Caribou in River Bottom
Aug. 18-20. No, we never did see North American’s highest mountain, at least not the top of it. Continued low clouds and intermittent rain have made this part of our trip reminiscent of a spring camping trip in Western Washington. However, we did see: Grizzly Bears (8)-including a mom and three cubs, moose (1-well the top of one above some shrubs-), Dall Sheep (about 20), and Caribou (more than 20). Despite the gray, cloudy weather, the vast landscapes on the north slope if the Alaska Range are very dramatic.
We arrived on August 18 and camped at Riley Creek, a National Park Service Campground near the main entrance to the park. On August 19, we drove in 14 miles to Savage River. There we took a short hike along the Savage River and then on a nearby interpretive trail on the site of an early tourist camp that is long gone.
Grizzly Feeding on Blueberries
Savage river is as far as most private cars are allowed to go on the 92-mile dead end road that goes into the middle of the Park. Beyond that, you need to take the parks shuttle bus or one of the tour buses that are operated by private companies. So on August 20, we signed up for the 7-hour round-trip bus tour that went in 62 miles. This bus had better seats and was narrated by a local (vs. the park shuttles which have school bus seats). It was on this trip that we saw most of the animals.
Aug. 16-17. Well, the “split up” only lasted a day. I decided that I wanted to visit Barrow, the northernmost community (and point of land) in the U.S. It would be my first time to go north of the Arctic circle. Fortunately, Alaska Airlines flies several times a day in a Boeing 737, so I could go up in the morning and return in the evening. It was cold, meaning 34° F. (1° C.), and there were snow flurries and wind. The ice floes were blown toward the shore, which is unusual in the summer. So I got to check this off my “bucket list,” sticking my finger in the Arctic Ocean and observing briefly the culture and customs of the Inupiat people, who have been hunting whales here for several thousand years.
Meanwhile Cynthia, who did NOT have visiting the northernmost US community on her “bucket list,” spent some time in the Matanuska Valley, which is famous for growing huge pumpkins, cabbage and other such things because they get 22 hours of sunshine during the short growing season. She visited a musk ox farm, as well.
Back together on August 17, we drove farther up the beautiful Matanuska Valley and actually went out on the Matanuska glacier, which is up to 1000 feet thick farther up the valley.
Aug. 14-15. We left the Kenai Peninsula by retracing our steps towards Whittier, where we got off the Ferry, then proceeding for another two hours to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We spent a few hours there, taking the one hour Trolley tour and visiting Earthquake Park, a memorial to the 9.6 earthquake that hit Anchorage on Good Friday, 1964. The park shows where a 30 foot drop in the earth took place, sending some houses out into Cook Inlet and resulting in the death of a number of residents.
We camped at a State Park campground at Eagle River, 12 miles north of Anchorage and spent most of Monday, August 15 on a 7 mile hike up the Eagle River valley in the Chugach State Park, which is shown in the featured picture of this post. Some of the trails near the river were closed, because of bears pursuing the salmon now coming up the river to spawn. On a quiet tributary, we were able to watch the salmon ourselves, but taking a picture of them in the water was futile.
Aug. 11-13. The weather has not been great, but it hasn’t been awful. There are intermittent rain showers, but so far not enough prevent us from getting out and exploring. The main problem is that the low clouds prevent the sort of dramatic mountain views that Alaska is famous for. We got off the ferry at Whittier, on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula (which juts south from Anchorage) and went through a 2 ½ mile combination train and road tunnel. It only allows westbound traffic for the first 15 minutes of each hour and we were lucky enough to make it by 7:10 and avoid an hour wait. We stocked our refrigerator in Soldotna and got to our reserved site at a small and forested commercial RV park in Kasilof by 3:00 PM.
Kachemak Bay from Homer, AK
The next day we drove down the side of Cook Inlet to Homer. This is the stretch where in good weather you can see a string of active volcanoes on the western side of Cook Inlet, but no luck for us. At Homer the clouds had at least lifted enough to look across Kachemak Bay, but we decided the weather wasn’t good enough to take water taxi across the bay for a hike to one of the glaciers. We visited the nature center and had a short walk along Beluga marsh. We also visited the Pratt Museum that focused on local history and art. We did have the obligatory fish and chips lunch and on the return visited an historic Russian Orthodox church at Ninilchik.
On Saturday we retraced our route to the north towards Anchorage, stopping for a hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge near Soldotna, but the only wildlife we saw was a red squirrel. With plenty of time available, we decided to head down the east side of Kenai to Seward. We found a nice Forest Service Campground on the way, then went for a visit to the Exit Glacier (part of Kenai Fjords National Park), which is about 10 miles from Seward. (See the feature picture at the beginning of this post). For me this was the highlight of time on Kenai. We joined a ranger-led hike, observed signs showing how much the glacier has retreated in the past 100 years, and got close to the edge, although not on the glacier. After a stop in Seward itself for pizza dinner, we returned to our USFS campsite, where it has been raining all night. We are hoping there might be a bit of relief as we make our way to Anchorage today, but if not, we can spend time in the various museums there.
Aug. 9-10. We left Juneau at Noon on August 9 and with the clouds and mist having lifted a bit, were treated with nice views of the islands. We went through some narrow passages and even did some of them twice, as this is a training program for the ferry helmsman/captains to improve their experience ratings.
By the morning we arrived at Yakutat, a small fishing village. They don’t have an adjustable ramp at the dock to allow cars to get on and off the ferry, but this boat has a clever elevator on board. Lowered to the car deck, it can be rotated to allow cars and trucks to drive on (maybe 2-3 depending on the size), then it is rotated and lifted to the height of the dock to allow them to roll off.
Cynthia and I took a stroll to visit a newly installed totem pole and the an old narrow guage railway that was used to move salmon from a river port to the ocean for shipment to the lower 48.
In my last post, I said that the next part of our voyage would not have any scenery, but as it turned out, the day turned sunny and our journey out of Yakutat into the Gulf of Alaska allowed us to view the spectacular coastal Wrangell Mountain range. The photo shows Mt. Logan, at 19,559 feet, the highest mountain in Canada and second (by 800 feet) only to Mt. Denali.
With only 182 passengers aboard, we have enjoyed watching and talking to the other passengers aboard. That includes tourists from Germany, Australia, Canada and Norway, military families being transferred to Alaska, backpackers and other with RVs aboard intending to follow a tourist route similar to ours.
Aug. 8-9. We made our first stop on this ferry ride in Ketchikan, which has had various booms including the gold rush, salmon fishing and logging. The latest is from the tourist trade and we had to compete with four large cruise ships in town. Ketchikan has made a major effort to preserve its history, although the main attractions near the cruise port seem to be jewelry and souvenir shops.
An interesting part of our walking tour was along Ketchikan Creek, where salmon were attempting to get up stream for spawning. This also the site of Creek Street, which was the center of prostitution through all the booms, boasting as many as 27 houses of ill-repute until the 1920s.
The continued journey from Ketchikan to Juneau could be described as misty or mystical. It rained some of the time and at other times simply had a low cloud cover, so that if there are snow-capped mountains to the east of us, we can’t tell. But is has its own allure, and was particularly fascinating as we went through the “Wrangell Narrows,” which is 40 miles long but only a few hundred feet wide in places. This route is impossible for the big cruise ships and a challenge for this ocean-going ferry. But it saves a lot of time getting to Juneau, if it is feasible.
In Juneau, Alaska’s capital, we had a bit more time to explore, although we arrived at 7:00 AM and had to wait until things opened up a 9:00 AM. The highlight was a new state museum which has a nice collection covering from native relics from 5000 years, through Russian exploration, to the American acquisition subsequent roles in the World War II and the north slope oil boom.
We are now heading to Yakutat, where we will arrive early on Aug. 10, then cross the Gulf of Alaska (no scenery) to arrive at Whittier early August 11.
We had a pleasant evening leaving out of Bellingham, proceeding through the Canadian Gulf Islands past Vancouver BC. This was capped off by a gorgeous sunset.
Cynthia and I have an interior cabin with no window, but at least it has its own toilet and shower. I slept 10 hours, aided by the lulling vibrations of the ship and nearly complete darkness of the cabin, so say nothing of finally relaxing from all the work leading up to our departure.
The morning of August 7, started out quite misty/foggy. But there were occasional sightings of orcas and humpback whales. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough photograph them. Later it cleared up and we enjoyed the pleasant close up views of the islands and villages along these fjord-like channels.
We had to stop for about an hour just off Bela-Bela, British Columbia as it was necessary to offload to shore a passenger with a medical problem who was subsequently airlifted to Prince Rupert. There was a pretty new moon just above the mountains to the west as we continued north.
Cynthia and I are about to set out on our major “adventure” of the year, a trailer camping trip through Alaska and return home through British Columbia. We’ll start by driving our Ford Flex, pulling our Jayco Skylark Trailer to Bellingham, Washington on August 6. There we will get on board the Alaska Ferry Kennicott for a 6:00 PM Departure for Alaska. We’ll stop on the way at Ketchikan (Aug. 8), Juneau (Aug. 9) and Yakutat (Aug. 9), before finally disembarking at Whittier, Alaska at 6:00 AM on Aug. 11.
This is not a cruise, where you get to take shore excursions and see the glaciers up close, but we should get some great views of the Inside Passage on the way up, which we hope to share with you. However, we may not have internet connectivity until arriving at Whittier.
Looking forward, our trip plan is to spend Aug. 11-13 on the Kenai Peninsula, 14-16 around Anchorage and the Eagle River Nature Area, 17-20 in Denali National Park, and 21-23 in Fairbanks. After that, we will start our return trip home, heading down the Alaska Highway with a side trip to Haines and Skagway, Alaska. Instead of following the Alaska Highway to its southern end at Dawson Creek, BC, we will be heading though central British Columbia on the Cassiar Highway and plan to be home by September 2.