Alaska Part 2 - 11 to 14 July 2014

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North America » United States » Alaska » Gustavus
August 20th 2014
Published: August 24th 2014
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We were staying in the small community of Gustavus located on the north shore of the Icy Strait. With only 500 residents the village was very relaxed and friendly - in fact as you travelled around everyone would give you a nod or a wave or stop to chat. There was no crime here so there was no need of a police force. Everyone leaves their doors open day and night. One of the staff at the inn said they only drive old cars and no one would want to steal them - in any event if they did they wouldn't have anywhere to drive them to - hopefully the new car ferry connected with Juneau will not change that! The main concern for ‘car owning locals’ was loosing their car keys and not having any replacements - so much so that they even weld their car keys into the ignition … … …

One night at dinner we sat with a couple of pilots from Colorado, they had flown in some wealthy clients who they had dropped off ‘to fish’ so were waiting at the inn for a couple of days before picking them up at their remote location. They were flying an 8 seater jet plane and had even ‘ferried’ around John Travolta - what an idillic life they led. They were envious of us though with the life we led so …………………. That night we had fresh parsnips from the Inn’s extensive gardens and one of the pilots said he really like them - me too! I told him that I had a special recipe that we liked to have with our Christmas dinner, both our daughters’ partners devoured this dish even though they said they did not eat parsnips! After telling him the ingredients he asked me to send on the recipe so he could try it out - hope he did and liked it!

We really enjoyed the tranquillity of the area and often took the inn’s free bicycles out to explore some more. One day we cycled to Nagoonberry Loop Trailhead and parked our bikes. We trekked through a thick moss covered spruce forest, out into a wildflower meadow covered with lupines, some as tall as us and finally emerging on a beach overlooking the Icy Strait. Eighty five years ago the high tide would have covered us as we stood on this beach but it was now a mile away! Released from the weight of retreating glaciers, the land in Gustavus has risen quickly – over an inch each year - the world’s fastest uplift of land. We walked along the beach with giant clams strewn around us but it was very deep sinking sand which was heavy going. We had been warned to watch the tides so we headed back inland following a small creek with its steep grassy banks covered in wildflowers returning back to our parked bikes - they were still where we had left them - you do not need to lock your bikes here either!

It was a nice hike with a variety of landscapes and of course we saw many ‘Nagoonberries’ (Arctic Raspberries) ripening along the trail and we hoped that the Inn would be making a Nagoonberry pie for our supper!

Gustavushad just celebrated 100 years since the first settlers landed on the Southeast Alaska flats in June of 1914 with the ‘biggest party Gustavus has ever seen’. We had only just missed the celebrations which was a shame - but it is strange to think that settlers only arrived here a century ago. The festivities were opened with a dedication of a new Monument Building at the cemetery. The tower bell was rung 100 times, followed by the unveiling of a new bronze memorial for the 1957 military plane crash victims that perished with the wreckage of the plane that still remains in the forest today. The twin engine Douglas C-47 plane was heading for Anchorage with 4 National Guardsmen Crew and 7 Passengers on board. As the weather deteriorated with heavy snow fall it made several unsuccessful attempts to land at Gustavus before crashing in the thick forest.

Rebecca and Nicole who we had met in Bryce and Zion NP’s had told us that they had visited the site of the crash so we set off to do the same. We cycled 4 miles to the crash site but the roads are very flat so it did not take us too long. The site is not marked but someone had told us it was near to a hiking track marker and as there was only one along the ‘one’ road we knew where to start. We left our bikes against a tree and headed into the rainforest on the trail. Just as well we left the bikes as the trail was rather overgrown and very muddy following recent rain.

We followed the trail and had to scramble under and over a number of fallen trees with the sodden mossy ground giving way under our feet - it was like hiking across a giant green sponge and our boots and even our feet got quite wet!! Rain and lack of any sunshine so deep in the forest had caused many puddles and we often had to wander off track to try and find a firmer route. We soon realised that we were approaching the wreckage area as there were distorted pieces of metal intertwined with trees, branches and shrubs all around us. You could clearly make out a large wing, seats, wheels and very rusty old instruments - quite poignant. The grey and red battered but largely intact fuselage stood out like a monument eerily in the undergrowth as the forest had indeed grown up around it - it was a fitting memorial deep in the silence of this peaceful remote Alaskan rainforest for those on board.

All 7 passengers survived the crash being in the back of the plane which was mostly in tact and helped by the dense tree canopy. They were eventually rescued by local residents that had heard the plane crash in the heavy snowfall and once out of the forest they were transported to the Riverside Lodge (now the Gustavus Inn where we were staying). They were lucky indeed as sadly all 4 crew members who had tried so hard to land the plane at the Gustavus airfield died. A small plaque at the site was dedicated to those that lost their lives that fateful day.

The staff at Gustavus Inn were always on hand to ferry us around the area and one day they dropped us off at Gustavus Lodge so that we could join one of the park Rangers on a Forest Loop Trail. The Lodge is also the Headquarters of the Glacier Bay National Park and had a small museum which was really interesting. The Ranger walked with us to a nearby beach next to Bartlett Cove harbour.

Under a large outdoor canopy was a full-sized humpback whale skeleton. It was a sad day in 2001 when a well-known pregnant humpback whale was found floating lifeless in Glacier Bay. Know as ‘Snow’ for the white spots under her tail she had been observed in southeastern Alaska and Hawaii since 1975. Her body was brought ashore and students and community members worked alongside Glacier Bay staff to clean and preserve her bones, creating one of the world’s largest humpback skeleton display. Her bones were then reconstructed and installed at Bartlett Cove, looking out over the bay where she had swam and lived.

[justify; font-size: 18px; line-height: normal; font-family: Chalkboard; color: #323333]A veterinary exam and eyewitness reports confirmed that a cruise ship had struck Snow, killing her instantly. Many other samples were taken but none quite as significant as the earplugs. They helped put a long controversial debate to rest. The earplug of a humpback whale is essentially a layered piece of wax that accumulates over the whale's lifetime. And just like a tree, a whale's age can be determined by counting the layers of wax like the rings on a tree. However, there was much debate over whether a humpback whale earplug accumulates one or two layers of wax per year. By using Snow's sighting history and the data from her ear plugs, biologists were able conclude that one growth layer is deposited annually and that meant that Snow was 44.5 years old when she died. She was therefore likely the mother of at least 10 offspring and assuming that at least half of those were female, the grandmother of an additional 10 calves - so she lives on in swimming in the icy waters of Glacier Bay.
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The Ranger was really interesting and again reminded us of things that we knew but had forgotten - this happens with ‘age’ apparently!!! Talking of age, when a forest ages, trees grow taller and their branches form a canopy that shades the ground beneath them causing the soil to become more acidic. Over time, the forest canopy becomes more open as trees of different ages and sizes thrive letting more light reach the ground. Rotting tree trunks become ‘nurse logs’ to young vegetation, providing them with support and nutrients. We saw many of these horizontal nurse logs supporting both small and some very large trees above them. We walked along a trail passing several lakes, some had so many large yellow lilies plants that they were taking over the lakes themselves. It was an interesting and informative hike but some very huge mosquitoes kept us company for most of the way… … …

We passed several Tlingit Trail Markers carved into a tree’s trunk which is an ancient custom of the Tlingit People. One of the purposes was for identifying different clans’ rights to use a certain trade route. Always placed on spruce trees, each carving is made without endangering the tree, which creates a protective seal around the carving that discourages insects and diseases from penetrating the surface.

Huna Tlingit Indians occupied territories in and around Glacier Bay long before Settlers arrived for seasonal harvesting and smoking of salmon. When the bay became a national monument in 1925, its borders encompassed much of their traditional homelands and new federal laws severely curtailed their activities straining relationships between the Tlingit and the National Park Service (NPS). Although most Huna Tlingit now live across the Icy Strait in the village of Hoonah, Glacier Bay still remains their spiritual homeland. The NPS encourages tribal members to return to the park to carry out traditional activities that are compatible with current regulations, such as berry picking, fishing, and shellfish harvesting.

We enjoyed our Forest Loop Trail hike and chatting to the NPS Ranger, learning a little more of the fascinating past of Gustavus and Glacier Bay. The Inn’s staff picked us up and on the way back we were astonished to spot a Black Wolf crossing the road and disappearing into the undergrowth much too fast - but we all agreed that this is what it probably was.

We said goodbye to three American's who had come to fish in the area and were really pleased with their catch in these glacier waters teeming with fish. They set off for the airport only to return later that day as the aircraft could not take off due to poor visibility. The pilots here are very cautious which is very wise considering the sad crash in the 50’s reported above. The fishermen were quite happy to return rather than try to fly out with poor weather but by the next day were getting a little frustrated. Later that day they contacted the Captain who had taken them fishing and he agreed to ‘ferry’ them back to Juneau for their onward flights. Boats are able to move when planes cannot here……… Other guests leaving on the same day were ferried out by the local whale boat after it had taken its passengers out for a morning’s whale watching trip. The captain kindly offered to take the stranded guests back to Juneau. After successfully dropping them off though the skipper got caught in the mist and had a very difficult journey home to Gustavus. As we relaxed in the Inn we could hear the fog horns of all those stranded boats informing each other of their location and were glad we were safe and dry hoping that the weather would improve for us when it was our turn to leave … … …

You cannot hold back time and it was finally our day to leave Gustavus. In the morning the visibility was still poor and Dave our host told us that our flight would not be going on schedule but that he would keep us informed off the situation as it can change rapidly - they were hopeful that the small taxi planes would be able to fly out over the mountains later in the day.

We were not too concerned, even though we had a connecting flight in the afternoon from Juneau to Anchorage, we would have to try and change this if necessary. Dave was very switched on with the local transport and would sort it out so we just sat and waited in the comfort of the inn which was much better than having to wait at the airport - not that there was anywhere to wait there! Dave was finally given the ‘nod’ and after saying goodbye to our welcoming hosts we were driven out to the Fjord Flying Service airfield a few minutes drive away.

We finally took off mid morning with a break in the mist, there was just us, two other passengers, the pilot and a dog! Yes, a large dog was in a kennel and placed on two empty seats behind us! It was quite a smooth flight back considering the weather but the views were not so good although we did watch a cruise boat sailing up Glacier Bay.

With a colourful Alaskan history, some amazing flora and fauna, magical scenery and a fascinating geological past to see and experience, we were certainly charmed by the magic permeating from this small friendly community - and yes Rebecca/Nicole - like you, Gustavus captured our hearts and we just loved our time in the township and hope we may be lucky enough to return one day.

On our approach into Juneau, we flew right over the Mendenhall Glacier again. If I had to pick only one memory to keep from the flight – that would be it. It’s hard to find the right words to capture the awe inspiring wild beauty beneath you as you fly over the mountains and glaciers that dominate the area. We felt blessed to have be given the opportunity to spend some magical time here.

We boarded our next flight quickly and as we left Juneau behind us we flew over yet more large mountain ranges with massive ice fields and their terminating glaciers. Although this time flying in a jet aircraft we were much higher and could not reach out and touch the mountain tops - that being said we had some very good views as we headed north into Anchorage - see you there.

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


25th August 2014
1957 Plane Crash

Great adventures!
How wise to stay in a place for awhile and get to know if from so many angles--by boat, bike and foot! The Inn and its meals look heavenly. That plane in the forest was really pause for thought, as I love to take very small planes--from Juneau, I took one that flew low over many glaciers, and in Talkeetna, I took one that flew low between mountain tops up to the summiting base camp on one of Denali's glaciers. Glad you got out safely!
27th August 2014
1957 Plane Crash

Some really great flights
Thanks for your comments yet again - sounds to us as though you have had some really great flights the Denali Glacier must have been magical.
25th August 2014
Touching the mountains

Really glad to read about this area and learn more. You've stimulated our interest in going there. Can't wait to read more. Happy travels.
27th August 2014
Touching the mountains

We would return in a blink of an eye..........

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