Local Insight: Alaskan Tour Directors on What Makes Their Tour Unique
Posted August 20, 2019
Many tours to Alaska follow a similar pattern. Some touring in and around Anchorage and Seward, a whale-watching cruise or two, and trips into Denali and Kenai Fjords National Park. But on Odysseys’ Untamed Alaska small-group trip, we spice up those staples with a selection of Alaska’s lesser-known wonders.
And rather than explain it ourselves, we asked four of our seasoned Alaskan tour directors for their input. Read on for an unfiltered look at life on tour, and off the beaten path, in Alaska.
What makes this tour different from other tours in Alaska?
Tim: This is one of very few tours in Alaska that spends three nights in Denali National Park. Guests have a day to orient themselves with the area and experience the beauty of traveling through the mountains. Then there is a day of exploration in Denali National Park, followed by a day of reflection where guests can explore Denali trails at their own pace and let the vastness of what they have seen here soak in.
This is also one of the few tours that goes to three Alaskan national parks: Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, and Kenai Fjords. Most people have never heard of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which is actually the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland combined!
Also, as Alaska is a big state and we have smaller groups than most tour operators, we often add in extra short hikes if time allows. I love that we travel the remote, seasonal, and dirt Denali Highway. It’s my favorite personal recreation area (precisely because it is not a national park and thus has less regulations). Compared to the Denali Park tour, the road has less traffic, the scenery is arguably equal or better, people can get out and explore the tundra, and it’s just our group, not mediated by government regulation or driver. Guests love walking across the Susitna River bridge, and the birding along that stretch is excellent.
Do we travel to any destinations that most other tour groups don’t visit?
Tim: One favorite is Kennicott. It’s a destination that is only available for small group travel, so often we are the only group there. We arrive to this isolated town by small bush planes and as we step out of the plane, we take a step back in time to a copper mining ghost town that continues to be preserved by the National Park Service. Guests love the history and we get to go into many of the preserved buildings in the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark.
Kennicott poses interesting questions. Okay, we’re in the biggest National Park, but we see little of it. Instead, we’re looking at a remnant of our industrial past. I pose provocative questions about that: What is it that we like about this site? Why do we find it compelling? Is it the engineering components of copper extraction and milling? The social aspects of the industry? I link it to stopping at the Trans-Alaska pipeline: Should we make the pipeline a national historical park after it has served its purpose? Why or why not? If we painted the then-defunct Valdez terminal barnyard red (as Kennicott), would that make it more attractive for subsequent visitors? What is it, exactly, that we find attractive about this copper town?
Which activities on tour do guests enjoy the most?
Tim: The flight into Wrangell-St. Elias with an Alaskan bush pilot is often a highlight, as we’re flying surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The flight to and from McCarthy/Kennicott is a thrill. Most people have not been in such small bush planes. And the Root Glacier walk is a highlight, as well.
Which activities on tour do our TDs find the most compelling/rewarding?
Julie: Some of my favorite times on tour are the family-style meals at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, especially the evening after our half-day hike to the Root Glacier. By this time everyone knows each other, the food and service is excellent and on this evening the energy is incredible as many of the guests have really pushed themselves to their personal limit on this day.
The storytelling and recounting of adventures of the day feels just like a family at dinner time. The group strings out during the hike, so this evening is the first regrouping and sharing of experiences. For some the hike is simply one of the most challenging and rewarding things they’ve done and the pride and the pleasure in the day cannot be contained. There are high fives and fist bumps. Every guest has a story to tell. For others it’s the fact that they’ve donned crampons and tramped around on a great big piece of Alaska wilderness that blows their minds!
I usually suggest to everyone to, at some point, step away from everyone else (not too far please) and imagine yourself alone in this vast 13.2 million acre wilderness that is Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. It’s so great out there. Just yesterday, coming off the ice, I asked one guest about his day and he threw his hands into the air and said “Julie, I don’t have words for this”. Yeah baby, that’s Untamed Alaska!
Keri-Lyn: The most rewarding experience for me as a Tour Director is being able to interact with guests who have a strong desire to learn about Alaska, along with a love of nature and the national parks. Odysseys Unlimited guests all have a great appreciation for the wild, untouched lands they see in Alaska, and seem to love spending time here with like-minded individuals.
Andy: Guests love Kennicott, and guests love the Root Glacier Hike! Kennicott has such a rich interesting history that guests love to learn about and see the ruins and restored buildings.
What kind of personal experience/perspective do our tour directors bring to this trip?
Tim: All of our tour directors in Alaska don’t just know things about Alaska and our tour locations, we all have a deep understanding of the land that we travel through. Many grew up here in Alaska or are longtime local residents. All Odysseys TDs have numerous personal experiences traveling through the different regions of Alaska that can bring context along with expert facts and commentary. Because of this, our guests leave Alaska with not just answers to all the questions they ask, but a true understanding of the state’s history, nature, and people, and how those aspects fit together in modern-day Alaska life.
I know Alaska experientially and academically. Wherever we drive, I have memories of peaks climbed, hunting trips taken, rivers run, fish caught. I share a select few of those with guests. I’ve taught Alaska history at the collegiate level and think I understand how to deliver that in an accessible, appropriate manner to a tour. I’m also good with natural history. In my delivery, I use the verb “imagine” a lot: “imagine this land covered by three thousand feet of ice . . . imagine this ten thousand years ago, recently deglaciated, and you’re in a hunting band looking for caribou . . . imagine the trade routes this road parallels from the inland tribes to the coastal peoples . . . imagine surveying a route for a railroad before the airplane, bashing through the forests and chasms . . . .”
What kinds of wildlife can guests expect to see on this tour?
Tim: You never know what we will see, but we often see moose, bear, caribou, sheep, wolves, and migratory birds on the land tour. Out on the glacier cruise, we often see whales, porpoise, sea otters, seals, sea lions, and lots of marine birds.
We are pretty much guaranteed moose. In Denali Park, caribou are a lock. Brown bears, Dall sheep: 30%. Lynx, wolf: 5% of the time. The Denali Highway has the same wildlife, but since they are hunted, they tend to be less obvious, although I’ve seen all of the above along that route. Marine excursion: sea lions, sea otters are a lock; orcas, 50%, other whales, 50%; and a lot of bird life.
Do you have any fun/interesting stories of guests on tour?
Andy: Guests also love the close interaction and conversations with the glacier guides at Kennicott. When some folks from California were here a few weeks ago, the guests insisted on inviting the mill tour and glacier guides to lunch at the lodge after the mill tour. They had all kinds of advice, exchanged emails and invited them to visit if in San Francisco.
Last summer I had the privilege to lead Jack and Claire Youngs on Untamed Alaska. Jack and Claire loved the tour so much they told their son Christopher and his wife Susan about it, citing the small-group, relaxed setting; the close-knit meals; Kennicott and the beautiful hike on the Root Glacier; not to mention the whale and wildlife tour in Kenai Fjords; the Exit glacier hike; and the ranger hike in Denali. There are just so many rich, beautiful things on this tour that it is impossible to list them all. Christopher and Susan told their friends Jack and Kim Horvath and Cheryl and Dan Kittle.
Then this year, all six came this week with me on an Untamed Alaska tour. I found it fitting and I was humbled to be allowed to guide the 2nd generation of Youngs and their four friends on the tour one year later. After 15 years of directing tours in Alaska, there is no doubt in my mind this is by far the best tour there is in Alaska, hands down. Guests love it.
There you have it! Join our next trip and experience Untamed Alaska for yourself!