The 30%

Denali, The Great One

As we rounded the bend into Talkeetna on our train ride from Anchorage, we saw this, putting us in the rare 30% of travelers who come to see Denali and actually do. Why is it so unusual to see the mountain? Denali, at 20,320 feet above sea level, is a cloud magnet. Like a boulder in a stream, the air currents and moisture swirl and dance around the mountain creating its own personal weather system. The local Athabascan tribe did not call it The Great One for nothing.

Denali or Mount McKinley? It is Denali, once again. President Obama officially restored its original Athabascan name on a visit here in 2015. Seems only right. About 10,000 years after the Athabascans named it, an American gold miner started calling it Mount McKinley in order to get the attention of presidential candidate William McKinley whose political campaign endorsed the gold standard as the basis of our economy. Even though he won the election, McKinley had no claim to the highest peak in North America. The Athabascans, who had revered it for millennia, did. Welcome back, Denali!

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

Flattop Mountain

view of Anchorage from Flattop Mountain

Great views of Anchorage and the Knik Arm from Flattop Mountain today. Okay, the weather wasn’t the best, but it was typical for Alaska. I would gladly take a bad-weather day today in trade for the gorgeous day we had on our bike ride two days ago. You can’t pick the weather, but you can check the forecast and plan accordingly!

Flattop Mountain, on the right–a strenuous hike with elevation gains we weren’t prepared to make

Bearfest?

I’ve developed a fondness for the Iditarod Trail since learning more about it in Seward. Prior to coming to Alaska, I thought the Iditarod was a sled dog race invented in the 1970s as a way to combat cabin fever. It’s just the kind of extreme winter sport an Alaskan would dream up. I find the history of the trail fascinating, especially its beginning as a discontinuous series of trails used by native tribes for everyday hunting and passage through the mountains, reminding me that Alaska’s 150-year-old American history pales in comparison to the history of its indigenous people which spans tens of thousands of years. These tribal trails were stitched together in the early 20th century by mushers who needed a continuous path to carry mail by sled from the ice-free harbor in Seward to the frozen gold mine camps of central Alaska.

You may have heard of Balto, the legendary sled dog who led the final leg of a critical run from Nenana to Nome. A deadly diphtheria epidemic had broken out in Nome in January 1925. The vaccine was transported by train from Seattle to Nenana, but the only way to get it to Nome was by sled. It took more than 20 mushers running relay almost 700 miles in a blizzard to deliver the goods. Balto kept the sled moving in near whiteout conditions. His handler, Gunnar Kaasen, said that at times he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.

Today we were in Eagle River hiking part of the Crow Pass Trail, the section of the Iditarod Trail that runs  through the Chugach Forest roughly from Mount Alyeska (Girdwood area) northward past Anchorage. I could imagine mushers making their way on the very trail we walked.

Crow Pass Trail, part of the Historic Iditarod Trail

There are so many varieties of mushrooms in this part of the Chugach Forest. We couldn’t get over the different colors, shapes, and sizes.

 

The nature trail we came here intending to hike has been closed for several weeks to allow the bears in the area to feast on salmon in the river. Salmon have been running in rivers and streams everywhere we’ve traveled in the last month, but they won’t be around much longer. Bears, although mostly herbivorous, need this opportunity to eat their fill of the food that will sustain them through their winter semi-hibernation.

But do they really need half the park to themselves? It makes me wonder what they are really up to and why we aren’t allowed to join them. I’m thinking they’re having one last wingding for the summer. Bearfest? I don’t know, but I was tempted to crash it. I think I heard live music.

Bearfest?

Back in Anchorage

riding the Coastal Trail on a bicycle built for two

We’re back in Anchorage after our three-week explore of the Kenai Peninsula. It was tempting to take a day off our first, full day here–we had a busy week in Girdwood–but I checked the weather forecast, and our first day was going to be the best weather-day of the week. So we hit the trail, the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, a brilliant 11-mile trail along the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet. We chose to bike it, rather than hoof it, and opted for a tandem bike. It worked very well. I rode in the back, which meant I didn’t have to steer or shift gears while I navigated us through all the twists, turns, tunnels and train tracks on the trail. But I still provided power, especially on the hills. (Those spinning classes really paid off!) We covered a total of 20 miles–the trail and then some–and an elevation gain of 420 feet. Not bad for a day’s ride!

the Alaska Range across the Knik Arm

 

“I’ll be right with you. Just have to find my glasses.”

 

He looks like he’s made out of beads.

 

Finally! A moose in the wild, in Kincaid Park.

 

Lunch at the Lakefront Hotel, adjacent to the world’s busiest seaplane base, Lake Hood.

 

busy airport whether taking off from land or sea

 

Bikes and cars share the road with aircraft.

Cape Perpetua

 

I didn’t know exactly what Cape Perpetua had to offer, but I was drawn by the name and the fact that it is a designated “scenic area.” In Oregon they take their scenics seriously. They have a lot to choose from. Only the best are granted the title.

No one seems to be willing to officially declare how the Cape got its name, but they will tell you that Captain James Cook was the first to reference it by that name in his ship’s log on March 7, 1778, St. Perpetua’s Day. That sounds pretty conclusive to me.

The Cape offered much more than I expected. The headland itself, the highest point on the Oregon coast at 803 feet above sea level, offers unique views of the coast afforded only by altitude. Wow!

And then we ambled across the highway to take a look at something called Devils Churn, a US Forest Service property that hadn’t even registered as a blip on my scenery radar. Wow, again! This skinny little inlet that the ocean eroded into the coastal basalt wreaks havoc with the waves. I could watch them all day, entering the inlet and colliding with previous waves that are retreating after slamming against the back wall of the inlet. When the tide is high, or the frequency and period of the waves are such that they collide with excessive force, water can project well into the air. All along this stretch of coast signs warn of “sneaker waves.” Steps allow you access to the water’s edge, but proceed at your own risk!

Here’s a video that Marcus made of Devils Churn. It’s low tide, but you get the idea.

https://youtu.be/zxR5jAnhBM4

There’s a nifty little coastal hike through the windswept Siuslaw Forest to Thor’s Well and Spouting Horn. Both are rocks undermined by the ocean to create little caverns. Eventually the ceiling of the cavern erodes so thin it caves in, which is how Devils Churn began. Spouting Horn is off of an inlet, rather than directly on the ocean, so it takes a pretty big wave at high tide to blow a spout through its hole. It was almost low tide when we were there, so we didn’t see any spouts, but we did hear a phenomenal thunderclap, like a huge bass drum, as the surf filled the cavern each time.

Thor’s Well (the name alone is intriguing) sits right on the edge of the ocean and has a wider aperture in the ceiling of its cavern, around 15 feet in diameter. You can walk out onto the rock and peer into it, if you dare. When a large wave comes in, it fills the well from below and flows up over the rim. The water pools on the rock around the well, and then drains back into the hole so rapidly when the surf retreats that it creates the effect of being sucked down into a very deep shaft. Magnificent!

Lots of sunshine and fascinating wildlife here today. Outstanding hike!

Yaquina Head Light

Yaquina Head Light

Yaquina Head Light

Pretty little Yaquina Head lighthouse at the mouth of the Yaquina River in Newport. Not to be confused with Yaquina Bay Light on the other side of Yaquina Bay. Lots of lights in this neck of the woods. Lots of rocks.

perspective

perspective

 

Newport across the bay

Newport across the bay

 

bird haven

bird haven

 

Fred and Fred

Fred and Fred

 

Devil’s Punchbowl

Devil's Punchbowl

Devil’s Punchbowl

Love this natural rock formation. We’re used to seeing the black, volcanic basalt rock along the coast. Now we’re seeing more sandstone. You can see the erosive scars from wind and rain. The name seems appropriate.

Lots of gray whales out there today.

And now for the obligatory scans up and down the coast from this vantage point….

looking north

looking north

 

looking south

looking south

 

Cape Heceta Light

Cape Heceta Light

Cape Heceta Light

It was a long day with an itinerary covering 190 miles of spectacular Oregon coastline. We managed to check out of our apartment in Gold Beach by 9:00, which for us is amazing. But then we got hung up by the stunning wildlife at Port Orford, the friendly volunteers at Cape Blanco, the intriguing walking paths at Coquille Point, the delicious Sea Star Bistro and the worthwhile Washed Ashore gallery in Old Town Bandon, and then the unbelievable dunes between Reedsport and Florence. Then the rain set in, and it was growing dark. We don’t like checking in to a new rental in the rain and the dark. All that unseen mud! We’d just have to chuck the rest of the itinerary and make a run for Newport.

I always plan more stops than we have time for, and my motto is “No regrets.” We do what we can. This is supposed to be slow travel, relaxed travel. Ix-nay on the ess-stray. As we headed to Newport, I was trying not to regret missing Cape Heceta lighthouse, reportedly one of the prettiest on the Oregon coast.

I looked up to see a sign for the Sea Lion Cave. As much as I like sea lions, I didn’t regret missing what sounded like a cheesy tourist spectacle—an elevator ride down the face of a cliff to gaze into a cavern full of Steller sea lions. I wonder what they make of that. Oh, look! Here comes another cage of tourists!

We drove on. And there it was—the coziest little lighthouse you could ever imagine nestled into the side of a rocky point, its beacon sweeping through the misty rain and out to sea. Cape Heceta! I didn’t realize it’s visible from the Oregon Coast Highway. We pulled off the road onto a conveniently situated overlook.

We rarely travel at dusk, so I’m not used to actually being able to see a lighthouse beacon. They tend to disappear in the light of day. But the rain and the hour were the ideal setting and that rocky backdrop the ideal canvas. Thomas Kinkade would have been euphoric. I stood at the overlook wall taking it all in. And then I heard the barking. Dogs? No, it was coming from the cove below us. Sea lions!

Sea lions!

Sea lions!

There was still enough light to peer into the waves 300 feet below us, and there they were. Dozens of sea lions diving into the surf in search of dinner. Dawn and dusk are optimal times to see animals in the wild foraging for food. Our timing couldn’t have been better. We stayed until the light grew too dim to see, then got back in the car and drove into the darkness. We arrived at our rental and unloaded our stuff in the pitch black (the porch light wasn’t working), but we didn’t care. Sometimes you see the most extraordinary things when you step outside your comfort zone.

Oh, look! Tourists!

Oh, look! Tourists!

Oregon Dunes

forest, dune, forest, ocean

forest, dune, forest, ocean

We’ve traveled more than half the Oregon coast, and we never grow tired of the evergreen forest that extends from the edge of the High Desert in central Oregon west to the Pacific, practically dipping its toes into the surf. Our barrier islands in Florida allow for only a thin strip of sea grape along a shallow dune, and much of that has been cultivated to prevent erosion of the dunes. Oregon is known for its dramatic volcanic headlands overlooking beaches strewn with sea stacks, those stubborn little knots of rock left standing on the beach after the softer rock around them erodes away.

dune

forest and dune?

So it was disconcerting to emerge from the Siuslaw National Forest on Oregon’s central coast to see not rock but sand dunes. And not just any dunes. These are massive dunes, some reputed to peak at 500 feet above sea level. According to Wikipedia, this is the largest stretch of coastal dunes (40 miles) in North America—the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.

sand

dune

Because of the rain that started just as we arrived, we weren’t able to get out amongst them, but the view we had from the Oregon Dunes Overlook was startling: forest interrupted by a wide belt of sand, so that we looked out over forest, then dunes, then forest, then—way off in the distance—ocean. Such an anomaly of nature. Who would have thought?

rain

rain