Alaska: 8000 miles and 18 bears later. Chapter 2: Anchorage in a heat wave.
This is the second part of my Alaska motorcycle trip. It contains nothing pertaining to motorcycles, and is solely about being a tourist in Anchorage. Below you’ll find mostly photos of glaciers taken from the sky and the ground, as well as a some frisky bears. I hope you enjoy.
You can find part 1 here, to get your motorcycle road trip fix.
Stay tuned for part 3, which resumes the motorcycle trip proper.
Our first full day in Anchorage would prove to be the most spectacular of the visit. I had booked a seaplane sightseeing tour at Vero’s behest, and so early in the morning we drove all of 10 minutes to a small office adjacent the Anchorage airport and found ourselves outside of Rust’s Flightseeing Tours. Within 30 minutes we were strapped into the back of a bright-red 6-person Cessna and taxiing down the waterway. The engine roared and then was quickly muffled as we donned over-sized headsets. With a surprisingly smooth and uneventful take-off we were airborne. The plane felt like a go-kart on the wind. It skipped and jumped through the air, but it always righted and even when passing through updrafts just a hundred feet over a mountain top we were sure-footed. I quickly fell in love with this little seaplane. It’s no wonder some pilots spend their entire life this way.
So began our 5 hour journey in and around the Prince William Sound. It was devastatingly beautiful. I hope the photos below lend some sense of just how large, deep, and powerful these glaciers are. I’m sure we were told the names of these glaciers, bays, and mountains, but I can’t recount a single one. You’ll just have to use your imagination.
For the camera nerds, I’ll note that the first half of the trip was shot with my Sony A7Riii and the 100–400mm lens. When we landed I switched to the Sony RX100VI (my “pocket sony”) and most shots thereafter are between 24–50mm. The long zoom was fun, but we flew so close to the landscape that nearly all shots were at 100mm and I was longing for wider views. Were I doing it again, I’d have mounted the 24–105mm to the A7R and called it a day. All photos are presented in chronological order.
Our flight followed the contours of the Turnagain Arm of the Alaskan Gulf. At about 100 miles per hour, these seaplanes don’t go very fast, at least compared to normal airfare. Still, it was a surprise how quickly the first icy mountains stood right in front of us on the way out of Anchorage.
The plane flew low and slow past these glaciers. I think the cracks and furrows in the ice is what I remember most. Though the ice was totally still, the perception and evidence of powerful movement was unignorable. There’s something particularly captivating about how massive and imposing these structures are, whilst the knowledge that they are made of nothing but water flits constantly through my mind. While entropy is absolute, and in the grand scheme of things all things will turn to dust, here was a mountain that could well be gone within my lifetime.
Perhaps most surprising to me was how much green there was. From sea-level to about 1000', everything was covered in trees, grass, moss, and life.
The bogs were also particularly interesting. The land was peppered with bogs, marshs, and lakes small and large. I think it would be quite nice to just sit there by one of these small bodies of water and contemplate the world. A small pocket of vibrant life, a cosm unto itself, whilst surrounded by some of the most profound natural beauty one could ask for.
As we passed by these lands the pilot helpfully pointed out a few coveted campsites and national park cabins available to the public.
As we travelled south down the sound, we left glaciers for a short while and came to more open waters. There were about a half dozen fishing trawlers in operation, and our pilot commented that fish stocks had been near record lows that year, and fishing was down as a result. A small rage filled me, as I’d like to think a responsible reaction to dwindling populations would not include attempting to ensnare every last creature for commercial purposes.
Just moments later we came upon coves of sea lions. We were informed that these too were at record lows, and their populations had been dwindling for decades. Our pilot had lived 40 years in Alaska and it sounds like each year has been just slightly worse than the last when it comes to humanity’s impact on nature.
My apologies for the sad bent to some of these passages — I hope it is made up for by the beauty — but further bad news was to await.
Half way through our plane came to a landing somewhere along the sound. From the sky it appeared that there was nary a sign of civilization in sight. As we disembarked for a much needed leg-stretch (it had now been 2 hours in the small seats), I hiked into the woods.
There I found a large blue barrel stuffed with canvas and directions on how to make a survival shelter, as well as numerous plastic panels. Whoever had used this site had set themselves to carving one of the panels excessively with a knife and had left at least a pound of plastic shavings all over the ground. When I returned with this news to the pilot he surmised that this was likely an illegal bear-poaching site. I was told that this summer had seen an wave of black-market profit-seeking people from Korea hunting bears to harvest their gall-bladders and other organs for the asian market. Distressing news indeed.
With legs now stretched we clambored back into the plane and headed south towards Seward.
This southern part of the sound was bountiful with small islands covered in trees. Each one unique as a snowflake and precious. More sea lions could be seen on the rocky shores, basking in the sun.
The islands turned into boggy coastline and river inlets. At river mouth after river mouth, dead salmon could be seen by the thousands. I had been reading about masses of salmon dying off prematurely in the heatwaves the area had been experiencing. If the salmon we saw died due to heat or the natural end of their spawn cycle, I couldn’t say.
As we neared Seward the glaciers and ice began to return to the landscape.
At long last, a road once again cut through the landscape, and Seward quickly followed. I’ve long heard about Seward — the stories of how it’s whole population spent the winter in a single building, the stories of the role it had played during WWII — but seeing it was something else. It really is a small place. I suspect I’ve been to large shopping malls that took up more acreage. What really stood out to me though was the glacier that sits right above the town! Though I’m sure it’s safe, I can’t help but recall the story of the sword of Damocles.
We visited one last mighty glacier before returning to land. Again I wish I knew properly their names. Even looking now at a map it’s hard to tell what’s what, as I cannot say clearly what our flight path was or where a particular image was captured.
Still, this final icy send-off was just as lovely and serene as those before. With a some bumps and jolts we crested over a mountain ridge and down into a verdant valley that would take us back to Anchorage.
I’m so glad I have these photos to share, as otherwise I’d be spending hours looking up synonyms for “green”, “verdant”, “lush”, and “alive”. It suffices to say that every inch of these valleys was devastatingly beautiful. Alaska, I am forever in your debt for having experienced your beauty.
About two hours north of Anchorage, via the fabulously curvy and fast-paced Alaska Hwy 1, lies the Matanuska glacier. A series of rough dirt roads allows visitors to park near the ever shifting tail of the glacier and hike out on a self-guided tour. By the time we came to visit the heat wave had started to turn and so it was a chilly and windy experience out on the ice.
The glacier makes itself well known before you ever step foot on ice. Silt, pebbles, and boulders make up a muddy debris field, which visitors must navigate with the aid of large metal “trail ladders” laid about the place. This silt tells perhaps as interesting a story as the glacier itself. As the glacier grew, each winter of snow that compacted into ice was then covered during the summer with dust, pollen, ash, and other fine particulates blown on the wind. Year after year this layered sandwich of ice and debris formed into a glacier and grew larger and larger. And then as conditions changed and the glacier came to shrink — the top layers of ice melting more each year than they grew — the silt came to compact against itself. Years and years of accumulation came to intermingle. As this happened, the top of the glacier became darker and darker from the accumulation, and this sped the melt even faster. As the glacier fully melts in an area, it leaves behind this legacy of decades of silt, just waiting to get stuck on my shoes.
Occasionally glaciers capture boulders from high up in a mountain and the ice flows bring them down into lower lands. The ice then melts and leaves a boulder out in a field, all alone.
Once we made it past the silt and mud and onto the glacier proper, we noticed something surprising. The glacier surface ice was crunchy. It cracked and clinked and popped as we stepped over it. Each section of ice we stepped on was somewhat recently exposed and evidently stressed, for it made the most interested noises as pressure was applied. For the most part the glacier’s surface was compacted and grippy, and surprisingly easy to walk on. However, as we hiked higher and came to more of an incline it became slick and wet to the touch. We had to turn back then, as gripons or other ice-specific hiking tools would be needed to go further (and you can rent those, if you so wish, at the privately run visitors center).
One of the more surprising sights we came across was a small series of mounds covered in moss. Although it looks like dirt mounds, these structures are still primarily glacial ice, it’s just got a good coating of silt and debris on top. And apparently the conditions are just right here for a colony of moss to thrive. According to our brochure, this particular moss colony was under quite a bit of study by local biologists.
If you think back to how large the Matanuska river was (or just scroll up to the photo), you’ll start to get a sense of both how large this glacier is, and how fast it must be melting. This was constantly on display as we hiked out, as to walk on the glacier is to be constantly hopping over or navigating around large fissures carrying small torrents of melt water. At times these fissures were tens of feet deep — you could easily fall down one and have a very unhappy time.
After about an hour on the ice we had grown quite cold and the wind picked up. Though we hadn’t fully explored the areas where visitors are allowed to tread, we called it a day and headed back.
Experiencing a glacier up close and personal lends a perspective to life that I’m trying very hard to hold on to. As immense and powerful as it is, as scary and beautiful as it stands, even this mighty thing is but layers of frozen water and dust, blown on the wind and left to set.
An aborted journey to Seward
The next day we woke up quite early and started the drive towards Seward. Today was scheduled to be a boat tour of the Kenai Peninsula, and I was stoked! Puffin viewing was promised! I’ve always wanted to see a puffin in the wild. The route from Anchorage to Seward is about 2.5 hours by car, and that early in the morning it was a relaxing drive… until the smoke started.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Anchorage had been experiencing a heat wave, and the day before it had finally broke. As temperatures dropped it was enough to rouse some rowdy winds, and those winds in turn reignited the wildfires that had been previously burning to the south and thought to have been fully extinguished a month prior. As this had happened overnight, and no signs were yet visible from Anchorage, we had no warning that we were driving into a smoky hell. And so it was, a bit over halfway through the drive that we saw the first wisps of smoke. Immediately we started pulling up maps, saw that we were in a valley with the sea another 45 minutes out, and hoped that the sea breeze would clear the smoke. Alas, the further towards Seward we pushed, the worse the smoke became, until visibility dropped to just a few hundred feet and it became nauseating. With heavy hearts we called off the tour and returned to Anchorage.
Despite this, the drive was lovely, full of snow capped mountains, verdant forests, and lovely valleys. Determined to experience some wildlife, we turned towards the next best thing: the zoo.
The Anchorage Zoo
With our Seward plans thwarted, and with Anchorage still having clean air, we spent the remainder of the day at the Anchorage zoo. This hadn’t originally been on the itinerary, but it turned out to be an amazing experience all the same. The Anchorage zoo is unique in that they only house animals that are native to Alaska or similar latitudes and thus happy in the local extremes of weather. As zoos go, this one was quite nice, the enclosures large and mostly naturalistically oriented, and the animals all seemed quite happy and devoid the repetitive pacing motions that denote stress.
So, if you’ve been following this series closely, I’ve been dropping hints about some rather “amicable” bears. Well, if you came here for sexy bears, I hope this does not disappoint.
First up, it’s not wholly pictured here, but these bears have a pretty huge habitat, at least by Zoo standards. It’s built into a big hill, has lots of grass and running water, and seems pretty natural. Overall, I imagine this is a pretty great place for a bear to be. The bears, I think, agreed, and they were the most active and observably happy bears I’ve ever seen at a Zoo. All three were constantly on the move, exploring, and socializing. I’ll also note that these bears hibernate at this Zoo, which I think is pretty great.
So, with that context, here’s some bear stories:
When we first arrived, the largest bear (name and sex unknown, so I’ll call it “big bear”) was just utterly fascinated by this pit it had started to dig. At various points big bear was pulling dirt out of the ground, pushing dirt back in, and getting into and out of the pit. Really happy and delightful bear stuff.
Eventually big bear got tired of his pit digging game and wandered off towards a lighter colored bear I’ll name “golden bear”. Golden bear had been hanging out in a grassy/wet part of the enclosure, but they seemed to perk up as big bear approached.
From the moment that big bear and golden bear met… it was ON.
Despite some of the rather scandalous poses below, best we could tell this wasn’t a mating behaviour so much as play. I think. Neither of us are bear-ologists, so who knows! At any rate, these were very happy bears, and happy to see each other.
As the play session progressed, it turned into something more… intimate?
After a few minutes of this the third bear came over, and their presence seemed to break up the play time. Nobody likes a third wheel when you’re feeling frisky.
There was one last bout of hugs and the bears broke up and finally went their separate ways.
In all I think not 10 minutes had passed, but I had come to see bear-kind in a whole new light. They were soooo social, inquisitive, and full of joy. Or maybe that’s me projecting human feelings. In either case, I count myself very lucky to have witnessed such a fantastic moment.
With bear time over, we moved on to explore the rest of the zoo. It’s a medium sized zoo at most, and all in all we spent just a few hours there.
If you happen to visit Anchorage, I just cannot recommend enough that you take an afternoon to visit their lovely zoo.
The Anchorage Museum
On the last day of our vacation, the smoke from the day before drifted up into Anchorage proper and soon the city was in a blanket of foul air. Given my wife’s respiratory ailments, this confined us to indoor activities, and so we settled upon a visit to the Anchorage Museum. Again, this was not a place we’d planned to visit, but it turned out to be one of the best museums I’ve ever seen. It’s a phenomenal place, but it can be hard to describe, so I’ve settled on characterising it as an eclectic “bit of the best” approach. Each exhibit room has an entirely different and unique theme, which in the lower 48 would generally be its own museum outright. One room was full of kinetic sculptures and interactive science gadgets for kids, the next highlighting native peoples art, and a third told the story of how WWII impacted Alaska. Despite this eclectic approach, each exhibit was thoughtful and required time to fully appreciate. A well designed museum indeed!
Over the course of a few hours I felt that we’d gotten a taste of life in Alaska. This is another experience I’d highly suggesting partaking of if you visit Anchorage.
A smoky escape…
On the morning of our final day the smoke over Anchorage had thickened into a choking haze. My wife took flew out early in the morning, escaping the smoke by way of airplane cabin. I was again alone, just me and the motorcycle, but now reinforced with a week of relaxation, good food, and good company. I was glad for such reinforcements as it would take over three hours of riding — well past the Matanuska glacier — until I was finally free of the smoke. I’ll pick up there in Part 3 of this story.
I’m so excited to share part 3 of this journey — where I head to Calgary by way of the wilds of British Columbia, encounter a solid week of cold rain, tons of bears, and so much more — so stay tuned!