping over the cascading mountains was an incredible experience and one which will remain firmly imprinted on my mind forever. The flight went in stages with the first being over coloured ridges of green forests then brilliant orange and iron ore pink which framed the snowy peaks with immense beauty. In between looking through the eye of my camera and staring boldly at the colours, peaks and valleys below, my mouth dropped open with sheer wonder and appreciation. I have seen some amazing sights in my years of travel but Denali National Park from the air is exceptional. The second half of the flight was literally being surrounded by towering mountains and jagged peaks covered in a blanket of snow and laced with electric blue glaciers and ice-sheets, which were navigated with fretful ease.
After flying for 45 minutes we came around the bend and my eyes fixed on an ice-sheet runway we were to land on. The landing was effortlessly smooth and stepping out onto the ice-sheet amidst an eerie silence, I was hit with a view of exceptional beauty it is hard to put into words. Mt McKinley towered beside me, hidden under a light dusting of clouds, keeping a watchful eye over the new arrivals.
The whole experience was truly amazing and something I would have regretted had I not done it. I guess it’s a good job I did!
Alaska is home to some incredible wildlife, what were you lucky enough to see on your tour?
Alaska is jam-packed with wildlife, mammals and wild flowers, even in Anchorage it is common place to see moose walking down the main street and bears loitering on the outskirts. The tour included a float plane into the wilderness of Redoubt Bay where a speedboat delivered us to the mouth of the river. Here the running salmon gathered en mass ready to scale the rocky riverbed to spawn. Of course where there are salmon, there tends to be a hungry bear waiting in the wings, after an easy meal. We waited for three hours in which time we must have seen five grizzly bears, three black bears, bald eagles soaring overhead and enough salmon to last a lifetime. We caught five salmon which were cooked on a BBQ on board and served piping fresh, glazed in lemon.
I love hiking trails and Alaska delivered an incredible assortment of wild-flower covered paths for me to follow. It was on these snaking trails I saw an array of bears, moose, deer, caribou, Dall sheep, birdlife and marmots patrolling the plains and surrounding mountains. And I don’t mean one or two, there were plenty. All making the most of the sunshine before the imminent winter which never feels far away.
Also included was a full day wildlife cruise where I felt spoilt rotten. Sailing through Kenai Fjords National Park we were treated with a whale teaching her calf how to crash its fin from above the surface onto the water below, which the calf then copied. Then without warning the calf leapt out of the water, full breaching the surface, not once but twice! Sea Lions lazed on rocks, bathing in the sun’s rays, colonies of birds tracked the sky overhead, and porpoises glided the waters beside the boat leading us further into the remoteness of the park. However, for me the highlight of the day was to witness a ‘smack’ of jellyfish. What appeared to be a blue toxic leak in the water from a distance, was actually thousands of jellyfish clustered together. In all my life I never thought I would see something as strange as this.
Alaska delivers, it just does. Outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts need look no further. What it delivers is a remote wilderness where nature and the elements share a mutual appreciation and understanding. It is quite humbling to witness.
You went to Alaska in July, what was the weather like and was it a good time to visit?
“13 days of sunshine, are you serious?” Is what we heard from many of the Alaskans as we made our way around their beautiful state, not experiencing a drop of rain. Now you understand why I felt spoilt. Each day I was rewarded by glorious sunshine, even in places infamous for the overcast weather the sun fought its way through as we peeled our layers off. Being a camping trip I feared the worst but what was delivered couldn’t have been better. It rained a couple of evenings whilst I was sleeping however, I was tucked up in my sleeping bag blissfully unaware.
July is a great time to travel because the wild-flowers line the trails and roadsides making for excellent picture stops along the way. Although different types of salmon run at various times throughout the year, I felt lucky to have seen them preparing for this rite of passage.
Alaska is a funny place, I mentioned winter never feels far away and I constantly felt reminded of how we were all at the mercy of the elements. It is a stunningly harsh environment and I never stopped appreciating how quickly the weather can turn from good to bad, or in our case, good to great. July is a fantastic time to travel to Alaska and I would highly recommend it.
Did you get to do lots of hiking on the trip? If so, do you need to be at a particular fitness level?
I would say we were hiking most days but you can take things at your own pace. The trails were incredible as I mentioned above. In terms of fitness I didn’t do any training but I wouldn’t say I am particularly unfit. What I would say is take a pair of hiking boots and avoids the trainers. I took trainers and although they were fine, I wouldn’t make the same decision again. Good socks, good boots, water bottle, sunscreen, hat and a fully charged camera battery should do the trick.
Take your time on the trails and admire the views, which is after all why people travel to Alaska. Some of the trails were so immense in beauty I was shouting out across the valleys below… no really I was. Spectacular doesn't pack enough of a punch to describe the fantastic views that the trails perpetually delivered. Some people less fit than myself, took their time and walked only half the way whilst others scaled to the summits but at the end of the day we were all rewarded. My advice is if you are unfit, do some training and push yourself on the trails, they are awesome. If walking isn’t your thing, take it easy and photograph the animals, wild-flowers and stunning vistas on offer.
You have been lucky enough to travel to some pretty epic places, how does Alaska compare to your previous adventures?
Yes I have been pretty spoilt. Alaska was right up there with one of my top trips and I’m not just saying that. It is raw, rugged, beautiful and humbling. The people know what it’s like to survive a long winter and are down to earth and friendly. There are glaciers everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Alaska is wild and that’s what I like. It gets the traveller outdoors and removes the sugar-coating which can at times be the difference between a real and faux experience.
If you had to choose just one highlight from the 13 day tour, what would it be and why?
The trail from Exit Glacier up to the Harding Ice field. It’s hard to explain why but I have about 250 pictures that could probably recount why. It’s a tough climb make no mistake about it but it delivers in every sense of the word. I literally walked beside a glacier for hours on end up to the summit for lunch. The views swept down the valleys and the sun seeped into the blue ice whilst my walking buddy decided to stop for a spot of yoga. We saw marmots and bears but the trail was beautiful and exhausting, sometimes that’s enough to know you’ve had a great day out.
Which of the activities on the tour will you never forget?
Ice-climbing in Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Having the opportunity to scale ice walls with pick-ices and crampons (and safety rope) was EPIC!
Iain spent 13 incredible days in Alaska on our Alaska, Wildlife & Wilderness tour, I'm sure you'll agree it sounds like the perfect trip to discover this beautiful, wild and vast state. Check out our website to see our other Alaska tours that vary from eight days to 15 days.
Author: Iain Shiels - Originally from New Zealand and well-travelled having backpacked my way around all 7 continents. I started my career as a printer, and then travelled, and the rest is history. With over 20 years in the industry including tour leading and a frequent globe trotter, there is nothing more I like than heading off with a backpack, diving, photography, live music and trying local beers in strange places. Favourite travel experiences are Antarctica, trekking into the depths of the Grand Canyon and exploring Patagonia. Passionate about travel and the world we live in.