Sunday, August 30, 2015

Land of the 10:35pm Sun; our Alaska trip

Alaska! My squadron had been planning a training exercise since March and I was pretty excited to go until I found out that Rob was scheduled to leave on a very long trip that same week. As luck would have it his departure date got pushed back a week and a space available slot opened up on one of our jets. So we got to both go on the trip and as far as air travel goes the lear jet isn’t half bad!

When you fly into Anchorage the first thing you notice is the striking scenery, It is beautiful there; mountains, ocean and glaciers abound over the vast  586,400 Square Miles. General Aviation is everywhere, you must be on the lookout when flying at low altitudes.  Alaska is such an isolated, untouched, spectacular land. Over 80% of the state is home to communities that can only be accessed by plane or boat. It stands to reason why there would be so many resident pilots. I read that plane crashes are more than twice the national average. A clear flight can quickly turn into a nightmare of clouds, rain and wind as pilots navigate tricky mountain ranges, glaciers and twisting rivers. Pilots often rely on sled dog trails, rivers, mountains or a familiar tree to keep them on track. The death of former Senator Ted Stevens was a glaring reminder of one of the hazards of being an Alaska resident. Regrettably, Stevens also lost his wife in a small plane crash in 1978. Pretty interesting huh?

This first full day in Anchorage we did a tour of the command center that would be controlling us for our C-21 missions while we were there. Then just about everyone that came on the trip went on a hike up Flattop mountain near Anchorage. It was a short drive out to the edge of town.  It took us about an hour or so to get to the top.  The trail was only around a mile and a half but with 1300 feet in elevation gain it was pretty steep with a bit of scrambling near the top. The top had views of mountains in three directions with the fourth view being a panoramic of the entire city of Anchorage. We stayed a while and watched paragliders launch themselves of the top. When we finally decided to rally and head down we found the paraglider pilots at the bottom. They were ex-military guys who said they went up there every day during the summer. That seemed like my kind of retirement hobby!

That night we went to dinner as a group at the Moose’s Tooth. This was my third time dining here, If you head to Anchorage, this place should be a definite stop, especially if you like pizza and beer. Sadly, I don’t, but my salmon salad was very good and the wine was good too although not much of a selection. The atmosphere was great, the company was good time as usual. If you go, head there early since the wait will most likely be over an hour.

The next day Rob and I took a day trip down to Seward to catch a bay cruise. The day got off to a wonderful start with the drive down the Seward highway. WOW, is the best word I can use to describe the scenery. I felt slightly sorry for Rob, since he was driving he got to spend less time gaping at the beauty surrounding us.  There was ocean, lakes, big mountains and glaciers along the way. I later found out that it was on the top ten most beautiful scenic drives in the United States according to several different news sources.

Our bay cruise was well worth the money. We chose to book through Major Marine Tours since they had good reviews. I am a wildlife fanatic. I love seeing animals in their native habitat, and this cruise offered a ton of wildlife viewing. We saw bald eagles, sea otters, a humpback whale, Dahl porpoises, a giant school of jelly fish and the adorable puffin. I think my favorite
is the Alaskan sea otter; this little guy likes to swim on his back and rub his feet together. He just looks like he is having the best time backstroking along and making fun of the tourists as they float by.  

Look close and you can see seals basking on the rocks

We sprung for the all you can eat salmon and steak buffet. The meat part of the buffet was beyond delicious. They said the silver salmon had been caught fresh from a local river. All you can eat can be a self-proclaimed dangerous event for Rob. He is a man who likes to get his money's worth and when they promise abundance he likes to test a vendors resolve. Apparently, this trait has rubbed off on me. When it came time to sit down for lunch I downed 2 silver salmon steaks and at least 12 ounces of tender prime rib. I will admit I spent the remainder of the cruise utilizing as little energy as possible so that my body could focus on digesting. It was worth it.

Our last full day in Anchorage we drove down to toward Whittier to check out the Portage Glacier. The internet promised spectacular views on a clear day, which apparently is pretty rare in Whittier. There is a local saying that goes something like "it is always $hittier in Whittier". We lucked out and it was a clear day so we decided to press. The Whittier tunnel was a pretty cool feat of engineering. Three miles of a one way tunnel through a big mountain. I am also an engineering fanatic. I won't bore you with the history but if you want here is a short history of how it was built. 

The hike was breathtaking the entire way. When you get to the top of the first hill you get a spectacular view of the Glacier which is on the other side of Portage Lake.  There were waterfalls running down the large mountains with lush green vegetation all along the way. Perfect cover for a bear or two. We brought some bear spray and we noticed most people had bells or bear spray with them as well.
When we finally made it down to the rocky shore of Lake Portage I think we had taken so many pictures our sim cards were nearly full. Rob was in paradise he mentioned how this hike was food for the soul. We were both enjoying the beauty of the place immensely when came the most peculiar part of the day and probably the only time we will ever witness something like this in our lives.  A family that we had chatted with on the way down, who had mentioned they were from Anchorage, got to the shore around the same time we had. Except, instead of putting on a jacket like I did, they opted to strip down to their bathing suit and went for a swim in the glacier lake! They had a gaggle of kids who were having a blast jumping all over the glacier ice that had chunked off of the Portage glacier. One little girl ran out into the water and began playing with a large chunk of ice as though it were a pool toy for quite sometime! Rob and I looked at each other as if to confirm what we were witnessing. We walked down to feel the water to see if it was close to a reasonable temperature; it wasn't. I suppose when you live through Alaskan winters the cold is relative and toughness is inherent, but in my mind the only way to encourage me to jump in a cold lake like that would be preceded with copious amounts of liquor.  

After picking blueberries and taking more photos along the hike we decided to go for lunch in Whittier. We discovered it to be an odd little town with mostly ramshackle buildings and not many choices in the way of food. Apparently, It was originally developed by the military; most of those ramshackle buildings are abandoned. We found out later that 75% of the town lives in one condo building. I am sure it made for a tight community, but my hopes of finding a nice little lunch spot were dashed. 

Day four we relocated to Kodiak Island, affectionately know as a "small drinking village with a fishing problem". It was a fun approach into the island because we flew around the entire island and did a little sight seeing. The main runway in on a Coast Guard base at the edge of the water towards a 2000 foot mountain. It was pretty neat scenery. I could get all Tolkien on you by spending over 2000 words describing the scenery but I will spare you and provide some nice photos. 

That night everyone went fishing. I went as a tag-along to watch. If you have never witnessed folks fishing in Alaskan rivers it is quite a sight to see. People line up along the banks when the salmon are running to catch their quota. There are so many fish in the water that it typically doesn't take much skill to bag your five in a just few hours. Salmon fishing is a local past time up there. By the time the guys were ready to leave that had caught 24 pink salmon or humpy's as the locals call them. As the pinks swim upstream to find their birthing spot the fresh water starts to disintegrate their bodies and their spines start to curve creating a hump on it's back. It was fun to watch the guys fishing they were like kids with all their grinning and laughing.
The final day on Kodiak island was the best day of the whole trip. Rob and I another squadron mate of mine decided to charter a float plane to go bear watching. Kodiak Island is home to the infamous Kodiak bear. It is the largest of the Alaskan bears weighing in on average over 1200lbs. Roughly two thirds or around 1.9 million acres is designated as national wildlife refuge. There are over 3000 of these bears on the island although they aren't known to come around the main city. We were all pretty curious to find a Kodiak bear out in the wild.

The plane we ended up flying in is was a De havilland Beaver. The pilot said it was from the 1940's and still had an old radial engine. Taking off was pretty cool. It was a bit of a rush skimming along the water watching the shoreline beside you get smaller. It didn't seem possible. I am sure that we were all secretly wishing we had our hands on the controls.

On our way over to the inlet where the fish hatchery was we spotted a pod of orca whales. we descended low over the water to get a closer look. It really was a very cool sight to see. There were eight of them traveling along cresting the water every 10 seconds or so. They are a pretty whale with their black and white markings.

When we arrived at the hatchery, the landing was just as exciting as the takeoff.  We skidded to a stop by a couple of fishing boats then motored toward the dock. One of the first things we noticed was all of the salmon in the water, millions of salmon. Their was a small boat near the edge of the shore racing around in circles shooting air bubbles into the water. Apparently, they were doing what they called a cost reclamation or something along those lines. Once a year they round up a bunch of the salmon and sell them to local markets in order to help offset the cost of the hatchery. They receive subsidies from local fisherman and the state but that is not enough to cover all of their expenses so they do some fishing of their own.  One of the senior workers met us and began giving us the details about the hatchery. He was extremely knowledgeable; we were enjoying learning about the life cycle of their salmon when I looked over towards the trees and saw what we had came for, Kodiak bears! A Mama bear and her cub were moseying down to the water to pick out some fish for lunch. The cub was extremely small, our new friend mentioned that they had seen the cub a few weeks ago and did not think it was going to live. The abundance of food near by must have given it a fighting chance. Our guide told us to get small and walk slowly over toward where they were moving towards.  We camped out about 15 feet from where she was at in the water. We watched her move back and forth in between the water and her cub as she plopped fish on the shore for them to consume. She seemed to be picky as she turned her nose up at some of the fish we had slain. She was quite an impressive animal; her front claws were probably over 8 inches long and she was definitely an average sized Kodiak bear, meaning huge. Her cub was adorably tiny but we knew better then to get close to it, from the horror stories of people getting in-between mama and baby. Every Alaskan I met seems to have a bear story, one that probably left there underwear just a little bit marred. We felt fortunate to watch these bears from a close but reasonable distance and escape to tell the tale.  

The next day we headed home in our aforementioned lear jets. Everyone seemed tired from the excitement but our bellies were  full of salmon and our adventure bug had been squashed for the time being. Alaska is a great destination especially if you like nature. Although this was a work trip the fact that Rob got to come made it feel more like a vacation, and it will be remembered by us a trip of a lifetime.   

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