Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Adventures in Alaska

 Dear Readers and Fellow Travel Lovers,

A more personal, fun entry for your (hopefully) viewing and entertainment purposes. 

My love and I just went to Alaska! We were there for 1.5 weeks, just having returned last night at the stroke of midnight and falling into bed.

Man, was it a great trip! I cannot recommend going there enough.

We landed in Anchorage, where we spent one night. Then got up the next day and drove five hours to Denali, while listening to Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone on tape (which Maxx admitted he finds quite interesting, to my shock and delight, since that type of book is not typically his taste). We stopped along the way for photos but mostly just talked and listened.

Then we spent a few days in Denali National Park, where we hiked several trails that were rocky, steep, craggy, and navigated along the edges of cliffs overlooking what appeared to be the world. These hikes were awesome. Difficult. Sweaty. Long. And rewarding at the end, both physically and emotionally. We both agreed they were highlights of the trip.

This little guy, an Arctic Ground Squirrel, even crept over and was pushing his little hands against Maxx's legs! So cool. Maxx just stayed still and watched until he scurried off. Then, another one approached him this close too! Very neat.

Then, I perched my camera precariously on a rock and set it to automatic timer and snagged the following photos...

All of the scenery as we hiked was just breathtaking. It looked something like a movie backdrop. So vast, so beautiful, so varied. That's a great word for Denali National Park: Vast.

Along the way, we had several (five, if I recall correctly) VERY close encounters with moose, which, we found out later on, while still fairly frequent, seem to be a bit rarer than we realized. 

We would turn a corner, the rest of the path and woods were otherwise quiet, lush, and dense, and see right there in front of us, no more than 30 feet away, a majestic, towering moose staring at us from the brush. Its long face and alert gaze on us. The three of us, watching each other for a few minutes. We observed a mom and her baby, grazing, and eating. There was even one moment where we tried to pass a lone female who was grazing, maybe thirty feet off the side of our path, and she made a brief galloping, lunging motion at Maxx, which sent him sprinting off down the path and me, with heart-pounding, backing up fast.

(Fun forest animal fact: They say to run if a moose seems to be charging you. Why? Because they will rarely follow through. Once there is enough space between you and the moose again, they almost always back off. However, in an encounter with a bear? Do not run. Why? Because humans cannot outrun a bear and because this will further encourage the bear to hunt and chase you, believing you to be prey based on your running. Instead, we were told to stand our ground, even if a bear charged us. They usually charge, feeling threatened and trying to scare you, so if you just stand your ground and remain still, they usually lose interest and realize that you aren't prey once they get closer. The vast majority of the time, they will stop when you do this. Luckily, we didn't have the chance to have to).

Though the park instructs people not to get closer than 70 or so feet to a moose, each time we encountered them, we were within forty and even just thirty feet. Not on purpose or out of disregarding the rule, but by chance. That was just where they were when we spotted them.

This was awe-inspiring and so cool. We were able to stand silently and watch them eat. We witnessed a baby scampering about, attempting to engage her mother in playing. We saw them run on spindly legs and even charge some dope who was attempting to snap their photo at far too close range after he'd already been startled by it once!

Thus, there was a treasure trove of moose sighting for us on this trip, which was way cool. Both Maxx and I had never seen one before in real life, so we especially loved this.

(The above photos were the furthest away from the moose we were. After that, that experiences only got closer in range. We also pretty much just took the above photos, ceasing to take any during our encounters afterward. Instead, wanting to just watch and experience the animals. To be fully present with them. Plus, any photo you're going to take, you can likely get a better one on Google anyway ;-)).

So, moose were a marvelous, abundant part of our time in Denali. We also saw Caribu and a fight between two golden eagles, all talons, twisting, and plummeting through the air. 

One day, we took a bus tour through the park, heading deep into Denali where private vehicles were not permitted to go. This was an interesting experience. On the one hand, we saw some pretty neat wildlife. Dahl sheep, Caribu, eagles. And we were able to experience the depth and vastness of the park, which was really neat. On the other hand, I didn't love being crammed in a packed bus with a ton of other people, having to wear masks, and wedged sitting in a seat the whole time (for 8-hours). That was tough, on both the body and the mind. So, it was a mixed bag. Neat but also...not sure I'd do it again.

Below are a few photos from the bus tour experience.

Each evening, after hiking a few miles up, up, up, both of us so tired we could hardly see straight, we retired to The Overlook restaurant where we sat on their huge wooden porch that is set up high above the ground and stared at the mountains as we ate calamari, salmon, king crab, a superb halibut with curried wild rice, French onion soup, Baked Alaska, and a delicious apple tartine dessert. We loved this place. There aren't a lot of food options in Denali, and most of them are crappy fast-food-type places, so this one was quite good in comparison. 

At night, we retired to the rustic cabin we'd rented at Earth Song that was on site with an Alaskan sled dog team! We loved this, oh my gosh. We had the opportunity to meet and spend about forty-five minutes with them, petting and playing with them freely, which both Maxx and I delighted in. (We agreed that Basil was the pup whole stole both our hearts).

After our few days in Denali, we drove back to Anchorage and spent one more night. 

Then we flew to Juneau, about two hours south. 

We agreed that Juneau is all misty, mysterious loveliness. It was a bit drizzly and gray, but this only served at adding to the atmosphere. Ravens permeate the city, cawing, warbling, and making other interesting noises. This is a constant background sound. I loved it. It completed the ensemble of evocative, slightly dark atmosphere.

What's especially eye-catching and unique about Juneau is the houses. A lot of the homes are tucked into the sides of the mountains, are set high on stilts, and can only be reached by walking along winding wooden walkways set way up in the air. I thought this was awesome.

You'll see some of this in the photos below, all of which are Juneau.

In Juneau, we ate at Saffron, which we agreed was (minus the Naan) tasty Indian food that totally hit the spot. We had a couple drinks and got giggly at The Narrows. We shopped at Rainbow Foods for hiking snacks and lunch, which was a great health food store both of us were excited about. And we stumbled upon a way cool, crunchy-granola, Kombucha, and raw dessert cafe called Alaskan Probiotics, which I was elated with. I sampled the raw chocolate cheesecake (so good, it tasted like a light mousse cake with a nutty, hearty crust) and we tried two mini raw carrot cake squares with cashew cream frosting. These, we agreed, were tasty, but a bit too dense.

Essentially, a raw dessert involves no flour, almost no sugar (other than maple syrup or honey), and a lot of ground-up nuts. You'd be surprised by how delicious they can be, and how they do not taste like a combination of all I listed above. 

And Maxx concurred it was potentially the best Kombucha he's ever tried.

We had a couple of interesting conversations while in here (we stopped into this particular shop twice). One, with the owner, a young woman way into health, much like myself, who Maxx and I enjoyed chatting with for about ten minutes. Then, the second time we happened in, an older woman who worked there with whom we got into conversation with ended up telling us she is convinced that COVID comes from a lab, that masks don't work at all, and that Epoch is an excellent news source (which, if you do some research on it, has been banned on Facebook and is a publication known for its wacko conspiracy theories, similar to Q-Anon type thinking). We both agreed upon extracting ourselves from that long (15-minutes maybe) conversation that she was pretty out there, widening our eyes at each other as we walked out.

All of which to say, we loved the probiotics shop ;-).

We spent one day in Juneau hiking Mount Robert's Trail. This was set to be a long and difficult hike (about seven hours, round trip. It would have been one of the hardest hikes either of us had ever done before). 

The first couple of hours were spent ascending through what looked and felt like a rainforest (and actually, Juneau is a rainforest!). It was a vibrant green, lush, smelled heady and wet, and was drizzling slightly. We ended up catching up to Tracy, a woman who was hiking ahead of us with her neighbor's dog, Zuzu. We chatted with her for ten minutes or so about Alaska, as well as the glaciers in Juneau (and how rapidly they're disappearing with climate change, which is devastating). Then, we continued on our way. 

We hiked for about three hours to the top, where we encountered snow! Grinning at each other and nodding mutually when we each asked, "Want to keep going?" We then got on all fours (it grew quite steep) and scrambled up the snowy peak for fifteen or twenty minutes. The trail, alternating between snow and dirt. 

We spotted a Hoary Marmot and a Ptarmigan, both of which are native to up there. The Marmot was huge! Easily the size of a small dog and lazing on a rock as he looked out at the stellar view, and we looked at him. The Ptarmigan, all speckled across its body, was walking back and forth, seeming to be patrolling. Another one was huddled up and appeared to be dozing.

Then, it started to rain pretty steadily.

The day was already chilly and gray. Maxx and I looked at each other. Keep going and hope it'll pass? Or risk getting drenched while three hours up the mountain and it's cold out? We deliberated. We ended up heading down. Good thing too, since it began pouring maybe half an hour later. We took a brief reprieve in the visitor center which is situated at one of the peak areas of the hike. Then, venturing back outside into what was now just drizzle, we continued down, agreed that ice cream was the goal for when we finished. So, while it was an awesome hike, and not an easy one, it didn't end up being the total experience in terms of length and difficulty that we expected, which was also totally ok. We still loved it.

Once back on the ground, we went to Coppa, which we both agreed was decent ice cream but not great, a disappointment given the rave reviews. But, Maxx is an ice cream connoisseur if there ever was one, so he is an ice cream opinion to trust. What was worth it about our visit Coppa, though? The walk. We hoofed it through many of the neighborhoods set on high within Juneau. 

As I mentioned, many of the homes in Juneau are wedged within the mountainside, stand on stilts, and can only be reached by winding, wooden, planked pathways that have been built leading up to them. This is a way cool, unique characteristic of the city, and we were able to walk through several of these neighborhoods and take a look, which I loved.

Then, we flew to Gustavus, Alaska, about a fifteen-minute plane ride from Juneau! This is a tiny town with just 500 citizens. Yes, you read that right. 500 people live in this town. There is one itty-bitty grocery store. One single restaurant. And a mishmash of other tiny shops. Residences aside, that is it. 

So, what makes up most of this place? Dense, gorgeous forest. In fact, Maxx and I walked through one of the more beautiful forests I've ever been in while in Gustavus. Everything was covered in a carpet of brilliant moss. All was silent. The sun glowed gold through the spaces between trees. Green was everywhere. I was anxiously awaiting the fairies and leprechauns to come flattering and peeping. You can see a bunch of photos just below of this.

We also saw two porcupines at close range, as in, within ten feet of us. Wedging and shimmying their way up and then down a tree again. Man, are they neat-looking. Their faces look something like a little troll! We named them Porcini and Pieces.

We stayed one night in the Glacier Bay Lodge in preparation for our next-day activity, which was a boat tour of Glacier Bay. 

There are strict limits to how many boats can explore these waters, in order to protect wildlife. And man, was this a visually rich, fantastic experience. Truly, if you went back to your seat inside the boat (leaving being outside on deck), even if only for a few minutes, it was likely you'd miss something awesome. 

Maxx and I stayed on deck, out in the whipping, brisk wind and sun, for probably 7.5 hours out of the 8 in total that we were on the boat. It was quite cold at various moments, given that we were surrounded by icy mountain peaks, but it was completely worth it to endure the chilliness and then some. Being outside to watch everything in the open air, as opposed to through your glass window inside the boat, there is no comparison. Seeing it all outside is just better.

We saw mountain goats clamoring up granite cliffs, with almost nowhere to step their hooves, given that the sides of the rocky cliff were that straight up and down. We spotted a handful of huge brown bears, even two who were swimming! We passed huge rocks absolutely covered in grunting, belching, roaring sea lions, which was a sight to behold. We saw sea lions and porpoises jumping out of the water. We watched a humpback whale arch itself out of the water twice! And the scenery as our background was stunning. Craggy, snow-capped, rocky cliffs. Some greeny, lush, hilly mountains. 

All of it was just the best. We agreed, this was a major highlight of the trip, this boat trip.

This glacier was huge (in the photos just below). I'm not sure of the size exactly, but if I had to guess, maybe the height of a 30-story building. Our boat stilled and everyone just stood outside on the deck and watched it for several minutes in silence. We witnessed a couple of huge pieces breaking off and falling into the water, emitting a noise like thunder in a canyon, and then a huge wave following. That was just...whoa.

The sun was in our eyes ;-). It was quite bright out. We both ended up sunburned from the day outside on the boat!

In the photo just above, there are two brown bears playing together onshore (and they were bathing before I snapped the photo).

Of course, in all of the photos of our boat tour above, none of the pictures can fully capture it. They offer an idea of what it looked like, but as anyone who has traveled anywhere knows, photos don't cut the mustard in terms of conveying the experience of somewhere or something. It's totally different to be standing there, in the air, surrounded by the vast peaks on all sides. To see the animal actually moving and grazing right in front of you. To taste the food yourself. To walk through the piney-smelling, hushed woods. To be petting and playing with the sled dogs.

Still, I hope the photos brought you some degree of interest and enjoyment. Maybe they'll help inspire your own next travel adventure. Alaska was awesome. I'd highly, highly recommend it for those who love wildlife, animals, hiking, and forest. It was incredible in all those regards.

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