Into the Wild: Bear Spotting at the Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary

Into the Wild: Bear Spotting at the Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary

For the better part of a week in the notoriously wet coast of Alaska, we had enjoyed cloudy but dry skies. All of our guides told us that we had really lucked out with the weather, which can throw a wrench in even the best laid plans. So, when we arrived in our final port of call, Ketchikan, I had a moment of dread when I saw that our luck had finally run out. It wasn’t really unexpected though as Ketchikan is one of the wettest places on earth with 150-200 inches of annual rainfall.

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And in truth, wouldn’t you be a bit disappointed to visit one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world and NOT experience some rain. That’s what I told myself anyway. So, we disembarked from our ship and eagerly explored the bustling town with so many claims to fame. Ketchikan is Alaska’s first city, the totem pole capital of the world, and the salmon capital of the world. That last one is very important because where there are salmon, you will find BEARS. And bears is what we were looking for.

Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island which boasts a population of nearly 15,000 black bears. That’s a ratio of 2 bears for every one human inhabitant. With stats like that, I was really liking our odds of getting up close and personal with our furry friends. To give us the best possible chance, we drove about 20 minutes outside the city to the 40 acre Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary where our bear guide Zoe led us into the picturesque Herring Cove. They don’t guarantee you will see bears but we timed our visit at the end of the annual salmon run so our chances were pretty good. We certainly didn’t expect to spot our first bears within MINUTES of starting down the one-mile trail.

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There was almost no point in our two hour visit that we were not watching female black bears and their cubs fishing for salmon or climbing through the Tongass forest. It was unbelievable! I’m not certain of how many bears we saw but it was in the double digits for sure!

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It’s important to note that these bears are completely wild and living in their natural habitat. We were able to observe these creatures safely from elevated viewing platforms and suspension bridges that leave a minimal impact on the environment. What a thrill to see these bears outside of the confines of a cage! It may be more expensive and difficult but viewing animals in the wild is worth every penny. I have made a personal choice to prioritize animal welfare by supporting sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres, while avoiding institutions that exploit animals for entertainment. I just don’t believe in captivity unless it’s absolutely necessary.

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In addition to viewing the bears (which was more than enough!), we also got to visit the Alaska Raptor Center’s aviary exhibits which included a hawk, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon. Each of the birds at the centre is unable to survive in the wild or being rehabilitated so that they can be released.

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We ended our day with a walkthrough an historic sawmill where a Native master totem-pole carver was putting the final touches on his latest creation. Nature, History, and Culture of Alaska all in one afternoon!

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Oh and remember that rain I was complaining about… well the rain stopped right about the time we arrived at the Herring Cove. And it turns out black bears tend to hide when the sun comes out so the misty skies were actually a blessing in disguise.

What’s the coolest animal experience you’ve ever had? Leave a comment below.

A Tale of Two Rides: Touring Skagway by Train and Bike

A Tale of Two Rides: Touring Skagway by Train and Bike

I didn’t really know what to expect when it came to the coastal towns of the Alaskan Panhandle. In fact, I barely did any research before I set sail for the great white North (so unlike me). It did, however, make for a very exciting week of adventures as I discovered each town first with my eyes instead of through a screen.

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Port of Skagway – so pretty!

Our second port was historic Skagway. This gold rush town looks straight out of a Western movie complete with a restored boardwalk, saloons, and brothels. We were soon to find out that for a town with a permanent population of less than 1000 people, it sure has a lot going on.

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Back in time to the Gold Rush era!

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The one thing that I did know about Skagway before I got there was that it had a railroad. And if there’s one thing that I love… it’s sightseeing by train. So of course it was a complete no-brainer in my books to join Sockeye Cycle for the White Pass Train and Bike Tour.

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We met our guides straight off the cruise ship and had a quick spin around the town before boarding the White Pass Rail. I was instantly in my happy place, thoroughly enjoying the beautiful scenery and fascinating gold rush trivia from the comfort of our vintage passenger car, complete with wood burning stove.

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All Aboard!

Our 20 mile journey took us from sea-level to nearly 3000 ft and across the Canadian border to Fraser, BC. On our way we passed through tunnels, over sky-high trestles and beside cascading waterfalls.

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One of two tunnels we passed through. I even rode through this one on the outside balcony!

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Old Wooden Trestle Bridge

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But, this trip was not about the destination – it was time for the return journey – this time by bike! Another guide met us at the summit with our bicycles and after a safety orientation we bundled up for the windy ride down. We glided 15 scenic miles downhill, stopping multiple times along the Klondike Highway to enjoy Alaska with all of our senses fully engaged. We coasted down the mountain at speeds of 15-25 mph – definitely the fastest I’ve ever gone on a bicycle and far more exhilarating then the way up. We even got to ride our bikes back across the US border – how many people have done that?!

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A small portion of the Bridal Veil Falls

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Possibly not the proper way to wear a helmet – but I kept my ears warm!

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Built in 1898 during the Klondike Gold Rush, this narrow gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Thought it’s only used for tourism now, it played a very important piece in the life of the early settlers. My whole family had a great time on both the train and bike ride despite the initially chilly temperatures. It’s a great way to check out the scenery, get some fresh air, and learn a bit more about the fascinating history of this wild land. No wonder it’s the most popular shore excursion for cruisers!

What’s the best train route you’ve been on?

Dog Sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier

Dog Sledding on the Mendenhall Glacier

Alaska is somewhere that I’ve always wanted to visit but was sort of saving for when I’m older. It’s certainly not your typical backpacker destination as most visitors arrive by cruise ship. For this reason, it tends to draw a more senior crowd and I was perfectly content to wait for my golden years. But, when my parents suggested Alaska for a family vacation I was more than happy to oblige. After all, who knows how many of its glaciers will still be there in thirty or forty years? The sad truth is that the time to see Alaska could be right now.

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Our first stop of the cruise was the capital city of Juneau. The town is on the small side and while it has its charm, I was more intrigued by the more extreme sights. So we promptly ditched the shopping scene for glacier boots and loaded into a helicopter. That’s right you heard me. My first ever helicopter ride took me 3000 ft above sea level to land on the expansive Mendenhall Glacier.

Downtown Juneau

Downtown Juneau

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The helicopter ride could have easily been enough excitement in itself but it was actually just a means to an end. We landed at the only remaining dog camp in Alaska where 250-300 sled dogs are trained for racing. We were divided into small groups where we were allowed to take turns mushing our own sled as we raced across the snowy trails. How cool is that?

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All of the dogs are Alaskian huskies and purposely bred for racing. Our dogs were very energetic and friendly but the cutest moment of all came at the end when we got to meet the camp’s current litter of puppies all named after metal bands. I got in some snuggles with the adorable Motorhead and promptly started negotiating how I could take him home with me. Apparently they are not for sale.

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The dog trainers spend four months from May to September living up on the glacier in several not-so-insulated tents with no running water. They return to Juneau once a week to shower and do laundry. They do have a gourmet chef at camp, which definitely enhances the experience but even still, I don’t think I could spend more than one night up there. It may be beautiful but even in summer, it’s too cold for this sun worshipper.

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After returning to Juneau once again by helicopter we all agreed that our first Alaskan adventure had been one for the books. It’s going to be hard to top but I’m always up for the challenge.