Kayaking with Aligators

We only had 2 days to explore the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, not nearly enough time considering it covers 630 sq miles. The swamp is only part of the Okefenokee experience, there are also vast wet prairies, pine uplands and cypress forests. This mosaic of habitats makes the Okefenokee a “Wetland of International Importance.” The swamp itself is 38 miles long and 25 miles wide and remains one of the most well preserved and intact freshwater ecosystems in the world.

Day One

We stopped at the visitors center and asked about the 120 miles of water trails. Like hiking trails, they range from easy to difficult. We wanted to plan an easy paddle, maybe 4 or 5 hours in total. A trip to the Cedar Hammock canoe shelter sounded just right.

With the next day’s kayaking plan in place, we had the rest of the afternoon to explore. We took the 7.5 mile Swamp Island Drive. The ranger told us to be on the lookout for several species of carnivorous plants and orchids blooming along the borrow ditch. She explained the ditch was created when workers “borrowed” the material to build the road.

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Rose Pogonia
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Butterwort
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Pitcher plant

 

We crossed onto Chesser Island, which was named after the family who settled there in 1858. A short path led us to the homestead…

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It’s hard to imagine what life was like in 1927 when Tom and Iva Chesser built the homestead. The yard was kept free of vegetation to reduce the fire hazard and  to increase the chance of seeing any snakes that might wander by. There are many remnants of family’s life on the island…

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Cane syrup hearth

Our final stop on the Swamp Island Drive was the Chesser Island Boardwalk…

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We kept our eyes open for wildlife. The ranger told us a bobcat had been hanging around the boardwalk, but alas, I had to settle for lizards…

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We climbed the 40-foot Owl’s Roost Tower for a view of Seagrove Lake…

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Day Two

Our first plan was to be at the refuge early, but when I woke up, it was a chilly 63 degrees. I decided I wasn’t in a hurry! It was almost 10am when we arrived warming up quickly. We signed the paddlers’ log, we began our adventure.

We followed the Suwanee Canal for about a mile and a half before finding the entrance to the Cedar Hammock trail. Along the way, I marveled at the reflections in the tannin rich waters…

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We saw a few alligators in the canal. Despite being in a kayak, I did not feel threatened by their presence.  Okefenokee NWR-1990

Although, one surfaced so close to the front of my kayak, I could see it’s eyes but not it’s snoot. A little too close.

We left the motorboats behind when we entered the trail. They had all been courteous, slowing down to no wake speed when they passed, but I was happy to head deeper into the swamp…

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The trail was peaceful, with scores of water lilies blooming along the way…

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At the end of the trail there is an overnight shelter and outhouse.

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I got out to stretch and watch the alligator swimming by…

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As we were leaving, I noticed a baby alligator among the lily pads…

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Steve took the lead on the way back to the canal. I wonder if he saw this guy…

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I loved every minute of our paddle! From the anhinga…

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To the turtle…

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It was amazing!

Would you kayak with the alligators? Do  you think we’re nuts?

A Trip to Canaveral National Seashore

Nature in harmony with science make Florida’s Space Coast an adventure not to be missed. I have been to the Space Coast twice, the first time in 2012 and again last week with Steve. There are several components making up the coast, you have the Canaveral National Seashore, consisting of 57,662 acres, the Merritt Island NWR, consisting of 140,000 acres which includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

On both occasions, my main objective was to visit Merritt Island NWR, specifically the Black Point Wildlife Drive. Both of my visits were in late March and I was surprised by the differences. The water levels were much higher in 2012 and my visit coincided with a prescribed burn.

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It’s natural for the water levels to fluctuate and we haven’t had a lot of rain this winter.

Merritt Island NWR is home to over 1500 species of plants and animals, including 15 federally listed species. It is also an important stop on the Atlantic Flyway. You never know what you might come across during a visit.

The wildlife drive is a 7 mile, one-way road through various habitats, from shallow marsh impoundments to pine flatwoods…

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With spring in the air, wildflowers are blooming, attracting lots of butterflies…

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In 2012, I was lucky enough to be visiting when a large flock of white pelicans were resting in the marsh…

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This year, we saw quite a few northern shovelers which are in the spoonbill family…

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While we were photographing them, a grackle made his presence known. He was finding a meal in the fallen palm fronds. When I got too close, he retreated to my spare tire.

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We saw flocks of blue billed ducks. I haven’t quite identified them yet…

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And tons of coots…

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The one animal you are almost guaranteed to see is alligators…

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After we finished the drive, we decided to head over to Canaveral National Seashore. On the way, we were lucky enough to see a sandhill crane with its chick…

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Using our America the Beautiful Pass, we entered our first national park of the year. I don’t think we will visit as many parks this year as last (15 in total), but we love not having to pay the entrance fees.

Our first wildlife encounter was with an armadillo. I’m fairly sure this little guy was completely blind. He was unfazed by my presence and at one point nearly walked into me…

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We also saw what I think was a box turtle on the side of the road…

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Only one of our encounters came with its own warning sign…

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I have to admit, we were a bit surprised. The seashore has 5 areas with beach access and apparently clothing is optional at beach 5. Who knew?!?!?

The one area we haven’t visited yet is the Kennedy Space Center. I’ve heard you can spend the better part of a day there, so it will have to wait until next time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

 

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!

 

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?