Adventures Near Petersburg

After cruising over 2700 nautical miles around SE Alaska and taking a side trip up to the interior to see Denali, we finally got the chance to spend a little time in the town of Petersburg (aka “Little Norway”) where we’ll settle for the winter months.  We’ve been looking forward to exploring more of our new “back yard” and meeting people, and we were lucky to be in town for the Rainforest Festival.  A marine mammal expert from Kodiak was on hand to give a talk about Steller sea lions – appropriate since we have a healthy population in the area, and a few that always hang around in the harbor.20140907 2788 petersburg buoy sea lions rStellers are much larger than their cousins, the California sea lions, and the Steller males can weigh up to 2000 lbs.  Kate, a professor from the University of Alaska, gave an excellent talk about these animals, and relayed a number of great stories.  Suffice it to say that neither one of us is inclined to go diving in the harbor since the sea lions love to harass divers.

In addition to the lecture, the Festival organized a boat trip to see the Le Conte glacier – Petersburg’s “local” glacier and one of the reasons the town was originally founded here.  In the late 1800s it was very difficult to keep fish fresh to get it to market down in Seattle, but the ready supply of glacier ice solved the problem nicely and the town flourished.

The boat tour included commentary by Professor Kate so it was a rare treat to learn more about the marine mammals near the glacier – particularly the seals.20140907 2831 le conte seal on ice rThe Le Conte is a difficult glacier to see since the approach has a lot of twists and turns, and it’s often choked with brash ice and bergy bits.  There is no way we could have gotten ADVENTURES in close to see the Le Conte, but the nimble jet-drive aluminum tour boat was perfect for the job.  Of course the day of the tour was foggy and it was raining hard, but since the tourist season was over and the participants were all locals, no one thought anything about the weather.  We all just dressed in our rain gear and boots, and I brought “rain coats” for my cameras.  20140907 2810 le conte seal on ice r20140907 2834 le conte seal gang on ice 4 rThere were lots of seals around the glacier and we enjoyed learning more about them.  They prefer the ice over any other terrain to haul out on, and they even give birth to their pups on the ice.  Here you can see the Le Conte glacier, and if you look closely you’ll see lots of little brown seals in front of the snout.20140907 2809 le conte glacier wide rThe ice is so magical – it can have so many different colors, and I love the almost fake-looking turquoise blue that’s common in glacier ice.  Some ice is perfectly clear, some is white, and some is black from the grit and rock ground from the mountains as the glacier makes its way down to the sea.  The shapes and sizes boggle the mind, and I don’t get tired of looking at all the different formations.  You just have to be careful about getting too close to the bergy bits since pieces sometimes calve off, changing the center of balance and causing the ice to roll over or pop up.20140907 2862 le conte turquoise ice rAs we headed back towards Petersburg the clouds got darker and some of the big bergy bits really stood out against the gray sky.  Who says a rainy day can’t be a beautiful thing?OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Happy Alaska Day!

147 years ago the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia for the price of $7.2 million dollars, and the formal transfer took place at Fort Sitka on this day.  Happy Alaska Day!  It only took 92 years after that for Alaska to become the 49th state, proving that glaciers aren’t the only things that move very slowly.

The last post talked about our terrific too-short two days in Denali National Park, and this post will wrap up the last bit of our week long side trip to see different parts of Alaska.20140901 2758 alaska rr fall color and river rIt was strange to see so much fall color in the first few days of September, but fall is a very short season in the interior.  “So much fall color” is relative since the majority of the trees are evergreens rather than deciduous.

We took the Alaska Railroad from Denali back down to Anchorage in a “dome car” with panoramic views from every seat.  The train runs at a slower speed – the whole point is to enjoy the ride, and it’s fantastic that the train stops for wildlife sightings.  We spotted a moose cow and calf in a field, and the train not only stopped but it actually backed up to give all the cars a better view.20140901 2754 alaska rr along the tracks rWe loved the Alaska Railroad, but we discovered that some trains have dome cars provided by the Alaska RR, and some trains have cars provided by the cruise lines.  We definitely prefer the Alaska RR cars – the commentary was excellent and informative; the cruise ship version was more “rah rah”, pushing fancy drinks from the bar and mindless “entertainment” more than actual information.  We’ll be more careful when making arrangements in the future.

We took an extra day to explore Anchorage – Alaska’s largest city in terms of population – about 300,000.  We wanted to learn more about the infamous 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded at 9.2 on the Richter Scale.  The devastation in the city was tremendous, though there was also significant damage and impact for 200 miles around.  In areas to the south the ground fell, while an area near Kodiak Island was permanently raised about 30′, and the port of Valdez was destroyed by an underwater landslide.  Tsunamis from this quake impacted Hawaii and Japan, as well as local towns.  It’s a reminder that Alaska is a geologically active place, and although we haven’t actually felt any earthquakes this summer we did experience one when we were in Haines.  The people in town felt the overnight rumbling, but since we float we didn’t notice until the next morning when our cell phones stopped working.  The quake was centered about 100 miles to the west, and it severed a fiber optic communications cable that serves the northern part of Juneau, Haines and Skagway.  It’s a good thing we’re immune to tsunamis down here in Petersburg!

20140902 2770 anchorage museum rWe heard good things about the Anchorage Museum so we set aside some hours to explore it.  The museum was currently hosting an exhibit called “Gyre” about the horrific problem of plastic trash in our oceans.  It was a very compelling exhibit, telling the heartbreaking story of humanity’s carelessness and callousness in very innovative and even beautiful ways.20140902 2781 anchorage museum ocean trash horn rWe wallowed in native culture, amazed at the variety of creations from all the different tribes, particularly those in the northern and interior regions.  In British Columbia and SE Alaska we only see things from the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes so we appreciated their extensive collection.  The museum also had an exhibit of Art of the North in a variety of media – most excellent.  My favorite was a small set of photographs about the Kobuk Valley National Park – an arctic desert 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  I love that kind of stark, dramatic landscape and now I have to figure out how to visit such an inaccessible place!

We discovered the Imaginarium on the lower level, unfortunately a little too close to closing time, but we still managed to find some neat science-y things to play with.  You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.20140902 2782 anchorage museum hands on jim r

To wrap it all up, we got a kick out of the funky statues just outside of the museum – art meets local wildlife.

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Denali National Park – Part 2

Our first day exploring Denali National Park involved a 5am wake up and 184 miles on a dirt-gravel road in a school bus – it was outstanding and we just loved it!  In fact, the only problem was some extreme frustration because there were so many places we wanted to stop and savor the landscape or to get a better view of some wildlife along the way.  We didn’t get back to our hotel until about 8pm so we put the camera batteries on chargers, grabbed a quick bite of dinner, and fell into bed so we could do it all over again.

Our second day in Denali was a bit less structured – we decided to take one of the park buses up to Mile 66 – to the Eielson Visitor Center so we could spend some time hiking.  We still had to get up at 5am in order to catch a park bus that would get us to Eielson early enough to have plenty of time for hiking, and we arranged for box lunches from our hotel since there isn’t anything available inside the park.

An interesting feature of Denali is that there aren’t that many actual hiking trails – rather the park is just open wilderness and you can hike anywhere.  Along the first few miles of the park road there were temporary signs closing that area to hiking because it was moose mating season.  Moose are grumpy and dangerous enough on a good day; I hate to think of how much worse they can be when they’re rutting.  But the good news is that we saw a number of moose…20140831 2411 denali np bull moose 2 r…and one was very close to the edge of the road.  (I wonder how thick the steel is on a school bus?)20140831 2447 denali np moose face 2 rWe were most excited about the moose, caribou and Dall sheep since they aren’t things we see down in SE Alaska very often.  We saw a number of brown bears, though they are called “grizzlies” in the interior and they are smaller than the coastal brown bears that we’re used to because they don’t have all that salmon in their diet.20140830 2544 denali np brown bear and cubs vertical r20140831 2356 denali np dall sheep ram rWe saw a number of Dall sheep up on the mountainsides, though they were usually too far away for good photographs.  This ram came down a bit lower so we could get a better view.  Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether to just look at them with powerful binoculars or try to get a photograph, hand-holding a long lens.  Regardless, any wildlife sighting is a thrill.


We had a number of caribou sightings, and they are impressive with their huge antlers.  One caribou even ran across the road in front of our bus!20140830 2609 denali np caribou looking 3 rMy favorite was this one, though, silhouetted against the late afternoon sky.  He’s a beauty!20140831 2352 denali np caribou silhouette rWe finally got to the Eielson Visitor Center and began to appreciate the views we had the day before.  Our second day was overcast which made the chilly temps feel much colder, and we never saw the mountain (THE mountain) all day.  We decided to hike up the Alpine Trail behind the center, through the high tundra.  It wasn’t a very long hike but it was very steep, climbing over 1000′ feet on a mile-long trail.  20140831 2692 denali np eilson from alpine trail rWe stopped often to catch our breath, but we were lucky enough to hear and then see some little pika – 6″ long mouse-like animals that live in the rocky high country.  They don’t hibernate, so they were very busy gathering food to get them through the long winter.

The tundra seems plain and barren, but there was a lot of subtle fall color in the various plants and the lichens growing on the rocks.  The views along the trail were grand sweeping landscapes, though they would have been even better if we could have seen the mountain from up there.20140831 2708 denali np eilson alpine near summit r20140831 2725 denali alpine jim rAs we got higher up the mountain the wind really made us feel the cold, and we were glad we brought some layers of clothing, warm hats, and gloves.  It was very strange to be standing on snow on August 31st, but that’s Denali.  As of today, the park road is completely closed due to snow, only accessible by dog sled until spring.

Denali National Park – Part 1

After the flight to see the Alaska Range of mountains and Denali (Mt. McKinley) we headed to Denali National Park for two too-short days of exploration.  I apologize that the blog is so far behind, but note that we were in Denali in the last days of August.  Summer, right?  No – we were lucky enough to catch the short fall season which only lasts for a few weeks.  Note the light dusting of snow on the mountains in the background – it was pretty chilly, with temps dipping into the high 30s overnight but the autumn color was well worth it.20140830 1959 denali np fall color brush snow dusted mtns r20140830 1968 denali np braided river fall color rYou have to set your alarm clocks for an early (5 am) wake-up if you want to really see Denali National Park.  The 6 million acre park is difficult to explore since there’s only one road into the wilderness, 92 miles long.  The first 15 miles are paved and open to private vehicles, and beyond that the road is dirt/gravel and only open to the park’s Blue Bird (school) buses.  20140830 2040 denali np blue bird buses rThe buses will stop for wildlife sightings, but you can’t get off the bus for those stops.  We had to do a lot of jumping up and down to wrestle with the sticky school bus windows to get photographs or video, and it was a bit frustrating.  On the first day we took a tour that traveled the entire 92 miles of the park road to the Kantishna Road house, and we were incredibly lucky to have glorious weather.  It was chilly, but very clear and we had perfect views of Denali (THE mountain) all day long.  20140830 2015 denali np mt mckinley snow dusted tundra rWe didn’t realize how rare it is to be able to see the mountain from the park – only 30% of the visitors get to see any of the mountain, and even then it is often partially obscured by clouds.  Less than 10% of the park’s visitors get the kind of view we had, which was just awesome.

Here’s Denali framed by some caribou antlers at the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66…20140830 2017 denali np mt mckinley antler frame 2 rAnd Jim showing us how big and very heavy those antlers are!  I wanted him to hold them on top of his head but they were just too ungainly.20140830 2031 denali np jim caribou antlers mt mck r20140830 2574 denali np arctic ground squirrel rWe had some great wildlife sightings along the way – moose, caribou, bears, and Dall sheep, but I’ll save most of them for tomorrow’s Part 2 posting.  We had fun watching the little arctic ground squirrels, though the ones near the visitor center were pretty plucky, looking for food in anyone’s bag left on the ground.

After a number of wildlife sightings and some stops where we could get out and stretch our legs we finally got to the end of the park road at mile 92.  We left our hotel around 6:30 am and arrived at the Kantishna Roadhouse around 1pm.

20140830 2056 sled dogs stuffed rWe had a little lunch and were treated to a talk and small demonstration about sled dogs from a winner of the Junior Iditarod and his father, who won the Iditarod several times.  (The Iditarod is a dog sled race over 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome held every March.  The experience, expertise, and physical and mental fortitude of these competitors is simply amazing, and here in Alaska they are rock stars.)

The talk was illustrated with a real sled and some little stuffed dog toys as we learned about lead dogs and wheel dogs, and the demonstration used just 6 dogs (where an Iditarod team might have 16) to show us a little of how it’s done.  The dogs were so happy to run, and they are obviously very well cared for.20140830 2579 denali np sled dog leads doggles rWe were glad we chose to go the entire distance into the park on the first day so we could figure out how to make the best use of our time on the second day.  It was a long ride back out the park road, and we spotted places to go hiking, looked at wildlife, and enjoyed those Denali views all the way.  The fall color and the snow were quite unexpected, and the rangers at the Eielson Visitor Center told us that they’ve had snow in every month this year.20140830 2519 denali np caribou in fall tundra rDenali (the park) was very overwhelming – so much wildlife and such stunning landscapes.  The color in the alpine tundra was so pretty, especially set against the snow covered mountains of the Alaska Range.  We’ve already realized that two days isn’t enough time to explore and savor here.20140830 2096 denali np alaska range valley view r

The Alaska Mountain Range by Air

The next stop on our side trip took us into the interior of Alaska to see Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park.  It’s interesting to note that “Denali” is the native Alaskan (Athabascan tribe) name for the mountain – it means “the high one” and at 20,230′ it is the tallest mountain in North America and third tallest mountain in the world.  Alaskans have officially changed their maps to reflect the Athabascan name, but Federal maps have not been changed yet – every time it comes up the elected representatives from Ohio raise a fuss to keep it named for one of their native sons, the 25th President of the US.  We call the mountain “Denali” since the Athabascans were here first.

The best way to see the mountain is by air, so we traveled to the tiny town of Talkeetna for a flight to Denali.  Talkeetna is geographically closer to Denali than the National Park is, and it’s also where people who want to climb the mountain meet with the Park Service to assess their readiness and to fly up to the base camp.  Here’s a map to show you where Talkeetna and Denali National Park are in relation to Anchorage and SE Alaska.  The Alaska Mountain Range is that arc of snow between Talkeetna and the National Park on the map.alaska map seward denaliThe town of Talkeetna consists of a few hotels, a busy small-plane airport, a pizza joint, roadhouse, and a handful of tourist shops spread over about 1/2 mile.20140829 1788 talkeetna sign jim rWe were only in town for one day to take the flight to see Denali, and of course we woke up to pea soup fog and drizzle.  Our flight was postponed a few times, but we got lucky when the weather finally eased and we could see a little blue sky between the clouds in the later afternoon.  We headed to the airport and boarded a De Havilland Otter for our flight.  Note the skis on the landing gear – ready to land on a glacier just in case.20140829 1947 jim and otter rRegardless of the visibility, it’s just so much fun to fly on a small plane like this, and Jim particularly LOVES to fly.20140829 1925 aerial jim rI lucked out and got the co-pilot’s seat since I had the most number of cameras, and I had a great view despite some scratches on the window that were hard to hide in photos.  As we flew across the flat valley we could see “braided rivers” – caused by glacier run-off full of silt that shifts and changes with the water flow, forming  “braids”.20140829 1805 flight braided river rI love to see the patterns of the land and rivers that can only been seen from the air…20140829 1816 talkeetna flight river pattern r…and we took it as a good omen that we could see a rainbow as we headed into the foothills.20140829 1820 flight rainbow river rWe headed up into the Alaska Mountain Range and saw a number of glaciers – rivers of ice converging and running down to the lowlands.20140829 1850 aerial rivers of ice converging rThe cloud cover was still pretty heavy around Denali (Mt. McKinley) though we could see it, but the clouds were thinner around some of the other peaks in the range, and they were dramatic – craggy and densely covered in snow.  It was just fantastic, and we hated to return to earth.20140829 1908 alaska range mtns 2 rThe next day we headed up to Denali National Park for a different view of the mountain (THE mountain!) and surrounding landscape.

Exploring Different Parts of Alaska

The summer season was starting to wind down and we wanted to see a few other places around the state before winter sets in – places we couldn’t get to with our boat.  During the last week in August we flew from Petersburg up to Anchorage to begin a little side trip, starting with a scenic ride on the Alaska Railroad to Seward.  Here’s a map to give you some perspective of where things are.alaska map seward kenaiThe train follows along the shoreline of Turnagain Arm as it heads from Anchorage south to Seward, and the scenery was dramatic with misty clouds and early morning light.20140826 1550 arr coastal turnagin arm r20140826 1557 arr coastal train rAs the sun got higher in the sky we could see beluga whales out in the water, some coming close to shore as the tide rose.  The train actually stopped when we were near a large pod so we could see them better – awesome!  Our train car was one of the special “dome” cars – well worth the extra cost to have such great views from our seats, and access to a little outside area for taking photographs.20140826 1622 arr dome car 2 rThe train guide gave an informative narrative as we traveled along, and I was struck by the story of this ghost forest – a remnant of the 1964 earthquake, the 2nd largest on record.  The trees here were killed when the land dropped more than 10′, exposing the roots to salt water.20140826 1586 arr coastal dead forest rThe scenery along the route continued to be spectacular, with water views as well as mountains, glaciers, and valleys.  We saw mountain goats high up, and moose down in the low marsh.  The train made a few more stops for good wildlife sightings – you can’t beat that kind of service!20140826 1668 arr mountain reflection 2 rWe arrived in the small town of Seward on the Kenai Peninsula, access point to the nearby Kenai Fjords National Park.  More glaciers!!  We took a 6 hour tour by water to see some of the glaciers, figuring that we might see more if we didn’t have to drive the boat ourselves.  Unfortunately the weather for our little boat trip was just horrid – heavy fog, rain, and building wind and seas as we got out into the Gulf of Alaska.  We didn’t get to see or photograph as much because of the bad weather conditions and crowded tour boat, but we can always find things to put a smile on our faces.  Sea otters still win my vote for cutest animal…20140827 2465 kenai fjords sea otters 2 r

20140827 1735 funny tourist rAnd sometimes people-watching can be a great source of entertainment too.  The tour boat had some loaner binoculars available, but this gal was perfectly happy with her toy store model.  We ended up sitting with a fun couple from North Carolina who are both glass artists, and they were a bright spot on a gloomy stormy day.

We got up to the Aialik Glacier and could barely see it through the heavy fog and rain, but we haven’t gotten tired of looking at glaciers yet – what we could see was dramatic and beautiful.20140827 1748 aialik glacier kenai fjords 1 rThe pack ice near the glacier’s snout was very thick, and in such a monochrome setting I thought the photograph shows it better in simple black and white.20140827 2477 kenai fjords pack ice bw rAfter the boat ride we took some time to poke around the shops and to spend a good chunk of time at the Sea Life Center – we love aquariums, and it’s a great place to channel one’s “inner child”.  Both the Sea Life Center and the Anchorage Museum had artistic and poignant displays of plastic trash found in the ocean – this one was done by the local high school.20140826 1689 trash-to-pus r20140826 1703 sea life center puffin rWe try hard to be good stewards of the environment, and these displays are a good reminder of how fragile our oceans are.  Many of the sea birds at the Center were rescued from injuries ultimately caused by humans – ingesting plastics, oil spills, etc. It’s wonderful and exciting to see puffins, razorbills, guillemots, otters, seals and sea lions up close, but sad to think about the reasons that they aren’t able to be released back into the wild.

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