Friday, June 19, 2009

On the Inside

Alaskans call being in Alaska being “inside” and when you leave, you go “outside”. Spend any time there and you start to feel that Alaska is a special place that so envelopes you, being “inside” is a good description of being there. Nonetheless, I have an overwhelming sense that in Alaska, Mother Nature is winning. She has always had the upper hand, dishing out, alternately, the harshest winters, 24 hours of daylight, legions of mosquitoes, impassable mountain ranges. And the natives who have inhabited the land for 10,000 years have bowed to that force. Untamed.

For 3 days, Wendy and I floated down the famous Inside Passage from Juneau to Bellingham, Washington. We did a poor man’s cruise, taking the ferry, which traces much of the same route as the behemoth cruise ships of Holland America, Celebrity and Princess.

From Kodiak, we flew over to Juneau for a short one afternoon and night before a 4 a.m. ferry departure. Much to our dismay, not only was it raining, 4 cruise ships from the aforementioned companies were docked in Juneau, and their passengers had flooded the downtown district, filling the t-shirt, jewelry and fur shops. Having seen parts of “real” Alaska, we avoided the made for tourist experience and heading to the Rainbow Grocery to stock up for the ferry, since I had heard that the food options on board were less than ideal and very pricey. After dinner and a movie and 4 hours sleep, our 3 a.m. wake up call came very early.

Unfortunately, in our rush to get out the door to the ferry (which turned out to be 6 hours late), my back went out again, this time in a very painful spasm that was not quelled by ibuprofen. Wendy carried all the bags while I very painfully made my way. It was the worst spasm in the lat 3 ½ years, since the first one took me out at dog beach in Del Mar.

Throughout our trip, Alaskans have remarked how much they appreciate that we took the time to see the real Alaska, not just take the common approach of a cruise and organized tour. I would urge anyone thinking about going Alaska to do the same. As with all travel, making your way is incredibly rewarding and you are more able to make sure your travel dollars go directly to locals instead of cruise or tour companies. Use the internet or get a guidebook, gear up and go!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Freedom to Roam

Last day in Kodiak. We hired a float plane to drop us off at the Uganak River with a raft, and we spent the afternoon floating peacefully down the river, looking for bears. We didn’t see many: this is very early in the season, and the salmon are just starting to run, so the bears have not come down to fish. We had an incredibly clear day, and on the plane rides there and back, we were able to see the snow-capped peaks all around Kodiak and the Katmai Peninsula that were hidden a few days before. I was struck by the sense of freedom one feels soaring over the tundra, and the incredible gift we gave the bears (and ourselves) in making 2/3 of the island a refuge. Flying low, banking over mountain top snow fields and meadows, you feel like you could go on forever over Alaska.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

All About Wildlife

Yesterday, Wendy and I took to the seas – in 14 foot kayaks. It was overcast, drizzling and peaceful. As we coasted out of St. Paul’s Harbor, we saw several bald eagles poised on nearby trees, keeping their eyes on the fishing boats pulling in and out. Yes, our national bird is a scavenger. Paddling around Near Island, Woody Island and Long Island (almost 20 miles!), we saw scores of tufted puffins with their orange clown beaks, furry headed sea otters popping up randomly to check us out, the smooth grey backs of 2 humpback whales, a Stellar sea lion bull the size of a Kodiak bear, harlequin ducks, red-breasted mergansers, black oystercatchers with orangey-red pointy bills, harbor seals and their pups eyeing us warily, krill and starfish, Pelagic cormorants, boomerang-winged kites, Pigeon Guillemots, Marbled Murrelets……

Today, we had a gorgeous sunny day. We are beginning to see how this is a rarity on the island, with people celebrating it like the first day of summer every time. So we took advantage of the weather and rented a car to burn up the roads around the island. Kodiak is the second largest island in the United States behind the Big Island of Hawaii, but has very few roads, and the farthest point is about 42 miles outside of town. I think the photos speak for themselves!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Da Bears

Today on Kodiak was flightseeing day. Flightseeing is a common way to see things around Alaska, which lacks roads in most places. Today it was a float plane, since water landings are a lot easier on the mountainous islands of the Kodiak Archipelago.

We woke to 44 degree drizzle, not ideal. And just yesterday it was sunny and gorgeous! We have to work on our timing. We nonetheless took to the skies in search of bears. We learned that this time of year they are not easy to spot on Kodiak, so the pilot took us over to Katmai National Park and Preserve, on the mainland. It was one hour, flying low (300 feet) above the Shelikoff Strait, under the clouds that envelope Kodiak much of the year. We had to slog through some mud flats (hip boots provided) to get close to the bears, but we were rewarded (see photos). They were digging for clams and eating the newly sprouted grass.

Over on the Katmai peninsula we stopped to see a glacier, still visible at the bottom though the 8,000+ feet peaks surrounding it were not. Yes, that’s a big ice chunk by my leg in the photo! Needless to say, the water was a bit chilly.

An interesting thing about Kodiak is that the climate is not so different than the islands around Seattle and Vancouver, dropping to just the 20’s and 30’s in the winter. But they also have the grey skies and drizzle – a lot- and that keeps it from attracting more residents, I am sure. Another interesting thing: we have had the absolute best fish and chips here (it must be the state dish – everyone serves it), made with super fresh halibut and scallops harvested close to the island. A combination of the two is called scallobut and chips.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Today, Wendy and I find ourselves on Kodiak Island, an island which is mostly taken up by the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. We arrived late this afternoon, in time to see the impressive Refuge Visitor Center, and take in downtown Kodiak – a small fishing village that was mostly destroyed in the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and Tsunami (magnitude of 9.2). It reminds me of a small New Zealand town; it has the same frontier feel. We see few other tourists, or residents for that matter, although our hotel, the “Russian Heritage Inn” is fully booked. Not a lot of tourists make it to Kodiak, which I appreciate. I am here to see bears and do some kayaking, where hopefully I will see whales as well.

Our night and morning in Anchorage were well spent, eating at one of the many outstanding restaurants (the best selection in Alaska), and seeing the renovated Anchorage Museum, open only 10 days. It seemed as though Anchorage had a lot more to offer, and I vow to return soon.

Alaska Moose 10, Denali Bears 0

Wendy and I spent the last couple days driving the Denali Highway, and hiking through the park, and we have encountered no bears! Actually, we saw one way across a valley, bolting across the tundra, visible only through binoculars, but that hardly counts.
The Denali Highway is the old, unpaved road that used to be the only access to Denali, and provides incredible views across the Alaska Range. Since it is outside the park, we were able to take our sidekick, Chowder, and do some exploring away from the main tourist track.

The day after that, we left Chowder at home and took a shuttle into the park (the only method of access without special permit). The shuttle drivers are trained naturalists, and help look for wildlife, giving facts and information to the wide-eyed tourists. We were lucky enough to see a lynx – sauntering down a paved road just inside the park, not a care in the world. We also saw lots of caribou, Dall sheep, snowshoe hares (still in the process of turning from white to brown for the summer), a northern hawk owl, mew gulls, and a lone gray wolf.

Food around Denali has been disappointing – or as expected, depending on how you look at it. JC’s take is that most people only come through once, often staying one day (most from cruise ships, who are bussed up to the park), so the restaurants don’t try that hard. We did find one place with excellent food, even by San Francisco foodie standards: 229 Parks located at 229 Parks Road.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Into the Wild

Our second day in Alaska was packed with a plane ride, a lung busting hike and a drive into Denali National Park on the 15 mile portion of the Park Road accessible by private vehicle (you have to take a shuttle bus for the rest of the 80 mile access road).

Although it was cloudy at the camp, the folks at Denali Air reported that it was clear around the mountain, and taking the chance, we embarked into the wild blue yonder, circling Denali in vivid blue skies. We were even able to pick out climbers making a slow path to the summit of 20,320 feet.

Wendy and I then picked up Chowder and took her on a hike straight up to Sugarloaf Mountain. We didn’t quite make it to the top; there were no switchbacks – it was just a hard scramble for 2 hours that left us breathless. Chowder ran circles around us, playing mountain goat and sniffing out the marmots that whistled at us in warning.

Unable to let Chowder off leash in the park, we just drove in, hoping to see some bears but instead seeing a couple female moose close to the road. By 8 p.m. we were wiped out, but the sun again came out from behind the clouds and we had a hard time winding down and taking ourselves to bed.

An update on the photo of Grandpa from a couple posts back: it was taken at Fort Barrow, on the north coast of Alaska (in the Arctic Circle) sometime around 1957.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Midnight Sun

As the airplane landed in Anchorage, I saw mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds hovering, waiting for me – they seem to know I am here. Luckily they are slow and easily squashed right now. I laughed when I saw that the airport is called the Ted Stevens International Airport, but apparently up here he is known as “Uncle Ted”, felony conviction notwithstanding.

Wendy’s plane out of SFO was late, so I waited at the Anchorage Airport for a couple hours, and we rolled to the Anchorage Sheraton close to midnight. It was still light.
This morning we took a bus to Denali National Park, cruising the well-maintained highway with many other tour buses loaded with mostly elderly tourists shuttling from cruise ship to mountain to town to ship. No glimpse of Denali, which is not unusual, since it is visible from the ground only about 20% of the time. We were met with heavy clouds, intermittent rain, and light winds. Later in the evening – about 8 p.m., the sun came out, and we had clear skies and sun until we headed to bed around 11 p.m. Kind of crazy, this much daylight! I may become a night person….

In Denali, we met up with JC, a friend from the Jack Johnson Tour who is working at the Denali Foundation Elderhostel (the “camp”) for the summer. He arranged a cabin there for us, which is great! Not only do we have our own guide, JC’s dog Chowder is filling the sidekick role, keeping us occupied throwing sticks.

The highlight of the day was the momma moose and her 2 calves hanging around the camp. The babies are barely as tall as their momma’s knees and are thought to be less than a week old. We saw them through the woods and I didn’t get a great photo, then ran across them later at night when I didn’t have my camera. I learned the hard way – ALWAYS carry your camera!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Searching for Sarah Palin

Yes, I am off to Alaska today, to the home state of Sarah Palin (remember her?). Maybe I will learn something about foreign policy.... after all, I will be very close to Russia while I am there!

I am meeting my friend Wendy in Seattle and we are flying to Anchorage tonight, then taking a shuttle to Denali National Park tomorrow, where we will be outfitted in a rustic cabin, amid 40 degree days and even colder nights.

After Denali we will fly to Kodiak Island in search of Kodiak bears and killer whales. I have been interested in Kodiak ever since I was a kid, hearing my grandpa talk of his time working in Alaska, and being chased by a Kodiak bear. I recently came across a photo of my grandpa from that time - I think it was the late 1940's. I can't ask him about it though; he passed away in 2000 at the ripe old age of 92. I think my grandpa would have appreciated my recent adventures - he had a wanderlust that took him back and forth across the country many times, up to Alaska and to the Philippines, among other places.

So, Grandpa, this one's for you!