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

Saturday, August 16, 2014

So I Went to Alaska

I returned home a few days ago after a 12-day trip to Alaska. It was a wonderful experience and feels like an exciting dream. It will take some time to sort out my memories and weed through the thousands of photos that I took, but I hope to eventually put some sort of trip report together. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Isle Royale National Park | Day Eight

At Windigo on our Last Morning  

Flying away
I definitely need a new sleeping bag. My +15 down bag did not keep me warm during our final night, which saw temperatures drop to the mid-30s. This has happened on the last few trips; it's time to stop stubbornly holding onto my old sleeping bag and admit that it's not working for me anymore. On the bright side, it's an excuse to shop for new gear. 

We spent the majority of the night awake, cursing ourselves for not putting our tent up inside the shelter, but not wanting to get up and do anything about the situation. My feet had become blocks of ice, which were very effective at keeping the inside of my sleeping bag cold. At some point very early in the morning, Craig attempted to heat up water so that we could fill my Nalgene bottle with it and use it to heat up my sleeping bag. Our fuel was, of course, too cold to ignite, so he brought the freezing metal cannister into his sleeping bag for a while to warm it up enough to start the stove.

Moose-watching outside our shelter at Washington Creek
The hot water bottle placed in my sleeping bag's footbox did the trick, and while I slowly warmed up, the moose returned to slosh around in the creek outside our shelter. We got up around 7:00 and watched it wade in the tall grass on the other side of the creek, eating plants. It looked up at us every once in a while, and we tried to figure out if it was a female or a young male. We thought we could make out small nubs on its head – possibly the beginnings of antlers – but we couldn't get a close enough look.

I see you
We packed up and headed to the Windigo visitor's center, hearing the welcome sound of the sea plane fly in and take off again as we left our shelter. It was sunny but cold, and the thermometer at Windigo read 38º when we arrived at 8:30 a.m. After checking in with Ranger Valerie and reporting our revised hiking itinerary, we learned that we were set to fly out on the sea plane's next pick-up, two hours later. 

Coming in for pick-up in Washington Harbor
The damaged sailboat that had almost sunk the day before was docked, and it looked bad. Water-damaged items and equipment had been removed from it and were lying on the dock in the sun, while one of the boat's occupants was inside pumping water out. It looked as though a tarp and some extra wood had been nailed in place to cover a hole. We met another guy who had been on the boat and he told us their story. They had sailed from the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin to Ontonagon, MI, then headed north to Isle Royale. Their journey had been fine until they entered Washington Harbor, hit a rock, and started sinking. He was from So-Cal but spoke in a vaguely German accent as he described the incident and how the Park Service came to their rescue. He had also been to Isle Royale before and was fond of the place, but it looked like he and his friends were going to be stranded there for a while under very non-ideal circumstances. We gave him the rest of our food and batteries that we no longer needed and wished him good-luck. 

Beaver Island in Washington Harbor
We met a couple from Cleveland who were also waiting for the plane and would be flying out with us. They were in their 50s and were big fans of Michigan breweries, and we discussed Michigan beers and other hiking trips with them at length while hanging out in the sun on the dock. Although it was still cold, it was a beautiful sunny morning, and we enjoyed the views of Washington Harbor.

River otters swimming toward the dock at Windigo
River otters diving
Two river otters swam toward the dock from the direction of Beaver Island, diving underwater just before reaching it and resurfacing on the other side. Loud splashing suddenly erupted, and a female moose and two calves appeared in the water at the end of the harbor. They were too far away for me to get a decent picture of them with my small camera, but we all watched them wading in the water while continuing to share stories.  

Cow moose and 2 calves in Washington Harbor
The plane arrived at 11:15, and the four of us and our gear were on board in seconds. The pilot was all business, likely wanting to get in and out quickly and onto his next pick-up. The flight back was beautiful. Unlike the overcast flight at the beginning of our trip, the sunlight shone on the blue surface of the lake, and the view was gorgeous. From my seat in the tail of the plane, I turned and watched Isle Royale slowly disappear from view, wanting the sight of its green forested landscape to last as long as possible.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Isle Royale National Park | Day Seven

Huginnin Cove to Windigo / Washington Creek
(Map at bottom of post)

The sky over Huginnin Cove looked stormy when we got up at 7:30 am. We decided to skip breakfast since the hike back to Windigo was only about 4.5 miles along West Huginnin Cove Trail. We packed up quickly under the threatening sky and left at 8:30. We were sad to have to leave this wonderful place and would have loved to stay another day, but the weather continued to be consistent in its unpredictability, and we felt that heading back toward Windigo to be prepared in the event of more flight issues was the smarter thing to do. Anyone visiting the west end of Isle Royale should definitely visit Huginnin Cove; it's worth the short trip.

Stormy morning sky above Huginnin Cove
We departed the cove via West Huginnin Cove Trail, which heads south into the woods and is not nearly as interesting as its east counterpart. There are a few climbs and descents along this trail, as it traverses three different ridges. Like the east trail, WHCT eventually meets up with the Minong Ridge Trail, which leads back to Washington Creek Campground and Windigo. We were climbing a ridge near the intersection with the Minong, when Craig suddenly stopped in front of me and motioned for me to be quiet. A female moose and her two calves were slowly making their way through the brush a short distance in front of us, heading west along the side of the ridge we were climbing. We watched them through the thick brush, until they were mostly hidden in the woods off the trail to our right. Once we continued climbing the ridge, the cow moose heard us and then it was her turn to people-watch. We could barely make them out; the two small calves were hidden behind trees near their mother, who stood watching us intently. We continued on, happy to have finally seen our first moose of the trip.

Cow moose with 2 calves
We reached Windigo at 10:40 am and checked in with Ranger Valerie to see what the weather forecast had to say, and to see what the chances were of flying out today rather than tomorrow as planned. Neither of us really wanted to cut the trip short, but we also didn't want to push our luck given the weather and flying conditions of the last few days. It turned out that the plane was not flying, because no flights had been booked on this particular date. The decision was now out of our hands; we would stay another night at Washington Creek and attempt to leave tomorrow as originally planned. Whatever was going to happen would happen.

Someone at Windigo said that wolves were heard the night before by people camping at Washington Creek, which was exciting news. A fox trotted by us as we headed back down the path to the campground.
Inside Shelter #9 at Washington Creek
We settled in at Shelter #9, which had a good view of Washington Creek. It was cold and breezy; the sun tried to penetrate the clouds but was unsuccessful, and the heavy cloud cover remained all day. After making lunch, we watched ducks swim back and forth in the creek and then took a nap. Except for the occasional gust of wind or bird call, it was completely silent.

Around 6:00 pm, we took a walk to Washington Harbor. Earlier in the day at Windigo, we had seen a few park rangers looking like they were responding to something urgent. We now learned that a sailboat that was out in the harbor had started to sink – the Coast Guard at Rock Harbor was alerted, and the rangers we had seen at Windigo were heading out to help pump water from the boat and begin rescuing those on board. We would learn more details the following day from one of the stranded boaters. Peril on the high seas (lake)!

What is this fox doing?
On the way back to our shelter, we passed a small clearing just offshore, where a fox was having dinner. It had caught a bird and was sitting in the clearing eating it. It did not seem too concerned with our presence, and we watched it for a minute or so from around 10 feet away as it worked on its meal.

Oh, I have an audience.
Yes, I caught this bird. Now, if you'll excuse me...
Nom nom nom
It had been chilly all day, but the temperature dropped significantly as the sun went down. We went to bed at 8pm because it was too cold to do anything outside of a sleeping bag. Unfortunately, the weather forecast we had looked at earlier did not predict the temperature dropping to the mid-30s in the middle of the night. If we had known about this, we would have put our tent up inside the shelter to benefit from the retention of body heat. Instead, we hunkered down into our sleeping bags on the shelter floor, anticipating a chilly night in the 40s.
East and West Huginnin Cove Trail Marker

As we laid in our sleeping bags after dusk, the ever-elusive night-swimming moose returned to Washington Creek, splashing around in the dark just beyond our shelter. We wanted to see it, but neither of us wanted to get out of our sleeping bags and venture back into the cold to spy on it, so we attempted to get some sleep on our last night on Isle Royale. Maybe in the morning...

To be continued in Day 8: What will the weather bring?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Isle Royale National Park 2013 | Day Six

Washington Creek to Huginnin Cove 
The most magical place on Earth (Sorry, Disneyland)
(Map at bottom of post)

Huginninn Cove
We woke up at 7:30 am, again to grey sky and still more fog – not a welcome sight. Regardless of the weather, we were heading to Huginnin Cove today, but we hoped that things would improve.

East Huginnin Cove Trail
Huginnin Cove is on Isle Royale's north side, approximately 5 miles from Windigo. It is tent-only (no group sites), and the campsites are close to the Lake Superior shore, with views of Canada to the north. Despite this, Huginnin Cove is apparently more of a day-hiking location than an overnight destination. I had read about the rugged trail and rocky shore and was looking forward to spending a night here.

East Huginnin Cove Trail near Lake Superior

I felt very lethargic this morning, and after eating breakfast, I packed up sluggishly. Because Huginnin Cove is so close, we were not in a hurry to leave early. The sun actually came out around 10 am, and it was clear and sunny for a whole 20 minutes. Just as our spirits were lifting, it became overcast and cloudy again.

Butterfly at Huginnin Cove

Huginnin Cove can be reached by two different trails that form a loop beginning and ending just east of Windigo. Our plan was to hike there via the East Huginnin Cove trail, taking West Huginnin Cove Trail on the way back. To reach the HC trails, we headed east past Washington Creek campground to the Minong Ridge Trail. It is necessary to hike about a mile of the Minong Ridge Trail to reach the junction with East HCT. Heading east on the Minong Ridge, the trail crosses a bridge over Washington Creek, which has a shed built next to it containing equipment to monitor the flow of the creek (I did not think to ask the reason for this, unfortunately). The junction with West HCT is located a short distance from the creek, followed by the East HCT junction a quarter-mile or so further.

East Huginnin Cove Trail gets interesting
Heading north on East HCT, the trail passes the remains of Wendigo mine, which operated briefly in the early 1890s. The mine closed after just two years after failing to yield a worthwhile amount of copper. The trail winds through marshes and swampy areas, which are usually good for moose-spotting, but we didn't see any on our way there.

East Huginnin Cove Trail terrain

The first few miles of hiking are mostly in nondescript woods and not very exciting. However, once the trail gets closer to Lake Superior, things get much more interesting. This is what I'd been looking forward to, and I was not disappointed. For about a mile, the trail runs along a short bluff above the lake. Below us, waves emerged from the fog to crash against the rocky shoreline. Huge boulders are strewn everywhere along this stretch of trail, with thick moss growing on everything, and gnarled tree roots snaking all along the trail and over some of the boulders. This was more like it.

Waves come ashore along East Huginnin Cove Trail

Unfortunately everything was extremely slippery due to the recent rain and the endless wet fog. We had to be very careful; the rocks were slimy with mud and wet moss, and the tree roots were like well-oiled death traps. Despite taking deliberate care with every step I made, my left foot slipped on a rock, going right out from under me and causing me to crash hard on my left side. Fortunately, I didn't fall straight forward onto my face and onto more rocks. I managed to fall on relatively soft, mossy ground to the side of the trail and was not hurt. I was very lucky. 
Rocks at the beach at Huginnin Cove
This is a wonderful, short hike – by far our favorite of the trip – and we were both happy to be hiking on this rugged, scenic terrain. The trail continued following close to shore, and soon we came upon the first of two coves. The first cove is filled with enormous pieces of driftwood – entire tree trunks that have washed into the cove and onto shore. It looked mystical in the fog. Just past this cove, the trail heads away from the water, winding through the woods and around to the second cove and the campsites.

The first of two coves on East Huginnin Cove Trail

Hiking into camp, the trail runs close to Huginnin Creek before emerging onto the beach, directly at the center of the cove. Huginnin Cove has five sites; standing at the center of the cove, we looked to the right to see Site #1 located just offshore on the spit of land that creates the cove's east border. Sites 2-5 are to the left and in the woods off the beach. Lucky for us, no one else was here at this time, so after a quick walk-through of the sites, we set up camp at Site #1, which is far and away the best. This site has one half of the cove to itself, including the large boulders at its eastern tip, where it is possible to sit and watch the lake for hours.

Campsite #1 at Huginnin Cove
It had been persistently foggy and overcast during our hike, and we were still unsure which way the weather was going to turn. We set up our tent and changed into warmer clothes quickly in case things took a turn for the worse. Our luck continued, however, and the sky cleared suddenly around 3:00 pm. The sun shone warmly, and fluffy white clouds floated overhead in a gorgeous blue sky. We had almost forgotten what that looked like.
The view north from Campsite #1 at Huginnin Cove
The scenario could not have been more perfect. We had nabbed a kick-ass campsite, and the weather had become beautiful. Our tent was just a few steps from the water, surrounded by trees and rocks. We spent a lot of time out on the boulders, either climbing around and exploring, or sitting in the sun and watching the green-blue lake. Directly ahead is Canada, with Pie Island around 20 miles away and looking like a misplaced butte – its rectangular shape and flat top standing out against the horizon. 
Looking north to Canada from Site #1 at Huginnin Cove
We waded in the cove for a while, and Craig eventually returned to the tent to take a nap. There was no way I was going to spend any time inside if I didn't have to, and I sat on the beach sifting through rocks and just enjoying the view and weather for a couple of hours. At some point, two more hikers had shown up and set up camp at other sites. Sites 2-5 are not visible from the water, but are relatively close to shore. Site #2 is probably the next best site after #1. It is close to the beach, though not directly on it.

Campsite #1 at Huginnin Cove
Being on the northwest end of the island, Huginnin Cove would allow for good sunset viewing later in the evening if the sky remained clear. We decided this was the perfect time and place to eat our favorites from the food bag – chilimac from Mary Jane's Farm, followed by banana pudding from Pack-it Gourmet for dessert. While we cooked dinner, a couple of snowshoe hares hopped through our camp. They are really fast and surprisingly big, with huge rear feet.

The view east from campsite #1 at Huginnin Cove. The Canadian shore can be seen in the distance.

After eating, we returned to the boulders to watch the lake and explore a bit more. Craig climbed over the rocks and over to the adjacent cove, while I took photographs of the area in the pre-sunset waning light. Unfortunately, a wall of clouds appeared just as the sun was about to set. The sun sank behind it, preventing the spectacular sunset I was hoping for. I was too happy to be disappointed by this, however. Today had been a wonderful day.

Moonrise above Huginnin Cove
The moon rose above the cove, and we sat outside of our tent watching it illuminate the trees and reflect on the water. As dumb as it might sound, Huginnin Cove was magical. The gloomy weather and rain of the days before were worth it just to spend a day here. Neither of us wanted to leave. We would have loved to stay here a second night, but the weather was still questionable. The number of people we had seen stranded at Windigo due to bad flying conditions was worrisome, and we didn't know if this good weather would hold. We decided the best plan would be to hike back to Windigo the following morning in order to give ourselves a better chance of getting home on time. If the weather looked like it would take another bad turn, maybe we would be able to leave early.

Moonrise above Huginnin Cove
We stayed up as long as we could, turning in only when we couldn't stay awake anymore. I didn't even try to read; I laid in my sleeping bag listening to waves washing on shore in the moonlit cove and trying to make the moments last as long as possible. I drifted in and out of a light sleep, eventually hearing a light rain gently falling on our tent later in the night. 
Huginnin Cove

To be continued in Day Seven: Huginnin Cove to Windigo

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Isle Royale National Park 2013 | Day Five

Washington Creek / Windigo
Fog in the trees along Washington Creek

Washington Creek was amazingly silent when I got up around 9 am. Yesterday was a turning point in the weather, and we were in for a period of dreariness. Again, fog blanketed the trees and obscured the sky. We ate breakfast, then walked to Windigo to see if weather information was posted and to kill some time. Once at the visitor center, I talked to Ranger Valerie, who had already heard about our wolf sighting at Siskiwit Bay a few nights ago. I filled out a wolf sighting report, which is eventually passed on to the wolf-moose study team. 
Washington Harbor
We walked around the Windigo area for a while looking at Washington Harbor, which looked very cool in the fog. There was a group of five or six guys hanging around the dock. They had been scheduled to leave the island on the sea plane the day before, but the plane had been unable to fly due to the fog. They were now on their 2nd day of being stranded, and it did not look like they would be leaving today either. The weather forecast was not promising; there was a 50% chance of rain, and the fog was not going anywhere. The stranded hikers were sticking close to the dock in the event they got lucky. If the fog cleared and the plane flew in, at least some of them would be able to go home. 
Windigo Visitor Center
The Windigo store had closed the day before. We hoped that the stranded guys had some extra food with them. This was one of the scenarios that we had prepared for when planning this trip, and we were glad we had a few extra things with us in case we ended up in the same situation. The owner of the store was in the area taking care of things and preparing to close up shop for the season. Although the store was closed, she let us buy a few items. We grabbed a few snacks (I felt like I had hit the jackpot with a small box of fig newtons), and now that we had some extra room in our packs, we decided to buy one of the large canisters of fuel that was left on the shelf so we didn't have to be so conservative with our fuel supply in light of the lack of dry wood available.

Washington Harbor
It was still early in the day, and we had yet to decide whether to hike to Huginnin Cove or stay put due to the sketchy weather. I was really looking forward to seeing Huginnin Cove and was hoping for good weather while we were there since we would be staying in our tent close to shore. The weather forecast for the following day claimed a 40% chance of rain – no guarantee, but a little more promising, and we decided to hold out another day and keep our fingers crossed for a rain-free tomorrow.
Washington Harbor
The Voyageur II, the small passenger ferry that sails from Grand Portage, MN, showed up in the early afternoon with a few new visitors. Out of desperation, all but one of the stranded hikers decided to leave the island via this boat. The problem with this is that Grand Portage, MN is a very tiny town near the Canadian border without much in the way of helpful resources for people who were supposed to be flying back to Houghton, MI – approximately 7 hours away by car. The town does not appear to have a car rental facility (please correct me if I'm wrong, Grand Portagers); we have no idea what these guys planned to do once they arrived. They must have needed to leave badly enough that they decided they had no choice and would figure it out. 
The only moose we saw this day - Windigo Visitor Center
Barely 30 minutes after the Voyageur II sailed away from the dock, the sky suddenly cleared. Within minutes, the sea plane flew into the harbor. The Voyageur's passengers likely heard it, as they probably were not yet far enough away to be out of earshot of the small plane's distinct sound. What a kick in the nards. The plane landed and took off immediately after picking up the one fortunate guy who had held out. The clear sky was short-lived. The fog quickly returned, once again preventing the plane from flying for the rest of the day.
The sun breaks through, but just briefly around 8pm

We spent the remainder of the day around our shelter, relaxing and watching for moose. No luck there, but I saw what I think was an osprey dive into the creek to catch a fish. We ate Backpacker's Pantry Spinach Puttanesca for dinner and watched the sun struggle to pierce the clouds over Washington Creek. Rabbits were very active after dark, jumping on top of our picnic table and bounding through our site.

To be continued in: Day 6 - Washington Creek to Huginnin Cove