Image credit: Trek Alaska

Alaska is known as America’s last frontier. Katie McGonagle finds out why

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It’s Monday morning, it’s cold and wet and I’m staring up at overcast skies.

But I’m soon reminded this is no average start to the week when a grey-bearded guide known as Mudflap shouts “Swim, swim” and I start a furious front-crawl across a freezing torrent, trying to reach the safety of a gentle eddy on the other side.

I’m about to embark on the grade five white-water rapids of Sixmile Creek in Alaska, some of the scariest in North America, but first I need to show I’m a strong swimmer in case we take a tumble into the icy depths.

Thankfully, I make it across and haul myself out onto the bank with the rest of the Grand American Adventures fam trip group. I’m dry thanks to heavy-duty waterproofs, but shivering with cold.

Those shivers soon turn to chills of excitement as we climb into an inflatable raft and guide Tommy barks orders to help us negotiate raging torrents with names such as the merry go-round and zig-zag and jaws.

Yet between our fast-paced oar strokes, there’s time to admire the extraordinary scenery. The sun is starting to break through, showing up the last crimson wisps of Alaskan wildflower fireweed between swathes of fir, cottonwood and hemlock trees lining the canyon on either side.

It’s September, near the end of the state’s tourist season, but it’s turning into such a sunny day that, once the rapids are finished, I’m persuaded to take another plunge into those chilly waters and float back towards the warmth of the Chugach Outdoor Center.

It’s certainly been a more exciting Monday morning than I’m used to; but, as I will soon discover, every day in Alaska is pretty extraordinary.

FLY AND DRIVE



The rafting (from $149) comes on our first full day, having flown into Anchorage on board Icelandair’s seasonal service via Reykjavik the night before.

It’s a straightforward journey with plenty of scenery en route, and an alternative to flying via Seattle.

Our introduction to Alaska includes learning the difference between a local sourdough, who has survived plenty of Alaskan winters but is somewhat grizzled and grumpy as a result, and a cheechako, or naive newcomer.

The Alaskan sense of humour also becomes clear on the drive to Sixmile Creek; heading down a road known as the Turnagain Arm, we pass a roadside diner called the Turnagain Arm Pit.

WILD ABOUT WILDLIFE



Another day, another die-hard adventure – though in slightly calmer waters this time – as we kayak from seaside town Homer towards Yukon Island, the base for True North Kayak Adventures’ day and half-day tours ($105-$225).

Fully kitted out in wellies and waterproofs, we climb into our one and two-person kayaks and set off, and it doesn’t take long before the guide is motioning for us to be quiet and paddle as gently as possible. We steal one-by-one towards another tiny islet, to find a group of silvery-grey seals bobbing around by the rocky shore.

They aren’t the only animals we spot: next comes a playful sea otter, floating on his back and preening his mousy brown fur under the warmth of the midday sun; then a bald eagle perching proud and alert on a tall tree branch; and no end of native Alaskan birds that our guides identify with ease.

There are longer kayaking tours available for those with more stamina (and upper body strength) than me, which involve camping on one of the many uninhabited islands and experiencing Alaska at its wildest. But we are soon on our way towards the next adventure: touring the fjords of the Kenai Peninsula.

If we thought we’d seen the best of Alaska’s wildlife around Homer, we were about to be proved wrong. After a superb behind-the-scenes tour of Alaska Sea Life Center (admission $20, tours extra) – home of sea lions, silvery harbour seals and puffins – we embarked on a cruise around Kenai Fjords National Park.

Barely five minutes out of Resurrection Bay, we saw our first pod of orcas swimming through the glacial waters, soon to be joined by Dall’s porpoises playfully splashing around, and another whale breaching those chilly waters for a picture-perfect moment.

Then we came across seals reclining nonchalantly on floating chunks of iceberg as we approached the Aialik Glacier. Our small ship crept between those solid icy blocks, with a palpable hush of expectation replaced by gasps of excitement as a huge slab of ice calved off and hurtled towards the sea, creating a wave of freezing water rushing against the base of the glacier.

This spectacular sight certainly helps explain the popularity of Alaska cruises from the likes of Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and Princess Cruises.

Alaska

Image credit: State of Alaska/Mark Kelley

GET HIGH



Once we’d regained our land legs, we started the eight-hour drive to Denali National Park, home of North America’s highest peak.

Taking its name from the native Athabascan word for ‘high point’, Denali – also known as Mount McKinley – can only be described as a bit shy.

Its towering peak hides behind cloud most of the time, coming out to play for only a third of visitors. We were the lucky ones, catching a glimpse of its snowy top en route to the supremely well-appointed Grande Denali Lodge at the edge of the national park.

It gets even better up-close: while the park bus tour (a tourism staple, since private cars aren’t allowed entry to this protected area) was somewhat underwhelming, we did glimpse four of Denali’s ‘big five’. Instead of lion and leopard, this must-spot list is made up of moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolf and grizzly bear.

But the most impressive way to observe the majestic beauty of this landscape is on a flight-seeing tour. It’s not cheap – Trek America offers it as an optional extra from $220-$460 – but it was by far the most memorable experience from our Alaska visit.

In a 10-seater aircraft we made our way across valleys covered in the fieriest autumn colours – carpets of rich sienna, burnt orange, bright scarlet, plum and primrose yellow, mingling with the last stalks of emerald green and the shadowy blue backdrop of the Alaska Range, interrupted only by tiny white dots where distinctive Dall sheep graze on the unforgiving terrain.

Thinking it couldn’t possibly get better, all of a sudden, it does: flying higher, those fiery tones give way to pure white.

First it’s just a light dusting, but then the mountains’ jagged peaks are made soft and smooth by a fluffy mass of snow.

It’s the perfect way to admire this landscape, capped off with an unforgettable glacier landing where we find ourselves knee-deep in thick, white powder in the shadow of Denali.

One thing is certainly clear: from the lowest sea level to its highest peaks, this is America at its wildest and best.