Thursday, September 09, 2010

Alaska: Day 6 (Resurrection Bay & Godwin Glacier)

The next day, we continued to explore the Kenai Fjords with an early morning kayaking tour. We got to the Kayak Adventures office a little before our scheduled 8am departure time, and shortly afterwards we were geared up and ready to go.

I was quite amused by the demographics of our group. My friends and I were four (all girls), there were two older (mid-40's?) women who were with us on the half-day tour, and then there were two other girls (probably late 20's) who were going on a full-day tour. Both of the guides were girls, and even the receptionist/van driver was female. Altogether I counted eleven women in the van as we drove to the launch area.

I was also amused by an offhand comment made by one of the guides to the other. I forget exactly what I said but it was something silly, and she remarked, "Listen to that, she's pulling a Sarah Palin on us." I guess I was surprised that Alaskans would make fun of Palin, but then we discovered that of course neither of them were actual Alaskans.

The kayaking itself started out great. The water was crystal clear and calm, and we saw tons of otters and even some porpoises, which our guide said was highly unusual, as usually porpoises are people-shy (unlike dolphins). We also saw some white flashes on the surface of the water, and were amazed to realize they were jumping salmon. Anyway, we made it out pretty far into Resurrection Bay and then stopped for a brief snack.

As we rested, we chatted some with the two older women; they were from Colorado, had already gone to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and were heading to Denali National Park next. Our guide had just graduated from college and was just in Alaska for the summer. She said she might head to New Zealand next, but wasn't sure yet. Sounds like an awesome life. I was slightly disturbed when she explained that the guides got "a week or two of training" and then were let loose on the tourists, but I figured it was the end of summer already so she'd probably had lots of experience by then.

After the snack, we turned around and headed back. About halfway there, the headwinds started to pick up and the water got significantly choppier. We had a bit of a time getting back to shore and my right sleeve was pretty wet by the time we got out, but luckily we'd all come (over-)prepared and were wearing fully synthetic everything, so it dried quickly.

We had a couple hours between the kayaking tour and our next adventure, a helicopter/glacier/dogsled tour, but we were pretty beat, so we just grabbed a quick lunch and hung out at the hotel.

I'd talked to a bunch of people who had visited Alaska by cruise, and several of them agreed that one of the best (but most expensive) excursions was the combination helicopter/glacier/dogsled tour. Normal dogsleds are designed to run on snow, so in the summer, many companies run dog tours that involve wheeled "sleds". However, that experience is totally different and (I hear) not that interesting. The only way to mush on snow in the summer is to take a helicopter out to a snow-covered glacier, and only two companies in Seward do so. One had already stopped running their tours by the time we arrived, so we went with the other (newer) one, Pollux Aviation.

We drove out to the tiny Seward Airport and waited for our pilot Eric to arrive. He soon showed up in his R44 helicopter:

Since there were four of us, he had to make two trips (the helicopter seats only four including the pilot). My friend and I went first, and I soon decided that I liked helicopters. The views were great and it seemed more stable than a small airplane, at least on takeoff and landing:

Godwin Glacier is about 10 miles away from Seward, so we soon arrived at the camp:

I waited there with the dogs and the dogsled driver for the pilot to go back and get the other two, but my friend decided she wanted to joyride and went back with him. Later on she decided that as a mistake as she started to get nauseous from all the altitude changes.

While I was waiting, I got to meet all the dogs. They were surprisingly small; the driver Joe said that in movies they tend to use Huskies because they're pretty, but in reality most dog teams are comprised of smaller dogs. Despite already being clipped in, they were playful and energetic, and definitely had different personalities. Joe had named most of the dogs after Adam Sandler movies, so there was Gilmore, Sonny, Bushay, and the leader was Mr. Deeds. I've forgotten most of the names, but there were a total of twelve dogs pulling the sled and at least three other dogs besides:

After everyone arrived, we were on our way! In addition to Joe, two at a time could fit on the dogsled; one sitting and one standing. I started out standing and soon discovered it was not that easy to stay on while taking photos. That's my excuse for not getting this gorgeous shot (it was taken by my friend who was sitting at the time):

We went about a mile and a half at a speed of about nine miles an hour. It seemed much faster (and colder!) when sitting, and Joe explained that although some of the newer sleds allowed drivers to sit while racing, many still preferred to stand for comfort reasons.

While we waited for our friends to have their turn, we played with the two 4-month-old puppies who had yet to start their formal training. Bea (Joe's mom) explained that although puppies didn't start pulling sleds until they were around 9 months old, there were other things that could be done to start preparing them to race, such as socializing them (with both people and other dogs) and increasing their running endurance. These particular puppies would start their real training in a few months, after returning to their winter home near Fairbanks.

It was only about 4:30pm when we got off the glacier, so we headed back out to Exit Glacier to get a closer look:

It was pretty alarming to see all of the signs marking the edge of the glacier over the years. For instance, in 1950, all of the non-tree areas in this photo were under the glacier:

It took us about an hour to hike to the glacier, take our photos, and hike back, so we decided to get an early dinner on the way out. I'd read online about a "charming" crepe place on Exit Glacier Road, so we went there. It was called Le Barn Appetit and was run by a Belgian couple, Yvon and Janet. They also ran a bed and breakfast next door. Janet was not there when we arrived. Yvon was a little eccentric, but very friendly. He loved to talk, loved to tell us about his life and his kids and his guests. He also liked to make raunchy jokes and talk about his sex life. Yeah.

Anyway, the crepes were delicious, but they were enormous, so the four of us shared two; one savory and one sweet:

Although we were stuffed after eating those crepes, Yvon brought us two eclairs "on the house" so of course we had to eat those too (also yummy).

Later that night we decided to try our luck at seeing the Northern Lights. Although we hadn't actually been rained on much, the night sky had been cloudy or partly cloudy every day since our arrival, until then. I checked the official aurora forecast and it said we might be able to see something low on the northern horizon, so around 10-11pm, after dark, we headed back up the Seward Highway about 12-13 miles until we found an appropriate turnout.

It was pretty cold (mid-40's) so when we realized there was nothing obvious to look at, I decided to stay in the car. Two of my friends did venture outdoors with a tripod to try and capture the slight glow on the northern horizon. Interestingly, although the light appeared blue-green to the naked eye, it showed up as red to the camera:

Unsurprisingly, we soon got bored with trying to coax a decent photo out of our cameras and went home to sleep.

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