Monday, June 30, 2014

Seward - Part I

Our plan when we left Anchorage was to wash Opus before heading to Seward.  On the way north most RV parks had wash bays so we were able to get the worst of the road dirt cleaned off.  But since leaving Tok none of the parks have had wash bays so Opus is really dirty.  Our plan changed when we awoke to overcast skies and rain.  Looks like it will be another week before Opus gets a bath.  While in Seward we wanted to take a wildlife cruise, hike in Kenai Fjords National Park, visit the Alaska Sealife Center and check out another local brewery.
The drive down the Seward Highway around Turnagain Arm is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in the state.  For us it was low clouds and gray, rainy weather.  It did lift enough to see Spencer Glacier coming out of the mountains.
Seward is one of those end of the road Alaska towns that grew up because of the construction of the railroad.  It is mile zero for the Iditarod Trail that dates back to 1910, long before the race.  It is also a big fishing town for both salmon and halibut.  These local monuments honor all those.
There is a lot of sea life in the area.  The sea otters are so cute floating on their backs to eat.
The campground with Opus in the middle.  We have never stayed in a place quite like this.  They do not take reservations, except for large groups, so all sites are first come first serve.  We arrived before noon and all the waterfront sites were taken so we opted for the third row that is raised and has a great view of the bay and mountains.  When you pay for your stay ($30 for water and electric, $15 to dry camp) you register by license plate number not by site number.  We learned the next morning how people get the waterfront sites.  Early in the morning they walk around looking for someone who is leaving and then place a chair on the site to claim it as theirs.  Kind of like the Canonsburg Fourth of July Parade.
Sure can't complain about our view from Opus overlooking Resurrection Bay and Mountains.  We did not see this eagle catch the fish but it flew right at us carrying supper to the nest.
Seward's small boat harbor.  In the background is Mount Marathon the site of the annual Independence Day race.  The race is "only" 3.1 miles starting in town then to the top, 3022 feet above sea level and back down.  I can't even imagine.  We did a hike on the mountain and tried the race path but it was way to steep for us.  We did manage to get above the tree line on an easier trail.
We did an evening cruise with Major Marine on the Star of the Northwest hoping to see a lot of sea life and some glaciers.  This hanging glacier is just across the bay from the campground.  The blue color of the ice is amazing.
A herd of mountain goats on the cliffs above the bay.  A bit to far away for a good picture.
Looking across the Gulf of Alaska at the distant mountains.
At the end of the bay is Bear Glacier that flows off the Harding Icefield.  This is not a tidal glacier that drops icebergs into the water.
A small island covered with kittiwakes and much bird poo.  Sure would not want to nest at the bottom.
Stellar sea lions soaking up the sun.  We were close enough that we could hear them.
It was cool out on the water, but it was a great trip.  Another tour boat saw a humpback whale but by the time we got to the spot it was gone.
We did get to see a couple of Orcas that are identified by the high dorsal fin and the distinctive white spot.  They stayed near the boat feeding for a long time.
Both of the Orcas cruising through the water.
A Dall's porpoise came right along side the boat.  They often surf in the wake of the boat.
We were happy to see puffins.  These little birds spend most of the year at sea, only coming to land to have their young.
Seward is a stop for several cruise lines.  This ship was leaving port when we were on the cruise.  

We did a couple other things in Seward that I will have in the next post.  It is a neat little town and being right on the water where we could watch the ships and sea life was fantastic.

Up until this time we have not had a real ending date for our stay in Alaska.  That has now changed.  We made a ferry reservation to travel from Haines to Skagway on July 24th.  The ferry trip is only one hour but saves over 350 miles of driving.  When we leave Seward we will be spending a couple of weeks on the west side of the Kenai Peninsula in Ninilchik and Homer.  Then it is a 500 mile trip to Valdez for a couple of days.  From Valdez we will travel to Haines which is 700 miles back through Yukon, across the worst sections of the Alaska Highway.  After the ferry from Haines to Skagway, we leave Skagway where it will be another 700 miles through Alaska, Yukon and BC, then back into Alaska in Hyder to see the bears.  That's the plan so far. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Anchorage -- Wasilla

After a wonderful week in the Denali area we moved south to Wasilla.  We wanted to get together with Class of 07 mates and former Alaska residents John and Lora Newby to explore the area.  It is close enough to Anchorage for a day trip. We also needed to have Opus checked at Cummins in Anchorage as we have picked up a noise in the engine, not good.  John and Lora are here to help move her parents back to the lower 48 and they had some family obligations so we explored on our own for a couple of days.
Our plans to go to Anchorage for the summer solstice celebration were changed when the longest day of the year was accompanied by the longest day of rain we have had here to date.  On Sunday the skies were clear and a there were still a few summer weekend activities going on, so we headed to the city.  Anchorage sits between the snow covered Chugach Mountains and Cook Inlet.
We explored Potter's Marsh, a birding area near Anchorage, but only found a few birds.  I did find this swallow who was willing to pose.
There was also a family of geese.
The Eisenhower statue celebrated Alaska becoming a state in 1959 under Ike's administration.
The bear and raven are both important symbols in Alaskan culture.  So of course they are used in many commercial endeavours. 
Maybe from some places in the state but not from Wasilla, the home of Alaska's half term governor.
On Monday we did a nice day hike with John and Lora in Hatcher Pass.  It was a beautiful day.  It is great having locals to show you around and we thank them for a great day of hiking and exploring the area.
Even though the calendar says summer the spring flowers were just coming out in the mountains along the trail.
After our hike we drove higher into the mountains to explore the old Independence Mine that is now a state park.  The hard rock gold mine operated from the late 1800's until the mid twentieth century.  More than 34,000 ounces of gold came out of this mountain.  
Most of the old buildings have been maintained and restored while the mine tipple has fallen into disrepair.
There are trails throughout the ruins so you can get a close up look at the old operation.  There is an old water tunnel that was used to carry the ore out of the mine to the processing plant.
Even near town you will see wildlife.
We visited the headquarters for the Iditarod in Wasilla.  They have a movie telling the story of the "last great race" that is run every spring 1,100 miles to Nome.  There is a ceremonial start of the race in Anchorage that runs for eleven miles before the official start that used to be here.  A few years ago the start was moved to the wilderness near Willow because Wasilla has become to crowded for a wilderness race.
You can ride a wagon pulled by a dog team.  Check out the tree that is decorated with dog booties.  The Iditarod headquarters is a neat stop to learn all about the history of the race.

After four days in Wasilla we had an appointment with Cummins in Anchorage on Tuesday morning.  Our suspicion that something was not right were confirmed.  They had to replace the head gasket.  They did the repair that afternoon and we got a night of "free" industrial camping.  Repairs are part of the lifestyle and we sure are lucky that this happen when we were near a big city and not when we were in the wilderness miles from the closest repair shop.  On our trips into Anchorage we checked out a couple more breweries.  The downtown Glacier Brewing Company has a big and expensive restaurant that is geared to visiting tourists was just okay.  Midnight Sun Brewing is located in a hard to find industrial park.  It has a small restaurant and overall is much better and definitely a place where the locals hang out.  This is the kind of place we like to find.  While they were working on Opus we went to the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
While there Nanc was attacked by three big bears.  She seems to be enjoying it:)
The center is dedicated not only to sharing the culture of the five native groups in Alaska with visitors but also in renewing native pride through their educational programs held throughout the winter months for young native students.  The five native groups are; the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimahian of the Southeast;  the Athabascan of the interior;  the Inupiaq and St. Lawrence Island Yubik of the far North;  the Yup'ik and Cup'ik of the Southwest; and the Unangax and Alutiiq of the Aleutian Islands.  It was interesting to see the different kinds of houses they had, especially the groups that lived on the treeless tundra whose homes were dug into the permafrost and covered with sod.  
The raven sculpture at the entrance tells a creation story.  A skin covered canoe and whale jaw bones that were used to show the entrance to a home.  Our guide Michelle, who was a mix of a couple different native groups, credits the center with sparking her interest in her culture.  Most of her family is not interested and her mother and grandmother were punished when they used the native language in school.  She was an excellent representative for her culture. 
These four totem poles represent respect for self, culture, environment and family.  Totem poles were part of the Southeast culture where tall cedars grew.
There were also live performances of native songs and dances as well as their athletic skills that evolved from their hunting strategies. In addition to the outdoor display they also have a wonderful museum with artifacts from the different native cultures. The Alaska Native Heritage Center is a great place to learn about Alaska's first people and shows the pride these young people have in their heritage.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Denali - Part II -- Talkeetna

We had seen many animals and got a great look at Denali so for the remainder of our stay we had time to look for more animals and do a couple of day hikes.  We got up early and drove the park road looking for more wildlife and maybe another look at the mountain. 
We were rewarded with a close up look at this mama moose with two babies.  They just walked slowly up the road until one of the little ones bolted across the road and into the brush.  Mama and the other baby quickly followed.
One thing not to be missed in the park is the dog sled demo and kennels.  As you can see they are very friendly.  They seemed a little lethargic, but we learned they do not like the warm, 60 degrees, weather.  The dog teams are used in the winter to carry supplies and research equipment into the wilderness.  Other than planes, the park is a total wilderness in the winter, no snow machines, only dogs for transportation.
We even got to pretend.  I do think it would be a thrill to ride behind a team of dogs through the snow.  Guess it will never happen as we do not do snow anymore.
They hitched five dogs to a summer sled, which has two wheels, and let them run.  It was amazing how excited all the dogs got when they went to pick the ones they were going to let run.  They were all barking and jumping, pick me, pick me, very neat.  An interesting volunteer job in the park is being a dog walker.  All the dogs, there are over 30, are walked three times a day. 
Some more Denali wildlife.
We would have walked right past these two in the campground if someone had not warned us.  They are like slow moving eating machines.
Another cow with two babies in the campground.  It was their home long before humans were here.  I'm not sure if this was the same family we had seen a couple of days before.
WOW!!!! We got yet another look at the great one shrouded in clouds on one of our early morning drives in the park.
One of the hikes took us to this beaver dam.  We have seen many since we started up the Alaska Highway, but we still have not seen a beaver.
This fossil dinosaur footprint was found in the park a few years ago and has started a whole new area of research. 
One of the trails was along Riley Creek near the campground.  We really did not see a lot of wildlife on our hikes.  Bear in mind, this is not a bad thing.
We left the park and headed down the road to Talkeetna.  We had several glimpses of Denali through the breaking clouds.  You can see the top of it sticking up into the bit of blue sky left of center.  This really shows how much it towers over the surrounding mountains.  The clouds were moving quickly so we were hoping for an even better view as we traveled down the road.
We got it.  When I taught school I had a picture of the Alaska Range and Denali on the back wall so I could see it while teaching. I often thought how great it would be to see it in person.  Now I have seen it and it is fantastic.
We stopped at the Denali State Park south view area and watched for an hour as the summit became clearer and clearer.  Seeing the mountain backed with blue skies was not something we ever expected to see in the summer.  What a treat.
These pictures were taken from about 40 miles away and you really get a good look at how Denali towers over the range in front.  By the time we got to Talkeetna where there is another viewpoint the clouds had covered the mountain.  We were very lucky to get this wonderful view.
Talkeetna is the take off point for Mount McKinley climbers so there are a lot of interesting people and places here.  Beautiful downtown Talkeetna, two short blocks on Main Street, has several old restored log buildings including the Roadhouse (top right) where you can order your eggs any way you want but they will always come out scrambled.  Of course, we had to check out Denali Brewing, another winner with both food and beverage.  Several old buildings are now shops catering to the hundreds of tourists and climbers who pass through each summer. 
We had booked two days in Talkeetna with the intent to fly for a close up look at Denali and to land on a glacier.  The morning of the flight we awoke to overcast skies and a no fly day.  We kept rebooking for later in the day but it never cleared.  The RV park was full but they put us in overflow with only a power hook up for another night.  As you can see it worked out, we were able to fly the following day. 
The closer we got to the mountain the cloudier it got until we were above the clouds and could see Denali towering above them.  How very neat.  We both had cameras so these are only a few of the three hundred plus pictures we took.
We were so close it was like you could almost touch the mountains.  From her side Nanc saw climbers.
A lot of my pictures have the prop sweeping by because I got to sit in the co-pilot's seat.  That was really cool, to say the least.
Banking through a turn.  The flight was very smooth especially over the mountains because there are no thermals coming off the cold snow covered ground.
We turned away form Denali to find a hole in the clouds so we could land on a glacier.  There were  two other Talkeetna Air Taxi planes on the glacier ahead of us.
My view of the landing.....
.....and Nanc's.  The touchdown was so smooth it was like landing on a cloud.  We actually got to land twice because our pilot decided to clear a take off path through the fresh snow for all the planes.
We did it!!!  This has been on our Alaska bucket list since reading blogs of others who did it.  It met and exceeded all expectations.
No yellow snow here.  We were the first people to be here in two days so the snow was fresh and pure.  We were surprised at how calm it was on the glacier.  You could have lit a match and it would not have blown out. 
Our pilot, Paul, who is not only a pilot, but a climber who has climbed Denali and many other Alaska Range peaks.  Talking to someone in town later in the day we also learned he owns Talkeetna Air Taxi.
One of the planes that was ahead of us taking off and climbing over the mountains.
Another big glacier we flew over on the way back to Talkeetna.
On the return trip we were further away from Denali and the skies were clearer.  We crossed many old glacial valleys and snow covered mountains.
Then it was over forest and lakes.  There were many cabins on these waters.  This flight was the high point of our Alaska trek so far.  If you are here don't miss the chance to fly to the mountain.  It was FANTASTIC!!!!!!!!
We ended a perfect day the perfect way with a pizza at Mountain High Pizza Pie that is run by Pittsburgher, Todd Basilone.  He came to Talkeetna to visit a buddy and the rest is history.  If you are in Talkeetna check it out.  Great pizza, great local beer on tap and great wine too!!!  Don't miss Talkeetna, it is a great little town.