By Erick Widman
One of the best kept secrets of travel is that the trip doesn’t end when you return home: the memories and experiences stay with you for decades. My wife and I love to hear from friends about where they’ve been and get ideas about where to go next.
When we’re asked about our favorite trips, one particular excursion stands out for both of us: kayaking in Alaska. It’s basically guaranteed to enrich your life and refresh your soul.
We signed up with REI Adventures for a seven-day kayaking expedition around Glacier Bay, Alaska. Each day we were brought to a new location on a fairly small boat (sort of like a cruise ship) that also served as our home for the week. We were able to take showers using our cabin’s private combined toilet/shower, called a “shoy-lette.” Also, there was excellent food prepared for every meal—we certainly weren’t roughing it.
While we took our trip in June 2004, the REI website still lists the same details 10 years later, which is good: why change a great itinerary?
We flew in to Juneau, Alaska, where we saw the Mendenhall Glacier before getting on the boat. We then spent the next six days visiting beautiful spots around Glacier Bay, including the Icy Strait, which was filled with whales, and Chichagof Island, which had a big supply of aggressive black bears. (Our kayaking was especially inspired whenever we felt we needed distance from the bears). We spent each day exploring in our kayaks, while the boat shuttled us to a new location overnight as we slept. It was exciting to wake up and see the beauty of our new spot for the day.
Kayaking in Alaska is Magical
The clear highlight of the trip was silently skimming along just inches above the water in our double-seater sea kayak. My wife and I hadn’t kayaked much before and we fell in love with the experience.
At the start of the trip, our guides announced that we could choose one of three kayaking groups: (1) leisurely, (2) moderate, (3) fast. We joined up with the fast group, which was the right choice—we were in good shape and finished each day tired and happy.
The kayaking was such a wonderful experience for a few simple reasons. We were surrounded in every direction by gorgeous mountains, often veiled by swirling clouds of mist. We breathed in the sweetest, freshest air you could imagine. We kayaked from one massive, beautiful glacier to the next. And the best part about being on the water with no motors or noise was that were able to get astonishingly close to exotic wildlife.
On a typical day, a seal would gently pop his head out five feet away from us, snort some water out from his nose while inspecting us, then swim away. On another occasion, we kayaked around a bend and came across a mother moose and her calf swimming through a narrow strait.
Our guides always did a good job of making sure we kept a respectful distance from the wildlife. Oftentimes, we’d all want to paddle closer and be told to hold back. In fact, many of the bears apparently have never seen humans before, which probably explained why they’d make a grunting, barking noise at us when we kayaked nearby.
The Camaraderie was Genuine
Unsurprisingly, an adventure trip like this one attracted people who wanted to learn about and experience nature. Couples in their 20s and 60s hit it off very well and found they had lots in common, and I loved learning about similar adventure tours my new friends took, and picked up a number of recommendations. And although there wasn’t much free downtime, this didn’t mean we constantly felt compelled to speak with other people. Both extraverts and introverts can come away very refreshed from a trip like this.
After being out on the water, dinner was lots of fun as we swapped stories about the animals we saw, what we learned, and humorous mishaps throughout the day. The initial awkwardness of being around people we didn’t know disappeared as we shared an exciting experience together. Talking about seals, moose, eagles, and glaciers over an excellent dinner and wine brought us far away from our daily lives. To me, this type of vacation is much more invigorating and refreshing than lying motionless on the beach where I’m usually preoccupied with my own thoughts.
Upsides to Guided Adventure Tours
Most of us plan the details of our trips ourselves with perhaps the help of a guidebook. Self-guided travels are great because you’re in control and you can tailor it to your preferences. There’s always a fair amount of planning and research required as you map out your itinerary and research where you want to go. Of course, this is part of the fun and satisfaction that comes with the entire travel experience.
However, when you combine flying to a faraway location with a particular activity that requires gear (like cycling or kayaking) then the amount of planning and preparation increases exponentially.
My wife and I thoroughly appreciated that the difficult logistics were handled by the professionals on the trip. They selected the kayaks and gear. They planned and prepared the meals, and they were able to lead us on a fantastic itinerary. Some friends of ours here in Portland, in contrast, went kayaking and camping themselves in Alaska and also had a great time. While they planned their trip out months in advance and carefully consulted maps and monitored their food, we were able to simply show up and go each day. Although these guided trips are more expensive, we found that the value provided by the professionals operating them is a worthwhile investment.
I think there’s a decent chance that Ernest Hemingway would have embarked on a guided adventure trip. Although he may have wanted to kill lots of the animals he came across, I think the safaris he took in Africa had a similar approach: getting help from experts regarding logistics and food so the traveler can focus on the flora and fauna.
For those looking for something in-between a typical mega-boat cruise and a Bear-Grylls-style survival camping experience in the rugged wilderness, a guided adventure trip will suit you nicely.
After immersing ourselves in Glacier Bay, Alaska for just a week, I still feel a special connection to it. The stunning mountains, imposing glaciers, and majestic animals continue to inspire me. Without too much effort, I can return there in my mind and see the dark blue water silently ripple in the wake of my sea kayak.