In early June of this year (2017), my wife (able-bodied) and I (post-polio) travelled to Alaska. As many of us know, traveling while using a power wheelchair can be like planning a trip to Mars what with all the details to be sussed out and having triple redundancy plans. The lynchpin of the trip, for which we had no backup, was having a w/c accessible van with hand controls and a driver’s side power seat waiting for us at the airport in Anchorage. (You might have noticed that most places that rent w/c accessible vehicles annoyingly and inexplicably don’t allow the disabled person to drive.) Pat Delia at Alaska Mobility had no issues with setting the van up for me to drive, but he did have us worried what with his slowness in responding to our questions.
But we took a chance, and he was there waiting for us at the airport with a brand new vehicle. We drove directly to Seward, Alaska, a drive where we two Floridians spent most of the time yelling “look at that” out our windows, and stayed at the Harbor360 Hotel. The room was accessible for me (roll-in shower). The next day was my 65th birthday and I spent it exploring the town via wheelchair, driving the three miles to Exit Glacier where there’s an accessible trail, and recovering from jetlag. I was recouped by the next day for our excursion with Kayak Adventures Worldwide. (If you don’t kayak, Major Marine Tours has some large, accessible sightseeing boats.) Our tour was a two-hour trip out in a small water taxi that hugged the shores and stopped for seals, humpbacks, and orcas. Dall’s porpoises followed along in our wake.
At one point, as the orcas surrounded us, the captain dropped a hydrophone into the water so we could hear their vocalizations. Then we got into tandem kayaks and spent three easy hours out on the water, the highlight of which was the Aialik Glacier. We maneuvered around floating chunks of ice that rocked as they melted, and if you listened closely, you could hear the popping sound as pockets of ancient air were released. Yes, we were breathing air from hundreds of years ago. As we arrived close to the glacier, we could hear the deep thunder of ice shifting and see the massive sprays of water as segments calved. Then it was back to the boat and a two-hour trip home that was extended when we stopped to see the spectacle of humpback whales bubble net feeding. (Look it up on YouTube!)
Here’s how I managed that boat/kayak trip. I brought my ancient manual wheelchair with me as checked luggage. Even though I was also gate-checking my power chair, the manual went free. (I went to my local w/c service place to get the cardboard boxes that wheelchairs are delivered in to use as packaging.) I talked at length with the Kayak Adventures Worldwide staff about things like being carried and the width of the boat’s bathroom (too narrow, but they had a plank for a transfer board). We had a plan. My wife and I, like people are, were given a personal guide who it turns out had also talked to the staff about how they should only do what I told them to. So I controlled how my manual chair and I were lifted and where they should set me down. They were strong, experienced with carrying heavy things on rocking boats, and after I told them not to grab or touch me, but rather hold the w/c steady when I transferred, not a one of them even reached out. This was a first in my experience.
The next day, we drove the three and a half hours to Homer, Alaska where we were to spend the week. We stayed at Land’s End Resort out on the Spit. (No roll-in shower but a bathtub with a big, sturdy bath seat set inside). I needed a few days to recover my energy after the kayak trip, so we spent time just staring out our hotel room window at the Kenai Mountain Range and watching sea otters float by on their bellies. There were also plenty of shops to visit. By the third day, we were ready for our next kayak trip, this one included camping overnight on Tutka Bay.
True North Kayak Adventures changed up their usual procedures and had their water taxi take us directly to the campsite so we could kayak from there as much or as little as we wanted. You’d think it was the warnings about bears and giant mosquitoes or kayaking in really cold water that might have been the disconcerting part of the trip, but it was the trip backwards down the ramp to the docks. Homer has 18-foot tides, and we left at low tide, so that ramp was long and scary steep. But our guide managed it all safely. Spending the night, eating food prepared by our guide that included the seaweed and clams she’d foraged as we kayaked, and watching whales in the distance was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. Especially since, as great as it was, this was the trip where I decided that sleeping on the ground (even though they’d included extra cushy pads at my request) wasn’t something I was going to do anymore.
The rest of the time in Homer I rested or we wandered through the town going to museums and art galleries. Then it was the five-hour drive back to the airport in Anchorage and the flight home.
Here in Florida we have so very many beautiful places to visit in the natural world, but to get from one to the other it’s mostly freeways or roads lined with strip malls. In Alaska, every part of a drive was exciting. You’d come upon lakes layered with mist, moose alongside the road, snaking rivers, and everywhere, close and in the distance, mountains. We chose to travel in one, small (for Alaska) area rather than try to hit all the big tourist sites like Denali or take a cruise. That worked for us. It preserved my energy and enthusiasm and allowed us to make our own choices.
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