Island hopping via ferry – Skagway, Juneau and Hoonah – Southeast Alaska

We left  Million Dollar Falls campground and  headed back into Alaska.  Alas, we had to go through another border crossing into America.  For the first time, we were asked to pull over and step out of the motorhome after our passports were checked and we answered some questions.  The lady officer checked Betsy, opening several cupboards/cabinets and the refrigerator.  We were asked if we had any fur, feathers, wild animal souvenirs and so on.  After 15 minutes of inspection we were cleared to go.  Whew!

We set camp at Haines, which is the terminus of the Alaska Marine Highway,  a state-run ferry system  operating passenger and vehicle ferries between cities.  Access to towns and cities in Southeast Alaska is either by float plane or via Alaska Marine Highway  ferry  for there are a few roads through this region.  We booked our ferry rides for Skagway, Juneau and Hoonah as soon as we arrived.

Skagway, Juneau, Hoona
The towns we visited – Skagway, Juneau and Hoonah
Alaska Marine Highway Ferry Boats
Alaska Marine Highway Ferry – MV Matanuska

We first took the 45-minute fast ferry to Skagway one rainy day for a day of exploring.  When we arrived there four (4) cruise ships were already docked pouring hundreds of tourist into the little town.  We took a stroll around town viewing false-fronted buildings of the gold rush-era, now converted into various stores.  This town is known as the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898 and its colorful history is still evident with the preserved buildings.  Next we hiked 4 miles round trip to the historic Gold Rush Cemetery and Reid Falls. This is a famous cemetery where the infamous characters such as “Soapy Smith” from the gold rush days were buried.

Skagway, Alaska
Historic downtown Skagway
Skagway, Alaska
In the left corner is the Red Onion Saloon – Skagways best known water hole.
-The A B facade is made of 8,883 pieces of driftwood nailed to the front wall.  5,300 are originals successfully preserved since 1899.
Skagway, Alaska
Skagway is also known as the “Garden City of Alaska”
Skagway, Alaska
Story about who’s who in the Gold Rush Cemetery
Skagway, Alaska
Gold Rush Cemetery
Skagway, Alaska
Soapy Smith, the famous outlaw during Klondike gold rush
Skagway, Alaska
Skagway is one of the major ports of call for cruise ships

The following day we took ourselves and the car on another ferry for a beautiful 4 1/2 hour ride to Juneau.  As you probably know, the only capital in the US  not accessible by road  is Juneau and it claims to be America’s most scenic state capital.  We agree with that claim as we have seen its beauty first hand.  This city has a different feel compared to the other two big cities – Anchorage and Fairbanks.  It has its own charm, and being an active port city with an inspiring wilderness setting it is also a port of call for cruise ships.  There is a lot to do but we did what we could during our limited stay.  It is here that we tasted the freshest and sweetest Alaskan King Crab ever!  We took time to visit the Alaska State Museum which has excellent displays talking about the native Alaskan people and their culture.  There is also a description of the political history of the state and the various claims of ownership.  It was well done.  Finally, we rode the Mt. Roberts Tram up to the 1800 ft, platform where we did some hiking and enjoyed the fantastic view of the airport and city.

Downtown Juneau, Alaska
Downtown Juneau
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau is one of the favorite ports of call for cruiseships during summer
Juneau, Alaska
Glacier Botanical Gardens
Juneau, Alaska
Pose at Mendenhall glacier which is accessible by car from Juneau
Juneau, Alaska
A piece of 200 year old glacial ice displayed at the Visitor Center
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau viewed from Mt Roberts
Juneau, Alaska
Pricey but the freshest, tastiest, Alaskan King Crab legs
Juneau, Alaska
Entrance to the Native American History at the Alaska State Museum

The following day we caught yet another ferry for another 3 hr trip to Hoonah, which has a population of 868  and is also a cruise ship port.  Aside from tourism, fishing and logging are the main industries there.   We visited my high school classmate Wilma and her husband Randy.  They are really Alaskans for they have lived here for 20 years!  They are both commercial fishermen aside from teaching.  In seven hours they fed us Wilma’s killer Halibut Chowder and grilled King Salmon,  gave us a tour where we saw two whales near the harbor, two bears just a few minutes from their house and most exciting of all we went blueberry picking.  One of the summer pastimes of Alaskans in August is berry picking and we picked blueberries from the roadside.  In an hour we managed to picked two galloons of wild tart Alaskan blueberries.  Steve and Randy watched for bears, since blueberries are one of their favorites and we didn’t want them to see us stealing their food!

Hoona, Alaska
With my Alaskan girlfriend, Wilma
Tlingit Totem Poles
Impressive Tlingit Wall wood carvings
Wild Blueberries for the picking Alaska
Wild Blueberries for the picking abound
Wild Blueberries for the picking Alaska
Showing off our harvest – ML, Randy and Wilma.  Steve took the picture while watching out for jealous bears.
Wild Blueberries for the picking Alaska
Our bear security force – the rifle is in the back of the truck, just in case
Wild Blueberries for the picking Alaska
A bear doing some blueberry picking of his own
Wild Blueberries for the picking Alaska
Yet another grizzly bear
Wild Blueberries for the picking Alaska
These two Humpback whales were playing close to Hoonah harbor

After four days of city/town hopping we boarded our car and us via MV Malaspina back to Haines.

 



 

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park – Pristine Mountain Wilderness

Our trip into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park was a real eye-opener.  We thought Yellowstone was big – this park is 6 times larger!  It’s America’s largest National Park at 13.2 million acres, and it holds 9 of the 16 highest mountain peaks in the U.S.  Vast is the correct term for this park, and yet it is one of the least-visited in the country.

There are no designated campgrounds here, and most “accommodations” are simple wilderness camping with no permits required.  However, folks are required to use the provided National Park approved bear-resistant food containers.

Mt Wrangell, Alaska
That huge snow-covered mountain is Mt. Wrangell

Due to its massive size there is no realistic way to experience all or even most of this park within a reasonable amount of time.  There are only 2 primitive gravel roads into the park, and it takes several hours on either one of them before you come to a place where you can even begin to explore.

The only way to enjoy a short trip here is to fly in for your adventure.  Did someone say fly?  We’re up for that!  We took a 30-minute flight into the heart of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains, to the remote town of McCarthy.

At the McCarthy airport (Cessna 206 used for the flight), Alaska
At the McCarthy airport (a Cessna 206 was used for the flight)

During the flight we were awed with the park’s vastness, and astonishing views of the highest peaks, massive glaciers and pure wilderness.

Mt Blackburn, Alaska
Mt. Blackburn

We skirted around the major peaks of Mt. Sanford (16,237 ft), Mt. Drum (12,010ft), Mt. Wrangell (14,163ft) and Mt. Blackburn (16,390ft).

Stairway Ice Fall, Alaska
Stairway Ice Fall

We flew over Root Glacier, Stairway Icefall and Kennicott Glacier, and along the wide rocky moraine.  Even from the plane we saw only a tiny section of this park.  Incredible!

Kennicott Glacier, Alaska
Just your average 25-mile long glacier (Kennicott)

Flying into the park allowed us to spend most of the day exploring the remote towns of McCarthy and Kennecott.  Kennecott originated with the establishment of the Kennecott Mines Company in the early 1900’s.  During those years, nearby McCarthy grew as a town that provided illicit products and services such as alcohol and prostitution, which were forbidden in the mining town.

Today, McCarthy’s population consists of only 51 brave permanent residents.  Kennecott and McCarthy have no central water, sewer or electrical systems.  Generators provide power, and water is pumped from wells or hauled by hand.  The remoteness, historical buildings and magnificent scenery are what continue to draw most visitors to this place.

Kennecott Copper Mill, the building on the hill to the right is huge!, Alaska
The huge complex of wooden buildings on the hill comprise the Kennecott Copper Mill

There was a very interesting copper processing mill in Kennicott which is the most popular attraction here.  Built in 1907, the mill is a complex of wooden barn-red buildings.  Today, many of them are unstable and in the process of being re-vamped by the Park Service, but several are open for the public to check out.

The film at the Visitor’s Center was a great place to start, as we learned how the very high-content copper ore was discovered, followed by the massive effort it took to construct a mill in the wilderness.  A 200-mile railroad to the nearest port in Cordova was also built at the time.

The area’s copper-rich history is celebrated as a National Historic Landmark and is part of the the National Park Service system.

Kennecott mill,Alaska
Part of the Kennecott Mill complex which is being “stabilized” after many years of neglect.  Workers and their families basically walked away from this town in 1938 when the company shut down their operations

We followed a trail out to Root Glacier, which along with Kennicott Glacier has dumped massive dirt and gravel flows through the nearby valley.  It was incredible to stand near the flows and listen to the cracking ice and dirt in front of us as far as the eye could see.   This mass of material is continually melting and moving very slowly down the valley.

Hiking to Root Glacier, Alaska
Hiking to Root Glacier

We think flying in and out of the park was a good decision, since it gave us fantastic views of 16,000-foot peaks, massive glaciers and icefalls.  We talked to a man and his daughter who had backpacked in the park for a week, and they told us they were only able to see a tiny fraction of it.  Did I mention this place is VAST?

Our base camp for this stop was at Kenney Lake RV and Mercantile park.

This was a wonderful stop that we’re glad we made.  The cost of the flight was well worth it, as we were able to see so much beauty from the air.  And the relaxing day in these remote towns really got us to thinking about what a life out here might be like.  We highly recommend this trip!

 



 

Prince William Sound, a Sound you won’t forget – Valdez pt. 2

Prince William Sound is ringed by the coastal mountains of the Chugach Range, and situated in the midst of the Chugach National Forest.  Within its 2,700 miles of coastline lies Valdez at the north shore edge.  When hearing reference to Prince William Sound, the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster most likely comes to mind.  Today the port waters have recovered and wildlife flourishes.

Valdez,AK
That’s Val DEEZ
Prince William Sound
Shimmering beauty

The Sound is a premier fishing destination for Salmon and Halibut, and in fact the Women’s Silver Salmon Derby was underway during our visit.  The winner was a tourist from Anderson, California, and she took home $1,000 for her 15.22-pound Silver Salmon!

One way to enjoy and be amazed by the Sound’s shimmering beauty is to take a guided tour.  We can’t seem to get enough of glaciers, so we booked the Meares Glacier excursion. It wasn’t so much the destination we were seeking, but rather being able to smell the sea air and get another vantage point for viewing mountains, glaciers and wildlife.

Valdez, Alaska
Leaving Valdez
Otters in Alaska
A group of otters is called a “raft”. This is probably the largest raft of otters we have seen, and it’s a good sign that the otter population is doing well after almost being wiped out by hunters years ago

Since we had been on a similar cruise at Kenai Fjords National Park, we can’t help but compare the calving activity of the glaciers.  We were fortunate to see plenty of calving of the Aialik Glacier during our Kenai Fjords tour.  However, the wildlife that make Prince William Sound their home are abundant and the scenery is without equal.  It was quite a challenge going through hundreds of pictures to pick the right ones – they were all beautiful!

Sealed with a kiss
Talk about a wet kiss!
Humpback Whale
A rare “fluke shot” of a Humpback Whale’s tail as it does a “deep dive”, which means it will be submerged for at least several minutes.
Seal near Meares Glacier
You talking’ to me?
Meares Glacier
We were interested to learn that fairly large icebergs completely melt in only a day or two. With that in mind you get an idea of how fast the glacier is dropping all of this ice into the ocean
Female Harbor Seals resting on ice
Female Harbor Seals resting on ice
A closer look at the Kittiwakes
A closer look at the Kittiwakes
Steller Sea Lions
Steller Sea Lions
Columbia Glacie
Columbia Glacier is the second-largest tidewater glacier in America. It has been retreating since 1980 and in 2002 it had retreated 7.5 miles
Meares glacier
The Meares glacier is about 6 miles long and 1 mile wide where it meets the water. The face is approximately 250 feet high
Black -Legged Kittiwakes hanging out on ice
Black -Legged Kittiwakes hanging out on ice

For those who are fans of the documentary/Real TV series “Deadliest Catch“, two of the fishing vessels featured there – the Kodiak and the Cornelia Marie – were docked at the Sound for the summer.  It’s off-season for the Alaskan crab fishermen, and during this time they are contracted to buy fish from small operations and take them to commercial plants for processing.

Valdez, Alaska
Cornelia Marie, one of the fishing vessels featured on “Deadliest Catch”

In our opinion, a visit to Alaska just isn’t complete without a trip to Valdez to enjoy the gorgeous calm waters and wildlife of Prince William Sound!

 



 

From peaks to ports – Valdez pt. 1

Leaving Glennallen, our adventure to Valdez (pronounced Val-DEEZ) began on the Richardson Highway.  We crawled along at a slow pace, negotiating 17 pavement breaks (yes I counted them) with abrupt edges, dips and frost heaves.  That meant Steve had to slow way down for every encounter so we wouldn’t empty our cabinets of their contents as Betsy displayed some serious hip action.

Richardson Highway
One of the 17 pavement breaks on our route

We climbed to the 2,800 ft. summit of Thompson Pass, where we encountered rain and fog. Visibility was so bad that we decided to pull off and take a break for lunch at the top. Thompson Pass received 26 feet of snow during January 2012, and there was still plenty on the mountain during our August visit.

Thompson Pass
Snow still on the mountaintops in August
Thompson Pass
Valdez is the snowiest place in Alaska.  Notice how tall the snow markers are here – they look like streetlights!

Our drive continued over Lowe River (Steve smiled), four beautiful waterfalls and through Keystone Canyon where we saw some gorgeous 5,000 ft. peaks.

Lowe River
This sign put a smile on Steve’s face
Keystone Canyon, Alaska
There were waterfalls all along the road at Keystone Canyon

As we entered the town of Valdez, the lush Chugach mountains and shimmering clear water were just breathtaking.  The sun was shining during our four-day stay here, allowing us to hike, bike and take a walk around the quaint town to learn a why it is called the “Switzerland of Alaska.”

It was also here that we enjoyed the amazing sight of salmon running at Solomon Gulch.  I’ll give more details about that fascinating experience in my next blog.

Town of Valdez
Valdez is surrounded by the lush snowcapped Chugach Mountains
Port of Valdez
Yet another place to go fishing
Lowe Street,Valdez
Steve also has a street named after him!
Bridal Veil Falls at Keystone Canyon
Hiking Goat Trail at Keystone Canyon – the trailhead was at Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls at Keystone Canyon
Looking down at Lowe River from a trail along the gulch
Biking at Valdez
Valdez is also a great town to bike around
Valdez Glacier
Valdez Glacier in the background
Chugach mountains
The towering Chugach Mountains surround the area

Valdez is rich in history that helped shaped this community.  In 1898, it was all about the gold stampede and railroad industry.  Then on March 27, 1964 a 4-minute, 9.2 earthquake triggered an underwater landslide which created a tsunami.  The tremendous waves washed away the entire Valdez waterfront.  Due to the fact that the town had been built on unstable soil, it was abandoned and a whole new town was built 4 miles to the east.

Gold Rush Days Story
Gold Rush Days Story

The 800-mile long Trans-Alaska oil pipeline was completed between Prudhoe Bay in the north and Valdez to the south in 1977.  And the town became a household name in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez tanker ship ran aground, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.  Although the town was not direcly impacted by the oil spill, thousands of people arrived in response to the crisis.

Terminus of Trans-Alaska pipeline
Terminus of the Trans-Alaska pipeline at the base of the mountains

We visited two museums while here.  Both the Valdez Historical Museum and the Old Town Valdez Museum were excellent and a great learning experience.

Old Valdez now
Old Valdez now
Tsunami warning loudspeaker
A strange looking loudspeaker used for Tsunami warnings
The new Port of Valdez
The new Port of Valdez
Valdez Historical Museum
Valdez Historical Museum