Catching Up

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7/2/19 Yurt #1 at Gold Creek Lodge, King Salmon, Alaska

One of the issues about blogging like this is that life continues even if you can’t or don’t write about it.  Then, when you finally get back to the keyboard, there is just so much that you don’t know where to begin.

That’s the case this morning.  When on a trip like this, getting ill has an especially debilitating effect because, not only do you feel bad, but you start having to miss things that you think are really important.  I mean, on a vacation in Alaska, what isn’t really important?  But germs and bugs don’t really care what you want to do, they have their own purpose in life and it isn’t to help you enjoy yours.

Yep, I started feeling pretty yucky before we left Sitka.  It only got worse on the flight back to Anchorage and during our two-day stay there.  I got my flu shots this year, so I think it is only a really bad cold, but it comes with occasional chills.  Finally, I had to simply ‘call in sick’ and let Joan spend a day by herself in Seward while I caught up on some rest.  But this isn’t the kind of vacation you want to spend in bed.  I didn’t feel like writing either – whatever words came to me seemed to well up with a glum feeling, and without enthusiasm.  Yes, sort of ‘sick’.  So, I didn’t write anything either.

But, especially with a trip plan like ours, the schedule marches on relentlessly, whether you are actively participating or not.  There is still so much to talk about, there is no way to cover the entire week in one post, so this will be an overview and then, hopefully, I can get to more detailed discussions later on.

Last Monday, in the early hours – although it was full-on daylight – we caught the Alaskan Railroad to Seward.  We could have driven or even flown, but decided we wanted to do part of our trip by railroad because it is considered such an iconic way of traveling here in Alaska.  If anyone is planning their own Alaskan Odyssey, we heartily recommend the train.  It travels through the Kenai peninsula mountains on a route that the highway doesn’t take.  You see wildlife, glaciers, rivers, lakes, mountains, and waterfalls that you won’t see from the road.  It is definitely a unique way to spend a few hours.  

It only takes a few to travel from Anchorage to Seward.  Upon arrival, there was a shuttle bus to our lodging at Windsong Lodge.  They are located on the road to Exit Glacier just a couple miles out of Seward.  Located in the woods, the rooms are in separate smaller buildings – not quite like ‘cabins in the woods’ but close.  Resurrection Restaurant, on the property, had pretty good food during our stay.

The following day, we took the lodge shuttle down to the Boat Harbor in Seward and boarded our tour boat for the National Park Tour of Kenai Fjords.  This tour was remarkably similar to the one we took at Glacier Bay.  In fact we saw a lot of the same wildlife including whale spouts and tail flukes, birds of all kinds, sea otters playing on their backs, sea lions basking on large rocks bellowing at each other.  As a bonus, though, we saw three or four orca fins a bit off the side and a school of half-dozen porpoise played with out boat for a short distance.  The tour also took us up front with the face of a tidewater glacier.  There, instead of rescuing kayakers on the beach, as we did at Glacier Bay, we instead watched several fairly good size calves fall into the water with that terrific sound they make. On the way back, they stop at Fox Island and serve you dinner of prime rib and smoked salmon.  It was good, but obviously mass produced!

The plan for Wednesday was to go see Exit glacier, however I spent the day in bed sleeping, still trying to get over the damn cold.  I shoved Joan out the door, though, and she went off on the Lodge’s Exit Glacier tour – in fact, she was alone that morning with just the tour guide.  She got a lesson in glaciers, most of which she had already picked up in our previous visits.  

The next day was a travel day and ended up being a bit more stressful than hoped for.  Originally, I had tried to get transportation from Seward to Brooks Lodge, but that turned out to be impossible.  So we decided to take the train back to Anchorage on Thursday, and then take the regularly scheduled flights down to Brooks.  The train, however, doesn’t leave for Anchorage until 6:00 pm and doesn’t get in until after 10:00.  Then there is the taxi to the hotel, try to get asleep as fast as you can, and then wake up and dash to the airport at 7:00 so you can get through security and catch the 9:00 AM flight.  And, of course, I got to do all that feeling just miserable.  Joan helped me carry things and, somehow, we muddled through.

Then the plane to King Salmon developed engine problems.  We were over an hour late getting on board and, after revving up the engines, the pilot finally shut the whole plane down.  After keeping us in suspense for a good fifteen minutes, we finally deplaned and waited for another airplane.  After the next airplane arrived, things went fairly well and we transferred to a float plane at King Salmon – what seemed like a WWII leftover, something called an ‘Otter’.  But with a lot of noise, we made it across the tundra to land in Brooks Lake.

Finally, we made it to Brooks Camp.  This is the spot that started this entire vacation.  Brooks Lodge is the one with the lottery 18 months in advance.  We had started planning for this more than two years ago and centered everything around this little three-day visit.  

I will definitely be writing an entire post about Brooks Camp – this is one of those amazing parks where life seems permanently suspended in the surreal.  Probably the difficulty of getting here is part of its charm, but I don’t think there is any other place in the world where you can be so intimate with what is arguably the most fearful living beast on the planet, the grizzly bear.  In some ways, the area is a lot like Jurassic Park – there are metal gates designed to keep predators and prey separate and there are definitely more than a few park rangers running around, with radios, trying to make sure that this precise balance between bears and people is maintained.  But there is nothing, really, keeping you from coming around a corner and running face-to-face with a giant grizzly. Truthfully, the bears are here with a singular purpose – to catch and eat salmon so they will be plenty fat for the next year’s hibernation.  They are so focused on their mission that they, for a while anyway, ignore most territorial issues and even dismiss those human delicacies running around everywhere as inadequate compared to the vast quantities of salmon running up the Brooks River.  (From the river you can see thousands of them running up stream to spawn, turn bright red, and die!). Us humans are, at best, just a sideshow.

Brooks camp, salmon, and bears, are not the reasons for Katmai National Park, they just happen to be its most attractive side benefit.  Katmai is a volcano that was thought to have been the one that exploded in 1912 as the world’s second most powerful known volcanic eruption.  The explosion was felt thousands of miles away and the ash caused a two year reduction in average temperature of almost two degrees Fahrenheit.  The pyroclastic flow literally filled a glacial valley up to a depth of 700 feet in some areas nearest the eruption.  That valley was named, shortly after the eruption, as the Valley of 10,000 Smokes because of all the fumaroles produced from the hot lava and ash.  The fumaroles are gone now, but the solidified ash remains and is visible  both from observation posts above the valley and at the rock level with a mile long hike down to the edges of the flow.  We spent one day on a bus out viewing the remains which, actually, were the original reason for the park.  The salmon and the resulting bears became a later attraction.  I’ll get to a post about the valley later too.

We met some interesting people at Brooks camp including both park rangers, like Mo (Maurice) and Julia, and camp personnel like the bartender Greg, all of whom made our short stay terrific.  Oh, and if you every want to feel really foolish taking pictures with your iPhone, go to Brooks Camp and look at the three-feet long telephoto lenses some folks have attached to their SLR cameras.  What a stay and what a park.

We took the floatplane back to King Salmon yesterday and were met at the dock by Hunter with his Gold Creek Lodge van to pick us up.  If Brooks Camp was the rustic national park experience, Gold Creek Lodge is the ultimate in an Alaskan Lodge.  We are staying in a yurt which is the first time that we’ve spent time in one.  It is high-class and worthy of a desert prince and princess. (Even though we are on the tundra, it is sort of like a desert, just greener and maybe a bit wetter.). 

The bathroom, however, is a hundred yards away in a trailer.  Most of the time that isn’t a problem, except in the middle of the night when us old folks have to seek some relief!  In addition to having to get dressed and trudge through the night to the bathroom, we also have to avoid bears.  Yes, we are still in bear country.  In fact our yurt and most of the grounds here at the lodge are fenced in with high-voltage bear-fencing.  I’m told that if I touch it, it might not kill me, but will knock me flat on my ass.  So talk about Jurassic Park – this is another version of that.

I doubt, however, that Jurassic Park has the food this place does.  Last night’s dinner was reindeer medallions wrapped in bacon served over Yukon gold mashed potatoes with roasted carrots – one of the best meals we’ve had since we were up here.  This isn’t a big lodge – maybe twenty guests right now, so it isn’t clear how Cat Ellis, owner and hostess, is able to attract such a terrific chef, but she is really good.  Service has been superb over the last day as the staff here really goes out of their way to make you feel welcome and pampered.   

We are staying here in an attempt to include one more very special bucket list park, Aniakchak National Monument.  The monument preserves a dormant volcanic crater, even with a small lake inside, Lake Surprise.  It offers stunning panoramas and is considered a precious site.  It is also next to impossible to get to – the only way in is by float plane.  We have chartered a flightsee out of here and are staying in King Salmon just to, hopefully, see the weather clear enough so we can go.  Latest word from the charter service is that tomorrow is looking fairly good, so we might just make it.  If so, then I will certainly have more pictures and stuff to write about the next day.  If not, then, with substantial disappointment, I will finish writing up the last week.  Unfortunately, you can’t control the weather and, like the pilot, I’d prefer not to fly in bad weather.

In a nutshell, that’s what the last week has been like.  I will be trying to expand all that into follow-up posts with pictures.