Drifting into Happiness

Despite the fact the weather hasn’t been all that great this summer, we’ve been very lucky to have mostly warm sunny days when we’ve scheduled an excursion. Our rafting trip through the Upper Kenai River was no exception. Our trip began at the office of Alaska River Adventures in Cooper Landing, where we donned rain pants, rubber boots and a life vest. (The rain pants were for “just in case” we get splashed by the rapids) We walked down to the launch area and were given a quick but thorough safety speech. Our guide, Austin, promised us he hadn’t had anyone fall overboard, at least not accidentally. This was good news to me!

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Our float would take us nearly 7 hours covering the entire Upper Kenai River. This portion of the river is closed to all motorized craft. Drifting (and paddling) is the name of the game. A family at the launch waved as we headed off…

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There were only 2 other couples on our trip, both on their honeymoon. That made Steve and I “the old married couple.” Austin pointed out landmarks and mountains of interest as he seemingly effortlessly paddled our way. The flow of the river is very calm here and he mostly just used the paddle for steering…

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As we rounded a bend in the river, Austin gave a shout, “There’s a bear!” Of course we all turned trying to get the best view…

 

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He told us another rafting company had put it there to fulfill the promise of seeing a bear in the wild. We all had a good laugh, but I was hoping for one just a little livelier. This time of year, the river is full of fisherman, hoping to land the big one…

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The current began to pick up a bit as we neared the confluence of the Russian River and the Kenai River…

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The Russian River Ferry brings fisherman to the far bank. This is an extremely popular fishing spot and where you can witness combat fishing. I, for one, was happy there weren’t too many anglers out on this day. It would be neat to see fisherman shoulder to shoulder on the river, but I imagine tempers can flare…

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If you’ve never heard of combat fishing, you should Google it! It’s nuts! Anyhow, back to our adventure. We lucked out and got to see several eagles as we drifted…

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We were coming up on the only Class III rapids on our trip and I decided to video going through the Kenai River Canyon…

Austin noticed a couple up on the bluff, they were pointing and looking at something across the river. And guess what – finally – a bear…

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See the couple on the bluff

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We were getting closer and closer to Skilak Lake, which would mark the end of our float. Austin knew of a small side channel where he frequently sees moose. Since we had plenty of time, we left the main part of the river and found ourselves in the most beautiful, peaceful area I’ve been in for ages…

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The detour was a wonderful addition to an already exciting day. When we finally got to Skilak Lake, Austin broke out the makings for our lunch…

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After we had eaten, Austin packed up everything and prepared to lead us on a mile and a half hike to where the van was waiting…

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It was a beautiful hike to the van. I’m hoping Steve and I can go back and hike the trail again.

You won’t believe it, but I am almost caught up! It’s a good thing too because we only have another 3 weeks in Moose Pass before we head to Denali!

Thanks for coming along with us on our adventures.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

A Bit of Winter in July

It’s not every day you can combine two amazing adventures in one. Well, not completely true. In 2013, the owners of Turning Heads Kennel bought Seward Helicopter Tours and began flying folks like Steve and me up to Godwin Glacier for a bit of dog sledding. These aren’t just any old sled dogs. They are canine athletes! They’ve competed in races like the Tustumena 200, the Willow 300 and the Iditarod. Like all athletes, training is important. But how do you train sled dogs when there isn’t any snow? Well, you set up a base camp on a glacier! Then you fly people up there to share the experience.

We began our trip at the Seward Airport. Where we donned over-boots to keep our feet dry and warm parkas which were provided for us because, well, we were flying up to a glacier! Then we waited for our turn to board the helicopter…

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It takes about 15 minutes to reach the basecamp on Godwin Glacier and the scenery was incredible…

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After landing on the glacier, the mushers introduced us to the future stars of sledding – the puppies!

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After getting our fill of puppy kisses, our musher talked with us about what life is like for a sled dog. He said educating people about dog sledding is an important part of the experience. Someone in our group asked, “What makes a sled dog want to pull and run?” And I loved the answer – “What makes a retriever chase a tennis ball or jump in the lake? It’s what they do, what makes them happy.” And the chorus of barking dogs told me these were some happy pups!

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Our team was already hitched up and we got settled onto the sleds to begin our ride…

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The dogs’ excitement was contagious as we started across the glacier. There were two sleds hitched together, our musher stood on the back of the first sled and we all got a turn at standing on the back of the second sled…

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Blue skies and breathtaking scenery helped complete the picture perfect day…

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While Steve was taking his turn on the back, I took a video from the front seat…

And soon, we pulling back into basecamp…

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When our ride was over, we had plenty of time to meet our team and the other dogs who call Godwin Glacier home. I noticed several of the lighter colored dogs had dark circles around their eyes. Our musher explained it is eye makeup and it helps them not get snow-blinded…

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We also got to witness the obvious love the mushers have for their dogs…

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All too soon, our return helicopter landed to whisk us back to the airport…

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It doesn’t get any more exciting than this! Helicopters, glaciers, dog sledding and puppies!

The Alyeska Tram

We had the morning off, but had to be back at the chalets to meet incoming guests by 4 pm and we needed to stay within cell coverage in case the guests needed any directions. So – what to do? Where to go?

We decided to drive over to Girdwood and take the tram ride at the Alyeska Ski Resort. Since it was a beautiful, sunny day, we figured the scenery would be worth the hour drive. And boy was it ever!

Once we found a parking spot and bought our tickets, we got in line for the next tram. They run every 15 minutes, so we didn’t have to wait too long. When we got to the top, the first thing I saw was an interesting sign…

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Hmmm – okay. Note to self, don’t play with unexploded artillery shells. There were so many trails to chose from…

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The tram operator said his favorite trail was the Mountain Top Trail. He said it was a bit steep, but the view would be worth it. Before we started up the trail, we walked around the tram building and took in the sights…

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Steve lining up his shot
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Wow!

There was still some snow at the beginning of the trail and Steve was wishing he hadn’t worn sandals, but I was ready to start our climb…

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The trail was constantly switch-backing, so the climb wasn’t too steep. We stopped several times along the way to gawk at the view…

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Are you noticing a trend here? Every time I turned around, Steve was sitting down taking pictures. But you can’t argue with the results!

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When we got almost to the top, we stopped for “our selfie to prove we were there”…

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Then, Steve took a seat (again) while I took a closer look and the flowers covering the mountain side…

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Far below us, others were hiking through the fields and forests…

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Can you spot the hikers? Wait, let me zoom in a bit…

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After our climb, we stopped for a quick beer at the Bore Tide Deli & Bar before we took the tram back to the base.

The guests had texted me they were leaving Anchorage, so I knew we’d better head back to the chalets. In the end, we pulled in almost right behind them. Talk about timing!

The Alyeska Tram is a great way to spend the day and you just can’t beat the views!

 

Wonderful Whittier

Ok, to be completely honest, it IS wonderful, but it’s also a bit weird! If you are claustrophobic, you might want to skip heading to Whittier in your car since the only way to get there is though the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This 2.5 mile long tunnel under Maynard Mountain is not only the longest highway tunnel in North America, but it also one of the only tunnels used for trains and cars, oh, and it’s one lane! Although the railroad portion of the tunnel was completed in 1943, it didn’t open to vehicles until June 7, 2000. (Click here for some interesting tunnel history.)

We were going to be taking a cruise to Surprise Glacier with Major Marine Tours at 12:15. I wanted to have time to explore Whittier a bit before the cruise, so we opted for the 8:30am tunnel crossing. We arrived at the staging site, paid our $13 toll and waited for the tunnel to open to traffic bound for Whittier. Once the tunnel was cleared, we began our drive through the mountain…

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It was an interesting experience, to say the least. We arrived in Whittier with plenty of time to explore. One of the things we wanted to see was the Buckner Building. Steve had read about it on Atlas Obscura. Once touted as “The City Under One Roof”, it is now a place of moldy walls and asbestos filled air, not quite hidden behind chain link and razor wire. The daredevil in me wanted to venture inside but the saner side of me opted to take a few shots from outside. It was a close call though when I found an opening in the fence! If Steve hadn’t been pointing at the No Trespass sign and shaking his head, I might have done it.

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We still had plenty of time before the cruise, so we drove out Shotgun Cove Trail. We stopped at a few of the day use areas and were treated to some spectacular scenery…

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Notice the boat? Gives a small sense of scale.

And my first sighting of a steller jay…

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At the end of the trail, we found  this…

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I had been seeing splashes of yellow along the road and was finally able to get close enough to get a picture. Turns out, it was yellow skunk cabbage…

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As we headed back toward the harbor, there was one more building I wanted to see. The Begich Towers are home to almost the entire population (all 200) of Whittier. (great story here)…

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Finally, it was time to check in for our cruise. We found a parking spot and walked along the harbor to the Major Marine office…

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As we left the dock, we had a great view of the Buckner Building…

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The onboard park ranger and the captain did a great job of explaining the variety of things were to see. Our first stop was at a kittiwake colony…

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I was content to take in the scenery and listen to the narrative as we navigated through Prince William Sound. The captain stayed a respectful distance form the sea otters, many with babies…

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When I saw movement and splashes of color, it wasn’t until I got out the binoculars that I was able to see the kayakers…

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The lingering clouds made a dramatic display in the mountains..

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26 different glaciers can be seen from Prince William Sound and the ranger pointed them out as we passed…

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But our cruise was to a specific glacier – Surprise Glacier. As we entered Harriman Fjord, we got our first glimpse…

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The captain explained we would be staying 1/2 a mile from the face of the glacier since it is actively calving and a 1/2 mile was safety factor needed for the tremendous waves possible if a large shelf were to calve. The closer we got to the glacier face, the more ice we saw in the water…

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I knew ahead of time about the glacier ice margaritas we could enjoy, so I wasn’t surprised when I saw two members of the crew scooping up ice…

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It is hard to describe the eerie beauty of the glacier. Between the stunning blue ice and the rifle like cracking sounds, I can only describe it as breathtaking…

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It’s hard to get a picture of it calving because by the time you hear it, it has already happened, I got a very short video…

But, Steve managed to get a great shot of it calving…

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It was time to begin our journey back to Whittier, but there were still lots of things to see. We cruised though Esther Passage…

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And stopped at a working salmon hatchery…

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And of course, enjoyed our glacier ice margaritas…

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It was a thoroughly enjoyable cruise, made better by adding the all you can eat prime rib and salmon buffet! But, as you know, all good things must come to an end. So with our bellies full, our camera cards loaded with pictures and our eyes having absorbed so much amazing scenery, we once again took our place in line at the staging area to enter the tunnel one more time. This time, though, we had to wait for the train to clear the tunnel before we could enter…

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An interesting article about 1899 Harriman Expedition can be found here.

Have you ever been to Whittier? What did you think of the tunnel?

Up, Up and Away

Our adventurous side was calling and Marathon Helicopter Tours answered! We’d seen Resurrection Bay up close on our glacier cruise, but seeing it from the air was an entirely different experience.We checked into their office at the airport, received our safety briefing and were soon ready to take to the air. Our pilot, Mike, has been flying helicopters since 2006 and moved to Seward in 2012. He clearly loves what he does! As we lifted off, he pointed out various Seward landmarks, giving a running commentary on the landscape…

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We hugged the shoreline as he told us how the 1964 earthquake forever changed the face of Seward (and all of southern Alaska).

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We flew over some kayakers enjoying the first sunny day we’d had in a while…

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Soon, we made our way up into the mountains, with stunning views of Resurrection Bay for contrast…

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We saw mountain goats, deftly crossing the rocky outcroppings…

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As the mountains gave way, we got our first look at Bear Glacier and its bay…

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With a practiced ease, Mike swung his flying machine towards the glacier, giving us a close-up view of its beauty…

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Mike explained the ridge of dirt on the glacier is a medial moraine. A moraine is the accumulation of dirt and debris on an icefield. When it is on the edge of the glacier, it’s called a lateral moraine and when 2 glaciers combine, their edges become the middle and a medial moraine is formed…

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As we flew near the edge of the glacier, we could see the lateral moraine forming…

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The landscape seemed other-worldly, as if Mike had transported us to another planet…

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As we crossed into the airspace over Kenai Fjord National Park, we were treated with the sights of glacial lakes and rivers…

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Mike’s in depth knowledge and humorous commentary is only surpassed by his ability to spot wildlife far below of the forest floor…

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We knew our adventure was nearly over as we flew along the Resurrection River with its many creeks and streams…

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It was an amazing adventure! Mike, in one word – AWESOME! The scenery so breathtaking, I’m still winded. If you’re ever in Seward, stop by Marathon Helicopter Tours and they will take you on an Alaska adventure you’ll never forget!

Have you ever been on a helicopter tour? Was your adventure as fun as ours? I’d love to hear about it!

 

 

 

 

Where are the Bears?

In an effort to get caught up, this post is going to be about several day trips we’ve taken around the Kenai Peninsula. We are always on the lookout for wildlife, particularly bears. Black and brown bears (grizzlies) live on the peninsula and we spend a lot of time exploring the area looking for them. We’d been told the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge was famous for bear sightings. We set off early one morning to drive Skilak Lake Road, an 18 mile dirt road in the refuge. We had barely gotten a half mile from Waldo when I had to stop and admire the reflection on Upper Trail Lake…

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When we finally arrived at Skilak Lake Road, I realized something – it was Memorial Day weekend. There were people everywhere, the campgrounds were packed and the bears were in hiding! But, the scenery was lovely…

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Mt Redoubt, in the background, is a volcano – it last erupted in 2009

We did finally get to see some wildlife…

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Oh ya, and we did see a squirrel, but i didn’t get any pictures of it. Another day, the town of Hope was our destination. The Alaskan gold rush began in Hope and there are lots of places to explore. After we turned off the Seward Highway, we were treated to some stunning vistas overlooking Turnagain Arm…

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Usually, we make sure we have a full tank of gas before we head off to do any exploring but we had both verified there was a gas station in Hope, so we didn’t top off the Jeep. What we didn’t know was the price of gas in Hope was $4.50 a gallon! Holy crap! Over a dollar more than in Seward. AND – cash only! That’ll teach us! After we emptied our wallets, we drove along Palmer Creek Road…

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The breathe taking views eventually led us to a hiking trail. There were quite a few cars parked at the trail head, but we grabbed the bear spray and our cameras and started down the trail…

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It didn’t take too long to realize the snow covering the trail was too deep for us to enjoy the walk. As we were debating turning around, I caught movement in the brush…

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This willow ptarmigan was foraging in the underbrush, making way more noise than you would have thought for something that small. We watched until it disappeared and headed back to the Jeep. Since it was getting late in the day, we decided to head back home. As we passed Tern Lake, I saw a pair of tundra swans. But, Steve saw what I had missed! The babies…

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It didn’t take long for a crowd of onlookers to appear. It seems when one person stops along the road with a camera in hand, everyone stops. Apparently, I’m guilty of the same thing. We were driving along Kalifornsky Beach Road, just south of Kenai, when I saw a guy on the side of the road with his camera. Steve and I turned around to investigate – was it a bear? Nope, but almost as cool. It was a caribou, munching away on the tender new shoots…

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We hadn’t driven 3 miles further down the road when we saw Ms. Moose doing her part to control the dandelions…

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After turning off of Kalifornsky Beach Road, we headed north to Captain Cook State Recreation Area. The weather wasn’t the best, so we didn’t have a very good view across Cook Inlet, but we did see some more wildlife…

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We finally got a few sunny days and we headed to Cooper Landing. We stopped at the boat launch and watched as the rafters and fishermen began their journey to the Upper Kenai River…

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Steve decided to drive down Snug Harbor Road which follows the back side of Kenai Lake.  I was enjoying the scenery when Steve abruptly did a u-turn. Why? Was it a bear? Nope (again) it was a beautiful waterfall that couldn’t be seen from  the passenger side of the Jeep…

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We finally made it to the end of the 18 mile road and found Snug Harbor…

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While we were sitting there, a couple in a canoe returned to shore, only to find out their battery was dead…

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We tried to jump start them, but to no avail. We ended up giving them a ride back to Cooper Landing so they could call for a tow. They were grateful we were there, it would have been a very long walk back to town!

Another day, we when were looking for bears, we saw mama moose and her baby…

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So, we’ve done all this driving around Kenai Peninsula looking for bears when we could have stayed at home and let them come to us…

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I took this picture in our driveway! I watched until I thought it was gone. Steve drove to the bottom of the hill and didn’t see it anymore, so we figured it had moved on. Come to find out, it had circled back to Waldo and checked out our grill…

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Like the bear print on the lid to the grill?
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 I guess it was unhappy dinner wasn’t ready!

One of our guests shared this picture with me…

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Now we know where the bears are!

 

 

Cruising Resurrection Bay

The town of Seward is about 26 miles south of us and is the heart of Resurrection Bay. There are glacier cruises, fishing charters, kayak adventures – nearly anything you’d like to do on the water in Resurrection Bay is found in Seward. In late May, Steve and I went out With Kenai Fjords Tours hoping to see some wildlife and knowing we’d get to see several glaciers.

Our cruise left Seward at 10 am and I didn’t have great expectations about the weather. It was overcast, cold and windy.

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Everyone was bundled up! As we left the harbor, we had a great view of the town’s waterfront RV park (a place I’d love to spend some vaca time!)

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Looking back at the pictures I took, I was really disappointed. I don’t think any of them captured the beauty and excitedness we saw and felt.

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We hadn’t even gotten out of the harbor when we saw our first wildlife – sea otters…

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The captain and crew gave a first rate running commentary on everything we were seeing and made every attempt to get us as close to the wildlife as was possible without disturbing them. Despite the crappiness of the weather, there is no denying the beauty of the scenery…

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Our next wildlife encounter was a group of Dall’s porpoises. They seemingly played in the boat’s wake, riding the waves and swimming along side of us, as if to race…

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With their black and white bodies, if you look quick and don’t know the difference, you might think they were killer whales (orcas). The porpoises finally tired of playing with us and we moved on. Our next sighting was special because it isn’t often the endangered fin whales are this close to shore. Fin whales are the second largest creature to ever live on earth!

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Leaving the fins behind, we came upon a pod of killer whales, aka orcas. Killer whales aren’t whales at all, they are members of the porpoise/dolphin family.

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As we were watching, a smaller boat drifted in. They got a close up view…

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As if the dramatic cliffs and soaring, snow capped peaks weren’t enough scenery to make your jaw drop, the captain brought us into a cove with a glacier fed waterfall…

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All this excitement and we hadn’t even gotten to the glacier yet. Our destination was Aialik Glacier, deep in Kenai Fjords National Park. The closer we got, the more ice we came across and, luckily, the bluer the skies became…

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And then, there was Aialik Glacier…

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See the group of kayakers near the center of the picture? No thanks! As much as I enjoy kayaking, that wouldn’t be for me!

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We didn’t get too witness any calving of the glacier, but the abundance of ice in the water suggested it had been active recently.I’m pretty sure Steve was enjoying himself, what do you think?

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We were about half way through our cruise, but there were plenty of things yet to see. On our way back towards Seward, we motored around several of the islands. My favorite was the one with all the steller sea lions on it…

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And the colony of kittiwakes nesting on the face of the cliffs…

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But, our luck hadn’t run out yet, we came across a humpback whale…

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One of the reasons we chose this tour over some of the others, was this tour stopped at Fox Island for an all you can eat prime rib and salmon buffet. I would have taken more pictures of Fox Island, but I was too busy stuffing my face! Steve and I both opted to add the king crab legs (at $15 a person, how could we not!)

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We were almost back to Seward when we got our final wildlife encounter. There were mountain gloats high above us on the rocky outcropping…

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All in all, even if I think the pictures don’t do it any sort of justice, it was an amazing cruise with stunning scenery and more wildlife than I ever expected.

Up next…looking for bears…oh my!