Alaska Flight - 2004
Thursday, July 29 – Anchorage
Today really did not go as planned. Amidst all the euphoria of a happy successful vacation trip, the relaxation of the backpacking, the easy slow touring, the excitement of all the wildlife sightings, we got a very unpleasant surprise that brought us back down to earth. It wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.
We started with an excellent breakfast at the old Roadhouse in Talkeetna – a blueberry-banana pancake and eggs, potatoes and toast. We visited a couple of shops then headed up the highway. It was still gray and cloudy with occasional sprinkles and no views. We headed south through the towns of Houston, Wasilla, Eagle River and Anchorage. There were occasional views of the Chugach Mountains, sloughs and streams galore, but mostly the clouds hid the beauty around us. We headed down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, with tall autumn-colored mountains to the left of us, the Turnagain Arm, a very shallow sea inlet, to our right and blue snow-touched mountains across the bay. Although the clouds were low, we stopped often to take pictures of water, mountains and glaciers. The sun came out briefly and we enjoyed warm sunshine as we drove south into the Kenai Mountains.
We spotted a bald eagle overhead at one viewpoint. Then it began to rain and all of a sudden, about 80 miles south of Anchorage, the fun ended.
We hit an oily spot on the road and began to fishtail across the highway. We spun 180 degrees and ended up sliding backwards through the mud into the willows lining the road. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. It was slow and gentle with no jerking or crashing; we just slid slowly into the bushes about 30 yards off the road. We both checked to make sure that the other was unhurt, then began grabbing rain jackets, wallets and camera for a quick exit. A car that was following us stopped to see if we were okay and offered us a ride to a lodge three miles up the road where there was an emergency phone so we could call for help. The real miracle was that, as busy as the road was, there was no oncoming traffic to get involved. That road is almost solid with tourist traffic – lots of RVs. That really would have been a mess.
We were dropped off at the lodge at Summit Lake where there is an emergency phone that connects to the State Police. There is no regular telephone service or cell phone service that deep in the mountains. The police called the rental car agency and they called a tow truck. It took about three hours from the time of the accident to the time the tow truck showed up at 5:00. It was a long and stressful wait, but the people at the lodge were kind. We sat in the dining room and drank coffee for a while, then ordered a sandwich that we split (neither of us was very hungry), then we wandered aimlessly around the gift shop, then we sat in the bar for another hour. At least we were out of the rain. The tow truck driver winched the car slowly out of the bushes (doing as much damage as the slide in). One side was banged up quite a bit, the rest was just covered with mud and shrubbery. We noticed that three of the tires were quite bald. Jim took pictures. The driver picked up miscellaneous pieces of the car (didn’t want to litter) and we headed back to Anchorage, where we discovered that no one had warned the evening manager about the accident. He was not happy with us. The manager called the owner who did know about us and, after being reassured that our insurance really did cover rental cars, they agreed to rent us another car for the next four days.
By the time all the paperwork was taken care of, it was 8:00, too late to begin the three hour drive to Seward. We managed to get a nice motel room at the Executive Suites in Anchorage and Jim got busy trying to organize all of our stuff that was tossed into various bags helter skelter when we emptied out the wrecked car. It’s amazing how much junk we have managed to accumulate. I called the Bed and Breakfast in Seward to cancel our room for the night and attempted to cancel our boat tour tomorrow. Jim called the insurance company to get that paperwork started and we finally headed out on foot for supper at a nearby Italian place – comfort food after a very hard day! Our waitress was very sympathetic to our plight.
The driver was an interesting man, as we came to learn on the long drive back to Anchorage. He was a former Navy seal who has been in Alaska for 30 years, including several at Prudhoe Bay and one year in Antarctica. The drive was interesting, though we couldn’t really appreciate it with all the worry about what we would end up doing today and tomorrow. Neither Jim nor I was hurt at all, but we are both shaken up a bit. And worry really wiped me out emotionally and physically. Jim responds to stress by being busy – he’s repacking everything - while I just want a hot shower and to sleep for a week. We are lucky it wasn’t much worse, but after all the happiness I’ve been feeling for the past two weeks and the eager anticipation I felt about our jaunt to the Kenai, what a let down!
Friday, July 30, Seward
Today went much better than yesterday. We didn’t do a lot, but it was very pleasant and relaxed. Jim didn’t sleep much last night, between a long examination of what went wrong yesterday and some obnoxious drunks in the motel parking lot at 3:00 a.m., so we were very low on energy all day. We had breakfast at the motel buffet and read the paper, then did laundry at the motel and finally hit the road around 10:00.
We had the same kind of weather today we had yesterday: low clouds and occasional rain showers. It was a pretty drive along the Arm and through the mountains. We stopped at the Summit Lake Lodge for an ice cream cone, then happily went on to Seward.
We stopped at Exit Glacier, about 10 miles out of town, and did a 1 ½ mile walk up to the face of the glacier. It was an interesting glacial blue. There were a couple of other glaciers we could see far above. We weren’t allowed to get too close as they worry about tourists being hit by falling ice. We then finished the drive to town and checked into our B&B in a residential neighborhood on the edge of town. Two teachers from Anchorage own it. They spend summers in Seward, running the inn and a charter fishing business. The house is deceptively large. It looks like a normal house built around the late ‘70’s, but it has six or seven bedrooms.
Jim and I walked into town, visiting a few shops and looking at the harbor with its many small boats, as well as the huge cruise ships. We headed out to the Sea Life Center on the far side of town where we spent a couple of hours being tourists, then followed the shore back to a small diner where we ate caribou burger and salmon for supper and then finally headed home. I enjoyed the Sea Life Center, which is a combination aquarium/museum, research facility and rehabilitation center for injured marine life. It was very well done with interactive exhibits, several aquariums, hands-on exhibits (star fish and sea anemones) and three large underwater/above water viewing areas with a huge stellar seal in one, a couple of harbor seals in another, and an aviary with gulls, puffins, guillemots, murres, etc. diving after fish. It was a good living museum, fun for me since I have so little knowledge of the ocean world.
Jim was too tired to enjoy it much, especially with all the walking we did today. I think the peach pie for dessert was probably his favorite part of the day. Seward was interesting. It is both a tourist center and a real town. There were three cruise ships here today. Near the harbor are a raft of tourist shops and cafes for two or three blocks, then come the charter boat companies, then the small boat harbor with lots of masts. Next comes the shoreline campground for several blocks with residential areas uphill from the shore. Eventually (about a mile from the tourist area) is the old downtown, a few shops and lots of bars, and then the Sea Life Center.
That’s as far as we went, and about as far as the town goes. The whole town seems to be about two miles long by five blocks wide. With mountain on one side and ocean on the other, there’s little room to grow. One odd thing we noticed were the many tsunami evacuation signs. After the big earthquake in 1964, the biggest danger was the tsunami that followed. Now they warn everyone that in case of tsunami, go uphill – way uphill. We could see some glaciers across Resurrection Bay, but the clouds stayed low all afternoon so we took few pictures. I hope tomorrow will be clearer.
Jim: South again yesterday through Houston, Wasilla and Anchorage and out to the long and very scenic drive around Turnagain Arm. We were doin’ well until the rain started about 85 miles south of Anchorage. It was the first rain there in quite a while – which made the road slick. And when it started raining hard enough to make driving difficult, the driving got REALLY difficult, because three of the tires started to hydroplane, the car swapped ends and we ended up sliding backwards across the oncoming traffic lanes, off the road and down over the embankment until, still backwards, we came to a very gentle stop, cradled by the willows. Over the years I’ve had many a reason to curse the western willows. But yesterday I thanked God for them because they saved us from a lot harder and nastier landing than we’d have otherwise experienced. Ginny and I both walked away from the car – shaken but not hurt. And then spent the rest of the day dealing with the police, the wrecker, the rental car agency, the insurance company – and replanning the next few days of our trip. And being thankful that we were alive to do so. I barely thought about it at the time, but I’ve since had visions of the results of that 30 second slide if it had happened 60 seconds earlier or later when one of the thousands of massive RV’s that travel that highway had been in the right (or is that “wrong”?) place.
We spent last night back in Anchorage – not far from the rental car agency (which, incidentally, actually gave us another car). The next morning, after a short talk with the rental car agency manager about the bald tires on the wrecked car, we were back on the road, headed for Seward. We got here in time to do a walking tour of the town, spend some time in the Seward Sea-Life Center, get Ginny the Alaska salmon dinner she’d been looking for ever since we got off the plane – and then get a good night’s sleep.
Saturday, July 31 – Seward
Today we did the pelagic version of the Denali bus tour – this time a Kenai Fjords National Park boat tour. It was an all day excursion to the Northwestern Fjord – nine and half hours on a medium size tour boat, looking at nature of the marine variety. It was a good day. We were very lucky in the weather: calm seas, some sun and some clouds, about 68°. When we were moving it was chilly, but we bundled up so we were mostly very comfortable. Jim and I grabbed seats on top, outside, and were there most of the day. A lot of people came out for a little while, but then went inside after a while to warm up again. After a while only the hard-core group remained. We could move around, and did, but only sat inside for lunch and to warm up mid-afternoon after we had spent half an hour next to a glacier. (The wind over the ice was cold!)
The land was pretty, with spruce-covered mountains, islands, and several glaciers, both alpine and tidal. Some areas were spectacularly beautiful. We saw a fair amount of wildlife: three humpback whales, a rare fin whale, three sea otters, three Dall porpoises, a few harbor porpoises, one harbor seal hiding in the ice floes, a bunch of stellar sea lions sunning on the rocks and lots of birds: puffins, gulls, kittiwakes (small gulls), two bald eagles, cormorants, murres (penguins of the north), etc.
It was hard to take pictures as the whales would dive and stay under for five or ten minutes at a time. The birds in their rookeries were interesting, though hard to photograph as they were so small; the otters lay on their backs in the water, out of reach of our cameras, and the harbor porpoises and seals were simply too fast to get a good pictures. Only the sea lions really posed for us, either because they were asleep or distracted by fighting.
Most fun for me were the black and white Dall porpoises, which played in the bow wave for about 15 minutes. I went to the lower level and stood right above them, watching as they swam along and under the ship. They look like small killer whales with their black and white coloring, but they were beautiful to watch as they played with us. The glaciers in Northwest Fjord were gorgeous and there were some spectacular waterfalls shooting off the glaciers. We also saw a handful of mountain goats high above Cataract Cove. As usual, we saw a lot more wildlife on the way out than on the return journey. We talked with some of the other passengers, especially Tootsie, the very gregarious wife of a retired two star general in the National Guard from Mississippi. She was a real chatterbox, but nice. We enjoyed the sun and views but we were ready to get off when we docked. Jim and I stopped for dinner at an upscale seafood restaurant, where we ate halibut and sea bass – when in fishing country, it’s better to eat fish, I figure. It was expensive, but good. Yesterday’s salmon was too dry, but still tasty.
I enjoyed today, but I am very tired despite doing nothing but sit, look at scenery and take pictures.
Jim: We needed the sleep last night because I hadn’t slept at all the night before (after the accident), and because we had an early date with a cruise boat that took us on a long leisurely 9-hour cruise to the Northwestern Glacier, with stops along the way to watch seals, several different species of whale, sea lions, sea otters, mountain goats, and the rookeries for a number of different types of birds. It was about 100 mile trip – and very tiring. And very much worthwhile.
Sunday, August 1: Soldotna
We slept well in our Seward B&B. It wasn’t the greatest -- there was no coffee in the morning and only cold cereal and apple muffins for breakfast -- but at least last night it was quiet. The night before there were some night owls as guests, still talking in the living room at 1:00 am. But the shower was hot and the bed comfortable, so it was worth the price. (And the price was less than we would have paid at any of the motels.)
We woke to sunshine and clear blue skies. After a coffee stop for me, we headed north out of town. When we passed a trailhead sign, Jim stopped and we decided to stretch our legs with a short hike. We had originally planned a long hike here in the Kenai Peninsula, but between losing a day due to the accident and Jim twisting his knee on tussocks in Denali, a long 15 mile day hike just didn’t seem like a good idea.
I had wanted to see more of the Kenai than just Seward, so we decided to combine a little hike with a little driving and get the best of both worlds, hopefully. The hike was a nice one, very very popular on a nice Sunday morning. We saw hikers, runners, mountain bikes, dogs and berry pickers, in abundance. We started up the Lost Lake trail through dense, ferny, mossy spruce forest. We climbed steeply at first, then gently, through lush berries and wildflowers. The view opened up as we climbed and we saw beautiful peaks and glaciers, a few waterfalls across the valley, some snowfields high above, and at one point, a nice view back to Resurrection Bay. Because the hike was so impromptu, I didn’t have my camera unfortunately. But it was a lovely walk. After 1 1/2 hours we turned around and headed back to our car. It was enough to make us happy, even if it wasn’t the 15 miles that I had originally planned.
After our hike we decided to head out to Homer on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. It was a long drive with several stops along the way to take photos of the snow-covered volcanoes, Iliamnna and Redoubt, across the Cook Inlet.
We stopped at Ninilchik, an old and derelict village with a pretty Russian church, and again at the visitors center for the Wildlife Refuge in Homer, where we took a ½ mile walk out to the beach. Jim saw an eagle at an overlook above town. Homer was only a brief visit. We drove out to the end of the spit (5 miles) admired the snow-covered mountains across Kachemak Bay, were surprised by a bald eagle that crossed the road right in front of us, and got scared off by the hordes of people and small tourist shops and businesses in Homer. We were too tired and hungry to deal with that. We wanted dinner but didn’t feel like joining the zoo, so we tried downtown (as opposed to tourist) Homer, which was pretty much closed up this Sunday evening. Homer was a mix, like Seward, of serious shipping business and tourist trap. We headed back north up the highway, with a stop along the way for dinner, and ended up in Soldotna for the night.
Jim: Today was “free” – we had nothing particular planned, so we headed for Soldotna, Ninilchik and Homer with a whole lot of ”tourist-type stops” along the way, as well as some hiking on the Lost Lake Trail. The Homer Spit is as far west as one can drive on the Continental US road system. Homer is also famous for its Bald Eagles. The salmon weren’t running while we were there, so most of the eagles weren’t in evidence, but there was one that, as we drove slowly out the Spit, flew alongside us for a while, crossed over the road right in front of the car and then flew on. Now we're back in Soldotna.
Monday, August 2 – Anchorage:
We woke to another beautiful sunny day. It was hard to be confined to a car as we headed east again after a good breakfast at Sal’s Sourdough Café. The Kenai River was a beautiful glacial blue. Traffic was much lighter than on Sunday, though we still saw areas where the fishermen were lined up elbow to elbow (aka “combat fishing”). The mountains were clear and beautiful, tempting us to stop the car and climb straight up 1000’ or so.
We decided to take a detour to Portage Glacier on the road to Whittier. It was only about five miles off the Seward Highway. There are actually several glaciers in the valley above a large lake. There is a nice visitors’ center there, which was very busy. Busloads of tourists came in as we wandered around. You can’t get near Portage Glacier except by tour boat, as it has retreated a mile or so in the past 30 years since the center was built.
There is, however, a one mile trail to Byron Glacier which, though small, was worth visiting. First, because it has beautiful views in both directions, and second, you can actually climb up on the glacier, and third, we saw a cow moose and her calf across the reek on the way back. We had fun.
In some ways the Kenai portion of our trip was disappointing. While the drive along Turnagain Arm and through the mountains was beautiful, and the distant volcanoes across the Cook Inlet and the glaciers across Kachemak Bay were gorgeous, there was a lot of flat busy highway in between. I liked the rivers and really enjoyed the boat tour, but so much of the area felt too crowded and too busy, a tourist trap. It was also frustrating to me to pass so many trailheads and have no time to hike. Many of the trailheads charge a $5 day use fee too, which argued against parking and just walking for an hour or so. Next time I hope to do more hiking.
Our vacation started with a long remote backcountry adventure and ended in touristville. It may make it easier to go back to ordinary city life, but I miss the quiet and serenity we experienced at Wrangell St. Elias and wish we had time for another few days of hiking. If not for the accident, we could have done another overnight trip, but as it was, we could go see Homer or we could hike for one day, and playing tourist won. We knew we couldn’t do it all this trip. Now that we’ve done many of the tourist things, next time we can spend more time in the backcountry without feeling like we haven’t had a chance to get to know Alaska. Coming up the highway to Anchorage we could see clear views of the Alaska Range and Denali 200 miles away. We saw the mountain from Fairbanks and from Anchorage, just not from anywhere near Denali. Maybe next time.
We were asked today, “What was the highlight of your visit to Alaska?” Several things leapt to mind – our encounters with the many bears at Denali, the incredibly beautiful flight over Wrangell St. Elias, watching the caribou circle around us on the plateau near Fogenbera Pass, walking the divide above Solo Lake with the wind blowing so fiercely, spying the black wolf watching the grizzly bear, seeing all the huge glaciers and ice fields below us as we flew in to Anchorage, spying the huge herd of Dall sheep above us near our campsite in Denali, driving past so many beautiful mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers all over Alaska, seeing the bald eagle pass four feet above the road in Homer, and most vividly, watching our tent poles spiral down to us, when we needed them so badly. We saw a lot of beauty, and experienced a lot of utterly peaceful moments while hiking, watching for wildlife, and driving down the road looking at scenery while I played tour guide using our copy of Milepost. (A lot of it is advertising, but there are a lot of items of interest as well. And it really is indispensable if you are driving any distance. It can be a long way between motels or gas stations in Alaska.)
Aside from the accident and too many people on the Kenai Peninsula (reminded me too much of home), this was a terrific trip. My only regret is that we didn’t have more time. Three weeks sounds like a lot of vacation time when you’re working, but it’s just not enough when there is so much ground to cover. There are a lot of things that we didn’t have time to do that we would have enjoyed, but they’ll keep until next time. The Brooks Range awaits, and the ANWR. Someday we’ll float on the riverboat in Fairbanks, take the flight over McKinley and a long rafting or canoe trip on a northern river. We’d like to drive the Alcan someday. Jim wants to visit Inuvik (about as far north as you can drive, if you aren’t working at Prudhoe). Those things will have to wait until next time, or the time after. We will be back.
Jim: Yesterday was our last day to play so we spent the day being tourists all the way back to Anchorage where we returned the car, talked to the rental car agency owner again – and -- he offered me a job. Hmmm - maybe I should take it?
We repacked last night and were on a plane headed home early this morning. Bummer.
In 18 days, we saw a lot of beautiful country (and a lot of wildlife), did a little hiking (about 75 miles total), got reminded that blazes are superfluous and that trailless hiking is both challenging and interesting, met a lot of nice people, found some places we could live (and a few places we wouldn’t want to live), took a lot of pictures, ate too much, spent too much, had a LOT of fun - and once again exhausted ourselves playing touron. And it was worth every bit of it. Now all we have to do is get back into what some people think of as “real life” – although we think of it as “that other world” because we know where “real life” lives.