Whaling Wall, Anchorage, AK

In 1981, American artist Robert Wyland set out to paint 100 murals celebrating ocean life.  The first wall, in Laguna Beach, California, was dedicated in August of that year.  Twenty seven years later, Wyland’s 100th wall was dedicated in Beijing China.

Anchorage’s Whaling Wall, officially titled “Alaska’s Marine Life”, was painted by Wyland in 1994 and was his 54th wall in the series.  The huge mural, 400 feet long and 50 feet, high, depicts whales and seals that are native to Alaska.  It’s an impressive work of art and one of Anchorage’s best known landmarks.

Whaling Wall Mural HDR Deep 1

Creek Street, Ketchikan, Alaska

When is a street not a street?  When it’s Creek Street in Ketchikan.  It’s actually a boardwalk on that follows Ketchikan Creek.  When prostitution was outlawed on the city side of Ketchikan Creek in 1903, the enterprising owners figured the way to get around the ordinance was to build a boardwalk on the opposite side of the creek.  From 1903 until 1954, Creek Street was Ketchikan’s red light district.  These days it’s a tourist stop and one of the most photographed streets in America.

This photo highlights several aspects of Creek Street and Ketchikan.  First, you can see how the street is actually a boardwalk.  Second, you can see the street’s most famous bordello, Dolly’s Place, to the right of center.  And third, you can see that Ketchikan is one of the rainiest places on Earth.  It rained the entire time we were there, but we didn’t let the rain keep us from exploring.

Creek Street

Johns Hopkins Glacier, Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is aptly named.  There are over 1,000 glaciers in the park, the most famous of them being the 7 tidewater glaciers.  Johns Hopkins Glacier is one of the few tidewater glaciers that are actually advancing.

Johns Hopkins Glacier gets its start on the east slopes of Lituya Mountain.  Lituya Mountain was the site of two of the largest landslides in history.  In 1958 an earthquake kicked off a landslide that dropped an estimated 40 million cubic yards of rock into Lituya Bay.  The resulting tsunami measured nearly 1,700 feet high and was the largest tsunami ever recorded.

In 2012 another landslide, measuring 5.5 miles long and .5 miles wide, fell on Johns Hopkins Glacier, and was possibly the largest recorded landslide in North America.

I like the way the glacier seems to form a series of steps or terraces leading back  from the bay.  The weather, as usual in Glacier Bay, was overcast, so the colors are quite muted.  You do get a bit of the unique blue hue of the glacier ice in the center of the glacier.

The scale of the photo is a bit misleading.  It looks like we were quite close, but we were actual a few miles away.  Glacier Bay is a beautiful, wild place.

Johns Hopkins CFX Graduated ND

Toklat River, Denali National Park

The interior of Alaska is stunningly beautiful.  This is a photo of the Toklat River in Denali National Park.  The Toklat is a braided river, which is created by an excess of sediment.  Over time the river fills with sediment, in this case from glaciers, and the sediment creates little islands or bars that the river must work its way around.

I really like the monochromatic feel of the photograph, with grays of the mountains, the sky and the river and just a touch of green from the trees.

Tundra Tour Landscape Detail Extractor

Grizzly Bear, Denali

During our stay at Denali, we took a Tundra Wilderness Tour.  The tour lasted about seven hours and went deep into one of the wildest of our National Parks.  The views were stunning and we were fortunate enough to see a great number of animals, including this grizzly, who was just a few yards away from our bus.  He’s quite an impressive creature and doesn’t seem to be too worried about the bus that’s sitting in front of him.

Denali Grizzly

 

Alaska Wilderness

Sometimes I’m left with the feeling of awe at the beauty of nature.  Alaska’s wilderness left me feeling that way over and over.  Even now, two years later, the places that left the deepest impressions were not the tourist locations, but the natural places we saw in passing.

I don’t know exactly where this mountain and valley are located in Alaska.  I can only tell you that I took the photo as we passed by on our Alaska Railroad journey from Denali to Anchorage.  It leaves me with an appreciation of the power and majesty of nature.

Alaska Landscape

Alaska Railroad, May 2016

Our trip from Denali to Anchorage was aboard the Alaska Railroad.  The bi-level, glass-domed McKinley Explorer cars were perfect for viewing the extraordinary landscape of Alaska.

Denali Train Depot CFX Help Me Rhonda

The Alaska Railroad’s routes are entirely contained in Alaska and the railroad carries both passengers and freight.  While the railroad depends heavily on tourism, inland residents of Alaska depend on the Alaska Railroad for supplies and transportation.  But our experience is as passengers, so we’ll focus on that.

This is not your average passenger train.  The lower level is the dining car and, from our experience, the food is quite good.  The upper deck is glass-domed, which gives the passengers great views of the passing landscape.  There’s a full-service bar on each passenger car.  Here’s a view of the beautiful yellow and blue engine from the passenger car.

Alaska RR engine from dome car 2 HDR Deep 1

The trip was around eight hours and we passed through some beautiful country.  Inland Alaska is sparsely populated, so much of what we passed was wilderness.  We never tired of watching the mountains, forests and rivers pass by.

One of the highlights of the trip was Denali.  Few visitors to Alaska get to see the Tall One.  Denali spends most of its time hiding behind banks of clouds that hide it from most people.  We among the fortune few.  The weather was perfect, with few clouds.  Denali was in sight from the train for over an hour.

Best Denali CFX Detail

Denali was the icing on the cake.  The rest of the trip to Anchorage was pretty uneventful and relaxing.  Each car had a guide who pointed out interesting facts and, in general, kept us entertained.  We enjoyed a nice lunch, a drink or two, and a beautiful journey.  Soon we would reach our last stop on our Alaska journey, Anchorage.

Tundra Wilderness Tour, Denali, May 2016

Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park.  Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station.  That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.

The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens.  When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness.  At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats.  The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.

Tundra Tour Buses HDR Deep 2

Our driver was great.  He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since.  He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers.  For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc.  We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.

One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out.  That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.

The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.

Moose Color Efx Ektachrome 100 and Detail Extractor

The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes.  This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park.  Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths.  Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.

The next sighting was a ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration.  Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken.  One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken.  The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.

Ptarmigan Color Efx Fuji Velvia 100 Foliage

Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali.  Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds.  Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other.  We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs.  Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.

Grizzly in Road Revealing Detail Foliage

Next up were a herd of Dall sheep.  Dall sheep are quite common in Denali.  They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.

Dall Sheep HDR Outdoor 2

Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour.  The rugged landscape was breathtaking.  One of the high points was Polychrome Pass.  Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour.  The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.

Polychrome Pass HDR Deep 2

Caribou are quite common in Denali.  We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape.  This was the best I could do with the Caribou.

Caribou Ektachrome 100 and Foliage

We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station.  The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points.  From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.

Tundra Tour Landscape Detail Extractor

In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou.  But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road.  After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”

All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent.  If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.

 

NPS Sled Dogs, May 2016

One of our favorite excursions was also a free one.  We took a shuttle from McKinley Chalet Resort to the park to visit the National Park Service sled dogs.  The NPS sled dogs are quite different from the racing dogs we saw at Caribou Crossing in the Yukon.  The NPS dogs are working dogs and, as such, are not built for speed but for endurance. Because of the harsh winters virtually the only way into the wilderness is by dog sled.  The rangers can spend weeks in the the wilderness and depend on the dogs to get them in and around the park.  During the spring and summer, though, the dogs take it easy and provide an opportunity for tourists to interact with real working sled dogs.

As part of the visit to the dogs, the park rangers put on a short but informative sledding demonstration.  It’s obvious from the demonstration that the dogs love what they do.

A few words about the dog sled team.  Each dog on the team has a job and they’re assigned that job based on their physical abilities and their personality.  Here’s the team from our demonstration.

The Team HDR Deep 2

The front row contains the lead dogs.  Lead dogs steer the team and set the pace.  Qualities of a good lead dog is intelligence, initiative and the ability to find a good trail in bad conditions.

The second row are the swing dogs.  These dogs help swing the rest of the team along the turns of the trail.

The dog closest to the sled is the wheel dog.  The wheel dog needs to be calm and intelligent, so that it is not startled by the movement of the sled.  They also need to be able to help guide the sled around tight turns.

So that’s the team.  The sled they  pull during the demonstration is an actual working sled, but without the couple hundred pounds that can be loaded on the sled for long excursions into the Alaska wilderness.  The all wood sled has not changed much since men began using sleds and dogs for transportation in Alaska.

NPS Sled Ektachrome 64 Pro HDR Deep 1

The actual mushing demonstration only lasted a minute but it was obvious that the dogs enjoy their job.  Once they were done with their 60 seconds of work the dogs were rewarded with a treat and laid down to enjoy it while a park ranger explained the ins and outs of the life of an NPS sled dog.

Mushing HDR Deep 2

In case you’re interested, the NPS sled dogs are retired at age nine.  By that time they’ve traveled more than 8,000 miles under harness.  So what happens to the dogs once they’re retired?  They’re adopted to suitable homes.  Keep in mind that the years of sledding have kept these dogs in top condition and the energy and intelligence of the dogs may not be a match for the casual dog person.  But if you’re used to high energy and intelligent dogs and can give one of these dogs the home it needs, please consider adopting.

Seward to Denali, May 2016

Our final port on the Alaska cruise was Seward, a town of just under 3,000 residents on the Gulf of Alaska. Seward is the ninth most lucrative fisheries port in the United States and the harbor was full of fishing boats.

Port of Seward HDR Outdoor 1

Seward is also the beginning of the Seward Highway, one of the most beautiful drives in the United States.  Our trip from Seward to Denali would begin along the Seward Highway.

Fifty years after the 1964 earthquake that devastated Alaska from Anchorage to Seward there are still signs of damage.  The land dropped six to eight feet and was flooded with salt water.  Along the highway you can see “ghost forests” of trees that were killed by the salt water.

Just five miles from Seward the highway passes through the Chugach National Forest.  Alaska.  The trip to Denali passes through some truly beautiful wilderness areas.  The largest state in the country, Alaska is also the most sparsely populated state, and has relatively few highways.  Most of the population of Alaska live in the coastal regions, so much of the interior of the state is wilderness.  It seemed that everywhere we looked there were beautiful vistas.

Inland Alaska HDR Deep 1

Our trip took us along the Turnagain Arm, a waterway running inland from Cook Inlet, and the location of the second highest tides in North America.  Tides can reach forty feet and come in so quickly that they form a wave called a tidal bore.  The bore can be dangerous if you’re caught unaware when it comes in, but it is also a favorite with kayakers and surfers who like to ride the wave as an extreme sport.  Our trip did not let us witness the tidal bore but Turnagain Arm is quite beautiful, with high and rugged lining the north side of the Arm.

Tournagain Arm, I think

We stopped for lunch in Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley.  During the Great Depression the U.S. government began offering families the opportunity to move to the Matanuska Valley as a way out of the hardships of the depression devastating the country.  Each family who relocated was offered forty acres of land.  All they had to do was build a house and farm the land.  The valley is well suited for dairy farming and vegetables such as potatoes and cabbage grow well in the valley.

The experiment was not very successful.  The climate, while mild by Alaska standards, was much harder than many of the colonists were used to, and by 1940 over half of the original families had returned home.

We still had a few hours before reaching Denali.  This final stretch was where we saw our first moose, two of which came out of the woods and ran along the highway for several yards.  We were to see several more moose at Denali.

Finally, we reached our destination, the McKinley Chalet Resort.  Located along the Nenanha River, the location of the resort is quite beautiful.  The cabins were rustic yet comfortable and the scenery was awe inspiring.  The land around us changed literally overnight.  When we awoke the after our first night the mountains behind our cabin were covered with a fresh snow.   It was beautiful.

Denali is pretty remote as far as destinations go, but we were to experience firsthand how small the world can be.  The first evening we went to Karsten’s Pub, a new restaurant at McKinley Chalet.  Our waitress was a young lady from Marietta, Georgia.  Marietta was our home for many years before we relocated to North Carolina.

While our Alaska adventure was nearing its end, we still had two days and enjoyed two great excursions, a visit to the National Park Service sled dogs and the Tundra Tour, a bus excursion that took us deep into the park.

 

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