Monday, June 29, 2015

Alaska 2014 | Part 7: Fourth Day at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge & Return to Seward

Aialik Glacier on a stormy day
Beyond the protected world of Pedersen Lagoon, storms had been raging along the coast and fjords over the last few days.  During our stay at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, we met a few people whose time here was unexpectedly extended due to stormy seas preventing their departure (they were not too broken up about this).  There were others on an organized tour of multiple lodges who arrived only to turn around and leave due to the proximity of another storm, the timing of which was likely to strand them here and throw off the rest of their planned tour.  I can’t imagine being shown this place only to be told, “Sorry, you’re not staying,” but I imagine they made up for it in other ways later.  
Left: Path through the rainforest.  Right: Scratches from a black bear.
The weather awoke on our last day at the lodge, realized it had mistakenly given us a partly sunny day with minimal rain the day before, and set out to correct its error to the point of over-achievement.  It was cold and raining, and there was a tension in the air regarding the weather.  Snippets of discussion were heard here and there regarding the timing of the boat and a short window of opportunity to come and go.  It seemed we would be returning to Seward this afternoon on the cusp of another significant storm, and we got the feeling that the return boat trip was going to be interesting.  I set an alarm on my watch to ensure I remembered to take my sea-sickness meds at the right time.

The meadow looked different every time we walked through it
Our final activity here would take us back to Aialik Glacier, this time by boat.  But first, we were led through the rainforest for a leisurely walk on a different path to the beach.  Moss hung from branches overhead, and a set of perfect scratch marks in a tree revealed bear presence in the forest near the lodge.  We emerged from the forest into the meadow, which was exceptionally moody this morning.  The clouds were low and dramatic, obscuring the mountains in the distance and appearing to reach nearly to the ground.  Again, although I had fantasized about clear weather and crisp views, the intense gloom was striking.  We continued to a stretch of beach we had not seen yet.  Instead of stones, this beach was blanketed with coarse black sand, and the low tide revealed a wide stretch of it littered with small scraps of seaweed.  A bear had recently walked this way as well, its paw prints visible in the sand.

Left: Black bear paw prints on the beach  Right: Our ride
Our ride, a small boat called Weather or Knot, was waiting for us offshore in the gloom.  It was the water taxi that picked up the kayakers on Slate Beach the day before, and Jessica was once again at the helm.  She shuttled our group toward Aialik Glacier in what was now a vindictive pelting rain.  

The north end of Aialik Glacier
Without the sun to wash out its color, Aialik Glacier and its iceberg spawn looked amazingly blue.  The boat came in close to a few gorgeous icebergs.  Their color was stunning, with one of them looking like a transparent, mostly submerged mountain range with its peaks just breaking through the water’s surface.  (After passing this one, Jessica brought the boat to a dead stop, swung around and went back to it, explaining to those of us within earshot that we had to go back because it was so beautiful.  This made Andrea and I very happy; we’d been staring wistfully at it getting smaller in the distance.)  With icy raindrops stinging our faces, we stayed on the boat’s deck as long as we could to take everything in.

Iceberg near Aialik Glacier
Photo by Andrea

More information can be found at the National Snow & Ice Data Center: https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/glaciers/



The boat meandered in front of the glacier for a while to allow everyone time to ooh an aah at it (as much as possible given the volatile weather - it was much more comfortable inside the boat), then we began heading back to the lodge, passing a bald eagle perched on a small iceberg and some kayakers paddling close to the glacier.  I assume these were experienced paddlers with the skills to navigate close to any calving ice.  I envied their up-close view of the glacier, but not the conditions in which they were out there.  We had been very lucky the day before with good weather for our kayaking excursion.
I don't know what to say.  Photo by Andrea.
As we neared Slate Beach, we slowed down for a few minutes to watch a large black bear—maybe the same one as yesterday, maybe not—walking along the shore before continuing on.  Once back on land, Andrea and I lingered in the meadow for a while before returning to the lodge and preparing to leave.  The drama was still in full swing, and the view was too magical to ignore.

Ghost trees in the misty meadow
We had mixed feelings about leaving.  We would miss our cabin and the beauty of Pedersen Lagoon, but we felt we had stayed the perfect amount of time, and we were excited for the next phase of the trip, where we would experience adventures we had planned ourselves.  We walked at the front of the group as we made our way back down the path toward the boat.  Along the way, rustling in the grass at the edge of the path caught our attention.  We stopped and a porcupine waddled out of the grass and onto the path in front of us.  We were surprised and excited by this unexpected occurrence, as was the porcupine.  As soon as it emerged from the grass, it realized that it had lumbered out in front of a bunch of giant, scary animals, and it waddled as quickly as it could across the path and into the safety of the grass on the other side.  Andrea photographed it the entire way, ending up with a hilarious set of shots that, when viewed in succession, look like a stop-action movie of the awkwardly fleeing animal.  The encounter was an unexpected, final gift from Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge - a beautiful, truly unforgettable place.

Porcupine sampling.  Photos by Andrea.
The boat ride back to Seward was not the leisurely tour we experienced on the way here; it was a race to beat the weather, which continued to grow more threatening.  Many puffins were out on the water riding the choppy waves.  It was cold, rainy, and rough, and I stayed inside almost the entire time, venturing outside only when some orcas were spotted about 2/3 of the way through the trip.  A group of four were swimming very close to shore.  One of them was a male with a very tall dorsal fin.  Seeing it swimming toward shore, practically right up onto the beach, struck me as disturbing.  There were a few cabins just inside the trees beyond the beach, and I wondered who lived there and if it was normal for killer whales to creep up on them like this.  This was the only time the boat slowed its pace, and we lingered for a while, periodically losing sight of the orcas when they would dive, then finding them again when they emerged in another location.  It was difficult to predict where they would turn up, and I was unfortunately looking off the wrong side of the boat when I heard a collective “Whoa!” from the other side.  One of them had suddenly breached, and Andrea was lucky enough to see it.  


Orcas
We reached Seward around 6:00 p.m., picked up a rental car, and drove to the Salmon Bake Restaurant and Cabins for dinner and to check into a cabin.  Wonderful, unhealthy fish and chips were in order after all of the wonderful, healthy food at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge.  After dinner, we walked around Seward for a while before returning to our cabin to go to bed.  We had an early start the next day, and we were both exhausted from so much looking at stuff. 

Phase Two had officially begun.

To be continued in Part 8: Flightseeing

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Alaska 2014 | Part 6: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge - Third Day

Map at bottom of post
Paddling to Slate Island, then to Aialik Glacier
Every now and then during this trip, we discussed how we would answer the inevitable question, “What was your favorite part?”  It’s too difficult a question to answer, but if pressed, this day stands out as a front-runner.

Out of everyone who arrived at the lodge when we did, Andrea and I were the only ones who had booked a 4-day/3-night stay.  Everyone else was leaving in the afternoon on this day, which made us the only guests to sign up for the full-day activity: kayaking to Aialik Glacier.  We made packed lunches from ingredients laid out on the bar and met our guide on the porch at 8:45 a.m.  We had heard about this guide—and she us—as she hailed from Michigan, and word had gotten around that there were fellow Michiganders about.  For reasons that are not easily explained, this was exciting.  Since Andrea and I were her only charges, we immediately began swapping information - Where are you from? How did you end up here? Etc.  Amazingly, she grew up about an hour from where I live, and now we were meeting on the porch of a lodge in the woods in Alaska. 

Back through the meadow toward the beach

The three of us walked back the way we had come when we first arrived at the lodge - back through the woods, across the meadow, and to the cobble beach, where sea kayaks waited.  It was warmer than the previous days and partly sunny, which was a welcomed change of pace. The jacket I was wearing was not needed, so I stashed it in my backpack before stowing everything in the kayak and setting off.  
Paddling to Slate Island and Aialik Glacier, seen in the distance
The plan was to paddle to Slate Island - a small, rocky island approximately four miles away - and do a little exploring there before paddling a mile or two further to view the glacier.  We would stop for lunch, either on shore somewhere or floating in our kayaks depending on the situation, and head back in the afternoon.   
Paddling into a cove in Slate Island.  Water trickled from above, creating wonderful sounds.
Paddling deep into another cove in Slate Island
We paddled and talked with our guide, exchanging stories about our favorite places to hike and camp in Michigan.  Once at Slate Island, we hugged its eastern side and explored a couple of narrow coves in the rock, paddling into deep crevices and enjoying the sound of the waves thumping and sloshing against the steep rock walls.  We then pulled ashore to take a break on the island.  A small, gravelly area made a good resting place for our kayaks, and we drank warm cider and hot chocolate and ate granola bars while hanging out amongst the rocks and occasional unfortunate jellyfish that had washed ashore.  
Slate Island - taking a break
We resumed paddling, planning to round the island’s north end, which would put us almost face-to-face with Aialik Glacier.  But instead of going around the island, we ended up taking advantage of a narrow passageway that had become available due to the rising tide between two chunks of the island that look to have separated from each other at the far northern end.  The tide was just high enough for us to push through, with a bit of a stall in the middle when we lost speed and the undulating water tried pulling us down.  Once another surge of water pushed at the back of our kayak, we scooted all the way through and were met with the face of Aialik Glacier - still a few miles in the distance, though it appeared reachable with just a few paddle strokes.
Aialik Glacier can be seen through the split in the rock at Slate Island's north end.

Paddling through the opening in Slate Island.  Photo by Andrea.
Aialik Glacier is a tidewater glacier, meaning its terminus meets the ocean and calves ice into the sea, forming icebergs.  It was noticeably colder now that we were closer to the glacier, and the closer we paddled, the more ice we encountered, until the water was choked with it.  We were advised to stay away from any large icebergs as best we could, as they sometimes shift and roll over without much warning when disturbed by waves.  Since the bulk of a large iceberg is beneath the surface and not visible, a person could find herself knocked into the freezing water should she be too close when one rolls over.  (Search “rolling iceberg” or “iceberg flipping over” on YouTube for examples of shifting icebergs if you're into that kind of thing.)
My camera was constantly getting wet.  It was a trooper.
The icy water near Aialik Glacier
In the distance toward the glacier and the surrounding shore, we could see harbor seals popping their heads out of the water to look at us, but the majority were hauled out on big slabs of ice. Our guide explained that the seals were molting at this time, and those that were hauled out were deliberately staying out of the water and fasting while their hair regrew. She added that people should take care to stay away from them at this time so as not to scare them into the water unnecessarily during this process.  The seals seemed curious about us; apparently to a seal, the shape of a kayak with a person sitting in it can resemble an orca, and our guide indicated they were probably scoping us out to determine if we were a threat.
Harbor seal hauled out on the ice.  Photos taken at a distance with a zoom lens.
A curious harbor seal checks us out.
We stopped paddling when we were estimated to still be around a mile away from the glacier’s terminus, despite how close it looked.  Giving the seals their space was one reason; the other was to be a enough of a distance away to avoid the consequences of any massive waves caused by calving. The face of Aialik Glacier is approximately 300 feet tall and around a mile wide.  When a large mass of ice calves and falls into the sea below, it can be an impressive event.  We witnessed this happen a few times while observing the glacier.  The sound is exactly like thunder - it rumbles and booms and is amazingly loud even at a distance.  The first time it happened, Andrea and I both looked up at the sky thinking the weather was turning.  It took us a minute to realize the source of the sound, partially because of how it sounded, but also because of when we heard it.  Several seconds passed from when we saw the ice fall to when the sound reached us, reminding us again that the size of the glacier and mountains was deceiving, and they were much further away than they seemed.  The waves caused by a large chunk of glacier plummeting into the water can be substantial.  We watched a large tour boat come in close to the glacier, only to throw itself in reverse and hastily retreat after a huge chunk of ice calved near it.  The hulking boat looked like a toy next to the massive wall of blue ice.
After lingering at the glacier for a while, we began paddling back toward Slate Island, this time making our way between the west side of the island and the mainland.  As we paddled close to the island’s steep rocky face, we noticed some puffins nesting in the rock. We spent a few minutes watching them, then things got interesting (because up to this point, the day had obviously been a snoozer).  
A puffin nesting in the rock on Slate Island
Our guide brought our attention to something moving in the water ahead of us. “I’m not positive, but that might be a bear. Let’s get a closer look.”  We paddled a bit closer and confirmed - we were looking at the floating head of a swimming bear.  Alaska is awesome! 
A black bear swimming from Slate Island to the mainland in Aialik Bay.  All bear photos were taken from a distance with a zoom lens.
Although we were excited and wanted to get a closer look, we were careful to stay far enough away so as not freak the bear out.  We did not want to harass it, or become the first people to be chased by a swimming bear while kayaking.  It looked to be swimming back to the mainland from Slate Island, and our guide speculated that it had gone to the island for berries, which are a significant part of the black bears’ diet.  We continued paddling behind the bear, watching its furry ears make their way toward shore.  It knew we were there, at one point turning its head to take a quick glance back at us.  We eased up on the paddling and just waited offshore, watching.  Andrea’s camera battery chose that moment to die, so she kept our kayak a steady distance offshore while I photographed the bear.  My camera’s lens had gotten very wet, not only from water dripping off my paddle while kayaking, but constantly on this trip in general due to the ever-present rain, and I was amazed and grateful that I could capture anything at this point through its foggy glass.  After a bit of editing to deal with the lens fog, I ended up with some decent photos of this impressive guy.
Black bear catches its breath after swimming to shore
The bear reached shore, climbed out of the water and onto the seaweed-covered rocks, and stood motionless for a minute or two - watching us and heaving in lungfuls of air to catch its breath.  It was a very large male black bear, with huge paws and a broad torso.  He began walking, stopping after a few steps to shake himself dry like a dog.  We spent the next 30 minutes or so slowly paddling offshore, parallel to the bear’s path as it walked along the rock and ate berries from bushes along the way.  We were in no hurry, so we kept with the bear’s leisurely pace, just floating and watching.  Paddling to Aialik Glacier was an awesome adventure by itself, and we were further awestruck by this unexpected addition to an already spectacular day.
Scratching an itch and eating berries
At some point, our guide was able to retrieve a new battery for Andrea’s camera from the gear stowed in our kayak’s compartment.  She also radioed another guide she knew to be nearby with a group of kayakers to let him know about the bear sighting.  This other group showed up within a few minutes and paddled alongside us.  The bear continued on its path toward Slate Beach - a stretch of beach where, unfortunately, we had planned to stop for lunch.  Before reaching the beach, however, it turned inland and disappeared into the brush.  We were discussing eating lunch in our kayaks due to the bear’s proximity to the beach, but the other group paddled right up to the beach and got out.  They were meeting a water taxi, and this beach was their pick-up location.  Their guide grabbed two rocks and banged them together for a while to make an excess of noise intending to keep the bear from visiting the beach.  Figuring there were enough people there for it not be an issue, we decided to join the group for a quick lunch break.  
Lunch break at Slate Beach

We beached our kayaks and unpacked our lunches.  It was a beautiful day to picnic on the beach; the weather was warm, the water was calm, and the scenery couldn’t be beat.

The bear agreed.  About 15 minutes after we arrived, he emerged from the brush on the beach’s west side.  We didn’t see it right away, but we heard the other guide suddenly shout, “Everyone get up!”  The other group was between the bear and us, and we looked over to see them all stand up and walk backwards toward the water, watching the bear stroll among the bushes bordering the beach.  It was so focused on eating berries that it appeared not to notice any of us.  Still, it was time to leave. As we quickly packed up our lunches and gear, the other group’s ride showed up - a water taxi driven by the same boat skipper that brought us to the lodge.  

A water taxi arrives at Slate Beach to pick up some kayakers
We arrived back at the beach near the lodge around 3:30 p.m. and headed back to our cabin to shower and relax before dinner.  We spent some time sitting on our back porch, then headed to the main lodge to hang out at the bar/lounge area before dinner.  A new batch of guests had arrived while we were out, and people were standing around meeting each other, talking, and looking around at this wonderful place where they were going to be spending the next few days.  

A young boy was looking at Pedersen Glacier through the telescope at the picture window, when suddenly (as he explained later) the view went black. He looked up to discover that a bear had wandered into his field of vision.  He started yelling excitedly, and everyone ran to the windows to see a small black bear ambling through the grass near the lagoon - a perfect welcome for the new guests, and a fitting sight for us on our last night at the lodge.  Unfortunately, a bunch of people ran outside toward the bear, immediately forgetting any etiquette regarding wildlife and their surroundings that they may have learned upon arrival.  (Well, it was pretty exciting.)  Lodge employees had to corral everyone back inside, reminding them that the wildlife needs to be left alone, and that people should remain safely inside.  
Lion's Mane Jelly
The halibut dinner that night was excellent, and we spent it talking to some of the new people who arrived.  Two couples, maybe in their mid to late 50s, were sitting near us. The two men and one of the women were happy to be there; the other woman, however, looked as though she was enduring an experience in which she had no interest.  The jellyfish we had seen washed ashore earlier in the day had seemed more excited.  Her whole attitude said, “I was dragged here,” like a teenager on a dreaded family trip, and she quietly scoffed at the things the lodge manager was saying during this group’s orientation during dinner.  (She was not going to leave her personal food in a baggie with her name on it in the main lodge like some commoner.)  I wanted to put her on an iceberg and push her out to sea.  She bummed me out.
Moon Jelly
After dinner, we sat on the chairs on the back deck of the lodge for a little while, but headed to our cabin once the inevitable daily rain started.  This was our final night in this amazing place, and although I looked forward to the next phase of our trip, I wanted to make this night last as long as possible.  I also wanted to get a photo at night outside of our lit-up cabin, so I stayed awake for as long as I could, but the never-ceasing rain and the fact that it doesn't get dark until really late at this time were working against me.  I had to compromise with a photograph taken at 10 pm that looks like it’s broad daylight, but the sky is at least overcast and the cabin light is on.  Andrea had fallen asleep in the middle of a conversation about an hour earlier, and I was too tired to stay up any longer despite how hard I tried.
10:00 p.m. outside our cabin on our last night at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge
The next day we had enough time for a half-day excursion before we were scheduled to return to Seward in the afternoon.  I laid in bed looking out the glass door at the lagoon and the mountains beyond.  I was still so amazed to be there, and mixed thoughts and feelings swirled in my mind:  I was going to miss this cabin.  We pursued a swimming bear!  What would we see tomorrow?  What would the next phase of our trip be like?  Was that woman dropping snack food crumbs outside of her cabin?  What kind of snacks did she have that were so special they couldn’t congregate with the likes of ours in the lodge cupboard?  


To be continued in Part Seven: Return to Seward
Day Three's Route
 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Alaska 2014 | Part 5: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge - Second Day

Maps at the bottom of the post.
Glacial Ice
After breakfast we prepared for our first official adventure at Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge: a half-day trip to Pedersen Glacier.  We met our guide on the porch of the main lodge, where all of the gear is kept and guests are properly outfitted.  An assortment of life vests hangs on one side of the porch, and rubber rain boots in various sizes stand in neat rows on shelves on the other side.  There are bins holding dry bags and spray skirts for kayaking, and benches for people to sit, try on gear, and organize everything they need.  Once our small group was ready, wearing appropriately sized PFDs and rubber boots to protect against rain and mud, we walked around the side of the lodge and down to the shore of Pedersen Lagoon where a large canoe waited. 



Although not visible from the lodge, a second lagoon — Upper Pedersen Lagoon — sits directly in front of the glacier, and this was our destination.  Pedersen Glacier descends from the Harding Icefield in the Kenai Mountains, and its terminus is on the upper lagoon’s opposite shore.  We paddled across the lower lagoon, where the canoe was pulled ashore and secured with a rope so it wouldn’t float away when the tide came in.  On the opposite side of the lagoon from the lodge, we were able to see how inconspicuous its presence is.  The main lodge is barely visible if one knew where to look, and I could see no trace of the small guest cabins.
Looking back toward the lodge from the other side of Pedersen Lagoon
Hiking toward Pedersen Glacier
We set off on a path toward the upper lagoon, with frequent pauses to learn about various plants growing along the route (and sample various berries), observe signs of animal presence (like a tree heavily scratched by black bears), and contemplate the different landscape features (such as kettle ponds formed long ago by huge chunks of glacial ice).  The walk to the upper lagoon was short - maybe a mile and a half - and we soon found ourselves at its shore. 

Pedersen Glacier
Calved ice from the glacier, from small chunks to large icebergs, floated in the water, and we could feel cold emanating from Pedersen Glacier itself.  The mountains around us were lush and green, and misty clouds floated among them like smoke.  It was one of the coolest places I’d ever seen.
 
Not a volcano despite appearances
After spending almost an hour at the glacier, it was time to return to the lodge for lunch.  As we paddled back across the lower lagoon, we aroused the curiosity of a few sea otters.  They seemed to find us as fascinating as we found them, and they swam close to our canoe, bobbing around in the water and craning their necks to get a good look at us.  Everyone was thrilled, including our guide.  It was impossible not to fall in love with these wonderful animals. 

Sea otters in Pedersen Lagoon. Photo by Andrea.
After lunch we returned to the porch to get ready for our second adventure: an afternoon trip to Addison Lake.  Addison Lake is a small lake accessed by canoeing to the north side of the lagoon, then walking a mile or so along a path over a ridge.  Another, smaller canoe waited for us near the shore of the lake, and our small group of six piled in for a leisurely paddle.  
 
Mountains along Addison Lake


Addison Lake was a draw for both people and animals at this time because salmon were spawning in its shallow water.  This attracted bears and eagles that fed on the salmon, and in turn afforded us the potential to see a variety of wildlife.  The lake was dead quiet except for the occasional splash of salmon, seen in clusters near shore all around the lake.  Mountains rose up all around us, some streaked with streams of water from melting snow and ice at their peaks.
Spawning salmon in Addison Lake
A small female black bear emerged from the brush to walk the shore, seemingly searching for an easy catch.  She looked as though she had recently given birth, but catching a meal must not have been crucial for her at the time, as she did not stay long.  This was the first bear sighting of our trip, and everyone fell silent as we floated in our canoe and watched her look around then disappear back into the brush. 
Black bear walking in the rain along the shore of Addison Lake
Despite the onset of more rain, we continued slowly paddling around the lake, enjoying the beautiful views and observing salmon and harbor seals, which find their way to Addison Lake via a stream that connects it to Pedersen Lagoon. When the tide comes in, the seals can swim up into the lake, but when the tide goes back out, they are temporarily stranded there until the next high tide. 
Harbor seal in Addison Lake
They toyed with us, poking their heads out of the water, then disappearing and re-appearing somewhere else as soon as photography was attempted.  No one said anything at the time, but we had a conversation later with some other guests that proved we were all thinking the same thing: seals are terrifying.  Sometimes they appear cute and harmless, popping up playfully to delight us with friendly faces.  Other times they are specters of death, emerging from the depths to remind us that life is temporary and this could end at any moment, our corpses returning to the sea from whence we came.  They are there, waiting to guide us on that journey.

 
And with that thought…

To be continued in Part Six: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge - Third Day


Maps of this day's activity:
Approximate travel routes to Pedersen Glacier and Addison Lake