Alaska Part XIII , trip day 10-11; July 11-12, 2018
Somehow, despite a year of planning, scheduling, stressing, and preparing, our highly anticipated trip to Alaska drew to a close. We woke up Wednesday morning to a bright day and began reluctantly packing our luggage and carry-ons for the impending flight rather than a day of driving to a new lodging. We had to make sure that phone/kindle chargers were in our carry-ons, and Ian’s hot wheels case was properly arranged for the flight.
We hiked one last trip down to the river to burn a few more mental images of the Kasilof, then back to the cabin for Brinn to pack our fish in the cooler we purchased on our first day in Alaska. For a relatively inexpensive insulated cooler, we are pleased with the results! It successfully hauled our food all around the south-central region of Alaska, and got our fish home in still frozen condition!
With the Sequoia loaded, we pulled out and left our cabin behind unlocked, because the owners assured us that there are no need for locks in Alaska! We headed north and traveled back through Soldotna, and enjoyed our last views of the Kenai River and my now favorite shade of blue. In fact, I later took this image to Lowe’s to match the color to repaint my bedroom walls! The sun even came out for our last day of driving.
Of course we had to stop at Summit Hill Lodge once we made it that far since we learned that it’s our favorite cafe in the country. Another fun stop on the way back was off of the Seward Highway at Canyon Creek. This tributary runs into the infamous Six Mile Creek, which we didn’t have the opportunity to raft. Nonetheless, it was still a fun hike around CC, and there were bathrooms! You can tell we’re getting further north at this point because the beautiful blue water starts to regain the silty, gray glacier runoff. Goodbye beautiful Kenai blue!
Our drive brought us back along the coast as we crept back up the peninsula. Finally arriving in Anchorage, we stopped for an early dinner in a small diner where I had the spiciest bowl of tortilla soup I’ve ever encountered. We returned the Long House Hotel for an evening nap, then we headed to Ted Stevens Airport to put an end to our magical vacation. As the airport itself contained many displays and artifacts, we were able to almost consider it a slight extension of our touring.
I’ve never been one to find disappointment in airport food, but Anchorage sure did know how to cater to groggy, hungry travelers at 1:00 AM. Brinn wondered around and found an Alaska pizza: caribou, moose, and elk! It’s too bad we failed to discover this delicacy before our last hour in the state.
Sitting in the airport waiting for our 1:30 AM boarding time, we experienced the most darkness of our entire trip. A storm was moving in, bringing dark clouds that masked the dusky twilight that we usually saw at night. Our weary selves were thrilled to finally have the sun dimmed for a bit. In fact, some of my soundest sleep of the entire trip was in the darkness of Seattle during our layover!
Our last full day in Alaska was probably the least exciting, but we were still fortunate to experience amazing contrasting views. The day started midways down the Kenai Peninsula, and took us all the way back to Anchorage. We saw a wide variety of flora and fauna, with the peninsula’s sights contrasting sharply with Anchorage’s. I spent most of the drive trying to commit all of the grandeur to memory. My biggest regret at this point was not requesting an entire month off of work. I think we all would have happily stayed another two weeks!
When I originally started planning our Alaska trip, I intentionally left two days open with no reservations. We filled the first of these open days with our excursion to Homer. The second day I was loosely keeping open for a trip to Seward to see glaciers. While camping at Frozen Head State Park in June, we lucked out in setting up our camper next to a couple who were relocating from Alaska! While discussing our upcoming trip, they offered lots of advice that helped finalize some of our itinerary choices. When I mentioned a glacier tour to Seward, both husband and wife emphatically agreed that we should visit Whittier instead. They insisted that we would see more glaciers by cruising directly from the Prince William Sound. So a month later, when we were enjoying breakfast in Wasilla at Lake Lucille, we discussed our last unscheduled day, and made the decision to jump online and book a cruise out of Whittier.
A one-way tunnel through the mountain limits all access to and from Whittier and the Seward Highway. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel passes through Maynard Mountain for 13,300 feet, making it the second-longest highway tunnel in North America! Cars also share the tunnel with trains, so the Department of Transportation must stick to a rigid schedule of when each group is allowed passage through the tunnel. Cars traveling to Whittier are allowed through on the half hour, while cars leaving Whittier are allowed through on the hour. This meant that we had to plan our drive time from Soldotna so that we did not miss our window of opportunity to go through the tunnel during the right hour and risk missing our cruise departure!
We left our Kasilof cabin early to start our trek to Whittier, and stopped for a much needed bathroom break at Summit Lake Lodge Cafe. Their convenient location and road access drew us to stop, but once we entered their coffee shop, we fell in love! Brinn and I enjoyed the best chai lattes of our lives while Grandpoppa had a giant coffee and Ian enjoyed a hot cocoa. We also loaded up baked goods as well to fortify us for the rest of the drive.
Fortunately we made it to the tunnel in plenty of time, and had the luxury of sitting and waiting for our turn to pass. Ian lost interest in the tunnel about half way through, but the rest of us found it impressive, and at times even a little eerie. Fortunately we passed through and emerged unscathed into the small town of Whittier. This small city claims a population of 214, all living in the same building! As a former military town, Whittier provides a port on the west side of the Prince William Sound. This is the port we planned to leave out of for our cruise.
We chose to experience the Glacier Quest Cruise with Phillips Cruises and Tours. The 26 Glacier Cruise option would have allowed us to see considerably more glaciers, but the full five hours versus 3 and half hours seemed a bit daunting for Ian’s attention span, so we decided to save a few bucks and play it safe with the shorter cruise. Had we known Ian would sleep for half the trip, we would have booked the longer cruise! Our package allowed to see seven glaciers and quite a bit of wildlife along our way!
Once our ship departed, we were served lunch which we were able to pre-select when we made our reservations. Grandpoppa and I had a bowl of chili while Brinn enjoyed a salmon chowder. Ian snacked on fruit and chips. The cruises out of Seward included prime rib and salmon…but they also cost quite a bit more than our cruise! We ate while our ship slowly chugged into the Sound, and a park ranger narrated our trip. She explained that we were actually in the Chugach National Forest, which is a temperate rain forest. She gave us an overview of the glaciers we would visit as we eased through Blackstone Bay. These included Tebenokof, Blackstone, and Beloit glaciers.
After finishing lunch, Brinn and I left the warm, comfortable cabin to stand in the rain and spray on deck to marvel at waterfalls pummeling straight down the sides of the mountains into the fjord. Luckily we were prepared by our friends from Frozen Head and dressed for the experience so we were able to stay comfortably dry. Ian stood out with us part of the time, but ultimately he was happier to watch from his cushioned booth inside the ship while eating snacks and completing his junior ranger packet. Grandpoppa came out to join us on deck a few times, but he spent most of the time in the cabin so that someone stayed with Ian.
The ship had a secondary story (is that the correct term? It doesn’t sound very nautical) with benches so that we could sit up top and view the geology around us, but ultimately I enjoyed standing against the rails on the bow the most. I looked in the wrong direction at the wrong time, but Brinn’s better timing allowed him to watch part of a glacier calving off into the sea! At this point I gave up and returned to the cabin to thaw out and let my rain gear dry out a bit.
While sitting in the cabin with a sleeping Ian, I admired the bravery of sea kayakers to battle the elements. From my warm, comfortable position, I didn’t envy them too much. Some sea otters swam beside our ship for a good distance, and later we got to see quite a few birds making their home along the cliffs. At this point, the crew brought out fresh baked chocolate chip cookies.
You would think that by this point, glaciers would have lost some of their impact since we’d seen them for a week now, but I don’t think it’s possible to lose their impressiveness. To see Denali and experience a glacier were the main goals I had for our Alaska trip, but our cruise allowed me to check an item off my bucket list: visit a fjord.
Have I mentioned that Alaska summers have a lot of daylight? We spent the entire day fishing on Spirit Lake and still had more than enough daylight for Brinn and Ian to return to the Kasilof River when we got back to our cabin. So after day of catching fish, they caught some more fish. We definitely were making good progress on our collection to bring home!
Bright and early after our usual vacation breakfast of toast, jam, eggs, and bacon, we hit the road for a day trip to Homer, halibut capital of the world. Our itinerary included a trip to the famed Homer Spit, a stretch of land at the tip of the Kenai peninsula which extends out into the Kachemak Bay. The entire spit is less than 5 miles long, and in some places, you can easily see both sides of the bay surrounding it.
Ignorantly, I assumed since we were moving further south we would be warmer. The first stop I begged for once we reached the spit was for me to run into a shop to buy a pair of wool socks to save my poor sandaled feet! I was flat-out a dummy. I should have known better after our chilly day on the lake, but I guess I was hoping to avoid getting sand in my shoes. So instead I got sand in a pair of wool socks!
The spit had a great variety of neat shops. We visited tons of markets to buy fresh or frozen seafood as well boutique type shops offering local art. Brinn and I selected a few cards to bring home and frame, but we haven’t quite gotten around to that just yet. I’ll bet the clothing stores made a killing selling socks, sweatshirts, and hats to gumby tourists like me!
After some shopping, we started weighing our options for lunch. Obviously the boys wanted fried halibut. When in Rome… We easily weeded out the few non fish options (there was actually a pizza place on the spit) but had a harder time deciding which place was for us. We ultimately ended up going with the Harbor Grill, largely for its location. The Harbor Gill was located right next to the dock, so Brinn was able to watching fishing boats come in and unload giant drums of halibut. The limit in Homer is only two halibut per person per day, but these fish were so big that a couple of people could bring home 80-100 pounds of fish from one trip! Grandpoppa and Brinn enjoyed their fried fish, as they should. It was likely the most expensive fried food any of us have ever had! I had shrimp, which was good, but not $30 good. Great experience, but not one we’ll likely repeat.
With full bellies, we stopped for a quick beach visit. Ian only made two requests when we were planning our Alaska trip: to ride behind sled dogs, and to go to the beach. We’d already accomplished his first request, so the second was easy enough. Down to the water we went. And for all that is holy, that may very well have been the coldest water I’ve experienced in my entire life. Ian settled into playing in the black sand with some of his toys while Brinn and I walked the water line, keeping him in our line of sight. We frequently had to step around giant piles of dead, squishy seaweed, and occasionally stop to grab a smooth stone for Ian’s rock collection. I only made it for about 45 minutes before I begged Ian to cut his beach trip short so I could return to the warm car!
Desperate to warm up, I was completely happy to spend some time exploring Homer by car. We did stop to view a glacier that extends into Kachemak Bay, and we even drove out to see the road that the Kilcher family (from Alaska: The Last Frontier) lives. After seeing a few more sights, we stumbled on the Pratt Museum. We stopped in here to learn more about the area, its activities, and its wildlife. Then we found a manicured trail right outside the museum, so Brinn, Ian, and I went hiking for an hour while Grandpoppa took a break and reviewed his museum photos.
After our hike, we were all ready to head back to our cabin and rest so that we could get an early start for our adventure to Whittier. Ian settled in to watch Balto for the 47th time. Grandpoppa laid down to read up on our drive to Whittier. Brinn returned to the river to get in as much salmon time as he possibly could. I did none of those things. Instead I jumped into a hot shower and tried to warm my core back up. After finally feeling like a mammal again, I drug a rocking chair in front of my bedroom window overlooking the Kasilof, wrapped up in blankets, and alternated between watching the river and reading. In my world, this is pretty much the recipe for a perfect evening.
After driving down the Kenai Peninsula we finally made it to our cabin on the Kasilof River. Here we finally had the opportunity to truly relax into our space. Unlike Otto Lake, we didn’t have to share a kitchen or bath with other tourists, so we could leave fishing gear on the deck without worry of getting in someone’s way, and the cabin rental included access to a storage building which had a freezer for fish we might catch, as well as poles and waders for our use! The owners of this cabin eat, breath, and sleep fishing. The company we rented from, Widespread Fishing, offers two different locations for rentals. The owner, Reubin, talked us into one of the cabins on the Kasilof River. They also have a lodge on the Kenai River, but I think Kasilof was the right place for us. The heart of Widespread Fishing is their fishing charters.
Brinn and Ian wasted no time in exploring our section of the Kasilof as soon as we dumped our bags on our beds. Once you left our front door, hop down the steps, turn left at the forest, and follow the trail right to the banks of the breathtaking Kasilof River. Brinn had finally arrived at sockeye salmon fishing Mecca, and he had no time to consider doing anything else with his evening, so he went straight to the river to try his hand at “flossing.” We were in for a world of education for Alaska Department of Game and Fish requirements. Our neighbor informed us that game wardens will sit in hidden areas along the river to observe fisherman to make sure they abide by department guidelines. For a bunch of TN creek and lake fishers, it was odd to put absolutely nothing on a hook. We couldn’t even use a fly. Our neighbor showed Brinn how to floss his line across the river in order to snag on the lip of a salmon swimming past. The whole process baffled me, but Brinn found a great deal of success with it!
Brinn managed to pull in a sockeye his first evening on the water. The sockeye, or “red salmon” has a red body with a green head. I can’t say that they are the most attractive fish species I’ve encountered, but everyone sure seemed to enjoy how they tasted. After catching this bad boy, Brinn dashed back to the cabin to filet it out and prep some foil packets for the grill. I was in charge of sides while Brinn took over the grilling portion of the meal for the evening. One salmon fed our group of four with plenty more to freeze and bring home with us! As beautiful as this meal plated, Brinn wolfed his down quickly so he could spend more time on the river.
The next morning, we had finally had an opportunity for a late start as we didn’t have to leave for our fishing trip until 10:00 AM, but Brinn took off early to head back down to the river. At this point I had decided that Reubin was a genius for putting us in this cabin. Brinn could fish to his heart’s contentment without requiring the rest of us to load up in the car and all go together since it was our only source of transportation. He had a quick breakfast, and got in an hour of salmon fishing before we began packing for our guided fishing trip.
When I spoke with Reubin over the phone way back in the early winter of 2018, he suggested that we visit Spirit Lake for our guided trip. Widespread Fishing offers a variety of fishing packages, including salmon fishing on the Kenai or Kasilof rivers, Halibut fishing on the Pacific in Homer, or trout fishing on Spirit Lake. Due to Ian’s age and attention span, Reubin speculated that halibut and salmon fishing might be a bit boring as we could go all day without a bite. But he promised that we would have good luck pulling them in on Spirit Lake. I was a bit skeptical at first about trout fishing, since Tennessee has plenty of trout available, but Reubin promised that it would be a good experience. I booked a charter for the three boys, and then Reubin offered to let me ride along for free. I hesitated, as I was kind of looking forward to a whole day of hanging by myself to sit by the river and read. But then Reubin filled my head with grandeur of Alaska. He insisted that we would have the opportunity to see bald eagles fly over head, moose come to drink, and maybe even a bear or two! So I gave in and made plans to go. And how thankful I am that I went.
We were warned by every member of Widespread Fishing’s staff to dress warmly for our trip. We’d been sweating just two days earlier, and now we were preparing for 50 degrees in rain! Veterans of cold watersports, we pulled our kayaking gear out and fitted ourselves with base layers, fleece, and waterproof outer layers. We even put Ian in his paddling booties and hydroskin socks to make sure his feet stayed warm. I don’t think any of us got too cold on our trip, but we weren’t exactly stripping layers off, either. With half our gear on, and the other half packed in an NRS bag, we piled into the Sequoiah and headed out to meet Trevin, our fishing guide for the day. We followed Trevin to the middle of nowhere down dirt roads where we would’ve been completely lost on our own, then suited up while he launched our boat. We grabbed a bag of snacks, secured Ian’s life vest, and we were off!
The sky stayed dark and grey the entire day. The rain drizzled almost non stop. And despite both, the scenery was something from an adventure book. Spirit Lake, nestled into Native American lands, finds itself so far off the beaten trail that not many people venture to it. We saw an occasional house on the lake, but very few, and at times, we saw no evidence of humankind. Mountains rose up around us, while my favorite spruce trees surrounded us. Trevin set up the lines for each of the guys, and showed them where to cast. In no time at all we had bites coming in. Regardless of whose line, everyone let Ian reel most of them in. He pulled in quite a few kokanee, a landlocked salmon, and even a dolly varden! Brinn and my dad had the chance to pull a few in as well, but they continued to let Ian have the majority of them, until Ian had some competition.
Eagles! We were delighted the first time we saw an Eagle pass over the lake, but quickly dismayed as it swooped down to the water with the intent to grab Ian’s fish! Trevin waved his arms and yelled at the bird, successfully chasing it away, but as our trip continued the birds became more aggressive and less skittish. Trevin said that he had never seen eagles do this. We had to do battle for our catch, but in the end, the eagles left disappointed and we left with a mess of kokanee, trout, and one dolly varden.
After a while Ian started to grow tired of sitting, so Trevin offered to let him drive the boat. This quickly became Ian’s favorite event. If you ask him now what his favorite part of Alaska, he’ll likely answer with cuddling with the Iditarod pups or driving the boat. After the fish seemed to quit biting, we pulled in all the lines and Trevin helped Ian to “drive fast.” After some fast cruising, we all decided we were ready to head in. Once we beached the boat, Trevin cleaned all of our fish so that we could strip off our wet outer layers and get into a warm car.
The eagles definitely provided the most entertainment on the trip. I think Grandpoppa enjoyed seeing Ian reel in the dolly varden, and Brinn enjoyed pulling in the few kokanee that Ian allowed him to, but we were all most impressed by the sneaking thieving eagles. Our delight in seeing our national bird definitely gave us away as tourists, but hey, we were on a sight-seeing vacation!
Traveling through Alaska was filled with intrigue. As none of the four of us had ever been here before, we didn’t know what to expect as we left one geographic area and headed to another. After leaving Bass Pro, we headed south of Anchorage for the first time of our trip, and eagerly kept our noses pressed to the windows to see what landforms we would encounter next.
The ocean came at us much sooner than I expected, with mountains rising straight out of its depths. We followed along the coast, winding around craggy cliffs and muddy flats, and even found the train snaking around the same path. We must have been traveling during low tide, as the water was a good ways out, but we could see evidence (mostly mud!) that it had recently been very near the road. We passed little in the way of civilization, lending the land an eerie and empty beauty.
While kept driving, the landscape changed yet again as neared the Chugach National Forest. Trees became plentiful once again, and we left the coastline and reentered the forest. Despite the beauty of the remote coast, my woods loving soul felt relief once we were back in the bush. We began to see streams fed by snow melt coming down the mountain, and even paths gauged out by glacier movement. Snow became more plentiful as the road took us higher in elevation and back up the mountains. We saw more signs for creeks, and even began to cross over rivers again. My beloved white spruces grew more plentiful, and all we could do was gape in amazement.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage provided a nice rest stop about midways for our trip down the peninsula, and gave us all a chance to get out and stretch our legs and view some of Alaska’s critters up close and personal. This 200 acre sanctuary hosts injured and orphaned wildlife in natural habitats, and allows visitors such as us an opportunity to see this animals as close as “in the wild” as we can safely get. The center offers a shuttle tour around the facility with your admission fee, but we just missed one bus, and didn’t want to wait the two hours for the next one leaving out, so we chose the self guided tour.
When we first arrived at the center, I was shocked to step out of the vehicle. I’d not been out of it since Anchorage, where Brinn had walked around comfortably in shorts, teeshirt, and sandals. Portage and Anchorage clearly did not share weather patterns. After we all went in the gift shop to use the restroom, I returned to the Sequoia to add a pair of leggings under my jeans and pile on a couple of sweaters under my coat. I grabbed Ian’s coat as well, and then we were ready to meet the animals.
The caribou were cool, and came right up to the fence to greet us, but after our experience in Palmer, we weren’t nearly as impressed as we would have been otherwise. Brinn enjoyed seeing the adult moose and elk, while I found the eagle to be pretty striking. Little did I know that I had a much more imposing eagle experience in store for this trip. Just as Ian and I finished with the eagle, the staff announced feeding time for the Lynx, so we shuffled over to observe the female lynx come out of her house and climb around her pen to snag some snacks. I fully appreciated her anatomy and decided I am just fine never meeting her in the wild.
We saw black bears in Tennessee all the time, so we didn’t spend very much time with their exhibit, but instead made the hike out to the grizzly area. None of the brown bears were very close to the observation point, so we weren’t able to see any clearly, but Grandpoppa saved the day with his camera lenses. The bison were a bit easier to see from the road, but again, we see them grazing on Dodson Branch Highway often enough at home that we didn’t need to devote a lot of time to them. The musk ox were a new species for us, so we did observe them a bit longer.
Most of the nocturnal animals were hiding from the daylight hours inside a large barn, so we wondered in to check out some owls and foxes. Ian grew bored inside, so we ventured back outside to go check out the porcupine exhibit. Holy moly, I never expected the smell! We have our own menagerie of critters at home, so I feel fairly tolerant, and desensitized to the odors of most animals and their droppings, but porcupines have a pungent stench like nothing I can describe. Ian enjoyed viewing Snickers the Porcupine, but I decided to breakaway and visit the coffee cart to order some coffees for my dad and Brinn, cocoa for Ian, and a chai for myself. Our comforting drinks helped us warm up while we finished our tour.
We saved the wolf exhibit for last. Our culture loves wolves. We glorify them in literature and film, the fierce but graceful beast. The House Stark sigil features a wolf and the Stark children all raise their own pet wolves. Professor Lupin transforms into a wolf. Even vampire lit features wolves! I guess all of this fictional exposure convinced me that I’ve been around wolves, but upon reflection, I don’t recall ever viewing one in a zoo or a preserve. The television or computer screen are the closest I’ve come to seeing these giant killing machines. And giant they are! In my ignorance, I never had an opportunity to appreciate how truly gigantic these beasts are. I can’t possibly imagine overpowering one, and now better understand how justifiably terrified Laura Ingalls must have felt living out of a covered wagon while traveling the Dakota territory. Still, it’s hard to deny the beauty of these regal creatures. I guess that’s why we enjoy them in film and literature.
Alaska Part VIII , trip day 5-6; July 6-7, 2018
When we first start making our travel arrangements for Alaska, my dad mentioned that Sarah Palin lives on Lake Lucille, very near the Best Western. So we made this our last stop before we began our journey south to the Kenai Peninsula. We made the reservations based on the novelty, but soon came to learn that we simply could not find a single bad view around Lake Lucille.
Once we checked in after the drive from Palmer and the Noisy Goose, the boys set off to go explore while I assessed the laundry room. We had several days worth of dirty clothes, and still half of our vacation to go, so I connected Ian’s Kindle Fire to the wi-fi to watch Malcolm in the Middle (a guilty pleasure of mine) on Hulu to keep myself occupied while commandeering both washers and both driers, then folding mountains of clothes. As I sorted, washed, and folded our wrinkled, travel weary garments, Ian found the first body of warm water in Alaska. Disappointed that Lake Lucille Inn didn’t offer a pool, he gave the lake a try and quickly returned to the room for swim trunks and a towel, and ran back to the lake to jump in. He splashed and swam, giving my dad and Brinn a chance to fish, then my dad went walking around the lake to catch some really cool photo opportunities.
After folding my last load and repacking all of our laundry, Ian arrived back at the room ready for a snack and viewing #36 of Balto, so Brinn and I left him in Grandpoppa’s custody and Brinn took me for a tour of the lake. I took my Kindle (mine functions as a reader only), but it was hard to read with all this scenery to soak in. We sat on the dock, feet dangling in the water and ogling at the mountains, and then got to watch a muskrat swim across the entire lake and under the dock. Later we stumbled around the flower beds near the lake and remarked once again how gigantic the annuals grew in Alaska compared with those growing in Tennessee’s paltry fourteen and a half hours of summer daylight.
The next morning, we woke up to quite possibly the most extravagant complimentary breakfast we’ve ever enjoyed. We had our choice of bacon, sausage, or ham; there were hot roasted potatoes (no fried hashbrown nonsense); a couple of options for eggs (but who wants to eat something that yucky?); loads of fruit; and all the rest of the usual continental breakfast items. We were able to stuff ourselves silly and stuff our pockets with enough road snacks to help us bypass stopping for food on our drive south. I sipped tea, enjoying the view from the deck, while Ian chugged milk and Brinn matched my dad cup for cup on coffee. All the while we talked about our options for how to spend our time on the peninsula. Only one day was set in stone, leaving two and a half days open for exploration. We made our plan, loaded our bags, checked out, and hit the road once again.
As our one pre-booked activity was scheduled for tomorrow morning, we hit Bass Pro on our way through Anchorage to look for some waterproof options for my dad to wear. While he didn’t have a lot success shopping, none of us regretted the stop as the store itself was as good as a museum. I’ve only visited Bass Pros in the southeast, and once at the BP near Saint Louis. I didn’t realize that BP tries to be very consistent with portraying wildlife true to the geographic region of the store, so we had the opportunity to examine mounts of brown and polar bears, Alaskan varieties of fish, and more moose. It never occurred to me that there wouldn’t be a huge market for bass boats in halibut and salmon country, so it was a nice change of pace to look through all of the boats with fully enclosed cabs. I think it will now be my goal to visit Bass Pros in every state I travel through, but I’m not sure any of them will top Alaska’s.
Alaska Part VII , trip day 5; July 6, 2018After our fabulous day of hiking through the rain in Denali, we woke up for our final morning in Denali and packed up for our drive back to Wasilla. Two full days in Denali simply wasn’t enough, but we had so much else to see during our trip. Breakfast consisted of our now standard bacon, eggs, toast and coffee/milk. Brinn helped me to knock out our breakfast dishes and prep some sandwiches for our long drive ahead. We loaded down the Sequoia and pulled away from Denali Outdoor Center for the final time, and decided that we couldn’t drive straight through without one last stop in the park.
Gary agreed to a short stop by the visitor center and decided to stay behind and rest while Brinn, Ian, and I set out for a quick hike back down to Riley Creek. We started on the McKinley Station trail again, but quickly cut down a side trail to go straight to the water. Like the day before, we passed piles and piles of moose poop everywhere. No bear threatened our quick jaunt, and we returned to the parking lot within two hours to resume our journey south.
Along the drive, we began discussing our options for the day’s entertainment. We were travelling to Wasilla in order to break up our long drive to the Kenai peninsula, but we’d already spent some time in Wasilla on our first day in Alaska. We’d seen the places we wanted to see there, but with all the daylight, we’d have plenty of day to fit in activity. A quick shuffle through the many brochures we’d picked up earlier in the week presented some ideas, and we decided to cut over to Palmer to visit the reindeer farm. A friend of Brinn’s had told us about visiting this farm with his wife on their trip to Alaska, so it seemed like a solid choice.
To reach The Reindeer Farm, we drove through south on Alaska 3, then jumped on Alaska 1. It was a bit different to have so few highways that all had such low numbers, but it sure did make directions easy. Like everywhere else we traveled, the views on the drive were stunning. Once we reached Palmer, we drove past the Alaska State Fairground. We continued driving through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and decided this is an area we could easily see ourselves living in. Cell signal was strong here, there were plenty of shopping/dining options, the mountain views were spectacular, and the weather seemed ideal. The fair ground could provide regular entertainment along with the many outdoor options.
Pulling in at the reindeer farm, we quickly discovered many other animals in residence. Some cute quarter horses stood patiently in their pens munching on hay while waiting for trail riders to rent them out. Ian didn’t immediately discover the rabbit in his hutch, but he sure did spot the chicken coop. We fly all the way to Alaska, drove thousands of miles to see native animals and stunning landscapes, and Ian showed more enthusiasm to snuggle with a chicken than anything else. At least he’s consistent… We paid our $40 admission fee for the four of us, then we began our tour with the many skulls on display. After an anatomy lesson and some background information about the farm, our guide took us out into the reindeer pen where we were quickly badgered by quivering lips for the grain we received with our admission.
The farm keeps the reindeer in a large paddock together and allow guests to come right inside with the deer. We learned all about the cycle of horn growth including velvet, hardening, and shedding. All the deer were in velvet as we were there in early July, and they were extremely touchy about their antlers. I assumed that they would be itchy as they shed their velvet, but our guide explained that in fact the shedding velvet actually made the horns very sensitive. All the deer were still shedding out their shaggy winter coats, and loved back scratches. Ian had trouble escaping some hungry deer as he was right at their level for grain thieving. Understandably, he preferred hanging out with the babies.
After we hung out with the deer and fed out all of our goodies, the tour moved us next to meet Rocky the moose. Rocky was a rescue that the Department of Fish and Game had rehomed with the reindeer farm as a baby. We got to meet him during his lanky “teenager” phase. The farm provided us with fresh-cut tree branches to feed Rocky, and Ian soon found himself in a tug of war match with a Moose who easily outweighed him about 15 times over.
After chatting with Rocky, we moved on down to meet some elk. They also enjoyed stripping the leaves off of tree branches, and eagerly crowded the fence to snatch bites. We weren’t allowed inside the pens with the moose and elk like we were with the reindeer, but we were still able to get some pats and scratches through the fencing. Once we finished with the elk, our tour was over, and we were allowed to wander around the farm at our leisure. This is when Ian found the chicken coop and quickly gained permission to enter it and sneak in some chicken cuddles. He tried to cuddle with the rabbit a bit, but he wasn’t quite as enthused as the chickens were.
Once we pulled Ian out of the chicken coop and we all had a good scrub, we loaded back up into the Sequoia in search of food. After a quick google survey of our options, we ended up at the Noisy Goose Cafe. I loved this place! I’m not sure that my dad was quite taken with it, but I also ordered a bit more simply than he did. He and Brinn ordered fish most places we went, which I get (when in Rome…), but as a non-fish eater, I tended to order whatever I was feeling for the day. On this day I
went with a bowl of chili and split a piece of chocolate pie with Ian. The pie case at this place bowled me over. So many options! Brinn enjoyed a giant slice of pecan pie, his favorite, while my dad dug into a big wedge of strawberry rhubarb. Rhubarb seems to be the plant of choice in Alaska. We encountered rhubarb pie many places. After cramming down as much pie as we cold, we finally drug ourselves back outside to backtrack to Wasilla, our final destination for the evening. So once again, we wrapped up another incredibly long day filled with multiple destinations and experiences.
Alaska Part VI , trip day 3-4; July 4-5, 2018After our peaceful float past Denali on the Nenana River, DOC delivered us back to our cabin at the Otto Lake outpost. We all took a hot shower and changed into some warm clothes and prepared to enjoy another ridiculously long day. We hit the Three Bears grocery store in Healy where we stocked up on all the items we needed to cook our own meals for the next two and a half days.
Cooking our own meals was a bit more work, but if you factor in the time and bother of looking up a place to eat, driving, waiting, eating, then driving back to our lodgings, the work ended up taking less time than paying someone else to cook for us. This also considerably reduced the cost of our meals, so we splurged and had ribeyes the evening of our rafting trip. Once we returned back to Otto Lake, I had to label all of our food items before placing them in the shared refrigerator and on the counters. I tossed a few potatoes in the oven, prepped a salad, and settled in with a good book on my kindle with a lakeside view to enjoy some chill time while Brinn and Ian explored the lake and fished.
Cleanup after dinner took hardly any time at all, so we were soon off to explore the campground portion of the outpost and marvel in the mountain views. To no one’s surprise, the day got away from us again and before we knew it evening was over and we were looking at 9:00 PM again, yet the sky was as bright as it was at 2:00 PM. We got Ian settled in for bed with Steele and Ferd, and headed back to the kitchen to prep some sandwiches and pack a few snacks for our next Denali adventure.
The next morning dawned a bit more drizzly, but no less beautiful than the previous two mornings, and we were up early to cook breakfast in the communal kitchen. The other family using the kitchen were up even earlier than us, so they’d already finished cooking and eating before we made it up there, so we did’t have to fight over the large skillet for frying bacon and eggs. After a big breakfast, a few dishes, and several cups of coffee for the boys, we were all dressed warmly with backpacks stuffed full of water and bear mace and rain coats thrown over our arms. We hopped in the Sequoia and headed for the Denali Visitor Center.
A quick conversation at the front desk laid our options for the day, and we quickly decided to hop on a bus bound for the kennels. On our way across the park, we saw another mama moose crossing the road with babies. The excitement of the moose was starting to wear off just a little bit… Two days earlier we got to meet some of the dogs who had competed in the Iditarod. Now we would get to meet the working dogs who provided transportation around the park during the winter months. We learned that these dogs were bred to be much bigger as power was more important than speed when hauling scientific research equipment. Indeed, these dogs were huge! They were also very personable, and we were allowed to pet several of them before watching their demonstration.
After walking through the kennels, while discouraging Ian from showing Steele to the park dogs (he didn’t seem to grasp that Steele looked like a very desirable chew toy), we made our way through the rain to the covered seating to watch the demonstration. The drizzle waited until the presenting ranger began his speech, and then turned into a full on deluge. He laughed and soldiered on with his descriptions of the park kennel, its purpose, and functions. We learned that some areas of the park are restricted from all forms of pollution and no one is allowed to snow mobile in, even if they need to collect data for an ongoing research project. That’s where the dogs come in. We also learned that these dogs are bred with very specific traits in mind. One of those is for small feet with little webbing between their toes. Small feet move more easily across the ice crust on the top of deep snow, and webbed feet can accumulate ice pack that will hurt and slow a dog. Tight toe configuration helps prevent this. I don’t guess a sub zero dog has much need for a swimmer’s physique.
When the rangers were ready to show us how they hook the dogs up to sleds, the entire kennel came awake. Dogs went from laying flat on their sides with their tongues hanging out of their mouths to jumping against the kennel doors and barking like mad. The handlers had to bring the dogs out on their back legs because otherwise, in their excitement, they are simply too strong and could knock a grown man over easily. Each dog kangaroo hopped its way to the cart it would pull, and we learned about what type of dog is needed for each position in the pulling hierarchy, including where the novice runners would usually start at. After harnessing everyone up, the handlers then clipped the dogs to a ring in the ground the keep them stationary until the whole production was ready to roll. Once the dogs were unclipped from the rings, they were off! Like the Iditarod dogs, these showed complete enthusiasm for their job and showed pure joy as they lapped the dirt loop around the kennel area. We laughed and cheered for the furry exhibitors, then pulled our raincoats back on as we made our way to the buses that would return us to the visitor’s center.
Upon our return, we hit the gift shop to pickup some souvenirs, visited the coffee shop for a hot drink to knock of the edge, then made our way back to the Sequoia to plan our afternoon. We each had a sandwich and some chips, and then we headed to the visitors’ center to tour the displays. We particularly found the map of the park and mountain range impressive, but Ian liked the pull out drawers that showed interesting science information, like what animals sleep beneath the surface of the earth, and what is below the permafrost. We wondered around for 30 minutes or so, then we set out to hit the trails.
This was what I’d most looked forward to while planning our trip: hiking in Denali. We slipped out the side door of the bottom floor of the visitors’ center and quickly found ourselves faced with multiple trail options. After some deliberation, we decided to take the McKinley Station trail, which was listed as a mild 1.6 mile trail. We didn’t realize initially that this was a one way distance, nor the so many trails intersected so often. We had already topped of our water bottles, hung our bear mace on the sides of our back packs, zipped up our rain coats, made sure Steele was tucked away safe and dry in Ian’s rain coat, and headed on down the trail.
Black spruce and white spruce both abounded in every direction. Within a matter of minutes we had lost sight of the visitors’ center and found ourselves completely alone in the forest. A few more minutes down the trail and Ian stopped us. “Mama, Dad, do you smell that?” We all stopped and breathed deeply and failed to smell anything. Ian explained, “It just smells so fresh!” And indeed, it did. No hint of car exhaust, or food, or human waste. We simply breathed cool, fresh air. Initially the only sound we could hear came from the soft, almost silent drizzle of rain against the trees, but eventually the sound of running water became stronger. After 20 minutes of hiking and a brief descent, we came to Hines Creek. We waded out into the creek bed for some photos and to hunt for unique rocks. Ian enjoyed throwing rocks and watching the splash. He also enjoyed sticking his fingers in the water then holding them to the back of my neck. Here is where I discovered my combination of water proof socks and Astral loyaks make a killer combination for wet hiking. I had great traction, kept dry feet, and the drain ports in my shoes kept them from getting super heavy. After some splashing, we followed the creek to our first water crossing where we briefly reconnected with civilization as we saw the train trestle in the distance and were able to watch a train go past. Ian volunteered to take some of the pictures so that Brinn and I could have a few with the two of us together. Great job, Ian!
After crossing over Hines Creek, we left the water for a time and wondered back away from the train and people. Our phone gopro batteries began to drop, and we told ourselves to save the juice, but everything we came across looked photo worthy. Eventually we came to our second water crossing: Riley Creek. After crossing the bridge, we followed the water some ways, but eventually Ian’s little legs gave out on him. We stopped for a break overlooking the water and soldiered on, but Ian fatigued again, so Brinn hefted him up onto his shoulders. Brinn and I continued on for another quarter mile or so, but turned around when we realized that Ian had fallen asleep! He was riding Brinn’s shoulders like a little bobble head. We took care to avoid low hanging limbs and worked our way back to the bridge over Riley Creek. We climbed under the bridge here and settled in out of the rain to all take a break and let Ian catch a short nap. Without the steady movement of Brinn’s walking, Ian’s nap didn’t last long, and he was soon ready to move on. After crossing back over the creek, we opted to follow a new trail which took us up a fairly steep climb. Ian climbed back on Brinn’s shoulder and took the easy seat for the majority of the climb. He also drained all of our water bottles dry and used the remaining battery up on both of our phones and the gopro. Here is where I learned that my Astrals are not as great for dry hiking. I always had great traction, but the thin soles that let me grip loose ground let me feel everything on hard ground. After a while, I began to feel every single rock we crossed over, and started to regret leaving my chacos behind.
Eventually we made our way back to the visitors’ center where we reconnected with my dad and made our way back to McKinley Park to hit the gift shops. We wondered from shop to shop, picking out cute tee shirts for ourselves and our friends, and a new Christmas ornament for Ian to bring home. We found caribou summer sausage, gourmet popcorn, donuts, and coffee. After an hour or so of shopping, we were wiped and ready to head back to our cabin. At this point the rain moved out and the sun reappeared. Figures, right? But we decided that we didn’t care. The rain actually ended up helping us have a great day:
No mosquitoes! So long as the rain kept up, the mosquitoes stayed away. We made it through our entire hike without one single winged invader interrupting our peace.
No people! We only passed two other hikers the entire time we were in the woods. It really added to the whole experience to have the trails and creeks to ourselves.
No heat! We didn’t overheat and sweat at all during our hike. With the lowered air temp from the rain, along with the awesome air quality, we were able to hike longer without tired legs or winded lungs. If we had not had little legs, I believe we could’ve comfortably gone all day.
Hiking in Denali confirmed my suspicions –this was an absolute must for our trip and I loved it every bit as much as I’d hoped I would. While there are a few things I would have planned differently had I known better, hiking Denali is not one of them. I loved the trails that we selected along with the weather and the overall experience. This particular outing is one we will repeat for sure.
After all the adventures we’d already encountered –hiking at Peter’s Creek, the transportation museum, the Iditarod Museum and a ride behind sled dogs, a flight around Denali with a glacier landing, and chilling in the cool town of Talkeetna, it’s hard to believe that we’d only spent one full day in Alaska. I’m not joking when I say that it was the longest day of our lives.
After waking earlier than desired on day 2, we took in the lay of the land and became acquainted with Otto Lake. We made a mid morning drive out to Healy to eat at Rose’s Cafe. The locals insisted that this place was fabulous, and recommended that we absolutely had to go. I’m pretty sure my entire family will agree that this was our worst food stop of the entire trip, and it inspired us to do some grocery shopping that afternoon and cook for the rest of our stay in Healy.
After our slow, expensive, and overdone breakfast, we returned to our cabin at Otto Lake to begin prepping for our whitewater expedition. While Denali Outdoor Center provided drysuits, booties, PFDs, and helmets, we figured that the 35 degree water probably called for a bit more warmth than blue jeans and tee shirts afforded, so dug through our bags and pulled out our beloved hydroskins. I grabbed some gloves, our cameras, and we were off to catch our bus headed to the satellite outpost.
Our driver delivered us to McKinley Park, the hustling section of Healy with restaurants,
lodges, souvenir shops, and outfitters. At this outpost, our guides suited us up in Kokatat suits (it was a bit weird with no double tunnel), and we waited for the rest of the customers on our trip to arrive, so Ian and I were able to lay down on benches and catch a quick nap. Once the remaining trip members arrived, we all clambered onto a new bus and headed upstream to jump on the Nenana River. Because of Ian’s age, our options were limited to “the Scenic Wilderness” run. According to Denali Outdoor Center‘s website:
A 2 Hour (11 mile) Alaska raft adventure for all. This Nenana rafting adventure features mild whitewater with class II and one easy class III rapid (minimum age 5 years old). Float the boundary of Denali National Park in search of wildlife with breathtaking views of The Alaska Range.
Our guide, Kaitlin, explained to us early in the trip that everything about the Nenana resulted from glacier movement. The path of a moving glacier carved out the river bed and the giant rocks and boulders which formed rapids were left behind from melting glaciers as they flowed down the mountain. Other rocks fell into the water from cliffs due to glacier movement. The water we were rafting through came from glacier melt. Glaciers, glaciers, glaciers. It was all about the glaciers. Because of the glaciers, the water was very different from what we’re used to in the southeast. The closest way I can relate it is to brown water after a hard rain, but even that’s not completely accurate. Brown water is a solid color that prevents you from looking for green water to see good deep lines, similar to the grey glacier melt that also prevents you from seeing green water. That’s where the similarity ends.
Glacier melt was the color of soupy concrete. It was also absolutely frigid. The water
averaged 33-36 degrees, so hypothermia was a very real danger despite the July heat wave Healy was experiencing. Because of this very real concern, the guides had a very different set of priorities than we do on the southeast rivers. On the Ocoee, guides try to prevent their customers from swimming in areas with undercuts or foot entrapment hazards. Alaskan guides had to avoid all the fun holes and surfs that Ocoee guides would have thrown themselves into for body surfing or back stacked a boat to take advantage of some fluffy carnage.
The Nenana borders Denali for about 40 miles, so a good portion of our rafting trip took us right alongside the edge of the park. At this point we had driven past the mountain, flown right up to it, and now we were floating past it. We pretty much covered all modes of transportation available to us, at this point. The flight was the most spectacular mode, but the float was equally as impressive, just in a different way. Apples and oranges. While rafting, we were able to see a mama moose come down to the water with her two babies. On top of the mountain, up on the glaciers, there is no wildlife to see. We were also able to see more of the flora of the area. Kaitlin explained to us that there are two types of trees in the area: the white spruce and the black spruce. The white spruces have an attractive, even growth from top to bottom. They’re the most northern growing tree on our continent, and grow incredibly fast. I fell in love with these trees and wish I had a grove of them in my backyard. The other type of spruce, the black spruce, grew a little funkier. Kaitlin showed us that we could recognize them by their “Dr. Seuss” appearance. These spruces grow more slowly, and more predominate than their white cousin. You could see them really well from the air, and their less uniform growth pattern could be seen very clearly from the river. They added some flavor to the landscape, but my eye definitely preferred the white spruce.
Another neat feature that Kaitlin pointed out were the bright orange sections of cliffs. The bright colors were not actually there as homage to Vol visitors, but actually showed evidence of eagle nests. A certain type of lichen grows on the cliffs along the Nenana, and when it comes in contact with eagle feces, it turns orange. Eagles do not allow waste to build in their nests, as it would attract predators to their eaglets, so they remove all wastes and deposit it over bodies of water. We thought it was a neat indicator of eagle habitation.
We were restricted to an oar frame boat because of Ian’s age, so we had the unusual experience of doing nothing on a rafting trip. Brinn struggled a bit with sitting still. Who would have guessed? But he took advantage of the opportunity to ride the bull for the first time in 20ish years, and Kaitlin also gave him a turn at the oars. I don’t know that Brinn is ready to give up his guide stick anytime soon, but he had no complaints about the way the boat handled with oars, except maybe the lack of impulsion. If we were trying to hit the bigger holes, that could have posed an issue, but alas, we skirted anything that looked fun. I enjoyed this rare option to simply look around me and spectate during our 11 mile float, as did my dad. Ian, however, couldn’t stand to remain on a thwart while his dad did cool stuff, so Kaitlin gave him a turn at the oars as well. It’s pretty safe to say that Ian became completely enamored of Ms. Kaitlin and looked for every opportunity to go say hi to her around the outpost for the duration of our stay.
The Nenana was a very different experience than what we’re used to on the Obed or Ocoee, but provided views unlike any we’ve ever had the opportunity to see before. Hopefully when we return to Alaska, we’ll be able to take our own raft and spend a bit more time exploring more sections of this river.
Alaska Part IV , trip day 3; July 4, 2018You would think after living the longest day ever, that we would have slept for 20 hours straight, but sadly this was not the case. At 6:00 am, my dad frantically woke Brinn up (which caused me to wake up) in a complete panic that we’d slept too late. “Brinn, it’s already 10:00!” My snippy, sleep deprived response informed him that it was indeed 10:00 in the morning… “yes, in Knoxville. Go back to sleep.” I’m such a delight when I’ve been kept awake for two days.
After another earlier start than planned, we all dragged ourselves over to the bathhouse to reluctantly start our day. But once we left our cabin and took in our surroundings, we forgot all about sleep. Otto Lake has absolutely stunning views. Hands-down, this was absolutely my most favorite place that we stayed during our 12 day trip. Denali Outdoor Center’s outpost offered a large campground as well as four small cabins. The cabins all shared one bathhouse which contained toilets, showers, and a fully stocked kitchen. Later that evening we hit the Three Bears grocery store to stock up so we could cook during our stay in Healy. This worked beautifully as dining options near the park were more limited than other areas we would visit. Surprisingly, the grocery prices weren’t all that bad, either!
Our cabin door opened right onto the large lake, which had some of the cleanest water I’ve ever seen. The lake was surrounded with all kinds of native flora, and occasionally moose would even ramble over to take a drink from the lake. Supposedly the lake was stocked, but I don’t think Brinn or Ian ever actually caught anything. Outpost guests could borrow boats to paddle out across the lake or even swim in its chilly waters. The mountains in the background reflected off the surface. The white-capped mountains contrasted against the abundance of bright green leaves, grass, and bushes everywhere! My Tennessee eyes had trouble reconciling snow with summer foliage, but that didn’t mean that I failed to appreciate the wonder of this view.
Every morning and evening we walked around the lake to take in the mountains. Often we made this trek simply to breath. The complete lack of humidity combined with purity created the perfect atmosphere to revitalize your energy and to just feel good. My legs didn’t burn from climbing hills and I didn’t puff from exertion. Ian’s little legs didn’t fatigue quite as often, and none of our heads hurt. Sinus pressure simply didn’t exist!
When (not if!) we make it back for another visit in Alaska, we will be revisiting Healy and staying on Otto Lake. If I had one regret from this trip, it would be that we didn’t spend more time here. While everywhere we saw was amazing, I can for certain say that the Denali area was the most impressive and enjoyable for me.