Beginner’s guide to Kenai Fjords National Park kayaking trips

You don’t get many opportunities in life to kayak to a glacier, and it’s hard to know if those Insta-worthy photos you see are something that’s actually doable for beginners. Don’t worry – as long as you can follow basic directions and enjoy being on the water, you can do a kayaking day trip in Alaska.

But what if I have the arm strength of a toddler? Won’t I be freezing cold and wet? Is it really even that cool or just Instagram just make it look that way?

You can still do it. Neoprene is a magical material. And yes, 100% yes, it is really that cool.

(Although, disclaimer, my pictures from the kayak don’t look that cool because it was raining and we only had our phones taking photos through a plastic sleeve to keep them dry).

Which trip did you go on?

We booked a trip in late May with Liquid Adventures, which is based out of Seward. Our trip was the Private Boat Ailiak/Northwestern Kayaking trip. I know you’re wondering, so let me just tell you now: Aialik is pronounced ay-EYE-lick.

“Private Boat” doesn’t mean we had the boat to ourselves. It just means that there is a privately contracted boat (Captain Jess RULES) that takes you out to the area where you actually go kayaking. I mean, we basically had the boat to ourselves because we went early season and there were only two other people booked on our trip (normally they have as many as fourteen).

What does a “day trip” involve?

As the name implies, you will be out for the day. If you’re not going kayaking immediately in Resurrection Bay (or whatever body of water is closest to you), you have to get to your kayaking spot first. Our trip involved a few hours boat trip out to Aialik Bay, kayaking around the bay and up to a glacier (the specific one varies based on weather, we ended up getting dropped off in Holgate Arm and seeing Holgate Glacier), eating lunch at the glacier, and then kayaking back.

Our guides at Liquid Adventures were absolutely fantastic. Erin and Josh were super safety-conscious, very knowledgeable about Seward/glaciers/kayaking in general, and a lot of fun to hang out with for the day.

At first, I thought the two-hour boat ride out to Aialik sounded super boring, but assumed it would be worth it for the kayaking part. Thanks to Josh, Erin, and Captain Jess, we had a great time (plus it was fun getting to know the other two people also on the trip). The not-so-fun part was the stormy seas we had, and I started getting pretty nauseous. Erin gave me some tips that made me feel much better, and Jess kindly gave me a break by pulling behind some barrier islands at one point.

What should I wear?

It rained the entire time during our trip, so I had bundled up in all of my warmest layers with waterproof outer layers. If you don’t have waterproof layers with you, you can borrow some from Liquid – the other two on our trip did that and were very happy with how dry they stayed! Josh and Erin gave us kayak “skirts” to keep the water out of the boats and outfitted us with neoprene mitts to put our hands in while we paddled.

Kayaking FASHION. The things around our waist are the skirts – they attach to the boat to form a seal that keeps all the water out when it’s raining (it rained a lot this day).

I was skeptical as to how much the mitts would make a difference, but they were a game-changer. They kept me nice and warm (and relatively dry) for the several hours we were out kayaking. Since you’re exerting a fair amount of energy while you’re paddling, you stay nice and toasty the whole time.

Do I need to know how to kayak?

I’d been kayaking twice before this, and honestly there’s just not that much to it. Although it’s not rocket science, Erin and Josh gave us a really helpful tutorial before we got started, taught us about the boats, and obviously were there along the way if we needed any help.

They also got everything on and off the boat (this looked like a real pain in the ass so I’m glad they did it). Erin and Josh made sure all of our gear and life jackets were on correctly and overall were super professional. They weren’t going to let anything bad happen to us or do anything that was outside of our capabilities (or lack thereof).

The water is really calm where you’re actually kayaking, so it’s not like you’re contending with waves or even much of a current. The wind will make certain directions a little bit more difficult, but that doesn’t have anything to do with your own skills.

If you’re concerned about getting crushed by a giant piece of ice falling off the glacier, that also isn’t an issue. Big waves and small kayaks don’t mix, so the guides don’t take you any closer than 3/4 of a mile or so from the glacier.

And, worst case scenario, you have a life jacket on! But Josh has been guiding paddle trips for years and said he had never had a client flip a kayak. It would honestly be really hard unless you’re REALLY horsing around.

But about my lack of upper body strength…

I said I was going to workout more and get stronger arms before we went to Alaska, but let’s be real, that didn’t happen. So I was nervous. About five paddles in, my arms were on fire and I was like, “Oh god, what have I done?!” Fortunately, I was in a double kayak with Billy (highly recommend having a stronger person in the rear of your kayak) so he could pick up my slack.

At first, we were trailing the others and I was starting to worry about holding everyone up. Then I took a look around and remembered we were all here to experience the stunning scenery. Plus, the other group did get tired eventually and we all evened out pace-wise.

Once you get into looking at wildlife, watching waterfalls pour down the insanely steep cliffs surrounding you, and oh yeah…paddling around freaking GLACIERS, no one is really all that worried about how fast you’re going.

My arms actually started feeling better the longer we were out (once they had warmed up/gotten used to what we were doing) and I ended up being totally fine. I wasn’t even sore the next day!

So what do you do in the kayak?

We saw bald eagles, mountain goats, sea stars, harbor seals, lots of birds, and also learned a ton about the stunning surrounding scenery in addition to just taking it all in. I have never seen anything like Alaska, and it was amazing to experience in real life (even in the pouring 40-degree rain, so that tells you something!). Besides the main show of the glaciers, you’re surrounded by super steep mountains that have waterfalls pouring down them. It’s pretty magical.

Seeing glaciers in real life and learning about the changes Alaska has seen does bring global warming and climate change to life, for better or for worse. But I didn’t feel super depressed/sad about the world. I just felt like I knew a lot more and would continue doing my best to be a good steward of the planet. And, selfishly, I felt incredibly lucky to witness it before things change even more.

Not a bad lunch view.

On days that it’s not pouring rain, you have a boat picnic and eat lunch out on the water (Liquid feeds you and their brownies are AMAZING). Since it was pouring, Jess picked us up a little early and we enjoyed the glacier views from the warm and dry interior of her boat. This was when I really realized that I had actually gotten pretty wet and was the first time I actually felt cold.

That two hour boat trip back sounds like it might suck though…

Things only got better on the way back because the focus is wildlife watching on the water. We saw sea lions, porpoises, and most importantly….orcas. I’m *obsessed* with orcas so this was honestly the highlight for me.

It was still pouring and cold out, plus windy being out on the ocean, and I was out there grinning like a fool watching the orca longer than anyone else. I was *that* person still out there after everyone else was like, “Okay we’ve seen the whale we get it let’s go.” Fortunately our boat captain was also a big wildlife nerd 😉

So incredible!!

Despite (or maybe because of?) our long orca detour, the ride back seemed to fly by. We were pretty exhausted afterward, and getting a “Bucket of Butt” at Thorn’s Showcase Lounge was the perfect low-key dinner before passing out early.

Thorn’s is a glorious dive bar that was recommended to us by our guides. They’re known for really good white Russians (Billy can confirm) and their “bucket of butt” which is fried chunks of halibut. After pairing that with cheesy tots, I was ready for bed immediately after we finished. Billy drove us back to our room at Alaska Paddle Inn and we were down for the evening (by 8 p.m.).

All in all, the kayaking trip was really spectacular and definitely something uniquely Alaska that is still beginner-friendly. I highly recommend it, and if you’re in Seward, go with Liquid Adventures!

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