Denali: Moose and caribou and bears, oh… squirrel!

Longest day ever… or at least so it seemed. Denali National Park and Preserve (Jam! Preserve always makes me think: Jam) has been a designated wilderness area since 1905 when some trophy hunter named Sheldon came up here, shot himself some big Dall Sheeps and stuff and then decided the place should be kept all natural and stuff for future generations. He then dedicated his life to making that happen, as you do when you are independently wealthy.

Anyway, the management of the park is rather unique, private vehicles have been banned from entering the park for many years now and the only way in or out is via the park bus system or on organized tours. The park buses can take independent campers and hikers in and out of the park and they run back and forth on a schedule, and many of the tours are operated with naturalists and interpretive guides as drivers who help spot wildlife and overload you with information on what you’re seeing.

park map

The only tour that travels the length of the Park Rd is the famous Kantishna Wilderness Tour which goes 92 miles into the park to the end of the road and back again. It’s a bloody long day with the tour taking over 13 hours return (that’s the same length of time it took us to fly from Brisbane to LAX!) due to the it being a one lane graded road with buses frequently stopping to check out the wildlife and incredible scenery.




We have had an exhausting but exhilarating day… we have seen about fourteen grizzly bears, including several sows with cubs in tow (the cubs look just like teddy bears, I swear!), several caribou, about a dozen Dall sheep, a couple of moose, a porcupine, more ground squirrels than I can count, a golden eagle, some kestrels, a spruce grouse with it’s chicks and lord knows which animals I have forgotten!

I learned so much today about the various fauna and their eating habits, behavioural characteristics, reproductive systems and mating rituals… For example they have only one frog in the entire 6.4million acres worth of park, the woodland frog, and in the winter time, the little green and yellow woodland frog buries itself in the mud and literally freezes. Freezes until it is solid. Then in the summer when the thaw comes, the woodland frog literally defrosts and eventually his limbs thaw out and his organs thaw out and he when his little heart thaws out – well he comes back to life again. They have figured out that the woodland frogs have bodily fluids that are almost entirely made of glucose, and glucose freezes very differently to water… doesn’t expand the same way and doesn’t crystalize to sharp particles that can destroy cellular structure! And it’s not just zombie frogs. Nearly all the creatures up here are uniquely adapted in dozens of ways to deal with the harsh climatic conditions. I never knew that moose and caribou antlers are like great big cooling radiators… their antlers are body temperature as they have blood running through them and they use them to keep their big bodies cool if they get too hot.

arctic ground squirrel

And once we moved off the crazy-arse fauna up here we got a plethora of information about the vegetation of the boreal forest, the taiga forest and the tundra terrain that we were crossing through. We also got a ice age geology and geography lesson about how the mountain ranges were formed which renewed my faith in ‘Mericans to find some that didn’t believe the earth is only 6,000 years old. He discussed the possible effects of climate change on the glaciers and the animals in the park – jury was still out with our guide… he’s not sure if we are experiencing a warm turn in a long term cooling trend (15,000 years +), or an exacerbation of a natural warming trend? Clifford, that was his name, had an interesting and diplomatic approach to the topic which informs us that he’s probably inadvertently stepped on toes in the past. He also talked about the local history, about the mishaps that befell various adventurers that came into the park (for example Chris McCandless –  who lost his life in the park and Timothy Treadwell –  who also had an interesting life, and eventual death due to his fascination with the grizzly bears).

On and on it goes, from grizzly bears adopting cubs from other sows, to the polar bears found to have mated with grizzly bears due to reducing polar bear habitats making what are now being called pizzly bears or grolar bears, to the over thirty types of parasitic insect that live in the park on the park animals, (fuck the mozzies are hideous, swipe to kill one and five take its place!!), and obscure facts like the red squirrel being the biggest predator facing the snow shoe hares… just so much interesting information that I couldn’t hope to remember it all or to capture it all here.


Once we got to Kantishna Roadhouse at the end of the 92 mile mark, we had a bit of lunch and then got treated to a bit of a sled dog lecture by a man named Peter Emmerson Jnr, who has grown up around sled dogs and mushing and whose father, PJ Snr, is a bit legend in the mushing world and the Iditarod Sled Dog race (look that shit up, it’s fascinating 1200mile race on a dog sled and hearing about it makes me want to come back in March to see it, even though you’d freeze your arse off!). PJ Snr apparently won the 3rd Annual Iditarod in 1975 and has completed the race 13 times spanning four decades… still deciding if he’s going to enter again to make a fifth decade. Apparently the first year the race was run, it took 28 days to complete, the second year the race was run it took 22 days to complete, in 1975 when Peter Emmerson Snr won the race he did it in just 14 days! Apparently he and his team were sprinters, not long distance haulers, so they did what they were good at… sprinted for 2-4 hours and then stopped and kept on doing that for 14 days while everyone else in the race came in some 8-10 days later. Obviously his techniques have been taken on board and the race is now usually finished in about 8 days… with the closest finish being only 2 seconds apart.

kantishna roadhouse

Anyway, all up a fascinating day out in Denali National Park and Jam! Mt McKinley (the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet) stayed stubbornly behind the clouds all day, which it apparently does about 70% of the time, and even though it was a long, long, long journey out to Kantishna and back, and I am now absolutely shattered and attempting to ignore my screaming back on a heatpack… it’s been an absolutely incredible day.

Anchorage and Alaskan weirdnesses.

There are 300,00 people living in Anchorage which is about 40% of the state’s population.  All up Alaska has 365 million acres and if the population were spread out evenly over the entire state that would be about the same as having three people living on Manhattan Island.
The worlds longest multi-use tunnel at 2.8 miles long was built through the mountains near Whittier around the time of WWII when much of Alaska was being used as part of the DEWS (Defence Early Warning System) to detect potential attacks from Russian or Japanese military.  The tunnel was carved out by hand using dynamite and pick axes and is only about 10 feet (one lane) wide.  It is currently tidal, and goes from Whittier to Anchorage at the top of the hour, on the hour… and then all traffic stops and goes back the other way at the bottom of the hour (pretty sure ‘the bottom of the hour’ is every half past whatever).  Inside the tunnel are little safe houses with medical supplies and food and water in case you get stuck in the tunnel, as well as little escape tunnels in case of emergency.  So glad we didn’t need to find out what those looked like!
dull tunnel
The Cruise ships used to port in Anchorage but the Turnagin Arm is a big fast running tidal bay that literally has a tide that rises and drops about 34′ feet.  The tide comes in as a 5-6′ waves that locals like to try and surf up the Arm (which has a big bend known as the Elbow).
The name ‘Turnagin’ comes from the early explorations of Captain James Cook… yep same one from back home, who was attempting to find a north west passage through to the east coast, he really thought he was onto something with this one as the tide was coming out and he thought it was flowing water, however, he eventually reached the end of the long bay and had to ‘turn again’ to get out.
There had been several attempts to build a bridge across the Turnagin Arm to the township of Hope, which would save about two hours travel time for each side, but every attempt fell through due to the unstable mudflats in the tidal baby/arm area.  In the late 90s drilling equipment was bought in to drill down for stable rock to put the footings of a proper bridge onto, but they got 900′ down and still nothing stable, so they gave up.
The mudflats are are rather precarious in parts and actually act like quicksand.  People have been stuck in the mudflats and end up being literally sucked into the ground.  The only way to rescue people from the mudflats is to bring in big blower equipment and pump air into the ground around the person to release the suction of the mudflats.
mud flats 1
mud flats 2
The area was rocked by a 9.2 magnitude earthquake in 1964 which killed 1500 locals, largely thanks to the horrific tsunami that followed and wiped out business, ripped buildings and streets apart with a 10′ high rift.  The tsunami was so bad warnings were issued up and down the west coast of the US.  People in California had apparently heard the warnings and many headed to the beach to see the giant wave; six people from California were swept out to sea and drowned by the tsunami from the Anchorage earthquake.
After the tsunami, much of the forest was swamped with salt water which sort of quick-petrified a lot of forest, leaving these large areas of ‘sticks’ that were once tress… fifty years later and the vegetation has not recovered from the rapid salination.
stick forest
The Portage Lakes Glacier Park was surveyed and named by the same Mendenhall dude that never went to Juneau and the glaciers are mostly named after English authors – Shakespeare Glacier. Burns Glacier. Byron Glacier. Middle Glacier etc.  You used to be able to canoe and boat in the Portage Lake which is at the base of these valley and tidewater glaciers, but it was made illegal due to the danger of calving and icebergs flipping.
Anchorage is home to about 8,000 moose.  In the summer, moose diet consists largely of willow shrubbery and other green leafy vegetation.  In the winter, moose subsist mostly on bark and wood, which means their droppings become very compressed and are much like sawdust pellets which make effective fuel for household fires. Just north of Anchorage is a town called Talkeetna which has an annual Moose Dropping Festival to raise money etc.  People can buy a moose dropping pellet for $2.50 each and put their name on it.  The moose shit all get put in an aircraft and dropped over a target zone.  The winner is the one whose pellet lands closest to the target and he scoops the $300,000 pot.  The furtherest pellet away from the target gets their $2.50 back.  (No weirder than racing rubber ducks on the Brisbane River right?)
In June, many fisherman come out for the Hooligan fish run.  Hooligan fish were also known as Candlefish and it was burnt for its oil.  Apparently in June you can get enough fish to feed a family for an entire week in an afternoons fishing.  There are so many Hooligan fish that they attract many bald eagles from down south, just for those few weeks and also the beluga whales (‘beluga’ is Russian meaning ‘the white one’).
Anchorage was a town of approximately 30,000 people prior to the late 1800s gold rush.  At that time, the ratio of men to women meant that the women could literally have their pick as there were not a lot of women migrating to Alaska, and they have a saying up here about the matrimonial situation – ‘the odds are good, but the goods are odd’.
During the gold rush, not many workers actually struck it rich, and many of the barely ended up working for a wage.  Many of the miners would drink and whore their gold findings away and the people who did best out of the gold rush were people who ‘mined the miners’, bar men and prostitutes and outfitters etc.  Women of negotiable affections often ended up making more money than the gold rushers did, so the township of Anchorage had some very wealthy prostitutes/town matriarchs.
Most of the Turnagin Arm areas is part of Alaska’s largest bird sanctuary. They have an  Arctic Tern up here that literally migrates all the way to Antarctica every year.  The terns leave here at the beginning of winter and fly nonstop all the way to New Zealand in seven days.
There is a park in the centre of town that used to be a large flat green area but people kept landing their planes on it, so they had to develop out the town centre park and add hillocks, gardens, benches and recreational spaces to keep the bush planes out of town.
town park pic 1
town park pic 2
town park pic 3
Anchorage groceries have fallen in price by about half in the last six years, since the arrival of a Costco.  They also have more take out (what is it with these Alaskans and their need to advertise how much junk food they have available?  why do they think the tourists will be impressed?) than other Alaskan cities… apparently Pizza Hut even delivers to remote communities via little bush float planes. It will take four days to get your pizza and, of course, it is very expensive.
Anchorage has a rather impressive national history museum which contains many eskimo (can’t figure out if the word ‘eskimo’ is all that politically correct of not, the guides and things say, don’t use it, but the museum uses the term everywhere in their informational placards?) artefacts from totem pole and timber products, to moose mukluks and seal parkas, and whale rib bones and walrus ivory cribbage boards!  Well worth a visit if you are ever up this way.  Big displays on the gold rush, the salmon industry as well as the famous Alaskan oil pipeline that runs to Prudhoe Bay.
anchorage museum
seal skin quilt
walrus cribbage board 1
walrus cribbage board 2
One of the weirdest thing I noticed wandering around Anchorage is that everyone here seems to own a dirty big monster pick-up truck just like in Canada… OR they own a Mini Cooper S!  I have never seen so many Minis in one town, they are as common as hens teeth.
Anchorage’s most interesting weirdness, has to be our host at the B&B, Jeff.. he actually believes that compulsory voting is a good thing, that people should take part in democracy and the political process and does NOT think that this concept infringes on your inalienable rights as an American citizen to be as apathetic as you want.  Only American I have ever met who seems to passionately believe that compulsory voting would be a good thing in American.  Jeff, you are very odd indeed.

Cruisin’ Alaska… Whittier Disembarkation Day :(

I’ve really enjoyed this cruise, it has been stunning from from one the moment we embarked.  The Island Princess immediately felt like temporarily coming home.  There are so many similarities between this ship and the Sun and Dawn Princess ships that I have been on before – similar (yet different) decor, similar ship layout, similar bars – Wheelhouse Lounge, Princess Theatre, Crooners Bar, Atrium Bar… with only a few differences.  Same with the deck names: Lido, Aloha, Baha, Caribe,  Dolphin, Emerald, Promenade, Fiesta, etc. so it’s hard to get lost!  And they have similar eating and entertainment areas… card rooms, library, Internet cafe, shuffleboard, golf driving range, Lotus Spa, Sanctuary for adults.  The Horizon Court all day buffet on the Lido Deck, two dining rooms (Provence and Bordeaux on this ship… I think it was the Venetian and Florentine dining rooms on the last ship) and Sabatini’s was the Italian restaurant on this ship.  The room service menu is exactly the same, only with the addition of American Hot Dogs and Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches on the menu!  🙂
cruise 1
This cruise has been largely full of retirees, some young families, but not many, and quite a few somewhat younger, not necessarily retired, people (mostly women) like myself, travelling with a parent.  So everything is kinda homey and familiar and yet with plenty of interesting little differences.  For example, I washed my hair with the ‘exotic’ eucalyptus shampoo and conditioners, but to me, I thought I just came away smelling like I’d been spewed on by a koala!
cruise 5
The demographic of the ship is primarily American with a handful of Aussies and a few Asian cultures represented here and there.   Every single American we met, upon realizing I was Australian would talk your ear off about how much they want to visit Australia, and thanks to Peter Jackson… New Zealand, one day.  I didn’t meet hardly any people that weren’t from the ‘Lower 48’.  The opening conversational gambits of course became very predictable: ‘So, where are y’all from?’  We met…
Mr North Carolina:  ‘Do y’all know where that is?’
Reply: ‘North of South Carolina, I should imagine…’
Mr & Mrs Montana:  ‘We just love watching the Australian Open on TV to listen to them funny accents!’
Ms Florida travelling with her Dad:  ‘I knows how to eat m’ seafood, I don’t need no crab crackin’ lessons.’
Mr & Mrs California: ‘You know where Disneyland is?  Well, we live near there.  Well, about two hours north of there.’
Mr Missouri: ‘I’d like a plate of sliced pineapple for entrees please.’ With EVERY meal.
Ms Virginia: ‘Well, it’s just near Maryland.’  Like I’m supposed to know where that is.
Mrs Texas: Wez all flew heer owen ma husban’s seester’s jet. Soz it wuz larke only three ‘ours ta git heer.
cruise 3
The food was outstanding as per usual, lots of seafood.  Lobster, crab, salmon, various fishes, shrimps, squid, clams, mussels and all good things.  Way too many sweets and lots of interesting new things to try.  I even had Aunty Mary try the escargot and veal sweetmeats… and everything was just delicious.  And man, you shoulda watched people put away plate after plate after plate up on the Horizon buffet and then watch them do it all again for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I swear they would have served up twice as much food on this cruise than they would have on one going out for the same length of time from an Australian port!
cruise 4
HIghly unlikely anyone is interested, but I am putting this info here for my future reference…
  • Vancouver to Ketchikan – 535 nautical miles; averaging 14.4 knots
  • Ketchikan to Juneau – 272 nautical miles; averaging 17.2 knots
  • Juneau to Skagway – 99 nautical miles; averaging 10.8 knots
  • Skagway to Glacier Bay – 113 nautical miles; averaging 11.5 knots
  • Glacier Bay to College Fjord – 438 nautical miles; averaging 18.4 knots
  • College Fjord to Whittier – 24 nautical miles; averaging 8 knots
In total 1479 nautical miles = 1700.85 statute miles = 2,739.1 kilometres
The Island Princess:
  • Operated by Princess Cruises
  • Registry:  Hamilton, Bermuda
  • Gross tonnage:  91,627 tonnes
  • Net registered tonnage:  53,394 tonnes
  • Draught:  27.2 feet / 8.3m
  • Length:  964.3 feet / 294.0m
  • Breadth:  105.6 feet / 32.2m
  • Builders Chantiers de L’Atlantique, St Naizare France
  • Keel Laid:  January 22, 2002
  • Max pax: 2368
  • Max crew:  810

cruise 2

Cruisin’ Alaska… College Fjords

Today was a long laid back day at sea as we sailed north towards the College Fjords.
I don’t know if it is correct to say ‘sailing’ if you’re on a cruise ship?  I mean there are no sails so ‘sailing’ seems quite inaccurate.  It’s definitely not ‘steaming’ anymore because there’s no steam engines… and ‘cruising’ just sounds too laid back for the cracking pace these big ships set once they are out in clear water.  But I digress.
The College Fjord contains the densest collection of glaciers in North Alaska with eighteen in fairly close proximity being valley, mountain, hanging, and of course the fancy tide water glaciers.  Strangely enough, they are all named after Ivy League Universities, hence the College Fjord.  The largest and most prominent glacier is the Harvard Glacier, the next largest and actually longer glacier is known as the Yale Glacier.  Some of the others are named Wellesley, Brown, Smith and other fancy pants unis by the sounds of it.  If you google College Fjord, you’ll probably find thousands of gorgeous photos… and you can imagine us right there but in the most miserable fucking weather you can imagine  😀
college fjord
As we floated in very slowly there was heaps of icebergs bumping off the side of the ship, some of them called ‘growlers’ are between 200lbs to 2 tonnes.  Given the decidedly unattractive view of the glaciers today due to the foul weather, most of the die hards up on the viewing decks were spotting wildlife floating around on the ice.  We saw a few fool hard seals, a handful of hapless otters and one lonely bald eagle.  Well, I think these creatures are daft, because it is fucking freezing up here!   The naturalist tells us they hang out in the fjord among the floating icebergs because it offers a safe haven from the killer whales, as the ice and the animals all appear largely the same on the whales sonar.  We have seen exactly no killer whales and I will laugh my arse off if the only killer whale we end up seeing this whole trip, is the one down at Seaworld in San Diego!  lol
floating ice 1
I did take some photos of some sea otters sitting on the icebergs, but they’re still safely in the camera until I can find the damn cord to download one or two to the to the iPad!  🙂

Cruisin’ Alaska… Glacier Bay

No ports today, so everyone at dinner last night was looking forward to a bit of a sleep in.  Yeah right… today we were scenic cruising through the world famous Glacier Bay, and I for one, didn’t want to miss a minute of it.  We were up pretty early and having some breakfast before the Horizon Deck buffet turned into too much of a zoo, and then back to the room to get cold weather jackets and camera gear.
glacier bay map
We had been told earlier in the week by the onboard naturalist that the best viewing areas were on the front of the ship on Decks 10 and 11, so we thought we had best get out there and try and find a good spot to set up camp.  Yes, that is what a lot of people seem to do – find the best spot and not budge, as we discovered on the train yesterday when this extremely rude woman in a white coat, using an iPad as a camera, staked out the corner of the exterior platform to get the best views.  She wouldn’t move from there at all, even when Auntie Mary asked very politely if she might ‘borrow that corner for just a minute’.  The woman just ignored her entirely as though no one was speaking to her.  :S   And trying to shoot AROUND someone holding an iPad at arms length is nigh on impossible without getting their stupid iPad in your shot.  Actually that’s quite a problem even on decks here, people using iPads instead of cameras aren’t holding them close to their face, they’re holding them at optimal viewing for about an 8×10″ document so it’s very hard to shoot around them.  Fuckers… use your damn camera.
Anyway, we were up on Deck 10 and thought the place would be cheek to jowl by the time we got up there, seeing as how hundreds of people had heard the same recommendation that we had, and were pleasantly surprised to discover the front viewing spaces on both 10 and 11 to be sparsely populated.  We managed to find a nice view along the railing as the ship sailed through a multitude of small icebergs bumping into the ship as we moved into the top end of Glacier Bay towards the Great Pacific Glacier and the very famous Margerie Glacier (by small… I mean ranging in size from that of a microwave to the size of a small car).
glacier bay
Both of these glaciers are tidewater glaciers which mean that rather than coming down a mountain valley and ending in a lake or river on land, they met directly with the sea.  The Great Pacific Glacier is covered with a large amount of moraine debris, rock, and dirt etc so it is very dirty looking in appearance, so despite the enormity of its size, it’s the smaller more active and therefore cleaner looking, Margerie Glacier that is the star of the show up here.
margery in the distance
The rangers from the Alaskan Glacier Bay National Park service like to call the Beauty and the Beast apparently.  I missed quite a bit of the stats on the Great Pacific Glacier (I am sure its all easy to find on Google), but the Margerie Galcier is 21 miles long and has a face along the water approximately 1 mile wide.  It stands just over 250′ high with another 100′ foot of ice below the waterline, making it twice the height of the cruise ship.  This was the source of all the icebergs we had been cruising through… the Magerie Glacier is considered a self sustaining glacier, that is, up the mountain it grows about 7′ of ice every day and down at the sea level, it loses about 7′ of ice every day!  Which in itself is quite unique, given 95% of Alaska’s glaciers are thinning, receding and basically shrinking at the moment.
margery face
The ice at the active front of the glacier is anywhere between 50-200 years old depending on how high up it is and how densely packed it is.  The deep blue hues evident in the striations of the glacier are areas were the ice is very densely packed by years of snowfall and rain and pressure from the glacier pushing the ice down the glacial valley.   The beautiful black and grey strata layers in the glacier are called lateral moraines, and are formed by the glacier picking up rock and sediment (a lot of it volcanic) as it carves its way down the valley to the sea.
All shops and the casino and other amenities on board were shut down for the day.  The National Parks only let in two cruise ships every day to have a minimal impact on the area and they are going to try their damnedest to spoon feed some nature to these people who couldn’t seem to care less.   I don’t know if it is because I am so far from home, or my unique national park hopping childhood, but I was mesmerised by the magnificence and grandeur of these unbelievably beautiful scenic wonders right in front of us… while a lady from the ‘lower 48’ right beside me, was over heard saying ‘Wow, this is like watching grass grow’, before going back indoors.
We weren’t outside on Deck 10 for more than 15-20 minutes before Margerie started to ‘talk’ to us.  I wasn’t aware of this, but the glaciers are really noisy.  Because it is such a fast moving glacier, there is a LOT of pressure built up behind the face of the glacier and you can hear it creaking and cracking quite frequently.  And by cracking, I mean it sounds like a really loud bullwhip being cracked in the distance and echoing down the valley.  After the cracking noise came a deep growling thundering sound… at which point everyone was swivelling back and forth scanning the face of the glacier until we saw what we all came to see – massive chunks of ice calving off the glacier!
margery face2
Words escape me.  It was just awesome, in the truest sense of the word, as in inspiring or causing a sense of awe!  The loud noises – the crack, the rumbling thunder and then the sound of the ice smashing into the water.  The visual spectacle – the huge chunks of ice calving off the cliff face and bumping and tumbling their way into the water below and the huge splash and the ice disturbed the calm bay water at the bottom of the cliff.  I never thought I would ever see such a thing in my entire life… it gave me goosebumps onto of the goosebumps I already had because it was bloody freezing.  🙂  We saw about three sections of ice calve away from the face of the glacier in the hour and a half that we were listening to the glacier crack and groan and thunder.
leaving glacier bay
We moved quietly and serenely around the bay before heading back down towards the Lamburgh and Reid Glaciers and pottering around that area before moving back into the Lower Glacier Bay Area.  On the way out of the bay we saw a couple of seals bobbing along in the seas, we also saw a couple of dozen humpback whales frolicking about in the distances, their spouts hanging in the air like mist, indicating their presence, lots of different seabirds, and about eight or nine sea otters, just rafting and floating along the surface of the water in the middle of the bay, seemingly without a care in the world.  Unfortunately many of them kept their distance from the ship and as such not exactly providing great photo opportunities, but it was lovely to know they were there.
Such an amazing day out on Alaska’s Glacier Bay.