Sunday, January 15, 2017

ALASKA! GLACIER BAY

Well, it didn't take us long to get into the cruise life as our Princess ship glided smoothly through Alaska's icy waters. We had been on the go for over a week, and a little bit of R & R was definitely welcome:


Our next destination was the coastline of Glacier Bay National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses 5,130 square miles or 3.3 million acres on Alaska's southern panhandle. It's a little hard to see in the map below, but our cruise starting point at Whittier is the red oval on the left and Glacier Bay is the center oval:
I think we saw about 1/10% of the park, but it was a spectacular 1/10%.  No roads lead to Glacier Bay, so the only options are to get there by air or by sea. Most visitors see the bay by cruise ship (400,000 visitors/year), but the number of ships per day is limited, which made our viewing experience very nice.

There are fifteen tidewater glaciers in the park, and while we didn't see them all, we did see quite a few. One nice thing about this day at sea is that we had a park ranger on board talking on the ship intercom most of the day. I would never have guessed there was so much to say about glaciers. Honestly, this was our third trip to visit glaciers, and though every single one was gasp-worthy, they were all beginning to look alike to me. That is not to say that it wasn't a fantastic day of glacier viewing, because it was, but a second day of being on the ship all day was causing Cruise Ennui to set in.

And that is my excuse for not having taken better notes as our excellent park ranger spoke.

Monday, January 9, 2017

ALASKA! FROM ANCHORAGE TO WHITTIER AND A CRUISE SHIP TRIP TO THE HUBBARD GLACIER

Our first week of wandering on our own all over Alaska had come to an end, and it was time to get on the cruise ship. (We wholeheartedly recommend our itinerary of self-directed travel + cruise.)  

We had to drive from Seward all the way back to Anchorage to drop off our car at the Anchorage airport, a distance of about 125 miles, but there really was no other option. Dropping off the car where we were getting on the cruise ship would have been horribly expensive. 

We met the Princess Cruise people at the airport, and they put us on a bus with others from our cruise and sent us to Whittier, the cruise port located about 60 miles away but which we had pretty much driven by on our way to Anchorage to return the car. Oh well. Driving anywhere in Alaska is a visual feast, and we enjoy being in the car together.

Our bus drove southeast along the scenic Turnagain Arm of the Gulf of Alaska:


Wednesday, January 4, 2017

SEWARD, ALASKA: KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK

After spending a couple of days in Homer, we headed north, then east, then south towards Seward, a distance of about 170 miles
Traveling in Alaska in any way but on a cruise ship requires stamina. Distances are long, but the sights are worth the journey.

Seward is a cute little town of only 2,500 people. It was named after William Seward, U.S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, who is famous for orchestrating "Seward's Folly," the best land purchase the U.S. ever made other than the Louisiana Purchase. It was William Seward who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, adding over a half million square miles to the United States. The price was $7.2 million, or about two cents an acre. (The Louisiana Purchase was almost three cents per acre 64 years earlier.)

Seward is a fun little town and, like so many of its Alaskan counterparts, if full of quirky "art," some of which once again reflects Alaskans' bizarre passion for ice cream:

The flowers all over Alaska were stunning. With such a short growing season, how do they manage this?


We had booked an 8.5-hour Kenai Fjords Cruise leaving out of Seward at 9:00 AM, so we made our way to the docks . . . 

. . . and boarded the Melissa Ann, a boat for 150 people. Luckily, there were just 34 passengers and 3 crew aboard:
 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

HOMER, ALASKA: GULL ISLAND

We had scheduled a trip with Alaska Bear Adventures in Homer to fly to Katmai National Park or Lake Clark National Park to experience what is supposed to be the best grizzly bear viewing in Alaska.  However, much to our dismay, the trip was canceled due to a forecast of heavy rain.

We had a day to kill in Homer, and, still looking for adventure, we discovered that we could book a private harbor cruise of Kachemak Bay. In spite of the weather, or maybe even because of it, the scenery was beautiful:


Our goal was Gull Island, a rocky crag about three miles out that offers prime nesting spots for seabirds:

Thursday, December 29, 2016

HOMER, ALASKA

After breaking up a long drive from Talkeetna to Homer by spending time at a musk ox farm and a reindeer farm near Palmer and then staying overnight in Anchorage, we continued our long drive down the Kenai Peninsula. The distance from Talkeetna to Anchorage is about 115 miles, and the distance from Anchorage to Homer is about 220 miles. In a place like Alaska, where there are an infinite number of side trips and sights, that could be a week-long trip, but we managed it in two days.

One of Homer's nicknames is "The End of the Road." You can see why:
The white line is Day One, and the blue line is Day Two.

The Kenai Peninsula is located on the southern coast of Alaska and is famous for its beautiful scenery. Homer, our next destination, is marked by the red dot on the map below:

Bob had read that the salmon might be running in some of the rivers and that there were some good places for animal sightings, so we made several stops along the way. Try as we might, we didn't see any moose, or any other large animals for that matter:

Here and there we saw a salmon swimming upstream, but not the hordes we had hoped for. I think it was just a bit too early in the season:

Monday, December 26, 2016

ALASKA! A MUSK OX FARM AND A REINDEER RANCH

My husband is a wildlife lover extraordinaire, and Alaska is certainly the place to see wildlife, but he wasn't content with seeing animals in the wild. No, he had to scout out every specialty farm and preserve. I was a little bit worried about OD-ing on animals on this trip, but for the most part, what we saw was unique and entertaining, starting with a musk ox farm and a reindeer ranch.

The Musk Ox Farm is in the Palmer/Wasilla area, about 45 minutes from Anchorage.

The farm is a non-profit organization that is funded partly by tourist dollars and partly by selling muskox wool, called qiviut. Qiviut is eight times warmer than sheep's wool by weight and softer than cashmere, but boy-oh-boy is it expensive.  A single skein (1 oz./200 yards) sells for $95.00. 

A male musk ox sheds 4-7 pounds of qiviut per season. I suppose if I had to brush one of these beasts, I'd charge $95.00/skein too.

For a more reasonable price of $11.00 each, we took a 45 minute tour of the farm, which has about 80 musk oxen, the largest captive herd in the world.

The musk ox is one of the oldest living species and was once a contemporary of the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger. The goal of the farm is to domesticate these animals. It takes multiple generations to build a domesticated herd, and they've been at it since the 1950s.

Friday, December 23, 2016

ALASKA! TAKING A TAXI TO THE TOP OF DENALI AND STROLLING ON A GLACIER




READING

When I first started teaching Freshman Composition over twenty years ago, I ran across the audiobook version of Charles Kuralt's A Life on the Road. I thought his wonderful storytelling style would provide a great example for my students of how to write a personal memoir (which was their first essay assignment), and so every semester for several years I checked out the worn box of cassette tapes from our local library and played a couple of chapters in class.

One of my favorite chapters, entitled "Flight," was about Kuralt's madcap journey with his photographer and a soundman around Denali in a small Cessna piloted by the legendary Don Sheldon. After circling the mountaintop for a while, Sheldon put the plane down on Ruth Glacier, and Kuralt and his photographer ended up spending the night in a cabin on the mountain built by Sheldon for exhausted climbers but, at the time of Kuralt's visit, inhabited by a Catholic priest. (Those kinds of anomalies tend to occur in Kuralt's essays.)

Kuralt's very visual description of his fantastic celestial voyage and glacial bed and breakfast stuck with me for twenty years, and when we booked a flight around Denali with a landing on Ruth Glacier, I couldn't have been more excited (and yes, nervous that we might end up spending the night up there).

The flight was everything I had hoped for and is probably my favorite experience from our trip to Alaska. Naturally, when we got home I decided I had to find a print copy of Kuralt's story. It was harder than I thought because I couldn't remember which one of Kuralt's books it was in. First I ordered a used copy of On the Road with Charles Kuralt, but that wasn't it. Finally I found the similarly titled A Life on the Road, and voila!, there was the essay. Having shared his experience, I found Kuralt's telling even more appealing than I had twenty years before.

We began our adventure by checking in at Talkeetna Air Taxi at 11:00 AM, where we were each issued a pair of snow boots that fit over our shoes:



We waited around for fifteen minutes or so while our single-engine propeller ski plane was checked over and fueled. Our transport was a de Havilland Otter plane, a plane developed in the 1950s. Impressive durability, but not exactly a confidence builder. I thought we'd be flying in something of more recent vintage.