To see Alaska up close, get on a boat

One of the best ways to get around Alaska is by plane. There’s no doubt about it.

The big jets can cover a lot of ground and the smaller planes can touch down in the most remote communities.

But to get a closer look at the natural beauty and wildlife that’s all around the state, boats are the way to go. I guess it’s fair to say that many of the boats around the state operate at the “see” level.

One of my favorite destinations for a boat ride is Kenai Fjords National Park, sailing from Seward’s small boat harbor.

Major Marine Tours ( starts its day-cruise season on March 8 with the spring wildlife cruises. These four-hour voyages are long on wildlife and short on crowds. It’s still cold, especially on the water — so dress with plenty of layers so you can stand out on the deck to watch sea lions, sea otters and eagles. These early season cruises are designed to view the gray whales that are migrating to the Bering Sea from southern latitudes. But along the way, you’re likely to see more critters, in addition to the snow-capped peaks of the Kenai Mountains.

The cruises sell for $123 per adult. Major Marine has a special to encourage you to stay overnight in Seward during March and April. Trim 25% off your cruise and hotel at the Harbor 360 Hotel. Call their office and request the Spring Special: 907-224-8030.

As the days warm up, Major Marine and Kenai Fjords Tours both spool up day cruises deep into the park. The most popular tour includes a visit to Aialik Bay, where the captain sails close to the glacier and shuts down the engine. Those glaciers are noisy and you can hear them go snap-crackle-pop. Wait long enough and you’re likely to see a big chunk of ice calve off the face of the glacier. Look closely to see if you can see harbor seals hauled out on the icebergs in front of the glacier.


Kenai Fjords Tours ( ) offers an extra twist on many of their sailings: a stop at Fox Island for lunch at their beautiful lodge. Walk along the beach and get a different view of Resurrection Bay before loading back onto the boat.

If you want to get out on the water quicker, consider a drive to Whittier for a ride on the Klondike Express with Phillips Cruises ( Sail on this big, fast boat for the iconic “26 Glacier Cruise” from Whittier up into College Fjord. You really can count all 26 glaciers. But two of the first glaciers you’ll see, Blackstone Glacier and Surprise Glacier, are likely to calve right in front of you. Have your camera ready!

The first sailing of the season is May 4, at 12:30 p.m. If you’re driving from Anchorage, make plans to go through the Whittier Tunnel at 10:30 a.m. The cost for the cruise is $213.95 for adults.

If you want to take your boat into College Fjord, cruise with Alaska Wild Guides ( and drive your jetski. Tours start on May 1 and feature a four-hour itinerary out to Blackstone Bay and back. You’ll see 10 glaciers, along with some massive waterfalls. The heated handle grips are nice, but be sure and dress with plenty of layers—including your long underwear. The cost is $360 for a driver and $190 for a rider.

Up in Talkeetna, Steve Mahay put the ���jet” in jetboat. He made history by taking his jetboat way up in Devil’s Canyon from Talkeetna. Steve’s son, Israel now runs the company. There are several options to get out on the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna Rivers with the fleet of jetboats. But the folks at Mahay’s Jetboat Adventures always recommend Devil’s Canyon tour for Alaskans ( The 130-mile trip takes five hours and costs $195 per adult. Lunch is provided. The tours start on May 25.

Make plans now to visit Valdez this summer. It’s a great drive from Anchorage: up the Matanuska Valley to Glennallen, then follow the pipeline along the Richardson Highway south to Valdez. Watch for Worthington Glacier on the right near Thompson Pass. At the bottom of the pass in Keystone Canyon, there are some beautiful waterfalls.

Once you reach Valdez harbor, there are a couple of wonderful boat rides.

The first is the trip to Columbia Glacier with Stan Stephens Cruises ( ). Pulling out of the harbor, you can get a good view of the Alyeska Pipeline terminal. Then, round the corner and watch for wildlife as you make your way to the massive Columbia Glacier. There’s plenty to see on the cruise as the captain picks through the icebergs out in front of the glacier.

For a people-powered journey, consider going on a kayak trip with Pangaea Adventures ( Pangaea’s kayaks and water taxi are tied up right next to Stan Stephens’ boats. You can’t miss ‘em. Pangaea has a Columbia Glacier kayaking excursion, where the water taxi goes out on a similar route as Stan Stephens. But then it’s out on the water with the boats for some paddling along the icebergs.

There’s a shorter trip to nearby Shoup Glacier. You’ll see icebergs there, too, but it’s a much smaller glacier than Columbia. On both trips, travelers get a full safety briefing and proper open-water gear for the trip: boots, gloves, rain pants and jackets. Lunch is included.

In addition to seeing glaciers and navigating rivers, some boats are set up nicely to see bears. Over at Snug Harbor Outpost ( ), on the west side of Cook Inlet, the Porter family has turned an old cannery into a naturalist’s getaway. Their packages feature some fishing, some exploring and bear viewing in and around Lake Clark National Park.

Depending on the package you choose, you’ll end up flying in or taking a boat across from Homer. The boat is called “Eye of the Storm” and it works great for fishing and bear viewing.

The old cannery sits on a beach on Chisik Island. When it’s time to go look for bears, guests march down the beach and then climb aboard the boat via the ramp at the bow. It’s just a short ride to see the bears. Twins Abe and Eli Porter spent their summers growing up at the cannery when their father, Willie Porter, was fishing for Snug Harbor. So they have a pretty good idea of where the bears like to hang out.

More than that, though, they know how to maneuver the boat up the narrow eddies and tidal pools to get up close. But not too close! Depending on the tides and where the bears are, the boat will drop you and a guide, then guests will make their way further down the beach to pick up the boat for a return trip.

One community in Southeast Alaska that loves jetboats is Wrangell. It’s a small community but there are several longtime operators, including Alaska Waters (, Breakaway Adventures, and Alaska Charters and Adventures ( Depending on your interests, you can go see nearby LeConte Glacier and visit Petersburg, or go up the fast-flowing Stikine River to some hot springs.

Or, the jetboats can take you to Anan Creek, where there’s a setup to see bears feasting on salmon. It’s not uncommon to see both black bears and brown bears on a visit. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Anan Creek is open between July 5 and Aug. 25. It’s a 30-mile boat ride from Wrangell.

For your next Alaska adventure, a trip by air is likely. But there’s probably a boat ride in the itinerary, too. Get ready for a fun journey!

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at Subscribe to his e-newsletter at For more information, visit