All images © Rebecca Olsen
Family adventures in Alaska
Rebecca Olsen and her family tackle The Last Frontier in search of adventure.
Bear!" Our guide’s voice is low and urgent. "A sow with two spring cubs!"
Transfixed, we watch the blonde grizzly lumber her way through the scrub 400 metres away, two playful cubs bounding behind her. Thankfully she’s unaware of our presence. This is backcountry wilderness. There are no fences. We carefullyresume our trek as a pack, drawing the kids to the centre of our group, lest one inadvertently raises the ire of a protective mama bear.
The adventure begins
Like many visitors to Alaska, my husband and kids, 11-year-old Jess and seven-year-old Melissa, and I began our Alaskan adventure with a northbound cruise from Vancouver, stopping for visits at southeastern coastal ports along the way. In Skagway, our train hugs sheer cliffs and straddles vertigoinducing chasms, following the original gold rush route through the narrow White Pass into the mountains. Curious seals peek out of the water, bristling their long whiskers at us before disappearing beneath our sea kayaks in Orca Cove near Ketchikan. Despite the bay’s name, we don’t spot any orcas; our whale sightings occur in Alaska’s capital, Juneau, where ice-blue glaciers provide a stunning backdrop to humpback whale tails.
Glaciers are a quintessential part of Alaska, and the dramatic grand finale of our cruise is two glorious days of glacier viewing. We stand mesmerised at the thunderous noise as house-sized chunks of compacted ice and snow cave into the cloudy, turquoise sea. The water beneath us crackles like an enormous bowl of blue and white Rice Bubbles. Despite the rain and cold, we stand wide-eyed in the open air, feeling euphoric.
The real Alaska
Our cruise ends in southcentral Alaska, which spills its passengers out into the township of Seward. While most head home or onto buses, the journey for us continues right here on the Kenai Peninsula.
The pursuit of adventure is a growing trend with families, says Kyle, of Kenai Peninsula Adventures as we hike toward the coastline where humpback whales frolic.
"Alaska can’t be appreciated from a bus. You need to touch. To feel. To explore," says Kyle, who pauses as the piercing call of a gull echoes over the babbling of a nearby stream. "This is the real Alaska," he says.
Guiding families in remote exploration is Kyle’s specialty and we spend three magnificent days hiking, rafting and boating to some of the peninsula’s most inaccessible locations. Despite visiting in the July peak season, it feels like we have the entire wilderness to ourselves. It’s an addictive feeling that has attracted many to make Alaska their permanent home, chef Paul tells us over a meal of freshly caught salmon and wild rice. His lodge overlooks Cook Inlet to the Alaska Range beyond. If this were my house, I’d never leave either.
There’s a bear in there
From the Kenai Peninsula, we ride the famous Alaska Railroad through majestic mountain passes and over cavernous gulches to Alaska’s interior. Our destination is Denali National Park, which comprises more than 2.4 hectares of wilderness encompassing Mt Denali, North America’s tallest peak.
It’s here we encounter the mama bear on a knoll carpeted in alpine tundra. At this elevation, the short moss, grass and lichen combination is firm, but at lower heights it’s soft and spongy, springing beneath your feet and enticing the children to bounce Tigger-like down the hills.
The only sign of human existence is a dirt road in the distance, carrying periodic green National Park buses. Most visitors to Denali gaze at the wilderness from behind those windows, but we stay in a cabin at Camp Denali. Each day is spent hiking through gorges with river crossings, spotting moose and eagles and learning which flowers are edible. We’re warned that Mt Denali often remains hidden, its peak so high it forms its own weather system. However, on our second day it emerges, towering over its neighbours, grander than we'd ever imagined. Later, we see the peak from the window of a plane, as our journey continues north.
The final leg of our journey sees us high above the Arctic Circle to Barrow, the northernmost town in the U.S. The North Pole sits less than 2000 kilometres away.
A relaxed day at the beach is a fitting end to our exploits. The kids comb the rocky shore for seal bones, while I brave the jellyfish and cold of the Arctic Ocean for a quick dip. In Alaska, adventure can be found anywhere.
Weather in Alaska can be highly variable, even during the peak July and August
summer period. Wear removable layers including warm thermals and a
waterproof jacket, gloves, and a beanie. Don’t forget bug spray.
This article appeared in volume 53 of Holidays with Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.