August 8, Alaska

Hmmm, seems a while since I wrote but believe we were in the Northwest Territories (NWT) at that time. We drove around the Great Slave Lake and visited the capital city, Yellowknife. It is a nice modern city and the people are friendly. We stayed at a very nice park outside of town and came into town to eat out (twice!) and go to the movies. First time we had done that since seeing Star Wars in Seattle. We saw the remake of "War of the Worlds" with Tom Cruise. The character story was quite changed, but the alien invasion was the same--very scary. While we had fun there, neither of us has any desire to return to the NWT. Too many uninteresting dirt roads to travel to get anywhere! If you decide to go there, our advice is fly, don't drive. The last 30 miles into Yellowknife was a nightmare of rocky, dusty road, construction, and more traffic than one might expect. We were worn out by the time we got into the city. Predictions are that the last 30 miles won't be finished for at least 10 years.

Lady Evelyn Falls (Kakisa River) en route from Hay River to Yellowknife

Prelude Lake, where we camped outside of Yellowknife, NWT. Note Canadian Shield rock.

To get to the Yukon territory, we had to drop back into B.C. and take the Alcan Hwy. from Fort Nelson to Lake Watson through the Northern Rockies. This is the best road for seeing wildlife; the animals seem to line up along the edge of the highway and pose for the travelers. We had heard in the past that there is some mineral along the roads that the animals need, and they come there to get it. We saw Bison, Moose, Bear, Caribou, Dall (Mountain) Sheep, Deer, and a Western Tanager (when we stopped to get gas at Liard River Lodge).

Wood Bison en route to Yellowknife
Unlike NWT, the Yukon Territory is full of interesting scenery and paved roads! What a difference mountains make in providing beautiful views. We like the Yukon and someday plan to spend more time there. This time through, as last, we were thinking we wanted to get to Alaska and so didn't do all the things we could have there. On getting to Alaska, we stayed in Palmer at the Matanuska River Park (where we campground hosted in 1994), until time to pick up Riley's brother Eric at the airport in Anchorage.

Emerald Lake

Eric stayed with us for a little over 2 weeks, and we had a delightful time touring with him. He was a very congenial and accommodating houseguest, and we were happy to have him. Any worries about 3 people in the RV flew quickly. We spent our first few days together in the Kenai Peninsula, starting out at Portage Lake. Riley and I were there in 1994 and remembered it as a beautiful iceberg-filled lake, and wanted to share it with Eric. At that time, the Portage Glacier covered a part of the lake and created the icebergs whenever it calved. However, since that time the glacier has retreated off the lake and up the mountain side, becoming a piedmont glacier and all the icebergs have melted away. It is still a beautiful spot, but not like our memory! As we were driving out of the park area, a female moose and her baby were crossing the road and holding up traffic. I think all of the stopped cars were causing the moose some confusion because she crossed back and forth across the road about 3 times before finding a place to disappear into the foliage. We then drove to Whittier for a look-see at Prince William Sound, going through a 2.5 mile 1-way tunnel for cars & trains--a bit exciting. Wouldn't want to be on that road at the wrong time!

Portage Lake and glaciers

Moose crossing road

In Seward, we camped in a city-run RV park that was right on Resurrection Bay--no utilities, just parking, but what a view of the mountains and glaciers across the bay. There was a sea otter that came to groom and look for food each night right in front of us--so cute! The people next to us had been fishing and thrown the fish heads down by the water and the glaucous-winged gulls were there to fight over them. Eric and I watched and one gull flipped this big head up in the air and somehow managed to swallow it, but the head was too big to easily slide down his throat, so he now had a neck that had doubled in size. We laughed as we watched him move his neck around and try to get it to go down. Last we saw, it still hadn't gone down. There was a large cruise ship docked there and we watched them back out a good ways before turning around and sailing forward--very impressive. This was around 10 PM so guess they sail at night. Sun was setting about 11:30 PM, though it never goes far beneath the horizon so it's fairly light all night.

RVs along shore of Resurrection Bay at Seward

Aialik Glacier from the tour boat

While there, we took one of the boat tours of Resurrection Bay and the Kenai Fjords National Park. We sailed up one of the fjords to the Aialik Glacier. This was a great experience for us all. I don't think of glaciers as noisy beasts, but this one is. All the cracking and moving sounded like thunder, and we got to see several pieces of ice break off. There were definitely icebergs floating around this glacier. Though the guide said it too was receding and would one day no longer be over the water. We saw a great deal of wildlife on this tour. At the glacier there were many harbor seals on the ice floes where they give birth and raise their pups. Other wildlife included a raft of Sea Otters, Dall Porpoises, Stellar Sea Lions, Humpback whales (2 or 3), Black Bear, Pacific White-sided Dolphins (very rare) and a Finned Whale (also rare). We also saw lots of birds: Tufted & Horned Puffins, Rhinoceros & Parakeet Auklets, and Common Murres. The Murres look a lot like penguins when standing on the rocks where they nest. Puffins and Murres both "fly" underwater, using their wings to propel themselves through the water rather than their feet, as ducks do. The tour we took let us off at Fox Island to have dinner. Behind the dining hall was a fair sized lake where I saw a River Otter playing and Common Goldeneyes (ducks). Eric & Riley were busy skipping rocks into the bay and missed these sightings. The next day we went to the Alaska SeaLife Center so that we could see the Puffins and Murres flying underwater. It was fun!

Stellar's Sea Lions

Common Murre

We then drove to Homer via Soldatna. We stopped at the Visitor Center in Soldatna and found Wi-Fi for Riley and a fish walk for Eric. This is like a board walk (only it's not boards) where people either fish off it or wade into the Kenai River to fish for the Red Salmon that were coming in on their way to the spawning grounds. The fish are not feeding so the fishermen were just snagging the fish--throwing the line out and hoping the hook would catch on the fish. Eric said it was not legal to keep fish snagged on the sides but those snagged in the gills or mouth could be kept. He wasn't interested in this type of fishing but enjoyed watching. There was a platform there and I spent my time bird watching and was rewarding by good views of a Belted Kingfisher pair, as well as a Boreal Chickadee.

Homer is an interesting place and we camped on the Spit, where we discovered that one of the inside tires on the rear was flat. So we spent some time there finding a tire shop and getting it fixed. Homer is another spot with wonderful views. The Redoubt Volcano is just gorgeous. Riley and I remember watching the sun set behind it back in 1994. The Spit has become very commercialized. When we there before, all the camping on the Spit was city-run and very inexpensive. Now there was a commercial RV park charging $74 a night! That's the highest we've encountered anywhere. Needless to say, we stayed in the one city park left--parking on the beach. The rest of the Spit was covered with eating establishments and tourist joints--not the way we remembered it at all.

Redoubt Volcano across Cook Inlet

Riley at Riley Creek, where we camped in Denali

Our next big adventure was staying in Denali National Park. Denali, a.k.a. Mount McKinley, was cooperative and we got a good view though not a good picture. By the time we got to the viewpoint to take pictures, it had gathered in the clouds. We were glad for Eric though, that he got to see it on the first try. When we were there before, it was over 2 weeks and many tries before it came out for us. We camped in the park for 3 nights. We spent one day just touring the visitor areas, seeing the films and the sled dog demonstration, and driving the 15 miles that are open to the public. The second day, we took the bus tours to go further into the park. We split up as Riley and I did not think we could take 11 hours on a bus to go to the end of the line, but Eric was game. So Eric went on the tour to Wonder Lake, while we went on the 6 hour tour to Toklat River. We all enjoyed our tours very much--beautiful scenery and lots of wildlife--very much worth the price. On comparing notes, we saw the most wildlife on our shorter tour, but Eric saw the most awesome. We saw Moose, Caribou (lots), Grizzly bears (several sows, most with 1-3 cubs), Dall Sheep, Snowshoe Hare, Beaver, Arctic Ground Squirrel, Willow Ptarmigan, Mew Gull, Northern Harrier, Golden Eagle, and Black-billed Magpies. Eric saw wolves--two adults, with juveniles from last year as well as this year's pups. A grizzly bear came down the slope into the wolves' territory and the two adults took off after it to chase it away from the pups. They did the job too, with one growling at it in front while the other harassed it from behind. Even after the bear gave up and tried to leave, they kept harassing it to be sure it got the message. In the meantime, a caribou wandered in and the year-old wolves took after it--practice hunting, no way they were going to catch it. All in all, a very exciting scene for the people on the bus to be watching. Eric was thrilled, and we didn't blame him. Wolves were one of his "must sees," so happiness all around.

Riley & Eric at Denali viewpoint

Margie at Denali viewpoint

Typical Alaskan braided river

Snowshoe Hare

Leaving Denali, we headed up to Fairbanks to take the Dalton Highway north so that Eric could get up above the Arctic Circle. After NWT, we had said "no more dirt roads," but crossing the Arctic Circle was something we wanted Eric to be able to do so we took the only way, which is the dirt road known as the "haul road" or the Dalton Hwy. We found that a couple of stretches (about 20 miles total) had been paved but still about 85 miles were dirt/gravel. When we reached Fairbanks, it was full of smoke. We were told this was from a wild fire in Canada and the smoke was coming down the Yukon to Fairbanks (a low point). But after we got up the Dalton Highway a good ways, we found the country to the east of us was on fire right there in Alaska. The smoke was thick and full of sparks, trees were burning not far off the highway. Frankly, I was ready for us to turn back, but Riley and Eric agreed we were in no danger and drove forward. So we did reach the Arctic Circle and took pictures of everyone, including the very dirty RV! We spent the night in the Arctic and then headed back down the next day. The fire had abated but the smoke was still thick. We drove to the Chena Hot Springs Resort where we camped for the night and went into the springs to revive ourselves. I don't take the heat well and the mineral water in the small lake was too hot for me (105 degrees), so I didn't stay in long but moved to an outside hot tub that was cooler, though still warm (maybe 100 degrees). Riley and Eric both stayed in the lake a good while before joining me in the hot tub. I am always wanting to go to hot springs then can never stay in long! We were all refreshed and glad to be out of the worst of the smoke.

Eric at Arctic Circle

Dirty RV

Field of Fireweed in smoky haze on Dalton Hwy.
We then drove down to Valdez. This is a very beautiful drive with the Wrangell Mountain Range on one side and the Chugach on the other, but we saw almost none of it due to clouds and rain. The rain was a blessing in one way though, as it washed the smoke away. We had a short but enjoyable stay in Valdez, where we split up again for a couple of hours. Riley went to the library where Wi-Fi was available, Eric went souvenir shopping for "take home" presents to family, and I went to the museum, where they were having a quilt show. The quilts were very beautiful, but every one of them was machine pieced and machine quilted. I wondered if one day no one would be making quilts by hand anymore. I was amazed by what these women could do on a machine. One quilt was just one piece with cranes drawn on it using the sewing machine--the artwork was very impressive. We all 3 enjoyed our day. As we left town, we stopped at a spot where salmon were spawning--a creek feeding into Prince William Sound below an unsurmountable (for the salmon) falls. It was fascinating to see so many fish crammed into so little space. Since it was such a short creek in a very public place, there was no other wildlife (e.g. bears or eagles) there to menace the fish.

Eric at Worthington Glacier near Valdez

Bridal Veil Falls near Valdez

Chum & Pink Salmon spawning in creek near Valdez
Next day we headed back to Anchorage to tell Eric goodbye at the airport. It was a long driving day. We took Eric out to eat in Anchorage at a seafood place we had found that had a Wi-Fi station. Riley downloaded Eric's boarding pass and printed it out for him there. Eric said the salmon was the best he had ever had. I had very good pan-fried oysters that I mostly ate the next day. The clam chowder at the restaurant hadn't sat well with my tummy--sometimes I can get away with having milk, sometimes I can't. After dinner, we went out to the airport and looked at parked airplanes. A big Russian transport jet (some kind of Ilyushin) was there with a very different high swept-wing appearance. A friendly Canadian came over and talked to Riley and Eric as we sat looking at it. We were sad to see Eric go, but very glad he came and had a good time.

Riley and I are now settled back at Matanuska River Park, and plan to stay put for a while using the motorcycle to tour and go into Palmer and Anchorage when necessary. Yesterday was a perfectly lovely day for motorcycling and we took advantage of it by riding down to Chugach State Park and taking an uphill hike to Thunderbird Falls--very nice. We had lunch at a hot dog place/general store, eating at picnic tables and watching Dall Sheep graze high on the mountain side above us (binoculars needed, of course).

I've finished reading Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle," and Riley has finished book 1. I liked 1 and 2 so well, I had to go out and buy book 3 at a local bookshop. Great fun! Riley bought me a couple of books about birds, both by David Sibley: "Birding Basics" and "The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior." I've finished the first and am working on the second. Both are very good books and full of interesting facts about birds. I'm enjoying them both. I have also bought some material, cut out pieces, and started sewing on my next quilt--a Lone Star--so I am keeping busy.

I keep reading that millions of bird migrate to Alaska in the summertime, but I have yet to see them. I think most have disappeared into the taiga and tundra north of us. The best birding we've had was on the Resurrection Bay boat tour as I reported above. We haven't given up though, and I have found a place that gives birding tours and plan to look into that this week. There is also a wildlife refuge (Hays Flats) near here that we haven't found the access point for yet. They seem to allow hunting--what kind of refuge is that? But thought we'd check it out anyway, perhaps complain. The list of what we have seen is below.

Love to all,
Margie & Riley

Bird Diary
July 8, 2005 Alaska
Bald Eagle (Alaska Hwy)
Trumpeter Swans (Tok Cut-off): adults and cygnets
July 10-12, 2005 Matanuska River Park, Palmer, Alaska
American Pipit
Swainson's Thrush
Mew Gulls
American Robin
Black-billed Magpies
Downy Woodpecker
Black-capped Chickadees
July 17, 2005 Tern Lake, Seward Highway, Alaska
Lesser Yellowlegs
Black-billed Magpie
Artic Terns
Herring Gulls
Mew Gulls
Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska
Black-legged Kittiwakes
Glaucous-winged Gulls
Double-crested Cormorants
Common Raven
Bald Eagle
Cliff Swallows
July 18, 2005 Resurrection Bay & Kenai Fjords N.P., Seward, Alaska
Common Murres
Horned Puffins
Tufted Puffins
Rhinoceros Auklet
Parakeet Auklet
Willow Ptarmigan: m & f
Black Oystercatcher
Common Goldeneye: f & ducklings
Bald Eagle
Black-legged Kittiwake
Glaucous-winged Gulls
Double-crested Cormorants
July 19, 2005 Tern Lake, Seward Highway, Alaska
Yellow-crowned Sparrow
Northern Pintail: f & ducklings
Common Loon
Arctic Terns
July 20 & 22, 2005 Kenai River, Soldatna, Alaska
Boreal Chickadee
Red-legged Kittiwake
Belted Kingfishers: m & f
Black-capped Chickadee
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Artic Tern
Mew Gulls
Herring Gulls
American Robin
White-crowned Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Black-legged Kittiwake (Cooper Creek Campground)
July 23, 2005 Byers Lake, Denali State Park, Alaska
Gray Jay
Willow Ptarmigan
Dark-eyed "Slate" Junco

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