Alaska, 1999

On September 21, I set off for Africa. This is a six week trip, which should be filled with many adventures. To make certain I am ready for this trip, I decided to take my gear out on a major trip to Alaska.

I left the morning of September 1, on a direct flight from San Francisco to Anchorage. I was upgraded to first class, which meant I'd fit in the seat. Because of strong headwinds, the flight would take over 5 hours: 30 minutes longer than scheduled.

We took off to the east. Normally, that would not be notable, except that as we flew over Oakland, I saw someone who looked like my friend Matthew Merzbacher walking on the Mills campus. How many tall, blond men are there on that campus?

As we gained altitude, the smog of the Bay Area became even more apparent. Around Vallejo, it was too hazy to see the ground. (I was in a window seat, which is very unusual for me.) It remained that way until around Mount Shasta. At this point, the air was clear enough that you could see the volcanoes of the Cascade mountains all the way up past Seattle. It was perhaps the most scenic flight I've taken in quite a while.

Around Juneau, it clouded up, and the next land we saw was on the approach to Anchorage.

The Anchorage forecast had been for severe weather the entire time I was to be in Alaska, so I was mildly surprised to see it wasn't pouring with rain. I found my rental car, and found the Econolodge, and planned the rest of the day. My first stop was Potter's Marsh, a wetlands to the south of Anchorage legendary for great birding. Well, the rain may have relented, but the winds were still strong, and there was nary a bird on the marsh. I kept looking for a while, but eventually gave up.

I made my way down to Portage, where there is a glacier and some icebergs on a lake. Portage is at the end of the Turnagain Arm, maybe 50 miles from Anchorage. By the time I arrived, it was a heavy drizzle of rain; the type that gets you soaked regardless of your raincoat. Yuck. Did some asking about birding, and got some hits for goshawks, but no definites.

After Portage, I went to Girdwood. Girdwood was destroyed by the 1964 Easter Earthquake, and there are a lot of dead trees near the Seward Highway at Girdwood. Going back into the valley a bit, there are several spectacular glaciers on view.

I was going to Girdwood to eat, however. Several people had recommended the Double Musky to me. (They're on the web at It was called one of the best restaurants on the West Coast. I had to see if it could live up to its reputation.

Good, it most certainly was. Best? That's tough. I need to do more research.

I had escargot as an appetizer, and my main course was a crab stuffed halibut steak with cajun seasoning. It was amazing. I also had a cajun sausage on the side. Pretty good. A chocolate pudding desert was good, too. I drove back to Anchorage, arriving at about 7PM, and called my sister (she went to Idaho over Labor Day weekend). I then went out looking for a movie, but no good movies were playing at convenient times, so I went back to the Econolodge and went to sleep.

The Econolodge is cheap, and that's about all I can say for it. Then again, I wasn't planning on spending a lot of time in hotels this trip...

On Thursday, my original plan was to head to Exit Glacier and try the hike up the side of the mountains to the Harding Icefield. Well... The pouring rain had some say in the matter, cancelling the hike and forcing me to improvise. I had heard that there was a decent chance of photographing goshawks in Homer, so off I went.

Driving to Homer, I did see four bald eagles. With one the previous day, that brought the total to five.

The rain was heavy most of the way, which made me wonder if I was doing the right thing... Fortunately, five miles north of Homer the rain stopped. I found my way to Skyline Drive, where I spend some time looking for goshawks. No luck. Down to Homer Spit for some fried halibut (Halibut on a stick, the Minnesotans would have loved it.) and to watch some gulls on the beach.

Skyline drive provided some nice views of Homer and a glacier on lower Kenai peninsula.

After spending some time in Homer, it was time to head to Seward, where I was to spend the night. I checked into the Seward Windsong Lodge, and then went exploring. The rain was starting to break, and there were misting clouds on the face of the mountains. I went to Exit Glacier, which I saw had receeded about 100 feet from where it was when I visited in May, 1991. I was a bit stunned to see that much retreat.

After the hikes there, I went to dinner at the Ressurection Roadhouse (part of the Windsong Lodge), where I had halibut. It was OK. I borrowed Evita, which was dreadful, and went to sleep.

Friday was a big day. I planned to go out on the Kenai Fjords to look at glaciers and sea life. My hopes were to see otters, seals, and orca, as well as see a glacier calve. By and large, I met many of the goals, but no orca were seen. In fact, no whales were seen.

I had breakfast at the Harbor Inn, which was one of the few places open that early. Reindeer sausage. Otherwise entirely unremarkable.

We left dock at about 8AM for a six hour cruise. Shortly after pulling out, we saw otters in the harbor. Just outside the breakwater, we saw three otters merrily floating in Ressurection Bay. A few dolphins joined us for a minute, but they had business elsewhere. We saw some puffins in a rookery, and a lot of puffins at sea. A stop at Fox Island netted the first bald eagle of the day. Other than that, the main scenery was the mountains on the sides of the fjords. Near the bottom of Ressurection Bay we saw a harbor seal. At this time, I realized there was a serious problem: The camera was not properly metering the light for the lenses. I tried doing some tweaks to the system, but I could not get the light meter to work with any of my lenses. So, I ended up having to trust my instincts on light for the rest of the trip. I did OK, I only lost the puffins. Bummer.

Out of Resurrection Bay, we hit the open seas. There were ten foot swells, but we were exposed for about 10 minutes only.

Instead of the planned destination, we were going to a better glacier, Aialik Glacier at the end of Aialik Bay. This turned out to be a tidewater glacier with a mile long face in the water, and ice up to (I think) 200 feet. A truly impressive sight, as we negotiated small icebergs to approach.

Glaciers are fascinating things. First, the ice is blue, not white, like you'd expect. Next, they are noisy. This glacier was crackling and popping as it prepared to shed more ice into Aialik Bay. We got to see it calve several times, each one producing a nice wave. A lot of harbor seals floating on glaciers.

After the visit to Aialik, we were served lunch. We had a choice of chicken fingers or halibut fingers. I didn't go to Alaska to eat chicken. The halibut fingers were OK, but the least remarkable halibut I had in Alaska. While eating, I noted a bald eagle.

We went by several rookeries on the cruise back, where I saw more murres, puffins, and cormorant. Most notable was the red-faced cormorant, a bird that does not go south to California waters. Last sea mammals were stellars sea lions, the largest sea lion.

We tied up at the dock at about 2:30PM, having had a pleasant cruise.

I next visited the Sea Life Center in downtown Seward. It was fairly expensive... Interesing, too. Mainly samples of Ressurection Bay wildlife, there was an exhibit on the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez, and it is somewhat disturbing. I knew that some species still hadn't recovered, but sea mammals haven't even begun to recover. That's a bit scary.

I puttered around Seward for a bit after that, and ended up at the Crab Pot for dinner. Yes, they had halibut on the menu, but I opted for the crab pot instead. This was a half pound of Dungeness Crab, a half pound of Snow Crab, and a half pound of King Crab. Also on the menu was live King Crab, which was certainly tempting, but I wanted to sample the different crab flavors.

The king crab was but a single crab leg... It was exquisite. The snow crab and the dungeness crab were both four legs and about half the body. Both were quite good. In terms of flavor, I'd put the dungeness crab slightly ahead of the snow crab, but both trailed the king crab.

Sated, I went and bought two tee shirts, and went back to the lodge for some sleep.

Saturday was a busy day, setting off for McCarthy from Seward. This is about a 10 hour drive, and I left at 6AM.

Snow had fallen to quite low, making the mountains even more beautiful. Alas, much of it was obscured by fog south of Anchorage.

Finally, though, on the Turnagain Arm I saw my first goshawk. Yippee.

Hit Anchorage at 8AM, and bought gasoline. The Glenn Highway to Glenallen looked to be about a 3 hour drive. What I didn't expect was that six miles of highway past Palmer were converted to a mud path, and that a pickup truck insisted on driving at 5MPH along the mud. Yawn. East of Palmer, though, the skies began to clear, and by the time I reached Glenallen most of the skies were blue.

One highlight along the Glenn Highway is the Matanuska glacier. This glacier comes up from the south and nearly reaches the road. This was a stop.

Even more impressive, from at least 50 miles out of Glenallen, the road becomes straight, and three mountains stand in front of you: Mount Sanford (16237'), Mount Drum (12010'), and Mount Wrangell (14163'). Drum actually looks a little taller, since it is closer.

Along here, I was stunned to see a grey phase gyrfalcon. I'd only seen a gyrfalcon once, in Washington, in the distance. Here, it was flying across the road.

Also, a golden eagle made his presence felt.

Once I hit Glenallen, I turned right, down the Richardson Highway. I stopped for lunch in Copper Center, I was famished. A bacon-cheese burger and fries. Along the Richardson Highway, you occaisonally get glimpses of the Alaska Pipeline, for what that is worth.

Past Copper Center, Mount Blackburn (16390') starts to come into view. This one towers over the center of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. I thought it would be the tallest mountain I'd see all trip.

A left onto Edgerton Highway was the last thirty miles of pavement I'd see for a while. At Chitna, the road becomes a dirt and gravel road, for 60 miles to McCarthy. I bought gas in Chitna, for 1.559 per gallon, the most I'd pay in Alaska.

The first sight in Wrangell is the Copper River. I'm not sure what the correct geological term is, but it is a very wide area with a lot of gravel and some courses for the water. Anyway, this was an impressive sight.

The road was listed as dangerous, with possible punctures due to old railroad spikes. I found the road no worse than the Sierra Madre Ridge Road south of Cuyama, and it was much better than the road north from Scotty's Castle to the sand dunes in Death Valley.

Seventeen miles in, there is an old bridge with a wooden bed crossing the Strelna River. It is a deep canyon, and was a mild concern. Two more bridges were not as scary.

It was a two hour drive into the parking area for McCarthy. Here, I saw one of the most attractive women I'd seen in a long time. She was working the parking kiosk, and looked like she was a perfect soft focus. Blond, blue eyes and an almost cherubic look to her.

Anyway, I had to walk from the parking area to McCarthy Lodge. (Well, I didn't need to walk, there was a shuttle, but what is the fun in that?) Two footbridges, and maybe a mile or so on foot, and I was there.

McCarthy looked like something out of an old Wild West movie. Not a ghost town, but a small selection of buildings. The lodge was two of the buildings, where one was the kitchen and office, and the other was the hotel. No locks on the doors. A picture of Warren G. Harding was over my bed.

As I arrived at about 4, I set off to explore a bit. The one sitting for dinner was at 7PM, so I had three hours to kill. Not quite enough to walk up to Kennicott; I wandered around the area looking at and photographing the mountains. Visible were the Atna Peaks (13860 and 13600'), Donoho Peak (6696'), Regal Mountain (13845') and Sourdough Peak (6201'). Kennicott Glacier would feed into this valley, and so we were at the bottom of a glacial valley.

I ended up back at McCarthy in time for dinner, when I learned a mistake had been made. I was not listed as receiving dinner, so I had to make due. I ended up at Tailor Made Pizza with a pepperoni and sausage pizza for dinner. Sexy serving lady, too. Had ice cream for desert, and planned to wake up in the night.

There was a dance for the locals to celebrate Labor Day that evening, so I feared I'd be up even later than I wanted.

Earlier in the week, there had been a solar flare, and the aurora were supposed to be exceptional. Previously, the nights had all been cloudy, so no aurora was visible. This night promised to be clear, so I held out hopes of seeing it.

At 1AM, the party was still going on, and there was no aurora. At 3:30, it was quiet, and there was no aurora. I later learned that from about 1:30-2:30, there were ribbons of aurora across the northern sky.

I woke at 6, and went back to exploring. I know I'd need to leave that day and return to Anchorage. The morning air was crisp, and frost was on the ground. Not as much wildlife as I had expected.

Breakfast was provided by the lodge (and not having dinner there saved me $40... Pizza was $17.) I then found out that the friends I had expected to meet in Anchorage were in McCarthy that night. I had corresponded with Chris Robinson as a result of his participation on the Duke Basketball Report, and he was originally planning on being in Valdez this weekend, but the rain altered his plans.

I met up with him, and his wife, at his camper after breakfast, and we chatted for a bit before starting the long drive back to Anchorage.

Views were spectacular, again, and I saw another goshawk. The weather had dried the mud on the Glenn Highway. I took a few pictures on the way out.

Back at the Econolodge for my last night. I met up with Chris in Anchorage for dinner at a restaurant whose name I've forgotten (at 5th and L.) where I had a spicy prawn appetizer and halibut seared in an asaigo crust. Wonderful. A good night's sleep ensued.

Anchorage was too bright for aurora.

Chris and I had planned to go birding Monday morning before my flight. The skies were crystal clear, but no birds were cooperating. We looked to the north, and there was Denali (20320'), the tallest mountain in North America. Denali is about 180 miles from Anchorage, yet it was huge on the horizon. Next to it was Mount Foraker (17400'). Other mountains of the Alaska Range were visible.

We spent the morning looking for good viewpoints from which I could photograph the mountains. Even with a polarizer, though, it was difficult to enhance the contrast between the snow covered peaks and the sky. A few did come out.

I returned the car and checked in to the flight, and then met Chris for lunch at the Flying Machine. I had fish and chips (halibut!).

It was amusing watching the tour groups (one of which my father would have been the youngest person present) following their leaders. I felt like bleating at them.

Anyway, upgraded to first class for the flight back. Saw the forest fires in northern California from the air, the plume of smoke reached quite far south. Arrived early, due to tailwinds, and my cats were happy to see me.

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