Alaska Heritage Tours Turn a Stopover in Anchorage into a Wilderness Exploration

Alaska Native-owned company, brings you close-up to glaciers, wildlife

by David Leiberman

A Kenai Fjords Tours boat © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

The highlight of any Alaska Inland Passage cruise is being able to see the extraordinary spectacle of glaciers.

But for those who want an even closer, more intimate encounter with glaciers and wildlife than the large cruise ships can provide as well as those who are traveling to or through Anchorage without taking a cruise can still experience an extraordinary encounter by short excursions – daytrips and even multi-day trips – through Alaska Heritage Tours, an Alaska Native-owned company.

Within minutes, we were greeted by two sea otters doing the backstroke, like they were sun tanning in the most luxurious pool. © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Indeed, if there is any theme that emerges about Alaska, it is the sense of both fierce individualism and community. In this spirit, I ventured to discover some of Alaska’s most spectacular sights, but in a more independent way than the traditional cruise-passenger experience, utilizing the services and expertise of tribal tourism companies.

You can take be picked up by coach or take the Alaska Railway to Seward for the Kenai Fjords National Park Tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, which has been offering glacier and wildlife cruises in the park since 1974.

The magnificent scenery of the Kenai Fjords © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

It offers a choice of eight itineraries traveling through Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park, where you get to see whales, sea lions, sea otters, sea birds, porpoises, bald eagles, seals, mountain goals and bears, and can observe the spectacular sight of ancient tidewater glaciers “calving” large sections of ice into the ocean.

It was late August when I took the Kenji Fjords Wilderness National Park tour.

A whale speeds through the water, playing with our tourboat © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Within minutes, we were greeted by two sea otters doing the backstroke, like they were sun tanning in the most luxurious pool, flanked on all sides by pretty magnificent mountains. Sea otters are the fastest and hardest to capture on camera and observe from the boat because they duck under if you get too close or make too much noise. We got pretty close and I got a couple of pictures.

The ship captains know pretty well where to find which animals at which times of day, but there are some things that seem to surprise them too.

A whale spouts with tour boat in Kenai Fjords in distance © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

We came upon a humpback whale, a massive, massive animal, which was behaving oddly even for the experts – it seemed unusually playful. Even the crew didn’t want to leave the Humpback whale. But it became a pattern – we would encounter such interesting behavior that the Captain would have to make excuses to pull us away.

We continue on through a channel, with glaciers on all sides. We learn there are different kinds of glaciers, including alpine (where the glacier is on the mountain) and tidewater (which meets the water), which seems to me the most interesting kind.

We sail to within a quarter of a mile of one, negotiating all this ice to get up to it, and it gets noticeably colder when we got up to the glacier.

The Kenai Fjords Tours boat © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

The glacier looms as a gigantic wall 500 feet high, two to three miles wide. You can’t get too close because even as you are sitting there, parts of the glacier break off. We see this caving in action. It is a bit of a game. The ship turns off the engine and sits there for a half hour because the moment you hear the thunderous crash, it’s already two seconds too late to see. You have to really look closely and keep scanning to see when the next piece is going to fall. It is still so far that perception of size is distorted. A tiny little piece of it which looks like a snowball that you see starting to fall slowly, hits and makes a little splash and then you hear this thunderous sound.

Harbor seals sit on patches of ice right under the falling glaciers, and we see a lot of stellar sea lions just hanging out on rocks. We see beautiful birds, such as tufted puffin which look like miniature penguins but with a colorful toucan.

Whale opening its mouth © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

The only animal harder than the sea otter to shoot a picture of is the porpoises – they are the most playful of all because they come up to the boat and racing the boat, play in the wake, coming up to the bow, side to side. They seem to be conscious that we were trying to take pictures. The water is so clear, you could see them swimming in the water.

The National Park Tours range from six to nine hours and include a visit to the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, home to teeming seabird rookeries.

The premium, nine-hour Northwestern Fjord Tour travels the farthest into the park to visit three tidewater glaciers and numerous alpine glaciers.

Puffin © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Resurrection Bay Tours, 3-4 1/2 hours in length, include a visit to the company’s exclusive day lodge on Fox Island, where you are treated to an all-you-can-eat lunch or dinner featuring (what else?) wild Alaska salmon and prime rib, and a presentation by a National Park Service Ranger (you can add a half-pound of Alaska king crab for $8).

For an even more adventurous experience, a combination package includes a cruise and sea-kayaking excursion along the shores of Fox Island, or an extended stay at Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge.

Kenai Fjords Tours operates the largest day cruise fleet in south central Alaska, including two custom-built 82 1/2-foot catamarans that went into service in 2007 and 2008. These newest vessels, the M/V Aialik Voyage rand the M/V Orca Voyager were designed for fuel efficiency, a smooth ride and environmental friendliness. (Tours depart daily from late March through the end of October, from the Seward Small Boat Harbor, and range in cost from $64-$194 for adults. Reservations can be made online at www.kenaifjords.com or by calling 888-478-3346.)

Alyeska 5-Star Resort

We get close up to a glacier © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

A great way to do both tours is to stay over at Hotel Alyeska Ski Resort, Alaska’s only five star hotel.

Alaska’s premier year-round resort destination (it is a ski resort in winter), The Hotel Alyeska is nestled in a lush valley surrounded by mountain peaks, hanging glaciers and spectacular ocean views. Opened in 1994, the newly renovated chateau-style hotel offers luxurious accommodations and convenient access to the magnificent Alaskan wilderness.

The resort offers modern touches but integrates elements and themes of Alaska Native heritage. Guest rooms feature Alaska Native artwork from respected turn-of-the century photographer and artist Edward Curtis. Native Alaskan artwork on display in the public areas features Native artists Larry Ahvakana and Percy Avugiak. Ahvakana is most famous for his Inuit or Inupiaq figures and animals sculptured from wood, alabaster, marble, glass, ivory and cast in bronze or other metals. Avugiak’s work reflects his village life and experiences throughout parts of Alaska.

Amenities include a 60-passenger aerial scenic tram, saltwater pool, whirlpool & fitness center, an AAA 4-diamond award-winning Seven Glaciers Restaurant, The Spa at Alyeska, high-speed internet access in guest rooms and complimentary high-speed wifi in common areas, easy access to open space, nature trails & walking paths (800-880-3880 or 907-754-2111).

Prince William Sound

Our Kenai Fjords tour boat comes up close to a glacier © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

I didn’t stay over, but instead returned from Seward on the Alaska Railway to Anchorage and stayed at the Alaskan Backpackers Inn – a great hostel just $25 for the night. The next morning, was picked up by the tour company coach the next morning for my cruise of Prince William Sound Glacier.

This is a marvelous day trip from Anchorage. It starts in Whittier, the western gateway to Prince William Sound and a departure point for exploration of the area’s cultural and military history, wildlife and glaciers. It is also a cruise port where passengers begin or end their Alaska Inland Passage cruise. Whittier is 60 miles south of Anchorage and accessible via the Alaska Railroad, car or coach through the longest rail-highway tunnel in North America.

The tunnel is two miles long – the Army blasted their way through it – two groups blasting from each side. and met within a foot of each other. It is only one-lane wide. to serve cars from both directions and the train, so each direction is only open for 15 minutes at a time.

A whale playfully swims beside the tour boat © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Ride a motorcoach to Whittier and you can take the six-hour Wilderness Explorer Glacier Cruise, or arrive by train in time for the four-hour Glacier Adventure.

The cruises traverse different areas of Prince William Sound, offering views of glaciers and many species of marine wildlife, such as whales, sea lions, sea otters, sea birds, eagles, seals and mountain goats. Each guided trip includes lunch featuring Alaska king crab cakes.

Aboard the Glacier Adventure Cruise, you journey up to the faces of two active tidewater glaciers and view other alpine glaciers and waterfalls throughout Blackstone Bay. You get to touch glacial ice participate in marine science experiences. The 50-mile cruise departs at 1:30 pm. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday from mid-June through August ($57 for children 2-11 and $114 for adults).

Stellar sea lions hang out on rocks © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

The Wilderness Explorer Cruises travels 100 miles roundtrip through the sound and the narrows of Esther Passage, where you have a chance to view numerous tidewater and piedmont glaciers and includes a stop at the magnificent Surprise Glacier in Harriman Fjord. You also get a marine tour of the Wally Norenberg Fish Hatchery, a working salmon hatchery.

Here you may well see a black bear coming to the water and snatching a fish (but we weren’t so lucky that day).

Each of the sightseeing vessels offers mult-level walk-around viewing decks, spacious heated cabins, large windows, comfortable indoor seating, a snack bar and restrooms. You can watch on large-screen monitors, also.

Our boat takes us very close to the glacier © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Reservations can be made online atwww.princewilliamsound.com or by calling 800-992-1297.

On way back from Whittier is the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center, operated in partnership with Alaska Heritage Tours.

The wildlife center is something between a preserve and a zoo. There have very, very large habitats for the animals but it is easy to get around by foot or car, as if you are walking around a zoo. Here you can see (up close) grizzly bears (pretty phenomenal), black bears, moose, elk.

The magnificent scenery of Prince William Sound © 2011 David Leiberman/news-photos-features.com

Alaska Heritage Tours offers multi day trips, including 7-10 day Alaska Grand Explorer, National Park Rail Tour and Glaciers & Peaks; and 4-7 day National Parks itineraries, including Best of Denali, Best of Kenai Fjords, Denali Explorer, Seward Sojourner, Land Tours for Cruisers.

Alaska Native owned and operated, CIRI Alaska Tourism Corporation (www.ciri.com) is the umbrella company for Alaska Heritage Tours, Kenai Fjords Tours, Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge (where we stayed during our Royal Caribbean cruisetour), Prince William Sound Glacier Cruises, Seward Windsong Lodge, Mariah Tours, Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge and the Helly Hansen store in Seward.

Friday, 18 March, 2011

 

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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