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...

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