Alaska was magnificent!!
We were originally going to drive up the Al-Can Highway and take the ferry down the inside passage, but the ferry with a car is SOOoooo expensive, a cruise was cheaper!! And includes food! So we drove to Vancouver, took a cruise ship up the inside passage, took a train to Anchorage, rented an RV (the “smallest” one they had left – a 32 foot monster!) and explored Alaska for the next 11 days, then flew back to Vancouver and mosied home down the coast.
The cruise was amazing. The whole trip was wonderful, but the cruise – well, after one week, we both were just amazed and said that the cruise would have been enough! We felt very full of wonderful experiences at the end of it, but still ready and excited about our next phase.
The RV wasn’t as bad as you’d think – everyone has them up there and it makes sense – there’s really no motels anywhere except a few and far between places, but there are RV parks EVERY where – middle of nowhere, someone just clears an acre, puts in parking places, and calls it an RV park. That and drive-through espresso places!! EVERYwhere! Random places! Middle of nowhere, an handmade sign tacked to a tree on the side of the road – Drive-Through Espresso! Someone just put a little trailer building up on blocks in their front yard and called it a business... Unexpected funny local cultural stuff. But the scenery! The wildlife! OMG. We took almost 4,000 photos! It’s going to take a while to sort through them for a reasonable slide show! I did a lot of “drive-by shootings” - took shots out the window as we drove by a nice lake or view or mountain... Most are crap, of course, but the fun part is that some are actually really good!
Here’s a rough itinerary:
Vancouver – Ketchikan: We went to Misty Fjords by tour boat and got dropped off in a fjord and picked up by a float plane for the return trip! Misty Fjords lived up to its name and was rainy and misty and beautiful with waterfalls everywhere coming down sheer granite cliffs into the sea - bald eagles sitting on logs at river mouths up gorgeous fjords - we stayed out on the deck of the boat in our gore-tex parkas almost the whole trip! This really felt like Alaska - THIS is why we came!
Juneau: we went to Mendenhall Lake, just below Mendenhall Glacier, and took a river raft across the beautiful lake and down the river (class 2-3). The weird part about that is the river is mostly in people's back yards! I think we were kind of expecting wild... it ~was~ beautiful and enjoyable, but odd to be seeing all these suburban looking houses on the riverbanks as we passed. The glacier and lake were lovely, though, the lake filled with fine sediment that our oars swirled up like cream in coffee - very silky and beautiful.
We then took the tram in town to the top of Mount Roberts, where we had fantastic views of the Linn Canal and Juneau, ate lunch, and got a close-up look at a bald eagle that had been rehabbed.
Our final Juneau excursion was an evening whale watch boat tour – where we saw tons of humpbacks feeding! They seemed to always be in groups - one group of three that was very close did a beautiful ballet-like sounding dive, 1,2,3... one after the other in perfect graceful timing those big flukes would arch up in the air and slide beneath the surface. Lovely.
Next stop, Skagway. We took a tour over White Pass (beautiful!!) into the Yukon ("Canada's True North") for a “paddle and saddle” adventure (sounds kinky, huh?!) and we canoed on Spirit Lake with a beaver who was swimming around constructing a new lodge, and then went on a horseback ride. Devin and I "won" the canoeing tourist competition... the other people didn't know there was a competition, but at the end the wind picked up and we were canoeing across the lake and we finally had gotten our rhythm - the first two canoes in were the guides, and we were next - the winners for the tourist class! Go us!! he he. The canoe was the closest Devin and I have ever come to getting mad at each other, but we finally worked out paddling and steering and got pretty good at it! The horseback ride was interesting - Devin had a beautiful silvery dapple grey horse named Spirit. He got up him with stairs and help, and Spirit even did a little gallop up a hill and Devin stayed on! I felt really comfortable back on a horse, once I got up... how did I used to do that so easily?! Sheesh.
Next day: Glacier Bay: we had a full day of “scenic cruising” in Glacier Bay – we picked up a Park Ranger on a boat- 3 rangers actually – and they provided programs in info about the glaciers, wildlife, geology, etc. of the area. The glaciers were magnificent. We stayed out on deck the entire day! Almost didn’t eat lunch! (finally tore ourselves away around 2:30). It was a great day. A really really great day! We had such great luck with weather! The day before Misty Fjords they had had a drought, and there had been no waterfalls! The day we were there, waterfalls were everywhere! And Glacier bay was perfect - warm actually! But with enough clouds to add interest to the sky... a really lovely day.
Our last day on the ship was College Fjord and another day of scenic cruising, and more and even bigger glaciers! Harvard Glacier is 3 miles wide where it enters the ocean! Wow! Tons of sea otters, seals, sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, and we started the day by seeing a humpback whale breach right off the bow!
We ended the cruise in Seward, where we got off the ship and got on a train to Anchorage here, where we rented our land yacht.
RV: Anchorage to Denali - wow – saw the “big four”: Grizzly, Dall Sheep, Caribou, and Moose, and as an added bonus, a Gyrfalcon! – but the scenery – vast and amazing. McKinley is a sight to behold... Truly the Great One as the name Denali means – when we first saw it, we were looking at a mountain range of huge, rugged, snowy peaks with clouds over them... When we noticed something – OMG that’s the top of McKinley! Sticking up ABOVE the clouds FAR overhead of the mountains we were looking at. Really impressive!
Then over Denali “Highway” (gravel road through mostly tundra environment – tree line is 2700 feet up there!) Denali Highway has the second highest pass in Alaska at 3,000-something feet. Saw Tundra Swans, no, Trumpeter Swans on some kettle lakes there. Amazing Glacial topography, gorgeous open scenery! Crossed the Susitna River – HUGE! Spent the night in the middle of nowhere with a view to die for...
Woke up with a flat tire – no big deal! Thank god I’m with Devin!! It was the easiest, least stressful flat tire experience I’ve ever had! Well, we had passed the only settlement on the entire 150 miles of this highway only a few miles before we camped across the river and up on a bluff, and the tire was one of the rear dual tires, so we drove back at about 10 mph to “Gracious House” which lives up to its name. They fixed our tire no problem and didn’t charge an arm and a leg, either!
When we got out on the highway, we hit smoke from the many fires that were burning up near Tok and Chicken, so we booked south, stayed in a BLM campground when we got too tired to go on, then kept going all the way over the beautiful Richardson Highway to Valdez.
Valdez is the end of the Alaska Pipeline, and our tour guide on the Yukon Paddle and Saddle from Skagway had recommended we take the Richardson Highway to Valdez for scenery, but didn’t like Valdez – he said that being the end of the pipeline was about the only thing to recommend it. But we really liked Valdez! It was not a tourist town like Skagway, which was also beautiful, and really small, but most of the shops on the quaint main street were obviously catering to cruise ship tourists. But Valdez was a major fishing town, and had both commercial and charter fishing going on full blast. So there were a ton of tourists, but it didn’t feel touristy in the same way - I’m guessing most were from other parts of Alaska down to catch their halibut for freezing for the winter, or the salmon!
Wow, the salmon! There was a viewing platform right out of town on a creek where they were spawning – the water was just boiling with “Humpies”! The Humpback (aka Pink) and Silvers were running. Alaska has 5 types of salmon, each with 2 names! You can remember then on your hand: Pink is your pinkie, Silver is your ring finger, King is your middle finger, Sockeye is your pointer (don’t poke someone in the eye!) and Chum is your thumb! I can never remember all the names, though. I remember Pink is also Humpy, and King is also Chinook, and I think Sockeye is also Red (cause your eye gets red when you poke it...) but I don’t remember the other names for Silver and Chum.
One thing that impressed me about Valdez, and Seward, and Alaska in general, is how wildness and industry could easily co-exist side by side. Across the inlet from the tow of Valdez were tanks and pipes where the tankers came in to fill up on oil from the pipeline. Right across from this vital fishing economy. That oil spill was probably awful for everyone up here, because the marine ecosystem is SO alive and full and it would affect everyone’s livelihood. But for the most part, it co-exists just fine. Healthy forests, salmon runs, kelp beds, halibut, sea otters, orcas, seals and sea lions, and happy humpbacks gorging on fish for their long Hawaiian mating fast... And it’s all happening right in town, practically! I think it’s a good model – we can have people and industry along side of wild nature. But when there gets to be way too many of us, there goes the nature. Alaska really isn’t like the rest of the US. There’s way more wildlife than people here – WAY more. And the vastness of the landscape is awe-inspiring and mind-boggling – it just goes on and on. Where we may have a few parks with this kind of landscape, they have borders. Up in Alaska, it’s the towns that have borders. I like it.
We drove back over the Glenn Highway, which is supposed to be really scenic, but we couldn’t see it because the smoke was so heavy, back to Anchorage (I took a photo of the Matanuska Glacier viewpoint – the Glacier is really close to the highway, and you could only see the telescopes and nothing behind them. That’s okay, we had stopped at the Worthington Glacier on the way to Valdez - really cool.)
One thing that was interesting is the “Drunken Forest” - all the black spruce that grow all crazy – they are thin little fuzzy sticks of trees, all deformed looking, and they lean every which way when they are growing over permafrost! And it goes on for miles and miles and miles and miles... Forests made to burn. No wonder there was smoke.
Devin described Alaska’s highways as being of two main types: Wilderness and Rural. Through the wilderness, there is nothing, no settlements, just the road through beautiful scenery, no side roads going out in it... And the rural parts are interesting. Usually a little lower in elevation, so not in tundra areas, but black spruce, and also mixed white spruce, aspen and birch, and lower down, mostly aspen and birch. Lovely forest. Still miles of no settlements, but the occasional side road – dirt, gravel, sometimes an airstrip in view, or you go by a lake and there’s a float plane on it parked behind someone’s cabin. Alaska has the largest percentage of pilot’s licenses! It makes a lot of sense out there. Along the coast, and up the big rivers, it seems everyone has a float plane! They are very common.
Another interesting aspect of the rural highways are what we called the “ATV Lanes” - there always seemed to be a dirt track paralleling the highway, and we would see people riding ATVs on it. They use them for getting around, for hunting, and for fun. I’m guessing those might be the snowmobile lanes in the winter!
At Anchorage, we stayed in our favorite RV park, the Native-Owned Anchorage RV Park. Very pretty, in Aspen and Birch forests, with moose wandering around... And full hook ups and wireless internet access!! We found the Native-owned operations up there to be the nicest – the tramway in Juneau was Native owned and operated. We found out later that the Kantishna Roadhouse, which we didn’t go to, in Denali is Native Owned – it is WAY in on the road, accessible by their busses only. I would like to go there sometime.
Then we heading down to the Kenai Peninsula – As we went around Turnagain Arm (amazing tidal changes – there is a huge tidal bore there – 25 foot tides, four times a day, stronger coming in than going out, 12 foot waves happen with the tide change! People windsurf on them! It’s a huge mudflat at times, with very dangerous mud that acts like both a liquid and a solid – when you slap it, it seems solid, but if you walked on it you would sink, and if you struggle, it will act like a solid and trap you until the tide comes in and drowns you – scary!) As we went around this amazing stretch of inlet, where we looked for but didn’t see Beluga Whales (commonly sighted there, sometimes stranded on the mud, but swim out with the next tide) we saw Dall Sheep (the only bighorn sheep that are all white!) right along the highway on the cliffs!! They were really close!! There was a mother and kid, too! That was cool.
That day we went all the way to Homer so we could work our way back. Everyone in Alaska likes Homer – we hated it! It has this spit that goes way out in the ocean and is covered with campers and feels like southern California! Lots of touristy little souvenir shacks and charter places – it is another huge fishing town, but not as scenic as Valdez, which is in a Fjord surrounded by huge mountains. Homer is at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula.
We didn’t stay, but turned around and headed back up the Kenai where we found Anchor River – beautiful river mouth, beach, lovely marsh and estuary. Tiny RV park on the bluff with a great view. Watched the sunset blood red over the Cook Range – I think that’s what it was – it was hazy, not smoky, but I think just that marine haze, so we couldn’t see Mount Redoubt and the other massive active volcanoes across the Cook Inlet from us, only their silhouettes as the sun set behind them. But it was lovely there. People were camped on the beach and salmon fishing in the mouth of the river – we saw one guy ~dragging~ this huge salmon he had caught! Too heavy to hold up, too big not to drag! Monster fish.
From there we drove back up the Kenai, checked out the town of Kenai (kind of a pit) and went on through the Cooper’s Landing area along the Kenai River, which is ~BEAUtiful~! It’s that aqua-blue color that glacier fed rivers sometimes get... Saw a Loon on the river. I’m not mentioning all the bald eagles we saw – they were fairly common and easy to see with the big white head!
We ended up back in Seward, which we hadn’t seen after the cruise because our train left at 6am or something like that. We liked Seward a lot. We went on another tour boat –all day to the Kenai Fjords, with a park ranger as tour guide and he was excellent. This was a great grand finale for our trip! It was spectacular and beautiful all day, but the highlights were:
Floating silently in a bay where dozens of Orcas were feeding – we turned off the motor and were quiet and we could hear them breathing as they surfaced and dove... One breached right off the bow of the ship – a huge gasp of awe from the silent crowd on the boat! It almost brings tears to my eyes thinking of it – being in an ecosystem so incredibly full of life. But there’s more!
Floating in front of yet another tidewater glacier (we saw so many of these, but certainly didn’t get tired of it!) listening to the “white thunder” as it cracked and moved, small avalanches, big chunks calving into the sea...
The Chiswell Islands – this could be my favorite part of the whole trip!! These are a wildlife sanctuary, and a huge crossroads for all kinds of marine life! PUFFINS!! Both Tufted Puffins and Horned Puffins!! They nest here – they feed here on the abundant fish – they get so fat they can’t take off!!! The place was crawling with Puffins!! And Murres!!! Standing on ledges where they were nesting, like little penguins! Diving and flying underwater... A humpback whale was surge feeding between us and an island, then breached – the closest breach yet! Sea otters, seals, sea lions, orcas, humpbacks, puffins, murres, kittiwakes... Wow. It was incredible. I don’t think I have ever been anywhere that felt so completely abundant with life!!! And it is, in our terms, “in the middle of nowhere.” But for wildlife, it is a major metropolis – really and truly a wonderful place.
From there we headed back to Anchorage, camped one last time at our favorite RV park, and turned in the RV the next day, headed to the airport and flew to Vancouver.
We stayed in Vancouver that night and really liked it a lot! The next night we visited a friend in Seattle, where we pigged out at a fancy restaurant with her, then headed down the coast. We were ready to be home by the time we got to California! What a trip!!
And Devin and I are more in love than ever – it really was like one big long honeymoon – the first of many, I hope!