Click for Alaska – Just Go (part 1)
Grizzly near Eielson Visitor Center, Denali National Park & Preserve
Alaskan meteorologists will tell you the view to Mt. McKinley, AKA “The Mountain”, is clear about one day in four. Of course, they’re dealing with statistical averages. Our experience was a bit different.
We retraced our tracks south from Talkeetna to pick up the Parks Highway, then drove north to Healy. Overcast gray skies were our constant companion, with stretches of rain to break it up. As you drive north of Trapper Creek into Denali State Park, the trees begin to shrink, and they’re plunked down here and there in tundra. Stop to stretch and take a few pictures, and you’ll see purple fireweed blooms dotting brown grass that stretches to the mountains. Things grow smaller here because the season is short, but also because there’s a permafrost layer one or two meters under the soil (and sometimes less than that). Tree roots can’t penetrate it, so they stay small.
We also saw an Alaska Railroad passenger train. I’m sure there were some lucky passengers glued to the windows of observation domes.
Denali Wildllife From the Park Road
It’s a good thing my wife had explicit directions to our B&B in Healy. Those directions reminded me of my boyhood in rural Montana, where you navigate by landmarks instead of city street names. We had a northwest-facing room on the second floor of Aspen Haus B&B. There was always plenty of rain, and rainbows to go with it.
We had scheduled back-to-back days riding buses on the Denali Park Road. We were so pooped after the first day’s 56-mile bus ride to Eielson Visitor Center that we postponed the second day’s ride to Wonder Lake, and took an easy tour of the Denali sled dog kennels instead. We alleviated serious dog withdrawal by spending time with the Alaskan huskies, and enjoyed a dog team pulling a roller sled afterwards.
On the next day’s bus ride to Wonder Lake, we got a second fleeting look at McKinley. But caribou, grizzlies and wildflowers provided the main show.
Musk Ox in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley
We paused for a day in the Mat-Su Valley, where we discovered nearly-tame musk oxen on the Musk Ox Farm near Palmer. These ice-age holdovers are well worth getting close to.
Seward and Kenai Fjords
Seward served as our base for trips to Kenai Fjords National Park. Exit Glacier is an easy drive-in. If you’re more ambitious, you can make the strenuous all-day hike to the Harding Ice Field, a remnant of the last ice age. You’ll climb about 4,000 feet in 4.1 miles getting to the top. We didn’t try it, mainly due to extensive rainfall. Instead, we took a cruise out Resurrection Bay opposite Seward to Aalik Bay in the National Park. Calving icebergs cause explosions of seabirds into the air above. Heck, just keep your camera ready on deck and you’ll photograph puffins, murres and juvenile bald eagles.
Homer and Kachemak Bay State Park
We spent three days in Homer, near the end of the Kenai Peninsula. The drive in gives jaw-dropping views of Grewingk Glacier in Kachemak Bay State Park. That view was so enticing we took a day hike in the area, up the Alpine Trail. That required a water taxi drop-off and pickup, so we had to be back to the coast on time. On the hike, we kept passing what appeared to be very fresh bear scat. I didn’t worry because there were only black bears in the Park – no grizzlies. Even so, we made a lot of noise hiking to avoid bruin encounters. We had some great views of the Bay back towards the Homer Spit, but lacked time to get to Grewingk Glacier.
We also took a boat to Seldovia, which can only be reached by boat. The cookies and cakes at the Tidepool Cafe were worth it, but again there wasn’t time to hike to views of the Bay on the Rocky Ridge Trail. We had to settle for horned puffins on the way.
Alaskan restaurants host some of the best cooking anywhere. Homer’s Cosmic Kitchen was no exception. We ordered Mexican combination plates and chips, and got deliciously fed for under 30 dollars.
We drove from Homer to Anchorage and spent a last night in the big city before flying home.
What did we miss?
We didn’t see the Anchorage Museum’s displays of native art and science. We also missed Anchorage’s Alaska Native Heritage Center and Alaska Aviation Museum. But mostly, we didn’t hike in the Denalli backcountry, hike to the top of the Harding Ice Field, the top of the Rocky Ridge Trail, or the top of the Alpine Trail for great views of Grewingk Glacier in Kachemak Bay State Park.
See all the pictures here.
This was a ‘kitchen sink’ trip photographically. I brought everything from EF 16mm-35mm f/2.8L wide to EF 400mm f/4 DO IS and EF 500mm f/4L IS. I used a tripod very rarely – I braced the 500mm on open Denali bus windows for wildlife, and used the 400mm handheld from boats for seabirds. I used the 24-70mm f/2.8L and 70-200mm f/2.78L IS most, mounted on EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D for telephoto shots. I could have left the 16mm-36mm f/2.8 home and not really missed it.
We brought batteries, chargers and lots of memory cards, plus a Macbook Pro laptop to download full memory cards to. My wife’s EOS 60D used the same battery type as both my cameras, so we had plenty of spares in case we lost a battery, camera body or lens. We didn’t have any problems, but it pays to be prepared in the Alaskan bush where nothing is available.