Over the last 6 months when we told our friends and family that we were going to Alaska they often responded, "That sounds great! Are you taking a cruise?" Turns out we're a bit crazier than that. Our friend Sarah is having a big birthday this year. To celebrate, she convinced her husband and then us to come along on her "dream" vacation to the Alaskan backcountry with only what we could carry in a backpack. We weren't ready to brave it alone, so we signed up for a guided expedition with Exposure Alaska. This paragraph from their website sealed the deal -- at least for me. ;-)
"If you're not up for experiencing the real Alaska and possible difficulties and discomfort that comes along with it, please take the cruise with the thousands of others that visit Alaska that way. We'll all be much happier."
In all seriousness, if you're reading this review and thinking about going on this trip, I can confirm that this is not a "van tour". Be prepared to put your body through some vigorous outdoor activity. Train as much as you can. The reward? You'll see one of the last rugged and unspoiled lands on our planet. Raw beauty and solitude is omnipresent.
We chose the "Extreme Week" expedition. This is a trip in three parts: Kayaking, glacier climbing, and backpacking. Glacier climbing is the most relaxing of the three -- more on that in a bit. Our communication with Exposure Alaska was primarily via email. About a week before the trip, we received an email stating when and where we were to meet our guide. I can remember standing outside the hotel at 8:30 am with several big questions: What if our guide doesn't show up? What if this was all a big scam? These fears were all unfounded. Joe showed up right on time, quickly stowed our bags, and we set out for the Prince William Sound Kayak Center in Whittier. This is a one-hour drive from Anchorage along a very scenic highway that runs alongside the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet.
Day 1 - Kayaking (Prince William Sound - Whittier)
After a high-tech gear check (Joe had a rocking
PowerPoint cardboard sign), we were fitted into two-man fiberglass kayaks and sent to the Sound to fend for ourselves. I remember the sky was an impossible blue, salmon swam underfoot, and bald eagles soared overhead. I don't remember much else about those first couple of hours. The sense of wonderment was high, beauty was everywhere, and I had a mile-wide grin on my face the entire time.
We paddled 4 miles to Emerald Beach, had lunch, and watched the tide come in. Scott guided us on a little-known trail that had been built by Don and Tina, the owners of Exposure Alaska, when they worked for the forest service. We paddled another 5 miles and made camp at Decision Point. The beach and campsite here was first rate. There was a formal outhouse and boardwalks to protect the forest floor. Several of us remarked how the Alaskan rain forest looked like "The Shire" from Lord of the Rings. We learned how to bomb-proof a tent for wind, rain, and possibly a zombie apocalypse. I was "knot" familiar with several of the required knots. The "slip knot" and "taut-line hitch" should be pre-requisites on the gear checklist. Joe instructed us in boat aerobics while we demonstrated how not to wash dishes.
Tip: Click to enlarge. Use the 'Left' and 'Right' arrow keys to navigate the gallery.
Day 2 - Kayaking (Prince William Sound - Blackstone Bay)
As if 9 miles of paddling wasn't enough, Joe informed us that we were in for at least 16 miles on day 2. We had breakfast, packed up camp, and set out on a foggy morning. There is a quiet serenity in the fog. The surface of the water was like glass and as the fog lifted we were treated with views of distant glaciers glowing in the sunlight. We followed the coast south to Blackstone Bay. Waterfalls became more numerous, any one of which would be its own state park in the lower 48. We took a break at 13-mile beach where salmon were swimming in the brackish water formed by freshwater mixing with the salty seawater. A week later and the salmon will begin migrating upstream.
That afternoon we paddled up to the Beloit and Blackstone glaciers and were greeted with strong katabatic winds and floating ice chunks. We made camp under the Lawrence glacier, affectionately called "Larry" by our guides. Calving ice could be heard all night.
Day 3 - Kayaking (Prince William Sound - Blackstone Bay)
After a quick breakfast, we performed more boat aerobics and set out on a short day hike to Larry's terminus. Great views of Willard Island and several glaciers could be seen from our elevated vantage. We scrambled back down to the beach and paddled about 5 miles to 13-mile beach where we caught a water taxi back to Whittier and headed for Palmer where a hot shower was waiting at the Colony Inn. Along the way, we stopped at the Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria to reacquaint ourselves with civilization. It was weird to see so many people after seeing so few for the previous three days.
Day 4 - Glacier Climbing (Matanuska Glacier)
Joe allowed us to have a real cup of coffee at Vagabond Blues, a local coffee shop, before we headed for the Matanuska Glacier. Day 4 was the most relaxing day for me. Glacier climbing is quite exhilarating, but it's done in fits and starts. Joe was in his element here and was able to belay us in all sorts of crevasses. We found glacier climbing easier than the indoor rock climbing we've done around Indianapolis. More leg strength is required, but less arm strength. The topography is ¾ alien landscape, and ¼ snow cone. We finished the day with a BBQ at "The Homestead", Don and Tina's place near King's River.
Day 5 - Backpacking - Chugach State Park
Well rested and fed, we headed for the South Fork Eagle River Trailhead in the Chugach State Park. Our Indiana training was about to pay-off -- or so we thought. The first 6 miles was relatively "easy" with fairly flat well-maintained trails along the valley floor with steep mountains on each side. We saw a grazing moose and passed through a mile-wide boulder field to arrive at picturesque Symphony Lake. Honestly, we could have stopped here for 3 days and it would have been one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever done. Joe had other plans. After a short break we were back at it, climbing through the tundra with every step sending us higher than the step before. We were shooting to make camp at Lower Symphony Tarn which was always "just ahead." 4-"Alaska miles" later we found it, and I was wrong. This was even better than stopping at Symphony Lake. We found a level spot on the tundra, pitched our tents, ate, and crashed. I'm not sure it was in that order.
Day 6 - Backpacking - Chugach State Park
With our shoulders still aching from kayaking and now our feet throbbing from a long hike, Joe announced that it was time to summit Triangle Peak. He actually told us this the day before, but after pointing the peak out to us, we thought he was joking. He wasn't. The good news was that we didn't need full packs because we'd be coming back to the same spot to camp. The bad news was that our Indiana training did not include a regimen of boulder hopping, talus scrambling, side-hill navigating, and ridge traversing. One wrong step would result in injury or worse. I remember hearing Joe's "guide voice" when a falling boulder was headed down the slope at our group. Somehow we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks, glaciers, and valleys. Our entire route was visible from this vantage. Going down is just as hard as going up. I'm fairly sure my bruises had bruises.
Up until this point, the weather could only be described as perfect. As this area of Alaska is normally shrouded in clouds and rain, we knew we were living on borrowed time. That evening brought gale-force winds, and by nightfall it was a tempest. Our tent spent more time collapsed than standing erect. Chad and Sarah even found time to remodel their tent during the night.
Day 7 - Backpacking - Chugach State Park
After a long night, we cleaned up camp and made ready for the hike out. We could have hiked back the way we came, but Joe isn't one to retrace his steps -- the plan was to hike along the ridge above camp and back to the trailhead. The wind might have died down to 20-mph at this point, but once we crested the ridge I'm confident it was closer to 50-mph. Even Joe "Bunyan" thought this might be a bit much so we started down the other side of the ridge in search of an alternate route. Turns out the alternate route was going to require a significant detour, so Joe huddled us up for a pep-talk. To recap: The plan was to hike back up to the forsaken ridge with perilous 1,000-ft drop-offs on both sides while lugging 30-lb packs and resume our original path. Did I mention that the wind was gusting 50-mph? Somehow, someway, we put one foot in front of the other and made it off that mountain.
We had a great time with everyone at Exposure Alaska -- cheers Don, Tina, Joe, Scott and Katie! Happy trails, until we meet again.
Here are the stats from Mel's FitBit for the week. (Kayaking is excluded because a pedometer can't really track that. We kayaked ~30 miles total.)
- 168,787 steps taken
- 77.91 miles walked
- 1,206 floors climbed
- 27,381 calories burned
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q.) What was the food like?
A.) Hot drinks (coffee, cocoa, tea) are plentiful in the morning and evening. Overall the food was great! My favorite was the smoked salmon bagels with Havarti cheese, avocado and cucumbers. Each day starts by filling a quart-sized Ziploc with candy bars, trail mix, mixed nuts, dried fruit, etc. Some other meals were:
- English muffins, reindeer sausage, scrambled eggs, salsa
- Penne pasta, brie, basil, tomatoes, cream sauce
- Penne pasta, pesto, pine nuts, olive oil
- Cream cheese stuffed blueberry pancakes
- Deli meat wraps with sun-dried tomatoes, hummus, swiss cheese
- Blueberry cheesecake made in a glacial stream
- Hiking meals were generally snacks (trail mix, PowerBars), cheese, crackers, and reindeer sausage
Q.) Will there be flush toilets anywhere?
A.) Not many. I remember modern plumbing only in Anchorage and Palmer. There will be an outhouse if you're lucky.
Q.) I've heard stories about man-eating mosquitoes. Is there any truth to this rumor?
A.) Everything you've heard is true. The mosquitoes are present and accounted for. Exposure Alaska does provide head nets. They work pretty well.
Q.) Should I bring shorts?
A.) Several times the weather was warm enough to warrant shorts. However, the mosquitoes will feast on you. Wear light-weight pants and long-sleeve shirts and convince someone else to wear shorts. Then they'll feast on them and not you. Do bring layers. In the span of a couple hours I remember going from a t-shirt to 4-layers (short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve shirt, fleece, rain shell) and back to a t-shirt. Convertible pants are a good option.
Q.) Do I really need gloves for the kayaking portion?
A.) I used bicycle gloves and was glad I had them.
Q.) What time of year did you go?
A.) July 28 - August 3.
Q.) The title of this post references "Part 2." Where is "Part 1"?
A.) We went on a flightseeing tour of Denali National Park before our backcountry adventure started.