HERE IN ALASKA—Anchorage, back to civilization

It’s not that we’ve been exactly away from civilization up until now, but we have been in the outlying areas where towns are small and services limited.  Of all the towns we have spent time in or even passed through, Homer’s population tops them all at a whopping 5,830 residents, the others fall way smaller than that.  What that adds up to in one respect is a limited selection of stores.  Living as we are in such a small space (read: less storage area) where our home is on wheels and travels behind us (read: things tend to break and need replacing), buying provisions and such is a regular occurrence.  And, up until now, it hasn’t exactly always been easy to find the things we’re used to taking for granted.  Need a certain size screw to replace the one that fell out or a piece of plumbing hardware that suddenly went bad used to be a matter of simply going to a nearby hardwood store.  Such is not the case in the Alaskan towns where we’ve been.  And if the part needs ordering, it’s not coming in any time soon.  Transportation doesn’t run very regularly here, so you better not be in a rush.

Food is a whole other story.  In these small towns you aren’t about to find a large Kroger’s or Publix.  Safeway is big in Alaska, but not in these small towns.  And so, you rely on a local market, usually only one to a town.  And although they generally carry all the assortment of foods you’d hope to find, don’t expect to find it available just any time you might need it.  Empty shelves were a common occurrence.  Not a wide variety of options either.  You want catsup . . . forget choosing from different brands or sizes.  Instead, you’ll generally find one size, one brand.  If you’re lucky and they haven’t totally run out.  There’s been lots of empty shelves in these markets—whether it’s always like that or the delivery chain is still broken, I never did ask.  And then there’s the cost of things–expect to be paying premium prices too.  But that was to be expected—after all, Alaska is a LONG way from anyplace.

And so, if for no other reason, we were looking forward to hitting Anchorage and we both had our lists of necessities in hand.  Hello hardware and big grocery stores .  .  .  boy, were we ready to go shopping!!

Although only about an hour’s drive from Anchorage, the Portage Valley was a world away. With lots of good memories of our time spent there, it was with mixed emotions we pulled away from Williwaw Campground.

Once again, we were driving that incredible Seward Highway as it began hugging the dramatic shoreline of Turnagain Arm. Arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in America, there’s Chugach State Park’s 3,000-ft mountains jutting up on one side of the highway while on the opposite side you’ll see the nearly 4-mile-wide mud flats and water (when the tide is in) of Turnagain Arm, stretching to the opposite shoreline where mammoth-sloping mountains abruptly rise up.

This section of road also gives plenty of access points into the mountains for hiking.  Trailheads all branch off from parking areas along the drive; some of the favorites being McHugh Creek, Rainbow Valley, and Bird Creek.

(Map credit: http://www.bearfootalaskamap.com)

From the highway, you look across Turnagain Arm to see the high peaks of the Kenai Mountains on the opposite shore.

And the views through our front windshield weren’t too shabby either.  It’s easy to see why the (little known) Turnagain Arm Drive can hold its own with the Pacific Coast Highway in California or the Amalfi Coast in Italy.

One minute I’m gaping at mountain scenery and the next minute we’ve entered Anchorage’s city limits.  Traffic picks up and highways become streets, with billboards and buildings showing us that we’ve left peace and serenity behind.

How traffic can move along roads backdropped with views such as this, I wonder why there aren’t constant car collisions.  Drivers must be wearing blinders, is all I can imagine.

But one thing seems obvious—we haven’t exactly left the mountains behind us.  City streets they might be, but the views and wildlife all around illustrate that Anchorage is definitely still in Alaska!

Photo by Chris Wall

Eager to experience the feel of being in a big city again as well as to acquaint ourselves with a new one, our first outing was to head to Anchorage’s city center.  Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult at all to find the Visitor Information Center—it tends to stick out like a sore thumb.

Although diminutive in size and totally breaking with the architectural style of the neighborhood, there stood the quaintest log cabin you could hope to find, but nearly engulfed by the high-rise buildings that surrounded it.  If its singular style wasn’t enough, then the hugely colorful display of flowers that so effusively framed it, had this center set apart.  It conspicuously announced this is where you come for all things related to Anchorage.  And, by the way, it makes for one great photo op!

This surely made for a good photo op, standing so prominently near the Visitor Center.

And the flowers at the visitor center were just the beginning .  .  .   we soon came to realize that Anchorage is a city awash in colorful flower displays.As more than one local informed me .  .  .  “When you have nearly 24 hours of daylight through the summer growing season, why wouldn’t there be plenty of flowers found here?”  Stir in a little rainfall now and then (which Alaska seems good at doing), and your whole entire town will be a veritable flower garden!  And so it is.

We experienced a lot of that rain.  And for the few times when the rain abated, the skies were still heavily overcast.  The days were very damp, to say the least.  But we persevered and tried not to let the elements pull us off our game.

Well, at least some of it.  The mountain hikes that I had planned (and really looked forward to), tended to fall by the wayside.  Hey, I just don’t groove on taking mountain hikes when the views are totally lost in clouds and mist!

But, being Anchorage, that means you’ll still find plenty of places and activities to do and see, despite inclement weather.  We headed out to Eagle River, the gateway to Chugach State Park and a glacial river valley as wild and dramatic as any you’ll find in Alaska—and that’s not selling it short, to be sure.

It begins with the drive, and the mountain views never do fizzle out.  It’s just what you’ve come to expect when approaching those Chugach Mountains you’ve been seeing for quite some time.  By the time you reach the Visitor Center, you’ve already had a good fill of rugged scenery while still being in close proximity to big-town Anchorage.

Even on a day as drab and drizzly as this was, those mountains ahead that envelop Eagle River are as impressive as any we’ve already seen.  They’re simply a prelude to what’s in store once you arrive at the visitor center.

“Just beyond the foothills of Anchorage lies Chugach State Park, a half-million acres of some of the most accessible hiking, skiing camping, rafting, climbing, wildlife-viewing and photographic opportunities in Alaska.”      ~Outdoor Photographer magazine

Situated just a 40-minute drive from downtown Anchorage, the Nature Center started out as the Paradise Haven Lodge, a popular bar and steakhouse in the 1960s and ‘70s.  Driving there was always an adventure as the last two miles of road were often glaciated.  Nowadays, the road stays clear with the adventure beginning at the trailheads.

The Eagle River Nature Center is a not-for-profit that is open year-round and has over ten miles of hiking trails to choose from, all with varying difficulty levels.  The most popular hikes in Eagle River include Rendezvous Ridge, Mt. Baldy, Eagle and Symphony Lakes, and Barbara Falls on the South Fork of the Eagle River.

Beginning at the nature center, the Albert Loop Trail is one of the most scenic yet easy hikes anywhere near Anchorage (or so I had read) and even on day with poor conditions, it didn’t fail to make a good impression.  Passing through a beautiful forest, crossing over a couple nice wooden bridges, past beaver dams and along the swiftly-flowing glacial waters of Eagle River, this trail offers a little bit of everything we like about the Alaskan scenery.  And did I mention the steep-sided mountains towering nearly above our heads that are only a few miles distant?

Definitely Eagle River qualifies for a place we’ll be bound to return to on our next Alaska trip .  .  .  and be hoping for better weather conditions.

Fortunately, another activity that was on our list didn’t require perfect weather (although it would’ve been much preferable).  Potter Marsh was a place we were anxious to visit (Chris, most enthusiastically) and as along as it wasn’t pouring down rain, we thought we’d chance a visit or two.

Just south of Anchorage along the Seward Highway, you’ll find the 564-acre site.  Part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, this wetland is viewed as a transition one between the Chugach Mountains and the shores of Turnagain Arm.  Well-visited by shore birds and migratory species, from mid-spring through early fall this place is as popular with the bird-watchers as it is with the birds.  Always interested in honing his photography skills as well as cataloging each new and different sighting, Chris really enjoyed his stay and didn’t waste time getting down to it.

Potter Marsh may be the most accessible wildlife viewing spot in Alaska.  Creating a wetland maze that concentrates at least 130 species of migratory and nesting birds very close to highway pullouts, this rich habitat also attracts browsing moose, beavers and muskrats, bald eagles and spawning salmon.

Potter Marsh concentrates so much wildlife because it features a succession of different habitats in a relatively small area.  At least three flowing streams feed a network of shallow ponds shrouded by sedges and grass.  The wet hummocky land rises into bog and black spruce, and then transitions into alder.  A mature forest of cottonwoods, birch and spruce rises along the perimeter.  Taken as a whole, the marsh is basically an area of overlapping edge habitats—the sort that draw wild animals into the open as well as attracting a variety of bird species.  It’s what scientists call an ecotone.

The majority of the refuge is intertidal floodplains of glacial silt, making it largely inaccessible to the public.  The remaining areas consist of coastal wetlands, bogs, and wooded areas.  The Potter Marsh area used to be open to Turnagain Arm’s extreme tidal fluctuations.  The construction of an embankment for the Alaska Railroad in 1917 restricted the flow of Rabbit Creek and impounded water from other sources as well, creating the marsh.

With its nearly panoramic view of Turnagain Arm while being buffered by spruce, cottonwoods and alders, Potter Marsh is not only for the birds, but also has good potential for being a prime landscape photographic opportunity.  Despite the heavy overcast conditions as well as the flat light, the scenery, with all its different hues and textures, enticed me to try and make the best of it.

Several well-constructed boardwalks wind through Potter Marsh, fanning out and creating a variety of different perspectives of the viewing areas.  One in particular, extends 1,550 feet from the parking area and has multiple viewing platforms, giving space for serious bird photographers to spread out their gear.

And so, while I found my own niche here, Chris was absorbed in what interested him so much.  And his results came out more than just satisfactory.  I think the guy has found his calling.

Interestingly, this wading bird is simply called the Lesser Yellow Legs.

Chris manages to catch a Yellow Leg taking flight.

Needless to say, besides taking in the sights here in Anchorage, we also had a very successful shopping spree (or two).  And so, with replenished supplies and the necessary parts installed, it looked like we had all systems restocked and back on line.  While the weather was far from ideal and put a glitch into my plans here in Anchorage, once again we buckled up and didn’t let it get us down (speaking, of course, about myself) and looked forward to better days ahead.

Our last night in camp seemed to give me a sign, that every dark cloud might have a silver lining.

Streaming on and not looking back,

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

Posted in Alaska, Anchorage | Tagged , | Leave a comment

HERE IN ALASKA–Day Tripping to Whittier

If you’ve caught the drift of my last two posts where I’ve been singing the praises of Portage Valley, it might seem surprising that I’d be willing to take a day trip away from this place I’m so attracted to.  A good assumption would be it must be a pretty big deal and, in fact, you’d be right on the mark.  Whittier, Alaska, small as it is, made for a very worthwhile day’s adventure.  We learned a lot and even had a good hike to boot.

In reality, Whittier wasn’t all the far away .  .  .  actually, just up the Portage Glacier Road.  It might be short on miles to get there, but it was big on the scenic dividends it paid out. Really big.

Two tunnels needed to be passed through before arriving in Whittier, both boring through mountains that act as a natural barrier that made Whittier a land-locked town.  Tunnel #1 was pretty average, just your normal, run-of-the-mill, 2-lane passageway under a lot of rock.  Tunnel #2 was a whole different story, deserving of some explanation.

Coming out of Tunnel #1 travelers are immediately struck with some awesome sights—namely, a whole new perspective of Portage Lake rimmed with towering, glacier-studded peaks.  It was another “Oh, wow!” moment that Alaska is good at dishing out.  .  .  another “You’ve-just-got-to-pull-over!” occasion.And it wasn’t just the view around the lake—the road ahead had some eye candy every bit as worthy.  Without even arriving at Whittier yet, the drive getting there was certainly part of this whole day-trip experience!  Ahead stood Maynard Mountain, the behemoth standing between the Portage Valley and the town of Whittier on the other side.

Up until 2000, this formidable mountain prevented residents from leaving Whittier by road.  Even though a tunnel had been constructed in 1941, it was only accessible by trains that transported fuel and other supplies.  All that changed when the State of Alaska transformed it into a combination highway and railroad tunnel, creating the longest combined rail and highway tunnel in North America at 2.5 miles long.

Construction engineers had quickly determined that it wouldn’t be possible to widen the existing tunnel into a combination highway and railroad tunnel.  They came up with an innovative approach, a redesign of embedding the train tracks within the road surface.

There’s a $13 toll for all vehicles less than 28’ long going to Whittier (no cost coming out) and a WHOLE lot more $$$ if you’re longer, with inbound traffic going on the hour, outbound on the half-hour, and trains go through on a set schedule.  The tunnel is unusually tall, but also pretty narrow—the rough-hewn rock walls seem to be within touching distance from your vehicle (kind of claustrophobic for one of us), but it’s well-lighted and has “safe houses” along the route in case of an emergency.  It’s under surveillance via tunnel cameras and utilizes jet engine fans to ventilate fumes produced by both cars and train. All-in-all, it made for an interesting experience and a surprisingly smooth drive.

(Photo credit: http://www.travellens.co)

And then, at tunnel’s end, you find yourself in bright sunlight (hopefully) with the small, quaint town of Whittier before you.  Calling itself “The Gateway to Prince William Sound”, it’s situated at the head of a long fjord known as Passage Canal, which flows into Prince William Sound, and is a deep, ice-free port that’s only 63 miles from Anchorage (via the Seward Highway), making it a favorite and frequent stop for cruise ships.

Surrounded by three magnificent glaciers, the views from anyplace in town are tremendous.  Knowing my affinity for this kind of scenery, I could easily while away some time just kicking back and gawking.  From every perspective there’s a different, yet equally impressive scene.

But actually, Whittier is a town with two distinct looks.  On a nice day, it’s a beautiful waterfront village, its isolation from big-town Anchorage and the traffic on the Seward Highway being a big boon.  With the Chugach Mountains sweeping down to meet the huge azure waterway leading to Prince William Sound, it’s a place where sunlight sparkles on the water and glistens off the glacial ice.

And then, there’s its other side  . . . maybe even a more common occurrence in Whittier (as was reported by rangers at the Begich Boggs Center).  Whittier receives the full effect of the storms coming off of the Gulf of Alaska as they sweep through Prince William Sound.  It’s not uncommon here to experience winds up to 70 mph and more, and they’re even felt blowing over to the Portage Valley (we’ll testify to that!).  Whittier receives almost 200 inches of precipitation a year, and that amounts to a whole lot of snow in the winter.  But it’s the wet weather that makes the landscape so lush and beautiful.  Hundreds of waterfalls cascade down the mountain slopes.  Ferns, flowers and spruce trees grow in abundance.  Hanging glaciers cling to nearly every mountaintop.  Whittier is one of the wettest cities in America, getting up to 20 feet of snow each winter.  A very wet, grey and miserable day is common in Whittier, be it winter or summer or in-between.  Doing our best to plan for a ‘good day’ visit, our luck did hold and we had the best possible day that Whittier can give.  

As a first-time visitor it’s not possible to miss the Whittier Harbor . . . easily the heart of this small town.  Appearing as large as the entire town’s area, it’s filled with all types of boats, both for pleasure and for working. Always curious to take a closer look at town harbors wherever we go, it’s obvious at first glance that activities on the water are a big part in the lives of Whittier’s residents.

After a closer look at the goings-on and types of businesses you’ll find around town, it soon became obvious that a common denominator seemed to be the many local companies wanting to take you to somewhere else.  From the fishing boats offering chartered fishing excursions to catch halibut and salmon or tour guides offering boat cruises to see tidewater glaciers and marine wildlife or the nearby Kittiwake Rookery or tours for kayaking the area’s protected coves, you’ll find it all possible here in Whittier.

And then, there’s the cruise ship terminal which is filled most days of the weeks in summer.  Being one of the few deep-water harbors with access to beautiful Prince William Sound as well as being the closest cruise terminal to Anchorage means that several cruise lines have Whittier on their weekly schedules.

And where there are large groups of visitors, there’s generally tour operators to entice cruise passengers with their shore excursions.  And that’s where the train comes into play—taking visitors on a day trip to Anchorage and back.  And all this adds up to explaining that most Whittier residents make their living thanks to all those travelers who happen to drop by.

And yet, this is not a typical port-of-call cruise town, far from it.  No fancy, hoity-toity shops or ticky-tack, souvenir stores line the streets here .  .  . just a few small local businesses mostly selling handmade items crafted by the locals are all you’ll come across. The shops are as quaint and authentic as the town is.  No fake imagery here!

There is one place in town that kind of breaks with the mold and you can’t miss it, even as a first-time visitor.  The Whittier Inn stands on the edge of town with a great view looking down Passage Canal.  Not exactly fitting into the ‘quaint, yet authentic’ style, it’s a more refined appearance (self-described as “luxurious Alaskan rustic”) along with its large size does tend to draw one’s attention.  Obviously, it would be a very acceptable choice for lodging and, after one quick glance, also a very nice place for a meal.  But we ended up choosing a more ‘local’s’ kind of establishment for our midday, pre-hike meal.

There’s about a half dozen eating establishments scattered through town, none of which are far from the harbor.  We chose to try the Swiftwater Seafood Café, a restaurant about as unpretentious and authentic as their food was delicious and obviously fresh from the local waters.   From the flavorful halibut sandwich served with really good, crispy fries to the scrumptious Key lime pie that could easily hold its own with any in Key West, this Seafood Café didn’t sell itself short—its good-tasting food proved that you should never judge a book by its cover (if you get my meaning).  We highly rate this place for sure!

Now that I’ve given you a small glimpse of Whittier, there’s something I’ve failed to mention .  .  .  actually, it’s quite a big something and there’s actually two of them.  At first glance as one is pulling into Whittier, I’m sure the impression you’ll have of the town is a nice quaint waterfront village.  The ideal postcard image of a typical Alaskan town framed with mountains as its modest buildings wrap around the harbor.  But, take a second longer look and I would guess something soon becomes very apparent.  What catches your eye are two gargantuan, multi-storied structures, like watchtowers lording over the village shops.  And they look as out-of-place as one could ever imagine.  It certainly begs the question—what’s this all about?

The answer to that question is found within Whittier’s history and there really is a good explanation.  I hope you won’t find it a little too tedious, but bear with me, if you can, and maybe you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.

It all goes back to 1941, shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Simon Bolivar Buckner was the American general in charge of Alaska’s nascent Defense Command at a time when arming and securing Alaska had become a national security issue.  He was tasked with finding a location for a secret military installation that would ferry troops and cargo to the military hubs of Anchorage and Fairbanks, where strategically important airfields and army facilities were being built.  Buckner was looking for a proposed base that would have three provisos:  access to an ice-free deep-water port, a natural protection from airstrikes, and radar-unfriendly topography.  The little fishing village sitting on a coastal shelf completely hemmed-in by a towering 3,684’ Maynard Mountain at the head of Passage Canal, fit his bill perfectly.

In fact, the mountains around what would become Whittier were so impassable that first the military had to blast a hole through them to link the proposed port by rail to Anchorage, 60 miles away.  Tunnel digging began in November of 1941 and, despite 2-story snow drifts and subzero temperatures, it was completed a year later—6 months ahead of schedule (things must’ve been way different back then).

The project had taken on a new urgency in June 1942 when the Japanese Navy took aim at the Aleutian Islands—bombing Dutch Harbor on Unalaska and invading the islands of Attu and Kiska—which turned Alaska into an active theater of war.  To prevent a full-scale invasion of mainland Alaska, the volume of traffic via rail line quickly tripled as defenses were shored up.

The new military “town” here at present-day Whittier was codenamed H-12, sheltering over 1,200 personnel.  Its existence was officially kept secret: no civilians were permitted to enter and photography was strictly banned.  It was only after the war that it adopted the name Whittier, named for the 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

The buildings of H-12, including the barracks, mess hall, theater, and chapel, were made of wood.  Due to fires, and the catastrophic 1964 earthquake, only one WWII structure remains intact—the former Communication Systems Building, now converted into a no-frills hotel called the Anchor Inn.

When the war ended in 1945, Whittier’s days as a military installation seemed numbered.  However, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union started brewing, the U.S. military decided to bolster the garrison rather than abandon it.  And so, the Buckner Building (named for the general who initially established Whittier), constructed between 1949 and 1953, was designed to be a multi-functional military installation.  Covering 275,000 square feet over 6 floors, it contained everything from a bowling alley to a jail.  Unfortunately, it had a rather grim Soviet-esque appearance.

Does this monstrosity look out of place for a quaint fishing village or what?The military started pulling out of Whittier after 1960, and when the earthquake struck in 1964, their withdrawal was accelerated and soon completed.  The Buckner Building was left abandoned, and it wasn’t long before it fell into disrepair.  Today, this asbestos-laden shell still stands, most windows devoid of glass, giving the appearance of some sort of ghostly apparition.  Its fate still undetermined, no one has come forward to cough up the millions it would take to detoxify and renovate or demolish it.  By its sheer size and bulk alone, it stands quite inescapable from view, like a bombed-out shell of a relic from some forgotten war in a third world country.

Nearby stands another multi-storied building, but with a somewhat different appearance.  Begich Towers was also built in the later 1950s as a Cold War outpost for the U.S. Army.  It too was abandoned by the mid-1960s, but was not left to rot away with time.  In 1974 it was converted into a large condominium complex, ideally suited to shield residents from the harsh weather of a Whittier winter.  In fact, the building houses the town’s entire neighborhood, including the local police department, a school, an indoor playground, two convenience stores, a laundromat and the post office.  There’s even a high-quality B&B on a top floor.  There’s a health clinic and even a church in the basement.  Today, the 14-story Begich Towers houses nearly all of the around 220 permanent Whittier residents.  Now that’s what I’d call a close-knit community!

Back in real time, as interesting as history can be, we were ready for some action and getting on with the primary reason for being here.  Namely, to take a hike and the Portage Pass Trail isn’t just any old run-of-the mill trail.  In her very informative book “Day Hiking Southcentral Alaska”, Lisa Maloney gives it a top-billing and writes: “Simply one of the most gob-smacking trails in Alaska . . . “ (yes, her book is filled with colorful but expressive wording) when she describes the Portage Pass Trail.  And, once learning that at trail’s end hikers will be treated to a full panoramic view of Portage Glacier and the waterfall-draped mountains surrounding it, I was hooked.  And knew that it was my destiny that we would take this trail.

But it is a hike you’ll earn, big time.  Taking its name from the portage needed to be made to get boats up over the Chugach Mountains between Turnagain Arm and Passage Canal, thereby accessing Prince William Sound, the good news for today’s hikers is you’re not expected to carry a boat on your back.  Nevertheless, you’re guaranteed to get a good workout just getting yourself up, over and down.  In less than a mile the rocky trail goes pretty much straight up 800 feet to where you earn the Incredible View #1—looking back to see all of Whittier and the stunning waters of Passage Canal spread out before you.  Then, the trail continues down the other side of the pass, losing all that elevation you’ve just gained.

(Chris takes a breather while looking back from where we had begun—a long way down).

The other side of the pass isn’t quite as steep . . . just longer in length.  But once you gain your first view of what’s waiting at trail’s end, you know all your efforts were worth it.  And if you’re a glacier-lover like I am, then you knew that all along.

Once in sight of Portage Glacier (Incredible View #2), I nearly floated down the rest of the trail.  And soon, the views will get even better . . . many times over.

In Alaska, it’s easy to take views like this for granted.  There are several glaciers scattered around the state that can be viewed up close and accessed by a relatively short walk.  Exit Glacier, for one.  Worthington Glacier, near Valdez, is another.  And Matanuska Glacier, just down the road from where we camped at Glacier View, a third one.  But the news these days seems to suggest in just a few short years these same glaciers will have retreated so much that accessing a close-up view might be much more difficult, if even possible, to achieve.  Even in Alaska the glaciers are shrinking and that doesn’t bode well for a variety of reasons, as this article is all about.

Unlike the other glaciers we’ve seen in close proximity, we felt no chilling breeze sweeping off this one.  Standing there on the edge of Portage Lake, less than a half mile from the glacier’s toe, it was one of those unforgettable moments.  And then, to discover the shoreline had a cascade of wildflowers flowing down to the water’s edge . . . .what more could someone like me hope for? A glacier before me and flowers all around .  .  . if this isn’t a bit of heaven, then what is?

(Photo credit: Chris Wall)

Only by taking the M.V. Ptarmigan can you get an even closer view of the ice.

Chris takes one last long lingering look before we begin our climb back up to the Pass (and another 800’ of elevation).

Portage Pass Trail was indeed the highlight of our day trip to Whittier, Alaska.And your view from the Pass will be all the reward you need as you tackle the steep pitch of the trail going back down.  .  . just pick a good day to do it!

If this isn’t Alaska .  .  .  then I don’t know where it would be.

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris,

relishing another good day of our trip.

(Photo credit: Chris Wall)

Posted in Alaska, Whittier | 4 Comments

HERE IN ALASKA—Highlights of Portage Valley

It isn’t uncommon, during the course of our travels, that we come across certain places that truly resonate with us.  It’s usually more of a feeling, that here we’ve found a place whose qualities appeal to us.  It’s a personal thing—usually each of us responds in different ways, but in the end, whatever those intangibles are, we both feel something, more or less, that draws us in.

Williwaw Campground and the surrounding area, here in a rather remote corner of the Chugach National Forest, was such a place.

And it didn’t take us long to realize that we were glad to be here, to spend a few days just kicking back, to take the occasional walk-around. And not be too anxious to leave.

To put it simply . . . I really liked Portage Valley, this little fragment of Alaska.  This valley just had a slice of everything that rings my bells in nature.  And, even though he’d not put it into so many words, I think Chris shared my sentiments.  At least, in some degree.

From the snow-capped peaks to the glaciers hanging off mountainsides, every scenic view seemed to score more points with me.

Looking back in hindsight, I suspect my attachment to this valley grew as strong as it did each time I headed out alone to find some rewarding photo opportunities.  It wasn’t uncommon to see me driving out in the truck as the golden hour of evening approached.  It was times such as these, with the light putting a warm glow on the landscape, that I had the opportunity to discover the best parts of Portage Valley.  And once I opened my eyes as well as my mind, without holding on to preconceived images, that was when I began responding to scenes around me.  And, keeping my mind open to all possibilities, letting the road lead me wherever it went, those were the best times to come across the places that exemplify Portage Valley.

While I went out roaming, searching for the ideal sunset shots, Chris was content to hang around camp.  In his own way, he believed that late afternoon was his special time, a time not to be squandered.   Give him a comfortable chair and a warming campfire and that would be his heart’s desire.  Chris has always been a man of simple pleasures.

While I, on the contrary, would be out and about, searching for and soaking in all the natural attributes that this valley had tucked away.

To each his own seems to be one of our mottos, and perhaps a clue as to why we make a good team.  While a good book and a warming fire is the best way for him to end a day, my best ending is to find an ideal sunset location.

Set up as we were, in the heart of this valley, we both were able to pursue our mutual interests.  Quite conveniently, I might add.

I didn’t need to go far to capture this scene—it’s a scene that greets visitors to Williwaw as they enter the gate.  But when twilight paints the scene in cool colors, adding tints of purple and pinks to the landscape, that’s a signal for me to grab my camera and begin my search in the valley.

And that’s how I often find more rewards than I ever expected.

Moose Flats showed great potential—although a little more colorful light would’ve helped.  And, by the way, I never did see a moose, despite it being a perfect moose habitat and the ideal time of the day.

Water reflections work really well at the end of the day when the breezes usually calm downAnd this little jewel of a place was found just down the road from Williwaw, albeit hidden from view.

And my quest to snag Explorer Glacier in good light finally came to fruition.

But it’s the mountain peaks in this valley that hold my fascination — I just can’t get enough of a fill   Each peak, especially when coated in snowfields, draws me in to their depths and mysteries.

And when tinged with the colors of sunset, that’s where I reap the rewards of my quest .  .  .  ending the day with a near perfect score.

Sunsets and late evening afterglows aside, give me a field of fireweed and I’m hooked.  The deal is set .  .  .  the bond is strong .  .  .  Portage Valley has totally won me over.

The profusion of fireweed in this valley is huge!  Not just lining the roads, if you come across any clearing in the forest . . . it’s bound to be covered with fireweed.  It’s absolutely mind-blowing!!

Lest you begin to think that our time spent here was all about lounging by a campfire or wandering the hills like some Julie Andrews wannabe, we did head out and give our legs a workout—Portage Valley has some very rewarding trails to hike.

For a great overview of the Valley’s natural features, you just can’t beat the Trail of Blue Ice.  Stretching nearly the entire length of the valley to end at the Visitor Center, the 4.6-mile hike is a real winner.

A hard-packed rock-paved path alternating with raised boardwalks, the trail connects with all the popular viewing areas as well as the two campgrounds in Portage Valley.

Following the path of the glacier’s retreat, the Trail stays on the valley floor as it winds through dense forests, crosses streams and passes by several ponds and lakes.  Along its route it serves up stunning views of the mountains as well as the glaciers that still remain flowing from the peaks.

And as you follow the route through the heavily forested environment, you’ll get a good picture of what a temperate rain forest is all about .  .  .

. . . a thick understory of lush ferns,

. . . to moss-covered tree and rocks,

. . . and spruce and hemlocks grow neck-craning tall as they vie for their slice of sky and sunlight.

While winding through it all, pretty Portage Creek flowing from Portage Glacier’s terminus to its mouth at Turnagain Arm, is the thread that ties everything together.

Another popular trail you’ll find in Portage Valley heads out near the visitor center.  Equally as fine as the Trail of Blue Ice, but giving a whole different perspective, it too is a very doable hike.  As its name implies, the focus of this hike is the glacier you’ll soon encounter at trail’s end as well as the beautiful valley it’s found in.  Descending from the same ice field that also feeds Portage Glacier, Byron Glacier has been rapidly retreating in recent years, and its size has become less impressive.

Hidden from view at the start of the trail, once breaking through the foliage lining the path, you’ll have your first glimpse of the glacier clinging to the cliffs and rocky ridges.

Beginning in a forest thick with alders, small cottonwoods and aspen, the trail is a great illustration of how an ecosystem rebounds after being scoured down to bare rock by the glacier’s movement.  The closer you come to the foot of the glacier, you’ll be seeing how nature recovers.  The forest of trees soon gives way to a thicket of young alders, which in turn morph into lichen-dotted rocks lying on bare gravelly ground.  The upper valley near trail’s end, reveals ground most recently exposed by the retreating ice.

Rugged and raw, you’ll soon be standing on Byron Glacier’s broad floodplain.  All that stands between you and the ice is the glacial moraine, an obvious pile of rocky debris left by the melting glacier.   While this is where the official trail ends, if you’re like me (not so agile, but ever so eager), you’ll be giving in to the temptation to move in closer—rocks and boulders notwithstanding.

Scrambling over the rocks, while improvising the easiest route to take, I can’t help but hope that in the end the photo perspective I’ll gain will be totally worth it.  Navigating over boulders isn’t my forte, there was just no graceful way for me to forge this route.

In the end as I stood there on the highest point of the rockpile, I knew it had been worth the effort.  From that perspective I could look down on the full expanse of the glacier as it flowed down through the valley it had carved.  But wait—what’s that??? Those dots down there on the ice—they were people!! Well, that’s quite the feat . . . after making the effort and thinking I was king of the mountain (or rather, the moraine).  I guess there’s always going to be someone to come along and up one’s game.  I guess I’ll leave that game for another day.

And be happy with the shot that I got .  .  .

.  .  .  blue ice and all.

Call me ‘glacier-crazy’ if you must .  .  .  but I just can’t get enough of Alaska’s glaciers.

Truly, Byron Glacier is a big highlight of Portage Valley.

Until the next one comes along.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Alaska, Portage Valley | Tagged , | 1 Comment

HERE IN ALASKA—Portage Valley, off the beaten track

It was what we like to call ‘A Colorado Morning’.  When the sky is of such a deep, clear sapphire color it almost hurts your eyes to look at, and the clarity of the air makes all the colors in nature just pop, and when the temperature is crisp and cool while the sun feels warm on your face, it all comes together to give you that “It’s just good to be alive” feeling.  That was the kind of day we were enjoying as we packed up and departed from our Seward campground.  Little did we realize that this kind of day wouldn’t be happening again for many weeks to come.  Yes, you read it correctly—many, many weeks to come.

But those thoughts weren’t on our minds as we began the short but extremely scenic drive to our next destination.  And what an awesome drive it was!

Honestly, could a day look any better? And could a drive be any more spectacular?Once again, that Seward Highway would not disappoint.  I don’t think I’ll ever be looking at all those other mountains in the Lower 48 the same way I used to.  Once you’ve seen the mountains in Alaska, it tends to alter one’s perspective.  They are just that impressive.

How Chris manages to drive safely through this scenery is totally beyond me.

It would be a short but oh-so-scenic drive to where the Seward Highway first touches the shoreline of Turnagain Arm.  Along with Knik Arm, Turnagain Arm flows into Cook Inlet which in turn empties into the Gulf of Alaska.  While Cook Inlet is the major waterway giving marine access to Anchorage, Turnagain Arm is noted for its extremely large tides, second highest (after the Bay of Fundy) in North America.  Sometimes reaching up to 40 feet, these tidal waves have even attracted wind surfers on warmish summer days—a sight we happened to catch.

While the Seward Highway continues around the dramatic shoreline of Turnagain Arm (arguably one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in our entire country, I believe), we would be shortly diverging from this highway, turning east to take the Portage Valley Road.

Taking a convenient highway pull-off, we paused to take in the sight of the glacier-dotted peaks of the Chugach Mountains bordering Turnagain Arm. 

 

At the head of Turnagain Arm, where the former town of Portage once stood (until the 1964 Earthquake when the shoreline dropped 6-12 feet, allowing high tides to engulf the town with saltwater), the Portage Glacier Road cuts off the highway, to terminate at the formerly landlocked town of Whittier.

About 50 miles south of Anchorage and deep within the Chugach National Forest lies a valley of pure unadulterated scenic beauty.  It’s a place of stunning landscapes where there’s no lack for Kodak moment shots; where nature lovers will know they need go no farther than this.  Portage Glacier Valley, I dare to write, holds the essence that is Alaska. And the Portage Glacier Road (aka, Forest Road-35) will take you through it.

It’s part of the Chugach National Forest, the second largest national forest in our nation—larger than the state of New Hampshire.  Its 6.9 million acres stretch from Turnagain Arm and the Kenai Peninsula across Prince William Sound to the Copper River Delta south of Valdez and beyond.  Spanning the heart of Southcentral Alaska, the Chugach NF encompasses a vast landscape that features almost every geographic zone found in Alaska—salmon-filled rivers and streams, alpine tundra, rain forests, coastal inlets, pristine lakes, boreal forests and immense wetlands, and, most notably, jagged mountains peaks dotted with dazzling glaciers.  Here in the Portage Valley, this microcosm of the national forest, where mountain hemlocks and Sitka spruce cloak the mountainsides, you’ll find most all of these features held within a temperate rain forest environment.  If you’re looking for the ideal Alaska landscape, you need go no farther than here.  And yes, I know I’m saying a lot in that statement, so hopefully my post and photos will convince you.

Formed by Portage Glacier, which eons ago once covered the entire area, this pristine valley with Portage Creek winding through it, is surrounded by beautiful mountains, most of which still retain glaciers that have become shadows of their former selves.  Shrouded in shades of deep greens with shoulders dappled in sparkling white glaciers, the mountains looming over this valley offer an inspiration for all travelers with a passion for outstanding natural scenes.  From our first drive through the valley as we were headed towards our next campground, the exhilaration I was feeling as my pulse picked up its beat had me wondering if I could possibly have found my Promised Land of this trip.

The Portage Valley runs east to west from Turnagain Arm up to the mountains blocking the passage to the town of Whittier.  It is a spectacular valley surrounded by mountains covered in ice fields and glaciers, and is well worth taking the time to explore.

But, there is a catch to finding this jewel of a valley .  .  .  unless you happen to be traveling with your home-away-from-home, you won’t be overnighting here in Portage Valley.  The nearest accommodations you’ll find will either be in the towns of Girdwood (about 20 miles away) or Whittier (about 7 miles and one $15 tunnel toll away).  Still, it’s worth it to come, be it a day trip or longer.

 The line of glacier-capped mountains gives the traveler a grand preview of what Portage Valley has in store.Nearly right from the start the mountains present an in-your-face, imposing view .  .  .  a precursor to what’s waiting beyond.

And then, when I was presented with a road decked out and bordered with magenta fireweed as far as my eyes could see, I was won over.  This was My Kind of Place and I was entranced by its allure.  I had bonded with this place and there’d be no taking it back.

While Chris doesn’t quite express himself or his thoughts quite as . . . err . . . unrestrainedly as moi, nevertheless once we arrived at our campsite, he had a few expressive words of his own.  “Quite nice” I believe I heard him utter.

For a forest service campground, Williwaw might easily qualify as one of the best campgrounds we’ve had the pleasure of enjoying.  Although classified as “primitive” sites (i.e., no hookups or dump station, having only outhouses and hand-pumped water), Williwaw had paved roads, hard-packed, level pads with plenty of spacing between the individual sites and a setting that was breathtakingly beautiful.  Who could possibly hope for anything more . . . at least, when you have a self-contained RV as we do.

Chris wasted no time making himself at home.

And it wasn’t just that we had the ‘perfect’ site—this campground is full of good sites!  Having 60 sites, about half of which are reservable, there are back-ins and pull-throughs, and some make for better tent sites.  While the setting is a lush green open forested area, many of the sites reveal sweeping mountain vistas.  Just to walk through this campground is a really scenic pleasure!

And, as luck would have it, Williwaw comes with its own resident moose!

When you can still sing the praises about a campsite after successive days of endless rain and wet . . . well then, you know this is what we truly like about camping and especially about Williwaw!

Rain doesn’t dampen Chris’ spirit—in fact, he often revels in it.

The day wasn’t over yet and I didn’t intend to allow one minute of this glorious day to slip by negligently; once set up we were on our way to the national forest visitor center which I had already read a lot about.  I knew we were in for a treat.

If the center is anything like the presentation at its entrance, then there would be something very worthwhile waiting just up the road.

Named after two congressmen who were killed in a 1972 plane crash en roue from Anchorage to Juneau, the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center is impressive in its own right.  Built on the terminal moraine left behind by the Portage Glacier almost 100 years ago, its observation deck was designed to provide good views of the glacier.  Opened to the public in 1986, by 1994 the glacier had retreated so far back and around a headland, that it was out-of-sight from those same observation decks and their telescopes.  Nevertheless, with sweeping views of the mountain-rimmed Portage Lake, with their hanging glaciers easily seen from the Center, it is still a stunning location and the modern building makes good use of its natural setting.

Run by the National Forest Service, the Center offers an overview of the area’s glaciers and geology as well as an excellent movie, Retreat and Renewal, continuously played in the large theater.  And, if one cares to have a view of Portage Glacier, just down the road you can take a 1-hour boat cruise narrated by the Forest Service on the M/V Ptarmigan that’ll take you within 300’ of the towering wall of ice of the glacier.

With an average depth of 600 feet, Portage Lake was formed in a depression left by receding glaciers.  One hundred years ago, this lake didn’t even exist, as the glaciers extended right to the end of the present-day lake.

I don’t know what is waiting for us on the inside of the Center, but out here on the shoreline there’s a pretty amazing presentation of its own going on.

We were off to a good start here in the Portage Valley.  Given a fair-weather day—hey! everything looks better on a sunny day—we made the most of it.  Regretful to see it go (who knows what tomorrow’ll be like?), we wasted not a moment of rare sunshine.  And tomorrow, as they say—is just another day.

But it’ll be a day in the beautiful Portage Valley .  .  .  and it doesn’t get any better.

Relishing our time here off the beaten track.

Airstream Travelers,Melinda & Chris

 

Posted in Alaska, Portage Valley | 6 Comments

HERE IN ALASKA—Kenai Fjords Nat’l Park, up close and personal

“But out of all the cold darkness and glacial crushing and grinding comes this warm, abounding beauty and life to teach us that what we in our faithless ignorance and fear call destruction, is creation finer and finer.”   ~ John Muir, Travels in Alaska published 1915

Kenai Fjords National Park wasn’t what brought us here to Seward, but I’ve got to admit it is a big drawing card.  Easily the most popular attraction in the area, it undoubtedly accounts for what attracts the tourist crowds here to this small town each summer.  While I’m not saying that the park is the only show in town, I don’t think it’d be disputed to say Kenai Fjords is surely the Main Event.

Kenai Fjords has only been a national park since 1980, but today it has become the fifth most-visited park in Alaska out of the thirteen national park units found in the state.  Knowing that Seward is just 2.5 hours south of Anchorage might account for its visitation numbers, it must also be a consideration that of the total 8 national parks here in Alaska, Kenai Fjords is only one of three parks that can be driven to—Denali and Wrangell-St. Elias being the other two.  Whatever your reason for coming, this town, sitting at the head of Resurrection Bay, makes for a very picturesque Alaskan destination, without the typical gateway town appearance (read souvenir and ticky-tack stores).    

You’ll find the park visitor center located in town adjacent to the small boat harbor and the Exit Glacier Nature Center with its two popular hiking trails just a few miles from town, but the essence of Kenai Fjords National Park is somewhat more difficult to experience.  The only way to get a sense of the park’s immensity and grandeur is from above or on the water.  And so, with one boat tour already undertaken (and admittedly, extremely difficult to surpass), we agreed that we should see this park from a water perspective and went looking for the best tour company to go with.

Of the two major companies offering day cruises in the fjords of the national park, we liked the type and size of vessels operated by Kenai Fjords Tours, as well as their choice of tours.  Crossing our fingers that we’d be selecting a fair-weather day, we lined up for their longest, most extensive Northwestern Fjord Cruise for the coming day.

Nothing like the Lu-Lu Belle, the Orca Voyager was a fast-sailing catamaran that comfortably accommodated slightly more than 100 guests.  We selected inside seats with a table to ourselves, but could conveniently step outside in order to see the sights.

Meeting the boat’s captain, Mark Lundstrom, Chris soon learned Capt. Mark was a font of information on identifying Alaskan birds.  A very convivial kind of guy, Capt. Mark had run a dog team in the 1997 Iditarod Race, and with Chris having been at the Iditarod just a couple years later, that led to even more fodder for conversation topics between them.

And so, we set sail on a bright, blue-sky morning with an early 9am morning departure.

Leaving the small boat harbor and cruising down Resurrection Bay, we had a great panoramic view of Seward’s waterfront backdropped by the adjacent mountains.

Farther down, you could see some of the public campgrounds along the water . . .  an ideal location, having great views both to the front and from behind.

Shortly thereafter, Capt. Mark increased our speed . . . we were headed towards open water and scenery that was guaranteed to get some notice.  It was time for “All hands on deck!” so you wouldn’t miss a sight.

Departing Seward, the 70-mile, 7-hour cruise (not nearly as long as it sounds) heads to the Aialik Cape enroute to the Northwestern Glacier.  Located in the remote and remarkable corner of coastal Kenai Fjords, it’s where blue waters meet giant walls of ice.

Along the way, the tour passes through some of Alaska’s most isolated islands and cruises past picturesque sea stacks, all of which are photo-worthy scenes.

Soon after leaving Resurrection Bay, we rounded Callista Head and pass by Bear Lagoon, to see Bear Glacier beyond.  And what a sight it is.   The largest glacier that flows from the Harding Icefield, Bear Glacier, a 15.5-mile-long tidewater glacier, is easily seen from the waters of Resurrection Bay.

Bear Glacier is fronted by Bear Lagoon, a very calm body of water that is a proglacier lagoon—a lake that forms between the glacier and its moraine.  It’s become a popular place for kayaking around icebergs as well as paddleboarding.  Overnight camping along its ‘beach’ with the glacier towering above, is also another option for the adventure-loving crowd.

From here, Capt. Mark makes an announcement—he’ll soon be shifting into a higher gear. Increasing our cruising speed, and leaving protected waters behind for awhile.  We’ll be heading into open waters.

No claims were made about this being a calm and placid boat tour, but it really wasn’t exactly rough waters (just a little choppy).

It wasn’t just our speed that was increasing by several notches . . . the scenery definitely was also moving into a higher gear.  Each new sight made for an irresistible photo op.

And you can be sure I was photographing as fast as each new sight came into view.

Sea stacks, islets, and tagged shoreline are remnants of mountains now inching imperceptibly into the sea under the geological force of the North Pacific tectonic plate.

Absolutely jaw-dropping, incredible scenery. . .

. . .  now this is what the word ‘breathtaking’ was always intended to imply!

Soon we were approaching the Chiswell Islands  . . rocky islets scattered in the Gulf of Alaska and part of the Alaskan National Maritime Wildlife Refuge.  Exactly as it implies, these floating rock protrusions were a sanctuary for a multitude of wildlife and birds.

True to its name, Kenai Fjords presents a rugged, serrated coastline of fjords, all of which stretch far inland.  It’s a very obvious signature of the ancient icefield that once covered much of Alaska and beyond.  With a changing climate, this icefield wore away the rocky terrain below it, creating extravagant fjords, the namesake of this park.  Moving inland, long valleys are found where glaciers once stood; the stamp of time embedded in the landscape.

In fact, 51% of this park is covered in ice.  This exceptionally high percentage is all due to the Harding Icefield, a massive 700 square miles of ice that reaches depths up to about 4,000 feet and more.

One of four major ice caps in our country, the Harding Icefield crowns Kenai Fjords National Park.  A remnant of our last Ice Age, this icefield spawns nearly 40 glaciers of all types, several of which stretch to tidewater.

Skillfully maneuvering his boat, Capt. Mark gave us a closeup view of a tidewater glacier descending from the Harding Icefield (of which we could just barely see a fragment).

Rare is the person that has the opportunity to see the expanse of an icefield firsthand, and we weren’t in that elite category.  And so, for my benefit as well as yours, I did a google search to find a good photographic portrayal of the landscape of Harding Icefield.  If you’re anything like me, then you should find such a scene simply boggles one’s mind.  Truly, it stretches my imagination to think that once landscapes such as this covered a good portion of our country.

Like islands in a sea of ice, only the tops of mountain peaks, called nunataks, emerge from the vast icy expanse.

Rounding Aligo Point at the tip of Harris Peninsula, we entered Granite Passage which would lead us into Harris Bay and, at its farthest extent, Northwestern Fjord.  This morning had taken us from Seward down the length of Resurrection Bay and then along the fjords and peninsulas of this national park.

Appropriately enough, our course was northwesterly.  As we sailed up Granite Passage, Harris Peninsula was to starboard with soaring, slender Granite Island to our port.

Behind us now, the Gulf of Alaska stretched south to the open waters of the Pacific Ocean, from where a straight line drawn would not touch land again until reaching Antarctica.

Passing through Granite Passage, as we continued toward Northwestern Fjord proper, the plant communities along the coastline began to noticeably change.  Near the mouth of Harris Bay and on Granite Island spruce and hemlock forests are well established.

Yet as we traveled toward areas that had more recently been glaciated, the forests became shrubbier and brushier.  In some spots more than others, it was obvious where ice had been more recently on the slopes.  Throughout the bay and the fjord, microclimates affected by the proximity of the icefield, the amount of sun a slope receives, and exposure to winds and storms, created areas of greater or lesser vegetation.  The closer the land was to effects of the Harding Icefield, the treeline altitude was lower.

Regardless of the micro-climate variations, the general trend of the phenomenon known as forest succession is that the glaciers leave behind bare rock, where soon lichens will begin to appear, and then begin to break down.  The thin, loose soils created by the lichens are enough for hardy pioneers like fireweed to germinate in.  These are followed by shrubby willows and stands of alder, which fix nutrients into the soil.  Eventually, spruce and hemlock replace the alder and willow as the forest reaches maturity.

Before long, we crossed a shoal that indicated the extent of Northwestern Glacier in 1900.  Capt. Mark pointed out the shallows along either shoreline that betrayed the glacier’s terminal moraine from that time.  We were crossing over the moraine in the wake of the retreating glacier.  Directly above the moraine, there’s only a 35’ depth of water below our boat. In comparison, the bay itself averages hundreds of feet deep.  This shoal also marked the divide between Harris Bay and Northwestern Fjord.

Even after Northwestern Glacier, which had once filled the fjord, retreated well beyond the 1900 terminus, Northwestern Fjord had been largely unnavigable for decades because of the minimal depth of water above the shoal.  And then, before the early 1980s, the hazards posed by the icebergs clogging the fjord and the bay became another obstacle. And that is why it’s only been in recent decades that people have been able to see the face of Northwestern Glacier.

Once in Northwestern Fjord, we passed Striation Island.  Taking its name from all the deep grooves and scrape marks left behind after being scoured by the retreating Northwestern Glacier, it presented a highly unique sight and visual evidence of the power of a glacier.

Cutting around one last headland, we had our first sight of Northwestern Glacier, hanging onto a cliff face beneath the Harding Icefield.

Approaching Northwestern Glacier

Barely leaving a wake behind, Capt. Mark brings the boat ever closer to the glacier.  On this bright mid-summer day, Northwestern Glacier barely dips its toes into the water in a few scattered places.  Capt. Mark tells us that although the glacier has retreated catastrophically over the past century, it’s relatively stable at the moment.  What it retreats during the summer months seems to be nearly compensated for over the winter.

The distinctive blue coloration in the glacier is caused by the density of the ice.  Glaciers are formed when snowfall accumulates rather than meting or evaporating. From winter to winter, this snowfall piles up, compacting under its own weight.  Individual snowflakes are crushed as the air is pushed out, creating an ice that is far denser than ice cubes, or even the frozen surface of a lake.  It’s so dense that glacial ice has the properties of minerals.  And, like sapphires, glacial ice reflects the blue colors of the light spectrum that reach our eyes.  Of course, glacial ice can also look black, brown or gray from the rock and debris plucked up by the ice in its journey down the mountainside, thereby incorporating it into the flowing glacier.

The ledge that Northwestern Glacier tumbles over is about 2,000 feet above the water’s surface.  Although it appears immovable and static in photos as well as real life, all the glacial mass is dynamic and constantly, albeit slowly, moving.  For quite some time, hoping that we’d be seeing some action (like chunks of ice falling off), Capt. Mark allowed his boat to quietly drift around as we waited.  And listened. The sound of rushing water was quite noticeable as the glacier melted and dissolved into spectacular icefalls, appearing more like water than particles of ice.

Water .  .  .  or ice .  .  .  it was enthralling to watch .  .  .  a very ethereal effect as we watched powerful forces in action.

But, as all things seem to go, our time in this stunning place came to its conclusion. As Capt. Mark pulled away from proximity to the shore, out in the open water of Northwestern Fjord, he prepared us for one final look.  Doing a grand maneuver, he pulled his boat into a tight turn that gave a 360-degree rotation presenting us with a grand panoramic view of the glacier-studded landscape.  A fitting way to end our stay.

And with a fair warning we were told to brace for departure, the captain gunned the engines and with a burst of speed, we left that fjord in our wake.

Sometime later, as we were retracing our route and passing through Granite Passage, we had one last unexpected treat in store.

Once again, it was “All hands on deck!” and “get ready with cameras” .  .  .

.  .  .  a pod of orcas was seen nearby and they were coming closer.

I don’t need to tell you who caught these photos, do I?

Sometimes, there’s a very slim difference between an average shot and one that is Best of Show .  .  .

. . . it can come down to literally to a fraction of a second.  But still, it was a major coup for Chris just to catch this guy in action.

As our trip approached its conclusion, just as this post is also doing, Chris and I once more realized that a boat tour with a good captain can be one of the highlights of the Great Alaskan Experience. Besides coming away with a ton of good photos, we both felt all the more enriched by the knowledge Captain Mark had imparted.  It was a totally worthwhile cruise giving us a different perspective of this great state and one very unique national park.  I hope I was able to impart a fragment of the experience to you after making it through this rather lengthy post.

With good memories of Kenai Fjords National Park,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

Posted in Alaska, Kenai Fjords National Park | 2 Comments

HERE IN ALASKA—Outside in Seward

When one comes to Alaska, surely it is with the expectation of being in the great outdoors much of the time.  I mean, honestly, how much of the essence of Alaska can be found indoors?  When planning this trip and all that it would entail, I could only hope that, once here, Chris and I would have enough stamina and fitness to tackle all that I had lined up for us.  This trip wasn’t just about touring Alaska .  .  .  we needed to be experiencing Alaska.  And that implies getting outside.

Seward is a town that has plenty to choose from in outdoor activities.  Consequently, the dilemma you’ll face once here is in the selection.  All I can suggest is to start your list and then, prioritize.  Seward’s big claim to fame is being the gateway to the impressive Kenai Fjords National Park and that’s where you’ll undoubtedly be spending much of your outdoor time. For us, that would be where we’d begin.

While covering a massive 670,000 acres, the landscape of this park can only be seen from the air or on the water or by driving the Herman Leirer Road past the KOA to its end at the park visitor center.  That short distance is the only road leading into any area of Kenai Fjords.  Having already read that its parking lot fills early, the Exit Glacier area was the first item on our agenda on our first full day here in Seward.  We headed there for an early morning outing.

One of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers, the Exit Glacier area has a pretty setting (kind of unusual as glaciers go) in addition to providing access to hiking trails, a primitive campground and guided glacier hikes.  As you drive the road leading into the area, you’ll have tantalizing views of the glacier oozing out from the Harding Icefield.  But the best is yet to come.

Of course, the visitors center was closed due to Covid.  No interpretive displays, no bookstore, no souvenirs or postcards, and what’s more—no video!  This situation we’re encountering (I call it ‘covid-closed’), time and time again, is becoming rather irksome, to say the least.  (Limit the number of visitors . . . mandate wearing face masks . . . enforce social distancing . . . but please, don’t deny people these learning experiences and informative displays—isn’t 2 years enough??!)

Two well-worn, popular trails head out from the Center.  The Glacier View Loop Trail leads to a panoramic vista of Exit Glacier as well as connecting to the Glacier Overlook Trail.  Combining the two, as we easily did, gave us a nice not-too-strenuous workout.  As a result, we got some fairly close-up views of Exit Glacier spilling into the valley below.

Taking a side trail leading off the main pathway, you’ll catch a good perspective of Exit Glacier flowing down to its outwash plain.

Both trails are easily hiked, with a few ups and downs.  All in all, less than three miles round trip.  Unfortunately, it’s a popular loop and you won’t be alone.  But, in a case like this, the views you came for make it all totally worth it.

As you make your approach, you’ll feel as if the glacier itself is just over that last rise . . . so close that you’ll feel the cold air blowing off of its surface.

Yes, the ice really is that blue!  And the rippling and buckling of the ice is near the toe of the glacier.  Quite amazing!

We spent some time at the overlook just taking in the sight and attempting to grasp how it all came about.  As if that wasn’t enough of an impressive sight, seeing all the waterfalls flowing down the high cliffs bordering the glacier was another incredible view.

One of the most visited glaciers in the world, Exit Glacier came by its name when early explorers on the Harding Icefield made their exit by descending this glacier.  Dropping about 3,000 feet in just a few miles, it forms a stunning, natural ramp for all the mountaineers that have since taken the same exit route. 

The start of the forested trail to Exit Glacier leads through a thick stand of towering cottonwoods, where hikers will see posted dates standing as proof of just how much the glacier has retreated in recent decades—sometimes more than 180 feet in a single year.

With a day as fine as this one was, we weren’t quite ready to put our trekking sticks away.  Although not within the national park boundary, after lunch we were headed down another good trail in the vicinity of Seward.

A classic hike with an abundance of varied scenery, the Tonsina Creek Trail is a hike we’d both highly recommend.  Driving south out of Seward taking the Lowell Point Road that follows the shoreline of Resurrection Bay, you’ll soon arrive at the parking area for Caines Head State Park and the trailhead for this wonderful hike.

The trailhead begins at the end of the road in Lowell Point where we’ll hike down the coastline to Tonsina Point.

Right off the mark this trail begins with some stunning scenery as you’re enveloped in an unexpected rainforest environment.  A dense forest of immense hemlock and spruce trees creates a thick canopy overhead while mosses and ferns on the forest floor cover everything in green.  You’ll see before you visual proof that here in Seward you’ve come to the northernmost reach of the temperate rainforest that stretches all the way south along the Pacific Coast as far as Norther California.  With the mountains along the coast trapping moisture-laden clouds moving inland that results in rainfall over 100” in some places, the temperate rainforest in Alaska stretches along a 1,000-mile coastal arc from the border of Canada to the island of Kodiak.  The Seward area itself averages between 55 and 80 inches of rain annually—more recently, it’s been around 72 inches.  And so, you get a whole lot of green in this part of the state.  And here, on this particular trail of towering trees and an understory rich with lichens and moss and ferns, the unsuspecting hikers (like us) are presented with a whole different world.  I found it simply enchanting.

But, the trail continued on and so did we, soon to leave that verdant forest.  First, it was uphill on a graveled trail with a couple of easy stream crossings.  Soon enough, we were switchbacking down to reach the bridge crossing the trail’s namesake creek.  And just like that, you’re out in the open and you’ll see water and marshes and a rocky beach ahead.

Nothing can really prepare you for the expansive view of Resurrection Bay and the mountains beyond that spread out before you.

You’d have to be impervious to awesome sights not to want to linger and explore around here.  And if you’re a mountain-lover like me, with the warm sunshine brightening the entire landscape, you could probably end up staying here for hours.

~ If only we had thought to bring some food!

You can bank on this—Tonsina Creek Trail is a winner!

But if there’s one hiking trail that puts Seward on the map it’s found in the Kenai Fjords National Park.

By all descriptions it’s labeled as a spectacular hike, but it’s certainly not for everyone.  The Harding Icefield Trail is about 9 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 3,500’, and it should come as no surprise that the hike is rated as strenuous.  Also described by all accounts and reviews, it’s the views of the Icefield itself that intrepid hikers will see that make all the physical effort more than worthwhile.  As much as I would’ve hoped, I knew that the chances of attaining a 3,500’ elevation gain were about equal to the chance that I could fly there.  But, when I read hikers could attain impressive views of the icefield about halfway up, I thought it might be worth a shot.  When Chris gave his go-ahead that was all I needed—we packed up and headed out on a sunny and warmish day.

 The hike begins at the Exit Glacier trailheads, diverting from them in a short distance.  For a while the trail winds through a lush forest, but soon you’ll detect the steady elevation gain.  It really doesn’t shift to a rougher grade until the dirt path gives way to more rocks—some that are small, but others big enough you need to step up or climb over.

I knew the ascent would be constant .  .  .  I had read that hikers gain about 1,000’ of elevation with every mile.  What I wasn’t mentally prepared for were the numerous steep sections of rocky steps and boulders on the ascent.  Larger boulders formed steep steps that required some “light scrambling” to get over.

By this point, the effort we were expending was compensated by occasional far-reaching views such as this.

Did you catch the part where I mentioned that it was a rather warm day?  Well, it was, as Alaska days go (easily in the 70s) and that was making all the effort quite uncomfortable for one of us.  Add to that, there was another element .  .  . we hadn’t had any kind of view since that one occasion.  Plodding and climbing through dense thickets and bushes isn’t my idea of a good hike.  Still, I persevered.  .  .  clinging to the hope that Marmot Meadows would live up to all its hype, giving me the longed-for view with a glimpse of the Harding Icefield.

“Marmot Meadows [gives] the first real break from the dense vegetation .  .  .  the clearing brings you to the side of Exit Glacier and makes for an excellent photo op.  [Now] above treeline, the views of the glacier’s outwash plain and surrounding mountains are breathtaking.”

Huffing and puffing and yes, sweating quite a bit, a posted sign announced we had attained Marmot Meadows.  Standing there and taking a look around, the vegetation nearly up to my shoulders, I felt my hopes and expectations begin to crumble.  The only view we had from this spot wasn’t exactly what I’d describe as “breathtaking”.  In fact, I was sorely disappointed.  And maybe a tad perturbed.

Couldn’t some ranger or park volunteer have done a little pruning of the vegetation that was smack in the center of “The View”???!!!

To say I was deflated might be making a slight understatement.

The trail description continues on to say Soldier on to the next phase of the hike as the trail switchbacks up into the alpine .  .  . over a jumble of rocks for the next mile and gains another 1,000 feet.”  But, again I quote “your reward will be an even better view of the Harding Icefield.”  Who do they think they’re trying to kid???  I look up the trail leading to the “Top of the Cliffs”, to see only more of what has come before.  Only now I have lost the faith I had felt to get me to this point.  I looked at Chris and sadly shook my head .  .  .  he probably knew how crushed I was.  Defeated, we headed back down.

And the view I had hoped to have earned and seen in person, I can now only share by using someone else’s photo.

Photo credit: https://peakvisor.com

Postscript:  We ended up hiking half the total distance with an elevation gain just under 1.500’.

For anyone interested in hiking trails around the Seward area, I found a good listing of a wide variety of trails to be at this website.

While this about covers the hiking we did while staying here in Seward, we still had a big outdoor excursion remaining.  So big, in fact, it’ll require a whole other post to give it a fair shake.  I’ll close out for now with some last photos I took on another evening when I went out with hopes of capturing some good sunset scenes.  Once again, the Herman Leirer Road didn’t let me down.

And, as it turned out, searching for good landscape photos helped to erase some of that bitter disappointment I had been feeling.  All things occasionally work out, don’t they?

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris,

loving the outdoor life.

Posted in Alaska, Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward | 2 Comments

HERE IN ALASKA—Seward, a nice surprise.

I had read that driving the Seward Highway was like driving through a national park, with respect to the sights seen along the route.  In fact, this highway’s outstanding scenic, historic and recreational assets have earned it a triple designation:  National Forest Scenic Byway, All-American Road and Alaska Scenic Byway.  What more could one ask?

Photos can’t begin to convey just how impressive these peaks are when seen in real life.

There’s no direct route going from Homer to Seward, our next destination.  All that empty space between the two towns is filled with formidable peaks and one gigantic Harding Icefield.  There’s no going through . . . your choices are flying over, taking the water route via the Alaska Marine Highway or driving around.

It’s a 170-mile route by road . . . backtracking on the Sterling Highway all the way to the village of Moose Pass, and then connecting with that Seward Highway for the last leg of the drive.  Believe it when I say, this trip is a treat of the highest order.  The miles will be a pleasure to undertake.

Adding to that treat is putting in a special stop along the drive, combining it with a tasty lunch—two important items in my travel book.  It pays to do research, especially for times such as this.  Otherwise, how would one know that just off of the Sterling Highway, overlooking a beautiful river and a line of mountain peaks, was a very civilized spot in the surrounding wilderness?

There are five Princess Lodges in different Alaska locations—in Fairbanks, Denali, the Copper River area, outside Denali State Park and this one, the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge located in the small town of Cooper Landing. They all offer a touch of luxury in more remote areas, whether it’s for an overnight stay or, in our instance, a place to enjoy a nice lunch in a rustic, yet oh-so-refined setting.

The dining room was very nice with a wonderful view out the span of windows, but hands-down, with an outdoor deck offering a pristine view of river and mountain peaks, there was no debate.  The skies were blue, the day was warm and we chose the deck of course.

Besides the nice ambiance and delicious food, it was the killer view that really offered the enticement.  Any opportunity for a wayside stop that comes with a scenic view is an opportunity I try not to pass by (think photo op) and this particular place had that in spades.  Perched high above the “majestic” Kenai River—famous for its salmon run—it’s a river with a reputation for its dazzling blue-green hues.  And, as good fortune would have it, today’s atmospheric conditions were putting it in its best light.

Yes, I captured my postcard photo!

Keep Princess Wilderness Lodges in mind, if ever you travel to Alaska—that’s my sage advice.

And then, it was off to Seward.

Perhaps this would be a good time to interject a personal comment.  After several posts I’ve already written about Valdez and Homer, perhaps you’re getting your fill of Alaskan towns on the water.  Admittedly, they do have some common denominators, and perhaps all their scenic views and mountain peaks and harbors on the waterfront seem to simply meld together.  So now we come to Town #3, and you’re seeing a definite redundancy.  Enough already!  you might be thinking, prepared to simply skim through the coming photos.  All I ask is don’t be rash—Seward is a remarkable town.  Dare I go as far as to state—Seward just might be giving Valdez a good run for its money.

Give Seward a chance and then you be the judge for the final verdict.

A pocket-size port town nestled at the end of a deep-cutting fjord and flanked by snowcapped peaks, Seward is a picturesque community of slightly less than 3,000 year round residents.  Named for William H. Seward, Secretary of State under President Andrew Johnson, Seward was instrumental in arranging the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.  Known to have a maritime climate, the area around Seward is a fairly mild and wet temperate rainforest environment, with summer highs in the low 60s, winter highs that linger in the low 30s and averaging about 72” of rainfall every year.

Seward’s history parallels Valdez’s as one of the two year-round ice-free ports with shipping access to Interior Alaska—Seward’s is by rail; Valdez’s is by road.  Thick groves of cottonwood and scattered spruce groves are found in the nearby vicinity of the town, with stands of spruce and alder growing on the surrounding mountainsides.  Where Homer is open, Seward is nestled on Resurrection Bay between mountain ranges towering above and has a very different feel.

Although Homer has more than twice the population numbers as Seward, we felt that there was more ‘town’ to Seward.  Encompassing more than 30 homes and businesses that date back to the early 1900s, many structures have been restored to resemble their original look.  The impression we both had of Seward’s business district wasn’t so much of a fakey, duded-up look as it was an authentic, well-tended appearance.  We liked Seward’s downtown area a lot, spending an afternoon looking over the stores.

Actually, there seemed to be two distinct districts to Seward’s business area, separated by a few residential city blocks.  One area is what I’d describe as the actual business area made up of government buildings, library and museum, commercial stores and a handful of cafes and restaurants.  The other area, facing the small boat harbor, is made up of charter and tour businesses, a couple of outfitter guide shops as well as shops appealing more to the tourist trade.  With more of a modern look to the buildings, they still retained a quaint waterfront appearance.  Altogether, it made for an interesting photo op, posed as the stores were, on stilts above the water.

Much like Valdez, the heart of Seward seemed to radiate from their harbor, which had an equally scenic setting.  Located where it was, at the head of Resurrection Bay, from any perspective you had of the harbor, there was a backdrop of mountain peaks.  It’s no wonder these waterfront towns have so much appeal.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between Seward and Valdez was the type of boats moored in each town’s harbor.  Where Valdez was more of a working boat harbor, here in Seward it seemed pleasure boats won out.  From small motor boats to sailboats and even a few impressive yachts, Seward’s harbor was definitely filled to the brim with more variety.

It was an interesting place to stroll through.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before we ever entered Seward, we checked into the KOA campground. A short drive from town, this KOA was practically brand new.  While it offers full hookup sites (the wifi leaves a lot to be desired), the campground surface is a rock-and-gravel open area. Newly planted trees and bushes are indications that this campground will someday come into its own good place to camp.  Finding it to be an easy 10-minute (if that) drive into the heart of town, the KOA is also located on one scenic stretch of road that would terminate at the most popular Exit Glacier area.  But more on that subject in the next post.

We had previously reserved a specific site, choosing it for the scenic views as well as being nicely separated from any neighbors.  It was a site that made our outside enjoyment around a campfire something to anticipate and enjoy.

Speaking of campgrounds, you’ll find several city-owned campgrounds right in town.  Some with full hookups, but most sites either had just water and electric, or none at all, the biggest selling point to these sites appeared to be location, location, location.  Within easy walking distance from all the shops, cafes and businesses of Seward, the biggest plus might be their water views.  If not able to snag or reserve a site bordering the water, even the rows behind were on elevated ground and seem to have nice water views.  Not surprisingly, the sites weren’t what I’d describe as spacious by any means, but as campgrounds usually go, that’s not so much surprising.

And the back-drop to these waterfront campgrounds wasn’t too shabby either.  Definitely, a win/win in the scenic views department.

Just about the time I was wondering if we’d made a serious mistake choosing the KOA as we did (had I neglected to mention we were lacking cell coverage in the campground?), our first evening began to settle in.  And that’s when I had the answer to those doubts.

With our dinner just concluded, I had stepped outside to retrieve something from our truck .  .  .   and encountered a view that stopped me in my tracks

~ literally taking my breath away.

And that was my Call to Action—grabbing keys and shoes and jacket, I took off in the truck post-haste .  .  .

.  .  .  and soon discovered that the Herman Leirer Road had a few more scenic vistas along its route.  I needed to work fast to get my  sunset shots.

Mother Nature did her best that night.

Even on the drive back to camp had me pulling over .  .  .

.  .  .  to catch the subtle colors of a sunset’s afterglow.

 

 

 

 

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris,

appreciating an Alaskan sunset.

Posted in Alaska, Seward | 4 Comments

HERE IN ALASKA—What Homer has to offer

So, here we were, all set up on top of a hill above Homer with this beautiful view overlooking Kachemak Bay to the Kenai Mountains beyond and Chris wants to know “What do we do now?” as if having this piece of amazing scenery wasn’t sufficient unto itself.  But honestly, he usually is asking this same question soon after we arrive at most of our destinations, so it really wasn’t a surprising question after all.  And, like most other times, I began laying out a brief outline of activities to choose from.  Succinctly, albeit superficially.

True to a woman’s prerogative, I had already decided what we’d be doing–taking an initial cursory visit to Homer Spit.  With the day more than half over already, there wasn’t much point in undertaking a more involved activity that might require some preparations.  Chris, congenial as he’s prone to be, thought it sounded like a good plan.  We headed out.

Chances are, a visit to Homer won’t just include a one-time jaunt on the Spit—there’s too much to take in.  Touristy as it might seem at first glance—yes, that spells souvenir shops, for sure—there’s definitely an authentic atmosphere to the collection of shops, galleries and restaurants that entices visitors to take a stroll on the wooden boardwalks.  Even if you’re just “window shopping”, you might just find a restaurant serving fresh catch-of-the-day while having prime views of the bay and mountains beyond that is just too enticing to pass up.  We enjoyed our first late afternoon outing on the Spit, taking note of some interesting restaurants, knowing we’d soon be making a return visit.

As sometimes events turn out, one thing led to another, and while we were there taking in the Spit, we reserved our seats on a water taxi for the next day’s Big Adventure.

If you ever make it to Homer (and I surely hope you all do!), among the activities to do and places to take in, you really need to consider hiking the Grewingk Glacier Lake Trail—it’s just too good not to make the effort. Yes, that’s what our Big Adventure would be.

And, dare I say, it’s very doable too!!!

It’s all about the Alaska Experience and being out in nature without too many hardships.  If you can walk .  .  .  you can do it!  And, when you think it’s a bit longer than you’d like, just take your time and relish the surroundings .  .  .  trust me, the beauty of it all will override your efforts and exertions.

It all begins with a water taxi and the views you’ll see from that perspective. Yes, you’ll be headed across Kachemak Bay and that experience alone is worth the cost you’ll pay (your hike will be the bonus).  The 30-minute ride is a great prelude to the start of this experience.  Sit back and be swept away!

Your destination is Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska’s first state park and its only wilderness park.  Established in 1970, it takes in nearly 400,000 acres of land and water, including a10-mile stretch of shoreline on Kachemak Bay as well as part of the Kenai Mountains.

Look ahead to where you’re going .  .  .  where that wall of mountains rises.  Laced with snowfields and alpine glaciers, they make swaths of bright white that contrast so distinctly with the slopes carpeted in shades of dark green.  That is Kachemak Bay State Park.

The hike we took and I’m describing, is easily the most popular. Actually, it’s a combination of two trails out and back.  You’ll be dropped off at Glacier Spit to begin, ending with a pick-up in Halibut Cove.  Don’t worry, though, all the water taxis know this routine—they’ll give you plenty of time (usually around 5 hours) to have a leisurely hike.

To be adequately prepared, you’re best advised to bring camera and iPhone, bug spray, sunscreen, rain jacket (or poncho), good trail shoes and trekking sticks .  .  .  that should cover all the bases.  Food for lunch and snacks, along with drinking water will be enjoyed once at the lake.  And, BTW, don’t leave home without the bear spray! Now, go enjoy your day.

The start of the trail meanders through a forest of Sitka spruce and cottonwoods—some of the largest in the park.

 The elevation gain on this hike is what I’d call minimum.   Glacier Lake Trail has a gradual ascent until reaching the alluvial flats above the lake.  Then there’s a gradual descent where the chilling winds off the glacier will be waiting to greet you—full force and full in the face too.  In record time I went from T-shirt to three layers, ending with a down jacket, hat and gloves!  After taking in the view of the glacier and its floating chunks of ice, we braved the wind (it was pretty strong) before finding a sheltering stand of trees and undergrowth to enjoy our much-earned lunch.

The trail ends at the broad, open beaches of Grewingk Glacier Lake where you can see the foot of 13-mile-long Grewingk Glacier.

You’ll be taking a shorter trail back to Halibut Cove, the pick-up destination.  Saddle Trail starts out mildly enough, but soon the descent begins.

I sure do love that fireweed—wherever I come across it!

Whoever thinks that a descending trail is much preferred over the opposite, has never taken this Saddle Trail!  Once the descent begins, it never lets up and that implies there’s no leveling off, not even for a short distance.  Now you’ll know why trekking poles were advised to bring along and your knees will be happy you have them!

Even as you’re negotiating this downward path, glimpses of Kachemak Bay come into view, which gives you motivation.  Take it slow and don’t be hasty—if your boat departs without you (ours did, but that’s another story), don’t worry—they will send another soon after.  And, true to what ‘they’ say—all’s well that ends well!

Trail statistics:  6.5 miles round trip; 497’ elevation gain; rated: easy/moderate.

If you’d rather choose an indoor venue with less exertion, then the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center might just be what you’d like.  It’s top-notch, very informative and has free admission. It showcases the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge that makes up some 2,500 islands, spires, and coastal headlands scattered from Southeast Alaska to the Arctic Circle. It’s the largest seabird refuge in the world and this visitor center gives you a great overview of the birds that inhabit it.  A grand, two-story glass lobby faces Kachemak Bay (what an introduction!), while there’s a room you step into that recreates the sights, sounds and smells of a bird rookery (it’s better than being there!).  There are all sorts of interactive exhibits that explain about the birds and marine mammals inhabiting this remote area.  You’ll walk away with a larger appreciation of what Alaska has to offer.

Leaving the building, we took a pathway leading to the Beluga Slough Trail, a delightful walk along Kachemak Bay that gives great views of the mountains and glaciers.  It’s an easy trail to the water’s edge, and then it continues to meander along the ocean and besides the estuary.  Intrepid hikers can follow the beach north for 7 miles to the junction with the Diamond Creek Trail.  But, that’s for another day.

Once again, luscious fireweed lines the trail down to the bay

Water .  .  .  mountains .  .  .  and sandy beach .  .  .  that’s what Homer has to offer.

If you never tire of nature and the great outdoors, then next on your list you need to head for the hills above Homer to find the Carl E. Wyn Nature Center.  As a matter of fact, those hills are actually bluffs which level off at about 1,200’.  Seen from the bay, the slopes of these bluffs provide a very colorful backdrop to the town.  Profuse with wildflowers from June to September, in autumn the bluffs are cloaked in shades of golds, yellows and oranges.  But the season goes by quickly.

A former homestead of the Wynn family, this 140-acre site of prime real estate was donated to the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies in 1990 and it’s a jewel.  With miles of easy walking trails through a spruce forest and wildflower meadows, with great views looking out to Kachemak Bay, the Center also offers guided hikes twice daily.  And we just happened to be in time for one.It was a wonderful walk and a good way to work the stiffness out of our bones.  While our native guide filled us in on the medicinal properties of some native plants as well as the toxic aspects of others, we gained a lot of useful knowledge about Alaskan plants.  Along the way with his camera in hand, Chris kept an eye out for interesting birds (actually, any birds). On the other hand, the profusion of wildflowers and their accompanying photos, easily shows was where my attention lay.

Yellow paintbrush

Wild geranium.

 

 

 

Spending nearly a full week in Homer, we never ran out of things to do.  Besides what I’ve mentioned, there were some other outings that are worth at least a mention.  The Pratt Museum is small but chocked full of interesting historical and cultural pieces from the first native people in the area as well as those who homesteaded here in the 1930s and 40s.  We found the videos of interviews with descendants of both peoples to be highly interesting.

We always try to take in local farmers markets if we catch them on a right day.  The one held in Homer, though small, had a good variety of both locally grown produce, seafood, prepared foods and hand-crafted items.  I made a purchase from an elderly lady that lived in Homer her entire life. What stories she could tell—so interesting to talk with.  She makes jewelry out of native stone during the long winters.

Visitors to Homer also have other options, things that we didn’t do.   Two popular excursions for Homer visitors seem to be the bear-viewing tours that fly you across the Cook Inlet to Katmai National Park, Brooks River or Shelikof Strait.  Another day activity is to visit the sleepy fishing village of Seldovia across Kachemak Bay.  First settled by the Russians in the early 1800s, it became an active fur-trading post.  Through the years, Seldovia has gone from a herring boom to salmon and finally the king crab industry.  The town has faced hard times in the last few years, but seems revitalized by a tourist crowd which has stimulated new shops to open as well as B&Bs and one very outstanding restaurant.  Access is by water taxi only.

What time remained at the end of our days was savored back at camp.  With views such as we had, when the sun dropped low, we rested our tired bodies warmed by a campfire while feelings of contentment washed over us.  Somewhere along the way, we’ve developed a bond with Alaska, finding a deep connection.  This place .  .  .  our activities .  .  .  the way we spend our days are met with much enthusiasm.  And I think we’re making each day count.

Airstream Travelers,

Melinda & Chris .  .  .

.  .  . know a good thing when we have it.

Posted in Alaska, Homer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

HERE IN ALASKA—Homer, Halibut Capital of the World

Yep, that’s what they call it here, so I’m guessing that’s what all those fishing boats are bringing back with them.  To be sure, Homer’s small boat harbor is jam-pack filled with boats of all kinds—leisure boats, sailing boats, small fishing boats and even a fair amount of charter fishing boats ready to take customers out to try their luck at bringing back a healthy haul of halibut or some other kind of fish.

At just about any time of the day you’ll see these small vessels coming and going on Kachemak Bay as they make their way to the rich fishing waters in the many coves and bays in Prince William Sound.   

And so, the welcoming sign at the city limits is no exaggeration—Homer has claimed its title and makes good use of it.  It would appear to be no false claim, judging from all the evidence we’d be seeing around the town.

From the signs posted around the water and especially on the Spit–

 

 

 

~to the people we observed hard at work at the fishing stations near the harbor.

This was a 120-pound halibut that produced about 65 pounds of finished fish.

For Hoosiers such as us, watching these skilled fish experts hard at work filleting the day’s catch was quite the eye-opener.  In fact, it was rather like watching a train wreck happen in slow motion . . . not something you’d want to see, but once observed it was hard to pull yourself away.  These guys really knew what they were doing with their knives and were really whizzing through the process.  No hesitation, no wasted motion—whack, whack, cut and slice and soon the lucky fisherman would be handed back his day’s catch—all nicely filleted and wrapped.

And then, they’d be moving on to the next in line.  Late afternoon is a busy time at the Homer dock.

The heart of most activity can be found out on Homer Spit.  A naturally-formed, four-and-a-half-mile stretch of sand and rock extending from the mainland into Kachemak Bay is what makes Homer so unique.  You can be sure this spit of land is utilized in as many ways as can be imagined.

From the working harbor where boat charters and water taxis depart from to the ubiquitous gift shops and galleries catering to the tourists, this narrow piece of land attracts both locals and visitors alike.

We had fun strolling on the docks in the small boat harbor, seeing the wide variety of boats berthed there.

And where there be people, the restaurants and cafes are not to be lacking—where fresh fish is sure to be top on the menus and if you plan it right, you’ll be eating with a great view of the water.  What’s not to like here on Homer Spit?

Row after row of small shops and charter boat companies, all vying for the customers.

As well as row after row of RVers lined up along the water. You’ll find a few campgrounds to choose from out on the Spit—if you don’t mind being packed close together, like sardines in a can.  Instead, we chose another spot .  .  .  high above town.

But, you’ve gotta admit those waterfront sites have a view that is hard to beat.

And if you’re looking for a more solitary experience, there’s miles and miles of sandy beach to explore—along with the dedicated fishermen you can watch hauling in their catch.  Just as Chris enjoyed doing.

While I, on the other hand, was more captivated by the scenery, which showcases beautiful Kachemak Bay backdropped by the nearly endless row of snow-dappled peaks of the Kenai Mountains.  It’s a sight that gives Homer its reputation of having one of the finest settings in all of Alaska.

On the other hand, back on the mainland, you’ll find the “official” town of Homer.  Not too much to the town, it’s more a collection of old homes from another era to a scattering of shops and a couple cafes.  All having a particular style . . . . maybe something one could describe as shabby-chic.

With a little funkiness added to the character.But you’ve gotta admit, small town that it is, it’s setting just can’t be beat on the slopes above Kachemak Bay .  .  .

.  .  .  with a beautiful backdrop of mountains.

Where just about every home around seems to be built on the water . . . be it the bay or a nearby lake.  What seems to be a common sight is that most cabins come with a plane docked nearby. Chris tells me it’s nearly a necessity to own a small plane in Alaska . . . it’s the easiest way to get around.

Now that I’ve filled you in on Homer as to what you’ll find if ever you drop in . . . I think it’d be worth your time.  If you feel as if I’ve given just a superficial picture, my Part Two of Homer will delve into how we spent our days here and perhaps that will round out Homer’s offerings.

For now, I’ll leave you with a last picture of the setting .  .  .  it’s the view we had every evening from our campsite perched high on the bluffs behind town.  It was another incredibly beautiful sight that helps to make camping an awesome way to “do” Alaska.

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris,

enjoying our sunset view.

 

 

 

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HERE IN ALASKA—On our way to the Kenai Peninsula

As the crow flies, or as the boat goes, it really isn’t a big jump to go from Valdez to Homer, which happened to be our next big destination.  But, when driving cross country is your mode of travel, it’s a much more convoluted trip.  Mainly, that’s on account of some major mountains separating those towns.  They’re part of the massive Chugach (pronounced chew-gash) Range and, while spectacular in view, they are formidable. And so, we must circumvent—a drive of slightly more than 500 miles.  But hey!  Alaska is one VERY BIG state, you know.  And anyway, we wouldn’t be doing the miles in one singularly long day.

We would be taking a couple of short-term stops and with the kind of scenery we’d be seeing along the way, who’d be counting the miles anyway?

We’d have more of those in-your-face kind of mountains just about all the way.

We’d be taking several of those Alaskan scenic highways along our route and they aren’t just labeled “scenic” for no good reason.  See if you can understand this color-coded map to follow our route.

(Remember, back when we first entered Alaska, I explained in my Tok post about AK highways going by names rather than by their official numbers).

Leaving Valdez, we’d retrace our route on the Richardson Hwy. back to the Glennallen junction. From there, the Glenn Hwy. would take us through Glacier View (an overnight stop) to Anchorage (another overnighter).  From there, we’d take the magnificent Seward Hwy. for a short distance, until intersecting with the Sterling Hwy.  And that would lead us down into Homer.  All are outstandingly beautiful drives in their own right and when combined altogether .  .  .  all I can say is–I now know what sensory-overload feels like!

As seen in the first map of this blog, our route to Homer took us through a place called Glacier View.  Not a town by any means, not even a small community actually, Glacier View was more like a hodge-podge of businesses (cafes, lodges, and outfitter operations) bunched together along one spot on the Glenn Highway.  But, with a name like Glacier View, and needing to break up our drive, how could I not plan to make an overnighter here?  And so, we did.

A combination of small campground and café, Glacier View Café and RV Park was perfect for our needs.  Located on the scenic Glenn Highway, it was obviously a prime overnight stop for many an RVer, as we soon came to see.

Although the glacier wasn’t exactly in view from the campground, nevertheless we didn’t have too shabby of a view.  Despite foggy conditions, we had great views both inside and outside of our Airstream.

Located in the Matanuska River valley, Glacier View gives grand vistas of rugged mountains, forested slopes, pristine lakes and the glacier-fed Matanuska River.

Two huge river valleys make up the Mat-Su Valley.  The Matanuska River starts at the Matanuska Glacier in the Chugach Mountains to the east.  The Susitna River comes from the mountains of the Alaska Range.  And the valley takes its name from both.

The centerpiece here is the Matanuska Glacier, a river of ice flowing through this valley from the heart of the jagged peaks of the Chugach Mountains.

As beautiful as our view was, with only one night here we couldn’t dally and gawk.  Wanting to find the very best view possible of that glacier, we unhooked and drove the truck farther down the Glenn Highway.

One of the few roadside and accessible glaciers in Alaska, we were able to see this river of ice flowing through the valley as we drove down the highway.  I couldn’t believe how far it was stretching—several miles.  Anxious to see its face, I encouraged Chris to continue driving—hoping to find a scenic viewpoint.

I had read that tourists flock to this glacier’s terminus, anxious to have a firsthand experience.  Unfortunately, access to the terminus is privately-owned land and it is now a business operation.  To the tune of $30/per person, you can pass through their gates to gain a close-up view.  If you care to walk on the glacier unguided, it’s another $95 charge.  Several outfitters lead guided hikes up on the ice for a few hours, which of course extends the cost a little (or lot) more.  Not so much about the money (okay, maybe that was a factor too), but just the thought that someone charges people to see something that Nature created bothered me.  Therefore, I was content to find my own view and not contend with groups of people being herded through.

The Matanuska Glacier is a large ice flow, 24 miles long and 4 miles wide at its terminus.  It averages about 2 miles in overall width.  While the majority of glaciers in Alaska today are alpine glaciers that hang off mountain slopes, this glacier is a valley glacier.

The Matanuska is also an active glacier which advances at about one foot per day.  The ice of an active glacier always moves forward due to gravity; and, like water in a river, the ice will flow down valley.  When ice melts at a higher rate than snow accumulates, the glacier margin ‘recedes’.  The term ‘receding’ doesn’t refer to the ice actually traveling back up the valley. Rather, it’s simply melting and shrinking back.

It was only a small pull-off on the side of the highway, but it was the closest viewpoint to the glacier.  But, I saw its face and we were there alone, and that was good enough for me.

COOL FACTS ABOUT GLACIERS:

  • 10% of the earth’s land area is covered by glaciers—that’s 6 million square miles or almost as large an area as South America.
  • In our country, glaciers cover over 30,000 square miles, most of which is in Alaska (no surprise there)
  • Glaciers store about 75% of the world’s freshwater.
  • If all land ice in the world melted, sea level would rise about 231 feet worldwide (I wonder how they calculated that?).
  • Glaciers can form at high altitudes anywhere. In fact, glaciers exist on every continent except Australia.

And so, I had my shot at Matanuska Glacier.  I could leave Glacier View as a happy camper.

Taking the Glenn Highway over to Anchorage, from there we cut off on the Seward Highway, driving some very scenic miles (are there any other kind in Alaska, I wonder?) around Turnagain Arm, a 48-mile-long estuary and down to Cooper Landing where we arrived at the junction of the Sterling Highway, 90 miles south of Anchorage.

Headed due west, the Sterling Highway makes a sharp turn south after the town of Soldotna and that’s when the scenery shifts into a higher gear—if that’s even possible.

Running along the western edge of the Kenai Peninsula, the highway features extraordinary mountain scenery, sparkling lakes, glacier-fed streams (it’s prime salmon waters) and beautiful coastal inlets.  It passes through Chugach National Forest and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and then the scenery really opens up (or so I had read—but not that we could see).  Now following the coastline of Cook Inlet, the scenic highlight of the Sterling Highway is the breathtaking view across the water of snow-capped Mt. Illiamna, Mt. Redoubt, and Mt. Augustine, all of which are active volcanoes and part of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve.  Unfortunately, the weather was a typical Alaskan summer day—heavily overcast with drizzle—and that outstanding view was totally enveloped in low-lying clouds. “Arrrrgh!!” is all I could say.

While those mountains across Cook Inlet were totally enshrouded, the scenery along the Sterling Highway was somewhat in view .  .  .  “somewhat” being the operative word.

And so, we arrived at Homer, sitting at the bottom western corner of the Kenai (Kee-nye) Peninsula, the terminus of the Sterling Highway which is the town’s only access road.  Much has been written about this area and its attributes, and many people consider the Kenai Peninsula to be like a mini-Alaska, having all the best features of the state compressed into about 3% of Alaska’s total land mass.

At just over 16,000 square miles, the Kenai Peninsula is a little smaller than Vermont and New Hampshire combined.  The Kenai Mountains form the peninsula’s backbone, with the massive Harding Icefield (more about that in a coming post) dominating the lower lumbar.  The peninsula is almost completely controlled by the federal government; the combination of Chugach National Forest, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Kenai Fjords National Park account for 85% of the peninsula.

Just before pulling into town, the Sterling Highway crests a high hill where you’ll pass a scenic overlook no first-time visitor to Homer should miss.  There, spread out before you, the town sits far below, nearly out of sight.  But the view that takes your breath away is what you see across the narrow Kachemak Bay.  The Kenai Mountains with their snow-capped, glacier-filled peaks are spread out before you in all their splendor.  For a mountain-lover such as I, it’s bound to give one pause.

As it turned out, this would be the view we’d have for the coming 5 days every time we gazed out our Airstream window.  Just before the scenic overlook was the entrance to the Homer/Baycrest KOA, our campground destination.  It was a good location, albeit about 3 miles outside of town.  And if you were fortunate to have one of the perimeter sites, what could be one’s complaint?

So if you think this is a prime view, just wait until sunset arrives!  But, not so fast—that and much more will be included in my coming post.  Until then .  .  .

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris,

relishing the views in Homer.

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