An Alaska Back Country Adventure

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) have a fur count of one million hair strands per square inch, which is the densest fur of any animal! Also, they have a lung capacity 2.5 times greater than any similar-sized land mammal, which means sea otters effortlessly float! Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Let us embark on an Alaskan adventure! Starting from Anchorage, Alaska at Turnagain Arm, a famous waterway, we head to Anchorage’s Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Then, we take a train from Anchorage and head north to Denali National Park and Preserve.

Within that Park is Mount Denali, formerly known as Mount McKinley, which at 20,310 feet elevation, boasts of being the tallest point in the United States. We travel for 90 miles into the backcountry of Denali Park and end up in Kantishna, an unincorporated community founded as a gold mining camp. Then, we take a propeller jet back to the main entrance of the Park.

From Denali Park, we return to Anchorage by train and we start another leg of our journey toward the southern part of Alaska, toward Seward, named after William H. Seward, who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Then, we head to Kenai Fjords National Park to witness the drama of glaciers in action!

Below are pictures of notable natural wonders of this Alaskan adventure: its tides, glaciers and fjords; significant wildlife and related animal rescue efforts, and all the things that went into the stewardship or preparation of the destinations. In Alaska, many natural wonders are big and vast, or it is the most extreme of its category, so in accompaniment to these wonders are world-class services.

As I prepare for the cold conditions of my upcoming journey, I pack a commemorative book as it just so happens I will visit Denali National Park and Preserve and Kenai Fjords National Park on the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

Regarding natural wonders, let us start with tides. Turnagain Arm in Anchorage boasts the most significant tidal differences on the planet, sometimes as much as a difference of about 27 feet between low tide and high tide! And then, between glaciers and fjords, in which glaciers are more common knowledge, but the definition of a fjord is highly confusing to a layperson. The confusion has to do with the shape of a body of water and its saltwater aspect, and perhaps for us that are not familiar with the Norwegian language, the word “fjord” itself!  Regardless, a fjord is the result of the erosion caused by a glacier, which is defined as “a slowly moving mass or river of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains or near the poles.”

In the distance: Turnagain Arm, a famous waterway in Anchorage, Alaska.

Ski lift at ski resort provides views of Turnagain Arm, Anchorage, Alaska.
The tidal difference at Turnagain Arm is so large that a wave is created from an incoming tide called a “bore tide.” And if you closely look at the road that is below the bore tide, the road looks small as well.
The mountains are so vast that the ski lift and the building on the lower left look tiny.


In the center of this picture, we see a glacier, so let us zoom in closer and decipher some of its parts.
Here we see on the mountain, the white mass or snow or ice of the glacier’s “terminus,” which is at the lowest end of the glacier. Then below the terminus is sediment, the result of years of erosion that has been created by the glacier. Below the sediment, we have “meltwater,” glacier water that flows downhill to join a lake, stream, or ocean. As you view this picture, you may think a glacier is static. On the contrary, glaciers are always moving, and as they move, they shape the earth for decades, centuries, or even thousands of years, which make glaciers the most dynamic natural feature on the planet!
Here we see another end part of a glacier and its terminus as it advances toward the lake.
What looks like dirt on the snow/ice is sediment, a result of the erosion action created as the glacier moves and grinds against the rock below.
You can see gaps between the glacier (right), and the rock (left), as the gigantic mass of the unforgiving glacier erodes or pulverizes the rock.
The snow that has been compacted and compressed to become glacial ice has a blueish color, called “blue ice.”

I am wearing an orange windbreaker jacket which was provided on the boat.

Alaska has not only many fjords, but also many wild animals. As a result, a wildlife rescue center is present in Anchorage, where humans are more caged in than the animals. In contrast to a traditional zoo, wild animals can only be rescued at an animal rescue center if they have been orphaned or injured and could not survive in the wild. They are then rehabilitated there and remain in a wild setting. In other words, these wild animals would otherwise be dead.

Humans are more sequestered than animals at the wildlife conservation and rescue center.
Animals, such as the wood bison inhabit the wildlife conservation and rescue center, which resembles the bison’s natural and wild surroundings. Anchorage, Alaska

Accommodations, train and tour tickets. For example, one ticket takes me to the back country of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Map of destinations along the Alaskan train route. Notice the route hugs waterways, which lends for the most scenic train rides in the world.

While traveling from Anchorage to Denali National Park and Preserve, what better way to enjoy Alaska’s vast natural scenery than via the comfort of a train? See this corresponding video called “My Alaskan Adventure FULL MOVIE.” On the train line, various companies and their train cars connect in order to travel on the Alaska Railroad.

So, for the most part, one can walk over to adjacent train cars and see the other classes and types of services, which include formal dining car service, informal cafe service, lounge car service, and viewing cars. Note: because I visited Alaska in September when the high tourist season in that area was ending, and school was already in session, many of the train cars were almost empty. So to avoid the summer peak season crowds, September is a great time to visit.

According to this map, to calculate how many miles we will travel on the train, we look at the destination and its corresponding milepost or “MP.” For the first leg of the trip, we start from Anchorage Depot at milepost 114, and end up at Denali Park Depot at milepost 348 for a total of 234 miles traveled. Then, for the second leg of our trip, we go from Denali Park Depot all the way south to Seward at milepost 0, which is a total of 348 miles. For the last leg of the journey, we go back up north from Seward to Anchorage, which is 114 miles total. We add up the three legs of our trip, and it equals a total of 696 miles of scenic viewing from a train!

The Alaska Railroad in-train magazine commemorates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
In this publication, photos are shown to give you an emotional connection to the trains and thus train travel.
Notice there is a little bit of history told to you so you can again get an emotional connection to your train travel.
Here is a boarding pass for the train, in which the entire boarding process is identical to that of a small airplane where you climb up to an aircraft, except in this case, you climb onto a train.
Start point: at milepost 114, here is Anchorage Depot with a spacious waiting area inside. The foreground here is the metal loading platform to get onto the train to head north. Destination: Denali National Park and Preserve!

Located close outside of Denali National Park and Preserve are tourist shops of similar architectural style.
Well maintained toilets on the road to mile 90. Denali National Park and Preserve.
Water from the melting ice of a glacier, carries gray and black sand and gravel, which ends up forming an expansive plain.

The bear enjoys the vast wilderness.

Part of the enjoyment of travel by bus is to stop the bus, stretch one’s legs, take a few photos, and take in any scenic views.

Trains are not the only essential modes of transportation in these vast areas. Buses are needed although sparingly in the Park. As within the premises of Denali National Park and Preserve, the number of vehicles and quantity of lodging is carefully coordinated between the National Park Service and Kantishna, the final destination in Denali National Park and Preserve. Therefore, few buses at any one time are seen to traverse the roads within the Park.

During my journey within the Park, I seldom saw another bus pass by, but I did spot just a few other buses.

A bus is at a restroom stop. Notice about a dozen people are present.

Like Alaska, the park is big and vast that the moose in this picture looks so tiny!
A world-class visitor center has a whimsical display of rocks. Also, regarding maintenance, notice the pavement, shoe mats, and signage are well maintained. There is also a trash receptacle that has an appropriate lid. Thus, in this regard, the facility’s maintenance by the National Park Service is a top-notch job.
Despite the overwhelming natural beauty outside, there is room for human-made beauty, such as this artwork at the visitor’s center.

The one picture I took of Kantishna.
I flew out of mile 90 at Kantishna, and back to Kantishna Air Taxi, a spot near the Denali Visitor Center, the main park entrance, and the Denali Park Depot, its train stop.
Because I sat in front next to the pilot on the passenger side, I felt like I was piloting the aircraft! As we flew close to the mountains, the front row seat offered me stunning and dramatic views of the mountains, valleys, and river below.

These pictures showed that the airplane hugged close to the mountains which brought me the closest I have ever been to a mountain peak: one can see all the snow had melted to reveal its barren tops.

From this vantage point, look at the yellow below, which are evergreen trees that look tiny. You can see the same type of evergreens from the ground level, in the third photo after this one.
While the jet lands on the small and barely noticeable runway, which is in the background, condensation builds on the outside.
I am back near the main entrance of Denali National Park and Preserve.
Popular cruise lines have land tours to this area.
Animal footprints are used as way finding devices.
Regarding the number of groups of visitors, notice there are about six vehicles parked, meaning that the Denali visitor center is not packed with cars at this moment. For the design of the facilities, the asphalt parking spaces here have no curb, and finally, for the landscaping, the buffer areas around the asphalt parking spaces are left to be relatively wild.

An education center shows wolves’ migration patterns.
I head south from Denali National Park and Preserve back to Anchorage and then to Seward. Here is a train car with a skylight called a “dome car,” so one can maximize views of the already scenic train route!

On a bridge overpass.

The railroad track gently curves, which momentarily allows passengers to see the other train cars attached to this one.

I am looking out of a side window of an observation window or “dome car.”
We arrive to Seward, Alaska.

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) have a fur count of one million hair strands per square inch, which is the densest fur of any animal! Also, they have a lung capacity 2.5 times greater than any similar-sized land mammal, which means sea otters effortlessly float! Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
If one sees sea otters for the first time, it’s hard to identify them as they look like floating pieces of rubbish.

Regarding crowds or no crowds, it essential to have a guide along to enhance and interpret the experience as it is helpful that a guide tells you what it is before the animals swim or fly away. Compared to other animals, birds move the fastest. Furthermore, they are sometimes too small to quickly spot, as wildlife viewing can last just for a few seconds or up to a few minutes. If you do not quickly see or understand what you see, you will miss the wildlife viewing experience altogether. Thus, the need for a guide.

Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska
In the distance is a glacier and a fjord, which is the void created from the glacier.
Nesting sites for bald eagles.
Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus). Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The ultimate lounging around.

Orca or Killer Whale (Orcinus orca)

The snow had melted to reveal the barren mountain tops.

It was a clear autumn day at Kenai Fjords National Park. Also, because I visited this Park on a Labor Day weekend, except for one other vessel, I did not see another one in the waters.

Salmon run. With so much wildlife to see as each competes for your attention, I was glad someone stopped and made a point to see the salmon run.
Can you locate the salmon in this picture?
Here is the answer to the previous question: the salmon is located on the upper right of the picture above. I took a picture of it as it laid on its side, and then, a few minutes later, it swam upstream. It was playing dead!
Salmon in the center bottom. The rocks were gray, and the tops of the fishes were gray as well.
Glaciers, and more glaciers! Here is one in the background in the distance.

So during this Alaskan adventure, we have ridden on trains, buses, boats, and even a small aircraft. We have visited educational centers to provide interpretive services to help us quickly identify what you are seeing and tell you of its significance, which is otherwise known as “interpretation,” one big strength of the National Park Service and others of its caliber. After all, without interpretation, one might miss the significance of the activity or miss what is happening, as interpretation is the benefit a National Park delivers versus a wilderness without the interpretation delivered by a National Park. Yes, there is value in it as it helps us humans engage in something more, whether it is engaging in animals, nature, and even other people.

Links That May Interest You:

What Happened at a Yoga Festival and Camping Expedition at the “Turtle Bay Resort,” BLOG

In Mānoa, a Seemingly Harmless Verdant Expanse is the Biggest Threat to Waikiki, BLOG

Friends of Waikīkī National Recreation Area


A Chinese American, Emy Louie (雷慧妮) was born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i. She graduated from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa in 1991 and earned a degree in Architecture.

In 1993, Ms. Louie relocated to the mainland United States and from 2007 to 2012, she hosted her radio show to interview the movers and shakers of sustainable design and green building and taught continuing education classes to design professionals.

She is president of Emy Louie, Consulting Services, which works on design, conservation, and environmental projects. Since 2018, Ms. Louie spends her time in Honolulu and Central America to do environmental field research.

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