The next time I visit Alaska, I might have to take a thesaurus. I’m normally not at a loss for words, but on a five-day, mid-March familiarization trip sponsored by Visit Anchorage, I found myself using the same word over and over: exhilarating.
The word isn’t wrong, given that our group of tour operators and companions enjoyed a collection of activities—and a nonstop viewfest—that left us all a bit slack-jawed. It’s just that even the perfect word can lose its effectiveness when it’s repeated too often, so I’ll vary my laudatory language.
We started in Anchorage on a sunny morning, with most of the 26 participants having flown in the day or night before. We used two vehicles during the first days of the tour; while we could share an evening meal together, many of the activities were better suited for groups of 12 to 15, so we split up and switched off.
My group’s first adventure was one heckuva tone-setter: a trip to a glacier via helicopter! We prepped for the trip at the Knik River Lodge, where the staff briefed us on safety and weighed us (privately) to achieve the best balance in each bird provided by Alaska Helicopter Tours.
Our pilot, Steven, swept us over the frigid Knik River toward the enormous glacial formations that feed it, and the glacier we buzzed over was nothing like the chunk of ice I imagined it would be. I was struck by the color—shades of blue mingled with white and accented with strips of black silt. Equally remarkable were the crevasses and formations, which reminded me of southern Utah’s canyons and hoodoos.
Steven gave us a theme park thrill ride, especially with one particular left-right-left swoop over and around a deep crevasse. It was flat-out exhil— … breathtaking. And Blake, the guide who met us on a rock outcrop in the middle of the Knik Glacier, was remarkably knowledgeable; a single question would lead to an avalanche of detail and insight. As we stood in chilly wind atop the rocky island, the conversation turned toward life in Alaska. Blake, a transplant from Tennessee, discussed the past winter and the lengthening of the days as temperatures warmed.
“Definitely got spring fever,” he said. “I can already taste the salmon.”
After lunch at the lodge, we were joined by a local outfitter who provided sets of snowshoes and some fat tire bikes so we could try our hand at maneuvering across snowy ground. After a challenging climb up a steep hill, I got the hang of snowshoeing, and if we ever start getting consistently deep snows in my old Kentucky home, I might purchase a pair.
On our next stop, Alaskan life slowed down a bit. The aptly named Musk Ox Farm, surrounded by the majestic Chugach and Talkeetna mountains, is home to dozens of lumbering beasts that date back to the time of wooly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers. While not the most animated of creatures, the musk ox is a marvel to behold, and they produce oh-so soft hair (qiviut) that’s combed out and made into yarn and garments, available in the gift shop.
The farm is a nonprofit facility with a staff whose care and concern for the oxen make the tour enlightening and endearing. Our guide, Dani, used “we” to stand sometimes for the staff and sometimes for the herd they tend. I’m fairly sure she was referring to the oxen when she discussed gestation period: “We’re pregnant for eight months,” she said.
After a group dinner in Palmer, we bused to Talkeetna and bedded down for the night, but not before several of us ventured into town to conduct historical research. We visited the Fairview Inn, where President Warren G. Harding dined during a 1923 visit to celebrate the newly completed Alaska Railroad. President Harding was likely not entertained by live music at the bar as we were. Also, we didn’t die in the days following our visit, as the late great president did.
Planes, trains, and automobiles … plus
Let’s call the next day John Candy Day, with a twist: We explored Alaska via planes, trains, and automobiles—plus one more unusual mode of transportation.
Planes were up first. We gathered at K2 Aviation’s new welcome center and boarded a 10-passenger plane that, like yesterday’s helicopter, was equipped with personal headsets so we could hear the pilot’s commentary. And Chad had a lot to talk about.
The flight is eye- and ear-popping rapture.
On a crystal clear day, we flew over glaciers and valleys and soared above snow and granite on our way toward Denali. During our one-hour flight, we saw sights a million years in the making. We ventured over Root Canal, a glacier lined with jagged rock peaks given dental names: Moose’s Tooth, Wisdom Tooth, Eye Tooth, and Broken Tooth. Chad described ice fields and ice falls. The snow was so deep and white; in some places it looked like thick, rich satin.
Our closest approach to Denali was eight miles away, and our top altitude was 9,000 feet—still some 11,000 feet lower than the peak. Yet Denali loomed huge outside our individual windows. This journey is humbling, and being so close to those enormous mountains made me feel small. For that one hour, I was overwhelmed by the grandeur and grace of the mountains. It was absolutely exhil— … inspirational.
Story continues after photo gallery
From that unique and enthralling experience, we vanned to another one. Alaska Sled Dog Tours is located just outside of Talkeetna at the kennel of Dallas Seavey, one of the most successful mushers in the world. A five-time winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, he finished second in the 2022 running, which had concluded a few days before our visit.
The kennel is home to 130 Alaskan huskies, and Seavey’s team of humans gave us a warm welcome and an informative tour—and then life came at us fast. Each dog, tethered to a run, was enjoying the bright day: sunning on the snow, sitting atop its tiny house, or sniffing the air (or its neighbor). These dogs are surprisingly small, but when powered on race days with 15,000 calories from beef, chicken, fat, and kibble, they’re lean, mean, running machines.
From November through April, the tour includes dog sledding. From May through October, guests use dryland race rigs—wheeled carts. Staff members showed us the basics of driving a sled, which include balancing on two slim runners and employing two types of brakes. The instant the first dog was selected to run that day, every other one started barking and didn’t stop until the last team departed. Then each remaining dog howled a mournful song.
We paired up, two to a sled, with one sitting and one standing at the rear on the runners. I teamed with Misha Jovanovic. Between us we had about 140 years of life experience and zero minutes of mushing experience.
There came a moment when I realized they were actually going to let us drive. (Pro tip: Pay attention when the staff goes over instructions.) You bend your legs and balance like you might do when water or snow skiing, and you lean into turns something like you would on a motorcycle. Because I was in a bit of a crouch the whole time, my leg muscles burned a little, but the excitement of the moment powered me along. The “ex” word would work so well here, but no: It was thrilling.
Leading my sled team was Wes, who pulled hard—except when he turned to flirt with Angel, the white dog behind him. Whenever you put pressure on the brake, all four dogs would take a quick look back, like, “What is it now?” They take no urging; as soon as they sense that nothing is holding them back, they’re off to the races.
I’ll be talking about our two-hour dogsled experience for the next two decades, but we still had another mode of transportation to take that day. We traveled from Talkeetna back to Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad, its big-windowed cars providing a glorious view of snow-filled forests and humble (and grand) homesteads, as well as Denali … always Denali.
We enjoyed a good dinner aboard the train, and it’s such a relaxing way to travel. You can sip on a glass of wine, chat with friends, read a book, or listen to music, all while keeping an eye out the window for a nearby moose or a far-away vista.
The wild life
After overnighting in Anchorage, we drove south along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. Todd, our motorcoach driver, filled us in on details about the water and tides, recent and ancient history, and travel and tour ideas.
At the end of the arm, we found the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. I’m not big on zoos, but this place is a wildlife sanctuary and education center. They take in injured and orphaned animals, rehabilitate them, and return them to the wild if possible. The center is also a part of larger projects, such as helping to reintroduce wood bison to Alaska after the species was thought to be wiped out and monitoring beluga whales, which come close to the facility’s waterfront.
Residents of the center include elk, caribou, wood bison, brown bears, black bears, musk ox, red fox, coyote, wolves, and birds of prey. I spent most of our time there watching two bears—a grizzly and a black bear—romp around their enclosure, chasing and wrestling each other.
We continued south to Seward, where we extended the day’s wildlife education at the Alaska SeaLife Center, an aquarium, research center, and rehabilitation facility. Groups can add on feeding experiences and behind-the-scenes looks at research activities. Everyone can stop by the touch pools, staffed by educators, and you can feel the skin of starfish and get your finger gripped (gently) by anemone. Be prepared for chilly water!
We met a gregarious Steller sea lion and got up close to a colorful collection of waterfowl. Guests stand inside the bird enclosure, and our guide told us that wildlife photographers will come there for shots they could never get out in the wild. (We decided that’s not cheating.)
Our accommodations for the night were at Harbor 360 Hotel, which offers a gorgeous view of anchored boats, with Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains behind them. Ahhhhhhh.
On the following day, we launched the next portion of our multi-modal Alaskan adventure. We embarked on a glacier and wildlife cruise with Major Marine Tours. Among the company’s seven cruise options in Resurrection Bay (so named because an early merchant sheltered from a storm there on Easter Sunday) and Kenai Fjords National Park, ours was a four-hour journey. Snacks and drinks were available on the comfortable ship, but we brought box lunches aboard. As we cruised the deep waters of the bay, our captain provided commentary. Well-versed in biology and geology, she educated us about the marine and wildlife, but we also gained insight into local industries, culture, residents—even World War II history.
Many of the passengers had fancy cameras with zoom lenses, which were great for getting shots of sea otters, bald eagles, and sea lions. We also saw a Dahl’s porpoise, the fastest swimmer in the family. But the camera on your phone is fine for most of the scenery—and all the selfies. I was glad I dressed for temps a little chillier than on land, but cruising over the light chop on the bay waters, and standing outside in the brisk breeze was exhil— … invigorating.
The cruise was the last stop on the tour for me. While most of the group stayed the night at the grand Alyeska Resort and journeyed to Whittier the following day for a cruise on the Prince William Sound, several of us returned to Anchorage for meetings and preparation for Contact, NTA’s three-day conference. Our minds, though, were filled to the brim with memories of what we had done after traversing only a small portion of the forty-ninth state.
And when we reunited in Anchorage for Contact, our Alaskan journey continued. An opening-night event at the Alaska Native Heritage Center included a tour of five lakeside village sites that showcase native peoples’ heritage, and indoors, we enjoyed a beautiful demonstration of native music and dance.
The conference concluded with a party aboard a private Alaska Railroad train, where the full group could enjoy stunning coastal and mountain scenery that those of us on the tour had already fallen in love with. And speaking of love, I was able to visit Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria, where the pizza absolutely lived up to its vaulted reputation.
Anchorage holds a boatload of activities, but what makes it even more desirable as a destination is its proximity to the adventures and experiences only a couple of hours away. Visit Anchorage has nearly 1,000 members in the region, which enables the staff to help travel planners create itineraries uniquely suited for a group’s time, interests, and activity level.
In talking with several tour operators on the familiarization tour (Fam for short), I learned that some will be adding new adventures to existing itineraries, while others will create new programs to take clients to Alaska.
“We offer three trips to Alaska, from seven to 10 days,” said Debra Asberry, owner of Women Traveling Together, based in Annapolis, Maryland. “I will add the helicopter glacier tour and dogsledding to two of them, and I’ll consider reversing the order of one and running it north to south, as we did on the Fam.”
Lynn Li, director of California-based Gary Express, is also adding elements from our tour to her programs. “I already package Alaska and have some tours coming up this year, and I would definitely add Seward,” she said. “I didn’t know it was such a beautiful place.”
The tour gave David Davenport a lot to think about. The owner of Virginia-based Signa Tours, Davenport said he doesn’t currently package Alaska for his senior customer base. “But after being on this Fam, I could put a program together,” he said. “I would want to modify some of the activities for seniors. For example, my clients would love the dog sled kennel, but they can’t drive a sled. They can all ride, though!”
“I think all the things we did on the Fam would work in a group itinerary. We would use any of them,” said Brittany Dykla of Michigan-based Brilliant Edventures.
Asked what she would include in a weeklong tour of Alaska, Claudia Yost, owner of Friendly Excursions in Sunland, California, said, “Everything we did—exactly. The distance isn’t all that long, and the wintertime is so beautiful.”
If I do Alaska again, I think I’ll stick with this late-winter timing. It was cold but not frigid, and active but not crowded. I’ll be sure to start the planning process with my friends at Visit Anchorage, and I’ll be sure to bring a page from my thesaurus, because …
This. Place. Is. Exhilarating.
Top photo: Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Mountains, viewed from the SeaLife Center in Seward
Photos by Bob Rouse