Adventure Travel In Alaska: Going Off the Map
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Adventure Travel In Alaska: Going Off the Map

May Klisch says she was “gobsmacked” by how quickly her shy daughter Jacqueline turned into an adventurer during her Off the Map: Alaska trip. She pointed to the photos and videos Jacqueline brought back from the program, noting that they were stunning and showed how much the students got out of the journey.

“We could see that it was a physically challenging experience for her and her tripmates, but at the same time we saw the elation and determination on their faces,” Klisch said “The scenery and landscape is unparalleled.”

For nearly two weeks Rustic students are immersed in this breathtaking nature during the program. The teens camp in remote regions, seeing mountains, glaciers, wildlife, and waterways. U.S. Country Director Gage Mace says these moments make this program his favorite.

“It provides the most moments of awe. I think it really gives you perspective. It gives you grit. For some it takes them out of their comfort zone and makes them more comfortable being there,” Mace said.

To get all these benefits, students journey into Alaska’s wilderness right from the start.

Visiting the Nation’s Largest Parks

The program begins in the 6-million acre Denali National Park, which has North America’s tallest mountain and is the country’s third largest park. There students have their first opportunity to catch glimpses of untouched wildlife.

They may see moose, elk and migrating caribou, golden and bald eagles and many other types of animals. When the students take a lengthy bus tour of the inner parts of Denali, they may see grizzly bears as well. These more remote areas of the park are only accessible by bus or on foot.

While in this region of Alaska, the students watch a sled dog demonstration. National Park Service rangers explain the history of the sled dogs, show how they are hitched and then demonstrate how the dogs pull the sled.

After two days in Denali the students head east to a river where they take a 45 minute jet boat ride to a remote camp near MacLaren Glacier. Their campsite is in a beautiful region by a glacial lake.

After spending time in this remote area, the teens head off to the nation’s largest national park – Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which includes 13.2 million acres. Mace says one of the highlights of the park visit is a tour of the remote old mining towns of McCarthy and Kennecott, which are only accessible by foot bridge and are hours into the wilderness.

Kennecott is a National Historical Landmark. When it was in operation, workers mined tens of millions of dollars of copper ore at the site.

Near Kennecott is the Root Glacier, where students walk across the glacier and ice climb. They’re given gear, including crampons to put on their feet and can try climbs of varying difficulty on the ice cliffs. After climbing up, they rappel back down and drink pure glacial water to keep hydrated.

While in the park, the students also try pack rafting. This involves carrying an individual inflatable raft in a backpack that can be pulled out when reaching just the right spot. This allows rafting in areas without boat launch points. Rustic students pack raft in a pool at the foot of a glacier, cruising around ice chunks in the water.

During this time, students also work on backcountry skills before heading back on the road for what Mace says is the best part of the trip for many students – white water rafting on the Matanuska River. The level 3 and 4 rapids are intense, but exhilarating.

Afterwards, it’s time for students to see a different Alaskan environment.

Heading Out to Sea & Across an Icefield

After white water rafting, the students travel south to the coastal fishing town of Seward. There the landscape changes with jagged mountains alongside the shoreline and ocean waters with fluctuating tides of 20-feet or more.

The teens take a boat in the Kenai National Fjords where they see humpback whales, orcas, puffins, salmon and other migrating sea life.

Wildlife thrives in Alaska in July when the weather is warmer with highs in the 60s and about 20 hours of daylight daily. The fact there is so much wildlife in Alaska is one topic of discussion during the trip.

“The abundance of life is what sets it apart from most experiences because everything is thriving,” Mace said.

Other talks center on sustainability and climate change, which is a central focus during a visit to the Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier.

The Harding Icefield hike is considered one of the top ten hikes in the world according to many lists. The Exit Glacier in the icefield area got its name for serving as the place where a team completed the first recorded crossing of the Harding Icefield in the 1960s. Ten people attempted the crossing during that expedition, but only four made it across. It took them eight days to complete the journey.

Today the Exit Glacier shows the dramatic effects of climate change. Mace says the roadway leading to the glacier’s parking lot is lined with signs that show how far the glacier extended in the past. The first sign has a date in the 1800s. You have to drive for miles to reach the next marker from the early 1900s and miles more to get to signs with dates later in the century.

“It really shows you how much the glacier has receded in just 30, 40, 50 years so I think that is the most stark example I’ve ever seen of climate change,” Mace said.

Making Connections

Mace says the students work on leadership skills during the program, which can help them combat the human impact on the environment or any other cause they are passionate about. This personal growth happens while trying even small things, such as making food while camping or recognizing how Native Alaskans lived off the land.

Along the way, many students also make close friends while trekking through the wilderness.

Tristan Grosam found this when she traveled to Alaska with Rustic in the summer of 2021. She became friends with a fellow traveler named Ashleigh. After the trip, Grosam traveled to Wyoming to go paragliding with Ashleigh. Grosam says this type of friendship is possible because of the way the Rustic programs are run.

Grosam says traveling with teens her age on a Rustic trip is a “totally different experience” than the many trips she has taken with her family to all 50 states. Grosam says she clicked quickly with the other students on her Alaska program.

“They were strangers, but we became such good friends,” Grosam said. “It’s so cool to see how quickly that happened – you just met at the airport and next thing you know they’re cheering for me as I climb a glacier.”

This experience isn’t unique. Alexandra Agnew who traveled with Rustic to Alaska back in 2017 had a similar journey. She embraced everything the Off the Map program had to offer – from the adventure activities to the friendships.

“I did so many activities that I would have never done on my own,” Agnew said. “Each activity took me out of my comfort zone, allowing me to become confident. I made many lifelong friends that I know I will keep in touch with. Overall, I just loved my trip.”

If you’re traveling to Alaska for the first time, here’s a helpful travel guide for beginners:

For more details about the Alaska program, view the itinerary here.


About the Author

Scott Ingram

Scott is the Director of Admissions at Rustic Pathways. He has spent the last 15 years in the student travel and experiential education world. Before helping families find the perfect Rustic Pathways program, he led gap year programs that took students around the world and spent three years teaching English in Japan.