Alaska Railroad

 

We had beautiful weather for our trip from Anchorage to Talkeetna aboard the Alaska Railroad. The Railroad has an interesting history. In 1912, the US government was looking for a reliable, all-weather mode of transportation from the port of Seward to Fairbanks, in Alaska’s interior–a replacement for the arduous dog-sled routes. Today’s 500 miles of track was pieced together from earlier, independent railroad ventures that were financially unsuccessful.

In 1985, the state of Alaska bought the railroad from the US government, making substantial improvements and updates to a tired network. The Alaska Railroad is unique in the US in that it carries both passengers and freight. It connects to the Lower 48 and Canada not by land but by rail barge, from Whittier on the south coast to either Seattle or Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

eagle on the prowl

In addition to the usual crew aboard the train, the Railroad provides a tour guide who points out interesting sights and facts along the way and is always on the lookout for wildlife. Great trip!

trumpeter swans summering in Alaska

A conservation success story

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.

muskox

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?

Port Orford

view from Port Orford Headland

view from Port Orford Headland

Very aggressive itinerary on our relocation from Gold Beach to Newport. 185 miles on the Oregon Coast Highway (US 101). It takes approximately four hours just to drive it, but we had stops to make—important stops. This is one of the most scenic stretches of the Oregon coast. Only the most serious players qualified.

First stop: Port Orford Heads State Park. Now, don’t laugh at the State Park title. In Florida, a state park is any scrub palmetto with a fire ring next to it. Oregon state parks are worthy of national park status by a Floridian’s standards. In Oregon, you can pitch your tent next to the Pacific Ocean, or a waterfall, or a volcano, or the Cascadia Subduction Zone. (Just kidding. In Oregon it’s illegal to camp where tectonic plates collide. Some environmental thing, I guess.) State parks in Oregon are very cool.

Nellie's Cove from Port Orford Headland

Nellie’s Cove from Port Orford Headland

So, back to Port Orford. The headlands alone are worth the short hike, but as we gazed out at the Pacific from our incredible vantage point we spotted gray whales frolicking in the kelp beds below, getting their fill of krill. That alone would have made my day. I have never seen whales without paying a minor fortune, dressing up in a very unflattering one-piece neon-yellow suit, and getting bounced around in a 26-foot Zodiac for three hours. Yes, the orcas were amazing, but that was one step above Sea World compared to discovering whales on your own.

gray whale off Port Orford

gray whale off Port Orford

There's the fluke!

There’s the tail!

Then we saw the seals, or sea lions. I would like to know the difference, but the Oregonians I have asked can’t tell me. They mumble something about the color. All I know is there are two varieties of each: harbor and elephant seals, and California and Steller sea lions. So we saw some of those, just lying around on the rocks in the sun like slugs. I’ve felt that way after a very large meal, only instead of a wet, slippery rock, I prefer an overstuffed sofa. But I get the sun thing. I only wonder if their dermatologists know how much time they spend on that rock.

seals or sea lions?

seals or sea lions?

And then Marcus spotted a ginormous four-legged mammal grazing on the ridge a quarter-mile away, its profile so perfectly silhouetted against the sky that I expected to hear David Attenborough describing the autumnal dietary habits of Cervus canadensis roosevelti, the Olympic elk often seen in these parts. It had to be an elk for us to be able to see it so clearly on the ridge at that distance. We hurried down the trail, hoping to get a closer look. And we did! It was a common mule deer. Dang! Must have been a light and mirrors thing. I think I saw her snicker as we moved on.

Canadensis roosevelti?

Cervus canadensis roosevelti?

Nope! Mule deer.

Nope! Mule deer.

So a short hike on our itinerary turned into a wildlife display that took half the morning because, frankly, I had a hard time tearing myself away. Some of the best things happen when you least expect them. Just be ready to abandon the plan and go with the moment.

Crater Lake

We had a stunningly gorgeous day to explore Crater Lake National Park. Crater Lake is in the caldera of a volcano, Mount Mazama, that erupted 7700 years ago. Once the magma chamber inside the volcano was empty, the mountain top collapsed into the chamber creating the caldera. Rain and snow filled the caldera over the centuries to form the lake; there are no rivers, streams, or springs that flow into it. At 1943 feet deep, it is the deepest lake in the United States and the ninth deepest in the world. The extreme depth accounts for the sapphire-blue water.

Here’s a tip: When you enter the park, whether it’s from the north or southwest entrance, drive along the East Rim Drive first. For some reason, everyone wants to see West Rim Drive first, despite heavy traffic backups. We had the East Rim almost to ourselves.

Here’s a sampling of what we saw.

Newberry National Volcanic Monument

You can’t visit the Cascade Mountains without paying homage to the volcanoes, active and inactive, that make up the mountain chain from British Columbia south to northern California. Newberry Volcano is only one of many, but the national park is so well done that it’s worth your while to stop in here to learn a bit about the entire mountain range. Not only does the Lava Lands Visitor Center have an incredible display describing the Cascadia Subduction Zone that causes all this volcanic activity, but the grounds, which cover 50,000 acres, encompass the volcano, two volcanic alpine lakes, cinder cones, both obsidian and basaltic lava flows, and the longest lava tube (one mile) in Oregon, and miles of hiking trails to explore. Love this park! Just wish we hadn’t arrived so late in the day. It’s worth a full day of hiking and exploration.

Lava Butte cinder cone in the distance

Lava Butte cinder cone in the distance

 

basaltic lava flow with the Three Sisters mountains on the horizon

basaltic lava flow with the Three Sisters mountains on the horizon

 

Love the sagebrush mixed in with the lava!

Love the sagebrush mixed in with the lava!

 

lava cairns

lava cairns

 

ground squirrels have a field day in the lava flows - lots of nooks and crannies to hide in

ground squirrels have a field day in the lava flows – lots of nooks and crannies to hide in