Alaska

July 2019

  1. Anchorage
  2. Whittier
  3. Homer
  4. Brooks Camp
  5. Seward
  6. Talkeetna
  7. Mount Denali
  8. Gakona

Day 1: Anchorage, Alaska

We arrived to Anchorage in the evening and settled into our hotel.

Day 2: Whittier, Alaska

We’re excited to be in Alaska. Today we went on a boat trip on Prince William sound. The variety and amount of wildlife in this part of the world is incredible! We saw otters, seals, bald eagles, and much more, but the highlight was spotting three fin whales, which we had never seen before. We learned that they’re the second largest species of whale in the world — they’re certainly much larger than the gray, humpback and orca whales that we’re used to seeing. We also saw several glaciers calving — the sound of the ice cracking and falling in the water was deafening!

We really enjoyed staying in log cabins on this trip.

Day 3: Whittier to Homer, Alaska

We’re suckers for bears and today was a bear day. We got to see the two main species of bears today, black and brown/grizzly. Black bears are smaller, and they’re the kind that we see on occasion when hiking in Washington state. Brown/grizzly bears are larger, and the kind that we definitely don’t want to see while hiking, at least not too close. We learned that people refer to the larger coastal bears as brown, and the ones that live inland as grizzlies, but they’re really the same species.

We also learned how to distinguish the two species from their droppings... Black bear droppings contain remnants of twigs and berries. Grizzly bear droppings contain bear whistles! 😂😂😂

Black bear.
Brown (grizzly) bear.

Salmon lifecycle

We timed our trip to Alaska to coincide with the annual migration of salmon, so it was a great opportunity to see them and learn more about their incredible lifecycle.

Salmon are born in rivers, and spend up to three years of their life there. When they’ve reached 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) in length, they’re ready to swim downstream to the ocean, where they continue to develop for up to four more years, until they reach full maturity. At that point, they undertake an amazing migration, returning (for the most part) to the river of their youth, swimming upstream (yes, upstream!) until they reach the spawning ground where they were born, and there laying and fertilizing their eggs. This mass migration occurs during a few weeks each summer, and is called the salmon run. Shortly after spawning, the mature salmon die, and the lifecycle begins again with their offspring.

Salmon travel up to 900 miles (1400 km) and climb up to 7000 feet (2100 m) in elevation to reach their spawning grounds! How do they do that? One theory says that they use their sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field to find the river of their birthplace, and their acute sense of smell to home in on the spawning location.

Their journey up the river is a perilous one. Salmon need great physical strength to swim against the current and leap up waterfalls. They’ve been recorded jumping as high as 12 feet (3.65 meters) to surmount waterfalls! In addition, they have to avoid the predation of bears and bald eagles, not to mention fishermen. It’s pretty amazing that salmon are self-sustaining, given their challenging lifecycle.

Day 4: Homer to Katmai Peninsula to Seward, Alaska

If you do one thing in Alaska, it should be this: go to Brooks Falls on the Katmai peninsula to see the brown bears feasting on salmon. We added Alaska to our bucket list when we saw this on a nature show years ago, and being there felt just like we were in a National Geographic shoot.

It was amazing to see the salmon leaping up meter-high waterfalls in their journey upstream to their spawning grounds, and equally awesome to see the bears catching and eating them.

We flew to Katmai National Park on a float plane like this one.
We got spectacular views on the flight to Katmai.
Adult bears typically wait patiently for salmon.
Sometimes they’re challenged by other bears.

Bear viewing at Brooks Falls

Our visit to Brooks Camp in the Katmai National Park during the annual salmon run was among the most incredible wildlife viewing opportunities we’ve experienced.

Katmai National Park is home to the world’s largest protected population of brown bears, and also contains many of the spawning grounds of sockeye salmon. Brooks Camp is a nexus for both, making it the perfect place to observe the salmon migration as well as the bears feasting on whatever salmon they can catch! As the salmon exert themselves swimming up Brooks River, the bears congregate near the 6-foot-high (1.8 m) Brooks Falls, waiting for the opportunity to strike.

Typically, brown bears are solitary animals. However, during the salmon run they tolerate being around one another, making it one of the few occasions when it’s possible to see several bears together. It was fascinating to see the social hierarchy of the bears — we could easily identify the dominant male bear by the way other bears abandoned their fishing spots whenever he approached. Other times, their hierarchy was less clear and their coexistence less peaceful. More than once, we were startled by bears grunting and growling. With a show of giant claws, massive muscles, and bared teeth, two bears stood up and wrestled until one gave in and backed away.

Large male bears get the best spots at the waterfall, where salmon are plentiful. Females, on the other hand, teach cubs to catch salmon a bit further down the river, where they’re safer from the male bears. On one occasion, we saw a young bear approach the waterfall, observing the large males from shore, trying to decide if it was safe to go in. Nope, not safe, he decided, and walked away. He came back two more times, each time getting a little closer to the water. The third time, he ventured briefly into the water, only to be scared off by the growling of the bigger bears. Time to leave. Probably a wise decision, as we heard that last year a large male bear killed a young bear who decided to try his luck at the falls.

It was also interesting to see the different techniques for catching salmon. The adult bears tended to sit motionless for a while, and a swift head-first plunge would reliably reward them with a whole fish. The young cubs tended to run in shallow water like little kids, splashing, jumping, and pouncing with their paws, which usually just scared the fish away, but occasionally resulted in success.

So close and yet so far!
Eventually, the hard work pays off.
Delicious!
“Look what I got, ma!”
We waited for these bear cubs to leave the trail before continuing our walk.
Waiting for mom.

Day 5: Seward, Alaska

Today we explored the Kenai Peninsula by boat. We saw more glaciers calving into the fjord, and lots of wildlife. We spotted sea lions, puffins, two humpback whales, and more orcas (killer whales) than we could count — 15? 16? We were also joined by three porpoises (similar to dolphins) who enjoyed surfing in the boat’s bow wake.

We visited several glaciers by boat, and saw them calving.
A humpback whale goes for a dive.
Sea lions.

Day 6: Seward to Talkeetna, Alaska

Happy 4th of July! In Seward where we spent the night, there were fireworks at midnight. It was still bright light at that time, which made for a unique independence day experience. In fact, we haven’t yet seen night since we got here — maybe it’s dark for a few hours while we’re asleep?

Today we drove the “long way” to the Denali area, traversing some remote dirt roads on the way. We’re very grateful for the “hill descent” mode in our SUV, which enabled us to safely tackle some pretty steep and rocky roads — super fun!

Day 7: Talkeetna, Alaska

Today we chartered a small plane to fly us over Denali National Park. The flight gave us spectacular up-close views of Mount Denali (a.k.a. McKinley) as well as Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter. We flew to base camp, where climbers start their journey up the mountain, and followed their footsteps. We saw glaciers, peaks, small glacial lakes. We opened the windows of the plane for most of the trip, and got so close to Denali that it felt like we could just reach out and touch it (while being perfectly aware that sticking an arm out of a moving plane is a really bad idea).

We could see tons of glaciers in the park, though our pilot told us that he’s witnessed their retreat over the last several years. That’s no surprise to us, considering this part of Alaska is experiencing record high temperatures right now. Anchorage got to 90 °F (32 °C) yesterday, the highest temperature ever recorded there. We didn’t expect it to be warmer here than in Seattle!

Our pilot, ready to fly us around Denali.

Denali

The highest mountain in North America is aptly named Denali, which in the language of the native Athabaskan tribe means “the high one.” This naming has been the subject of controversy over the years, though.

Gold prospector William Dickey named the peak “Mount McKinley” in 1897, after US presidential hopeful (and future president) William McKinley, who supported the gold standard. In 1975, the Alaska Legislature requested that the US federal government change its official name back to Denali, the name still used by many Alaskans. However, several attempts to change its name were blocked by congressmen from Ohio, the home state of President McKinley. In 2015, after 30 years of trying, the name of the mountain was officially changed back to Denali.

Taking a charter plane close to Denali and the surrounding mountains was an unforgettable experience. We flew over base camp, where climbers get ready to face the brutal ascent. We followed the climbers’ trail up the mountain, and along an impossibly jagged and steep ridge. It looked like a single step at the crest of the ridge would trigger a deadly avalanche. And yet the footprints in the snow proved that there are people brave and skilled enough to venture out along that path and climb even higher than we flew, to the 20,310-foot (6190-meter) peak.

Days 8 and 9: Talkeetna to Gakona to Anchorage, Alaska

We’re back to having cell signal after spending the last two days driving some of the most scenic roads of Alaska. Our route included the Denali Highway, an unpaved road that runs across a large expanse of untamed wilderness. It felt like we stopped every 10 minutes to enjoy the view of the ever-changing landscape. We spent the night in a cabin on the shore of the Copper River, where the best salmon come from. Our hosts told us fascinating stories of growing up in a remote Inuit village and their largely self-sufficient lifestyle. They live off their impressive vegetable garden, the game that they hunt and trap, and of course, unlimited Copper River salmon!

We drove hundreds of miles through scenic wilderness on the unpaved Denali Highway.
We stayed in a cabin by the Copper River.
The hosts of our cabin have an amazing vegetable garden!

Day 10: Anchorage, Alaska

Back in Anchorage, we decided to check out the Alaska Native Heritage Center. We got to interact with people from the 9 major groups of native tribes present in Alaska, and we discovered how different their traditions are. We learned that the northern people lived underground during the winter, using whale bones and driftwood as structural supports for earthen roofs, while other tribes spent winters in log cabins. And we learned that southeastern tribes made their canoes by hollowing tree trunks, while other tribes made kayaks of seal skin and the bare minimum of wood.

We were really impressed with the center — it was a great way to spend our last day here, learning about native culture, watching traditional dances and games, and seeing local art.