K2inCanada's Blog

August 14, 2012

“They look like cows…” – Alaska Trip Part 3

Filed under: Alaska, Animals, Travel — K2 in Canada @ 7:24 AM

I thought I could get this last part done – the 3rd and final part of our Alaska trip – while waiting for the Canoe/Kayak K1 1000 and C1 1000 finals a couple nights ago starting at 1:30AM. But it took till the K1 200m finals. Congrats Adam, Mark and Mark! I did cheer for the Germans in the K2 and K4 events :-).

This is a long read, my apologies but I was reliving our adventure over and over again…if you just like looking at pictures of bears (WARNING – tons of them) try this links: https://.google.photo.com/TheyLookLikeCowsAlaskaTrip2012Part3#

Day 9 started overcast again and it was quite windy. We drove into Homer for breakfast – more reindeer sausage (sorry Jodi) in scrambled eggs. The “Fresh Sourdough Express”, first official “green” restaurant in Alaska, is a must do. We also checked in with Sasquatch, the outfit we had booked our bear watching tour with, to make sure our flight was still on schedule. Well, Zack was a bit worried as a big storm had gone over the Alaska Peninsula and hit Hallo Bay – our destination for the next 4 days – pretty hard. But he also said it seemed to have quieted down a bit and he had clients out there that needed to be picked up. We were to meet again at 2:30pm. With a bit of time to kill we first went for a walk along the Homer Spit – a natural gravel sandbar sticking out into Katchemak Bay built up with restaurants and tourists shops. With still more time to kill we went into a “Canadian Tire” kind of store and looked at more sturdy gum boots since the hiking boots were still kinda wet inside from the day before. But we figured we’d only buy them if we really go. What a good decision since Zack outfitted us with boots that went up to our hip. It will be wet were we are going! We did another walk through the bush to a lagoon in chase of moose – I still wasn’t happy with the amount of moose we had encountered so far. But again no such luck. After finishing off the last bit of food we had in the cooler it was finally time to go back to the Sasquatch office. And the verdict was …. GO! It still took another 2 hrs until we hopped into the bush plane – same size as the last one but green and white. We also met our guide Brian, who had only found out that morning that he’ll be going on another guiding trip. And he did a wonderful job!! The usual guide needed a break after sitting out this storm that had just gone through and done a bit of damage to the kitchen tent. But we would see the carnage soon. The flight was uneventful and we had no visibility pretty much the whole time which was unfortunate but did not take away from the excitement to camp with grizzly bears for 3 nights. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and this experience went beyond my wildest dreams!!

Ready for take off

Hallo Bay, here we come. The clouds were low in the valley but we could see grassy areas with a couple brown spots below us before we landed . “Those look like cows” but Brian insisted that they were bears. Zack managed a super nice landing on the windy beach. The previous clients and their guide were already waiting for us. A couple guys from Germany who had weathered the storm for 3 days – poor them. But they still insisted they saw lots of bear, even one near camp. Well “a lot” could mean a couple a day – at least that meant lots of bears to me when I was still living in Germany. And they also mentioned a few times that the tent was dry again – what they must have been through… Anyhow we watched them take off and that left only Brian, Jeff and I on the beach. No bear. It was still a bit windy with a light drizzle.  In order to get to the camp we actually had to first cross the river in a little inflatable raft – half the size of Jeff’s new fishing boat. We had to do multiple trips – well Brian and Jeff had to – until all the gear and all of us made it across.

Brian ferrying across the river

Our home for 4 days and 3 nights

Camp Bear

Moose in the distance

We were greeted by Jonathan, who is a freelance photographer from Perth, Australia and is helping Zack out a bit by watching the camp when nobody is there and move it every two weeks. Hallo Bay is situated in Katmai National Park and the rule is you can only camp in one spot for 2 weeks. Brian himself had never been to this new site – the south campsite as it was called.  Not very exciting  name :-). And as we walked towards the camp – three tents surrounded by a low electric fence which by no means looked like it would keep bears out but I didn’t dare touch it – Jonathan actually pointed out the first bear to us. Maybe 100m away from the tent, chomping down the high grass. Oh my god I thought, there is a grizzly right next to our camp – and we named him “Camp Bear”. Fitting as he was hanging around the area for the whole 3.5 days. Only once another bear came by and chased Camp Bear a bit farther away. The challenger was named “Longnose” since his face resembled more the face of a black bear with a long nose than the round flatter face of most grizzlies. But he certainly was a Grizzly. We came in close contact with him twice.  On day three he was following us on the trail near the camp and I turned around to take a picture – he came real close to us, so close I could smell him, and I think this was one of the few times Brian was actually worried. But then he just walked past us obviously satisfied we weren’t a threat. The same night though he came into camp and slowly walked along it less than 5m from the fence. I think this was one of the other few times Brian was worried. Was I worried? I should have been but the excitement of being able to share their realm with these bears outweighed the fear by far. But I am getting ahead of myself again.

Beach bears – bear number 3 & 4

Our first visit of the sedge meadow – they look like cows from the distance

Bear # 5

Young bear, #6

Big male – “Longnose”, #7

After #7 I lost count – happy me

The camp was a bit of a war zone. Driftwood was piled high around all the edges of the 3 tents. The kitchen zipper was busted. I am not sure why we ended up walking the 10m back to the river – maybe Brian was explaining were the washrooms were, below the tide line for #2 and we had to take the flare with us – but we saw bear number two walking along the beach on the other side. He walked past our position for about 200m and then swam across the river – the side we were on – and disappeared from sight. Soon after another couple bears – mom and her last cub from 2 years ago or so judging by size – took the very same route. I was stunned. Four bears in less than an hour. We never saw bears on that side of the river again. On the walk back to the tents we saw a moose cow and two claves in the distance towards the south end of the bay. Not a very common sight in an area that is full with grizzlies. After settling into camp we put on our hip-high gum boots and went for our first walked out into the south meadows to find a few more bears. It had stopped raining and one could see the mountains surrounding the bay a little bit better. And less than 15min walk away through high grass and lots of puddles we saw more bears. No more fence between us and them. One here another there, two more here. One chasing another (I think that was Longnose again chasing – he really became my favourite for being a bit different). I started to take pictures from miles away – well maybe 50-100m – since I have a great zoom on my camera. But Jonathan kept saying that we will get much closer. Most of the bears didn’t take much notice of us being there, they continued eating the grass, sedge grass that is. So really, they still looked like cows from the distance. We probably walked around for 2.5hrs and ran into at least 5 bears. So awesome!!! Even though it did start to drizzle again. Back in camp Brian cooked dinner on the stove in the kitchen tent – pre-made ground beef-peas-potatoes mix wrapped in aluminum foil. The plan had been to cook them on a campfire but it was too nasty out there still to just sit outside. Oh and we had baked chocolate chip bananas for desert – learned a few good tricks for camp food on this trip! Jonathan had been with us the whole time and told stories about the poor German guys in the storm. They really were in it for the rough – getting up in the middle of the night in the pouring rain to throw driftwood onto the edges of the tents to keep them from blowing away. And we are talking huge pieces of wood!! It was already quite late by the time we retired into the tent which was huge and large enough to stand up and slept well. The thought that a bear might get into camp never even crossed my mind.

Scenice shot – the mountains and glacier surrounding Hallo Bay

Jonathan and I watching

Grazing is what they do best

Close up – not cropped

The big guy was following the little blond around all day

Youngster

Day 2 (trip day 10) saw a lessening of the clouds – we could see higher mountains, a glacier to the east and around mid day the sun came out. It almost got warm. With the good weather though also came more tourists. Even though we were the only ones camped in the bay, during the day planes came into “our” bay in the morning and again at mid day to drop of groups of people to watch the bears like we did. But most of them stayed closer to the north meadow and the bay is huge. Anyways the bears didn’t seem to mind. And I never had issues with other humans in my pictures. But let’s talk about bears again. We walked around and sat around in the grass all day watching quite a number of different animals. Most were chowing down the sedge grass – some didn’t even seem to ever stop. This little female we watched for a while sure looked like she loves here food – big cute belly almost touching the grass. I called her Pummel – it’s German slang and closely translates into cute little fatty. I knew a horse with that name once – same color and big belly. By the way brown bears or grizzlies come in all shades of colors from dark brown to nut brown to chestnut to middle blond to really blond. Goldie was the bear with the lightest color fur – she has been around for 13 or so years and doesn’t seem to mind getting close to humans and have her picture taken. Brian was quite comfortable with us being less than 5m away from her. One time, Goldie who is very timid towards other bears, actually was hiding behind us from another bear. She seemed to feel safer with us than the other bear even though he didn’t do anything. She was maybe 4-5 m away from us. Jonathan was right – we did get soo0 much closer. See this video of her eating grass: http://youtu.be/Uch_o5B2ySE. We saw bears eating while standing, eating from a sitting position or eating laying down. Bears often wandered real close to us while we were sitting in the grass watching.

Clam Bear – walking towards us

Clam bear came reaaly close – too close? No way!

A friendly wrestling match

Needing a rest afterwards

“Pummel” – one of the few times she had her head up out of the grass

First row seating…watching Pummel and the wrestlers – Brian Jonathan & Jeff

Goldie – being chased by a bear and coming towards us.

Goldie feels safer with us humans

We saw bears digging for clams in the mud. We could hear them digging and cracking the shells. Watch this short little video I took: http://youtu.be/G8Go88X54YE. After this particular bear was done clamming (we think it was a she), she actually walked right towards us. She got within a couple meters until Brian reached for the flare and just called her off. She did back up a bit but kept circling around us half way looking at us. Jonathan said she only kept looking because we kept looking at her and she didn’t want to turn her back on us. Understandable since we didn’t want to turn our back on her either. But the one lesson for interacting with grizzly bears – they look at you, you look away. Eventually she continued on only to stop again shortly to start eating grass. Wow! I felt privileged being so close to these animals in their natural environment, never was scared. We saw bears walking around, bears sitting around scratching their bellies and bears sleeping – on their tummies, their sides or their backs. We saw bears eying each other suspiciously – until one looks away or ran off and we saw bears – him & her  – playful wrestling each other. UN-BE-LIEVABLE. I was wishing this day would never end. Never once got bored of it. Besides bears we also got to enjoy beautiful Hallo Bay vistas under mostly blue skies – the large meadows dotted with bears, surrounded by snow capped mountains – like Devils Desk a dormant volcano – and glaciers. Stunning. There are no roads anywhere near here – only way in or out is by plane. The maximum number of bears we counted at a given time was 13 – and apparently that’s a low number. Numbers have been significantly gone down over the years – maybe because of human presence?  As the sun slowly made its way towards the horizon all the other tourists left and we had the whole bay to ourselves again.

Walking back into camp after a great day

Beach camp fire – Jeff and Brian

..with a great sunset.

That night we did have a fire at the beach and while Jeff and Brian got that going, Jonathan and I watched camp bear having a snooze along the river. Ironically tonight’s dinner was chicken stew to be cooked on the stove but Brian just carried the stove out to the beach. It was a great evening among friends and not guide and clients. We watched a beautiful sunset – the first and only one really.

Day 3 (trip day 11) was overcast again. But while Jeff and I sat on the beach waiting for breakfast to be ready we were howled at by a wolf – he/she was across the river from us. Pretty cool. There is a wolf pack living at a den at Nursery Rock which marks the edge of the north meadow towards the west but we never saw them around. Brian and Jonathan assumed the wolf we saw was potentially from a neighboring pack. Nobody answered the howl. After breakfast we headed out again to see the bears. And yep, they hadn’t gone anywhere. This was also the morning where we had the close encounter with “Longnose” as I mentioned before.

Wolf howling on the beach in the morning

Day 3 in camp

Longnose checking us out

“I am not moving…”

More sleeping beauties

Floppy – king of the meadow

“Don’t bite…” “Just sniffing hello”

“What’s going on over there?”

Same as the day before most of the bears were either eating or sleeping or peacefully eyeing each other. That all changed when the king of the meadows entered the scene, “Floppy Ear”. He is a big male grizzly who has a smashed up right ear, obviously he has fought his way up to be king. But he also really likes to chase other bears around – just for fun. We watched this great scene were Floppy crossed over a little creek to enter a meadow with 3 smaller bears just grazing. One was a young male and he walked away immediately. Number two, which looked female to me but you never know, kept eye contact for a bit longer but then surrendered without an actual chase. Bear #3 though didn’t give in until Floppy started a short burst and #3 went running. Floppy, satisfied with stirring up the peaceful scene a bit walked through the meadow and disappeared over a small hump. The three bears all came back into the meadow shortly after and gathered around us so we could watch them a bit more interacting with each other without a fight or, guess what, start eating grass again. The weather wasn’t the greatest today, overcast and cold and it looked like rain a lot so the tourist planes stopped coming in after the morning sessions. Brian, Jeff and I actually took some time off of bear watching and walked all the way to the north end of the bay. The north meadow spit us out onto the beach. Earlier in the season bears had been hanging around in that area but they all seemed to have moved south – closer to the river which would be full of salmon in a couple more weeks. We walked past the previous camp site – which looked much more used than where we camped. We walked past a small cliff that was made up of shale and we stopped to look for fossils – there were all over, mostly clam shells. There was a sad story attached to that cliff. Apparently a mother bear lost one of her two cubs near it drowning in the ocean.  Brian actually saw it and so did the BBC doing a story on grizzly bears. The mother bear was looking for her cub for a while and they almost got pushed off the cliff by a big male. Eventually the mother took her remaining cub and walked/swam across to a little island in the middle of the bay. I hope they do well there. But she was the only bear with spring cubs Brian had seen this season. Needless to say we never saw any young cubs – another reason to do this again :-). We walked for a good 2hrs along the beach but encountered nothing but moose and wolf tracks. On our way back to the meadow it started to rain a bit. The bears didn’t really care but my camera did. But when we saw another couple bear in a playful encounter I pushed caution aside and kept taking pictures. My camera is still alive. We saw Floppy for a second time today. He did what he does best chasing other bears. But this time, we were in the line of fire and those two bears came right towards us. The bigger of the two just kept walking – I think we will see him again the next day and I call him “Big Face”. The smaller one, again I think it was a she bear, maybe because of the size, did the same thing Goldie did the day before and hid behind us. Now that might have been the one time I thought this could get interesting. Floppy seemed the most aggressive bear in the area and now we were between him and one of the potential victims. Brian also was much more nervous when Floppy showed up than with any other bear around. But Floppy seemed again satisfied with having send the other bears for a run and started to keen in onto another bear further away. Obviously we were nothing to him – not even worth a chase :-).

Jeff and Brian looking for fossils

Riding the beach bear

A little friendly tap

Camp Bear very close to camp

When we got back to camp that evening we were soaked. My raincoat was fine but with the rain pants being inside those big boots water was funneled right into them – oh well. Nothing a hot tea and some food could not fix. But before we had dinner – stove pizza which was excellent and such a simple thing to do – we had visitors near camp. First Jeff and I who just could not sit still kept walking around the camp to look at flowers and check out the beach and we almost ran into camp bear. But we felt like we have been old acquaintances already having spent 3 days in his company already. although never this close. And of course we didn’t follow Brian’s rule to never leave the camp area without a flare. We watched camp bear circle the camp and when Brian saw us and the bear he immediately came out with the flare to stand next to us. But everything was fine. Camp bear slowly chewed his way around camp. Rubbing himself on a small tree to mark his territory or maybe just scratch his back: http://youtu.be/22WRolPiANU. And we were actually able to watch him from inside the camp. Which may have been a good thing because all sudden, for the first time another bear showed up in our camp meadow (which wasn’t a sedge meadow but knee high regular grass and flowers). Camp bear got nervous – I think he liked the camp meadow because he usually has it all to himself. And it turned out that the challenger was Longnose. Well, obviously he had been close in the morning as we did see him near the beginning of our walk. Camp bear took flight pretty much right away. Longnose walked around the camp looking and sniffing for quite some time. We stayed outside the tent until he was again out of site – just making sure Longnose knows this was our territory within the fence. And for the first evening there was no bear in sight. Which didn’t really matter since we huddled up inside the kitchen tent with the ripped zipper to hide from the rain and wind – the later had kicked up all sudden. I had to go to the washroom after dinner for #2 and drenched my second pair of pants as the wind drove the hard drizzle horizontally across the beach. Camp bear was back the next morning.

Day 4 (trip day 12), our last day at camp. Zack was supposed to pick us up early afternoon since Jeff and I had a flight out of Anchorage at just after midnight that day. It had been quite windy and wet all night but the rain had stopped by the time we got going for our last visit of the bears. And they sure put on a great show for the end. We didn’t have to go far before we ended up in a group of 4-5 bears surrounding us. Longnose was one of them in the south. There was a young male to the west who seemed quite timid and stayed away the furthest from all the other bears – Jonathan said he had seen him before being chased around a lot. Then there was a bigger bear with yellow ear tips to the north west, a lightly coloured female to the north and the biggest of all five animals, the one I named Big Face, to the east. The little female took petty on our youngster and actually seemed to offer herself to him. But the poor guy didn’t really know what to do with her and eventually she gave up and walked away. Only to try the same thing with Big Face as well.

Unsuccessful courtship – Big Face didn’t seem interested

He had some other girl in mind already – “Mud all over her the face”

Cute couple

But he didn’t seemed interested whatsoever. Jonathan was saying that it would be pretty late for mating anyhow.  Longnose was watching from the south but didn’t make a move either – getting up seemed too much effort. So all the bears went back to peacefully grazing again. We decided to check out the mud flats to see if anyone was clamming. And to our surprise there were 3 bears digging for clams. Even more surprisingly they all took off as we slowly walked closer – this was the first time I felt I actually interfered. Two ran away from us but the 3rd one, muddy snout and feet walked intently in our direction. He/she didn`t come that close but sure seemed on a mission. So we followed him/her back into the meadow to the other bears we just left behind. He/she walked straight past that little female that has been trying to court the males towards big face and sat down in front of him like that female had done no less than 15min ago. And guess what, Big Face was all over “Mud all over her not his face” and they started going at it right in front of us: That poor little rejected female, Longnose and the timid youngster and we all were watching.  Longnose lost interest first, I am sure the youngster learned something and the little female tried  to beg extra cute rolling on her back. I felt pity for her. Brian and Jeff just watched. Jonathan and I took pictures. And the two lovers couldn’t care less about us. It went on for a long time. For the most part Big Face seemed very gentle. Only once did he earn a snarl from her when he bit her ear. All too soon did we have to leave that group of animals behind that had allowed us to be part of their life for a few hours. But we had to get back to camp, pack up and get ready for the flight out.

Another big bear on the way back towards camp

Camp bear in the camp meadow – one last time

On the way back to camp I could not resist to take more pictures of all those bears we walked past. The weather had turned to the better and the sun peaked through every so often. Back in camp Brian called Zack on the satellite phone to make sure he is still on schedule. Apparently Homer was pretty sogged in and he wasn’t able to take off right away but would be leaving within the hour. We were supposed to call again once we had crossed the river with all the gear. I had time to say good bye to camp bear – who off course didn’t really care.  We had no problem getting our gear across. And then the waiting started. We called at the scheduled time again only to find out that the weather in Homer was still bad – it was fine where we were. So another hour delay. While walking the beach a bit we saw a fox on the other side of the river. He was eying us for a while but then got bored and took off. Apparently foxes are quite curious and would come real close – if not for the river between us. Another hour later and the situation in Homer still hadn’t improved. Now it was getting close to the time I thought we would have to leave at the latest to catch our flight home that night. It’s a good 5 hr drive from Homer to Anchorage. But another hour later and it was still 45min till Zack thought he should be able to leave Homer. And with that we officially had almost no chance to catch the flight home. Lucky for me I had pre-warned my boss I might be delayed by weather. I was ready to call Zack again and tell he didn’t need to stress himself, we would stay another night. But finally we were picked up by Zack’s business partner Tim. The flight home was spectacular as we had great views over the coastline of Katmai Park with its large bays, snow capped mountains and glaciers all over. But half way up north to Homer it started clouding over again.

Our flight out just landed

Nice views for the first half of the flight along the coast of Katmai Park

Back in Homer I was able to use Brian’s phone to call United Airline to get a new flight. Remind me to never fly United again!!! Not only did they not care that it wasn`t our fault that we missed the flight – Zack gave us a letter explaining the weather delays which is really very common in Alaska – but also was this guy on the phone a complete idiot. It all started with a voice recognition program answering the first call – that never works with my German accent but Jeff got through it no problem. Then I finally got to talk to this guy with a Chinese accent and it was almost as bad as the voice recognition program. He finally found us another flight the next day around 10AM but when I asked him if he had also changed the reservation from Seattle to Vancouver he said “Seattle? Oh no, the flight goes to San Francisco”. So how the hell would we get from San Fran to Vancouver – he didn’t have an answer for that. And anyhow, I do not want to travel all the way south to San Fran only to fly back almost half the distance to Vancouver. What the hell was he thinking!!!! So I told him I don’t want to fly to San Fran. And he said, there is no other flight. I like, “what? There got to be another flight from Anchorage to Vancouver”. He insisted, No! I almost asked for the supervisor right there but gave it one more try. How about the flight we just missed but 24hrs later – knowing that most airlines must have at least one daily flight. And he said, oh yes he could check that. By that time Zack had already left the office and Brian was being very nice not getting impatient about wanting his phone back. Well eventually the guy found the corresponding flight just one day later and he repeated the reservation to me and said he’d be sending the confirmation in an email – which of course I wouldn’t have access to. We had to pay the full change fee of $150 per person but I was too tired to argue. It was 9pm by now and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. But finally everything sounded like under control and I handed Brian his phone back. We had gained a full extra day in Alaska – fine by me!! To take away the suspense – when we got to the airport the next evening well in time for that flight we were told that we weren’t booked on that flight but the one on the following day. I could have killed someone right there…. Lucky for us they had enough space on that flight that we could go standby. And I never received that confirmation email either…  By the way a big THANK YOU to Brian and Jonathan for making this trip such a wonderful experience.

Day 13: We stayed the night in Homer, getting some food at the only place still open, one of the two pubs. The next day, unexpected, lucky day 13 of our trip, the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The views of Kachemak Bay and across to the Alaskan Peninsula were beautiful – we finally got to see the famous still active volcanoes in the distance. Mount Augustine, Mount Iliamna and a bit up the road Mount Redoubt. Mt Augustine actually looked like smoke was coming out of the top. We took our time on the drive back to Anchorage taking the scenic route along Skilak Lake – the only dirt road we ever traveled on. We stopped in for one more time at the Kenai River to see the fishing boats float by as well as spot a small grizzly bear on the other side of the river. Last but not least we stopped for what we thought would be a quick hike just east of Cooper Landing – the Crescent Lake trail. The sky had clouded over a bit but it was still nice.

Mt Iliamna and Mt Redoubt in the distance

Crescent Creek Valley

“I don’t have time to turn around for a picture…”

Bear family, Crescent Creek Valley

It was already 4pm when we started on our hike but I thought we would be able to make it up there in less than 2 hrs and if we’d be back at the car by 8pm we had enough time to catch our flight. The trail was pretty easy at first through forest into the narrow steep valley of Crescent Creek. We did a good pace and I was even more convinced we’d be up at the lake in no time (all based on the stats in the hiking book we had comparing the Harding Icefield trail with this one). But the trail went on and on and on. it opens up with great views over the valley and beautiful meadow-lined mountain sides. There were bear tracks and bear dropping EVERYWHERE on the trail. And the trail led through head high brush for a lot of the time. I thought we’d be running into a bear any second. Somehow we had convinced ourselves by the size of the poop and prints that these could only come from a black bear. We walked at a good clip for 2hrs and still no lake in sight. I am sure it was JUST around the next corner but we had to turn back to not risk missing another flight, another call to United and another $300 of change fees. We even sped up a bit more on the way back – the grade was very level so not really a problem. Except that I did have to stop for just one last picture of the steep valley. And all sudden I hear Jeff say “look-look”. About 100m below us on the other side of the creek was a grizzly mom with 3 cubs – we are still not sure if they were this year’s or last year’s cubs. They looked fairly big. But how can a grizzly raise 3 cubs, especially since she seemed to limp a bit as well. Usually they hardly ever bring one of two through the first year. What an amazing encounter. Jeff forced me to turn around and face him so he could take a picture with me and the bears in the back. While I really wanted to get my big zoom going and take close ups of that little family below us. They actually did notice us and started to walk off a bit but since we froze in the spot they relaxed again and started to, guess what, graze again :-). So we got to see cubs after all!!! Three of them which was fantastic!!! But now we really had to speed-walk down the trail (I can’t run) and my knees were sore for days after (I think they still are). We made it to the car at just before 8pm. The rest of the drive was relatively uneventful except for the again great scenery of the Chugach National Forest (-next time we sepnd more time there) and Turnagain Arm. The sun came through again near the Arm and made for some nice photo ops. We made it into Anchorage with time to spare except it was a bit of a hassle to get rid of leftover stove fuel. I already mentioned the little issue with our flights but at the end everything was fine except Jeff and I were not able to sit together on the flight. Not a biggy – since it was a red-eye flight and I slept for most of it anyways. No drama this time on the Seattle to Vancouver flight either and we landed at 7AM on Jul 14th only to rush home, have a shower and go to work. All day I still saw bears in front of my inner eye – still do.

We will do this again – all of it. The skiing camp was great – the people there made all the difference; the flight seeing was spectacular and the bear watching was phenomenal. Next time we want to go to Hallo Bay in August when the salmon are running and one can see the bears fishing for them – a bit more action than just eating grass. Now some may argue those bears are used to humans and not really wild anymore. But I am not sure about that – they just don’t feel threaten by us and ignore our presence.

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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

August 5, 2012

Skiing in July, are you nuts? – Alaska Trip Part 1

Filed under: Alaska, Ski, Travel — K2 in Canada @ 9:25 PM

I started this post about a week after we got back but between work, paddling in the evenings, racing and biking a week ago and going fishing two weeks ago there wasn’t much time to blog or more importantly organize the millions of pictures. But let’s start from the beginning

When Jeff asked me at the beginning of June if I would be interested in a Cross-Country Skiing Camp in July I said exactly what’s stated in the title. When he said it would be on a glacier, I still thought “so what”. But then he said the glacier was in Alaska and that got me interested right away. We only had a month to plan the trip. There are a million things I wanted to do but we only had 12 days and 5 of those were for the skiing camp. The one thing I really wanted to do though was seeing the grizzlies or brown bears as they call them up there. So I found all these places online that take you into bear country and camp there. I emailed a few places not expecting to find an opening since it was so close and their peak season. But then Zack from Sasquatch (http://www.sasquatchalaska.com/) replied right away that he had space on a 4 day trip. It cost an arm and a leg but it was sure worth it. But I am getting ahead of myself again.

We left Vancouver on the evening of July 3rd to arrive in Anchorage just before midnight. I didn’t know that Alaska is actually an hour behind us. The weather forecast was for rain and it did rain when we landed. We had booked a room in the Alaska Backpackers Inn and it didn’t take long to get there from the Airport. The room was VERY basic to say the least, but hey all we needed was a bed and we fell asleep right away.

Coastal trail – downtown Anchorage in the distance

July 4th started out gray and overcast. The place we picked for breakfast (thanks to Lonely Planet) happened to be closed that day. Well it was one of the US’s biggest holidays – Independence Day. We had to walk all across downtown (not bothering to get a rental car for the one day in town) but were lucky to find an open deli that served an excellent breakfast. First time ever to try reindeer sausage and I fell in love with it! After that we started walking along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail which goes on for a long ways.  Anchorage has an amazing trail system – it seems like you can walk everywhere without having to walk on a major road. And in the winter those trails turn into cross-country skiing tracks. We walked for a long time all the way to Airport Park just north of Point Woronzof. We saw Sandhill Cranes at Fish Creek but no moose. Not that I really expected to see moose within city limits but there were signs everywhere and later on the locals at our ski camp told us that they do roam the area quite frequently. They are actually a nuisance in the winter when people ski the trails and all sudden you almost run into a moose around a downhill corner.

Moose encounters in city limits?

We took a slightly different route on the way back along Westchester Lagoon and Chester Creek before making our way back to the downtown area. By now my feet were tired and Jeff’s were sore – no wonder wearing his sandals. We must have done over 20km already. We had lunch at the Snow Geese Restaurant overlooking Fish Creek. So of course we had to check that out next. Any other year and Fish Creek would have been packed with anglers targeting King salmon (our Springs). But due to very low returns this year the creek was closed to all fishing. We walked all the way down to the mouth of the creek – through the mud flats rather than choosing the paved trail leading up-creek. It was quite slippery but Jeff could take off his sandals to cool his sore feet a bit. It wasn’t really worth it since besides a bunch of geese sliding down the muddy banks – which was funny mind you – we didn’t see anything alive. Back on the paved trail we dropped our tired bodies on a bench and had a snooze. Didn’t really know what to do next except that it should be something that does not involve walking. Maybe a scenic flight? We walked back to the downtown area but all the flight seeing seemed very expensive and it was already late afternoon. But eventually we found something – a short film about the Aurora Borealis in Alaska at the Centre for Performing Arts. Quite amazing photography!!  And a popular pub – Humpy’s – was right across the street from the theatre and we went there for dinner and a well deserved beer. Sitting at the bar – the place was packed – we got to talk to the guy on our left who was from Oregon and in Alaska for work for a few weeks. He told some moose and bear story. But then he walked out without paying for his beer. Weird!! On our left was a woman from South Carolina who just got in the same day to start a new life in Alaska. Never found out the details behind that story. We only met very few people that were born and raised in Alaska. Strengthened by a huge chef salad or dulled by the beer we walked back to our Hostel. It was still light out but we were done for the day. Looking at an early start for the next day.

Keith taking off to pick up more skiers

The cabin at the edge of the cliff

The day we were going to start the masters ski camp on Eagle Glacier. We had to be at APU by 7AM. I was a bit worried when our cab driver told us this is his first week on the job and he THINKS APU (Alaska Pacific University) is near U of A (University of Alaska). Lucky for us he was right and we even managed to find the right building pretty quick. We squeezed about 16 people and all their skis and gear into a white van and a Suburban and drove to Girdwood, about 40miles south of Anchorage. Camp organizer and coach Dylan as well as coach Greta did the driving. The drive along Turnagain Arm was very scenic but the weather got worse the closer we got. Low clouds and strong winds. There was a chance that the helicopter won`t be able to fly to get us up to the glacier. Lucky for us awesome pilot Keith decided it would be okay. We loaded all our gear into a big cargo net and he took the gear up first before the people. Six persons could ride in the helicopter plus the pilot and there were 18 of us – Jeff and I managed to get the front seats on the first ride up. Was that ever cool!!! The trip was really short and visibility wasn`t great but I loved it none-the-less. I think I want to become a helicopter pilot. Keith did a great job since the wind was really blowing up top. But somehow he brought the helicopter down onto this tiny wooden platform just above the cabin on the ridge. And what was drizzle below was driving snow up top. Welcome to Eagle Glacier! Eric and Mike greeted us on top. Erik Flora is the head coach at APU and manages the facility on the glacier – he also coaches Kikkan Randall, the 2012 Overall World Sprint Champion (http://www.kikkan.com/ssp/bio). Oh oh, I thought, I might be in way over my head. Everyone up there had skied for many years and most were seasoned racers. But first I should talk about the accommodation. They were fabulous. I didn`t expect that. Two stories tall. The upstairs consisted of multiple rooms with bunk beds sleeping up to 24 people in total (very comfortable ones I have to add) together with an exercise area featuring a couple stationary bikes, a weight bench and lots of room for stretching. The downstairs had a sitting area with comfortable sofas and a big screen TV, a dining area with chairs and tables and a big and very well stocked kitchen. We never went hungry!!! There were “real” toilets, hot showers and even a small sauna. And a great area up front to dry your wet gear – if not for the smell I didn’t have to bring extra clothes. While we got settled Erik and Mike went out to set the track for the afternoon session – skating. I looked outside and thought – this is going to be nuts. It`s howling wind and snowing. In July! I can`t even see more than 50m. There is no glacier to ski on…. Should I really go out in this? But after an awesome lunch everyone was really excited to get their first ski in. The coaches reminded us to take it easy since none of us had been on skis for some time. Mind you the guys/girls from Anchorage were able to ski till May having had a record snow year. But the couple from California was not. But let me introduce the group – what an awesome bunch of people: Cindy & Pat from California (so Jeff and I weren’t the furthest travelers but we were the only “internationals”), Gil from Seattle , Kathy, Travis, Shannon, Dan, Hank, Tom, Scott & Michelle, Rick, Sam and Reno (with his 70+ years) from the Anchorage area. And of course the coaching and support team of Erik, Dylan, Greta and Mike who took so good care of us, going out early to set the tracks, preparing breakfast, keeping the place clean and tidy and most of all gave us a lot of excellent coaching tips. Erik teaches a bit of a different technique than I have heard before but it made so much more sense to me the way he explained it. Not that I could really adopt it right away but as I will get better I am sure this will come. Needless to say I did go out the first afternoon – bundled up in more layers than in any of the ski session I did all winter long but also peeling them off quickly. To get to the glacier we actually had to go down this big hill first – oh and I hate going down right of the start without getting my legs used to being on skis again. But I survived with only a small crash right on top and skied the 5km loop 3 times. 15km should be easy, right!? I should have listened to the coaches though to not overdo it on day one. To start off I am very new to skating so it was quite exhausting even though there weren’t any big hills. Secondly even on the downhills you had to push into the gale-force wind. And third, visibility on lap 3 went down to nothing. I could barely see the poles that mark the trail – even at my slow pace – never mind see any contours on the track. Needless to say I crashed just before the end of lap 3 and rolled over my right ankle. That hurt!! I finished the lap only to find out that I had to also ski up this huge hill again to get back to the cabin, rats! Most others were already up, being much faster skiers than I. I probably could have asked for a ride up on the snow mobile with Mike but there is this stupid pride/stubbornness in me. It seemed to take forever and I walked on my skis for most of it. I made it and was glad to sit on the sofa for a bit – even napping to the delight of my fellow skiers – before being on dinner cooking duty. Dylan had divided us up into three groups to be responsible for either cleaning up after lunch, cooking dinner or cleaning up after dinner for the 3 nights we were up there. Worked great! The evening was spent with a coaching lesson from Erik and sharing stories with the fellow skiers. It got late – not dark – too quickly.

Group shot

Getting ready to face the hill down – one can see the loop in the distance

Jeff having fun

Jeff and I at the highest point of the tracks

We got up every day at around seven, had a huge breakfast and did a skate session in the morning. Followed by a huge lunch and then classic in the afternoon. All in all five 1-1.5hr long sessions each between 10 and 20km long for me. My ankle swelled up over night but I still managed to squeeze it into the ski boot every day. My classic skiing was much better than the skating – not a big surprise. And off course I am still best at double poling. The days went by too quickly. Day 2 saw a bright blue sky and sunshine on top so we actually got to see the glacier – it’s magnificent. The views are awesome. But weather can roll in quick. The wind got less and less each day and we peeled off more and more layers but I never really got down to shorts and T-shirt. It was still unseasonably cold and usually they do not get fresh snow in July. We had fresh snow every day!!! And I can’t stress enough how well our little group got along. I hope we’ll meet again – maybe some of them come visit us or we’ll be back for next years Masters Camp.

Our baggage coming back down last

Moose and calves at APU – wonder what courses they are taking

On Day 4 we again had some weather rolling in and had to take the first opportunity for the flight out in the morning rather than skiing one more time. Which was okay by me since I was beat – not only because of my swollen right ankle but overall the body was tired from all that skiing in July. The helicopter flight was again an awesome experience – we even got to see a rainbow. On the drive back to Anchorage the sun made an appearance and I was ready to start part 2 of our trip. It got even better when we reach APU where we saw a moose with two young feeding in front of one of the buildings. But it took a while until I could take a picture of those. Turned out that we had left one of the bags back at the helicopter place in Girdwood. And of course it was the bag with my passport and wallet and all other documents in it. Not having a car booked till the next day I panicked a bit. But at the end it all turned out well. Greta helped us to contact the rental place to pick up the car early, I got my moose picture and we drove back to Girdwood to get the bag. Found a great bakery on the way too! What next? That’s for another post.

Lots more pictures can be found here: https://google.photo.com/SkiingInJulyYouNutsAlaskaTrip2012Part1

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