30 October 2011

Day 7: Denali National Park

Denali National Park, as I said in the previous summary, is one of the biggest national parks in the US (third largest, according to Wikipedia). It's centered around Mt. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, which is also called Denali ("the high one" in the native Athabascan language). Alaskans tend to refer to the mountain as Denali, while those of us in the lower 48 call it Mt. McKinley. There's apparently a pitched battle over the name of the mountain, with Alaskans trying to get the official name changed to Denali, while congressmen from Ohio (McKinley's home district) try to keep it as Mt. McKinley.

Although the park itself is quite large, it's also very difficult to access. As I mentioned earlier, the park is about 5 hours from Anchorage (and considerably longer if you try to enjoy the ample scenery). The park itself has exactly one road through it, which becomes closed to normal traffic about 20 miles into the park. After that point, it becomes a narrow, gravel road that winds through the mountains to the tiny city of Kantishna. You could see McKinley from almost anywhere in the park, but it's incredibly difficult to do so -- the mountain is only visible through the clouds very rarely. Fortunately for us, the sky was completely clear when we arrived in the park, and we were greated with this view:

After that, our trip to Denali started with a hike around the Savage River area. Savage River is the last place that non-ranger traffic can stop in the park (in fact, the turn-around point is a bridge over Savage River). As such, it's a ways into the park, and doesn't see as much traffic as other hiking paths closer to the visitor center. The river is fantastic, but not quite as savage as we were expecting. We had hoped to see ample wildlife, but we didn't really see anything bigger than a ground squirrel.

Once that was finished, we set of deeper into the park. There are two ways you can do this. The first way is to purchase a shuttle pass and head into the park on your own. This would be pretty exciting, but it was a bit more adventurous than we wanted to do, particularly in the very rainy and somewhat chilly Alaskan interior (with bears!). Instead, we signed up for a "Tundra Wilderness Tour", which is a bus tour through the park. The bus goes from the visitor's center to a place deep in the park with a particularly good view of Mt. McKinley (if it's visible at all). Along the way, the tour frequently stops for animal sightings.

This tour was absolutely amazing. We saw all sorts of animals, from Bears to Caribou, Moose to Pika, we saw nearly everything that the park has available. Unfortunately, we were only allowed to leave the bus a few times -- a few scheduled stops, and then once when we found some Dall's Sheep on the road -- but the overwhelming scenery and wildlife was amazing. We highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour for seeing Denali.

More photos are available in my Picasa: Denali and Savage River.

16 October 2011

Anchorage Zoo and Drive to Denali (Day 6)

Our sixth day in Alaska was mostly consumed by the drive to the Denali National Park, which is about five hours from Anchorage. In the morning, however, we were able to take some time to stop by the Anchorage Zoo. We were initially hesitant about going to the zoo, but our guidebook recommended it as a good way to see Alaskan wildlife without going to Denali. We figured that even though we were going to Denali, it wouldn't hurt to see the animals in the zoo anyways.

The Zoo focuses primarily on animals that are native to Alaska and similar climates. Several of the animals were ones we either weren't likely to see in the wild (e.g. Snow Leopard) or ones we'd really rather not see up close and personal (e.g. Wolverine, Bald Eagle). Still, a very nice zoo, and since we hadn't seen very many land animals yet, it was nice to see some "wildlife." Like the rest of Anchorage, the zoo also had some great flowers and mushrooms.

After the zoo, we left Anchorage to head towards Denali. We stopped several places along the way, including a quirky place called Talkeetna. On a good day, you can see Mount McKinley (also called Denali) from Talkeetna. However, we weren't there on a good day (all we saw were clouds), so we just wandered around a bit and hopped back in the car. Later on, we stopped in Denali State Park (not to be confused with the national variety) and there we saw a tiny sliver of Mt. McKinley:

We also learned that McKinley is only completely visible through the clouds about five days per year. Naturally, that wasn't our day, but (fortunately) the next day was one of the rare days where it was completely clear.

The drive to Denali was gorgeous, however. Not quite like the drive to Whittier or Seward, but the road takes you through dramatic mountains and valleys. Later in the trip (on our way home), it was raining on this road, and it was just amazing. The road is also a narrow, two-lane variety, and the cars are infrequent enough for you to feel really alone in the wilderness. The lighting, the mountains, the solitude -- this was Alaska.

More pictures available in my Picasa.

11 September 2011

Whittier and Prince William Sound (Day 5)

On the fifth day of the trip, we again went out into the ocean, this time to see a '26 glacier tour' of the Prince William Sound, which was made famous as the site of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash back in the 1980s. Our departure point wasn't Seward this time, but rather a tiny, bizarre fishing town called Whittier. Whittier probably deserves an award as the quirkiest town I've ever visited. The 200 or so residents of the city work entirely in fishing, transportation or tourism. Almost all of them live in a single city called Begich Tower, which was once the largest building in the entire state of Anchorage. This led to a lot of discussion about how families move around in the building. Whittier was originally chosen as an 'alternate route' into Alaska (with Seward being the original) and had a railroad tunnel built (at great expense) to ensure that a foreign power could never conquer Alaska simply by taking Seward. The two and a half mile tunnel is the only way into Whittier, other than via boat. Nowadays the railroad tunnel carries car traffic twice an hour (15 minutes into Whittier and 15 minutes heading out), but our guidebook warned us that the tunnel closes frequently due to excess exhaust inside. Back in the 90s, the tunnel carried railroad traffic only and Whittier was a pain in the rear to get into. Anyways, nowadays its main purpose is shipping and receiving, or taking boats out into the Prince William Sound. While there (we took a 9:30 tunnel to make sure we didn't miss our boat) we saw a stream with running salmon, and took a look around the Whittier harbor.

Our trip out into the Prince William Sound was much more comfortable than the Kenai Fjords tour. The boat was larger, so there were less waves, and the weather was considerably better. It rained at times (as it does in that part of Alaska), but not as bad as the previous day in Seward. On the way out of the harbor, our guide gave us a useful prediction about the tour: "I'm never quite sure what we'll see on this trip, but I can always promise glaciers." As such, we didn't see nearly as much wildlife. Part of that was the tour, which stopped only for Glaciers, and part was that the Sound had less wildlife. We saw some good wildlife, though, so the trip wasn't a complete loss in that department.

We did see some glaciers, though. None of them were as active or exciting as Northwestern Glacier, but there certainly were a lot of them. We had to skip a whole segment of the trip due to intense rain. The fjord we skipped was called College Fjord, so named by the original expedition to study the glaciers in this area. College Fjord features glaciers named after famous colleges in the New England area (Dartmouth, Harvard, Wellesley, ...). The fjord we did visit had glaciers named after all sorts of various people -- explorers, crew members on the visit, and more. We visited three main glacier groups on the trip: Harriman Glacier, Surprise Glacier and a three-glacier bay consisting of Barry, Cascade, and Coxe glaciers. Surprise glacier was the most interesting of these, but the three glacier bay was quite beautiful.

On the way back to Whittier, we stopped by a Kittiwake rookery. Kittiwakes are a variety of gull native to northern latitudes. The rookery was cool in that we were able to see thousands of gulls, as well as a hawk that was apparently picking off gulls one by one.

For more photos, see my Picasa page.

08 September 2011

Kenai Fjords National Park (Day 4)

On our second day in Seward, we went out on a boat trip into the Kenai Fjords National Park. Most of the park is accessible only via boat or float plane, and some of the best viewing in the park is a long ways from Seward. Unfortunately, a float plane was completely out of our budget, but we did go on the longest boat tour we could find. We took the Kenai Fjords Tours Northwestern Glacier tour, which is a 9 hour long boat ride with some scenic wildlife viewing and other cool stops along the way.

The highlight of the tour is, of course, Northwestern Glacier. This is a particularly active glacier (our boat captain said it moved several meters a day), and it was continuously calving while we were there. We hung around for about a half hour, watching the glacier slowly break itself to pieces. The water near the glacier was full of cool icebergs which had fallen off the main glacier itself. Most of them were quite small, but there were a few larger chunks of ice that supported seagulls and harbor seals. This was definitely worth the long ride out to the glacier. We saw a lot of glaciers (both on this trip and others), but none were as active as Northwest Glacier. Our ship captain had said that this particular glacier had retreated almost thirty miles over the last century, mostly due to being exposed to sea water.

The other cool part of the trip was all the wildlife we saw. We were extremely lucky on our wildlife tours in Alaska. Normally, the Alaskan ocean is a bit quiet in August, but we managed to see several humpback whales, sea otters, and tons of birds -- cormorants, puffins, and more -- on the trip. In terms of wildlife, the highlight was definitely a baby humpback that we saw breaching. We'd seen a humpback breach in Hawaii several years ago, but I actually managed to get a picture of this one. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event. Other cool wildlife that we saw included a mountain goat, stellar sea lions and bald eagles.

The Kenai Peninsula coastline was an absolutely fantastic backdrop for the boat tour. The day of our trip was a rainy day (August is typically fairly rainy in Alaska), but the rain clouds only seemed to make the backdrops more dramatic. Eventually, the rain let up and the sun shone for a while. This happened when we were going through the particularly beautiful Alaskan Marine Wildlife Sanctuary, which includes quite a few islands just outside the Kenai Fjords National Park.

Lots more pictures (particularly of the glaciers) are in my Picasa.

06 September 2011

Alaska Trip: Seward and Exit Glacier (Day 3)

After we left Anchorage, our next destination was Seward. Seward is a smallish fishing city in Southern Alaska, and also serves as the primary gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park. Seward is an interesting little city; originally (back before airplanes were common), Seward served as the main gateway into Alaska. People would arrive in Seward by boat (presumably from Seattle) and then take rail to other locations in Alaska. The Great Earthquake of 1964 changed all that, however. Seward, along with quite a bit of southern Alaska, was decimated and never really recovered to its former glory. Nowadays it's a sleepy town with fishing and tourism as its main industries.

We started the day with a three hour drive to Seward from Anchorage. The drive itself was quite the trip -- not because it's long, but because you spend the entire time on a gorgeous, narrow, two-lane highway with few stops along the way. We stopped quite a few times to take pictures, like at Beluga Point (no Beluga at this point in the trip, unfortunately) and a campsite along the way. We drove this route a few times in the trip and it was always beautiful. Taking pictures while riding in a moving car is always kind of dicey, but I managed a few good ones.

Along the way, we stopped at the only road-accessable part of Kenai Fjords National Park -- a single glacier called 'Exit Glacier'. This glacier was one of the cooler stops on our trip. Not only could we see the glacier from a variety of different angles, but we were able to hike up to almost the very face of the glacier itself. Like all the other glaciers we saw on our Alaska trip, Exit Glacier is retreating (shrinking) and has actually lost a lot of ice in the last century. It's receded almost a mile over the last twelve years alone, and is still shrinking. As Exit Glacier receded, it created several mounds of silt along its path. Most of the trails crossed several of these morraines on their way to the glacier itself, each marked with a sign indicating when the glacier had extended to that point. It was pretty cool to hike from the 1955 morraine to the current location. Due to the rate of retreat, you can't actually touch the glacier anymore (no one wants the tourists crushed by falling glacial ice), but you can get within a couple dozen feet of it.

Our final stop in Seward was at the Alaskan Sea Life center, which is a bit like an aquarium/marine research center. Unlike most of the aquariums we've visited, the Sea Life center focuses on animals and environments which are found in Alaska, particularly near Seward. They have exhibits on large marine mammals and birds, such as the Stellar Sea Lion, Sea Otter, and Tufted Puffins. A lot of these animals we later saw in the wild, but it was neat to see them up close and personal at the sea life center.

More photos available at my picasa.

04 September 2011

Alaska Trip: Anchorage (Day 1+2)

Urmi and I just got back from our Alaskan vacation this year, and so I thought it might be fun to write up a bit about our trip. The problem is that we did so much on our trip that a single write-up can't really cover it. I'm going to try to follow things generally chronologically, and see how this works as a trip report sorta thing.

We started our trip by flying from Washington, DC to Anchorage, where we spent two days wandering around the city. Our first stop was downtown. Downtown Anchorage isn't quite like other large cities we've visited; in fact, it reminded me more of downtown Spokane (where I grew up) than anyplace else I've been to. What really surprised me were all the flowers. Although Anchorage is cold in the winter (and not too hot in the summer), it still gets 21 hours of daylight in June. As such, when we visited in August, it was full of flowers -- everything from roses to tulips. The flowers were quite nice and we had a good time walking around them and seeing the bay. We also saw some nice artwork and birds. Since we only had a half day, though, and were still running on Eastern US time, we ended up cutting our walk short and heading home.

The next day we got up bright and early and headed out for a full day of hiking. Our first stop was 'Flattop Mountain', which we were warned was an extremely popular destination among local Alaskans. The hike was supposed to be fairly mild, but ended up being basically a hike straight up a mountainside. We did get some exceptional views, though, and saw plenty of wildlife. One really cool view we got was a look at the tidal flats in the Cook Inlet, just off the Anchorage coastline. At low tide, the outflowing tide creates cool patterns in the marshes. We never made it to the top of the mountain, but we had a good hike. And sure enough, by the time we were done, the entire parking lot was packed with hikers.

Our next stop was the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, which serves as a museum for the history and culture of the Alaskan Native Americans. This was a particularly cool stop, and we quite a bit about the difficult lives that native americans faced (and still face) in Alaska. We had an awesome tour as well, and our tour guide took us around to different model settlements based on the way settlements were built in the various parts of Alaska. The center also had music and dance programs which ran every hour or so.

Our final hike of the day was to visit Eklutna Lake and Thunderbird Falls, both north of Anchorage. Due to a poorly phrased review in our guidebook, we originally thought these were at the same location, but they ended up being about a dozen miles apart. Eklutna Lake is a glacial lake which actually feeds Thunderbird Falls, and it was quite a ways from the highway to Anchorage. As such, it was nice and peaceful, with very few people around. We didn't see any wildlife, but the views were beautiful.

Thunderbird Falls, however, was completely different. The falls is a much larger tourist attraction than even the Native Heritage Center was, so it was tough to get parking and the trail was full of people dawdling along to the falls. The trail passed through some nice forest, though, and with Anchorage's recent rainfall, was completely full of mushrooms. The falls weren't as spectacular as we were hoping for, but they were worth the short hike there.

For more photos, check out my sets on Picasaweb: Anchorage Day 1 and Anchorage Day 2.