K2inCanada's Blog

August 6, 2012

Sightseeing by car, plane, boat and on foot – Alaska Trip Part 2

Filed under: Alaska, Animals, Hike, Travel — K2 in Canada @ 10:58 PM

Now that we have a car where should we go next? We only have 3.5 days till we have to be in Homer for our bear watching adventure. Originally we were supposed to spend it on an the Kenai Peninsula but I still had flight-seeing in Denali National Park in my head. It’s supposed to be cheaper if you go to a little town called Talkeetna south of Denali National Park. So we headed North through scenic mountains and the wooded flats of the Matanuska Valley. The sun was out and it was a beautiful drive. We got to Talkeetna at around 4:30pm and went into town to see if they had any flights maybe even for the same evening. Got lucky and not. We found a flight for 7pm but the main attraction in Denali, Mount McKinley, would not be visible. Even though it was sunny in Talkeetna the big mountains in Denali park were stuck in low clouds. At least it saved us some money – flights might be cheaper here but they are still expensive. Talkeetna is the total “hippy” town with lots of small colorful buildings and crowded with tourists. We quickly dashed the idea of staying here for the night!

All five fit into that little plane

Flying over swamps and woodland

Ruth Galcier in Denali National Park

But first we headed to the airport for our scenic flight. We had no idea how many people would be on the flight or how big the plane would be. There was a little tiny  bush plane parked right in front and I thought that would be neat. And guess what – there was only one other couple  on the flight and the four of us plus the pilot squeezed into that little plane. What a great adventure and well worth the money. The flight over the marsh towards the park, the glacier views and mountain tops (even though they were only small ones) were amazing. You felt so close to the rocks and ice. The weather went from sunny to soggy on and off but we got to see a lot on the hour long flight. Everything on top was covered in fresh snow – not a surprise after our Eagle Glacier experience. We even hit an air hole and the plane dropped for a couple meters – which you feel MUCH more than in a commercial airliner. I did get a little bit seasick as well but not enough to take away from this amazing experience.  And even thought the pilot had to navigate through a rain storm he got us safely back to the ground. Now the question where to stay for the night. We had passed a couple possible spots on the drive up. So we started heading south again and stopped at Montana Creek where we had seen a commercial campground. But upon closer investigation there were actually 3 campgrounds. The obvious commercial one which was very open and looked like was targeting big trailers rather than tents. A smaller more hidden state campground on the other side of the highway (southwest)  but the camping area didn’t look great for tenting either. And then the third one on the northwest side of the river. It looked a bit run down but the sites were nice – a few right along the river and NOBODY there. During salmon season these places would all be packed – good for us fishing was closed.  We found an excellent spot right along the river with ample flat space for the tent and far enough away from the hwy that one could hardly hear it. We collected some firewood from an old wood pile we found a little ways down river and had our first campfire that night. We had a small thunderstorm come through which dumped a bunch of rain on us but it didn’t manage to douse the fire. Lucky for us, it didn’t last long as we were hiding under a tree. And while sitting at the fire at about 10 or 11pm chewing on our sandwiches a cow moose and her two young walk through the river about 50m below us. So cool!!! Now this is what Alaska is all about.

Turnagain Arm Impressions

Baby moose

Baby musk ox

Exit Glacier lookout

Day 6 started as day 5 had ended – mix of sun and clouds. We went for a walk in the morning to see if we can find that moose family again. No such luck. But we walked down-creek until we hit the big Susitna River. No moose or bear but a nice walk none-the-less. On the long drive south towards Seward we stopped to look at some lupine flower beds along the highway, saw some flat calm beautiful lakes surrounded by those typical small evergreens with clouds reflecting on the surface and even had a glimpse at Mount McKinley in the distance. Guess today would have been the day for the scenic flight – oh well next time. At least we saw it  not everyone can say that :-). Driving down Turnagain Arm for the x-time we saw some mountain sheep in the cliff just above the road. The hordes of tourists taking pictures gave them away easily. We did not stop at Girdwood though this time but went right passed it to the end of Turnagain Arm to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Centre. The spacious compounds hosted elk , musk oxen, wood bison, moose, grizzlies, black bears, reindeer and a porcupine – many of the animals had come as orphans or insured. We spent over 2hrs watching the animals and seeing baby moose and two baby musk oxen being fed. And all that in the stunning scenery of Turnagain Arm and the Chugach Mountains. But eventually we had to move on – Seward was still almost 90 miles away. The Seward Hwy is even more scenic if that is possible, winding its way through the Chugach National Forest. So many places to explore but no time to stop. You are mostly driving through alpine meadows and snow capped mountains – just stunning. A great place to camp and hike. The drive was over to quickly and we drove into the Seward – a fishing town and the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Since our bodies were still tired from skiing we opted for an organized boat tour through the park. Unfortunately the small group tour was full so we booked a spot on the big cruiser for the next day – all full day trip to Northwestern Glacier. Next we had to find a campsite and the girl at the cruise place told us to check out Exit Glacier as the in-town camping area, although nicely located along the beach, was jam-packed with big motorhomes. No thanks! Exit Glacier is one of the few glaciers in Alaska you can actually almost drive to and reach by an easy walk. It is attached to the big Harding Icefield and part of Kenai Fjords National Park. Since it was only 8pm we had plenty of day light left. The drive only took 20min through a broad valley of glacial run-off and Resurrection River. Exit Glacier is quite impressive but you do not get close enough to touch it. I was  amazed how much this glacier has been receding over the years. Less than 5 years ago it still touched the valley bottom, now it is about a 100m up from it. And we found a real national park campsite with nice isolated spot located in the flats below the glacier. It was busy with an organized group but we hardly noticed them since all the sites were separated by bush. And the best of it all, there was no fee.

Bear Glacier in the distance

Sea otter in Resurrection Bay

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Glacier

Day 7 started early again and we boarded the Alaskan Explorer together with another 80 people. We sat with some guys from Montana/South Dakota – rednecks all over, but quite funny – who had been fishing for salmon the last couple days. The weather looked really promising with blue sky over the ocean but temperatures were still on the cold side. We drove out into Resurrection Bay which flat calm and bathed in sunshine and I immediately regretted not to be in a kayak. Another next time! The first animal we encountered besides sea gulls and arctic terns was a lonely sea otter. He wasn’t too interested in having his picture taken. Next up were some humpbacks that were breeching in the distance.  By the time we got close they were traveling again. Once outside of Resurrection Bay into the Gulf of Alaska the sea got a little bit rougher but still quite corporative. We cruised by many rocky islands that were covered in nesting birds like sea gulls, common murre and puffins! Hard to take picture of those though in a rolling boat. But at least I didn’t get seasick as usual, smart me had taken gravol/bonnet before the cruise. The captain of the boat was also quite entertaining. He was extremely knowledgable and had a bit of a dry humor. We encountered more humpbacks feeding along the shore as well as well as Stellar sea lions sleeping on the rocks before we turned into Northwestern Fjord just before lunch. Great scenery with glaciers coming down from the mountains all over – but we only saw them in the distance. Our destination was Northwestern Glacier which is at the very end of the fjord and one of the more active glaciers in the park. As we got closer the ocean turned more milky-turquoise and small chunks of ice floated by. Then we saw the glacier – it wasn’t huge but it sure was beautiful in the sunshine. We sat around for a while listening to its groaning and cracking – like thunder. Saw ice breaking off from the top coming down in an avalanche. We saw chunks break off (nothing huge but I am sure they were bigger than they looked) and fall into the ocean. It was spectacular. After we left Northwest Glacier the weather started to change and it clouded over significantly. We stopped in some bay to look at waterfalls on the way back when it started to drizzle. Watched a few more humpbacks before heading out to the open ocean of the Gulf again. Way offshore we encountered a pod of Orcas – two bulls, two female and a calf. One of the big males put on quite a show half breeching out of the water right in front of another tour boat – lucky buggers. We cruised around Fox Island to look for more birds. To my delight we also saw a few mountain goats on the steep cliffs. All in all a great day out on the water – even though there was no paddle involved. When we got back to port it was raining hard. We decided to have dinner in town rather than at the tent which we had left at the Exit Glacier campsite. Back at camp the big group had cleared out and we pretty much had the place to ourselves for a while. The group had left some dry firewood behind in the kitchen/common area so we started a fire to dry our wet socks. The rain pretty much stopped. As it got later small groups started coming in one by one and we had a nice chat with a young couple from Colorado. They are both teachers and had taken the summer off to travel by car from Colorado across the arctic circle and back. They also had done the Harding Icefield hike that same day – which was on our list for the next day – and were raving about the views. I was sooo ready for a hike!!!

Bear attack

The hut on the Harding Icefield

Crossing the snow on the way down

Views of Exit Glacier during the hike

Day 8 started with a little surprise – it looked like a bear had taken the garbage bin near the outhouse apart – demolished it. I didn’t hear a thing even though our tent was maybe 50m away from it. Good thing we always leave all the food and tooth paste in our rental car. But maybe it wasn’t a bear. In either case we packed up and got ready for the hike. Weather didn’t look promising. The clouds were hanging low in the valley. The trail starts out through a mixed forest of evergreen and birch. It started to drizzle a bit – not yet enough to put on rain gear. It wasn’t warm either but we sweated enough on the climb to keep us warm. After about 1/3 of the distance you leave the forest behind and enter the alpine meadows. Few flowers had started to appear already – mostly lupine. You also get rewarded with views of Exit Glacier from above. We heard and then saw a marmot crossing a snow patch. Next you enter the tundra and with that leave the chance of seeing bears behind. I think we would have had great views of the valley below if it wasn’t so sogged in. We kept our eyes peeled for Mountain Goats but didn’t see any. Shortly after you traverse a big snow patch steadily climbing higher and higher. The wind started to pick up and drove the mist/light rain into our backs with a vengeance. It must have blown 30-40km/hr. I had my rain coat on by now but the shirt underneath was already wet and my pants soaked through quickly as well. It was a long hard climb up until we made it to the hut near the end of the trail. And we were rewarded with nothing – no spectacular views of the Harding Icefield – everything was white in white with a few black rocks here and there. Well, I shouldn’t say we weren’t rewarded with nothing. That tiny little cabin – hardly bigger than an outhouse – was a life saver. We were shivering! We stripped off the wet clothes and put on all the layers we in the backback underneath the rain gear. I was bundled up from head to toe for the way down into the driving wind and rain. Poor Jeff didn’t bring gloves – he never said a thing but that must have been painful. The way down was quicker through the snow than up. And I did stay dry and warm enough. Jeff didn`t.  By the way, we weren’t the only crazy ones hiking up there in this weather. Some people we saw coming up on the lower part were in shorts and runners!! I was glad for may heavy hiking boots and even they started to get wet inside.  Just after we entered the forest again we had the glimpse of a small black bear high-tailing it into the thick bush. On a nice day this would be a fantastic hike for all its views. In these conditions we were happy to have made it – 4.5hrs. Another one of those “we gotta do this again” – on a sunny day. And yeah for heated seats in our rental car! We hit the road right after the hike around 3PM to drive towards Homer. Since tomorrow the biggest adventures of all was supposed to start… The drive along Seward and then Stirling HWY was scenic enough but the sky was overcast so no good picture ops – at least it stopped raining. We had a look at Kenai Lake and the Russian River where you can’t even leave your car without paying. I can only imagine what it must be like when the fishing for salmon is on – they don’t call it Combat Fishing for nothing.  Saw a whole bunch of mountain goats high up on the mountain side. Then dropped out of the mountains into the rolling, forested area of Kenai National Wildlife Refuge until we hit the coast near Clam Gulch. We had stopped in Soldotna for food and new rain gear for Jeff. The drive along the coastal part offered a change in scenery even though we had no views towards the west even though you are about 50m high up on a big cliff the whole time. Trees and swamps lined the road on the other side. We were hoping to find a cool place to stay the night – I needed power to re-charge all my batteries for the bear trip – but couldn`t find anything good. We ended up staying in Anchor Point paying too much money for a too big room we didn`t need. Apparently it was the only one left, never mind the place looked empty. Maybe they don`t like it if you arrive close to midnight :-). But that also gave us a chance to dry out the wet gear. I hardly slept though being so excited about what the next day will bring. But that`s again for another post.

Tons of more scenic pictures can be found here: https://google.photo.com/SightseeingByCarPlaneBoatAndFootAlaskaTrip2012Part2

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