One dependable way to escape crowds of Alaska summertime visitors is simple. Just get wet.
When you see the 49th state from the water — whether aboard a tour boat, paddling a kayak, renting a powerboat, or moseying around a lake on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) — you won’t be trading elbows with anyone.
And what’s not to like? You can still see wildlife, glaciers and mountains soaring above the water. Or soak up quiet of a cool July evening paddling on a Southcentral Alaska lake, watching a green-winged teal paddle with her chicks in tow.
Options are plentiful.
Human-powered trips in rafts or kayaks are rewarding, but to see the most glaciers and marine mammals, consider a boat tour in Resurrection Bay or Prince William Sound. They’re accessible to people of all ages and abilities.
Major Marine Tours has cruises in Kenai Fjords National Park out of Seward from four to 8½ hours on vessels ranging from large catamarans to much smaller ships (about $100-$250). Many of them include onboard narration by a National Park Service ranger, turning a pleasure cruise into a learning opportunity.
In Prince William Sound, Blackstone Bay or Harriman Fjord both have glaciers that descend from extensive icefields to the ocean. Marine mammals including otters, seals and whales are usually visible.
Although a full-day Prince William Sound trip is pricier than a short trip, you usually see much more. Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise, which sails through Oct. 8, travels up College Fjord, taking in views of the perilously steep glaciers that cascade down from Mount Marcus Baker, the highest peak in the Chugach, before traveling through Harriman Fjord. For nervous flatlanders, the company offers what it calls a “no seasickness guarantee” (about $180 per adult, meal included).
Family-owned Lazy Otter Charters, now in its 26th season, offers a convenient five-hour trip in the Sound, including the spectacular waterfalls of Blackstone Bay.
Kenai Fjords Tours has an array of trips in Resurrection Bay, including a dinner cruise, which delivers breathtaking scenery of towering peaks and hanging glaciers above Seward. A tour to Northwestern Fjord is popular — you’re likely to see puffins, sea lions and whales, as well as tidewater glaciers plunging from the Harding Icefield. At about $160-$200 for a full day cruising, you probably aren’t paying more than you would to buy gas for your own boat.
In spring, a four-hour tour that includes lunch is designed to offer a glimpse of gray whales migrating from the Baja in Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.
Have a hankering to paddle whitewater? Consider a trip with NOVA on the Matanuska River. Lion’s Head, a section of Class III-IV whitewater that cascades between towering cliffs and the Matanuska Glacier’s terminal moraine, is particularly scenic and thrilling ($120-$150 per person). If you prefer a mellower float, NOVA also runs trips through the easier rapids just downstream of Lion’s Head, a location that’s particularly stunning as the leaves change color in August. There’s even an evening raft trip to take advantage of Alaska’s long summer days.
If you’re headed toward the Kenai Peninsula and looking for a bigger adrenaline rush, consider a trip down the Class IV-V Six Mile Creek. Six Mile’s turquoise waters wind between overhanging cliff walls and hammer down intimidating rapids that drop 50 feet per mile and clients paddle under their guide’s supervision. It is one of the most intense guided raft trips you’ll find in the country, due to the powerful rapids on the creek. Only physically fit individuals who can swim well — occasionally people get flung out of the rafts — should sign up for this trip with NOVA or the Chugach Outdoor Center. (Prices range from $120-$185.)
Though the Gulf of Alaska has some of the world’s worst maritime weather, there are often calm waters and spectacular sea kayaking near Anchorage.
Consider a day trip to Resurrection or Kachemak Bay or plan an overnighter to Prince William Sound to observe whales, otters, sea lions, glaciers and towering peaks.
To paddle in Resurrection Bay, you might drive to near the road’s end and rent kayaks from Miller’s Landing, which is conveniently located for an easy paddle out to Caines Head and back. Expect to see marine mammals and spectacular sea arches.
In Kachemak Bay, Mako’s Water Taxi offers a 20-minute ride from Homer across Kachemak Bay ($80-$90 per adult, $60 per child). From there you can paddle around Yukon, Grass and the Herring Islands. Mako’s runs trips all day, so you can head out in the morning, paddle for a few hours and come back in the evening.
Prince William Sound has one of the most underrated sea kayak trips in the region: an out-and-back paddle to Decision Point, 9 miles each way.
Make sure to check the weather before embarking on any sea kayaking trip, and don’t head out unless the marine forecast calls for calm seas (2 feet or less). The marine forecast is easy to find: On weather.gov, simply click on the body of water you plan on visiting.
Rent a board and take a lesson to see whether you’ve got the balance, strength and aptitude for stand-up paddle-boarding.
Among the Southcentral companies marketing boards are Liquid Adventures in Seward; Alaska Rivers Company in Cooper Landing, which takes clients to Kenai Lake and Portage Lake; Alaska Paddleboard Guru in Anchorage and Eagle River; and True North Adventures in Homer.
What’s the appeal?
“The experience of essentially standing on a lake, my feet inches from the surface, gave me a new perspective,” wrote Alaska outdoors columnist Alli Harvey of her inaugural paddle. “It felt playful, a feeling I don’t readily access as an adult since so much of what I do outside is structured — I’m going for an hourlong run; I’m going to ride my bike to the grocery store, etc.”
If you’ve got a need for speed and a fat checkbook, you can rent a powerboat from such businesses as Whittier Marine Charters. One-day rates start at $650 and go up from there. Big Lake Boat Rentals in the Mat-Su north of Anchorage also has pontoons for an easygoing tour of the 145-square-mile lake — and jet skis for those with a need for speed.
Note: Unless you’re aboard a big cruise ship, expect to get wet when you take to Alaska’s waterways.