If you have ever doubted whether the universe is in perfect order, a visit to some of Alaska’s stunning national parks just might put those doubts to rest.
About three hours south of Anchorage (the drive along the Seward Highway is on one of the most breathtaking roads I have ever traveled), is the over 607,000-acre Kenai Fjords National Park.
The brunt of this national treasure is accessible only by boat. Bundled in winter clothing, I chose to sit on the top deck of the excursion boat of Kenai Fjords Tours. It was a chilly 6.5 hours, but well worth it to get “up close and personal” with the park.
Not only did the massive, jagged fjords rise up strong and seemingly inhospitably from the ocean, but also the wildlife: bald eagles, cormorants, Alaska’s favorite feathered friend, the puffin, sea lions, porpoise, black bear and gray whales frolicking in the ocean!
But it is the glacier ice that so fully commands attention. The boat captain slowed the motor, allowing us to drift almost silently through the icy, grey water, dotted with chunks of floating ice. We inched our way closer to Aialik Glacier, towering high in front of us.
There was something almost mystical watching, waiting and listening as huge chunks of the glacier broke free, tumbling into the water below. What a sight!
With my head still spinning from the views of the fjords, I made my way to destination number two: Katmai National Park. This pristine wilderness lies on the Alaska Peninsula, accessible by plane.
The excursion began in the small town of Homer, with a refreshing stay at The Ocean House Inn. What a treat when owner Larry Goode and his mother, who live on the property, gave me insider suggestions of the town, then offered a bowl of fresh cherries – just because. Now that’s down-home service!
The next day, I boarded a small seaplane with Bald Mountain Air charters for an adventure of a lifetime: viewing brown bears!
During the 1.5-hour flight, I could see Alaska’s outback – viewed only from the air. Unforgiving mountain peaks, volcanoes towering on the horizon and deep valleys with bright, emerald blue rivers snaked across the landscape below.
Once at Katmai National Park, a surreal walk through the woods put me just feet from wild animals. They were not behind cages, not in enclosures, but were sharing the river banks with you.
Park rangers carefully guided us toward the famed Brooks Falls to watch brown bears do what they do best: feed on salmon. If you have ever seen a photo of bears standing at the top of a waterfall, patiently waiting to snag salmon – you are more than likely looking at Brooks Falls.
At the top of the falls, two mature males jockeyed for dominance for a prime salmon-catching spot. Just a few feet below the viewing platform was yet another bear, covering its eyes with its massive paws, preparing to nap. And then, the Wild Kingdom moment: a bear snagging a strong and fighting salmon in its jaws, then chowing down along the riverbank. Amazing!
Katmai was designated a national park in 1980; yet because of its remote and limited accessibility, it is far from the beaten path for many travelers.
I feel privileged to have set foot in such a majestic location, even if only for a few hours. It is by far one of the most amazing and awesome experiences of my life.
Just like MasterCard says…priceless!
Editor’s Note: Julia Yarbough, a news anchor at NBC 6, writes periodically on her outdoor and other adventures. This is the second installment in the account of her recent trip to Alaska. To read the first installment, log onto SFLTimes.com.