Thursday, September 19, 2013

Impressions of the Kenai

Just back from two weeks in Alaska and a huge number of photos to consider. I'll only treat the first week between Anchorage and the Kenai peninsula.  Leaving Anchorage, the road to the Kenai goes past Potter Marsh, which proved a good place to see our first (of  many) moose.  He is a young one and not impressive other than his sheer size. It will be years before the ladies show any interest in him. Since it is near the breeding season, he may be  hiding here away from the big bulls.

 Did not try to see everything or go everywhere, but just go with what the weather allowed and our eyes revealed. The only road to the Kenai goes along Turnagain Arm, so named by the infamous Captain William Bligh. This is an area of high tidal changes that reveal large mud flats twice a day.  Our highlight driving this road was a pod of Beluga Whales including a cow and calf pair. The tops of whales aren't very interesting; no photos.

The morning light on Turnagain Arm varied between the silvery calm seen above and the brutally windy.  Lovely for a photographer with interesting clouds hanging on the mountains. A novice might wish to plunge into the green mountainsides seen at left. It is advised, however to stick with trails. The great distances belie the coarse nature of the landscape and arguably their worst feature, Devil's Club.

Devil's Club has maple-like leaves and bright red clusters of berries.  It often covers a mountain slope. But the stalks are covered with wicked spikes to discourage any contact.

A short way up Turnagain Arm, I spotted a trail sign for Falls Creek and put it on my list to return, hoping for a nice cascade of water pouring down the mountain.  I was not disappointed days later when I climbed the steep Falls Creek trail on a return drive towards Anchorage.  Note the bright red berries of Devil's club lining the little island in the cascade.

But, we went to Kenai for more than little cascades or moose; fjords and glaciers and sea life were on our mind.  An early stop was Exit Glacier near Seward.  Did I mention it rains a lot in September?

The photographer above is dealing with cold wind off the glacier and mist on his equipment.  I learned a dry towel is as essential as a rain suit.

The scale of the glacier is easy to underestimate unless a group of teenagers provides a measure of scale by approaching the face of glacier (perhaps a little too closely). This rock was under glacial ice just twenty years ago because the Exit Glacier, like all others, is rapidly retreating as the earth warms.

Our initial plans to cruise the Kenai Fjords were delayed by high winds, and we redirected our travel to the area around the Portage Glacier, Portage Lake and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. 

The drive back over the passes from Seward to Portage revealed that even after the bloom is over, the Fireweed still contributes color to the mountains.

Our first stop  was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which cares for rescued wildlife and seeks to re-introduce threatened species. Immediately on entering, we saw these two Caribou bulls sparring.

 In another area of the center, this Elk was alert to any young bull as he watched a group of cows.

My favorite time was watching these two large Grizzly cubs playfully sparring in a pond.  Did I mentioned it rained?  You just accept it.

A train excursion is perfect on such a rainy day, so we boarded the Alaska Railroad to travel up from Portage on the line to Grandview.  The route is an engineering marvel with steep grades, five closely spaced tunnels along a narrow river gorge and a horseshoe curve past a mountain glacier. We rode in the double deck car to have spacious views of the scenery. The only negative was that all of my photos were through the rain beads on the windows unless I went in between the coach cars and hung out of the gap.

Perhaps the best part of the trip was the horseshoe curve that began aimed directly at a large glacier and then completely reversed direction to continue the descent from Grandview back to Portage.  Below you see the view as the locomotive approaches the glacier face.

The Kenai is famous for the salmon runs, and we made the necessary stop at a spawning bed near Portage Lake to watch them.  It was late in the run and only a modest number of salmon were left.

The sea calmed two days later, and we returned to Seward for the small boat into Kenai Fjords.  The scenery and the sea life were beautiful.  The tidal glaciers are huge as this large tour boat shows.

A necessary part of every visit to such a glacier is waiting for a large column of ice to collapse into the sea with a crack and an eruption of spray.  We waited and finally saw  one small calving. Disappointing.  It seemed the glacier was hesitant to display for us on this day.

A second equally important reason to cruise the Kenai Fjords is to see the sea life. That proved more exciting for me. My favorite was coming upon the resident pod of Orca lazily cruising along.  Mind you, most of any sea mammals remains below the surface, so the real excitement is just in finding them close enough to photograph.  Not easy on a rolling boat in poor light.

Note the two adults in the back have distinctive dorsal fins; the left one is notched and the center one is rolled over to the side.

Next in excitement were the Sea Otters. Saw several. They have a tendency to float on their back with the feet out of the water.  Their feet are the only part not well-insulated from the cold water.  It was so perfect to see a tidewater glacier with a Sea Otter floating in the foreground.  Let it rain; it's still a good day.

There was more to find.  We came along several rocky pinnacles poking out of the sea with an inclined side giving access to Sea Lions for their daytime snooze. Note how large the bull is.

In many spots, we saw small cabins hugging the shore in a remote location. I often thought how satisfying it would be to spend some days at a cabin, exploring the sea quietly in a kayak, and on the second day we came upon several people in just such a cove, quietly moving along the shore. 


There were also a lot of sea birds that I had not seen before; I got some appropriate photos of them from a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

First was a gull-like bird with brilliant reddish-orange legs that I found at the center, a Red-legged Kittiwake.  I like the markings on the head. It is small compared to most gulls.

Everyone loves Puffins.  They have two species which are not seen on the Atlantic side of North America. First is the Horned Puffin.  I saw them from the boat, but they were always too far and too fast. They were more cooperative at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

 Second is the Tufted Puffin. I'd love to have more chances to photograph these so I could fully catch the tufts in bright sunlight.

There is one final image of Kenai Fjords that captures how I remember it. Simply majestic.

As we drove away from Seward towards Anchorage, we came upon Tern Pond where the highway splits off for Homer, and there I saw a large white bird in the air.  A swift turn into a parking area instead revealed  a set of three Common Loons, and I forgot the white bird.  So much for sea life in Kenai Fjords!  I've always wanted a good, close image of a Loon and that was this day.

After the Loons drifted into the distant part of the pond, I recalled the large white bird and located it about a half mile along the edge of the pond.  Off I hurried with the heavy lens, tripod and camera.  It was worth the effort to find this beautiful Trumpeter Swan so close.

Such luck!  I headed to Anchorage anticipating the second half of the trip which included Denali.

Paul Schmitt

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