Friday, September 5, 2014

Alaska Part II

Alaska in August Part II

Kenai Fjords National Park

In Seward, we took a six hour cruise on a large catamaran through the Kenai Fjords National Park.  This was the Captain's view.

 The catamaran weaved through these little islands.  The photo is deceiving because the large boat had plenty of room on each side to navigate through.  Puffins were flying around and missing their mark.  Willow Ptarmagins were also flying overhead and a Bald Eagle soared off a cliff.  It was pure paradise.

The view changed with each mile.  These are some small glaciers on top of the mountains we passed on the way to the big glacier in the park.  As we got further into the park the temperature plummeted.  We were dressed in heavy layers with hats, gloves and scarves.  We tried to stay on deck but the wind was tough.  We were told before the ship sailed that with the choppy seas we might want to take something to avoid seasickness.  The crew on the boat were knowledgeable and we took Bonine. You don't get sick and not half as drowsy as Dramamine.

A ranger was on board who talked throughout the trip.  He was dressed as you would imagine in his ranger gear and just as nerdy as they come and a really sweet guy.  He was a real life Ranger Andy.  After teaching school for many years, one day he  decided to quit and pursue his dream of being a park ranger. He got so excited when someone spotted wildlife. You would think the boat was going to tip over the way everyone ran from side to side to get a look or a photo.  And that wasn't easy because the waves were very choppy.

About three hours into the cruise we hit our destination.  The biggest glacier in the park.  It is massive and so beautiful.

The glacier moves about 6 feet a day.  If you watch closely you can see snow falling down into the ocean.

When you're looking at this massive glacier from the deck of a boat you lose perspective because it looks like you can swim to it.  The little boat in front of it shows how massive the glacier is and how far we were from it.  It was so cold on deck you could only stay out long enough to take a few photos.  There were sea lions flopping around on the rocks in front.

On the way to the glacier and back we saw an Orca  hunch back whales, porpoises and sea lions.  We had a nice lunch on the boat and the six hours flew by.

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The next morning before we left Seward we went to the dog farm of a Iditarod Champion to take an Iditaride.  There are many Iditarod farms in Alaska and in the west.  The young man who led our group was from Montana and has plans to start his own farm someday.  Many of these farms are owned by men who have won Ididarod races.  They care for their champion dogs here as well as raise and train young dogs.

Ordinarily I would be upset to see dogs living in these little huts but not these guys.  They love where they live.  They know one another and their handlers.  It's like a big family of canines and their dads.  In the winter they sleep on hay and have little doors attached to the openings.  They are bred to live in ice cold weather and love it.  Here they get lots of love and affection.

Ditka won an Iditarod race.

So did Gumbo.

This guy was the star of the show - only he doesn't race because he's too lazy.  The dogs who live here don't have to race.  They're part of the family no matter.  I thought all the dogs looked like him but  the best racers are mixed breeds.  They have to be lean and fast and sometimes a pedigree just doesn't cut it.


The dogs get really excited when they see the handlers get ready to pick a line-up for a ride.  They bark and jump around and act like they're going for a ride instead of hauling a wagon load of people around.  This guy is waiting patiently to see if he's going to be chosen.  He was so well behaved and patient I was so happy he was chosen.

Once selected to take us for a ride, the dogs are harnessed in pairs.  It's a skill to pair dogs who will work well together.  In the summer they're in training so sometimes they jump back and forth over each other and get tangled in the chains.  All the handlers know each dog and they'll yell out to the one who isn't behaving and sometimes the dogs will get back in line by themselves.  Along the way when they got too tangled we stopped to move the chains and switch around some pairs.

It's all practice to see who belongs with whom and who does the best in a certain position. Through it all the dogs and the handlers have the best time.


Our ride was about 2 miles each way.  Halfway through the dogs had to rest.  They were over-heated because they have very thick fur.  They are bred to live in the cold.

The dogs are very friendly.  They love people and attention.  They are constantly being played with and talked to. They have no aggressive tendencies.  They are just really loveable.

After the ride we got to hold some real babies.  This beautiful baby was 2 weeks old.  He squealed when you picked him up but if you kissed and kissed him he snuggled into your neck and kind of purred.  I told our guide I had to take him home and he said he can't leave the farm.  He's going to be too big to live in someone's house and he can't live in a warm climate.  He's bred to live in very cold weather.  This was another cold, damp day.  If we weren't dressed in layers we wouldn't have been able to stay outside.


This sweetheart was two months old.  He loved to cuddle too.  We were so in love with them it was almost impossible to put them down.

This little guy was 4 months old.  After our two Bichon Frise's and cat passed away my husband said absolutely no more pets.  He's kept his word since 2001.  I almost thought we had a chance when he held this beautiful dog but it doesn't look like he's changed his mind.

This beautiful dog was docile and friendly and obeyed everything the handler asked.  He demonstrated what the dogs wear when they are chosen to be part of an Iditarod race.  He wears little pants and then he's wrapped in a parka type coat.  He wears booty's to prevent ice from getting between his toes.  He was bred to be a champion but when he was very young he broke his wrist while in a race.  Since then he's lived at the farm with plenty of love and affection.  He can't be bred because they can't take the chance that he has a predisposition for weak wrists and would pass that on to his puppies.

Seward to Talkeetna

We stopped in Wasilla. It's a town with a Walmart and a grocery store and gas station.  It was pretty unremarkable.

And yes, everyone laughs and jokes about Sarah Palin.  


I loved the little town of Talkeetna.  It reminded me of the saying "a one horse town".  The Main Street was almost the whole town.  I expected to see cowboys on horseback ride by.  It was very western.  You could picture a dual in the middle of the street.

This is a campground at the end of the road.

The fun atmosphere was everywhere.


A lot of people vacation in Alaska in the summer but were never once in a crowd.  Even the traffic on the highway was moderate.  It was very calming to visit all of these places and never have to wait in line to do or see anything.

I had read about The Wildflower Cafe before our trip and made a reservation from home.  This restaurant is owned by the man who was the elder President Bush's Chef when he was in the White House.

The food was amazing.  Those were the biggest sweetest scallops on top of freshly caught halibut.  The fixings were equally amazing.

We stayed at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge.  All of the lodges we stayed at were beautiful but this one was really something.

When you walk through the front doors a massive fireplace with a roaring fire greats you.

A side window has a lit Christmas tree which is on all day and all night.

This is the view from the side of the lodge.

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Next morning - pancakes and reindeer sausage.  Reindeer sausage tastes very much like a cross between Kielbasa and pepperoni.  It was salty and spicy and good!

I'm not sure that was the best breakfast to eat before a small plane ride over Mt. McKinley but my husband didn't lose it.

Our plane seated 10. I had lots of reservations about doing this.  Turns out these small planes are very safe.  They're piloted by professionals who have to have many years of experience and lots of hours of training before they can fly these tours.  There's a long waiting list to be one of these pilots and only the best are chosen.  It's a dream job for many pilots.  I had such confidence in our pilot that I didn't even think twice when my husband offered to be his co-pilot! 

We were up in the air for close to 2 hours.  It didn't feel that long.  I'm afraid of heights so I was prepared for a terrible time but I was surprised to find just the opposite.  I was fine and totally overwhelmed by the beautiful landscape.  This is the view as we climbed.

These small planes can only go up to 9,000 feet.  The day of our flight we were only able to get up to 7,000 feet before we hit the clouds.  The pilots can't fly into the clouds.  It's dangerous because they can't see anything.  It was a beautiful day on the ground but in the air it was raining and snowing so we couldn't see Denali/Mt. McKinley.  We didn't know what we were missing though because all the mountains were so beautiful.

Before our pilot graduated to flying tours he flew rock climbers to the mountains they wanted to hike.  He landed the plane on the mountain to drop them off.  Then he brought them supplies and when they were finished hiking he went back to pick them up. It's all very matter of fact - all in a day's work. 

Here's a "small" glacier.  It's about 35 below or colder up here.

This is looking down on the top of the mountains.  The only thing that bothered me a little was that through most of the trip I thought the plane was still.  It didn't feel like we were moving.  And I was a little nervous that it would just drop out of the sky.  Later I found out we were traveling between 100 and 200 miles per hour.  

This is one of the last views of the mountain before we landed.


We stayed at the McKinley Village Lodge which is right in Denali National Park.  

It's beautiful.  I kept thinking I wish I could see it in the winter when it snows.  I'm sure it's right out of a story book.

This is the back of the lodge.

This was the view from our balcony.

We finished dinner after 11 p.m.  By the time we got back to the hotel it was about midnight.  This area never really gets dark.  

I'm glad we had enough energy to take a walk because this photo says it all.  There's so much to take in you just stand in silence, breathe in the fresh, clean air and savor all the beauty and peace.

The town of Denali

You have to drive a few miles out of the park to get to town.  It's only this little main strip.  Once again it had the feel of a real western town but in a different way.  As I've said before every town has it's own character.  Denali reminded me more of an old western settlement.

They mean this too!  This is't a joke.

I love these road signs.  I've seen them in movies and they're just so perfect here.

Denali National Park

We had no idea what we were going to do and see on an 8+ hour wilderness tour.  At 3 p.m. we got on a renovated old school bus with cushioned seats.  We lucked out and got the front seats so we had a magnificent view out of the front window.  The driver was our tour guide.  He was so knowledgeable.  We plied him with questions and he knew the answers to all of them.

The bus goes deep into the park where cars aren't allowed.  You have to have a special park permit to go beyond a certain point.  Only buses, park rangers in trucks and a very few special exceptions like artists, researchers, photographers, authors, etc. are allowed past that point.  There are not a lot of buses up and down the roads.  Only a few go out at a time.  The drivers stop and signal if there's wildlife near or you will see someone pulled over to the side.  That signals something's up.

This is a beautiful view of a divided mountain.

 As we drove through the park the view alternated between snow capped mountains and very green terrain.

A flock of Willow Ptarmigans were wandering around on the side of the road.

Here's the last caribou in a group that had just crossed.

Just like a whale watch, when someone on the bus spots something everyone descends on them.  The tour guide then stops the bus and takes out his long lens camera and we put down monitors on the bus so everyone could see up close.

These are two caribou hanging out.

You can't imagine how fast 8 hours goes when you're watching intently for wildlife.  It was one of the most exciting, totally fascinating and fun things I've ever done.

Someone spotted a couple of tiny white dots way way up on the side of a huge mountain.  They were mountain goats.  This was what was on the driver's monitor.

Here they are again in silhouette against the sun on the monitor.  You had to be there to see a bus load of people getting excited about a couple of dots!

When we came upon this momma Grizzly and her cubs the whole bus fell silent.  The driver warned us to be very quiet so we didn't scare them away.  They were eating sweet berries that grow in bushes all over the park.  Momma bears raise their cubs by themselves.  Dad is not in the picture.  After 4 or 5 years she runs them off and starts again.  

August is a great time to see wildlife in the park.  All of the animals feast all day on everything they can find because their summer feeding time is very short.  They have to consume thousands of calories a day in order to be able to hybernate all winter.  The bears don't sleep all the time in the winter.  They can be awake but they are lazy and don't care to venture out.  

This momma came right up to the bus window.

This is how close she got.  We could have touched her.  I asked our guide if any black bears live in the park.  He said no they live in colder climates like Fairbanks

When she was finished checking us out she started walking on the side of the bus and soon she began to walk in front of us.

She left presents as she lumbered off.  The guide said they tend to do that when they get nervous.

This is the view as we approached Denali/Mt. McKinley.

As we got closer

You could see this breathtakingly beautiful majestic mountain.

You have to look very closely to see the staircase in the middle of this mountain.  If there is such a thing as Heaven I think it is at the top of these stairs on this mountain.  I pictured God standing at the top to welcome you home.  I have never felt that experience in my life.  It is really spiritual.  We were very lucky to be able to see this beautiful mountain different times during the day and the next day.  Many people visit the park and never see it.  It all depends on the clouds.  Sometimes they break to reveal the mountain and sometimes they don't. 

 Our guide was tall and thin and looked very much like a younger Clint Eastwood.  It was a warm day and he was dressed in khaki cargo shorts and a plaid shirt.  He had a weathered handsome face and spoke softly.  He said he had been doing this for 16 years and loved every single tour he gave.   He had the patience of a saint and made us laugh with stories about people on the bus.  We had a few stories to tell when we got off too.  Each visit in the park is different.  He was gentle, kind and a real naturalist.  His degree is in biology but his love is the wilderness.  He loves to hike and has climbed Denali.   You could tell because his calves were huge.  No matter what you do in life if you are passionate about it it is contagious and we all caught it from him.

This is the view of the sun on the mountains.  We are now on the back end of the trip.  We ordered a box lunch from the lodge.  It contained a ham and cheese sandwich, brownie, apple, crackers and cheese and we brought plenty of water. 

 We stopped occasionally to take photos and twice at Takaleeke (once on the way up and then again on the way back) to use the outdoor bathrooms.

This Raven was hanging out at Takaleeke.

And this is one of the hundreds of amazing photos we took.  It was so hard to pick photos for this post because they are all so beautiful.


This fox was running along the side of the road.  There aren't a lot of fox in the park so the caribou and moose can relax a little.

It was about 10:30 p.m. when we saw this little guy on the side of the road.  He just watched the bus go by.  The animals in the park are used to the buses and sometimes glance at them but pretty much just ignore them.

The ride back was kind of sad.  Our tour lasted longer than expected because we saw so much wildlife.  Everyone kept wanting to stop and look at one more bear or bird or mountain goat.

It's 11 p.m. and we're entering the last leg of the trip and we still haven't seen a moose.  Everyone was worried.  Our tour guide wasn't bothered at all.  He knew we would see our share of moose.  Sure enough as soon as someone complained about no moose sighting one appeared in the grass.  We jumped all over each other trying to get a photo of this moose and her babies.

We saw many moose after that.  We saw so many our guide had to tell us he couldn't stop the bus for one more moose because we were so late getting back.

Midnight over the park.  I asked why the big round moon was so white because at home I would expect to see a bright orange harvest sky and moon at dusk.  Our guide said pollution changes the color of the sky.  It doesn't happen in Alaska.

After midnight in Denali.  We dropped the others off at various lodges in town.  

At that hour the only place open for dinner was Prospector's Pizza.  It's a real Alaskan bar and I'm really glad we got the chance to eat there.  The little home made pizzas were fresh and delicious and the atmosphere was awesome.

It's right out of an old movie.

Of course the beer was to die for.  They had an Alaskan golden wheat that was as cold and refreshing as a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade on a scorchingly hot day.

This is the foyer in the entrance.  It looked like one of those places where you change into cowboy clothes and pose for photos but it wasn't.  It's the real thing.  This is how they live and where they go to have a beer.

Denali to Anchorage

These moose signs are everywhere.  I took too many photos of moose signs - upside down, half cut off, too far away, in the rain.  I even bought a moose sign in an souvenir shop.  You will see it when I change my house over to Fall and winter. This is one of the best moose sign photos I could snap while the SUV was moving.  The entire trip I was on the hunt for moose.  There were big signs posted everywhere showing the number of moose accidents.  They actually tally and post the numbers seasonally.  At one point on our trip I was looking down at the camera on my cell phone and a moose and his two babies ran across the highway.  My husband started to shout, I started to scream and the girls in the backseat were in shock.  The moose crossing the road lasted about 6 seconds.  They were fast as lightening.  All I saw were three black silhouettes - the daddy had huge antlers. They looked just like the applique moose patterns you see everywhere. And they looked almost like an apparition against the sky on the highway.  I asked someone later why they appeared black and was told each strand of fur is hollow so they look transparent.  White polar bears have the same type of fur. That first moose sighting was just about the only photo I wasn't able to get.  

But I lucked out again on the drive back to Anchorage.  This momma moose and babies were eating along the highway.  There were cars, trucks and SUV's parked all over the road.  Again, everyone comes together when there's a wilderness sighting.  People stop their cars anywhere just to get a look at anything.  Momma moose don't have antlers.  Moose are very old shaped creatures.  Their body parts don't fit.  The limbs looks like they belong on another animal and the bodies are lumpy.  But they are definitely a sight to stop for.

Our last dinner was spent at the restaurant where we ate our first dinner.  We were tired and sad and not looking forward to the long trip home.  I think each of us could easily have stayed in Alaska for our own reasons. 

Before we left we had to have Alaskan King Crab.  Yes, it was worth it!  They were nothing like the frozen legs you get here.  And they were nothing like the meatless crab legs in San Francisco.  These were stuffed full of sweet,white meat.  One last Alaskan beer for the road... 

My husband is the reason we were able to experience Alaska this way.  He travels all over the world as part of his job.  He mapped out every route and stop along the way just so we wouldn't miss anything.  He drove for hours and hours and had to be exhausted with the pace we kept but never complained.  He said driving through Alaska was nothing compared to his boring drives to Boston.  There was so much to see it was surreal most of the time.  It was an adventure with surprises all along the way.

Would we ever go back?  In one second!  Will we? Not sure.  There's something about seeing everything the first time that makes you wonder if you really need to do it again when the world is so full of beautiful places to visit and life is so short.  

Thank you for taking the time to relive this beautiful journey with me.  I'll be back soon and you will see my treasures from Alaska here and there in future posts.

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