Alaska - The last frontier - Final Part: Kenai Fjords National Park

Kenai Fjords is the smallest national park in Alaska. It represents the quintessential coastal Alaska with rugged & scenic landscape, majestic glaciers, unforgiving stormy seas, rocky headlands, magnificient fjords, diverse wildlife(birds, animals & marine life) and last but not the least, minimal human footprints. It is in the south central part of the state bordering Gulf of Alaska. The access town to Kenai Fjords is Seward, AK which is around 130 miles south of Anchorage.  The drive between Anchorage and Kenai is spectacular and is one of the top scenic drives in Alaska/US. The crown jewel of Kenai fjords NP is the Harding Ice field, which is around 700 Sq miles of glacial ice around a mile thick that was formed during the last ice age. This is the largest icefield in US and it covers more than half of the national park. There are around 33 glaciers flowing off this ice field, six of them are Tide water glaciers that flow into the sea. This park is best viewed from the sea(Kayaking/cruise boats). There is only one road into this park going upto Exit glacier. This park is well known for its marine life and is a popular whale watching spot.

On day 4 of our Alaska trip we drove from Denali to Seward, this is an almost 400 mile drive passing thru Anchorage. We left Denali around 9:30am and reached Anchorage around 2:00pm. We returned our camping gear at REI, grabbed a quick lunch and headed out to Seward around 3:30pm. The road to Seward hugs the shore of a Fjord for around 35-40miles. This section of the drive is very scenic, we made around half a dozen stops along different points during the drive. The weather was brilliant, we had great sunshine and blue skies which accentuated the beauty of this place. Initially when we started this drive it was low tide and the sand bars/ground was visible in most places in the Fjord. Shortly there after the high tide set-in. We were very lucky to witness what is called as "Boar Tide". This is basically a wall of water that comes like an inland wave(similar to what we see in beaches). The tide was around 1-2 ft tall. This is not the best boar tide in the world never the less it is a rare sight. 

One of the key stops we made in this stretch was at Beluga Point. There is a small rocky outcrop stretching out to the sea. I and Anu wanted to have a little adventure and climbed up this rock. It was not very big (roughly 75-100ft) however it was fairly tough and needed some advanced scrambling skills. Both of us ended up with a few scratches and Anu had a sprained ankle on completion of this climb. The view from the top of this rock was worth the climb. As the high tide set in we saw numerous Beluga whales which came along with the tide from this point. Beluga's are white colored whales roughly 10-15ft in length. They are found in the arctic waters only and are a very rare sight. Unfortunately we couldn't film these whales as they surface for 1-2 seconds take a quick breath and go down quickly unlike most other whales that stay at the surface for longer time and spout water while breathing. We made few more stops along the route, hung around for sometime enjoying the scenery and taking pictures and finally reached Seward around 8pm or so that night. We were staying in a Bed and Breakfast - Mobydick hostel for the next 2 nights.

The next day the weather started turning bad, it was very foggy and there was a storm expected later that day/next day. So we debated and finally decided to go ahead with our initial plan of the day long cruise through Resurrection bay and Aialik Bay. The cruise would take around7-8hrs long going upto Aialik glacier which is a large & popular tide water glacier and would drop us back at Seward. The first stretch of the cruise was scenic and we enjoyed the scenery. We saw Harbour seals, Bald eagle, Puffins, mountain goats etc. Ressurection Bay and Aialik bay are parallel to each other and we need to pass thru a short stretch of open sea(30-45 minutes) to reach Aialik bay. After a couple of hours when we reached this stretch of open sea it became very rough and the boat was bobbing up and down almost 10-15ft. Four of us(Me, Anu, Anitha & Anand) were caught in the front of the boat where this turbulence was more accentuated and we were getting sprayed with ice cold water. It was a pretty scary experience as we were caught in this suddenly and we couldn't leave our hand-holds to move back inside the boat. After about 5 mins the captain decided to turn back due to rough seas. Once the boat turned back into the bay the sea started to calm down. On the way back we saw Bear glacier, which is another Tide water glacier and some more scenery before returning to Seward. That afternoon we did some souvenir shopping and we went to Alaska Sealife center and watched some marine life there - Seals, Walruses, Penguins, Belugas etc.

The next day as well the weather was bad, however we were determined not to let the weather hamper our plans. We decided to go ahead and visit Exit Glacier. This is the only part of the park that can be accessed thru the road. This is around 10 miles from Seward. It was raining that day. We got ourselves some rain suits and went ahead with the Harding ice field hike. It is a strenous 8 mile round trip hike along the edge of the Exit glacier. It is a very scenic hike that takes us up roughly 3000ft high providing panoramic views of both Exit glacier and the Harding ice field. You also get great views of the sorrounding mountain ranges and the river flowing off Exit glacier. We saw a lot of wild flowers during this hike. Since it was raining we couldn't take too many pictures during this  hike. 

The trail was very slippery at places due to the rain. As you climb up and go higher you can see the vegetation changing from dense forest to Tundra landscape. Once you go beyond the tree line we were pretty exposed to the elements and it was very cold(probably mid 30's F). We went almost 3/4th of the trail upto the 3 mile mark. Around this point is where the Exit Glacier starts flowing from the Harding ice field. It offers excellent views of both Exit Glacier and  the initial stretch of Harding ice field. After resting here for a few minutes we decided to turn back due to bad weather. Over all we took around 4-5 hrs for the complete hike. Though the weather was bad and it was pretty cold, the hike is really worth the effort. We saw the glacier/ice field up close and we enjoyed the magnificient scenery of this area. We completed the hike around 4:30pm and it was time to head back to Anchorage. Like all good things our trip was coming to an end. The return trip to Anchorage was uneventful as the weather was bad and also bcos were tired/partly wet from the hike. We finally came back to Anchorage at around 8:30pm and grabbed a quick dinner and boarded our flights back home.

Looking back, the last 6 days has been wonderful and some of the best I've had. We had a chance to experience some of the greatest & the most magnificient scenery on earth, we also saw a lot of diverse wildlife which is rare these days. For me it was a dream come true after 5 long years. My resolve to visit Alaska only deepened after this visit. I definitely do hope to come back again to Alaska sometime down the line and enjoy its treasures!! Next time around I want to come here in winter to view Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and if possible try my hand at Mushing :-)

Book Review: Go Green Live Rich by David Bach

This a neat little book by David Bach. We humans have been abusing our planet and over using the resources leading to rapid environment degradation and global warming. The pace at which this degradation is happening has accelerated dramatically over the last few decades threatening to change the face of earth and disrupt the quality of life for us and our future generations. It is our responsibility to preserve the earth and hand it over to our future generations the way we received it.

This book gives you 50 simple ways in which you can become more environment friendly at the same time save yourself a bunch of money. As a first step the author recommends that we start by measuring our carbon footprint and understanding the various factors that drives this footprint. You can measure this at earthlab.

Some of his key recommendations that are covered in this book are summarized below:

Driving Smart - Getting rid of at least 1 car and moving to public transport, upgrading to a hybrid vehicle, tuning your car to ensure that it operates in peak condition, using bio-fuel, checking pressure in tires etc.

Energy Smart - Use natural lighting to the extent possible, check & seal any leakages in your house, lowering heater/Ac settings by a few degrees, move to CFL bulbs, use energy star compliant devices, unplugging unused devices & if possible explore alternate energy options (Solar water heaters, residential wind turbines etc.)

Low Flow - Using low flow showers/taps, shutting off taps when not required etc.

Green Real estate - Get smaller house if possible(will lower AC/heating requirements), utilize recycled materials, planting trees etc.

Shop Green - Buy organic foods, buy in bulk, bringing your own reusable bag for shopping, reducing meat consumption, growing vegetables in your garden, buying recycled paper products etc.

Recycling - Buy and sell everything, get rid of junk mail and convert to online statements/bills etc

Make green your family value - Spend more time with family outdoors instead of in front of TV, taking volunteer vacations by helping social/environmental causes, send e-greetings & green gifts for holidays instead of paper greetings & gifts with lot of packaging

Green at Work - Bring lunch to work, think before you print, switch off light/computer before leaving for the day, telecommuting etc.

Green investing - Going green is the next biggest trend in the market, invest in green companies, start green business etc.

Give green - Donate for green causes, join green communities, Vote green etc.

A lot of the ideas given in this book are practical and implementable without a lot of effort/investment. The author has also provided lot of web sites, products and a whole lot of related information so that you don't have to search and figure out the details. While we may not practically be able to implement all the ideas, even if we can implement a handful of these ideas we will be helping our planet and at the same time helping ourselves by saving more money. Though each of these changes may not make a significant impact by themselves cumulatively they will make a big impact. As the saying goes 'Every single drop counts'. This book is very short and crisp and it has a wealth of information. I would strongly recommend this book if you want ideas for saving money at the same time would like to help & preserve the planet by going green.

If you do decide to buy the book pls go green and get an used book from online !!!

Alaska - The last Frontier - Part II: Denali National Park

Finally i found time to write the second part of this article. I will cover about the Denali national park visit in this blog.

Denali national park gets its name from the native Athabaskan name for Mt. McKinley. It means "The high one". It is one of the largest national parks in America at 6 million acres. The centerpiece of the national park is Mt. McKinley which is the highest peak in North America at 20,320ft. The Alaska range of mountains runs through the center of the park and offers breathtaking landscape with its perpetually snow covered peaks and glacially carved valleys. The range is also the source of several glacially fed streams & braided rivers. 

Most of the Denali national park is a designated wilderness area. There is a 90-mile road from the entrance of the park to Kantishna(Old Mining community) that offers the only connection to external world. Visitors are allowed to drive in their vehicles for the first 15 miles of this road. There are regular shuttle buses that ferry visitors beyond Mile 15. The round trip from Visitor center to Kantishna and back takes around 10-12 hrs. There are also no designated trails in the park unlike most of the national parks in US. So you can pretty much get off the road and hike wherever you want !!

The vegetation in the park varies from Taiga to Tundra. At lower elevations and near the entrance of the park the vegetation consists of boreal forests consisting of coniferous trees like pine, spruce & willows etc. As you travel deeper and higher into the park the coniferous trees start becoming shorter and stunted and gradually pave way to Tundra landscape consisting of Moss, Fern, Lichens & grasses. As you go even higher you start encountering barren landscape which has been stripped bare by the natural elements. The transformation of the vegetation/landscape from Taiga to Tundra is pretty dramatic.

We took the shuttle bus from visitor center and went up to Eielsen Visitor center(Mike 66) on both the days. Few miles out from the visitor center the road starts climbing and roughly between miles 10-14 you can get a view of Mt. McKinley on a clear day. The scenery on this stretch is very beautiful. You can see the changing vegetation and stunted pines here. Late August/early September is fall in Denali and the whole landscape consisted of plants in different hues of red's, yellow's and brown's. This stretch is also a popular Moose watching area. We saw around 3-4 moose in this stretch. The nearest one we saw was at 50ft and it was a bull Moose sporting huge antlers!!

The Savage river camp ground where we camped was at Mile 14. A mile from this campground the road descends and goes across the savage river and you get to a check post. Only Park shuttles are allowed beyond this point. We got off at this point and did a short 3 mile hike by the savage river. The hike follows the river for little over a mile. Here there is a small wooden bridge allowing you to cross the river. We Crossed over and followed the river on the other side back to the road. We saw marmot & arctic squirrel in our hiking path(<10 ft) on the way back. There were some good, challenging rocks where we tried our hand at climbing/bouldering during this hike:-).

After the savage river the road climbs back again to Primrose ridge and descends to Sanctuary river/campground. This is a primitive campground with minimal facilities. Few more miles along the road you get to Teklanika river(Mile 30). The shuttle makes the first stop at this point. There is a nice viewpoint for viewing the Teklanika river which is very wide and braided. There is also a campground at this place. It looks like couple of Grizzlies had visited the campground the night before :-). From here on the next 20-30 miles the possibility of seeing Grizzlies is good. Infact we saw around half a dozen plus grizzlies in the stretch between here and Eeilson visitor center. Beyond this point the park road is unpaved and is a gravel road.

As we continue along the road we pass thickly wooded stretch for a few miles. We cross the Igloo campground and we start climbing up. This area is a good hiking area and there are multiple mountain tops that you could hike to like Igloo mountain, Cathedral mountain, Sable mountain, Double mountain etc. You get a great view of the Alaska range from these mountain tops. These mountain tops are also very popular with Dall Sheep which graze along the steep and precipitous slopes. We saw quite a few Dall sheep on these slopes. They normally graze in small groups. If you notice any white specs on these mountains its the Dall sheep. 

The road then goes past the sable pass, descends and we cross the East fork river. This and the Tolkat river beds are a popular spot for Grizzlies. We go off the bus here for a hike. We tried to climb down off a steep & slippery slope(roughly 200ft) without much success. We followed the road for a little bit and got off on a small side road which leads to a winter cabin by the river side. As we hiked down the path and came around a bend we ran into a red fox. It had just hunted a small animal(possibly Squirrel)and was eating it in the path. We stopped a good 25-30 ft from this Fox. To our surprise, the fox started walking towards us and it crossed us and disappeared into the brush!!!! We saw the fox at <10ft distance. One of the things that really surprised me was that most of the animals in this park are not afraid of humans. We continued our hike along the river bank, spent some time there and hiked back out.

From here, the road climbs back very steeply for a few hundred mtrs and you pass thru stretches with steep drops. The top of the climb takes you to Polychrome overlook(Mile 47). You get a nice panaromic view of the Alaska range and the Tolkat river from here. The landscape here is amazing. You can see all the different colors in the palette as part of the scenery. There is also a short hike from here to the Polychrome mountain. This would give you a even better view of this landscape and on a clear day you could see Mt McKinley. 

Further along, the road descends to the Tolkat river. There is a visitor station here on the river bed displaying some artifacts & books regarding Alaska. This river bed is also a popular hiking spot and you have a good possibility of seeing some wildlife(Caribou & Grizzly). The river is huge and the river bed stretches a good 1+ mile across. The road continues to climb through highway pass and then you go thru a sharp descent, series of hairpin bends and few miles further down you get to Eielson visitor center(Mile 66). We saw a large caribou with huge antlers during this drive. From Eielson visitor center you can some of the best views of Mt McKinley. The best months for viewing McKinley is in Winter when the sky is clear. We were at Denali for 3 days and were not successful in viewing the mountain. The visitor center has a good clay model of the Alaska range and the surrounding mountains. It clearly highlights the various glaciers, climbing paths, features etc. It looks like from this point on it becomes very foggy even in the best weather conditions. We stopped at this point and didn't continue due to bad visibility. 

Beyond this point the road goes through a flat stretch and reaches Wonder Lake at Mile 85. You pass the Muldrow Glacier on the way. This is one of the largest glaciers originating in Mt McKinley and is around 30 miles long. This used to be one of the major climbing paths to the top of McKinley during early days. On Clear days the view of Mt McKinley from Wonder Lake is supposed to be one of the most beautiful views of the mountain. You get a clear reflection of the mountain on the lake. We same some fotos of this at the visitor center and it was breathtaking. Few more miles from here the road ends at Kantishna which used to a mining village during the early 1900's.

In terms of wild life Denali is the Serengeti of North America. Some of the wild like we saw during this trip include Grizzlies, Caribou, Moose, Dall Sheep, Red fox, Marmot, Arctic Squirrel, Cayote and Snow shoe hare. Some of the major birds we saw include Golden Eagle, Ptarmigan, Arctic Warblers and Gyrfalcons.

Overall we had a great trip to Denali and we really enjoyed the scenery and wild life. Though we were there for around 2.5 to 3 days it was over in a flash and i wish we had some more time to spend here.

To be continued. The final part of this series will cover our trip to Kenai Fjords National park.
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