Trip Report Part 2
(Link to part 1
Warning: this one's even longer than part 1.
Click on any picture to see it in full resolution.Day 3:
We woke up to another cold and wet morning (surprise, surprise!). Looking out of the window of the RV we watched a couple of otters cavort around the early morning fishing boats right off the beach. According to the weather report it was supposed to stop raining soon, so we were a bit hopeful.
Miller's Landing, where we were camping, also offers guided kayak trips. We had booked the Caines Head Adventure
from them through Groupon before we came. The guided trip included a 9-mile round trip paddle in Resurrection Bay to Caines Head Recreation Area, as well as a 5-mile hike.
By the time we were at the office and ready to go, the weather had cleared. It was still cloudy and quite cool, but actually very pleasant.
We met our group and guide, who gave us some paddling instruction and geared us up. This part was easier said than done. Ever see a 6'-8", 260lb guy try to stuff himself into a kayak? Trust me, it's a sight to behold. After trying all of their kayaks (and getting stuck in most of them too
), I was finally able to squeeze my legs into one of them, kinda sorta.
First things first: let's get that GoPro mounted
Before we knew it, we were in the water. It was an absolutely amazing experience (at least the first while, when our arms were still functioning
). The kayak sits four inches above the surface; your feet are actually underwater. It's completely quiet: the only sounds are the waves lapping at your kayak and the rhythmic splish, splash, splish, splash of the paddle hitting the water. All around you are snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see; here and there, an otter floats lazily on his back. A pod of porpoises swims by.
Splish, splash, splish, splash.
After a while however, the magic started to wear off. 4.5 miles is a long way to paddle for first timers - and that's just one way. Our arms started hurting, plus our rudder wasn't working properly, so we were wasting a tremendous amount of energy just trying to go in a straight line. The splash skirt you wear which seals the opening of the kayak didn't fit me either (duh!), so each and every time I took a stroke with my paddle freezing cold water would land right on my lap. I was soaked to the bone.
Eventually we made it to Caines Head
and landed on the rocky beach. We all sat on some logs and took a well deserved break. We got to know our guide a bit then - turns out she only lives in Alaska during the summer where she guides wilderness tours. In the winter she lives in a self-sustaining jungle colony on Molokini in Hawaii. They grow all their food, build their own shelter, and only come out into the real world once every couple of months.
She got curious when she saw us eat some Green's rugulach, so I offered her one. It was the weirdest thing - you could think I offered her the most exotic delicacy on the planet. She simply could not stop raving about them, and promptly finished the whole entire bag
. "Man, these Jewish pastries are awesome! You could get anything you wanted by trading this stuff!" I told her that she should save some for when we get back so she could try it with milk, as it's even better that way. Nah, she says, she hasn't had any milk in weeks: "I only drink milk from cows whose names I know".
After the break we started the 5-mile hike up to the top of the head, where there’s an abandoned WWII fort called Fort Mcgilvray
. The hike itself was exceedingly underwhelming - basically walking up a wide gravel pathway through the rainforest. It was more an "uphill walk" than a hike. The fact that it's actually a rainforest as probably the most interesting part of the hike, as you don't quite expect to find a rainforest in Alaska. On the way we passed some abandoned bunkers and storehouses, all uninteresting. When we got to the top we spent some time exploring the fort itself, which did actually prove quite enjoyable. There were also some great views from the top.
The very difficult "hike"
Some interesting rainforest scenes - totally unexpected in Alaska:
The cliffs of Caines Head:
Abandoned bunkers and storage areas:
The view from the top:
The huge gun platforms:
We explored the fort for a bit and then headed back down through the rainforest to the beach, and another 4.5-mile paddle back to Lowell Point. On the way back the weather had cleared up a bit and the sun even peeked through once or twice:
We had planned on exploring Seward when we got back, but we were so exhausted and in so much pain that we just fell into bed and slept for a couple of hours. Basically we had bitten off far more than we could chew. Neither of us had ever been in a kayak before, and today we had paddled for 9 miles, plus hiked another 5 miles. Every muscle in our body was aching.
What I would recommend for anyone considering such a trip is to take it easy - don't go for such a long paddle if you've never done it before, and skip the Canes Head hike. Miller's Landing (and of course all their competitors) have many different trips to choose from, plenty of them shorter or less strenuous.
After a good long nap and shower we headed north again on the Seward Highway towards the Portage Glacier Highway, where we would be camping that night. The campground was called Williwaw Campground, and is administered by the National Park Service. We had a wonderful pull-through spot in a private, wooded area. Again here we were 'dry camping', meaning that there were no hookups whatsoever. No matter; the RV had plenty of water, propane, and battery power left.
The campsite has beautiful grounds, including views of Portage Glacier and a platform over the river where you could watch the salmon running. Unfortunately we weren't able to take advantage of any of those, as we arrived late at night and left early the next morning.Day 4:
We left the campground in the wee hours of the morning, and headed north. Again onto the lovely Seward Highway and through Anchorage, and on to the town of Palmer to meet up with our ATV guide.
There are many companies that will take you ATVing in Alaska. All however do it in large groups. In addition, all of their 2-passenger ATVs are the side-by-side golf cart style ones. What I didn't like about those is that they're not nearly as powerful as regular ATVs, plus sitting in a bucket seat with seatbelts and a roof and windshield doesn't sound like too much fun to me
Eventually I discovered Heiny's ATV Adventures
, which is a small one-man operation and gives private tours on standard front-to-back ATVs. I was a bit nervous of having a random redneck take me into the Alaskan wilderness, and read every review I could find on the guy. Everything I found turned out to be very positive, with most people saying how much fun Marty (the owner) was. I decided to give it a shot and called him up. He asked me lots of questions about my ATVing experience (of which I had a bit of, but definitely not too much), then proceeded to talk me out of the route I had chosen. He said that the trail is really messy this year, and he had a few people tip over already. He recommended a completely different trail, one that was actually cheaper. I was fairly impressed by his honesty, and decided to book.
Since this was a private tour I was able to choose the starting time and meeting location. We met up with him in the parking lot of a grocery in Palmer, and then followed him for about half an hour to the trailhead.
Following our ride out of town:
Turns out Marty was a really funny guy and a great guide. He was armed too, in case we get into a confrontation with a mad grizzly (which unfortunately didn't happen in the end
). We were a bit annoyed that he had brought a visiting friend along, but as it turned out the guy was also great company and didn't get in the way at all. He just hung back behind us and didn't make us feel crowded.
We did the Wishbone Lake Trail
, and had the times of our lives. Up mountains and into valleys, from open meadows to deep forest and bushland. The trail itself was also a great combination of fairly smooth track and deeply rutted and rocky sections, with lots of steep ups and downs. There were plenty of puddles and river crossings to keep us nice and muddy
The weather was wonderful too, overcast and cool. Unfortunately we didn't meet any bears, but we saw plenty of moose. All told it was about 5 hours of driving.
I had the GoPro clamped to my ATV, and also put in on the ATV behind us for a different perspective:
Marty showing us some gold mining equipment from the early 1900's:
Crossing a stream:
Some of the scenery along the way:
Lunch by Wishbone Lake:
Shooting for the first time
With Marty and his friend:
We then headed west on the Glenn Highway
, another breathtakingly beautiful road. It follows the course of the Matanuska River, sometimes at its level, sometimes rising hundreds of feet above it. The mighty Chugach Range follows alongside the entire time, towering over the river.
While I found the highway beautiful, it was also quite nerve wracking. Driving a heavy RV along a curvy, high road, with everything in the back rattling loudly with every bump, and the wind buffeting it all the time is not for the faint of heart. On top of that there are lots of stretches with very long downhill grades, and going at fairly high speeds it always feels like you won't be able to brake in time. In reality it's a brand new, well maintained, and extremely safe road; nonetheless, I was not as comfortable here as I was on the Seward Highway.
Along the Glenn Highway:
In many places the road is cut right out of the mountain:
Our destination was Grandview Campground, located right on the highway. This was our fanciest campground yet. Every site had full hookups (water, electric, and sewer) and a fire pit and picnic table. There were beautiful grounds, as well as hiking trails. All for $37 bucks a night.
Walmart was out of those little barbecues, so we MacGyvered our own
View from the campground - the mountain to the right is called Sheep Mountain (supposedly it looks like a sheep's head), and the white area to the left is Matanuska Glacier, where we’re going trekking tomorrow:Day 5:
Today was our last day, and we were going glacier trekking.
Most people who come to this region of Alaska and want to get up close and personal with a glacier visit Exit Glacier in Seward. This was our plan as well. In researching it we saw that while it's easy to get to the glacier, the only accessible part is the very edge of the ice - and even that is (officially, at least) not allowed. There is one path that brings you to the edge, as well as another which brings you to an overlook where you could see the entire thing. None of this sounded very exciting, so I started searching for alternatives. Then I discovered Matanuska Glacier
Matanuska Glacier is one of the largest Glaciers in Alaska, and only 100 miles or so from Anchorage. This picture from Wikipedia
was taken from 20,000 feet and shows the size of the glacier - an immense 4 miles wide by 27 miles long!
Only the 'toe' of the glacier (on the bottom right) is accessible - even that relatively tiny area is incomprehensibly massive.
The glacier itself is part of a state recreation area, but the road access is through private property. There are a couple of different outfitters leading treks and climbs, all of whom were pretty highly recommended online. MICA guides are the biggest, but we ended up signing up with Matanuska Glacier Adventures
for a couple of reasons:
- MGA is operated by the landowners, so the access fee is included in the guide fee. With the other you have to pay their fee plus the access fee.
- Since they are run the place, they are able to take more - and therefore smaller - groups than the others, where it's a whole process of being shuttled in from a remote office.
- They actually had crampons for size 18 boots
, as opposed to MICA.
- We were leaving from ANC later that day, so we had to be on the road at a certain time. MGA had no problem letting us set up a tour with times which worked for us, whereas the MICA tours were all 'official' and inflexible.
The best part of setting a custom time for our tour was that we were able to start at 8:30 - a good hour before anyone else arrived at the glacier. This meant that instead of being in a loud, busy group, we had a private tour and the glacier all to ourselves.
Our campground was a short 10-minute drive away from the glacier, so before we knew it we were driving down the steepest, hairiest, dirt road and over a shaky wooden plank bridge to the glacier. Before we went I checked out the road on Google street view to see what it looks like, and couldn't believe that an RV could make it down there. But lo and behold, there were some 18-wheelers visible at the end
, so I figured that if they made it I could too.
The "road" down (you could see the glacier off in the distance):
We went into the office/gift shop to sign the waivers and meet our guide, Michael. We then headed out to the glacier proper and got fitted with crampons, helmets, and trekking poles. Michael also carried an ice ax, rope, first aid kit, and radio in case of an emergency.
Michael had been guiding treks on the glacier for a couple of seasons, and knew it like the back of his hand. More than once he held us back just before a yawning chasm in the ice. He was also extremely knowledgeable in the geology and physics of the glacier, and kept up a constant stream of fascinating commentary.
The snout of the glacier is actually buried in the rubble of rocks it pushes forward. While it seems like you're walking on solid ground, it's actually a layer of pebbles an inch or so thick. The meltwater cuts channels ahead of the glacier, and every couple of days the portable bridges have to be moved to keep up with the ever-changing channels. The cones in the background mark the rough path from bridge to bridge:
Right away the ice takes on fascinating shapes where the water had undercut it. In the beginning the ice is quite dirty, with lots of pebbles mixed in:
Soon though the ice becomes more pristine:
Now we were on the glacier proper, trekking across ridges, along crevasses, and into deep valleys. It was an absolutely amazing experience. It's absolutely, perfectly quiet, and you're surrounded by towering walls of ice in every shade of blue. It's like being on a different planet.
The glacier is so huge that it creates its own weather - very few glaciers are capable of that. The immense volume of ice absorbs all the moisture from the air, so even if it's pouring rain all around the area, there will usually be perfectly clear skies over the glacier. Indeed, even though it was cloudy when we arrived, as soon as we got onto the ice we were under beautiful sunny skies most of the time. The glacier also absorbs cool air, so while everything around you is ice cold (duh!), the air is warm and balmy. In fact this was the only time during the entire trip that we were able to take our jackets off.
The effect is so complete, that at one point I sat down on an outcropping to rest for a moment, only to jump right up with my pants sopping wet and freezing cold. Between the warm, sunny weather and the amazing grip crampons give, I had literally forgotten that it's ice I'm walking on.
Most of the ice surface was melted into this beautiful pattern:
The meltwater had carved deep crevasses, which are cracks only about a foot or two across but hundreds of feet deep. Michael, being familiar with every nook and cranny, kept us safely away from these. Whenever we came across a random rock, we would drop it into a crevasse and time how long it took till we heard the crash. We were able to estimate the depth of the cracks like that - they were all at least a hundred feet deep, some a few times that.
The way a glacier works is that its own weight presses down on itself, expelling every impurity from the ice down to the molecular level. This means that the meltwater is the purest water anywhere in the world. Since the glacier forms high in the mountains and is constantly moving forward, it means that the ice which is now melting is about 400 years old - perfectly perfect, with not a trace of dirt, pollutants, or anything else.
There are some spots where the water pours out above the surface, and we stopped to drink. Never in my life have I tasted anything like this - it was absolute heaven. I had prepared some bottles back in the RV to bring along, but of course I forgot them
. I sat in an ice crevice and drank and drank and drank. The water comes out under extreme pressure, in a supercooled state. This means that it was about 25° cold and still liquid - delicious, but painful when you're using your hands as a cup
. My hands were numb, but I didn't care; I simply could not stop
Soon we came to a massive icefall - tremendous pinnacles of ice all leaning against each other and ready to come crashing down at the slightest disturbance:
We then headed to a glacial lake, where meltwater had been accumulating:
We then reluctantly headed off the glacier and back onto terra firma. In total we had done about 4 miles on the glacier, plus another mile or two back and forth from the parking lot.
One last stop for a view of the glacier from the Glenn Highway:
We had a plane to catch
- Alaska is huge; don't try to see it all
- The weather can be nasty; don't be surprised if it's cold and wet the entire time
- RVs are great, and extremely practical in Alaska
- A Kenai Fjords National Park Tour is probably better than one out of Whittier
- Don't kayak 9.5 miles if you've never done it before
- Skip Exit Glacier - go for Matanuska
- Matanuska Glacier is awesome
- Matanuska Glacier is so awesome I had to repeat it twice ---The end---