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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Insider’s Passage

Get a look at America’s Last Frontier from a seasoned nature photographer who makes his home in Alaska

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Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
The main visitor center is south of the town of Glennallen and can be reached by a half-day drive on paved roads from Denali (or Anchorage if you want to skip Denali)—but that only gets you to the perimeter. To explore deeper into the park, Niebrugge suggests taking a “flight-seeing” tour. While hiking and backpacking are permitted, it’s both rugged and dangerous. “It’s very remote, and little things like crossing rivers and creeks can be very dangerous because of the cold, swift water,” he cautions. “In addition, there’s the bear danger. It’s not a very easily accessible area. A flying tour will get you a taste of how amazing the park is without a lot of risk.”

Chugach National Forest
Rather than driving straight back to Anchorage from Wrangell-St. Elias, Niebrugge suggests heading south away from the park on Alaska Route 4 to the town of Valdez and from there exploring the 5.5-million-acre Chugach National Forest that surrounds Prince William Sound. From Valdez, you take a ferry to the town of Whittier on the Kenai Peninsula.

“When you leave Whittier, you pass through a long tunnel into the Portage area surrounded by beautiful mountains and glaciers,” say Niebrugge. “As you drive south through the Chugach on the Seward Highway, the scenery is breathtaking, and there’s an abundance of moose and other wildlife, especially late in the evening.”

Chugach National Forest
The Chugach National Forest Visitor Center is worth a stop, as well as hiking the Byron Glacier Trail (www.my-photo-blog.com/byron-glacier-trail). Again, one of the best ways to explore the area is by RV. Says Niebrugge, “There really isn’t much in the way of motels. I would just drive along until you see something neat. You can literally just pull over and sleep; nobody really minds.”

From here, you can either head back to Anchorage or continue down to Seward.

Kenai Fjords National Park
From the Chugach, the Seward Highway heading south will put you near the entrance to yet another Alaskan wonder: Kenai Fjords National Park, for some of the best glacier watching in Alaska. The park is just a 14-mile drive west of Seward, or about three hours south of Anchorage, if you prefer to start there.

“If you’ve never seen an ice field or a tidewater glacier before, it’s a pretty amazing thing to see,” says Niebrugge. “The best way to see the park is to take a day cruise from Seward. For $150, you can take a daylong cruise and see remarkable scenery and wildlife. They offer a less expensive half-day tour, but you won’t see whales nearly as often, you won’t get to the tidewater glaciers, and you won’t get to the puffins and the bird rookery.”

Most of the boats are able to get amazingly close to wildlife. “I’ve had orcas swim right up to the boat and seem to make eye contact,” he says. “Typically, you’ll see humpbacks, orcas, sea lions, sea otters and puffins.”

Perhaps the most amazing experience is getting close enough to a tidewater glacier to witness calving, the splitting off of the leading edge of the glacier.


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