Saturday, July 25, 2015

Excerpts from the log - Denali and Marine Highway Leg

July 25  - traveling on the road again towards Smithers, BC -elevation 500 feet above sea level, 1,688 miles to home , over 5,000 miles covered so far during this journey -  yesterday's stifling and monotonous journey on the Marine highway ferry finally came to an end at at 2:30 am when we were awakened by a knock on our cabin door by the steward alerting us that we'd be docking in Prince Rupert in 30 minutes. Through the merky darkness out the cabin window I could see occasional navigational blinking lights but otherwise there was no hint  we were rapidly approaching one of Canada's most active west coast deep water ports.  Lumber, minerals, and manufactured goods from all over British Columbia and Alberta find their way on the northern leg of the trains-Canada railway to this waterfront town of 33,000 souls.

Our cabin on the boat was a cacophony of rattles from the bed supports to the  mysterious workings behind the thick walls. The mattress was comfortable enough and thankfully the seas were calm except for a slow rocking which I could imagine was the breeze gently swinging my hammock, but the erratic metallic knocks kept us both from getting a sound rest, even though we began the effort round 8:00 pm with a helpful portion of rum with dinner.  

Bleary eyed and somewhat stunned we stumbled down to the car deck around 3:30am and drove off the boat into the miry darkness and a steady rain. The maps and guide books offers no hint about where to easily park to sleep off the remainder of the dwindling night,  inquiries made to boat hands resulted in unknowing shakes of the head, or curt ""not now".  While we waited to Canadian customs we started to formulate some options and then the customs agent informed us about a fe close pull-outs and the nearby Wal-Mart parking lot, always a port of last resort for RV'rs like ourselves. We opted for the Wal-mart due to the narrow road shoulders, no darkness of the wet road no dripping woods and were not surprised to recognize a few other campers from the ferry pulling in at the same time. We all pulled our shades and settled down for some shut eye without further ado and rumbling of equipment.

The ferry ride held potential for marine mammal sightings and wonderful scenery, and it did afford us a Rest from driving, albeit at 17 mph but with the steady drizzle and low clouds the two and 1/2 day journey developed more like a marathon.  We moved about, read, napped, snacked, looked out the foggy windows, and on a few occasions spied eagles or porpoises nearby. The rear upper deck was covered with yellow plexiglass , but open to the air on the one end, and with electric heat lamps and a Break from the wind, it was the quietest place on the ship to relax and enjoy the muffled scenery. a few  bikers were camped out there, with sleeping bags spread on the plastic deck chairs, but otherwise it was unoccupied except for other passengers making a brief stop on the promenades about the open decks.

With a delayed start, we regrouped, repacked clothing, and started our drive again round 8:30 this morning, following the scenic Skeena River valley.  The steep coastal rain forested mountains are still draped with veils of whispy clouds, and occasional squalls sweep down and pass over us, but generally the roadway is dry.  The salmon are running, so the accessible banks and bars of the river are lined with hopeful people fishing. Along the drive we pass several roadside "recreational fish processing" stands where fresh caught fish can be cleaned, vacuum bagged, and packed in ice while you wait. As we drive inland to skirt north of the coast mountains, the road valley broadens, hillsides shrink and the woods take on a more north woods, birch forest look.  We continue to follow the river but it has consolidated and stripped itself of its braided gravel spread, now tightly hugged by foliage right down to the water line.

July 24 - Petersberg, AK - still underway aboard the Matanuska Marine Highway Ferry boat.  We awoke with an odd sensation - it was fully dark outside our cabin window.  We have not experienced full darkness at night since we were heading north at the beginning of June.There was no rumbling below, so I suspect we were at some port, taking on fuel, and more passengers.  I rolled over and went back to sleep. Next I knew sun was shining in the window and we were at port here in Petersberg, AK, a very small fishing community in the southeast archipelago which cradles the Lynn Canal.   We rush through getting dressed and blast outside on deck to enjoy the first direct sunshine in a few days.  The ferry pulls slowly off the piers, and heads out the narrow channel past small, somewhat ramshackle looking houses along the shore.  We spot bald eagles perched in the trees, especially at the very narrow channel just out of town. We pass a few fishing boats coming back in, and a few pleasure craft heading the same direction as us.  There is barely enough room at this point in the channel for our large vessel and the smaller craft, especially right at the channel markers, so the smaller boats vear outside just as we pass.  Looking back, we can see glaciated mountains looming just inland, but the clouds obscure the overall layout of the place.  Soon, the fog and clouds lower back to just above water level and our views close in to just beyond the shore. We duck inside to get out of the mist and growing breeze. The GPS shows us passing through the the Summer Channel and abreast of Mitkof Island before cell signal peters out and the map details evolve to a simple overview. 

The phone has been of little use on this trip, short of using it as a video camera on occasion. The cell coverage is so sparse away from the cities, and there have been very few cities we have passed by in our two months on the road.  All the usual expectations for cell based resources were suspended - no looking for cheap fuel, no looking up details about interesting landmarks, no constant steam of emails and messages. No sending snapshots to friends.  Once we got used to the relative isolation, it was actually a relief to pack the phone away and forget about it.  We have been using our guidebooks and maps, and talking to people at fuel stops and grocery stores to get weather updates, and information about items of local interest.  Usually the Laundromats have wi-fi, so every two weeks we've been checking mail, responding to the critical items and leaving the rest of the slop in the in box for consideration once we get home.

July 23 -  Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Boat Matanuska, south of Haines in the Lynn Canal - we camped the last two nights on a bluff just above the Chilkoot Lake, a short distance from Haines.  Salmon are running in the river and making their way up to the lake from the sea.  The Eagles and bears have been awaiting their arrival, and form a carnivorous greeting party once the determined fish reach their spawning grounds.  On our paddling explorations around the lake we passed one such spawning gravel bar, the point where a mountain stream empties into the pale green lake.  Near the shallow water at the shore the water is alive with the swirling red backs of the chum salmon.  Perched in the trees by the shore of the river are the bald eagles, satiated from previous fish feasts, they sit firmly motionless and stare at us as we float by.  Mama and baby bear tracks by the shore in the soft sand reveal other visitors to this gravel bar. We call out and do not tarry in such a coveted location, but keep our eyes out for more activity around the shore of the lake.  Although we see scores of kingfishers, besides the bald eagles, we see no other animal life during our entire day of paddling the cold waters.  I lost track after counting 12 significant waterfalls threading down off the towering mountainsides terminating at the lake. Some seemed to pass underground in deep jumbles of large rocks before reaching the lakeshore.  The river beds gouged out by the fairly small streams, with very sizable boulders pushed up on the banks tell a tale of seasonal floods with massive quantities of snow melt water coursing down the mountainsides.  While we watch two bald eagles at the river by the lake's discharge peering into the milky green water, a golden eagle glides downstream from a distant realm up lake.  The bald eagles let off loud shrill cries when the golden enters their territory, and remarkably the golden eagle whirls away and rides the thermals up and up, leaving the riverside eagles alone, finally soaring off in the direction from which he came.  The golden eagles are the more dominant of the two species, often running bald eagles away from fruitful territories.

Out of our cabin window, the forest ticks by under a low ceiling of heavy clouds. There is a wet mist in the air, so we hunker down inside. The quiet low rumble of the powerful engines somewhere far below us and the slight sway of the floor reminds us we are underway and afloat, instead of at some waterfront motel.  The various lounges at different levels are full, but not overflowing with supine passengers, some obviously on this boat for a long haul, with sleeping pads, mats, and various items of clothing scattered or hung from the chairs and benches.  A pod of porpoises frolics  between us and shore as I look up and Diane points. Time to go on deck to get some air and to explore.

July 15 - Denali National Park - 3,465 miles from Truckee - we camp at Teklaneka campground about 30 miles up the park road and use it as a base for our day hiking excursions and photographic safaris on the rattling park service tourist bus.  There is lots of great hiking in the alpine tundra once the bus takes us past the edge of the taiga boreal forest at about mile 45.  With a careful eye, occasional views are possible of the large mammals roaming around these parts. At our feet is a riot of wild flowers and blooming mosses. The closer we look the more complex is the plant life at our feet. There are no developed hiking trails t the park, and thus, no trail descriptions or simplified maps to guide us. The bus drivers and ranger politely decline offering any hiking advice other or suggestion other than stay oriented, go prepared, and don't miss the last bus of the day for your pickup at the roadside. One day we explore a drainage to the north of Polychrome viewpoint, scrambling up a drainage and the. Some ridges and ramps to a low pass and then crossing over and ending down a broad alpine meadow with a few dodgy willow and alder bushwhacks back at the rod near the overlook. Lots of sheep pellets, some Lynx scat, and a small herd of caribou up high were observed.  The cold wind blowing combined with hats and layers of hoods made communication impossible at a distance, so we shouted in each other's ears t decision points and otherwise kept our own council and wonderment until boarding the protection of the bus for the ride back to camp. Next day we circumnavigate Stoney Dome, starting at the the road crossings with big Stoney creek. Again, there is no trail to follow, nd we really don't have a useful topo map. We simply make nature observations, hike slowly, and pick out a route made obvious to us by the lay of the terrain. Once we reach a steeper section of the creeks gorge, we veer upwards into an alpine drainage, and continue following the easier grades up and up until reaching a very broad pass.  Again, letting the terrain lead us onward, we loop over no begin our descent in The next major drainage, prepared to turn around and retrace our steps if we get cliffed out or turned in the wrong direction. Slowly, a small brook begins to form and we follow it downward, with fresh aromas of flowering plants greeting us after the blustery traverse on high ground. Kriel Creek forms up from the various brooks and springs and has carved a Followable   Canyon.  A Buddha marmot waits for us in a meadow and sits contentedly by her burrow, calling in her young from the nearby grasses  then Standing watch over the burrow as we observe, and then pass slowly by down the slope.  With time we emerge on the broad tundra plain and spy the dusty road.  It is difficult to judge distance with no reference objects. The road could be one mile or five away. After a bit, we see the telltale dust cloud kicked up by a bus on the road, and everything draws into a more clear focus. Still, the scale of the terrain is immense, and it takes us another 40 minutes to reach the road to flag down a bus for the ride home. along the way, Steve plays his trusty harmonica to win the bets of our approach to shielded terrain. The blues are belted out as we cross over passes, around bends, or push through vegetation at stream crossings. It is far more enjoyable than the repeated callings of Hey Bear! We have grown accustomed to making as we hike in the wild lands. A confused caribou runs towards us at one point, thinking perhaps we are its herd, but then realizes we are bipeds and veers off at the last minute. In total we see grisly bears, moose, horay marmots,caribou, Dahl sheep, grey jays and gyr Falcons before our time in Denali is over.  

With regret and some longing, but ready to be free of the park bus's tether , steve and Diane roll up their  tent, under the protective shoulder of the camper's awning and we rumble on back towards Anchorage and our next adventure.

Denali Day hike near Big Stoney Creek

Moose in Denali

Marmot love in Denali

Haines, AK - small boat harbor rigged for big tides

Chilkoot Lake, near Haines, AK

Million Dollar Falls - upstream river

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paddling amongst ice blocks at tongue of Bear Glacier

July 9 - Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, AK - the modest aluminum skiff, rigged as a landing craft with a dropping bow ramp putters slowly up to the south boat ramp in Seward promptly at 7:00am. Our departure is timed with the high tide 40 minutes from then that will permit us to cross over the gravel bar at the mouth where the Bear Glacier drainage river meets the sea shortening our hike to camp.  A gleaming white cruise ship towers at the end of the finger docks over the myriad of small boats in the harbor. It's scale is totally out of place when viewed against the modest houses and small craft resting at dock, but when viewed against the natural landscape it begins to make some sense.  A parabolically swooping 1000 foot coal loading conveyor rises off the rail siding close to the water and terminates high at a large tower used to load coal ships bound for Asian pacific rim ports, and looks like an amusement park ride out of context.  Unfortunately, the ramp drops a steady stream of coal debris  into the water below when it is in operation and has succeeded in acidifying the inner harbor sufficiently to preclude any sort of shell fish population from thriving.  This news strikes me as odd, since there are plenty of sea otters about.  I wonder what they are eating or if the coal is really that bad for the water.  Still, the harbor looks beautiful this early hour and once out of the breakwater, the dual 150 Hp 4-strokes are fed a full throat full of fuel, and we leap ahead, planing on the surface, leaving a swooping wake behind.  

Occasionally we pass a gang of sea otters floating on their backs, and they seem to watch us as thoughtfully as we watch them.  No alert, or surprise, and certainly no hustle to dive seems to disturb the mutual observations.  With so much sea room, and unpopulated and unoccupied shoreline, I guess that they feel secure.  

We run down the length of Reserection Bay with a small handful of commercial fishing charters, bristling with long poles and long handled nets and antenna, each with a small huddle of hopeful fisherman smoking or drinking coffee from paper cups in the stern cockpit while the sole pilot manages the wheel protected in the cabin.  A pod of Dahl porpices  leaps in front of the boat in several graceful hops as we round the heads and make our course south towards the fabled fjords of the aptly name Misty Fjords National Park.  Shortly after passing the first point, our captain points the boat directly for the bank, and we motor swiftly as the swell grows with the shrinking depths. Before I know it, we are surfing down a small breaking series of waves, with the wheel hauled first one way, then the next to keep us off the wall, but still in the relatively deeper channel of the river's discharge. In the blink of an eye, we are through it, and the water smooths, and we are in the lagoon, motoring slowing to the steep gavel bank separating the river from the sea.

We are instructed to walk along the spit, upriver, while our bags are shuttled the next step in a water jet powered john boat with shallow draft to a spot where the current lessens, and the water deepens.  About 3/4 of a mile on, we jump on board and are shuttled up river to our base camp on an alder cover island.  As we putter along seeking the deepest channel, like a salmon returning upstream to spawn, our interest is aroused, as we see a growing number of fairly good sized ice bergs over the trees on the far side of the island.  On our side of the island,  rounded chunks of ice float by making a solid clunking sound as the thin hull makes contact.  

We jump ashore in the shallow in our tall boots and pull the boat up the bank, and I immediately notice the temperature of the water through the rubber and wool of my socks.  This is a cold runoff stream close to the glacier, with temperatures here hovering below 40deg. f.  

After a quick camp orientation, we are instructed on how to properly don a dry suit, and we thoughtfully layer up, tuck and zip our various layers, making sure the gaskets are tight against skin, and grab food and gear for our first foray into what is becoming a very magical place.  

After 15 minutes of paddling we are past the island and have full view of the bay full of floating ice.  The chunks vary in size from small brash ice as small as baseballs to monolithic battleships the size of small apartment buildings.  Everything is in slow motion, and the 700 foot deep lake allows the wind to rearrange the ice continuously.  Plus, over time, the sun, lake water and dripping melt water reshape and split the bigger pieces which invariably roll to a new balance points.  Everyday the ice looks differently.  There is a steady and somewhat unsettling cracking, booming, and crashing sound which bounces around the lake basin and surrounding mountains so by the time it reaches us in the small but stable kayaks we really don't know from where to expect the rolls or wave possibly generated by the iceberg replication and evolution process.  Sometimes we witness the actual separation events, but they generate almost no wake, but other times a wake seems to roll by from no source at all.  After another 15 minutes the tongue of the Bear Glacier comes into view- stretching for more than 2 miles along the shore of the lake.  The ice slowly is pushed downhill by the its own mass and the Harding ice sheet far above and is ejected into the lake non-stop.  Even as the overall heavily faceted split, and fractured ice face retreats, it is still pushed irrevocably forward, causing the front pieces to separate as they loose their support from below and crash into the deep end of the lake.

Most of the frequencies of light are absorbed by the ice leaving only the blues to pass through and the rock hard untethered islands  glow with a supernatural presence even when the sky is overcast.   After an hour of paddling we reach the Glacier's face and pull out on the black sand shore on one side to observe the magnificence of it all without struggling with the stress of paddling through the ice, and thinking about the 38 degree water. Our small protected bay soon fills up with bash ice , much like a  bucket of crushed ice dumped into a sink full of water as the wind shifts a bit and ice which had been compressed and held in place behind a large rock was displaced.  The seals bark and bicker with one another as the flow on which they are resting is carried closer to the glacier on some weird eddy, until, finally, when it bumps against the towering cliff face they jump,off as a group looking for a piece of ice moving more appropriately.

After a long break on the shore we pack up and slowly push through the ice flow, using our delicate fiberglass kayaks like icebreakers.  Very slowly we proceed, so the streamlined bows push the ice aside rather than ram into it like bumper cars. Before long we are away from shore, and out of the dense ice, easily floating downstream and down wind from the massive ice sheet and it thin tongue of glacier reaching the water.  The clearest smoothest ice seems to erupt in a popcorn sound as we float by, and the bigger pieces often groan, or click. The biggest rumbles are from the really big bergs as     chunks slide off the end or drop from the eroded overhangs just above the water.  We daydream and imagine likenesses of the uncountable chunks of ice, dragons, swans, airplane, spaceships, all seem to have landed in this magical soup and are floating round with us headed in a parade towards the sea.

Here is a map of the route so far......

map of journey so far:
map of route -live

Paddling amongst small icebergs at Bear Glacier

Kayaking in 38deg. Water at Bear Glacier - Kenai Fjords National Park

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Turnagain Arm from Glacier Bowl , Alyeska ski resort

July 1 - Girdwood, AK - camped out in Alyeska Ski Resort Day lot - Daisies by the thousands cover the bank adjacent to our camping spot.  We are nestled in at the edge of Girdwood, a small community on the Alyeska highway off the Seward Highway which ruins along the length of the Turnagain Arm. As is typical, the clouds which built during the day have cleared mostly off, and we are enjoying bright sun and dropping winds while we eat dinner no relax for the evening.  

The tide in these parts is massive, almost 30 feet, and the entire bay empties out into the Gulf of Alaska a twice a day.  At this part, about halfway in, the arm is well over 5 miles  across, but at low tide only a few threads of water remain visible across the entire mud flat.  When the tide comes in on a full moon, it's called a Bore tide, and a wave almost 6 feet tall sweeps into the arm, pushing all manner of debris before it.  The roar, and power of the Phenomena is well known, and respected, and very good fodder for fishing tall tales based in the size fish riding In with the surge. 

We spent the day hiking a Alyeska ski resort.  I recommend hiking up to the top of the resort from the hotel, about 2 hours, then grabbing a sandwich from the cafe up there, and riding the cable car down. The ride down is free. The ride up costs $25.  This resort is compact by some standards. With three primary lifts, but the terrain is epic, with steep,chutes and slopes looming well above the highest lift which are "hike to" terrain.  To control avalanches , the ski patrol has strung a series of immensely long fixed cables which traverse just in front of some of the biggest cliffs , which they use to run trollies down loaded with explosives.  Avalanch control often takes until past 11 to get completed, but with the short daylight in winter, the slopes could not open too much earlier this this anyway.

The views from up top are exceptional, with the massive Turnagain arm in one direction, and the Chugash mountains around on all the other sides.  While riding the tram we saw a mother moose and her child nibbling on greens at the edge of a run.  There is plenty of hiking here in the summer, as well as the Alaska Railroad with whistle stops all along the arm all the way to Whittier offering access to trail heads along its route.

We are dry camped in the day lodge parking lot for $10, a great value and quite pleasant as compared to the far more expensive place we stayed in downtown Anchorage yesterday , adjacent to the train tracks with frequent heavy train traffic , and crammed full of other travelers trying to put a day in anchorage on their itinerary.  We used the laundry, and showers, filled water tanks and dumped our sewage, but otherwise, I would avoid this downtown campsite at ship creek if possible. The bike path along the Anchorage water front is 10 miles one way and  is very nice, and there are a few convenient bike rental places right downtown. We saw no Moose there, but were told is is a very common occurrence. The wind off the Bay is broken by a dense copse of trees, with frequent viewing spots carved out for the traveler.