Where the Wild Things Really Are: The Top Wildlife Tours
The combination of plentiful wildlife and vast protected zones (Denali National Park alone covers more land than the entire state of Massachusetts) makes Alaska the perfect destination for nature travelers. The 19.5-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America's largest, is probably the finest wildlife-viewing area in North America. Dozens of the major mammal species, including bear, dall sheep, wolves, and caribou, thrive in this vast wilderness, where there are no permanent human settlements. The refuge is the site of one of nature's great spectacles, the annual migration of the 180,000-strong Porcupine caribou herd. Each June, the herd moves northward through the refuge to calving grounds on the Arctic coast.
Traveling by dogsled through the high valleys of the refuge, you will have the chance to observe as many as 23 species of mammals, including wolf, wolverine, arctic fox, musk oxen, caribou, and, in rare ocassions, reindeer.
Described as "something the size of a compact car covered with shag carpet,"the Alaskan brown bear (grizzly) is the largest land mammal in the world. And the best spot in the world to watch Alaskan brown bears is along the banks of the McNeil River in Katmai National Park's Kamishak Bay. During the annual salmon runs, scores of Alaskan browns (part of the grizzly family) come down to the riverbanks to fish and feed. It is not uncommon to see as many as 30 bears in a stretch of just 100 yards. Visitors at McNeil can observe the bears safely from a few yards away. This is due to three factors: the animals are accustomed to being watched, they have not learned to associate humans with food (feeding the bears is strictly prohibited), and the salmon streams are so productive that the bears would rather fish than beg for handouts.
For viewing eagles in the wild, there's no place better than Alaska's Chilkat Valley. Here, more than 3,000 bald eagles gather each year during the November salmon run. A prime aviary habitat, the Chilkat is also home to thousands of swans, terns, cranes, geese, and songbirds. Another major eagle nesting ground is Alaska's Prince William Sound. Along with eagles you'll find peregrine falcons, wild swans, puffins, and more than 270 other bird and mammal species. The best way to see the Sound is by chartering a boat from one of the area's skilled outfitters.
With sunlight almost 24 hours a day, you can pack more wildlife observation into a week that you might think possible. But be prepared for rough weather; situated above the Arctic Circle, the refuge can be cold and inhospitable even in the middle of summer.
If you are anxious to see bears in action, keep in mind that access to the McNeil River is closely controlled by the National Park Service. Only 10 visitors are allowed each day, by permit only. To apply for the lottery-drawn, 4-day permits, contact the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 333 Raspberry Rd., Anchorage, AK 99518-1599, (907) 267-2183. Apply before the March 1 deadline, and cross your fingersthe park service receives an average of 2,000 applicants for 240 permits. But there are local outfitters that can still get you up close and personal with the arctic bear population.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication