by Danielle Benson
While Alaska is an ultimate family vacation destination, it is also ideal for resident families looking for a limitless supply of staycation ideas. My “AK To-Do List” is always growing, and I’m confident I’ll never get to see and do everything, but not for lack of trying.
This summer the nuggets and I crossed several fun adventures off of our list, but one favorite was the Spencer Iceberg and Placer River Float with Chugach Adventures. This half-day trip south of Anchorage combined a quick train ride on the Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train, a stroll through the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, iceberg exploration and a float down the beautiful Placer River. This experience hit all the good stuff.
We met up with Ari Stiassny, co-owner and operator of Chugach Adventures at the Portage station, across the Seward Highway from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in the early afternoon. After filling out paperwork and confirming we had the necessary gear, we loaded up on the iconic Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train, for a quick, 20-minute trip, and I was reminded that we need to try to ride the train more often. For the nuggets and I, this was a special part of the trip, as the magic of riding the Alaska Railroad never seems to wear off.
We hopped off the train at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, a unique bit of Alaska wilderness only accessible by train. The Whistle Stop had restrooms, a public use cabin and campsites available, as well as a hiking trail to the glacier. Chugach Adventures took wonderful care of guests of all ages, and shuttled us down the bumpy, lumpy road in buses and vans. While guides prepped the rafts, we explored the shoreline and examined small pieces of ice that bobbed along the beach.
Next it was off to the safety briefing. After everyone’s vest was issued and checked for a snug fit, we climbed into the rafts and pushed off to enjoy the iceberg-filled glacier lake. The kids were in awe as Ari informed us that while the glacier looked enormous from our seats in the raft, it was still about a mile away from. He pulled alongside many icebergs, and let the kids explore the texture and creaking cracks. We learned that only 10% of the iceberg was visible, with 90% remaining under the surface of the water, and watched icebergs bob and roll in the lake. Ari patiently answered all questions my kids had about the area, the glacier and the icebergs. Their favorite tidbit was Ari’s retelling of the Spencer Glacier Legend. The story goes that Spencer Glacier is named after a railroad worker, Bill Spencer, who mysteriously disappeared in 1906 with a box of gold that to this day is still missing.
The tour continued on with a picturesque float down the beautiful Placer River. While the raft splashed along the flowing water, the trip was calm enough for even small adventurers, as long as they sit safely for the 2-hour journey. We marveled at the mountains and lost count of the number of waterfalls we spotted tumbling down the peaks. The scenery is typical Alaska…simply jaw dropping.
After 7 miles of blissful floating, we pulled over to the bank of the river, and climbed out of the raft and up the small incline to meet back up with the railroad tracks. The nuggets were not fully convinced that the train would actually stop for us, since we basically waited on a gravel riverbank in the middle of the wilderness.
It was one of our most unique Alaska experiences to date. The Alaska Railroad engine roared up the track and stopped next to our pile of adventurers. A smiling conductor popped into the doorway, lowered the stairs, and placed a step stool in the rocks to welcome us back on board. We were back to the Portage Train Stop about 20 minutes later happy, invigorated and with an afternoon’s worth of amazing experiences.
Ari said he would love for as many children, particularly those living in Alaska, to come and see the Spencer Glacier while it is still visible. Ari said the glacier has been noticeably receding since he’s been exploring the area over the past decade and is worried it will no longer be as easily accessible in the future as it is right now.
This is a fantastic “end of summer” adventure for all families. Chugach Adventures runs the float tour until September 19th in 2016, and the area is even more magnificent as the fall colors start to paint the landscape. Get out there and enjoy the last few weekends of summer before the fun of fall begins.