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Adventures in Nature

text and images by
Paul Otteson
Avalon Travel Publishing
All Rights Reserved

AlaskaJourney Home

1—Why Alaska?

2—Alaska: An Overview

3—Conservation and Responsible Tourism

4—Wildland and Wildlife

5—Special Interests and Activities

6—North to the 49th State

7—Southeast Alaska

8—Southcentral Mountains and Prince William Sound

9—Anchorage and Cook Inlet

10—The Kenai Peninsula

11—Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula

12—Aleutians and Bering Sea Islands

13—Denali and the Alaska Range

14—The Interior: Fairbanks and the Yukon Valley

15—Western Alaska

16—Far North


5) Special Interests and Activities

Alaska features museums (good ones), arts offerings, festivals, sports competitions, tram rides, and even a theme park of sorts (Alaskaland in Fairbanks), but most tour and travel offerings get you to the wildland and wildlife—sometimes wildly! Advanced-level rafting excursions will tumble you down a river. Flightseeing on a windy day offers a stomach-challenging roller-coaster ride. Floatplane bear viewing sets your heart racing as a thousand-pound brown swims by a dozen feet from where you stand.

The following sections introduce some of the wonderful alternatives on your Alaska menu. For information on outfitters for these activities, see the appendix.


About half the time I tell someone I’m going to Alaska, I am asked in return if I’m going fishing—with good reason! Alaska has amazingly rich fisheries and a well-managed balance of subsistence, commercial, and recreational fishing opportunities. Deep-sea, shoreline, river, and lake fishing can put you in close contact with the outdoors and with the spirit of Alaskans. Trout, grayling, arctic char, and others are common sport fish. Deep-sea halibut fishing is popular with the bold and strong of stomach.

The favorite Alaskan fish of all is the salmon. Five types return by the millions to clear running coastal streams and rivers on a clockwork schedule, spawning in the clean gravels of the shallows. Each type has two names to confuse the uninitiated:

King/Chinook—These biggest and least numerous of Alaskan salmon are found only in larger streams and rivers, arriving to spawn from late May through July. The Kenai is by far the river of choice, with other easily accessible runs found in the Susitna and Copper Rivers. Catching 30-plus pounders isn’t uncommon—the largest ever caught was over 126 pounds.

Silver/Coho—Known for their activity and aggression, silvers pick up when king season fades, generally showing up to spawn in fresh water from July to October. They are found all along the Alaskan coast and occasionally reach 35 pounds.

Pink/Humpback ("humpies")—Rarely exceeding 10 pounds, humpies are the smallest of Alaska’s salmon. They spawn from late June to mid-October, usually not far from saltwater.

Red/Sockeye—Reds are unique in their habit of spawning in streams that flow from lakes, or in lakes themselves. Their spawning runs go from late May to mid-August. Many consider reds to be the tastiest of them all.

Chum/Dog—Rarely taken by sport fishermen, chums are called dog salmon because of their traditional use in feeding the dogs. The best of the freshwater chum are found in the Yukon River.

To some extent, fishing disrupts the natural environment, threatening wild fish populations by introducing hatchery fish, degrading riverbanks and riparian habitat, and tampering with a food chain that ultimately supports bears, eagles, and sea mammals. Fortunately, Alaskan fisheries are rich and strong. Federal and state management practices are generally good and work to preserve a healthy food chain. When you watch brown bears gorge on salmon as, by the thousands, they flounder and die in the spawning streams, your impressions of this form of wildlife harvesting may change. Besides, hooking that 30-pounder is a blast!

Freshwater Sports: Canoeing, Kayaking, and Rafting

Lake and river adventuring continue to increase in popularity in Alaska, though only a few options offer road access for both put-ins and take-outs. Those that do are well served by guides and outfitters, while the legion of bush pilots operating throughout the state will drop you off or pick you up just about anywhere else—for a price.

There is a great tradition of exploring the backcountry of Alaska via lakes and rivers. "Canoe" and "kayak" are both Native American words, as well as original native watercraft. The kayak is the traditional Aleut craft, used in both rivers and coastal waters. The Yukon, Tanana, Kuskokwim, Kobuk, Noatak, and other rivers were commonly used by trappers and prospectors. Today, 26 National Wild and Scenic Rivers are designated in the state with more pending. Many of these and several other lake, river, and portage routes are well established and served by outfitters.

Whether you take a two-hour excursion or a multiday float trip, river rafting is a wonderful choice for those interested in guided whitewater fun. Numerous outfitters offer a variety of options, particularly on the upper reaches of rivers paralleled by roads. The most popular run is on the Nenana River near Denali National Park, which is served by a half-dozen rafting companies.

Specific watersports recommendations are found in the regional chapters while outfitters, tours, guides, and rental outlets are listed by region in the appendix. Public-lands managers often have listings of approved or recommended guides and outfitters for areas within parks, preserves, refuges, and forest lands. It is highly recommended that you consult them directly when planning a trip.


One of the best ways to get a good look at the wonders of Alaska is from the air—and dozens of small and medium-size flying services will take you just about anywhere you want to go. In the main tourist areas, pilots fly regular routes with optimal viewing and you pick from a menu of standard tours of varying lengths. For custom tours, one-way bush flights, drop-offs, and pick-ups, fees are usually based on an hourly rate—typically from $200 to $400 per hour. If you tag along on a mail or supply flight, you may pay a standardized "seat rate" ranging upwards from 25 percent of the equivalent hourly plane rate. Flying in the Alaskan bush is pricey.

But it’s worth it! Imagine soaring between the 5,000-foot walls of the Great Gorge over 50-mile-long Ruth Glacier, breaking out into the open over the vast icefield of the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, and gazing at the suddenly visible Denali—so close you can touch it. You have no sense of scale until you spot the tiny tents of mountaineers clustered on the snow. Then the pilot circles and drops, setting the plane down on skis. You step out into the icy wilderness—for five minutes or five days—splendid indeed!

Helicopter flightseeing is a relatively new and expanding opportunity. In a helicopter, you get a great view and the chance to observe wildlife without flying in a fast circle. The hourly rate for a helicopter is in the same expensive range as that for planes. Read about heli-hiking in the Hiking section below—it’s a great way to access the high ridges without working at it.

Good pilots love what they do—and to fly in the Alaskan bush, pilots have to be good. Piloting ski- and floatplanes requires special certification, while landing on riverside gravel bars takes guts and experience. You can count on being flown by a competent, interested pilot who will gladly point out wildlife and special features of the landscape. Your interest and courtesy will be appreciated and responded to. Some of the flights I’ve taken have been better than others, but all have been rewarding. Air services are listed by region in the appendix.

Hiking and Backpacking

Wilderness travelers on land can choose from hundreds of lonely valleys, trackless ridges, miles-long glaciers, and unnamed summits for everything from half-day hikes to summer-long treks—though comparatively few miles of developed trails exist in the state. Because of this, the longer routes that do exist are relatively heavily traveled. The great majority of trails are less than 10 miles long; many are only two or three. Several are concentrated near Anchorage, Fairbanks, on the Kenai Peninsula, near Palmer and Cordova, close to Juneau, and elsewhere in the Southeast. Areas with one or two longer trails or old roads of note include the Wrangells, Denali State Park, and the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. The Chilkoot Trail near Skagway follows the historic gold-rush route over Chilkoot Pass and into Canada. Huge parks like Denali and Gates of the Arctic in the Brooks Range are almost pathless.

Walkers in regions without trails have used natural alternatives successfully for thousands of years. River gravel bars offer routes of variable utility through forested and wet tundra country in the foothills. Exposed ridges and other well-drained tundra or grassland terrain is often simple to traverse, especially since it’s easy to see landmarks and select routes wisely. Brushy areas get more difficult to cross as the vegetation thickens in the summer. Glacier and icefield walking requires skill, equipment, and care, but often allows relatively easy passage to marvelous high-country locations. When snow is on the ground, the land opens up in all directions for cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers.

As with other options, access is often the biggest hurdle to backcountry exploration. Some great but expensive options enable hikers and backpackers to pick their zone of choice with few hassles.

Heli-hiking and Drop-offs

With so much of Alaska inaccessible by road, the only way to explore it on foot is to get dropped off at a remote location, then picked up at a later date. Sometimes, a road can be at one end or the other of a hike, making only one air or boat shuttle necessary, but for many areas and schedules, two shuttles are required. Boat, airplane, and helicopter are the three choices.

Boat shuttles on navigable rivers are usually used by hunters, fishers, and visitors to remote towns and villages, especially in the Interior along the Yukon and its feeders. The bottomlands along rivers are often boggy and thickly vegetated, making them poor choices for beginning or ending a hiking trip. On the other hand, kayakers can enjoy a three-day trip down the wild Charley River, flying into a drop-off point, then getting picked up at the point where the Charley meets the Yukon for an upriver boat shuttle to Eagle.

Small-plane drop-offs and pick-ups are a particularly good idea for very remote hikes in areas like the Brooks Range. A bush pilot will fly you to a small airstrip, lake, glacier, or gravel bar, dropping off you and your gear. By arrangement, the same pilot or company will pick you up days later. Your task is to show up at the pick-up spot at the scheduled hour. There are, of course, safety and rescue contingencies followed by pilots in case you aren’t where you are supposed to be on time. Several walking routes involve hiking to or from a town or highway, making only one air or water shuttle necessary, thus cutting the cost in half.

Heli-hiking is an expanding opportunity. Shuttling to the beginning point of a hike via helicopter opens up many more possibilities for routes, though helicopter mileage range is limited in comparison to planes. A helicopter can set you down in high-country meadows, lake basins, and ridgetops—the best places to land for lofty day hikes and longer-term, well-supplied base camping. Many companies have great suggestions and flight packages that are within the range of those with moderate to high budgets.

Sea Kayaking

A marvelous choice for exploring the ins and outs of the Alaskan coastline is to venture forth in a sea kayak. For every area you might want to put-in and explore, there will be a rental and/or guided-trip company to set you up. Drop-off and pick-up plans can get you into the most remote and beautiful stretches. Though some skill is required, the many sheltered waters of Alaska’s coast offer wonderful options for the novice. Sea kayaks on calm waters are markedly easier to manage than their riverine kin.

The best-loved kayak areas all offer plenty of opportunity for solitude, though in peak season in popular areas, kayakers may find it hard to get away from cruise ships and tour boats. The parks and wilderness areas of the Southeast probably get the thickest traffic. Other popular areas are found in Icy Bay, Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords, and Kachemak Bay. There are maintained campsites and reservable wilderness cabins in a variety of public lands. Elsewhere, secluded beaches, meadow margins, and openings in the trees abound.

Most of the following locations are well served by guides and rental companies. All offer outstanding scenic settings and wildlife-viewing opportunities. Locations are followed by towns that serve as the best bases for exploration.


  • Misty Fiords National Monument / Ketchikan
  • Stikine-Leconte Wilderness / Petersburg
  • Admiralty Island National Monument / Juneau
  • Tracy Arm–Fords Terror Wilderness / Juneau
  • South Baranof Wilderness / Sitka
  • West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness/ Sitka
  • Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve / Gustavus
  • Yakutat Bay and Russell Fiord Wilderness / Yakutat


  • Columbia Glacier (Prince William Sound) / Valdez
  • College Fjord (Prince William Sound) / Whittier
  • Icy Bay / Yakutat
  • Kenai Fjords National Park /S eward
  • Kachemak Bay / Homer


  • Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge / Kodiak
  • Katmai National Park (south coast) / Kodiak

With an official 33,904 miles of coastline (80 percent around islands), most of which is rugged and much of it sheltered, the possibilities are endless—you can find any number of gorgeous spots to be totally alone with eagles, whales, bears, and glaciers. Regional chapters describe options and the appendix lists outfitters, tour providers, and rental companies.

Be aware that travelers by sea sometimes take their interface with land a bit too casually, particularly with regard to bears. In many areas, grizzlies browse the shoreline for food and use the

relatively open margins along the sea for transit. As with any bear area, it is not likely that a clean camp with chatty, smelly (to a bear) people will be of interest to a grizzly, but don’t let your sea and glacier adventure dull you to land-based precautions.

On the Arctic Coast, polar bears come ashore in numbers in the summer and may be attracted by the smells associated with cooking, hunting, and garbage disposal. Keep that kayak camp clean and talk with experts about your plans!

Trail Rides and Horsepacking

Outfitters for horseback riding are often found near tourist centers such as Denali, or associated with backcountry lodges. Many are oriented toward serving hunters and fishers, providing remote access, pack animals, and an adventure in the pioneer spirit. More and more, however, horsepack trips are designed for campers and wildlife observers, as are shorter rides, from an hour or two to all day. Most available rides are guided, though renting horses may be possible.

Remember that riding a horse is not like riding a bus. If you’re not used to horses, proceed with caution. Explain your novice status to the outfitter in all humility to make sure you get that reliable old beast that plods along like a Toyota on the hoof.

Wilderness Stays: Lodges and Backcountry Cabins

A growing number of people are enjoying stays in cabins and lodges miles from the nearest road or town. With a secure base of operations, you can enjoy days of in-your-face wilderness experience, retreating to a place of comfort when the hour grows late and your bones need rest.

Wilderness lodges are run like inns and have various features. Many offer package deals handled by the lodge, a tour company, or travel agents, and fly their patrons and supplies to a nearby lake, cove, river, or landing strip. They are always rustic and casual, and meals, service, and a range of optional activities are typically provided. Some lodges are associated with specific pursuits, like hunting, fishing, or bear viewing. Other offerings include horsepacking, hikes, bird watching, glacier access, northern-lights viewing (winter), or just plain relaxing. Some can be used as destinations, supply stops, or starting points for river travel, sea kayaking, or hikes. A few backcountry lodges are noted in the regional chapters while others are listed in the appendix.

The National Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Alaska Department of Natural Resources (Alaska State Parks and Wilderness Parks) all maintain backcountry cabins, most of which are very cheap to rent. Though they vary somewhat, they are typically one- or two-room rustic boxes located at or near a water source. Cabins come equipped with bunks, an outhouse, and a wood or fuel stove. They can be reserved for a block of time through the appropriate agency, and the more popular ones are booked well in advance during peak times. Most cabin locations are associated with plane landing sites and walking or water routes. They range in price from free to $45 a night or so. You’ll find more detailed information in the regional chapters.

Cabins in the Tongass and Chugach National Forests can be reserved with a credit card by calling (877) 444-6777 (toll-free call), via www.reserveusa.com, or at a number of forest service visitor centers and district offices (see the Appendix). Tongass cabin information is available at www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/recreation/cabin_ info/ cabin_info.html. Check on Tongass cabin availability by calling 586-8751. Call 271-2737 for Chugach cabin availability information.

Eight national wildlife refuge cabins are found on Kodiak Island, all usually reached by floatplane. Visit www.nps.gov/aplic/ cabins/nwr_cabins.html for information. Reserve through: Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, 1390 Buskin Road, Kodiak, AK 99615, 487-2600.

The Bureau of Land Management maintains cabins in the White Mountains near Fairbanks. Contact the BLM Land Information Center, 1150 University Avenue, Fairbanks, AK 99709, 474-2250.

Three National Park Service cabins are located along the coast of Kenai Fjords National Park. Visit www.nps.gov/aplic/cabins/nps_cabins.html for information. For reservations and information, contact Kenai Fjords National Park, P.O. Box 1727, Seward, AK 99664, 224-3175.

Visit https://nutmeg.state.ak.us/ixpress/dnr/parks/index.dml to learn about the more than 40 cabins maintained by the state of Alaska. Reservations can be made through the DNR Public Information Center, 3601 "C" Street, Suite 200, Anchorage, AK 99503, 269-8400; or in person at several regional offices.