A husband and wife drive 1200 miles across Alaska to three of its wildest national parks.
“There’s been bear attacks here, but never on a group of 4 or more,” assured our pilot and guide, as he motioned us into a straight line behind him. We’d rounded a bend in one of the coastal streams emptying into the ocean at Hallo Bay in Katmai National Park and Preserve. We had spotted our first bear. Wait, bears, as two cubs followed their mother out of the tall grass. Ecstatic, I turned to my husband, who was smiling just as wide. This is why we came to Alaska.
What’s alluring about Alaska is also what’s intimating. Its animals: extraordinary but dangerous. Its terrain: breathtaking but savage. Its size: vast but near unimaginable to urbanites like us. We wanted to take on the challenge of Alaska, experiencing its expanse by driving 1200-miles across its interior and coast, stopping at 3 national parks along the way.
“This is a driver’s worst nightmare”, our shuttle driver sighed when a young caribou wandered in front of our bus. Denali National Park and Preserve is 6 million acres of wilderness divided by a single road, which after Mile 15, can only be traveled by tour buses. It’s this lack of human contact that keeps its animals wild and, clearly, free to roam wherever they please.
We were on the all-day tour. Along the 92-mile road, the scheduled stops are for the scenery: the meandering, slate-grey Savage River, the multi-colored face of Polychrome Mountain and the Sunset Glacier above a stretch of tundra at the Eielson Visitor Center. The rest is safari.
The German tourists were the first to see them – a grizzly sow and her yearling walking along the hills to our right. Next, the roadside backpackers raised their hands, fingers spread wide, to each side of their heads – the hand signal for a moose. Behind them, two bull moose waded through one of the many branches of the Tolkat River. And the caribou were so plentiful that both our bus drivers that day announced we would only be “waving to the caribou” and stopping for more elusive animals.
The most desired sighting, however, is Mount Denali. You need a clear sky otherwise, the 20,320-ft peak is shrouded in clouds. We never saw it in the park. The day we left for Anchorage, the towering white peaks came into view. They dwarf the other mountains so greatly, we watched them in the rearview mirror for next 100 miles.
And the caribou were so plentiful that both our bus drivers that day announced we would only be “waving to the caribou” and stopping for more elusive animals.
The directions to our next stop were as follows: drive 450 miles down the highway until it ends. We were headed for Homer, an artsy town on the shores of Kachemak Bay. We went to bed as soon as we arrived. We had an early flight.
Most known now for its brown bears, Katmai was originally made a national monument for geothermal activity. We saw both from the air. Where we were headed, like the most of the park, is only accessible by boat or bush plane. On our hour-long flight from the Homer airport, we passed over dormant volcanoes, ombre glaciers and craters filled with chalky green water. The views alone were worth it, but bears had been spotted on the beach so it was time to land.
The most popular destination in the park is Brooks Camps, where you ushered onto crowded viewing platforms to watch the bears catch salmon. Instead, on a remote beach in Hallo Bay, there was only a dozen of us. We sat silent for hours on the river bank, as the bears fished, napped and played.
The shouts came first from the hull, “whales, whales! 2 o’clock!”. Six black fins breached the water in succession: orcas. For 20 minutes, we followed the orca pod as they zigzagged across the Aialik Bay. We had deviated from scheduled route – watch the sea lions bask in sun, listen for ice breaking off Holgate glacier, squee at tufted puffins nesting on rocky ledges – but really, who wouldn’t break for orcas.
The background to the incredible show of wildlife was the fjords and the glaciers that carved them. The biggest of these ice sheets is Harding Icefield, covering over half of the park. From it, glaciers flow out in all directions. On the boat, we saw as the massive Bear Glacier crept towards the ocean. On land, there’s Exit Glacier, the only part of the park accessible by road, where you can hike up the base of the blue ice.
The background to the incredible show of wildlife was the fjords and the glaciers that carved them. The biggest of these ice sheets is Harding Icefield, covering over half of the park.
On the way back to the marina, we were the only ones still out on the hull. Together, we recounted our adventure – grizzlies, glaciers, caribou, craters. We’d seen it all. We had to drive one-way across Alaska’s interior, fly a bush plane onto a remote beach and sail out into open ocean, but we got what we came for. ▲
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