The Glaciers of Alaska
The July 4th Weekend trip was over, and the next long weekend was Labor Day - Monday, September 7, 2015. We four girls (me, Suma, JB and Mayu) were having lunch as usual at work (I worked at Isilon at that time), planning for the next big trip to look forward to (that is kind of our way of getting through mundane life - make sure we always have something coming up to look forward to). All of us wanted to go to Alaska (who doesn't? Almost everyone I meet says "Oh, I have been wanting to go to Alaska too.") but Sum and JB were pretty serious, the other two of us weren't sure where we would be on that weekend. They went ahead and created a WhatsApp group (because that's always the best first step!) for all the potential Alaska-goers. They called it "Alaska pre-screen" if I remember that right :P Obviously, almost half the people on that group didn't make it to the real "Alaska" WhatsApp group and I kinda kept joining and leaving it because I was still pretty undecided where I will be. I really did want to go though.
This is one of those trips I didn't have to plan much because I joined in pretty late. Sum and JB kept going back and forth about things to do and places to see for about a month. In early August, when we finally knew who all are coming, we had an itinerary in place (with a little bit of last minute swapping due to weather forecast changes). Remember to keep checking the weather forecast every few days when you are planning for your trip, not like Alaska has very unpredictable weather (it rains almost all the time when it is not snowing :P).
We were finally a group of 7 (Suma, Mayu, JB and Nitin from Seattle and Elango, Pradeep and I from California - and yeah, I travel in big groups.) I like to travel, but I like to travel with friends more than anything. We were all of around the same ages (25-29) and wanted to do almost the same things. We split up into 2 groups whenever we wanted to do different things.
We were mainly interested in seeing glaciers, kayaking through them, doing helicopter tours, seeing the 2 National Parks - Kenai Fjords and Denali. So, we zeroed down to visit Seward, Talkeetna and Denali. We didn't have enough time to accomodate viewing Northern Lights into our trip so we skipped Fairbanks and other places North of Denali. I am going to jump to the trip now and tell you where we went and what we did!
Day 1 (September 5th - Saturday), Kenai Fjords National Park
All of us flew to Anchorage from Seattle and San Francisco and were there by around 1 AM. I made my tickets pretty late, so I used some extra Delta miles I had and ended up paying about 250$ for a RT. We rented 2 cars (four wheel drives) - costed us about $450 per car for 4 days. We stayed that night at "Qupqugiaq Inn" in Anchorage. It was "creepy". Not all rooms had attached bathrooms which was a turn-off. I wouldn't suggest staying there because it wasn't very cheap either - $400 for 3 rooms for one night.
In the morning, after visits to common bathrooms and me leaving my phone in the room after checkout, everyone was up and ready to go by 7:30. We drove, but you can also take a train from Anchorage to Seward. It is one of the most scenic drives I have been on with many photo-op spots on the way. There is a turn-out called Beluga point from where you can see white whales (for the love of God, carry a pair of binoculars! - we didn't and we were idiots!).
From Seward, we had a 11:30 AM cruise to see the Kenai Fjords National Park. This National Park basically has glaciers and ice fields, so you can't really drive to it. A cruise is probably the only way to see it (I don't know about private boats though!) It was about a 6 hour long cruise. It is much colder and much more windy on the ship than it was on Anchorage, so always pack one layer more than what you think you need (which I didn't - kinda why I have time to write this blog today - called in sick at work). On the cruise, we got to see quite a lot of wildlife - Harbor Seals, Sea-lions, Sea-otters, Orcas and Humpback whales. We actually saw packs of Orcas and my friends were able to capture 4 whales in one frame! We got to see the Harding Icefield and then finally the magnificent Aialik Glacier. We were pretty lucky to see a lot of glacier caving that day - the sight and sound of caving is cinematic - I hadn't seen anything like that ever before.
There was lunch on the cruise (which is not so filling or great) included in the price and they had a bar where we could get drinks and snacks. If you are ever taking this cruise with friends, carry a game maybe or a book if you are alone because 6 hours is pretty long cruise while you are just waiting for glaciers and whales to surface - we kind of fell asleep on our way back actually (none of us normally wake up at 6 AM on regular days :P). The cruise costed about $165 per person.
We had really satisfying dinner that night at Woody's Thai Kitchen - they had vegetarian food too, which was a pleasant surprise for us considering we were a group with 5 vegetarians in Alaska. We stayed the night at Harborview Inn in Seward which seemed like a pretty decent place to spend the night at - it costed us about $400 for 2 rooms. It was a long long day!
Day 2 (September 6th - Sunday), Kayaking at Bear Glacier
The next morning, we split up and 4 of us were pretty pumped up for an adventurous day with activities like Glacier Kayaking and Glacier Landing on our agenda. We reached our kayaking company (Liquid Adventure) office around 8:00 AM. Event though they provide dry suits, we needed full and warm clothes underneath (sweatpants, fleece, gloves - no jeans or cotton). They gave us dry suits (which I stupidly kept calling wet-suits until I was politely corrected) to keep us from getting wet. They were also really kind enough to give us beanies, and woolen socks. We put on some crocs kinda shoes that they gave, and we were ready to go.
Our guide, Chris, was a really nice guy and it was his last day kayaking in Alaska. There were 2 other women (mother and daughter) with us, the mom was aged at least about 70 and she said her 90-year old mother who had Alaska on her bucket list was with them on this trip too. Chris first took us on a jet boat - from the Seward coast towards Bear glacier. The time in the jet-boat itself is a fun activity - we saw some sea-otters on the way too. Chris stopped the jet boat at a beach near Bear Glacier where he had the kayaks stored. We were given a few instructions and then we got into the kayaks in pairs and paddled away! From then on, the next 2 hours of my life were the most surreal 2 hours. We literally kayaked through icebergs vigorously clicking selfies, managing the paddles and phones (they gave us dry bags!), ogling at the beauty of the scenery around us. The water beneath us was ice-cold and clear blue! We even picked up a few small ice-berg pieces and ate them. We funnily tried to position our kayaks in front of ice-berg arches and caves for the camera. Chris went to the extent of saying it was like watching a cartoon show, but whatever, our pictures look amazing - most people think they are photoshopped! I could go on writing about the experience and a few pleasant surprises that we got but I wont ruin it for they people who are planning on doing this! You need to experience it to know what I am talking about. After 2 hours, we had to reluctantly get back onto the beach, drop our kayaks off and then back onto the jet-boat which took us to the Seward coast again.
Bear glacier is the biggest glacier in terms of area not height, so kayaking there meant kayaking in the back waters created by the glacier melting. It is more about kayaking between ice-bergs than near a glacier. Another kayaking option is the Aialik glacier kayaking, where you get closer to the huge glacier and see the caving closely. The ice-bergs aren't that big there. If you are anyway going to see Aialik on a cruise like I did, I would strongly suggest kayaking at Bear Glacier.
Our next planned activity was a Helicopter tour to Godwin glacier and then landing on it but it had started to rain by the time we finished our kayaking (around 1 PM) and there was lot of mist coming in. So, our helicopter tour which was at 4:30 got cancelled due to bad weather :(
We had lunch at small fries and burgers/fish and chips kind of places (there is a Subway for the veggies), and then drove to Exit Glacier which is about 15 miles from Seward. There was a hike up-to the to of the glacier but we only went till the face of the glacier (about 0.5 miles), clicked some photos and got back to driving. The next day we had Denali National Park on our agenda which was about 6.5 hours from Seward and we wanted to cover more than half the distance the same day, so we drove to Talkeetna - 4.5 hours from Seward. We ate pizza on the way near Anchorage for dinner. Throughout the drive we kept looking out for Northern Lights but saw nothing
We stayed that night at Chinook Windy Cabins in Talkeetna. The cabins were very nice and spacious enough. We got 2 cabins for about $900 for 2 nights (we stayed there the next night too). As soon as we reached the cabins and unloaded our cars, Suma yelled "Come out, Norther Lights". That night, we got to witness an amazing phenomenon - the green, dancing Aurora Borealis. After about 15 minutes, they were gone and so were we - tucked in and asleep.
Day 3 (September 7th - Monday), Denali National Park
The next day morning, we drove to Denali National Park. With private cars, we can only go up-to about milepost 15 or so into the park, so we had a shuttle bus booked for 9:45 AM departure. (If you want to spend more time at spots inside the park, take an earlier bus.). Our shuttle was "The Wonder Lake Shuttle Bus" which takes you till the 85th milepost in the park. The only other bus going farther than that is called "Kantishna" which takes you till the 92nd milepost. Our bus took us through the park for 11.5 hours stopping at various different places - Toklat, Eielson and finally Wonder Lake. They take a few restroom stops as well. The scenery on the way is incredibly beautiful and on a good day, one can see the tallest peak in North America - Mt. McKinley. We unfortunately could see only its South Peak as there were lot of clouds that day. The bus stopped quite a few times on the way for wildlife viewing. We saw moose, doll sheep and a few grizzly bears. No food is provided on these buses, so we carried a lot of snacks with us. Warm clothes, a camera, a binoculars, some food and a rain jacket is all you need for this tour.
If you have more time, I suggest doing the Discovery Hike in Denali National Park (you can also camp in the park).
We were exhausted from the bus drive by the time it got over and went straight for dinner to Prospectors Historic Pizzeria and Alehouse. We drove back to Talkeetna to our Chinook cabins.
Day 4 (September 8th - Tuesday)
We originally had a cruise to Portage Glacier planned from Anchorage for Tuesday, but we cancelled it after we finished the Kenai Fjords cruise. None of us was interested in taking another cruise. We split up again because some people of our group wanted to check out Talkeetna and have a nice lunch and basically chill! As for the other 4 of us, the day our helicopter tour got cancelled, we looked online for more helicopter tours near Talkeetna because we had this day free. We found one place called K2 Aviation - they had helicopter tours to glaciers of Mt. McKinley. We had booked a 11 AM tour with them for Tuesday morning, so we headed to their office. It was raining pretty heavily, so we were pretty sure the tour would get cancelled and it did. It was really frustrating when it got cancelled for the second time. We decided to drive to Anchorage (we were supposed to do that in the evening to catch our late night flights) since it is a bigger city than Talkeetna and check out the museums there.
The eventful drive from Talkeetna to Anchorage:
First, we came across a place that had a few planes (the small ones that look like sea planes). We were hoping that they might have some tour, if not we still wanted to click pictures with the planes just because we were so disappointed with the cancelled tours (The helicopter landing tour was the one thing we had told all our folks about before going to Alaska). So, we got off at that place and an English woman who owned the place told us they don't do tours but she was more than happy to let us click pictures. She seemed very happy to talk to us, looked like they didn't have many visitors. Particularly, being from England, she really wanted to talk about a recent cricket match and she was enthralled at seeing us Indians! :) After a couple of photos and some conversation, we got back onto our drive.
After 2 days of Pizzas, our Indian stomachs were really asking for some Indian food, so we Yelped for an Indian restaurant in Anchorage - found one called "Yak and Yeti" which would shut at 2 PM. It We mostly wouldn't make it but we decided to give it a try anyways. It is funny how we can go without eating Indian food for days on regular days, but when we are traveling to different corners, we start craving for Indian food.
When we were 10 minutes from Anchorage, I still wasn't ready to give up on the Glacier landing, so, I started looking for tours around Anchorage. I found one at Knik River Lodge - they had a tour to Knik Glacier. Their website said the best part about this glacier is the weather is never really bad. I called them and found out that we had passed them about 40 minutes back (so it is basically on the way from Talkeetna to Anchorage), they said the weather was amazing, and they could easily take us on a tour around 4 PM (it was a weekday, which is why it was easier to get reservations). When I told my friends, they were excited but a little hesitant. One, because we had our hearts set on lunch at Anchorage and two, they were not sure how the weather could be amazing at Knik Glacier when it was raining and cloudy everywhere else. We decided to continue to Anchorage, have lunch and then decide. Yak and Yeti shut when we reached, so went to this other Indian place called Bombay Deluxe. They had a lunch buffet which I won't say was great but if you want simple Dal and Rice after 3 days of junk food, then it was decent enough.
Once we finished eating, our brains began to function better and we decided to go back to Palmer where the Knik River Lodge was located. We called them and reserved a tour for 4:30PM. When we reached there, we saw that the weather was actually great. This glacier is much lower compared to others so the clouds don't really affect it much. We signed a few documents, paid $250 per person (always ask for group discounts or student discounts if even one of us is a student), and we were ready to go. We went on a helicopter to Knik glacier with some great landscape beneath us - which changes so rapidly as you move from barren lands, to woods and then to the glacier. The helicopter ride - the noise, the turbulence, the feeling of being air-borne and yet close enough to see the landscape beneath is all just an amazing experience (especially because it was our first time in a helicopter). We took turns and sat in the front seat next to the pilot. (Some pilots might let you co-pilot - so ask). We then finally were flying over the glacier, thick and hard ice is what we saw - with so many crevices. It was flying on hills of ice. We then landed on the Glacier and the feeling after that is again unexplainable. We were given crampons to help us walking on the glacier. It was just miles and miles of white ice with glowing blue crevices in them. Some places, the ice had melted and formed small lakes in the middle of the glacier. They were clear blue - like you see in posters! Again, we goofed around there for a while, clicked a lot of pictures - and spent about 45 minutes on the glacier(though the tour only allowed 30 minutes - I think the pilot was just having fun with us too). We flew back in the helicopter and came back to the starting point. We landed, and "wohoooooed", gave each other hi-10s because the trip finally felt complete. Our perseverance to land on a glacier paid off! We generously tipped the pilot and left from there.
You must go!
Satisfied this time, we drove back to Anchorage, did a lot of souvenir shopping. One of our meat-eater friends really wanted to try out some sea-food in Alaska so he got some food at a restaurant called Orso. It was a fancy-high end restaurant but our friend said the food tasted good. We then drove to the airport, returned our cars and got ready to board the bigger plane this time and get back to normal life!
Actually, after such trips, we never get back to older life because atleast for the next 2 weeks we see all the photos, put them up on Facebook, narrate all your stories to all our friends and folks, but mainly because these experiences stay with you forever! So, we are never the same before and after these trips, at the least, we know more about our world!
All in all, with 4 days, 7 people, 2 National Parks, lots of outdoor activities, sight-seeing and God knows how many GBs of photos, Alaska was incredibly beautiful, scenic and pretty expensive! It is so poster-like and cinematic, it is like being in a Bollywood movie song. Pack and GOOOO! You will come back happier! :)
Oh, and photo credits to Sumaithri! :)
Kenai Fjords cruise
Denali National Park Shuttle Bus
Car Rental + Fuel
Add food, souvenirs and misc costs to that and I probably ended up spending about $1400 for a gooooooood 4 day Alaska trip!
© 2017 Avi Bhandari