1. MULTISPORT MADNESS KENAI PENINSULA, ALASKA
This six-day multisport foray will give you a proper introduction to southwest Alaska's 8,000-square-mile Kenai Peninsula. Start with a day of rafting Class II rapids through the Kenai River Canyon, then bunk in the heart of the million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in a Yukon-style tent cabin at the Kenai Backcountry Lodge. On subsequent days you'll hike six miles round-trip through alpine tundra along the Cottonwood Creek Trail, overlooking glacier-carved Skilak Lake, and head to Kenai Fjords National Park, where you'll search for whales, puffins, and sea lions from a 43-foot boat and stay in the solar-powered cabins of Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on Fox Island. Finish with a 12-mile mountain-bike ride on the serpentine Forest Service roads of the Chugach National Forest, near Girdwood. Six-day trips with Alaska Wildland Adventures (800-334-8730, www.alaskawildland.com) cost $2,595 per person. 2. MIRACLES ON ICE VALDEZ, ALASKA
It may be known as the nexus of extreme winter sports, but when summer rolls around, the change of season just means more time to play. Start your Valdez bonanza with a ten-minute helicopter ride to Wortmanns Glacier, where you can explore ice caves and climb the vertical faces of the glacier's snout. Next up, paddle a sea kayak up a tidal river to a 200-foot-tall face of the Shoup Glacier. Encircled by peaks soaring over 5,000 feet, you'll be greeted by an abundance of sea life, wolverines, and bears. Round out the day soaking in a hot tub on a 38-foot sailboatyour home for the night. Later in the week, explore Prince William Sound on a specially designed 17-foot exploratory boat, encountering orca and humpback whales and penetrating the countless fjords, back bays, and lagoons inaccessible to larger craft. Dean Cummings' H2O Heli-Guides (800-578-4354, www.h2oguides.com) runs weeklong customized trips for about $3,000 per person (includes flight from Valdez).
Even if you can't throw down a donkey flipyeta new flotilla of kayaks guarantees you'll have more fun in raging water
REMEMBER WHEN whitewater paddling was all about running rapids? Well, today's action centers around holes and standing waves, and in an effort to squeeze every last drop of fun out of your local hydraulic, the paddle-sports industry is cranking out boats that are impossibly stubby and dramatically more maneuverablea few with surprise add-ons (surfboard fins, anyone?). And while the new designs are edgy, they're also a windfall for recreational kayakers: A once-steep learning curve has seriously flattened.
"People who get in a kayak now are able, in one year, to do playboating moves that took me ten years to learn," says Montreal-based Corran Addison, a designer for Riot. As engineering advances developed for the hole-and-wave crowd begin to show up in big-rapids runners (which still constitute the majority of whitewater rigs sold), gone are the auger-prone bows and sharp, easily flipped edges. These reinvented kayaks can survive Class V whitewater but also turn basic playboating tricks with ease.
Here, then, are three spanking-new river runners that love to surf, spin, and jump; a pair of state-of-the-art playboat designs for expert paddlers yearning to nail an aerial front-flip or an aerial corkscrew (a.k.a. a donkey flip); and a state-of-the-art expedition kayak for those dreaming of remote and epic Class V+. All follow the industry mind-shift toward "a more user-friendly package," says Dagger designer Marc Lyle. In other words, you'll spend more time floating on the river than swimming in it.
McCarthy & Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
3. GIANT MOUNTAIN FUN MCCARTHY, ALASKA
McCarthy, a tiny southeastern Alaska hamlet, is at the end of a 60-mile dirt track that has the dubious distinction of being the worst road in North America. Why risk the stress on your CV joints? So you can get to Ma Johnson's Hotel (doubles $149, including breakfast; 907-544-4402, www.mccarthylodge.com), a renovated historic inn, and a surrounding wilderness the size of Switzerland. First, kick back on Ma's porch, which overlooks the 6,300-foot Bonanza Ridge, then go play in the backyard: 13.2-million-acre Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Still feel too civilized? Pay an outfitter to fly you to a backcountry base camp, like Skolai Pass, the start of 28-mile Goat Trail, which offers views of the 16,000-foot University Range, including the jagged Twa Harpies. Round-trip flights on McCarthy Air (907-554-4440, www.mccarthyair.com) are $200 per person.
4. JUST YOU AND A CANOE YUKON-CHARLEY RIVERS NATIONAL PRESERVE, ALASKA
There isn't a single road into or out of the 2.5-million-acre Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, one of Alaska's least visited parks, but there is an utterly wild riverthe key ingredient for a do-it-yourself canoe trip. Drive to Eagle, about 379 miles east of Fairbanks, rent a boat, and paddle the calm waters of the Yukon River for five days and 160 miles through spruce and birch forests and beneath thousand-foot bluffs, looking for grizzlies and waterfowl. You'll find several public-use cabins (each sleeping four people), maintained by the National Park Service, scattered at intervals along the shore. Haul out at Circle, on the northwest edge of the park, and hit the Arctic Circle Hot Springs, 50 miles away, before catching the floatplane back to Eagle. For $175, Eagle Canoe Rentals (907-547-2203, www.aptalaska.net/~paddleak) will provide a boat that you can drop off in Circle.
Think of the PYRANHA I:3 as a playboat for the people. Our six-foot-one tester was plenty comfortable in the seven-foot-four-inch model; a simple ratcheting thigh-brace system kept the fit snug. The wide planing hull lends stability for easy shots down tough rapids, and the boat's upturned bow makes punching through big holes a cinch. Meanwhile, its swallowtail stern improves responsiveness. Bottom line: The i:3's comforting predictability will help newbies make a smooth transition from banzai river runner to playboater. ($1,095; 828-254-1101, www.pyranha.com)
The new PERCEPTION BLAZE is another multitasking phenom. A high-rockered bow and stern stabilize the Blaze for blasting through technical rapids, and an easy-to-roll hull means less time upside down when the water gets too wicked. Want cartwheels and stern squirts? Find a powerful hole, get vertical, and the boat will go acrobatic. But perhaps the best news is that the largest version of the Blaze accommodates boaters weighing up to 280 pounds, making it a true kayak for Everymaneven the big boys. ($1,099; 800-595-2925, www.kayaker.com)
Named for and, apparently, modeled after those supercool 1980s-vintage action figures, the WAVE SPORT TRANSFORMER boasts removable tips for the bow and stern that customize the boat to the temperament of the river. Shallow holes call for the slim, inch-long bumpers, while the eight-inch tips are designed for cartwheeling in deeper water. Thanks to its flat bottom, the Transformer spins like a top with the slightest of strokes and surfs standing waves as nimbly as a true kahuna. Some paddlers may find it a bit too boxy and tough to roll, but for intermediate kayakers who want to quickly add tricks to their repertoire, the Transformer's hard to beat. ($999; 800-311-7245, www.wavesport.com)
Aulavik National Park & High Arctic Lodge
The arctic fox
7. ARCTIC SAFARI AULAVIK NATIONAL PARK, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
Established in 1992, Aulavik National Park is one of Canada's newest wilderness areas and one of the most wildlife-dense places on the planet. Covering nearly one-fifth of Banks Island, the westernmost point in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, the park covers 4,739 square miles of windswept tundra that fosters more than 150 plant species, arctic fox, and some 80,000 musk oxen. Spend 15 days paddling collapsible kayaks 90 miles north on the Thomsen River to the Arctic Ocean, camping on the riverbanks, and hiking to scattered Inuit sites. Whitney and Smith Legendary Expeditions (403-678-3052, www.legendaryex.com) runs 15-day trips for $3,995 per person.
8. THE BIG CHILL HIGH ARCTIC LODGE, NUNAVUT
There's no hyperbole in the name High Arctic Lodge. Three hundred miles above the Arctic Circle on Victoria Island, the bright-red cabin has room for only 12 people, guaranteeing a low-impact, high-solitude vacation. Spend your days looking for polar bears and seals or hiking through the fragile tundra to ancient tent rings and food caches left by the Inuit. Bring a rod and fish nearby Hadley Bay, where many a guest has landed a 25-pound silver char. Since you've traveled this far, a flightseeing tour over the Arctic Ocean is a must: Watch icebergs slough off the edge of the polar ice cap and splash into water so pure it tastes like Perrier. Take a closer look by canoeing the Nanook River, a calm, shallow ribbon of fresh water. Seven-day packages at High Arctic Lodge (800-661-3880, www.higharctic.com) start at $3,595 per person.