Alaska (To Denali and Back)

Updated: Jan 28

7/6/2021 - 7/14/2021


Where do you start? Beautiful. Pristine. Awesome.... Words. They will fail you, and I am not going to waste a lot of your time trying to put the place into words. I have pictures. I do not know if we timed our trip well or not. We planned our trip around the running of the salmon. Everything else fell into (or not) place around that. Why the salmon? Well, the primary purpose of this trip was to go to Brooks Falls and try to snatch one of those iconic shots of a salmon jumping into a bear's gaping maw. This was not a birding trip. Yes, I slipped in a day dedicated to birding; everything else is incidental. So. The plan? The plan was to: visit Anchorage, fly to Brooks Falls for grizzly photos, travel to Denali and spend a few nights at the Kantishna Roadhouse, take the train back to Anchorage, drive to Seward, spend a couple days visiting glaciers, take a one-day pelagic around the Chiswell Islands, and then return to Anchorage for the flight home. As I have stated in previous posts, "that was the plan". This post covers our time until we leave for Seward.


7/7-

The flight to Anchorage from Indiana was long. It was long enough that we could have actually flown to Europe given our total time in the air. It was light when we went to bed, and it was light when I woke up. Not shocking really. At this point, there is a good 19-20 hours of decent light. It did get pretty dark around 3 AM, but it was never dark-dark. Anyway, I knew the birding would not be great, but I was eager to get out and check out the lake behind the hotel and the hotel grounds.

Not bad. I was particularly happy to have close looks at the Red-necked Grebe. Interestingly, the juncos here are slate-colored. I would have expected something different. Other birds included: Black-billed Magpie, Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Wigeon, and Short-billed (recently renamed from Mew) Gull. The lake was Hood Lake, and there were several float plane services that ran out of here. I have always wanted to fly in one of those. Tomorrow is my day.


The rest of this day was going to be spent e-biking. Yep, we rented e-bikes. This was Carmen's idea, and it was a pretty good one. She did not tell me what she was scheming, but I knew it had something to do with something she had read on the internet. She does this every trip. She looks up where we are going, reads about places that are good for X (usually, X = species of cat, rare mammal, or waterfall), and then insists we go there. It is usually a very underwhelming experience where X is not seen or does not live up to the hype, and this bike trip had all the hallmarks of the same experience. We biked (ok, e-biked) our way through Anchorage to the coastal bike trail and then pointed the bikes toward Kincaid Park. The trail was beautiful and well paved. We quickly came to Westchester Lagoon and spent a little bit of time there looking at birds.

From there, it was about 11 miles up the coast to Kincaid Park. We would be returning via the same route. First of all, I would not have made it without the benefits of the e-bike. I am out of shape. Plus, I am an idiot. I was sure I could just put the bike in top gear and use power of the bike to compensate. Should be easy, right? Nope. It was still hard, and I was dying. Thankfully, Carmen is smarter than I am. She told me how she had things setup, and it made all the difference in the world. We made a few stops along the way, but, mostly, we just enjoyed the beauty of the area and pedaled towards the park.

Another interesting bit of bird info. The subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler is the Myrtle and not the Audubon's. As we biked along, I would teasingly (annoyingly - depends on your perspective) yell about a moose and then Carmen would get excited; only to realize I was teasing her. She eventually stopped paying attention to me. As we neared Kincaid Park, I yelled "Moose!", again.

Understandably, she kept pedaling, at first. She had ridden past it without noticing it. To be fair, it was off the path a little ways. We stopped and watched it for a bit and then headed on into the park after it disappeared out of view. On our way back, it had come back closer to the path. In fact, while taking photos, we had to keep backing up as it got closer to us. It could not have cared less about us, but we stayed back anyway and watched until it disappeared again. Surprisingly, this was Carmen's secret reason for wanting to head to Kincaid Park. She had read that the park was a great place to see moose. For once, the internet was right. Most likely, I will hear about this on future vacations.


The rest of the trip back was pretty uneventful. We got rained on a little. Then the sun came back out. Things were beautiful. In spite of the e-bikes, we were both still tired by the time we got back to the rental shop. It was a good way to start the trip.


7/8-

Like any trip, this trip was a mix of minor successes and setbacks. In reality, we were pretty lucky for most of the trip. We had one huge setback, and it was the keystone of our trip. We had been watching the weather, and we knew it was going to be ugly. We packed daypacks to the best of our knowledge and then headed to Rust's.

They went through the motions there, too. Finally, as it came time to depart for Brooks Falls, they announced that there would not be any flights to Brooks Falls that day. There were 20-30 mph winds and constant rain/sleet/whatever out in Katmai NP. A 3 hour plane ride into that would have been sickening, at best. While we were disappointed, it was for the better. As a backup plan, they offered a trip down to Redoubt Bay, for a half day trip, to anyone who was interested. It is a half hour flight down there, and the weather was much more manageable. We signed up for the afternoon timeslot and headed back to the hotel to eat lunch and walk around a bit.


The flight down to Redoubt Bay was pretty cool. The take-off and landing was some of the smoothest I've ever experienced. As we flew down Cook Inlet, we hit an area where we could see Beluga Whale swimming in the murky waters. And, the weather was great - right until we got to the bay; then the rain cut loose. I had packed a waterproof cover for my camera (for the record, a D850 with a 500mm PF lens). I had used it in Costa Rica, and it worked well. I had not used it in a downpour, though. I put it on and headed down to the dock to shoot some gulls. When I got down there, there was only a Glaucous-winged Gull left.

The cover seemed to do okay; so, why not go shoot some grizzlies?? After a great lunch of salmon with a homemade blueberry vinaigrette salad (the two lodges we ate at had outstanding chefs), we loaded onto a pontoon boat and set off across the bay. To say that this was a good substitute for (what I expected at) Brooks Falls would not exactly be true. It was a good experience, though. We saw two adult grizzlies, one of which had two cubs. The one with cubs would wade out into neck-height water and fish around for salmon. Catching one, she would bring it back to shore and disappear behind the bushes to eat it with her cubs. Not a bad experience. Not what we were hoping for, either. We were literally sitting out in the cold, pouring rain on the front of a pontoon boat. Carmen and I were pretty much the only ones with rain gear; so, everyone else is huddled under the canopy on the back of the boat. We patrolled a 100 yard area of the shore a few times, but we pretty much were anchored to the one bear and her cubs. They had mentioned motoring up a river, but that is not even close to the truth; let alone it would have been impossible. Regardless of what my dreams/expectations of Brooks Falls would be like, this was definitely better than actually being at Brooks Falls that day.

The others on the boat declared they were cold and wet, and when an opportunity came to prod the guide to head back, they took it. I do not blame them. Part of me was happy to head back across the bay, too. We went in and started drying off rain gear. The rain cover worked pretty well, but the camera was damp. It was probably well within its tolerance for weather sealing, but I am not sure I would try it again. Heck of a risk for day 2 of the trip.... We hung out, dried off, and watched it rain before heading back to a sunny Anchorage.


7/9-

Whew. A long day. We were up early after staying up to re-pack everything for the next phase of the trip. We are heading to Denali - via bus. Unfortunately, this is how we would return, too. With Covid, the train changed schedules and was only running every other day. We were scheduled for the odd day out. So, it was a 6 hour bus ride from Anchorage to the visitor center at Denali NP (with a short stop in Talkeetna) followed by another 6 hours on a different bus to Kantishna. We had repacked everything to accommodate the weight restriction on the bus to Kantishna. Well, the joke was on us, because the luggage storage at Denali was closed due to Covid; so, we were stuck with our full luggage. Luckily, the bus for Kantishna was very understanding. This, actually was the last of things that went wrong for the trip. Everything else was pretty smooth sailing; quite literally later on.


A few things about Denali NP. It's a big place. We did not spend any time at all in the area around the visitor center. We knew that the best place to see wildlife was out on Park Rd. You cannot drive this road (you can actually drive to the fist visitor center, now, if you are one of the first 25 cars on the road). You have to be on one of the buses that run the route. There are dedicated visitor centers along the way. While the bus will stop along the road to view wildlife, you can only get off the bus at the visitor centers. We had booked a 3 night stay at Kantishna Roadhouse. They run their own bus service there and back. We had thought that we could pick up some of the service buses from there and ride back-and-forth from various visitor centers. Whether due to Covid (a lot of the service and free buses were not running) or our own ignorance, this was not the case. We were pretty much trapped at the end of the road with limited options for getting elsewhere. I say "trapped", but we had a good time, and that is all that mattered.


Before I dive into our time at Kantishna, I should probably cover the ride from the visitor center to there. It was eventful. Not always in the best of ways. As noted, we were stuck on the bus. It is far from packed, and our driver (Kirsty) knows what she is doing. That helped, but there are still only so many windows and you cannot really adjust your position for better lighting. It was what it was, and we laugh about it. I was happy to get looks at my lifer Willow Ptarmigan. This was the only place we saw one.

The trip was fairly uneventful for the most part. We had 15 or so minutes to spend at each of the visitor centers along the route. We did not have much time, and, honestly, we thought we were going to get to revisit all of them. If I had known, I would have snapped a lot more pictures. We did see our first caribou along the way. And the Arctic Ground-Squirrels are pretty cute. The variety of wildflowers was amazing. Birds were not that plentiful, though.

At the last visitor center, things turned into into a train wreck. Well, let's call it a grizzly wreck. Let's set the scene - Eileson Visitor Center. This is the view out the back of the center from a viewing area.

It's about a 100 yard to the ridge in this photo. Maybe a 150. There are hiking paths here. If you are camping in the area (or maybe more when the buses are all running), you can hike here. Just before we rounded the corner to get to the center, we saw this guy.

Whatever he was doing, he was highly motivated. This young, male grizzly was running up and down hillsides and generally covering ground fairly quickly. He was also heading right toward the visitor center. He disappeared behind a rise, and we moved on to the center and parked the bus; being sure to keep an eye out for the bear while off the bus. Well, it did not take long to find him. He popped up on the top of the ridge out the back of the center. We watched him as he went over the ridge away from the center and disappeared. Shortly afterwards, a hiker popped into view from behind the hill - camera raised and, obviously, "stalking" something. That something was the bear. It appears the bear had settled down on the back side of the ridge, and this guy was going to get the shots of a lifetime. He nearly did - or may have... hard to say. All I can really tell you is that you could visibly see the realization that he had screwed up sink into the guy. He slowly lowered the camera. He took a few faltering steps backwards. And, in spite of groups of people yelling at him not to run, he turned and ran. The bear bounced up into view and took off after him. Whatever happened next happened out of view; as they both went over the ridge away from the center. About 30 seconds later, the bear came running back over the ridge and shaking its head and looking unhappy. We are pretty sure he got pepper sprayed. After gathering himself for a minute or so, he came running toward the center, and everyone was shuffled back onto the bus for safety. We stayed on the bus for a bit and watched the bear meander around and then disappear up over a ridge on the other side of the road.

The hiker? Not sure. We did not see him again. We assume he survived. We did not hear about any deaths; in spite of us inquiring about it several times. The moral - your picture of a lifetime could be a posthumous picture of a lifetime. Do not be an idiot. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the trip was a lot less eventful. How do you top that?


We eventually arrived at Kantishna and settled into our room before heading to dinner; our first real meal of the day. Settled in was a relative term. The room was full (well, there were may a dozen) of yellowjackets. Carmen (being Carmen) was catching them in a cup and tossing them outside. The futility of it settled in as more appeared. She went to get cleaned up, and I showed a few out in a way that would guarantee they would not come back. That was futile, too. In the end, we went to dinner.


This is where we met James. James was amazing. He is the chef at Kantishna. He forages and sources food from the area and incorporated it into his dishes. Our first night there was the traditional stew served to the guests who arrive late on the bus. The stew is a beef bourguignon. Except James made it with a fermented batch of rhubarb-spruce tip sauce he had made from local ingredients. It was amazing. Everything I ate there was amazing. He would come out before dinners there and explain the food to everyone, and it was always good; even when it was stuff I would not normally eat. Carmen had signed up as a vegetarian. I am pretty sure he loves cooking vegetarian dishes. He would come find her and explain to her what her meal was and, in one instance, even give a little history on it. In this case, it was a recipe he had found in a 1930's, depression-era cookbook called something like, "how to feed your family". It had a vegetarian dish with a meat substitute made of cottage cheese, oats, and eggs. He made this into a pasta dish and said I should try it. It was not meat, but it was good, and that is all that mattered. I mean, I was enjoying my smoked salmon, too. But I would have happily ate that as well. We finished the day full and sleepy and headed back to the room to get some sleep while listening to yellowjackets buzz around the room.


To be honest, I do not have a lot of pictures from here. I got a bit frustrated. The lack of wildlife and birds was not what I was looking for. We had great weather. In spite of the fact that only 30% of visitors see Denali at all and that only 10% see the peak (they sell 'I'm a 10%er' shirts at the visitor center), we saw the whole thing two days in a row. It was hot and clear.

It was also very buggy. This is the land of mosquitoes. We went on two hikes. One was a bit more strenuous, and the other was just a visit to Wonder Lake. In between, we visited an old cabin, hiked along Moose Creek, panned for gold a couple of times, played a bit of Scrabble, and ate good food. It was beautiful out there, and we had a good time. Alex and Liat were the two guides we hung out with most, and they were both great. While there were not a lot of wildlife opportunities, the flowers were still amazing.

One in particular, Fireweed, is worth mentioning for a couple reasons. 1) James made a nice, slightly sweet sauce out of it that he used for dinner one night. It was literally a giant pickle jar packed with flowers, water, and whatever else, that sat atop a wood stove for days. One morning it disappeared and, voila, dinner was served with fireweed syrup. Tasty. 2) Fireweed serves as the Alaska calendar. As the plant blooms, it blooms from the bottom to the top. The lower flowers open first and then close. This is Spring. Then the middle part blooms - summer. Last, the top blooms; signaling that it is time to start watching for "desolation dust" (snow cover dusting the mountains) and about 6 weeks before winter. By this method, we were in Denali in their late-spring/early-summer season.

Before we headed out of Kantishna, Carmen surprised me. She is afraid of small planes. The plane ride to Redoubt Bay was a lot for her. Yet, she signed us up for a flight on an even smaller plane. We would be taking a bush plane from the airstrip near Kantishna and doing some "flight-seeing" around the peak of Denali. As with all mountains, Denali makes its own weather. While the day was clear, sunny, and hot, the area around the mountain was very cloudy. There was some question about how close we could get or if the plane could get above the cloud cover. In the end, it could not. The pilot dodged clouds, climbed as high as the plane could, and generally did everything he could to get us some great views. It was a pretty spectacular experience. I was glad she did it.


So, with the thick layer of clouds, it took me a minute to focus above them. I was so busy checking out the scenery, I almost missed the peak.

The variety of landscape and textures combined with the sheer magnitude of the mountain was amazing.

Of interest is the Muldrow Glacier. This glacier is surging. Basically there is enough water build-up under it that it is lifting the glacier and pushing it forward at a relatively rapid pace. Sooner or later, the water will release and everything will change. They do not know how far it will travel or when it will release. In the meantime, it looks pretty spectacular.


Our last morning in Kantishna, we were up early and ready to stake a spot on the bus. A large group had come in the day before and was going to be on the bus back. We wanted a spot near the front of the bus. In the end, I do not know that it mattered. Unfortunately, a few people staked out two seats at the very front before we could get on; placing things on both sides. Even more unfortunate, these people tended to spend the entire trip either reading or watching movies; not looking for wildlife. Sure, they would jump up when something was spotted.... Anyway, we did alright. Our diver was Ken, and he was not quite as good as Kirsty, but he worked hard. The morning started slow with a couple porcupine encounters. Before the end of the ride, though, we would check off all 5 of the "Big 5": Caribou, Grizzly, Moose, Dall's Sheep, and even Wolf. We also had good views of Arctic Ground-Squirrel; so, we will call it the Big 5 + 1 Little. The ground-squirrel plays an important part in the ecosystem out there; even if it really is just as a source of food.

No excitement this trip. Just battling for shots out half-opened windows; hoping the heat from the heaters did not hurt the photos too much. I was happiest with the wolf, for several reasons. First, wolf had pretty much disappeared from the area around Park Rd. The previous pack there had collapsed, and no other pack had taken the area over. So, this was Ken's first time seeing any wolves along the road in a long time. Second, the wolf actually started on the other side of the bus but walked all the way around to our side. This allowed us to get good shots. I did not have any decent shots of wolves. This opportunity was special, and I was glad it worked out. It is also worth it to note that this was the first time in the years that Ken has been driving (7, I think) that he had ever seen all of the Big 5 on a drive. Pretty cool.


Unfortunately, we had a long time to ponder that while we waited for our next bus at the Denali train station. We had a 2 hour wait for the bus back to Anchorage and then we had another 6 hours before we would get back. While waiting, I took pictures of flowers and birds and did some Seeking (using the Seek app to ID plants).

It was yet another long day. Thankfully, there was a good taco place across from the hotel, and we finally got to eat dinner about 8 or 9 that evening.


The next morning, we finally got a rental car, and things were back in our hands. This is how we like to travel. That's probably more than enough for one post, though. I will pick up with our time in Seward in the next post. I hope you have enjoyed it. As always -


Thanks for reading,

Mike



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