Saturday, June 30, 2012

Kodiak Island ... Bears and more

Kodiak does have more than bears.  There is fishing - which we don't do - but we do enjoy the fresh catch that we buy at Island Seafood.  Locals never have to buy fish, either they catch it or their friend's have extra.  We stop in daily for the fresh catch of salmon or halibut. 

Then there is boating, kayaking, hiking, and so much more.  The lush rain forest, the cliffs, the snow covered mountains, the glaciers .... much to enjoy.

The sea lions, the otters, the harbor seals, the eagles, the puffins (that we are still searching for), and of course the whales.

It also has the largest US Coast Guard base.  That means we have good cell phone coverage.  And it seems to be a good plan e for Greenpeace to work from.

Although there is a tourist business, and a few cruise ships do stop in town periodically - mostly it is a commercial fishing town. 

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Glaciers Are Cool, Bears Are Ferocious, Yadda, Yadda, Yadda

Arrived Kodiak on the Monday AM ferry and delivered to the docks via freight elevator. Quite a sight.  Finishing a quick town exploration in a drizzling rain we sauntered over to Fort Abercrombie State Park for our first three island nights in the campground.

Camp setup in a lighter drizzle was no joy but Alaska's famed liquid sunshine ceased by evening. And surprisingly on the next four days we awoke to clear blue skies, contrary to the prior evening's forecast.  Truly a land of surprises. Temps rarely above 70 degrees, expectations of daily rain the norm, and a general attitude that the salmon will be here momentarily.  Fortunately most fishermen we met were of good spirit and patient to stand by creeks and rivers in wait for an errant salmon heading upstream.  More fortunately Island Seafood, the primary fish packer and local retail outlet in Kodiak had a daily fresh supply of king salmon. Moist, succulent, and at the right price of $9.95/lb for steaks (a bit higher for fillets, but still worth it).  Not too shabby with appetizers from Pickled Willies, pickled salmon, halibut, cod and king crab. Yummmmmmm!

Okay,enough hiking about the island trails, and how much driving can be had on 80 miles of island roads even if this is the second largest island in the US ( Hawaii's Big Island being number 1). Time to see island bears. Only problem being is that while those fishermen wait, salmon are still not running on Kodiak and hence the bears are still up in the hills. So, for whatever reason the bears on Katmai Island are of a different mind and content, like the fishermen, to wait along the streams, rivers and shoreline for the spawning season to begin. Meanwhile Katmai bears ( DNA only slightly off from Kodiak bears)  are spending their days munching down grasses and digging for clams.

The float plane trip from Kodiak to Katmai was a little over an hour. A couple of whales guided us through bays below, bald eagles on nearly every point.  After a flyover spotting several bears and a huddle of photo-snapping tourists we landed offshore and slowly made our way ashore thanks to hip wadders.

A rather large sow with two nearly equally sized cubs were joyfully acting out in a meadow. We gathered with the other touring group and began our own clicking party. And yes, bears do poop on the beach.  Many clicks later, not 20 feet from the trio, and not a scare or fright that we might be someone's next meal, we mozied across the field in search of the lone male bear we had spotted from the plane as well.

Again not a note of attention to our approach nor concern for our watching at a rather close distance. The Denali rangers would be horrified to see how quickly we'd lost adherence to their 'keep 300 yards from any bear' rule.

And as if multiple bear sightings and on the ground observations weren't enough our pilot wrapped up the aerial tour with a sweep up a local glacier - one of the few that is still growing.

Lastly, finding a luncheon spot, now 6PM, was a bit more difficult. Our first float plane landing, intending to be proximate to a waterfall, was nixed when another sow and two very young cubs scrambled across the beach and off toward denser woods. Rather than chancing an unwelcome bear meeting we took flight once more to finally land on a high meadow lake midst snow streaked peaks.

Encores? Still five days on Kodiak ahead and sunshine predominates the forecasts.

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Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Is My Shoe. We've Been Friends For A Long Time. But Now I've Met A New Shoe.

Shortly after arriving in the UK in 2003 Karen and I took up a challenge to walk the entire length of the Thames Path, 200+ miles, in sections over the course of our available long weekends. In preparation we purchased new hiking boots, low cut suitable for flat to moderate inclined trails. They we're nice boots, especially after I applied snow seal to waterproof them. Altho this sort of revolted Karen who then claimed that they looked ugly, dirty, arrgh disgusting.  And they did! (Karen adds.)

We completed our sojourn - the Thames Path, in a little over a year. We then went on to the Ridgeway trail crossing sw England into the Chilterns. Many, many public path trails followed throughout our five years in the UK. Our trusty hiking boots went every step of the way. Included were our B&B treks into the Swiss Alps and Tuscany. 

As trusted companions our hiking boots returned to the US with us. Not much hiking in Michigan, but through a few soggy early spring trails we kept dry and comfortable feet.  And on into retirement we hiked our way through six weeks of southwest national parks visits in the spring of 2009 and a further four weeks of leaf peeping treks in New England that fall.

And onward to our great adventure of 2012, we laced up once again trekking through Taos, Moab, the Tetons, Yellowston, Banff, Jasper and on into the SE coast of Alaska. We made it as far as Denali National Park, feet dry and comfy up till this point. In Denali, hiking anywhere but on trails, across tundra bogs, thick brush and several stream crossings something changed. Snapped! Feet were wet. A seam on one side of my right boot found daylight and in rushed Alaskan liquid sunshine. Ooops! 'Help, I'm walking out of my boots'.

The final blow came on one trek when boot sucking mud grabbed one of Karen's boots and refused to let go. Backtracking upon hearing Karen's screams I ran up and tore that boot back from the bowels of a humongous mud bog (Ron exaggerates his rescue.)Swearing never to wear those boots again Karen was truely finished with the boots..  Even after cleansing that boot would never be the same. 

What to do? What to do!

Fortuitously, earlier that day we had spotted another trekker wearing a very familiar but strange looking boot. It appeared to be a Keen design, yet it had medium high ankle support and no open toes.  What are those we asked?  Ahhhh! 'Keen's' responded the surprised women that anyone would take such close notice of her foot wear.

We survived our week in Denali. Hiking boots still intact. Barely.  Next stop Palmer, just a stones throw from Anchorage. And what's so special about Anchorage, other than being the largest city in Alaska? There is an REI in Anchorage.  Might they have high top Keen's at this REI? You betcha!

In preparation for our upcoming treks in Kodiak we'll be sporting our new best friends.  Let you know soon how well the new fit works out.

P.S. Our old boot made it to the first rubbish bin outside the Anchorage REI.  RIP boots - we've walked in those boots for miles upon miles.

Old boot
Old boot
New boots
Harbor in Homer, AK ( largest in the state)
Hiking around Independence Mine on Hatcher Pass, Palmer, AK
And yes, even a 59 year old can lift his day pack skyward

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Denali...A Hike Back of Beyond, Or Where Ever Else you choose

Denali National Park, 6 million acres ( roughly the size of Massachussets), one 92 mile road, a handful of campgrounds, and maybe a handful of marked trails ( all of which are within the first ten miles of the park entrance.  See the park by park bus or tour bus which all run along the same park road, or by foot - literally by foot on or off road throughout the national park and wilderness areas ( excluding only small areas of high wildlife nesting or breeding zones). 

On five of our seven days in Denali we too off on hikes, two days in areas of our choosing, and three days on Park Ranger 'Discovery' hikes.  Sans trails, hikes generally begin with a bus ride which culminates with a request to the bus driver for a drop roadside. Like that canyon view or ridge line? Good enough, bus drivers will stop anywhere along the park road for drop off or pickup of hikers or cyclists. 

Noting that there are no marked or maintained trails, rules of the road here are to avoid 'social trails, those developed by the foot pounding on sensitive tundra by high frequency visits, or 'game trails, those developed through the course of normal game passages.  So where do we hike? Simply anywhere. Chose a destination and plot a path through brush, cross streams, up canyon and ridge lines, across tundra and swampy meadows, and up scree ladden slopes. Not your basic Sunday walk in the park.

The rewards? Too numerous to catalogue, and the vistas up yonder ridge line are not to be believed. Walking up one mountain bald, we encountered a small group of caribou heading in our direction. Owning up to the rule requiring that we remain at least 25 yards from caribou or most other wildlife (300 yards away from grizzly bears - further from grizzly moms and their cubs) we proceed to walk in a line away from the caribou. The caribou's response? They followed us remaining within a nominal 25 yards of us.  They must have had the same wildlife education lessons.

Oh! And on that same hike we had earlier observed a larger herd of caribou advancing in the valley below us to on the eastern slope, shortly thereafter to find ourselves watching a grizzly mom and cub crossing a snow patch in the valley to our western flank.  All that after having been treated to a couple of Ptarmagin(Alaskan state bird) nicely blending in with the snow as we clmbed a ravine.

Hiking Denali is rough walking at best, and bone chilling equally often. High alpine (tundra) meadows normally a pleasure to cross were marshy to full-on muddy, stream crossings chilling and more so following afternoon rains.  Altitude gains at your leisure and choosing. Denali/McKinley rises to 20,320', so option exist for level sand bar ( glacier created river basins) walks or steep canyon or river bed climbs.

And yes Denali weather is fairly consistent. Clear blue skies early AM. No stress, leave the rain suits in camp. Clouding over by late morning, a breeze, maybe a chill in the air. Winds picking up on ridge lines. An hour later, likelihood of rain increases. Storm clusters scatter across the sky. Its raining. It stops. It continues raining. The sun comes out and dries up all the rain. Late afternoon clouds threatening again. This time its raining mosquitoes.  Evening ( term used loosely as I'm not sure when evening or nighttime is, its always daylight) rain threatens, but generally clears in time for dinner prep, rain resuming intermittently over the early morning hours.  Next day much the same.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Denali National Park .... wildlife, wildflowers, wilderness

A remarkable place, six million acres, the highest mountain in Northern American - 20,320 feet high - Mount McKinley (known as Denali - Native American word for 'the High One.'), home to the grizzley bear, the grey wolf, moose, caribou, the Golden Eagle, panoramic views of river bars, mountain ranges and tundra.

We entered the park - driving to our campsite at Teklanika Campground.  It is 29 miles into the park, and the last place you can drive a car.  The only road extends 92 miles thru the park.  The only way around in the summer is by foot or by camp bus.  On most of the camp buses, there is a commentary from the driver about the park. 

Our camp had no showers or sinks.  Call me 'Wilderness Woman' - I managed without a shower for the week (although I did have soap and shampoo that did not require water & we had towelettes), and we boiled water to wash the dishes.  And the Alaskan mosquitoes were out in full to keep us company.

Wilderness and wildlife abounds.  Pictures will tell only part of the story because it is I impossible to capture the beauty and expansiveness. 

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