Glacial Landscapes

August 15 – 22, 2014

On our way to Anchorage we passed through Wasilla, AK and everyone knows that it was in this small town that the career of a political pundit and social pop icon Sarah Palin was launched. When we arrived I looked around and was surprised that I couldn’t see Russia from anywhere. Perhaps Sarah lives on a small knoll that rises just high enough to see across the Bering Strait? Darryl looked up her address and we went to take a look. Alas, the gates to her estate weren’t open and nobody was waiting for our arrival. Her home is along the highway and sits along the coast of a small inland lake. I seriously doubt the validity of that international experience. 🙂 Which reminds me of how much I loved that Saturday Night Live came to life again during the 2008 Presidential campaign. Tina Fey was hilarious and I still crack up whenever I think of the very pregnant Amy Poehlin’s rap bit during Palin’s cameo on SNL (check it out here: https://screen.yahoo.com/palin-rap-000000488.html).

With nothing else to offer us, we left Wasilla and stopped in the hippy town of Talkeetna, Alaska. It’s just over 100 miles north of Anchorage with about 1,000 full time residents. We arrived on a day with a band playing in the park, cruise ship tour buses unloading their passengers and political activists gathering signature along the street. Although we were only there for a day, I really liked the town’s vibe. The restaurants served tasty comfort food with portions that satisfied the appetite.IMG 1755

While walking through town I noticed a couple that was collecting signatures for a petition to stop the building of a dam on the Susitna River. Talkeetna is a small town that calls the banks of the Susitna home. The dam would produce a mere 300 MW of energy (enough to power ~180k homes) and proponents say would contribute to the State’s renewable energy goals. Opponents view the $5.2 billion project as a massive misuse of government funds with a devastating environmental impact on the salmon runs and the river related tourism industry. The environmental impact of dams vs their energy output is being seriously questioned and we have bumped up against the debate through our travels in California, Nevada and now Alaska. The couple gathering signatures opposing the Susitna Dam recommended that we watch the documentary Dam Nation which portrays the failure of dams across the nation and worldwide.

I find the debates on renewable energy fascinating from a couple of perspectives. On the one hand, most people would agree that the use of fossil fuels is unsustainable yet environmentalists can’t decide on what is the best renewable energy solution for a particular area since all of these solutions have some negative environmental impacts. On the other hand, I don’t hear much discussion about how to reduce our energy usage overall. The conversation seems to be focused on energy needs from the supply side and very little discussion about the demand side and how to curtail it.

After signing the petition and adding our names to their mailing list we went to the Salmon Center and watched the last half of a documentary on Pebble Mine. Just before leaving on this trip a friend of ours who is an avid fly fisherman told us about Pebble Mine. It’s a proposed gold mine to be built in Bristol Bay. A poisonous concoction of chemicals is required to mine for gold and the local fisherman were fighting the mining conglomerate and the state in an attempt to block the mine. Although the mining authorities maintained that they would put in place safety mechanisms to protect the pristine waters of Bristol Bay, the fisherman didn’t have faith that an accident wouldn’t happen. They have witnessed the aftermath of the Valdez spill upon the local community and their financial and environment ruin. These individuals have been compensated a mere fraction of the amount that was promised and the environment is still soiled from the oil spill from more than 20 years ago. Currently, the funding for Pebble Mine has dried up but I’m sure that once the price of gold hits some pre-set target amount the investors will be back and pushing for the mine again.

Salmon totem outside of Salmon Center
Salmon totem outside of Salmon Center

The two activists had an interesting perspective on Alaska and its relationship with the lower 48. They feel that Alaska is like a third world country in the sense that US companies invest in Alaska only so they can extract the wealth of minerals and resources that can be extracted from the State with no care for the environment or the residents of the State. I would agree that Alaskans do not seem to be wealthy in the least and most of them seem to be just surviving. I was surprised to see such an absence of wealth in the state considering the size of the oil, lumber, fishing, and tourism industries. While driving through the Alaskan towns and cities we never came upon that “wealthier” section of town. We wondered where the wealth was and after talking with this couple we might have been provided a clue as to the seeming absence of wealth in Alaska. Perhaps it’s because the large industries are not locally owned and the wealth is exported along with the resources in exactly the same way as in any mineral rich third world nation. My assumption before coming to Alaska was that people didn’t have to work because of the oil dividend given to all Alaskans who have lived in the State for a year or longer. I thought that this dividend was substantial but after looking at how Alaskans live, it certainly doesn’t seem to be based on our conversation with the activists.

We really enjoyed our time in Talkeetna and considered staying for an extra day but decided that we needed to move on toward Anchorage since we recently decided to add Valdez to our itinerary. This addition would cut a couple of days out of our time along the Kenai Peninsula but we thought it would be worth it. Valdez kept coming up as a must-see from fellow travelers that we met along our trip because the town is set within a stunning landscape and because the drive from Valdez to Haines is considered to be another epic beauty. So we packed up and continued south.

We spent only a couple of days in Anchorage. With the same bad timing as we had in Wrangell we arrived in Juneau the day after a road race. At this point I’m not sure that I could run a half marathon let alone a 10k. I’m sure that our timing will get better and my fitness will improve again but until then I’ll continue to focus my efforts on finding the best restaurant in town. 🙂 And I did just that when we stumbled upon a really nice place in Anchorage called Snow City Cafe! Later that evening we drove out along the waterfront where there was a beautiful view of the city.DSC05260

We met another couple who was admiring the view. They were Canadians who have lived in Detroit for the past ten years or more. It was fascinating to hear their perspectives on universal health care (Canadian style) compared to the US system (both pre and post Affordable Care Act). They are not so sure that the Canadian system is the right solution since they don’t believe that the government is efficient in its handling of resources. But they also agreed that perhaps the  free market and private industry might not have the best interest of the individual in mind when striving for greater profits. We debated the issues for a couple of hours and it was a very civil conversation. I only wish that our politicians could have a civil discourse and actually make some inroads on the issue of healthcare in the US!

The following day we went for a run along the river near our campgrounds. We encountered all of these fisherman lined up along the river using the most interesting fishing technique. They were basically hitting the water with a quick overhand motion and almost slapping the water with the lure. We didn’t see anyone catch anything with this method but the men that we spoke with assured us that it was an effective way to catch the salmon as they headed up the river.

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Later the following day I had a riding lesson at Rockin B horse riding camp. My instructor was Amanda who rode at the collegiate level. I’m really enjoying my riding lessons. By taking lessons from various riding instructors I’m not only learning how to ride more competently but also about the differences in instruction techniques and riding styles. It’s also nice to ride horses that have a bit more personality than trail horses that follow each other nose to tail along a trail. In the lesson I actually have to exert some level of control over the horse. As you can see in the photo, I needed a little assistance from Amanda to encourage Sierra to maintain a trot while I practiced posting.

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After my lesson we made our way down the Kenai peninsula to Seward, Alaska. Anchorage was nice enough but I really enjoy the smaller Alaskan towns and with over 300,000 residents, Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city. Everywhere we turned in Anchorage there seemed to be road construction going on. It reminded me of a comment that I heard at some point during the trip where an Alaskan told us that there were two seasons in Alaska, winter and construction. I wasn’t enjoying the Anchorage construction season!

The drive from Anchorage to Seward was AMAZING! The mountains rise up from the roadside along one side of the road as you drive along a river for parts of the drive. Because the mountains rise up so abruptly from the sea they seem grander and more rugged than other mountain ranges that I’ve driven through. The blue skies and clear rivers and seas pop against the dark greens of the mountains creating an unbelievably fantastic scene that is a truly spectacular experience.

Once in Seward we found a place to eat and then afterwards took a walk along the marina. Just behind the restaurant there were tourists that had just returned from their day of deep sea fishing. I spoke with a guy who was standing next to this wheel barrow overflowing with a variety of fishes (monk fish, cod, halibut, salmon, rock fish, flounder and others). The guy flies from Boston to Alaska every couple of years to fish. Once cleaned, packaged and frozen, his catch is shipped back to Boston and will last him and his family a couple of years until his next fishing trip.

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The next day we drove out to Exit Glacier. As we were walking along the overlook trail there were numbered sign posts along the way which marked where the toe of the glacier once reached and the year. Over the past 10 years the glacier has retreated over 1,000 feet. At the end of the paved footpath is now an overlook where we can look at the glacier in the distance. If we had arrived just 10-13 years earlier we would be touching the glacier. If you read the TripAdvisor reviews of Exit Glacier you will see the comments left by many lamenting that they weren’t able to touch the glacier this year as they had just ten years prior. This has been the common refrain from fellow tourists starting on the ferry and now carried through at the glacier visits on land. They talk about the receding glaciers and how different Alaska looked just a decade or more ago. Once inside the visitor center I was reminded again of the glacial retreat when looking at glacier photos taken over the years.

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Like many, I have been concerned about global warming for many years but actually traveling to Alaska and bearing witness to the physical changes in our environment has been shocking to me. That we continue to debate what to do to reduce our impact on the environment rather than actually taking any meaningful action is foolhardy. I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until this trip that I really internalized the warnings from the many documentaries that I’ve watched and articles and books that I’ve read. Alaska is truly awe inspiring and thought provoking. I only hope that we still have a chance to reverse some of the damage that we’ve caused to our wonderful world.

On our last day in Seward we took the boat tour to the Kenai Fjords to see the tidewater glaciers. During this trip we would pass harbor seals sun bathing on ice bergs and tidewater glaciers dipping their toes into the icy waters.

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The farthest point of the tour is at the face of a tidewater glacier which is famous for its calving events and the noise that it makes as the house size chunks of ice fall into the waters. Once we arrived at the glacier our captain positioned the ship so that we had a panoramic view of the glacier. The temperature plummeted as soon as we arrived to the front of the glacier but I barely noticed the cold as I took in the beauty around me. It was impossible for me to really comprehend its size. Looking at the monochromatic sheet of ice doesn’t allow the brain to process scale but once we heard the calving of a small chunk of ice, the sound confirmed what the eyes couldn’t; these were massive pieces of ice falling into the sea. The ice might look like the size of a snow ball but the sound confirmed that it these pieces were the size of a car, house or even a multi-story building.

I captured on video an icefall from Northwestern Glacier where a section of the glacier breaks away and slides off getting smashed to bits as it slides down the rock face. It was incredible to be there and you can hear the amazement of my fellow tourists and the beautiful sounds of the glacier. 

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Northwestern Glacier is considered a tidewater glacier because its toe touches the water.

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Harbor seals sun bathing on blocks of ice.

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A puffin trying to take off as we pass.

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After our Kenai Fjords tour we spent an hour at the Sea Center in Seward. There was a sea bird exhibit where I captured a photo of my favorite bird, the puffin. During mating season they grow these huge colorful beaks. They spend their winters out to sea and lose the large beak.

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The Sea Center was established after the Exxon Valdez spill funded by the settlements paid to Alaska. When I looked through the major donors list I noted that most of the names were those of energy, coal, and petroleum companies. Their board of directors is also made up of leaders from these same organizations. I get it that these science institutes need funding but I have trouble reconciling how these same science institutes manage the conflict of interest in their science and the funding and management sources. The exhibits were interesting but I took it all in with a shade of skepticism.

There is so much of Alaska to explore and our short 5 weeks in this beautiful land was too quickly drawing to an end. The last legs of our journey are ahead of us. Our next stop will be Whittier from where we’ll pick up a ferry to Valdez then drive to Haines and a final trip through the Inside Passage. I have a long list of places we need to return to some day. Top of the list is the Kenai Peninsula and over to Bristol Bay. Until next time.

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