Laura's Vacation Blog

Sunday, June 24, 2007

North to Alaska!

For my 30th birthday, my family chipped in and arranged a vacation to Alaska for Justin and me. With all of their frequent flier miles sitting idle, Sarah and Ryan sprung for the airfare and my parents and sister Buffy chipped in money for lodging and entertainment. And, in the spirit of Johnny Horton, Justin wrote a birthday poem and selected a few appropriate travel aides for an Alaskan adventure. My birthday is in October but I’ve been known to drag it out as long as possible to make the most of it. So, perhaps this is a record, but on a fine June day, I departed for the great white north and relished in opening my birthday gift.

Friday, June 8

Departure day. The forecast for the week in Alaska at all of our ports of call was rain rain rain. We packed for it. It’s a little disappointing to vacation in the rain but I was going to make the best of it. Sarah’s miles were on United Air which meant that we went south before we went north making for an extra long plane ride and a late arrival in Anchorage. But, Alaska celebrates nearly 24 hour daylight in June and much of the rest of the summer so while we arrived at midnight, the sky still had some dusk left in it and luckily no rain. We weren’t up for hitting the town so we hit the sack at our hotel.

Saturday, June 9

We needed to collect our rental car from the airport so we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and then headed out to the big city of Anchorage. Seriously though, Anchorage is really a small city although the largest in Alaska. We hit the Saturday market which turned out to be a bunch of booths peddling tourist junk to the cruise ship clientèle that were embarking or disembarking from their voyage. There was nothing much of interest for us. It started out a little chilly but by noon, the sun had warmed up the streets. There was no chance of rain in sight. Having a quick and lousy hotel breakfast, we were hungry and headed for the brew-pub that someone back in Seattle had recommended for lunch. After lunch, we walked down to the Anderson home, one of the original settlers in Anchorage. This was the starting point of the historic, interpretive trail by the waterfront. We took a stroll and learned all about Anchorage’s early beginnings. The trail ended up by a bronze statue of Eisenhower with an eagle attacking his head. The monument to Alaskan statehood overlooked the Knik Arm and the Alaskan interior beyond.

Statue in Anchorage commemorating Eisenhower's contribution to Alaskan statehood.

As usual, I had found a bargain tourist coupon book that had some really good deals of which I planned to take advantage. One of our coupons sent us two for one to the Alaskan Museum, a history and art museum featuring Alaska’s native culture as well as its art and industry. The museum featured a top floor dedicated to history and a ground floor dedicated to Alaskan artwork. We spent most of our time in the history wing learning about the indigenous people and their unique cultures. There were also exhibits on the gold rush as well as the oil drilling and mining industries throughout Alaska. One clear message from the exhibit was the wealth of natural resources that Alaska contains. It had many a man scrambling for their Eureka! moment at the turn of the 20th century but did not yield the gratuitous golden fortunes those men dreamed about until mid-century when the black gold was discovered. After a couple of hours of Alaskan education including a documentary on the gold rush, we were ready to set out on the eating opportunity to another pub that our Seattle acquaintance recommended, the Moose’s Tooth. I’m pretty sure that the Moose’s tooth is popular among the entire city of Anchorage first because of the huge crowd and second because this seemed like a fun place to hang out for an evening. Pizza, beer, what more do you need on a Saturday night? Well, we thought we needed a movie too so after a nice pizza-pie and a few beers, we set out to find a theater showing “Ocean’s 13”. We hit the late show and at 11:30 when we walked out, the sky was still clear and bright—a very surreal ambiance.

Sunday, June 10

From the beginning, the day was clearly going to be a scorcher and I realized right then that there was little faith to be put in the weatherman. Having packed for cooler, wetter climates, we headed to the REI for some skimpier clothing to make our travels more comfortable. Our carefully laid out itinerary had us going north to Hatcher Pass for the first part of the week and then south to the Kenai Peninsula in the second part of the week. The guidebook recommended stopping on the way in Eklutna at the beautiful Eklutna Lake for hiking, biking and kayaking. We did and after a quarter mile up the Twin Peaks trail I decided that it was too much like Washington’s Mt. Si that I talked Justin into retreating back and renting mountain bikes to traverse the flat trails. I checked out some bikes and we headed around the lake, making it about five miles in before turning around and cycling back. I wanted to dip our feet in the lake so we scaled down the rocky slope to the edge of the water and waded in. Unfortunately, the rocks were very loose and very steep so getting back out of the water and back up the slope was a bit tricky.

Justin and I taking a break from the bicycles at Eklutna Lake with the Chugach Mountains in the background.

But we made it back and out of the park and out to Palmer for lunch before venturing on to Hatcher Pass to our sourdough cabin in the woods.

Chillin' in the hammock at our sourdough cabin in Hatcher Pass.

Our cute little cabin at Hatcher Pass.

Monday, June 11

Today I discovered that my credit card was not in my wallet as expected but back at the lake with the bike rental outfit. Hmmm, not a good start. The outfitter agreed to hold onto it until the next day when we’d be passing back through and could pick it up. I decided to trust in its care and not make a big fuss about canceling it and complicating the trip. Instead we carried on as planned and found a nice flat hike called the Gold Mint Trail along the Little Sustina River. The main attraction here was the wilderness and several beaver dams built up in the river. We even spotted a beaver as we hiked along. There were no people on the trail so we hiked in relative solitude until we were nearly back to the parking lot. We checked out the old gold mining settlement of Independence Mine.

Justin hiking along the Gold Mint Trail at Hatcher Pass

One of the beaver dams located along the trail. The heap of sticks in the middle of the pond is the beaver home.
Mister Beaver himself. See his head poking out right next to the shore in the center of the photo.
A few of the buildings at Independence Mine, one of the longest running gold mines in the state of AK.

Tuesday, June 12

Wednesday was mostly a traveling day although we decided to make the most of our detour to pick up my credit card and hike out to the mosquito-infested Thunderbird Falls. If you held still for 2 seconds, the bugs would swarm. We took some quick pictures of the falls and the lovely wild roses along the trail and then headed south.

Thunderbird Falls vista

One of the many wild roses along the trail at Thunderbird Falls.

Past Anchorage, we stopped along Turnagain Arm to check out the tidal bore wave. We didn’t really see much of excitement; just a 1 foot wave in the distance but there was a nice vista of the Arm. We continued toward the Kenai Peninsula and stopped in Hope, AK to hike another flat trail called Gull Rock which followed the shore on the south side of Turnagain Arm.

You can barely make out the tidal bore. It is that white wave in the background.

A view of the Chugach range from the Gull Rock Trail on the Kenai Peninsula

Wednesday, June 13

Today was our big King Salmon fishing adventure in Soldotna, AK on the Kenai River. There’s not much to talk about. We didn’t catch anything. Not even a bite. We did see someone fall out of their boat into the 41 degree water taking a turn to sharply.

Here's me not catching anything.

A view of the competition from the bow.

A remnant of the Russian influence on Alaska in Kenai: a Russian Orthodox Church.

Thursday, June 14

Licking our wounds from the absence of fresh fish that we’d be packing around, we got out of the generic little town of Soldotna early and headed to our final destination of Seward, AK. Along the way, we stopped to do a great hike to Ptarmigan Lake along the Ptarmigan Lake Trail. With bear bells strapped to our packs and bug repellent dabbed behind our ears, we hiked up the mountain to an alpine lake with beautiful turquoise water. There were lots of wildflowers, devil’s club and the occasional patch of nettles that we managed to find our way into. We lunched up at the lake, waded in to the icy water and I even dunked my shirt into the lake to refresh. Again, there was no chance of rain and the sun was HOT.

Bathing my feet in Ptarmigan Lake
Ptarmigan Lake

A stellar jay on one of the thousands of dead spruce trees, killed by an invasive spruce bark beetle. The beetle thrives because of the practice of fire suppression in Alaska.

We arrived in Seward in the late afternoon and checked into the cutest little room you’ve ever seen in a repurposed Alaskan rail car. It was a sunny afternoon and Seward was magnitudes more appealing than the generic Soldotna so we ventured out to have an ice cream and check out the town. I had a two-for-one coupon to the SeaLife Center in Seward and due to our bells, we had seen precious little wildlife up to this point. The SeaLife Center is a lot like the Seattle Aquarium. It has the standard Pacific fish that are fished commercially like salmon and halibut as well as octopus, squid, shrimp, and crabs-all the sea life that we know as seafood. There are also several sea mammals and coastal birds living at the center so we had fun watching the animals play and do their animal things like feed.

Justin getting friendly with the SeaLife Center's resident sea lion.

Friday, June 15

Today was our big halibut fishing adventure in Seward, AK. There’s not much to talk about. We didn’t catch any halibut. Justin caught a ling cod and a skate which is like a sting ray. I caught 2 ling cod. Ling cod are not in season in June so we had to throw them back. A few people caught halibut on the boat but we did quite poorly as a boat that day. We were especially disappointed since we were quite certain that we’d have success; even the captain was surprised by our poor luck….we’re blaming it on the banana that one of the guests brought on board and ate for lunch. Superstition has bananas as the cursed food at sea.

The out-of-season Ling Cod. I think this same fish just kept re-biting Justin's and my hooks just to stick it to us.Justin's got his first bite!
The ugly skate that swallowed the halibut hook.

Saturday, June 16

We had a couple of outstanding adventures to check out on our last full day in Alaska: Exit Glacier and sea kayaking. We made our reservations for an evening kayaking trip on Saturday morning and then drove out to Exit Glacier. The Glacier has undergone some serious melting since records have been kept. About 2 miles before the parking lot, there were signs with years marking where the glacier was and when. The glacier’s retreat has been significant, leaving only a flat bed of glacial silt in its path. We learned that the glacier advances 2 feet daily but melts back 3 feet daily so it loses 1 foot a day. Glaciers appear blue because the dense ice absorbs the red/yellow part of the spectrum but reflects the blue part of the spectrum giving the glacier its blue tinge. We hiked up the Overlook trail to have a close look at the glacier from above and then back down to see if we could get right up to it. Unfortunately, the water runoff is so extreme it created several fast moving rivers that were too wide and deep to cross, stymieing our ability to approach the glacier.

Here we are close up to the blue glacier on the end of the Overlook trail.

Justin posing by the glacier's runoff. The base of the glacier is in the upper left of the photo.

Our kayak trip shaped up to be one of the top highlights of the trip and our final adventure. We showed up to find we were the only people who signed up. Our guide, Shannon had invited one of the other summer workers, Andy, at the resort to join us so the four of us ventured out in 3 kayaks. Shannon and Andy each had their own and Justin and I paddled in a tandem. We launched the boats and were soon enough surfing the swells in Resurrection Bay. It was pretty windy but the night was perfect…just warm enough and very clear. We paddled up the shoreline to Bridal Veil Falls, a simple little waterfall near the shore. The falls are a short hike from the shore so we beached the kayaks. This was the furthest and longest that I had ever paddled so I was feeling a little weak but luckily, we had the wind and waves at our backs on the way home so we were able to get some advantage from that. It was tiring but a really nice trip.

I'm chatting with the guide dressed in the spray skirt for the kayak.
Bridal Veil Falls outside of Seward, AK.

Sunday, June 17

I enjoyed a reindeer sausage in a city park back in Anchorage before our flight. I think it was Dasher.

Mmmm...spicy reindeer!

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