Sunday, June 30, 2013

Back To Reality...Alaska Was a Dream Come True!

Well, it's back to reality...and the oppressive heat that is Houston!

My flight home was a chore.  1.5 hour delay leaving Anchorage meant a 1:45 AM departure.  Then we had a one hour layover in Seattle after arriving at 5:00 AM Seattle time, which meant getting off the plane so that they could clean it and restock for the next leg.  Argghh!  Then a 4.5 hour leg to Houston. Obviously there was no chance to get any sleep on this flight.

I was so glad to be back in Houston.  Even the 107 degree temps didn't dim my relief to be home. That first night home I forced myself to stay up until 9 PM so that I could get a start at getting back onto Central Time zone schedule.  By the time I flopped into my own bed at 9 PM, I'd been awake for 37 hours.  I'm getting too old for this!

Miserable return flights aside, I am still reliving this fantastic trip in my mind!  Every minute of every day was a treasure...a gift.   I will remember this trip for a very long time. 

So many people - too many, actually - kept telling me what I NEEDED to do and see while I was in Alaska.  I know they thought they were helping.   I did and saw everything that I wanted to see and do.  And I probably saw and did a whole lot more than most folks.  The great thing about seeing Alaska by car, not through a cruise ship or tour bus window, is that I could go and do whatever I wanted and got to see lots of things that were well off the typical well-beaten tourist path.   I could experience the local flavor of a town in intimate detail without rushing.  I value that more than anything.

The weather...perfect!!  My flightseeing trip over Denali couldn't have been better.  The day before and the day after I took this flight, they were socked in with bad weather.  The Fjord cruise was perfect weather-wise.  The day before, they had rain, the day after they had dense, low clouds which obliterated any view of the coastline.  Race day the temps were perfect:  low 50s at the start of the race and not a cloud in the sky.  The day that I drove down to Whittier and took the ferry to Valdez was perfect as well.  Clear, cool, not a cloud in the sky

Hanging baskets of flowers everywhere!!  Oh, my!!  They were gorgeous, with blooms that were huge!!

Coffee shops everywhere!!  Everywhere I went I did not want for a good espresso or cappuccino!  Museums, shops, everywhere...they had an espresso machine.  I loved it!!

I'm still processing this trip in my mind, savoring every moment, dissecting every experience.  What a trip!!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Alaska Day 9 - Last Day and then Red-Eye home

One of several great murals in Seward
Friday, my last day in Alaska.  Time to check out of my very nice room at the Windsong Lodge in Seward and start working my way north toward Anchorage.   My last final thoughts as I drove back up the gorgeous Seward Highway were ones of thankfulness and gratitude that I've been able to take this trip of a lifetime.  I wanted this to be an intimate look at this gorgeous state, seeing it up close and not from the window of a tour bus or cruise ship.  Seeing the day-to-day life of Alaska and finding the little out-of-the-way places.  I feel like I managed to do that.

I don't know if I'll ever get back to Alaska...I just know that I'm so fortunate to have been able to see this gorgeous state - expenses be damned - and I'll cherish these memories for the rest of my life.

But before I headed back up the Seward Highway toward Anchorage, I spent half the day in the cute little historic downtown area of Seward.  I visited the SeaLife Center, a unique facility - not quite an aquarium, more like a rescue facility.  Very nice exhibits and a good collection of native sea birds, mammals and fish.

Alaska SeaLife Center

Another great mural in Seward

Pretty little church that I spied on a side street
Love how it backs up a steep evergreen-covered mountain

A statue in the park adjacent to the SeaLife Center commemorates the intrepid and hardy original mushers on the Iditarod.  The statue sites at mile "0" of the Iditarod Trail.

Iditarod monument - mile "0"

The story of the town including the history of the Iditarod:

Then I headed north toward Anchorage, and stopped in the tiny little town of Girdwood, pretty much off the main have to hunt for it!  I found an excellent restaurant, Chair 5 and had the best salmon I'd had all week.  Tender, moist, grilled just right.
Lunch at Chair 5 in Girdwood.  Definitely off the tourist trail
You have to know this is here.

My yummy grilled salmon sandwich and the best fries I've ever had!

As I neared civilization I began to rue having not seen any moose or bear on my trip aside from those I saw in the zoo or the Wildlife Preservation Center.  Then...what's this??  Movement in the marshes along side the highway.  I braked and pulled over and got off a few good shots of the moose.  As someone said to me earlier in the week, if you want to see wildlife, just look for cars pulled over.  Sure enough.  By the time I finished taking my photos there were at least a half dozen cars and a couple of RV's pulled over near me.  Funny!!

My trip was complete!!  I'd seen a moose in the wild!
Sloshing toward the road

Turning onto the shore
Walking away

Turning back toward the marshy pond
Now to the airport, turn the rental car in and kill a few hours waiting for my midnight red-eye flight.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Alaska Day 8 - Kenai Fjords Cruise

Since words just don't do justice to the majesty and beauty of the Fjord National Park and all that we saw on this 6-hour cruise, I'll just post photos of what I saw and let them tell the story.

Bald eagle

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale 'winging'

Humpback whale playing

Humpback whale

Sea Otter

One of several large Orca pods

Sea Lions

Sea Lions

Glacier along the way

Holgate Glacier - note kayaks to right.  Gives a sense of scale

Holgate Glacier - note people in right sense of scale

String of small islands

Unusual gap with rock captured

Murres and Puffins

A Humpback whale dives

Another humpback whale in a different area dives

Returning to Seward

Most of the folks on our cruise were a group of Germans
from a cruise ship

The Fjord Cruise route - data from my Garmin GPS watch

When the tour was over and everyone went their own ways, I walked across the little street to a walk-up espresso bar and ordered a cappuccino.  I took it back across the street to a tiny little pocket park along the harbor and sat there sipping my coffee and people-watching.  Across from me was Mount Marathon, site of the infamous Mount Marathon Race, a 3.1 mile race straight up the side of the mountain.  It started as a bar bet - how else do foolish traditions get started.  Today it's an annual event, held every 4th of July.  The race slogan goes something like this:  "If you're not bleeding from at least one spot, you didn't try hard enough."
Mount Marathon, viewed from the harbor area
You can just make out the trail they use to run this race.  Yikes!

Day is done and I hitched a ride back to the lodge on their hourly shuttle bus.  I'd been eating fairly frugally on this trip, several times bringing restaurant dinner leftovers back to my room for the next night, twice buying foot-long Subway sandwiches and getting two meals out of them. So this, my last night in Alaska, I am treating myself to King Crab legs!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Alaska Day 7 - Driving to Seward

I will never tire of driving in Alaska!  Every mile is different, every mile brings a change in the scenery and topography.  From Alaska to the Portage Glacier Road was familiar territory for me since I drove it to get to Whittier a couple of days ago.  Still gorgeous, still jaw-dropping beauty!!

I left Anchorage for Seward but made a stop at Walmart before leaving town.  I forgot to bring my binoculars and decided that a better daypack than what I had would also be nice for when I take the fjord cruise on Thursday.

Since the Portage Glacier visitor center was closed when I came through there on Monday, I made a point of going back to see what I missed.  I also wanted to pull out at a very scenic spot that I noticed on Monday but was in too much of a hurry to see.  It was a beautiful access point along the river and gave me a spectacular view of the Portage Glacier.

I also stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Preservation Center near the Portage turn-off.  Just like the Alaska Zoo, this site is dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of injured wildlife.  Here, just like at the zoo, they had animals that will never be released back into the wild.  A fabulous, majestic Bald Eagle who'd been found up near the Arctic Circle, shot in the wing.  He was rescued, but his wing had to be amputated.  He'll never fly again.  A pair of lynx rescued as kittens by a firefighter while battling a forest fire and carried to safety in his backpack.  Their mom was no where to be found, possibly perished in the fire.  Two moose - a male and a female - both found separately as abandoned babies.  It goes on and on...and it moves me to tears to consider these animals' plights and thankful that humans intervened in a good way in these cases.  But how many animals suffer and die who are never found??

Then it was on down the peninsula to Seward.  A beautiful stretch of road that for a while became narrow and twisty as it scaled the mountains and passed through rainforest. 

I came into Seward and continued on in to town to find a place for lunch.  A previous Google search identified a place called Ray's Waterfront so I decided to try it for lunch.  It was about 2 PM so there was no wait and I was seated immediately.   While the harbor view from my table was quite scenic, I was less than underwhelmed by the quality of the food and the high price. I ordered a fried halibut plate and when it was served I nearly laughed out loud.  Two small triangular pieces of fish, heavily breaded and of uniform size and shape brought to mind Morton's frozen fish filets.  They were each, at most, one ounce of fish, set on top of a mountain of French fries and served with a tiny little scoop of coleslaw.  At $17, this was a very pricey plate of French fries!!  The fish was awful...McDonalds' fish filet tastes better than this did.  Needless to say, I logged right onto and gave this place a very poor rating.  Many others have rated it poorly recently, yet with the sheer number of positive ratings from several years ago, it will be a very long time before this place drops significantly in the rankings.  Lesson learned here...
My filthy but cute Kia Soul rental car parked in front of one of
several very nice lodge buildings at Windsong Lodge

I was still hungry after that terrible, inedible lunch, but decided to go on over to the Windsong Lodge and check in.  With the restaurant experience still tasting bitter on my tongue, I was pleasantly surprised by this Lodge.  The older woman behind the counter was a hoot!  Her 'Joisey' accent was as thick as the day she left that state, and her dry sense of humor masquerading as no sense of humor at all made my day.   My room was lovely and will be quite comfortable for the next two days/nights.

It was still early so I changed into my running shoes and jumped back into the car to drive the few short miles to the Exit Glacier unit of the Kenai Fjords National Park.  There's a 1.3 mile hike to access the glacier and I'm going for it!

The 7 mile drive to the park was lovely and gave me a sneak preview of the glacier from a turnout along the access road.

The National Park Service webpage for this park says that the hike is "moderately strenuous."  I think I'm up to that challenge!  I found the trail head and started my hike.  The first part of the trail was paved and flat, so no challenge there.

Then the pavement gave way to gravel and soon the gravel gave way to a steeper slope with steps crafted from stones.  In some places it was just steep gravel-covered slope, but nothing really too difficult for someone in reasonably good shape. 

Nice paved path at the beginning:

Pavement ends and steep gravel incline begins at this bridge:

The "wash field" beneath the "toe" of the glacier:

Ten years ago the glacier reached this point, where the sign is today.  It has receded this much in the last ten years:

Final approach to the edge of the glacier:

People are dwarfed by the size of this glacier:

View at the very edge of the glacier:

Tomorrow:  Up early for the Kenai Fjord Cruise!!