From the rear of a two-person kayak, I looked at the back of my 14-year-old daughter, Colly, who sat in front and paddled steadily through Resurrection Bay in the Kenai Fjords National Park south of Anchorage. The rubber outwear that covered my clothing remained wet from a downpour, but the storm clouds had lifted to reveal the backdrop of Alaskan coastline. Craggy glacial peaks framed the bay, and ribbons of water cascaded down the cliffs with a tinkling sound. We spotted Alaska’s version of starfish clinging to rocks, and roly-poly, orange-beaked puffins bobbing nearby.
My husband, Morgan, and 11-year-old son, Kyle, paddled in another kayak, along with three other sets of parents and their kids who ranged in age from 9 to 14. This was Day One of our Kenai Peninsula tour with Austin Lehman Adventures. We’d already seen the verdant, bear-filled countryside from Anchorage to Seward while riding in the Alaska railroad, then spotted humpback and orca whales on a boat ride from Seward to Fox Island.
What more could we see in a single dazzling day of travel?
“Bald eagle!” someone yelled, and we looked up to spot an eagle the size of a small dog dive-bombing the water. From the ocean it grabbed a fillet of fish in its beak—a gutted, skinned strip tossed from a fishing boat—and swooped right over our heads before landing on the island at our side. We paddled closer to the rocky shore. The eagle, in perfect view only about 30 feet from us, started pecking at its catch and looking annoyed as a couple of crows approached to steal a bite. The eagle hopped away with the fish stuck on its talon like meat pierced through a skewer. From our kayaks, we watched this live, up-close show of wildlife open-mouthed, mesmerized.
An hour earlier, I almost made the mistake of skipping this kayaking trip in favor of a nap. Rain was pouring down on our woodsy cottage situated on the island’s rocky beach, and my belly felt comfortably full from a gourmet lunch. I wanted to crawl into the cushy linens on our bed at the Fox Island Kenail Fjords Wilderness Lodge.
But, this being a “family adventure tour,” I felt compelled to stick with the group itinerary. After all, that’s a main reason we signed up for a tour: to get the most we could out of the week, and to do things we wouldn’t or couldn’t organize and execute individually. This day and the days that followed proved to our family that being with a group really does have advantages, especially as it resulted in us doing and seeing far more in six days than we would have on our own.
Generally speaking, we’re not “tour people.” When our family traveled around Europe, we avoided large tour groups with their perfunctory guides who march along waving a flag so the group can spot them in the stifling crowd. And in Alaska, we felt sorry for the large groups of travelers—often looking bored or tired—herded off cruise ships for a cursory tour of the port towns.
This tour in Alaska was different: small, high-end and a whole lot of fun. First of all, we didn’t travel by bus. Our group of six adults and six kids fit into a passenger van driven by our two outdoorsy twentysomething guides who were highly competent and well organized. The van’s roof rack held bikes for all of us, and it pulled a storage trailer with gear and picnic supplies. We didn’t know the other people in our group ahead of time, but thankfully we all hit it off and had a good time together.
In addition to kayaking and boating, we hiked glaciers, biked through a beautiful valley, ate great meals and got up close with wildlife. On one day when I chose to take a run through a forest, Morgan splurged and took the kids on a helicopter ride and dog sledding adventure (a pricey add-on, which is why we chose for just one adult to go, but well worth it for the kids’ unforgettable experience).
One of the best things about the trip, from my perspective as a parent, was seeing my kids go farther out of their comfort zone to experience the outdoors, thanks to the presence of other kids on the tour, than they probably would have if it were just the two of them with us. Case in point: on Day Three we embarked on a challenging 8-mile hike up Exit Glacier near Seward, a fast-receding glacier that probably won’t be there in a generation’s time. The trail took us all the way up to the vast white expanse of the Harding Ice Field.
Both my kids typically complain when Morgan and I take them on hikes (or, as they call them, “forced marches”) when we’re on vacation. But they were game for this hike with the group. We ascended tough, rocky single-track switchbacks overlooking the river valley and glacier. Midway up, our guide Aubrey surprised us with hot cocoa prepared from Thermoses full of hot water.
Recognizing that Kyle and the other younger child in the group were growing weary at the rest point, the other guide, Pam, took the two kids back down and into town for a special visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center. Meanwhile, my daughter Colly joined the three other 14-year-olds in the group to go all the way to the trail’s summit. It was by far the most challenging hike she had ever been on, and though she was gasping for breath, she had a look of accomplishment and awe when we reached the top. On the way down, the four teens glissaded on the snow and raced each other in a way that made the experience many times more fun than hiking with just their parents.
Our tour ended on a high note with two nights in the ski town of Girdwood, at the Alyeska Resort (where the kids loved the indoor swimming pool and we grown-ups loved having the tour guides supervise them so we could have some time without kids). During the summer season, the ski runs lead to a wonderful network of trails. My special treat to myself was taking a run up the Winner Creek Trail and crossing a river gorge using a hand tram all by myself.
We had one dinner out in Girdwood without the group and had fun at the New Orleans-style Double Musky Inn, which doesn’t take reservations, so plan to go early to put your name in. I took the shuttle into town an hour ahead of Morgan and the kids and enjoyed the bar scene until they arrived and our table was ready. Beware of the giant portion sizes and crowded scene. I’m not a fan of Cajun-style food, but this sure was tasty.
Finally, if ever you find yourself near Girdwood, don’t miss visiting the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where we saw many great animals native to Alaska.
We took this trip last August and just got the Austin Lehman Adventures 2013 catalogue in the mail. In addition to family tours, they run tours for adults only and visit many destinations around the globe. We’re seriously considering another family trip. Peru … Turkey … Montana … they all look amazing, and I hope to do another in the coming year or next. They’re not easy to afford, however; the family vacations range from $2000 to $4000 per adult, depending on destination, which includes food, lodging and all activities, but does not include air fare to and from the host city. But I’d say it’s worth it for the quality of service and experience you get. We have no regrets about our Alaska trip and would rank it among our best family vacations ever.