By Debi Lander
For a Floridian, a trip to Alaska requires a minimum of two long flights —but the “Last Frontier” brings many rewards as its range of topography and wildlife present astounding differences. You’ll see massive mountain ranges sloping down into turquoise-colored lakes, crystalline blue glaciers calving icebergs, humpback, orca, and beluga whales breaching out of the water, and bears roaming free.
My first Alaskan trip began in Juneau, where I joined an active cruise on a small ship (fewer than 100 passengers). Daily opportunities provided glacier exploration, whale watching, hiking, kayaking, and skirting around in an inflatable boat (skiff). The sheer beauty of the Inner Passage and Glacier Bay glistened otherworldly and humbled me.
I returned to Alaska in 2020 because I’d missed so much. I longed to visit Denali National Park, see the Aurora Borealis, and, most of all, watch and photograph bears.
This time I flew to Fairbanks, farther north than Juneau, but not as far as the Arctic Circle. I saw the Transatlantic Pipeline, went panning for gold, and soaked in the Chena Hot Springs that was honestly too hot for 50-degree daytime temperatures. I’m sure the natural pool would be ideal in the winter. Sadly, I was just a bit too early for an aurora sighting.
I traveled by train to Denali in one of those domed cars with wrap-around windows. The vast wilderness and dramatic scenery surrounded until it began to rain. Unfortunately, I didn’t see the top of Denali, the highest peak in North America. Still, I got a look at some of the picturesque, colorful mountains and valleys.
Then I headed to Anchorage, the state’s biggest city, and the starting point for the Iditarod Dogsled Race. Anchorage is home to the most extensive seaplane base in the world, used by many bush pilots. I explored Turnagain Arm and the Seward Highway running along the rugged coast, where tidal changes reveal mud flats twice a day. I visited remote Prince William Sound, the now recovered site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Somewhere, I developed a fascination with bears, an animal that appears to many in dreams, visions, dance, music, and folklore. They are thought to have a spirit. My main desire was to visit the island home of the Kodiak bears, and photograph the brown coastal bears in Katmai National Park and Preserve.
I flew to Kodiak, and on my first morning, those large bears proved elusive. Fortunately, the afternoon produced a remarkable sighting of a frolicking male fishing for salmon in the Buskin River.
The next day I took a floatplane to Katmai. I hit the jackpot: perfect weather, a chiasmatic, knowledgeable guide, and between 13 and 15 bears. Most exciting was the chance to get close, made possible because the bears must fatten up before going into hibernation. They were following their instincts and focusing on salmon. The brown bears may have noticed my small group, but they didn’t seem to care.They were concentrating on catching and eating fish. A delightful surprise was cubs tagging along with the females.
My guide knew the habits of the Katmai bears and led us to prime viewing spots. To take advantage of this experience, you must go during the late summer/early fall. I was blessed with incredible pictures of their forceful pouncing on fish and tearing it apart with their long claws. I watched three little cubs play near the river while their mama fished and brought them food. I will never forget their childlike sibling rivalry and freedom. Thank you, Alaska, for making dreams come true.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photos courtesy Debi Lander
Bear with fish.