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Alaska Trip: Days 12-20

Day 12 – July 20
The weather’s let up a bit; no rain this morning. On the road about 9:30.

10:05 – As we crossed Bonanza Creek, we saw a great horned owl sitting next to the road, chewing on a ground squirrel. Cool.

1:30 – Recrossed the Yukon River, headed south.

We arrived back in Fairbanks around 5:15, and immediately headed to KFC for some real food (nuts and twigs get old after a few days).

Tonight, we’ll be staying in Fairbanks, before heading south to Denali tomorrow. Alan should be flying up to Anchorage, then driving to Denali to meet us there.

Day 13 – July 21

We headed south after breakfast and a bit of shopping. We arrived in Denali just before dinnertime, and got a campsite in Riley Creek Campground, just inside the national park. Still raining. We got permits to go on an overnight hike into the park tomorrow. We’ll have to take a shuttle bus to our dropoff point, then hike in for 3-4 hours before we camp for the night.

I talked to Dad on the phone, but he was running a little behind. He was driving up from Anchorage and would reach us tomorrow morning.

Day 14 – July 22
Dad arrived early and was waiting for us when we got up. We looked at the temperature (40s), the wind, and the rain, and eventually decided that hiking out and overnighting was probably a bad idea. Instead, we took the tour bus and just kept riding. It’s about 85 miles from the Denali National Park entrance to the end of the road, and it’s narrow gravel road high over a cliff with no guardrails. Thankfully, private vehicles aren’t allowed on the road; only park-run buses. As we drove along, the bus driver gave us a good introduction to the local ecosystems. We saw lots of wildlife; grizzlies (with cubs), moose, caribou, foxes, ground squirrels, and snowshoe hares were all easily spoted from the bus. Unfortunately, the bus trip was LONG; we left at 11:00 and didn’t return until after 9:00 PM. However, we saw more nature than we could possibly absorb. As usual, Mt. McKinley was hidden by clouds, but we saw some of it through occasional breaks in the clouds. We came home, cooked dinner, and went to sleep.

Day 15 – July 23rd
This morning we visited the Denali dogsled team kennels for a demonstration. It was quite interesting to learn that they still use dog teams to patrol the park in winter. Afterwards, we checked out of the campground. We were delayed slightly by a moose which was standing next to the road and then proceeded to park itself right in the middle, blocking traffic. Then a bit of lunch, and south to Anchorage.

We got a suite in the cheapest of the cheap hotels; the walls are cinderblock but it’ll do for a bed and a shower. We ate dinner downtown and listened to a local jazz band.

Anchorage appears to be quite an interesting town. Lots of art, both native and otherwise, and a number of interesting restaurants. However, it also appears to be a town with a definite dark side. Walking 5 blocks east of the downtown area puts you in what can only be described as the bad part of town. Interesting for a town of over a quarter of a million.

The plan for tomorrow is to head down to Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula. Beyond that, no plan at all.

Day 16 – July 24

A leisurely start to the day. We headed down Highway 1 towards Homer. The drive is stunningly beautiful, along the shore between the Cook Inlet of the Pacific and the mountains which rise straight up out of the water. Even the constant rain isn’t enough to hide the natural beauty, although it would undoubtedly be even more impressive if we could see the mountaintops. We stopped just before noon to watch some belugas in the inlet. It was quite cool to see whales, but they didn’t jump or splash or do any other whale-type stunts. They just occasionally broke the surface, looking like a white shapeless blob.

We drove most of the way to Homer, but camped at Anchor Point, just a few miles north of town. Our campsite looked out across the Cook Inlet, miles across to the other shore. We could see the mountains in the distance, and far out to sea a volcano. The views were breathtaking.

Day 17 – July 25
The next morning we awoke to a loud commotion. Fishing boats (mostly charters) were lined up for ¼ of a mile on trailers, waiting their turn to put into the sea. They did this by hooking the trailer onto an old tractor, and the tractor backed out into the sea until the boats floated free. In some cases the tractor went out far enough that its engine cooling fan was touching the water, throwing spray all over. it was quite a sight.

We headed down to Homer without a real plan. We stopped in the visitor’s bureau to get a better idea what we could do with our time, then headed out onto the spit which extends a few miles out from the shore. On the spit were more RVs than I ever imagined, along with lots of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants. We headed to a fishing hole recommended to us by a local shop and tried our hand at salmon fishing. It was quite cool watching schools of big salmon swimming around in the clear water. It was somewhat less cool watching schools of big salmon swimming around our fishing lures without biting. We tried for hours, but none of us caught anything. It looked like it wasn’t entirely our fault, however; most of the other people there didn’t have any luck either.

We also spent a while wandering the docks and looking at the many and varied fishing boats. Being something of a hardware nerd, I can happily walk around for hours looking at their rigging, nets, and other machinery. The others were bored, however, so we were about to head home when we ran into a harbor seal just sitting on the dock. We watched it for a few minutes, but it didn’t seem overly concerned and just sat there looking at us.

We stayed at the same campsite as the night before, and resolved that tomorrow we’d head across the Kenai Peninsula to Seward.

Day 18 – July 26
This morning we headed out on the road to Seward, about 100 miles across the peninsula. The drive is quite beautiful through very mountainous country. A few miles north of Seward, we stopped to visit the Exit Glacier, the most accessible of the many glaciers coming off the top of the Harding Icefield on top of the Kenai Mountains. It was a nice mile-long hike up to the glacier, but the wonderful views made it worth it. We weren’t allowed to touch the glacier itself, but we could walk to within a stone’s throw. On the way down the mountain we saw a family of ptarmigans (think mountain chickens), 2 parents and 6 or 8 chicks. The chicks were still in the adorable cheeping-fluffball stage, and were far too cute.

We camped on Kenai Lake, a big (40ish miles) glacial-fed lake with gorgeous pastel-blue-green water from the copper and other minerals. We set up camp in mid-afternoon and headed the last few miles to Seward for a look around. Tomorrow we’ll head back to Seward to catch a tour boat to visit the glaciers which end in the sea.

Day 19 – July 27
We headed to Seward and got on the 11:30 tour boat. We headed out of Seward Harbor and out to Kenai Fjords National Park.

I won’t go into a complete play-by-play of the 6+ hour tour, but here are the highlights:

Glaciers – we saw 3 or 4 different glaciers. The ice shines a beautiful blue, and appears to glow from within (it’s a trick of optics). We stopped the boat about 100 yards from the front of the glacier (we couldn’t approach closer due to ice in the water) and shut off the engine. You could hear the ice creaking and cracking as it moved at about 4 feet per day. We saw it calve off large chunks into the sea, which was breathtaking.

Mountains – Fjords are formed by large glaciers which flow down mountain valleys into the sea, carving a deep channel as they go. When the climate changes and the glaciers recede, they leave a deep trench between the mountains, often thousands of feet deep. There is often no shore to speak of; the mountains just continue straight down underwater.

Animals – We saw 2 black bears, sea otters, and many sea lions napping on exposed rocks. One of the bears was sitting on a small island in the middle of the glacier; the park ranger said she’d never seen anything like it. The sea otters, of course, were adorable. We didn’t get very close to the sea lions (they are big, often thousands of pounds), but they were quite interesting to watch. None of the animals paid any attention to us.

Bird Rookeries – On some of the exposed rock faces in the fjords, countless thousands of birds make their nests. Most are pelagic sea birds, who spend most of their lives out at sea and only come to land to mate. The rock faces provide shelter from the elements and protection from predators. We saw kittiwakes, murres, cormorants, and puffins (along with some other species I neglected to notice).

Whales and porpoises – We were lucky enough to see some humpback whales in the fjords as well. We saw 3 or 4 in total. They’d surface, blow, then show their flukes as they dived again. Also, there were porpoises which occasionally were seen playing in the wake of our boat.

Everyone had a really good time and saw some truly amazing things. About an hour before we came back, the weather finally broke and we had sunshine! The mountains were even more beautiful when we could see them clearly.

Day 20 – July 28
The next day we left the Kenai Peninsula and headed north, back to Anchorage. Arrived just after noon.

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