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Published: June 12th 2017
Kenai Peninsula to Denali 31 May - 11 June
Bears, more bears and Snowshoe Hares.
The day after Pauline and Colin left for Seward we picked up a car and headed for Clam Gulch on the west coast of Kenai. Kenai means low land which seemed strange when we were in Seward but made much more sense when we crossed to the west which is flat, although more mountains are visible on the mainland further out to the west.
We stayed two nights in a lovely B & B called The Moose Is Inn. Yes, that is not a mistake, it is The Moose is Inn! The original house is on one side and joined to it is now a spacious house with four bedrooms complete with en suites upstairs and a modern, beautifullly equipped kitchen, sitting and dining room downstairs. Almost everything in the house has a moose on it from shower curtains , through ornaments to bedding and towels.The family who own it are very welcoming and we settled in before going to Clam Gulch beach. As you might guess from the name it is famous for its clams which have been
big business until recently when there has been a fall in numbers of the clams.
In the morning I wanted to speak with the owner as I needed to clarify which room we would be in that night. Because of a complication with the booking we had been unable to get the same room for two nights. Heidi's father in law (both mother and father in law from Arizona stay the whole summer to help out with the extra work generated by the B & B) went to find her but returned to say she was still in bed as she had been out fishing until 3am. There is hardly any darkness at night so it is easy to stay up. When we saw her later she explained that she fishes commercially and has to be out when the rules allow. The controls on timing of fishing, size of nets and quantity of catch are very tightly managed to sustain fish stocks. She had been after halibut but said that the season had not been good so far. Most Alaska residents seem to have mixed work patterns like this, carrying out one or two jobs in the short summer,
and doing something different in the winter, perhaps even going somewhere warm for six months or not working at all.
We drove down to Homer at the end of the peninsular which was a pleasant drive but nothing special. It is a big fishing resort with lots of tackle and tour shops along the Spit, a long stretch of sand which goes half way across to the mainland, where Mount Redoubt, a volcanic snow covered mountain stands proud above all the other mountains in the chain.
Lonely Planet mentions a small village just off the Homer road., Nikolaevsk, which is inhabited by 'Old Believers', a sect which broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1650. They arrived in Alaska in the 1960s, and are noticeable because the men are not allowed to shave. I have to say this seems to apply to many Alaskan men. But anyway, the LP mentions a cafe. the Samovar, run by a Russian lady, Nina, and recommends stopping by. We did and it was an interesting interlude. The cafe had an 'open' neon sign flashing so we decided to stop for a coffee. There is nothing else for miles around in the
There was a group of 5 ladies from Ohio inside who greeted us, then through a hatch in the wall Nina called to us from her kithchen and told us to go through. A couple of the ladies wished us good luck in whispers with lots of gigling. We soon realised why! Nina, easily in late 70s or early 80s, welcomed us and asked what we wanted. Our suggestion of two coffees was dimissed summarily with a wave of her hand, as she took control. "I have beautiful Russian food, you must try it. First some borscht which has special hand picked vegetables, and here smell my tea, delicious herbs hand picked from the fields, smell, smell! Then you must try my dumplings, they are delicious, and I have delicious Russian desserts ............" Our protestations that we had not recovered from breakfast and it was too early for lunch were overuled, "My food is so delicious you will want to stay all day!" We knew we were being bullied but she did it with such charm and laughter in her eyes that we could not resist. We compomised on soup, one small portion of dumplings just to
try them and a cup of tea for me. It was all delicious but even better was watching Nina take the other ladies through her routine. When they had finished their dumplings the dessert was brought in on a special tray, Nina clothed them all in colourful scarves and they had to have their photograph taken with her. Some of them were ' persuaded ' to go and buy gifts in her kitchen/gift shop and then be dressed in 'genuine Russian antique clothes'. We escaped with only the requirement to pose with her for a photograph (no charge!) and we were still laughing when we reached home at Clam Gulch.
The return journey to Seward was uneventful but as scenically stunning as our outward trip. Then we stopped off at Exit Glacier near Seward. It is a landlocked glacier but easy to approach and on the road up to it and the mile long paved path that takes you near to its edge they have placed markers to show where the glacier was in different years. So I think the first sign was way back on the access road and it was 1947, then as you approach nearer the
years countdown to the present time. It is a powerful way of demonstrating how quickly the glacier has receded.
The path up to the glacier starts from the Ranger station. We followed two couples out and started to stroll up the slope. The others were about 30 metres ahead but then I noticed they had stopped and looked confused. They huddled together and I thought perhaps they had forgotten something and were deciding whether to return for it. We had almost caught them up, they were perhaps 3 metres in front of us when suddenly a dark shape broke away from the group. My immediate thought was that one of them was playing a joke and had dressed as a bear, but by their reactions I knew it was not a joke. It was a real live black bear, looking exactly as you would expect a bear to look, large (bigger than any of us), cuddly with a very shiny black coat. He walked within touching distance of the other group, then ambled across the path and into the woods as we all stood, stunned into silence! We had been warned numerous times to stay at least 275 metres
from a bear but clearly no-one has told the bears! We walked on to see Exit glacier which was very interesting but a definite anti-climax after the bear.
On returning to Seward and checking into a different hotel across from the first one we had stayed in, it dawned on us that almost everyone we had met working in the hotels and businesses had been in Alaska a shorter time than us. Most had only arrived that week from the 'Lower 48' or further afield, many from Eastern Europe. Apart from the family in Clam Gulch we have met only a handful of residents. There is a huge influx of workers for the summer season starting towards the end of May, and as we found, many had no idea about their new jobs or location. When we picked up our motorhome (or RV as they are called here) the young man who 'talked us round it' had never even driven one or been on a journey in one! But more about that later.
The next day it was time to head to Anchorage by train, a wonderfully scenic journey. The Seward Highway had been beautiful but the train
journey was even more spectacular as the line ventures into valleys away from the road and where the landscape is totally untouched. The train travels very slowly, sometimes almost at walking pace and even stops if there is something interesting to view like a Bald Eagle nest with a chick in it and the mother watching from another tree. I would recommend the train journey to anyone who is thinking of visiting Alaska. It is not the cheapest way of travelling from Seward to Anchorage but worth ever penny.
Pauline and Colin very kindly collected us from the train and took us to our hotel, which was the one they were staying in too. The next morning we set of to collect our RV. Picking up a rental van always seems chaotic. After lengthy paperwork we were taken out for an explanation of the workings of our 'Coachman', a small 20 ft long van. They use feet as the measurement here, it is not just my age. It was lucky we had some understanding of the clean water, grey water, black water and electrical systems. If we had been starting from scratch we would never have picked it up
from our 'instructor', who, as I mentioned earlier, had no experience of them and had only started the job a couple of days earlier. More worryingly, the rules are different here. First big surprise was that the propane remains open and switched on all the time even when driving. That is a big no no at home! I could not believe it and felt very nervous at the thought. Then second major difference, grey water (from shower and sink) and black water (from toilet) are dealt with together here, They exit the van through one pipe directly into a sewer pipe by your van if you are on a fully serviced site. No chemicals are allowed as at home. During the 'lesson' someone came across from a vehicle about 30 ft away and said that she could smell that our propane was leaking. So after a visit from the leading engineer/mechanic (a tiny but truly formidable lady - I think I would have risked an explosion rather than tell her it was not fixed properly) and another man who corrected the awning structure, an hour later we were underway.
We are very pleased with our 'Coachman', it is spacious
with two double beds, although one is above the driver's cab and is a challenge for me to climb into, a large shower room/toilet, loads of storage space, table and bench seats and kitchen area with double hob and microwave. It is comfortable and very solidly built. I was asking Jim why we could not buy such strong vehicles at home (I suppose you can for a very high price?) but we soon guessed why when we realised how much fuel we use, about 3 times what Astrid requires. Generally here fuel consumption is not important as 'gas' is so cheap that the running costs probably work out the same as in Astrid but it was quite expensive in the interior around Denali.
The first night we went on to a commercial site and plugged everything in to be sure all was in working order and that we knew what to do. All was well until we went to bed when it was FREEZING! There is no real darkness and the day had been warm but about 2am it was cold and they only supplied one blanket each. It was on with the thermal base layers, fleeces and thick
The next afternoon we found a lovely rest site with toilets, a river walk and woods where we could park overnight for free. It was ideal. We had one walk, returned for a cup of tea and decided to go for another walk. I closed and locked the window I had opened whilst boiling the kettle, put on my shoes and jumped down. Jim followed, locking the side access door from the inside, jumped out, and slammed it closed, then felt in his pocket for the key. You have probably guessed what comes next. The keys were still inside the van. We were locked out.
We went over every inch of the vehicle checking to see if we could find a way in, or something we could work loose to gain access, but without success. I even climbed the ladder to the roof (only to be used by mechanics the formidable lady had warned me) and found that the tiny skylight in the shower room was open but putting my arm through and waggling it around in space was not really going to achieve anything so I climbed down again. Eventually I sat on the picnic table
nearby to take stock while Jim continued to circle the van like a bear who could smell honey inside. We had the clothes we stood in but as it was warm they only consisted of light tops and trousers. We had Jim's phone, which had been in his pocket but we were not sure about a signal and we had use of picnic tables. We knew that it would get cold at night. There might be bears around. But someone else might turn up eventually to park and they might be able to help? I started to think we might have to call for help. The rental company was over 200 miles away and as we were in the middle of nowhere I didn't expect them to sort the problem. I was begining to wish we were still in Canada because calling a Mountie for help seemed more comforting somehow than an Alaskan State Trooper. However, by that time I would have been pleased to see anyone.
Jim had rounded the van yet again, trying to slide windows open (but I had locked them conscientiously), then he started pummelling the side door for the fifth or sixth time, and
suddenly, miraculously, it swung open. We could not believe our eyes! What a relief. We jumped in quickly and never has a motorhome appeared so palatial and welcoming. That was a close call and we still don't know how it opened, whether it had not been fully locked or whether Jim's repetitive pummelling had loosened something. We were just very, very thankful!
The next day we arived at Denali National Park and Preserve, 6 million acres of wilderness and home to grizzly brown bears, moose, caribou, wolves, lynx and numerous smaller creatures. Within a couple of miles of the entrance can be found the Visitor's Centre, where Rangers give talks, advice and show videos, the Wilderness Access Centre where you can book guided walks and seats on shuttle buses as well as collecting tickets for seats booked online, the Backcountry Access Centre, where if you plan to hike overnight in the park you have to receive safety instructions and bear proof food boxes, as well as a research centre and meeting rooms.
Denali is managed amazingly well. There is only one road which leads 90 miles to Kantishna and no private vehicles are allowed past mile 14.
To travel further into the park it is necessary to take a tour bus or, the cheaper option, a park shuttle bus. These are wonderful green buses that track up and down the road carrying both serious hikers and people just wanting to see if they can spot the wildlife. If the driver or anyone else spots anything the bus stops for as long as the viewing lasts. Anyone can walk anywhere in the Park (with the correct preparation of course) and the buses facilitate this. So at any point you can ask to be put down. You might even have hooked a cycle to the front of the bus. Then you are off on your own in the wilderness, only needing to find the road again to board another bus when you have walked enough and want to return. You can stay out as long as you wish but overnights require contact with the BAC.
The scenery is an amazing blend of Taiga (cold forests) and Tundra (a bare frozen landscape or ground covered with low shrubs, alpine style flowers and most importantly lichens. Most of the road travels through valleys and up high along an escarpment while
across the other side of the valley runs the Alaskan Range of mountains with Mount Denali (previously Mount McKinley for the oldies amongst us) at 20,310 ft as the focal point. Because the road is often high, and terrifying, it gives a very wide perspective across the landscape making it easier to spot wildlife. For 6 to 7 months of winter it is covered by snow and of course has very little daylight. But at this time of the year it hardly experiences more than a light dusk for an hour and the daytime temperatures we have experienced have been into the seventies some days. We have been very lucky only having a couple of small showers of rain in our four days there but lots of sunshine and blue skies.
I think the good weather brought out the wildlife because we saw 16 bears in total, a wolf, lots of caribou, some interesting birds, hoary marmots, grey ground squirrels and lots of snow-shoe hares, so called because they have very big feet to enable them to hop over snow. They have totally white fur in winter but change to brown in summer and as they are completing that
process at present they are brown with white feet. We also just missed seeing a lynx. Another bus spotted it but it went into the undergrowth before we had chance to see it but we did see a rare Northern Hawk owl sitting in the tree above rotating as he watched the lynx move away.
There are a lot of visitors to Denali but the management systems prevent it from being over-run. When you think that a bus carries 38 people that could easily be 15-20 cars on the road and it would be chaos. The road is also too dangerous in places to allow open access even to small numbers. There is a draw for Alaskan residents and winners are allowed open access for a couple of days in September. The aim is to allow everyone to access the Park in a way that suits them and they ensure that people wait no longer than 30 minutes by the road before a bus turns up.
The number of campsites in the Park are very limited and are booked up in advance. We camped at Savage Campsite at 13 miles in, where there were good trails but no
showers, only the luxury of a flush toilet. In most places after Savage there are only basic facilities and no running water. Each evening a Ranger came to give a talk about a particular animal or aspect of life in the park. We really enjoyed Denali and saw more wildlife than expected. Tomorrow we are continuing north to Fairbanks before turning south and heading for Valdez. I had asked the van rental company if we could drive across the Denali Highway before booking with them and they had replied it was fine but in fact when we arrived we had to sign form to say we would not drive on that or a number of other roads. I had suspected that might happen from what other people had said but I found it irritating that they had lied! But that is a little hiccup in an otherwise astounding journey. I hope to send another blog from Valdez or Juneau depending upon wifi facilities. Hope you enjoy the bear pictures.
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