Thursday, July 18, 2013

Sitka--A Jewel of a Place!

Not only have we felt incredibly welcomed here, of course it helps to have had glorious weather for the three days we've had in Sitka.  Everyone--from our hosts to the bus drivers, restaurants servers, and store clerks--have been friendly and engaging.  This is a small town of about 8,000 people.  Tourism is a big industry in the summer when as many as three ships can visit town. Commercial fishing is another big industry--our host Terry has been out on his boat catching lots of salmon.  He and Sylvia have also been smoking and canning salmon, and I'm looking forward to a smoked salmon quiche for breakfast.

Downtown Sitka with the Russian Orthodox church.  The Russians were the first Europeans to this area--drawn here by the furs.  There are still many people of Russian descent, and apparently about 60 people attend this icon-filled church regularly.
Totem Park
Lloyd took this artistic photo in Totem Park.
Syliva drove us up Harbor Mountain--a narrow twisting road (SE Alaska's highest road), about 5 1/2 miles, built in 1942 to establish a look-out during WW2.  Now it's a park and the start of the Harbor Mtn trail, about 2.5 miles mostly through alpine meadows.  We started along the trail at about 11:30 AM Wednesday and arrived back in Sitka by 4:15 just in time for our 4:30 dinner reservation at Ludwig's Bistro!
The view of a volcano, Mount Edgecumbe, from Harbor Mtn.

A delightful snag
Harbor Mtn trail
At the end of this trail is an alpine hut and the start of another trail back down into Sitka.  The "Gavan Hill trail" is a tortuous series of stairs (stone and wood), an elevation change of 2,500 feet over 3.5 miles.  The view of Sitka sound from the top is gorgeous.
The town of Sitka and Sitka Sound.
At the top of some very steep stairs!
When we finally got down to the bottom, our legs were like jelly and our kneecaps were screaming.  And there were two runners going up the trail!!  At the trail end was a poster advertising "The Hill Climb", a running race this Saturday covering the same route we had just done in reverse.

We leave this jewel of a town this afternoon on the fast ferry at 3:15, back to Juneau in time to transfer to the ferry to Prince Rupert at 9PM tonight. We have a cabin booked on this ferry so we'll be able to get some sort of sleep each night! We will be arriving in PR at 3:30 AM Saturday picking up our car and starting the two day drive back to Vernon...

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Juneau and the Mendenhall Glacier

We left Gustavus Saturday afternoon (July 13), arriving at the airport which is easier than arriving by ferry.
The Mendenhall Glacier as we were approaching the airport.

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska--some call it the most inaccessible capital in the US if not the world because there are no roads to the outside world even though it's on the mainland.  Hemmed in by mountains on one side and ocean on the other, Juneau stretches along the coast for many miles in a narrow band--home to around 35,000 people.  The ferry terminal is 14 miles away from the historic downtown and is not served by either a shuttle or public transit (hence the inaccessibility for the independent traveller).  In spite of living in such a narrow band, much of the space is taken up with a 4 lane highway because people are very dependent on their vehicles here--many likely live at one end and work at the other.

We stayed at A Bear's Den Inn in the Mendenhall Valley for two nights, arriving in time to explore the historic downtown late Saturday afternoon and evening (we could get there by bus thankfully). There were a few giant cruise ships at the docks and the downtown was teeming with people.  Most of the "cookie cutter" souvenir and jewelry stores were open.  The historic downtown is attractive and obviously catering to the cruise ship passengers.  A few hours was enough for us.

On Sunday we borrowed bicycles from our hosts and cycled up to the Mendenhall Glacier.  This was a pretty easy cycle on a dedicated bike path at about a 4% grade.

View of the Mendenhall Glacier from the road.
As we expected, we shared the site with a few thousand cruise ship passengers--there was a constant stream of coaches discharging people who had perhaps an hour to enjoy the lake, glacier and falls.   We had most of the day, and so once we had visited the Visitor Centre and walked to the very impressive waterfall, we took off up the hill on the East Glacier Trail.  We met lots of locals out enjoying the beautiful day.
I took a little time out to knit a bit...

The glacier is retreating about 200 feet per year.  The Visitor's Centre has an excellent display of how this is accelerating due to climate change.

From the East Glacier Trail.  The recently scoured rocks are evident at the toe of the glacier.  
It was a pleasant cycle back down the valley, stopping at a beer and wine store for some refreshment which we enjoyed in the very pleasant back garden of our B&B.

It was with some relief that we left Juneau the next day for Sitka!  A very pleasant four hour ferry ride on one of the new fast ferries.  My next posting will be about Sitka, a small town which feels very welcoming--for starters there was both a shuttle AND a public bus at the ferry dock which is about 4 miles out of town.  We are staying at the Cinnamon Bear B&B which is about halfway between town and the ferry, and well served by public transit called "The Ride" every hour.  And the weather continues to be very pleasant--about 20 degrees and sunny.  Locals are actually feeling this is too warm! 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Gustavus and Glacier Bay

We're travelling mostly by Alaska State Ferry (the Alaska Marine Highway) and had a planned stop for one night in Juneau in order to get to Gustavus, a small community on Icy Strait near Glacier Bay.  A few days prior we decided to fly to Gustavus instead so as to avoid a 7 AM ferry departure.  Thus I had my first ride in a Cessna bush plane where Lloyd got to ride beside the pilot.  There was room for only two more passengers (me and one other) in front of a lot of cargo behind a mesh.
Approaching Gustavus--very flat!
Gustavus reminded me of Cherryville and Clearwater in that there is no actual town centre.  Instead they have "the four corners"...
One corner is an L-shaped building with the Fireweed Gallery and Coffee shop (excellent espresso) along with the Clove Hitch Cafe (and a cement brown bear in the middle...)

And the opposite corner is the gas station

Cycling  is the perfect way to get around.  
We stayed at Homestead Bed and Breakfast which could really be called Homestead BBB (bed, breakfast and bicycle).  For the first time in years we were riding single speed bikes with pedal brakes which took a little getting used to.  The pace of life in Gustavus is nice and slow--EVERY driver gives cyclists a wide berth as well as a friendly wave. Drivers actually pay attention to the posted speed limits (25 and 35 miles per hour). There are about as many cyclists as drivers.  This area was home to the Tlingkit people about 400+ years ago until they were pushed out by a mini ice age and an encroaching glacier.  In fact a glacier blocked what is now Glacier Bay when Captain Vancouver was sailing these waters.  The glaciers started to recede 200+ years ago and are still retreating.  What is now the community of Gustavus was originally homesteaded in the 1920s.   It must have been a really hard life--in fact I think anyone trying to farm in Alaska would have a difficult time because of the long cold winters.  Gustavus was originally known as Strawberry Flats because of all the wild strawberries, one of the first plants to colonize an area after glaciation...

We took a day tour up Glacier Bay to see the Glaciers, icebergs, sea otters, brown and black bears feeding on the beaches, eagles, and whales...

Sea Lions--juvenile males


Glacier with huge cruise ship in front--that cruise ship had 11 decks which gives you an idea of the size of the glacier.

Lloyd with a bergy bit

We left Gustavus on Saturday mid-afternoon, this time as the only passengers on a Cessna that could have carried about 8 passengers.  We stopped at Hoonah and off-loaded a lot of groceries--a resident must have called in an order to a store in Juneau and this is what was delivered:
...complete with a couple pizzas on top ready to pop in the oven...being unloaded by a couple of young women.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wrapping up Wrangell and Petersburg

Some images from the last few days in these little towns...
About a mile north of the ferry terminal at Wrangell are a whole lot of petroglyphs on the beach.  It's impossible to know how old these are--anywhere between 3,000 and 10,000 years ago.

We were met by a very chatty 7 year old girl who lives right above the site in a house that her great-grandma grew up in.  The roots in this community are deep.

On Sunday we took a jet boat trip up the Stikine River to the Canadian border.  The delta is immense and our captain expertly navigated around several sand bars to enter the main channel of the river.  This is one of the last wild rivers on the continent.

We stopped at Chief Shakes Lake and glacier, enjoying the immense blue icebergs.

Lloyd at the back of the boat as we were leaving the glacier.

Lloyd at one end of an iceberg.
A float home in a slough off the Stikine.  Apparently the little structure that looks like an outhouse was for a disabled man to shoot his moose for the winter.

The sidewalks of main street, Wrangell, have red glass embedded in the cement to mimic the red garnets the area is known for.

The main street of Wrangell.
We took the 7:30 PM ferry from Wrangell to Petersburg, arriving at 10:30 PM.  Our host had arranged for us to be met by Marci of Island Taxi--a very welcome sight to see her standing with a sign with our names on it.

Homes built along the edge of a tidal estuary in Petersburg.

We spent most of Monday wandering around the town of Petersburg, a very active fishing town.  There are several fish and seafood packing plants in town--upwards of 600 seasonal workers (many of them college students from the lower 48) come for the work and live in bunkhouses.

A carved bench in a front yard.

Sea Level B&B, our home away from home!  Built in 1999 on the site of a former warehouse.

Sea Level B&B from the ferry when we left for Juneau yesterday.

Sea Lions resting on the last navigation buoy as we left the Wrangell Narrows on our way to Juneau.
We're leaving for Gustavus shortly!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Wrangell--4th of July celebrations and bears!

We arrived in Wrangell on the 4th at about 7 PM and the celebrations were in full swing.  This small town of a few thousand people is THE place to be on the 4th when everyone who ever lived in Wrangell is invited "home".  We were asked a few times when we had gone to school here--I think we must have been amongst the very few people who have never lived here.  We were often wished "Have a happy 4th!"  The exuberant crowds of young and old reminded me of Holi celebrations in India.  There people throw coloured powders--here they toss firecrackers (fortunately not at people) and carry lit sparklers, and every kid has his/her face painted.   People were wearing every manner of red, white and blue clothing.  The main street was blocked off--we must have just missed an egg tossing event because the street was littered with broken eggs.  A hot dog eating contest was in full swing.  Obviously food is not in short supply when it can be used in such a way!

The fireworks (yes I managed to stay up until after 11 to watch the display) were magnificent--just out in the harbour in front of the Stikine Inn where we stayed the first night.

The next morning the streets were all washed clean and this tidy little town was on its way back to its normal self.  We booked a boat trip to the Anan Bear reserve for the afternoon, and what an experience!  We could have stayed long past our allotted 3 hours at the reserve watching the bears, eagles and crows devour salmon from the river.   We figure we saw about 9 brown (grizzly) bears (including a sow and two cubs) and 5 or 6 black bears.  The feeding habits were quite different.  One brown bear in particular high-graded all the fatty bits (head, roe, skin) and left the rest of the carcass to float away while he/she snatched another out of the river.
Walking along the board walk to the viewing platform with our guide Zak who was carrying a gun and bear spray just in case of an encounter.  There's only been one unfortunate incident with a bear on the path in the last 20 years--they're more interested in the salmon and each other.

An eagle waiting for a discarded carcass.
Black bear on the boardwalk just outside the observation platform.

Had to wait for the bear to clear off the path before using the outhouse!
A brown bear taking out the tasty bits
Why it's not a good idea to climb a tree to get away from a black bear.  This one obviously had eaten enough and needed a snooze.
on the viewing platform
Looking down onto the covered walkway to the photo blind right at the river's edge.  We had to sign up for 1/2 hour stints in the blind.  The sow and one of her cubs is just to the right of the blind in this image.
sow and cubs
Watching the bears catch and feed was mesmerizing.  I realized that I was totally in the moment, not thinking of anything else.

The bears had different feeding habits--the black bears would grab a fish and then take it off to eat in private up the bank out of view, whereas the brown bear feeding directly across from us was much more cavalier--taking only the fatty bits and leaving the rest--and staying at the edge of the river.  The exception to this was the mother grizzly who would catch a fish and share it with her smaller cub, leaving the larger one to chew on his/her own fish.

The view from the platform looking down the river to the lagoon where earlier we had seen lots of seals chasing  the fish.
This brown bear became aware of the sow and cubs below and turned around.  There's obviously a pecking order in place.
Cubs became aware of the new bear.
Well that is just a small sampling of the over 200 pictures Lloyd and I took yesterday!