Monday, July 28, 2008

Alaska: Seward and Eastern Kenai

A "cache" in Seward where
they have a style of their own.
Part Three of a Series: Please read the previous entries first.

When we reached Denali from Anchorage we were only about 1/3 of the way up into Alaska. We didn't make it to Fairbanks, which is a couple hundred miles further north. Beyond Fairbanks there is a long drive to the Brooks Range, an older mountain chain than the Alaska Range. Beyond the Brooks Range there is still another 1/3 of the state until you reach the Arctic Ocean coastline. This doesn't count the sprawling panhandle around Juneau nor the long chain of the Aleutian Islands which stretch in volcanic peaks hundreds of miles westward toward Siberia.

In other words, as much as we saw of Alaska it was still just a small portion of what exists of this vast, generally pristine state.

Still, we drove 1100 miles in our time there.

After Denali we had more or less a travel day, which was fine since it rained the whole day. Our immediate destination was back to Anchorage where Jennifer had arranged a bed and breakfast for us to stay overnight - complete with a private hot tub. Very nice.

This was just a rest stop though on our way further south, along the Kenai Peninsula, to the small port town of Seward. Our intention was to visit the Alaskan coast, take in some views of the plentiful sea life on a day cruise through Resurrection Bay, and visit some glaciers.

Unlike the Tundra of the Denali region, the Kenai is practically a rain forest with all the rich vegetation you would expect from the plentiful precipitation that the southern Alaskan coastline receives.

Our drive south of Anchorage was pleasant and afforded us some wonderful views of isolated homes and terrain in a region of the state without electricity.

Thanks to large amounts of rainfall and virtually perpetual daylight throughout the summer months, flora grows in robust fashion throughout the Kenai. The tallest dandelions we have ever seen were extensive throughout the area.

Seward is named after the former Secretary of State, William Seward, who was primarily responsible for America's purchase of Alaska (for 1.9 cents per acre) from Russia in 1867. It is not a large port compared with others along the Alaskan coast, but it is the primary port for touring the Kenai Peninsula's waters and coastline.

Conducive with Alaska's pervasive interest in the environment and aesthetics as cornerstones of their large tourist industry, Seward has done what it can to be attractive to visitors. Several large murals depicting various aspects of Alaskan life and culture have been painted on the side of the larger buildings as an attraction.

The dominant feature of Seward, of course, is the harbor. Fishing is Alaska's number one industry, accounting for over half of all seafood harvested in America. Mostly it is in the form of Salmon and Halibut. We boarded our tour boat early the next morning.

Our particular tour took up most of the day, much as did our venture into Denali. Only this time instead of tundra and bears, there was water and sea life. We saw humpback whales, orcas, otters, seals, porpoises, gulls that nested in every possible location along the rocky cliffs surrounding Resurrection Bay. I saw my first bald eagles which was a special treat though out of respect for their solitude the ship's captain remained too far away for me to get a good pic of them perched in their nests.

The highlight for me was the ultimate destination of boat tour - Aialik Glacier. It is only a "mid-sized" glacier by Alaskan standards but it was the largest chuck of ice I have ever seen. The glacial wall was several hundred feet high. The boat shut down completely and we got to drift in relative silence about 1/3 of a mile from the glacier. Despite the distance it was till very cold on the deck of the boat as the glacier and the large Harding Icefield which feeds it chilled everything. (We were told the Harding field got over 100 *feet* of snow in the winter of 2007.)

At one point the glacier calved. It sounded like the pop of a large tree branch breaking, reverbing off the ice wall, followed by a spectacular splash. Only a very small chuck of the glacier fell. Just enough to make me wish for larger glaciers and calving experiences in some future trip to Alaska.

We were treated to another wonderful surprise on the return journey. A young male humpback decided to swim and dive off the starboard side of the boat. He would surface for a time then plunge down for several minutes, rising unexpectedly at some nearby location in the bay. At one point, his return to the surface was rather spirited and he rocketed almost half his torso out of the water in a kind of magnificent pirouette. A fantastic sight that occurred too quickly for my digital camera to capture it.

Jennifer was amazed by all the gulls and other birds that inhibited the numerous cliffs along the bay. At one point the captain took the boat in very close and she went out to the bow, literally surrounded by sea birds only a few feet away. A lifelong bird watcher and lover, it was clearly the highlight for her as she commented several times on the deep impression that moment left on her.

Seward had some very nice seafood restaurants, of course. We enjoyed our meals there. I was particularly fond of the chowder they served made of clams, halibut, and salmon. I ate that as often as I could.

Seward is also home to the Alaska SeaLife Center. There we were treated to a wonderful display of the great diversity of life along the Alaskan coast. A giant sea lion caught my eye (as I might have caught its eye!).

But the highlight there were the Puffins. All of Jennifer's life she wanted to see a Puffin. Living in the southern US afforded her no opportunity to do that. We saw both the tufted variety of Puffins and Horned Puffins at the Center.

Near Seward is the most frequently visited glacier in Alaska, the relatively small Exit Glacier, situated in the Kenai Fjords National Park. It is also one of the fastest shrinking glaciers. It affords the advantage of being able to reach it on foot after about a 3 mile hike, round trip. There are signs with dates beginning with "1815" to indicate the extent of the glacier's size in years gone by. That particular sign is over two miles from where the glacier is today. You pass it in your car on the way to the Exit Glacier Park.

I snapped a pic of Jennifer on the way back from Exit Glacier. Notice the richness of the vegetation compared to what we saw in Denali which is about 400 miles or so north of here.

The Kenai Peninsula offers so much more than we had time for on this trip. The western side is flatter, yet you pass some volcanoes while going that way. It is down as a "to do" on a future trip.

We loved Alaska. It was the perfect celebration for 20 years of marriage. We plan to celebrate more of our marriage there in our years ahead together.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alaska: Into Denali

Keith hiking into an open valley near the
Photo by Jennifer - June 21, 2008.

Note: This is the second in a series. It is best to read the first entry for Alaska on this blog before reading this one. ~Keith

It is slightly larger than the state of Massachusetts. Denali National Park offers a vast, spacious wilderness area that mostly protects the northern reaches of the Mt. McKinley footprint.

A lone road goes in there. It is a one-way 90 mile road. There’s a loop at the end where you come back the same way you went in. With few exceptions, the rest of the 6 million acres is trackless, open and free. You hear no planes overhead. There’s little human noise, even along this lone road as it winds through much of the ridgeline that borders the valley to the north of the Alaskan Range.

The road is mainly gravel, though all dirt in a few stretches usually where road preservation is at work. Buses take you in there. Denali has its own timed and scheduled bus line. At any given moment there are dozens of these school bus type vehicles hauling visitors into and out of the park.

Jennifer and I took an early bus into the park. It was going to one of several "rest" spots dotting the Denali Park road every 15 - 20 miles. Our destination was the Eielson Visitor Center about 70 miles along the road. The center had just recently opened to the public and offered an exceptional viewing platform for the northern face of Mt. McKinley – the opposite side of the mountain we saw on the morning of the day before.

It was the summer solstice, longest amount of daylight for the year. We were in the land of the midnight sun.

The bus was not actually a tour. Tours are focused on the bus driver talking in more detail about something along the Denali Park road. Non-Tour (passenger) bus drivers will mention whatever comes to mind along the way but it is nothing detailed or structured really. Tours include meals and highlight something specific about Denali. We were passengers not tourists in this sense.

Our bus driver provided some very good general facts about what we saw along our way in. Mostly, the passengers just conversed among themselves for several minutes at a time as the bus moved along. The bus made a slow pace – maybe 30 miles an hour tops but that is rare. Frequently, we stopped to make way for a bus headed the opposite direction or to make it through road preservation projects or because either the bus driver or a passenger spotted something in the mountainous Tundra worthy of note.

Even after the previous day’s “close encounter” with grizzlies they were still wonderful to behold and we saw many on the bus ride. Probably 7 or 8, I don’t recall. They didn’t seem scarce. Solitary though.

I took my most “artsy” pic through the bus window as we came upon a Bull Moose grazing in shrubs near the road. We happened upon him so quickly that the bus driver actually passed the Moose and brought the bus to a halt just as the Moose reared his head at us, mouth munching. I snapped a pic.

The Moose immediately turned and ran. Many of the short spruce trees are softball sized or larger. Anything that large is at least 100 years old.

We saw mountain goats, caribou, sea gulls(!), ground critters punctuating long stretches of spectacular terrain. The Earth encroached upon the sky making the latter seem rather small.

After a few stops over 4 hours traveling time, the bus came to its particular destination, the newly built Eielson Visitor Center. 20 miles further in waited the special Denali stop of Wonder Lake. Originally, Jennifer and I planned to go all the way to the end of the road.

But, after discussing things the day before, we decided that another hour on the road meant that you turn around and came back on a 5 hour trip out. The prospect of 6 more hours on the bus didn’t sound as appealing as staying afew hours at one spot and having a 4 hour drive out afterwards. I’m sure we missed a lot by not going on. It is one of many reasons I plan to go back someday.

Eielson had about 150 visitors at the time we spent there. The number fluctuated as the buses came and went. People took advantage of the stop to use the restroom facilities and quickly glance through the center. Every 15 minutes or so there would be an announcement over the solar powered announcement system that such and such bus was leaving in 5 minutes. There would be another announcement just before the bus left and then it would be gone.

Jennifer and I let our bus go. As with any bus line, we could catch another on the way out later. Although our bus stopped at Eielson for about 30 minutes since this was its destination before heading 70 miles back out – that amount of time was inadequate. We hiked after eating our packed lunch.

The scenery was gorgeous. If McKinley had been out it would have been breathtaking but it was hidden in clouds on the solstice. Still, you got to feel the vast openness of the many mountains and valleys surrounding McKinley. This was Denali in the greater sense. The mountain was huge but the vastness surrounding it made it a tiny thing, especially since you couldn’t see it that day.

Eielson has a series of trails leading through the tundra, some going maybe 1/3 mile away from the center at a couple of places. Most visitors huddled near the comforts of the center but many ventured out into these trails. As you went further out, however, out to the limits of the trail, the sound of even the buses was greatly muted in the silence of the valley unfolding at your feet and you found yourself alone for several minutes. Small groups came and went but they didn't seem to take up any space at all. So free.

An easy hike takes you back to the center and opens you up to a very large meadow filled with yellow wildflowers.

In addition to being a splendid platform for viewing Mt. McKinley Eielson offers some interpretive information, and a surprisingly large collection of art inspired by Denali. I felt connected with much of the work, knowing it was inspired by something of the short hike I’d just taken.

Among the artwork there was a paneled quilt. Jennifer adored it and went on and on excitedly about it. She was fascinated by all its details which were, admittedly, very special art.

Among the interpretive aspects of Eielson is a 3-D miniature of McKinley and the surrounding terrain including the Center itself. (The Center is a dot on the edge of the map immediately below me in my Alaska cap in the pic.)

Part of our reasoning for not going further into Denali was that it was another 2 hour roundtrip to the end. We didn’t want to spend more hours on the bus. If you are staying at places further in to Denali like Wonder Lake or Camp Denali it makes sense to travel all the way in, stay overnight or several days, then take a bus out of the park. I hope to do that one day.

You can see some terrific professional quality pics of Wonder Lake here.

Otherwise, the drive back out, while affording several views of wildlife and spaces previously gone by unnoticed, is rather tedious in its 6th or 7th hour. By the time we returned to the Park entrance the bus ride into Denali took us longer than our flight to Anchorage from Atlanta. In terms of time Denali was bigger than flying across the continent. Along the way we witnessed a distant thunderstorm.

We celebrated the summer solstice in the small town of Healy, Alaska. Removed from the unsightly tourist amalgamation that has invested itself near the main entrance to the park off Highway 3, Healy was quiet. Its “streets” were gravel and dirt even around the Healy Chamber of Commerce. We were in the “real” Alaska sho nuff.

We noticed many homes had rather odd structures that resembled giant bird houses at the entry to their drive ways. We had no clue what these were meant to symbolize or if they, in fact, had some sort of function beyond aesthetics. Often they feature colors or artwork that matched something about the home to which the drive way belonged. Generally, they stand 10 or 12 feet high. Jennifer insisted we get a pic of one.

What they are remains a mystery. We are not Alaskans and this was only our first journey there.

(Revision: My good friend and frequent Alaska visitor Guy Kent says these are called a "cache". More photos of caches are here. According to Guy: "It's an important part of "bush" living and it is a symbol of the Alaskan way of life. The cache is built on those legs, which are partially covered in metal to prevent wolverines and other animals from stealing the contents. Usually groceries and meats are placed in the small cabin at the top of the legs. There's an opposite version of this in history when the natives would bury their food in the permafrost and then cover the food with rocks or a wooden frame." Thanks Guy!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Alaska: All the light and space really put the zap on my head

Denali (or Mount McKinley) at 5:30 a.m. June 20, 2008
from 40 miles away.

A June 2008 trip to Alaska with my wife was intended as a celebration of our 20th wedding anniversary but it ended up being so much more. Uncharacteristically, I had read nothing nor researched anything for our trip. All the details were left to Jennifer with the exception that I wanted to see Mt. McKinley. As a consequence of my ignorance I experienced the whole of our Alaskan adventure with a child-like fashion, beginner's mind. The possibilities were many, the space was vast, I was awestruck and - often - speechless.

They say only about one-third of those who visit the Denali National Park ever see the mountain. The area is so huge and so isolated that it more or less makes its own weather. Clouds frequently obscure the view and I was told it had been wetter than usual this year.

We arrived at our hotel in the early afternoon on June 19 after a 7.5 hour flight from Atlanta into Anchorage the day before. The drive up was beautiful. 7,000 plus foot snow capped mountains framed almost the entire car trip with rich northern forests hugging the road. Upon our arrival, the mountain was obscured by clouds - typical from what I am told.

I was frustrated. Jennifer had cleverly planned our itinerary so we would be in the area to see Denali over the next few days but I knew from the weather forecasts that clouds were supposed to dominate the skies around Denali after June 19. But there was nothing to do except kick back in the lodge, enjoy some Alaskan Amber on draft and wait.

A couple of hours passed. My nature is to obsess so I kept watch while Jennifer and I conversed about the really nice accommodations, the beauty of the drive up from Anchorage that morning, things we were going to do (I was so disconnected from the planning process that I still didn't know exactly what was happening over the course of our 9-night stay).

Suddenly, there was a opening in the wall of clouds shrouding the mountain and I saw the western shoulder of Denali (meaning "the huge one"). It was a moment (like many on this wonderful trip) I am unlikely to forget. The shoulder seemed so far above the mountains in the foreground I had been viewing. Even though I could see nothing but the shoulder of the massive rise I just didn't expect it to be that big.

Later, the shoulder vanished but the clouds cleared from the peak, far above the comparatively tiny foreground summits that were in themselves higher than anything in the continental US east of the Mississippi River. The whole thing seemed to be teasing those gathered on the viewing deck at the lodge, all eyes searching the clouds for traces of the mountain officially christened McKinley.

As the sun headed northwest the clouds became increasingly back-lit complicating the view. Jennifer and I dined in the lodge and I tried to make peace with myself that I was just going to have to settle for this partial view of my primary reason for going to Alaska. The evening quickened though, of course, the sun sets late this time of year. Still, Jennifer and I had yet to acclimate to the four-hour time difference. She was ready for sleep.

In our room I tossed and turned, slightly groggy from the lengthy flight the day before and all those Alaskan Ambers I had consumed. Sleep eluded me though. Finally, after perhaps half-dozing I checked the time. Midnight. A quick look out the closed curtains of our room revealed something I didn't expect. A clear evening sky in twilight. As Jennifer slept I quickly dressed and went out toward the viewing platform. It was cool out. About 45 degrees or so. Still, the mosquitoes were noticeably more prevalent.

As was Denali......silhouetted by the late setting sun. Although Denali's face was dark, the mountain was enshrined with the aura of dusk. For the most part the mountain was freely visible. It was crowned with a wisp of cloud. Comparatively few people were out but those that were chatted happily among themselves as to how lucky we all were. Even without being able to see the face of the mountain I was truly enraptured with the enormity of the horizon's majestic beauty.

A large panoramic view of the Denali area at twilight is available here.

Sleep came more easily upon returning to my room. But, it was brief. I was too keyed up from the "high" of seeing Denali. I awoke again at 5 a.m. and went back out to witness what the jagged face offered in the bright early morning sun. The cap cloud still hid the summit - in contrast to the afternoon before when clouds covered everything put the peak which seemed to hover on its own some 20,300 feet above.

Still, it was an amazing view. Jennifer soon joined me and we basked together in the splendor of a moment of Being after anticipation and frustration and excitement had settled into the realization that we were fortunate, the day was special, the space was vast and open, crisp and free.

A panoramic view of the mountain in the early morning sun is available by clicking here.

By 9 a.m. the mountain vanished behind a renewed wealth of clouds. Gone. We talked to some at the lodge that slept through the whole thing.


We drove up to the Denali National Park entrance that afternoon (June 20). The drive remained spectacular. I felt like I was in one of Tolkien's books or something. I just had not considered what it would be like so my beginner's mind was satiated. There was no room for anxiety or even thought. Everything was Now. It was almost like we'd been on vacation a week already and we had barely begun our stay. To say Jennifer and I were both relaxed and contented with the space of Alaska would be something of an understatement, inadequate.

No sooner had I parked the car at the Visitor's Center and gotten out to retrieve my fleece vest from the back seat than a Moose and her calf came waltzing through the parking lot. It was instantaneous, as if Alaska was sending us a greeting to follow her revelation of Mt. McKinley to us.
We enjoyed lunch and a couple nice Alaskan beers before touring the center, verifying our itinerary for a driving tour of Denali scheduled for tomorrow. The buses follow a solitary 90-mile road into the vast Park. Access is restricted but you are permitted to drive your own vehicle the first 15 miles or so in to a point where the road crosses the small but wildly flowing Savage River. We decided to drive in.

At that point it is possible to enjoy a 3/4 mile hike along the river to a bridge which allows you to cross over and hike the other side of the river back to your vehicle - 1.5 miles total, an easy hike. Tundra plants and wildflowers are in abundance along rocky slopes. Small critters scurry among the broken rocks. We took lots of pics, Jennifer concentrating on the flora. It was nice to put our boots on the true ground and experience something more rugged than what we'd enjoyed at the lodge.

The hike remained pleasant, the sun felt warm, it must have been about 70. A fine summer pre-solstice day. One of the few fellow hikers along the trail took a pic of Jennifer and I at the bridge. We started back alone.

About 1/3 of the way back my eyes caught the sight of a grizzly who had just splashed into the river. "Oh, my God" I blurted over the sound of the flowing river. The bear was about 100 yards ahead of us. I took a few steps closer to get a better angle for pics. Jennifer began to chant variations of "Keith, you're too close" and "You are being too risky" and "I'm going up this slope" as I snapped away.

Of course, it was a good thing that she kept talking. That's what you're supposed to do to let the bear know you're around. They tend to avoid people unless hungry or threatened. The fact that the bear had already crossed to the other side of the river indicated to me that it had probably seen and heard us before we saw it.

I remained still as it approached. I was more exhilarated than afraid. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The grizzly meandered along the river bank, stopping a couple of times to munch on the modest tundra vegetation. At its closest, the bear was the width of the river from me - about 30 yards or so. The grizzly continued on its way, pausing after it passed to look directly back at me - the only time we made eye contact. After snapping a shot of that I turned my back and walked away - just to make sure the bear knew I posed no threat.

It was a moment that rivaled my morning experience with McKinley. What an incredible day! Alaska had sent a great northern bear to greet us. The mountain, the moose, and the bear. It seemed almost surreal. Jennifer wasn't so pleased about the bear part, but she did find the whole experience memorable since the bear remained docile (or at least disinterested) the entire moment, which lasted only a couple of minutes or so but seemed to linger much longer than that and in some ways resonates still.

The series of grizzly pics are below...