Header image courtesy of Anthony Cox (via Unsplash)
Whenever someone asks me about the best place I have travelled to, my answer is always Anchorage, Alaska. It was not a leisurely vacation or a family trip; in fact, as a 16-year-old at the time, I was scared to travel alone to somewhere completely unfamiliar for a summer programme. Nonetheless, it did not take me long to fully immerse myself in the beauty of Alaska.
From rivers and glaciers to sea otters, Alaska is full of fascinating sceneries and wildlife, but many are now facing threats to their survival due to environmental concerns. Disappearing glaciers, the decline in whale population, and loss of habitat are problems all caused by human actions. “Our land is plagued not by diseases, but by people,” one of the locals told us.
One of the highlights of the trip was being able to witness the breathtaking glaciers of Alaska—layers of compressed snow that crystallise and meld together until they form a gigantic mass of ice. I remember taking a bus from Anchorage to Portage Valley to visit the Byron Glacier. In our puffy jackets and thick gloves, we first hiked on a relatively flat trail while our supervisors introduced us to some basic facts about glaciers.
As the huge ice mass slowly solidifies on the Earth’s surface, it not only contributes to the fertility of the soil for growing crops, but also provides fresh water to many rivers and animals in Alaska. Sadly, excessive greenhouse gas emissions continue to lead to rising temperatures, which have caused a significant loss of glaciers in the past century.
Walking through the forest, you will see Byron Creek with its crystal-clear water, as well as countless cottonwoods and aspen trees along the way. Once you get closer to the glacier, the land becomes rockier. Since it was the summer season, the area was much more hospitable—which means less ice—but it was still exciting to see a glacier up-close.
Byron Glacier rests quietly amongst the mountains and amidst the clouds. Fully embraced by nature, we explored and climbed onto huge rocks and small cliffs before settling down for lunch. Our supervisors asked us to choose a spot to sit alone for some reflection time, so I grabbed a sandwich and enjoyed the quietude away from all kinds of distractions.
We got the chance to visit more glaciers by spending an afternoon on a cruise from Seward. Along the way, you will most likely encounter sea otters and puffins on your journey. If you are lucky enough, you may see a whale swimming around, too!
A professional naturalist on board provided information and gave explanations to the geology and wildlife of Alaska. On this trip, the glaciers we saw were much larger in size, and you will witness them calving—that means splitting and shedding—ice chunks into the sea.
While I thoroughly loved the eye-opening experience, I left the cruise feeling more concerned with the ongoing environmental challenges. Continued glacier disappearance severely impacts the ecosystem, yet many remain unaware of or indifferent about it.
Another unforgettable aspect of my Alaska journey is seeing a great variety of wildlife. We first drove along the highway south out of Anchorage to visit the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre. You can purchase admissions tickets at the door or book on its website.
Entering the site with anticipation, we found yawning foxes, black bears that dig their own hole to sit in, aloof mooses, porcupines, and much more. I was pleased by the centre’s effort to keep the animals away from human interaction while still allowing us to observe their behaviours and learn about them from a close enough distance.
Its staff are also incredibly dedicated to educating people about wildlife protection, hosting multiple events like internship programmes and field trips for the public to join.
We also took a boat out to an isolated island for a three-day camp to explore the marine ecosystem in Alaska. After unpacking our belongings at the cabins, the local research team guided us to the shores for an astonishing tide-pooling experience.
We learned how to identify shell species, record data of diseased starfish, and discover marine animals hiding under rocks. We also saw bears, sea lions, eagles, and sea otters. The island, untouched and undisturbed by the outside world, allows a harmonious space for humans and wildlife to coexist. Although I am not the biggest fan of camping, the time I spent with nature here is an irreplaceable and precious memory of mine.
Alaska is not just glaciers and wildlife—it is also a place full of shimmering beaches, sublime mountains, and rich local culture. My journey in Alaska was exceptional because of the raw encounters with nature and wilderness, where the pace of city living melts away and the overwhelming feeling of natural potential consumes you. My trip has not only left me feeling extremely grateful for the resources that the Earth has provided for us, but also ignited an urge in me to make conscious decisions for the sake of our only home.