Epic Alaska

>It already seems like a while ago that I arrived in Alaska and I have already departed so it’s about time I wrote about my time there.

The cheapest way for me to get to Alaska was via an Air Canada deal. It was also the quickest way and much less hassle than catching three different ferries and a two day bus trip. That said, I’m pretty sure it would have been a much more memorable experience but I didn’t really have the time so Air Canada it was.

Apart from four security checks at Vancouver airport all went well. The flight was half empty (or half full depending on how you look at it), possibly due to a passenger loss of confidence in Air Canada during their financial problems. At the present time, the Canadian government had guaranteed all flights until September so I wasn’t about to lose money on a flight that wasn’t going to happen.

The views from up above were sensational (a word I will probably use often in this email). Snow capped mountain peaks on either side and glaciers in between.

On arrival in Anchorage a fellow traveller and I caught the local bus to where we knew the hostel to be. However, after walking every which way to find it from the bus stop, we ended up having to catching a taxi otherwise we would never have found it even though it was less than 500m away.

At the hostel I met a great bunch of people, unfortunately they pretty much all left me the following day as they departed on a tour similar to what I had booked but cheaper … much cheaper. Speaking of cheap, the Spenard Hostel is the cheapest hostel in town. No doubt this is partly because it’s not really in town but also partly because guests are requested to do a chore to keep the cost down. The chores are listed on a white board and you get to pick from this list of domestic duties. The easiest job, sweeping the front verandah, had already been taken so I opted to empty the garbage which surely couldn’t be too difficult. Well I have been wrong before!

Firstly the choice of garbage bag was either gigantic or miniscule, neither of which was appropriate for the bags I was replacing. I suppose I could have asked for help, but as I had already asked where the bags were and I got them from this very place, I figure that there was either a shortage of the right sort of bags, or that yet again I should be enrolled in a school for the domestically gifted.

I just went ahead with it and put the tiny bags in the big bins, then accidentally dumped all the rubbish in the wrong dumpster. I blame this on the Green Tortoise bus as it was concealing the correct dumpster. And if you think that I took the bags out and put them in the correct dumpster then you are sadly mistaken! I had had enough domestic bliss for one day.

The next day I checked out of the hostel and checked into my fancy Best Western accommodation for the evening as this was where my tour departed from. It was here that I once again did laundry as everything I have taken with me needed to be clean for my two weeks of camping as I didn’t have a large selection to begin with. Later I ventured into Anchorage to check out town which was nice enough although I could’ve done without the fur shops that were far too common.

On June 25th I started my tour of Alaska with Trek America and 10 other passengers. We were a good blend of people from the England, Northern Ireland, The Netherlands, the USA and Australia. Some had been on Trek tours before so it was handy to have them on board to get things rolling smoothly. All of us were young, very young, but I was the youngest of us all.

The first day of the tour we stopped at the Portage Glacier Visitor Centre. Surely it’s not the most exciting glacier but it was pretty close to Anchorage and it gave us an insight into what we would see in the weeks ahead. I was amazed to discover how much the glacier had already receded in the last 30 years and how much they predicted it to recede in the coming 30 years. Global warming and other factors!

I remember nothing else of this day until we headed to a water taxi which would take us to our luxury wilderness camp across the bay from Homer. The stench on the pier of poor captured Halibut sticks in my memory but beyond that when we were on board the water taxi, sitting oh so low in the water, I remember the “captain” saying that he had seen a whale ahead which got everyone excited. Personally I don’t remember seeing the whale and I can’t recall if anyone else did. Most of us I’m sure did see a sea otter in the water though. These beautiful creatures seem so docile as they lie on their backs to cleanse themselves and make for a great photo opportunity. Luckily, Kate, our resident sea otter freak (I say this in the nicest possible way as I am no doubt the resident bear freak) didn’t dive into the water to cuddle him although she did more than once voice her desire to whack one over the head with a paddle if only to take him home and have him as a pet in her bath back in Manchester.

Back on land again and we found our luxury accommodation to be quite fancy. Big tents with beds (and mattresses) and ours just happened to be right beside the beach, although this wasn’t such a great thing on the second night as it was quite windy and we felt it most. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was made for us which was lovely and not to be repeated.

The day completed with a few of us taking a nice two mile bike ride along dirt roads down to a bay. We stopped there so that I could chat to the locals and find out if we were where we had intended to be or if we should continue on. Perhaps half an hour later, with my buddies still sitting on the pier chatting amongst themselves, I left these year round Homer residents who had perplexed me with their tales of snow and harsh conditions throughout the winter and also of their love for Melbourne trams and the dreaded city hook turn which many locals have yet to master or attempt.

Our second day on tour and we took sea kayaks out on the water for about four hours. This was my first time in a sea kayak, which I describe to be a canoe with a rudder. It was great fun and due to some mild experience in a canoe, I was lucky enough to have a sea kayak all to myself. In effect that means that perhaps I had to work harder than anyone else. Along the way we saw at least one beautiful sea otter in the water and stopped for lunch at a small small island. Once we had stopped paddling, despite the blue sky and bright sun, it was quite cold just to remind us that we were in Alaska.

My plan when we returned to camp was to have a nap but instead we took a walk along the beach which was quite rewarding as we saw bald eagles, including an immature one, fish in the water just a metre from shore and an interesting jellyfish but you probably had to be there.

For the rest of the evening we just sat around inside looking out the windows (it was a bit too cold to be outside) from where we could see bald eagles, squirrels, sea otters, blue jays and a whale. We may have also, if I remember correctly, played some horseshoe game. You know the one, where you throw a horseshoe at a peg. Well I didn’t know that there were rules involved and scoring of all sorts. Both games seemed to end due to danger rather than reaching the five points we had set as the winning mark. Horseshoes were flying straight up in the air and out into the weeds and generally in any direction other than where they should have been going. But we had fun!

That night as I went to bed I realised what folly it was that I had packed my torch. For what would you need a torch when you have so much sunlight. I think it was about 20 hours at the start of the tour, losing six minutes per day. For the four hours that you supposedly didn’t have sunlight, it was still bright enough to get around without a torch in any case! Even with all this sunlight I was still able to sleep like a baby.

The next morning it was time to leave our luxury camp on a surprise float plane. A great surprise for some but I have found through several sky dives and a scenic tour over Kakadu that I am no fan of small planes and will get sick without too much trouble. Had this not been a surprise trip perhaps I could have taken some of the travel sickness tablets which were in my bag back in Homer (left there as we couldn’t take everything with us to the luxury camp). Regardless I jumped in and hoped for the best but even taxi-ing out over the choppy water made me sea sick so by the time I was up in the air I was feeling less than 100% and hoping to be back on land in the not too distant future. The view from above was lovely though and I even took a few photos including one of the mangled controls of the aircraft. The landing was smoother than ever before although I am not a convert of small planes!

Along our travels we stopped off at Exit Glacier. Glaciers are dangerous to walk on due to crevasses and probably other stuff, so we were only allowed to walk beside this one, and not even that close to be honest. Perhaps they bite as well but it’s more likely that you have to keep your distance because they ‘calve’ meaning that great big slaps of it break off and fall which could in theory crush you or at the very least make you a little angry and sore. Anyway, it was magnificent scenery there as seems to always be the case in Alaska.

That evening we set up camp in Seward where it rained and rained and didn’t stop until pretty much the last day of our tour (apart from when it snowed). With nothing else to do in a wet campground we headed into town to visit the Yukon Bar which was proud to present Karaoke night! I had vaguely promised to sing Mercedes Benz as I do each and every time I’m in a public place but once in the bar I thought it might be a little dangerous to take the stage time away from the locals, particularly the lady who strutted around the smoke filled bar singing one of her many tunes for the evening. I heard all sorts of music including Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks so country was pretty much the limit of it. In the end I hope my fellow tourlings were happy with my song as we drove back to camp in our van.

In Seward we visited the Alaska Sea Life Center which was supposed to be funded by Exxon after the tragic oil spill in Prince William Sound back in 1989. It seems Exxon hasn’t paid it’s share just yet but it all depends on who you talk to. This was only a quick visit as we had a boat to catch which would take us through the Kenai Peninsula. Before then though I had a quick stop in town when I saw some Alaskan Husky puppies in a storefront window. These pups were only nine weeks old but once they’re old enough they will become proud sled dogs. For the time being I had all four of them running around the shop when the lady kindly agreed to let one of them out to play with me and then they all barged through the pen.

Eventually I did manage to tear myself away from the puppies and made my way to our boat which took us through Resurrection Bay on route to the Holgate Glacier, famous for its calving. Hopefully we would also see some wildlife and or marine life along the way.

The weather, we were told, was typical Alaskan weather which when translated means it was dreadful and although there was land to either side of us, we could see nothing except the fog. Many people had taken ill before we had even left the bay so I didn’t hold much hope for myself even though I had taken ginger tablets, had funny sea sick preventing wrist bands on and drank a fair amount of ginger ale. Some way into the trip a whale was spotted quite close to our boat and then according to Donna and Kate (I think) came up right at the front of the boat whilst everyone was looking far out into the distance. This was all news to me as I concentrated my efforts on the horizon.

My journey was spent primarily freezing outside on the deck where it was not only cold but wet. Luckily I was dressed pretty well otherwise I would have to be inside where I would no doubt get sick. Probably the one moment where I wasn’t feeling ill and hence I was inside trying to warm up the captain stopped to look at a supposedly impressive rock but I was much more impressed by the black bear he spotted in the mountain face. The charge I did from the back of the lower deck of the boat to the upper front deck would have broken land speed records. Eat my dust Marion Jones! I possibly also injured many people along the way but it was worth it. The beautiful bear was an immature bear (approximately two years old) according to the ranger on board and I was able to see him quite clearly and I was so happy. This was my first bear sighting and although I didn’t have my camera with me it will remain in my memory forever. The camera waited patiently in my backpack on the lower deck at the back of the boat. Who cared!

The weather improved and soon enough we were at the Holgate Glacier which performed well for us as several chunks, including one large chunk of the glacier, broke off and thundered down below and icebergs then proceeded to float by. The sound made by these calving bits of the glacier truly do sound like thunder!

Then it was time for more rough water as we went to a wildlife refuge area to spot birds including puffin in a rookery and also seals and sea lions. The trip back was equally rough and many more people were ill as I was once again spending my time focussing on the horizon. It was quite amusing that many if not most people had paid extra for the all you can eat Salmon bake and dessert deal but as the weather was so bad and everyone was sick, very little was actually eaten. In fact, judging by all the people asleep at their tables I would say many people did not even know the food was being served. These poor folk had no doubt taken their sea sickness tablets which had put them to sleep … obviously they didn’t get the non drowsy herbal variety I had.

You would think being back on dry land would help a little but I continued to sway throughout the evening.

From Seward we headed to Valdez where more sea kayaking was on the agenda for me. I opted to head out with a few other people on our tour to Columbia Glacier. It started with a lovely calm water taxi trip out to the middle of an inlet filled with large and small icebergs, hence very cold water. From here we got into our sea kayaks directly from the boat. I thought we would do this on land but it was surprisingly easy doing it this way. We paddled a small distance, stopped and floated near a waterfall before paddling just a little further, shored up and then went for a hike in the bog with our gumboots on. This is not really an easy task but at least we wouldn’t have to deal with wet hiking boots, just gumboots stuck in the mud. The bog was quite amazing and we learned that it is the first recovery of the glacier as the ground is quite acidic. Along the way we saw bear scat, which raised my hopes of seeing bear and lead in some small way to what I call my “bear injury”. You see I then spent so much time looking around the landscape trying to spot bear that I stumbled and jabbed my thumb into the ground at a perfect perpendicular angle so that now, more than three weeks later I am still in pain. We didn’t see any bear but we did have a beautiful view of the glacier in the distance.

It was then back to the sea kayaks but again for only a short time as something was spotted on the shoreline. If you’d prefer not to hear a sad tale then skip the next few paragraphs as I recount.

To my great dismay the something on the shoreline was a Dalls Porpoise which had been injured by a propeller. At the time it was completely out of the water, it’s skin had dried significantly but it was still breathing and alive. I had never before seen a Dalls Porpoise and perhaps some of you haven’t either. Basically they are black with white markings, are 6 to 8 feet long and can weigh up to 400 pounds. They are the fastest swimmers of the cetacean family and can reach speeds of up to 35 mph (thanks to the internet for this info). The one we found was perhaps three feet and weighed around the same as a big dog so I would suggest it was a baby that had come to grief. I have pictures but they’re not really pleasant enough to share. The injuries appeared to be lacerations to the face and the tail fin. One eye was missing and it was in great distress.

None of us knew what to do but we tried to float and support it in the water. At times it did well but more often it would roll to one side. As I supported it in the water I could feel its heart thumping wildly, my hands freezing through the rubber gloves. I cradled it like a baby as we tried to move it to the sea kayak to take it back to Valdez for medical attention. We tried a few times but were unable to fit her in …. At least I think it was a her. I will read up on porpoise anatomy later.

Our tour guide radioed to try and work out what to do and I understood the response to be that messing with marine life is unlawful. The law might be the law but it is not always right. It was an act of a human which had caused the injury and I would be appalled with myself if I did not try and help her. In the end my group continued their paddle out to Columbia Glacier whilst I stayed for two hours with her and the evil gnats which were trying to eat me alive. Our tour guide’s nickname for them was saber tooth gnats!

By this stage I was also wary of bear as I was now completely by myself in the Alaskan wilderness. I could hear wolves howling and birds screeching in the distance but I could see nothing. I was very upset, unable to talk or look at anyone so in a way it was good for me to be there by myself. With my beanie pulled down over my head to completely cover my face to avoid the gnats I stayed with her, kept her wet, talked to her and generally tried to make her more comfortable. I wished I could euthanise her as I couldn’t bear her suffering.

When the group returned I knew it was time for me to go. I don’t think that she would or could survive but I hope that her distress would come to an end soon. And so we paddled back and I promised to shout Ruud beers all night as I had left him to paddle the kayak by himself. They enjoyed their trip to the glacier and whilst I didn’t get the chance to paddled amongst the thick ice, I think I had a much more memorable experience.

Moving along now as I have written already six pages and I am only halfway through my Alaskan adventure …

Our next campsite was just outside the tiny town of McCarthy beside a glacier fed river which rumbles loudly outside our tents. It is yet again bitterly cold. I have started sleeping with two sleeping bags, a sleeping sheet, thermals and a beanie.

McCarthy is a small town with a winter population of about 25. In the summer people arrive there to climb Root Glacier in the Wrangle-St Elias Mountains. Chatting to the locals we heard that that evening there was to be a presentation by a local who would discuss his unsuccessful summit attempt on Mt Blackburn. This was four or five miles away in Kennicott so off we headed. Previously Kennicott was a thriving copper mining town but now it is like a ghost town with only some mountain guides, a community hall and a ranger station. The presentation that evening was quite interesting. This guy almost lost his life out there and seemed none to keen to get out amongst it again. Back at camp the local hillbillies were hosting a ho-down so we watched and listened to that which was quite enjoyable.

The following morning we headed back to Kennicott for some ice climbing. The day started off reasonably, meaning that it wasn’t deadly cold and it was dry. We had a two mile trek from Kennicott to get to Root Glacier. Along the way I had hope to see a bear or two but the best I managed was a few deposits of bear poo, then some horse poo and finally dog poo. Luckily I managed to avoid stepping in any of them.

At the edge of Root Glacier we donned our climbing boots and crampons at which time it started raining and didn’t stop until we got back to camp at the end of the day. As soon as I stepped onto the glacier I was amazed. At some points the glacier is covered with rock so that you can’t see the ice. At others it’s more like a thin layer of mud over the ice and then there is clear glacier with streams and waterfalls and jet blue crevasses.

The rain wasn’t yet too heavy and we only had a short hike to where we would be ice climbing. Then as we crossed crevasses and walked up and down the glacier it began to rain harder and harder. Basically saturation was what we achieved in a short time although some of my layers were still dry.

Our climbing instructors spent the longest time setting up the climbing ropes during which time we practiced using our crampons. We climbed using the French method (zig zagging up an incline), German method (straight up using the front forks) and the American method (a weird combination of the French and German methods). Once we were on the rope we would really only use the German method but at this point our real aim was to try and stay a little bit warm as the temperature had dropped several degrees as soon as we got within wind of the glacier.

Eventually when the ropes were set up and we had been given a demonstration, we were able to start climbing the two lines. It’s pretty safe as we were secured by a belay and had an ice pick in each hand.

My first effort seemed just like climbing a tree to be honest. The crampons bite into the ice and provide the power while the icepicks are there for support and stability. Then you just climb up up up to the top (approximately 40 feet or 40 metres I can’t remember which), take a good look at the view at the top, then you just lean back and let your belay help you down. I think most of the group had two turns and I’m sure we would have all liked to continue but as it was so cold and so wet we decided to head back down off the glacier. It sure was another memorable experience and I really don’t think the instructors could believe we all smiled throughout the whole time. What else could we do when we have had this weather almost every day.

That evening four of us were either smarter than the others or less hardy than the others as we headed to a cabin where we could take a $7 shower. Well worth it I think as the campsite had no facilities. We had our first campfire that night which was nice so that we could try and stay warm but we found another use for it as well … trying to dry our backpacks, camera bags, clothes, travellers cheques and flight tickets. Anything that we took with us was drenched and of course we took all the important stuff as you can’t really just leave it lying around in a tent. My passport was quite wet as well but it expires soon enough and I haven’t had a problem using it so far.

The next day was an uneventful one just driving from McCarthy to Tangle Lakes where we would stay in the luxury of a big dry cabin with a fire inside. It basically just bucketed down rain again so instead of going to the sauna or off canoeing I stayed inside and read and slept and not much more. The following morning I raced outside in my boxer shorts, t-shirt and beanie to try and see a beaver outside on the lake but by the time I got there there was nothing and I was freezing yet again. I then hiked out to Lower Tangle Lakes with Kate in search or wildlife, perhaps beaver or marmot but again nothing.

By the time we arrived in Denali National Park it was still raining. Our campsite had washed away two days before but the water had receded enough to allow us to pitch our tents. We had an early start the next morning as we had a eight hour bus ride through the park to watch wildlife and scenery. This is pretty much the only way to travel through the park. Private vehicles are allowed entry to a certain point but you require a permit and you cannot travel as far in as the bus would take you. Not a bad idea really as the road are at times very dangerous and it also minimises traffic. Unfortunately our tour van which would take us to the bus was locked and our tour leader was nowhere to be found. A little while later we found him slumped in another van, seemingly still drunk from the night before. I think he was anyway. By this time we were pretty late for our bus departure from the Denali Visitor Centre so we sped down the highway and I was none too impressed by the speeding or the alleged intoxication.

We made it just in time only because one of our tour group stopped the bus so that we could get on. Our seats at the back of the bus weren’t the greatest though. Every time there was wildlife to be seen, the driver positioned the bus so that he could see which meant that anyone at the back end of the bus couldn’t see. Regardless of this we did still manage to see Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep and finally Grizzly Bears. The first bears we saw were a mother and her cub wandering about feeding on berries on a incline less than 50 metres from the bus. They were quite beautiful and seemed undisturbed by our presence. We continued watching them for a while although not nearly as long as I would have liked which would have amounted to days. As the bus started up to move off, the cub looked up, stood up on its rear legs and watched us as we drove away. Throughout the day there was more wildlife but only one more grizzly.

The weather along the way was changing from bad (cold) to worse (cold and windy), then cold, windy and wet and finally cold, windy and snow. I was quite happy by this time as I had seen three Grizzly Bears and now the snow just made it the ultimate Alaskan experience.

After the bus tour some of us headed off to a dog sled demonstration which was interesting enough, the best part of which was playing with two eight week old Alaskan Husky puppies.

The next day I was back on the tour bus through Denali National Park hoping to see more wildlife. We arrived early and got what we thought to be good seats on the bus. Unfortunately we later discovered that the heater was directly under us and within the shortest time it was so hot that I had to strip down from five thermal layers to three, then two. It still wasn’t enough and the heat soon put me and the rest of the bus to sleep which meant that there was no one spotting wildlife. Yet again it snowed outside but with the nap it was otherwise a nice day!

On the final day of the tour we had blue sky and a great view of Mt McKinley, no snow, no rain and in fact quite warm. Must have been because we had packed our tents away for the last time!

The tour itself did not end well and all I will say is that my experience with Trek America was unimpressive. I wouldn’t travel with them again or at least definitely not in Alaska where I know at least two of the guides are just out to have their own fun rather than doing their job. It was an expensive bus ride not a tour. That said, I did have a great time in Alaska, saw sensational sights and incredible wildlife and along the way was lucky enough to meet some lovely people who I miss already. These lovely people pretty much all left Alaska straight away so the next day I was on my own for a few hours before I headed back to the Spenard Hostel to once again do my chores and meet up with people there from before the tour.

Travelling alone is never really alone unless you want it to be.

Thanks for listening and stay tuned for follow up adventures in the Interior of British Columbia and then my road trip through Alberta.