Alaska’s Secret Safari

Alaska’s Secret Safari

The AWCC is a little-known goldmine for wild animal viewing By: Chris Batin
Visitors to the AWCC get up-close views of Alaska’s big-game animals. // © 2013 Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Visitors to the AWCC get up-close views of Alaska’s big-game animals. // © 2013 Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

The Details

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

For several years now, I have driven by the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), located south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway, near Girdwood, while heading to other tourist destinations. Trees hide much of the center from the main highway, and besides a few wood bison in the distance and a business sign, tourists could miss it.

One day this summer, I decided it was time for a visit. Counting 11 cars waiting to purchase tickets, I wondered how a few critters could draw this much attention.

I parked at the large visitor and interpretive center and chose to see what the center’s two-mile, gravel-road loop had to offer.

It wasn’t long before I realized how much I had been missing over the years. This was no zoo. It was a sanctuary.

A large bull moose was eating brushy saplings placed at a feeding station, about 15 feet from the edge of its fenced enclosure. I eased up to the fence, and slid my zoom lens through the links to get a close-up photo of a bull moose I would have difficulty obtaining in the wild. Along the observation trails, other guests scurried to see other moose, while kids giggled over baby bison and other visitors raced to get a close-up view of a black bear. The Bear Boardwalk allows viewing without obstructions — bringing tourists on a nearly eye-to-eye level with the bruins yet kept safe with height and distance.

The center is a rehabilitation and educational facility for orphaned or injured animals. Those animals that can’t be released into the wild upon recovery remain as permanent residents. Species vary but include moose, bear, caribou, muskox, elk, wood bison, lynx and birds of prey. Visitors can walk or drive to most any destination along the course. Guided tours are also available, as well as special wildlife programs throughout the day.

A highlight of any Alaska visit is to see wildlife and, for the most part, it’s the luck of the draw. At AWCC, the animals wander in their spacious free-range enclosures, which eliminates a “zoo” setting, especially with Alaska’s Chugach Mountains looming above everything. While there are downsides to the center — including power lines in the background, a bit of highway noise, lots of fencing and construction on a new habitat — the visitors I observed didn’t seem to be bothered. They were able to watch animals up close and get the photos they wanted. Agents should ask about special behind the scenes tours that allow visitors additional interaction with the center’s wildlife (which run about $100 per person).

This is your client’s best bet for getting photos of Alaska big-game animals, with a guarantee of seeing wildlife in an open-range setting. And, for $12.50 admission per person, it is one of the best deals in Alaska.

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