Walk-up Glacier

Our bike ride took us along the Resurrection River, the result of glacier melt.

If Mendenhall Glacier, outside of Juneau, is a “drive-up” glacier, then Exit Glacier, just outside of Seward, is a “walk-up” glacier. We rented bikes and rode 12 miles out of Seward to the Kenai Fjords National Park visitors center. Then we hiked another six-tenths of a mile to overlook the foot of the glacier. I have never been this close to a glacier, and it was literally awesome.

the lower moraine field, with Exit Glacier in the background

 

There she is!

 

Don from Minnesota providing me with a stepping stone

 

Now I can cross the stream into the upper moraine field. Thanks, Don!

 

beautiful patterns in the silt

 

Don retrieving a growler from the stream

 

growler released back into the wild

 

the hike to the glacier–the people in the photo give you some perspective!

 

…and there’s the foot!

Iditarod

mural commemorating the historic Iditarod Trail

The Iditarod Trail began as a discontinuous series of native trails that ran roughly from the south coast of Alaska to Anchorage and points north. Once gold was discovered along the Yukon River and on the beaches of Nome in the late 1800s, the trail was better defined so that dog mushers could transport supplies and mail from Seward, where the steamer ships pulled in, to the gold mining camp of Iditarod and beyond to Nome on the Bering Sea–over 1100 miles–in winter.

By the 1920s, the trail fell into disuse. Many of the gold mining camps had dried up, and men called to serve in the first World War never returned. The Anchorage-to-Nome part of the trail was revived in the 1970s for use as a sled dog race course, and it’s still going strong.

Here I am in Seward at Mile 0 of the Iditarod National Historic Trail.

Sled dog racing is once again a big deal in Seward (above), but I think this guy (below) has opted for a more updated mode of transportation. Smart!

Seward

Seward, Alaska

The town of Seward is named for William H. Seward, President Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State who negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. You may recall that Alaska was once nicknamed “Seward’s Folly,” as many residents of the Lower 48 wondered why Seward would advocate the purchase of 425 million acres of wilderness when the country was still financially devastated from the recent War Between the States. But Russia, worried about overextending themselves, made the offer, and Seward recognized the importance of getting Russia out of North America. He persuaded Congress to snap it up for a cool $7.2 million (less than 2 cents an acre). The purchase was also a convenient political distraction from Johnson’s contentious presidency.

The town, poised on Alaska’s southern coast, is the perfect gateway to America’s final frontier.

stunning Resurrection Bay

 

cirque glaciers in the Kenai Mountains

 

eagle flying over Resurrection Bay

 

quintessential Alaska

 

Mount Marathon, site of a grueling Fourth of July mountain foot race

 

mural of a runner scaling Mount Marathon

Up Ship Creek without a paddle

Ship Creek

Anchorage may be the big city, but that doesn’t stop the residents from dropping everything and donning hip waders when the salmon are running. The hotel we stayed in on our brief overnight in Anchorage was right on Ship Creek, and the salmon started running just a day or two before we arrived.

big city angler

 

fresh catch

 

dinner tonight

 

It’s all about the fish, even at the public restrooms. Note: Dollys are Dolly Vardens, a type of char. Chums are one of the five types of Alaskan salmon.

Anchorage (briefly)

tourist information in Anchorage

Everyone I talked to–Alaskans and friends who have visited–had only one thing to say when I threw out the possibility of spending a week in Anchorage on our tour of Alaska: Why?

Anchorage is the big city. Over 40% of the state’s population lives in the metropolitan area. It should probably be the state’s capital. In the late ’70s, they actually looked into moving the capital from Juneau (in the remote Southeast) to either Anchorage, Fairbanks, or some neutral location (there’s a fierce rivalry between Anchorage and Fairbanks), but nixed the idea as too expensive.

the almighty bear

Well, we got a brief preview of Anchorage after we disembarked the ship in Seward. The cost of a one-way car rental out of Seward with a drop-off in Anchorage was science-fictional, so we hopped on a bus, rode the 127 miles to Anchorage, spent the night in a hotel, picked up a round-trip rental car, and returned to Seward to begin our exploration of the Kenai Peninsula.

We liked Anchorage. With a population of just over 400,000, it’s a big city in a small-city kind of way. It’s clean, the people are friendly, and it doesn’t look at all like the Disneyland of cruise-ship Alaska. They actually have stores here that sell something other than souvenirs. Breath of fresh air!

reindeer sausage and ground elk pizza, it’s called “Not Your Lower 48” pizza.

Note: There appears to be a rivalry between Alaska and Texas over the size thing, although Texans are conspicuously quiet on the subject from what I’ve observed. I think Texas deserves to be razzed a bit about being #2, especially given that Texas congressmen (Lyndon Johnson was one of them) did not want to cede Texas’s claim as the largest state and voted against statehood for Alaska in the 1950s.

Dissin’ Texas

Awww!

Hubbard Glacier

 

On our last day of the cruise we sailed into Yakutat Bay to view Hubbard Glacier.

Note: Pieces of ice that have broken off the glacier and are floating in the water are categorized by size. Those that rise 16 or more feet above the surface of the water are called icebergs. Those that rise 3-16 feet above the water are called bergy bits. (No kidding!) And those that rise less than 3 feet are called growlers.

Sitka

 

Was very much looking forward to seeing Sitka, the capital of Russian America, after reading James Michener’s Alaska. He told such an engaging story of Alexander Baranov, the real-life manager of the Russian-American fur trading company who came from Siberia to establish some sense of order amongst the Russian sea otter hunters, most of whom were convicts serving life sentences in one of the most formidable environments on Earth. Baranov, a business genius who turned the Company into a Pacific powerhouse, did not do so well by the Tlingit (KLIN-kit) natives. Eventually he took the prized hilltop on the island from them by force, naming it Castle Hill and building his rustic “castle” at the top with spectacular views of Mount Edgecumbe volcano on Kruzof Island across Sitka Sound.

We climbed Castle Hill, now just a paved hilltop, and looked out across the Sound, but views of Edgecumbe eluded us. Even on this sunny day, its head was in the only clouds to be seen.

As we departed Sitka by ship that evening, we happened to dine in the Italian restaurant in the aft end of the ship. As we rounded Kruzof Island and looked up from our antipasti and prosecco, there was the volcano peeking out from behind the clouds. Farewell, Sitka!

Mount Edgecumbe bidding us farewell

Salmon running!

 

It’s one thing to see a still photo of a stream full of salmon, but it’s something else to see them in motion. We were blown away with how full of fish the Taiya River was. And the water was so shallow that you wonder how they can swim through it. These salmon–pink salmon, also called humpies for the humps on their backs–were barely swimming, more like maintaining their positions in the stream without making any headway. As they approach the end of their life cycle, they can barely make their way to the lake or stream where they hatched to begin the next generation. They never really readjust to the fresh water after living in the Pacific Ocean for years. They stop eating and use what energy they have left to swim–or flop–upstream. Some of them were pretty ragged looking, and the males were already starting to challenge each other for dominance. Sea gulls, not strong enough to go after younger, more robust salmon, were taking advantage of their weakness by swooping down and pecking at them.

Salmon spawning is one of nature’s many interesting phenomena. There are so many people and wildlife in Alaska that depend on it. So exciting to witness it first hand.

Skagway: Gateway to the Klondike

bike ride through the Tongass Rainforest

The first Gold Rush in the Pacific Northwest was in the Klondike River area in Canada’s Yukon Territory in the late 19th century. Travel over land was mountainous and difficult so many hopeful gold miners attempted the route by sea to Skagway and then through the Chilkoot Pass of the Coast Mountains into Canada. Approaching the pass directly through Skagway was steep and arduous. The path through nearby Dyea, 15 miles away, was longer but not as steep, and horses could help carry supplies if they didn’t fall to their deaths off the narrow trails. Considering a traveler was required by Canadian law to bring a year’s worth of provisions with him or her (1000 lbs. of food!) before being allowed to cross the border, many chose the horse-capable route. Others chose the shorter path through Skagway; they were in a hurry to stake gold claims before they were all taken.

the Chilkoot Pass trail head

Dyea and Skagway were in fierce competition for the business miners brought until the Alaska Railroad decided to lay their track through Skagway. Dyea became a ghost town almost overnight. Today the rainforest has reclaimed Dyea, and we took a bike ride through it.

Facade of a real estate company in Dyea. Behind the false front would be a tent which served as the “building.”

 

The cemetery where those who didn’t survive the Dyea route were buried. Seventy-some lives were lost in a Palm Sunday (1898) avalanche. Others were often shot for stealing supplies.

 

The salmon (pink or humpy) were running in the Taiya River.

 

The Taiya River flowing out to sea.

The town of Skagway was, in itself, a disappointment. Now, with a population of just over 1000, it exists to support the cruise-line industry, including many high-end jewelry stores owned by the cruise lines. We couldn’t even find a place to get lunch in this Disney-esque town, so we went back to the ship.

downtown Skagway

driftwood facade

 

 

 

Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau

Once in Juneau, we boarded a bus for nearby Mendenhall Glacier, the “drive-up glacier” as it is called because you can get so close to it by car. We rafted down the Mendenhall River, the melt from the glacier that flows out to sea. At the closest point, we were probably two miles from the foot of the glacier.

A glacier can be differentiated from regular snow by its blue-green color, the result of densely packed ice. All colors of light are absorbed by glacial ice but only blue light can reflect back out, so that is the color we see when we look at a glacier or its icebergs.

The blue-green ice of the glacier appears to be a dam holding back water in the background. Look for the blue color to see where the glacier is.