The captain moved the throttles full ahead and once again we were motoring towards our next destination, Aialik Glacier the largest glacier in Kenai fjords. Unfortunately, we found that the ice was too thick in the bay to enter so we motored on towards the Holgate and the Surprise glaciers. Along the way, we would be on the lookout for whales and if we found any, we would stop and observe them for a while.
It wasn’t long before we spotted our first pod of whales. A small group of Humpback whales rolled and dived in front of us. The captain pulled back the throttles and put the boat into idle. We were now floating free and the whales seemed to enjoy the throbbing of the boat’s engines. They slowly and easily swam over towards the boat and appeared to be as curious about us as we were about them. Some swam right alongside the boat and rolled on their sides to view us as we leaned over the side of the boat to view them.
They seemed to revel in our wonderment of them. They showed us gracefully sweeping and flowing tails that slowly rose and then glided below the surface. Long white and barnacled pectoral fins slapped the water and rolled from side to side as they showed us their ribbed and streamlined undersides. With slow dives they vanished from view and came back to us with blasts from their blow holes. We watched their display for half an hour until they became bored with us and decided that something else was more interesting and they slowly swam away leaving us wanting more.
Showtime over, the captain again brought up the throttles and we were once again on our way towards the Holdgate glacier. This boat had real power and we were moving with all due speed toward our destination. A wide and churning white wake was left in our stead as we motored along. Soon land and mountains came into view. The mountains were snow and ice covered and before long, we started coming across small chunks of ice floating in the water. They were of many different shapes and sizes called, from a foot or so to ten or so feet in diameter. These smaller chunks of ice were affectionately known as “bergy bits”.
This could only mean that we were getting close to glaciers. We didn’t have to wait much longer as a white wall of ice and snow known as the Holgate glacier came into view. Far from smooth and stark white, it was a jagged, multi-colored sheet that seemed to have a life of its own. It creaked, cracked and groaned. Huge chunks fell and crashed off the sides creating gigantic splashes sending birds scurrying for cover and creating new icebergs or bergy bits.
As we got closer, a cold stiff wind blew directly off the glacier and straight at us. It was bone chilling. It was also continuous and steady causing us to bundle up if we wanted to stay outside and view the Glacier. The wind seemed like a river of water flowing directly off the glacier and that was exactly what it was. It was the trapped super cooled air that literally flowed from the top of the glacier over the edge and down to the ocean, just like a waterfall.
Bundled up we stood at the boats rail while the captain maneuvered us around to get a better and closer look at the Holgate glacier. Up close, we could see veins of different colors running through the glacier caused by the rocks and earth it had accumulated as it had scraped its way to the ocean’s edge. There were also caverns and cracks of significant size, large enough for people to enter if they could walk on water. It was truly an amazing force of nature.
Before we knew it, the captain told us over the loudspeaker that our time was up and we would have to head back to Seward. He also said if he saw anything interesting we’d stop to take a look. As he was turning the boat around, we rounded a part of the bay and lo and behold… there was another glacier. Aptly named Surprise glacier it had gotten its name because it was only visible from certain angles such as the one we now had as we exited the bay. It was not as mighty as the Holdgate glacier, but it was indeed exciting to be surprised by a glacier. It was not something that one normally imagines could sneak up on them, but the Surprise glacier had done just that. We roamed around the Surprise Glacier for about ten minutes and then the captain said we would be leaving for Seward again shortly.
Kim and I were getting cold and we headed back from the bow of the boat to the cabin to warm up. Just as we were passing the pilot house, the captain who I had been chatting with earlier about my Kindle and our Alaskan adventure ride opened the door, said hello again and…
Asked me if I wanted to drive this 7,200 horse power twin engined 95 foot long boat back to Seward for a while. Would I? Would I? Well hell yeah! He then calmly told me that the power quadrant and thruster controls were all mine and to go for it. He just said, “Don’t hit any of the big bergy bits, OK?” Wahoo!!! To say the least, I was thrilled. And so it was for about twenty minutes of cruising back towards Seward. But all good things must come to an end and in what seemed like just a few seconds, the captain asked for his ship back and I begrudgingly gave it back to him.
About 40 minutes later, we spotted more whales. This time it was a pod of three Orcas. It looked like two adults with an adolescent. The merrily breached and blew their way along the ocean’s surface, moving fairly quickly and paying little attention to us or to the other boat that appeared to enjoy them as well. It was great to see these wonderful creatures in their natural environment instead of in a captive setting. The Orcas seemed to have a destination in mind and they had little time or interest in us so our time with them was quiet short. They quickly were getting out of viewing range since it is illegal to chase the whales in Alaska. But we were good with the time we had with them and this time we were heading back to Seward for real.
The remainder of the trip was a bit of a blur since we had enjoyed the day so much. Before we knew it we were back at the dock and disembarking. We were thrilled with the days events but a bit sad for it to be over. The overwhelming feeling was one of thanks for having the means to go on such a wonderful adventure for we knew our time in Alaska was growing short. Before we knew it, we would be heading back to New Hampshire. But lucky for us, there were a few surprises to go and we’ll tell you about them in the final chapter.
Wild animals, humans and motorcycles thoroughly mixed and mingled, it was time to make our way towards Seward. On our way out of the wildlife park we came upon a rather wheezy looking caribou. With his head hanging low in an apparent weakened display of age and surrender, his impressive rack still was over the top of my head. I stopped my bike beside him to take a picture and to give him the “oh you poor old boy” condolences when suddenly his head popped up. He stiffened, snorted angrily and took a quick step towards me as to say “get lost or I’ll trample you into little pieces of Alaskan tundra.” I was really started, nearly dropped my camera and almost fell off my bike. OK then. Note to self, old Alaskan caribou can still kick butt. Give them a wide berth because they can be quite cranky. Got it. Oh, and luckily for me, Kim was behind me a fair bit and she saw nothing. My dented male ego was to remain somewhat intact.
With that, we (actually I) expedited our exit from the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge and set course for our next stop, Seward. We were quite psyched to be headed there because it is a seaport town and we had planned to go on a full day marine mammal/bird/glacier boat tour while we were there. Continuing south and traveling along Turnagin Arm we were greeted with more ocean views and twisty roads. The weather was good and in no time we made it to Seward and our hotel for the next couple of days.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture. Then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
Now the hotel was not much to write home about, but it did offer some surprises. As we entered the hotel’s lobby, we were immediately surrounded. Surrounded? Yes, as in surrounded by wild animals. Completing our entrance through the one person revolving door we were immediately confronted by two bears, a musk ox and caribou! In the hotel lobby! This just after my run-in with the cranky old caribou. Further in, we found moose, arctic fox, mink and pheasant. Ge’ez, didn’t we just leave the conservation center?
Well what really happened is that all these animals were indeed in the hotel lobby but they were stuffed. Perhaps they had been cranky with someone else and then they paid the price? Oh well, it was just strange seeing all these animals in a hotel lobby, it wasn’t like we were in a hunting lodge. We quickly “headed” to our room to drop off our gear. We opened the door there and found… no stuffed animals.
We put our gear in the room and decided to walk around the town a bit and get some dinner. We found some murals painted on the sides of buildings which had been painted by the locals. They showed topics such as the settling of Seward and some were about native Alaskan culture. They were pretty cool so we snapped a few pictures for memories. Then we did the tourist thing for a while, checked out a few shops in town and finally settled in for the evening, because we had a full day boat tour with an early start in the morning.
The following morning dawned bright and mostly sunny with fairly calm seas. It was going to be a good day for a boat tour. Actually, the boat was more of a ship. It was a 95 foot vessel with twin 3600 horsepower engines. She could make well over 26 knots with a full capacity. This was no little boat. By the way, I know the vessel facts for reasons I’ll tell you about later.
To ensure we got good seating, we arrived early and plopped ourselves down in the cabin by the windows. I was sitting there reading my Kindle which at the time was a fairly new device. The Captain of the ship walked by and asked if I was in fact reading a Kindle and I replied that I was. We chatted about it and I let him look at it. It turned out that he wrote software in his spare time, and the e-ink technology was a hot topic so he wanted to see how it looked on the screen. We chatted a bit more about Alaska and the motorcycle ride we were on which he thought was pretty cool. Ultimately, he said he had to get back to work and we thought we wouldn’t see him again. We were wrong.
The boat departed on time and we headed out to sea. Almost immediately we saw sea otters lolling about in the harbor, some lying on their backs sunning themselves while others rolled lazily like tops to help aerate their fur to aid in insulation. They were as cute as you hear about and can imagine. Clear of the harbor, the Captain laid on the power and 45 minutes later we arrived at two islands, one of which was a Steller Sea Lion rookery. We laid up appropriately close and we could see the females with their cubs sunning themselves while the very large bull males made themselves know with loud vocalizations. Every once in a while, there would be a bit of a dust up between the sea lions over space, but all in all, they seemed quite happy to lie in the sun and take an occasional dip in the water. We watched for a half hour or so and it was time to move on.
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at two more islands, the Beehive Islands which were appropriately named because of their shape and one other thing. The were bird rookeries for many species birds and they flew and swooped all around the islands making them seem like beehives inhabited by bees. As we got closer to the islands, it became apparent that the islands were crammed with birds. It looked like every tiny ledge, crevice and crack had a nesting bird or its partner sitting or standing on it. The walls to the island were quite sheer, so they’d stand or sit on very narrow precipices to be used as nesting areas. There was very little free space by the time the birds had found all the spots they wanted to use. It was quite amazing.
We watched the birds wheel and soar in the air around and above the island. Had there been air traffic control, it would have been a controller’s worst nightmare! But they all seemed to be able to navigate and fly without crashing into each other. We humans aren’t so lucky.
After about thirty minutes of watching the birds act like bees it was time to find some whales and check out some glaciers. Both of which we found and saw in abundance. We’ll tell you about them and the little secret in Part 10.
We hated to admit it, but it was in fact time to leave McCarthy. Time had passed so quickly, I was really somewhat upset to be leaving such a beautiful place. Kim as ever, was taking all in stride and had already packed our gear in plastic bags and was patiently awaiting the van to pick us up and drop us off at the foot bridge so we could walk the last quarter mile or so to our bikes to re-pack our gear. I truly was going to miss the Root glacier and the amazing sights and story of incredible perseverance of all those who had toiled at the Kennicott mine. But I knew there was more to come for us in Valdez and Seward, perhaps even better, and those thoughts buoyed my spirit as we prepared to leave this absolutely amazing place.
Sooner than we knew it, we were back at the foot bridge carrying all our gear back to our bikes to commence our re-packing activities and hit the road for the day and to head for Valdez. After about half an hour, we were ready to move on and we headed back out on the 60 miles of gravel back towards the pavement from whence we had come. It was a faster an easier ride than the previous one since we had already ridden the route but still an enjoyable and exciting jaunt.
By the way, if you don’t know, click on any one of the pictures in the gallery below and it will open that picture into a full size picture and then you can click your way through the remainder of the pictures in either direction in full size.
As we approached the pavement, the weather started to deteriorate and we began to experience the first rain of the day. Rain had become one of our friends during this trip and it was no big deal as we motored on happily and the temperature continued to drop. Further into the ride towards Valdez, we started to climb which helped the temperatures to drop even more. The wind began to pick up significantly and the temperature began to plummet. Snowflakes started to fly as they were ripped from the not too distant clouds just above us. They roiled above us and we could see them being swept up the side of the mountains but being halted at the summit by some other competing wind. The sun began to fade and the weather was truly beginning to get nasty.
I radioed to Kim over the communicators to stop so we could add some layers and check our maps for location and distance to Valdez. We stopped to check our map and found that we were almost right in front of the Worthington glacier. It rolled down the side of the mountain in extending two icy fingers in a “V” for victory having made its way across and over the top of the mountain ending right next to the road we were on. It was impressive! It had made it across the mountain where the clouds had been unable to.
After checking our maps, we found that we were not that far away and if the snow didn’t pick up, we could probably make it into Valdez in a couple of hours or less. After taking a few pictures of the Worthington glacier we were off again and headed to Valdez in the snow and rain. As we neared Valdez, the clouds continued to lower and we were concerned that we may hit some really difficult weather and intense snow. But as we entered a canyon, several blue holes opened overhead and the sun burst through in bright flashes. So there was hope to make it to Valdez and there was a sun above! Great!
The road began to twist and turn surrounded with high jagged rock canyon walls covered in greenery. If the weather were better, this road would have been the kind boy racers would enjoy quite a bit. But as nature would have it, there was another show to be viewed that would slow us down. Under a blue hole, in the sunlight, a cascade of white water crashed down from above. Bouncing from prominence to prominence, the water cascaded in a flash of white and a veil of misty fog. We had to stop to take it all in. In fact, while we were there, several folks were similarly effected and chose to stop as well. It was a feast for the eyes; a delicious sight.
After a few photos it was back onto the bikes and only a short jaunt to Valdez. The rain picked up again, but was an on and off affair for the two days while we visited. So in the on and off rain, we decided that it would be a good idea to visit Valdez and meet some of the locals and find out a little about the city.
We took the time to visit Valdez’s two museums full of information about the history, establishment and people of Valdez, as well as Good Friday earthquake and tsunami that wiped out most of the city in 1964. We saw a specimen of the extremely rare Alaskan Furry Koho salmon. It was encased in a glass enclosed case so you couldn’t pet it, or eat it. Those Alaskans, they protect their rare species carefully.
We later met the curator of the museum who gave us the opportunity to have our picture taken with an Authentic Alaskan hunting rifle saying that “everything is bigger in Alaska”. Shortly thereafter he came out with a 7 foot long rifle that you will see in the pictures here. Quite a guy that curator.
Did you know that Valdez claims to be Alaska’s snow capital? We had a chance to check some of their snow removal equipment and if it’s an indicator of the snow they get, we don’t doubt them. Snow machines 15 1/2 foot tall with 5 1/2 tall augers tell of a need to move a lot of snow; and there are several of them. When the auger of the machine is taller than my wife, you know its a big machine.
We also saw several examples of the symbol of our country flying around the harbor. Bald eagles are plentiful in the area and they can be seen quite regularly in Valdez. It was great to see them and they are just as majestic as you would think they are.
After two days of rain in Valdez, it was time to move on to Seward. By this time, the weather looked to be clearing a bit and we were anxious to be moving in some sun. We planned a full days ride with a couple of stops along the way. The first stop was to be in Girdwood at the Alyeska Tramway, a ski area that has a view of Turnagain Arm. Girdwood is also known for the Girdwood festival which has Alaskan artists, exotic foods and entertainers from all over Alaska. The ride was once again beautiful with curving roads alongside the ocean and mountains. The views were spectacular as the harbor was as placid as a mill pond and it reflected the surrounding mountains. It was a wonderful sight.
We parked at Alyeska and took the tram to the top. It was even more spectacular. From a white snow covered perch, you were witness to an amazing view of Turnagain harbor stretched out in front you. As if by some magical plan, a parasailer floated silently by us and down to the valley floor below. The water of the harbor was blue and sparkled in the sun, reflecting the surrounding mountains. It was perfect.
Again, we could have stayed forever, but we had to make Seward in one day, so we hopped back on the tram and headed down the mountain and got back on the bikes. Not too far from Alyeska, we spied a sign that pointed us to the Wildlife Conservation Center. Kim enjoys seeing “wild” animals so we set our course for the Center. It turned out that it was a drive through center where people drive through with their cars to see the animals. We were on bikes. Hmmm…. do we really want to be in a wild animal center on bikes? Can I really accelerate that hard on a fully loaded adventure bike? Do I really like wild animals that much?
Never fear we were told, all the “dangerous” animals were fenced in. So we paid our fee and visited with bison, elk, moose, musk ox, caribou, and supposedly bears which we never saw (although we saw the pelvis of some poor departed animal in their enclosure). Do you know that a musk ox makes a sound that sounds like a lion’s/tiger’s growl. I’m here to tell you that I heard it up close, and it does and it’s impressive. All in all, it turned out to be a good experience with the opportunity to get pretty close to the animals and see their behaviors. It was money well spent.
Time was indeed fleeting and we needed to get to Seward. So we said our goodbyes to the animals and hightailed it the rest of the way to Seward in clearing and brightening weather. When we got to our hotel, little did we realize that we would once again be surrounded by wild animals. We’ll tell you more in Part 9.