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...