The allure of the 49th state is undeniable. Glaciers, grizzly bears, whales, huge salmon runs, vast mountains soaring above a coastline, and sparsely populated—all make Alaska a magnet for outdoor adventurers of all types. For paddlers—whether you paddle on the sea or a river—there is nothing else like it in this part of the world.
However, Alaska is a tough place to plan a trip, for a variety of reasons. The season is short. The weather is famously, well, Alaskan. The same remoteness that makes it alluring makes it logistically complex and expensive. Many trips dissolve in the planning phase. Here’s what you need to know to successfully plan your trip to Alaska.
Pick a Place
Alaska is huge. Absolutely huge. Saying you’re “Going to Alaska” is like saying you’re going to Europe. You’ll need to pick a place, like Glacier Bay, Prince William Sound, or the Alaska Range. Then you’ll need to pick a place within that place, and maybe drill down even more. Don’t even dream of “seeing Alaska.” You’ll end up flying around a lot and seeing very little. Be specific with the destination.
Start Planning Early
Most “down-southers” start dreaming of Alaska in early spring when the first flower buds start opening. That’s usually too late: water taxis, bush planes, and rental cars can be hard to wrangle at that time. Hard as it seems to plan a trip to a glacier-filled freezer or cold whitewater rivers in the winter months, that’s the time to make it happen.
Alaska spans such a wide set of latitudes that the timing of your travel will vary depending on your destination. In May and June, the weather can be at it’s best in South Central Alaska, but there can still be low snow in the north or near glaciers. In the panhandle, August is prime time for watching bears and cubs fishing for salmon. Prince William Sound is notoriously rainy in autumn. Do site-specific research.
Getting to Alaska is easy: buy a plane ticket. Commercial airlines fly to both hubs like Anchorage and tiny outposts like Yakutat or Sitka. Getting around Alaska itself is complicated and expensive. The road system is well connected from Anchorage, but most of the panhandle is accessible only by boat and plane—and for many places in the Interior, just by bush plane. Ferry schedules are notoriously inconvenient, infrequent, and slow; and ferry terminals are usually located nowhere near airports. Each step in your journey—the flight to Alaska, getting to your departure town, and then your water taxi or bush plane—will cover less mileage and cost you more. It’s just a fact of life in Alaska.
Talk about trip costs with your pals early. The costs will add up fast if you’re talking about airline flights, water taxis or bush planes, renting kayaks, and more. Things like groceries cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48. You don’t want your buds to bail late in the game from sticker shock, or for that to create stress in your group when it comes time to shell out some extra dough when something falls through.
To Rent or Bring?
You’ll have to pick a strategy for getting big things, like kayaks, up to Alaska. One option is—sometimes—to rent up there. That can be a good option, but it can also be expensive and choices and dates can be limited. Alaskan gear is famously ridden hard and put away wet; because it’s so hard to get large items to Alaska, rental kayaks, canoes, and other hard-to-ship items aren’t replaced often. Depending on where you’re going, you may need specialized gear: such as collapsible or inflatable boats that can be put inside a bush plane.
If you need large items that you can’t check as luggage on a commercial flight, and you can’t rent what you want from an outfitter, another may be to ship your gear in a container, as long as you’re going to a place that has a port. You’ll want to do this far in advance—and make sure it gets there, and insure it. You’ll also need to figure out arrangements for storage until you get up there, and for transporting it to your point of departure, usually a car with a roof rack or foam blocks. This is a complex strategy, but you can bring your own gear, as well as non-perishable food that is expensive in the North, as well as things you can’t fly with: camping fuel and bear spray.
And even if you don’t think you need them, bring a few sets of cam straps for tying kayaks to various vehicles. You’ll need them for something.
As you get closer, double-check your key arrangements, like water taxi charters, floatplanes, and gear rentals. The outfitter season in Alaska is short, weather-dependent, and frantic—things will run smoother if they’re confirmed properly before you head up. Trust the local knowledge—it will be more accurate than most guidebooks.
Guidebooks and maps may be of date, especially near glaciers. As glaciers recede, the land bounces back up in a phenomenon called “isostatic rebound”. Much of Alaska is still rebounding from the Little Ice Age about 700 years ago. That means the land has risen, and what was an island on a map or chart that was last surveyed in the 1980s may be a peninsula filled with shrubs now. And the loose gravel of Alaska’s glaciated landscape means that rivers braid and shift often. And that whole thing about glaciers retreating that Al Gore talked about? Yup, it’s happening. And if you’re camping in front of a glacier—which is great for scenery—put your tent on high ground in case there’s a jökulhlaup: a barely pronounceable Icelandic term for a “sudden release of water from inside a glacier”.
Plan for bears, but don’t freak out about them. Have gear for securing your food, whether it’s a set of bear canisters, a tree-hang, or a portable bear fence. Keep a clean camp and manage garbage. Make noise in brush and near salmon streams, and avoid sows and cubs. Don’t read the sensational bear attack books. Go for actual knowledge. Remember: bears are a majestic part of the Alaskan wilderness.
Yes, You Want Xtra Tuffs
Alaskans love their knee-high neoprene boots, going so far as to wear them to formal events. For notoriously wet and boggy terrain, they’re extremely useful—but don’t wear them on the water, where they’ll fill with icy water if you end up in the drink.