May 27th- We drove from Homer to Seward, the longest drive we had yet driven. Had I known we would be doing a 2 week land tour, instead of the one week originally planned, I would have modified this. Not saying it didn't work, there is just better ways of doing it.. We probably would have driven from Anchorage, to Coopers Landing (overnight or longer), then do one side of the peninsula for as long as we wanted, then coming back to Coopers Landing (overnight or longer) and then do the other side for as long as we wanted. We prefer not being "on the go" all the time while on vacation, and having time to take side trips, etc. Silly me, (the navigator), I forgot that this was the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend. When people commented on the probable traffic we would find on the way, we were wondering to ourselves, "why, it wasn't a problem on the way down". Forgot about the holiday, and that, coupled with the fact that they were experiencing unseasonably warm weather, I think that all of Anchorage came down to the Kenai! I see (now) why they say that you have to plan for traffic when figuring driving times, etc. It isn't that traffic is all that bad, seems to be more that it is, for the most part, 2-lane highway through the mountains, with a lot of people trying to traverse it. One word of warning, and then I'll get back to the actual report. If you are driving, be aware (or BEWARE) of RV's, campers coming around the corners (and always). We were almost taken out by a camper. They came almost all the way into our lane, (we had nowhere to go, cliff on the side). Had we been in a higher vehicle, such as an SUV, we would have been hit by at least their mirror. Dennis was driving, and didn't see it coming over to our lane until it was almost too late. (I saw, but didn't want to freak him out!). There are two explanations that I can think of. One, is that it was a local, familiar with the road, but distracted for a moment (or trying to make up time because of the traffic) that was going too fast, or it was one of the many camper trailers that tourists rent for their "cruise" of Alaska. I truly think it was the latter, and people don't realize that they are driving a vehicle that is wider than they are used to, and that takes longer (due to weight) to slow down and corner. Anyway, a word to the wise... We were very lucky not to be in an accident. Just be ready to drive defensively, and all should be okay.
NOW- Trip Report, Continued- We didn't stop very much on the way from Homer to Seward, other than to stock up with food/beverages in Soldotna and to stop at the Kenai Princess for an Ice Tea/Soda. We were hoping to talk to Lisa, the Bartender/Waitress we had talked with on our previous stay. She has been going to work in Alaska for several (I think 5-6) summers. She was very sweet, and genuinely seemed interested in our trip. It was a great place to stop to break up the trip. If you don't stay there, and just want a good place for lunch, they have wonderful food. (Repeat, I know). The calamari appetizer even passed Dennis' muster!
While in Seward, we stayed at the Lowell Point Cottage, which is run by the same people that run the Alaska Saltwater Lodge. As stated before, roads, campgrounds, etc. were very busy! The Lodge, and the Cottage are a bit out of town, and on a one lane road at times. If you are planning on walking to dinner, or town, it will be quite a hike. We were put in the cottage, and it is so nice! There is a Kitchen Sink, Microwave (no full kitchen), a beautiful new bedroom addition with 3 beds/sofa, and an upstairs with 2 beds, but doesn't sit right on the water. This didn't bother us too much, because it is a short walk across the street to utilize their deck which overlooks the bay. Kathleen (the owner), also serves up a beautiful continental breakfast, if it can be called that (fresh fruit, breads, oatmeal, etc.).
May 28th- Took a wildlife/Kenai Fjords tour through the Alaskan Saltwater Lodge. I can't recall the name of the boat at the moment. They supplied lunch, and soft drinks/water. It was a wonderful day on the water. We had some Kayakers that were being dropped off at the farthest point we were traveling too (so went on a different than usual route). I believe the name of the glacier we went to is Northwest, but don't quote me! Anyway, these brave souls had 6 days of gear they were taking, and staying out there to camp, and paddle. One of them had never been camping! We saw a lot of wildlife on our way out. 2 pods of Orcas, 2 different sightings of humpback, stellar sea lions, harbor seals, a mountain goat, and lots of Puffins. (Eagles too, but if you point them out to Alaskans or the summer workers, they just say, "eagles are like pigeons here"). We enjoyed seeing them! I happened to be looking straight at an Orca that popped his head out (I think the correct term is "spy hop") and spotted the boat. He/She was quite a ways off, and seemed to spot us, and brought his pod directly toward the boat. It was pretty awesome. They came very close. The captain of the boat recognized the whale by its dorsal fin, and said that it is a resident pod that they see quite often. Had a slight mishap dropping of the kayakers, and a propeller/engine was damaged. The ride home was longer than expected, but couldn't have asked for a better day to be on the water. (7-8 hour trip was around 12). Since getting in so late (and being tired), we asked the crew for recommendations for a good Chinese meal (if there was a good restaurant). Apparently, we went to the "good" restaurant. If this is the case, and you eat good Chinese regularly, I would recommend waiting until you get to a bigger city. (Can't imagine what the "bad" restaurant was like). Trying to stay away from negativity, but the restroom had oil on the floor (lots!). The food was like what we are used to getting from the "Fast Food" places. It was edible, and the proprietors are friendly. I won't post the name.
May 29th- Went to the Sealife Center. We loved this. Please note, however, that this isn't an aquarium. It is primarily a research/education center. Most of the displays are not live displays, although they have a tank for sea lions, harbor seals and the seabirds/fish (which have above ground viewing areas, as well as underwater viewing areas). They have regular seminars/lectures as well as a theater which (when we were there), was running a video about the wildlife of Alaska. We drove up to Girdwood, and contemplated going to the Conservation Center again (the grizzly bear wasn't out when we were there the first time. We didn't, because, for one, this was the Monday after Memorial Day (so traffic was a bear!), and because it was pretty windy. Drove from Seward to Girdwood. We contemplated going back to the Conservation Center, but didn't due to it being pretty windy. At this point, we both needed to do laundry, and the house we rented in Girdwood had a washer/dryer. Stocked up with soap at the local grocery (small store, big prices), and barbequed some steaks we had picked up on our way from Homer to Seward (in Soldotna). Did laundry, sat in the hot tub, and ate a great meal. It was just a great day for us to "do nothing". We couldn't have asked for a better day to do it, either.
May 30-31- drove from Girdwood to Healy/Denali. This was the longest drive we had for our entire trip. It is a beautiful drive, though, and the only thing that slowed us down was road construction. If you are doing a land tour, pick up the Milepost, and it will tell you where roadwork is being done. We stayed at the Denali Suites in Healy. These are apartment style accomodations, with a full kitchen. It was a wonderful place to stay, extremely clean, with a lot of room. The hostess/owner is named Amy, and she couldn't be nicer. We had driven through the area that most of the big hotels are (closer to the entrance to Denali), but are much happier with the choice we made. Our only complaint here has to do with the upstairs neighbors (noise), and was out of the owner's control.
We took the 5/31 shuttle in the park as far as we could go- Toklat. On the way there, we saw Caribou, Moose, Sheep (at a distance) before we ever left the paved portion (where you can take your own car). The drive to Toklat is wonderful, but, if you are afraid of heights, I don't recommend sitting on the left hand side of the bus (on the way up), or on the right coming down. Scenery is beautiful. We saw Dall Sheep and Moose very close, we saw a wolf, and eventually, a bear (while on the paved road again). Although it wasn't a "perfect" day, (Grand Slam= Mt. McKinley, Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Bear and Wolf). We saw all but the Mountain... but more on that later! Went to the dog sled demo, and it is amazing to see how much the dogs love to work! I felt sorry for the ones that had to be left at their kennel while the other ones were harnessed up. We were amazingly tired after this trip, and went back to the suites to go to sleep. We did stop for a drink at the Bistro at the Princess Lodge, which was fine. Upon recommendations from a new friend, I tried the seafood nachos. They are very good! The lodge itself is nice, and what you would typically expect for a cruise line resort (not at all like the Kenai Princess). There are - according to the bartender- about 800 rooms, as opposed to the 86 at the Kenai. We felt more comfortable at the smaller place, but the Denali Princess is a very well kept (from what I could see) hotel.
6/1- we drove back to Denali, and parked our car at the Savage River parking lot (as far as you can go via private car). We took a short 2 mile, easy hike around the river, and saw all the critters that feed the big mammals- snowshoe hares, marmots, squirrels. They aren't that afraid of people, and are willing to come pretty close. I was almost afraid one squirrel was going to climb my leg! It was a great walk, and we saw many Dall Sheep, way up on a hill, and at the middle of the hike (when you cross the river and turn back), there were some that were pretty close. After stopping, and observing, it appeared that these three (close) sheep were keeping an eye out, on the trail, etc. for the rest of the flock. The moms and babies were up higher on the mountain, and you could watch them playing, running around, and just having a great time. It was interesting, there was one sheep facing (I'm guessing, but you get the picture) West, One facing East, and one alternating, plus watching the hillside between them and the babies/moms. I guess this is pretty typical prey animal behavior, but it was interesting to see in practice. After we were (almost) done with the hike, it started hailing! But that's okay. This is Alaska. Drove up to Talkeetna and stayed at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. The hotel has a deck, with a wonderful view of Mt. McKinley. When we arrived, it was about halfway visible (bottom, and top). The middle was still ringed in clouds, but was the best view we had so far. Repacked our clothes, etc. (to distribute weight in the suitcases), and generally got ready to go home ). Had dinner there. It is okay, but not as good as the Kenai Princess (can you tell where are favorite was!).
6/2- Got up, and viewed the mountain before checking out. Now, it is picture perfect and clear! Drove back to Anchorage, and Homeward Bound!
Sorry this is so lengthy!