Alaska 2017 Part 2: Denali National Park

After our wonderful time in the cabin in Seldovia on the Kenai Peninsula, we spent a rainy day (many days in Alaska are rainy days) driving up to Denali National Park, over an eight hour drive after a 45 minute ferry ride from Seldovia to Homer, which was after a 10 minute skiff ride from the cabin to Seldovia. It was a long day, but, even through the rain, we were often dazzled by the beauty surrounding us wherever we looked. I could have found a view to paint almost anywhere we stopped along that route. We didn’t have much time to stop, but a travel day like that still counts as a day of wonder.

We stayed at the Denali Park Hotel which, as all the reviews said, is a fairly basic hotel but very nice. The reviews were absolutely right, and we would definitely stay there again. We liked it from the start, but seeing the Aurora Borealis from right in front of our hotel room door on the last night really sold us on it.

Northern Lights from our hotel room door!!!

I did a fair amount of sketching at Denali, more of wildlife than of landscapes the first couple of days, as we were much more on the move. I missed the quiet, serene pace of our time in Seldovia, but loved all the hiking we did at Denali. Whereas Seldovia is lush with abundant plant life of all sorts, being a temperate rain forest-type habitat, Denali is more Boreal forest and tundra habitat, and so has more open land or shrub and low tree growth. The color of Seldovia when we were there was largely blue water and green mountain, when not softened to warm shades of grays by mist. Denali, clothed with autumn color by late August, was red and yellow and orange and green and purple and blue.

(Click on images to see larger version and read notes)

Black Diamond Grill View — where we ate breakfast every morning
Arctic ground squirrel and collared pika– totally adorable!
The Savage River valley
Ptarmigan and Gray Jay
Moose– outside our hotel and in the park
Bears and Sheep
Teklanika River Valley with a grizzly bear
Snowshoe Hares
Roses Cafe View where we ate dinner one night– HUGE portions!
Denali View from Mt. Healy– perfect view of Denali in sunshine
Tundra Tapestry on Mt. Healy
Hoary Marmot on Mt. Healy– totally adorable, like a long-haired white woodchuck
Looking up at Mt. Healy after hiking it
Mt. Healy Trail along very steep mountainside
Denali Sled Dog Demo
Denali sled dog team
View from the Morino Grill at Denali National Park

Alaska 2017 Part 1: Seldovia

It’s hard to know where to start when my mind and heart are full of images, every one glorious and each bringing back wonderful memories of breathtaking beauty and shared joy in the wonder of God’s creation. Stephen and I got home from our Alaska trip eight days ago and have now pretty much returned to east coast time and have more or less gotten caught up with phone calls, emails, and life back home. It takes a while to return to “normal” when you’ve been immersed in wonder.

Our trip started with a bit of unexpected excitement. As we waited to board our plane from Reno, NV (after the Lake Tahoe family vacation portion of our trip), a phalanx a 10 TSA agents filed in and took up positions in a semi-circle around our gate, posted a sign saying all passengers would be subject to additional screening, and stood closely scrutinizing the crowd waiting to board. They then pulled various people over for pat-downs (including Steve) after we passed the gate and headed down the jetway. I have no idea what they were looking for, but that was the first time I’ve seen that happen.

The plane trip was uneventful until we were about to land in Anchorage, very close to the airport and very low, when the plan suddenly accelerated and quickly gained altitude. Everyone was wondering what was going on, until the pilot announced that we couldn’t land yet because there was a pack of coyotes on the runway! We had to circle out and come back about 15 or 20 minutes later, after the coyotes had been chased away!

We ended up landing just before midnight in steady rain, so we went straight to our hotel and got some sleep. The next day, August 21st, was Eclipse Day, but it was heavily overcast and raining, and the eclipse was only 40% in Anchorage, so we didn’t see the eclipse. But, as soon as we looked out our hotel room window, way in the north we could see Denali (Mt. McKinley) along with other mountains in the Alaska Range, all snow covered but glowing under clear skies and sunrise light. Denali (the official name was Mount McKinley until 2015, when it was changed back to its original name “Denali,” which mean “the Great One” or the Tall One”) is often wreathed in clouds, so it was a special treat to see it on our first morning in Alaska. We hung out of the third floor hotel window taking photos (Stephen) and sketching (me) for a long time, hardly able to tear our eyes from the mountains shining in morning light even through the rain where we were.

Denali in morning light

As soon as we’d eaten breakfast we rented a car and headed four hours south to Homer, where we parked the car, so we could board a ferry to Seldovia. But before we got on the ferry we met and chatted with a fascinating man who, with his wife, has built and lived in house trucks for the past 35 years. Here’s an article about him, with a video tour of his house truck: 75 Year Old Man’s Adventurer House Truck. I asked if I could take photos of him and am planning to do a portrait, since he looks so typically “Alaskan.”

We then rode the ferry 45 minutes to “The City of Seldovia.” I guess the Alaskan definition of “city” is a bit flexible, as Seldovia is more like what we’d call a village, with 250 year-round inhabitants, and a few more for the short summer season. Once in Seldovia, our host, Scott, who built the VRBO cabin we rented, met us at the dock and took us by skiff to his cabin down the bay and across to the other side, where his cabin is nestled right at the base of a mountain.

In Scott’s 18 foot Lund skiff
Our cabin, nestled at the base of the mountain– low tide. At high tide the water is almost up to the deck!

This cabin is delightful, as are Scott and Janet, who built it. They stay in an older cabin behind the one we stayed in, and from our cabin all we could see was the bay, the mountains beyond the bay with one cabin nestled at the base of those mountains, sea otters cavorting in the bay, salmon leaping high from the water, and Bald Eagles flying back and forth, sometimes landing on the beach in front of our cabin. And one morning coyotes meandering along the beach! It was quiet, peaceful, and soul-nourishing- a piece of heaven on earth for sure. The view changed constantly, due to mists wafting around and through the mountains, so every minute I could have done a new painting.

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Every morning I awoke early and, while Stephen slept in or enjoyed the view from the loft bedroom, I got the wood stove going to warm the cabin, then sat and marveled at and sketched the view while sipping a steaming mug of tea. I could not imagine a more perfect start to any day!

Seldovia View 082517
Ink and wash misty mountains
Seldovia Bay and coyotes (on far right side of beach)
Graduation Peak sunrise Seldovia Bay view

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There are sea otters everywhere in the bay! They float on their backs cracking mollusks and crustaceans, rolling around in the water, playing, letting us get fairly close in the skiff.

Sea otter
Synchronized swimming

This off-the-grid cabin is absolutely charming and perfectly comfortable, with windows on the entire side facing the bay, a propane refrigerator and stove for cooking, no internet (apparently some people can get enough of a signal to get online, but I was very glad we couldn’t), and solar powered lights (which we scarcely used). There’s running water and a shower (water heated by propane) inside, and a perfectly acceptable outhouse instead of an inside toilet. The water is the best tasting and coldest water you can imagine! It comes from a mountain stream and is so clean it doesn’t need to be filtered or treated in any way. Scott just stuck a pipe high enough up the stream that the water is gravity fed, rather than pumped in. I wish I could have brought that water back with me.

Cabin kitchen
Looking down from the loft bedroom

Whenever we wanted to go hiking, Scott took us in his skiff over the Seldovia, where we hiked some beautiful trails, ate lunch in a delightful restaurant, then returned by skiff to the cabin to cook our dinner and have a quiet evening. So perfect!

Seldovia Outer Beach view and Seldovia Bay Ferry

Rocky Ridge Trail Seldovia

The last evening we were there, Scott took us in his skiff to the back of the bay, which he calls his “cathedral,” with mountains on all sides, Bald Eagles perched and flying all around, and salmon leaping all around the boat. He snagged and filleted a salmon for us, which I cooked for our dinner when we got back to the cabin. On the way out to the “cathedral” I sketched the view while the skiff was bouncing along over waves– fun!

Sketched while bouncing over waves in the skiff (white gel pen trees added later)
Salmon leaping
Salmon swimming by the skiff

It was hard to leave this amazing place and we hope (plan) to return someday. As we rode the ferry back to Homer, we stayed out on the upper deck, watching the amazing panorama of jagged Kenai Mountains to the east. I could look at those mountains for years and never grow tired of them.


Seldovia Ferry View

I’ll do another post in a few days for the second half of our Alaska trip, which was mostly in Denali National Park, and probably a third one for birds and other wildlife we saw, so stay tuned!

Alaska– June 3

Snowshoes would have been nice today. We hiked the Byron Glacier Trail today, which, according to our hike book, is a moderate hike with generally good conditions. Is four to five feet of snow on the trail “good conditions” in Alaska?

There were a two sections of the trail with no snow– sections about five yards long. The remainder of the trail was deep in snow, which thankfully was fairly firmly packed, so that we only sank in a few inches most of the time. I managed to stay more or less on the surface, but Steve sank through to his hip once. Despite the snow, however, it was a wonderful hike. The blue of the glacier was so BLUE (the photo doesn’t do it justice). The mountains on either side were stunning, and all the more so with a juvenile eagle soaring over them and finally landing somewhere on a mountainside.

Byron Glacier

I was fascinated by the creek flowing from the glacier, with its distinctly gray water. When I sat on a rock in the middle of a snowfield to paint, from time to time I heard a loud gurgling sound moving toward me. I think it was water working its way along deep under the snow, then rushing around the base of my rock.

Me painting Byron Glacier

After hiking to Byron Glacier and also stopping for a walk at the Moose Flats Day Use Area (where I identified my first Orange-crowned Warbler), we drove to Hope and hiked along the Gull Rock Trail in the lush green of ferns and trees for a while. There we saw our first Varied Thrushes– a male and female. What gorgeous birds! We kept hearing Varied Thrushes throughout that hike.

Stephen on the Gull Rock Trail

At one point in our drive south from Anchorage I saw a Loon and pulled off to look more closely. While there we also saw a pair of American Wigeons and then a beautiful pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes– another first for me.

American Wigeon (male)
Barrow’s Goldeneye (male)

Now, after driving along a road sandwiched between the side of a mountain on one side and Resurrection Bay on the other we are settled for the night in a tiny cabin on Lowell’s Point, our heads filled with images of birds, mountains, and snow covered peaks.

New birds for my life list today: Barrow’s Goldeye, Mew Gull, Orange-crowned Warbler, Varied Thrush, Red-necked Grebe

Alaska — Travel Day

What a amazing world! Yesterday we flew from New York to Alaska, via Dallas, Texas. I had a book I was reading on my kindle, but I also enjoyed watching the checkerboard of midwestern and western farms and ranches passing below. In some areas the fields are all planted in circles– clearly due to irrigation systems. Then in some areas they were all in squares and rectangles. No need for irrigation there? or a different kind of irrigation system? I’ll have to look that up…
Watercolor of the view out my window

Then we started to cross over the Rocky Mountains, and I read less of my book and did more watching out the window. Why were the mountains more covered with snow on on side? Why were some areas dry and brown while others were richly green? I want to read more about the intersection of geography, weather, and climate.

And then, finally, we were over Northwest Canada and ALASKA. I have never seen such mountains — jagged, huge, increasingly covered with snow as we traveled northward, brilliant in the sun, seemingly endless in all directions. I saw my first glaciers and marveled at the flow lines so clearly visible from above.  We passed over avalanches (not happening, but the obvious patterns left by them), and myriad mountains just barely peeking out above snow-filled valleys, then broad valleys of deep green with rivers winding through them, followed by more snow-covered mountains.

Alaskan mountains from airplane window

Avalanche at left center

In a couple of the valleys we passed over small towns, isolated by distance, geography, and weather. What must it be like to live so far from the society as I know it? There was no sign of people throughout most of the vastness of the mountains— just rugged landscape, mountains in every direction, and more snow than I have ever seen. My kindle forgotten, I spent the last hours of our flight engrossed in the book of God’s creation, brought to tears and filled with awe by such wonder and beauty as I have never seen before.