Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Alaska {4 of 6}: Kenai Peninsula

Teaser shot! Read on to hear more about our up close & personal glacier experience {Monday, August 9th}
If you've been faithfully reading Parts 1, 2 & 3 of our Alaska travel log, you're probably sick of hearing about Mt. McKinley & are ready for a change of scenery! You're in luck! On Sunday, we took down our tent & headed south to the Kenai Peninsula. It was about a 7 hour drive to our campsite, & with a few pitstops to load up on groceries & supplies, we spent the majority of the day in travel mode.

The peninsula is south of Anchorage & we met several Alaskans that said the drive from Anchorage to Seward  (on the aptly named "Seward Highway"), down the Kenai Peninsula, is one of the prettiest drives in Alaska. We wholeheartedly agree (even though we only saw a few major roads in Alaska!). Unfortunately, it was raining buckets on our drive down so I didn't get any stellar photos. I have a few decent photos from our drive back to Anchorage at the end of the week, but you'll just have to wait until Friday for those!

We camped at the Quartz Creek Campground in Cooper Landing, at the advice of my sister & brother-in-law who had camped there when they visited Alaska a few years back. It was an excellent choice (thanks Katie & Matt!) for several reasons:
  1. The coastal options (Seward, Homer) were so much colder. We never froze at night nor did we have to deal with the crazy wind we experienced when we visited those port cities. 
  2. Cooper Landing is centrally located, which meant we didn't have to take down our tent mid-week to move. We could day trip from Cooper Landing, making it a great homebase. The furthest we drove was 2.5 hrs to Homer.
  3. It was a gorgeous location. Our tent was steps away from Kenai Lake (see below), and there were tons of hiking trails close by.
  4. Last, but certainly not least, it had flush toilets & running water. Nevermind there weren't mirrors or soap in the bathrooms... if the toilets flush, consider me a happy girl.
Kenai Lake, literally about 10 steps from our campsite {Monday, August 9th}

Early morning at Kenai Lake {Monday, August 9th}
Monday, our first full day in Kenai, we decided to venture to Seward. Seward is a fishing town, popular cruise boat stop & also the access point to Kenai Fjords National Park. If you haven't figured this out already, Matt & I love national parks.

Most of the Kenai Fjords National Park is only accessible by boat, & many tourists choose to take boat tours or kayak trips to see the glacial fjords. Thankfully, for the budget conscious traveler (like us!), there is also one glacier accessible by road: Exit Glacier. Just a short walk from the parking lot is this amazing, very cool, very blue, humongous piece of (slowly) moving ice. How cool is that!?

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park {Monday, August 9th}

Right next to a Glacier, no big deal :) {Monday, August 9th}
For the more adventurous visitor looking for a day hike, Exit Glacier is also the starting point for a trail to the Harding Ice Field. It's just shy of 4 miles up to the the icefield (7.4miles round trip...though we went a tad bit further than the turnaround) & about a 3,000 ' elevation gain. Let me tell you, when you're climbing about 1,000' / mile, your legs feel it!

Harding Icefield covers over 300 square miles, not counting the square mileage of the 40 glaciers it feeds (one of which is Exit Glacier). We were told by a ranger that the Icefield gives you a glimpse of what the ice ages would have looked like. Ice as far as the eye can see. I think the Park Service says it best:
The 7.4-mile round trip Harding Icefield Trail is a spectacular day hike. Starting on the valley floor, the trail winds through cottonwood and alder forests, passes though heather filled meadows and ultimately climbs well above tree line to a breath-taking view of the Icefield. The top of the trail is a window to past ice ages – a horizon of ice and snow that stretches as far as the eye can see, broken only by an occasional nunatak, or lonely peak.
Half way up to the Icefield! {Monday, August 9th}
We'd walked for at least 2 miles through forests & then all of the sudden, the trail opened up to gorgeous meadows with an incredible glacial backdrop. Even though the it spit rain nearly all day, it only made the flowers that much more beautiful ... covered in water droplets!
Along the Harding Icefield Trail  {Monday, August 9th}
Check out the 2 glaciers in this photo {Monday, August 9th}

Sweating up a storm from all of the uphill. 1,000 vertical feet to go! {Monday, August 9th}
When we made it to the Icefield (which was extremely cold & very windy), it was almost completely covered by fog & clouds. Despite the spitting rain, we did get a small glimpse of this massive expanse of ice. On a clear day, I'm sure it would have been breathtaking, but all in all, it was worth the work to get up there.
Harding Icefield & 2 freezing hikers {Monday, August 9th}

Glacial ice {Monday, August 9th}

Happy to be heading down! {Monday, August 9th}
On our hike up to the Harding Icefield, we met a lovely retired (& very fit) couple from Asheville, NC & struck up a conversation with them. We hiked most of the way up with them, just chatting about their travels over the years, our Alaskan experiences, their children who were about our age & living in the Raleigh-Durham area, & just about life in general.

About three quarters of the way up, the woman asked me if we had anywhere to shower that evening (even though you'll see us all bundled up in some of these photos - most of the hike we were drenched in sweat from all of the climbing!). We told her we would probably not get a shower until Friday (I know - gross - it was Monday at this point), but that we'd be okay. She insisted, as a mother, that we shower at the lodge they were staying at in Seward. We weren't about to pass up a free, hot shower, especially from such a sweet, normal couple, so we took them up on their offer! HEAVEN.

Let me tell you, never has just being friendly & nice & normal paid off in a bigger way. They'd traveled much like us when they were younger (a.k.a. on the cheap), & they decided to pay it forward & share with us a small, but very significant luxury. We were grateful.

After our showers, we headed to check out the town of Seward. Seward is supposedly beautiful, with all of the fjords and the bay, however, with all of the clouds & rain that day, we were ready to leave as soon as we got there. It was also very windy. Exhibit A:
Matt's thinking "Thank goodness we didn't camp in Seward. Our tent would have blown away!" {Monday, August 9th}

Apparently, the Iditarod also started in Seward back in the day. I'm convinced that the Iditarod race organizers need to make up their minds. Nowadays, the mushers & their dogs no longer start in Seward, but in Anchorage. But Anchorage is just a ceremonial start. The day after their Anchorage start, they line up again for the real start  in Wasilla (40 miles north of Anchorage). Why not just cut to the chase & line up in Wasilla to start? This really shouldn't bother me, so I'll move on...

We also saw an sea otter in Seward. I'm not sure why Matt & I were so fascinated (we've seen sea otters before), but we chased that little guy along the coast just trying to get a photo!
Seward sea otter {Monday, August 9th}
After we'd had enough wind & rain, we sought shelter & our first meal out on our vacation thus far at the Salmon Bake. Oh. my. gosh. My stomach has never been happier. I'm 99% sure it was the best meal of my life. Fresh salmon (for me) & halibut (for Matt) caught in the coastal waters off of Seward (doesn't get fresher than that), a corn succotash to die for, warm sourdough bread* with honey butter & a baked potato loaded with butter & sour cream. When you have been eating rice, canned goods, granola bars & trail mix for a week, what I just described is heaven on a plate.

*Interestingly enough, Alaskan trappers, hunters & gold miners were called "sourdoughs." Apparently, during the gold rush, everyone kept a sourdough starter in their kitchen. Nowadays, the term is used loosely to describe old-time Alaskans.
On our drive back to Cooper Landing, I made Matt pull over to snap some photos at this little Lilypad Pond (I think that may have been the name, though I can't remember). The light was amazing...I didn't photoshop this next photo one bit!
Lilypad Pond {Monday, August 9th}
Also on that drive back from Seward, we came across a momma moose & her 2 calves just grazing near the side of the road. I guess all of the "Moose Crossing" signs on the Seward Hwy are legit!

We were warned to watch out for moose, especially when they are with their calves. They can be very aggressive & can & will literally stomp you to death if you get between a momma & her babies. We gave these guys their distance & watched from afar.
Moose & Calves on Side of Seward Highway {Monday, August 9th}

Well hello, Bullwinkle. {Monday, August 9th}
On Tuesday, we hiked closer to 'home. In the morning, we did a 7 mile hike to Carter & Crescent Lakes. The wildflowers were gorgeous & I went to town with my camera. We improvised on part of the trail (see the photo of me on the left in front of a ton of brush). We couldn't figure out how to actually get to Carter Lake via the trail, so we we bushwhacked a bit & got really wet & muddy in the process!
Carter (or Crescent - can't remember which is which) Lake {Tuesday, August 10th}

Wildflowers on Carter Lake Trail {Tuesday, August 10th}

Crescent (I think? Maybe Carter) Lake {Tuesday, August 10th}

Crescent (or Carter) Lake {Tuesday, August 10th}
After our morning hike, we decided to head to the Russian River/Lake trails. We had run into some fisherman a couple of nights before who said the salmon were running & there were a ton at Russian River, so we decided to check it out. Our travel book also said that there were falls along the trails & it was an excellent place to watch salmon run (a.k.a. fling themselves upstream). Although not a dramatic waterfall dropping off a cliff, the Russian River falls were respectable, & I was doubtful that we'd see any fish manage to get upstream.
Falls at Russian River {Tuesday, August 10th}
Let me tell you, I will never look at a salmon the same again. Those fish are amazing. They are bound and determined to get themselves upstream to to spawn. It was mesmerizing! Jumping fish! I could have easily been entertained for hours! 
Salmon run {Tuesday, August 10th}
The highlight of the day, however, was entirely unexpected. As we sat & photographed jumping fish, another creature decided he (or she) wanted in on the action. Out of nowhere, a brown bear emerged on the opposite side of the falls, walked out to the middle, stuck his huge paw (or snout, I can't remember it happened so fast) in the water & pulled out the biggest salmon I've ever seen. Not to discredit the bear, but that had to have been the easiest  fishing ever. All of the salmon just hanging out, struggling to make it upstream. He might as well have stuck his hand in a fish bowl. All there for the taking....

My apologies for the dark photographs. I had my shutter speed all out of whack because I was focusing on the fish & catching them in action & was not anticipating a bear. In the excitement, I forgot to change my manual settings so all of the photos are quite dark.... you get the picture though (pun intended)!
Brown bear, going fishing {Tuesday, August 10th}

Interestingly enough, these bears are not grizzlies. The coastal brown bears are called... brown bears. They are much bigger than the bears we saw in Denali because they feed on fish. The grizzlies in Denali (although a respectable size), mostly eat berries  & the occasional ground squirrel. This particular bear was humongous.

It was an entirely unexpected & amazing treat to see that bear in action. We had contemplated flying (on a bush plane) to Lake Clark or Katmai National Park, where the bears are rampant, but had decided against it because it was so expensive. We got the same experience....for free!
Success! Brown bear leaving with his salmon dinner (I was jealous, I ate rice & beans that night) {Tuesday, August 10th}
Since we hadn't hiked enough that day, & because for some reason, I thought we needed to see yet another lake, we hiked to Lower Russian Lake that evening after leaving the falls.

We found a cozy National Forest Service cabin on the Lake that was entirely wheelchair accessible (we thought of you Slagors!). I think you'd have to arrive via floatplane to enjoy the accessible cabin, as it'd be a bumpy ride from the trailhead. Still, very impressive...
Lower Russian Lake & NFS Cabin {Tuesday, August 10th}
More on Kenai, particularly Homer, tomorrow!

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