Awed by Alaska
By Sarah Sekula, published in New York Resident
I’ve been moose-hunting for the past decade. And I don’t mean the Sarah Palin kind of hunting; I don’t want to bring one home for dinner, all I want to do is simply spot a moose in the wild — from a safe distance — and snap some pictures.
The obsession started in 2002 when I thought for sure I had found one at the Grand Canyon. It was massive and nearly as tall as my family’s minivan. Turns out it was an elk, though. Moose like cooler temps so they don’t travel that far south. In 2010, I tried to track one down in Quebec, and again in 2011. But, alas, I have never come face to furry face with the ever elusive moose.
So on my July trip to Alaska, I made a fourth attempt. With a 7-day cruise in tow and a five-day land tour, surely I’d stumble across Bullwinkle in all his glory. First stop: Juneau, where my sister, Leah, and I gleefully boarded the Safari Endeavor (innerseadiscoveries.com; 888-862-8881), an 86-passenger luxury yacht that focuses on giving guests an eyeful of wild and wooly wildlife. During our adventurous, yet pampered, quest we’d be traveling the Southeast panhandle’s famous Inside Passage, home to moose, grizzlies, puffins, bald eagles and humpbacks.
We began the search in earnest. The first day we stopped for a hike in Glacier Bay National Park, a 3.3-million-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s seriously surreal. I’m talking 15,000-foot mountains that rise straight out of the ocean, floating glaciers, a temperate rainforest, wild coastlines and icy fjords. Leah and I quickly grabbed our friend, Lisa, and took off on our own, leaving the slow-moving group behind.
The trail, covered in neon green moss, shaded by hemlocks and flanked by brilliant purple fireweed, grew increasingly more gorgeous by the minute. We traipsed under brilliant tree canopies, across a squishy shoreline dotted with large starfish and purple bivalves; and past lakes overflowing with lily pads and pine needles that looked like they’d been strategically arranged. We headed back to the boat all smiles. That is, until we overheard the other group.
They had come within yards of a female moose crossing the road. Seriously? My heart sank, if only we had stayed with the group, my search would have been over. Looking on the bright side, though, what I really wanted to see was not a female moose but a bull moose, weighing in a 1,200 pounds with massive antlers atop his might skull.
The next day we awoke to an announcement from the bridge, which sent us scrambling to the bow to see two small blobs roaming around the shoreline. A closer look with binoculars revealed two brown bears. Better yet, we were about to go kayaking in that area. And sure enough, once we got there, one bear was still around. We sat silently in our kayaks and stared from just 50 feet away. Nearly every day of the trip was equally spectacular. We came across sea otters, bald eagles galore, blond bears and pods of humpbacks. And not just one at a time, you could see several in every direction breaching and flippering.
Our last day took us into Endicott Arm. As we hopped into the zodiac, a ship hand said, “This is one of my favorite places on the planet.” I soon saw what she meant when we arrived at the cliff-walled fjords towering a thousand feet above. Alaska has more designated Wilderness Areas than any state in the nation and our next stop: Ford’s Terror — a pristine tidal inlet and fjord — is one of them. There, we spotted sea lion after sea lion, some lounging on icebergs, others just popping their heads above the surface occasionally.
And, as if that wasn’t amazing enough, we were surrounded by rugged ice-covered mountains gleaming high overhead and a glacier that actively calved into the ice-filled fjord with a sound like a shotgun blast. A quick apple cider for all and we headed back to the ship. The next morning we hugged all the crew members and sadly waved goodbye. The epic cruise had come to an end, but the land tour was just beginning.
We taxied over to the airport and were off to Fairbanks. First thing in the morning we ventured out to cross the Arctic Circle with the Northern Alaska Tour Company (northernalaska.com; 800-474-1986). After crossing the famous imaginary line, we drove to Wiseman. Population: 13. Sadly our only wildlife encounter that day was a long-haired cat named Willow.
After a good night’s rest it was time for Denali National Park. To get there we boarded the Alaska Railroad (alaskarailroad.com; 907-265-2494). And, get this, after a lovely breakfast in the dining car we headed back to our seats — complete with a panoramic dome to view the stunning scenery — and my sister immediately spotted a moose. And, get this, I did not. By the time she said look, it was too late.
Denali National Park was really my last chance. So if ever we were going to hit the motherlode of animals, this would be the time. We hopped aboard an 8-seater plane with Fly Denali (flydenali.com; 907.733.7768). And with much anticipatory chatter, we were airborne. Once at cruising height, it was as if the craggy, snow-covered cliffs were just an arm’s length away.
And we flew eye level with Mt McKinley, the tallest peak in North America at 20,230 feet, and over icy blue glacial pools. It was something straight out of Lord of the Rings; I could not believe my eyes. Only a third of the park’s visitors get a good glimpse of this landmark because overcast skies are the norm.
On our last day of the two-week journey, we chose the Tundra Wilderness Tour (denaliparkresorts.com; 800.276.7234), a 6-hour bus trek through Denali. What I appreciate most about this park is that its sole purpose is to protect the wildlife. They limit the amount of visitors and only allow cars to drive the first 15 miles of the road. With that said, there are hordes of animals here, rather than hordes of tourists.
Within the first ten minutes of our tour, my moment had arrived. “Stop!” my sister yelled at the bus driver. “Moose! 7 o’clock!” Every neck on the bus collectively craned to the left, windows opened and digital cameras snapped away.
Still, it wasn’t a bull moose. Even better, though. It was a mama moose with her young calf. And to top it all off, we snagged a second glimpse of Mt. McKinley’s foggy summit. By day’s end, six hours had flown by and we had racked up tremendous sightings: one porcupine, two moose, 14 caribou, eight grizzles, five Dall sheep, two chipmunks and one lynx.
So, yes, we were, without a doubt, flat-out awed by Alaska. Over and over and over again.
WHERE TO STAY:
Westmark Baranof Hotel Juneau
Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center
McKinley Chalet Resort