By mid-July, the all-you-can-eat salmon buffet has opened at Katmai National Park in Alaska, and the grizzlies are lined up for the picnic.
I’ve always wanted to see the action in person. Now I’m here, watching two big bears nonchalantly perched at the top of Brooks Falls, waiting for the foot-long spawning fish to leap into their pie-sized paws. Another bear, its ears so fluffy they look like earmuffs, is lolling in the pool just beneath them, swaying its furry, anvil-shaped head back and forth, scanning for hors d’oeuvres.
In all, about 20 bears have gathered within a few hundred yards of the boardwalk where I’m standing. Now and then one takes a huge belly flop, stunning an unsuspecting salmon which it then scoops up and eats. Other bears duck their heads under water, snorkeling around to locate prey.
It’s fascinating, exhilarating and slightly intimidating. I wish I could stay here for days, observing the bears as they fatten up for the winter. But it’s just one stop on my week-long trip to Alaska, which has included a few days in Anchorage and a few more at a remote and luxurious lodge in the wilderness.
Anchorage, capital of Alaska
The biggest city in Alaska serves as a convenient jumping off point for adventures around Cook Inlet. About 300,000 people live in the city, not quite half of the state’s total population of 700,000. You’ll find bike trails, museums, fine restaurants and the busiest seaplane port in the world.
Hop onto one of the red trolleys operated by Anchorage Trolley Tours for a 60-minute introduction to the city. The trolley picks up passengers in front of Visit Anchorage Log Cabin Visitor Center at Fourth and F Street. You’ll see community highlights like the historic railroad station (Alaska Railroad celebrates its 100th birthday this year) and Earthquake Park, where you can see evidence of the 9.2-magnitude 1964 earthquake that dropped sections of the city 30 feet.
The Anchorage Museum is also worth a stop. The museum’s hands-on exhibits and stunning collection of art provide a good overview of the 49th state’s history and culture.
Head outdoors in Alaska
You’ll meet people who love all kinds of outdoor pursuits, from hiking, fishing and camping to zooming around on all– terrain vehicles, when you visit Alaska.
“We’re pretty crazy here about fishing,” Teri Hendricks of Visit Anchorage told me.
She wasn’t exaggerating. We spent a day exploring Turnagain Arm, a narrow branch of the Cook Inlet and home to one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. When the tide’s out, great mud flats extend from the shoreline.
Take Seward Highway to the south and pull off at Beluga Point to look for beluga whales, the smallest species of whale in the world. They’re white and look like they’re smiling. Sign up for text alerts from the Beluga Whale Alliance for sightings in Cook Inlet.
Don’t forget to look up on the cliffs along the highway, too. We missed the belugas but spotted a few Dall sheep tiptoeing along the rocky ledges a few miles away.
Check out Alyeska Resort or ride an ATV
At Alyeska Resort about an hour from Anchorage, catch the tram for the 6-minute ride to the top of Alyeska Mountain. On clear days you can spot up to seven hanging glaciers. This summer the resort opened the Veilbreaker Skybridges – two spans that dangle 2,500 feet above the valley floor.
If you’d rather stick closer to the ground, head to Bird Creek for a wild ride through the region’s temperate rainforest with Alaska ATV Adventures. I climbed aboard one of the noisy machines for a guided tour along twisting gravel roads. We flushed two grizzlies out of the brush at one point. We also splashed through puddles (on designated trails), then hiked down to a gorgeous waterfall where we saw dozens of bright red salmon.
Go sea kayaking in Prince William Sound
If you’re looking for a quieter way to explore the wilderness, book a seat on Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train to the funky little community of Whittier. From there, you can take a guided kayak tour into Prince William Sound with Alaska Sea Kayakers. First, though, stop by the Lazy Otter Café for a home-baked cinnamon roll.
You’ll launch from a dock next to the town’s busy wharfs, which our guide described as an “honest” introduction to an area where industry and wilderness rub shoulders. Once we paddled past the docks, the focus turned to nature. A bald eagle landed in a tree at the top of a rocky outcropping, one of half a dozen eagles we saw. We pulled into an inlet where so many salmon were spawning that we had to step carefully to avoid them.
I took the train to get to Whittier, but for the return trip, I hitched a ride in a passenger car. That gave me a chance to experience the one-direction-at-a-time Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, built as a rail tunnel during World War II. In 2000 it was expanded to allow both rail and vehicle traffic.
Stop at Potter Marsh for a stroll on the boardwalk, where you might see moose, swan, bald eagles or other local residents.
Soar over Alaska in a floatplane
Another way to get a good perspective on Anchorage? By floatplane, of course. Flying is a huge part of the culture here, and one in every 78 Alaskans is a pilot –– more than anywhere else in the United States.
I planned to tour Denali by plane on a tour by Regal Air, but everything depends on weather. The day of my planned trip, the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit of 20,310 feet, was socked in. I switched to a shorter tour of Knik and Colony Glaciers.
“Let’s go find some ice,” the pilot said as I hoisted myself off the pontoon and into the cockpit. Our two-hour tour included some closeup passes of the glaciers, which looked like giant tongues, and a landing on Lake George. Once there, our pilot pulled out a paddle and maneuvered us close to a few bobbing icebergs, then fished out a chunk of ice and passed it around.
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge
But the highlight of my trip to Alaska came when I boarded another floatplane the next day and zipped off to the real Alaska –– the one without roads or cars and with more moose, salmon and brown bears than human beings.
For three nights I stayed at the exquisite Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, nestled next to Judd Lake about 60 miles northwest of Anchorage. You’ll need deep pockets if you want to book a stay, but you won’t forget the experience.
An Otter seaplane carries guests to the destination, owned by heli ski pioneer Mike Overcast and Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe.
Fly fishing, flight seeing and a via ferrata
Once there, a seaplane or helicopter takes you everywhere.
A helicopter delivered us to the Talachulitna River, where we caught and released enough salmon and rainbow trout to feed a hungry bear. We rafted, zoomed over more glaciers by helicopter, and landed on a narrow mountain pass. There, two of my co-travelers used iron rungs and 1,200 feet of cable to scale a sheer mountain wall on Alaska’s first via ferrata. (I just had knee surgery and had to stay content watching from the copter.)
Meals were superb – fresh salmon, king crab, steak and more –– and service was impeccable. And I felt snug as a bug in the Canoe Cabin where I stayed, next to the dock. (The others stayed in the main lodge, where we had meals and soaked in the hot tub.)
And on what I’ve since decided was one of the very best days of my entire life, I swam in the 56-degree waters of the lake, then spent the rest of the day at Katmai National Park watching those incredible bears.
If You Go
Alaska, United, Delta and American all offer service into Anchorage, but you won’t find any non-stop flights.
Food & Drink
In Girdwood, don’t miss the Double Musky Inn, a Cajun-influenced restaurant that somehow ended up in a small Alaskan village. “My brother caught that yesterday,” the waitress said when I ordered the salmon. “He brings it straight from the boat to us.”
Other favorites include Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria for thin-crust, regular or deep dish pie, and Wild Scoops Handcrafted Alaskan Ice Cream, where you can sample seasonal flavors like fireweed, spruce tip or wild blueberry.
Try South Restaurant & Coffeehouse for breakfast specialties (get a side of reindeer sausage, which doesn’t taste at all gamey), or one of its sister restaurants, Spenard Roadhouse or Snow City Café. The food – and atmosphere – are as fresh as the outside air.
Stay flexible. Weather determines everything in Alaska, and if float planes or helicopters can’t fly, you may have to reschedule. Oh, and bring a rain jacketClick here to enter text..