the snowcat bridge at Winner Creek
The trail from the Alyeska Hotel up to Winner Creek is rated easy to moderate, but there were enough ups and downs that we regretted not bringing our hiking sticks. Marcus broke his leg earlier this year, and he’s been trying to take it easy, especially with the downhills. But we took our time and were rewarded with this beautiful, mini-gorge where the creek is propelled between two rock walls. You can stand on a bridge over the cascading, blue water and watch it spin and dance over and around boulders on its way downstream. This pint-sized little gorge is so picture-perfect you want to scoop it up and put it in your pocket.
Just beyond the gorge is a hand tram that hikers can use to pull themselves across the creek. There’s nothing on the opposite bank except the tram terminus. The trail ends at the tram, so traversing the creek is only for the thrill of dangling above it. The tram hangs from a steel cable 100 feet above the creek. The height itself was not my issue; it was the open grate floor that allows you to see the creek rushing by below that kept me from taking the plunge, so to speak. But it was fun watching others do it.
wood bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
The global population of wood bison, a bigger cousin of the plains bison we know in the Lower 48 and the largest land mammal in North America, was wiped out in the 19th century–or so naturalists thought until they discovered a small herd in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 1957. In 2003 conservationists were able to isolate 13 disease-free bison from the herd and ship them to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), which we visited today, with the intent of bringing the animal back to one of its native habitats. In 2005 wood bison calves were born at the Center, the first in Alaska in over 100 years, and by 2015 a herd of 130 was released from the Center into its indigenous grazing ground in the Yukon River area, some 300 miles west of Anchorage. That spring 15 calves were born in the Alaskan wild. The herd will continue to be monitored, but so far they are thriving.
Muskoxen, another species hunted to extinction in Alaska, were also restored to the their natural habitats in northern Alaska. Thirty-four muskoxen were shipped to Fairbanks from Greenland in 1930, and later released into the wild. Today there are over 5000 wild muskoxen in Alaska, thanks to conservation efforts.
Besides supporting the repopulation of native Alaskan species, the AWCC serves as an orphanage and hospital to animals that are abandoned or injured and cannot be released back into the wild. What a remarkable organization!
Adonis, an eagle whose left wing had to be amputated after a gunshot wound
Kobuk, a bear cub rescued last year after losing his mother. He’s eating a popsicle: fireweed (wildflower), dog food, and blood. Yum!
Reindeer are not indigenous to Alaska. They were brought over from Siberia in the 19th century to provide Inuits with a winter source of food.
wolf on the roof of his shelter
Finally got to see a moose, although not quite in the wild. Isn’t he handsome?
hiking the Williwaw Nature Trail
We purchased bear spray the day we got off the cruise ship. We knew we’d be doing a lot of hiking on our own–no more excursion guides to fend off the bears for us. I thought the locals would laugh at us. They’re all so into the outdoors here. Proof of residency in Alaska must be either an active hunting or fishing license, or a doctor’s note declaring you are a certified adrenaline junkie. They ride mountain bikes down black diamond ski slopes here in summer!!!
Before I left home, a friend told me that Alaskans recommend wearing jingle bells on your backpack to scare away the bears. I laughed. Jingle bells? Really? It sounded to me more like a sure-fire way to identify tourists.
When we asked the salesperson at REI in Anchorage about the necessity of bear spray, his mouth turned up a bit at the corners. He hemmed and hawed and never did give us a definitive answer, leaving us to debate amongst ourselves whether we should spend $50 for something we’d probably never use and cannot take home with us on the plane.
Well, we went for it, and we’ve carried it with us on every hike, but we’ve always felt a little like we’re wearing those jingle bells. Until we got to Girdwood. Along with our Airbnb host’s welcome note at check-in was a can of bear spray and a flyer about being “Bear Aware.” Through the front window of our apartment we have watched her neighbors walking their dogs; everyone wears a can of bear spray on his or her belt. There have been bears in the neighborhood. Our host told us that last week she found herself inadvertently positioned between a mama bear on the ground and her three cubs up in a tree–the acknowledged worst-case bear scenario.
I let Marcus carry the bear spray, afraid I would freeze on the spot should we come across a bear in the wild. I’ve taken to calling him “Bearspray,” as in “Wait up, Bearspray, don’t get too far ahead of me!”
our home away from home – well, the first floor was anyway
We spent a week in the town of Girdwood in the downstairs apartment of a lovely family.
Originally called Glacier City, the town was once located directly on Turnagain Arm, the extension of Cook Inlet south of Anchorage. Back in the day, residents made their living by supplying goods and services to the gold miners who established claims along the creeks running into Turnagain Arm.
During the 1964 earthquake, Glacier City sank ten feet below sea level and the town was exposed to frequent flooding. Most of the residents moved to a new townsite a few miles inland and renamed the town Girdwood. You can still see the “ghost forest,” a stand of trees killed by saltwater flooding, at the old townsite on the Arm.
Sue, our guard dog and bear alarm
Another generous Airbnb host sharing the local bounty – this time king (Chinook) salmon.
a whale skull – a neighbor’s front-yard decor
Girdwood survived the earthquake and relocation, thanks in part to a local ski lodge at the foot of Mount Alyeska. The lodge blossomed into the Alyeska Resort, known for its challenging ski slopes and luxury hotel. It’s the most popular ski resort in Alaska. In summer there are great hiking and fishing opportunities in the surrounding Chugach Mountains, and more people are opting to live here year round.
We traveled about 12 miles south of Girdwood to the Portage Valley, carved out by the Portage Glacier. The glacier has receded back and around a corner, so you can only see it via a boat tour on Portage Lake, but there are many other glaciers to see and hike to in the valley. We spent the day totally surrounded by the Chugach Mountains and glaciers. Spectacular!
We hiked to the snowfields of Byron Glacier.
I ran into an old childhood friend here in Alaska. It was so good to see him after all these years. Lots of fond memories with this guy. He’s looking good, don’t you think?
Remember: Only you can prevent forest fires!
August 18: It rained all day here in Girdwood, at the base of Mount Alyeska, but the top of the mountain got its first snow of the season. It looks beautiful. Winter is coming!
Trailhead for the Otterbahn
Sea otters are plentiful in Seldovia. In fact, we were greeted by an amorous couple on arrival in the boat basin. So when looking for a name for the one hiking trail in the area (I still want to say, “on the island”), I suppose that it was inevitable that someone would come up with the name Otterbahn. We hiked it to Outside Beach and back into town.
arriving at Outside Beach
view of Mount Iliamna in the Aleutian Range
We spent two nights in Seldovia. What a cute little village! Love their old Boardwalk area–the original Russian fishing village. The big earthquake in 1964 (9.2 on the Richter scale!) took down most of it, but there’s still enough left to give the village its quaintness.
Seldovia welcome by polar bear!
Chainsaw carving is big here.
the Russian Orthodox church
Eagle on bank watching dinner. Seagull on bank hoping for leftovers.
Homer Spit boat basin, aboard the ferry
Beautiful weather on our 45-minute ferry ride to the old Russian fishing village of Seldovia, across Kachemak Bay from Homer. While technically not an island, Seldovia has no roads leading to it from the rest of the Kenai Peninsula. The only way to get there is by boat or plane. Population: approximately 300. Should be quiet, peaceful, and relaxing!
Sea otter lunching on crab in Homer boat basin. Sea gull hopeful for leftovers.
the Kenai Mountains in Kachemak Bay State Park
sun came out over the Kenais
We were the only people sitting out on the patio of Homer Brewing Company enjoying the uncharacteristically sunny day and a locally crafted brew. A man in a van held together more by rust than sheet metal pulled in to the parking lot, grabbed a growler of beer and a stainless-steel cup from the passenger seat, and walked to a nearby picnic table. His greasy wool fedora was pulled down over long, thinning grey hair, and the seat of his jeans sagged as if they fit much better 20 pounds ago. Although he grudgingly responded to Marcus’s greeting as he approached, he sat with his back to us, so we didn’t engage in further conversation.
About 20 minutes later, a spectacled man in pressed jeans, a tweed jacket, and a sporty wool cap, looking very much like a community college professor, approached him and shook his hand. “Did you bring the stuff?” The scruffier dude nodded his head and went to his van. He returned with two cases held together by duct tape. The Professor opened one and peered inside. A smile crossed his face. He reached in and gingerly pulled out a guitar. The Dude, making note of the Professor’s delight, pulled a mandolin out of the second case. The hand-cut leather strap was so worn multiple holes had been cut as previous ones had given way. “That one has seen some living,” the Professor commented. “I bought it new in the ’60s,” said the Dude, his hand stroking the neck. “I had to take out a loan to buy it.” They started tuning.
As if choreographed, vans, pickup trucks, and the occasional car started pulling into the parking lot. Out came tote bags full of tablecloths, jars of homemade pickles, boxes of crackers, and neatly sliced wedges of cheese. People bought beer from the brewery and trays of fresh Kachemak Bay oysters from a little shack at the far end of the patio. More musicians arrived: guitars, a bass fiddle, banjo, harmonica, and a microphone and amp. By now the Professor and the Dude were strumming away and singing in harmony. “Do you know San Antonio Rose?” asked the Dude. In reply, the Professor strummed a few chords. The Dude joined in, and the rest followed suit.
Just another Thursday afternoon in Homer!
brewery decor–pallet planter