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Trip Report Alaska in August 2012---Glaciers, Wildlike, and hiking in the Sunshine

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(I am posting the same report here and on Tripadvisor).

I lived in Alaska in the 1970's, moving away at the end of 1978, and I have not been back. As a major birthday approached, I decided it was time to return, and to take family and friends along for the celebration—a group of 6 in all. We ranged in age from 56 (my little Sis) to 68 (DH), and we all love hiking and outdoor adventure. Since I worked in Denali National Park in 1971, that was to be the focus of our trip; I added the Kenai Peninsula to include more great Alaskan scenery and hiking. I planned the trip for mid-August, choosing fall color and low mosquito count, but knowing that we risked bad weather. As it turned out, we had sunshine on all but the two days we spent driving to Fairbanks and back.

Day 1: We flew from Seattle to Anchorage, a 3-hour flight, arriving around noon. We picked up our rental car at the Enterprise off-site office (took a taxi to get there). We got a great rate on our 2-week rental ($300 total) by reserving 10 months in advance—a tip from this Tripadvisor Alaska forum (thanks, John). Made a quick stop for groceries and salad bar lunch at a Carr’s just off the Seward Highway and were on our way to Seward. We were excited to get there so did not make any of the usual stops along the way, such as Portage Glacier. (I saw this 40 years ago, before it receded back around the corner out of view).

We drove into Seward around 3:30, and the first thing I noticed was the cruise ship Radiance of the Seas at the dock. My son and his family would have been on that ship, meeting us in Seward, but their baby was one day too young on the date of departure to go on a cruise (the minimum age is 6 months, and they count it to the day). We drove through down and south to Lowell Point to our lodging, Alaska Paddle Inn. This was a great choice—the rooms are large and well-equipped, with great views and handcrafted details. The views from the upstairs room (High Tide Room) are fantastic. The downstairs room (Low Tide Room) comfortably accommodated four. Both rooms have really nice walk-in showers. The hosts provide food to make your own breakfast.

We went for a walk along the beach while we waited for our friends to arrive, and spotted sea otters in the water right offshore. First wildlife! Looking back, I wish we had used this time to go to the Alaska Sealife Center, which was open until 6:30 pm, as that was our only chance to see it. But it was nice to be outside at the end of a long travel day.

Dinner at Chinook’s was next. The food was OK (everyone who ordered salmon said it was overcooked), but we had a great view of the docks and the fish-cleaning area from our corner window table. The fish-cleaning operation is impressive—very fast and very clean. Lots of happy people were going home with halibut filets in their coolers. After dinner we wandered around the docks of the Small Boat Harbor, admiring the boats and just generally enjoying the balmy evening like everyone else. Then it was home to sleep.

Day 2: the Harding Icefield hike. We got up early to drive to the Exit Glacier visitor center and join the ranger-led hike. This is a great option if you are uncertain about hiking in bear country or worried about losing the trail. We weren’t in either of those categories, but joined the hike as it was Saturday and we enjoyed the nature talks along the way. We split off on our own after lunch to go ahead of the group as our pace is a bit faster.

This is a fantastic hike (I suppose I use that word too much but it is hard to find enough superlatives to describe our trip!) We were blessed with a clear and sunny day—the best of the summer, according to the ranger. I was surprised and pleased to find lots of wildflowers blooming in the meadows once we got above the forest—white heather, yellow heather, violets, monkshood, and lots more. Then the ground became barren rock, and then we were hiking on snow. All the while with views over Exit Glacier to our left. There were goats near the top and a few marmots here and there, but no bears.

We stopped at the fish market on the way back through town to buy some salmon for dinner. Alan, our host, let us use the gas grill, and with salad and steamed veggies we had a sumptuous meal. The salmon was cooked to perfection, thanks to the three guy-chefs.

Days 3, 4, 5: Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge. Here we parted company for a short time. Four of us went to this wilderness lodge in Kenai Fjords National Park, the other two headed to Homer for a couple of days. We were scheduled to meet up in Girdwood on the evening of Day 5.

http://www.kenaifjordsglacierlodge.com/

We met our boat, the Wildlander at 9:30 for the 4+ hour trip out to the lodge, the start of our 3-day, 2-night adventure. I have to say I was very impressed with the whole operation, from the boat to the lodge and cabins to the guides to the food. The cruise on the way out stops for wildlife viewing (humpback whales, orcas, dolphins, seal lines, sea otters, birds) and visits Horton Glacier up close before pulling up on the beach in Aialik Bay to drop us off. There were only twelve us us, plus captain and crew, on the boat so it felt very personal. Lodge staff met us at the boat and transported our luggage to the cabins while we walked the half-mile to the lodge.

The Glacier Lodge is nearly new; this is its fourth season of operation. They have sixteen private cabins strung out along a lagoon, all facing Pederson Glacier across the lagoon. Meals are served in the main lodge, which also has a bar and lounge area with sofas, and a back deck with the equipment you need for kayaking or canoeing. The food is fantastic (there’s that word again) and would rate highly even in a big city. Given the remote location of the lodge and the limited access, they do an amazing job.

The main activity here is kayaking, although there are a few hiking trails as well. On our full day, we opted for the 6-hour kayak trip to Aialik Glacier. We were provided with double kayaks and all equipment (sprayskirts, life vests, dry bags for our lunch and extra clothes) and set off with our two guides, Meher and Katie. I can’t even begin to describe the thrill of kayaking on that glassy-smooth fjord, approaching the glacier and then sliding in the floating ice. We stayed a good half-mile away from the face of the glacier for safety, but even there it appeared enormous. We rafted up, joining the 6 kayaks, and drifted in quiet while we watched for calving from the glacier, and kept a lookout for icebergs. While the plastic kayaks are not likely to be damaged in hitting an ice chunk, the guides warned that the larger ones (over 4 feet in diameter) can suddenly flip, causing waves that can swamp a kayak. This is more likely on a warm day like we had, as the iceberg melts and changes shape. Indeed we saw a number of them do this—fortunately not close by. We returned to the lodge in plenty of time to shower and relax before another tasty dinner.

Breakfast on our departure day was so good we asked for the recipes. Turns out they have a cookbook, so we each bought one as a souvenir. Departure is not until 2 or 3 pm, when the boat arrives, so we had time for another activity. Sis and her husband chose another kayak trip across the bay to a waterfall; we opted for a canoe trip across the lagoon and hike to the face of the glacier. The highlight was the bear we saw from the canoe on the return. There are 8 or 9 black bears in this area, and they are commonly seen by lodge guests, but this one was really close—we drifted alongside for 10 minutes or so while he went about his bear business (eating), totally unconcerned with our presence.

We had two real treats on the boat ride out—a pod of orcas feeding nearby, breaching and spyhopping, coming quite close to the boat as we drifted with engine off. The captain said it was one of the best orca encounters he had experienced. And then, as we entered Resurrection Bay, a school of dolphins met us and played in the boat wake for a good 20 minutes. The ones at the bow were amazing—zooming this way and that, jumping and diving, racing the boat. We laughed so hard it hurt, and my husband got a bit of it in a movie.

The boat returns to Seward in time for the evening train, if you are taking that. But we had our car, so just hopped in that and headed to our next stop, Girdwood (Mt. Alyeska Ski Resort) about a 2-hour drive back toward Anchorage. We expected to meet our friends there, returning from Homer, and we had a house reserved (Timberline Drive B&B) for the next two nights. I planned this stop to break up the drive between Seward/Homer and Denali, and to do some hiking (and laundry, as we were at the half-way point of our trip).

When we got within cell-phone range at Girdwood, there was a message from our friends that went something like this: “I hope it is OK if we don’t meet you in Girdwood tonight. We have decided to spend the rest of our lives in Homer. . . Or at least another day. Tony went fishing today and caught a nice halibut, and we’ll show up tomorrow night with halibut and vegetables for dinner.” Can’t argue with that!

So we started a load of laundry, showered, and drove to Jack Sprat for dinner. We sat outside on the deck, bug-free since this was August, and enjoyed some very good food, mostly local and all well-prepared.

To be continued. . .

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