Blowhard Homer

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August 28

Miles:  Seward to Homer 165; Homer to Girdwood 190

Wildlife:  Swans; Eagles; sandhill cranes

D’oh.

We’ve had our D’oh moments on the trip, but fortunately none of them were at Homer.

EB1A9284The route from Seward to Homer was a good sampler of coastal Alaskan geography.  Coming out of town we drove through glacier-topped, black stone mountains.  When we turned onto the Sterling Highway, we passed through mountains that grew from evergreen-clad bottoms to treeless brown tops, I assume some kind of tundra.

At ground level, we were surrounded by lakes and rivers, especially the Kenai and Russian, crawling with fishermen.

Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik.

Russian Orthodox church in Ninilchik.

After a stretch of scraggily low country, we reached Cook Inlet.  Across the water, about 50 miles away, rose Mount Redoubt, at over 10,000 the tallest volcano in the Aleutian range.  Active volcano.  It’s erupted in the last ten years.

A few miles after driving through Anchor Point, the farthest west you can drive in the United States without doing some serious portaging, we arrived at Homer, where we camped in the Driftwood Campground, probably the smallest campground we’ve experienced so far.  There weren’t more than a dozen campers parked on the site, which sits on a bluff just set back from the water’s edge, at the mouth of Kachemak Bay where it connects with what looks like the ocean.

EB1A9306The town is a little different from others we’ve visited in Alaska.  It’s much more spread out.  The shops are a little higher end.

Then there’s the Homer Spit, a little appendix-like projection that sticks out into the Bay toward the mountains and glaciers of the Kenai.

We biked to the spit.  It was a good, long ride, mostly on level ground, but the wind was really howling.  And in our face coming back.  The spit is almost a causeway with campgrounds, a few restaurants, and a lot of fishing tour headquarters.

We heard, and saw, several pairs of sandhill cranes.

Homer Spit

Homer Spit

While we were on the spit, we saw a few wind surfers (one hopes they had thermal wet suits), and one wind surfer on an over-sized skateboard who passed us on the bikeway.

homer3We did find the local brewery, Homer Brewing Company, where I had an ESB that wasn’t particularly bitter; they didn’t have an IPA on tap.

Two Sisters bakery makes great bread and desserts, and the best sticky nuns you could wish for for breakfast.

After two nights we headed back toward the “mainland,” where we hit some serious winds when we got back to the Turnagain Arm.

Before we got back to Anchorage, we turned east for a couple of blocks and stopped at Girdwood, where we decided to spend a couple of nights in a condo.

EB1A9352Girdwood is a ski resort for Anchorage.  The setting is beautiful, with the Turnagain Arm on the west, mountains and glaciers in the other three directions, and ski mountain Mount Alyeska rising up above the small town.  There’s no skiing right now.

This morning we rode our bikes down to the Arm, then this afternoon we went over to the ski resort and hiked up the mountain.  Ho, hum, another mountain climbed, 2000 feet ascent in 2.2 miles.  It was a great trail, with appropriate switchbacks and, where the trail was steep, steps cut into the rocks.

The reward for the hike was a free ride back down on the tram.

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Tomorrow we start edging toward Denali, where right now the weather is turning cold and snowy.

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President Obama is apparently tracking our trip, as he will be duplicating the steps we’ve taken when he

Hey, Trintech, name that lighthouse.

Hey, Trintech, name that lighthouse.

comes to the area in a couple of days.  Although I’d like to see the President, I think we’ll be fortunate to get out of Anchorage before he gets to town.  I hear he’s going to Exit Glacier; I wonder if he’ll try for the Harding Icefield.we

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No Exit Glacier

There’s still an Exit Glacier outside of Seward, but judging by its rate of retreat, there won’t be one for a whole lot longer.

Exit Glacier

Exit Glacier

Due to our experience at O’Leary Peak in Anchorage, we were leery of any hike in Alaska that calls itself strenuous, and the hike to view the Harding Icefield above Exit Glacier was described as extremely strenuous.

EB1A9016The Park Rangers reinforced the impression, so we were convinced to hike to one of the two shorter destinations on the trail, either the first overlook, Marmot Meadows, or the second, more scenic view at the Cliff.

We hiked the mile to the lower view of the glacier as a leg stretcher.  It’s a really impressive view of a glacier at close hand, but fifty years ago we would have been touching the glacier at the overlook point.EB1A9058

Then we set off to climb to a better view of the glacier.

The view at Marmot Meadows was okay, but we were fresh, and the trail was not as sheer as we’d feared.  In fact it had a trail feature novel to Alaskan mountain trails:  switchbacks.  And steps had been cut into the rocks to help with the steeper sections.

The view at the cliffs was exceptional, and we could see dozens of hikers coming down the trail from the end.  Nowhere did the trail go straight up.

EB1A9200Unfortunately, we had not packed sufficient water to carry us four-and-a-half miles (each way) and 3500 feet up.  So we rested up.

And then, miraculously, we went up instead of down.  The views from the trail above the Cliff were spectacular.  It turned out the trail was longer, and somewhat steeper, than it had appeared, but we pressed on.

Finally, after three and a half hours, we reached the upper terminus of the trail, where we could see hundreds of acres of ice stretching to the far peaks.

We were quite proud of ourselves when we reached the ground.  Deservedly so, I think.

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Seward’s Trolley

August 22-25

Miles travelled:  150 or so

Wildlife:  Sea otters; orcas; humpback whales; eagles; seals; sea lions; glacier calves; puffins; moose

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There’s a tram that carries tourists around Seward.  It’s not a trolley, and it’s not called Seward’s Trolley, but it ought to be.

As we drove along the Turnagain Arm from Anchorage to Seward, we noticed a tidal bore forcing its way up the inlet.  And riding along the crest of the lead wave in the bore was a surfer.

As we left the waterfront of the inlet, we passed through a small village called Moose Pass.  On the way out of town, a moose crossed the road right in front of us.

Sea Otter

Sea Otter

Our campground in Seward, Resurrection Campground on Resurrection Bay, was one of many stretches of water-front real estate devoted to the Recreational Vehicle community.  We got a third-row (elevanted) campsite with great views of the bay, and after two nights we were able to move up to the front row.

There are two or three sea otters that float along the shoreline by the campground every day.  The rest of the scenery, with snow-capped mountains rising in every direction, isn’t bad, either.

We met a nice retired German couple who parked next to us the first night in camp.EB1A8321

One of the things you’re supposed to do in Seward is take a boat trip into the Kenai Fjords National Park to look for ocean critters and to watch the glaciers calve.

We’d gone to the Sea Life museum, which housed bunches of interesting fish, as well as sea lions and seals, and a great aviary where birds swoop over your head and dive into the pool.  But it’s more fun to see sea life in the sea than in a cage.

The weather was rainy when we pulled into town, but it cleared up the next day, and the wind really kicked up.

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The boat trip, aboard the aptly-named “Viewfinder” was a real adventure.  Swells on the near-open-ocean reached to ten feet – quite large for the smallest of Seward’s fleet of tourboats.  In fact, at pre-boarding, they suggested the cruise might be cut short if too many people got seasick.

Humpback Tail

Humpback Tail

So we took our pills, and had a great time.

We got adequately drenched as we crowded around the bow.  As the cruise progressed, very few passengers stood at the bow except when the boat came to a near-halt when stalking a whale or a glacier.

We only saw a few whales, humpbacks, mostly just their spouts, although one whale early in the cruise gave a mighty display of its tai

The highlight of the cruise, at least for the captain, was spotting and following a pod of four orcas (AK.A. killer whales) for about 20 minutes.

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The highlight of the voyage for Rebecca was seeing the Northwest Glacier rumble, roar, and shed sheets of ice.  There were a bunch of seals hanging out on the icebergs left by the calving.

EB1A8642The return trip focused on birds on rocks with an emphasis on puffins, along with seals and sea lions.  The final stretch was an exciting race as the captain put his two-tones to the floorboard and three of us stalwarts clung to the bow’s rail for dear life.

We had surprisingly good food at both a pricey seafood restaurant in the middle of the tourist district, and the town’s brewpub (Seward Brewery).  The pricey place, Chinook’s, served us the best dessert of the trip, a “black and tan,” a cup of yummy caramel custard with Grenache topping.  The brewery serves a really fine salmon sandwich, along with a tasty IPA that leans toward the ESB.

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The cherry on top of the day of sailing came in the wee hours.  At about two a.m., after sleeping through a rental movie, Rebecca woke me up to see the Aurora Borealis.

The northern sky glowed green, and directly above a streak like a wide vapor trail crossed the sky from horizon to horizon.  The streak glowed, shimmered, and wiggled.

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I was ready with my camera the next night, clear as a bell, but alas, no lights.

By the way, August 22 was Filbert Hockey Day, and my best wishes via Facebook failed to post.  So, here’s a belated “Happy Filbert Hockey Day.”

On a Clear Day

On most days in Anchorage, you can view the Alaska Mountain range, an impressive string of snow-covered, jagged peaks.

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There’s a fantastic bike path that runs along the waterfront, which we biked for about six miles and back, with views of those mountains in the not too distant west.  We found one placard that showed the mountains visible from the bikeway, given appropriate conditions, and among them was Denali.  Somewhere out in that cloud stood Denali.

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Our campground was urban.  It was located right next to the train tracks, and we discovered returning from one outing that the town’s homeless population hangs out within two blocks of the campground.

Anchorage is a big city.  Its population exceeds 300,000 and comprises almost half the states residents.  There are some tall buildings, fine restaurants, a brewery that serves a good IPA, and a handful of cruise ships and the souvenir shops that cater to their thousands of passengers.

There’s an airbase near the campground, I think it was Elmendorf Air Force Base, although the jets that roared by in the morning and late afternoon looked like Navy fighters to me.  Or maybe they didn’t.  They had delta wings.

EB1A8241Every morning we were serenaded by a muddled recording of reveille blaring from the air strip, and at five every afternoon the same muddled loud speaker bade us good evening to the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The advertised hike for Anchorage is Flat Top Mountain.  There’s a shuttle that will drive you the dozen miles to the trailhead for $25/each round trip.  We decided to drive it ourselves.

The ranger in the downtown National Forest visitors’ center, one of many attractive, lithe young female rangers we have encountered over the course of our travels, suggested to me (after I was almost strip searched getting into the room since, it turned out, the building houses a federal courthouse) that we should take a different trail from the Flat Top trail head (I’ll call it the O’Leary Peak trail, for want of a more accurate memory), in order to avoid the masses who attempt Flat Top.EB1A8275

So we drove to the trail head, in Chugach State Park, and we were in for a rude awakening.  The trail went straight up.  The 1200-foot elevation change over 3 miles was compacted into the first half mile, and there were no switchbacks.  Somehow we made it to the top, but then we had to get back down, and it was like stepping over the edge of a cliff to take that first step down.

We did make it back down.

Oh, by the way, it was a clear day, and the views were astounding.  And there was this really big snow-covered mountain rising to the north.  Upon inquiry of other climbers, we were assured of the mountain’s identity.

Denali.

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The Alaska Highway

August 16-18

Destinations: Destruction Bay; Tok; Anchorage

Miles: 200; 250; 320

Wildlife: Trumpeter swans; dall sheep

Road work

Road work

We hopped onto the Alaska Highway (AK.A. the Al-Can) at Haines Junction, and finished our first day of driving at the Cottonwood Campground on Kluwane Lake.

kluKluwane Lake is the largest lake in the Yukon. It’s on the eastern edge of the Kluwane National Park, which joins the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska to protect a huge mountain range and ice field, including Mount Logan.

At a little over 19,500 feet tall, Mount Logan is the second tallest mountain in North America (Denali is taller by about 800 feet), and by base circumference is judged to be the largest mountain in the world. You can’t see Mount Logan except by air.

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Our campground was superb. We were perched right on the shore of the lake, with views of mountains in every direction. Our next-door neighbor was on his way out of Alaska (as are most campers at this time of year), and warned us that the highway is not in great shape. It was the second person to tell us there was a long stretch of gravel road to be tolerated.

Dall Sheep

Dall Sheep

Before heading west the next morning, we backtracked to the visitors’ center, where we were able to see part of the park’s herd of Dall Sheep way up on the mountainside.

EB1A8173The highway started out smooth enough, but after about 25 miles we hit the first patch of gravel, which extended at least five miles but seemed much longer. In all, the road was in repair, or disrepair, for about a hundred miles, so we did not make good time.

The first stretch of the highway from Haines Junction was a long road on mostly flat terrain, flanked on the south by huge mountains. As we progressed, the terrain flattened out, at least as much as we could tell due to the overcast, but not particularly rainy, conditions. As we neared Alaska, the terrain grew hillier.

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We continued to Tok, where we camped the night in a plain, if somewhat rundown, campground. It’s a not atypical picture of Alaska: The conditions are such that things are built simply and they can’t last forever.

A good portion of the trip from Tok to Anchorage was conducted in the rain. The ceiling wasn’t too low to see the Wrangell mountains in the distance, however.

At one point we saw somebody who saw a moose, but that was as close as we came to seeing any wildlife. Despite driving through obvious moose habitat. Maybe on the return trip.

Fall has arrived in some places.

Fall has arrived in some places.

A hundred miles from Anchorage we passed the Matanuska glacier, which was probably really impressive before it started melting away. It was still pretty impressive. Prior to that, we’d seen a nice pair of glacial tongues coming off a range several miles away.

Whereas much of the terrain coming out of Tok was broad and flat, once we crossed the mountain range at the glacier the topography changed into a winding mountain road reminiscent of the mountains back home, of course on a different scale.

Matanuska Glacier.

Matanuska Glacier.

The road itself had a few under-construction stretches, one of which bounced the van around so much the refrigerator popped open. I should point out here that we took the Tok cut-off, which is part of the Glen Highway and not the Alaska.

The roads through central Alaska (and the Yukon) are subject to “frost heaves,” which is why there is so much repair work in progress. That, plus they don’t have but about a five-month weather window during which they can work on the roads.

By the time we arrived at Anchorage, the weather had cleared.

Haines

August 16

Wildlife: Humpback whale; dall porpoises; eagles

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If there’s a prettier place on earth than Haines, Alaska, we haven’t found it yet.

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Lighthouse along the way

The weather for the cruise from Juneau to Haines was perfect. We spent the night in the Juneau ferry terminal parking lot so we could be on hand for the five a.m. check in.

We only saw one whale, and three pods of dall porpoises along the way. But the scenery rising up along the fjord was superb. At every turn, snow-peaked mountains rose to either side, and glaciers stuck out their tongues.

The campground in Haines, Oceanside, run by Joyce, was not beautiful to look at, with campers parked side-by-side with little room to spare. But there was nothing in front of us but water

House with totem

House with totem

and mountains. An eagle spent most of the two days perched atop a spruce overlooking the campground.

Rebecca liked Sitka better, but I was partial to Haines. In addition to the beautiful setting, the town was a real Alaskan settlement, with shops catering to the needs of the residents, with only a slight reliance on the cruise ship mobs, most of which bypassed Haines in favor of Skagway, the last stop before the end of the inlet.

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Fort Seward

Haines is a conglomerate of the town and the borough (read: county) and includes the formerly separate township of Fort Seward, the first American fort built in Alaska. Fort Seward is a “mayonnaise” collection of small white buildings in an orderly array, formerly part of the “fortress” but now an assortment of shops.

EB1A7958One of the shops houses a totem-building workshop. Another hosts a gift shop run by a former mayor with whom we engaged in spirited conversation about the current state of Alaskan affairs – the oil-dependent state economy is suffering mightily due to the price drop in petroleum and is in a deficit of half its budget. No wonder we’re not hearing from Sarah Palin this go-round.

While munching on fish ‘n’ chips at a road-side stand, we made the acquaintance of a fellow traveler who is photographing national parks for a book timed to the centennial of the national park service, next year.  Apparently the first parks were run by the military.

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Our favorite shop was a distillery, where we were served excellent cocktails at non-Alaskan prices. There’s also a brewery in Haines, but sadly it was not open when we went its way.

EB1A7949The highlight of our stay in the campground was a feast of Dungeness Crabs.

We did not make it to the cannery, or the locale where one is supposed to see bears eating salmon, but we did take a nice hike to a point along the water. The trail was quite rooty. But the most significant aspect of the hike was that Rebecca rode her bike to the trailhead, without incident.

The road out of Haines, the Haines Highway, leads to the Yukon (via a few kilometers of British Columbia).EB1A7952 The road follows an old native trading route. There are more glaciers to be seen along the way than even in the fjord leading to Haines.

Cruise ship passing in the night

Cruise ship passing in the night

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Sunrise on the ferry

Juneau the road to Sitka?

August 13

Wildlife: Nesting arctic terns; salmon; eagles; beaver

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Of course Judon’t. There’s not one.

We arrived at Sitka in the rain. We set up camp next to the harbor in a veritable parking lot from which people were firing rifles into the sound. We drove into town.EB1A7575

There’s an interesting National Park installation in town where a trail leads you through a dozen totems. These totems are all under 100 years old, but they’re still interesting.

After the totems we went looking for the local brewery, the Baranof Island Brewing Company. We were directed to a shortcut through a park, which included a bridge over a small river. There were

Those are salmon

Those are salmon

a number of people standing on the bridge looking at the water. “Salmon,” I speculated.

At first glance, I saw no fish, but upon closer inspection saw two, three, maybe four or five fish. Then I looked again. The river was alive with salmon (dying salmon). Hundreds of them. As numerous as pebbles. It was an unreal sight. They were almost all of them just hovering in the water; it turned out they were swimming at the same speed as the current against which they were heading, so they weren’t moving.

The brewery was not a brewpub; they just served their beer, which was just as good as any. All beer in the Pacific northwest tastes good.EB1A7607

We walked around town, which was mostly closed since it was a Sunday night. We observed the Russian onion-domed church which was closed. We window-shopped several nice little stores.

I should mention we also attended the Alasksn Brewery in Juneau, which also did not serve food, but they gave free samples.  They brew several outstanding IPA’s.

EB1A7657Sitka was the main Russian city in Alaska before the Russians forced the U.S. to take it. You can learn plenty about the town in Michener’s “Alaska.” We climbed a hill that overlooks the city, where the Russian flag was lowered and the American flag raised when the territory changed hands. It’s also where the first 49-star Stars and Stripes was raised.   The hill has other significance in the Russian period for both residential and tactical reasons (read the book).

Before shipping out on the ferry the next day we did some real shopping, and it was very pleasant and rewarding. We were told that Sitka, once a major stop on the cruise ship lines, is now being bypassed.

Mendenhall glacier in the rain.

Mendenhall glacier in the rain.

The trip to Juneau, as previously reported, was fast and uneventful.

We arrived at Juneau in the rain. It rained for two days, but the forecast for Thursday (Johnnie Morris’ birthday) was for sun, so we delayed our departure for Haines by a day.EB1A7755

While it was raining, we went to the Mendenhall Glacier, which is very impressive. We took a couple of short hikes to amazing views.

It turns out, when it’s clear, the glacier is even more impressive, as well as the surrounding mountains. It dominates the landscape all around the Auke Bay section of Juneau.

We went to downtown Juneau. There were four cruise ships lined up in the harbor. There were dozens of jewelry shops lining the road next to the cruise ships. The Alaska knickknack shops were all a couple of blocks closer to the city center.

Inside St. Nicholas.

Inside St. Nicholas.

We found an onion-dome church, St. Nicholas’, which we were allowed to enter. It’s the oldest continuously-operating parish in town, and has a number of Tinglits among its current membership. We also had some really good Russian dumplings, to continue with the Russian motif.

The other thing we did in the rain was to hide out in the Wegwam.

We were camped in the Mendenhall Lake Campground, a U.S. Forestry Service campground. When we arrived (in the rain) we found our reserved site, and since there were only four campers in the 19 RV spots, we asked if we could move.

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The only way to switch sites was to cancel our reservation, at a cost of one night’s rent plus $10, and reserve a different site. We decided to stay where we were.

Care to fungus a few?

Care to fungus a few?

It turns out, it’s maybe the nicest campground in North America. For one thing, it handles rain really well (better than we did, but that’s coming up shortly). The sites are all wooded, and well separated from each other.

And there’s a fantastic view of the glacier from the campground; a view that is compounded when the sun shines.

We went into a bar next door to where we were doing laundry, McGivney’s or something like that, and realized we were sitting beneath an autographed Chipper Jones jersey.chipper

We walked one of the short campground trails, among trees and small ponds, and saw a beaver swimming at close hand. A mother and her children happened upon the scene. Suddenly the beaver raised its tail above the water and slapped it down with a big “Slap!” sound, then dove. None of us had ever seen such a thing.

In the sunshine on our final day in Juneau, we hiked both the East and West Glacier trails. The east trail, which leaves from the visitors’ center, loops a rugged three miles with a 500-foot elevation increase. The trouble is, the glacier has retreated so far you can’t see it from the viewpoint.

Campground view

Campground view

The west trail, in contrast, hovers right over the tongue of the glacier and gives you a view of the ice field that feeds the glacier, as well as several glacier-clad mountains, and another glacier (Lemon?) off to the east.

So about my mishandling of the rain. We put out our awning so we’d have a dry spot next to the door. I went out during the night and noticed rain had accumulated in the awning instead of running off to the side, so we had two large sags of water.

I pushed up on one of the bulges the release the water, which unfortunately upset the delicate equilibrium. One of the corner poles gave way, the awning fell toward the ground in a whoosh, and the center support crossbar bent in half.

We were lucky (Rebecca was awakened by the clatter and rose from her bed to see what was the matter) to be able to roll the wounded awning back into its holder, so we are able to drive.

But we will be ferrying to Haines, and driving to points beyond, without an awning.