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NateKat · September 2011

September 2011

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for September 2011.

After a pleasant night in Seward, we took our third and final boat trip through Kenai Fjords National Park.  For our last trip we decided to take the Captain’s Choice Tour, focusing on photography and wildlife. This was the smallest tour boat but there was also only 20 guests on board.  The highlight of the trip was when we came across a pod of orcas!

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After 10 mins of following the orcas one breached twice putting on an amazing show.  It was hard to judge where the orca was going to surface next so we didn’t get the best photos, maybe next time.  After 20 minutes the boat left the orcas because of laws regarding disturbing the animals’ natural behaviors.  It’s understandable, but it was frustrating to watch a pod of orcas swim away as the boat changes direction.

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The rest of the trip was mostly spent visiting bird nesting sites along the cliffs which yielded some nice photos.

Tufted Puffin (280 mm, f/5.6, 1/800 sec, ISO 1250)

Horned Puffin (280 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1250)

Purple Ochre Starfish

After the tour we watched the sunset outside of Angel’s Rest, which was the best accommodations of our entire trip.

Looking East toward the town of Seward (44 mm, f/18, 3.2 sec, ISO 100)

Moon rising over Resurrection Bay

More photos

The plan for our 7th day was to take a short morning flight from Valdez to Anchorage and then rent a car and drive 130 miles to Seward.  We sat in the airport with 20 other people waiting for our Era Aviation plane to arrive, but after an hour they announced the flight was cancelled due to the thick fog in Valdez. They booked us on the next flight 6 hours later in the hope that the clouds would lift by then. Disappointed and frustrated because we knew we had to get to Anchorage/Seward that night so that we could go on an early morning boat trip the next day, we stood outside the airport waiting for the “taxi” (the lady with the minivan). Another stranded traveler started chatting with us and mentioned that Grant Aviation sometimes will fly a small plane to Anchorage when Era won’t.  I guess we looked puzzled because he then explained that larger aircraft have different FAA regulations on visibility so a bush plane can fly in poor conditions.  Given that the fog did not show any signs of lifting we decided to book an early afternoon flight with Grant so that we could definitely get out of Valdez that day.

Once again the small plane was a fun experience- one passenger sat in the co-pilot’s seat and the pilot explained all the dials and gages and basically how to fly a plane.

So we made it to Anchorage several hours behind schedule and quickly got our rental car to drive to Seward. On our previous stay in Anchorage, the owner of our bed and breakfast suggested that we stop at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) because it’s a great way to get to see animals up close. Although it was drizzling and the sun was going down, we decided it was worth the stop to get a chance to practice our wildlife photography. Plus we were anxious to see brown bears and this was a good opportunity.

The AWCC didn’t disappoint although it did have a zoo/farm feel to it with all the animals behind tall fences. Still, it seemed like most of the animals had plenty of space to roam, and the AWCC does good work with rescue animals, releasing many back into the wild. Enjoy the photos!

Musk Ox charged the fence, shortly after this photo I grabbed the tripod and jumped back

Brown Bear

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Black Bear

 

Alaska Day 6- Valdez

Our second day in Valdez started with another early morning, and even though it was cloudy and cold, we were excited for our Kayaking trip with Pangaea Adventures.  We met up with our guide, put our gear in dry bags, and were outfitted with life jackets, boots, and kayak skirts.  We decided this trip wasn’t the best for our expensive camera equipment so we just took our waterproof point and shoot.  We were paired up with another couple and got on the first boat headed to the Columbia Glacier.  After a two hour boat ride we landed on the terminal morraine and unloaded our kayaks.  After a brief lesson on getting in and out of the kayaks and a stern warning that tipping your kayak wasn’t the best idea, we started paddling out to the icebergs!

Getting in was a challenge, can’t imagine tipping over and trying to climb back in

Columbia Glacier was actually ~9 miles in the distance and is currently in the catastrophic retreat phase of its life cycle. Although it is not well understood, it is believed to be a natural progression (not caused by global warming) and is the reason there are so many icebergs scattered in Heather Bay.

Columbia Glacier and Heather Bay

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The icebergs we were paddling through ranged in size from small chunks the size of basketballs to large ones that were probably at least 30 feet tall, but it was hard to tell without anything to compare them to.  Although it would be fun to kayak up to one of the large ones or even climb on them it is actually quite dangerous and unstable.  As we saw the previous day, an iceberg can spontaneously roll and since most of the actual volume is hidden underwater it is hard to judge the true size. The rule of thumb is to keep a distance that is twice the height of the visible ice.

This large blue one can be seen in the foreground of the second photo, we estimated at least 30 feet tall

Size of a small house

At first we were disappointed to stay so far away given their advertisement photos but soon after we started paddling, we heard a large crashing sound as we watched a house-size iceberg roll over.  Throughout the day we continued to hear ice cracking and splashing into the water from icebergs nearby and miles away.  At one point we had to navigate through a dense field of icebergs, and when we looked back one of the large icebergs had split in half and tumbled into the ocean.

The iceberg that split in half after we paddled by

On our way back to the boat we took a different route and paddled through an area only accessible at high tide. It was a completely different landscape, feeling more like a freshwater marsh than the ocean.  But as we paddled through the still water we could see foot-long jelly fish just below the surface.

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As we came out of the calm shallow water we were greeted by a few curious harbor seals.  They liked to pop their heads up near our kayak, but once we grabbed the camera they vanished.  We also tried to stalk a couple otters, but like the seals they stayed at a safe distance.

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It was an awesome experience, and a special thanks to Kim & Cory and all of our work friends whose gifts went towards this kayaking tour.

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After missing our last flight to Anchorage we woke up incredibly early for our flight to Valdez.  This was the view outside our plane as we flew east along the coast.

iPhone 4, 3.85mm, 1/380, f/2.8, ISO 80

We had to get to Valdez check into our hotel then head to the docks to catch our boat trip in Prince William Sound.  Valdez is a small oil and fishing town so the airport was small but not as small as Gustavus.  The taxi was just a lady in her minivan and I think she might be the only taxi in town since every time we called a taxi she showed up.

It was the perfect day for a boat trip to Meares Glacier, not a cloud in the sky, we just crossed our fingers hoping we would see some animals.  The boat was by far the nicest boat we’ve ever been on, the interior was clean and it was a smooth riding catamaran style hull.

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While we were near Glacier Island the captain spotted a small iceberg that had drifted out from Columbia Glacier.  After viewing the iceberg for 5 minutes or so it suddenly began to roll because it became unbalanced as it melted. The ice exposed to air becomes white and porous more like snow, while the ice under water is still clear blue glacial ice.  Watching this massive piece of ice roll was incredible- even the captain / tour guide was speechless for a couple minutes.  The 3 photos are taken as it rolled and came to rest in a new position with the clear blue ice on top.

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The captain classified the iceberg as a growler meaning it is 3′ high and 16′ long.  In the photo below you can see a gull sitting on the top.  If a gull is a foot tall that berg is at least 14′ high, meaning it could be classified as a bergy bit (3-16′ high and 16-49′ long).

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Because of the good weather and many animal sightings we took almost 500 photos but we’ve narrowed them down to just a few of the best.  Check out the album at the end of the post for some more photos.

Sea Otter (Canon 40D, 280mm, 1/500, f/5.6, ISO 400)

Unakwik Inlet (Olympus E-PL2, 14mm, 1/320, f/7.1, ISO 200)

Meares Glacier

Harbor Seal (Olympus E-PL2, 150mm, 1/640, f/10, ISO 200)

Dall’s Porpoise

Steller Sea Lions

Horned Puffin (Canon 40D, 280mm, 1/1000, f/14, ISO 800)

Kodiak Fishing Boat seen on “Deadliest Catch

Two of the most excited honeymooners!

Our fourth day began with an early morning wake-up call to fly from Juneau to Anchorage. Due to a few things out of our control (some the fault of the hotel and some the incompetence of Alaska Airlines), we ended up missing our 7 am flight and instead were placed on a 9:30 am flight. At first this didn’t seem too bad – we thought we’d still arrive in Anchorage before lunch and have plenty of time to explore. Unfortunately our new flight was not direct and instead made two stops (in Yakutat and Cordova) so we didn’t get to our Bed&Breakfast in Anchorage until nearly 3pm. We were really frustrated to have missed so much of the day (and it was such a beautiful day!!) but we eventually rallied our spirits and headed to the Flattop Mountain trailhead.

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The trail up to Flattop Mountain was an easy 1.5 mile, 1,200 foot climb. It is a pretty popular and crowded hike – but for good reason. On clear day like we had, you can see all the way to Mt. McKinley, over 130 miles away.

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The trail itself was easy to follow but quite steep and the final climb was really more rock scrambling than hiking. But it was worth it!

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We didn’t start the hike until nearly 5pm but since it stays light so late, we had plenty of time to enjoy it!  The fireweed flowers were in full bloom which gave a bright pink highlight to all the green hill sides during our whole trip.

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We ended the day at Humpy’s Restaurant and had our first sample of delicious King Crab legs for dinner!

Alaska Day 3- Juneau

In the early morning we arrived with 8 other people at the Gustavus airport, which looks like a lodge more than an airport terminal.  We knew the plane was going to be small when the lady at the check-in counter knew our names because we were last on the list of 10.  No metal detectors, body scanners, bag checks, or ID checks; just a quick sniff from her half sleeping dog on the couch.

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After we weighed our bags including carry-on I asked about paying for our donuts and she said give me a minute.  Then she proceeded to walk to the pastry counter where she rang us up for two donuts.  Of course the coffee was on the honor system – you just put your money in the jar near the pot. It’s amazing and a little sad that simplicity like this seems so out of the ordinary these days.

The plane arrived and we filled the 9 seater plus one guest sat in the co-pilot’s seat.  It was a quick 30 minute flight to Juneau.

There were some amazing views since the flight was short we didn’t climb too high in elevation.

After checking into our hotel in Juneau, we met up with a zipline company who took us up the mountain where we got out fitted with harnesses.  We spent a couple hours zipping through the rainforest.

The first zipline we were both a little hesitant to leave the platform and trust a cable dangling you 30-40 feet in the air.

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But we quickly became more comfortable and began tucking into a canon ball position to gain more speed.  We also played a game where you get in the canon ball position and close your eyes and let the guide on the other side stop you unexpectedly before you hit the tree (0:50 in the video).

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We were also running and jumping off the platforms because the last thing you want to do is to get stuck in the middle of the cable.  The final zip we let go and hung upside down for a few seconds while flying through the trees.  It was pretty fun but didn’t last long enough.

After we were done we asked the zip-line employees where we could see bears and they directed us to the Mendenhall Glacier where black bears were currently feeding on salmon.  We quickly packed our camera gear and headed to see the bears…  which really turned out to be one black bear cub sleeping in a tree.

The air smelled of rotting fish carcasses from previous feedings.

We could see some salmon still struggling to swim in the shallow running stream.

Finally the cub woke up and picked up some half eaten fish for a snack then scampered off into the trees.

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There was also a bald eagle that kept the crowds entertained as it watched salmon splash in the water but after a couple hours it flew away without giving us the chance to get the classic eagle-catching-a-salmon photo.

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All in all it was an exciting day considering it was planned to be just a ‘travel / layover’ day!

Day 2 of the trip was our only full day in Gustavus / Glacier Bay National Park so we made the most of it – we started with a 8 hour boat tour through the bays narrated by a NPS ranger. The weather cooperated by not raining although it was still chilly and gray most of the day. But it made for some nice cloud photos on the water.

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We got to see 5 tidal glaciers, all of which start in the Fairweather Mountain range, which has peaks over 15,000 ft high. The tall mountains right along the ocean were a spectacular sight.

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Can you spot a goat on the cliff in the above photo? Nathan was able to get some nice shots with his telephoto lens.  Kudos to the ranger for spotting them, I totally would have missed them.

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The glaciers themselves were also very cool – the face of Lamplugh Glacier was the bluest, while Grand Pacific Glacier periodically would calve pieces into the ocean. It was also interesting that Grand Pacific is one of the few advancing glaciers in the US- meaning it’s actually growing/lengthening slightly every year.

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The small islands in the bay were covered with birds, which quickly separated the “Birders” from the rest of the tourists.  We were never ones to get excited  about gulls or cormorants but it was fun to see the occasional tufted puffin.

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We also saw a lot of marine mammals – Otters, humpback whales, seals, and sea lions – but the lighting made it tough to get any really amazing shots. Luckily we had better luck later on in the trip.

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After our 8 hour boat ride we rented bikes and headed into town for pizza (10 miles one-way).  We ran into another porcupine crossing the road, but he was a little to fast for me to get a good photo.

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It was a fun bike ride through the forest on a flat and empty road. By this point we started to realize how much more you can do when you have 15 hours of daylight!

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More photos from the day

 

The first day we left LAX at 8 am, flew to Seattle then Juneau then Gustavus (Goose-Davis).  Gustavus has a small airport which consists of a just a couple buildings the size of small houses.  The baggage claim is a fence with a 10 foot rectangular hole where the guy off loading the plane passes your luggage through.  We then got on an old school bus which was our ride to the lodge in Glacier Bay National Park. (As a side note, the bus driver was from Iowa- he’s retired and lives in Iowa but drives the shuttle during the summers.) Gustavus’ population fluctuates from 400 in the winter to 1,000 during the tourist season.

We arrived at our small cabin on the coast and at 7:15 PM with plenty of daylight left we decided to go on a hike. Everything was so lush, and we were there in prime berry season.

It was definitely different to see the forest floor completely covered in moss and fungus.  The Sierra & SoCal forests we are more used to hiking in are covered in dry bushes and granite gravel, so this was a nice contrast.

The trail then led us out of the thick forest, through some tall grasses and onto the “beach.”

The beach was littered with giant boulders

About 5 seconds after this photo Katharine froze and softly yelled “porcupine” I ran over as she slowly backed away.  Just about a foot from where she was standing we could see porcupine’s back as he slowly waddled into the grass.  I had no idea porcupine’s lived in Alaska.

Even though it was just after eight, there was still plenty of daylight as we headed back to the lodge.

More photos from the day: