Sierra

Sierra
Sierra

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Alaska

Wednesday, July 22nd 2009

Travel Denver to Anchorage

After dropping Sierra off at our friends’ house, we headed to DIA, parking in the Pikes Peak lot of all places and caught the shuttle to the Alaska Air desk. The line was not long, but for some reason the line was moving extremely slow. I kept patiently waiting, using my crutch for support, but eventually just went and sat down until it was our turn.

I took advantage of the complimentary wheel chair ride to the gate which was a bit of a trip, as I have never been in one before. This was actually a sweet way to get through security, as there is a separate handicapped line with no wait. Although we had plenty of time before our flight, I was feeling good about bypassing the unusually long line so quickly and not having to crutch my way through. The good feelings were short lived though, I was directed to a glass enclosure where I had to wait, balancing without my crutch. Eventually, a smug TSA guy came along and escorted me over to a seat, where he went about his job of being a smug @-hole. Nothing against fat, dumpy, picked on as a kid TSA guys wearing coke bottle glasses, but this guy was worthy of a Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.

He took great pleasure of making snide remarks and flexing his great TSA Homeland Security muscle. I was outwardly annoyed by him, but at the same time amused, as I of course had nothing to worry about. It was tempting to smart off back to him, but any wise guy comments post 9-11 could clear a whole airport, so I just sucked it up. Just got me thinking about what a sad life he must have and that this is his ONLY place in the world where he has any feeling of worth. Even with this setback, it was still quicker and easier than waiting in line and we were soon on our way.

Our flight was on time, leaving around 9pm, where we headed non-stop to Anchorage. My foot quickly became swollen and started throbbing, so I took a vicoden and some ibuprofen, which unfortunately did not do much.

Thursday, July 23rd

We arrived in Anchorage around 1am local time feeling a bit whacked out from not sleeping (3am MST). Our baggage arrived without incident and we caught a cab to the RV park where Allison’s parents were awaiting our arrival (sleeping of course). After several hours of sleep (thanks to the eye mask, as it gets light a bit after 4am), we ate breakfast and headed South along the Turnagain Arm toward Seward. The Turnagain Arm is a long and narrow bay off of the Cook Inlet and has one of the largest tides in the world (~40 ft. or so). The unique topography of the inlet/sea floor and the large tides create a boar tide that comes roaring through the bay. You can literally see the several foot high walls of water stretching across the bay, marching in quick succession, one after the other, quickly covering the exposed mud flats. For some reason, every time I visit Alaska, I am continually fascinated by this phenomena.

I had been to Seward twice in the past and it was rainy both times and this trip was no exception. We found an awesome RV park at the far end of town that accommodated 10 or so RV’s and was literally right on Resurrection Bay with amazing views of the bay, and ironically Mt. Marathon. Our camp spot was a 10 minute hobble from the Sea Life Center, so we headed over there for something to do. Neat place with lots of local sea life in tanks/enclosures.

I’ll have to admit that I actually did not mind the rain in Seward. You just expect it and prepare for it. It also helped that I had a broken foot and helped minimize my urges to get out and hike up peaks. The sound of the steady rain on the metal roof of the camper is very lulling and relaxing and makes for excellent sleeping.

Friday, July 24th

Today was the much anticipated 10 hour glacier cruise to the Northwestern Glacier. We took a similar cruise to the nearby Holgate glacier in 2004, but this trip would cover some new area that we heard was very dramatic. There was some question as to whether or not the boat would actually make it to the glacier because of the choppy seas that would toss around the 70ft. SS Chugach. The swells in Resurrection Bay were not too bad, but once we got to the mouth of the bay, we were on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska which has some of the stormiest seas on earth, things got a little fun. The seas were 4-8 feet, which does not sound like much, but it made for some good rocking and rolling. I actually really enjoy it, but others on the boat were quite nauseous and several people were tossed about. It was interesting trying to get around the boat on a bum foot, but I managed pretty well.

The choppy sections were short lived though, as the majority of the route navigated relatively sheltered bays, inlets and passages. We saw several Humpback Whales, Dahl Porpoise, Sea Otters, Sea Lions, Seals, Puffins etc….

One of the highlights was a short side trip into a narrow bay ringed by sheer cliffs hundreds of feet high, where there were numerous waterfalls cascading from unknown heights and the captain of the ship nudged the front of the boat within feet of the rock wall and cascades.

Since it had been so rainy, it had spurred an increase in glacial activity and filled the bay with icebergs. We maneuvered through the ice, pushing aside small bergs that would clunk loudly under the hull, but eventually the ice got too dense and we could get no closer than ~1 mile.

Saturday, July 25th

We took our time getting out of Seward and then enjoyed the scenic drive North to Palmer on our way to Denali. On the way, we passed many cyclists heading in the opposite direction. I felt pity for them, as it was cool, windy, raining hard at times and the road was quite barren and lonely. Most of them were solo riders and they all had the same miserable look etched on their face.

We eventually stopped by the Exit Glacier for lunch and did some walking around while Allison’s parents napped in the camper. My ability to walk was getting a bit better, but it was still tedious to get around. My urge to explore always gets the best of me though and we started working our way through a game trail through the dense alders in hopes of getting closer view of an awesome hanging glacier. The whole way, I thought of Timothy Treadwell stories of the Grizzly Maze and we made enough noise as to not surprise anything that could eat us. Eventually, the writing was on the wall that attempting this with a broken foot was a bad idea, so we headed back.

Sunday, July 26th

After an excellent Alaska style breakfast in Palmer with plenty of grease and fat, we drove onward to Denali. Of course the Alaska Range was socked in with clouds, even though the weather overhead was warming and clearing, but either way, it was a quite scenic drive. Upon arriving at the park, we checked in at the campground office and proceeded West to the Teklanika Campground at mile 29 of the restricted access, bus only road (one time travel permitted by those accessing the campground). That evening, we explored a bit along the river and attended a ranger talk about Barbara Washburn, the first woman to climb Denali, and wife of Bradford Washburn, the late famous climber/photographer/cartographer.

Monday, July 27th

We had tickets for the bus out to Wonder Lake at mile 86 of the 90 mile dirt road, which worked out great, as we picked it up at the campground at mile 29, saving us over an hour of bus riding on both ends of the trip. This is truly N. America’s version of going on a safari. You can’t go a mile without seeing Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Moose, Dall Sheep, Caribou etc… Over the course of our two bus rides on the one (and only) road through the park, we counted 21 Grizzlys, 1 Wolf, 2 Moose and countless others of the aforementioned animals.

Our bus driver was very informative, but not overly yappy and not over zealous with corny humor, which was a refreshing relief. We made nice long stops for the bears (my favorite by far) and shorter stops for the grazers which worked out well. Once we made it to Eielson visitor center at mile 66, the prime viewing spot for Denali, it was unfortunately very obscured by clouds, offering occasional glimpses to ~15,000 feet. I have seen it from here on a bluebird day on a previous trip and knew what we were missing out on.

I also spied a nice trail switch backing up the hillside for ~1,200 vertical or so to a high ridge. We only had a half hour here, but Allison and I took off up the trail to see how far we could get. After 10 minutes and not gaining much distance or elevation, I decided that I should turn back and not risk hurting my foot or missing the bus, but Allison headed up a little further. Hmm…. Something to do the next day I thought.

We proceeded the final 20 miles or so to Wonder Lake, where we could catch smoke and cloud obscured glimpses of Denali’s 18,000 vertical foot Wickersham Wall. On a clear day, this would be a STUNNING stretch of road and would make an awesome bike ride. Hopefully next time.

Tuesday, July 28th

Back on the bus to the Eielson visitor center at mile 66 in hopes of better views of Denali. Between wildlife viewing stops, we had one fleeting view of the N. summit at 19,400 feet, but as quick as we realized what we were seeing, it was gone for the day. The highlight of this bus ride was seeing a wolf trotting down the road straight toward us, then casually passed our stopped bus on the side I was sitting, so I was able to snap a few good pictures. He was a skinny little guy, but it was awesome to see a wolf in the wild.

From Eielson, we headed back up the trail we surveyed the previous day. It was a bit steep, but smooth enough that I could shuffle up it with a bit of difficulty and minimal discomfort of my broken bone. I eventually perfected an awkward hobble/shuffle and set my sights on gaining the ridge crest, which for a long time seemed to be an unlikely goal. Without really trying too hard, I ended up passing just about everyone I saw ahead of me, even those with a seemingly insurmountable head start. I made it to the ridge in a surprising 35 minutes, even though I stopped a few times and got hung up for a while behind a ranger led interpretive tour. Everyone I passed seemed a little shocked and made a comment of sorts about me hiking up so high with a broken foot.

I spent a long time on the highest bump on the ridge, which seemed much like a summit, enjoying the warm and calm conditions. Though Denali was obscured, the views from here were astounding. There was a higher summit about a mile away, but it had some ups/down and looked like it would be tough to negotiate with all the talus and I opted not to push my luck, so I just called it good. The trip down was tricky, but Allison spotted me and I managed to descend safely without incident, getting down 2 minutes slower than my ascent.

To top off the day, we attended another ranger led talk in the campground about moose and learned some interesting moose facts, such as, moose can dive as deep as 30 feet underwater if need be!

Wednesday, July 29th

Our 3 night stay at the Teklanika campground was up, so we travelled 13 miles East, back toward the park entrance to the Savage River Campground. After claiming a nice spot, we headed to the main village at the park entrance to dump black/grey water, refill with fresh water and check out the main visitor center. While there, we learned of a demonstration of the dog sled teams that they use in winter to travel throughout the park. I feared that it would be corny and touristy, but it was actually quite fun to go and pat the dogs and watch them pull a sled with wheels around a dirt track. I was impressed with how excited the dogs became as they were harnessed and attached to the sled, reaching a feverish pitch and then taking off like they were shot out of a cannon with surprising speed. I can only imagine that dog sledding would be one of the coolest things to do for an outdoor enthusiast and dog lover.

Thursday, July 30th

Drove to Talkeetna, where we spent a good part of the afternoon investigating flights around Denali, but were reluctant to commit, as the skies seemed pretty cloudy. The highlight was eating at a restaurant called the “West Rib CafĂ© and Pub”. I have seen pictures and read reports of famished climbers replenishing calories here after big climbs, indulging in giant burgers, fries and beers. I had to see what all the fuss was about and was not let down. Sitting on the outdoor patio was very pleasant and the burgers and fries were awesome. I can’t comment on the beer, as I don’t drink beer, but Allison seemed to like it.

Friday, July 31st

After a peaceful night sleep in a free “camp spot” on the backside of an abandoned building next to the airport, we awoke to clearing skies overhead and eagerly decided to commit to a sightseeing flight. We headed over to K2 Air and made arrangements for their flight that goes around Denali, passing Hunter, Foraker, Huntington, Moose’s Tooth and passes through the Ruth Gorge.

As soon as we got up above the trees, we could see what should be the Alaska Range, but was a wall of clouds instead. We still headed in that direction with great hopes, but the ceiling was about 8,000 feet and we “just” ended up flying through the Ruth Gorge (9,000 feet deep) and into the Sheldon Amphitheater. As we were looping around, I could see a small clearing toward Denali and could tell that there was abundant blue sky on the other side, but we had killed too much time flying around the Sheldon Amphitheater and “Little Switzerland”. Although I went into it knowing full well I should not get my hopes up, I couldn’t help but to get excited about the prospects of such a flight. Although we flew past some awesome scenery, it was still a bit of a let down to have to turn around so soon. We got a small discount because of the amended flight, but it was still expensive.

That afternoon, we took our time getting back to Anchorage, where we caught our 10:55pm flight back to Denver. Ironically, the most complete view we got of the Alaska Range was as soon as we took off from Anchorage, as the highest peaks were soaring above the clouds, with the midnight sun creating a magical backdrop. This was my 5th trip to Alaska and it never disappoints. I can’t wait to go again!

Pictures:

http://s147.photobucket.com/albums/r296/jeffvalliere/2009_07_23_Alaska/

3 comments:

  1. Good pics.

    Any thoughts of climbing Denali sometime?

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  2. Thanks Justin. I do think about it, but when I seriously consider the reality of all the logistics, 3weeks on the mountain and mostly the cold, it does not sound appealing. Denali can be colder in summer than Everest in Winter!

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  3. Thanks for the travel log. Need to go there sometime.

    Denali, my ex-boss did it. Explain how it is a little better than Everest in the logistics (US soil and all) but is more deadly than Everest at times. Not an easy feat. Plus, the time commitment as you noted.

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