Alaska: The last great wilderness

Published on: Sunday, April 14, 2013

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Abundant in wild animals that roam vast lands and icy waters, Alaska is where imagination is surpassed by reality. Samantha Wilson avoids the well-trodden cruise ship trail and goes behind the wheel to explore the state's unspoilt landscapes.

My husband and I decided upon Alaska as our honeymoon destination – a place I have always dreamed of visiting. We chose to visit Alaska not on a cruise ship as so many of the region’s visitors do, nor by renting a motor home. Instead, we hired a car and spent our evenings planning routes and checking into delightfully quaint guesthouses. This allowed us to stick to a schedule, sleep in the comfort of wooden cabins and learn more about the state through the bubbly hospitality of our B&B hosts.

Explore the wild lands

We began our Alaskan adventure by heading inland to the formidable Denali National Park, where there are no politely signposted hiking trails and gift shops. This is 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) of untamed wilderness, where hiking is undertaken at your own risk and Yogi Bear really is the ranger. All-American buses shuttle visitors along the park’s single, hair-raising road. We opted for the “early bird” bus to Eilson Visitor Centre – a four-hour drive each way. Setting off at sunrise, we were treated to a glimpse of the gargantuan Mount McKinley peeping out from the clouds, snow-capped and golden in the morning sun. At 6,194m (20,320ft), it is North America’s highest peak.

The sheer size of the landscape is difficult to fathom, even when staring right at it. Wide green valleys threaded by glinting streams (or were they rivers?) and the park’s wild residents could be found within the jagged, imposing mountain ranges. Bears made appearances, moose lazed in the long grasses and caribou tiptoed across frozen ponds. For the first time, I really understood the phrase “the great outdoors.”

After our first taste of Alaskan wild lands in Denali, fortuitous glimpses of bears had whetted our appetite for closer encounters – so we booked a flight-seeing trip to watch them in salmon-fishing action. It is instantly apparent when travelling independently in Alaska that there are very few roads. Unpaved, impassable terrain is traversed by float planes, and our day began by stepping into one such floating aircraft. We crossed Cook Inlet to a vast, virgin landscape. Flat-bottomed boats whizzed us across a lake to the mouth of Wolverine Creek whose waters were writhing with northbound salmon. The rest of the afternoon was spent in David Attenborough’s shoes. We watched as mother bears played with their cubs, observing the hierarchy between brown and black bears and the thunderous splashing of these powerful animals fishing.

Alaska’s inland region is staggering. The spattering of towns and villages are completely swamped by nature and that’s just how the passionate, friendly locals like it. We spent the first week not only venturing into the wilderness, but also by way of culture and history. We visited Musk Ox Farm to discover how wool is woven by Inuit tribes, explored long-abandoned, mountain-top gold mines and strolled around the beautiful town of Girdwood’s bohemian Forest Fair. Many evenings were spent chatting with our hospitable hosts whilst munching on home-made smoked salmon.

Brave the Arctic waters

Week two in Alaska began by heading south towards the frigid waters of Prince William Sound and Resurrection Bay. On the way we veered off to the hamlet of Cooper Landing in the heart of the Kenai Peninsula for a day of gentle rafting on the Upper Kenai River. American Bald Eagles glided above pine trees as we drifted along past fly-fishermen and prospectors panning for gold.

At the southern end of Kenai Peninsula, the green, summery alpine landscape suddenly turns frosty. Vast, jagged glaciers carve their way through the mountains to meet open sea, calving with alarming cracks and almighty splashes into the Arctic waters – “white thunder,” as the locals call it.

Nature is unpredictable, and wildlife especially so. We had been lucky enough to catch sight of all the land-based animals on our Alaska wildlife list, but the marine life had so far eluded us even after trips to Whittier and the starkly beautiful Prince William Sound – until we got to Seward.

Our first outing on Resurrection Bay was a full-day glacier and wildlife excursion. We took in the sights of otters relaxing on their backs in the sunshine and humpback whales breaching in the distance. Colonies of sea lions lazed on the rocks, puffins flapped furiously through the air. We even saw great chunks of ice crash off Aialik Glacier. The wildlife list was almost complete, but what would a trip to Alaska be without seeing orcas?

This was the (albeit rather spoilt) question we posed to the amiable owner of the creek side cabin in Seward. Without hesitation he linked up his boat trailer to his car, and in no time we were once again whizzing across Resurrection Bay. We saw orcas that evening, plenty of them, as they slowly circled our small boat inquisitively. We would have been happy to finish our trip there, but our host and Alaska’s wildlife had other ideas. In the pond-like waters, with the midnight sun shining, we fished for salmon whilst watched by timid harbour seals. As a final farewell to what had been a journey of fulfilled dreams and surprises, a young humpback whale leapt in joy, breaching over and over again, simply at one with one of the world’s greatest wildernesses.

The Details

When to travel: The best weather is during July and August, but this is also the busiest (and most expensive) time to visit. Shoulder season – May to June and September – is a great alternative, although expect cooler temperatures.

Where to stay: Travelling independently during summer means booking accommodation in advance. Options include log cabins, guesthouses, hotels, wilderness lodges and a few motels. The Alaska Vacation and Travel website has a good list (www.travelalaska.com).

Getting Around: Cars can be picked up from the airport, but should be booked in advance for the best prices. The only downside of renting a car in Alaska is that insurance policies don’t allow you to drive on unpaved roads, of which there are many (including the Denali Highway).

Insider tip: Travelling in Alaska can be expensive. The Alaska TourSaver (www.toursaver.com) coupon book can save a lot of money on the must-do activities. It costs £66 ($100) and contains two for one offers on all the major activities and tours.