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 wait 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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Alaska 2014 | Part 4: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge - First Day

The Wild Lander dropped us off in Aialik Bay and left without a trace.  Built specifically for Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge, it is a landing craft that can get close enough to shore to allow passengers to disembark via a short ramp at the front of the boat. The boat then departs, leaving visitors standing on the beach’s gray stones, looking with excitement at Aialik Bay before them, a meadow and a forest on either side of them, and mountains in every direction. There is no dock here, and unless someone happens to be there to see the boat come and go, no indication that there is anything in this area except wilderness. One would never guess that there is an ecolodge hidden about a half-mile away in the forest.
Andrea photographs Aialik Glacier in the distance as passengers come to shore from the Wild Lander
A representative from the lodge led us along a path, which leaves the beach, cuts across the meadow and winds into the woods on its way to Pedersen Lagoon. This narrow path also provides the only route for the lodge’s modest mode of transport - an ATV that can pull a small trailer filled with any supplies the lodge needs (which are also delivered via the Wild Lander). 

The path to the lodge
Just before entering the woods, another lodge employee came out to greet us and give a quick talk about the surroundings and how to explore them safely given the abundance of black bears in the area. That point driven home, we entered the woods and things became even more magical. The ground was blanketed with vibrant lime-green moss, and lupins growing up from the forest floor held single, shining drops of the morning rain in their leaves like perfectly set diamonds.
This phenomenon fascinated me every day.
The lodge appeared suddenly, blended perfectly into the woods, and my first impression was that it seemed small compared to what I had imagined based on website photos. This was a pleasant surprise, as it perpetuated the eco-friendly feeling that had been nurtured from the point of arrival on the beach. Before going in, we circled around to the back of the lodge and Pedersen Lagoon and were met with the view that I had been waiting for. During the months prior to this trip, I went online from time to time and looked at photographs of this spot, hardly believing that I was going to such a place and wondering if it would live up to the pictures. It absolutely did.
The spectacular view of Pedersen Lagoon and Pedersen Glacier from the deck behind Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge
The view of the deck and beyond from the back of the lodge
Everyone gathered in the dining room of the main lodge for orientation from one of the lodge managers. We listened to a brief history of the lodge and learned how to help with its low impact philosophy during our stay. For instance, food is allowed only inside the main lodge in order to avoid accidental dropping of food crumbs outside, the scent of which could attract animals. Much work has gone into keeping the human presence here as low-profile as possible, and it’s never a good idea to give animals a reason to be curious about people. Snacks that guests have brought with them can be stored in cupboards in the lodge dining room and can be retrieved anytime. The main lodge is open 24 hours a day, and guests can go in and out as they please.
Left: The back of the main lodge and the deck.  Right: Inside the cozy sitting area of the main lodge.
No one sleeps in the main lodge, however. Guests stay in individual cabins, which are tucked in the woods along the lagoon, each with its own view. Like everything else here, the cabins were built to be as unassuming as possible. From the main lodge, a boardwalk leads guests to their cabins. The boardwalk is raised above the ground to keep foot traffic from destroying the vegetation and eroding the ground. The cabins themselves are simple, with comfortable beds, propane heat, and a small back porch where guests can sit on rocking chairs and view Pedersen Lagoon and Pedersen Glacier. From the lagoon, the cabins’ presence is not obvious. Just enough foliage has been trimmed away from their porches to provide enough of a window to allow a view - nothing more. There are 16 cabins total, keeping the number of people who can stay here at one time small.
Left: Looking past the end of the boardwalk while standing outside our cabin.  Right: The inside of our cabin.
Left: The back porch of our cabin.  Right: The view from our back porch of Pedersen Glacier.

Before heading to our cabin, we learned about the various activities that are available and how to sign up for them. Guests are free to take advantage of as many activities as they can fit into their stays, spend time exploring the lodge’s surroundings independently on foot, or simply relax at the lagoon.

We stayed in cabin #2, almost at the end of the row of cabins south of the lodge. The cabin was perfect, and I was so excited about being there that I could barely contain myself.  We had a few hours before dinner, which I wanted to spend at the cabin, just taking everything in. With all we had experienced that day during the boat trip here alone (amazing scenery, barely escaping sea-sickness, humpback whales flinging themselves out of the water right in front of us, etc.), I was feeling a little overwhelmed and wanted to just sit and absorb. Andrea, however, felt differently. A couple of the guides were taking canoes out for a leisurely paddle around Pedersen Lagoon with any guests who wanted to join, and she felt that was a better use of our time than sitting in a stupor like I wanted to do. So we went canoeing.

Canoeing in Pedersen Lagoon
Some kind of alert had obviously been transmitted prior to our arrival concerning my fascination with sea otters. As if I needed more encouragement to take notice of them, they floated and bobbed all around us, looking mind-bogglingly furry and adorable while we paddled around the lagoon. Even back at our cabin, a photograph of a sea otter hung above the bed I slept in. It was like being stalked in the cutest way possible. The occasional harbor seal poked its head above water for a few seconds before disappearing and popping up somewhere else, ensuring no one could take a decent photo. This would be a reoccurring theme over the next few days. Someone made a “loose seal” joke, and there was a lot of laughter.
Sea otter in Pedersen Lagoon. Photo taken by Andrea.
Dinner was served in the dining room of the main lodge at 6:30 pm and it was fantastic. Salmon, quinoa, roasted vegetables, and salad were served family style, with carrot cake for dessert. After dinner, we signed up for the following day’s recreation, choosing two half-day adventures, which I will discuss in the next post.

Later in the evening, we returned to the dining room for a presentation about the building of the lodge, which was impressive, and we were surprised to learn that it has only been around for a few years. Most nights there is a presentation of some kind for anyone who wants to watch. The night before we arrived, one of the guides gave a presentation about glaciers, which we wished we would’ve seen.

After the presentation, we returned to our cabin to turn in for the night, but I was way too excited to sleep. I laid awake for hours listening to the rain and hatching schemes in my mind to hide in the cabin at the end of the trip and stay there forever.

The boat dropped us off in Aialik Bay, and we followed a path to Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge on Pedersen Lagoon.

To be continued in: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge - Second Day

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Alaska 2014 | Part 3: 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 | Part 2: 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