North To Alaska--The Trip
It’s a cliché to say that Alaska is a huge state. But, when visited by auto or RV the possibilities are defined rather rapidly by the highway system. Somewhat confusingly, the highways are referred to by name more than number, so that custom will be followed here. Most famous is the Alaska or Alcan Highway which begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia a city with a population around 12,000, but with a much larger service area. Famous for its Mile Zero marker, it also has the amenities of a larger city including Walmart and Safeway, so a good place to stock up as you still have a long way to go.
It’s 600 miles from Dawson Creek, BC to Watson Lake, YK (Yukon Territories) and a further 367 miles to Haines Junction, AK, your next decision point. You can turn south on the Haines Highway and travel 175 mile to the town of Haines or continue north to Tok, AK where you must make another decision.
Haines is well known amongst photographers for its week-long Alaska Bald Eagle Festival each November, but also the 48,000 acre Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve 18 miles north of Haines along the Chilkat River. Over 3,000 bald eagles arrive from October to January. See http://www.baldeagles.org As we will be there in summer, it’s good to know that 200-400 eagles reside there year around according to Wikipedia. A float trip is available through the preserve providing another opportunity for photography in addition to that available from the road.
Across the Lynn Canal by ferry is Skagway the starting point for gold prospectors bound for the Klondike gold fields. A portion of downtown Skagway has been designated as the Skagway Unit of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park complete with restored wooden sidewalks and false front stores according to the Visitors Guide. http://www.yukoninfo.com If you want to follow in the footsteps of the hardy gold miners you can take the narrow-gauge railroad over White Pass or hike the actual trail if you’re up to it.
Doubling back to Haines Junction and re-joining the Alaska Highway, your options when you reach Tok are continuing north to Fairbanks on the Alaska Highway or turning west to Anchorage on the Glenn Highway and continuing on to the Kenai peninsula toward Homer on the Sterling Highway or to Seward on the Seward Highway.
Homer is gateway to the Katmai National Park and brown bears while Seward is gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park and glaciers and marine life. Our itinerary sends us to Homer and a flight on Bald Mountain Air (http://www.baldmountainair.com) for a day trip into Brooks Falls. Timing for this is critical as the best time to see the bears is during mid-July when the salmon run is at its peak. No salmon, no bears. Not literally, but the bears are there for the salmon so you should be too. Be aware that the salmon runs occur at different times in different locations and that not all air services fly into Brooks Falls. The other option is to stay in Katmai at some place like Silver Salmon Creek Lodge (http://www.silversalmoncreeklodge). The advantage is more time with the bears and you can time your photography around the fly-in crowd. The disadvantage is cost. It’s very expensive and was just not in our budget. Doing a day trip is much cheaper--$695 at the time of writing—but you only get to spend four hours photographing the bears. The hot spot is on the bridge over the Brooks River. During peak times, the rangers require you to register for a one-hour time slot after which you can register for another hour if you have time. http://www.nps.gov Planning ahead to manage your time is the key to getting the most photo ops. Plan to book in January for a slot in July with Bald Mountain Air. If you’re in Alaska at other times of the year, the bears are to be found along the coast and there are day-trips for this as well.
Other things to do in Homer include a visit to the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies http://www.akcoastalstudies.org which offers tours of Kachemak Bay by boat or kayak as well as other nature tours around Homer. Another part of the Coastal Studies organization is the Wynn Nature Center a 140-acre nature preserve known for its summer-long wildflower displays and wildlife. Daily guided hikes and other programs are also available. Across Kachemak Bay is Kachemak Bay State Park 25 miles of trails ranging from easy to difficult-- http://www.dnr.alaska.gov –which requires catching a water taxi and arranging for drop-off and pick-up times.
Finally, a tour of Kachemak Bay itself should be on your to do list if you’re into birding or bird photography. http://www.xyz.net/~bay/Birding Trips.html for example. There is a Shorebird Festival in early May http://www.homeralaska.org/visit-homer/events-homer/kachemak-bay-shorebird-festival during spring migration. A trip into Kachemak Bay also provides opportunities for viewing and photographing marine life including sea otters, Stellar sea lions, humpback whales and orca’s.
Next on our agenda is a visit to Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park for a visit to Exit Glacier which you can drive up to and Resurrection Bay for an all day tour with Kenai Fjords Tours and their 9-hour Northwestern Fjord Tour. http://www.kenaifjords.com There are shorter 4-1/2 hour tours also, but we wanted the maximum opportunity for photographing glaciers and sea life including sea otters, Dall’s porpoises, harbor porpoise and seals, Stellar sea lions and a variety of whales, so we booked the 9-hour tour. Bird photographers should know that there are 191 species of birds that have been documented in the park. But, if you’re prone to seasickness you may want to stick to the shorter trips as Resurrection Bay may get quite rough and the longer tours are sometimes cancelled or shortened due to sea conditions. Dress for the weather which may be quite cool especially on-deck when underway and rainy. Exit Glacier is accessible by car and a short hike along one of two trails that take you either to the base of the glacier or to an overlook point. http://www.alaska.org/detail/exit-glacier-hike For the adventurous, there are guided ice climbing tours onto the glacier itself (better you than me thanks). Finally, there’s the Alaska SeaLife Center http://www.alaskasealife.org A well-regarded aquarium which hosts marine mammals, birds and invertebrates. Encounter tours allow you to get up close and personal with marine mammals, puffins and octopus. Reservations recommended for the encounter tours.
Next time, it’s on to Denali State Park and Denali National Park.
If you go: Planning ahead for certain activities is a necessity as the tourist season is pretty much limited to June, July and August for most activities. Reviews are full of sad stories of people arriving in September to find most places closed for the season. Because of the short season, start planning about six months in advance for popular places like Katmai and Denali. Alaska State Parks due not take reservations, but private RV parks in popular places like Homer and Seward should be booked well in advance. Alaska State Parks and British Columbia Provincial Parks often have limited if any hookups, so be prepared to boondock or stay in commercial RV parks. However, commercial parks are expensive usually starting around $50 while State and Provincial parks are in the $18-20 US range.