It has been a long time since I last wrote on this blog, since before I left Alaska last September. There is a reason, or rather, more than one.
Those who know me know I am not a city girl. I have often joked, you know you are a mountain/country girl when you live in the city and think there is nothing to do. True fact. I spent the winter season in Chicago recuperating from the toll my Alaska job had on my health. I was sick almost after every meal and it was only a month or so ago that I discovered gluten was the culprit. Fortunately, I tested negative for Celiac’s, but I get sick from gluten nonetheless. I have spent the last month trying to navigate a gluten-free diet and it has been mostly successful. The hardest aspect has been restaurants, but it has not been too bad.
Furthermore, I just don’t find the flat lands particularly interesting – not to take photos of or write about. That’s not to say I was miserable while in Chicago, I wasn’t. I was able to spend quality time with my parents, visit my family property near Galena, Illinois, and raise and train my Bernese Mountain Dog pup. Yes, I got a dog and he has had a tremendously positive impact on my health and life. He came with me to Colorado.
This past week, I started a new job at a new adventure lodge called Eleven Experience, this time in Crested Butte, Colorado. I seem to work with a great crew and it looks like it is going to be a fun, busy summer.
One thing I envisioned about moving back to Crested Butte is hiking with River, my dog. There is just so much to explore and I want to see and experience as much as possible. The one good thing about a low snow year is that more trails are open early. I bought a book about the local hikes and I intend to hit as many of them as I can before the season ends. That is my goal. In so doing, I want to become more in shape, improve my upper body strength, and nourish my soul. I also want to camp more. I bought a tent and am stocking up on supplies.
One of my new co-workers asked me what my “church” was and the answer was pretty simple: being outside. Whether I am skiing, hiking, biking, camping, or just pointing my face toward the sun and feeling the wind in my hair, I love the outdoors. That is why I decided to move (back) to Colorado instead of pursuing the career for which I got my degrees. There is no question I love what I studied, but as I illustrated earlier, I am no city girl. I am not cutthroat. I enjoy a different pace. I am finally back in Colorado and that means I am finally, truly home.
I’ll leave you in suspense about the sunrise until the end of this post.
In the intervening weeks since hiking in the clouds, a lot has happened (as one might expect). I took another hike, this time to Russian River Falls and not in the rain, where I came the closest I have ever seen to seeing a bear. I suppose now is the time to regale you in my tale of the bad bear mojo. In my 27 years of existence, I have never seen a bear, and this is despite going to Colorado (nearly) every summer since I was born and living in Montana for four years. In 2015, I was awarded a summer internship at the U.S. Embassy in the Republic of Georgia (you can read up on those adventures here), so I went there instead of Colorado. Guess what my parents saw in a tree at the Crested Butte Arts Festival? A black bear. Three months in Alaska and a month to go, I still have yet to see a bear. Who wants to take bets?
So, on the Russian River Falls hike, as we were hiking to the falls, hikers on the way back told us there were bears in the falls – both brown and black bears. My heart leapt at the chance…would today be my day? Would the 27 year spell be over? By the time we got to the falls, the bears were nowhere to be seen. Disheartened, we continued on the hike and came upon fresh brown bear tracks on the trail. The guide and I both whipped out our bear spray, but fortunately and unfortunately, there was no bear. It’s probably best, all things considered, that we didn’t run into a bear blindly on the trail. Those encounters don’t always end well.
Despite not seeing any bears, it was a beautiful hike. I was able to see salmon jumping up the falls, see the Russian Lakes, and catch a glimpse of Skilak Glacier in the distance. Not to mention, I saw ducks, gulls, and a juvenile bald eagle.
Salmon are some pretty amazing fish. They are anadromous, meaning they’re born in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, then return to fresh water to reproduce. What makes them amazing is that their homing instinct is so strong, they will find their near exact place of birth to spawn a new generation before dying. Further still, these fish will travel hundreds – even thousands – of miles upstream and up waterfalls just to get to those spawning grounds! Many don’t make it. I’m no fish head, but I think that is really cool.
The hike only lasted the morning, so afterwards, we hit up the Soldotna Heritage Museum and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor’s Center. We also did a pub crawl to the two local bars that brew their own beer. It was a very enjoyable day.
My next few days off were spent casually – I wrote, I colored, I watched movies.
Now here comes the not so great part: I have an invisible illness in which I deal with chronic pain every single day. These last few weeks have been extremely difficult as my job doing early morning wake-ups starts to take its toll. After a really rough pain day last week, I was not too eager to awake the following morning at 3:30am to carry out my duties. As I was watering the flowers, I saw a sight that was a wonder to behold: one of the most spectacular sunrises I have ever seen. The whole sky was aglow and the Moose River mirrored a perfect reflection. It brought tears to my eyes and definitely helped to raise my spirits. It was a reminder of why I came to Alaska in the first place.
The rain wasn’t going to stop me from going on a hike – although maybe it should have. It was overcast in Sterling, where the lodge is located, but as we set forth towards the Chugach Mountains for a hike, it started to drizzle. We hoped it would not rain, but our hopes were dashed when we approached our destination with mountains cloaked in clouds. While it did not pour, it persistently misted and drizzled, making for a very wet trip.
The hike wasn’t long, but it was steep and strenuous with roughly 1300 vertical in about a mile. In the rain, the trail became a muddy slip-and-slide. In ideal weather, the views are supposed to be phenomenal, and in absolutely clear weather, one can view Anchorage and even Denali! On my hike, however, visibility was only a couple of miles at best. Thanks to a walking stick, I (mostly) kept my balance. By hikes end, I was soaking wet and incredibly muddy.
This was a short post, but please, enjoy the photos.
Ever wonder what the most westerly end of the U.S. highway system is? Today, you will wonder no further! It is located in Anchor Point, Alaska on the road to Homer. Despite being the largest state in America, major roads are few and far between – the trans-Alaska highway was built as a military highway around World War II as a way to transport large amounts of troops from the Lower 48 to Alaska quickly if needed. Aside from marking the westernmost extent of the road system, Anchor Point offered something else: low tide and a swarm of birds. In better weather, one can look across the Cook Inlet and see the Volcanoes of Lake Clark National Park and the beginning of the Aleutian Peninsula.
Alaska – the Kenai Peninsula especially – experiences the second largest tidal swing in the world. When we visited Anchor Point, the tide was out, exposing discarded fish and hordes of eagles, gulls, and ravens all fighting for scraps of meat. They were all so focused on the feast, they allowed us to get within ten feet of them. We must have watched them for twenty minutes, standing together in awe at these mighty birds.
Before Alaska became part of the United States, it was a Russian territory, and of course before that, it was inhabited by native peoples. The Kenai Peninsula, in particular, has plenty of evidence of Alaska’s Russian history. There are still several predominately Russian settlements and on this tour, I visited the enclave of Ninilchik.
Ninilchik is considered a Native Settlement, with residents not only having Russian descent, but also of Aluet, Alutiiq, and Dena’ina descent. Many Russian fur trappers settled there with their native wives and children in the mid-1800s. Interestingly, due to the enclave’s isolation, some 19th century Russian is still spoken there. While Ninilchik is a decidedly Russian name and is probably the Russianized version of the town, the name actually likely derives from the Athabascan word Niqnilchint, which means “lodge is built place”. The community is located at the mouth of the Ninilchik River and has a small harbor still in use. It is home to a Russian Orthodox church called the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Chapel.
As someone who studied the Russian language, history, culture, and literature for eight years, visiting Ninilchik was a cool experience.
On our way to Homer, Alaska, we visited several museums. First, we toured the Norman Lowell Art Gallery, a locally famous painter who is now all but blind, having only 10 percent vision left in one eye. He still paints! Then we visited the Pratt Museum, which is a regional natural history museum exploring life around Homer and Kachemak Bay. Lastly, we visited the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center which houses exhibits and information on this wild and remote refuge. It was great to visit these museums because of the rain and cold.
Perhaps what Homer is most famous for – aside from being the Halibut fishing capital of the world – is the Homer Spit. The Homer Spit is a long, narrow gravel tract of land 4.5 miles long that extends into Kachemak Bay. The Homer Harbor is located on the spit. Many gift shops, tour operations, and seafood restaurants are also on the spit and that is where I had lunch and did some early Christmas shopping. Luckily, while it rained all the way to Homer, it didn’t actually rain in Homer. On the way back to Sterling, where the Great Alaska Lodge is located, it rained once more.
What was great about this tour is I got to learn more about Alaska’s history, specifically that of the Kenai Peninsula and the Homer area specifically. Not to mention, I was treated to fabulous views of Grewingk Glacier and Kachemak Bay.
After 12 days of work, I finally got to go and play. One of the perks of the job is that sometimes I am able to go on client trips. On this particular day, I had the fortune of going to Kenai Fjords National Park. Environmentalist John Muir wrote of the park in 1871: “I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”
Alaska can sometimes seem daunting in its vastness. There is a certain romanticism that one feels looking out and seeing mountains seldom touched by human feet. It is said that the Kenai Peninsula is Alaska in a microcosm: soaring mountains, boreal forests and wetlands, rivers, miles and miles of coastline, and an abundance of wildlife.
I first stopped at the Exit Glacier Visitor Center inside the park to pick up a brochure and National Park stamp. Then, along with a Great Alaska guide and clients, I hiked up to Exit Glacier, the only glacier within the park accessible by vehicle. Upon entry into the park, the road is marked with signs that note the year where the glacier last was. The recession of the glacier is dramatic and truly highlights the effects of climate change.
Below is a video of a time lapse of Exit Glacier moving and melting over a period of three months between July and September 2010.
After the hike, we drove to Seward where we embarked on a Major Marine Tours boat cruise to see more of the park. Most of Kenai Fjords National Park is only accessible via boat or bush plane.
In 2015, President Barack Obama visited Kenai Fjords National Park as part of a three-day trip to Alaska so that he could see firsthand the effects of climate change. The stunning scenery and wildlife in the park only reinforced his vision and hope to protect these beautiful lands that make up the United States of America not only for the enjoyment of future generations, but as a testament to our nation’s natural history and as a critical element of Earth’s climate.
Kenai Fjords National Park encompasses more than a thousand square miles of land and water. It did not become a national park until 1980, making it one of the youngest national parks in the United States. It was designated a national
park to ensure the protection of its unique fjord ecosystem and archeological remains of Alaskan Natives. The heart of the park is the vast Harding Icefield – a remnant of the Ice Age – and the many surrounding glaciers. Hanging glaciers cling to mountainsides and tidewater glaciers push their way into the ocean.
As part of my tour, I departed from the small-boat harbor of Seward, Alaska and traveled into Resurrection Bay. The town of Seward was named after Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward who purchased the territory of Alaska from the Russians in 1867. Kenai Peninsula is filled with ample evidence of Russian settler’s past and in fact, Russians are how Resurrection Bay came by its name. Alexandr Baranov, a Russian explorer, was forced to retreat into the bay during a bad storm and once the storm calmed, it was Easter Sunday.
We pushed forward through the Eldorado Narrows where we witnessed steller sea lions, bald eagles, sea otters, double-crested cormorants, kittiwake seagulls, puffins, and common mures.
Once we hit Cape Resurrection and saw Resurrection Peninsula and Fault Point glimmer in the distance, we were in for a real treat: a pod of humpback whales! For what may have been half an hour, they put on a show for us: breaching the waters and spouting water through their blowholes. Here are some fun facts about humpback whales:
(Thanks to Major Marine Tours and the National Park Ranger on board for this plethora of information!)
Humpback whales are my favorite marine animal!
Then we forged ahead across the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean to Aialik Bay where Holgate Glacier is located. There are three key components to a glacier: snow, cool and wet summers, and gravitational pull and ice flow. Seward and the Kenai Peninsula are at the northernmost reaches of the temperate rain forest, so there is plenty of moisture – some 60-100 feet of snow fall upon the Harding Icefield every winter. Couple that amount of snow with cool, wet summers and that means all that snow does not have a chance to melt before the next winter arrives. Of course, glaciers are more than just snow that refuses to melt – these glaciers may look solid, but they are actually eighty percent air. With more and more snowfall every year, more and more ice is compressed out – and when the snow is compacted to fifty percent air, it’s called firn. Once the air becomes compacted to twenty percent air, it becomes glacial ice. In Alaska, glacial ice can form in as little as four years.
So, the glacial ice is always growing and pushing downward; however, climate change is melting the ice faster than it is growing, causing them to recede.
I want to thank my wonderful tour with Major Marine Tours, the National Park Service, and the guides at the Great Alaska Adventure Lodge for this information.
Holgate Glacier is a tidewater glacier that extends out into the ocean. The captain of the boat shut the engines off and we were able to witness and hear the glacier calve. It was magical.
I could go on and on about glaciers, but I will refrain! I would definitely recommend booking a trip to Alaska and going on a glacier cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park to learn even more. If you can’t do that, go to your nearest bookstore or library and pick up a book! It’s fascinating.
While floating by the glacier, we saw harbor seas resting on rocks and chunks of ice. On the way back to Seward, we saw a fin whale! The rain and mist set in and as a final treat entering Resurrection Bay, we saw Mountain Goats perched high up on a mountainside.
The trip to Kenai Fjords National Park was definitely a thrill of a lifetime and fulfilled so many of my Alaska dreams. The best part, though? There’s so much more left to explore and I would not say no to another visit to this amazing park!
One of the great perks about working at Great Alaska Adventures is being able to kayak after work. While the kayaks are there for client use, staff can also partake and I will tell you that that is a great thing. Without having access to a bike or a car to go elsewhere to hike, it is nice to get my workout in by kayaking. I definitely need to build my upper body strength and this is the perfect way to do it.
The last time I kayaked I was in high school, but as the old cliche goes, it’s like riding a bike – once you learn, you don’t forget.
The Great Alaska Adventure Lodge sits at the confluence of the Moose and Kenai Rivers, and is a hot spot during the salmon runs. Salmon, I’ve been told, will sit where the rivers meet for a “rest” as they make their way back to their spawning grounds up the Kenai. The other day, I witnessed my first King Salmon (Chinook) leap from the water and I have to say it was a magical moment. As someone who has not fished since I was a child, I can definitely see the appeal.
The Kenai River primarily consists of glacial melt, giving it a magnificent turquoise hue. The Moose River, on the other hand, is primarily formed by rain water and other sediment. We are strongly advised not to go down the Kenai because it is swift moving and there is no easy way to get back to the Lodge. The Moose is placid and serene, making it easy to kayak upstream.
About a mile up from the Lodge, the Moose takes you into the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The area is known for terrific birding and on my first day out on the kayak, I was not disappointed. I saw seagulls, ducks, swans, rednecked-grebes, and bald eagles.
I had the privilege of seeing a juvenile bald eagle and an adult bald eagle fighting some twenty feet above my head! I also saw a rednecked grebe nesting in the middle of the river.
On one particular kayak run up the river, the river was particularly low, and my friend kept bottoming out and getting stuck. At one point, I kayaked back upstream and rammed into him to try and get him unstuck. It kind of worked. He jokingly remarked, upon hitting the refuge boundary, that he was half expecting to see a moose and a bear dancing together. Unfortunately, that did not come to fruition…
We also had not brought our phones or a watch with us, so we had no way to tell how much time had passed. It was a pretty cool experience, to be timeless and utterly in the moment, and we ended up being out for four hours.
Another experience kayaking did not yield much wildlife, but it was cool nonetheless. We were treated to a giant smoke plume from a wildfire some 30 miles away from Sterling, Alaska. Kayaking is fun and relaxing and I can’t wait to do it more.
I think it is fitting to begin this blog with a story. This one is fresh, but has already been added to the repertoire of my overall life story, a tale I can tell at Thanksgivings and parties to come. I would not call it an overall life-changing event, or even that long of a tale, but it is one of amusement and good laughs…although I wasn’t quite laughing at the time. I’m jumping right in, but don’t worry, I will also take a step back and provide you with the larger context. So, here it goes:
I am a member of the unofficial Roon Platoon (i.e., Mushroom hunters) here in the Sterling area of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. We’re an eclectic crew brought together by our other job. As a photographer, I overheard them talking about their quest and I wanted to partake in it, for I had not gotten off campus since arriving in Sterling, Alaska. As a photographer, they happily let me come along. As far as morel hunting goes, it is wise to journey to areas of old forest fires, for the soil is rich and abundant in nutrients. Hardwoods and moist areas, like in gullies or near muskeg swamps, are your best chance at finding these delectable mushrooms. Unfortunately, due to the warm and dry weather, we weren’t having much luck. On our first stop, we found one healthy morel.
The second burn area garnered nothing but moose scat, burnt pine cones, false morels, and a few stray flowers.
The third burn area proved to be the most interesting and where the crux of this story takes place. We decided to all split up to see if that would bear more fruit, as it were, and so two in the group crossed the street while myself and two others entered the woods on the right side of the road. I wanted to stick close to the group as I did not bring my bear spray or my pocket knife with me. We gave each other a little bit of distance until one girl whooped with joy after finding another cluster of morels. Before picking them, I put my camera to work and snapped a few photos. It was a happy moment, one that made me realize how much fun morel hunting could be. One of my cousins has been doing it for all the years that I have known him, spending long stretches each spring on family property in rural northwest Illinois. I remember going with him into the forest once when I was little, but since then, I had not. While the forests in Illinois are deciduous, the forests up here in Alaska are boreal, so conditions are not quite the same. With Alaska being as far north as it is, the season for morels comes much later than in Illinois. I can tell you what is unequivocally the same, however, and that is mosquitoes. This year I turned to all-natural bug spray and it is much more pleasant.
Now here comes the fun. The third burn area led us to a huge muskeg, derived from Cree word muskek, meaning low-lying swamp. Muskeg consists of dead plants in various stages of decomposition such as nearly intact sphagnum moss that can hold 15 to 30 times its own weight in water, causing the spongy, wet muskeg to slope downwards. They are ideal habitats for pitcher plants, beavers, and mushrooms. They are also a mosquito breeding ground. It’s often hard to tell at first that there is a swamp because it often looks just like a forest floor, such as the case in the image on the left. This was my mistake. At first, I was able to creep across its squishy surface with some ease. I thought it would be great to get to the other side of this muskeg meadow to see if there were any morels I could find. About halfway across, I heard two whistle blasts, which was my cue to turn it in and head back to the car. By then, the journey across the muskeg was becoming increasingly wetter and more difficult. I had a decision to make, do I backtrack, do I beeline straight for the road, or do I get to the thick trees on the other side of the muskeg and hope for the best? I chose the third option based on the assumption that the thick of trees would indicate solid ground, as it had on the right side of the picture above. It didn’t. Instead, it got hopelessly worse. I was sinking and the mucky, swampy water was only a few inches from the tops of my XtraTuf rubber boots. I called out to the Roon Platoon about my predicament and they all burst from the bushes by the road to see what was happening. I had become concerned because I was no sooner to getting out and by then I couldn’t backtrack. With my camera in my hand and no solid ground, I did not want to get my equipment wet. They encouraged me to move quickly, thinking momentum would prevent me from sinking any further. I tried as best I could to pick up my pace, but it was too late, the water soon rose higher than my boots and, well, you can guess what happened next. I invited the swamp into my boots. After much ado, I finally made it out of the muskeg, laughing and in good spirits. Before leaving, I emptied several inches of water out of my boots, stripped off my socks, and drove barefoot back home.
I learned some valuable lessons from this particular adventure, from how to search for morel mushrooms to learning the hard way about what not to do when you come to a muskeg swamp. It took a hairdryer to dry out my boots, a shower to wash off the mud, and laughter at the memory. But it was, all in all, a good day.