Last night’s late sun turned into fog over Small Lake this morning, so we got on the road without the morning hike we like to take. Also, we were anxious to reach the international border and cross back into Alaska so we could reach The Wrangell – St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
The border is located at Mile Marker 1,189.5 (1967.5 km) and Historical Milepost 1221 on the Alaska Highway. The border is marked by a 20-foot/6m wide swatch cut by surveyors between 1904 and 1920 along the 141st meridian. The cleared swatch runs for 600 miles starting at the Arctic Ocean!
Shortly after the border we came upon the Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. The Visitors Center was closed but we were still able to use their spotting scope and our binoculars to identify a large flock of Sandhill Cranes flying across the marshy area below the center.
Next up was a turnout for the Chisana (pronounced Shoo-Sa-Na) gold rush. This was the last major rush of the Gold Rush era and occurred in 1913. Unfortunately for the 2,000 stampeders who arrived, the rush was small and short-lived. After only one year most left disappointed and empty handed, a familiar story.
Our first major town in Alaska was Tok (pronounced like poke) and we visited the Tok School. We also had a nice chat with the director of the correspondence department.
At Tok we turned off the Alaska Highway and headed off southwest. We soon arrived at the Nabesna Road turnoff where we stopped at the visitor center for the Nat’l Park. After speaking with the volunteer working there we continued into the Wrangell-St. Elias NP & Preserve on one of only two roads that enter the park. This is the Alaska side of the World Heritage Site that we visited at Kluane in Yukon.
We stopped for the night with an absolutely spectacular view of Kettle Lake, Mt Sanford (16,237 ft) Capital Mtn (7,731 ft) Mt Wrangell (14,263 ft) Mt Zanetti (13,009) and Tanada Peak (9358 ft) to the southwest and the Mentasta Mountains to the north.
We awoke this morning again to overcast and sprinkles, but it was not too cold. We took a short walk along the road and noted all of the caribou footprints. Perhaps we’ll see some! After posting our update we continued on down the Nabesna Road. The road runs 45 miles through the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve to the privately owned Nabesna Mine. The mine which is on the National Register of Historic Sites operated from 1923 until the late 1940’s mining primarily for gold.
The road passes through some gorgeous scenery and has numerous stream crossings. At certain times of the year it is passable only with high clearance, 4X4 vehicles. It is also one of only two roads that go into the interior of the park. We drove slowly in hopes of seeing some animals. The volunteer at the park office told us that she had seen some type of animal or another every time she had driven the road. She also mentioned that the bears were just starting to come out of hibernation.
During our drive we stopped periodically to check out the hiking trails. Most of them were very wet from spring melt and had 1-2 feet of standing water on the trail. We did bring rubber boots, but we decided to keep looking.
After stopping for lunch, we continued to the end of the park road. It turned out that the rest of the road is closed to vehicles and it is a 6-mile round trip hike to the mine. The weather had been "iffy" all day and we didn’t think it was advisable to take a hike of that length in questionable weather. Disappointed we turned our vehicle around and headed back.
Unwilling to leave without some kind of hike into the Alaska wilderness, we chose a 2 mile hike up the Skookum Volcano Trail. Fortunately this one didn’t have standing water although it did promise some stream crossings. Packing our rubber boots into our daysacks and wearing rain gear, we started out. We hiked through spruce and poplar stands stepping over all kinds of animal spoor. While most was unidentifiable to us, one set certainly looked very decidedly bear!
We hiked over muskeg and forded a stream of runoff running down the trail. A couple of downed branches served as walking sticks. Eventually we passed out of the forest and onto the riverbed. After making one scary stream crossing over ice and rocks and realizing that we would have to do it a few more times, we decided that we’d really enjoyed our hike and it was time to go back.
Back in the car, we continued our vigilant look for animals. We did spot an extremely large owl hunting in an open field. He perched on a dead tree and watched us as we watched him. He was tan with brown and white wings and appeared to have white eye rings. Based on our bird book we decided he was either a Northern Hawk Owl or a Short Eared Owl. Or an owl not in our book!
Well, this morning we got a big surprise, we woke up to find a half an inch of snow on the ground! By the time we got out of bed, it had quickly progressed to 2 inches. Lucky for us, the camper has a heater to keep us toasty. It had started to rain around 10pm and continued through the night. At some point it got so quiet that we thought it had stopped. Hah! Snow doesn't make as much noise as rain!
So we put our things together, quickly, and headed out the 20 miles back to pavement. Our drive took us up and down through various elevation changes so sometimes we were in rain, sometimes snow.
We decided it was a good day to do errands, so we stopped in the town of Glenallen at the only laundromat and did laundry. We were also able to shop at the grocery next door, get gas, propane and some necessary hardware items. Actually it was a productive stop.
At one point the clouds lifted and we were treated to a view of the Tazlina Glacier, even though it was miles away. Our destination today is the Matanuska Glacier. With all the clouds we don't know what to expect.
The Matanuska Glacier starts high up in the Chugach Mountains and flows northwest for 27 miles and has an average width of 2 miles. At its end, it is an incredible 4 miles wide! It is billed as the largest glacier you can drive a vehicle to. We were concerned that weather-wise we might be shut out.
Using our travel guide, The MilePost (as we have everyday since Seattle) we discovered that there was a private park with walking trails directly to the glacier, and they were even open! And they had a campground! After talking with our host and taking her suggestion of camping locations, we drove an additional 3 miles to the right site. As we came around a corner, there it was ... the glacier was only 300 feet away. No weather could block the view of this baby!
The glacier has remained fairly stable, meaning it hasn't really moved much for the past 400 years. But 18,000 years ago it reached as far as Palmer, another 60 miles further.
After setting up camp we took a quick hike to the glacier just to check it out. It is amazing! The face of it is aquamarine blue and TALL. There is glacial melt streaming from cracks and crevices forming a steady stream flowing to the Matanuska River. The loose rocks and loess ( a fine silt) make up hills at the base and actually cover much of the end of the glacier. Tomorrow we'll put on our crampons and go hike the glacier.
What a great morning. We got up early and planned to spend several hours hiking onto and exploring the Matanuska Glacier. And guess what? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky!
The sun was already working its magic on the glacier as we set out. In the sunlight we could see the aquamarine blue color of the ice. The effect is beautiful. You get the smooth white of the surface ice split by the cracks of deep blue.
As we explored the glacier we kept finding little surprises. We found small rivers of melt-water carving channels deep into the glacier. We followed the rivers and found that some disappeared falling deeper into the heart of the glacier. We climbed high up to huge ice-falls and ran our hands on the smooth, cold face of the ice blocks.
Our destination today was the State Historical Park at Independence Gold Mine about 80 miles (129 km) north of Anchorage. At the mine site there are old buildings and mining equipment still on site to be explored.
To get to the mine we had to travel up the gravel Hatcher Pass Road. We knew the road to the summit at 3,886 ft. (1,295 mt.) would be closed due to snow but hoped the road to the mine would be closed due to snow, but hoped the road to the mine was clear. We were in luck, sort of. We were able to drive to within about 1-1/2 miles of the mine ruins. So we put on our tall rubber boots and headed off into the snow. The walk was fairly uneventful, except for a few knee-deep sinkings in the snow. We finally got to about 100 ft. (33 m.) from the building when we couldn’t go any further. The snow was soft and almost waist deep. What’s more, we could see fewer of the buildings from where we were now as compared to where we had to park the expedition vehicle. Oh well.
We couldn’t find a camp spot along Hatcher Pass, so we retraced our path and stopped at a nearby lake. There we found we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of a sunny day. The lake was full of fishermen with their boats. Then during dinner, we were treated to a float-plane pilot practicing his water landings and takeoffs. Yes, it was a full day.
Today was the big push through Anchorage. Shortly after leaving Finger Lake State Recreation Area we entered the "freeway". We hadn't seen one of those in about two weeks!
Back on the freeway, we headed south to the Kenai Peninsula. This road (called the Seward Highway) is absolutely gorgeous but also the most treacherous in Alaska with two lanes passing each other at 65mph (115kph). There were numerous pullouts for those of us who weren't in a hurry to get out of town.
We spoke to a First Nation man who was dip netting and learned he was from a village in northern Alaska. He asked us if it was our first time to see dip netters and when we said yes, he said it was his first time doing it himself. In his village he had always done it from a boat. He also said that from a boat you can get in two dips what he had collected over a couple of hours (which looked like about 20 fish)! But since he was away from his village he was happy to be carrying on this tradition in whatever way he could.
Back on the Seward Highway we continued south toward Portage Glacier. This glacier has retreated dramatically in recent years. In the 1970's the glacier extended across Portage Lake to within a mile of the visitor center on its shore. Recently, Portage Glacier has retreated over two miles and is no longer visible from the visitor center. As a matter of fact, you have to drive toward the Whittier tunnel to view the glacier. But along the road there are several other glaciers to view including Explorer Glacier and Byron Glacier and of course there is Middle Glacier, below which is the campground where we spent the night. Quite spectacular (if you can ignore the mosquitoes!)
The next morning we rose early to take advantage of the beautiful weather. We did an early morning hike through moose and beaver habitat. We didn't see any animals but we did get out and back before the mosquitoes noticed that we were up! Back at camp we packed up quickly and were on our way to Homer. On the way back to the Seward Hwy., we noticed a car stopped on the side of the road. We slowed down to take a look and sure enough, there was a moose at a pond. Unfortunately by the time we saw him he was already on his way back into the forest, so we saw only his behind. Oh well!
Back on the highway, we continued on to Homer. We stopped for lunch on the banks of the Kenai River and checked out the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. Although the King Salmon start their migration back up these rivers to spawn in mid-May, we were unable to see any. Anxious to get to Homer, we continued on our way. Arriving late in the afternoon we drove directly out to Homer Spit to find a camping spot.
Homer Spit is the original home for the town of Homer. The town got its name from a miner looking for gold in 1896. While gold wasn't found here, coal was and it supported the town until 1951 when fishing became the main industry. Today fishing is a $30 million a year industry. In 1964 the Good Friday earthquake hit and leveled most of the town. In addition the road to the spit sank 6 feet and turned the spit into an island. It took 6 years to rebuild it. These days the town is also a tourist destination and the islands in Kachemak Bay provide the backdrop.
We awoke this morning to calm winds and flat seas. A perfect day for kayaking! We signed on with a local tour company for a half day kayak trip in Peterson Bay across from the spit. We with three other adventurers and two guides boarded a boat for a 15 minute trip across Kachemak Bay We passed close by Gull Island which is a rookery for 8 different bird species. There were over 30,000 birds nesting on the island! On its cliffs we saw Red-faced Cormorants which are found nowhere else in the world! We also saw Common Murres (they kind of look like penguins) and floating in the water nearby were Tufted Puffins. They were so beautiful with their orange beaks and white eye tufts.
Shortly we arrived in Peterson Bay and after a short instruction on the ins and outs of an ocean kayak (complete with rudder) we were off exploring. Because the day was so calm we were able to kayak up the coast to a small bay with some interesting geologic features formed by plate tectonics. There was also a small waterfall and in small coves left dry by the receding tide, there were sea stars left hanging high on the walls waiting for the tide to return. We then explored several more bays, viewing sea stars in the shallow water and huge schools of small fish. We also saw a very shy, very pretty species of duck called Harlequin.
To finish off our excellent adventure we picked up a couple of pounds of clams to serve as an appetizer before dinner. A yummy conclusion for a fun day!