The Denali Hwy and an Abandon Igloo

When driving the 135 mile Denali Highway, you should not take the word highway literally.  Only 24 miles are paved and the rest is a “2 lane” gravel road. That being said – DRIVE IT! Many rental companies don’t allow you to drive the Denali highway, but some do. If yours doesn’t, there are several companies that rent Jeeps so you can get the full affect. Luckily, we have a Jeep so none of that was a concern to us. We started in Cantwell. I hadn’t really planned on driving the entire 135 miles to Paxson, but with such scenery, who could resist. There are some interesting fact about the highway here.

Almost as soon as the road turned to gravel, we came across an open field and we were treated to a view of Mt Denali in the distance…

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The scenery only got better with every mile…Denali Hwy-9471

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Breathtaking!

Most of the beautiful reds were courtesy of blueberry and cranberry bushes taking on their fall hues…

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They were SO tasty!
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Ready for picking!

It took us nearly 6 hours to drive 135 mile because I had to stop so often. I think my favorite view was the cabin on the hill…

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Doesn’t it just scream Alaska?

But the rivers and lakes come in a close second…

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Hard to contain my excitement!

What a road…

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The only bad thing was now, we had to drive back to Healy. We decided not to go back via the Denali Highway, but to go through Fairbanks instead. On the way, we saw glaciers and parts of the Alaska Pipeline…

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I was surprised how accessible the pipeline was.

Steve had planned a surprise for me on our last day in Healy. As always, he had checked Atlas Obscura when we arrived. He found the perfect place for me to get my abandon building fix, Igloo City. You know that little voice you have that says, “Don’t go in there, it isn’t safe”? Ya, I don’t have one…

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It’s only 4 stories tall, what bad could happen with no safety rails?

Apparently, Steve’s little voice was missing too…

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What a view this room would have had

 

 

Hey, look, I can see the Jeep from here…

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I was surprised how little trash and graffiti there was since it was so easy to get inside. Perhaps its remote location, half way between Anchorage and Fairbanks, keeps it off the radar for the local teenagers. But, you will always have some “art”…

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The other buildings were interesting as well…

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On the way back to Waldo, we had our final magnificant views of Mt Denali. Of course, I couldn’t resist a couple more shots…

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And so ends our Alaska adventure. It’s been great having you along to enjoy it with us. Up next, wildlife in the Yukon and British Columbia.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

Joining the 30% Club

We feel downright privileged to have been inducted into the 30% club! When we first arrived in Alaska, we had no idea such a club existed. The chalets where we worked were usually the final destination for our guests. They had already explored Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Anchorage. The Kenai Peninsula was the end of their adventures. Time after time, we heard stories of visiting Denali NP only to be terribly disappointed they didn’t get to see Mt. Denali. I mean, after all, it IS the tallest mountain on the continent – how can you not see it?!?!?

Mt Denali is 20,310 feet tall, that’s about 3 1/2 miles. Its 2 peaks are over 2 1/2 miles apart. It’s hard to imagine you couldn’t see it! But the fact is, given its location and size, it creates its own weather.

“Denali is so massive that it generates its own weather; much the way a huge boulder submerged in a river creates whitewater rapids. All mountains deflect air masses and influence local conditions, but Denali rises so abruptly and so high that this effect is more dramatic here than perhaps anywhere else on Earth. Storms barrel in from the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea and collide with Denali’s towering mass. Weather can quickly change from sunny and clear to blizzard conditions with fierce winds, intense cold, and heavy snowfall.”

                                                         From The Alaska Range and Denali: Geology and Orogeny

This pattern of weather convergences means it can be sunny and 70˚ in town and Mt Denali could be obscured by fog and clouds. It’s estimated only 30% of visitors actually get to see Mt. Denali. We were in that 30% – FOR 3 DAYS IN A ROW!!!!   Denali means “the high one” in Koyukon, a subset of the Athabaskan language family, sometimes thought to mean “the great one.” Every time we got to see Mt Denali, I was in awe.

The park has an incredible history and many of the stories can be found here.

The First 15 Miles

a map showing the predominately east-west road through denali national park

Private vehicles can only be driven on the first 15 miles of the 92 mile park road. To go beyond Savage River, you must take the park shuttle or hike. We spent our first day driving those 15 miles and seeing all we could see…

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The view on the left side of the road
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Compared to the view on the right side of the road

It was strange how the left side of the park was in bathed in dappled sun while the right side was shrouded in clouds. There would be no view of Denali today, but, we did get to see some informative signage…

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And when we made it to Savage River, we were treated with a surprise…

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A rainbow over Savage River

We weren’t worried we didn’t see any wildlife on the first day. Guided by the weather forecast, the next day we planned a trip on the shuttle to the Eielson Visitor’s Center – Park Road Mile 66.

The First 66 Miles

We opted for the transit bus, as opposed to the narrated tour bus. The up side of the transit bus is you can disembark, hike, then grab another bus, while you have to remain on the tour bus. We promptly departed at 7:30am, along with 58 of our newest friends. Our shuttle driver Annie filled us in on what to expect, she said we’d stop for all wildlife sightings and several scenic overlooks, in addition to potty breaks for the 8 hour ride.

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Our first view of Mt Denali was over the mist settled in the valley. But, we had seen it! Already a member! As the morning worn on, we stopped for several wildlife encounters…

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Meet Mr Caribou
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Those 2 black dots at 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock are grizzly bears

It was a bit frustrating for me, jostling for a view out the window, but we made it work.

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Those white dots in the center are Dahl Sheep

Are you noticing a pattern? Lots of dots. The colors on the mountains reminded me of Death Valley, except this color came from brightly colored fall foliage instead of minerals…

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The park road winds past colorful mountains

A good part of our day was spent taking pictures like this…

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At mile 46, we stopped to check out Polychrome Overlook. The myriad of colors were astounding…

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Lots of buses filled with tourists

We also stopped along the route for the iconic picture of the park road with Mt Denali in the background. Yes, everyone else has taken this picture, but I couldn’t resist…

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We did get a closer view of some grizzly bears, but unfortunately, the sun was shining toward us and the bears ended up with a halo…

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We also saw a couple moose in the distance…

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And lots more “dots” on the mountains…

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I loved watching this group of caribou. With winter around the corner, they are beginning to shed the velvet covering their antlers. It’s  not a good picture, but the antlers were almost orange…

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The views, despite being out the window, were breathtaking…

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When we arrived at the Eielson Vistor’s Center, Mt Denali provided an amazing backdrop…

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We decided to stay at the vistor’s center and catch a later shuttle. We were treated with a couple minutes of solitude before the next bus arrived. While we were basking in the splendor of Mt Denali, some of the wildlife posed for a closeup…

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An Arctic Squirrel
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Munching away on an apple peel someone had carelessly or purposely dropped

The park rangers go to great length to educate the public about the dangers of feeding ANY of the animals. Annie had reminded us time and again, it was best to eat on the bus so as not to leave so much as a crumb for the critters. But, you know people, some of them just can’t help themselves.

We walked along the trail and looked back at the visitor center…

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And ahead to the 33 more miles to the base of Mt Denali…

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Hard to imagine, Mt Denali is still 33 miles away!

One of the interesting things about Denali NP is the fact it is a “trail-less” park, with a few exceptions near the entrance. People are encouraged to find their own path. Go out and walk on the tundra. Feel the springiness of it under you feet. Enjoy it in your own responsible way.

It was time to head back. We had seen everything we had hoped to except the wolves. Pretty darn good day!

Up next…Cruising the Denali Highway and Abandon Igloos

Are you a member of the 30% club? Did you even know there is such a thing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

No, We Didn’t Win the Lottery

After reading about all of the adventures we’ve had this summer, you must be thinking we hit the lottery. I mean, really, who could afford to do all of those things?

Links go to the blog post I wrote about the adventure.

Two glacier cruises…

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Our cruise with Kenai Fjords Tours
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Our cruise with Major Marine

Two Helicopter tours…

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Marathon Helicopter tour
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Seward Helicopter Tours

Dog sledding…

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Turning Heads Kennel

Rafting…

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Rafting with Alaska River Adventures

Took the tram…

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Riding the Tram

Visited the wildlife center

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Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

And did sight seeing on our own…

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11 1/2 week old eagle in Homer

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One thing I haven’t written much about is the fact we are working. For May, June and most of July, we worked full time, 40 hours a week. We are the “On Site Hosts” at the Spruce Moose Chalets in Moose Pass. What does an on site host do, you ask? Well, lots of things. But one of the major things we do is be an ambassador for the area. Chalet guests come from all over the world and want to have the best experiences possible. But how can we recommend an excursion if we haven’t tried it ourselves? Would you recommend a restaurant you’ve never eaten at? No! So what I did was contact all of these businesses and explained to them we would be here for the summer and wanted to be able to tell our guests about our adventures. I asked if they would be willing to give us a discount in exchange for our testimony. Simple as that! Nearly every place I contacted offered us a deal and discounts varied from place to place.  We never would have been able to afford to do all these things if I hadn’t been able to leverage our position as the on site host.

I still have one more post to write (maybe two) about our time but I am pretty much caught up. Finally!

Our job contract here is almost up. We will be leaving Moose Pass on Sept. 4th, but our adventures are far from over! We are heading up to Denali for a week (where we have an interview for a job next summer), then we will be heading down to Haines for 4 days. I have mapped out a pretty ambitious trip back to Florida, 4 National Parks and lots of cool sights along the way. I hope you continue to follow our adventures!

We’d love to hear your comments!

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?