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Brrrr-aving Alaska

With a little effort, travelers can visit remote areas of southern Alaska, where wildlife abounds, the inns are cozy and the glaciers awesome.

By JUDY FLORMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


Our floatplane trailed a wake as we drifted onto the beach of a fishing lodge that had been a sardine cannery. We were on Zachar Bay, an area so remote that we had been unable to locate it on a map.

Bald eagles swarmed by the hundreds along the rocky shore, attracted by the salmon spawning upstream: So many pinks, coho and chum arced out of the water that it seemed you could net them.

We were here because we heeded the advice of Henry Gannet, who had been chief geographer for the 1899 Harriman Expedition. He wrote in his report:

"There is one word of advice and caution to be given those intending to visit Alaska for pleasure, for sightseeing. If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of the kind in the world and it is not well to dull one's capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first."

The three couples stepping from the plane vacation were all world travelers. We were ready for the finest.

An Alaskan travel agent had customized a two-week trip to the less-traveled areas of southern Alaska, where sighting of otters, harbor seals and rookeries of tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and marbled murrelets is a daily norm. We hoped to watch a spectacular display of calving glaciers and to see grizzlies, caribou, moose and wolf -- memories for a lifetime.

Glacier Bay in the mist

We had already toured Juneau, Seward and Anchorage (where we saw a man walking a reindeer on a leash). The cities were mainly our gateways for helicopter flightseeing and glacier landing, cruising to wilderness camps and viewing the interior.

To best enjoy Glacier Bay, we had passed on a fancy lodge to opt for Gustavus Inn, a cozy inn with homecooked meals and bicycles we used to explore the quiet bayside lanes.

The weather was biting cold (in late July) as we boarded the small cruise ship Spirit of Adventure to tour Glacier Bay. Through the mist, the shoreline emerged as vertical cliffs of granite and limestone, speared by white glaciers, one after the other.

At Marjorie Glacier, a series of cracks in its walls began to shower ice particles that shattered the water's surface. Then a low rumbling built into a thundering roar and the front of the glacier wall collapsed, creating a series of turbulent waves.

Just as suddenly, old and young harbor seals appeared, relaxing on floating ice-lounges. Near the offshore islands, whales shot spouts of mist and flipped into undulating dives. On the rocky beach, a brown bear devoured a seal carcass.

There were more vistas, like the view of Mendehall Glacier near the state capital of Juneau.

One remote hotel

Later, we traveled south along the Kenai Peninsula to Homer. Homer, once a fur-trading and gold mine center of lush spruce and cedar forests and fields of wildflowers, was stripped bare by the devastating 1964 earthquake. It has evolved into funky art galleries, seafood restaurants and fishing charters.

The town segues into Kachemak Bay with a 4.5-mile finger of gravel and sand -- glacial moraine, left when the last glacier retreated. Our hotel, Lands End, sat at its tip. Late in the afternoon, we watched fishermen returning with their catch, including a 167-pound halibut. Though the catch was impressive, we were astounded by earlier photographs of 300-pounders.

From Homer, former Pan Am pilot Doug Fell took us on a helicopter flightseeing trip. We made it through narrow mountain passes where black bears grazed and over oyster pots bobbing in blue water.

Seeing 'The Mountain'

Back on Alaska's mainland, we rode 92 miles deep into Denali National Park along a mostly washboard road.

Denali was created in 1917 and was enlarged in 1980 to 6-million acres to help save the largest of its 37 mammal species: grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep and wolves. We saw all of these species while riding through the park to the Kantishna Roadhouse.

A wolf paid no attention to us as he slowly stalked, then pounced on, some prey in the grassy marsh. He swiftly bounded up a gully, apparently oblivious of the traffic jam of buses, vans and photographers he had evoked.

Hotel staffers conducted nature walks through countryside ablaze with fields of arctic poppies, bearberry, Alpine azalea and bog rosemary. One morning, the clouds cleared to provide a rare view of "The Mountain" -- Mount McKinley. At 20,320 feet, this is the highest peak in North America. The Athabascan Indians called it Denali, The High One.

Gambling on the weather, we chartered a Cessna for a fly-by of the mountain. As we climbed to 10,000 feet, high enough to fly over some knife-edged peaks, Denali's northeast face opened for us. Another memory.

Rewards of the journey

Another flight, this time in one of Alaska's float-equipped bushplanes, took us to the beach of the fishing lodge on an island in remote Zachar Bay. Located southwest of Kodiak Island, the lodge perched on stilts.

The former cannery had been refurbished by retired fisheries biologist Marty Eaton, his wife, Linda, and their family. The former cannery workers' lodgings were reborn as cozy cabins for the paying customers.

Decked out in canary-yellow rain slickers and rubber boots supplied by the lodge, we boated through the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Marty Eaton was our guide as we looked for tundra swans, beavers, otters, harbor seals and bald eagles.

Another day Marty, bear rifle in hand, took us on a search for the elusive Kodiak bear. Nibbling on bearberries and raspberries and masked with bug netting, we followed a deer trail through marsh grass. It was studded with purple monkshood and Queen Anne's lace. Following a trampled path through marsh grass, marked by giant paw prints, we came upon Kodiaks "fishing" for the salmon that were jumping out of the river.

A few days later, we were again rewarded as we boated from our Wilderness Lodge through the Kenai Fjords National Park, on the Kenai Peninsula. In Resurrection Bay, murrelets dove underwater, hundreds of horned puffins perched on a granite shelf, Dall's porpoises hitched a ride on the pressure wave in front of our boat. We saw tufted puffers "flying" underwater, saw orcas and humpback whales. We interrupted a sea otter floating on its back as it used a rock to smack open the crab on its chest.

For our grand finale, sea otters twirled like synchronized swimmers, performing what we accepted as a farewell-to-Alaska water dance.

-- Freelance writer Judith Florman lives in Santa Ana, Calif.

If you go

ARRANGING A TRIP: We used All Ways Travel Inc., 303 G St., Anchorage, AK 99501; (907) 276-8491, fax (907) 258-2211; e-mail allways@alaska.net.

Our package cost per person, based on six people traveling, was $4,075.

The personalized tour included all lodging, most meals, domestic air and chartered planes throughout Alaska, a helicopter tour, day cruises, private van and guide/driver and train fare from Denali to Anchorage. Not included was airfare to Alaska from the lower 48.

Charges for similar trips are dependent on the month of travel. Discounts for AARP may apply.

Other wilderness-travel planners specializing in small groups include:

Alaska Wildland Adventures, P.O. Box 389, Girdwood AK 99587, toll-free 1-800-334-8730. Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, 338981 South Highway, Sterling AK 99672, toll-free 1-800-544-2261. Or contact a local travel agent for suggestions and reservations.

WHAT TO BRING: Warm windbreakers or insulated jackets, lots of clothing to wear in layers, gloves, T-shirts for Denali Park, and a telephoto lens for your camera.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact Alaska Division of Tourism, Box 110801, Juneau 99811-0801; (907) 465-2010. Remember Alaska has its own time zone, four hours behind Eastern time.

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