On Saturday, we went snowshoeing. Finally back outside!
A few days before friends had generously loaned us a trunk load of winter gear so we were better prepared to take on the weather. It also warmed up a little, only -20, heat wave . Our loaned gear included: snowshoes, parkas, and gloves. The parkas were a little like being wrapped up in a fluffy, down comforter. They were huge and warm. We looked like red and green marshmallows. But hey, warmth trumps fashion. The best part of the parka was the hood. Pulled up over your hat it covered almost your whole face. It gave you a horse-with-blinders-on feeling, but again, so warm! The gloves were designed for skiing but I am pretty sure they looked more like lobster claws. We doubled up our gloves with liners underneath. Toasty fingers. Add additional layers underneath everything and guess what, I actually got hot while we were snowshoeing. Crazy.
We decided to stick close to home for our first day out so we went to Chena Lakes Recreation Area. We took our snowshoes down on the floodplain. This is a popular winter spot for cross country skiing as well as dog mushing. No motorized vehicles allowed, which is nice, but the snow was still pretty rutted up from the dog sleds. It was around noon when we started, but the sun was already (read always) low on the horizon. It was pretty to see it peaking up over the trees and cresting across the snow. Really, it was just great to see the sun.
We were out for about an hour. Right before we turned around to head back to the car, we saw an animal. At first we thought it was a dog, then a wolf, then finally, we realized it was a huge red fox. It was trotting along the top of the wall that surrounds the floodplain, watching us while we watched it. In the end, it turned around. I guess it decided we were not something it wanted to deal with. For me, there is still (always) something magical about seeing wild animals. It makes you realize you have entered their world for a moment. We were just visitors.
We ended our outing with a cup of hot cocoa from our new thermos, looking out at the sun, and the snow, and the woods. Winter in Alaska continues to grow on me.
Yesterday it warmed up, 9 degrees! So I decided to drive to Chena Lakes Recreation Area and go for a walk. The flood plain at Chena is circled by a tall, mounded wall. It is where we go to watch the northern lights. It was also the perfect place to walk and watch the sunset. The sun is setting early here, so I started my walk around 3PM, and the colors were already pretty.
It has been snowing off and on for the last three days (it is snowing right now!) so it was cloudy. The sun was breaking through just on the horizon making the warm orange and red colors even more vivid. On this low line of the horizon, it was clear enough to see the Alaskan Mountain Range in the distance. I think the mountains are my favorite park of Alaska. I’m not sure I can even explain why I love them so much, but they make me want to hold my breath and make a wish.
Not only was the view pretty, I also got to see a dog team getting ready to go out for a run. They were on the flood plain below me. I watched the dogs running around while their owner worked to get them all hooked to the sled and ready to go. It was a little like watching someone trying to get kindergartners to line up for recess. I don’t know many other places were I could go on a walk and just happen to run into a musher getting ready to hit the trail. Oh, Alaska. And when I was leaving, I saw a man riding a horse through the snow. I did a double take from my car. It looked like a commercial with the horse kicking up white clouds of snow as they rode along the edge of the woods.
I came home pink-faced with wisps of frozen hair sticking out from under my hat. Happy.
In Girdwood this weekend, after the conference wrapped up one evening, all the participants were going to go for a quick hike on the Winner Creek Trail, and I was tagging along. The conference got out later than expected, but we decided to take a short hike anyways. It is starting to get dark in Alaska around 7 now, a big change from this summer. At the main fork in the trail crossing over the creek, where most people turned around, we decided to continue hiking to the hand tram. The hand tram is a metal box on a rope pulley system used to move people and supplies across a huge valley. It was a pretty valley, with the creek rushing through the center, but the tram was scary. It swayed in the wind and was difficult to keep moving. Needless to say, I did not give it a try. Two folks from the group crossed about 3/4 the way and then came back while two of us stayed behind to watch and help pull the ropes.
The trail itself was nice, mostly flat, in thick, damp woods with lots of moss and ferns covering the ground between trees. The creek (much larger than what I would consider a creek) was a blue-green color like the water in Seward, AK because it is from glacial run-off. The silt in the river is black. The color contrasts of the moss green woods, the black bottom of the creek, huge rocks, and gem-colored water made it feel a little like a fairytale. I half expected to see little dwarfs peaking out from behind trees. I enjoyed taking it all in on the way out, but on the way home we needed to hike fast as it was quickly getting dark, and we were less than prepared for a night hike (no flash lights or extra layers of clothing). But I don’t mind fast hiking.
We were all in the zone, talking and moving quickly through the woods. The resort was about ten minutes away; we could see spots of light from the chair lift. I was on the left and Lucas was on the right. We were facing each other to talk when he grabbed my arm, pulling me towards him. I turned just in time to see a HUGE mamma moose about a foot away. She lifted her head from eating, and we just looked at each other. In the dusky light it seemed almost impossible that I was this close to such a large wild animal. Then we all noticed a baby moose across the trail. Bad news. Moose are very dangerous. They account for more deaths in Alaska each year than bears. And one of the big things to avoid, like with most wild animals, is to separate or get to close to a mamma and baby. We backed up slowly. Then we noticed two more moose deeper in the woods. We were now officially blocked by four moose. It was too dark to safely bushwhack around the moose and there was no way we could walk between the mother and her baby on either side of the trail. Ten minutes from the hotel we were stuck.
A few minutes later we got a good reminder of why we backed up and gave the moose their space. A group of people came from the other side of the trail, we couldn’t see them until their flashlights turned the corner, the same time the mamma moose saw them and she charged. We could see flashlights skipping through the air as they yelled and ran. Fortunately, moose are not predators so running is the best thing to do. They just want you out of their space and the other group all got away. We on the other hand were still stuck.
A few minutes later another small hiking group caught up to us. They had a dog and we tried to get the dog to scare the moose away but it didn’t work. The dog went crazy barking but the moose didn’t budge. So, we decided to turn around and hike back to a service road we had seen about a half a mile back. One the way we picked up another lone hiker and then two more hikers, our band up to ten. We had three flashlights for the whole group. The one hour hike turned into almost a three hour hike, but we made it.We kept joking that it was a little like Gilligan’s Island without the boat.
This was my closest encounter with wildlife since we have been in Alaska and it made us celebrities at the Physical Therapy Conference. That night and the next day people would come up and say, “Where you in the moose hiking group?” Yep. That was us.
Seward, Alaska is built around two things: fishing and tourism. This small town of approximately 3,000 sits between mountains littered with glaciers and a bay of beautiful blue-green water that makes you think it is part of a fairytale. The main reason we decided to travel to Seward is the close access to the Kenai Fjords National Park. You can see the park either by viewing it from a boat on the ocean or going to the visitor center and trails at Exit Glacier, the only glacier in the park accessible by road. We did both.
We decide to take the full-day boat tour in order to maximize the chance of seeing wildlife and to get an up close view of Holgate Glacier. The tour was 7 hours and included commentary by a national park ranger and lunch. We departed from Seward (Resurrection Bay), crossed out into the Gulf of Alaska, looped around a group of small islands and rock outcroppings, entered Aialik Bay (where Holgate Glacier is located), and returned to Resurrection Bay by way of the Chiswell Island chain. We knew it was going to be a good trip when we spotted two full grown bald eagles perched on old piers as we left the dock. We saw tons of wildlife: sea otters, puffins (so cute), murres, Dall porpoise (they are black and white and look like orcas), stellar sea lions, huge red and yellow jellyfish, and humpback whales. I think my favorite were the Dall porpoise. They liked to play in the wake of the bow, so we could see them right underneath us swimming in the water and jumping out as they dodged each other and the boat.
Beyond the wildlife, the scenery was something out of a pirate movie. Steep rocky cliffs with patches of dark green trees and snow capped mountains in the background. The way the water and the wind have shaped this place gives it an eerie and awe-inspiring feel. Fjords are glacially carved valleys filled with water, and this process continues today. It is a place shaped by time. One of the highlights of the trip was seeing Holgate Glacier. From a distance it looks like a giant, white slip and slide. But as we got closer you could see the liquid-blue color of the crevasses, and the textured surface of the glacier shaped by calving. Blue is the only light that can penetrate the dense ice, which is what gives it that signature color. Calving is when chunks of ice fall off the face of the glacier creating both a thunder-like sound and icebergs. Our boat pulled up and stopped about a fourth of a mile from the glacier to watch and listen to this massive piece of ice. While we were there small pieces of ice fell off in mini-waterfalls of white. The sound was delayed so you would watch the action then hear the thunder. Right before we left, a huge face of the glacier fell off. It left a an empty whole in the side. It was pretty cool (picture below).
Our next adventure in this part of Alaska was visiting Exit Glacier. As you drive up the park road you can see the glacier in the distance. It curves and bends ending in a river of melt water. From the visitor center there is a short trail that takes you up so you are face-to-face with the side of the ice. The trail also offers a spot where you can go down to the base, cross the river, and walk right up and touch it. Looking down at the glacier gives you a good sense of how big this thing is and a closer look at the rippling crevasses. At the bottom we felt the ice, it was so hard. And as expected, the melt water was freezing. It was strange to look out from the glacier at the river valley knowing it had once been filled with ice.
The next day we took the Harding Icefield trail to the top of Exit Glacier. The trail is only 8.4 miles roundtrip, but the grade of the trail is steep and the terrain is rugged near the top above the tree line. As we traveled up, we got excellent views of Exit Glacier and the valley it created. The hills around us, closer to the bottom, were green and covered in late summer wild flowers. It reminded me of what I imagine Ireland looks like. It was misting on the way up, so low fog hung around us adding to the mystery of the place. Alaska is wet. And this hike was no exception. Little creeks and streams pop up everywhere, and it rained off and on during the whole hike. In Alaska, I have found a new level of respect for the power of water (or ice). Everything is shaped or changed by it, including us (love my rain pants and coat!). Just as we came above the treeline we saw mountain goats. They were eating up on a steep part of the mountain. We decided they looked like lawn ornaments because they hardly moved. At this point the trail became rock in various forms: crushed gravel, small rocks, boulders. Near the top is an emergency shelter because weather can roll in so fast. Finally, we came up onto a flatter section and could see out over the ice field. It was cold up there, and with the rain our view was limited, but you could still see the size. The Harding Icefield feeds over 56 glaciers and covers a mountain range in ice. We could even see the tiny tops of mountains poking out. It was crazy to think that ice used to cover everything. A world of ice. It certainly puts things into perspective.
Seward is also home to the Sea Life Center, a combination research, rehabilitation, and aquarium, that was built after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It is full of interesting information on the Alaskan fishing industry, climate change, and various aquatic animals that are found in the local area. It was great to get some background information on what we had seen on the boat tour. My favorite parts were the salmon life cycle exhibit that showed how salmon are born, mature, and spawn complete with examples of the fish at different ages, the bird exhibit (puffins!), and the best part, the seals and stellar sea lions. In an outdoor tank they had a baby ring seal that had just been rescued from Nome. His name was Napa, and he was so small and inquisitive. Lucas liked Pilot, a two year old male stellar sea lion, who was always getting in and out of the pool to see if anyone was coming to feed him. And we both like Woody, an 18 year old 2,200lb male stellar sea lion. He was as big as a small car! The facility is well run and a highlight in Seward.
One day during our Seward stay, on the recommendation from the captain of our Fjords boat tour, we took a road trip to Russian Lakes to see the salmon run with the possibility of seeing brown bears fishing. And we saw both! Down at the river, because of the high volume of fishing, they have set-up board walks with access points to the water. As soon as we got down the hill we could smell dead salmon. It was getting late in the season so many of the salmon had already spawned and died. But the river was still full. I have never seen so many salmon. The river was red with them. We were pretty pleased with this and getting ready to go back to our car when a group of older fishermen ask us if we had seen the bear 200 yards down the river!From the board walk we could see him out in the river attempting to fish. He was a smaller bear, so maybe a young male, and he couldn’t catch any fish. It was amazing to be so close to a bear that couldn’t have cared less about us. He was totally engrossed in the fish. We still gave him space, just in case, but other tourists did not (not smart). As great as this was it got even better. All of a sudden a mother bear and her two cubs came out of the brush on the opposite bank! One cub jumped in the river right away splashing and wobbling around. So cute. But the mother was on high alert because the other bear was not happy about them being there. Eventually, the mother took the cubs back into the woods and made them climb a tree for safety. It was a wildlife TV show moment.
Seward is absolutely worth the drive from Anchorage!
If you asked me to sum up our backpacking trip to Denali in three words I would say: beauty, rain, and wildlife. But Denali is a hard place to describe. It makes you feel small. It is a place were the wild is still wild, and we are just momentary visitors. Perhaps this is because it is so big, everything in Alaska is big. The park contains 6 million acres, that is larger than Massachusetts. There is only one unpaved road into the park, and it is only open to private vehicles up to mile 15. The road stretches 92 miles. Beyond mile 15, the only way to go down the road is by the park bus system. School buses take loads of people from the Wilderness Access Center at the gate to various places within the park depending on how long you are willing to sit on a bus.
To reach the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, it takes four hours one-way. The bus ride is bumpy, a little scary when you cross over Polychrome Mountain with hairpin turns and steep drop offs, and totally amazing. As backpackers we had camper bus passes that allowed us to get on and off the buses at any place in the park. We took full advantage of that opportunity and rode out to Eielson three times. From the bus we saw the most wildlife: bears (black and grizzly), moose, caribou, lynx, doll sheep, and all kinds of birds. One bus driver said that on the bus he wanted to see wildlife right under his window but in the backcountry he wanted them to be far away, we agreed! From the bus it was so neat to see bear feeding on blueberries up on a hill, and caribou walking on thin ridges in a straight single file line like school children. One of my favorite, and most comforting, bear sightings came when we saw a grizzly bear out in an open field eating. Then we noticed hikers in the near distance. The bear noticed them at the same moment and took off in the opposite direction (they can run up to 40mph). He was running away from the hikers looking over his shoulder to make sure they didn’t follow him. Lucas and I were glad to see that! Bear safety is very important in Denali and something that we took very seriously. Fortunately for us, because the park emphasizes this so much, bears are not habituated to humans, meaning they do not associate people with food. This makes things safer for us and the bears.
When we arrived at the park we went to the Backcountry Information Center where we received a safety talk, watched a 30 minute video on avoiding and reacting to animal encounters, picked up a second bear proof food container, and made our plans for the 6 nights we would spend in the park. It was raining, a consent companion during our trip, and we made arrangements to spend our first night at a rustic campground an hour inside the park, the next two nights in unit 8, the following two nights in unit 31, and our last night in another unit near the park entrance, but we ended up camping at the visitor center Riley Creek Campground (luxury camping after four nights in the backcountry; they have flush toilets and running water!). For backcountry camping, the park is divided into 87 units. Meaning they give you a section of land within the park to camp. Denali has very few trails and none in the backcountry. There are no established campgrounds in the backcountry either. So you are free to hike and camp any place within your unit each day. You use topographical maps and GPS to travel. It is a totally different kind of hiking and camping experience, and all new for us. The best part was the freedom and the solitude. In the backcountry we never saw another person. It was just the two of us. Each day we would pick a route and try to follow it towards the next place we wanted to be. It was the closest I think I will ever come to understanding how hard it must have been to be a pioneer.
We picked, with the help of a ranger, two great units. Unit 8 and 31 are right across from each other. Unit 8 encompasses the Polychrome Glaciers, and unit 31 has the Polychrome Mountains. To hike into both, we started on two different river drainages. In the park these are as close to a trail as you will get. Because of the huge influx of water from glaciers and mountain streams, rivers have wide gravel bars making them both flat and open, two good things when hiking in the backcountry. Visibility is important to avoid surprising animals, and it helps you see where you want to go. My favorite parts of unit 8 were seeing two moose while hiking and following a stream up a mountain to its source. It was the first time I had seen moose so close in the wild. It was just the moose and us. They were very uninterested, but we gave them plenty of space anyways. We camped at the base of two mountains near a large river. A smaller, clear, stream fed into the river just southwest of us, so we decided to follow it to the source. It took us through a rocky valley and up a mountain. From the top we could see the area we had hiked through that day, the park road, and into unit 31, where we would be going the next day. It was like looking at a poster, too pretty to be real. My favorite parts of unit 31 were our camp (on a skinny ridge), hiking up into the mountains with beautiful views of the Alaskan range, hearing wolves hunting at night, and getting dive bombed by a golden eagle during a water break. The valley of this unit was very wet, so we camped up, with views back into 8 and out over the Alaskan range. I wish we could have a summer home on that ridge! Hiking the ridges here was like a game of up and down the mountain. We would climb up to the top of one ridge, with beautiful views, only to find there was another one out in front of us, and we just had to see what views it might offer. That day we had sun, and our clearest views out over the park. At night we could hear the wolves up the valley hunting. The long cries echoing around us. The golden eagle was like batman. We were sitting on a ridge and it popped up behind us, tucked its wings in and swooped in, only to spread them and glide out. A park ranger we talked with said very few people get to see golden eagles, a lucky spot.
But I can’t talk about Denali without talking about rain. I have never been so wet for so long. We became experts at setting up and taking down as quickly as possible and cooking in between or during rain. It made you appreciate every moment of sun, and I think it made us realize we could handle just about anything on the trail. Being in the backcountry in Denali reminds you how big our world is. It is humbling, exhilarating, and, although I was certainly ready for a shower by the time we got back to Anchorage, something I would do again without a second thought.
*Lucas, my husband, took most (if not all) of the pictures!
Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska with approximately 300,000 residents and accounts for around 40% of the states population. People here think of it as the big city, but it feels more like a small town. Anchorage was our first stop in Alaska, and we quickly felt like we “knew” the city even in the few short layovers that we had there. For us, Anchorage was a refuel, dry out, and shower city (one of the few places were we actually had a room instead of a tent.) All in all we stayed there on three separate occasions, for two nights each. I have to say, I like Anchorage. It is a causal city for people who like the outdoors, nothing flashy.
We always stayed at the Bent Prop Inn & Hostel, which is downtown, within walking distance of just about anything you need in a city. It wasn’t glamorous, but it had what we needed: a clean bed, showers, laundry, a shared kitchen, computers/internet, and storage for our non-camping luggage when we left town.
There are some really great things to see, do, and places to eat. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Tony Knowles Coastal Trail: This is a great walking/biking trail that comes right out of downtown and runs 10 plus miles along the coast and through the woods. We rented bikes and road this trail from downtown to Kincaid Park, which sits up on a hill overlooking the city. On the bike ride we saw the famous Alaskan mud flats (Alaska has the second largest tidal swing in the world- 20-40 feet), planes flying over our heads and landing at the airport, and moose! The mud flats look like, well, mud. But it is funny to sea ocean stretching out behind them. And I have never seen planes landing so close. After they went over, we could feel the wind they kicked up. See picture (that is right over my head!).
But the best part, of course, were the moose. As we were riding I started saying, “I just want to see a moose.” And bam: we turned a corner and there was a mom and baby moose munching right next to the trail. A family was stopped on the trail on the other side, and we all just stood there watching. It was the first of many times in Alaska when I felt like I was on the discovery channel.
- The Bear Tooth Theater Pub: This place is genius. It is three restaurants, a brewery, and a movie theater. Best part- they serve dinner (and beer/wine) while you are watching the movie.We saw Super 8, pretty good, ate fish tacos, and drank a yummy stout. We went back another night and ate at one of the restaurants because everyone told us the pizza was awesome, and they were right. This is a must visit!
- Hood Lake: This lake has the highest number of float plane take offs and landings in Alaska, which is saying something in a place with only four major highways. We rode our bikes to the lake and sat and watched the planes take off and land with the mountains behind them. Very cool.
- Ship Creek: This is where you can see the salmon run right in downtown Anchorage. We saw the pink salmon running here. There is a bridge across the river and you can walk out and see the salmon struggling to go up river. They spend a lot of time “resting” on the sides of the river, but even when they are resting they have to keep swimming. Lots of people fishing here, but later on our trip south we saw red salmon running (way better) and saw people catch a few in Seward (more on this in my Seward post.) But Ship Creek is defiantly worth checking out if you are there at the right time of year. It is the only place that salmon run in an urban area.
- The Ulu Factory: I am officially obsessed with the ulu. The ulu is a traditional Alaskan knife that was originally used for skinning and filleting. But it can really be used for anything. At the ulu factory you can see the production area (where the knives are made) and they offer demonstrations on how to use the knife. They also sell ulus and other tourist Alaskan items. We liked the knife so much we bought one. It is our first, and so far only, Alaskan souvenir. I used it last night for the first time to chop up onion and jalapeno for black bean tacos, and I love it! I am planning to make to make an all ulu dinner (if that is possible) and will blog about it with pictures. For generic pictures check out: http://www.theulufactory.com/
- Star the Reindeer: Star is my new Alaskan friend. We are even friends on facebook. She (not really sure on the gender) is a reindeer that lives near Delaney Park in Anchorage. Her home was on our walking route to the grocery store so we saw her a lot when we were in town. Too cute. Only in Alaska would someone have a pet reindeer.
- Music in the Park: I love a small town feel and having local music in the main (small) downtown park at lunch defiantly adds to that feeling in Anchorage. I had a veggie sandwich, and Lucas had an elk gyro from a street vendor, and we sat and listened and watched the little kids dance like crazy.
- Stuffed Bears: People in this town love to display stuffed bears (grizzly, brown, Kodiak, and polar- I haven’t seen any black bears although they live in AK too). Tourist gift shops roll out these huge stuffed bears in the morning that they chain to a pole in front of the store to draw people in, or have a huge bear right inside the door to get your picture taken with. The airports (both in Anchorage and Fairbanks) feature a variety of stuffed bears. It makes you really see how big they are.
Overall, Anchorage is a pretty great place.