Six Ways to Experience Alaska's Waterways
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you envision Alaska’s wild, sweeping landscapes? For many people, it’s snow-capped mountains and glacier-carved fjords—but when it comes to everyday life outside the big cities, Alaska’s rivers, streams and oversea routes are the true lifeblood of the land. Keep reading for just a few of the many ways in which you can enjoy the same intimate connection with Alaska’s waterways that the locals do.
Cruising is the most luxurious way to explore Alaska’s seagoing transport routes—but if you want to do it like a local, you should ride the Alaska Marine Highway ferries. These ships are the literal lifeline for island communities in the Inside Passage and Southwest Alaska, shuttling people, vehicles and cargo that would be impossible to ship by air. Not only does riding the ferry provide a way for you to bring your own car on an Alaska vacation, it also puts you elbow-to-elbow with friendly locals that is, for them, a slice of everyday life. Most Alaska state ferries are also fully equipped with game rooms, observation decks, workstations and galleys, so you’ll be sailing in comfort.
With a day cruise: You might set out to view specific glaciers, watch migrating whales, puffins and other wildlife, or weave through the steep walls of a winding, glacier-carved fjord. Some of the most spectacular places for day cruises include Misty Fjords National Monument near Ketchikan, whale-watching near Petersburg (Inside Passage) or Kenai Fjords National Park (Southcentral Alaska) and Prince William Sound. If you’re strictly sightseeing or fishing, you can sometimes charter fun, fast jet boats to get around; these are also popular in places like Petersburg and Wrangell, and inland destinations such as Talkeetna.
Visit Alaska during the peak salmon runs of July and August, and you’ll find streams rippling with many thousands of salmon. These fish are the cornerstone of life for many Alaska Native cultures, and offer vital nutrition—and sometimes, a source of income—for Alaskans from all walks of life. You’ll find plenty of locals on Alaska’s fish-rich rivers—some of them in the form of massive brown bears intent on fattening up for the winter. And of course there are plenty of saltwater-only species, including “barn door” halibut (so named for their size) that you’ll only find in the deep waters off Alaska’s port towns.
When Alaskans aren’t fishing their state’s pristine waterways, they’re using them as transport corridors. But you don’t need your own boat to get around. You can charter water taxis—small boats that run on demand between a set number of destinations—to take you to isolated seaside communities, fishing spots, public use cabins and trailheads.
If you’re rather travel downstream, Alaska’s float trips range from mild, scenic waterways to pulse-pounding whitewater. The milder floats sometimes come paired with other activities; you could pair a float on the world-famous Kenai River with fishing, take on a epic, multi-day wildlife-watching float in the remote Wood-Tikchik State Park, or paddle amongst icebergs calved off from inland glaciers.
Sea kayaking is one of the most spectacular ways of seeing the rugged beauty of Alaska’s coastline. Traveling Alaska's coastal areas with a guide is the best way to safely navigate the sometimes fast-moving tides. Trips range from paddling among cast-off icebergs from one of the world’s most active tidewater glaciers (near Valdez) to paddling past breaching whales in spectacular Glacier Bay National Park.