Nancy Vandermey, Author
Alaska Trip August/September 2009
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It was a busy weekend - fundraiser at the zoo we volunteer at Saturday night August 15, spend the night there and help clean up in the morning, go home and shower and last minute packing, and off to LAX for the 9 pm flight to ANC. We could each check one bag weighing 50 pounds for free, which we took advantage of - both checked bags weighed as close to 50 as we could get them! Our carryons weren't light either, with all my camera gear and two binoculars. We were camping so a lot of the checked gear was a tent, sleeping bags and pads, cooking gear, etc. Since we weren't arriving till 1:30 am and we checked bags we weren't out of the airport until after 2 am. Early in the planning I considered just sleeping a few hours at the airport because hotel prices were ridiculously high. Finally a few days before we left I booked the Days Inn downtown for $100 total with taxes, largely because they had a free shuttle from the airport and they were very close to the downtown Avis car rental. The room was worth maybe $40 but we slept fine. It was a short walk to Avis in the morning and we were pleased to get a Toyota Corolla, as we had booked the cheapest economy rate this was an upgrade! The lady working there was surprised at the low rate I had ($633 for 3 weeks), I booked almost a year in advance.
Our first stop was the Northern Lights Fred Meyers for snacks and lunch sandwiches, and checking out the selections for camping food. It was overcast, but dry. Then to Potter Marsh to take our first photos - salmon, bald eagle, redneck grebe, kingfisher, and sandhill cranes. Beluga Point provided nice views and the sun peeking through the clouds, and we watched a bunch of people fishing at Bird Creek. We drove up Crow Creek road to do the shorter hike to the hand tram. We saw new plants for us like Devil's Thorn and fireweed and great orange mushrooms. Just as we finished playing on the tram the rain came down. It stopped in a short time and we hiked back to the car, with more rain just as we got there. So we didn't get drenched, and the sun came back out as we drove on, saw our first moose, and hiked to Byron Glacier and pretended the glacier got us, then checked out Portage Lake. A beautiful rainbow appeared as we drove to Seward. We stopped at Safeway to get some drinks and dinner items and headed to the Saltwater Lodge. We really loved room I, next to the breakfast room with a door from our bathroom to the breakfast room - odd but convenient. The bay window gave us front row seats for the daily sea otter show. We had a spider friend too. It was still light out at 10 pm as we started our endless gin rummy match.
We were up early Tuesday the 18th to see an eagle out our window, a magpie, watch the sea otter some more, enjoy the continental breakfast (fresh fruit is my favorite breakfast), and then drive over to the marina for the wildlife/glacier cruise. The boat was very full, not really room for everyone to sit inside, and it got a bit cold when there was some rain a few hours in. We saw some whales (spouts/backs/a little bit of tail). Aialik glacier was decently active, no huge calving but lots of small ones. We also saw Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, puffins (tufted and horned), sea otters, murres, kittiwakes by the hundreds, and cormorants. When we returned to Seward we were just ahead of all the other larger tour boats so we decided to go to Ray's before they got slammed. The food was fine but expensive. We shopped at the 50% off sale at the Fish House and got some good deals. Back to our sea otter and card game, with a late walk down the beach and checking out the Caines head trailhead. In the morning we decided to first hike to Tonsina Point, it was a beautiful sunny day, and we found raspberries along the trail. We watched the salmon and a young bald eagle at the bridge. After lunch in our room we headed to Exit Glacier and started the Harding Ice Field hike. I was feeling pretty sluggish so I turned around at Base of Cliff while Eric continued to Top of Cliff and saw people out on the glacier. I checked out the face of the glacier in the meantime. Other hikers saw bear on the trail, we just saw their scat. Back to Safeway for a rotisserie chicken and some broccoli which I microwaved in the kitchen back at the lodge. We watched 2 otters this time, who swam off wrestling.
Thursday morning the 20th was sunny again. We were on the road by 8, saw some swans, distant white dots of sheep, then did the Russian River Falls hike ($4 to park by entrance, 7 miles round trip hike). No bears except for more scat, smellier this time from eating fish more than berries. Our first view of bright red salmon, and a neat spider web and purple flower. Ate raspberries and watermelon berries while hiking. Sun followed us to Homer. Views of Mt Redoubt and Illiamma on the way. Soldotna was much uglier than I expected. Checked in with Emerald Air at 4:30 pm, the last ones on our flight, not many last minute seats available in the coming weeks. Off to the Majestic View B&B high on the hill, we liked the Blueberry Room. Off to Fat Olives for a great meal, then we tried out the hot tub at the B&B. Breakfasts were HUGE and yummy.
Friday the 21st was sunny again. But that didn't hold, it was overcast and a bit cold on the Katmai peninsula. After our briefing by Chris and Ken we put on our hip boots and took off in the DeHaviland Otter floatplane. Despite great views, chatter on the radio was sobering, a hunting accident fatality on an island nearby. We passed the smoking St Augustine volcano and flew inland a short way, landing in a shallow lake. We then walked a short distance to a river where brown bears (see slideshow below) were busy fishing. Katmai National Park was on the other side of the hills, we were in the game management area. Ken and Chris do this every day all summer and go where the bear viewing is best. Bears moved in from the coast a few weeks earlier when the salmon run reached this area. We also saw some caribou, a first for us. The tundra was covered in berry bushes which we enjoyed sampling. A mother and young cub ran off as we approached the river, but all the other bears ignored us. We always had 6-8 bears in sight, although not all actively fishing at once. There weren't any real big males but the adult females and younger males were plenty large. A few caribou wandered by as well. The bear trip was the most expensive thing we did, but totally worth it! We were 20-30 feet from bears catching and eating salmon. The hours flew by, 500+ photos later it was time to fly back to Homer. We took a scenic drive down East End road looking for lynx, but found a large flock of sandhill cranes instead. We ate leftovers that night and did laundry.
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Saturday the 22nd was a backup day for bear viewing, so we had nothing preplanned. Sea kayaking was considered but we made it an easy day and just did the Rainbow Tours day trip to Seldovia. It really made the tides apparent to see how the slope of the bridge to the dock changed over the course of the day. We saw otters and more sea birds at Gull Rock, plus a few seals. Eldredge Passage was very quiet today, no wildlife or birds. Once in Seldovia we checked out the chainsaw carvings placed around town, and then hiked the Otterbahn trail to Outside Beach, with an otter swimming at the end of the trail. We thought we ate raspberries but a visit to the museum showed we actually ate salmonberries! We also stopped by the library and Eric picked up a used book for 50 cents, later leaving it in Talkeetna. A rusty old shp at the dock had jellyfish and anenome galore to see. We found some pretty housecats while following a bald eagle back in Homer. Dinner was Fat Olives again. From the viewing platform near the airport we saw moose across Beluga Lake, then tried to drive over and walk to the moose, but that didn't work out.
It finally rained overnight and most of the next day, Sunday. But that was fine as it was our driving day and it was a light rain. After another huge breakfast we were on the road, and saw a young male moose right next to the road just north of Ninilchik. We shopped at Fred Meyer's again, $166 for 2 weeks worth of camping food and some other camping gear. As we didn't have to do laundry we had time to have lunch at the Glacier Brewhouse (yum - Raspberry Wheat beer) and then go to the Anchorage Market. We checked out the coastal trail, where we would bike in a few weeks. After that it was straight through ugly Wasilla to our B&B, Alaskan Host outside of Willow. The collection of mounted animals was all in the living room and not in our bedroom at least! The room was a bit musty smelling and the upstairs tenant watched loud TV in the night, but he turned it off after I banged on the ceiling. Breakfast included pancakes with handpicked blueberries, and moose sausage. This place was chosen for its location, right next to the Nancy Lakes recreation area.
We were at Tippecanoe rentals at 9 am Monday August 24 ready to go. We picked up our paddles, vests, and portage devices and drove back to the start of the canoe trail at Tenaina Lake. First we had to rearrange our clothing, bedding, and food for the next 4 nights, into 2 huge bags. We started canoeing under cloudy skies, but soon the sun was out most of the time. On the first lake a loon family didn't mind us checking them out. That was the only baby loon we saw, but each lake had its own loon couple. Most of the portages were marked as 0.1 or 0.2 miles, but they seemed to vary more than that! Some had steep parts, and all were muddy and had some large tree roots to trip on. The canoe was heavy and I have weak hands/fingers, so Eric fashioned a strap for me to use over my shoulders which helped tremendously. Even so we made two trips each portage, one with the gear and one with the canoe. We reached the James Lake cabin by 3 pm after a leisurely paddle through the other lakes. The cabin was better than expected. Large (18' by 24') and clean, with wide wooden bunk platforms to sleep on, a table, wood burning stove for heat, porch, and picnic table. The stove heated the cabin and made sleeping very comfortable without even using my sleeping bag. We did bring good sleeping pads. The cabin was uphill from its docking area.
Tuesday the 25th was clear blue skies. We went over to Lynx Lake, skipping one portage by pole/pull/pushing the canoe through the weeds. Rubber calf high boots helped here! We saw a few people on Lynx Lake, the only people we saw in our 4 nights of canoeing. However it wasn't that quiet of an area as military planes and helicopters were often flying overhead. We had some good views of Denali from Lynx Lake and cabin #1. We chose James Lake cabin as it was larger and more secluded - this one was less than half the size. On the way back we checked out a beaver lodge and collected more firewood. A few drops of rain that evening caused our second rainbow, and we played a lot of gin rummy. Wednesday it rained most of the day so we read and played cards, then when it cleared in the evening we went to Javit Lake and walked around it to the portage to Lynx Creek, which would be a long hard canoe portage! Thursday the 27th was partly sunny, we went back to Chicken Lake and explored some animal trails at the south end.
With more rain overnight we got an early start, packed quickly, and were in the canoe by 7:30 am. We hurried through each portage and lake and made it back to the car by 10:30 am, managing not to get rained on. Walking up to Little Noluck lake we surprised a beaver, who made a loud tail slap and then swam off. Five loons greeted us on the last lake. We drove up to Talkeetna next, with views of Denali peeking through the clouds. We checked into Latitude 62 lodge and took showers. Checking my cell phone, Talkeetna Air Taxi had called to see if we could go earlier - we had a 7 pm reservation but the weather was looking bad - we went straight over there but it was already socked in, we arranged to call at 6:30 pm to verify we were off for today but 8:30 tomorrow morning was available. We did laundry and had a slice at Mountain High pizza (not very good). We drove around some local roads looking for wildlife, finding a large abandoned antenna instead. It was drizzly, so no surprise that our flight was off for tonight. Dinner at the lodge was fine.
Up at 7 am on Saturday the 29th, we are go for the flight, hurry to shower and pack and be there by 8. We are on the Denali Grand Tour with glacier landing, 10 people in our plane, plus six others on a different tour. It's another DeHaviland Otter. It is clear above 6000 feet, sunny, calm, a beautiful day for this flight. We fly very close to many snowy peaks, circle Denali, and land on Eldredge Glacier (along with 4 other planes, this is the only safe glacier to land on this late in the season). Photos - approach, closer, real close, other peaks, vertical cliff, more peaks, people on glacier, us, with plane, fresh snow, ragged glacier, denali and gorge, heading out, swampy land, glacier rivers meet. We are back at 11 and stop at the viewpoint of the Alaska range, then drive to Cubby's for some fresh fruit & carrots for our Denali camping. The drive to the park is sunny the whole way with great views. The tundra gets more and more colorful as we head north. We see a momma moose and 2 calves while driving. Somehow we miss 229 Parks so we just eat at the burger place near the entrance. We are at the National Park Wilderness Access Center around 2 to check in and rearrange our camp reservations - was 2 nights Savage river/4 Wonder lake, changed to 2 Savage River/3 Wonder Lake/2 Igloo (you can't reserve Igloo online). The extra night at Igloo we would skip depending on how the first 6 nights went.
Savage River campground was fairly full, we chose site #7 and set up. The camp pest was actually a snowshow hare! We drove to the Savage River parking area and did the loop hike, seeing a ptarmigan close up. Dall sheep were high on the hillside opposite. On the way back I saw my first big adult male moose, but at a distance. The colors were showstopping. We headed to town to pick up some camp stove fuel as there was none at the WAC or at Savage River. Another drive out to the river, we see more moose but not close to the road. Back to the campground and we start a fire, it is COLD! About 30 degrees (-1 C) overnight - and it starts to rain at 5 am. We slept in till 8 and slowly get moving. Driving to the river we see a leg bone (moose? caribou?) next to the road. It is raining, cloudy, and there is fresh snow on the hills. Heading back to the entrance, a very young male moose is eating next to the science center near the traffic circle. We watch him for a while then head into town again, buying a few 50% off items. As it was still raining we headed to Healy to the Black Diamond to eat lunch, we ended up hanging out there for 3+ hours playing cards. Thanks to TripAdvisor I knew about places like this to go eat. Back to the park, we went to the visitor center, spoke with a ranger, and watched the movie. As it was still raining at 4:30 and we had to catch the camper bus the next day, preferably with a dry tent, we abandoned the campground (taking the tent down in the rain) and headed to town. We had seen some places in Healy advertising rates under $100 so we first asked the places in town to see if they would match. Hmm, the Denali Princess and McKinley Chalets were both full. We were going to skip the Bluffs but we decided to try there anyway - and we got a room for $125. It was perfect for us, it had large wooden ceiling beams we could hang the tent & rainfly from, and a hairdryer. It even included a continental breakfast and a view. So we were warm and dry and showered and could repack for the camper bus without being in the rain.
Since I did the planning for this trip, we were not backpacking! Bus camping was great, we could take much more stuff with us that way. We had 7 bags, but only 1 was large, and 2 just held food. The 11 am camper bus on Monday the 31st was driven by Mona, and we had a great trip out to Wonder Lake. The colors seemed even brighter if possible. Sable Pass was active, with Dall sheep, bald eagle, two sets of mother grizzlies with 2 cubs each, and some male caribou with big racks. Further on were male Dall sheep, golden eagle, ground squirrel, moose, and more caribou in colorful tundra. Polychrome Pass was beautiful, as was Highway Pass even without Denali showing. Eielson Visitor Center provided views, education, weather reports, and hot water. It was sunny until 10 minutes from Wonder Lake and then a very light misty rain began. We set up the tent in record time (site #28) and had soup for dinner. We then walked on the tundra trails near the camp, out to the water tank, and Eric hiked up to the ridgeline. We could still play cards till 9 pm without flashlights, loved the covered tables by the walk-in bear lockers. It rained pretty hard overnight.
We were up early, it was overcast but not raining. We walked to Reflection Pond and on to the blueberry trail with some sun peeking through, illuminating the colors. Three swans were on Wonder Lake. We caught the 8 am bus on its way back from Kantishna, checked out Denali and neighbors peeking out at Eielson, and got off near Highway Pass to hike Stony Dome. We decided to circumnavigate it and headed to a flat shoulder to the south. Five caribou were on an opposite ridge and didn't like us being above them, so they walked up and blocked the shoulder we were headed to. As we approached them slowly a red fox ran away and spooked the caribou. We also saw a marmot, ground squirrels, and hunting hawks in this area. As we continued our circle, we kept climbing higher to avoid gorges. We saw some dens, wolf tracks, and wolf scat. Some areas were quite swampy. As we came around to where we could see Denali again, we looked down to the road and saw a traffic jam, caused by a momma bear with 2 young cubs. We climbed up to the top of Little Stony Dome and they were still walking along the road. So we picked the fastest way down (Little Stony Creek) and ran to the road. By this time the bears were in the switchbacks so we caught the first eastbound bus, telling them they would have a good bear sighting in a short time. The bears were just then arriving in the Tundra Wilderness Tour turnaround area, so we watched the mom roll in the dirt scratching her back, and the cubs being adorable. They left on the road east but then the mom ran down the hill as if she was chasing something, we couldn't see anything though. The cubs followed. We got off that bus and on the next Eielson bound one to watch the bears more but they were far off the road. We waited at Eielson for the next camper bus, we had a bear to watch in the meantime. On this bus ride we saw another red fox and more moose. After dinner we went on the tundra trails a short ways to where a large male moose was checking out two females in a pond, but no action happened. Someone coming in on the late bus said they saw a wolf near Toklat.
Wednesday September 2nd we slept in, till 7:30 or so. Mostly sunny, again, but Denali was still hiding. After a leisurely breakfast we headed off to the McKinley Bar trail. We sampled many yummy blueberries along the way. We found an old skull/antler, hung out on the bar for a while, and saw some grouse, getting back to camp around noon and enjoying the nice weather and camp birds (gray jays). We ate an early dinner so we could get the late camper bus back. After checking out Wonder Lake up close we caught the 3:45 bus, in the ponds area the beaver was finally out and swimming with a branch back to its lodge. At Eielson we switched busses (didn't like the driver). This was a better group of people. We got to Stony Dome and there were two bears right next to where we hiked down yesterday. It was a mom & yearling cub, nicknamed Skunk because he was very light colored with a darker stripe down his back. Further along we saw our first wolf, a young reddish colored one walking down the road and going past our bus. A short distance later was another wolf, larger and loping along some hills, he blended in well in the bare patches but stood out in the colored tundra. Finally there was one more wolf on the road, much larger and grayer, and collared - probably the alpha male. We got off at Toklat to use the restroom and then started walking back west. We saw many snowshoe hares, which let you approach quite close. When the camper bus came we were the only passengers but one. The "skunk" bears were still there, and closer to the road this time. The youngster couldn't see his mom and started calling for her, it was great to listen to him. We also saw 3 more bears near Eielson but farther from the road. When we got back to camp Denali was starting to peek out by moonlight.
September 3rd was bus schedule change day, so the second bus was at 7:30 (we didn't want to get up early enough to pack for the 6:30 bus). Lucky for us we were up early as otherwise we would have missed the incredible sunrise over a clear, cloudless Denali! The Alaska Range and Denali both were bathed in alpenglow. Low clouds ended the show after minutes, so many campers missed it. The 7:30 bus went to Kantishna so that was our only view of that area. The other bus riders all got off at Reflection Pond or the north end of Wonder Lake and then got back on on the return. A male moose posed at the edge of one tundra pond, then obligingly swam across it for our enjoyment. In the high tundra area we saw several caribou, and then noticed two red foxes very close to the caribou. The mountain was at its best at Eielson, I got great pictures today. Past Eielson we saw the skunk bears again, and then a wolf standing on the road howling to attract its pack members. Sable Pass was quiet today, we were at Igloo Campground by 12:25, and we had it to ourselves. Chose site #5, it is sunny and warm today - we are glad as there is no covered area here like at Wonder Lake, but it is a beautiful quiet campsite. We started walking eastbound, caught a bus to Teklanika reststop, and then walked back to camp. Hare and grouse, no lynx. A few other sites were full when we got back.
Friday the 4th was sunny and warm again. We caught the early westbound camper bus due at 8:45, it was 20 minutes late so we had walked aways west by the time it arrived. It was nearly full. Sable Pass was quiet except for some ptarmigan. In Polychrome Pass we saw another wolf on the road, a collared female. Hares scattered as she approached. We got off the bus and walked 100 yards into the tundra to the edge of a low cliff. We sat there and watched as the two alpha wolves met up with 4 pups and greeted each other before going into the adjacent bush (photo series-1 2 3 4 5 6 7). We sat there an hour, occasionally with wolves in view. We then hopped on a bus to Kantishna, Denali was showing off in Highway Pass. We got off near the beaver pond before Wonder Lake and hiked into the tundra. A flock of sandhill cranes flew by, silhouetted by Denali. The vegetation-covered part of Muldrow Glacier was worth a few photos. Our final wolf encounter was a good one, as a collared female walked up to a river, drank, and went past the bus. On the way back we got off in Sable Pass to walk the road near some caribou and a bear. Further on, two bears were very close to the road, and all the busses were full, so we hitched a ride back to Igloo from some Kantishna folks in an SUV. Dall sheep posed on the ridgeline, as did caribou and eagle. The only other campers at Igloo were a Dutch backpacking couple. A full moon illuminated the night.
Saturday the 5th was warm and sunny again. We packed up and caught the early camper bus out. Besides good Denali views, there were just a few distant caribou to see, the warm weather probably doesn't help animal sightings. We were at the car by 11:30, looking forward to a shower, but there was a line so we just bought ice cream, changed clothes, and hit the road. It was sunny the whole way, we stopped a few times for snacks/photos/road kill/gas/our usual Fred Meyers in Anchorage (the road kill was porcupine, twice, we had to double back as it looked like wolverine). Denali was visible the whole way. We were at the Alaskan Leopard B&B at 5:45, and just hung out there, happy with the internet access and hot chocolate and pretty sunset and TV.
Sunday the 6th we enjoyed Bobbie's breakfast, did laundry, walked around a park, then rented some bikes from Pedros and explored the coastal trail for 3 hours. I turned around at Neptune but Eric was determined to find Pluto, he went quite far past it and the end of the trail in Kincaid Park but did find it! (Anchorage solar system display). We saw more sandhill cranes during our ride. Dinner was at the Glacier Brewhouse again. Then we drove to Kincaid Park so I could see the whale bones and Pluto, on the way a female moose was just next to the road. Monday the 7th was sunny again, we went to the Alaska Zoo so we could see lynx. Also snow leopards, tigers, and non-cat animals (the wolverine was cool). We still had time so we went for a walk in the Botanical Gardens. Then it was time to return the rental car, and get picked up at the Sheraton by Alaskan Comedy Tours. The jokes were bad, but it was a cheap way to get to Whittier. Tides were low again along the Turnagain Arm. We stopped at the Wildlife Conservation Center and Portage Glacier, it was raining by now. We were through the tunnel at 5:30 and in our room by 6, so that went quickly. We were on the Island Princess, room A604. Originally I booked a minisuite, but when Princess had a 2 for 1 sale I switched to the balcony for less than half the price. We had dinner in the dining room, and went to bed early.
Tuesday we woke up in College Fjords, at 6:15 I got Eric up and we headed to the Horizon Court buffet. Sunrise at 7 am and the official arrival at Harvard Glacier, we went to the "secret" deck on Caribe Forward then ran back to the stern for the trip out of the fjords. I even went to the gym this morning, then we checked out the casino. It was formal night so we skipped the dining room and ate at the buffet. More casino, a comedy show, and gin rummy. We were rocked to sleep, it was a bit wavy in the gulf. Wednesday was Glacier Bay day, it was overcast but bright. Breakfast in the dining room was nothing special, I preferred the cut fruit bowl in the buffet. More gym time and some fortified hot chocolate, we were ready. Lots of whales and dolphins and other sealife on the way in. We alternated between our balcony, deck 15, and the secret deck during the day. Marjorie Glacier wasn't too active, some seals on an iceberglet enjoyed us going by, then we went by Lamplugh Glacier and saw Johns Hopkins glaciers. More whales, and a close sea otter, on the way out. More casino and the movie Wolverine that night. Thursday was Skagway, we were supposed to get a rental car but blew that off and just slept in and watched movies. After lunch we walked around town in the rain, finding a lynx scrimshaw bolo. In the casino, finally hit trips at 3 card poker - twice!
Friday September 11 was Juneau, it was overcast. We met with the Alaska Whale Watching tour and went out with captain Louis. Sunny in Auke Bay, bald eagles nearby. Choppy going out, big waves, only one boat spotted any whales, so we went there. Mom/calf, at least one more nearby. Great rainbow, spouts, backs, one pectoral fin roll. Sun all the way in, another eagle, quick stop by Mendenhall Glacier, back to town, it starts to rain. Shopping, find William Spear store, spend $100. Pass on tram ride, back to ship. Someone has to be the worst dressed at formal night, so we go, Eric in moccasins, me in crocs (the clothes were business-casual, we just didn't have nice shoes). Saturday the 12th was a late arrival in Ketchikan, we watched the docking then went for a walk. We wanted to go ziplining but it was cancelled. We watched the salmon jumping up the river for a while, watched the local elementary school's football game and a cool slug, then headed up the Deer Mountain trail. It started to rain, so the views wouldn't have been much, so we only went up a mile or so then turned back. Returned by 2:30, did some laundry, watched the new Star Trek movie. Sunday the 13th, had to pack. A little bird seemed lost on our balcony. Enjoyed the dessert extravaganza at the lunch buffet. Finished off the alcohol we had brought, backed up all the cameras one last time, and got ready to end another fabulous vacation. Monday was just a cab ride to the Vancouver airport and a flight home.
Note on cameras: we had 4 cameras. A Canon 30D with 17-85 IS and 70-300 IS lenses, Panasonic Lumix FZ28, Pentax Optio W30, and Sony W7 Cybershot.