September 25, 2022

Our Vacation to Denali, Alaska


Our Vacation to Denali, Alaska
Todd Swank's Diary Entry for September 25, 2022

For the last few days of our Alaska vacation, we traveled up to Denali, Alaska.  Denali is the name of the tallest mountain in North America, but it's also the name of the state park and national park where that mountain is located.  It's a pretty remote part of the country, but has some of the beautiful landscapes I've ever seen in my entire life.

We were there over Labor Day weekend, but that's already Fall in Alaska so we were treated with the most beautiful colors all over the place.  It's like God kicked over a paint bucket and covered all the trees in orange, yellow, and red.  Which was nice of Him.

We wanted to explore the park in every way we could, so our first visit was via an ATV which we took turns driving.  It was a really fun adventure, but we didn't get to see a lot of critters during this visit because the dang things were so loud.  

It also didn't help that we brought about 20 other loud ATVs with us.  So we didn't get to see any animals while out there this trip, but we sure did have fun cruising through paths, streams, hills, and a variety of other terrain.  

We did get to stop and see some beautiful views of the park.  We also got to wear some really sexy helmets, but unfortunately didn't get to take them home with us.

The next day we woke up extra early to get onboard a bus for an 8 hour tour through Denali National Park.  We were very excited and hopeful to see moose, bears, and other critters.

We hadn't seen a moose yet on our trip, so we were excited to see this beauty shortly after we entered the park.  She was standing in a stream right next to the road eating leaves.  The bus driver thought there may be a baby nearby but we never saw it.  There's all sorts of warning signs around Denali about moose and not getting too close to them.  However I'm pretty sure she would have let me ride her had I stepped off the bus and approached her with a smile.  I have a knack with animals.

 Next we saw some caribou.  I think they're beautiful creatures, but it has to be annoying carrying around that big rack of horns all day.  I would also think it would be nearly impossible to do a somersault with one of those things.

About 100 years ago, there were around 20,000 caribou in Denali National Park, but now their numbers are closer to 1760.  I'm glad we had the chance to see some of them because they are very cool to watch.

We were most excited to see more bears and had the chance to see 4 or 5 grizzlies while driving through the various roads.  Most of them were quite a distance away and you had to squint to see them, but then we got lucky and stumbled across this guy.  He was hidden in the woods at first, but eventually he wandered closer and closer to us and soon walked right by our bus.  They seem like big, cuddly teddy bears, but the more I was around them the more I realized how terrifying it must be to have a face to face encounter with one of them.  They're just massive beasts with huge teeth and claws.

 The guide told us that there's about 350 Grizzlies in Denali National Park which I thought seemed like a lot of them until you realize the park covers about 6 million acres.  I guess we were lucky to see the 4 or 5 we did.  It's actually harder to see moose and bear in Alaska than I thought it would be, but that's mainly because the state is just so dang big.  The state of Alaska would cover approximately 20 percent of the United States if you could lift it up and drop it on top.  But that would kind of suck for the people who were still underneath it.

  Denali Park Road is 93 miles long, but unfortunately much of the road is closed currently due to a landslide.  We were only able to go out to Mile 43.  What we saw was absolutely beautiful, but I'd like to go back again some day and do the rest of the tour.  I've seen pictures of what Denali the mountain looks like as you get closer and it looks absolutely breathtaking.  

On our last day in Alaska, we hired a guide to take us for a hike through Denali National Park.  She was a really nice young lady who spends her summers here and then goes back to her regular job in Africa where she takes tourists on hikes to see lions and tigers and stuff.  Talk about leading a life full of adventure!

We spent 3 hours hiking into the woods near the visitors center and found some amazing bridges and trails near rivers and streams which were fun to explore.  I was a bit nervous about stumbling across a bear or moose, but the guide told us we'd be fine.  She had a bear horn and bear spray to help us if needed, but no encounters for us.

About the only wildlife we met was this little snowshoe hare who came out to say Hello.  These bunnies have big feet to help them navigate on snow and turn all white in the winter and brown in the summer to help keep them camouflaged from predators.  I tried to pet this little guy, but he wasn't having any of it.

 We saw plenty of salmon and other fish in the water in Talkeetna and Seward, but not so much in Denali.  For some reason they're not as prevalent in this part of the state, but it was still fun to wander around the water anyways.

Our group was a relatively small one.  Just our family and a couple of nice ladies who ran a travel agency and had just arrived in Denali.  We liked posing for pictures together.

It seems every which way you walked, you'd come across another beautiful scene.  I can see why people want to escape their regular lives in the city and move out here full time and live in the woods.  There's no way in heck I'd ever do that, but I can see the attraction for others.

Eventually we found this bridge and had the chance to watch the Alaska railroad carry a train overhead.  We were set to board this very train a couple hours later where we'd take an 8 hour journey from Denali to Anchorage to board a red-eye flight back to Minnesota.

The train ride gave us one final chance to see all the glorious beauty contained in Alaska.  I have no idea when or if I'll ever come back to Alaska, but am sure glad we had the chance to spend a week here.  It's an incredible place.

September 15, 2022

Our Vacation to Talkeetna, Alaska


Our Vacation to Talkeetna, Alaska
Todd Swank's Diary Entry for September 15, 2022

On the 4th day of our Alaska Vacation, we left Seward and headed north to the small town of Talkeetna, Alaska.  It's a really cool place.

Our resort had an incredible view of the mountains.  Well, at least if there was a clear sky it would be a great view.  We discovered that August is Alaska's rainiest month while we were there.  They say that visitors to the area only get to see the mountains on 3 out of 10 days or 30% of the time.  We hoped we'd be one of the lucky ones.

The sign claimed the mountains were in front of us, but I was starting to think it was some kind of a hoax.  Denali which was formerly called Mount McKinley, is the tallest mountain in North America with a height of 20,310 feet.  I really wanted to see it!

Luckily on our 3rd and final day in Talkeetna, the clouds lifted and we were awakened to blue skies.  When we went outside this majestic beauty was staring back at us.  It resembled a painting in the sky.  Just beautiful!

We went on a 5-hour river ride with Mahay's Jet Boat Adventures which was an absolute blast.  Our journey was to be a 130 mile round trip excursion on the Susitna River through Denali State Park and up to the wild rapids of Devil's Canyon.  We were anxious to discover what kind of critters we'd see along the way.

Our guides were very experienced and knowledgeable about the area.  Unfortunately I don't remember their names because I'm a horrible person.  But they really seemed to know what they were doing.

We were ready for an adventure in the Alaskan Wilds!

It was a pretty rainy day, but we could go out on the back part of the boat and get outside to be one with nature.  Most of the time we opted to sit in the boat because it had a roof and was warmer and dryer.  But being one with nature was nice as well.

We went by Curry, Alaska which is an old ghost town in the middle of the rainforest.  According to Wikipedia, "in 1922, the remote train station in the Alaska wilderness became a briefly popular luxury resort destination. Located alongside the Susitna River, Curry was billed "a wilderness palace" when the Railroad opened the first hotel in 1923. Curry was a common overnight stop for rail passengers, and with the hotel and renowned fishing. The town rose in population, and the resort became more popular as it expanded to include a golf course, and a suspension bridge."  The guide told us they also had a swimming pool which is a bigger challenge than you might think in the middle of Alaska.

Eventually we reached our destination and started realizing why we needed such a powerful boat like we were driving.  The captain described Devil's Canyon as some of the most treacherous white-waters in the world with Class 5 Rapids.  I had no idea what Class 5 rapids were, but was definitely intrigued.

We didn't go all the way through Devil's Canyon but stopped right next to this wall of water.  The guide told us only two people have successfully taken a boat all the way through and I was glad he wasn't set on making us the third.  It was more intense than I imagined it would be.

Our captain told us he'd been doing this for like 28 years and he sure drove like that was the case.  He did yell at us a couple of times not to hold on to his chair while we came to the front of the boat.  It was harder than it looked.  I almost slipped and had to grab on to him which he explained could have some pretty dangerous consequences for all of us.

Despite the inherent danger involved in navigating these Class 5 Rapids, the captain encouraged us all to come to the front of the boat to snap a picture in front of them.  They made it sound like it was a safe thing to do so we were happy to oblige.

Eventually the tour took us to shore for a nature walk and the opportunity to visit some artifacts the guides thought we'd like to see.  How can you not love old moose horns?

They had several structures set-up to show us what life was like back in pioneer days when people would go out hunting and trapping in this area.  It looked very interesting but also reminded me about why I like being able to buy my food in a store.

Our guide carried a big rifle with her, but still warned us not to wander off too far from her sight.  She said you never know what you might encounter on these paths.

A short while later, we got a glimpse of what they were talking about.  After 5 hours on a boat seeking out wildlife on the shore, literally a couple of minutes before we came back to home base, we saw this big guy swimming in the river.  The captain took us within a safe distance where we watched him swim around, then climb out of the water, and run off into the woods.  It was one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life!

Back at the lodge, we played cards and shared tales of bravery during our adventures exploring the great Alaskan Wilderness.   The next stop on our trip would be in Denali State Park.  

September 11, 2022

Our Vacation to Seward, Alaska


Our Vacation to Seward, Alaska

Todd Swank's Diary Entry for September 11, 2022

We flew into Anchorage, Alaska to begin our 8 day vacation to the nation's largest state.  Our first hotel was across the street from Lake Hood which is the world's busiest seaplane base, handling an average of 190 flights per day.  We enjoyed watching planes land and take off into the lake from every direction.

The next morning we hopped on a bus to spend a couple of nights in Seward, Alaska.  Our hotel was right next to Mount Marathon which is the home of one of the oldest foot races in America.  According to Wikipedia, "Legend says that it all started out as a bar bet between two "sourdoughs" (slang for gold miners), with one betting a man could race to the top of the mountain and back in less than an hour, and the other saying that wasn't possible."  Now it's an annual race with hundreds of competitors who run every 4th of July to see who can run to the top and back the fastest.

A block away from our hotel was the Seward Boat Harbor.  We loved exploring it to see the various vessels who ventured out into the Alaska Gulf for fishing and other excursions.  I think I'd watch a show featuring the Alaska State Troopers and their various adventures on this boat.

We spent our first afternoon visiting the Alaska Sea Life Center which featured various local critters.  It was fine, but we certainly prefer to see the critters up close in their natural habitats which we were set to do the next morning.

I always need to have a little anxiety when visiting a new place and Seward made it easy on me.  I learned that this location was the spot of the infamous 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake.  It was 9.2 magnitude,  lasted 4 minutes and 38 seconds, and is the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North American history and the second most powerful ever recorded anywhere.  We were told a 40 foot tsunami wave entered the area and pretty much wiped out everything.  That was a pleasant thought to try falling asleep to each night while we were there.

One of my favorite things to do when I'm in a coastal town is to visit the docks and watch the local fisherman bring in their catch.  There were plenty of opportunities to do so here.  In hind sight, we really should have scheduled a fishing excursion for the family but we'll have to add that to the checklist for the next time.

We watched these guys unload their halibut haul.  One of the fish exceeded 100 pounds in weight.  It was huge!  I learned that Alaska recorded about 95% of the Pacific halibut harvest in 2019 which totaled more than 24 million pounds of fish and was valued at more than $97 million dollars.  That's a lotta fish.

Alaska is a fascinating place.  It really feels like you've entered the wild frontier.  I had no idea that only 730,000 people live in the whole state of Alaska which is less than the population of Minneapolis.  However the entire state if placed over the continental United States would exceed approximately one-fifth of the area.  It is also rich in natural resources containing more than 12% of the world's coal, 3% of the world's zinc, and almost 4% of the world's gold.  Considering the US paid only $7.2 million for the entire state back in 1867, it seems like we got a pretty good deal.

On our 3rd day of vacation, we woke up early to go on an excursion to see a glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park.  We were so excited to get out into the wild and see nature up close.

Even though we see bald eagles at home in Minnesota pretty regularly, we were still excited to them here.

While planning our Alaska vacation, we had a checklist of things we wanted to see.  We knocked off the first two on this trip when we saw killer whales and a massive glacier.  The crew on the boat told us we were quite lucky to see as many Orcas as we did on our trip.  Apparently it was mating season and we had the opportunity to see various pods come together in what I'm sure were very romantic sessions.

The first group we saw was when we first entered the main part of the Gulf of Alaska.  The captain took us off course and had us follow these beautiful creatures for about 30 minutes into the rough waters.  They were so majestic to watch as they bobbed up and down out of the water while traveling at pretty high speeds.  We took more than 2000 pictures and videos during our vacation, so it was really tough to choose which photos to share, but these are some of my favorites.

Eventually the captain had to move us away from the whales so we could get back to our destination which was this incredible glacier.  This is called a tidewater glacier and is constantly shedding huge chunks of ice into the ocean.  This is called calving and we were able to sit here for 45 minutes or so and witness this miracle of nature.  

Some of the crew were able to reach into the water and pull up chunks of ice for us to hold.  They even made frozen drinks for us on the cruise which used some of the ice which was a neat experience.  A young man who sat by us told us that there are studies being done to test if the microbials found in glacier ice can be harmful to humans, but honestly he just seemed kind of like a party pooper.  I had fun holding up my drink to him and saying cheers as I'm sure these ancient organisms were burrowing their way into my most vulnerable innards. 

I so loved seeing all the various islands untouched by man and hosts to considerable amounts of wildlife.  Nature is breathtaking.

One island hosted a bunch of these beautiful aquatic birds called Puffins.  These critters are known to spend months of their lives out in the deep sea with no land around them to rest.  They also stay with the same mate for as long as 20 years which can be most of their lifespan.  Loyal little puffins.

It was awesome to see this island which was loaded with sea lions.  They're fat and cranky and like to bark at each other.  I think I'd fit in pretty good with them if I had the chance to join their clan.

This guy looked like a happy little puppy who wanted to come join us on the boat.  I tried to convince the captain to let us take him home with us, but my negotiation skills must be slipping or something.

On our way back home, we were delighted to hear the captain say we had stumbled on another group of killer whales.  This group was even bigger than the last one.  We tried so hard to capture as many as we could in a single photo.  This was our best shot where I count at least 12 different Orcas breaching at once.  The captain estimated there were at least 30 in the group and it was so mesmerizing watching them all swimming around together.

The captain announced there were some Dall Sheep high up in the mountains, but they were really hard to see with the naked eye.  This is zoomed way in with our 40x optical.  Neat to see but wish we could have been closer to them.

 All in all, we loved our two nights spent in Seward.  We had to get up early the next morning to get on the bus to Talkeetna, Alaska which will be the subject of my next blog post.