Monday, August 21, 2017

Alaska: Seward and Kenai Fjords

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It was Thursday, which meant Week 1 of our trip had elapsed and it was time for the long drive from Denali National Park to Seward. We'd have to go back the way we came, pass through Anchorage, and travel onward down the Seward Highway to get to our destination. Without stopping it could have been a 6.5 hour trip. For us it was closer to 8 hours. While Lee did all the driving the rest of us napped or did something on iPads to pass the time.

We returned to the city of Wasilla around lunch time. Laura had found that the Krazy Moose Sub Shop was highly rated on TripAdvisor so we decided this would be our lunch spot. The sandwiches were huge and delicious. Their condiment/hot sauce bar had more choices than your typical grocery store. After lunch we headed over to Walmart to buy additional luggage. Each couple shared one large suitcase and supplemented with duffles or backpacks to ensure all our bags would fit the trunk. We jammed everything into packing cubes and our suitcase was starting to show stress. We figured a small bag would help eliminate the strain on our suitcase once we got on the cruise ship Saturday.

After passing through Anchorage we were on a road we hadn't traveled. The Seward Highway was scenic with almost constant views of mountains or rivers. On several occasions we saw bald eagles on beaches and rocks looking for their next meal.

We arrived at our new hotel, the Harbor 360 Hotel, a few minutes before 4pm. The hotel was on the harbor overlooking many boats and mountains. A few restaurants and shops were nearby while the main downtown was a little over one mile away. With a population of ~2,000 it seemed like there were more boats than people in Seward.


We took an outing into town that led us to the Seward Brewing Company. The hostess gave us a choice of two seating locations - upstairs for a pizza menu or downstairs for sandwiches and entrees. Holly and Dave weren't hungry yet so the rest of the group chose downstairs. We enjoyed the creative space and the variety of beers made in-house and guest taps. The other 4 people in our group said the food was very good.


We had dinner close to the hotel at Ray's Waterfront. The place was packed with a good mix of tourist and locals. We lucked into some prime bar seats and enjoyed selections from their great beer and cocktail menu. We ended up splitting a jerk scallop appetizer and each had a halibut entree. We were excited to have some fresh seafood and Seward is a location where a lot of halibut is sourced. We had an excellent meal and ended up returning the next night with the rest of our group.

***

Friday: Another early wake-up! We enjoyed a Hampton-Inn style breakfast at our hotel before walking a few buildings over to the Kenai Fjords Tour office. Today we were taking a 6-hour boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Even though we were on line to board the boat early we did not score seating on the upper deck of the large catamaran. Our team ended up at a six-top booth near the windows on the lower deck. We made our way outside to hold our ground at the bow for the best views.

30 seconds after leaving port we were watching two otters play and saw a bald eagle. As we left the no-wake zone and picked up speed it became apparent we were going to freeze. We took turns going inside to suit-up in rain pants to dampen the breeze. They sold cute thermal mugs onboard for $8 that allowed for unlimited coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or soda. $48 later we were a little more comfortable.

Our tour was the yellow path on the map below. A lot of our day would be spent taking in the beauty of the fjords (mountains carved by glaciers) and looking at several glaciers. Along the way we were hoping to luck into wildlife - especially whales. Our weather for the day was mostly overcast with a few bits of sun here-and-there. Before reaching the Holgate Glacier we spent some time watching stellar sea lions perched on rocks. Many were branded for tracking purposes.
 
Map from Kenai Fjords Tour Company
The closest we got to mountain goats

We spent a lot of time at the Holgate Glacier. A LOT. The captain rotated the boat several times to give everyone a view and the crew brought pieces of icebergs into the boat so we could see the difference between glacial ice and ice from our freezers. It was pretty interesting to see that glaciers actually do give off a blue coloring.

Two smaller glaciers were located next to the Holgate Glacier

We found a few minutes of sunlight as we continued our tour of the fjords. Occasionally we lucked into seeing humpback whales and some puffins that would actually stay still long enough for a photo.

Really bad photo but it's a mother otter with her baby resting on her while they float

The final half hour of the tour was the most exciting. Right in Resurrection Bay (where the harbor is based) a hunchback was feeding and showing its head quite often.

Kenai Fjords Tours took great care of us and we all enjoyed the outing. Arriving in port around 2:30 gave us plenty of time to do some other activities. We walked over to the National Park Visitor Center to watch their short film and buy shirts and stickers. Then we walked back to the hotel and drank the excess beers we had collected along the way. We got to watch an otter snacking on some fish while seagulls tried to get their share.

After enjoying beverages we took a short drive over to the Exit Glacier. This is where we had two brushes with death involving a moose (slightly exaggerating). The six of us were pretty isolated on the trail. As we approached a curve near the river a moose with her two babies came out of the river and ran straight in front of us. She must have heard us and made a break for it while not knowing our specific location. It was a close call. Of course she did the same thing to us 5 minutes later.

Along the Exit Glacier trail were markers of where the glacier ended during various years. The glacier has receded quite a bit in the last 100 years.

 

***

The next morning we had to return to Anchorage and drop off the rental car. The land portion of our trip would soon be over and the cruise portion would begin. On our way to Anchorage we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This non-profit organization saves and rehabilitates distressed wildlife and gives them a home since most of them can't be released back into the wild. We saw several bears, caribou, deer, wood bison (a particular species thought to be extinct) and other animals. It was an interesting place to spend 90 minutes in a very pretty setting.

After our lunch at an airport bar we boarded our shuttle bus that would bring us back the way we came in order to go to Whittier - the location of our ship. We (Holly and Dave) have never taken a cruise and we were dreading it. It just seemed like an experience we would not enjoy. Our travel companions (cruise veterans and fans) were probably getting sick of our pre-cruise whining. It didn't help our mental state to know once we boarded the ship we would be trapped like rats for the next 65 hours (first two days were at-sea). Stay tuned....

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Alaska - Denali National Park

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One good thing about our group is we all preferred to get up early to get on the road. We had about a two hour trip up The Parks Highway to the enterance of Denali National Park. The ride went by quickly for Dave because he spent a lot of the time arguing with AT&T over data usage. No way in heck did he run up 6GB overnight on Day 1 of his monthly contract. Rather than give in by paying money for an unlimited plan he decided to remain throttled for the next 30 days.

The 2 hour drive was uneventful with the exception of a few rain drizzles. We took obligatory photos at the first National Park sign we found before heading into the visitor center. This particular center was rather large and had many displays and taxidermed animals to look at. We watched the film presentation in the auditorium. It did nothing to educate us - it was a little artsy in a film school intern kind of way. We worked with the rangers to develop a short outing for the day - a walk around nearby Horseshoe Lake.  Our lunch was from the visitor center's cafeteria.




Facebook Followers were a little jealous of our good weather and fortune so we needed to take one rainy picture

The Horseshoe Lake Trail starts with a steep walk down a fairly long hill. We were not looking forward to the return trip. The trail and stair system was in decent shape and we saw folks of all ages and abilities out-and-about. We did feel sorry for the folks who had to deal with strollers.


About 15 minutes into our hike we found ourselves watching a moose with her calves across the shoreline. To make the show even better mama moose went for a bath in the middle of the lake. At the speed she was moving we thought she was going for a family with loud children. Fortunately for everyone she just hung out.







video

Once we had enough we continued our walk and encountered a busy beaver working on his dam.




Hey we can see our hotel from here!
A little further down the trail we had a close encounter with another moose. She was maybe twenty - thirty feet off the path in the heavy foliage. Apparently we have to be on our guard out here (foreshadowing for a future post). No other wildlife was encountered other than a hare and a squirrel. The beavers really did a number on the trees in this area evidenced by the all the dams and half-gnawed trees. We wondered how many beavers it took to build the elaborate dams.



Found another park sign
After another sign stop we went up the long switchback-filled road up to The Grand Denali Lodge. We chose this hotel over the nearby Princess Hotel for the dramatic views and so we wouldn't get "Princessed-out" since we still had a week long cruise coming up. The Lodge's main building had a bar with expansive patio, lounge area, full-service restaurant, and coffee bar. All the guest rooms were in separate buildings. The nearby sister hotel had an ice cream shop and BBQ restaurant. After checking in we needed a snack and some beer. We headed back down the hill to town (a collection of your typical tourist stores and eateries) and spent some time in The Salmon Bake. It was like walking into a fun house - not one bit of flooring was level.


Diner-style placemats allowed us to study our Alaska facts. We thought this would be handy for the cruise and trivia nights.

We browsed many of the shops (same stuff different building) before heading to Prospector's Pizza for dinner. This place was awesome. They had a huge tap selection with an appropriate mix of beer types and the pizzas were creative and tasty. It's the most popular place in town so we had about a half hour wait for a table.

Upon returning to the lodge the rest of our party turned in while we kept the bartender company and enjoyed the patio view. At almost 11pm it's still light out.


***

It's hard to go to sleep while it is still light out. Early mornings like this one are a little rough. We made our way to the Wildreness Access Center early to ensure prime seats on our Denali Park tour bus. Our 93 mile one-way trip departed at 7:30AM. This was going to be a L-O-N-G day.

Round trip from Wilderness Access Center to Kantishna

The coach was a modified school bus with no bathroom. We'd get breaks about every thirty miles. Our bus driver gave us facts and insights into Alaskan life along the way. Most of our wildlife sightings were from a distance. The Dall sheep only made one appearance and a 600mm lens would not have helped photograph them. The park was very scenic and with this being a round-trip you got to see everything twice. In hindsight we should have looked into the drive-in/fly-out tour since that would have freed up time for another visit to Prospector's Pizza.

Our ride
Mile 30 Teklanika Rest Stop:



Along the way:



Moose off in the distance running for some reason
Toklat River Rest Stop:



Along the way:




Around Mile 85 a ranger (Pete) boarded the bus and took over the tour. We disembarked for a short walk along a trail and heard stories about how the area was settled during the gold rush. We were able to get another view of Mount Denali including it's elusive lower north peak (they say only 30% of visitors get to see Denali at all due to weather so we were truly lucky with all our sightings).




Back on the bus for a short mile or two. We exited at the end of the line so we could take another short walk to the cabin of Frannie Quigley, a rough-and-tumble pioneer lady. We fought the mosquitos as we stood in front of the cabin to hear some drawn-out story about a blueberry pie recipe. The airstrip was only a three minute walk away..... if only there was a plane ready to fly us back.



On the way back we made the same bathroom breaks but now had time to tour the Eielson Center at mile 66.

Ptarmigan
In the distance and wrong side of the road





Antics at Mile 56


Artic ground squirrel


Volunteers walk the park's sled dogs

Another sign

We all felt the same way about this tour: we were glad we did it, but it was too long. Almost all our animal sightings were in the front half of the park. Maybe a shorter tour would have sufficed?
We got back to the hotel around 8pm. Although we had lunch and snacks provided on the tour, we were starving. We headed to the bar/lounge and enjoyed some sandwiches. We headed out to the deck for a few minutes to take in our last overlook views of the area. We had another early departure planned for the next day with a 360+ mile drive to the town of Seward in the south.

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