Alaska – May 2007

Denali and the Kenai Peninsula

We timed our Alaska trip in late May to fit into that short window between the end of the cold and the beginning of mosquitoes and tourist high season. We were successful in avoiding both crowds and mosquitoes, and only had one cold day.

We started our trip in Anchorage, renting a car and driving south to the Kenai Peninsula, towards Seward. The scenery along the Seward Highway is truly fantastic, with dramatic snow covered mountains, spruce forests, and expansive vistas. Along the way, we saw mountain goats on the cliffs and eagles soaring overhead.

We camped about 20 miles north of Seward, a perfect location for visiting Exit Glacier. (Before Memorial Day, all the campgrounds on the Kenai were empty and no fees were charged.) Exit is one of the few glaciers that one can drive up to. While not as dramatic as the calving glaciers on the lower Kenai, the reality of global warming is apparent, as the glacier has receded over 1000 feet in the last decade. The walking path to Exit is marked by signs indicating the glacier’s retreat over the past 100 years, a dramatic illustration of how fast global warming is advancing.

Seward was one of the high points of our trip. From Seward, we took Kenai Fjords Tours’ 6-hour national park’s cruise into the fjords.

We were told that Alaskan weather is iffy. During the summer, it can rain for weeks on end. We were ready for wet weather, but enjoyed many sparkling clear sunny days, several of which were “tee shirt weather.” Our trip on the Kenai Fjords tour was one of those sparkling days. We were treated to a vast array of wildlife: orcas, humpback whales, porpoises, stellar sea lions, seals, puffins, sea otters, kittiwakes, bald eagles, murres and more. The ship was a brand new catamaran – incredibly stable, and very roomy. We got wonderful views of the glaciers calving on the water, and even saw some bears on the mountains as we went by.

Each day, we spent hours hiking on foothills, around lakes, on dirt roads, and on well-marked trails. On almost every trail, we were alone. We were very concerned about surprising a bear or moose. We had bear bells (aka “dinner bells”). We got lots of grief from Alaskans saying the bells were a waste, but after hearing all the arguments, we decided that we really didn’t want to surprise a bear. As it turned out, because spring came so late this year, there were far fewer bears around than usual.

Q. How do you tell the difference between Black Bear scat and Grizzly Bear scat?

A. Grizzly bear scat has bells in it.

We left the Seward area and headed towards the central/western part of the Kenai on the Sterling Highway, detouring to the gravel road that goes around the Skilak lake area. At our first campground at Lake Skilak (where we were the only people in the campsite), after a short hike, we came across a moose – who was clearly as taken aback as we were. This was our first but not last very close moose encounter! As we backed off, she ran panicked circles around the parking lot before disappearing into the bush. She later sauntered by our picnic table as we were making dinner – clearly she’d calmed down enough for her customary evening tour of the lake, and our presence was not going to interfere with that.

As we headed towards Homer, we found more highway towns (settled areas along the highway, making a town that’s many miles long but one street wide). With few limits on signage and use restrictions, this stretch of highway was impressively ugly. Although we were planning to drive all the way to Homer, we decided to turn around and head back towards the beautiful Seward Highway.

After leaving the Kenai, we traveled back to Anchorage, did our laundry, reorganized our gear, and spent another night at the grotty Anchorage Inn (can’t recommend this place, but it was okay for a stopover). We did make time for a wonderful salmon dinner at Phyllis’ – some of the best salmon we’ve ever had. The next morning was crystal clear – perfect for the train to Denali.

We had decided to book seats in the glass-domed car. Although it’s a bit more expensive, the views were fantastic, and the perfect weather made us very appreciative of our choice. We were told that seeing Mt. McKinley from the train (or from anywhere) is a rare experience. We had outstanding views of the mountain for much of the trip. The cloudless sky and clear air made McKinley seem as if it were just a few miles away, although we were told that it was more than 20 miles from the tracks.

We had read that Denali’s outstanding transport system makes a car completely unnecessary, and viewed TV programs showing their “efficient” bus system. They must have been talking about some other Denali National Park. The one we visited has a terrible internal transit system. People without cars were simply not even part of their planning process, and therefore tenting areas were located very long distances from the bus stops. The disinformation desk (the “dis” obviously fell off their sign) had no idea about the internal transit system. In fact just about all national parks employees have been replaced by Aramark – who uses the criteria of ‘breathing” as the necessary qualification for working at the park. The staff didn’t know if there was potable water at the campground – which may not be a big deal when you have a car, but it can become a very big deal when you’re on their bus system. The disinformation desk didn’t even know the name of the town directly outside the park’s gates where the hotels were. They didn’t know how one gets to the nameless village. They actually knew nothing.

But with a cellphone and credit card, all glitches were smoothed out and we then started enjoying Denali. We spent our first night in the campground closest to the entrance, and then two nights at Savage, which is about 20 miles into the park.

Judging from the size of the campgrounds and visitor facilities, Denali must be a busy place during the summer. But we invariably found ourselves, once again, the only ones on any trail. The mountains surrounding us were striped with snow, and the willows in the broad valleys were just beginning to green up. We saw bears (in the distance), moose, ptarmigan, fox, marmots, golden and bald eagles, caribou, Dall sheep, and a staggering number of snowshoe hare. The hare’s population runs in cycles, and clearly 2007 is their peak year. They’re a quick and easy snack for many animals, and combined with their habit of freezing still when spotted, they’re obviously not very hard to catch. We got quite close to a number of them who were “pretending” we couldn’t see them.

We also accidentally got quite close to a moose while hiking through the willow (which only city people would ever attempt – it is really difficult to plow through!). She seemed quite unconcerned that we were standing where she had every intention of walking, and our jaws dropped once we realized that she had very young twin calves with her. We remembered the camera at the last minute, but will never forget how adorable those babies were.

Denali is known for its rainfall, and it did rain towards the end of our Denali stay. We had already made reservations at the Denali Princess Lodge (it’s impossible to get from the campground to the Anchorage bus in the morning, so we switched to the Lodge – where the bus picked us up.) Although we weren’t too wet, our camping gear was soaked.

This was our first trip to Alaska. Phil had been to some isolated rivers in Arctic Canada, but we tried to arrange an easy and slow-paced trip. The weather was very cooperative, and just about everything was 100% perfect. Our advice: go just before Memorial Day as we did. The lack of crowds, mosquitoes, and traffic made the timing of this vacation perfect.

Notes:

Caribou Inn, Anchorage: Trip Advisor said this place was grotty and noisy. At $125/nite, the owners should hire professional craftspeople to decorate and paint this place. The staff was friendly and pleasant, the location was ideal, but it was a dump.

Kenai Fjord Cruises: Everything about this company was 100% perfect. There was a meal included, lots of coffee, the ride was smooth, and the captain and staff were staggeringly good at spotting wildlife. The ship was a brand new catamaran. www.kenaifjords.com

Denali Princess Lodge: If you’re going to stay at a hotel (instead of camping), you cannot find a nicer place with friendlier staff.

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