Eight years ago, when we made an all too brief stop at Denali National Park and Preserve, Denali, the mountain never revealed herself to us. That was a sign that we would have to return someday. Returning to Denali was one of the first things we planned for our trip to Alaska this summer. And our experience in the park has been much richer than we ever imagined possible.
To preserve the wilderness in 1972, the 92 mile park road was closed to automobile traffic at mile 15 and a bus shuttle system was instituted. There was much controversy around this but the restriction has remained with some very limited exceptions.
Earlier this year when we planned our stay in Denali, I discovered that professional photographers have an opportunity to enter a lottery for a one-week permit to drive into the restricted area of the park.
Hector entered the photographers’ lottery, and about a month later found out that he won one of the permits. This type of access to the park is extremely rare, and we were flabbergasted and ecstatic.
Denali and the surrounding area were inhabited by Athabascans more than 11,000 years ago. Because of its remoteness, only a few Europeans came to the area; a few prospectors around 1898, climbers who began attempts to climb the mountain in 1903, then game hunters.
“Mommy there’s a whale spouting rainbows”! Overheard from a little girl on a Rainbow Tours boat cruise to Seldovia last week.
We set out on the Rainbow Connection, one of two vessels owned by Rainbow Tours, little did we know these names were an omen for something astounding that would happen later. Our research on weather paid off again, and it was another glorious morning, quite warm even, although at times it got quite breezy on the water.
We heard about this tour from some folks on our last boat tour out of Seward. It is part wildlife tour and part ferry transportation to Seldovia, a town that is across the water from Homer on Kachemak Bay and accessible only by boat or plane. We had heard about Seldovia from our friend Dan.
But the clincher was that both this tour and the ferry to Seldovia accepts dogs. So Angel could come along.
As it turned out, both our friends Karen and Jack had reserved this same date for the tour, and Dan and Amanda joined the boat tour with us as well.
The boat’s first stop was Gull Island, a seabird rookery owned by Seldovia Native Corporation. There we spotted pigeon guillemots, common murres and more horned puffins.
We had great views of Mount Redoubt, an active volcano, and at 10,197 feet, the highest peak in the Aleutian range.
As we reached the Eldredge Passage, we spotted otters. We are always excited to see them. There were quite a few otters, a group of them is called a “raft” of otters.
Camera & Bloody Mary … heaven
Next we spotted some bald eagles and also an eaglet in a nest. Kachemak Bay is not as well known as the Gulf of Alaska for wildlife viewing but this was turning out to be a great wildlife cruise.
One interesting fact we learned from one of the naturalists on board was that the eaglets’ wingspan will be as large as or larger than the adults when they leave the nest at between 9 and 13 weeks old.
As we continued we spotted some more otters, these were mamas with babies. We did not stop so it was tough to capture photos, but we could see that one had a baby that she was carrying face down – usually the babies are face up on top of the mama’s belly. But we could see the pup’s furry back and at one point he turned his head to look at us. The otters are really enchanting.
Next we saw some humpbacks. They were feeding from the nutrient rich top layer of these waters, and so were not diving, simply surfacing for air. I had not expected to see whales on this cruise, so was pretty excited.
Unfortunately, we also found the remains of a dead whale. There have been several dead whales found in the general area around Alaska and scientists are still puzzled as to the cause.
Then we reached our destination, Seldovia, one of the oldest settlements of the Cook Inlet area. Seldovia’s first residents were the Alutiiq about 2,000 years ago then in 1800 Russian settlers arrived and named it “Zaliv Seldevoy” – Herring Bay.
These first settlers came to mine coal, but the town later became a center for fur hunting and trading, and later yet for processing salmon, crab and herring.
Before roads provided better access within Alaska, Seldovia became an important first stop for ships from Seward and other areas in the Cook Inlet. The town built a wooden boardwalk along the waterfront and businesses whose structures were built on stilts grew around the boardwalk. In its heyday, it became known throughout South central Alaska as the boardwalk town.
The Good Friday earthquake of 1964 caused the town to sink four feet, and subsequent floods destroyed most of the boardwalk and structures around it. But its “new old boardwalk” is still a prominent feature in town, after being rebuilt along with new structures on stilts for businesses and residences alongside it.
People come for the day as we did, or to stay at one of its hotels or bed & breakfasts. You can hike, enjoy its beach, shop and eat at one of its shops and restaurants, fish, or kayak.
A popular stop is The Russian Orthodox Church, St. Nicholas, built in 1891. It is still “an active religious facility in the community”, with a visiting priest offering Sunday services and performing baptisms, weddings and funerals.
We had a leisurely lunch by the water – made more leisurely by the restaurant’s being understaffed. But what we enjoyed most was the boardwalk and the colorful structures alongside of it. There are lots of flowers everywhere, and many artsy touches.
Our almost three hours in the town flew by and it was time to return.
And there they were; the otters, one was sleepy and holding a seashell from a recent meal.
As we crossed the bay back towards Homer we spotted several humpback whales, they were on both sides of the boat. Most were not diving nor showing their flukes, but apparently feeding as the ones we had spotted earlier. But one of them, apparently a calf, breached – Amanda I think was the only one who saw it.
And then an amazing thing happened. As we were following along behind a humpback, because of the sun’s position relative to the boat, a rainbow appeared in the whale’s blow! Not once but three times! Something we had never seen before, and frankly I missed it because I was behind others. Hector saw it and captured two of the three.
Nature is so awesome.
This boat trip could not have been any better. The rocking boat lulled Angel to sleep, thankfully. But she also got to walk around the boat a bit and “socialize” and several people commented on what a nice dog she is. In fact, one couple let her sleep under their feet for a while.
One last whale sighting, this one dove and showed its fluke, “waving” good-bye.
Because of all of the wildlife sightings, the tour took more than its scheduled seven hours, but noone complained.
When we arrived back in Homer, we were all happy campers.
We said our good-byes to Jack and Karen, who were leaving that evening, we hope to catch up with them again in Alaska. And we have plans to see Dan and Amanda again down in Seattle.
Our stay in Homer exceeded all expectations, a campsite on a great beach, some rest and relaxation, good friends and socializing, and a beautiful cruise on the water.
The rain that began on the afternoon of our last cruise intensified and continued for two more days. During those days, we moved from our inland campground to the water. The ocean is my favorite place in the whole world and with a view framed by snow-capped mountains, it is beautiful rain or shine. And we extended our stay in Seward so we could see more of Kenai Fjords National Park.
We stayed in the Resurrection South RV Parking section of the Waterfront Campground (City of Seward). Read my review of the campground here.
One of the reasons we are here in Alaska is because we love animals, and we especially love seeing them in the wild. We feel a special connection to and are often in search of wildlife. And our second cruise to the Kenai Fjords was an extra special one.
There is something about the whales that especially captivates us, perhaps their intelligence, the way they form social structures, the sounds they make to communicate, or maybe all of those things and others that we just cannot put into words.
So each summer when we have been by the northern seas on our walkabout, we have devoted quality time to whale watching. Going out looking for the whales in kayaks, zodiacs, and small to large motorboats. And we have seen lots of whales; blue, fin, humpback, minke, beluga, gray, pilot and orcas (although technically pilot whales and orcas are part of the dolphin family).
Our goal in Seward was to go on several wildlife cruises. We were interested in some of the longer cruises, but not sure we would be able to go because of Angel. But we found a pet-sitter to walk Angel during the day. So after our six-hour cruise earlier in the week, we booked two other full day wildlife/glacier cruises, one with each of the two major companies in town.
Just over three weeks after entering Alaska, we headed to the town of Seward in the Kenai Peninsula with our friend, Joyce. Seward was one of the places we were most looking forward to visiting, as we are avid fans of boating and whale watching. We spent a fabulous day at the Kenai Fjords National Park when we were here on a cruise years ago and saw lots of wildlife and were excited to do it again.
Alaska Day driving day 4 recap:
Road Name: Seward Highway
Road Type: 2-lane
Road Conditions: Excellent, however this much traveled highway is known for its number of accidents. Apparently sometimes people who are in a rush will pass in areas that are not really safe to pass, thus causing accidents.
Miles Today: 146
Driving Time: 3:15
Total Miles in Alaska: 622
Total Miles since entering Canada: 2616
It was a beautiful drive back through the Turnagain Arm, where we stopped to look for beluga whales once again. No luck.
We did spot not one but two moose on the drive, one swimming in a pond full of pond lilies. It was quite the sight, but we had no place to stop to photograph her.
We camped at the Stoney Creek RV Park one of the few parks with full hookups in the area. Read my review here. Our plan for was to go out on one cruise with Joyce, who was with us for four days, and do it again later in the week.
After checking out the boats at the dock and checking on weather, we opted for Saturday’s six-hour cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours.
The night before the cruise we were treated to a stunning midnight sunset. It reminded us of the old saying, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” We hoped that it would bode well for our day at sea. Continue reading →
Ice-capped mountains towering over the sea, picturesque fishing boats, sea otters, orcas, humpback whales, sea caves, sea lions, puffins, harbor seals, icebergs and a glacier. Our day on Prince William Sound was simply amazing.
We love being on the water, we love marine wildlife and anytime we have opportunities to combine the two, we are on it!
Two companies run glacier wildlife cruises out of Valdez. We chose the Lu-Lu Belle. First of all, how could we possibly resist that name? And we got a wonderful report about this cruise at the Tok Visitor Center from two people who had just been on it.
The 75′ Lu-Lu Belle was custom built by Captain Fred in 1979 and has served as both his and his wife’s summer business as a tour boat and as their home in the winter. Not your typical tour boat this one, she is a beauty.
Captain Fred has a unique approach, he describes it as a 5 ½ to 7 hour cruise, depending on what is seen along the way. His wife told us that “he comes in when the wildlife lets him”. He is willing to stay put to watch the wildlife – and we really loved that approach.
So we booked Thursday’s cruise the night before, when we arrived in Valdez. As it turned out, the place where their office is located also houses a tiny RV park, Little Lu-Lu, in their parking lot. It accommodates up to eight spots, although those are also their parking spots. And somehow, we lucked out and got a rate of about $15-$20 less than others who offer full hookup.
When Hector and I discussed coming to Valdez, the first thing that came to my mind was the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, at the time, the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. I remember the images of the birds covered in oil. It was a defining moment in my life, and I never looked at the environment in the same way after that.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, consisting of three state and three federal trustees, has issued reports every 3-4 years since the spill that provide the recovery status of 28 species, four human services and several archaeological resources.
Recovery is based upon “pre-oil spill levels”. The 2014 report states that 15 of the 24 species studied over this time are “recovered”, 4 “very likely recovered”, 4 “recovering”, 4 “not recovering”, and 1 “unknown”. It is telling that 25 years later, the impacts of the spill are still being felt. But we were going to see how the wildlife recovered for ourselves.
The morning of our cruise was quite hazy in spite of a weather report that it was going to be sunny and clear. Megan, Captain Fred’s wife who works the office said that some of the haze might be due to some of the wildfires around.
On our move day at Yellowstone National Park, we drove through seven miles of construction, which turned to mud due to recent rains. This was one of the reasons we chose to relocate, to avoid driving through construction zones more than once. And we wanted to be closer to the Lamar Valley in order to see more Yellowstone wildlife.
We stayed at the Mammoth Campground, near the North entrance to the park, which is the original entrance to the park. Read my review of the campground here.
Just after we got settled in and as I was finishing a walk with Angel, it began to hail. So far, we had rain, wind, cold, a bit of snow, and now hail. Ah, Spring!
In the morning, there was a herd of elk cows running through the campground. Mammoth Hot Springs is home to many elk, and they hang out around the town and nearby areas.
We had seen more wildlife than ever, but some of the best was yet to come. Our campground was a great jumping off point to visit the Tower-Roosevelt area and the Lamar Valley, both east of us.Continue reading →
As we said so long San Diego and reflected on our time there, we felt much gratitude for the great friends that surrounded us, for having Angel back home with us and seeing joy in her eyes once again.
We reconnected with a surprising amount of friends and had many wonderful times. But for two very long weeks, we went through a roller coaster of emotions while Angel had surgery and a tough recovery. After nine days of ups and downs in the hospital, she was well enough to come home. Many caring gestures from friends and others helped us tremendously.
It was such joy to finally bring her home, although it took a little more time for her to get her energy back. After many weeks of tweaking, she is on a supplement regimen that is maintaining her blood calcium level in the normal range. Continue reading →
Tide pooling is an activity that we enjoyed last year in California as well as Oregon. So when we found out the tide was to be a negative tide (very low) in the next few days, we decided to try to visit the tide pools of Point Loma at Cabrillo National Monument.
This was timely, as we were planning on spending the day with our friends LuAnn and Terry. We met for lunch at Blue Water Seafood Market and Grill, a wonderful little place with some of the best fish tacos we’ve had here in San Diego (which is saying a lot).
Then off we went to the tidal pools. We walked out to the south side of the pools to get away from the crowds and to look for a sea hare that we heard was down there. One of the volunteers was perched out on the far south border of the area that’s open to the public, and told us that the sea hare had gone behind a rock.Continue reading →