North to the Future: Planning a Paddling Trip to Alaska

Blackstone Bay, AlaskaThe 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.

Trav­el Madness
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.

Tracy Arm Fjord, AlaskaBud­get
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.

Trust…But Ver­i­fy
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”.

Katmai National Park, AlaskaUn-Bear-able Plans
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.