July 30, 2015

We Interrupt this Blog. . .

I have lots of adventures to share about our time in Homer.  Not only did we love the town, but we had two of the most amazing day trips ever.  Just a sneak peek – we flew to Lake Clark National Park and later to Katmai National Park to watch the bears at Brooks Falls – trips of a lifetime!

However, it may be a week or more before I can put these posts together.  At the moment I’m trying to deal with the death of one of my dearest friends.  Yes, the friend that I wrote about earlier passed away this morning, just a few days shy of her sixtieth birthday.  She was only ill for a few weeks, and the news this morning was devastating.  It is still a shock.

In the meantime, I am scheduled to fly to Portland, Oregon, tomorrow to attend the wedding of another very close friend.  Such a joyous occasion coupled with such a tragic one.  My emotions are sure to be on a roller coaster.

I promise that I will update the blog when I return to Alaska, and that the photographs will be worth waiting for.  Tim will be leaving for Oklahoma as soon as I return (he has an eight-day contract at Chickasaw National Recreation Area), so I will have time for reflection then.  Writing blog posts will be good therapy.

Thank you for your patience.

July 28, 2015

From One End of the Kenai Peninsula to the Other

Tim and I left Seward on Sunday, July 19.  Homer was our eventual destination, but we were in no hurry to get there.  The drive from Seward was even more beautiful than the one on the way down because the sky was a deep blue.  What a difference a day makes.

Pretty Mountains and Meadows on the Seward Highway
Beautiful Views in All Directions

We got a little taste of the infamous weekend traffic jams on the Kenai Peninsula as we approached the turnoff for the Sterling Highway, which leads to Homer.  A state trooper was at the intersection directing traffic, and vehicles leaving the Kenai were backed up for almost a mile.  I was glad we weren’t heading towards Anchorage.

I'm Glad We Weren't Going that Way

After our two nights on the Seward waterfront with a hundred of our closest (not!) RV friends, we were looking forward to a quiet place to stay.  We were also craving a bit of nature and room to breathe.  I seemed to recall several recommendations for the Quartz Creek Campground, which is run by the U.S. Forest Service, so we drove in to see if there was any availability.  We had only driven 50 miles, but we decided that was far enough for the day. 

Although all sites on Kenai Lake were taken, we found a site in the woods that was available for one night.  We took it and settled in.  What a beautiful place to just sit back and relax.  We enjoyed Quartz Creek so much that we decided to stay for two additional nights.  We had to move, but we found an equally nice site that had just opened up that morning. 

Lots of Privacy Here

Our Campsite Wasn't on Kenai Lake, But We Could Walk There

We did have another reason for extending our stay.  Tim had been thinking about booking a fishing charter, and he was able to secure a reservation for Wednesday afternoon.  The company was just down the road in Cooper Landing, so we were close by.  We saw no compelling reason not to hang out at Quartz Creek until then.

By the time Wednesday rolled around, however, we knew it was time to move to a commercial campground at least for one night.  These campgrounds are our “go-to” for doing laundry, dumping and filling tanks and taking long, hot showers.  Kenai Princess RV Park, which is also in Cooper Landing, had been recommended to us, so that’s where we went.  Princess Cruises operates several lodges throughout the state to house passengers on the land portion of their itineraries.  The lodge in Cooper Landing, however, is the only one with an RV park, and it’s one of the nicer private campgrounds we’ve visited in Alaska.

With much anticipation, Tim headed out for his fishing charter on the Upper Kenai River.  Alaska Rivers Company handled all of the details, and Tim joined three brothers for four hours of drift fishing.  He tells me that he hooked a large salmon, but that it broke his line.  I guess I have to believe him, even though he has no photos to prove it.  Sadly, he came home empty-handed.  Oh well, he said he had a ton of fun, and that’s all that matters.

Having Fun on the River

Drift Fishing on the Upper Kenai River

The Upper Kenai River

The three brothers didn’t do much better.  Apparently, the salmon have been late to arrive in the Kenai River this year so no one was catching many fish.  One man did manage to catch a salmon and a Dolly Varden, but the pickings were slim.

Now That's a Pretty Salmon

The Cast of Characters on the Fishing Charter

We decided to hit the road the next morning and see how far we might get on the way to Homer.  After a stop in Soldotna for groceries, we kept on going.  We were surprised with the amount of traffic heading north from Homer.  We had thought that everyone would be going to Homer for the weekend, but we found out that the salmon were running on the lower Kenai River near the town of Kenai.  That seemed to be the place to be if you wanted to fish.

Not long after leaving Soldotna the Sterling Highway veers to the south, hugging the coast along Cook Inlet.  We’ve driven scores of scenic highways since arriving in Alaska, but we were not prepared for the drop-dead views that awaited us on this coastal highway.  The west side of Cook Inlet has an unbelievable string of volcanoes that are clearly visible, at least on a day with few clouds.  We had a perfect day to make the drive, and were amply rewarded with views of Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna. 

Mount Redoubt

Another View of Mount Redoubt

A Closer View of Mount Redoubt

Mount Iliamna

Just as I am most enamored of tidewater glaciers, I am equally enamored of volcanic mountains.  Some of my all-time favorites are Mounts Shasta, Hood, Adams and Rainier in the Pacific Northwest.  The Alaska volcanoes reminded me so much of those, and I kept asking Tim to stop the car so I could photograph them from different viewpoints.  We later found out that these are very active volcanoes.  Redoubt last erupted in 2008.

I had read about a small Russian Orthodox church on the way to Homer, so we stopped to have a look at the Transfiguration of Our Lord Church in Ninilchik.  This church sits high on a bluff overlooking Cook Inlet with Mount Redoubt in the background.  It is one of the most photographed sites on the Kenai Peninsula, and for good reason.  There was just something about that church that drew me in.

Transfiguration of Our Lord Church

Looking Up from the Cemetery

The Interior of the Church

Tim and I had learned a little about Russian Orthodoxy while we were in Sitka, so we were somewhat familiar with the architecture and iconography.  The church is an active parish, although it has no priest, and elderly volunteers are on site to welcome visitors and answer questions.  Tim and I both lit candles for my friend who was just recently diagnosed with acute leukemia and is now in intensive care.  I am not a religious person, but our visit was a very poignant one indeed.

Although we were not far from Homer, Tim and I decided to stop for the night.  Homer could wait for one more day.  We pulled into Ninilchik View Campground, a small state campground that sits on the bluff overlooking Cook Inlet and the village of Ninilchik.  The setting was lovely, and it was a perfect place to catch my breath.  I walked down to the overlook and gazed out at Mount Redoubt and Mount Iliamna. 

We Could See the Church from the Campground

Mount Iliamna

I don’t usually go walking after 10:00 pm, but the promise of a sunset drew me back to the viewpoint, where I arrived just in time to watch the sun sink behind Mount Redoubt.  That was certainly a lovely way to end the day.

Sunset Over Mount Redoubt

July 26, 2015

A Cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park

Travelers who wish to take a boat tour in a new area are often confronted with a plethora of opportunities.  Typically, there are several competing companies, and each company may have several offerings.  That was the scenario that Tim and I faced when we were trying to book a cruise from Seward to Kenai Fjords National Park.  How to choose, how to choose?

Kenai Fjords Tours came highly recommended by several people, and options ranged from a dinner cruise to a nine-hour tour.  We read far fewer comments about Major Marine Tours, but we decided to look at the offerings for both.  Ultimately, we ended up choosing one of the tours with Major Marine.  There were several factors that led us to that decision.

First, we wanted a tour that was long enough to get all of the way into Kenai Fjords National Park.  We also preferred a smaller boat.  But for us, the deciding factor was that National Park rangers accompany most of the Major Marine cruises.  Many cruises with Kenai Fjords Tours include a stop at an island with a presentation by a National Park ranger, but we weren’t too interested in spending time on an island.  We also eliminated the longest tour offered by Major Marine on the smallest boat because no ranger would be on board.  So, after careful consideration, we selected the seven and one-half hour tour on a relatively small boat.  Decision made!

Did we make the right decision?  We will never know.  We do know that we thoroughly enjoyed our tour and that the presentation by Ranger Chad added so much to our experience.  With that said, I’m guessing that almost any cruise would have been an amazing experience.

We had selected Saturday for our cruise because the weather forecast was a bit more promising than the steady rain that Seward had been experiencing.  It was still cloudy when we headed out of the harbor into Resurrection Bay on the Orca Song.  Within ten minutes, we had our first wildlife sighting of the day – sea otters swimming not too far from shore.  Those little critters are always such a treat to watch.

The Orca Song - It Was Sunny When We Returned to the Dock

Leaving the Harbor

Clouds Over Resurrection Bay

See Otters Always Elicit a Smile

Once we rounded Aialik Cape and cruised into Aialik Bay, we were finally in Kenai Fjords National Park.  Kenai Fjords National Park is a land of ice.  The Harding Icefield covers over half of the park, and nearly 40 glaciers flow from this massive ice sheet expanse.  Fjords created by the receding ice provide access to many of the tidewater glaciers.  Aialik Bay is one of these fjords.

Soon after crossing into the bay, we had our second significant wildlife sighting, and one that I was most looking forward to – orca, or killer, whales.  We joined several other boats, and it appeared as if each one tried to reposition itself for the best views.  Although I was thrilled to see orcas for the first time since arriving in Alaska, the experience was a bit disconcerting.  The boats seemed to form a circle around the whales, as if we were rounding them up.  I have to trust that our behavior was not harmful to the whales, but I’m not so sure.  I was almost relieved when we finally moved on.

What Magnificent Creatures

The Orcas Stayed Around for Quite a While

Everyone Had a Great View

It was now time to visit a few glaciers.  As we made our way into Holgate Arm, we caught our first glimpse of a blue sky, which provided a perfect backdrop for the two arms of Holgate Glacier.  This tidewater glacier may be one of the smaller ones that we’ve seen, but it was still a beautiful sight.  The jagged peaks stood out so clearly against the sky, and the color was stunning as always.

I Think That's Blue Sky Ahead

The West Arm of Holgate Glacier

Holgate Glacier

An added treat while stopped at Holgate Glacier was watching a lone kayaker making his way among the sea of ice.  He looked so small out there, almost minuscule against the face of the glacier.  That was a brave soul.

Jagged Peaks Pierce the Sky
Kayaker vs. Glacier

After waiting with little success for Holgate Glacier to provide us some calving action, we moved on and back into Aialik Bay.  Our longer tour gave us the opportunity to also visit Aialik Glacier, and it was a sight to behold.  Although its size cannot compare to the giant Columbia Glacier that we visited while we were in Valdez, I was still impressed.  I must admit that we’ve been spoiled.  However, size isn’t everything!  In some ways Aialik Glacier was more impressive because it stood out so against the deep blue sky.  I was happy to stand out on deck and just stare.   

Aialik Glacier Is a Magnificent Thing to See

One Side of Aialik Glacier

It Was Hard to Stop Taking Photos

Once again, we saw very little calving, but I was happy with all that we did see.  A sailboat and several small tour boats joined us in front of the glacier, but I didn’t mind because they provided a sense of scale that was otherwise difficult to judge.  These glaciers are much taller than they first appear to be.

A Sailboat Provides a Little Perspective on Size

We were also in a perfect spot to watch harbor seals as they lounged on the chunks of ice floating in the bay.  This was our best opportunity so far to study these lovable mammals, and they didn’t seem to mind our presence.

Is He Smiling?

Is It Time for a Swim?

I Hope This Ice Doesn't Melt

Sailing Away from Aialik Bay

On our way back to Seward we stopped to visit nesting areas for several of the seabirds that can be found in these waters.  We also were treated to another visit by a pod of orcas, and these whales stayed with us for quite some time.  At one point, a few humpback whales joined in, which Ranger Chad thought was somewhat unusual. 

A Perfect Spot for Nesting Seabirds

It's Always a Thrill to Spot Whales

Let's Stick Together

Synchronized Swimmers

Tim and I really enjoyed our cruise with Major Marine Tours.  Ranger Chad shared so much with us, and it was clear that he really loves what he is doing.  He is a retired schoolteacher who moved to Seward about 30 years.  He fell in love with the region and now enjoys sharing this special place with others.  His enthusiasm was contagious.

Since arriving in Alaska, Tim and I have taken three cruises in different parts of the state to view glaciers and wildlife.  I cannot imagine visiting Alaska without getting out on the water.  Although these cruises shared certain similarities, I will remember each one for different reasons.  For example, I will especially remember the cruise in Glacier Bay National Park for the wilderness experience that it offered, as well as the unusually perfect weather that we experienced.  Those are two things that we have encountered nowhere else.  

The enormity of the glacier itself was the highlight of the Columbia Glacier cruise in Prince William Sound.  I’ve never been so close to a glacier that large.  Our first orca sightings and Ranger Chad’s insights are what I will take with me from our day in Kenai Fjords National Park.  He is a great ambassador for the National Park Service.  And, of course, it goes without saying that I will remember each glacier and all of the wildlife that we were able to see.

July 21, 2015

Soggy Seward

Before deciding to boondock on Exit Glacier Road, we made a trip into Seward to have a quick look around.  We wanted to get a sense of the town and see if by chance any waterfront spaces might be available so late in the day.  Seward has set aside a large portion of its waterfront park for nearly 300 campsites, most of which are very close together.  Of course, the few sites directly on the water are the most popular, and all were full.  In fact, we saw very few empty spaces, period. 

Trying to Find a Campsite

Maybe because it was raining, or maybe because we were so overwhelmed by the number of RVs on the streets and in the waterfront campgrounds, but we did not have a great first impression of Seward.  We couldn’t even find a place to park to have dinner in town.  Options were limited to 30-minute, on-street parking spots or all-day lots for $10 since our small RV exceeded the 19-foot maximum for the three-hour lot.  We couldn’t wait to get out of town and back to our quite boondock spot.  On the way we found a place to eat where we had a delicious dinner.  The Salmon Bake Restaurant on Exit Glacier Road prepared the best salmon we’ve had since leaving Sitka.

We mostly stayed put in our boondock spot on Thursday.  It rained all day long, and not just the gentle rain that we’ve become accustomed to, but downpours.  Not a fun day to be sightseeing, so we only ventured out in the afternoon to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center.  This is a small, but very well done aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center that focuses on Alaska’s marine ecosystems.  It was great to have such a close-up view of the harbor seals and the Stellar sea lions, but our favorite stop was the aviary. 

Who's Steering that Boat?

You Can Watch Me Above the Water
Or Below

This Is a Better Show than TV

The “bird room” was filled with an assortment of sea birds, and of course puffins were the main attraction.  Watching their antics really put a smile on my face.  Tim and I just stood there and let them entertain us for a very long time.  I quickly gave up trying to take photographs of them and decided to simply enjoy the show.

Some of the other birds were just as delightful to watch, even when one unidentified bird tried to dive-bomb us!  However, it wasn’t until we went down to the first level and looked into the underwater tank that I got my biggest chuckle of the day.  If you think puffins are fun to watch on the water and in the air, just try observing them from under the water.  Their little web feet seem to move just as fast as their little wings when they try to fly.  The SeaLife Center is certainly worth a visit, even if it’s not a rainy day.

For an Extra Fee, You Can Feed the Birds

Stars of the Show

A Quite Place Away from the Crowds

By early the next morning we had to move from our boondock site.  The lack of sun had not been kind to our solar panels, and we had no choice but to find hookups.  So, into town we drove as it continued to rain.  There is only one section of the Seward waterfront park with hookups, so that’s where we headed.  Even though it was way before noon, the lot was crowded.  We had not expected to find a waterfront spot, so we were not terribly disappointed.  We were grateful for the one open site on the upper terrace, where we pulled in and hooked up.  We had a slim view of the water between the RVs in front of us.
We Settled for an Inland Campsite

I had fully expected to fall in love with Seward.  Everyone else seems to.  Maybe because we didn’t have a great first impression, or perhaps because the rain never seemed to let up, but the town never grew on me.  To me, there seems to be a real disconnect between the historic downtown and the harbor.  Normally, I’m drawn to the historic part of town, but in Seward we seemed to spend our time at the harbor.  It was even difficult to see the boats since a row of buildings stands between the street and the harbor.  I now especially appreciate the town plan in Valdez, since no buildings interfere with the harbor view.

Despite my criticism, Tim and I did enjoy our time in Seward.  We had a great dinner at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant one night, and we were blessed with very nice neighbors on either side of us in the campground.  The rain mostly cleared out by Friday evening, and the light on the mountains across Resurrection Bay was beautiful.  If you can’t camp on the waterfront, you can walk along there on the very nice bike path.

A Bike Path Extends Along the Waterfront

Heading Back to the Harbor

Looking Across Resurrection Bay

A Nice Time for an Evening Sail

We also booked a cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park while we were in Seward, and that trip was wonderful.  I’ll tell you about that next time.