Alaska

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Alaska was one of the places on our bucket list to visit; we particularly wanted to see the often-discussed glaciers and icebergs (quick!! before they melt!!). This is where we went for our 2014 family summer break. We chose the summer to avoid what we assumed would be a harsh Alaskan winter. While we had heard so much about the glaciers and icebergs, we found that those experiences were literally just the tip of the iceberg when it came to all the other wonderful experiences Alaska had to offer us and the little ones.

These were the welcoming views from the skies on our descent to Anchorage.

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We knew we were in for great fun and surprises as we were welcomed by the world record 31-yr old halibut, only weighing 459 lbs at 9’ 5” long and caught by Jack Travis in Unalaska, Alaska (1996) at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC). This was just the beginning!

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Our Alaskan adventure continued with a 126.5 mile drive from Anchorage to Seward. We took the scenic Highway 1 (AK-1 Southbound) and captured only some of the scenery as we ironed out our technical camera challenges. Roads are well built and established. There are town/cities in between but there are plenty more “undeveloped” areas and lots to explore to those who like to be out in nature or simply enjoy the towns and people met along the way. The best part of this drive (or almost anywhere in Alaska it seems…) is that you can pull off almost anywhere just off the highway for a photo opportunity or simply admire such majestic places or for wildlife spotting.

Potter Marsh, just a few miles outside of Anchorage, is a must stop for birders and other wildlife viewers. It was a good stop for our girls to stretch out and run!

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Do you know what this structure is? We drove by it as we head out of Anchorage to Soldotna. This is The Fox Hollow Sports Dome, “the second largest indoor sports field in Alaska.”

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According to their website, it works exactly as it looks! There is no internal supporting structure; it maintains its shape by internal air pressure alone.

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Welcome to Beluga Point at the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, where you can potentially catch views of beluga and/or other whales during high tide and when salmon are around. Unfortunately at this stop, we didn’t see or wait for any whales, but it was great opportunity to bask in the panoramic view of the Cook Inlet.

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We also encountered inch long flies here.  The biggest fly we have ever encountered thus far in any of our travels! This may be the black fly, known to bite. Well, saying no more, we stayed in the car with all close windows to avoid this specie after merely seeing its size.

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Some additional spots for wildlife viewing,  hiking, a bite or a quick stop to pan gold along Highway 1 include:

Windy Point

Bird Point

Indian Valley Mine

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Just before reaching Seward, we were welcomed at Deo’s cabin, a quaint cabin nestled behind the “Log Dreamin’ B&B“ located just 7 miles outside of the City of Seward and was our anchor for 3 days. The cabin itself was outfitted with many modern amenities that we did not expect from a cabin: hot water, a gas stove/oven, full-size refrigerator, tv, dvd player, books and of course board games. Thanks, Ramon, for welcoming us! True to Jasmine and Jared’s (Deo’s Cabin owners) words:

“The cabin was designed to be efficient & comfortable, creating a space that travelers the world over could enjoy.”

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It was close enough to the city with easy drive access to restaurants but cozy enough to be in the wilderness with trees surrounding it and a nearby creek.

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The girls loved the loft, where their beds were located with a nice view of the woods and river through a large window. A large set of curtains was cleverly affixed to the sides of the loft for what we assumed was some privacy, since the loft was fairly open. We would come to discover the real purpose of these curtains later that evening. Without them, the girls would not have caught a wink as the sun continued to blaze until the wee hours (1 AM) of the morning (yes, that’s right!) with sunrise between 3-4 AM. Be ready to bring a night/sleeping mask to avoid disrupting your biological cadence when you go to Alaska during the summer months since you will only have 3-4 hours of darkness.

The loft was accessed using a unique ladder-staircase (not quite a ladder and not quite a full set of stairs?). You’ll see what we mean in the picture. The master bedroom was located downstairs. The moniker of the cabin came as an unexpected, but heartwarming surprise since it immediately reminded us of another Deo (John’s father who had passed away in 2010), whose birthday happened to be just four days away.

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The view from the top of the ladder:

After getting situated at the cabin, we headed into town for a bite.  Driving around we came across the Siriwan Rickshaw food truck which peaked our interest followed by some ice cream at Harbor Street Creamery.

 

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EXIT GLACIER

Here is a glimpse of the Exit Glacier (part of the Harding Icefield Trail) in the Kenai Fjords National Park.

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Do not miss this glacier as it’s easily accessible by land. There are different levels of hikes for all ages:

– 1 mile to the Glacier Viewpoint (paved and flat terrain)

– 1.5 mile hike with some slow rising slopes to the Toe and Edge of the glacier, and

– a 4 mile hike to the icefield itself.

Parking was free and no park fees or permit requirements. The visitor center had knowledgeable staff and free, guided hike tours to the Glacier Viewpoint and Edge. Flushing toilets and potable water were also accessible. A 12-site tent campground was also nearby on a first come first served basis with a maximum of 14-day stay.

This was taken from the Glacier Viewpoint.

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Tips for glacier hiking:

  • Bring mosquito repellent when going to the Exit Glacier as their tiny mosquitoes were notorious for biting  (Uttered from experience. They were the main reason that we aborted our first hike attempt here after getting swarmed and bitten.
  • Bring/wear layers of clothing as temperature could fluctuate as you move away or closer to the glacier or winds can change speed and/or direction.
  • Stay on the path and away from the ledges.
  • Bring water and snacks (especially if you are hiking to the ice field)
  • Use good hiking shoes for support. If hiking to the ice field or to the toe of the glacier, some hiking boots or snow boots with cleats (if going to the icefield) would be handy. There may be some river crossing to get to the toe of the glacier.
  • Heed the signs.

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Our second hike took us to the Edge of the Exit Glacier without having the need to carry our youngest daughter. With global warming and further civilization, the glacier is receding or getting shorter. The park did a magnificent job of marking different points of where the glacier was in different years of the 20th century and a good reminder of how our lands and world are changing. At the Edge, one could see the view of the valley, river and of course, a great close-up of the blue ice glacier.

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Of course, we couldn’t resist touching the freezing cold water from Exit Glacier.

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The path to the Edge of the glacier provides ample climbing opportunities.

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The Edge of Exit Glacier

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On the 4th of July (Day 3), we were ALL in for more treat as we cruised the Resurrection Bay with Kenai Fjords Tours on a gorgeous, sunny day. Marine Tours was the other option but based on other traveler and local recommendations, we decided to stick with the Kenai Fjords Tours. It was a good decision! We saw various birds (ranging from horned and tufted puffins, bald eagle, common murre to name some) to mountain goats, Harbor and Dall’s porpoises, otters and whales (blue, minke, fin, and gray), seals, Steller sea lions (to name a fewl) and of course icebergs! The 5-hour tour was just the right length for us and the girls. Any longer, and we would have to contend with “bored” youngsters who can’t go anywhere else and are limited to other activities (e.g. coloring, word search) that we would have brought along with us as part of our “save the parents’ sanity” packages. Their wildlife guide workbook was fantastic way to get our girls engaged in what to look out for.

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We were so very happy to catch a glimpse of these tufted puffins.

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Pederson Glacier is below.

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This is Aialik Glacier – how magnificent she stands!

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Up close with a piece of a glacier

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Holgate Glacier

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After the tour, we decided to eat at  Chinooks Bar and Grill located  right next to the docks where we had just de-boarded our tour boat. We enjoyed our Alaskan King Crab Legs and Braised Short Ribs.

On to SOLDOTNA and the LAKE CLARK NATIONAL RESERVE

The drive from Seward to Soldotna on Day 4 of our trip also took us through magnificent scenery of mountains and rivers. Throughout the drive, one can see the winding Kenai River’s ice blue water change from calm to raging waters. Unfortunately, we did not get good photos of this during the drive.

Soldotna is a little town, 93 miles miles from Seward and about 148 miles from Anchorage and the place for us to catch a ride to the Lake Clark National Reserve and Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. The ride  to get to the reserve was a small propeller plane from Soldotna with Natron Air. Of the four of us, I (Maritess) was probably the one that dreaded getting into the small plane for fear of what could happen if that plane crashed. Surprisingly or maybe due to the pilot’s (Tim Pope) 17+  years of experience flying 4-6 times a day, the flight was smooth and the plane was relatively quiet. The girls loved the ride especially with the headsets and being able to talk to others with the headsets on. Well… Zoe was a bit too eager to talk so we had to unplug her microphone to avoid distracting the pilot.

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Here comes another surprise! Where are we landing? Neither a runway nor any obviously apparent dirt road could be found as we were descending; however, we were heading suspiciously close to the water without any pontoons on the plane.

Yep, that’s right! The beach was our runaway.

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Well, the landing was so smooth that we couldn’t even tell that we were on a beach…Definitely a first for us! It was a better landing than some of the  domestic or international flights we’ve experienced in the past. Our hat’s off to Tim, who flew us safely in and out of Lake Clark. Even as we approached the beach, brown bears could be seen. Not the wooden one pictured below, but real ones too distant to capture from the plane with our camera.

Halibut Hut, our cabin for the night, provided us a great view of the grassland and the beach areas where the bears strolled, nibbled on grass, and frolicked.

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We’ve always wondered how one can spend hours and hours observing and taking pictures of bears up close without being attacked. Well, we were about to find out for ourselves…

Now suited up in knee high boots to allow for proper traversing through the mud, we were ready to trek and watch some bears. Surprisingly, we saw a few familiar faces as a handful of individuals that had hiked the Exit glacier and/or also did the Resurrection Bay Tour were at Lake Clark for their own bear photography tours. These are men and women that travel from all over the world and the U.S. with cases full of camera equipment. I (Maritess) certainly felt a bit like a toddler when it came to photography as I held on dearly to our priceless Sony NEX-6. Nevertheless, our camera served us well and continued to do a wonderful job of capturing our moments of exploration.

Who would have thought that all four of us would spend at least 6 hours of time viewing and observing these peaceful brown bears? Certainly not I (Maritess)!

This trip showed us how easy it is to spend hours with these bears. They love to munch grass and sleep, pick some more grass, play in the water, fish, sleep, lounge by the river, munch the salty grass (yes, we did try them , they were salty and are sometimes served in salads as local greens!), walk/mozy around, clam, sleep some more, etc. You get the gist. Look at them! Who would not fall in love with them after spending a few hours with them? Each of us has certainly gained a better  understanding of their behavior and their environment. If we respect them and their space, they will do the same and we can all co-exist peacefully together.

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During our tour, we came across one 2-year old bear (“Blondie?”) with a lot of attitude. She seemed to be quite annoyed that she couldn’t have her way around us and our guide, Brian. She purposefully headed to our “land cruiser” trying to rip up the seat cushions to express her feelings, but was “shooe’d away” by Brian before any  such vengeful vandalism could take place. “Do not let the younger bears be aware that you are afraid. Stand tall, make yourself as big as you can and be loud! Let them be aware of your own territory.” These are the words from our guide. Personally, I (Maritess) would have screamed and run away as fast as I could if a bear (young or old) approached me in a threatening way; but now, I know better than that.

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As we explored the west side of the preserve, a rare fox encounter took place as it approached us with an inquisitive look. For a few minutes (not seconds), we felt its gaze upon us as if it questioned our intentions. We then realized that Sumehra was waving around a bald eagle feather that Brian had let her hold on too. The fox was fixated with it! Probably thinking that it is was bird…

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On the morning of our last day at the lodge, shortly after breakfast, we followed a porcupine as it was hanging around our cabin, ironically it was too quick  for us to get a good photo of it.

Our Lake Clark visit  culminated with a very close encounter of a mother bear that walked across our cabin and into the main lodge’s yard as we got ready to leave. A personal goodbye until next time…

 

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Thank you to Brian for keeping us safe and for educating us about the wonderful brown bears. Thanks to all of the staff at the lodge for keeping us fed, warm and comfortable during our stay. Sumehra and Zoe were the youngest visitors of that season at the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge. The lodge provided a comfortable, cozy, cabin paired with hearty meals to replenish our energy from stealthy walking, observation and photography of the bears. The lodge staff were very friendly, interesting (from different parts of the world, but seem to draw more folks from Pasadena or Colorado that season) and certainly accommodating with Zoe’s food limitations (no eggs and nuts).

A special thanks to Tin Man Lee who recommended Silver Salmon Creek Lodge and for inspiring us to spend time with the bears!

Lake Clark was another spot that we enjoyed greatly. Our very close encounters with the bears and other local animals certainly gave us a better admiration and respect for nature and its wildlife.

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GLACIER DOG SLED EXPERIENCE (Heli-Mushing)

Day 6: Off to another adventure within the lush green scenery and glistening white mountains of Alaska! The roads took us back to Girdwood, where we experienced cherished moments with some Alaskan huskies and their puppies, and a flash around the Punchbowl Glacier on a sled with the Seavey Ididaride Dog Sled Tours. The Seavey family is well known for winning the Iditarod Competition, year after year. Their kennel is actually not too far from the Exit Glacier in Seward; however, their summer season dog sled tour takes place at the Punchbowl Glacier in Girdwood.

The Glacier Dog Sled Tour included a suit-up for the glacier and the dogs (with snow jacket, pants, boots, mittens and sunglasses), round-trip helicopter ride to the Punchbowl Glacier (15-minutes each way), brief introduction to the Iditarod Competition, how huskies are trained, and the life of a musher, and, of course, a sled tour. Alpine Air Alaska serviced the ride from Girdwood to the Punchbowl Glacier, where the actual sled dog tour happened. This activity should be added to your bucket list!

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All ready to board! The chopper only held 4 passengers total, including the pilot. With this limitation, one of us flew separately from the rest. Fear not, it was a short 15-minute ride from the bottom of the mountains to the Punchbowl Glacier so a fraction of an hour separated was not devastating. The ride up to the glacier  was an exhilarating (and to be honest, kind of scary) experience. The helicopter did not feel as sturdy or stable as a military helicopter; however, the front seat next to the pilot provided an almost 300 degree view of the majestic Chugach Mountain Range. The front passenger seat is not for those that are faint of heart when it comes to heights or flying. I (Maritess) did not necessarily vie for the front seat, but got it anyways! The beauty of the mountain range before me was indescribable. This was well worth the stomach churning and baited breath. Our young pilot handled the chopper well to ensure a smooth and seamless flight while highlighting local fauna and points of interests around the immediate area.

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The above photo showed the gorgeous view of the lush Chugach Mountain Range from the front passenger seat of the the helicopter as we rode up to the Punchbowl Glacier.

Sumehra and/or Zoe with Chinook (greeter) and with Peter (our main guide and musher)

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The tour at the glacier started with a welcome from the mushing staff with some background information about the Alaska Huskies, driving a dog team, the hard (from our perspective) and dedicated life of a musher, and the Iditarod trail and competition. The snow was so white and blinding that our photos all looked overexposed.

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It was time to get the safety and riding instructions for dog sled ride. This included flipping the girls’ animal themed beanies (an owl and a dog) inside out to minimize excitement from the huskies.

My heart skipped and I(Maritess) was holding my breath waiting to get confirmation of how the girls will be buckled into these sleds. Where were the seat belts? Odd, I couldn’t seem to find them…

Guess what?! My eyes were not playing tricks on me.  There were no seat belts! The girls would have to hold on to the side handles of the seats so they don’t go flying off! Boy, was I having second thoughts of letting the girls go on this sled ride?! Should I or should I not? It was definitely one of those parental moments leading to the question: should I have my kids to do this?

But they were ready, super excited (but quiet) to be on the sled and listened carefully to all instructions.

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Before we knew it, we were ready so off we go! Two of us with a musher for each sled.

The mushers were very cognizant of the riders and tailored the ride faster or slower based on turns, bends, bumps and riders’ feedback. As expected, our ride was at a slower pace (hence the fewer huskies; only 12 instead of 16(?) due to the youngsters in our group compared to a sled with simply adults riding and more huskies pulling. The ride was a quick run around the Punchbowl Glacier in an Iditarod dog sled.

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As we rode closer to the glacier,  one could see a light pink color in the snow.  I (Maritess) had to ask if I was imagining it or if indeed the snow was pink. These pink colors were very light and  hard to capture in a photograph. Well, what do you know? I was not hallucinating after all. It was “pink snow” or sometimes referred to as watermelon snow or snow algae! The pink color was courtesy of a green algae that thrived in such cold and freezing water/environment and had a secondary red carotenoid pigment that gave that pink color. There’s always something new to learn wherever we go!

The mushing experience finished up with a visit to the adorable “take me home…you can’t resist me” baby huskies, which were being prepped and groomed for sledding.

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Although the sled ride was a whirlwind,  it was a cherished experience as we learned more about the Iditarod competition and about the mushers. The girls want to go back again for a faster ride. (So do we when they are big enough to hold on tight!)

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Another stop along the way back to Anchorage: Cabela’s offers all gear related to hunting, fishing, and outdoor activities. Of the handful that we had visited around the United States, the Anchorage location was by far the best with hundreds of local stuffed animals showcased and an aquarium.

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Day 8: The last item we had in our agenda was a visit to one of the oldest land glaciers not too far from Anchorage – the Matanuska Glacier, as recommended by Leanne! It is the largest valley glacier in Alaska that can be reached by vehicle and runs 26 miles long and 4 miles wide. It is about 101 miles northeast from Anchorage by Glenn Highway National Scenic Byway and is at Milepost Marker 102. It took us almost 3 hours to get there as we stopped multiple times for breaks and to appreciate the many scenic views along the way. It was almost at the end of most people’s day by the time we got there, but thanks to that Alaskan summer daylight schedule, there was still plenty of sunlight to bathe under as we walked the glacier.

Walking to and eventually on the glacier was a challenge in and of itself, even more so than the Exit Glacier which has well defined paths, signs and markings.  We would definitely recommend you have the correct footwear and walking poles, since you are essentially walking on ice.  There were a few groups at this glacier with helmets, crampons, ice picks etc. as they ascended the glacier in different areas.  We were thankful we had some fairly new hiking boots with decent tread, but wish we had those portable crampons, ice cleats or shoe chains that you can attach or pullover your boots for a little extra traction on the ice and in the snow.

At the Mile 101 marker is the Matanuska Glacier State Recreation Site. Don’t forget to stop for a great view of the glacier, river and valley.

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Then it was time to say goodbye and head back to Anchorage to catch our flight back home.  Before that, we had a nice dinner at Simon and Seaforts, which served excellent seafood with good portions and was family friendly.

Here’s a quick summary of our favorites and not so favorites from this trip:

FAVORITES

Sumehra and Zoe: bear viewing and dog sledding.

Maritess: echoed the girls’ enthusiasm, Resurrection Bay Tour and Matanuska Glacier.

John: Every part of the trip!

NOT SO FAVORITES

Sumehra and Zoe: Nothing particular.

Maritess: long day altering diurnal rhythm and odd flights from Anchorage ( 1 or 2 AM)

John: itty bitty mosquitoes with deadly stingers

There are still a lot to see, do and explore in Alaska – polar bears, salmon fishing, bird watching, northern lights, Kenai River rafting, and hiking up to the Harding Icefield, through Denali and up the Matanuska Glacier. We hope to be back someday! Alaska has so much to offer to its residents and visitors (singles and families) alike. Each turn and corner bring promise of adventure and exploration. So get ready to pack your things and discover Alaska for yourself!

If you have questions about our junket, please feel free to contact us.