Out of the clear cold blue, Damon & Ferrol ask if we'd like to join them for a family vacation - in Alaska! Damon used to guide fishing excursions between coastlines and the interior each tourist season - he would live there and guide 5 months out of the year, to pay his way through college. He had to leave classes before the end of term in May, and start classes later than the other classmates in the Fall, and in between he lived an adventure. He has fun stories of his work-a-day life in the wilderness, like the time his clients were Dan Marino and his whole offensive line, and stories of living solo, growing his beard, waiting for a float plane to bring in a new group of clients and supplies for a tour. Now, 20 years later, Damon had planned his family vacation to see some of the best parts of his sometime-home-state on a 7 day tour. Among the things he had planned were *kayaking with icebergs!* *cuddling sled-dog puppies!* *ziplining* *hiking in Denali*- in short, a family-friendly adventure!
(More iceberg kayaking farther down!) Alaska has always been on Tony's & my list of places to visit, but we had never gotten around to all the research time we would have had to put into planning it - this was amazing to just drop into a former tour-guide's itinerary! We took an early flight (on Alaska, of course) Seattle to Anchorage, Alaska Airlines has been a huge economic booster for Anchorage, the airline built the infrastructure to bring goods & tourist dollars into this region via air.
We arrived in Anchorage around 1pm, and by 4pm we were on the road. With 4 adults and 5 girls (ages 9-13), we skipped over brick & mortar lodging ($$$) for the utility, price & convenience of rental campers! ABC = Alaska's Best Campers ! Each family had our own little house, like a family turtle shell home that came with us everywhere. There were seatbelts in the couches & chairs with great views of movies ;) and cushy front seats with great views of the landscape :) To me, our two little campers were the funniest things, it seemed like such a crack-up to me, to see Tony & Damon & Ferrol driving the cute little beasts!
The air in Anchorage smelled or felt like the air in a ski village resort, but Anchorage is sprawling with long warehouses from the airport to downtown, not like a ski town at all. The first leg of our journey led from Anchorage to Seward, down the Kenai Peninsula. The town of Seward is cute, picturesque, and small - with expansive views. Silver salmon were leaping in Resurrection Bay "catch me! catch me!" and a few fishermen had lines from the shore, doing their best to oblige.
By appearances, our waterfront RV park may have doubled the population of the town that weekend. The RV's are adjacent to a super cute public playground, where kids slide through the open mouth of a painted killer whale - nom nom! The town itself has several small churches, a handful of restaurants, a cute movie theater that is (I've heard since) still operating but appeared abandoned, several souvenir shops, and of the other town structures, an equal amount appeared to be modest homes and beautiful rentals.
Seward is the historical start of the Iditarod trail, where dog teams brought mail and supplies from ships to railways and towns in the interior of Alaska, and to the coast again at Nome. Now, the Iditarod Race has a ceremonial start in Anchorage, and really begins a few miles north. Seward is now pretty famous for a human race up Mount Marathon, every 4th of July - it is a 5k that climbs 3,000 feet & finishes back at sea level! 1,000 racers are drawn by lottery for a position. While zip lining, our guide related that from our high vantage point, on race day, the runners' bright jerseys look like M&Ms spilling down Mount Marathon from viewpoints on the surrounding hills. Our original plan was to climb it, our whole families! But in the presence of Mount Marathon, we quailed - except Damon, who tried to make it up, and then warned us away!
I loved the murals around Seward :) There was a mermaid theme here, which I didn't capture, but I enjoyed all the whimsical curling mermaid accents on homes.
If in Seward, check out the Alaska Sealife Center on the waterfront - they are way more interesting than a regular "aquarium"! The touch tank is fabulous, with all shapes of wild-looking critters, from gelatinous globs to spiky decorator crabs as big as my fist. This center cares for injured and abandoned sea creatures, who you get to meet :)
We took a Stoney Creek Canopy Adventures ziplining & rappelling tour from Seward, and they were great instructors. It wasn't their fault that I panicked and thought I was being told to keep my speed up, when in fact they were strenuously asking me to apply my brake... they have back up systems to slow riders down really fast!!! I felt like "George, George, George of the Jungle, Watch Out for that Treeee!" but I didn't hit it :) Here is my Zoe, who faced her fear and enjoyed the rides! Photo by Levi of the canopy crew:
We had gorgeous weather in Seward, with highs in the low 70s. However, that night, the wind gusted from the water enough to rock the RV through the night, making it difficult to sleep. The next AM, we hit the road again, traveling to Quartz Creek Campground, where I slept until it was dark! Ferrol had hung lights above their picnic table, and Damon had cooked up amazing steak over the campfire, and Tony & I contributed - chips! Our camping neighbors cruised our campsite for mushrooms to make soup, and their youngster couldn't believe we had not plucked them already! Our 4 youngest watched movies in one RV, and we adults played Farkel with my 13-year-old at the picnic table until midnight :) And I enjoyed just a little stargazing - so clear :)
The next morning, adults & kids alike promised each other, for the rest of this trip, we would never allow the Littles stay up until midnight...
Everybody enjoyed close up looks at bear, a porcupine, wolves, bison, caribou, and more, at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Acres with streams running through, very natural looking fields, tall grasses, and rocky hills. The only shy creatures were the beluga whales, which are often seen in the very shallow bay at one end of the preserve, but no such luck for us!
Tony & Zoe walking through the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: Tourism is now providing a major source of jobs in Alaska - awesome! Some railways that used to carry oil & ore are carrying family vacationers, elderly travelers, photographers, and adventurers to areas inaccessible by car :) We took a cute old tourist train (The Glacier Discovery) to the long glacial Spencer Lake. The lake was formed from the rapidly melting Spencer Glacier, which has receded a couple miles in the last 100 years. Icebergs dotted the lake throughout, chips off the old block :)
The view from shore is amazingly deceiving - the guides tell us that Spencer Glacier is 100 feet high at that edge behind Zoe's paddle. Apparently it is miles from my camera. The guides were talking about how much this glacier has receded in recent years, creating this large glacial lake. They say the glacier used to reach the shore where I am standing.
I found a photo of Spencer Glacier in 2007, and lined it up with my photo from 2018. I didn't have a great angle for showing length of recession, but we can see quite a difference in the height the glacier reaches up the hillsides and at its face - ! :
Red denotes the recession of Spencer Glacier in the last 11 years:
We did not have time within our hour to paddle to the glacier and back, so we settled for visiting all the icebergs we could get to:
This one is as tall as a house:
Adults were actually on one big SUP (stand up paddle board) because our group of 9 maxed out the kayaks available ;)
Icebergs of all sizes, Zoe was heard to say "I held an iceberg in my hand!"
Why are these icebergs white or blue? White light from the high sun can be reflected off tiny ice crystals to make an iceberg dazzling white. Light that is not reflected, but enters the iceberg, loses all its low frequency wavelength red & yellow & orange components (they are stolen by water molecules, whose electrons get all excited) but the high frequency wavelength of the blue component of white sunlight doesn't get absorbed by H2O, passes right through, so we see blue!
Parts of these icebergs exposed to the sun look white, parts in the shade (no reflected white light) look blue.
This paddle was definitely a high highlight of Alaska! We ended up soooooooooo thankful (Thank You, God!) that we had sun that day! The weather we would get during our travel day was ... not kayak weather...
Kind of a funny thing: there was a helicopter repeatedly flying over us out on the water with the icebergs, and there was a news crew interviewing people where we came ashore... an episode of My Big Fat Fabulous Life, a reality show on TLC, was being filmed... stars and stagehands waiting for our train...
On the road again! Going to Denali National Park!
Thank you Tony, for driving the camper! And listening to my exclamations of delight and my clicking camera :) :) :)
We found a delightful forest picnic & campfire spot just up a slight hill & between our campers. Zoe, Fire Master:
Our hike to Savage River was brilliant. Using a tip, the guys planned our route to gradually, very gradually, ease the kids into steeper climbs, saving the best / worst for last! It was an incredible hike: amazing views, sun, rain, snow, snacks... a snowball fight in August... fancy-dancing ptarmigans, arctic ground squirrels, a darling snowshoe hare, sounds of hoary marmots here and there near the ptarmigans.
Well, with my 200mm lens, I caught sight of the little rascals long before I caught up with them (below) - but I was still taken by their surprise snowball ambush!! : Me & my Dude:
We went to a sled dog demo inside the park, and saw 2 week old pups :) These dogs do work in the park during the winter, when motorized vehicles are not allowed entry. They are pulling dogs, not racers - but just like the smaller athletes, they love to run!!
Next up was a 50 mile bus ride into the park, which stopped for "the Big 5" (moose, grizzly, wolf, caribou, dahl's sheep) ... we passed caribou all in a row...
We photographed 5 bear of the ~250 within Denali National Park :)
A wolf ran along next to our bus - I honestly thought it was someone's tall, thin sled dog - it had a huge collar around its neck - by the time we realized it was a wolf, I missed the shot! haha! This is a large moose - we see his enormous antlers, and a dark stripe running down his back. His head is down grazing, toward us. The low sun was reflecting off his antlers, making him VERY OBVIOUS, shiny & bright, even when far away:
Dahl's sheep were visible in a land far, far away - at the base of the brown hill: they are resting :)
After 50 miles in, we took a scramble before our 50 miles back. No trails. Climb as best you can and rest on the wonderfully soft, cushy tundra :)
Several of our party were hardcore flame tenders and pitmasters :) You know who you are, thank you :)
Our 7th day in the Pacific North :) we went to visit sled dogs who train for the Iditarod - and many other Alaska races!
Husky Homestead was another big fave of ours - with multi-Iditarod-champ Jeff King & his dogs & family. When we step from the shuttle, we are handed Alaskan Husky pups - 2 weeks old - to cuddle - they are bred specifically to be future champs! :
Then moving on to pet the 4 month old pups - er - athletes:
And demonstrations and stories and everything you never knew about dog sled racing, with Mr. The King, Jeff King :)
These are Alaskan Huskies. Bred for speed & brains & desire to race sleds :) They weight 30-60lbs. During the Iditarod, they each consume 10,000 calories per day!
Heading home - the long drive back to Anchorage - with 3-4 days in the Park, we had not yet seen the mountain - Denali. Highest mountain in North America... had somehow been hiding from us for days! We were excited & grateful to get a peek during the drive home - the clouds parted for us for a short time:
All in all, this vacation was a fantastic one :) The camper was part of the fun, the views were more than breathtaking, the animals made their appearances, the company was a lot of fun :) The cooks were the best ;) Games and books and movies had their jobs. Hikes were worthy. I love exploring places that are new to me... It was fun for me that this vacation was new to both me & Tony... We are appreciative of having had this opportunity, thanks for inviting us, friends! Alaska is wide open and gorgeous - much like Seattle but without the city (ha!), not many homes, and all the space in the world - I could live there.... except for the cold!!! We happened to hit a few sunny days at the end of August, and I think we all came back home darker, especially after our farewell dinner outdoors steaming on the roof of the 49th State Craft Brewpub - but a red flag was waving when every tour guide seemed puzzled and excited about the gorgeous weather!
I'm thankful to my God for this fun, exploring with my family :)