Months of waiting are finally over, we’re now only one day from stepping foot in Alaska for the first time. Have to say I’m pretty excited. However, I’ve found people’s responses vary quite differently when I say Renee and I are heading to Alaska for two months before New Zealand. Some people instantly understand, they light up and exclaim something like, “wow, that’s going to be amazing!”
Other people however, just don’t really get it, “Uh, Alaska, for two months, what will you do?”
So in this post I’ll try briefly explain why I’m excited, what we’re planning to do and why.
How we came to decide upon visiting Alaska was something of an unorganised, but I now think inevitable chain of reasoning. When Renee came to Canada she really wanted to head up into Canada’s Arctic circle to see polar bears (most likely Churchill). For me this sounds amazing too, but I shun organised tours and rather dream of dog sledding north Jack London style with nothing but my trusty jandals, a rifle and a crossbred wolf-dog named Fang to lead the way. Forking out $8,000 each for six days plus taxes, tips and flights into the Arctic not only don’t quite fit with my romantic dreams of the north, but was unjustifiable on our budget.
We love wildlife, we’d had such a great time in Yellowstone with all our bear and other wildlife sightings. We’d seen Orca’s in the San Juan Islands, previously swam with dolphins in Akaroa Harbour and want to do both again. But disappointed not to be heading to Churchill to see polar bears, we wondered where else? Africa, an African safari where we can spot lions, elephans, giraffes – in my opinion Africa has the greatest land wildlife in the world. We started to look into Africa and had found some pretty reasonable options, certainly your bang for your buck is astronomically better in Africa than Churchill.
But our Africa plans always had lingering safety and political stability issues, and we couldn’t really find a flight to Africa which was en-route to New Zealand. It seemed it wouldn’t be much cheaper to fly to Africa and then New Zealand, compared with flying back to New Zealand and then at some point flying to Africa return.
Our thoughts finally turned to Alaska. When we bought a camper van in Calgary to drive across the United States (Our Great US Road Trip) we considered driving up to Alaska first. But to drive up and then back again was going to be a real mission, and we always knew Alaska was only partially accessible by road. We decided then that we’d explore Alaska one day, but we weren’t going to drive there, we’d fly.
So it suddenly seemed logical that we should explore Alaska. The last frontier of true wilderness in America, and the closest we’d be to this unique state in the foreseeable future. Africa is quite accessible from New Zealand, but Alaska is miles away – we should do it now. Sold.
So we decided to go to Alaska, because it is close (ish), because we will be able to explore by ourselves at our own pace (unlike polar bear tours), and just because…
Why Two Months?
We’re actually in Alaska for two months and one week. From the 18th of August through to the 24 of October. Because we need time to explore; it is my opinion that you can’t do Alaska in one week, despite what some of the cruise ship operators may suggest. Alaska is over 660,000 square miles – for you American’s that’s twice the size of Texas. For me, that’s over six times the size of New Zealand – and if anyone ever tells you one week is enough to explore New Zealand, they’re wrong.
Also because with more time you can actually travel more economically. You spend longer in each destination, so the proportion you spend on transportation reduces. You can also find economies of scale in accommodation, food, sometimes even your activities if you’re clever.
Lastly, we decided on two months, because we didn’t think we’d be able to afford to spend longer. Churchill isn’t the only place in North America with outrageous tour prices, you can certainly find more than your fair share of $8,000 for six day tours in Alaska!
Where Will You Go?
I’m glad you asked. We’re going to go everywhere. Well, we wish we could. Despite Alaska’s huge size, and nearly 34,000 miles of shoreline, it only has around 6,500 miles of road, not all of which are paved. There is the road to the Arctic (Prudhoe Bay), the road between Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Anchorage, and a little bit of roading around the Kenai Peninsula. Then there is the road to Canada, and that is pretty much it. If you want to explore the west coast, the Bering Sea and Bering Straight, then you’ll need to fly, or take your nuclear submarine. There aren’t even any roads connecting the towns on the Inside passage; Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan etc… Fly in, or boat in. This is Alaska’s attraction, no roads, it’s wilderness just waiting for you to explore it.
So briefly, this is our plan:
Fairbanks (18-22 August) - because of the international airport, to photograph the Aurora Borealis, to meet my first Alaskan, to do a pub paddle (yes, I’m hoping its going to be as awesome as it sounds) and to pick up supplies for our stay in Denali National Park.
Denali National Park (23-30 August) – hopefully for the changing colours of Fall, the tundra can go orange and red. For Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America, it actually holds the record for largest summit elevation in the world. For wildlife, this is bear country, but we don’t expect the chance of sighting to be as high as some of our later destinations. For camping, hiking and a little internal reflection in the wilderness after having spent the last year in the middle of a city of two million people, not including the greater metropolitan area.
Anchorage (31 August – 04 September) – to recharge camera batteries, to have a shower, to drink one weeks worth of missed beer, to meet more Alaskans and for the airport which we’ll use to fly to King Salmon.
Brooks Camp via King Salmon (05 – 07 September) – for the silver salmon run and to see the worlds largest population of protected brown bears fishing them out of the rivers and from the waterfalls as they try to dodge past to spawn upriver.
Anchorage (08 September) – to pick up a rental car, which we’ll have for three weeks, and to stock up on supplies for the coming weeks.
Kenai Peninsula (09 – 28 September) – Drive to Seward, Kenai, Homer and possibly Whittier – although we have heard that there is nothing shittier than Whittier, but surely this is just because it rhymes so well? There is the Chugach State Park and National Forest to explore. We’re looking forward to a boat trip with Kenai Fjords Tours - a wildlife and glacier cruise along the shoreline of Kenai Fjords National Park. We’ll be camping, hiking, hopefully meeting couch surfers, we want to try our hand at halibut fishing, maybe walk on a glacier and possibly do some kayaking. This is going to be an action packed peninsula!
Juneau (29 September – 03 October) – After returning our rental car, we’ll take a flight from Anchorage to Juneau (Alaska’s state capital). Once in Juneau we hope to do some hiking and check out Mendenhall Lake and Glacier. From Juneau we hope to see shimmering blue icefields on the shoreline, and hopefully floating icebergs with frolicking harbor seals and the intermittent breaching of humpback whales. We can only wait and see. It’ll be ferry travel from this point forward as we meander down the inside passage. That is unless we meet some kind soul with a boat who wants a couple of crew members to help navigate the passage – anyone?
Skagway (04 – 07 October) – to explore the gold rush boom town started in 1896, once described as “the roughest place in the world… little better than hell on earth”. Also possible train ride through the White Pass range.
Haines (08 – 10 October) – to witness several thousand bald eagles congregating and fishing for chum salmon along a short stretch of the Chilkat River.
Juneau (11 October) – to catch our ferry for Petersburg.
Petersburg (12 – 14 October) – apparently a quaint town with strong Norwegian heritage, boasting a dramatic backdrop of ice clad mountains and glacial views including the actively calving (falling of ice into water) Le Conte Glacier.
Sitka (15 – 19 October) – we’ve heard that Sitka’s harbour offers a pretty high chance of whale sightings during late fall and early winter, as well as sea otters which play in the local waters. We’re planning on attending the Alaska Day parade on the 18th, and we’ll also look to explore Sitka’s Russian history. Plus there will hopefully be some hikes to do, and hot springs to soak in.
Ketchikan (20 – 24 October) – for Misty Fjords National Monument, and to re-group and clean our gear before flying out, ultimately to New Zealand. We leave the United States on the 24th, and we’ll touch down in New Zealand on the 26th – we’re hoping nothing special happens in the world on the 25th.
Stay tuned for our own photos and the actual experiences. Follow along on Facebook to see the photos first.