Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hiking in Chugach and the Return Home (Part Four of my Alaska Adventure)

My all-too-brief visit to Alaska wrapped up with stops to hike several sections of Chugach State Park, after I spent my first day there with a drive down the Seward Highway and a visit to Exit Glacier, and began my second day birding after the return to Anchorage.  Alaska is a hiker's heaven, with trails ranging from easy strolls to multi-day treks across the vast wilderness, and though I didn't have the time (or equipment) to engage in the latter, I still wanted to get in a bit of hiking before heading back to Chateau Papillon.  Armed with Best Easy Day Hikes Anchorage, I headed into the wilds!

Chugach State Park encompasses nearly a half million acres--making it the third-largest state park in the United States and the largest in Alaska.  (I've been to the second-largest, California's Anza-Borrego Desert, too, which is a fantastic destination in its own right.)  The park wraps around the Anchorage area along the Chugach Mountains to the east and offers access to dozens of trails from 28 trailheads.

My first stop was in the park's northern section, where I opted for an easy hike to Thunder Bird Falls.  Located about 15-20 miles northeast of Anchorage along the Glen Alps Highway, the two-mile hike to Thunder Bird Falls travels through some beautiful birch woods hugging a steep gorge above Thunder Bird Creek.  In addition to the hike to the falls themselves, another trail descends to the creek far below.

Again I ran into a group of tourists smoking--and again I have to ask: when out amidst all this pristine nature, why must you light up?  (Not to mention that smoking in the woods is incredibly reckless and has started more than one forest fire.)    I really don't have anything against smokers--and have several in the family, in fact--but at the same time, I don't choose to smoke, so I shouldn't be forced to inhale your smoke, either, particularly when I'm out trying to enjoy nature.  Sorry, I'll step off my soapbox now.

I had originally planned to take a more extensive hike upon Bird Ridge overlooking the Turnagain Arm, but that uber-steep hike requires 4-6 hours and covers a grueling 3400-foot change in altitude over just over two miles.  By contrast, the healthy hike to the "T.V. tower" on the mountainside behind the home I grew up in ascends only 750 feet or so over a course of two miles, and the sweat-inducing climb to Delicate Arch in Utah gains just under 700 feet in a mile and a half.  All in all, my calves think I made the right decision.

After Thunder Bird Falls, I drove back down toward Anchorage proper to pay a visit to an even easier hike in Chugach's "Hillside" trail system; namely, the Anchorage Overlook trail located just below the popular Flattop Peak.  The drive up to the Glen Alps trailhead climbs steeply over the Anchorage basin into the foothills of the Chugach Mountains; along the way, I spotted my first bear of the trip.  A young black bear just waltzed out into the street.  I didn't stop for a photo, though; even a bear so small I thought it at first a large dog seemed something to drive on by without attracting its attention.

A brief hike and some panoramic photos (which I've yet to assemble), and then it was time to head to the airport for the long flights home.  A red-eye from San Francisco always seems like a good idea until you're on it, particularly when you get a glass of red wine spilled in your lap midway through the flight.  At least United gave me a $200 certificate for future travel for that experience; my trip ended up in the black thanks to that bit of discomfort.

One thing I discovered on this trip which I never would have suspected beforehand: I'm a desert boy at heart.  Don't get me wrong; Alaska was a fantastic place to visit and a trip I surely do want to repeat on a longer scale, with Beth along so we can share the experience.  It's filled with some of the most scenic and pristine natural beauty I've ever witnessed.  And I don't mean I would want to live in the desert, either; I like forests and mountains a bit too much for that, and a beach house would be awfully nice.  In terms of sheer majesty, in some sense which speaks directly to my heart, though, deserts have a special essence which transcends simple natural beauty.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sunset over the Turnagain Arm and Searching for Birds (Part Three of My Alaska Trip)

Daylight that began before a 3:30 am sunrise and a drive down the Seward Highway after breakfast still shined down brightly as I wrapped up a visit to Exit Glacier in the early evening made, making for a long but full day.  The sun proper came out during my stop for lunch, driving away the pesky, thick clouds which had covered the Kenai Peninsula since my arrival in Alaska, and this gave me the chance to revisit several spots on the drive back up to Anchorage.

I had even marked a couple of spots on my GPS on the drive down, hoping for just the break in the clouds that I got: the water lily-covered pond above, for example, overlooked by a short boardwalk, as well as the reflecting lake I featured in the lead-off of Part One.

Turnagain Arm and Kenai Mountains

Though there was something magical about the way the snow-covered mountains threaded through and blended together with the low-lying cloud cover, direct sun made for a nice contrast and yielded some photos I'm really pleased with.  Photographers should definitely use the many pull-outs along the Seward Highway; don't be shy about stopping!  Nearly every spot I parked I shared with others who had paused in their drives, too, to enjoy the fantastic scenery.

You'd think with such a short schedule--less than 72 hours on the ground all said and done--I'd have planned out every single moment of my trip, but aside from having a working set of several broad possibilities and suggestions (such as driving to Seward and visiting Exit Glacier), I didn't go into the trip with a set agenda.  This gave me a bit of added flexibility to detour as desired, and with the sun out, I decided to pay another glacier a visit with a drive out to Portage Glacier.

Portage Lake and Glacier (glacier, middle-right; n.b. tiny iceberg, fall right)
Portage Lake and Glacier are a short drive off the Seward Highway about 40 miles south of Anchorage.  Though quite scenic in and of itself, the lake is depressing, too, because in the not-too-distant past, the edge of Portage Glacier extended all the way into the lake (which was itself created by glacial activity), and calved icebergs and slush spread across the entire surface of the waters.  Yes, I know my visit was in the height of the summer, but it's still disappointing to see but one tiny iceberg--just visible to the far right of the lake's horizon in the photo above--and to overhear other visitors musing about the past state of the glacier in their own lives.  The edge of the glacier itself is obstructed from view from the visitor's center today due to its degree of retreat.

Incidentally, the town of Portage no longer exists; the 1964 Good Friday earthquake (the second-strongest in recorded history at the time!) and the resulting tsunami leveled the community entirely.  Though the Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad were rebuilt, Portage was not.

My last few stops on the drive back were to capture a few near-sunset photos.  Alaska doesn't typically offer the sort of brilliantly-hued sunsets you'll find in the desert or the tropics, but nonetheless I found something in them worth remembering.

You'd think that at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night that Anchorage would be a pretty dead place, but not so!  I guess the midnight sun keeps people up, as things were pretty busy at a time I would expect folks to be turning in as preparation for the start of the upcoming work week.  I hadn't thought I'd find much in the way of food that late on a weekend, so I hit a drive-through, but as I pulled in to my hotel's parking lot, I noticed a seafood restaurant next door still packed with customers and almost tossed the bag of Mickey D's--only the knowledge of the short night ahead kept me to my meal of burger & fries.

Despite my recent focus on landscape photography, my true calling is still capturing digital feathers, and though I had added at least a couple of "life list" spottings (Varied Thrush and Harlequin Duck) as a birder during the trip, poor light and tides had left me with very few professional-quality bird photos--and I'd yet fairly high hopes of sighting what otherwise should be some easily-achieved lifers in the loon species which should have been still on their breeding grounds throughout Alaska.  One location my Birder's Guide to Alaska called out specifically for easy July loon spottings was Goose Lake, a small park on the University of Alaska - Anchorage campus.

Fairy Woods at Goose Lake
Unfortunately, the early morning found Goose Lake devoid of even its eponymous bird, but despite my disappointment at the lack of avian species, I did hike around the heavily-used bike & jogging path a bit--and found this beautiful little vignette fit for a fairy court a few feet back into the woods.

I'd visited many of the best birding spots in the Anchorage vicinity, from Potter Marsh to Westchester Lagoon  with ultimately mixed results.  No absolute-keeper bird photos during the trip so far, and a couple of birds I'd been sure I would see remained unfound as well.  That's the unfortunate downside to such a brief trip: birds move around, and if the weather and tides aren't quite right, they might be rather hard to find.  Still, I added a half-dozen life list birds all told, including the aforementioned Harlequin Duck and Varied Thrush alongside Boreal Chickadee, one of the Ptarmigan species, Red-necked Grebe, and a couple of different gulls.

Still, I had planned a bit more hiking, this time in a couple of areas of Chugach State Park, the half-million acre preserve girding the eastern edge of the Anchorage area.  My hikes to Thunderbird Falls and to the Glen Alps overlook over 2,000 feet above the Cook Inlet will wrap up my brief Alaskan getaway, next...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Glacier: First-Hand Witness to the Effects of Global Warming (Part Two of My Brief Alaska Getaway)

A couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of savvy airfare watching to make a brief escape from the heat wave gripping northern Virginia with a trip to Alaska.  In Part One of my adventure, I left Anchorage and its near-midnight sun behind for a drive down the incredibly-scenic Seward Highway, where a spot of lunch magically dispersed the dense clouds which had cloaked the Kenai Peninsula since my arrival.  Next stop: Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, to witness first-hand one of the many evidences of global warming.

Exit Glacier Terminus (center)
Exit Glacier is a short drive north from Seward and is the only part of Kenai Fjords accessible by car.  It's also quite nearly a "drive-up" glacier, with an observation point along the access road (pictured, above) and another only a brief half mile hike (handicap accessible, too) from the parking and visitor's center, with the edge of the glacier itself only a half mile beyond that.  Unlike many national park areas and most Alaska state parks, Kenai Fjords National Park is free-of-charge to visitors.  Both self-led and ranger-guided walks are available; the latter offer the benefit of a knowledgeable narrator; I followed behind one such group (until I could get to a wide enough area of the trail to pass by) and learned a good deal about the specific flora of the area and the roles they play in the ever-changing landscape along the glacier's terminus.

This marked my first trip to Alaska and to its glaciers, so I don't have a personal point of comparison, but others who have been there before expressed shock and dismay when they saw my July, 2010, photos of Exit Glacier.  Signs along the trail and at the glacier's terminus (such as this chart through 1996) clearly show the glacier's retreat, some of which is certainly natural--Exit Glacier has been receding for two centuries, after all.  Yet there's a noticeable and marked difference even in the past decade, as Beth's godmother Joy pointed out when looking over my photos and as I can tell looking back at photos others have taken in the recent past.  It's hard to imagine that at one point in fairly recent history the glacier not only extended across the plain visible to the bottom of the photo above, but that it reached well down the road toward Seward--yet simple, stark numbers mark the years and tell the sad tale of the glacier's retreat from those signposted spots.

Glacial Outwash Plain
Despite the title of this blog post, I'm not going to spend it entirely proselytizing about global warming; the evidence and science speak quite well for themselves.  But I will say that seeing a concrete example like the retreat of Exit Glacier up close and in person should chisel a crack or two in even the stoniest denier's hearts.

The hike from the parking lot forks in a couple of places but is well-signed.  I suggest the hanging a left (follow the signs for "Glacier View"), as this path follows the streams feeding the Resurrection River and overlooks the glacial outwash plain, offering some great scenery.  The waters of the Resurrection are a chalky grey, laden with "rock flour" which the glacier has scoured away with its eons of passage across the land.  From just beyond the Glacier View, you can descend down to the water and outwash plain itself.  As the flow over the outwash plain changes significantly even over the course of a year where the waters and deposits of silt meander and shift, it may not be possible to cross all the way to the "toe of the glacier"--lacking waders or at least some good waterproof boots, I couldn't during my visit.  If you do hike to the toe, be wary of overhanging ice and keep in mind that it is melting and breaking away in sometimes-ponderous chunks!

Stop and take some photos before you head back for the main trail; with a tripod (you did bring one, right?) you could even put together a nice panoramic view encompassing the breadth of the river-feeding streams and several peaks of the Kenai Mountains as backdrops--and depending on the time of day and season, even put together a 360-degree view encompassing the toe of the glacier, too.

One strong suggestion bordering on a plea: if you're a smoker, please don't light up on the trail!  It completely ruins the point of being out in all this untouched splendor to pollute the air around you and litter the ground with your ashes and butts.  Can't you wait until you get back to your car?  There's nothing worse than taking in a deep breath of all that clear arctic air and inhaling a lungful of secondhand smoke.  Hey: enjoy nature and smoke later, please!

Once you're ready, there are at least a couple of upstream trailheads well-marked by signs which you can use to rejoin the hike to the edge of the glacier itself--and for those with a bit more time, a longer trail which runs to the Harding Ice Field from which Exit Glacier springs.  The trail passes through deciduous forest on its way back up from the outwash plain, and during summertime many different wildflowers will be in bloom, from the low, ground-hugging cousin of our flowering dogwoods (Bunchberry, C. canadensis) to brilliant purple Fireweed.  I can only imagine the colors in the brief Alaskan autumn.

It's neither a long nor a difficult hike up from the stream bed and toe of the glacier: after less than half a mile and a bit of a climb, the trail emerges into the open again atop rock striated by the past progress of the glacier over it, a reminder of time on a geological scale where the force of ice-carried stone grinds down and marks deeply the very earth beneath it.

From the Edge of the Glacier viewing point, ropes block off direct access to the glacier itself for safety reasons, and given it's slushy consistency and the pressures of constant melt this close to its terminus, it's easy to understand why.  Take the Harding Ice Field day-hike if you want to walk upon the glacier itself.

Kettle Pond and Glacial Striations
Exit Glacier during the summer influx isn't the best place to seek out solitude; chances are the parking lot will be quite full and the trails and best observation points similarly shared by fellow hikers and nature enthusiasts.  But, personally, I didn't find the company (aside from a few smokers) all that burdensome.  I did stop to wonder for a moment what it would be like to be alone with the glacier, time, and the elements, listening to the dripping of meltwater and imagining the almost-imperceptible movement of those tons upon tons of ice across the ground, scouring and grinding down stone itself, irresistibly plucking up and carrying along rocks sized from mere sand to pebbles all the way through magnificent boulders in size.  And in thinking of that not-silence, I'm glad of the presence of my fellow humans, lest somehow the land itself swallow up such an insignificant speck as one person standing before those titanic forces in the balance.

As I wrap up this part of my trip, I do have to return for a moment to the title and theme of this post.  Exit Glacier has been receding for at least 200 years, so obviously some to much of its loss is due to natural climate change--though global warming is indeed the ultimate cause regardless of whether that warming is natural or anthropogenic.  While we have little control over the natural factors influencing climate, we can curb  our own civilization's contributions.  Our reckless production of greenhouse gases not only undeniably is accelerating the changes which are by and large melting glaciers and ice caps worldwide, but also quickly depleting our only readily-accessible and inexpensive energy sources and the base components of so much of the products we use every day.  Even if we as humankind are completely blameless in Exit Glacier's recession, we should be able to look at its example and see what lies ahead if we don't make some difficult and costly choices now.

Next up: the sunny drive back to Anchorage and a morning hiking in Chugach.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Escaping the Summer Heat with a Visit to the 49th State (Part One: Traveling the Seward Highway)

A couple of weeks ago, I took a brief mini-vacation to Alaska, escaping the heat wave which gripped the Washington, D.C., area with my first trip farther west than the northern California coast.  I love traveling to new places--heck, I love traveling, period--and a visit to the 49th state was the perfect getaway.  Though Beth couldn't come, Alaska is one of her favorite places, and I had to swear not to visit places like the Homer Spit or Denali, which she wants to show me personally, before she'd sign off on the trip.

Lake Along the Seward Highway
Anchorage isn't the cheapest place to fly to, and it's a popular summer destination (to be fair, not so many folks are interested in seeing if they can channel Jack London in the depths of subarctic winter), so planning is an important aspect.  Most major airlines serve Anchorage, and of course Alaska Air offers flights to many cities beyond the state's largest, but prices seem fairly consistent across carriers and in the $400-$500 range for typical dates.  Me, I'd been considering a visit ever since United resumed flights to Anchorage in 2009, and a summer fare sale coupled with the last portion of a big-ticket voucher from United I'd received last fall (long story--let's just say that complimenting the great service on a much-delayed flight got me nearly $1000 in apologies) made the trip affordable, with the final price just under $100.  (We'll debate the environmental costs of such short-duration, long-distance travel in another post.)

My connecting flight in from Denver landed around 10:30pm local time--about an hour before sunset.  That's right: even three weeks past the Summer Solstice and a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, there's no night to speak of, just a gloaming-time greyness that sets in around midnight and lasts for a couple of hours until the sun rises over the horizon again.

Thank goodness for Ambien.

Actually, despite being five timezones behind the east coast, the trip didn't leave me jetlagged at all, unlike the six-zone shift eastward when visiting Michael and Sam in Italy.  The twenty two-plus hours of usable daylight probably had something to do with that: I managed to get by on five hours or less of sleep each night without feeling tired in the least and had to make myself go to bed.  I'm not quite sure how the almost-infinite daylight (or, for that matter, the converse in the depths of winter) plays on one's sanity over an extended period of time, though.

July in Alaska can see a lot of storms, and the morning found no reprieve from the dense blanket of clouds which had hidden so much of the terrain from view on the flight in.  (Beth had wanted to know as soon as I landed what I thought of the sights during approach: not much, I had to reply, given all I saw was white cottony fluff until the last five minutes of the descent.)  However, a simple man like myself has no sway over the weather.

On such a short visit, there were only so many things I could see, so I took Beth's godmother Joy's advice to head down to Seward first thing.  The Seward Highway leading south from Anchorage has plenty of turnouts to stop and simply enjoy the sights, and indeed, the Kenai Peninsula offers some absolutely spectacular vistas worthy of pausing to admire.  (If you don't rent a car, the Alaska Railroad does make the trip along much the same route, too--see the photo below where the tracks are visible right against the edge of the Turnagain Arm.)  Between my own frequent right-turn signals (and a few u-eys) coupled with the incredibly heavy RV traffic on the Seward Highway, I made the two-hour trip into something more like four.

The Turnagain Arm and the Alaska Railroad
Let me just pause for a moment to ask: is it some macho thing for RV drivers to crawl along at 25-under the limit until you get to a passing zone, and then suddenly floor it to 10-15 over?  Can't you just let the normal-speed traffic around you when the opportunity arises?  For once, I wished for more highway cops, so that they could enforce the frequent "Illegal to Delay 5 or More Vehicles -- Use Turnouts" signs these mobile camper drivers flaunted with every passing mile of traffic backed up behind them.  (Even with my frequent stops to enjoy the scenery, this was a problem; it's not fun crawling along with nothing to see but the land whales of a Winnebago in front and a Coachman boxing one in from behind.)  At least during summertime, the RV seems to be the state animal of Alaska!

The drive from Anchorage to Seward isn't a particularly long one (127 miles, if memory serves), but it is unquantifiable in terms of scenery.  First, there are the Kenai Mountains, which even into July and in temperatures in the mid-70s hold snow which so unlike, say, the Sierra Nevadas doesn't seem perched upon unachievably-distant heights.  Couple those incredible, icing-draped mountains with water: the Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet and a fjord separating the Anchorage area from the Kenai Peninsula proper; you've got the first few ingredients for some first-class sights to see.  Do be prepared to stop anywhere to take a closer look--and keep an eye out for the many stands of skeletal trees, haunting evidence of the 1964 earthquake.  The magnitude 9.2 quake (the second-strongest in recorded history) destroyed the town of Portage and did massive damage to the entire Kenai Peninsula: the land around the Turnagain Arm dropped permanently about eight feet, which inundated the soil with saltwater and thus killed the trees which today stand in spectral reminder of that day.

The Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet
The tides in the Turnagain Arm are some of the highest in the world, with a rise of about thirty feet.  I'm guessing I hit the area during high tide (notice the slender beaches in the photo above, for example), which for the birder in me wasn't good news.  No, though July is still breeding season for many migratory birds which travel to the far north--everything from terns and sandpipers through ducks and geese--high tides meant no exposed mudflat bistros for feasting migrant avians.  I think that was my only real disappointment of the trip--though I have to point out that along the Seward Highway I spotted a dozen or more bald eagles perched much as red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks do along the highways of so much of the continental United States.

Seward is a pretty small town, with a population barely larger than where I grew up in southern West Virginia--though with the cruise ships and the peak of summer travel season upon it, the year-round ice-free harbor swells like some Caribbean port of call to well above its "normal" population of just under three thousand inhabitants.  I'd considered booking a short cruise of my own to Kenai Fjords National Park, with quite-affordable meal-inclusive offerings to be had for $50-$80, but I didn't want to commit several hours of my limited time to a single attraction--this is an excursion I'm saving for a follow-up trip with Beth sometime.

Past the harbor and and south through town, I came upon a dirt road turnoff toward the Lowell Point State Recreation Site.  This two-mile long road hugs the shore of Resurrection Bay, emerging in the small community of Lowell Point--which seems to be populated by all manner of rental cabins straight out of some 80s horror/slasher flick.  (To be fair, I expect the average camper isn't planning to spend much time in these ramshackle affairs and instead will be out upon the water, hiking the mountains, and so forth.)  Several stretches of the road are marked as being under avalanche risk and that stopping is verboten, but in the summer several people had parked and tossed fishing poles out into the bay along the route, and I joined them at one to snag a bird-list catch of my own in a Harlequin Duck drake and his harem of five females.

Beach at Lowell Point State Recreation Site
Most of the state park facilities in Alaska are day-use fee areas, but the fees themselves aren't bad as far as such things go ($5), and a payment made at any facility is good all day across the state parks.  Although it's an "honor system" in that visitors deposit the payment at an unmanned kiosk, rangers do collect the payments and presumably cross-check the mirror hangtags in parked vehicles fairly frequently: I saw several tickets written up, so be forewarned.  Lowell Point State Recreation Site is posted that you must pay within 30 minutes of arrival, so technically you could park, use the facilities, stretch you legs, and be gone before payment is due (which is exactly what I did)--but remember that the payment is good throughout the state park system for the rest of the day, too.

At Lowell Point, the beach is a coarse black sand, telling of its volcanic origins (no, not some remnant of an oil spill!).  Alaska is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and so much of the geology is dominated by volcanism, from igneous rocks like basalt to metamorphics like shale, which I suspect make up the predominating species of stone found in the black sands.  Between erosion by the sea and deposition from glacial outflow, you've got the makings of that dark but not dirty shoreline.

There are a few decent hikes at Lowell Point, but I had to give in to my hunger and drove back into Seward proper, where I stopped at the first likely-looking seafood joint: the Crab Pot, where I picked the local specialty of ginger, garlic, and soy-glazed halibut and a cup of chowder.  The menu warned the flavors would be intense, and it didn't exaggerate.  I do have to say the fish was quite good, although perhaps the ginger could have been toned down just a tad to let the fish really speak for itself.  The food was affordable and local, and the restaurant itself just enough of a dive to make it worthwhile and not ridiculously touristy (though I do understand that evenings can be rather crowded by the RV and cruise line crowd).

Even better than filling up my body's tank, though, was that by the time I'd finished lunch, the sun had managed to boil away a nice chunk of the cloud cover.  What a difference a half an hour made!

After stopping waterside to snap a few photos and ponder where the heck all the birds had gotten off to, I set off for Exit Glacier, the only land-accessible part of Kenai Fjords National Park.  Well, I had to backtrack a bit first, having lost the hotshoe level for my camera and despairing a bit at finding another this far out into the boonies.  Fortunately, I found it pretty much where I expected: back at Lowell Point's facilities, where I'd knocked it off my camera whilst trying to get all my photo gear straight.  Whew!

Next up: my visit to the incredible shrinking glacier to see first-hand yet another of the signs of global warming in person...