Header photo courtesy Juno Kim/Visit Anchorage
Imagine yourself cruising in a kayak across a peaceful and practically mirror-flat surface of an Alaska bay. You pull up the paddle for a moment, rest it on your kayak and take it all in: bobbing mildly, you inhale the fresh, cool air coming off the nearby glacier with a hint of saltwater mist. Suddenly, two puffins take off, their wingtips leaving tiny, rhythmic ripples in their wake. An otter is floating on its back, crunching on a shellfish while keeping an eye on you. Is that a seal or seaweed in the distance? High above the faraway shore, you make out the silhouette of a big bald eagle sitting atop a tree, waiting for dinner to surface.
This might sound like a sea kayaking dream, but in many ports of Alaska it’s really not that uncommon. If you’re ready to paddle and your timing is right, you can see also of all this and more on the water, as well as breaching porpoises and whales, an occasional bear walking along the rocky beach, and a salmon or two flipping out of the water and landing with a splash. And then there are the regional trees and mountains that rest along the horizons of your explorations.
The biggest surprise of Alaska sea kayaking isn’t how much you can see in a trip – it’s how easily you can access these journeys. You don’t need to be an expert or even a moderately skilled voyager. Whether on a shore excursion or a full day tour, there are Alaska kayaking outings for all experience and fitness levels. There are kayaking guides who will happily and safely lead you to wildlife and wonderful watery places for a few hours or a few days. In most port towns, kayaks are for rent if you want to go solo. And there are water taxi operators who will load up kayaks with you and your gear, drop you off at your chosen destination and pick you up whenever you’re ready.
You’ll definitely want to plan for a few days of kayaking if you make it all the way to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, one of Alaska’s, if not the world’s, most grandiose outdoor settings. Set in Southeast Alaska, it has mountains and wildlife, beaches and coves, and yes, plenty of glaciers. Glacier Bay is also remote and relatively road-less, which makes it a peaceful kayaking paradise. Get to the park’s headquarters near Gustavus on a ferry or smaller boat from Juneau or via commercial flight. Local outfitters will rent you kayaks and offer optional guided tours. In a kayak, you can skim smoothly along the area’s tranquil waters, dodging (relatively) tiny icebergs and spotting seals, sea lions, otters, seabirds and even the occasional whale – humpback and orca. Spend your nights in Gustavus, at a rustic nearby lodge or in a tent at one of the area’s campgrounds.
Glacier Bay is Southeast’s sea kayaking star, but nearly every community along the Inside Passage (Ketchikan, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Wrangell, etc.) offers its own special kayaking expeditions.
Cruise west from the Inside Passage along Alaska’s coast and you will reach another king of kayaking regions: Prince William Sound. An area packed with marine animals, massive mountains, grand glaciers, intense icebergs, ever-changing landscapes and countless coves, bays and inlet. PWS is easily accessed from Cordova, Valdez and Whittier – each town has tour operators and guides ready to assist. Farther west is Seward, the gateway to the marine wildlife utopia (not to mention home to lots and lots of glaciers) of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s almost ridiculous how amazing Kenai Fjords is and how easy it is to explore the area by kayak. You can base your operations out of Seward or plan to stay in one of the lodges or public use cabins in the bay.
Heaps of happy kayakers head to Homer every summer and take a quick and scenic water taxi ride to the other side of Kachemak Bay. In Kachemak Bay State Park, kayakers can explore a handful of outstanding coves, fjords and beaches, as well as some open-water oddities like Elephant Rock. Marine life and mountains are aplenty; glaciers and waterfalls are occasional; shorebird sightings and lifelong memories are guaranteed.
While sea kayaking is tranquil, river kayaking in Alaska can be tremendous yet treacherous. For the extremely experienced, prepared and brave, there are rapids-filled river adventures in the Denali National Park, along Six Mile Creek, the Fortymile River and the Alaska Range’s Chulitna and Happy rivers.
If a mellow day float is more your speed, Alaska’s urban areas have a few kayaking offerings. The Chena River in Fairbanks is a slow ride that locals love; there are plenty of restaurants, bars and parking areas to put in and get out of the river. An hour south of Anchorage, Portage Creek is a nice little ride; just down Portage Glacier Road is Portage Lake, where a short paddling workout will take you right up alongside Portage Glacier. And a short drive north of Anchorage is big Eklutna Lake, with kayak rentals on the shore and mountains all around.