Summer In Alaska

Never thought that I would have an opportunity to visit Alaska, USA. But, there I was in Anchorage, Alaska, after more than 20 hours of flying and transit time from Paris, France.

Date: First week of August. Local time: 9pm. Venue: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. Itinerary: Anchorage – Denali National Park – Kenai Fjords National Park – Anchorage

First Impression

Just landed. First impression: Wow, the silhouettes of the mountain ranges in the not-too-far distance set against the dusk. I knew I would love Alaska. Mountains were calling!

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

We spent the first 2 of the 9 full days in Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska. Silviu, my other half, spent the first day in a work-related conference while I explored the downtown myself. After an early breakfast at a cafe (ironically named “Paris Cafe’) opposite the hotel, I decided to start the day with a 13km run at Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is an 18m paved road that follows the coastline of Anchorage, along Knik Arm and Cook Inlet. The trail head is conveniently located 1km from the hotel. It was a sunny morning with temperature in early 20s. It was a pleasant run (apart from the 30min threshold run I squeezed in) as my eyes feasted on the scenic coastline.

There were occasional road signs of moose sightings. At the start, I was on a constant lookout for moose leaping in front of me and crossing my path. After a while, I assumed that it would be quite unlikely for any moose to appear on that day; the chatters and laughters from the people on the trail would likely to scare away even the most intrepid moose.

Feasting on the various shades of blues along Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Alaska Railroad train running along Tony Knowles Coastal Trail
Alaska Railroad train running along Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Nostalgia To-Do List

iHop classic, fluffy pancakes
IHop classic, fluffy pancakes topped with a generous dash of blueberry compote. Each pancake is stuffed with the compote too!

We collected our rented white 2012 Chevrolet on the second day in which we would clock close to 1000km in the following 5 days. After collecting the car, we went through my “Nostalgia To-Do” list for this American trip. It was a short list based on some of the things that I did during my 4-year stay in Colorado in the late 1990s, and which I have missed. The list included (1) Eating at IHop (2) Drinking coffee and buying books at Barnes & Nobles (3) Shopping at Walmart (4) Eating Chinese sesame chicken (5) Shopping at REI (5) Eating cinnamon rolls…

Anchorage Downtown Fishing.
Sightseeing activity: Do you know that you can fish right in the middle of downtown Anchorage? Plenty of Salmon at Ship Creek.

Second Impression

Second impression of Anchorage: Big, Huge, Enormous. Everything, seemed to be supersized: Cars, road lanes, parking spaces, cups of coffee, muffins, bottles of coke, restaurant dishes…

Roadtrip to Denali National Park

231 miles (370km) and 8 hours. Several rest and scenic stops. We planned our various stops with the help of the MilePost – Alaska Travel Planner, which provided mile-by-mile descriptions of various roads in Alaska. It included detail accommodations, camping, sightseeing, attractions and services.

Our first scenic stop at Palmer Hay Flats — State Game Refuge
Panoramic view from Palmer Hay Flats — State Game Refuge
Parks Highway, Anchorage to Denali National Park, Alaska
Somewhere along Parks Highway. Getting nearer to Denali National Park Photo taken through the front window shield).

Denali Grizzly Bear Resort

We got to Denali Grizzly Bear Resort at 5pm. It was situated along the Parks Highway (MilePost 231), 6km away from the entrance of the National Park. We had reserved a tiny cabin simply furnished with a double bed, a heater, a table, 2 chairs et a toilet & a sink.

The shower facility was located 50m away from our cabin, shared with other guests. Each shower required the purchase of 3-euro token which allowed for a 7-minute hot shower. Initially I thought that the 7-minute time allotment would not be sufficient for me. However, after the first shower, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that 7 minutes were more than enough for a good scrub and wash!

Having our first dinner in front of the cabin: green and red curries, and of course, cans of locally brewed beers.

Our meals were mainly provided by Denali Thai and Mariachi Moose, the 2 food trucks on the compound. We would then have our meals at the picnic bench outside our tiny cabin.

For our dinners, we tried red/green curries and also the Thai Basilic Chicken from Denali Thai. Our breakfast was from by Mariachi Moose, which provided big, freshly baked cinnamon rolls and coffee. The food was simple but adequate. Indeed, the taste of the Thai food, especially the curries, were even better than expected. Perhaps, the same food eaten in the nature creates a better taste.

Denali National ParkFirst Day

On our first day in Denali National Park, we took a shuttle from the entrance of the Park to the trail head of Savage River, Mile 14 of the Park Road. From the trail head, we did the Savage Alpine Trail 7km with total elevation gain of 480m gain. Due to the overnight heavy downpour and the continuously drizzle into the morning, the National Park was shrouded with fog. Regardless, we pushed on our hike along the wet trails. The fog, the drizzle, the glisten of rain drops on the grass and trees provided a different type of beauty to the National Park.

My guide and driver.
Muddy Savage River, Alaska after the overnight torrential rain
Muddy Savage River after the overnight torrential rain
We started from Savage River Trail Head (background, behind the ridge) and hiked up and across the ridge.

To avoid unpleasant grizzly bears or moose encounters, we were encouraged to be noisy on the trails. Since there were only 2 of us on the trails, we had to constantly create noise to scare off potential unwanted animal attention. To create a constant flow of noise, we would sing nursery songs. To fill up the occasional silences, Silviu had to shout out “Hello” every few steps! In the end, all we saw in the 2-hour hike were some cute chipmunks.

Our first wildlife encounter in Denali National Park, Alaska

Denali National ParkSecond Day

We were thinking of joining a 7.5h bus tour provided by the National Park, which would take us to Mile 53 of the 92-mile Park Road. Unfortunately, the heavy downpour from 2 nights before had caused damage to parts of the Park Road. All the tour buses were not to proceed beyond Mile 31, just before Teklanika River Bridge. Instead of taking the shuttle back to the Visitor Centre, we alighted the shuttle and went for a short, flat hike on the paved road (3 mile / 5km) to Igloo Creek Campground.

We had to cross the Teklanika River Bridge to get to Igloo Creek. Photo taken from the bridge.
Igloo Creek

In Alaska, the “Big 5” animals are moose, bears, Dall sheep, caribou, and wolves. Since we were leaving Denali National Park the following day, we thought we were not fated to meet any of the Big 5 in our Alaska trip. Guess what! We managed to spot 3 out of the Big 5!

First encounter: on our way back to the Visitor Centre, we spotted from the bus, a group of 3 moose.

Our tour bus was flagged down by 2 cyclists. The cyclists informed us that they spotted a group of 3 grizzly bears in the middle of the Park Road, about 50m away. The bears were moving towards them and the cyclists were afraid to proceed down the Park Road. The bus driver stopped the bus engine, and requested all the passengers to keep our voices down. A few minutes later, we saw 3 scraggy looking bears lumbering past the tour bus. The biggest one in front, followed by a smaller one with a cub.

The grizzly bears were not what I expected. I was waiting for 3 huge ferocious looking bears – not 3 tired looking bears moving wearily. Our bus driver conjectured that the bears might have tried to avoid other more aggressive bears by escaping onto the Park Road.

Father Bear?
Third encounter: A caribou was frightened by our presence, It dashed towards the bus, it veered off about 1m away from the bus, and galloped down the Park Road.
Denali North View Point
Scenic stop: Denali North View Point

Roadtrip to Kenai Fjords National Park

One of the scenic stops along Seward Highway from Anchorage to Kenai Penisula

After spending 2 days at Denali National Park, we drove to Kenai Fjords National Park. The National Park is situated in Kenai Peninsula, in south-central Alaska, 125 miles away from Anchorage. It’s known for the Harding Icefield, an expansive ice field of over 700 square miles (777 km2). Close to 40 glaciers are derived from this ice field.

Earlier this week we had decided, at the very last minute, to camp in Kenai Fjords National Park. The decision was made after we realised that we could actually rent a basic camping gear kit from REI. The rental cost for a 2-person kit for 2 nights was US$120, which seemed reasonable. The kit contained everything we needed: a tent, sleeping bags, inflatable sleeping pads and pillows, a cooking set,…and even hiking poles, headlamps, and foldable chair

Campsite Search

We did not make any campsite reservation as most of these campsites were on a first-come-first-served basis. As we drove from Anchorage to the National Park, along Seward Highway, we stopped almost at every campsite stated in MilePost – Alaska Travel Planner, to search for an empty pitch. After more than 10 attempts, by which it was almost 8pm and we had been on the road for more than 10 hours, we renounced our camping plan for that night. Hence, with a set of camping kit lying uselessly in our car, we searched desperately for an inexpensive accommodation for the night.

Being a weekend and in the summer, most places were full, In the end, we found Nauti Otter Inn, where the guests could stay in the yurts nestled in a forest. There were shared kitchen, toilet and shower facilities too. This option was the best option, considering how disappointed we were in not able to camp.

A unique concept: Nauti Otter Inn is situated in a residential area (many houses around it). However, there is a little forest within its compound where the yurts are set up.

We were super lucky the following day. We decided to try a couple of campsites in that area, and we struck gold at the first attempt – Exit Glacier Campground which was just 1km away from the entrance of the National Park. There were 12 sites at Exit Glacier Campground which allowed up to 3 tents per site. When we arrived there at around 11am, there were only a handful of tents.

View from our campsite.
A bumblebee on Fireweed blossoms.

Kenai Fjords National Park

Exit Glacier, one of the over 40 glaciers in the National Park, is one of the most accessible valley glaciers in Alaska. You can actually hike right up to it! There are a few popular short trails which provide different views of the glacier. Unfortunately, the glacier is adversely impacted by climate change. It has been receding significantly for the past few years. For how long more could we enjoy this nature’s wonder before it completely melts away?

As we arrived late (3pm) at the National Park, we chose to do the shortish “Marmot Meadows” trail (10km round-trip way, 600m+). The trail got us quite close and gave us great views of the Exit Glacier. Close enough to see the various bluish-tinged cracks/crevices on the glacier! It was only at the top that we realised that we actually had more than enough time to extend the hike. However, we ran out of water and had to give up the idea of continuing the hike. The extension would mean completing the tougher Harding Icefield Trail (13km round-trip, 1000m+). I bet the views would have been spectacular.

The End

It is a pity that we only got to spend 9 days in Alaska. There are so many more things to see, do and experience in the biggest American state. If I have the opportunity, I would definitely re-visit Alaska, during the 4 different seasons!

Side note: I have recently taken a keener interest in photography. For the trip, I brought with me my new Canon EOS 200D II basic kit lens and a telephoto one. In my trip planning, I did not consider camera gear packing as an important component. I stuffed all my gear into a complementary canon camera bag that came with the basic kit and thought that would suffice.

What a cumbersome experience it was with a heavy camera bag slinging across the shoulder when hiking up and down the steep, slippery slopes in the different national parks. The bag was swinging awkwardly on one side of the shoulder, making squeaking sounds with each swing (think it was due to the strap hinges weighing down by the gear). There was no way I could run fast with the bag (not that I could outrun the any wildlife). In addition, there was no space to put any hiking provision in the bag. So, I learnt my lesson. I bought a much more suitable bag for the camping trip in Vosges, France a week after my return from Alaska. Wait for the update in my next post!

Up Close and Personal with the Exit Glacier
Fireweed blossoms are definitely cherries on top of the grandeur of the Kenai Mountains.

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