Sunday, November 9, 2014

Alaska 2014 | Seward to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge in Aialik Bay

Spire Cove
After a good night's sleep at the Whistle Stop, we walked to the Seward boat office for Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge about a half-block away. The boat, a small catamaran named the Wild Lander, was due to depart at 10:00 am; we arrived at 9:15, with me fully medicated against sea-sickness (hopefully) and ready for this four-hour trip, which touted spectacular views along the Kenai Peninsula of mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. Though I very much wanted to see whales, I tried not to come with that expectation. I looked forward to seeing some interesting landscapes and more sea otters, which, between you and me, I was pretty excited about.
Resurrection Bay
Considering that this part of Alaska is a temperate rain forest, it was not surprising that, once again, it was raining. While we waited to board, I pulled my rain pants on, guessing that various surfaces on the boat would be wet from rain and sea spray. (It would be approximately 5 days before I took them off again.) Once on board, we were given boat safety tips from the skipper, Jessica, and advised of what our trip would entail. Navigating south through Resurrection Bay, west around the tip of Aialik Peninsula, and then north into Aialik Bay, we would have many opportunities to view the fjords and any animals that happened to be around. Lunch, consisting of sandwiches, soup, and other various snacks, would be served on the boat, but the crew warned that the seas were expected to get rough when heading around Aialik Cape, so it was advised that everyone wait until after that segment of the journey to dig in.
The approximate route. (NPS map with annotation)
Apparently the weather had been unfavorable for a while; the seas had been rough, and the previous trip to the lodge was fraught with sea-sickness. At the end of the trip, Jessica admitted that she had been worried that our voyage was going to be more of the same. She was afraid that everyone was going to be miserable and throwing up, and there would be no animal sightings. However, ours would turn out to be the best trip of the summer up to that point in her opinion (maybe not counting the weather, although it's possible that the gloominess contributed to the multitude of animals being out on the water).
As the boat pulled away from the harbor, we immediately had our first wildlife encounter of the day in the form of a bald eagle perched on a docking beacon. We headed out into the gloom of Resurrection Bay toward the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska and into an unforgettable experience. 

I cannot attempt to provide a detailed account of this boat trip; it was impossible to keep track of details as we were bombarded with one exciting moment after another. It was a truly spectacular experience. Behold:
Spire Cove

Steller Sea Lions

Harbor Seals
Humpback Whale
Sleeping Sea Otter and Sea Stars (sea star photo by Andrea)
The scenery was gorgeous, with lush, green mountains giving the illusion of being in the tropics – until one noticed the ice and snow capping them. Jessica constantly scanned the water looking for wildlife, and it was interesting to witness her and various other boat skippers working together to keep each other informed of good wildlife viewing opportunities so everyone could participate. 

About halfway through the trip, I started to feel queasy and worried that the sea-sickness medication was not going to be adequate. This coincided with the rough waters off Aialik Cape, and after spending time in the fresh air off the back of the boat and being distracted by more scenery, the feeling passed and I was brave enough to eat a sandwich.
Before the final leg of the journey into upper Aialik Bay, we took in some picturesque spots where the combination of mountains, trees, and low clouds created painting-like landscapes. Sadly, I don't know where, exactly, these areas were or if they had names, so I can't pinpoint them on a map. We also detoured into Holgate Arm for a close view of Holgate Glacier's terminus – a gorgeous, bright blue wall of ice at the edge of the water.
Holgate Glacier
As we approached our drop-off point – a stretch of cobble beach tucked around a curved, protruding piece of land separating Pedersen Lagoon from Aialik bay – we enjoyed the view of Aialik Glacier at the north end of the bay. We would become more familiar with the upper bay and glacier in the following days during our stay at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, which is hidden on Pederson Lagoon, a short walk away through the forest, and the subject of the next blog post.
The Wild Lander drops us off in Aialik Bay, then leaves without a trace
The boat drops visitors off, then it's a walk through a meadow and into the woods to Pedersen Lagoon

Wildlife observed:
Bald eagles: 3
Steller sea lions: a bunch
Sea stars: a few
Orcas: 3
Puffins: many
Sea otters: several
Harbor seals: lots
Humpback whales: 2
Cormorants: many
Jellyfish: a few 

To be continued in: Four Days at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Alaska 2014 | Anchorage to Seward via the Alaska Railroad

It turns out the warm and sunny weather of the day before was a fluke. The sky was overcast when we started walking to the train station, and it began raining lightly along the way. While the temperature outside was cool, the train station was hot and packed with people. We picked up our tickets, checked our luggage, and received fancy pins to wear that alerted everyone that we were highfalutin GoldStar passengers. 
All aboard.  Waiting to depart - looking forward from our seats in the GoldStar Dome.
I knew that this experience as a whole was going to be great, but I was really excited for this train trip. It had been a long time since I'd ridden a train; not wanting to take any chances, I took motions sickness medication as a precaution, hoping the less drowsy formula wouldn't put me in a stupor. Vague, foggy memories of a childhood trip to the Rocky Mountains, during which I was slumped – not quite awake, and not quite asleep – in the backseat of my parents' car as it wound up and down mountain roads always give me pause when considering taking motion sickness meds. I was like the NazgÛl, neither living nor dead. I wanted to be conscious for this experience.

I recommend booking seats on the train early if choosing the GoldStar dome service. We made our reservations in late March and had great seats – row six in the first upper passenger deck. Row one had the best view, and I wondered how much earlier the people in those seats made theirs. (Something to shoot for next time I'm in the neighborhood.) Huge picture windows curve uninterrupted into the transparent dome ceiling, providing expansive views. Unfortunately, the splattering of raindrops made it difficult to take photos out of our window, but because we were fancy, our car had its own outdoor viewing platform, which solved that problem. Once we were out of the immediate Anchorage area, we made many trips to this outdoor deck for as long as we could stand the cold wind. We also had a small bar, where booze could be purchased throughout the trip. 

Luggage was loaded into baggage cars, passengers were settled in their seats, and the train left the station at 6:45 a.m. 

Shortly after departing, breakfast was served in the dining area on the lower level of our car for those who were interested. Always interested in breakfast, we both ordered dishes featuring reindeer sausage, with hot chocolate for Andrea and a bloody Mary for me. Naturally, during the few minutes I took to use the restroom – a slightly challenging activity while being jostled around in a tiny space – I missed a bald eagle flying next to the train. As we ate breakfast, we watched the suburban sprawl of the Anchorage area disappear to be replaced by meadows, streams, and the Chugach Mountains on one side, and Turnagain Arm on the other.

In the dining car, traveling along Turnagain Arm. This passenger finally convinced her kid to put his tablet away (note the slightly smug look of victory).
Turnagain Arm is one of two branches of Cook Inlet (the other is Knik Arm to the north). It is known for its extreme tide variation of up to 40 feet, which rushes into this narrow channel as quickly as 10 mph. Expansive mudflats are exposed during low tide, and they are surprisingly dangerous. Formed by silt deposited when the tide comes in, they look deceptively stable when the tide goes back out. While they might appear dry on the surface, underneath they can still be saturated. When standing on these mudflats, if a person's foot sinks through the surface, things can get terrifying quickly. The wet silt is like quicksand, and there are horrific stories of people being trapped – held in place and helpless as the nearly freezing water of the tide comes in at its accelerated pace.
Photo by Andrea - taken in Anchorage
Alaska Railroad personnel periodically provided commentary, sharing the history behind the region and various landmarks. Evidence of the 1964 earthquake revealed itself here and there in the occasional cluster of ghost trees – preserved skeletons of trees that were killed when the ground sank and saltwater rushed inland, saturating the ground before being absorbed into the trees' roots.   

My first Alaskan wildlife sighting happened during breakfast as we passed close to some cliffs. We were advised to keep a lookout, as Dall sheep are sometimes seen on the cliffs' higher reaches. Shortly after this advisement, someone shouted “sheep!” and we looked to see one or two white specks high up on the cliff. Zooming in through the window of the bumpy, speeding train, my camera managed to catch one. Success!
**First Alaskan Wildlife Sighting**
Dall Sheep.  (Trust me. It's there.)

Once the train reaches the end of Turnagain Arm, it heads inland into Chugach National Forest, and the Chugach Mountains give way to the Kenai Mountain range. We observed a bald eagle perched on an upper branch of a tree at the edge of a meadow as we headed into the mountains, and soon after, the first impressive glacier scene came into view: Spencer Glacier. 
Spencer Glacier
Following Spencer Glacier, the train winds through a series of tunnels, with views of Placer River just off the tracks. Then comes an area called Grandview, a mountain pass with spectacular views. The scenery is gorgeous, and although I had admittedly hoped for a sunny day, the imposing sky lent a dramatic effect to the scenery. We spent a lot of time on the outdoor viewing platform, occasionally returning to our seats to warm up.

Entering a tunnel

Approaching another tunnel
After Grandview, the train offers another impressive view of a glacier at work carving out a valley between mountains. Trail Glacier is particularly beautiful, with scenic landscape unfolding in layers before the train tracks: mountains give way to forest, which opens up into a meadow with a stream winding through it. After that, it's view upon view of Trail Creek, Upper Trail Lake, streams flowing down mountainsides from melting snow and ice at the top, and the train tracks winding through it all. It was awesome in the true sense of the word. To celebrate this, we drank mimosa.
Trail Glacier.  This place actually exists in real life.  The only way this could be better is if a couple of bear cubs were paddling a tiny canoe in that stream.
The tracks wind past the town of Moose Pass, where it appears that every one of its 200 residents owns a float plane.  Impractical where I live, but I feel like I should have one. The train crosses a bridge over Trail Creek, then heads toward Kenai Lake, and finally Seward. Despite my extreme excitement for this train trip, I am ashamed to report that I caught myself dozing shortly before arriving in Seward. The combination of Dramamine, bloody Mary, and mimosa may have been a contributing factor.
Looking toward the front of the train as it travels along Kenai Lake
Looking toward the rear of the train as it travels along Kenai Lake
We arrived in Seward around 11:15 a.m. It is a short walk from the train station to the harbor, which was filled with fishing boats, sailboats, tour boats, and one huge cruise ship. The Port of Seward is an active port with boat repair yards and a coal-loading facility.  We were staying at The Whistle Stop, a converted train car right on the harbor. We were concerned that it would be loud there during the night and early morning since it is located directly on the harbor, but it proved to be a quiet and comfortable place to stay. We were too early to check in, so we dropped our duffel bags off and headed out to explore the town. 

View of Seward Harbor from the Whistle Stop
Seward is beautiful. Nestled at the foot of mountains on Resurrection Bay, it is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. A small corner of the park can be reached by car just outside Seward; however, the majority of the park is best accessed by boat. Various boat tours depart Seward's harbor daily, and water taxi services can drop kayakers off at various locations within the park, where they can paddle and camp if they so choose, before meeting back up with the water taxi to return to town.

Tour boats in the harbor.  Fireweed in the foreground.
We walked the length of town, past charter offices, restaurants, and gift shops, to the Alaska SeaLife Center, an ocean wildlife rescue center and aquarium. We spent some time there touching sea stars and sea urchins in open tanks, watching Woody the sea lion flop around and roar, and observing a puffin shoot its feces an impressively long distance at an unsuspecting tourist. To celebrate this, we ate crab.

We ate a late lunch/early dinner at Chinook's, where we enjoyed poutine, Alaskan king crab, and a crab melt sandwich. After that, we returned to the Whistle Stop to take a nap and recuperate. Later, we followed the Coastal Walk past salmon spawning in a stream and along the bay to the historic marker of the starting point of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. There is a monument with a plaque and a replica of a sled. I expected a statue of a dog; it seems odd that there isn't one. We watched sea otters floating on their backs offshore, and a bald eagle soared overhead, scanning the shallow water near shore for dinner. As we returned to our room on the harbor, the setting sun behind us cast orange light on the mountains across the bay. It was finally sinking in that we were in Alaska. 
Sunset on Seward Harbor

Wildlife spotted:
Dall Sheep: 1 (maybe 2)
Bald eagle: 3
Sea otter: several 

 Some maps:

Alaska Railroad - Coastal Classic train route

To be continued in: Kenai Fjords National Park: Seward to Aialik Bay

Friday, September 19, 2014

Alaska 2014 | Introduction

A float plane waits in Moose Pass, AK

For anyone thinking he or she would like to visit Alaska someday: do it. Leave tomorrow. 

This trip was not relaxing; it was action-packed, mind-blowing, and very wet. We got up early and made the most of every single day. We lived in our rain gear. Our cameras barely survived. By the end of the trip, we needed a vacation. It was truly awesome. 

In connection with a fundraising event, my sister Andrea won a raffle with a grand prize of airfare for 2 to anywhere in continental North America. It pays to get along with your siblings; you never know when this type of thing could happen, and you want to be on the short list when it does.

We could go anywhere in North America. We could go to Nunavut if we wanted to (we want to). Out of the many places we both would love to visit, how were we to decide on one? We each made a list of our top choices and then compared. My list included a learning vacation to Churchill, Manitoba (Observe polar bears! Ride in huge tundra vehicles!) and Andrea's featured various destinations in British Columbia. Both of our lists shared places in the Canadian Rockies, Arizona, and Alaska. After some discussion regarding how to get the most out of this opportunity, including potential activity, and logistics (Nunavut might prove logistically complicated, for instance) we decided on Alaska. But where?

Totem in Girdwood, AK
Alaska is huge. There are around 20 national parks, preserves, and monuments throughout the state, plus wildlife refuges and national historic sites. However, many of these places are inaccessible by car. Roads are limited, and many places are reachable only by boat or bush plane.

Kenai Fjords National Park appealed to us because of its glaciers, landscape shaped by ice and sea, and the potential for seeing a variety of wildlife. It is located in south-central Alaska, west of Glacier Bay, and east of Katmai National Parks. Anyone who has visited this blog in the past knows that I have a thing for ice, and the 700-square-mile icefield that crowns the Kenai Mountains – a relic from the ice age from which nearly 40 glaciers descend – is something that I really wanted to see. The area is easily reachable from Anchorage, but the park itself is accessible mainly by boat, with only a small corner accessible by car. Despite my flair for sea-sickness, the idea of traveling by boat through this landscape sounded great. I was prepared to take lots of meds and think positively.

So, how to get there? Where to stay? What to do?

We like to make our own itineraries and do our own thing, but planning at least part of this trip with a guide organization of some kind seemed like a good idea, especially given the park's very limited access by car. We had 12 days including travel time; we didn't want to squander any time wondering what to do and how to do it. 

Online research led us to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, a remote and secluded backcountry lodge that is accessible only by boat. The lodge was built and is operated by Alaska Wildland Adventures, an ecotourism organization that specializes in low-impact guided journeys for small numbers of guests in the Kenai Peninsula and Denali areas. It's possible to take journeys of various lengths, with AWA planning and guiding visitors through their entire trip. Or, reservations can be made independently at one of their three lodges in the Kenai Peninsula. We chose this option.

Slate Island, Aialik Bay
We decided to begin our trip at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, and we booked a 4-day/3-night stay. It would take 3 days to reach the lodge. The plan: Fly to Anchorage, then head south to Seward, a small harbor town on Resurrection Bay. Seward is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park; from there, Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge would bring us to the lodge by boat.

To get from Anchorage to Seward, we booked tickets on the historic Alaska Railroad, which travels that route daily in the summer. The train meanders around inlets and mountains, near glaciers, and through the occasional small town. It is a fun way to travel, and I recommend spending the extra money to upgrade to Gold Star service, which offers seats in the upper passenger deck with a glass domed roof and an outdoor viewing platform. Alternatively, visitors can drive the scenic Alaska Highway 1, which takes basically the same route. 

After our stay at the lodge, we would return to Seward and venture out on our own for the rest of the trip. That would leave us with 5 days; we made plans to do some hiking and flightseeing in the area, and left a couple of days at the end to drive to Denali National Park before returning to Anchorage for our flight home.

We left Detroit Metro at 7:25 am eastern time, had a brief layover in Minneapolis, then arrived in Anchorage at 11:30 am Alaska time. We gained 4 hours, which gave us nearly the entire day to explore the city. 
Mural in Anchorage
We took a cab to Arctic Fox Inn, a bed and breakfast on the northeast edge of downtown Anchorage, within good walking distance from the train station and shopping areas. We had booked one of their 1-bedroom apartments, which was comfortable and spacious. We wished we could spend more time in Anchorage to take advantage of the great accommodations and the inn's gourmet breakfast, which we would miss, unfortunately. We had to be at the train station by 6:00 the next morning, so they made to-go breakfasts for us, which we found waiting in our refrigerator when we returned later that night.
Our apartment at Arctic Fox Inn

The weather was gorgeous – sunny and around 70º. After checking in, we spent some time studying a map of downtown Anchorage and figuring out where to eat. We walked to Glacier Brewhouse, where we drank Amber and India Pale Ales and ate delicious seafood chowder, halibut, steak, and chocolate torte. Afterwards, we continued walking around town, spending several hours checking out the shops and enjoying the weather. We walked the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail for a while before returning to the Arctic Fox to turn in for the night.
IPA, amber ale and seafood chowder. Photo by Andrea.
The four-hour time difference and the long-lasting sunlight made the day seem to last forever. We were a few months late for the round-the-clock sunlight of early summer, but after sunset (around 10:30 – 11:00), twilight remained until well after midnight. I was too excited to sleep more than a few minutes at a time. Each time I woke up and looked out the window, it was still not quite dark.

To be continued in: Part One - Anchorage to Seward