Monthly Archives: August 2012

Alaska, Day 9: Heading Home

Saturday, July 28: goodbye, Alaska

Since the RV had to be returned by 11, we woke up bright and early at 6:30 am to pack up, clean, and hit the road. After we got off the bumpy gravel road and back onto the main highway, we took care of filling the propane and visiting one last dump station. Kurt drove while I napped a little, and we had our two final wildlife sightings near Girdwood–a grazing moose and two large buffalo or oxen.

After we returned the RV, we had 7 hours to kill before we needed to go to the airport, so we had the rental place drop us off at Dimond Mall. We chowed down at a Mexican restaurant (there’s nothing less authentically Alaskan than a chimichanga) and walked around the mall for a bit. It was a gargantuan building with a bowling alley and ice skating rink on the lower level.

mall skating rink and bowling alley

We went to see Dark Knight Rises to kill some time. Somebody brought their dog into the theater, which was interesting. After the movie, we took a taxi to the airport and stocked up on magazines and snacks for the flight home to Chicago (once again, by way of Dallas-Ft. Worth).

goodbye Alaska

I’ve really enjoyed reliving the trip through these recaps, and it’s bittersweet to find myself on the last entry. It’s like saying goodbye to Alaska all over again. It was truly one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had. While we were there, we couldn’t help but start planning the next trip in our heads. I’d love to go back to Denali and do some backcountry camping, visit Kodiak Island, try an overnight kayak trip, see the cat mayor of Talkeetna, dip into the hot springs in Chena, and so much more.

Here’s a few more of my favorite pictures from a truly incredible 9 days.

group shot during Savage River hike

Denali National Park

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

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Alaska, Day 8: Kenai, Soldotna, and Sterling

Friday, July 27, 2012: fishing frenzy

Grrrrrr!

We woke up and headed out to explore our campgrounds, since we hadn’t been able to look around much the previous night. Kurt headed down to Swanson River to do some fishing, while I walked along the beach to check out the view of the active volcanoes across Cook Inlet.

volcano coast

After breakfast, we drove back down the coast to Kenai, where we stumbled upon a crowd of fishermen at the mouth of Kenai River. During the salmon season, net fishing is allowed for Alaskan residents only. The edges of the river were crammed with people holding nets as salmon seemed to literally jump right into them. The beach was covered with fishheads while people cleaned their catch on top of bloody coolers (I don’t want to imagine what their ride home smelled like). It was a real family event, with a bouncy tent set up near the end of the beach and kids running around dumping fish guts at their dads’ request. In the water, sea lions hunted the leaping fish, joining in on the big feast.

fishermen and families

this sight was typical

After watching for an hour or so, we walked around Kenai and checked out some souvenir shops, an art gallery, and split a reindeer hot dog. We had an RV site reserved for the night, but when we arrived we saw that it was along a busy road with no greenery nearby and no campfires allowed. Since it was prepaid, we decided to take advantage of the showers and water/electric hookups to load up the RV, then we left in search of a more scenic place to spend the night. And boy, did we find it. After a teeth-jolting ride on a bumpy, 13-mile-long backroad, we came to Dolly Varden Lake in Kenai National Wilderness Refuge. Our site was in a wooded area right next to the lake, with a gorgeous view. As our friend Thomas later said of this picture “You two get out of the way of the Bob Ross painting.”

me and Kurt at last campsite

We sat in camping chairs facing the lake, enjoying our last Alaskan beers, fishing, and watching wildlife on the lake. A beaver swam along the opposite shore; its head was so big at first we thought it might be a bear. The sky got dark enough for the North Star to shine through. It was a perfect final night in Alaska.

the moon appears

Wildlife sightings: sea lions, salmon, beaver, ducks

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Alaska, Day 7: Exit Glacier

Thursday, July 26, 2012: glaciers and volcanoes

We said goodbye to our Seward campsite and otter friends and headed back towards Anchorage, stopping at Exit Glacier on the way. The glacier is derived from the Harding icefield in the Kenai Mountains.  We went on a hike on the trail that takes you close to the glacier itself. As we passed through the forested parts of the trail, the bugs were pretty terrible. It stood out because for the most part, mosquitos weren’t nearly as bad as I had predicted before the trip (everything we read ahead warned us to prepare for horrible bugs, even recommending headnets).  Besides the trip to Exit, the mosquitos in Alaska were not even as close to what I am used to dealing with while camping in Wisconsin.

Kurt in front of Exit Glacier

The closer we got to the glacier, however, the more the bugs thinned out. The air grew crisper and cooler to the skin, like walking into a large freezer. It was incredibly refreshing and felt amazing after the uphill hike.  We could see the glacial rivers and waterfalls up close, as well as the crystal blue color of the icy crevices.

glacier blue

After Exit Glacier, it was a straight shot to Anchorage, where we said goodbye to Bob and Amy who had a late-night flight home. They were excellent RV-roommates and I highly recommend them for your traveling companion needs.

me, Kurt, Bob, and Amy in front of Exit Glacier

On our own, Kurt and I headed back down the Kenai peninsula, this time heading to the other coast and the Kenai/Soldotna area. We had not reserved an RV park site ahead of time so we set out to explore and find a good spot to camp out for the night. I saw some pretty awesome-looking taxidermy shops along the road, which we sadly never got to check out on our crazy schedule.

After consulting our camping book, we decided to drive further north from Kenai and try Discovery Campground in Captain Cook State Recreation Area, along the Cook Inlet shore. It was a nice, secluded woodsy spot, exactly what we had in mind after the beautiful-but-RV-packed Seward site. We arrived later in the evening, and the skies were starting to darken as it was getting later in the summer, but beyond the trees lining our campsite there was a scenic view of active volcanoes along the inlet coast.

our site at Discovery Campground

We made an easy dinner of hot dogs on sticks over the campfire, and Kurt entertained himself by whittling a ‘bear-killing stick.’ We hardly saw any neighbors, except for a truck full of twenty-somethings who drove past shouting “The British are coming!” You never know what kids these days are going to be into.

Kurt’s ‘bear-killing stick’

you get used to this kind of sign, but it helps to have a bear-killing stick

Cool geographic sightings: glacier, volcanoes, temperate rainforest

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Alaska, Day 6: Exploring the Kenai Peninsula by Sea

Wednesday, July 26, 2012: a day on the water

We started the morning by wishing Bob a happy birthday and making breakfast. Then it was on to our next expedition: a boat tour of Kenai Fjords that also included a kayaking excursion. We drove into downtown Seward (as the lady with the tour company said “We don’t really have street addresses here”) and found the boat company.

Early on into our boat ride, we had our first few wildlife sightings: sea otters, Dall porpoises, and a humpback whale. The boat took us to Fox Island, where we got fitted with our kayaking gear and met our guides for the day, one of whom used to work for Kayak Chicago. It was fun talking to her about kayaking on the Chicago River (a trip we all had done before). A few of the guides had found a humpback whale calf that had been killed by orcas (they like to eat the tongues) and showed us a piece of blubber they had kept in a plastic baggie.

The water was amazingly clear; we could see jellyfish bobbing along below us. In the kayaks, we were able to get close to shore to inspect starfish and rock formations, and paddled into alcoves filled with waterfalls and tide pools.

Kurt and a starfish, Bob and Amy’s kayak

jellyfish

We kayaked back to Fox Island after a few hours for a lunch of Wild Alaskan salmon, prime rib, and crab legs. After getting back onto the boat, we continued to explore Resurrection Bay. We came across more whales, including a mother and calf feeding near a beach and two whales ‘sleeping’ (whales rest portions of their brain at a time).  Near some rocky formation, we saw a large group of sea lions and tons of birds, including puffins, gulls, eagles, and many other species I can’t remember but got our captain all excited (the guy really loved birds).

whale tail

sea lions

puffin butt!

After an amazing day on the water, we went back to camp where Kurt prepared bacon-wrapped chicken breasts on the fire and Bob and Amy taught us how to play 42, a dominoes game.

It was a day that reminded us how precious and fleeting life can be, for quite a few reasons.

night sky

Wildlife sightings: sea otters, Dall porpoises, humpback whales, puffins, starfish, jellyfish, eagles, sea lions, lots of varieties of birds
baby animal alert!: humpback whale calf
lives saved by Heimlich Maneuver: 1

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Alaska, Day 5: Seward

Tuesday, July 24, 2012: Old Seward Highway

Hello, Seward!

This morning, we said goodbye to Denali and hit the road to Seward, a small town on the Kenai Peninsula. This would be the longest leg of driving we would do on our trip, 7 hours according to Google Maps. Of course, everything takes a little bit longer in a large RV, so we got an early start to our day.

We arrived in Wasilla right around lunchtime, so we stopped for food and did some re-stocking of supplies.

Old Seward Highway (Hwy 1)  is one of the most scenic roads in Alaska. The road hugs the sound for a long leg of the trip, and sometimes you can see beluga whales surfacing in the bay. With snow-capped mountains looming above curving roads, it felt like we were driving into a postcard. We stopped to take pictures and gaze at the scenery.

with scenery like this, I could drive all day

Further down the peninsula, we got held up in traffic caused by torn-up roads and construction. It made for a bumpy ride for quite awhile, especially while passing through a blasting zone. The ride was worth it, however, once we reached our final destination, an RV park at Lowell’s Point right on the water. Our campsite was ‘ocean-view’ and they were not kidding. From our picnic table, we watched otters frolic in the water right in front of us. Eagles soared overhead.

me enjoying a beer at our campsite

There were plenty of fishermen staying at the campgrounds, and we watched many of them string up their catch and feed fish guts to the birds.

yum

I think this pictures says it all–you couldn’t ask for anything more.

the life

Wildlife sightings: moose (along road leaving Denali), eagles, otters, sea gulls, lots of caught salmon

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Alaska, Day 4: Journey into Denali

Monday, July 23, 2012: the day we saw ALL the animals

We purchased tickets for the 7:30 a.m. shuttle bus to Eielson Visitors Center, 66 miles deep into the park. I was especially excited about this part of the trip because I had read that the shuttle bus ride is one of the best ways to spot wildlife. They were not kidding around. We spotted pretty much everything, from either a far distance with binoculars to sometimes right up close along the side of the road.

Our first spotting was a small herd of caribou crossing over a ridge. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Caribou!

Throughout the day, we probably saw the most Dall sheep. I particularly liked this spot where a group of males was sitting on a steep hill, just chilling out. With binoculars, you could see their faces in amazing detail. We watched one of them scratch his butt against the side of the rocks, leaving a big brown spot on his white hide.

Dall sheep

One of the most exciting sightings of the day was coming across a grizzly bear napping with two young cubs at her side. They were totally passed out in the middle of a meadow. With binoculars, you could see great detail and the texture of their fur. The mother was massive and as cool as it was to see her, I was definitely glad for the safety of being inside a bus. On our return trip they were further away from the road, up and about. The two cubs would stand up on their hind legs to look at us and we’d see their little brown heads pop out of the brush. Adorbs!

when you’re the top of the food chain, you nap anywhere

Two pretty awesome sightings happened simultaneously. The whole bus started gasping, and we were swiveling our heads to find out what had been spotted. On the right side of the bus, I saw a red fox trotting down the road towards us; on the left side of the bus Kurt witnessed the clouds parting briefly to uncover both peaks of Mt. McKinley (with the cloud cover as thick as it is, this is a rare thing to see). The fox seemed to be chasing a small mouse, and we saw him follow it into a ditch, pounce, and then run off to enjoy his lunch.

fantastic Mr. Fox

When we reached Eielson, we lucked out again with the sky clearing just enough to expose the north peak of Mt. McKinley. Look carefully to see it amidst the clouds.

Denali, a.k.a. Mt. McKinley

Another cool thing about the shuttle bus is that you can ask the bus driver to stop anywhere you want to get out and hike. When you are done, you just find your way back to the road and wave down the next green bus that comes along (one about every 30 minutes). We decided to hike near Polychrome Pass, a gorgeous mountain ridge bathed in color. Once again, it was somewhat slow going as we trekked through waist-high brush, climbed bluffs, and stopped to take a zillion pictures, but we ended up doing over 4 miles according to Bob and Amy’s GPS watches. Even after several days of being in Alaska, you don’t get used to the amazing scenery. At any given second, the views around you are postcard-worthy.

hiking

One of the most memorable moments during our hike was running into a young caribou. We had just reached the end of a small forest that opened up into a dried-up rocky river bed. The caribou was maybe 25 yards away and noticed us. We racked our brains trying to remember all of the instructions the rangers had given us for wildlife encounters (bears: don’t run, moose: run!, wolf: stand your ground, etc.) but could not remember ever hearing anything about caribou. The caribou started walking tentatively toward us, lowering his antlers a bit; at this point, we totally nerded out and pulled out our camping book to LOOK UP WHAT TO DO. As it turns out, caribou are not threatening, phew! We started walking the direction we wanted to go, but the caribou, watching us the whole time, cut us off and lied down on the ground. Even though they are not dangerous to humans, the book still said to avoid doing anything that would cause the caribou to change its natural routine, so we had to choose a different route so as not to disturb him.

the life-threatening caribou (not really)

After we finished our hike, we got back on the bus to return to the RV. We had a few more up-close Dall sheep sightings.

more Dall sheep, roadside

We also spotted several moose, including a mother and calf that suddenly popped up right next to the bus, and a gigantic bull moose grazing on a hill.

moose crossing

The best moose sighting of all, however, happened right at our campsite. We were sitting near the campfire after dinner when suddenly Bob jumped up and said “There’s a moose!” I thought he was kidding, but I got up to look and sure enough, a gigantic long-legged animal was casually walking by near our RV. Some other campers told us that they saw her sniff a tent. Moose encounters are actually just as dangerous as run-ins with bears, but we forgot that quickly as we tried to get a few photos. The moose continued on her way, slipping out of sight into the trees.

that’s our RV in the foreground

Also, Kurt and Bob saw a snowshoe hare. I was jealous. They are brown in the summertime, but it still has its telltale white feet.

snowshoe hare

For anyone planning a trip to Denali, I definitely recommend taking a ride on the shuttle bus. Start out early (the trip to Eielson was 4 hours each way) so you can make a day of it. The tour companies offer narration but use the same road and cost as much as 6 times the price. Even though our ride wasn’t narrated, our bus driver was very knowledgeable and shared tons of information. He stopped at each wildlife sighting long enough for everyone to get a good picture and use their binoculars. Afterwards, we all agreed that the bus ride was one of the highlights of our trip.

Wildlife spotted: grizzly bears, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, eagles, ravens, snowshoe hare, fox, pika, ptarmigan, ground squirrels
baby animal alert!: grizzly cubs, moose calf
notable scenery: Mt. McKinley

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