Wrangell Saint Elias & Southeastern Alaska

From Homer, we drove back through Anchorage to Copper River and enjoyed views of the beautiful Glenn Highway. The most impressive sight was the Matanuska Glacier and we had our closest call to running out of gas. Less than a gallon left!

After a night on the Copper River, we drove to Chitna, the gateway to Wrangell Saint Elias National Park. The small town consisted of a tavern, post office, hotel and a few homes. The hotel was full, however, the owner let Stacia work and sleep in their greenhouse, while Dan slept in his truck. Meanwhile, Nick and Hannah went on a backpacking trip up to Dixie Pass. This 22-mile round trip hike is one of the only backcountry trips accessible without a plane. Only half the route had a trail and there were many creek crossings. Nick and Hannah not only camped in a beautiful spot, but also saw mountain goats, bald eagles, and a mink.

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The next day we finished our drive to McCarthy/Kennicott. This small old mining town is now a national historic site. We walked through the Kennicott mill and on the Root Glacier outside of town. We enjoyed the local scene at ­­­­the Roadside Potatohead and watched chunks of ice run down the river. This area definitely deserved more than two nights, but the 60 miles of dirt road on the motorcycles made the drive worth it.

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Next, we drove the Valdez and spotted the only wolf of the trip! We spent time by the harbor and at the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum in the local college. The next day, we went back north to the northern entrance of Wrangell St. Elias at Nebesna road. We spent the evening at an original homesteader’s cabin. Steve and Joy moved from Nebraska in 1986 and claimed a plot of land, the last place to allow homesteading in Alaska. This couple was definitely an inspiration and a measure of what hard work can achieve. We picked delicious vegetables from their greenhouse and learned about Steve’s trapping work. Nick, Hannah, and Dan drove to the end of the Nebesna road and back, enjoying stream crossing, beautiful scenery, and the Nebesna Roadhouse.

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Our final long drive of the trip was 500 miles to Haines back through BC. This was one of the most scenic drives of the trip and largest change in scenery in a day. Just before Haines, we got to see our first salmon wheel actually running on the trip. Haines was our favorite town in Alaska due to its history and small-town feel.  Stacia even ran into a friend from college who was there filming for work. We stayed in one of the original officer’s homes at the fort built in 1904. During our full day in town, Stacia and Nick hiked up Mt. Riley to see the view of Lynn Canal.

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Next, we took a ferry to Skagway, which immediately disappointed us with the crazy cruise ship scene. We escaped to our campsite 7 miles out of town and spent our free day rock climbing, while Dan rode to Atlin, BC. From Skagway, we took the ferry to Juneau and camped at Mendenhall Campground with direct views across to the glacier. However, the next day we took a flight to Gustavus to see Glacier Bay National Park. While this area of Alaska deserves a lot of time, we spent these days rushing to see as much as possible before our ferry back to Washington.  Gustavus has a population of 435, has 3 antique gas pumps in the center of town, and fields of fireweed lining the road.

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We returned to Juneau and the city began to grow on us due to its manageable size, quaint neighborhoods, and accessibility to the forest. We watched a 16-year-old black bear catch sockeye salmon near our campsite. Only 2% of all salmon hatched live to spawn, so the salmon we saw were watching were the champions.

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From Juneau, we loaded the ferry which would take us to Bellingham in 4 days. We first stopped in Sitka where we walked through the ­­­­­Sitka National Historic Park, took in Totems, and walked along the harbor. Our last stop in Ketchikan was a letdown as it was extremely built up to support the cruise ships. We were able to escape town and hike through the rainforest and visit the Totem Heritage Center. We slept on the deck of the ferry and spotted 10 humpback whales bubble feeding before arriving back to the lower 48.

Good Finds:

Nabesna Road – Huck Hobbit’s Homestead

Haines – Sarah J’s Coffee & Eatery

Skagway – Dyea Campground

Juneau – Mendenhall Glacier Campground, The Rookery, Pel’meni & Alaska State Museum and Library

The Kenai Peninsula

We left Anchorage and headed south around the Turnagain Arm to Hope. Dan and Hannah had a blast whitewater rafting class V rapids, while Nick and I prepared dinner (chicken & tofu). The porcupine campground offered a remarkable mountainous view and around 6 pm, the bore tide filled the arm within 2 minutes.

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Next, we drove to Whitter, a secret military installation from WWII and a very strange place. After the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands, the U.S. wanted a remote base as inaccessible as possible. Previously only accessible via boat and train, the two-mile tunnel blasted out of granite is now open to cars. We explored the underground tunnel systems and grocery store/ tsunami museum. Before leaving, we hiked up to Portage Pass where we were rewarded with a 360 view of the glaciers and bay. It definitely felt like life in Whitter was rough. 80% of the 200 permanent residents live in the WWII-era Begich Towers pictured below.

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Our next stop was Seward, where our campground, although crowded, was perfectly located between town and Resurrection Bay. We spent a day on a boat in the Kenai Fjords National Park, created in 1980 to protect 587,000 acres of wilderness. We were lucky to watch ice calve off from glaciers and spotted Humpback Whales, porpoises, sea otters, sea lions, puffins, and bald eagles.

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The next day, I did some work while Hannah and Nick tried their luck at fishing. Nick caught a Silver Salmon, but they both were disappointed to learn about the declining fish population.

Before heading to Homer we stopped outside of Soldotna where Nick, Hannah, and I spent 2 days backpacking to the Upper Russian Lake. A few miles into our first day we stopped to observe salmon ladders where we watched salmon rapidly hucking themselves at rapids and rocks as their only hope for survival. For the remainder of the day, we hiked through tall grasses (6 ft.) and meadows. The hundreds of bear prints, scat, and claw marks were at first startling until we realized the bears were everywhere and seemed more scared of us then we were of them. We saw an enormous moose rack hiding in the meadow pictured below. The mosquito presence was, as always, extreme and it seemed you couldn’t breathe without inhaling some. At camp, we watched the sunset over the Upper Russian Lake (there are about 3 hours of relative darkness now that we are more south), a mom guiding her 17 ducklings in the lake, and 3 immature bald eagles the size of dogs (70 pounds?) preparing to snatch a duckling meal. The second day we walked through wildflowers and the trail widened into a more forested area.

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We were picked up at the trailhead and drove through Soldotna to Homer. Homer offered water views with glaciers and active volcanoes in the backdrop. On our first full day, I explored the farmers market and did some work while the Loebs took a bush plane to see Coastal Brown Bears (I had the opportunity to go the next day).

They got within 10 feet of the bears and their experience sounded like a highlight of the trip. I set Nick up to fail by giving him a dead camera battery so although he caught some amazing photos, the guide, Joe, shared the real beauties with us (bottom 3 photos).

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The next day we visited the Pratt Museum and learned about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and local wildlife. We walked the beach, historic town, downtown, and spit before I headed to my bear tour. Although I wasn’t able to get as close to the bears as the Loebs, the flight was the highlight of my trip. Flying over active glaciers, watching the clouds roll over the peaks, seeing bears fishing below the plane, and bumping around in bad weather made for an excellent evening.

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Homer really grew on us, it was a funky place, but as always, we had to pack up and get back on the road. Good Finds: Two Sisters Bakery, Fresh Sourdough Express, and Hermit’s Rare & Used Books

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Denali & Anchorage

Due to the road being narrow and unpaved, Denali National Park only allows visitors, past a certain point, to travel via bus. We decided to take the bus 92-miles to the end, arriving at an old mining settlement, Kantishna.

Although the weather was overcast and prevented us from seeing Denali (only 1/3 of visitors ever get to see Denali) it was ideal to spot wildlife. On our 12-hour drive, we saw 6 mom Grizzly Bears, each with 2 cubs, totaling 18 different bears. We watched a mom flop on her back with her feet in the air and let her two, 200-pound babies climb on top of her and nurse. The driver told us that the male bears stay away from the road and the female bears have learned this, therefore spending the majority of their time near the road to protect their cubs. We also saw a fox, 7 moose, over 50 Caribou, and over 50 Dall sheep. We got off the bus to hike the Savage River Ridge and took in the beautiful mountains and intense winds.

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With heavy rains, we decided to call off our Kesugi Ridge backpacking trip and spent 3 night at Dan’s friend’s cabin. 19-miles down a dirt road there were not many residents, however, the word quickly got out that kids (referring to us) were in town. Within minutes of arriving, a family of 6, with kids ranging from 6-12, spent hours with us. Although disappointed we were not younger, the kids told us we were still fun.

On our last morning in the Denali area, the clouds finally broke and we felt lucky that we got a beautiful view of Denali from the cabin. We drove into Talkeetna and were thrilled our flight was not canceled. We took an hour-long flight in a bush plane up into the mountains with breathtaking glacial views. We even saw 2 chinooks sitting at base camp.

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After our flight, Nick, Dan, and I took the bikes up Hatcher Pass while Hannah drove the truck and trailer to Anchorage. The dirt road followed a windy crystal clear river up through the Tundra. A paraglider flew 50 feet above up us and the combination of grassy meadows, icy glaciers, and rocky ridges made for a great alpine pass. We stopped by Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned gold mine sprawled in the valley that was built in the 1930s.

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We made it to Anchorage, which seemed pretty run down. We stayed at a motel on the outskirts next to the correctional facility, homeless shelter, and Mega Store. It was upsetting to see so many homeless and drunk on the street and intense police activity.

On our first full day in Anchorage, Nick, Hannah, and I left and headed back toward Hatcher Pass to rock climb. Arch Angel Valley is home to some of the best quality trad single pitching in Alaska.  In the tundra, down a trail, across a river, and up a scree field, the views and climbing were unbeatable.

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The next day, Hannah and I hunkered down to submit job applications while Nick and Dan explored the Anchorage Museum. Nick even ran into one of his old co-worker at the museum! In the evening, we drove down the Turnagain Arm to watch the amazing bore tide quickly fill the arm with one wave.

The next morning, we packed up and headed for the Kenai Peninsula.