Thursday, August 30, 2012

Haines - if you want to live in Alaska, look here!
Driving to Haines - better stop for coffee in order to take this in
It is the nature of Alaska that you constantly alternate between mountains and fiords, so next we find ourselves in Haines after driving what must be one of the most scenic roads in Alaska (and that’s saying something). Another fishing community trying to find a new balance between fishing and tourism. Currently, it is retaining all of the features that attract people from elsewhere. Unfortunately it is these very visitors who then expect more and, in so doing, destroy what it was they came for in the first place. 

Downtown Haines from across the fiord
It’s very apparent that we are now entering the northernmost realm of rain forests - luxuriant vegetation of spruce and other coniferous trees interspersed with patches of deciduous forest with a dense understory that provides the shelter and berries that black bears particularly seem to love. 

View across Chilkoot Lake from the campsite
The town itself very much retains the feel of a fishing town with its weatherboard houses overlooking the fiord (whilst being overlooked by the snowy mountains above) with the cruise ships in the port not quite managing to destroy the ambiance of the fishing fleet that put their nets out each day.

Chilkoot restaurant
Yet again we camped with stunning views, this time across Chilkoot Lake where we put the kayak in once again. Later, in our ongoing search for bears (we’re not bored with them yet) we found ourselves on a road bridge overlooking a river under which the spawning salmon were passing when a brown bear appeared at one end. As the fishermen retreated it inspected their gear and picked up and discarded one of their jackets (obviously the wrong size) and then, before anyone had a chance to react, it was on the bridge with us  onlookers. We retreated to one side as it made its way down the other and carried on its business on the other side of the river. 
Damn - who left the bones in this fillet?
The Inside Passage - the Alaska Marine Highway to Canada

From Haines we boarded the ferry to take the marine highway southwards. As we left port at dusk the cloud set in, obscuring the view, so we retreated to the bar for gin and tonics for the four hour trip to Juneau, the only US state capital (with the exception of Hawaii) not connected by a road system. Arriving well after dark (yes the days are now long enough to have real dark!) we found our campsite closed so we parked in an adjoining parking lot, awakening the next morning to find ourselves next to a beautiful lake with floating icebergs and a waterfall and glacier at the other end.  Consequently we had little choice but to put in the kayak and set off to explore the vista before us. 

Mendenhall Lake, glacier and falls
I'm well thanks, and you?
Sailing Tracy's Arm
The following day promised some sunshine so we jumped aboard a boat going to Tracy’s Arm, a side fiord off the main channel on which  Juneau was located. After an hour’s cruising we entered the gorge that was Tracy’s Arm and made our way up a narrow winding fiord beneath towering cliffs with cascading waterfalls and past flocks of thousands of black scoters and icebergs which became more abundant as we made our way up the narrow chasm. Finally, we came to a tortured and fractured glacier that was attempting to squeeze through a rocky cleft narrower then the valley above where the vast mass of ice resided. 

As we watched ice crashed and tumbled from the face of the glacier, creating swirling currents that stirred the mass of ice floes upon which dozens of harbor seals had taken up residence. 

A day at the beach - Alaska style

Ice jewels...

A slice through time - a glacial view of history
Our next hike took us towards Herbert Glacier, just north of Juneau, yet another mass of ice that moved simultaneously downwards from the top and upwards from the bottom, with the rate of the latter outstripping the former. The signs of this retreat became evident as we marched towards it, starting out in towering spruce trees of substantial girth. As we progressed however, it became apparent that the trees were getting shorter and thinner in a very regular sequence, with 500m distances revealing a noticeable change in the size, and hence age, of the trees - a clear measure of the time since the icy fingernails of the glacier were dragged backwards up the valley.

The base of the glacier was surrounded by recently exposed rock and a broad rocky stream that gushed with newly melted water. As I was about to head back down I noticed, on the other side of this river, a lone hiker who was clearly intent on making a crossing of the fast flowing waters, which were at their peak at the end of the day. Being the only other person around, I figured I’d better keep watch in the event that he got into trouble. After managing the first couple of channels he finally came towards the outermost part of the river where the flow was fastest and strongest. I positioned myself further downstream on the outer-side of the river in the spot I figured we would be washed past if he went in. And sure enough, in he went! The current took his feet from under him and, pack and all, he was suddenly in the icy water. Fortunately he was younger and fitter than he was smart and managed to stroke his way to the bank and struggle ashore. His hiking pole swept by me, inches out of reach, which may well have been his trajectory as well if he hadn’t made it ashore. Apart from being shaken and chilled, he said he was fine. Fortunately he had put most of his clothes in his pack and they had stayed dry so he had something warm to get into. So I left him to dry out and made my way back through time. 
Meanwhile, another tussle has commenced. This time, whoever is the commander-in-chief of leaves has noticed the shortening of the days and has instructed the chlorophyl troops to commence their retreat, leaving the orange and red carotenoides and anthocyanins to hold the fort, their fiery hues gradually beginning to signal their increasing dominance. As such, it is also time for us to retreat as we continue our way south, trying to catch up with the summer that we don’t seem to have encountered in these northern climes. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Valdez - where the bears join the party!
Valdez - another beautiful coastal town where a declining fishing industry is being offset to some extent by an slowly expanding tourist sector, although this largely means that new people are making money and those that did in the past are now doing it tough. It’s hard to shift from being a fisherman to tour operator. 

Bears come to town for the annual festival
We happened to arrive in town in time for the annual Gold Rush Days festival. On our way to the festival route we passed the Convention Centre where a cardboard cut-out of a black bear stood on the carefully manicured lawn. As we wandered by, the cut-out suddenly came to life and retreated into the nearby bushes where it stood on its hind legs to observe us, quickly joined by two more little heads poking out of the bushes trying to see who was passing by. Mother bear and her two cubs then scampered off across the road into a larger patch of forest, less than a block from where the festival, with all of the town’s population in attendance, was commencing.

Scouts leading the annual Gold Rush Days Festival
We were then treated to an impressive array of floats that reflected the incredibly strong sense of community pride that seems to be essential for small towns living of the brink of viability. At the end of the parade route the whole town, and all of it’s visitors, were treated to a free fish-fry lunch followed by a collective town photo on the lawns that the bears had recently vacated. 

Back to the old days
The salmon run is at its peak now, although well below normal levels, and spawning is occurring in the creeks flowing into the fiord. We stopped to watch a black bear pulling fish after fish out of a stream but, too full to eat any more fish, it would simply press both front paws on the flapping salmon and, if it was a female, licking up the extruded eggs and, if a male, ignoring it and going back for another.

Yet again, kayaking was an opportunity not to be passed up, so we launched our craft onto the lake at the foot of the Valdez glacier and  paddled around among the icebergs and eerily blue ice caves. The sound of fully automatic gunfire from the nearby rifle range did take the edge off the experience somewhat. We can’t help but wonder why anyone would need to practice shooting with what sounded like a military assault weapon. Groucho Marx once said something like “I could never support an organisation that would accept me as a member”. Similarly, something tells me that anyone that wants to have a fully automatic rifle is probably not the sort of person that should have one!  

Paddling Valdez Lake

Ice bergs on Valdez Lake
Paddling into the emerald chamber

Wrangel-St Elias
From Valdez, we headed northwards (which is what you have to do in order to go south) and revisited the Wrangell-St Elias National Park, this time from its northern boundary, camping overnight and hiking the next day up the mountainsides to gain views of this incredibly vast landscape. The thing that is remarkable about Alaska is the small proportion of the state that is actually accessibly by roads. Consequently you have to keep getting up on the passes and ridges to truly appreciate how far it extends beyond the view from the windscreen. 

Wrangel International Airport

An other thing that is remarkable about Alaska is the fact that you can shoot the wildlife in the National Parks. I’m not sure if this is a general rule, but in Wrangell-St Elias which comprises both  National Park and Preserve you can shoot in one but not the other (can’t recall which) but unfortunately no-one told the bears and moose where the boundary is (or which one thwy can be shot in) so one moment they are protected and several steps later, are a legitimate target. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that we saw not a single animal in this park. Again, the sound of gunshots marred what would otherwise have been a very rewarding experience. Remember, this is the state where Sarah Palin offered a bounty of $150 for the gunning down of wolves from airplanes!

Kluane - on the edge of the inaccessible
As we make our way south into the panhandle of Alaska we pass alongside the massive ranges of Kluane National Park, an area with few trails or roads - an area which only the serious backpacker can access. By virtue of our van, we were able to briefly scratch its surface, venturing down one of the few rough back roads that access the park, crossing glacier fed creeks and rocky moraine fields left by glaciers in the not-to-distant past. At one point we were struck by tiers of rounded stones perched on the side of the valley walls suggestive of lake shores of the past. And sure enough, this is what they turned out to be, but of a not-to-distant past. Advancing glaciers which had flowed down from adjoining valleys had blocked the flow of water from the valleys they bisected creating massive perched lakes which shaped their rocky shorelines. Then, as the pressure exerted by the lake increased and the changing climate undermined the icy will of the glacial tongues they finally succumbed in a massive icy dam break which emptied several hundred feet of water in a matter of days, flooding the valleys below and leaving shorelines perched high on the valleys above - an event retold through the stories of the local Athabascans.

It was beneath these imprints of the massive forces at play that we spent the night, alone, except for the company of a whistling wind that surged down from the icefields above as stormy skies broiled over our heads, and the company of a family of falcons that seemed to view these winds as a source of amusement rather than threat. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mountain medevac
View from Hatcher's Pass
Peeking Pica
I wonder if we will ever get sick of mountains? This time, our ventures took us to Hatcher’s Pass, a gravel road crossing through a craggy mountain range little more than an hours drive north of Anchorage. Anchoragians certainly have some nice playgrounds on their doorstep! This particular range was the setting for a hike up the verdant Archangel Valley in search of the Reed Lakes. The first part of the track was quite easy and would be quite easy to bike. A series of  bumps on a downhill section prompted the flippant comment “You could get some good air over those - probably followed by blood.” Thinking no more of it we continued onwards to where the trail climbed more steeply so I left Christine to return on her own whilst I continued up to the lakes. On the way back down, at the section where we commented about air and blood I found two cyclists trying hopelessly to deal with a third who was lying on the ground in shock with his face mashed, teeth missing and lip half bitten off having landed face first on a rock after descending with more speed than competence. Having established that he wasn’t at immediate risk I rushed to get blankets and painkillers while his alarmed friend called 911 and probably (understandably - there was a lot of blood) overstated the seriousness of the injuries. We got him settled and wrapped in a sleeping bag as we waited for the emergency rescue. After not too long two emergency services guys turned up to be followed shortly after by a helicopter and, not long after that, two quad-bikes - a bit of overkill for what ultimately turned out to be two missing teeth, a cut lip and a bit of concussion. We were told later the bill would probably be about $20k. I hope he had his health insurance up to date! Oh, that’s right, I forgot - Americans don’t like the idea of universal health cover. Remember, that’s the first step on the path to Socialism!

Bed-time view
Camped the night in a another parking lot / campsite with beautiful mountain views followed the next morning by a (cautious) mountain bike ride up the Gold Mint trail until, after about 5 miles it got just too rocky, requiring the trading of wheels for feet for the subsequent section. The afternoon was then spent rambling over the ridge tops at Hatcher’s Pass before finding a place to spend the night on the side of a dead-end side road with stunning views down the incredibly green valley. 

Wrangel-St Elias National Park
A leisurely drive took us back along the Glenn Highway, an officially designated scenic byway with views of the Matanuska Galcier and the  Chugas Mountains to the south. Camped the night in a gravel pit with million dollar mountain views before taking the dirt road out to the little town of McCarthy where we lit a campfire by the side of a turbulent river as  low clouds revealed only the bottom of what was clearly a very impressive glacier.

Another bed-time view
Alaskans are big on their flower baskets
Snack stop on a Wrangel Mountain hike
Renovator's delight - old mine buildings at McCarthy
Morning dawned with clouds shrouding the mountains so we took our bikes and cycled over the footbridge that connects the town of McCarthy to the road we had come in on, and then the further 5 miles up to the remarkable mining town of Kennecott, a jumble of mine buildings and mills dating back to the early 1900s, some of which had been restored, some stabilised and others left to the mercy of the elements. On can’t help but be impressed by the magnitude of the effort that was made to extract mineral resources from what would have been an incredibly remote location in hellish (in a cold sort of way) conditions for most of the year with little of the technology that we take for granted today. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Orcas and whales at Seward

Whale song at Seward

Young mountain goat above Exit Glacier
Our next port of call was Seward, a small fiord-side fishing town with views across the water to steep, forested mountains capped with snow.  Again the campers got the front row seats on the waterfront. A combination of cafes, restaurants and galleries added a touristy touch  to this picturesque town but could not overwhelm its predominant fishing flavor, particularly the smell from the cannery when the wind was in the wrong direction!

Ice climbers on Exit Glacier
Hoary marmot among the buttercups
We sat around for a day in the rain, doing laundry and sitting in cafes, knowing that the next couple of days  were forecast to be sunny. A trip out to Exit Glacier the following day provided us with some exercise and some close encounters with marmots and mountain goats.

Resurrection Bay, Seward

Marine mountain goat from the kayak
Hostel at Kayaker's Cove
We then organised a water taxi to take us and our kayak down the fiord to a little rustic and homely hostel at Kyakers Cove, nestled into the forest overlooking the sheltered bay. Our first paddle on the afternoon of our arrival was under somewhat overcast skies and as we progressed along the cliff-sides towards the open ocean, the swell and chop increased, which Christine found a little daunting. So, after a couple of miles we about-faced and rode the swells back to camp, where we spent the evening around the campfire with the couple of other guests and the hostel hosts, some wiry Alaskans who’s lives focus around fishing  and hunting and back-country adventures.

The next morning dawned beautifully sunny, so we set out again along the same shore, this time in search of a seal colony that we were told was about a 3 hour paddle along the coast. About an hour out, we encountered our first puffins, floating around on the surface, along with lots of cute little murrelets (crazy little sea-birds that nest in tree hollows!). A little later we rounded a headland and beneath the towering mountains, right down by the shoreline, was a mountain goat lying on the rocks. We paddled a little closer and were busy taking photos when suddenly there was a huge explosion of air behind us and we swung around to find our selves peering into the blowhole of a whale that had surfaced less than 10 meters from us. It quietly slipped back below the surface, emerging again a bit further along the cliffs. And then, suddenly, we heard the song of the whale - it was singing below the surface and its calls were being reflected and amplified out of the sea caves along the cliffs, and then it was gone. What a quintessentially Alaskan experience - in a kayak on a forest-covered fiord, surrounded by  glaciers and towering snowcapped peaks with a mountain goat on one side, a singing whale on the other and puffins bobbing around on the surface! And the sun was shinning! It doesn’t get much better than that.
Tufted Puffin

We continued our paddle till we eventually found a small group of Steller’s sealions lounging on the rocks with a few others playing in the water. One of the animals sported what looked to be a very brightly colored pendant around its neck but, on closer inspection, turned out to be a fishing lure that was hooked in its mouth. 

A small rocky beach served as a pullout for lunch and, with the change of the tide, we took advantage of the current and a favorable wind to return, very satisfied to camp.

Capitalising on a second sunny day, we took a wildlife cruise on a small boat with only 9 passengers to further explore the surrounding   fiords and islands. Unfortunately, however, the morning sun was short-lived as an ocean mist rolled in, blanketing us in a cold,wet cloud. Fortunately, it lifted a little not long after, giving us views across the water, if not of the mountain peaks. Our route took us out through Resurrection Bay to the Chiswell Islands, a group of over 200 rocky islets that rise abruptly out of the sea, providing nesting sites for tens of thousands of birds, the air thick with circling kittiwakes as well as many other seabirds including parakeet-billed, and rhinoceros auklets.

Whoo-hoo - Orcas!
Orca breaching
A little later, a slender angular black shape slicing through the water signaled the presence of orca - another of our bucket list targets! As we approached their massive dorsal fins could be seen slicing through the water with glimpses of their white flanks below the surface and then, a young orca exploded from the water, it’s whole body suspended briefly above the surface before disappearing  with a mighty splash.  If that wasn’t sufficient, we were then visited by a pod of speedy little Dall’s porpoises, themselves orca-like in their coloration, which sliced along in the boat’s bow wave. Our next encounter was a couple of grey whales which surfaced only meters from the boat and then, not to be outdone by the orcas, put on a show for us by leaping out of the water several times. 

Humpback not wanting to be out-done

Kayakers in front of Aialik Glacier
Our route then took us into Aialik Bay at the end of which the sun emerged and we navigated under blue skies through a sea of floating ice to a massive glacier that came right down to the water. As we came to a halt the creaks and groans and cannon-shot like explosions that emanated from the ice sheet told us that this beast was alive and, as we watched, huge chunks of ice would break loose and cascade down into the water sending waves across the bay. All in all, another amazing day!

Can we stay, just a little bit longer?
From Seward, we made our way to Whittier, stopping off overnight near Portage where we took yet another evening beer (oops, we’re out of wine) and cheese paddle, this time across the lake to Portage Glacier, paddling through the ice-floes but maintaining our distance from the face of the glacier, given our previously experience of glacier dynamics.

Portage Lake - looks good for a paddle
Making the most of the last rays of sun
Approaching Portage Glacier
We then tunneled our way through a mountain range, via the longest highway tunnel in North America, to emerge in the rain in Whittier, a bleak little port dominated by railway lines, and shipping docks for the Alaska Marine Highway ferries and giant cruise ships. The town, and the adjoining tunnel, were originally created as a military port to provide railway access to the rest of Alaska. Accommodation for the military staff took the form of a number of massive and ugly apartment blocks, and these now provide the only housing for the Whittier residents. I guess the bleak weather didn’t help but it wasn’t a particularly inspiring town. One sensed however that, if the clouds lifted, a spectacular fiord setting would be revealed. 

We also found out here that our applications for visa extensions had been rejected causing us much dismay, but it appears that the problem was due to us not providing the correct amount of money. As mentioned in an earlier post, we had relinquished particular forms when we entered Canada, on the advice of the US border guys and as instructed by a USCIS website, so we had argued that we shouldn’t have to pay the $300(!) each to replace them - but they obviously didn’t see it that way. So fortunately my sister in Oregon was able to send off the cheques and we’re hoping it will get sorted quickly, as our visas expire in a week!