Friday, August 2, 2019

Seward

From Homer, I went to Seward for a few days.  On my last trip here six years ago, I had spent a very long time in the Seward Aquarium, and I was looking forward to a return visit.  It did not disappoint. 

The section I looked forward to most was the sea birds.  They have an enclosure, sort of like a butterfly exhibit at zoos you might be familiar with, but this one is full of sea birds.  According to the caretaker, there are 64 birds in the enclosure of at least six different varieties.  They have both horned and tufted Puffins, Kittiwakes, Murres, Pigeon Gulemots, Black Oystercatchers and ducks whose variety I can't remember. They are all flying free in this enclosure, and it is up to the viewer to stay away from the birds.  If they land near you, you must move.  That said, some of the birds are quite tame, and one of the horned puffins allowed himself to be handled by the caretaker (his name is Nemo!). I could have spent hours in there, just watching the birds. 
 
Horned Puffin (Nemo!)

Kittiwakes with a chick

Black Oystercatcher

Common Murres

Beautiful duck

They also have a very nice touch tank, although that part of the aquarium was fairly crowded that day.  But I got up close and personal with sea stars and anemones, and watched the critters in a barnacle tank.  That was most fascinating, because of the way they wave their antennae (is that what they are called?) reminding me of the flag twirlers in high school football half time programs. (George, I took this video especially for you!) 
 
Video for George

Anemone -- just beautiful! 

The next day, I did a glacier cruise that was OK, but it rained almost all day, and by the end I was soaking wet and very cold.  All I could think about was stopping at Safeway and getting some soup for supper (which I did) and then curling up under the covers to get warm (which I also did).  
 
Sea Lions

Seals

The Glacier

Nesting Puffins deep in those crevices. 

This is what it looked like out on the water. 

Seward is also famous for its murals; they paint a new one each year and they are displayed on the side of many of the buildings in town.  This tryptic tells the story of Raven and the Creation and was particularly moving to me. 


Seldovia

Boy am I ever far behind on blog posts.  Now that I have some reasonable Wi-Fi, maybe I can get caught up! 

Seldovia is a very small town across Katchemak Bay from Homer that can only be reached by boat or plane. That meant a day trip was in the cards, and Rainbow Tours had just the trip. It included some wildlife viewing on the way to Seldovia, then several hours in the town, and a faster ride back to Homer.
 
View on the way
The ride there included a fascinating, up close view of Gull Island, a bird sanctuary, and we saw thousands of birds, including Puffins, Murres, and Kittiwakes. The Murres and the Kittiwakes were nesting on the rocks, the Murres at the very top, and the Kittiwakes a bit further down. The Puffins that we saw were all in the water, because the places that they were nesting were deep in crevices in the rocks and it was too hard to see them. 
 
Murres at the top

Kittiwakes

We also saw quite a few sea otters, which are just the cutest thing you have ever seen. They seemed to want to pose for us! As the guide said, anyone who didn't get a good sea otter photo just wasn't trying…. 
 
He posed for quite a while!
There's a whole raft of them here! 
The other thing that was plentiful on Gull Island was flies.  The combination of low tide and the time of day when we were viewing the island was ideal for flies finding our boat and following us most of the way to Seldovia.  This wasn't just a few flies, no, this was a hoard of them.  If you were outside on the deck and stood up, a black cloud rose from your jeans.  Two of the crew members went outside with fly swatters and a hose and tried to get rid of them, but it was pretty hopeless, and most of us stayed inside for the rest of the voyage to Seldovia. 

It's a picturesque fishing town, with one main street with no more than two dozen buildings in all.  It was lunchtime, and luckily one of the buildings was a restaurant.  I had salmon and chips and it was delicious! 


Yum, lunch! 
 In a small park there were some chain saw carvings; these two in particular caught my eye. 




The town was mainly shops to entice tourists, but as I was looking around, I saw two men down on the dock cleaning their fish. I asked them if I could take photos, and they were glad to have me do it.  It was fascinating to see how quickly they could clean a fish, and they each had a big ziplok bag full of both salmon and halibut fillets by they time they were finished; it made me envious of their freezers contents for this coming winter…. The crows had a feast! 
Lots of salmon.

Filleting a Halibut. 
The crows eat too. 

Although these two men had been successful, when I looked off the bridge in the town, I only saw a few salmon on their way to spawn. But the view from the bridge was lovely. 


Monday, July 22, 2019

Bears, bears, bears

About five years ago I discovered the Explore.org wildlife cameras, specifically the Brooks Falls, Katmai National Park, bear cameras.  There are several of them focused on different areas of the river and falls (you can find them at https://explore.org/livecams/brown-bears/brown-bear-salmon-cam-brooks-falls), and they can be addictive.  I'm living proof of that!  Over the past 5 years, I can't tell you how many hours I've spent watching those bears do all sorts of silly things.  I can tell you who some of the bears are (many of them have names given to them by the rangers or by people who comment on the website), I can tell you who had cubs and when; in other words, I've devoted a lot of time and brain space to these bears. Never in my imagination did I think that I would be able to see them in person. Too expensive, I said to myself, hard to fly when you need oxygen, plus myriad other reasons that it wouldn't be possible. 

Last Wednesday I arrived in Homer and started looking at the tour book to see what things I really wanted to see while I was here. At the bottom of one of the pages was an ad for Bald Mountain Air with day tours to Brooks Falls.  What? I said to myself. I thought you had to go for several days and stay in the lodge. I had no idea there were day trips to get there. Oh well, I figured, they are probably all booked up, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.  I called them, and lo and behold, they had one opening for Sunday the 21st.  Well, I didn't have a set schedule, I could find things to do in Homer for a few days, and I jumped at the chance to go.  It was expensive, but I decided it was worth it to dip into savings for this. At that point, I was so excited that I called my sister to gush, and texted my sons (the ones in the US, sorry Drew!!) with the exciting news. 

It was hard to wait, but finally I woke up this morning and just started grinning, because today was the day! It was sunny and warm, and I was READY!!

8:30 AM: be at Bald Mountain Air to take our 10 passenger Otter, with pilot Doug. 
Beautiful scenery on my side of the plane on the way to Katmai. 

10:45 AM: land on Naknek Lake. I recognize the surroundings from the bear cameras. 

11:00 AM: Bear School at the park with a ranger.  There was a video about bear safety, and a talk afterwards that is required for anyone wanting to go further than the visitor center. (Eat some of the snack food you brought while you watch the video – no food on the trails). Get your National Parks Passport stamped!

11:30 AM: find a group to walk with (safer in numbers) and get to the bridge across the river.  First bear sighting from the bridge, a sow with 3 cubs, but over there are two sleeping on the beach, and two more swimming up the river, and wait, on the other side of the bridge, there are 6 bears in the river fishing for salmon, and most of them have one in their paws.  Holy cow, there are bears everywhere! 
Mama and 3 cubs

Mama eats first!

There are 6 bears in this photo -- click on it and it will enlarge! 

12:45 PM: tear yourself away from the bears on the lower river and hike (wait. two bears are coming down the road toward the bridge so we have to wait for them to wander off the other way) to the Riffles (a spot just a little way down from the falls, it has a big viewing platform and it is here we must wait our turn to go to Brooks Falls, which can only fit 40 people at a time on the viewing platform. There is a bear not 30 yards from us who is halfheartedly catching and eating salmon.  It's almost like he is really full, but knows he must keep eating! Sometimes he only takes one or two bites before he lets the salmon go. 

Looking for another fish.

1:15 PM: it's our turn to go to the falls, a short walk on a boardwalk to the viewing platform. Two bears are there, one in what is fondly called the Jacuzzi because of the way the water flows from the falls there, and another in the J – I don't know how it got it's name, but that's what it is called.  Salmon are jumping at a good rate – every time I try to count there are at least a dozen in the air attempting the jump – and the bears are catching them at a pretty good pace.


this one tried to pounce on the fish!

2:00 PM: leave the platform for the hike back to the visitor center and the plane.  Oops, can't leave yet, there are two bears just off the path, so we have to stay on the enclosed boardwalk for about 10 minutes till they mosey off in the other direction. 

2:20 PM: back to the lower river and the bridge, but there is a mama with one cub cavorting below us, so we stay to watch as long as we can.  A huge school of salmon is gathering at the bridge, getting ready to make the assault on the falls.  (And my feet ache, it's been a lot of standing and walking, and I want to sit down for a while.
Salmon stacked up waiting for the next run1
Mama and baby pretty close up! 
3:15 PM Back at the plane for the trip home. It's been a fabulous day, one I will remember for the rest of my life!  

 5:30 PM:  home at last -- got a bowl of chili at the takeout restaurant up the road, and that is dinner! Put my feet up, and write a blog! 


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Niniltna

Six years ago I did my first driving trip to Alaska, and enjoyed it so much that I knew I wanted to go back again. One of the reasons was that I didn't really get to do everything I wanted to do.  There is a very small town in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a 60 mile gravel road, that I wanted to see. It's called McCarthy, and it is the location of the fictional town of Niniltna that is the home of the heroine of my favorite mystery book series by Dana Stabenow. It was NOT recommended to drive a car there without a lot of precautions that I was unable to meet, and for that reason I didn't go (although I was tempted). I hadn't seen any information about other ways to get there until after I got home and was surfing the net about it. When I found that there was a shuttle that would pick me up in Glennallen early in the morning, drive me to McCarthy, and then take me back to Glennallen that night, I started planning this trip. 

There were 12 of us plus a driver in a big van, and it took us about 4 hours from Glennallen to McCarthy. Some of the sights along the way that are described in the books I thought were just imaginary, but the main one wasn't.  It's the huge wooden bridge, one lane wide, very low guardrails (although those are a little higher now) and 300 feet over a raging river. The van stopped for a break at this bridge so we could all get out and take pictures and, if we wanted to, walk across it.  I was sure that I wouldn't be able to walk across with my fear of heights, but when I decided to turn back, I looked to where I had come from, and I was already  more than halfway across!  So I just continued.  It was scary, but I had those other 11 people there for company and that helped. 
Kuskulana Bridge


River running 300 feet below the bridge. 
The rest of the road was not really how I had imagined – it was small alder forests, about 10-12 feet high coming right up to the edge of the roadbed so that all you could see was the thicket of trees.  I had imagined it being a bit more open, but that's what happens when you see the real thing – it spoils what you had imagined.  (This is why I often don't want to see movies after I have read the book.) 

McCarthy was a good-time town for the Kennicott copper mine just 5 miles up the road. There were a couple of bars, some shops, and a restaurant.  Lots of dogs roamed the street (there was only one street, and it was dirt) and the people were really friendly. After lunch, another shuttle took us up to the abandoned mine that is now being restored by the National Park Service. It's in the Wrangell/St. Elias National Park, and I was able to get another stamp in my National Parks Passport!  
Main Street, McCarthy

The mine was built on a hillside, and all the tailings were dumped down the hill. There are beautiful mountains all around, still with snow on them, and a glacier feeding into a river at the bottom of the valley. The day was sunny, although the smoke from the fires did obscure some of the view. It was fun visualizing where the imaginary Kate Shugak had some of her adventures. 

The main mine building was built on four levels, and just seems to flow down the hillside. It's not restored yet, although one of the local tour companies will take you through it for a price!  I just did my own walking tour, going through the buildings that were open and imagining how it must have been back in the 1920's and 30's when the mine was at it's height.

Kennicott Mine



We stopped at another wooden trestle bridge on the way back, but I was stuck in the back of the van and was too tired to get out to take photos. Luckily, one of the other passengers was very happy to take them for me, so thank you Clint! This bridge is no longer in use, but it provides a fascinating example of early engineering and building using what was available in the area. 
Bridge over the Gilahina River

I'm glad I got to see it, finally.  It was worth the wait!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Almost 2 weeks? Has it really been that long since I last blogged?  Shame on me….

As of the last blog, I've come a long way in miles – now I'm in Glennallen, Alaska, at one of those 4 favorite campgrounds I blogged about earlier. This one is Tolsona Wilderness Campground, and I got a spot to die for!  Right on the creek, with my picnic table looking over the water to a rustic bridge; if only there weren't so many mosquitos, I'd be in heaven! Luckily, I found a mosquito repellent in Canada that works really well, and I'm going to stock up on it on my way home! 
Muncho Lake -- passed it on the way, and loved the reflections! 

There have been lots of bears by the roadside – up to 23 now, and I finally saw a moose about 5 days ago, unconcernedly munching away on the side of the road. She even looked up at me as I took photos, almost like she heard me asking "Look this way, look this way."  
4 Grizzly bears, Mama and 3 cubs

Let's see, what have I done in the past 2 weeks?  Well, first was Liard Hot Springs, a place I was looking forward to spending some time.  It's a beautiful hot spring (very hot in spots) and it's been constructed to seem like it's just in the middle of a river. There is a gravel bottom, so you can even go barefoot, and there are several concrete benches in the middle, below the water, so when you sit on them, you are about up to your neck. It's a wonderful place to unwind after several days in the car. 
Liard Hot Springs

Buffalo have flourished near the hot springs, and I saw 2 herds relaxing on the roadside at various spots on the highway.  We even had to stop for a short while for a buffalo block – several of them in the middle of the road just passing time!  

A little way further, some stone sheep (related to mountain goats) were licking up salt on the side of the road.  Apparently this is a very common activity, and they are often found in just this situation. I didn't see any rams, but a lot of ewes and lambs. 
Stone Sheep licking salt

By the time I got to Whitehorse, there was a lot of smoke in the air from numerous forest fires to the west, the way I was going.  After restocking, laundry, showers, etc. I pushed west.  At Haines Junction, less than 100 miles down the road, I could hardly see onto the sides of the road, and the beautiful mountains that I was hoping to see again, the Kluane mountains, were only there in my imagination.  What now, I asked myself?  

I had never been to Haines, and although the tour books didn't have much to say on the subject, I decided that going south and toward the coast would at least get me a little bit away from the smoke. It was a fun little side trip.  It meant crossing the border into the US for a little while, and having to get out my US money and put the Canadian money away. But they had a hammer museum there! A museum full of only hammers – all sorts of hammers, from huge sledge hammers, to those that hammered around a corner (really!) to little tiny hammers that were used in the 1920's to signal for another drink at a nightclub (including the Cotton Club in Harlem!) to a child's Playskool hammering bench like my kids had when they were little! IT was fascinating to see all the variety of hammers the originator had collected. 
Hammer Museum
  



And there were eagles! Haines is home to the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, and although the greatest gathering of eagles takes place in the fall, I saw quite a few of them, some sitting on sandbars in the river, others soaring overhead. The smoke had mostly disappeared as well, and that made breathing easier. 
Eagles fishing from a sandbar

The next morning I resumed my westward ramblings, but the smoke got worse.  At one rest stop, I talked to a couple of men who had just come from the direction I was going, and they said it got much worse, all the way to Tok, which was a very long drive.  I debated long and hard with myself, but ended going back to a campground I had seen about 30 miles back, and boy was that a good decision.  I was given a campsite right on the water of Kluane Lake, the campground had a place to wash dishes with hot water (yippee, clean dishes for a change), and that night there was a gathering on the deck with a husband/wife country western duo entertaining for about an hour. What a kick that was – most of the campers came and sat on the deck singing along, or clapping, and eventually dancing to the music! And that night it rained, and reduced the smoke significantly, enough that driving to Tok wasn't too bad. 
Smokey skies, but pretty meadows of fireweed along  the highway. 

But I'm going to stop here, and promise to start up again very soon.  I've got a lot more to tell!