Today we traveled to Homer. Our first stop along the route was the Potter Point State Game Refuge. This site has an extensive boardwalk for viewing nesting waterfowl. The best thing about this stop was that we had an unobscured view of Mount McKinley. Even though it was 200 miles away, we finally had a chance to see it. Surprisingly most visitors don’t have the opportunity to see it because it is often obscured by clouds. We also stopped at the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center at the Portage Glacier. The glacier must have shed some of its ice because there were several ice flows in the lake by the Visitor Center.
The closer we got to Homer, the more we traveled along the coastline of the Cook Inlet. We stopped at the Mount Iliamna Viewpoint. This was interesting as we had to walk across a meadow to get to the cliff to look across the Inlet. Homer sits at the mainland end of the Aleutian chain. The Aleutians are part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, chains of volcanoes that circle the Pacific. Active volcanoes Mount Redoubt, Mount Douglas, Mount Augustine, and Mount Iliamna are part of that chain in the Homer area.
This was our “free day” with no scheduled activities. We thought we would do some kayaking, but had not been able to do much research ahead of time. We drove out onto the “Spit” and checked with Mako Water Taxi. They said they could taxi us across Kachemak Bay to the Kachemak Bay State Park, if we could leave right away. We jumped at the opportunity and loaded our kayaks aboard. Kachemak Bay State Park is only accessible by water and is too far and too hazardous to paddle across the busy Kachemak Bay. We landed at Kayak Beach at the mouth of Tutka Bay. We unloaded our kayaks and, after a short hike up the Grace Ridge Trail to check out the view, we started to paddle up the bay. The tide was coming in and it was like paddling on a river with the wind and tidal current behind us. The scenery was amazing, with cliffs and mountains high above us. Once again we were blessed with glorious weather, sunny skies and light winds. We pulled our kayaks up a beach for lunch and enjoyed the sunny day. The tide rises as much as 28 feet in the bay and it wasn’t long before we saw our nice beach disappearing, so we interrupted our lunch and were back in the water.
At one point we saw some bald eagles perched in the trees above us. We paddled close than I thought we would ever get and the eagles didn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. We thought we saw some whales blowing on the far side of the bay, but didn’t see any other indication of whales, so it was probably fish jumping.
About 5:00 we arrived at the other trailhead for the Grace Ridge Trail, where we had made arrangements for the water taxi to pick us up. There were a trio of ladies camping in a State Park Yurt doing landscape painting and we had a nice chat with them. A couple of hikers were there and glad to hear we had a water taxi coming, because they had not arranged for one. The taxi arrived about 6:30 and we made a quick return to the small boat harbor on the “Spit.” Although we didn’t see any sea otters in Tutka Bay, we did see one playing in the harbor.
Our group had a bus tour of Homer. Our first stop was the art gallery of Norman Lowell. This artist came to Alaska as a homesteader, then began painting. He is widely recognized as a leading landscape artist. We were able to see his original homestead cabin and their vegetable garden. His lifestyle has definitely improved! His gallery was amazing, some of the landscapes just took my breath away. There were also works from other artists in the area. I was particularly impressed by the carvings from moose antlers.
We also had a walking tour of the harbor. There was everything from commercial fishing vessels to small water taxis. We saw the cribs that are used to raise boats out of the water with the rising tide so work can be done on the bottom of the boat at low tide. The entire dock system floats so it can go up and down with the tide.
Another travel day, on our way to Seward. We did some backtracking and took advantage of it to visit some stops that we bypassed on our way to Homer. In Seward we stayed at a city-owned RV park that was built after the 1964 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the entire waterfront. The RV park is right on the water, but can be easily evacuated whereas permanent buildings would be destroyed. The view is amazing!
Our first full day in Seward we took an all day cruise through Resurrection Bay. Once again we lucked out on the weather. The forecast was for showers turning into steady rain, but we ended up with sunny skies and temperatures in the high 60s. As we traveled to the mouth of the bay, the captain began an ongoing commentary on the history and the environment of Seward and Resurrection Bay. He kept a watch for wildlife as we traveled, and we were able to see Bald Eagles, mountain goats, sea otters, harbor seals, porpoise, humpback and Orca whales. When he spotted one of these he would carefully steer the ship as close as possible so we could get close looks and great pictures.
As we passed Callisto Head we saw Bear Glacier and the small bay created by the terminal moraine (the piled up earth left at the end of the glacier as it started to retreat). Past Callisto Head we were in the Gulf of Alaska and the sea became pretty rough. It wasn’t long before we rounded Aialik Cape and headed up the Holgate Arm to Aialik Glacier. Aialik Glacier is a tidewater glacier, meaning that the toe of the glacier is in the water, not dry land. Here the waves and currents erode the glacier. This erosion and the softening and melting of the glacier where it rests on the rock base causes the glacier to “calve.” Calving is when slabs of the glacier break off and slide into the water. On this trip we were entertained as Aialik Glacier calved at least half a dozen times, sometimes in a very spectacular fashion. As we floated a quarter mile from the face of the glacier, we could feel the katabatic wind rolling the cold air from the surface of the glacier down to displace the warm air in front of it, and the chunks of ice floating in the water clanging against the hull of our ship. It was like nothing I had even experienced before!
From Aialik Glacier we headed back out towards the Gulf of Alaska to the Chiswell Islands. These islands are a nesting ground for all kinds of birds. We saw seagulls, bald eagles, cormorants, and puffins. We also saw a rookery for sea lions. What a pleasure to see so much and have the captain’s commentary to explain what we were observing.
We turned back toward Resurrection Bay and landed at Fox Island for a buffet dinner at the National Park Service day lodge. Another excellent meal and, by far, the best salmon I have ever eaten! Some people complained there wasn’t any desert, but after we boarded our ship the captain announced that the crew would be serving fresh chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven – the complaints about desert quickly stopped.
Our last point on the cruise was to circle Fox Island and see how the 1964 earthquake had dropped the spit created by the glacier’s terminal moraine. The flood of salt water from the tsunami following the earthquake had killed many evergreen trees, creating a “ghost forest.” All-in-all it was just a great trip and a great day!
Our big event of the day was a trip to the toe of the Exit Glacier. Our group made a short hike to the toe of the glacier, were able to see how the glacier had receded over the years, and what factors cause the glacier to advance or retreat. Six of us took the opportunity to stay when the group left and continue up the 4.1 mile trail to the top of the glacier and the Harding Icefield. This was no easy hike! We started some serious uphill climbing right away. Part way up two of our party decided this was more than they were capable of doing and turned back. The remaining four of us continued. We stopped for lunch just above the tree line and took shelter from the wind behind a low mound for a trail lunch. As we continued our climb, we were more exposed to the wind and the steepness of the climb increased. We knew we were getting closer to the ice field as we started crossing patches of ice and snow. We paused at an emergency hut just short of the top. The views were already amazing and I know my pictures will do a poor job of describing what we saw. When we finished the last .3 miles to the top we were rewarded with the most awesome sight I have ever seen. I felt like I was on the top of the world. The icefield seemed to go on forever. The Arctic katabatic wind coming off the surface of the glacier was a huge change from the warm air we left 3,000 feet below us. The trip down went quicker than the climb up but was no less demanding as we had to climb down over the rocks we had scrambled over on our way up.
After the exertions of the day before, we took it easy. We walked into town to see the Alaska Sea Life Center. This aquarium was very well done. We were able to view fish, aquatic birds, and other sea life from above and below with huge underwater viewing windows. It was also interesting to learn about how sea life is often rescued, rehabilitated and returned to the wild. Later we wandered through the town of Seward, imagining what it must be like to live here year round.
That evening the four of us that made the climb to the top of the Exit Glacier had dinner at a harbor side restaurant to celebrate. Both the food and the views were delicious.
Another travel day and we headed back through Anchorage to the town of Palmer. We stopped at Elmendorf AFB for groceries and fuel enroute. After setting up we were treated to a meal prepared by the caravan staff. A great way to end a day of travel.
An easy day today. We took a trip to a Musk Ox Farm. This was really unique in that Musk Ox only exist in Norway, Greenland, and Alaska. What made this farm special is that it was created from an original homestead by John Teal. He developed the farm to domesticate these wild animals and create a cash business for outlaying indigenous tribes. At the farm they raise the Musk Ox and comb the wool from the animals coat. Musk Ox qiviut (pronounced KIV-ee- oot) is thicker, softer, more warm and durable than wool. They then ship the qiviut to native tribes who then weave hats and scarves, and send the finished product back to the farm for sale. The tribes are paid as soon as they return the finished product and this gives them a cash revenue they can use to purchase goods and services they can’t provide for themselves. It was a fascinating visit and a great story of a selfless man with a vision.
We are having a wonderful time in America’s Last Frontier!