Whales, Puffins, and Steller Sea Lions: Kenai Fjords National Park

September 10, 2009

When I was eight, my best friend’s father used to zip us to Stellwagen Bank in his maroon cigarette boat on humid New England summer afternoons. He’d turn off the engine, and we’d drop our jaws at the riveting sight of dozens of humpback whales surfacing just feet away
from us.

At twenty-three, I still feel the tingle of goose bumps when a whale breaches or slips its tail fluke into the sea. A daylong boat cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park at the beginning of my eighth week in Alaska brought me up-close again to these gargantuan marine creatures. We spotted a few humpback and gray whales; plenty of puffins, murres, cormorants, bald eagles, auklets, guillemots, and murrelets; a sea otter, harbor seals, Steller sea lions, and Dall’s porpoise. As a New England-now-California girl, I’m extremely fortunate to have already glimpsed many of these animals.

Hence the best part of my day was Northwestern Glacier. Our boat literally plowed through clouds of haze— and past harbor seals sleeping on icebergs— to reach this tidewater glacier at the very end of Northwestern Fjord. Watching the glacier calve, or release gigantic blocks of ice that roared into the ocean below, was one of the most moving half hours of my life.

A playful sea otter in Resurrection Bay

Our first wildlife sighting as we left Seward marina— a playful sea otter in Resurrection Bay!

Rock spire

Rock spire

A whale "footprint"! (I failed to capture any fins.)

A whale "footprint"! (I failed to capture any fins.)

Weather station

Weather station

Natural patterns and colors

Natural patterns and colors

The algae and guano look like an abstract painting!

The algae and guano look like an abstract painting!

Harbor seals

Harbor seals

Harbor seals

Harbor seals

Steller sea lions

Steller sea lions

Flying puffin!

Flying puffin!

More colorful patterns

More colorful patterns

Neat rock formation

Neat rock formation

Entering Northwestern Fjord!

Entering Northwestern Fjord!

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Glacier!

Northwestern Glacier!

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

I loved photographing patterns of light.

I loved photographing patterns of light.

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Northwestern Glacier

Can you spot the little dots of harbor seals?

Can you spot the little dots of harbor seals?

Harbor seals on ice

Harbor seals on ice

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Harbor seal

Sun salutations

Sun salutations

Leaving Northwestern Fjord

Leaving Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Northwestern Fjord

Tall waterfall

Tall waterfall

Waterfall

Waterfall

Resurrection Bay

Back in Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay

Maybe someday this will be Restless.

Maybe someday Restless will sail here.

Resurrection Bay

Resurrection Bay

Farewell Seward!

Farewell Seward!


Palmer and Talkeetna: Denali Sidetrips

September 8, 2009

Denali was about five hours from Anchorage­, so I was thankful for a few small jaunts to stretch my legs. On my way north, I stopped to see my favorite Alaskan animals at the sunny Musk Ox Farm in Palmer, just east of Sarah Palin’s Wasilla. Musk oxen produce qiviut, one of the warmest fibers in the world, and the farm aims to domesticate them in order to provide Native Alaska women with qiviut for subsistence knitting projects. Oomingmak, the Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative, sells their beautiful clothing that features the signature pattern of each remote coastal village.

Before leaving Denali, I also attended a phenomenal sled dog demonstration. The park operates a kennel of about thirty Alaskan huskies, a breed unrecognized by the AKC because the dogs are selected for swiftness and personality rather than physical appearance. On my way south, I visited Talkeetna, a town with rich gold mining and railroad history— so much that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With its bright sun, historic buildings, and live bands playing, I felt like I was back in small town New England… and indeed marveled at the accomplishments of fellow Bostonians Bradford and Barbara Washburn in Talkeetna’s amazing local museum.

Musk Ox Farm in Matanuska Valley

Musk Ox Farm in Matanuska Valley

The Musk Ox Farm reminded me of New Zealand.

The Musk Ox Farm reminded me of New Zealand.

Snoozing Alaska husky

Snoozing Alaska husky

Adorable!

Adorable

All of the dogs were so excited to run!

All of the dogs were so excited to run!

Yawn!

Yawn!

An old home in historic Talkeetna

An old home in historic Talkeetna

Another old building

Another old building in Talkeetna

Nagley's General Store, built in 1921. All of the candy and supplies hanging inside reminded me of Montan's recreated ghost towns.

Nagley's General Store, built in 1921. The candy and supplies hanging everywhere inside reminded me of Montana's recreated ghost towns.


An American Safari: Denali National Park

September 8, 2009

At the end of my sixth week I spent my absolute favorite Alaskan day in the Interior exploring Denali National Park. I felt like an intruder on the long drive north, as I was often the only car on the road surrounded by nothing but rocky brown mountains, flat yellow tundra, and taiga forest. I savored this radical change in landscape­ so unfamiliar from the temperate rainforest and glaciers of Girdwood. Private vehicles aren’t allowed in the park, so I rode a hardy evergreen school bus all the way to Wonder Lake (about five and a half hours). The journey was almost like going back to first grade— except this was a field trip with strangers. But the sheer euphoria of so many fellow travelers fulfilling a common dream created a special camaraderie among us, and I was happy to witness such genuine awe and respect for an intricate ecosystem that beats without humanity’s presence. We saw the “Big Five” (moose, grizzlies, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves) in just the first three hours, in addition to a lynx, ptarmigan, snowshoe hares, golden eagles, harriers, trumpeter swans, pintail ducks, and ground squirrels. But by far the most spectacular surprise was Mt. McKinley (Denali)’s purple and pink peaks gracing a baby blue sky. I was thrilled just to see, hear, touch, and smell this magnificent park, but glimpsing so many rare sights made the day utterly remarkable. I also remembered my great grandmother Marian Erickson on what would have been her 99th birthday, and celebrated my cousin Adam Taplin’s wedding from more than 3,300 miles away.

A unique mode of transportation... the Denali shuttle bus

A curious mode of transportation... the shuttle bus

Morning showers

Morning showers

A retreating glacier formed the kettle ponds at the bottom left.

A retreating glacier formed the kettle pond on the bottom left.

Gorgeous lightshadows

Gorgeous shadows and light

More incredible scenery

More incredible scenery

Mindi, what kind of rock formations are these?!

Mindi, what kind of rock formations are these?!

A glacier!

A glacier!

Bellissima

Bellissima

I made it to Wonder Lake!

I made it to Wonder Lake!

Can you spot the female grizzly and two cubs? This is one of three mom-and-cub groups we observed.

Can you spot the female grizzly and her two cubs? This is one of three mom-and-cub groups we observed.

Mama bear (my favorite Denali photo!)

Mama bear (my favorite Denali photo!)

Caribou wading in a braided river

Caribou wading in a braided river valley

A "Dall speck" for you, Cameron! This male has amazing horns.

A "Dall speck" for you, Cameron! This male had amazing horns.

A sow moose under Denali

Sow moose under Denali

A sow moose

Sow moose

Two sow moose

Two sow moose on the loose

A Denali wolf

Denali wolf

My first glimpse of Denali! I was so lucky to see this mountain usually obscured by clouds.

My first glimpse of Denali! I was so lucky to see this mountain usually obscured by clouds.

Getting closer to Denali...

Getting closer to Denali...

My favorite view of Denali from Stony Pass

My favorite view of Denali from Stony Pass

Denali from the Eielson Visitor Center

Denali from the Eielson Visitor Center

Clouds rolling in...

Clouds rolling in...

I wore this baseball cap received during an Alternative Spring Break trip to Appalachia in front of North America's highest peak (20,320 feet).

I wore this baseball cap received during an Alternative Spring Break trip to Appalachia in front of North America's highest peak (20,320 feet).


A Taste of Russia

September 6, 2009

I adore historic structures, especially churches and cathedrals. My Unitarian Universalist church just celebrated its 375th birthday, and while living in Europe I peeked inside hundreds of Spanish, Sicilian, and Italian churches in pursuit of incredible in situ artwork. On my long drive back from Homer past Ring of Fire volcanoes such as Mount Redoubt, I couldn’t help but visit three areas of Russian heritage along the Kenai Peninsula.

Nikolaevsk
I drove nine miles along a winding mountain road to reach this settlement of Old Believers founded in 1968. Abundant purple lupine and fireweed made the region look like Tuscany, except with evergreens instead of slender cypress! I passed a somewhat bizarre afternoon in Samovar Café devouring borsch, piroshok, and fireweed tea with its very hospitable owner Nina Fefelov, who emigrated from Russia many years ago.

Suddenly my visit turned into a photo shoot!

Suddenly my visit turned into a photo shoot!

Ninilchik
This clifftop Russian Orthodox Church, constructed in 1901, was very peaceful.

Ninilchik Russian Orthodox Church

Ninilchik Russian Orthodox Church

Kenai
Here I visited the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox church, built in 1895, and St. Nicholas Chapel, constructed in 1906. The docent grew up in Connecticut and got married near Fenway Park! How neat to meet a fellow member of Red Sox Nation. He was excited to tell me that another Russian Orthodox church exists near Bodega Bay in northern California. Carlee, we’ll have to drive up there in the fall to re-enact our Italian escapades.

Kenai Holy Assumption Orthodox Church

Kenai Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church

Kenai TK TK TK

Kenai St. Nicholas Chapel


Bald Eagles, Ptarmigans, Loons, Moose, and Tidepools: Homer

September 6, 2009

In Italy, I savored solo Trenitalia rides that allowed me to practice the beautiful language with random seat companions. I talked with citizens from all over the country— teenage girls to aged men. During my fifth week in Alaska, a two-day tidepooling excursion to Homer reminded me how much I enjoy traveling da sola.

Twice a month Homer receives extreme minus tides, and the vibrant marine productivity of Kachemak Bay promises excellent tidepooling. I spotted my first wild Alaskan moose along the marshy boardwalk to Bishop’s Beach, and as I gently turned over crusty rocks bald eagles soared above me. Their wingspans are longer than a human being! Underneath the rocks I found red sea cucumbers, blood stars, sun stars, funky looking crabs, chitons, sea urchins, eels, shrimp, and many more unique creatures.

This trip was especially meaningful to me because my family has spent so much time by the ocean. My father used to take me tidepooling at the lighthouse every Sunday, where we would wade through slippery seaweed examining periwinkles, starfish, sea urchins, crabs, anemones, sea worms, eels, and if we were lucky, a horseshoe crab. In the summer, my mother, sister, and I snorkeled over flounders and lobsters at the local beach.

On my first morning in Homer, I happily explored near a little girl whose curiosity reminded me of myself fifteen years ago. The second morning, I met an inquisitive middle-aged couple who somehow sensed that I know quite a bit about the intertidal zone. They asked me so many questions about what we were seeing! My knowledge gleaned from growing up on the New England coast and SCUBA diving along the Great Barrier Reef is such a wonderful gift to pass on to others.

In Homer I was also thrilled to feel my grandmother’s presence. She passed away when I was very young, so long weekends at her childhood cottage on Loon Island in Little Sebago Lake in Maine were sacred experiences for me as a little girl. We fell asleep on horsehair mattresses listening to the call of loons— my grandmother’s favorite animals. After my father launched Restless two summers ago, a pair of graceful swans circled their wings around and around the boat as we were dancing up at our boat club. These cousins of loons seemed to be my grandparents blessing Restless. In Homer while wandering the docks of the marina I chuckled at such classic Alaskan boat names as Pursuit, Born Free, Intrepid, Lip Ripper, and even a Restless! And as I was thinking about how well Restless’ steel hull would slice through the Bering Sea, I spotted a lone Arctic loon bobbing silently nearby in the still ocean. I have not seen a loon in years, and receiving this sign from Grammy made me very happy.

Homer is supposedly one of the best small art towns in America, but I must confess that after visiting its many galleries I think this distinction is somewhat overrated. Anita, I wish you had been with me to evaluate! The Pratt Museum had an amazing live camera focused on brown bears fishing at McNeil River Falls on Kodiak Island, and I was heartened to see so many enthralled visitors. But by far the best public educational center I visited in Alaska was the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, headquarters of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Its exhibits that emphasized saving wildlife for wildlife’s sake deeply impressed me… and even though I harbor mixed feelings about Teddy Roosevelt’s extravagant hunting escapades, he certainly had phenomenal insight to conserve so much of our country’s wild lands.

Bishop's Beach

Bishop's Beach

Intertidal zone

Bishop's Beach intertidal zone

Can you spot the bald eagle?

Can you spot the bald eagle in the distance?

Deep tidal wading

Intertidal wading

Gorgeous patterns of seaweed

Gorgeous seaweed patterns

Sea star

Sea star

Sea star

Sea star

Christmas tree anemone

Christmas tree anemone

I *think* this is a nematode...

I *think* this is a nematode...

Sea star

Sea star

Sun star

Sun star

Crazy crab!

Crazy crab!

Blood star

Blood star

Sea cucumber

Sea cucumber

Sea stars

Sea stars