Expert Review: Alaska Wildland Collection

November 13, 2017 • Todd Smith

AdventureSmith Explorations Founder & President Todd Smith reviews his Alaska Wildland Collection trip including the Kenai Riverside LodgeKenai Backcountry Lodge and Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge

A black bear walking the grass in Alaska.

“Keep quiet so we don’t disturb the bear,” our guide Chennery implored as we eased toward the trailhead in a large canoe. The black bear was grazing along the intertidal zone in the exact spot we were supposed to beach the canoe and begin our hike. We silently watched for about 15 minutes while the bear fed so close we could nearly hear it munching on beach grass. I hadn’t noticed it had moved when Chennery bluntly stated, “I think we are OK to go ashore now,” with the bear still in plain view. We all gazed at one another wondering what would come next when we stepped ashore alongside Ursus americanus.

The Kenai captures every environment that Alaska has to offer including alpine tundra, boreal forest and temperate rainforest all in one small region.

Our Alaska journey began six days prior when we arrived in Anchorage eagerly anticipating a guided exploration of three premier lodges on the Kenai Peninsula. The Kenai, as Alaskans know it, captures every environment that Alaska has to offer including alpine tundra, boreal forest and temperate rainforest all in one small region. Throw in world-class fishing, whale watching, tidewater glaciers and off-the-grid wilderness lodges and you have the Alaska Wildland Collection trip.

Anchorage & Kenai Riverside Lodge

My family of four, with two kids ages 9 and 13, arrived into Anchorage on Saturday evening, conveniently overnighting near the airport at the Millennial Lakefront Hotel where we would meet our guide at 2:30pm on Sunday afternoon. This gave us Sunday morning to explore downtown Anchorage and visit the Alaska Geographic Bookstore, the Log Cabin visitor center and the Alaska Public Lands visitor center. We had lunch, stocked up on snacks and did some gift shopping at the Anchorage Market  and outfitted ourselves with last-minute supplies at Big Rays. (AdventureSmith travelers are supplied with “Things to Do in Anchorage” guidelines, so my tips will inform the latest version of this guide!)

Our guide Chennery met the group of 14 travelers in the lobby of the Lakefront Hotel, where she introduced herself and led a quick introduction to help us get to know our fellow travelers. We boarded our private shuttle and began the scenic 2.5-hour drive to the Kenai Riverside Lodge. After being shown to our cabins, we relaxed on the huge deck overlooking the Kenai River. Our group dined together, and after dinner Chennery gathered us around a riverside campfire to outline the details for the next week of adventure. 

Upon seeing the beautiful catches at the lodge we grew excited to try our own hand at angling. I encourage travelers to consider upgrading to include fishing prior to arrival.

Regretfully I had not considered that my kids would want to fish. Upon seeing the beautiful catches at the lodge we grew excited to try our own hand at angling. I encourage travelers to consider upgrading your trip to include a day or more of fishing prior to arrival as fishing programs fill up quickly. The best way to guarantee fishing availably is to book in advance. 

Kenai River Float & Paddle

The 17-mile float down the Kenai River from the Kenai Riverside Lodge to the Kenai Backcountry Lodge was a pure joy and a great introduction to Alaskan wilderness. The water was mellow and the scenery grand. No experience is necessary for this river rafting trip with only a couple of exciting class II rapids. Along the way our guide Rob, who is usually a Kenai fishing guide, enlightened us regarding the region’s salmon and trout and their relationship to the wild and free flowing Kenai watershed. The river empties into Skilak Lake where Rob traded his oars for an outboard and motored us across the lake to the lodge. A grand entrance into the Kenai Backcountry.

A group of people in rafts floating down the Kenai River.

Upon arrival at the Kenai Backcountry Lodge, we receive another orientation and a talk about how to behave in bear country. The lodge is rustic and off the grid with cabins set along a small creek that serves as the hydro power source and cooler for sodas and beer. My kids quickly found the ping pong table while we settled into chairs on the rocky beach watching the sun go down over the lake. 

Long July days allow for after-dinner exploration, and our guide obliged with an evening kayak paddle on the lake.

Long July days allow for after-dinner exploration, and our guide Chennery obliged with an evening kayak paddle on the lake. A gentle breeze rippled across the water and the sun poked through the clouds as we scanned the shoreline for bear and moose. A pacific loon’s cry broke the silence and we returned to the lodge entirely satisfied by a day on the water. The sun was still bright in the sky and we had hoped to catch the sunset of Skilak Lake and the Alaska Range until we learned the sun did not set until 11:30pm. We retired to our cabin sleeping to the sounds of the creek. 

Cottonwood Creek Hike

The primary activity at the Backcountry Lodge is a hike up the Cottonwood Trail through several different environments. As advertised, with 2,200 feet of elevation gain, this was one of the longest 6 mile hikes I have ever had. We proceeded through a boreal forest with spruce and cottonwood trees into a dense Dr. Seuss-like twisted hemlock forest and finally into the open tundra of high elevation. Three guides ensured the group could break up, with guests selecting for short, moderate or more strenuous options.

A family holding a flag above at the top of a hill in Alaska.

The low-growing tundra provided fantastic views of Skilak Lake below and the Alaska range one hundred miles in the distance.  The view was worth the effort of the three-hour climb. After a picnic lunch, some adventurous members of our group proceeded even higher to a nearby peak. Back at the lodge we jumped in the icy lake and retreated to the warmth of the sauna before dinner. Always accommodating, the guides offered another paddle after dinner. The evening was exceptionally calm and we were treated to beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains and clouds as the midnight sun warmed the evening.   

Russian River Falls & Rainbow Lake

Leaving the Kenai Backcountry Lodge is much quicker than getting there as we transported by a beautiful aluminum boat 20 minutes across the lake to a ramp and into vans on the Sterling Highway. Today’s hike was shorter and flatter than yesterday, but no less beautiful. The walk, on a well-maintained gravel trail, led to the Russian River Falls, a dramatic cascading whitewater falls where sockeye salmon were beginning to congregate in their effort to reach the spawning lakes and streams above. We had a picnic lunch on a shaded ledge near the edge of the falls hoping a bear might arrive for its lunch at the falls. After returning to the Kenai Riverside Lodge, another, optional activity included a drive along part of the 22-mile-long Kenai Lake to a hike through a boggy forest to the beautiful Rainbow Lake. 

Sockeye salmon swimming upstream to spawn in Alaska.

Kenai Fjords National Park

“Moose!” shouted travelers on the right side of the shuttle. Posing perfectly in a pond on the side of the highway was a moose, but so fleeting was the sighting that only the keenest-eyed guests spotted it. Along the one-and-a-half-hour drive, Chennery advised us to keep our eyes peeled for wildlife while she regaled us with colorful stories from the Kenai’s history. We learned of how Joseph Cooper discovered the first gold in Alaska in 1884, leading to the town of Cooper Landing and of the pioneering Alaska Nellie and her homestead.

Not long after departing Seward, a pod of Dall’s porpoise jumped in our wake and rode the bow.

In Seward we boarded the high-speed catamaran Alaska Wild Lander for a 5-hour cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park and to the Kenai Fjords Backcountry Lodge. Not long after departing Seward, a pod of Dall’s porpoise jumped in our wake and rode the bow. These playful cetaceans look like miniature killer whales with distinct black and white markings. Soon we were viewing a massive humpback whale, harbor seals and sea lions lounging on rocks. Puffins filled the skies and salmon swam below when we were surprised by a pod of orca or killer whales. When it seemed the trip could not get any better the captain positioned the Wild Lander close to the face of the Holgate Glacier and cut the engines. As we floated silently in front of the massive ice wall a hush came over us, with awe was expressed in quite whispers. As we gazed at the immensity of the glacier and surrounding granite walls we could hear only the cry of the gulls, the crack of the ice, the purr of the wind. After a half hour or so my solitude was broken by a crew member handing me a cup of hot soup, which perfectly encapsulates this entire trip – wilderness in style. 

An Orca swimming in Alaska.

Approaching the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge in Aialik Bay, Chennery challenged us to find the lodge. Of course it is a trick because the lodge is not visible from the water. Built on a private inholding within the national park in conjunction with Port Graham Native Corporation and incorporating a strong ecotourism ethic the lodge was purposefully hidden from sight. There is no dock or infrastructure on the shore; the Wild Lander simply drops a landing craft-style ramp right on the beach where guests disembark. Lodge staff transfered our luggage and our guide led us on a 15-minute walk to the lodge. “Bears are frequently seen on this beach and in the tall grass alongside this trail so please stay together.” With mixed excitement and nervousness our group walked to the lodge. 

Blending sustainability and comfort, Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge is among the finest ecolodges I have experienced anywhere in the world.

Upon arrival at the lodge I was astounded by the incredible view of the lagoon and Pederson Glacier, and the wilderness location. “How did they do this?” I asked myself. Blending sustainability and comfort, this is among the finest ecolodges I have experienced anywhere in the world.

After a lodge orientation, which included another bear safety talk, we were led to the lagoon where we board giant canoes that can comfortably accommodate 8-10 people. Our guide Wes quickly had us paddling in unison and we toured the lower lagoon when a black bear was spotted on the far shore. Wes encouraged us to be quiet and we approached silently. “If the bear changes its behavior because of our presence, then we are too close,” Wes explained. It became apparent that the lodge takes great care to live harmoniously with the many black bears that live here, and this was the first of many positive bear encounters we had during our stay.  

Kenai Fjords National Park Exploration

Each day at the Glacier Lodge, guides offered a variety of activities ranging for all ability levels. The evening before, at happy hour, guides explained the next day’s activities and put out signup sheets as space was limited on each adventure. This day we chose the morning kayak paddle on Ailik Bay and the afternoon canoe across the lagoon with a hike to view the Pederson Glacier. Our three-hour kayak excursion departed from the lodge across glassy calm water into a mist that poured off the nearby Aialik Glacier and hung over the bay in wispy threads. We could hear the distant thunder of the glacier calving and see small icebergs in the water as we made our way across the bay to a beach surrounded by high cliffs draped with waterfalls. The mist cleared and on our return we took in full views of the Ailik Glacier five miles farther up the bay. After lunch our canoe trip was interrupted by a bear grazing on the beach blocking our trail to the upper lagoon. Once ashore our guide explained that the glacier stood in this spot as recently as 1920 and that as we walked along the one-mile trail we made our way back in time where the forest was younger and reclaiming the land as the glacier has receded. Each activity is moderately paced with stops to rest but together they make a full day of adventure. We returned to the lodge just in time for happy hour and dinner with views of the glacier through huge view windows.


On this last night of our Alaska Wildland Collection tour Chennery gathered our group together to review the experience. She asked us to share highlights and reflections on how Alaska had impacted us. Responses ranged from the adventurous (hikes, paddles and rafting) to the sublime (scenery, solitude and the hand of God). All agreed that this had been a once-in-a-lifetime trip and Alaska will forever hold a special place in our hearts. Our group was set to have one more half-day adventure before leaving the next day, but our family had arranged to stay an extra night at the Glacier Lodge at the end of the tour. This allowed us to sign up for tomorrow’s full-day activity. Travelers interested in adding an extra day should do so early in their trip planning to ensure availability at this small remote lodge. 

Ailik Glacier Kayak & A Close Bear Encounter

Our extra day would prove to be worthwhile and a highlight of our trip. We signed up for the full-day paddle to the Ailik Glacier. Like our previous kayak, we departed from the beach near the lodge and the morning was misty and calm. Our guide Wes played the role of mother duckling and implored his ducklings to paddle close together, a skill that was required when we arrived at the glacier’s face. We glided by sea caves, sea stars and sea otters on Slate Island before pulling out on a rocky beach. Back on the water we emerged from the island’s shadow and the one-mile-wide face of the Ailik Glacier was revealed before us. Wes led us to within one-half-mile of the glacier’s face. Several huge calvings of ice crashed into the sea echoing thunder across the bay and sending gentle rolling swells under our kayaks. Wes rafted all our kayaks together where we ate an unforgettable lunch among icy wilderness.

A mom and son kayaking near a glacier in Alaska.

The full-day paddle returned us to the lodge mid-afternoon, offering much-needed downtime to relax before dinner. As my wife read and kids played scrabble I ventured beyond our cabin to the shore of the lagoon. Soon I was photographing two black bears with my telephoto lens, one across the lagoon another on a beach perhaps a quarter mile away. Suddenly a third bear emerged around a small rise. It was quite close. Remembering our training I let out a hearty “Hey bear,” which elicits no response from the bruin. Remaining calm I talked to the bear: “It’s okay bear, we’re all good.” I took a few photos and retreated slowly to the deck walkway near my cabin. By then a small crowd had gathered, surprised to see me appear from the direction of the bear. We watched as the bear casually grazed along the beach in front of the row of cabins, made its way toward the lodge where it turned around and returned the way it came. The entire encounter must have lasted 20 minutes and again illustrates the relationship the lodge has with local bears. The bears don’t see the lodge as a source of food or fear, and the people at the lodge treat the bears with respect, trying hard to give them space and not disrupt their behavior. With this mindset, the lodge will ensure positive bear encounters with guests for years to come.

A black grazing near the shoreline in Alaska.

Hikes, Boats & Trains

Our final morning at the Glacier Lodge was bittersweet. We were sad to conclude our journey but ready to begin the next leg (Denali National Park). We opted for the easy nature walk, which winds through the mossy, lichen covered forest near the lodge. Our guide Seyward encouraged us to slow down, take a close look and appreciate the micro elements of this massive landscape. We found tiny flowers, colorful lichens, bear scratches on trees and glacial striations carved into the rocky cliff. We emerged onto the beach and my kids were thrilled to find hermit crabs in the tidepool when yet another bear popped out of the grass above the beach. Seyward gave the bear a calm “hey bear” and it disappeared as quickly as it came. The perfect ending to our stay at the Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge.

The Wild Lander arrived after lunch beginning our journey back to civilization. As we walked the trail to the beach we encountered the wide eyed, eager group just arriving at the lodge. No one speaks, but our nods, smiles and thumbs-up hinted at the special experiences ahead. On the three-hour return cruise to Seward we saw more puffins, whales and otter. We arrived to Seward with plenty of time to catch the 6:00pm Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic to Anchorage. The train was comfortable and relaxing; the scenery was amazing. Many guests will transfer straight to the airport for a red-eye flight home to the East Coast, but we arrived in Anchorage late at 10:30 and transfered to our hotel ready for our next adventure.

A puffin flying by in Alaska.
A whales tail in the ocean in Alaska.
Alaska Railroad train stopped on the tracks.

Having lived, worked and traveled in Alaska for many years I was amazed at how much of Alaska is represented in the Kenai.

Having lived, worked and traveled in Alaska for many years I was amazed at how much of Alaska is represented in the Kenai. The wild Kenai River compares to untamed rivers of the Brooks Range, the alpine tundra is similar to Denali and interior Alaska, the boreal forest and Skilak Lake environments are ubiquitous in polar regions, and the temperate rainforest and glaciers of Kenai Fjords are as dramatic as any in Prince William Sound or Alaska’s Inside Passage. The lodges and guides on the Alaska Wildland Collection help access this wilderness in comfort and style, resulting in an all-encompassing Alaska adventure in only one week’s time. 

For more photos from this trip view my Facebook album on AdventureSmith Explorations’ Facebook Page.

This Alaska tour review was written by an AdventureSmith Explorations crew member. Read all Trip Reviews for more trip reports, or contact one of our Adventure Specialists to learn more about our Alaska trips and Alaska small ship cruises: 1-800-728-2875.

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