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Monday, June 27, 2016

Exit Glacier and Alyeska Tram

On Thursday, June 23, 2016, we drove back to Anchorage from Seward.  We wanted to make two interesting stops:  Exit Glacier and the Alyeska Tram.

Exit Glacier is a valley glacier that is part of the Kenai Fjords National Park.  It's only a few miles outside of Seward.  After an easy drive, we only had a hike of a mile or so to get up to the glacier. Here are Eileen, Tom and Dave setting off to see the wizard of glaciers:

The trail itself was interesting.  Here, Dave ducks under a tree branch to cross a wooden bridge over a beautiful, grey-green glacial stream on the way to the glacier:

Kathy took her turn on a more substantial bridge crossing between two rock faces:

Closer to the glacier and its terminal moraine, the Exit River flows southeast through gravel terrain:

Looking the other way, we could get our first look at the glacier:

Finally, we got close enough to get a good look at the bottom of the glacier.  You can see that striking blue ice peeping through the silt and gravel riding on the top of the ice:

Near the foot of the glacier, this is what the river basin looked like:

Again, we must have our selfies with the glaciers:

Further back up the Seward Highway toward Anchorage, we stopped in Girdwood, Alaska, a small town north of Portage, on Turnagain Arm.  Girdwood had been virtually destroyed by the '64 Quaker, but a New Girdwood Town Center has grown up, and we had lunch at a very nice restaurant near the Alyeska Resort, where the tramway is located.  During the winter, the resort is for skiers.  During the warmer seasons, tourists and locals ride the tram to the top for a view of the surrounding area, or to hike down the mountain.

Here is a shot Kathy took of one of the tramcars:

As our tramcar left the base, we could look back down at the resort:

Tom and Eileen were armed with their best cameras for all the scenic action:

When we got to the top, we had the benefit of observation decks and a beautiful gift shop.  We could walk out on the snow and imagine we were ready to start our schuss down the face of the mountain.

These are the views from the top, looking down at the resort --

-- and out to the south toward Turnagain Arm with the Kenai Peninsula in the distance:

Not a bad end to a 3-day adventure.  We got back to the campground and kicked back, giving Eileen and Tom a day of R&R before their flight home to the Philadelphia area.

You can view our Flickr album with all of our photos from Exit Glacier and the Alyeska Tram.

Kenai Fjords Boat Tour

Hi Blog!

On Wednesday, June 22, 2016, Dave, Kathy, Tom and Eileen set out on a three hour tour. The weather was anything but rough and thanks to the eagle eyes of our fearless crew, no minnow was lost.

In addition to visiting Denali, the Kenai Fjords National Park was high on our bucket list. The park contains the Harding Icefield, one of the largest ice fields in the United States. The park is named for the numerous fjords carved by glaciers moving down the mountains from the ice field. The field is the source of at least 38 glaciers, the largest of which is Bear Glacier. The fjords are glacial valleys that have been submerged below sea level by a combination of rising sea levels and land subsidence.
The park is primarily accessible by boat.

Kenai Fjords Tour offers numerous options from 9 hour excursions to 3 hour dinner cruises. Since seeing a whale was high on Eileen and Tom's bucket list, we choose the 4-1/2 hour Resurrection Bay Wildlife Cruise. There were several tours leaving a the same time, so we had to make sure we didn't miss the boat.

Since we would be on the boat for four hours, we found a nice comfy seat inside and watched as we slipped out of the Seward Boat Harbor.

Once we cleared the harbor, we could see all the RVs lined up at the Resurrection Campground in Waterfront Park. While there are no services at the campground, the views are amazing.

Within in the first five minutes the captain announced our first wildlife sighting. This family of sea otter was busy eating their lunch as we motored by.

After spotting a couple whales, we turned our attention to Bear Glacier. Bear Glacier marks the beginning of the Kenai Fjords National Park from the East. It is a Piedmont glacier which occurs when steep valley glaciers spill into relatively flat plains, where they spread out into bulb-like lobes.
Bear Glacier is the longest glacier in the park, measuring 13 miles long. We were unable to approach the Bear Glacier because it is not a tidewater, calving glacier.  Several hundred years ago this glacier laid down a large enough terminal moraine that it cut off its own travel to the tide water's edge.  It now melts into a freshwater lake trapped behind the glacier's old moraine.

We stopped at Fox Island and had lunch at the day lodge. A National Park Ranger joined the group and discussed the history of Fox Island including one of its most famous residents, author Rockwell Kent.

Mr. Kent lived on Fox Island from August 1918 to March 1919. Kent’s primary residence on Fox Island was a small cabin that was part of a fox farm and goat ranch run by Lars Matt Olson.
A true tale of wilderness adventure, Wilderness: A Quiet Journey of Adventure in Alaska describes the day to day experiences of Kent and his 9-year old son living in the remote solitude of Fox Island.

After lunch, we took a stroll on Fox Island's skipping stone beach and tried our hand at skipping the flat stones across the water. Try as we might, we only managed two skips. As we were reaching down for more rocks, Dave discovered this four-legged sea star. We recognized it right away having just learned about them at the Alaska Sealife Center. Unfortunately, when the tide went out, this little guy got left behind.

Fox Island is about 12 miles south from Seward. The island is located in a 24 mile-long estuary extending from the mouth of the Resurrection River to Harding Gateway and Blying Sound. Here we got our first look at the Pacific Ocean.

Humpbacked whales travel all the way from Hawaii to feed in the cold waters of Resurrection Bay. Tiny bait fish form balls that float just under the surface of the water. The shore birds spot them and begin diving. We watched as the birds congregated because a whale may soon follow. Whales can hear the excited chatter of the birds and it leads them to the bait balls.

The two sisters, with cameras in hand, wait patiently to snag their whaley quarry!

Captain! There be whales here! The whale approached the bait ball, scooped up the fish and returned to the water. We could easily see the hump rising and falling.

Fun whale fact - humpbacked whales need to stay partially awake to sleep. Breathing is not automatic. One part of their brain stays awake to remind them to breath. We followed a sleeping whale for a while, but it only broke the surface enough to exhale and inhale. We saw a number of whales feeding. Once they are satisfied, they turn tail and dive. If you see a fluke, chances are you won't see that whale for a while as they can stay under for 15 to 45 minutes.

The rocky shoreline makes a great resting spot for these Stellar Sea Lions. These sea lions are the largest members of the Otariid, or “eared seal,” family. The eared seals differ from the phocids, or “earless” seals, by having visible external ear flaps and long hind flippers that can be turned under, making travel on land easy.

Female sea lions average seven feet in length and about 600 pounds. Male sea lions, slightly longer at nine feet, weigh more than twice as much as females at an average of 1,500 pounds with “beach masters” reaching up to 2,400 pounds. This big guy was definitely king of his "beach."

Before long it was time to head back into port. We had perfect weather for our tour, saw lots of sea life and learned some cool things. Nothing left to do but sit back and relax.  As we passed behind Fox Island, we got a glimpse of this "ghost forest,"  a forest of dead trees that died in the '64 Quake when this area was shaken and its elevation changed.  These trees' roots were exposed to saltwater as a result of the quake.  The saltwater killed them, while also preserving their dead trunks and branches.

Here is a link to our Flickr album with all our photos from the tour.

Sightseeing in Seward

Hi Blog!

After a full day of adventure we finally made it to Seward, Alaska! Seward was named after William H. Seward, United States Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. In 1867, Seward fought for the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia. Seward is also the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad. This keeps the port busy with freight coming on and off the trains, but also makes Seward a primary end point for north-bound cruise ships. Cruise ship passengers disembark and often take the train or bus farther north to Anchorage, Denali, or Fairbanks.

We checked into the Sauerdough Lodging. Built in 1907 by William Sauers, the Sauerdough Lodging building has served many purposes over the years. It originally housed the Seward Commercial Co. general store, with a town meeting hall upstairs. During the Roaring ’20s, the building was used as a brothel. Tom was very excited. He finally got his chance to stay in a brothel!

After a full day of touring about, we built up a powerful thirst. Our first stop, Seward Brewing Company. Here Tom and Eileen get ready to wet their whistle!

After a scrumptious meal, we took a leisurely stroll along the waterfront bike path. This point marks Mile 0 of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. The Iditarod Trail, also known historically as the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail, refers to a thousand-plus mile historic trail system in Alaska. The trail began as a composite of trails established by Alaskan native peoples. Its route crossed several mountain ranges and valleys and passed through numerous historical settlements en route to Nome.

We had a beautiful evening for our stroll. If you are lucky enough to get a waterfront campsite at Resurrection South, this would be the view from your front window.

After a little tourist shopping, we returned to the brothel to watch the final episode of "Person of Interest." The next morning we were up before the coffee shop opened at 7:00, so we took a stroll around town to check out some of the historic buildings.

This statue below commemorates the Iditarod trailblazers. The discovery of gold brought thousands of people over this route beginning in 1910. Roadhouses for people and dog barns sprang up every 20 or so miles. By 1918 World War I and the lack of 'gold fever' resulted in far less travel. The trail might have been forgotten except for the 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome. In one of the final great feats of dog sleds, twenty drivers and teams carried the life-saving serum 674 miles in 127 hours. Today, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race serves to commemorates the part the trail and its dog sleds played in the development of Alaska.

The sun was just peeking over the mountains and casting soft morning light on the glaciers across Resurrection Bay. This sailboat was getting an early start.

St. Peter's Church is an historic Episcopal church located at 239 Second Avenue. The first Episcopal services in Seward were held in 1904 by a priest from Valdez. The church building was constructed between 1905 and 1906 and was consecrated on April 1, 1906 by the Rt. Rev. Peter Trimble Rowe, the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alaska.

We heard the sound of thundering water and followed it to Lowell Creek. We watched as the water poured off Bear Mountain through a flood control flume, creating rainbows in the morning sun.

After plunging off the mountain, the creek slows and meanders its way to Resurrection Bay.

After breakfast, we visited the Alaska Sealife Center. Since we were scheduled for a boat tour of the Kenai Fjords National Park, we thought it would be good idea to learn about some of the local residents. While Kathy helped Eileen practice with her new camera, Dave got up close and personal with this crested puffin.

We had a great time getting to know all the different animals in this area. We were eager to get out on our boat tour to see how many of them we would spot in the wild.

We took more photos than we could fit in any one blog. If you are interested, you can check out more photos from Seward and the Alaska Sealife Center on our Flickr site.

Click this link for more Seward photos!

Click this link for more Alaska Sealife photos!

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Portage Glacier and the Whittier Tunnel

After visiting the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage on our trip down to Seward, Alaska on Tuesday, June 21, 2016, we swung across the highway to Portage Lake to visit Portage Glacier, and then drive on to the town of Whittier.

Our visit to the glacier was by the Ptarmigan, a medium size tour boat:

As we pulled away from the small dock, we glimpsed a view of a snowfield high above the highway:

The views up --

-- and down --

-- Portage Lake were breathtaking, so the boat ride itself was worth the trip.  Approaching the bottom of the lake, we were excited to catch our first glimpse of Portage Glacier, flowing into the lake.

There are several types of glaciers:

-- Alpine glaciers, also called mountain glaciers, are found throughout the world’s high mountains. If a mountain glacier increases in size and begins to flow down the valley, it is then described as a valley glacier.

-- A cirque glacier is a small glacier that forms within a cirque basin, generally high on the side of a mountain.

-- A hanging glacier is a glacier that originates high on the wall of a glacier valley and descends only part of the way to the surface of the main glacier.  Avalanching and icefalls are the mechanisms for ice and snow transfer to the valley floor below.

-- A calving glacier is a glacier with a terminus that ends in a body of water (river, lake, ocean) into which it calves icebergs. A tidewater glacier is a calving glacier with a terminus that ends in a body of water influenced by tides, such as the ocean or a large lake.

In contrast, glaciers other than calving glaciers lose their ice through melting, and leave the rocks, gravel and silt they bring down with them as moraine piles stretching along the ground.

Because Portage Glacier ends at Portage Lake, it is a calving glacier.  Here, it has deposited some baby bergs and chunks of ice in the lake:

Who wouldn't want to take a selfy with a rock star.  In this case, it might be more appropriate to call her an Ice Queen:

The boat brought us up close to the glacier, permitting us to see the ceracs (pillars of ice) forming at the toe of the glacier.  Eventually, the ceracs (or pieces of them) break off, or calve, to deposit chunks in the water.  In this case, the leading edge of the glacier demonstrates how blue its ice is.  This is because the clear ice absorbs all the colors of normal light except certain colors on the blue end of the spectrum, and as the bluer light reflects, we get that brilliant, indescribably blue color:

Here is one of our favorite portraits of Portage Glacier:

Here is a link to our Flickr album with all our photos from the Portage Glacier tour.

Our trip to the glacier did not depart until 3:00 pm.  Having finished our visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center before noon, we had some time to kill and so drove on to Whittier, Alaska, which is further down the road from Portage Lake.  To get to Whittier, you need to drive through the Whittier Tunnel.  The 2.5 mile, one-lane tunnel must be shared by cars and trains traveling in both directions, and it usually needs to be aired out in between trips (with jet turbine ventilation, another first!). This unique design that enables a single lane of traffic to travel directly over the railroad track saved tens of millions of dollars over the cost of constructing a new tunnel.  The one-way trip takes about 6 minutes at 25 miles an hour.  Traffic is let through in any given direction about every half hour.  The vehicles must line up and await a signal to proceed.  In the photo below, the tunnel entrance is the small A-frame structure in the background:

It was quite an experience travelling through the tunnel, with our big truck's tires slipping and sliding on the train track rails, and perhaps only a foot of clearance on either side:

Once we got through the tunnel, we found a spartan community with a large port.  Virtually all of the city's approximately 215 residents live in a single, multi-story apartment building which, due to the extreme cold of winters here, also houses most services such as grocery, hair cutteries, and the like:

We exited the tunnel about 1:45 pm and realized that, to get back to Portage Lake in time for our 3:00 tour, we had about 15 minutes before we had to make sure we could catch the 2:00 release of traffic back through the tunnel to Portage.  This only permitted a quick drive around Whittier and back to the tunnel.  Still, despite not having a chance to walk around Whittier, we found it an intriguing and unusual place to visit.  Be sure to put this on your itinerary if you visit Anchorage or the Kenai Peninsula.