You think you know. You think you know how big and grand Alaska is before you go. It is jaw-droppingly huge and beautiful and fierce all at the same time. I had the privilege of going on Nat Hab’s Ultimate Alaska Wildlife Safari, and I took away three highlights:

Nat Hab travelers pose in front of Denali.

Denali or “The Great One”

It’s hard to imagine how the largest mountain in North America can sneak up on you, but it does. It hides in its own clouds and fog and only reveals itself when it wants to. Less than 30% of visitors who snake their way into the backcountry of Denali National Park actually see the mountain. Getting a chance to be a part of that 30% is an adventure in and of itself. We loaded up on a school bus and started the 90+ mile trek to the wild yonders of the park. You’d think that 7 hours on a school bus would be a drag, but we all had our camera lenses out the whole way, looking for wildlife, looking at the mountain ranges, looking at Alaska.

We did not start out being a part of the lucky ones. There had been a lot of forest fires (not close, but in Alaska “close” is relative), and the wind was blowing in our direction, so the mountain was shrouded in smoke, which made it all the more mysterious and frankly, more fickle. Would it reveal itself to us? All we could do was wait.

While we were waiting, we had a great hike around Wonderland Lake, we ate wild blueberries that the bears hadn’t gotten to yet and we learned about the permafrost and how climate change was changing the very squishy ground we were walking on. We kept one eye on the mountain and kept waiting.

You think you’re ready. You think because you’ve seen the pictures, you’ve watched the movies, you’ve talked to the guides…you think you are ready to see the mountain. You come around the turn in the dirt road, and through the trees, you can see hints of sheer white snow, and then there is nothing blocking your view, and you instantly become a part of the 30%. And your jaw drops.

It’s sunset. The mountain is white and pink and gray and blue and reflecting in the lake, and if you could think, all you would be able to think is, “WOW. I. Am. Most. Definitely. Alive.”

Orcas make their way through Kenai Fjords.

Kenai Fjords and the Orcas

The ocean has always fascinated me. The beauty of it, of course, but also the power of it and the wildlife that lives just below the surface. After a lovely evening relaxing on Fox Island, we boarded a privately charted boat the following morning and headed out on the water. The breeze, the puffins and other sea birds, the small splash of the wake, the reflection of the sun—each deep breath was deeper and more fulfilling than the last.

The crackle of the radio indicated there might be a pod of orcas in the area, and the buzz swept through the boat. “Do you see them?” “How about now, on the starboard side? On the port?” “Is that the left or right side I have no idea! Do you see them??”

We heard them.

As they sliced through the water and took a breath and then sliced back under the surface. Then another, and another. In all, we were surrounded by more than a dozen orcas just going out for a Sunday drive. They barely made a ripple before they disappeared. It was almost like they were on a Ferris wheel just coming to the surface for a second and then dipping down again. And around and around they went while we stood and bobbed on the deck of the boat to their rhythm. The water was calm; the orcas were calm; for all of our anticipatory excitement, WE were calm. Yet we were most definitely alive.

A brown bear snatches a fish from Brooks Falls.

The Bears At Brooks Falls

If you have a wildlife viewing bucket list, watching the bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park should definitely be at the top. Taking the floatplane into the lodge you can see bears on the shore, and your heart starts to race—in anticipation, in excitement and truthfully, in a little bit of fear. They are, after all, bears!

Your senses could not be more heightened at this point. And then you see a bear catching a fish at the falls, and you realize that you were not ready, you did not know what your brain or your heart would do the moment you see your first bear.

People talk about out of body experiences and surreal otherworldly experiences—this was one of them. To the point that I put down my camera and just stayed in the moment. I didn’t need to capture this on film because I wanted to capture it in my whole body.

Do you feel safe? Completely. The knowledge of our guide and the set up of camp itself made it so I never once felt fear. I just felt awe.

Do the bears notice you? Not really. When you respect something and act appropriately, they are going to respect you and act accordingly. They were much more interested in the fish than in us.

Do you feel your most alive? Not only did I feel alive, but I felt that the whole world was alive with me. It was a defining and grounding moment that we are all connected. That is what I will bring home from this trip. I’m connected to you, you’re connected to the bears and the fish and the trees and the Earth, and we have the honor and duty to keep those things connected to us.

Nat Hab travelers photograph glaciers in Alaska.

By Laura Capra, Adventure Prep Coordinator at Natural Habitat Adventures. All photos © Laura Capra.