Sunday, July 4, 2010

Drive to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada: July 4

Happy 4th of July! If you're tracking our progress, you may have figured out that our plans changed slightly. We decided to push to the Arctic Circle and Fairbanks in one day instead of 2 so that we could shorten our driving time each day thereafter. Today was an uneventful 602 miles (13 hours) of driving to Whitehorse. We spotted one coyote and one moose along the way. Time to rest for another long driving day tomorrow - we're going to try to make it to Stewart, British Columbia, Canada. The next day we'll go to Prince George, BC, and then to Vancouver the following day where we're giving ourselves a full day to recuperate. We're cutting out Portland and will instead drive to Medford, OR so that we can avoid driving over 1,000 miles on our last day. I guess we've become more realistic as our trip has progressed!!

Drive to Arctic Circle and Fairbanks: July 3

It took us 14 hours to drive only 540.4 miles, so you can imagine the road conditions going up to the Arctic Circle! We had to contend with an obstacle course of muddy, rocky, gravely roads and hell-on-wheels big rigs. Ironically, this was perhaps our warmest day of the trip at a boiling 75 degrees! The Arctic Circle marks the point at which the sun does not set on the summer solstice. Once we had arrived, we were the furthest distance from home that we will be on this trip - a symbolic turnaround point: the beginning of our long drive home. Knowing what a grueling driving day this would be (and each day after until we reach home), we had made reservations months ago at a hostel in Fairbanks for a private room to ensure a good night's sleep. When we arrive there at 9pm (check-in was until 10pm), bleary-eyed and exhausted from our long haul, we were casually informed that our room - the ONLY private one - had been given away a half-hour earlier. However, we were told that we were in luck - they had 2 remaining beds available in the mixed-gender dorm room! After our 14-hour drive, we suspected that the frat-house atmosphere of the dorm room would not be conducive to a good night's sleep. We now have a profound appreciation for the comforts of Best Western, where we chose to spend the night rather than at the hostel (and the only place that still had a room available that late on a Saturday night the day before a holiday). The next morning we were pleasantly surprised to receive an apology from the hostel owner along with $100 to pay for the difference in cost of the hostel and Best Western. That being said, we still would not recommend GoNorth Hostel for anyone planning to travel to Fairbanks, Alaska!

Drive to & Camping in Denali NP: July 1-2

July 1st: We drove 423 miles from Kenai to Denali National Park. A black bear ran out into the road in front of us, but he turned around and ran back into the woods and we were able to stop in time. We saw two moose (husband and wife?) feeding on the side of the road as we entered the park around 10pm. We tried to go to sleep with the bright sun shining into our tent at midnight! July 2nd: We started the day with only a couple of hours of sleep - got on the 6am bus tour of the park. Denali National Park doesn't allow private vehicles into the park past mile 14 - Savage River - where we were camping. The bus goes 4.5 hours through tundra and mountains to a remote visitor's center. You can hop off the bus at any point and catch another one passing by when you're ready. We got on and off several times to go hiking and saw moose, bears, two wolf packs, coyote, caribou, and sheep (all wildlife sightings were from the bus). On the way back to the campsite a lazy porcupine meandered across the road in front of us. WOW - a first for us and something new to cross off our list!

Bear Viewing Part 2: June 30

We also watched a mom with very young triplet cubs for about an hour, eating grass, playing, and napping about 30 feet from us (see photo above). We also saw three juveniles roughhousing nearby. After watching them play-wrestling for several minutes, we trekked into the forest toward another bear viewing area. Along the way we were taken by surprise as the juveniles, still in play-mode (which looks awfully similar to hunting-mode!), bounded right past us. Although they were less than 20 feet away, they didn't seem to know or care about our presence. This was an amazing day!

Bear Viewing in Lake Clark NP, Alaska - Part 1: June 30

We caught a tiny 4-seater plane from Kenai to Lake Clark National Park, across the Cook Inlet. We spent today up close and personal with bears in the Chinitna Bay. Seventy-five miles from the nearest road (only accessibly by boat or plane), our plane had to land on the pebbly beach. As we were flying in we crossed over a large meadow adjacent to the lodge where our tour began. From our vantage point above we could make out several dozen large brown bears. Some were sitting still eating grass while others were running around the meadow creating trails in the grass that appeared to us as geometric patterns. Even from several hundred feet in the air it was clear that these powerful creatures could run with authority far faster than any human. Upon landing we were met by our "grizzled" bear guide. We knew he meant business when he pulled up in a beat-up truck with a bullet hole in the windshield, a massive handgun strapped to his side, and a loaded shotgun sitting in his passenger seat. Fire power was a necessity as there were over a hundred gigantic brown bears within a mile radius of where we landed. In fact, only minutes earlier one had wandered along the stretch of sand where we were standing. Over the course of the next 7 hours we were lucky enough to witness dozens of bears up close in their natural habitat. This included a mom and two cubs digging for clams just off-shore from where we were situated on the beach (see photo above).

Kenai Fjords NP & Drive to Kenai, Alaska: June 29

Rain greeted us on our last day in Seward. Luckily we were inside a boat for the day, so we were able to keep relatively dry. We took a day-long tour along the coastline of Kenai Fjords National Park where we saw lots of wildlife. Right off the bat a bunch of fin whales made an appearance, which the captain said was very rare. How lucky! Maybe they knew we still needed to check them off of our list of wildlife viewed! We also passed a pod of humpback whales, sea otters (playing, of course), puffins, and Dall's porpoises that followed our wake. The Aialik Glacier was our final destination. It was a majestic blue and larger than any glaciers we had previously seen. It was also active, so we saw it calve multiple times during our visit. We had another double-header today, having to drive 3 hours to the city of Kenai. We went to bed immediately, knowing that our day would begin at the crack of dawn the next day. Oh wait - there is no dawn when the sun barely goes down!

Seward, Alaska: June 28

We awoke to bright sun shining through our tent. As many of you may know, we aren't experienced kayakers, but we decided to include one paddling adventure because we heard it was a good way to see the coastline and wildlife. We were in a double kayak, Jenny in front as head-paddler and Gabe in back as lead-steerer. The trip was an all-day affair through Resurrection Bay, 6 miles up and back. In preparation for the trip, we had to don "splash skirts," huge rubber overall/skirt combo - they really came in handy when the wind and waves picked up, preventing water from drenching us. Our route hugged the coastline up the bay where we spotted several bald eagles. At our turnaround point we beached the kayaks in a small pebbly cove. We got re-energized with a picnic on the beach IN THE SUN - a rarity in these parts! Our guide led us on a hike through rainforest out to another cove that was used as a gun station during WWII. On the way back our arms were definitely feeling sore - we discovered new muscles in our upper bodies! A few sea otters came very close to the kayaks and peeked their heads up to say hello. Although we were exhausted at the end of the day, there was still more to see and do! We headed over to a dog sled camp run by a former Ididarod champion. This is an 1,150 mile, 10-17 day race between Anchorage and Nome. In fourth grade students read several stories that take place in Alaska, and one in particular about the Ididarod, so it was especially cool for Jenny to see this dog sled camp in person. We toured the kennel and met the dogs, who are all competitive sled dogs (prepping for the winter races) and who couldn't wit to get hooked up to the sled. We sat on a wheeled sled and were pulled along a forest trail. Then a musher, someone who drives the sled, showed us a real sled and all of the gear that she takes along on a race. Lastly we met the newborn puppies that would soon begin their training. We came away with mixed feelings about the sport - the dogs were obviously well cared for and loved, but they were kept in cramped quarters and the idea of them spending their lives hooked to a sled was disturbing.