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Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

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Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

Postby rams » Mon Oct 12, 2015 6:04 pm

In a previous post I noted how I would have to move to Utah and would miss the Sierra. The backstory for my move is as follows. In 2010, I had met this woman who came to interview in my lab and thought nothing of it. As it turned out, she joined the lab and I eventually found out she was a mountain person. Fast forward a couple of years and somehow we were together. Unfortunately, her professional/educational endeavors sent her looking for other programs across the nation, and we weren't sure if long-distance could last. I knew there was hope though, when her basis for choosing the medical program in Utah was the skiing. All about priorities!

Fast forward a couple more years and we're flying from Salt Lake City to Alaska for our honeymoon. From the start, I was blown away from the landscape there. By "start", I mean before we even landed. Looking out the window at the maze of glaciers snaking their way down rugged peaks into the water, I knew this place would be different than anywhere I'd been before.

After a 4 am wakeup call to be notified that our luggage made it to the hotel from the airport (TSA was rather slow inspecting luggage in Seattle where our connecting flight was), we eventually made our way to the road to leave Anchorage. First stop: Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park. The crazy winds were a sweet reminder of Mammoth, though the dust was annoying. As we got on the trail for the Exit Glacier, we were greeted by a bear warning unlike the ones we'd seen in the Sierra. Nothing like being told how to proceed when being eaten.
Grizzly warning

This was the first time I'd been so close to such a large tongue of ice and could immediately picture how frozen water could grind away and shape huge mountains. It was also our first wildlife sighting of the trip, with grazing mountain goats dwarfed by the ice.
Exit Glacier

mountain goats and Exit Glacier

Higher up on the trail, with winds literally knocking us over and testing our reflexes for catching flying hats, the views in both directions showed the scale of this place. Neither of us had ever seen such a huge expanse of ice as the Harding Icefield, which feeds into the Exit Glacier (and several other glaciers). If the winds weren't so strong, we would've stayed all day. In the other direction, mountains springing up across the valley and Seward reminded us of the Alps, which was an interesting contrast to the sea of ice with summits poking their heads above (nunataks).

Harding Icefield

across the valley from the Exit Glacier

After an uneventful hike back down to the comfort of the car and out of the Mammoth-esque winds, we headed to Seward for the night before a one-day cruise the next day to see more vast landscapes and tons of wildlife. Throughout this cruise to the Northwestern Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, massive glaciers carving huge valleys became commonplace and the amount of wildlife was staggering between who-knows-how-many species of birds, humpback whales, a couple of mountain goats near the shore (!), otters, sea lions, and orcas. It was so impressive to see so much wildlife surrounded by such majestic landscapes. At the foot of the Northwestern Glacier, we sat among the icebergs and watched the ice calve into the water. I obviously can't post pics of every type of animal we saw, so I'll just show the orcas, which were the coolest/least expected ones for me.

IMGP4215 (2)-min.JPG
Bear Glacier from the ship...just one of several massive glaciers we got to see that day

There were more orcas, but I chose this shot for the mountains in the background.

Back in Seward, we got back in the car and headed back to Anchorage to prepare for the next day, when we would depart on a floatplane for Lake Clark National Park for bear-viewing. We landed on Crescent Lake and spent most of the day boating around staring at the shoreline looking for bears...and having the best non-sushi salmon of our lives for lunch (no exaggeration). We counted 17 when all was said and done, most of them fishing with huge success. I also got to see bald eagles in the wild for only the second time in my life that I can remember (first time was above Twin Lakes in Mammoth!). What was really awesome was essentially having a private guide for about an hour as all of the people except my wife ad I were tired after about 2 or 3 PM and didn't go back on the boat after the bathroom break. This was probably my wife's favorite day as she has a bit of a bear obsession. Maybe that's why she likes me (I'm kind of hairy in case you were wondering).

one of the larger bears we saw at Crescent Lake (Lake Clark NP)

The bears would sometimes play with their prey.

After bidding farewell to the guide, we got back on the floatplane with the rest of our group to head back to Anchorage. These plane rides would show us more glacial landscapes as well as Denali, which we wouldn't get to see when we went to Denali NP. My pics through the plane window weren't that good so I won't bother posting Denali pics from the plane. The next day, we departed Anchorage for our first "ice-climbing" adventure on the Matanuska Glacier. To call it "ice-climbing", though, is kind of like saying that riding a tricycle on the sidewalk is "mountain biking". Anyway, this was just another reminder of the scale of these places. What looks small compared to the rest of the landscape looks rather large compared to objects you can relate to. We were just on the very tip of a 20-something-mile glacier and still felt like we were surrounded by tall buildings made of ice. In the pictures below, the parallel streaks on the right side of the top picture are visible on the left side of the bottom picture, which has a person thrown in for scale.

Matanuska Glacier

The lower reaches of the Matanuska Glacier are still huge.

After slipping on ice (with crampons!), almost falling into a stream of unknown depth, and scaring the hell out of our guide, we left the glacier (with my head hanging in shame) and started for Denali NP. We arrived at some unpleasant hour that I can't really remember after trading off driving duties in the rain. The weather had been great up until now, which wasn't surprising as Denali weather has a bit of a reputation for sucking (mountain is only visible about 30% of the time). I had been most looking forward to seeing the postcard view of Denali but it wasn't meant to be as clouds shrouded high peaks both days we were there. It was also our least favorite place since you're imprisoned on buses unless you have more than a day. The buses were filled to the brim with people and if you got off, you risked not being able to get back on one and being stranded. Note: if you ever go to Denali NP on a cloudy day, don't bother going to Wonder Lake. It takes hours to get there and the views are lame if you've ever been in the Sierra. A sunny day with Denali visible is probably a different story. Another annoying thing about Denali is the fact that every time there's a grizzly or moose visible from the bus, the people on the bus go crazy and elbow their way for photos. The best thing about Denali for us was that we were lucky enough to be there for the short window of time where colors were changing. It was pretty cool to see so much red blanketing the valleys, which I hadn't seen before.

fall colors in Denali NP

But anyway, if you go to Denali try to make it a backpacking trip so you can actually enjoy your surroundings and be out in nature. Otherwise, be prepared to sit a lot and battle for photo opportunities (shoulder pads recommended). We did see lots of grizzlies, though, which was nice.

All told, this was an incredible trip with landscapes and concentrations of wildlife I had never seen before. I never thought I'd see a landscape I liked more than the Sierra, but the mountains in Alaska may have that honor. We were both so impressed with the nature here that we agreed that we wanted to live here some day. That is, if we don't want to move back to CA to be near the Sierra.

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Re: Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

Postby rlown » Mon Oct 12, 2015 7:52 pm

a very nice report, and great pictures! thanks for sharing..
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Re: Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

Postby Shawn » Mon Oct 12, 2015 11:17 pm

Yes, awesome photos and great info.
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Re: Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

Postby Fly Guy Dave » Tue Oct 13, 2015 7:18 am

Sweet! Alaska is such a wonderful place. Thanks for taking us along. :)
"Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man." --Jeff Lebowski

Some pics of native salmonids:
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Re: Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

Postby maverick » Tue Oct 13, 2015 12:10 pm

Wonderful TR and pictures, love the Fall colors, glacier, and of course the grizzly picture. Thanks! :thumbsup:
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Re: Alaska trip report 8/31 - 9/6

Postby windknot » Tue Oct 20, 2015 9:14 am

Thanks for sharing! Every time I visit this subforum I have to add another place to my wishlist.
A few backcountry fishing pictures:
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