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. 

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

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?