Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Black Bear

I gave you a little teaser yesterday with the close up photo of a grizzly bear.  No, we didn't encounter the bear on a hike in the woods.   The bear was one of several at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

One the Seward Highway between Portage and Girdwood we found the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.    AWCC takes in injured and orphaned animals and provides spacious enclosures and care. Animals that cannot be released into the wild are given a permanent home at the center.  Others are released back into the wild.

We visited the center by walking around and watching the bears, bison, caribou, fox, and porcupine.   It was the first porcupine either of us had seen and I can't say that we saw much of him.   He was mostly sleeping and poked his head out once to look around.

We arrived just in time to catch the end of the bear feeding.   The center has built a high boardwalk above the bear habitat and the bears were out for dinner.   There were several grizzlies on one side and black bears on the other.  We didn't get to see bears close up in the wild so this was the next best thing.

Gotta Love That Face
Prior to the 20th century, Wood Bison inhabited Alaska and northwestern Canada for thousands of years. They disappeared from the state within the past 200 years, likely from a change in habitat distribution and effects of unregulated hunting. They were declared extinct in 1941 but a small herd was discovered in Canada in 1957.   The AWCC has maintained and grown a heard  since 2003.  In July of this year they released the latest of 130 Wood Bison back into the wilds of Alaska in and effort to restore the herds.  Most are wearing radio collars so they can be tracked and monitored.
Wood Bison

One of the more animated animals there was a Red Fox.   He was curious and seemed to want to know what we were up to. He was constantly moving around but would stop and look at us, giving me a great opportunity for a portrait shot.

Red Fox

Although we had seen several Moose on our first day in Denali, we enjoyed watching this big guy.    
Bull Moose
They also had a few birds of prey in one area.   Adonis arrived at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in 1995 after being shot.  His left wing required a full amputation as a result. Even though it is illegal to harm an eagle under the Bald Eagle Protection Act, an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 eagles are shot or injured in the United States each year. Since Adonis cannot fly, he has found a permanent home  at the AWCC.
If you are traveling between Anchorage and Seward be sure to stop off for a couple hours and visit the center.   It's a great way to experience Alaska's wildlife up close.  They are a non-profit so you might want to consider a donation as well.

What are we up to tomorrow?   Here's a hint.  
Your Chariot Awaits

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Time for another break

I'm going to have to skip blogging for today.   I'll be back tomorrow with another chapter.   In the mean time, enjoy this one shot from Alaska.

I can bearly wait for the next blog
I was that close, but this was at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Portage Glacier and The Strange Little Town of Whittier

Peaceful Scene

Portage Glacier

We didn't take a glacier cruises in Kenai Fjords National Park but we did get to take one on an inland lake.  

Near the road to Whittier is what’s left of Portage Alaska. The community at the end of Turnagain Arm was home to almost 100 residents until the 1964 Good Friday earthquake caused the shoreline to drop between 6 - 12  flooding the town and surrounding area with salt water. All that remains of the original village are a few structures sinking into the nearby mud flats and scattered stands of dead trees.

Portage Glacier

The Begich-Boggs Visitor Center was built on the shore of Portage Lake.  It is a very nice place to stop with interesting programs and displays. What it doesn't have anymore is a view of Portage Glacier.  Portage Glacier is in retreat, and is no longer visible from the center’s observation decks and telescopes.  To get up close to the glacier, we took the hour-long sightseeing boat cruise on Portage Lake.

The skies were clear and the sun was very bright the day we boarded the MV Ptarmigan to tour across the lake to the glacier.  When we got close we saw that the sun was shining through the glacial ice highlighting the blue color of the ice.

Portage Glacier got it's name because it is on a portage route between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm. Hundreds of years ago the glacier filled the entire Portage Valley, a distance of 14 miles, and was connected to what are now five separate glaciers.  Walking across the glacier was the best way to cross.

Portage Glacier

While on the boat June noticed a few very fit young men on the boat.   She leaned over and whispered to me "those guys are packin!"   They also had Secret Service patches on their jackets.   It was the afternoon after President Obama had been in the area.  We decided they were taking some personal time and visiting the sites.   It was probably the safest place to be that day.

Waiting Our Turn

Whittier Alaska

After we left Portage Lake we headed toward the town of Whittier.   During World War II the United States Army constructed a military base, complete with port and railroad  near the Whittier glacier. The spur of the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1943 and the port became the entrance for United States soldiers into Alaska.  This base eventually became the town of Whittier.

Until 15 years ago the only way to get to Whittier in winter was by boat.   In 2000 Alaska converted the World War II rail tunnel to handle cars, as well as trains.  At 2.5 miles long the tunnel is the longest combined car - rail tunnel in North America.  I din't even know there was such a thing until we drove it.   It's still a rough tunnel with rock walls just wide enough for the railroad.  Driving the tunnel is an experience.

Cars can only cross once an hour in either direction and the tunnel has to be aired out after each trip.  The tunnel actually closes at 10:30 at night.  You don't want to come home late!

Perhaps the strangest thing about Whittier is most of the town,  including its hospital, school and city government, functions within one self-sufficient structure: a Cold War block structure that dominates the town.   The building seems so out of place at the edge of a small fishing village of 200 people.  It just doesn't belong.

Buckner Building
When it was built by the Army, the 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers Condominiums) contained 150 two and three bedroom apartments plus bachelor efficiency units. The new Whittier School was connected by a tunnel at the base of the west tower so students could go to school in short sleeves on the very worst weather days.  That arrangement is still in place today.  Residents can stay within the warm confines of the buildings without having to go outside.

The other structure, the Buckner Building, was completed in 1953, and was called the "city under one roof". The mammoth, sturdy structure had  a movie theater, a bowling alley, and a jail. The military has long left and abandoned the building to the harsh Alaska weather.    

I would love to explore inside that old building.   Urban decay photography is something I'd love to try, but I'm just not much into breaking and entering government property.

We wandered around town for a while and soon realized that as a destination, Whittier is a bust. We were soon back in line to drive the 2.5 miles through the tunnel to the other side of the mountain.

In the next installment we make our way to the town of Girdwood before heading back to Anchorage.   Be sure to come back and read about bears, moose, elk, porcupines, and beluga whales.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Couple Days in Seward Alaska

View From Seward Byway

The town of Seward Alaska was about 20 miles down the Seward Highway from our little cabin on Kenai Lake.  We made that trip two or three times.  It's a beautiful drive passing by mountains with hanging glaciers, lakes, streams, and miles and miles of evergreen trees.

Starting in Anchorage, the Seward Highway snakes around the coastline through the Kenai Peninsula for 127 miles.  The highway was designated a National Forest Scenic Byway by the U.S. Forest Service on September 8, 1989. Later, the State of Alaska added it to the State Scenic Byway system on January 29, 1993, when the Seward Highway was named an All-American Road as part of the National Scenic Byway program by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. This is not a road you take to get to a destination as quickly as possible.  There are numerous interesting places to stop and enjoy along the way.   If you go, take your time and enjoy the ride.   I'll be sharing more sites from the Seward Highway in the next couple posts.

For most of the drive you'll not find the typical tourist businesses along the way.   There are few hotels or restaurants.   Along the highway we ate at the campground restaurant in Moose Pass (population 200) and at the Exit Glacier Salmon Bake.   Despite what their sign says, the Salmon Bake is a great place to stop and eat.

Who could resist this kind of marketing?

It's also an interesting place to take photos.  They had a collection of interesting old stuff outside, including this boat and truck.  I doubt the truck still runs and the bottom of the boat was rotted through, but they make interesting subjects.  

The inside of the restaurant is a collection space for all kinds of interesting old stuff.  No camera shots from the inside.  After climbing the Harding Icefields Trail we were more interested in eating than taking pictures.

We didn't get to see sea life on the planned sea kayaking trip so we did the next best thing and visited the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.   Alaska’s only public aquarium and ocean wildlife rescue center is located right on Resurrection Bay.  Inside we were able to have close encounters with puffins, octopus, sea lions and other sea life.

The puffins were especially fun for us to watch.  They are comical birds.  One in particular would get in the middle of the pool and swim around and around in circles.   Unfortunately, they were in a glassed in enclosure and the glass was not real clean on their side.  I didn't get many good pictures of them, but we sure did enjoy watching them waddle, swim, and dive deep under the water.  If you are in Seward, take a few hours and visit the center.

On August 30 we took a hike from Seward to Tonsina Creek, a scenic 3 mile trail that takes about 1 hour in each direction.  The trail starts in a camping area about 100 feet above Resurrection Bay. The first half of the trail is wide and pretty much up hill.  There were trees across the trail in several places, having been blown over by the recent high winds.   Our destination was Tonsina Creek that empties into the bay so the second half was all downhill, reclaiming all that elevation we gained in the first half.

Tonsina Creek
Swimming Up Stream
The final decent is over a series of boardwalks placed in a zig zag switchback pattern ending at a foot bridge over Tonsina Creek.  The Seagulls were there because the creek was full of Salmon attempting to swim up stream to spawn where they were born. The photos have an abstract artsy feel.

There were almost as many dead Salmon as there were live ones.  The birds seemed to zero in on a section in the fish's tail, pecking a hole and eating what must be prime eats for Seagulls.

It's A Struggle

It was low tide when we were there and we were able to walk out on what is the bottom or the bay at high tide.  At one point we are walking through a grassy area and came upon a dead Salmon on the trail, left there when the tide went out.
Resurrection Bay
The rhythmic waves in the bay had created ridges in the sand.   They seemed to be reaching for the mountains on the other side of the bay.

Patterns In The Sand
Seward is a destination for cruise ships in Alaska.  There were two in port that day and both left while we were exploring Tonsina Creek area.   Neither ship was huge.  I doubt the bay, port or town could accommodate a mega cruse ship or the hordes of people that disgorge all at once.

Holland America Zaandam
Tomorrow we leave Seward and head back north, stopping for an inland glacier cruise and a visit to the unusual little town of Whittier.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Lower Trail Lake and Vagt Lake

On Sunday August 30 we are starting to  near the end of our vacation.  This is the day we were supposed to do a sea kayak trip to Kanai Fjords, paddle around glaciers and possibly see some wildlife.    We tried the kayak trip two days but it was canceled both days due to high winds and ten foot waves.  We were really looking forward to that part of our trip.  We had been training in a kayak at home to prepare for the all day trip.  We brought rain pants, paddling gloves and extra layers of quick dry clothing for that adventure.  I even had a waterproof camera from my friend John Barrett. This will have to be something we try again on our next trip to Alaska.

Instead we decided to explore some of the area around Moose Pass.   We picked the Lower Trail Lake and Vagt Lake.  That's not a typo, the name of the lake is Lower Trail Lake.

Lower Trail Lake
Looking for Wildlife
What a cold day!   The winds were pretty strong and created white caps on that little lake.   This was not the day for photographing beautiful reflections in the surface of a calm lake. We walked along the shore for a while watching for wildlife.  All we saw were some Sea Gulls and dead fish washed up on shore.   I think the sea gulls were there for an easy meal.

We left the shores of Lower Trail Lake and headed up the Vagt Lake Trail.  This easy 4 mile hike took us through forests carpeted with green plants and plenty of mushrooms. Some of the online reviews of this trail say it's only for fishermen to get to Vagt Lake, but we found it to be interesting and had some pretty spots along the way.

Sometimes it's difficult to stop and set up to take macro (close up) photos along a trail like this.   When I set up my tripod will often block the path.  I have to set up and make the shot before having to move the tripod to let another hiker pass by.   This was not a problem on this hike.   We had the forest and trail to ourselves.

I think this would be a great place for the mythical little men known as Leprechauns.  According to legend, they eat nettles and berries.  Leprechauns love Mushrooms especially mushroom tea. We had all three in abundance. We didn't see any.  Maybe they saw us first?
Mushrooms and Bunchberries

The Bunchberries were plentiful along the trail.   A member of the dogwood family, these grow close to the ground.  In the early summer they have white flowers like the dogwood tree and in late summer their berries turn bright red.

Field of Cotton-Grass

After taking a fisherman's trail part of the way around Vagt Lake, we back tracked and found a nice little beach area.  It was obviously used for camping and fishing at times.  Still no one in sight.  We did see plenty of animal tracks all along the trail. We were certainly staying alert for bear on this trail!

Not Exactly A Sea Kayak

Vagt Lake

It was still pretty windy and while there were no white caps on Vagt Lake, we weren't going to see any reflections of the mountains in the lake today.   There were these beautiful grasses growing along the lake shore.  They were swaying in the wind like wheat in a field.

After a lunch break at the fisherman's camp, we headed back down the trail and out.

Tomorrow's blog post will be about Tonsina Point,  Tonsina Creek, and hundreds of salmon.

Friday, September 25, 2015

We Didn't Run Up Mount Marathon

In the town of Seward Alaska there is a mountain.   It used to be called Lowell Mountain but has been renamed to Mount Marathon because every year eight-hundred people participate in a 3-mile, round-trip foot race that takes them up 3,022 feet from the town to the top of the mountain and back down.  The ascent is covered in less than a mile!

Think about that for a minute.   A strenuous hike like what we did to the Harding Icefield gains about 1,000 in a mile.   This is over three times as steep.   If you want an idea of what the race is like head on over to this photo gallery.   These people are crazy.

This crazy race started as a barroom bet. Some locals bet the mountain couldn’t be tackled in one hour. On July 4th in 1915, a small group of local men attempted to win the bet. The race winner lost the bet when he crossed the finish line in 62 minutes.  The current race record is 43 minutes and 22 seconds.

This is an extreme sport.  We started to walk up the race route and realized we didn't want to do that.   We found the Jeep Trail a few blocks down.

Devil's Club--also known as  "Alaskan Ginseng"

You start out on the Jeep Trail, which is a steep rocky path that rescue vehicles use when people get into trouble on the mountain.   After a short heart pounding climb up that trail we reached this picturesque little waterfall.  The plant with the red berries is called Devil's Club.  Looks like it could be a favorite food for bears.

The trail left the Jeep Trail and wandered up the mountain.  At one point it ran parallel to this little creek.   I really likes the very green moss covered rocks.   It was a bright sunny day, making this shot difficult.

Seward and Resurrection Bay
Be sure to click the photo above for a wide view.

We reached a point in the trail where we could see over the brush and caught sight of Resurrection Bay.   Cruise ships come into the bay to get to the port of Seward.

We never did reach the summit.  We got to a point where the trail "appeared" to go up a steep gravel field.  I say it appeared only because we couldn't see where else it could go.  There were no markers or any way to tell if we were heading in the right direction.   It wasn't easy going up that hill, and even harder coming back down.   After a while we decided we had seen enough and headed back down to the town.

While the Jeep Trail route up the mountain is tamer than the way the runners go, it was not an easy hike.  There are very steep places where you have to scramble up and down on all fours.   But the views are worth it!

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Exit Glacier and The Harding Icefield

As promised, today I'm reliving our experience at the Exit Glacier near Seward Alaska.  We were in the part of Kenai Fjords National Park that is accessible by car, just a short drive from Seward.   Nearly 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield in the National Park.  We had planned to kayak to the other side of the Icefield where the glaciers flow into the Fjords, but that wasn't to be on this trip.   Gale force winds and 10 foot seas are not idea conditions for kayaking among the glaciers.

These photos were actually taken on two different days.  The first day we only explored the lower part of the Exit Glacier.

Exit Glacier
It is one of the most accessible valley glaciers in Alaska and is a visible indicator of glacial recession due to climate change.   Exit Glacier retreated approximately 187 feet from 2013 to 2014 and the recession continues to accelerate. We'll not get into the cause here.

It received its name because it served as the exit for the first recorded crossing of the Harding Icefield in 1968.
Glacier was here in 2005

There are a number of hiking trails that start at the Visitor Center.  Most people do the short hikes to where you can see the glacier up close and see how far it has retreated.   It's easily accessible by most anyone.

Sometimes it's possible to walk right up to the glacier.  We were not able to get to it because the runoff was too high to cross.   We weren't about to wade across knee deep freezing water that was rushing around the rocks.
Glacier Melt Runoff

Glacial ice is a different color from regular ice. It is so blue because the ice is very dense from years of being compressed by the weight of snow and ice.  The dense ice of the glacier absorbs every other color of the spectrum except blue - so blue is what we see!
Blue Ice
The next day we went back to try the Harding Icefields Hike.  When we got to the Visitors Center it was cold!   The wind was blowing across the icefield and down the glacier right into the parking lot.  Knowing we were going to climb several thousand feet and we expected to be in extreme cold conditions.  We bundled up and headed up the trail.

At one point we had a pretty good view of the Exit Glacier from the side.   We could see a guided group walking on the glacier.   It looked like fun and maybe we'll do that next time.

You can't get an appreciation of the size of the glacier in the photo above.  Can you find the people in the photo below?  They are there.

It turned out to be a lot warmer than we anticipated.   After a while a lot of our clothes were in our packs.   At the 1.4 mile mark, after climbing about 1,000 feet we reached Marmot Meadows.  Up to this point we had been hiking in trees or brush.  The meadows were open and covered with lush green foliage.  This was a nice place for a snack break.

Marmot Meadows
There was a group of Mountain Goats there also taking a snack break.  They were concentrating on eating and didn't pay any attention to us.

Billy or Nanny?
Both male (Billy) and female (Nanny) mountain goats have beards, short tails, and long black horns.   They are right at home on the steep cliffs, negotiating hill sides with a 60 degree slant!

A Little Head Butting

Little Kid
After a while the goats moved on and it was time to start the more strenuous part of the climb.   It is 4.1 miles and 3.300 foot elevation gain from the trail head to the end of the trail.  We still had a ways to go.   Very soon it was getting cold and we had all our layers of hiking clothes back on.

When we reached the icefield the views were spectacular!  Ice as far as you can see with the tops of mountains peaking out of the ice.

Harding Icefield 
It was a beautiful day with blue blue skies and white clouds.  It was also very windy.  Those gale force winds down at sea level were really strong up here at the mountain top.   There were places where we almost turned back because the trail was narrow on a steep grade and the wind was trying to blow us off the mountain.

Standing Against The Wind
 We persevered and reached the "End Of The Trail" at mile 4.1.   The elevation here was 3,842 feet above sea level.

The terrain in this area looked like Mordor in the Lord of The Rings.   Nothing grows up here except some mosses in the rocks.   The ground is covered with glacial moraine and snow.  Moraines are accumulations of dirt and rocks that have fallen onto the glacier surface or have been pushed along by the glacier as it moves. At one time all this land was covered by glaciers and this moraine was left by the glaciers as they retreated.

It was time to head back down the mountain.  Here's our view as we started back.   Can you see the hiker on the trail?
The Long Trail Back
When we got back to the Visitors Center around 5:30 in the afternoon we saw the following sign posted at the trail head.

The park was closing at midnight and everyone, including back country campers, had to be out.   Recall what happened in Alaska on September 1?   President Obama visited the park and hiked up to the Exit Glacier overlook the next day.  We noticed there were porta-potties near the trail head that weren't there earlier in the day.  I guess those were for the Secret Service Agents that had to stay out there all night.

This hike was one of the highlights of our trip.   I can recommend it for anyone who is fit enough to do the strenuous hike.   Plan to spend a day.  It will take 6 - 8 hours.