Alaska (To Seward and Back)

Updated: Jan 28

7/14/2021 - 7/19/2021


Where do you start...? Well, this is a bit easier question, this post. Start one post back and read about my time in Anchorage and Denali NP. This post covers our drive down to Seward and our time there. We were in Seward for 4 nights, and we probably had the most fun, there.


7/14-

The biggest reason we had so much fun in Seward? Well, we had a car. We picked up our rental in Anchorage and then hit up a local grocery for some food, snacks, and water. We piled these into the car with our luggage and headed down highway 1.


The drive was beautiful. There are a lot of pullouts along the way. We had all day to make the 3 hour drive; so, we took our time and stopped at a few places along the way. Our first stop was Beluga Point. Carmen had read about the "bore tide" here and wanted to stop. This went the way most of her internet finds go. There was nothing to see, because we were there at the wrong time. No big deal. The place was beautiful, and it had some Golden-crowned Sparrows flitting about. Hard to complain.

Our next stop was probably my favorite of the day. The Turnagain Pass rest stop is situated in a beautiful valley full of wildflowers. We spent a lot of time here just taking photos and Seeking the variety of plants.

Green False Hellbore, Tall Jacob's-Ladder, Alaska India-Paintbrush, Sitka Lupine, Wooly Cranesbill, and Riceroot Lilly were some of the many different plants we found here. The setting was fantastic.

We eventually moved on down the road and made a quick stop at the Canyon Creek rest area. Not as scenic as the last stop, but we did take the time to enjoy the view and the flowers. We even photographed an Arctic White butterfly, there.

Our last stop along the 1 was at the split of 1 and 9, where Tern Lake is situated. There were terns, gulls, a few sparrows, and some magpies hopping around here. Out on the lake, a family of Trumpeter Swan were feeding. There was also a family of Common Loon and some Lesser Scaup. It was really birdy. We paused to eat lunch before getting out to photograph the birds and scenery. We finished eating and hopped out of the car to find that most of the birds had disappeared.... The Rugosa Rose smelled amazing, but it appears to be spreading a bit of everywhere.

With a lot of the day left, we headed down the 1 toward Homer for a little while. It got pretty touristy along this portion of the Kenai River. The river was beautiful. I would have loved to just take a boat ride down it. Obviously, the big draw here was salmon fishing.

The eagles were in on it as well; assuming you count snatching dead fish away from gulls as "fishing".


That pretty much brought the day to a close. We got into Seward and made a quick drive around. That did not take long. I was amazed at the species of birds that could be viewed in Resurrection Bay from the road. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Marbled Murrelet were all easily visible from the road. If only they were cooperative for photos. A quick dinner of pepperoni pizza with honey on it (yes, it was good), and we crashed for the night. Tomorrow started our first of several glacier tours.


7/15-

This is where our luck really picked up. When we arrived in Seward, the weather was stormy, overcast, and windy. This day, and for the rest of our stay here, we had amazing weather. Beautiful, clear, warm, sunny days. The locals commented on how amazing the weather was. While bright, sunny days are not the best for photography, they brought calm seas, and that was important. A couple days before, the boat had gone out in 12 foot swells. That would have been a rough ride.


It is probably pretty obvious by now, but we are heading out on a boat. To be exact, we are heading out on a monster, 3-story catamaran with stadium-style viewing decks on the front of the boat. It was a fast boat, too. Carmen and I put on some jackets and manned one of the front corners of the boat for the trip. It was still cold (we were basically travelling at 30 mph across the water), but at least we were not part of the masses huddling inside and then trying to run out and jostle for position when something was spotted.


In the interest of brevity, I will not cover this in great detail. Suffice it to say that we motored out into Resurrection Bay and headed for the mouth of the bay and south toward Aialik (eye-al-ick) Bay. The trip started strong with a couple Dall's Porpoise coming to ride the bow waves. Marbled Murrelet, Rhinocerous Auklet, and Common Murre were the most common alcids in view. As we got further out, we also found both Horned and Tufted Puffin. We did not have much more in the way of wildlife until we got close to the Chiswell Islands at the mouth of Aialik Bay. Here, we had puffins nesting up on the cliffs and a lone male Orca swimming and feeding. The Killer Whale was definitely feeding on something, but we could not tell what. With his bent dorsal fin, he looked a bit odd. The strangest thing was that he was totally alone. He was the only one we saw. They were later able to ID him and determine he is a "transient"; meaning he does not stay in one place and feeds on mammals instead of fish.

From here, we headed up into Aialik Bay. I was trying to get shots of the various birds flying about, but we were a good 20' up off the water. That does not make for very pleasant shots.

As were were moving into the bay, one of the first things the captain spotted was a "smack". It was a large bright spot in the water, and I would have not thought much of it. Even when we got over the top of it, there was nothing to see. The captain quickly turned the boat in a circle over the area and instantly churned up hundreds of jellyfish. Turns out, a "smack" is a large collection of jellyfish.

They were mostly Moon Jellyfish, like this guy.

Further down in the bay, we reached are actual target for the day. The Aialik Glacier. I am not sure what to say about it. We could not get super close to it. So, it was hard to appreciate the immensity of the glacier. It is just over 3/4 of a mile in length, and it is quite active. As we approached, the captain asked everyone to quiet down and listen. You could hear cracks like thunder, loud rumblings, and low groans; all from the slow relentless grind of the glacier. As we floated there, chunks would rumble down into the water below. It was impressive. The Harbor Seals floating on the ice did not seem that impressed.

If you look to the far right, you can see a large boat that should give you a sense of scale.

We stayed here a while and marveled at the glacier. It really was this blue. Eventually, we turned around and headed back towards Seward. Along the way, we ran across a couple packs of Sea Otter. They stayed fairly distant, but it was nice to see them. We also stopped by a spot that Stellar's Sea Lion like to hang out. The young and female were all hanging out together, while the large male was off on his own.

The trip started late and lasted 6 hours; so, it was a bit late by the time we got back. We headed out to dinner and then came back to the room to call it a day. Technically, there was a lot of daylight left, but we had an early start in the morning.


7/16-

Glacier trip 2.0. The kayak edition. We were not quite sure what we had signed up for, but it sounded fun. We would be kayaking among the icebergs from the Bear Glacier. We arrived at the spot early and got into dry suits, footies, and stupid crocs to get ready. From there, it was a short van ride to the coolest boat in the marina, the Phoenix Marmot. The Phoenix Marmot is basically a giant jet ski. I do not know what the top speed on it was, but it was fast. It has induction motors on the bottom of it that allow it to suck in water from the bottom and shoot it out the back. This also gave the boat an extremely shallow draft. It could scoot through water that was a few feet deep. This would become important, later. Loaded into the cabin of the boat, we started zooming toward Bear Glacier. We had passed the glacier the day before.

What we did not see was icebergs. That is because we did not notice that there is a strip of land between the bay and the base of the glacier. To access the area, the boat had to run up a small, shallow, ice-filled river. Of course this was done at top speed. The boat was incredibly agile, and the driver was having a blast. Once we were on the other side of the strip of land, we could see that there was a lot of open water there.


The icebergs were pretty jammed up in the area further back. We loaded up into kayaks and immediately proved that we had no idea what we were doing. Everyone had tandem kayaks. I would like to say that Carmen and I were a well-oiled machine working in perfect coordination with each other.... Well, I would like to say that. We did not spill or anything. While the dry suits would have protected us, it still would have been a pretty chilly experience. Not to mention the lost cameras, etc. But we did not always have the same destination in mind, paddles were knocked together, and we were slow. That is how it started. By the end, we had learned our roles and how to communicate. Things went really well after that.


Yes, the icebergs. I am getting there. We paddled back and skirted around the edges of the area. We even did some "adventure paddling" (our guide's phrase), where we had to push some small icebergs away from the shore and paddle around them. Some of the icebergs were really small. Others were very large. White, blue, and black (dirty). They came in all colors, too. Shapes? Well, take a look.

The ice itself was really cool looking.

As cool as it all was, I wish we could have gotten closer to the the icebergs. It was a serious danger, though. They are constantly shifting and drifting about. It would be easy to get caught between them. Some of them are larger than a building. The other issue is that they roll. We saw a few that had freshly rolled, but we did not see one actually roll. I would have to say that being caught under a giant iceberg that is rolling over sounds like a terrible experience. We paddled around a while, but the icebergs had closed off the path to get back to the glacier. We had to turn around. We headed the other way, but it was closed off, too. With not other options, we headed back and crawled our way back out of our dry suits and waited for the Phoenix Marmot to return.


The kayak trip was only about 4 hours, and we had an early start. We grabbed lunch and then hit the road to go explore. We had already explored Seward and decided to just head out of town and drive around at random. There were not a lot of options there, either. We did run across a couple place of interest. First, was a random encounter with a family of moose.

The babies were cute!

From there, we wandered over to the other side of Resurrection Bay and ended up pulling into an area near Spring Creek. There were a lot of fisherman here and quite a few gulls and crows. While checking out the area, I was happy to find a Lincoln's Sparrow along with an immature Song Sparrow (they sure are dark).

The birds were attracted to some discarded fish. While photographing them, I suddenly heard a very recognizable cry. There were eagles nearby. In the end, I think we counted 5 Bald Eagles hanging out in the area. They would fly around to various perches and occasionally make a pass at stealing some of the fish. We probably spent an hour here waiting for the eagles to come back through at different times. I was pretty happy with a few of the shots.

The day was getting late, and we wanted to explore some more. Heading out from there, we moved up the road a little more and found a sign for Exit Glacier. We had heard the place mentioned, but we did not actually look into it at all. We turned and headed toward the unknown. We drove along and stopped at a couple of places along the road. Once in the park, we hot-footed it to the glacier observation area.

It was pretty cool, and we made a mental note to come back before leaving Seward. I could already tell that Carmen had plans for us. We headed back to town and grabbed some ice cream before heading to bed.


7/17-

This was the day of birding we had planned this trip. The weather and the calm seas were still holding. It was incredible luck. Carmen actually found the guy and made the arrangements for the trip. Capt. John of Alaska Seabird Charters is a biologist at the Alaska Sea Life Center, where he studies sea lions. We were going to be doing a pelagic trip with John around the Chiswell Islands and up into Aialik Bay. Sure, this was all the same area that we had covered previously, but we would be getting closer and actually focusing on birds. We had one other person on board, and his name was Tom. Tom was an avid birder and traveler. He was quite a bit better travelled than either of us, but we are working on it.


We headed out on the ship, the Jack Sparrow, into Resurrection Bay. We had a lot of the same birds here as before. Glaucous-winged and Short-billed (formerly Mew) Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwake, Marbled Murrelet, and Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. We also spotted an Arctic Tern flying by. John mentioned a colony nearby, but we never saw it. I had already spotted some of my target birds on the previous trips. There were only a few remaining: Ancient Murrelet, Parakeet Auklet, Red-faced Cormorant, and Kittlitz's Murrelet. I had actually photographed a Kittlitz's on our first trip to the glacier; I just did not know it at the time. John seemed pretty confident that we could find all of them. Heading out into the open waters, we quickly found some Red-necked Phalarope. Not far from there, John spotted an Ancient Murrelet. Then two. Before long, we had a group of 4 flying alongside the boat! What a great start to the day.


Our next great bird was a Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel. Now, I had seen a lot of these birds flying around, but this bird was actually sitting on the water and swimming around. I do not think I have ever seen this before. He was kind of cute! Well, and angry looking, too.

Shortly afterwards, we reached the Chiswell Islands. Right away, we spotted a pair of Fin Whale, but they disappeared and were not seen again. Horned and Tufted Puffin nest up on the cliffs of the islands. Normally, there are some Horned Puffin hanging out lower on the rocks. Not this time though. We motored around to an area called the "beehives" and watched as hundreds of Tufted Puffin flew around the dome-shaped islands. It looked a lot like a very busy beehive. Around yet another corner of the islands (I was a bit turned around by now), we found my most-wanted bird of the trip. They are cute, dorky, and even a bit plain-looking, but I think they are pretty cool. Parakeet Auklet. The captain got us as close as he could, but it was a bit hazardous bobbing around close to the islands. I got decent pics and am pretty happy about that.

I mean, they are cute, right?

We headed around another turn in the islands and ended up in what can best be described as an apartment complex. Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, and Thick-billed Murre were nesting on every available ledge that could be found. I am not sure all of them were even on ledges; they had somehow stuck the nest to the face of the rock.

While looking at the Thick-billed Murre, John asked a simple question, "are you ready to see your Red-faced Cormorant?" Tucked back in a cave with more murre and kittiwake was a cormorant with three young. The lighting was almost non-existent back in the cave. Couple that with a bouncing boat, and I am surprised I got any acceptable shots. As were were getting ready to pull out, Tom spotted a second one on the other side of the cave.

We had one more stop to make in the Chiswell Islands before heading back into Aialik Bay. Sometimes, Northern Fulmar nest on one of the islands. John had not seen any his last trip out, but we had one this time.


We headed up in the bay in pursuit of our last target bird. I do not know why, but we spent most the time in the cabin of the boat. Probably because John had warned us about the noise from the motors. I wish I had spent more time outside though. I missed a few photos at times because I was trying to shoot through glass, and that never works well. We headed all the way up to the Aialik Glacier and the started searching amongst the floating ice for Kittlitz's Murrelet. The ice was floating out away from the glacier today; so, the Harbor Seal were within shooting distance. I had great looks at them but zero shots. By the time I headed out to try and shoot them, they had retreated into the water. I should have been outside the cabin. Not a mistake I will make again.


As for the murrelet, it was not that hard of a find. They were not very cooperative, but I got to see them and get some shots.

John still had some shorelines he wanted to check on the way back, and we took our time getting back to Seward. I asked about getting better shots of Horned and Tufted Puffin along the way, and he made sure to accommodate. He did a great job. Unfortunately, the Horned Puffin just would not cooperate. We also found a couple more Red-faced Cormorant swimming around under the marine layer near the entrance river to Bear Glacier. The most cooperative birds, surprisingly, were the Rhinocerous Auklet. Least cooperative were the Marbled Murrelet, which we labeled "jerk birds".

While it was a birding trip, we did stop for mammals, too. We found a lone Humpbacked Whale. There were more Sea Otter, and, of course, John showed us some Stellar Sea Lions.

We eventually arrived back in harbor and bid farewell to John. We had plans to beat the rush and get out to the Resurrection Roadhouse for dinner. We sat down and had a nice dinner; talking about heading to Exit Glacier after we finished. After a nice Rhubarb White beer and a steak, I was not going anywhere. We headed back to the hotel and crashed; making plans to get up early and return to Exit Glacier.


7/18-

You are probably think this is the part where I say we slept in. Well, you would be wrong. It was our last full day in Alaska, and there was no sleeping in. We stowed our luggage at the hotel and checked-out. We got to the glacier, and I knew we were going to hike. I packed a couple bottles of water and started the hike up. Our goal was 1500 feet above us at Marmot Meadows. I am pretty sure she expected to find marmot there. Spoiler: We did not.


The hike was beautiful, and I miss being in good enough shape to do it easily. It was a long slog up and back down, but it was worth it. Getting there early really helped. Once the heat set in, it got tough. We really only had to deal with it on the way down. The trail was lined with wildflowers, and there were thrush around nearly every turn; including a young Varied Thrush. We had some Fox Sparrows and Wilson's Warbler, too.

It was a lot of the same flowers we had seen elsewhere, but they are so beautiful. The Western Columbine is a pretty flower. Believe it or not, I actually made it up to Marmot Meadows. I was pretty happy with myself. I did have to take two small breaks, but Carmen never had to carry me. The "meadows" did not look too meadow-y (I am sure that is a word), to me. It looked pretty overgrown. The marmots must have been on a meadow maintenance strike. Regardless, there were Orange-crowned Warbler everywhere, and a Golden-crowned Sparrow came by to perch in a Mountain Hemlock. More wildflowers everywhere, and, of course, there was the glacier.


We spent a while photographing the various flowers and looking around before heading back down. We still had a long drive back to Seward ahead of us.


Before leaving, I headed back to the road along the bay and photographed the waterfall there and tried to get some shots of the "jerk birds" swimming off shore.


On the way back to Anchorage, we made a couple more stops, but nothing too exciting. We stopped at a place with a lot water lily.



We made one other stop, where we had a family of Common Raven hanging out in a parking lot.


After that, the day kind of fell apart. It was a Sunday and all the traffic from Seward and Homer was heading back to Anchorage; there was a lot of backup along the way. To make things worse, there must have been an accident or two along the way, because we got caught up in a lot of traffic that was pretty much standing still. What was supposed to be a 3 hour drive turned into about 4.5. We got back to the hotel and settled for hot tacos across the street. The temp was in the mid-80s, the humidity was high, and places do not have air conditioning. We sweated through our meal and then retreated to the hotel and its undersized window unit to get cooled off. We had an early bedtime, anyway. We had to be up around 3 AM (this is how I know it got dark at some point during the night up there) to start getting ready to head to the airport.


All in all, it was a great trip. I only scored 6 life birds, but they were all really good quality birds. It is hard to say if/when I will see some of them again. We did really great on mammals, too. Caribou and Dall's Sheep were new for us. So was the Dall's Porpoise. The glacier experiences were fantastic. The beauty of Denali is amazing.... Again, words are failing me. It is crazy to look at a map and realize that we only saw a tiny portion of this state. Alaska is huge. I look forward to going back and seeing another tiny portion, some day.


Thanks for reading,

Mike



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