29 June 2009

Last vacation photo

Our overbooked flight (not, we did NOT volunteer to stay behind) left Anchorage right on schedule, the sun still not having quite set. And, fact is, the sky never darkened completely, the horizon in the north glowing red for the first four hours of the flight. Then, the sun rose bathing the inside of the cabin in brilliant, golden light -- until the passengers on that side of the plane lowered the shades. Grrrr. We had just enough time in the Minneapolis airport for a little breakfast -- more Starbucks coffee and muffins, before leaving for Memphis.

By the time we found our way to the gate for our final flight, we'd been up 28 hours. Meeting the result of some pilot's sense of humor eased our fatigue somewhat and seemed worth one final photograph.

28 June 2009

Waiting long

Now, Tal tells me I never have to confess this mistake. But, no account of our Alaskan adventure will be complete without it. I promise.

As we boarded the Super 8 airport shuttle at 9:00 this morning, I looked at our Delta/Northwest itinerary for the umpteenth time -- checking, checking, always checking. My heart stopped, then sank. My blood froze. My head began spinning. That irritating buzz that happens when I'm confused flipped on. The single letter behind behind 11:50 was not an "A," it was a "P." I told Tal above the van's squeaking and rattling that I thought I had some bad news, but that I'd save it until we arrived at the airport.

Indeed, I was oh, so terribly right. Our bad news and angst was magnified by the fact that the Delta/Northwest counter was not even open, their first flight out not being until 7:00PM -- to Detroit. With no one to ask anything and since we couldn't move beyond that point without a boarding pass, what did I do? First, purchased two cups of Starbucks coffee and two luscious muffins. (Did I mention that the Super 8 had run completely out of breakfast food and wasn't expecting a delivery until Monday?) Second, signed on to the Internet. It was then that I learned that there were no morning or even early afternoon flights on any airline going east. Oh, I just hate it when things like this happen.

My darling Tal took the news in stride and settled in with his book. We took turns exploring that part of the terminal, a remarkable, bright building filled with all manner of art, the building itself, come to think about it, an art object. At 2:00 or so a lone Delta/Northwest agent appeared at the counter. Sympathetically, she confirmed that we were stuck, assigned seats, issued our boarding passes and relieved us of our luggage, declaring us free to move about the building.

If we had to be 15 hours early for a flight, this was certainly the right place to be. We were comfortable and entertained in the spacious observation deck, overlooking the runways on one side and the lobby (security) one level below on the other. We read, plane and people watched. I wandered with the camera. The hours passed.

Looking toward the main entrance of the terminal from the observation deck. Security is to the right. Concourse is to the left.

Interesting lights over the entrance to the concourse.

Here is the view from where we sat for much of the afternoon. Alaska Airlines is predominant. The airport also does a remarkable cargo business with carriers from all over the world, especially the far east (China, Korea), the predominant aircraft being DC-10s and Boeing 747s.

Speaking of cargo planes. The one (which I cannot identify) on the runway in this shot is huge, completely dwarfing the Boeing 747 waiting on the taxiway behind and to the left of it.

The mountains are both an actual feature here, the airport positioned between the Cook Inlet and the Chugach Mountains, and the terminal itself mimicking the mountains (with the feature, sightly cut off) in the upper right of the photograph.

We had a leisurely (how else might it have been given our situation?) supper at the only sit-down restaurant in the terminal -- a Chili's, enjoying our final Alaskan brews -- beer for Tal and wine for me. The sun's beginning to set and we'll be boarding our flight soon.

Homeward bound, finally ...

27 June 2009

In Anchorage again

The Super 8 isn't so bad. If one doesn't spend any time in the room, that is. We settled in a bit, beginning our repacking for tomorrow's flight home, and then set out on foot for a float plane harbor we'd been told we shouldn't miss. On the map it looked to be about a mile, but in unfamiliar and somewhat seamy territory, it felt longer and more than slightly threatening. But, we made it without any trouble and found ourselves a table in the Fancy Moose Lounge at the Millennium Alaska Hotel where we had a window seat on the comings and goings at the Lake Hood Float Plane Harbor, the busiest such harbor in the world. (Seeing the sunset photo of the hotel on the web site is worth clicking on the link.) While the food was fair and the service mediocre, the activity was simply fabulous.

We're calling it a night early, everything now categorized in the anticlimax phase of the trip. The flight home's going to be long and we're both starting new books -- mysteries by Alaskan authors others in our group purchased along the way and finished before the trip ended.

Although I'm tired, I am realizing that I am surprisingly refreshed. Perhaps it has been the places we have visited or the people whose company we have enjoyed. I'll need time to know. What I can say now without reservation is that this has been the best trip of my life.

Lingering farewells

When our boat tour in the Kenai Fjords National Park ended, we drove a very short distance to our lodging for the night, the Seward Windsong Inn, overlooking the Resurrection River. It was a bittersweet evening for us all coming so soon on the heels of an exciting day and marking the official end of our Alaskan expedition. How fortunate we were to be with such an interesting and congenial group. I can honestly say I am glad now to know each and every one.

Back in Internet-land here in Seward, the first time since Tuesday, we also received some sobering news from home. My dad has been admitted to the hospital. I wish I were there, but I'm not and cannot be. My sister, Joyce, and brother, Paul, are readying themselves to go help our mother. How grateful I am for and how comforted I am by that.

We ate breakfast this morning while watching the gulls give the bald eagles a very hard time over the river, generally well-deserved, I understand. I took these photos on our walk back to the room to ready our luggage for pickup. Can you tell I was dragging my feet ever so slightly?

The lingering was to no avail, I must add. The luggage was collected and we did set out for Anchorage -- back along the route of yesterday and Wednesday. Our rest stop in this direction was in a most delightful location, the name of which I do not remember. But, the terrain was astounding and the wildflowers abundant. This is Connie walking alone on the rise adjacent to the one on which Tal and I were walking. She seemed so at peace and I was suddenly and deeply aware that the ending to this trip was not going to be abrupt. Nancy was deliberately easing us out of the wilderness and back into our regular lives.

As a result of this stop I have a new favorite flower, pictured here: a chocolate lily. At first I didn't notice them -- brown, down-turned flowers. But, brown, down-turned flowers? They are so regal and striking, a fitting late discovery on our Alaskan adventure.

I suspect Nancy was lingering, as well, stopping at a favorite place of hers: the pottery studio of a good friend, featuring wood-fired kilns and a small gallery operating entirely on the honor system (always unlocked, purchasers leaving the money for the chosen item in the shop). But, our visit in the land of enchantment, the land of the midnight sun, did end. First we dropped Connie and Peter at the airport. Next Nancy left Tal and me at here at the Super 8 near the airport. Now that was a reality check, a far cry from the places we have stayed for the past seven nights. Her last stop was a downtown hotel to deposit Ann and Joan. We progressed through our final hours together steadily, but without any hurry on Nancy's part. I did not sense she was eager to finish up. A tribute to her professionalism, to our cohesiveness as a group and to Alaska itself.

26 June 2009

Galcial ice

Seward is a bustling place this of year and we added ourselves to the throng in the late morning, boarding the Tanaina for our wildlife and glacier watching cruise in the Kenai Fjords National Park. Leaving Resurrection Bay, named by Alexander Baranov after having survived a storm on Easter Day, and going through a heaving Harding Gateway (only 8500 miles or so from there to Hawaii!), we entered Aialik Bay headed for the glacier of the same name. Along the way we ate lunch, observing sea otters at play inside the harbor and a pod of orcas along side the boat after arriving in Aialik Bay.

I don't have the focal length power to get good wildlife shots, so I attempted very few. And, it was rather chilly outside the salon. Venturing on deck for long periods wasn't on Tal's agenda, his cold extremely persistent, and I was just as content sitting with him. Plus, I hate to admit this, but we'll all tired, me included. Here's an endearing and telling shot of our guide and leader, Nancy.

I did go out, however, to witness the glacier up close and personal. The word 'aialik' means fearful place to respect -- and I believe it. Although I don't know how high the glacier actually is, it is enormous and our vessel had to move slowly through a vast area of brash ice and iceburgs amid much bumping and scraping in order to get along side. We watched for about half an hour, witnessing it calving and the resulting high waves. Was the glacier side of the boat ever cold. Yikes!

Here are a couple of views of the glacier.

I cannot resist one wildlife photograph. After leaving the glacier and heading out to the islands at the mouth of the bay to look for puffins, Stellar seals, etc, our captain spotted a humpback whale. We stayed close and after it showed itself a number of times, the minutes slipping by ever so fast, we were about to move away when it surfaced a final time, giving us a fine finishing flourish. This isn't a great photograph by any means -- not close enough and through the salon window, but satisfying nonetheless.

Moving on ... sigh

Not only was giving up and going to bed last night difficult for me. Leaving the Kenai Wilderness Lodge this morning for the next item on our itinerary was even harder. But, lingering looks did come to an end and it was into the boats for the three mile trip across the lake to the landing where a van waited to transport us back to the lodge in Cooper Landing. The "sit and spin" movement, being demonstrated here by Joan, was pretty much the same for getting into the rafts on Wednesday as it was for getting into the boats this morning. Not particularly pretty, but effective.

Obviously, the boat ride was right fun -- and cool,

even while all evidence of the lodge disappeared into the woods behind the boat.

Back at Cooper Landing we transferred to a nicer van for the trip to Seward. When we were here on Wednesday being suited up for the rafting trip down the Kenai River to Skilak Lake, I was so focused on the task at land that I didn't pay much attention to the atmosphere at that lodge. It is a charming place, right on the river, featuring a captivating phone booth.

25 June 2009

Retreat time

Arriving here yesterday afternoon certainly helped ease the memory of Tuesday's exhausting hours on the road. What a gem, embedded in 2000 acres of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The Kenai Backcountry Lodge sleeps 16 guests in several electricity-free cabins and platform tents. Our tour before supper included test-lighting the propane wall lantern in, Aurora, our cabin. I managed not to blow anything up, achieving success on first try. But, since it doesn't get really dark, I don't think I'll have to light it out of necessity.

The limited electricity the lodge does have comes from glacial run-off put through a small turbine which charges six batteries. Water for all uses is glacial run-off as well, stored in several large tanks with 1/4 C of Clorox added to each 550 gallons as a precaution. That same run-off provides "refrigeration" for soft drinks and beer in the stream. Being demonstrated here is one of several alarm horns -- one long blast for fire and three short for a bear in camp.

I suppose things could get pretty exciting were that horn to be needed. But, today was not exciting. Today was simply the best. The absolute best. Water activities on the lake, which is about 15 miles long and 4 miles wide in places, were on the docket this morning -- guided kayaking and a tour of the lake in one of the larger boats, as the weather was good and threatened to change by afternoon. Tal's cold has worsened and we both decided to spend the day quietly, reading and taking time to be mindful of where we are. Tal's reading sort of morphed into a nap here in the loft library.

He's finding the bed in our cabin to be pretty comfortable, too. The Aurora is charming, overlooking the lake and made that much more inviting with a porch and two rockers. Sadly, it's a bit cool for porch sitting, but the romantic in me doesn't care. I'll always remember the potential and wonder who's getting to sit there on the more comfortable days on July and August.

Though I participated in a hike along the Cottonwood Trail during the afternoon, identifying wildflowers and noting the transition between boreal and rain forest, and saw in some detail the workings of the electrical system just before supper, mostly I walked, sat and took pictures, even hauling out the tripod for part of the day. So, no more words ...

A wet leaf among the rocks on the lake's shore.

A view of the stairs in the main building.

The lake after sunset.

The sun didn't go down until 11:45 and I stayed with it until it did -- and then some. I so hated to go inside. Not wanting the day to be over.

24 June 2009

A float on the Kenai River

But first ... breakfast, bags outside the door, check out ... the usual drill. So far all six of us have been ready early for every rendezvous. Nancy seems pleased and impressed.

Our first of two stops along the Seward Highway as we made our way to Cooper Landing to begin the rafting trip was a stunning spot called Bird Point, overlooking a tributary of Cook Inlet known as Turnagain Arm. We'd had an early start, so sun was at a lively and dramatic angle. And, as you already know, I am drawn to mountains. Plenty of those here.

How this body of water earned its name is interesting. During James Cook's expedition into this part of the world he was hopeful that this opening on the bay would prove to be the long-sought northwest passage. When he came to the dead end, he had to turn around again. His disappointment is our delight, both in the beauty of the place and the catchy name.

The second spot at Tern Lake very near Cooper Landing was equally dramatic. This spot is named for the birds that made a migratory round trip of some 25,000 miles -- the arctic tern. They're delicate-looking, with pointed wings and a forked tail. They hover until, spotting their prey, they plunge unto the water, a feature which foiled my hasty photography attempts.

At Cooper Landing and AWA's Riverside Lodge we proceeded to put on everything we owned! For me that meant long underwear, a heavy shirt and jeans, my down vest, rain gear and gloves. The staff added knee high rubber boots and a knit hat to the ensemble. So very attractive ... fashion plates all. Pictured here is Connie helping Peter get his binocular strap and rain gear hood in order.

The section of the Kenai River between Cooper Landing and Skilak Lake is relatively calm, mostly class I with three canyons along the way providing class II water. Our guide for the trip narrated, helped us spot wildlife and, aside from a period of driving rain and a couple class 2 splashes, kept us pretty dry. A major item of interest this time of year was the first run of sockeye salmon -- and the fishermen, particularly where the Russian River joins the Kenai. The anglers stood in the water along the bank, literally shoulder-to-shoulder in spots, and cleaning fish right on the shore caused drifts of carcasses downstream to the delight of very well-fed gulls and eagles. This photograph doesn't do justice to the sight, but does show two of the three rafts in our group, our group of six being in the first.

We stopped for lunch along the way, a lunch prepared by the three raft guides while we stood on shore watching the drift boats go by, our cold hands wrapped around cups of steaming tea, coffee or hot chocolate. When the guides called us over, the spread was a very pretty sight, well worth the wait.

When we reached Skilak Lake our guide dropped the motor in the water (no, not the entire motor) and took us to the Backcountry Lodge on the lake's far side where we were reunited with our shoes, all liked up on the beach waiting for us.

23 June 2009

A travelling day

Denali's remaining hidden last evening was a perfect lead-in to a steady rain drumming on the metal roof of our room through the night. We were up at 4:30. Yawn. I have to observe, however, that other than feeling sleepy, who'd know the time, it being full light at that hour in this part of the world. Breakfast was at 5:30 and the Kantishna Roadhouse bus pulled out at 6:15.

The 90-mile ride out of the park didn't take as long as it did going in. We did stop to view wildlife, the most notable being a blond grizzly sow with two cubs, a moose with twins, a lone wolf (the park is home to 65 wolves in 16 packs) and, pictured here, a beautiful fox, whose decision to stay on the road and pass by the bus we all witnessed. For many on the bus, however, there was a train to catch at the Denali depot, so our driver kept an eye on the time and stayed on schedule. We also saw, here on the 23rd of June, new snow at the highest visible elevations just below the clouds. Snow! We had an hour at the visitors' center and then boarded a specially outfitted van from Alaska Wildlands Adventures (named Humpback -- don't know if that's for whales or salmon) with box lunches for the eight-hour trip to Anchorage.

The mountains are mesmerizing to me. Monumental. I found myself almost overwhelmed as we passed through the Alaska Range to its south side (where Denali stayed hidden, the day remaining overcast after the rain subsided). By the end of the day we had entered the Chugach Range -- and had passed through Wasilla, where we encountered our first stoplight since leaving Fairbanks on Sunday. Wasilla is a spread-out, sprawling settlement. That zoning is heartedly resisted by the population is widely evident.

Also evident as we drive south was the long-term effect of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. At the Palmer Hay Flats just north of Anchorage the land sank significantly making it no longer suitable for hay, but making it quite inviting to moose, spawning salmon and eagles. In other locations the intrusion of seawater during that same event killed large stands of trees leaving what are called ghost forests.

The hotel in Anchorage was a welcome sight, corporate feeling as it was after the roadhouse experience. After checking in and too tired to do much else, we walked a few blocks to Resolution Park honoring Captain Cook to look at the water of Cook Inlet and to clear our heads. We accomplished both, especially the clearing the head part, the wind coming off the water and along L Street seeming gale force. I'm still having trouble realizing it's June, all of us sporting flannel, down and fleece. Sobering when one considers what winter must be like.

Tal is getting sick, rosy-cheeked, catching, I'm afraid, the cold our Denali bus driver of Sunday and today had. This evening was the only meal of the entire trip we had to get on our own, and we opted for a bar meal in the restaurant sharing the parking lot with the hotel, our empties shown here.

22 June 2009

The rest of Monday

As Calvin (of the fondly remembered comic strip Calvin and Hobbes was wont to say, "The days are just packed." Today is one of those wonderful days.

Our lunch following the wildflower hike along the Moose River was served at the roadhouse. (Those guests who went on the two more strenuous hikes ate sack lunches on the trail.) Tal and I attended the dog sled demonstration in the early afternoon (see below); watched the gold panning activity for a few minutes, slipping away to walk the upstream trail along the Moose River; and skipped a short field trip to an historic cabin associated with gold mining in the area and truly at the end of Denali's road. After another delicious meal (I had the vegetarian choice -- stuffed acorn squash), we heard/saw a photography lecture by one of the resident guides. The 9:30 PM field trip back to Wonder Lake for Alpine glow (alpenglow) photography was cancelled as Denali was not cooperating. See what I mean about a packed day?

Emmitt Peters, whose father (Emmitt Sr) won the Iditarod as a rookie in 1975 and who ran the race in four different decades, is from Ruby and trains the six sled dogs at the roadhouse. These dogs are rescue dogs from an animal shelter in Fairbanks and are being trained over the summer for adoption by sledders. Traditional sled dogs, malamutes, are being bred with other breeds including Labrador retrievers (decreasing race time by not having to go around shallow water), Irish setters, border collies and greyhounds -- for increased agility and intelligence, as well as for shorter coats, given the warmer winter temperatures along the racing route. Already the two lead dogs at the roadhouse, Reba and Salmon, have been spoken for.

After the lecture the raring-to-go team was hitched up -- the two lead dogs (generally females), two swing dogs, two wheel dogs (the strongest dogs, generally alpha males) -- and they took off pulling a 600-pound 4-wheeler with Emmitt aboard. Such energy. And, such love between trainer and dogs.

While helicopters and snow mobiles are faster and perhaps more efficient, there are increasing numbers of people in these parts using dogs and sleds in winter. And, in the park old part of the park when the roads are closed during winter, the only two choices for transportation are dogs and cross country skis.

That slows things down and keeps things quiet for sure.

I'll end again with Tal -- here giving a behind-the-ears scratch to T-Bone and his harness-mate, Enya.

Wildflowers along Denali's Moose River

We arrived at the Kantishna Roadhouse shortly after 8:00 last evening. Ninety miles on a gravel road through five mountain passes in a rather utilitarian bus takes several hours -- even without safari stops. (Pictured here is part of our group boarding the bus in the parking lot near the Denali train depot and visitor center.) A delicious supper of salmon, fettuccine Alfredo, tossed salad and cheesecake was waiting for us. But, bed couldn't come quickly enough, especially with the sight of Denali's north peak happily in my mind.

The Kantishna Roadhouse staff offers a variety of activities each day, from leading hikes, easy to strenuous, to delivering short lectures on topics specific to Alaska and especially to Denali. Everyone in our group along with several other lodge guests participated in an easy four-mile walk/hike this morning through the Alpine (moist) tundra, paying close attention to the fast-emerging wildflowers -- amongst the faster emerging mosquitoes. (Note the head net, a very handy piece of equipment.)

The walk was led by our guide and a Roadhouse staff-member named Emily. Part of Emily's job was to give us instruction on conduct should we encounter various animals. Here she's demonstrating self-protection if a grizzly bear were to approach -- protect the head, neck and sides of the body with the arms and then roll into a ball on the ground to protect vital organs. We did NOT have to put that strategy to the test.

The wildflowers were plentiful and we identified lots of them, with Nancy's careful and clear instruction. Two of my favorites are below: Alpine arnica 'Arnica alpina' (yellow turned-down flower) and River beauty (aka Dwarf fireweed) 'Epilobium latifolium' (pink flower). I am particularly pleased that I managed to capture an insect in both images.

And, finally, here's a peaceful scene: Tal sitting in the tundra overlooking Moose River just before we headed back to the van and the roadhouse.

The mountain

Having been warned by many people not to get my hopes up where Denali was concerned, that is, not to count on seeing it, while we were as yet on the train ...

We were approaching the town of Nanana in a long turn lining up to cross a bridge and -- 100 air miles away -- there it was dwarfing every other mountain in the Alaska Range. Photos from the moving train and through not-so-clean windows weren't worth taking, but I made the attempt anyway. As you might expect, what I have to show for that attempt is not worth sharing.

When the train arrived at the depot in Denali and after an hour in the visitor center (the 20-minute film, "Heartbeat of Denali," was phenomenal), we boarded a bus for the 90-mile trip to the Kantishna Roadhouse where we are spending two nights. For 3/4 of the trip, well beyond the Eielson Visitor Center, a new building with the potential for commanding views, the brown foothills and slopes to about 10,000 feet were the limit of what we could see.

All along the miles we watched for and stopped to view the wildlife, checking off grizzly bear, caribou, moose, snowshoe hare, Dall's sheep, red squirrel, golden eagle. Truth be told, however, we all maintained part of our attention on where the mountain should be (accomplishing that with the help of our driver).

To our wonder and delight, after Polychrome Pass the top of the north summit appeared and then played peekaboo with us until we reached Wonder Lake where the road heads into the valley where the roadhouse is and then officially ends. This photograph was taken from about 27 air miles, the closest the park road gets to the mountain.

Seventy percent of the people , we have learned, who travel to see Denali leave disappointed. We are now part of an elite group: the 30% club! And, we saw it twice in one day.

21 June 2009

Alaska Railroad

Today's four hour ride was absolutely worth the price of the entire trip for me. From early memory, with National Geographic article photos and those from my grandmother's scenic America picture books etched in my mind, one of the images I have most romanticized, probably beyond reason actually, over the years is the long train snaking its way along a river through a mountain pass. Photographs aside, I've only gazed on that sight in person a few times -- trains along the Hudson (NY) and Columbia (OR) Rivers, specifically. In both cases, in person and in photographs, every time I have experienced a severe longing and have found myself wishing I were not always, it seemed, the one doing the watching. I probably need to analyze that persistent arrangement of thought, but not today.

Today I sat in a dome car with Tal and new friends from Alaska, Massachusetts and Maryland, travelling from Fairbanks to the depot at the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve. I thrilled at crossing narrow brides, at the sight of the rail cars ahead and behind us on long curves, at mournful whistle and slow pace. And, as we began the long grade between the Healy coalfields and the park, I felt an unexpected satisfaction. Those people in overlook parking areas on the other side of the Nenana River stood taking in the scenery and watching our slow, deliberate, sinuous progress.

I liked, after all these years, being watched. I liked, after all those years, being on that train.

Ready to ride

I am sitting in an Alaska Railroad car, our group -- six of us and a guide -- having been boarded early for an orientation to the traveling we will be doing today. We have been assigned 16 seats at the front of the car and Tal and I are sharing two sets of seats facing each other with a table between them. (No, the computer is not, I repeat NOT, on the table.)

Alaska Wildland Adventures has been contracted by Road Scholars to coordinate this six-day excursion and our guide, on first impression, is terrific -- lively, encouraging, knowledgeable and obviously engaged by this vast state. I am so grateful that Nancy is in charge, choreographing departures, shuttles, hotels, admissions, etc. At every turn I find myself breathing a sigh of relief that I’m not, minute by minute, having to have it all figured out.

The group is small and what an interesting bunch. A pediatrician who worked with the National Institute of Health for most of his career; a kindergarten teacher who is also an avid birder, her checklist at the ready; the former chair of the School of Social Work at Smith College; a professor of social work. All of us are for most part retired. And, some of the travels experienced are pretty awesome, the Milford Track in New Zealand being, perhaps, the most dramatic and taxing.

Our two initial ventures -- to the Museum of the North before dinner and the Trans-Alaska (Alyeska) Pipeline in the evening were, I realize, mere dips of a toe into what there is to see, know and experience in those two locations. I’m not going to go into any explanation of either, so breathe a sigh of relief. But, I will add a couple of photographs, first of the interior of the museum and, secondly, of the pipeline outside Fairbanks.

This is the main hall, the Gallery of Alaska to my back and the Alaska Range Viewing Window beyond the stairs.

The section of pipeline we visited was north of Fairbanks. I am facing north for this shot, where the pipeline emerges from underground.