A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
Oceans and rivers tap into our deepest fears of the deep, unknown and unyielding, but we go to them anyway. Some of us turn to mush in their wake while others whine, back away or only stick a toe in the cold waters of Alaska.
Paddling companies know this. Not any one trip suits everyone's temperament, timeline and pocketbook, so they offer many, from serene, two-hour float trips on quiet creeks or bays to outings on raging currents along rocky coastal beaches or rabid rivers.
"Someone who is indoors all the time might not be tolerant of the elements," said Jim Gonski, owner of Alaska Kayak Academy (www.AlaskaKayakAcademy.com , 1-877-215-6600).
"Some people are up for the challenge while others will whine. You have to be careful who you put out there when you've got a lot of hours on the water."
Families with young children probably want a short, mild trip, while big-shot executives with three days of meetings may want to burn stress with an all-day thrill of a lifetime. Let's face it: Some people just don't like to feel too exposed, too close to urban centers, too remote, too untested, too tired, too wired, too bored, too scared or too anything, but paddling can potentially do all that in an hour's time.
Who knew that running a paddling company meant understanding how to attend to group dynamics and personality traits? Well, any guide with an iota of experience does.
Chuck Spaulding of NOVA (www.novalaska.com , 1-800-746-5753) certainly has experience. His company got into the business nearly 30 years ago and was the first to do commercial trips on Sixmile Creek ($90 to $135), a Class V waterway with gnarly canyon rapids.
"So why should people consider paddle boating trips if their schedule is already full?" he asked. "Well, if they can't fit it in, they will never experience the true essence of our water world. If they weren't interested in the first place, then it's all the better for the rest of us. This activity - especially up here - should not evolve into cattle-hauling zoos. I realize it is already that way to some extent in certain places, but the difference in experience is huge when you can participate in an active sport such as paddling with a small group while soaking up all this beauty and character."
Jay Doyle used to own a part of Nova, too, but now runs the Chugach Outdoor Center (www.ChugachOutdoorCenter.com, 1-866-277-RAFT) in Hope, which does white-water trips on Sixmile Creek ($100 to $150) and several float trips on the small, fast-moving waters of Granite Creek and Resurrection River (around $69).
"These creeks are not the thrills of Sixmile, but they're beautiful," he said. "What we're really trying to do is have choices for everyone."
Though Chugach will do multi-day trips, most of its runs last anywhere from a few hours to a half-day. The company can also set up trips from Prince William Sound to Denali through ownership associations with Nenana Raft Adventures (www.alaskaraft.com , 1-800-789-RAFT) and Alaska Sea Kayakers (www.AlaskaSeaKayakers.com , 1-877-472-2534).
Gonski covers almost as much territory through his Southeast-based academy that does everything from indoor kayak training and water polo in Anchorage to lake, glacier, river and ocean training and guided trips. People without a lot of time can still paddle their own inflatable kayak on white water or do a popular day trip that includes a glacier trek and lake paddle in the Matanuska River Valley ($145 or $165 with shuttle service from Anchorage).
Right now, though, he sounds most excited by a remote, three-day package geared toward intermediate paddlers who want a kayaking vacation. The trip would include camping in tents on platforms at the Port Ashton Lodge on Evans Island in Prince William Sound between Whittier and Seward (www.portashtonlodge.com).
By heading out farther in the Sound, paddlers will visit a sea lion haulout, head to bays with wildlife and glaciers, and spend long hours on the water without needing a lot of experience in the area. The trip costs about $300 a day with meals and all vehicle and boat transportation included.
Look at it this way, said Gonski, "You'll get a hot shower and flushing toilet but still camp and feel as if you're roughing it." Transportation to and from Alaska rivers and bays matters just as much as any other consideration. Most companies set a meeting point and tell customers how to get there, but many can arrange a shuttle or ride.
Even the Alaska Railroad has gotten into the paddling business through packages with rafting companies. They offer several rail-raft packages (www.akrr.com , 1-800-544-0552), but if folks have only a day in Talkeetna, Trisha Costello suggests they hop on the flagstop train called the Hurricane Turn and ride back to Talkeetna on the Susitna River ($156).
"You take the flagstop up the tracks, get off in the middle of nowhere, only to be met by rafts and guides," said Costello, owner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse (www.talkeetnaroadhouse.com ). "The way home to Talkeetna is on the river. That's how I'd spend my one day here." For a day of sea kayaking, many paddlers recommend Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park out of Seward. People can paddle straight from Seward or grab a water taxi to one of the bays or islands nearby, taking a day or more to explore the coastline, said Rick Brown, one of the organizers of the educational Seward Sea Kayaking Symposium, which will run from May 17 to 21 (www.sea expoalaska.com).
Just a short paddle from Lowell Point in Seward, Caines Head has camping sites, food lofts and outhouses along with foot access to Fort McGilvery, an abandoned U.S. Army post with splendid views of Cape Resurrection. State and private cabins pockmark the area too, making overnight trips easy and the options vast and varied - from heading on a short boat ride to Fox Island to hauling out to Aialik Bay, one of the best kayaking spots in the state. Nova's Spaulding tags the Kenai Canyon as the best river trip for people who want to avoid a lot of froth and calls Lions Head along the Matanuska Glacier one of the best for people doing white water for the first time.
"For serious participatory rafting, Sixmile Creek has got it all, from Class IV to V," he said.
Whatever anyone says about the beauty and serenity of the sea or wide, rangy rivers, we really seek the thrill of waves, wind, torrent and danger - knowing it lurks underneath, and knowing we might paddle over it, through it, around it or straight into it.
Freelance writer Dawnell Smith lives in Anchorage.
- A Sound decision: Kayaking on Prince William Sound is one of the best day trips or extended trips in Alaska. Kayaking among icebergs from a glacier is an exhilarating experience not to be missed.
- Wild water: Sixmile Creek south of Anchorage has some of Alaska's best white water. The cold, clear-water creek boasts Class V rapids. If you're up for adventure, this is the place. And the drive to Hope is stunning too.