Tuesday, February 17, 2015

June-July 2014 Alaska Trip Report

June-July 2014 Alaska Trip Report

I'm sitting here in my apartment thanks to my first snow day after moving home to Maryland, trying to find something productive to do with myself. I realized I had not done proper trip reports on my last couple of vacations, so I felt it was time that I did so. I'm going to go in reverse chronological order, starting with my trip to Alaska last summer. Hopefully, this will help me decide where I'm going to go this summer, since I'm starting to worry about my lack of a plan.

The Lead Up and the Flight Up
My Alaska trip started the same way my last few vacations started, with me making the 1.5 day drive up from Hendersonville, Tennessee to my parents' house in New York, so that Scipio would have somewhere to stay. I may be a little off on the timing, but I believe I set out on Friday (5/27/14) evening after leaving work a little early. I arrived in New York on Saturday, if I recall correctly, and rested the next day.

At 7:22AM on May 30th, 2014, I caught United Airlines flight UA1637 from Newark to Chicago. The flight was uneventful but crowded, a sign of sardine times to come. The 737-800 was filled to capacity. We deplaned in Chicago only to get back on the exact same 737-800, again filled to capacity, for the six-hour flight to Anchorage. Let me tell you a little something about making a transcontinental flight of six hours in a fully-loaded 737-800...it sucks. This is a flight for a 757, but unfortunately they are in scarce supply now that Boeing has discontinued them and United's fleet of them is rapidly dwindling. The plane was so heavily laden we took up much of Chicago O'Hare's ample runway space getting the little bird in the air. We then proceeded to get whacked around by turbulence for the next several hours, especially as we crossed the Canadian Rockies. The single-aisle plane with bathrooms only at the far ends became a major issue about three hours in, as the crew insisted on maintaining near hourly drink service, blocking most of coach from getting to the bathroom while simultaneously filling their bladders. I was in the back on a free ticket with a large bladder, so I watched with amusement. I caught my first glimpse of Alaska only as we made our final descent into Anchorage, as the weather was quite cloudy over the Rockies. When you approach Anchorage from the east, it seems they have you descend down Turnagain Arm and then cross the bay before banking in and landing. This gives you quite a view of the area around Anchorage, and I must say I was not displeased. We landed roughly on-time with just enough time for me to get settled for a single night in Anchorage. I stayed at the Best Western Golden Lion Hotel (http://book.bestwestern.com/bestwestern/US/AK/Anchorage-hotels/BEST-WESTERN-Golden-Lion-Hotel/Hotel-Overview.do?propertyCode=02005) this night and my final night in Alaska. It was a decent but overpriced room. However, everything in Anchorage is overpriced, so I couldn't really complain.

The Drive to Denali
I set off on the morning of July 1st, 2014, with Denali National Park as my final destination. However, I had a stop at an undisclosed location to make on my way out of Anchorage. I had an excellent tip on where I might find my very favorite North American Cypripedium (lady slipper) orchid: Cypripedium passerinum (http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/cypripedium/cypripedium_passerinum.shtml). The property is an Alaska State Park located somewhere between Anchorage and Denali National Park. That is ALL you will get me to say unless you are on my trusted orchid list. You probably aren't on my list. ;-) I parked my car and set out with some 20-year-old directions to where the orchids once had been found, along the edge of a lake in a boggy area. I got briefly twisted around in the woods and accidentally came across my first orchid, Corallorhiza trifida.

Corallorhiza trifida

Any day with orchids is a good day, so rather than get upset about reading my directions wrong, I turned around and finally found the stream crossing I was supposed to find. After bushwhacking along an old, overgrown dam site for a significant distance and then further through some boggy woods, now following a moose trail, I came across an orchid extravaganza. Not only were there THOUSANDS of Cypripedium passerinum plants in various stages of bloom, there were also hundreds of specimens of at least two species of Platanthera orchids. Unfortunately, my Canon MR-14EX ring flash was refusing to fire, so I had to take most of these pictures the hard way, with a wide open aperture and a very steady hand (a tripod wasn't really an option in these conditions).

My equipment failure was ultimately due to my rechargeable batteries (which had been charged the night before) discharging on the flight to Alaska. Considering my equipment issues, I elected to head out for Denali. I had plenty of sunlight left, so I was reluctant to leave the orchids, but I also had a three-hour drive through nothing and it was sprinkling already. As I drove north along the only highway from Anchorage to Denali and on to Fairbanks, the weather continued to degrade. By the time I reached my accommodations at the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel(http://www.denalihostel.com/), where I was residing in an adorable little cabin for the next few days while I visited Denali National Park, the weather was positively dismal. However, my little "Highwater Cabin" was cozy.

Denali National Park

Despite the dismal weather the day before, on July 2nd, 2014, the weather started to break and by the start of my Kantishna Experience bus tour (http://www.reservedenali.com/play/tours/kantishna-experience.aspx), an 11-12 hour ride the full length of the road through Denali to the tiny village of Kantishna, a former mining town. However, the rain had actually washed out the road, so instead of going to Kantishna, our tour would stop a few miles short and dawdle at Spirit Lake, which actually turned out to be a better deal. The bus tour started out cold, rainy, and miserable. However, with each passing mile the sky grew clearer and clearer, and the temperature finally rose from miserable to "bearable." We never did get a full glimpse of Mt. McKinley/Denali during the bus tour, but we saw the whole mountain in parts during the day. We also saw brown bears, a fox, caribou, moose, a loon, a merlin, a ground squirrel, and Dall sheep, and various other animals. We also saw some amazing scenery. I highly recommend this particular bus tour if you visit Denali, as it is the longest and most comprehensive, plus it is guided. They did a good job stopping for us to photograph wildlife.

On July 3rd, 2014, I did a little self-guided hiking in Denali National Park as far as my car was allowed to take me. I was mostly looking for Cypripedium guttatum (http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/beauty/cypripedium/cypripedium_guttatum.shtml), which I found in Denali National Park, but unfortunately it was not in bloom. After some frantic emails with some orchid sources, I drove far north of the park, only to discover a site that had previously been accessible was now somebody's driveway. I turned back and spent a little more time in the park, never seeing any further signs of guttatum.

On July 4th, 2014, the clouds finally broke completely over Mt. McKinley/Denali just long enough for my drive back south to the Palmer/Mat-Su Valley area, where I would be staying for the next few days. It was a wonderful sight and a perfect way to spent Independence Day, which is incidentally a very wild and crazy holiday in Alaska, since it is pretty much their only summer holiday.

Since I was on my way back to the area, I went a little out of my way and hit the same undisclosed orchid site on my way to Palmer. I was not disappointed, and now I had working equipment to get some better pictures of the Cypripedium passerinum.

I then retired for the evening at my accommodations for the next few days, the Alaska Garden Gate B&B and Cottages (http://gardengatebnb.com/). Very nice little cottage.

The Mat-Su Valley

I spent my next few days exploring the Mat-Su Valley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matanuska-Susitna_Valley). I visited an old gold mine, the Matanuska glacier, and plenty of good wildlife spots. I was lucky enough to see a black bear, many more moose, and plenty of wildflowers.

You can see a few videos I took in the Mat-Su Valley at on Youtube:


On July 7th, 2014, I left the Mat-Su Valley for the final and most exciting leg of my journey, the small port town of Seward. My accommodations were with the Dairy Hill Lodging facility associated with Alaska Saltwater Lodge (http://www.alaskasaltwaterlodge.com/sewardlodging.htm), with whom I had a small boat tour scheduled the following day. I got to Seward a little early, so I visited the Alaska Sealife Center (http://www.alaskasealife.org/) before settling in for the day.

Some videos are also on Youtube:

On July 8th, 2014, I had the best day of my trip...my small boat tour with Alaska Saltwater Lodge (http://www.alaskasaltwaterlodge.com/alaska_whale_watching.htm). We were out all day and explored many parts of Kenai Fjords National Park. We saw pretty much all the wildlife for the season except Orcas, including Humpback Whales, Steller Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Puffins, Dall Porpoises, and many, many others.

Some good video from the tour on YouTube:

I spent the rest of my time in Seward exploring, driving to a nearby glacier, watching the Bald Eagles right outside my lodging, and just generally exploring. I got to drive through the dual-use Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which alternates between being the rail link and road link to the little port town of Whittier using a complicated traffic sorting system (video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuk_08MU17o).

I finally drove north on July 10th, 2014, departing Seward for the long drive up to Anchorage. The weather was lousy so I did not get much photography in along the long drive back up Turnagain Arm. However, as I was waiting for my flight on July 11th, 2014, I did get a little wildlife photography in before turning in my car.

I had a bumpy flight back to Chicago and then Newark, desperate for sleep...but as we left Alaska we got a treat as we passed over the GIANT Wrangell St. Elias National Park. Goodbye Alaska!!!

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed. :-) A full gallery of photos can be found at: http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=1072522

- Josh

* Just a note... The photographs and videos on this website are an exception to my normal share and share alike with no commercial use license. They are Copyright Joshua Szulecki and MAY NOT be used without permission. I do NOT want to see them showing up on your website without my permission.


JPS said...

I'll note that the two Yellowstone trip reports have been posted as well...



Anonymous said...

Wow, Josh! That sounds like a once-In-a-lifetime adventure! Your writing and photography are top notch and make me want to read more. Can hardly wait for your next expedition.

Jim Fowler, Greenville, SC

JPS said...

Thanks Jim! Don't worry, I have a busy spring and summer planned now that I'm closer to prime orchid sites in New England and along the East Coast. I'm not sure if I'll be making a major trip this year, but if I do it will probably be during orchid season. And of course, it is always photography season!