Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Alaska In Review

Only a month and a half from the end of our RV adventure and 6 states to go, we didn't know if we could muster the time or energy to plan such a trip as Alaska!  But with our RV still in the shop (needing water pump repair & at least 10 more days for our new front windshield to be shipped), we figured our motorhome storage would be "free" and tickets from Salt Lake would be more reasonable than from KC.  Rather than try to put off our last state until next summer, we decided to go for it… so we booked and completely planned our Alaskan dream trip in FIVE stressful days!  Seriously, last minute booking to Alaska in June is NOT easy… after dozens & dozens of phone calls & email requests for lodging and hours of research on what to do once there, we finally settled on our destinations.  
From Colorado, we drove back to General RV in Salt Lake to unpack, repack & catch our flight! 
Our 9:40pm flight took 4 hours, landing us in Alaska at 2:00am our time… er, Utah time (always confused, I've kept my watch on KS time all year!)  And the craziest thing happened… during the last hour of our flight, light started shining through the windows!  And then having daylight on our drive to our hotel in Anchorage… at 2:30am!!  We were only in Anchorage for the night's (morning's?) sleep and then made our four-ish hour drive to Denali, finding this coffee shop along the way:)

We couldn't seem to escape Walmarts… even in Alaska!
LOVED seeing these signs we'd never see at home!  On the look-out!
We stopped for lunch in the super-cute town of Talkeetna- an authentic Alaskan pioneer town with the one block main street lined with shops & restaurants in old log cabins & historic buildings.  Talkeetna is known as the base to expeditions to Denali (like flights to climb Mt. McKinley).  We instead opted for fresh halibut fish-n-chips, caribou chili & a caribou burger at West Rib Pub & Grille.

As we continued our drive toward Denali, we could see already that this was a state like no other.  We were in complete awe at the sights before us...

…and a bit shocked by the near $5/gallon price of gas!

And finally to our sweet little cabin tucked right in the midst of the pines:)  We settled in, picked up some reindeer sausage pizza, and hit the sack by 10pm (wearing eye masks to block out the sun, of course!)

In unfamiliar places, we always love stopping first into the national park visitors centers.  It's a great way to quickly find the best sights to see… and to find ranger-led programs, which we also enjoy.  We decided on a ranger-led hike to Horseshoe Lake, a shuttle to the sled dog kennels, and then a 15 mile loop drive through part of the park, looking for wildlife!

We spotted a snowshoe hare on our hike… look for pink ears in the center of the photo
Moose droppings everywhere!!
Horseshoe Lake
Signs of beavers!
While visiting the sled dog kennels, we were able to pet the huskies and watch a sledding demo.  In the winter, these dogs help to patrol the inner 2 million acres of park wilderness where mechanized vehicles are prohibited.

We spotted caribou on our drive home!
Mailing our taxes from Alaska:)

Only in Alaska...
Denali National Park, established in 1917, covers over six million acres of Alaskan wilderness and only one single road runs through the park.  The road is 90 miles long (only the first 15 miles are paved!), and a bus system provides visitors with access to this landscape that has never been harvested or plundered.  With 39 species of mammals, nearly 170 species of birds, 10 types of fish, and one lone amphibian (the wood frog), this road provides the most easily accessible wildlife viewing of probably any place in the country!
We decided to take the bus only as far as mile 66 which brought us to the Eielson Center, but had many other stops along the way.  The 112 mile round trip drive along with stops to hike & view animals took nearly 12 hours!!

As our bus was pulled to the side of the road for an on-board medical emergency for one of the passengers, we spotted this grizzly crossing the street beside us!

More bears on the hillside...


More grizzlies...
The grizzlies here are a golden color because of their lack of protein (not many fish here). 


As we ventured along, this single road became more narrow with occasional steep drop-offs at the road's edge.  I captured this look at the road ahead of us...

Dahl sheep...

Finally to the Eileson Center at mile 66, we caught a ranger led walk, learning about the plant and animal life that survive this tough climate.  We saw lots of beautiful wildflowers, burrows for arctic ground squirrels, ground dug up by bears in search of roots to eat, and a golden eagle… not to mention the stunning views in every direction!

On display near the visitor's center were these two bull moose skulls that were found in 2003.  In an effort to establish dominance, these two moose forced their antlers together and engaged in battle.  With their antlers locked, one tine pierced the eye socket of the other and they both died, forever locked in this position.

Bear marks...

The visitor's center displayed the daily sunrise & sunset times.  We visited over the summer solstice… almost 20 hours of daylight!

This national park is also home to Mt. McKinley, North America's highest peak at 20,320 feet.  It is more commonly known by its Athabascan name, Denali, or "The High One".  As we looked at the mountain range, our eyes skimmed across the dark mountain tops, in search of Mt. McKinley- they all looked enormous… until the clouds parted and we saw that they paled in comparison!!!  It was now obvious which one was "Denali"...

Because of the clouds, only about 30% of visitors actually get a glimpse of this majestic mountain peak!

Views from our bus ride through Denali

More bears on our ride back...

Momma & baby moose...

After 12 hours, we finally arrived back to our starting point.  Long day!  We were exhausted & hungry, so went straight to Prospectors Pizza, where at 9:00pm the sun shone brightly in our eyes!

Fun to see our local beer on the Alaskan menu:)

For our final day in Denali, we went exploring on our own, taking the Savage River Loop hike and later the Mount Healy Overlook Trail.

Walking along the Savage River

Arctic Ground Squirrel...

Natalie & Jim at the peak

At the visitor's center, Alayna checked out a national park "discovery pack" which included Denali books, books to identify plants & animal tracks, a journal, coloring supplies, a compass, plaster of paris to make molds of animal prints, etc.  She used the water test strips to check the ph balance of the water in Savage River.

Taiga Trail to Mt Healy Trail

A glimpse ahead at our destination… Mt. Healy's peak: a 4-1/2 mile hike with 1,700 foot elevation gain


Dall Sheep droppings

Homer was our 2nd Alaskan destination.  It was an 8 hour drive from Denali with more wildlife along the way!  Within the first few hours of our drive we spotted several moose, including a momma moose with her babies, a black bear munching on the side of the road… right by our car, and a bald eagle that swooped right over us! 

Once we passed through Anchorage, we drove along the Turnagain Arm- one of America's Most Scenic Drives (arguably the most!)
The highway went along Cook Inlet with scenic stops along the way: Potter's Marsh offered a nice boardwalk for views of marsh birds, McHugh Creek had a pullover for a short walk to a beautiful, small waterfall, and Beluga Point held gorgeous views of Cook Inlet.

The mountain range seemed endless!

Finally to Homer!  
We arrived around 7pm, stopped for dinner, got settled into our cottage, and then ran to the grocery store to stock up for the week.  As we drove back to our cottage, we saw kids hanging out, people jogging, others walking their dogs… all seemed normal until Jim & I realized it was nearly midnight!  Such an odd feeling for your body to feel tired, but your mind feel energized because of the sunlight!  And then as we approached our home-for-the-week we spotted a moose and her baby munching on the neighbor's shrubs:)  Loving Alaska.

Our new home (above) that overlooked Grewingk Glacier (below)

Jim brought Natalie out for her first driving experience!

The Homer Spit is a 4-1/2 mile piece of land jutting out into Kachemak Bay.  It hosts a boat harbor, restaurants, unique Alaskan shops, and lots of eagles waiting for the fishing boats to come in!

Always fresh halibut coming off the boats!
A boat grave yard near the Spit

One of our days here Jim & Natalie went halibut fishing!  Jim caught 6 & Natalie 4, all between 10-12 pounds each.  They were a bit disappointed with their size, but each got to take home two which Jim grilled for a delicious dinner!

…Meanwhile, Alayna & I went down to the docks and joined a guided tour with the Alaskan Coastal Studies to learn about the sea life here!  We spotted moon jellies, frilled anemone, sea stars, acorn barnacles, Christmas anemone, green sea urchins, sea sponges… all on or around the docks!  While our other half fished for our dinner, we had crab chowder for lunch & browsed at wildlife photography, local artwork, and Alaskan souvenirs along the Spit.

Our 20th wedding anniversary happened to be this week… we couldn't have picked a more amazing place to celebrate!
To make it "extra" special (if even possible!), we found a great place for dinner… located on the other side of the bay and accessible only by water taxi!  
We hopped on the "Danny J" for our 40 minute ride across the Kechemak Bay to Halibut Cove, spotting otters playing in the water along the way. 

Bald eagle!

Halibut Cove was the most scenic little harbor community with no roads or cars (only boat access!) and a backyard of mountains & glaciers!

The Saltry was our destination, serving super fresh, scrumptious seafood caught right here in the Kechemak Bay.

After our meal we had time to visit the harbor's two art galleries before catching the Danny J back across the bay.  
Alayna held the beak of an octopus, displayed at one of the galleries.
The beak is the only hard part of it's body and is used to crush the crabs & mollusks they feed on.
On day #4 in Homer, we packed up lunches, raincoats, & layers and caught a ride on our 2nd water taxi to the other side of the bay… this time to the Glacier Spit Trailhead.  

As we were dropped off though, we felt as if we were being abandoned on a deserted beach with no one in sight and no clue as to where the start of our trail was!

Alayna's collection of crab shells along the way

We wandered for some time, and finally spotted a small orange sign that marked the trailhead for our hike.

The first 2 miles or so of our hike was along thick bushes & small trees.  Absolutely no view and swarming with mosquitoes!  We began to wonder if the expensive water taxi was worth it for this.  But then we arrived at the Glacier River- only to be crossed by a pulley tram!  The 500 lb., 2 person basket was only about 20' above the river, but so fun to cross in.

The Grewingk Tram

And then a couple more miles and we made it to our awaited destination.  Grewingk Glacier Lake & the glacier behind it.  It was simply breathtaking!  Ice chunks- huge & tiny- were floating around the lake, many a beautiful glacier-blue.  
We just sat together at the edge of the lake with our picnic lunch, quietly taking the beauty in.  And then we experienced glacier calving!  Calving is when chunks of ice break off of the edge of a glacier and is followed by a loud, thunderous cracking sound.  Awesome!  

We could've enjoyed this view & peacefulness for the rest of the day, but had to catch our little boat shuttle back to Homer.  Without cell coverage out here there was no way to contact our water taxi… and we certainly didn't want to be stranded out here!
What a day.

It was time to leave Homer, and how sad we were!  We walked down to the docks one last time and spotted dozens of starfish at low tide:)

Our next destination was Seward, but on our way we stopped at the Russian River (between Soldotna & Moose Pass) where we hiked 2-1/2 miles to the Russian River Falls to watch sockeye salmon attempt to leap the stairstep falls to reach spawning grounds upstream!  We were SO hoping to spot bears snatching them out from the water, but no such luck.  (Though warning was given to all visitors to be on guard for bear encounters in the area!)

Gorgeous drive towards Seward...

Finally we made it to our tiny one-room Seward home, tucked amidst pine & adler trees and close to Kenai Lake.

We picked wildflowers to decorate our little home & smashed lots of coins on the train track nearby:)

An activity we knew we couldn't miss while in Alaska was taking the cruise through the Kenai Fjords. We had assigned tables on the boat, but spent most of the cruise on the deck (despite the cold!) watching and photographing the scenery and sea life.  Breathtaking.


Sea Lions

Humpback Whales

Harbor Seal

Each time the boat pulled up to a glacier, they would shut off the engine and let us just listen silently to the thunderous crashing of the ice!  

At one point, the crew pulled in a large chunk of glacier ice, brought it to the on-board "kitchen", and made "glacier-itas".  Yum!

At each glacier, the ship would stop it's engine and all would silently listen for the thunderous cracks of the breaking ice.

Orca (Killer Whale!)

A humpback spouting!
Alayna's artwork after our day of cruising
Our next day held our most adventurous day yet… A hike up to the Harding Icefield!  
An icefield is a large expanse of ice that connects a series of glaciers- the Harding Icefield covers over 700 square miles of Alaska's Kenai Mountains in glacier ice, is thousands of feet thick, and has nearly 40 glaciers flowing from it!  It was named for President Warren G. Harding, who visited Seward in 1923.
Our hike began at Exit Glacier and was over 8 miles round trip, climbing 3,000 feet in elevation.

Always warnings like this before any Alaskan hike!

A map of the trail ahead of us

The start of our hike was so lush (& muddy from snow melt)… beautiful rain forest greens, lots of wildflowers, mosses, waterfalls, and streams- so lovely. 

Views of Exit Glacier as we climbed

And as our elevation increased, so did the frost on the plants & snow on the ground...

Eventually we lost all signs of a trail… other than these little orange flags stuck in the snow

Exit Glacier
By about the 3rd mile, we were all a bit tired and the fog was increasing.  Our feet were cold & wet (though the temps were in the 50's), but we were determined to go on.  The path ahead seemed treacherous and so eerie not being able to see far ahead.  We finally saw a few people on their return trip back, who encouraged us to continue if we'd already come this far!  We kept thinking we had to be close, but then would encounter another huge hill.  And no more orange flags leading the way now, only a lightly visible footprint path!

We finally knew we were near the end of our hike once we spotted the emergency shelter 5 hours into our hike…relief!

Our first sign of wildlife up here, this Snow Bunting visited just as we pulled out our power snack before hiking on

Even up here at the top we found a few random patches of wildflowers amidst the snow!
And finally… the Harding Ice Field.  We can usually count on our hikes ending with an experience that made the tough climb worth it- like a gorgeous, breathtaking view, but this is all we could see… just one, vast view of white.  We decided this time, it was the challenge of the climb- a once in a lifetime experience- that made it oh-so-worth it!

I took this pic from the internet…what we should have been able to see on a clear day:(

So back down we went and our 5 hour climb up shortened to only 2-1/2 hours down -running & sledding any chance we got!  So fun!

Our final day in Alaska was cold and rainy, so we visited Resurrection Coffee House for warm drinks, hit the laundry mat, and visited the Seward Sea Life Center where we saw sea lions, harbor seals, tufted & horned puffins, salmon, jellies, octopi, an amazing "touch" tank with crabs, sea stars, anenome, urchins, and even mollusks laying eggs!

Egg Laying Mollusk

The rain & chilly day helped us to feel ready to leave, though Alaska has been amazing.  So amazing, that we had to keep reminding ourselves we were actually here!  What a dream.  My #1 favorite state (Maine) has just been bumped to #2.  I never thought it possible!

View Larger Map
A) Anchorage
B) Denali
C) Homer
D) Seward

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