By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
The grizzly cubs by the side of our bus are oblivious to our presence, as are the caribou (did you know their antlers grow an inch a day in summer?), moose calves and Dall sheep that are so close we can count the rings on their antlers.
Just one road leads into Denali National Park’s 6 million acres, and after mile 15 the road is restricted to park buses. You can’t get much more remote in Alaska. While most visitors opt for an eight-hour round trip of the park, we decided to venture 90 miles into its interior — a seven-hour journey — to the family-owned wilderness lodge Camp Denali where we spent a few days hiking with guides and staying in one of the 18 handcrafted log cabins, which offer spectacular views of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America (20,310 feet).
The road trip into the park and our stay at Camp Denali remains one of our most iconic and memorable experiences, starting with all of that wildlife and an awesome picnic dinner at the side of the Toklat River. (At 4:30 p.m., we were so far north that it was as bright as midday as we feasted on homemade bread and blueberry jam, made with the park’s berries, as well as smoked salmon and reindeer sausage.) Our meals at Camp Denali are equally inventive, thanks to their commitment to Alaska-grown produce and their onsite greenhouse.
Alaska gets nearly 2 million visitors a year from May to September, 55 percent from cruise ships, which are a wonderfully affordable option, especially for multigenerational groups that may not be equally mobile or adventurous.
“Cruise ships, buses and big hotels have made it easy over the years for families to see Alaska. But recently, more and more intrepid and active families, including multi-generations traveling together, are discovering how to immerse themselves into the real experience of Alaska’s wilderness like indigenous natives, early explorers, gold miners and modern settlers living on the frontier,” said Kurt Kutay, founder of Wildland Adventures. (Kutay’s family has traveled in Alaska with mine and he has arranged some of our subsequent trips, including to Camp Denali.)
We’ve also enjoyed Alaska from the comfort of big cruise ships, which are working hard to offer passengers more “authentic” experiences. But if your family is seeking a more adventurous experience and can stretch your budget (check for current pricing. While these trips may seem expensive, consider that they are typically all-inclusive, as compared to cruise ships where you pay for each off-the-ship experience, sometimes hundreds of dollars a person.) Consider:
— Explore Glacier Bay with naturalists via kayak while staying on the 12-passenger Sea Wolf, an expedition vessel built in 1941 as a U.S. Navy minesweeper. Today it is captained by Kimber Owen and a five-member crew. See glaciers calve, humpback whales, bald eagles and maybe a snacking bear or two. Thousands visit Glacier Bay every summer, but not many have the up-close experience we had aboard the Sea Wolf.
— Fish for salmon on the Kenai River. We stayed at the Great Alaska Lodge, which sits right on the Kenai River. We could get up at 4:30 a.m. to fish, but also hike and kayak. But just watching the boats and the fishermen reel in the salmon is fun in itself, as the fishing guides confer via cellphone for the best salmon “holes,” as the fish swim upstream. Alaska fishing resorts — here and elsewhere — are finding more families seeking them out, and they welcome their business. The century-old Waterfall Resort in Ketchikan has special family packages with discounts for kids.
— Opt for a small-ship wilderness cruise. AdventureSmith Explorations offers Alaska’s largest selection of small ships and yachts carrying anywhere from eight to 100 passengers. In some cases, you can charter a boat just for your family. We opted for Un-Cruise Adventures aboard the 76-passenger Wilderness Discoverer, which has kayaks, hiking poles, paddleboards and wetsuits available for those determined to have a dip in cold Alaskan waters before warming up in the ship’s hot tub. We watched glaciers calve from an inflatable skiff, stopped to watch whales play and kayaked from the ship’s landing dock.
On our last day in Denali National Park, we traveled the way Alaskans do — via small plane. “A plane in Alaska is like a car anywhere else,” explained our pilot. “It is how we get around. There just aren’t any roads in a lot of the state.”
What a way to go! Not only did we save hours of travel, but the view was spectacular.
We flew around the snowcapped peaks of the famous Alaska Range, 300 miles long, 50 miles wide, and right over the Thorofare River where we had hiked the previous day. The nearly onyx-tinted mountain range reminded me of chocolate sauce dripping down vanilla ice cream. From this vantage point, we could finally appreciate the vastness of Denali.
But as on any trip, some things were beyond our control. The Great One, as the Native Americans called Denali, remained shrouded in clouds. Next time, hopefully.
© 2018 EILEEN OGINTZ
DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC