Sunday, September 09, 2012


Grizzly bear - The symbol of Alaska
Warning: A really, long post.  So, if you want to catch some good sleep, you can start here. 
Note: I keep updating this post as and when I remember details from the trip.  

Some of my friends who have visited Alaska say it's a life changing experience, and we wanted to find out what that really meant.  My wife and I are really interested in places that's away from the crowd, and that which gives us a chance to be as close to nature as possible, in the most pristine state.  Alaska was on our mind, at least, for the last two years.  Ever since we saw some of the pics taken by our friends, our interests were only amplified.  Since our previous summers were occupied, we really had no chance to plan a proper Alaskan vacation.  It should also be noted that the Alaska visiting experience window is open for only about 100 days in a year, if you want to experience the pleasant summer experience.  And unless you are interested in cross-country skiing or other winter sports, it doesn't leave you with much option other than to pick your visit in this tiny window.  As we packed our sweaters, cold jackets and rain jackets, we were thrilled by the prospect of visiting, possibly, the greatest landscape of America.

Day 0 - Alaska Railroad and the six hour cruise to Kenai Fjords

Alaska Railroad - Coastal Train to Seward
We reached Anchorage, the largest city of Alaska with a population of close to 350,000 people (the total population of Alaska is about 750,000), at about 2:00 in the morning.  Since our early morning coastal train to Seward was at 6:45 in the morning, we decided to spend the night(early dawn) at the airport lounge.  It was pretty fascinating to see the airport packed with so many people, since a lot of them were put up there waiting for early morning flights or waiting to catch the early morning train to Seward.  So, we took at taxi at about 5:45 and headed to the Alaska Railroad depot located in downtown Anchorage.  The air just felt fresh.
Some breathtaking views along the way
Alaska Railroad Coastal Classic is actually a classic way of heading to Seward from Anchorage.  It leaves at 6:45 in the morning and reaches Seward at 11:30 just before noon.  It takes twice the time than normal if you  decide to drive.  The extra two hours on the train is actually worth it as you're exposed to stunning views of the scenery, with a multitude of glaciers lining up the coast, and you have the driver stopping at various intervals to help you capture some amazing views and wildlife on the camera.  To say that the view is breathtaking is a gross understatement.  Once we reached the small town of Seward, we were picked up by the day cruise folks to takes us to the Kenai Fjords National Park.  This is one of the few national parks in the US which has been created keeping in mind the abundance of glaciers in the area.  The six hour cruise wowed us with sea otters, seals, humpback whales, dall porpoises, eagles and puffin birds.  The views from the cruise were simply breathtaking, and we were taken to Holgate glacier, which was totally spell binding.  Since the weather was postcard perfect, we could witness what's known as calving of glaciers.  Glacier calving is a phenomenon where the ice from the glacier rumbles as though simulating the sound of thunder before landing on the water.  The lunch offered on the cruise was heavily sea food oriented because of which we had to survive on meal bars and potato chips.

Holgate glacier - the largest we saw on the cruise
We got back to the city in the evening to spend the night at Hotel Seward, which is located right in the heart of downtown.  Now, when I say downtown, it's not a fancy place.  Seward hosts about 4000 people during the holiday season from May to September, after which the population dwindles to about 2000 for the rest of the year.    We met a lot of folks who were in Seward only for the summer.  The receptionist at the hotel, Cynthia, was from Texas.  She said that she wanted a place where she could beat the heat and so once when she came on a vacation to Alaska decided that that's where she wanted to spend; a place where she could get a break from the heat.  We definitely didn't fault her for the location.

Seward is a beautiful town
Seward is such a beautiful town that the backdrop of the city is filled with mountains and ocean.  Whether you are in the downtown or in the outskirts, you have the view of water and the snow capped mountains.  A walk along the waterfront in the evening is a wonderful experience.

Day 1 - Exit Glacier and the tryst with the bear cub
Exit Glacier
The next day, we set out to Exit Glacier.  It is the most popular glacier in Southwest Alaska, since it is easily accessible and has a number of trails around the glacier.  We took a shuttle to get to the Kenai Fjords National Park (costs just 10$ for a round trip), and the drive to the park was simply breathtaking.  You know what, after a point, the term breathtaking just loses its meaning, because that's the description that fits almost anything in Alaska.  By this time, I was taken in by the people, the small town feel of the place, the natural beauty, the water and the mountains.  I wanted to find out more and more about the place.  I also have a tendency to strike a conversation with anyone I see.  Travel is a fascinating aspect of life, because it gives us a chance to interact and meet people from all walks of life.  And, in a place like Alaska, everybody is bound by the common passion towards nature and wildlife.  The guy who drove us to Exit Glacier was there only for the summer.  He was visiting the city from Montana.  There was a fellow passenger who drove with us; she had not even booked her return ticket to Boston.  She said she wanted to spend as much time as possible in Alaska before she decided to make up her mind on the return trip.  She shared her travel experiences with us, and she said that she had been to various parts of India, including Madurai.

Exploring exit glacier - Bear instructions
By the time we reached the park entrance, we had heard quite a lot of tales about the black bears in the area.  The brown bears are not as prevalent in this region as in Denali.  My wife, Hema,  now was very apprehensive about the hikes in the area.  We spoke to the park rangers as well.  They said that there are bears in the area but that there is nothing to fear.  There were some general precautions mentioned.
  1. Firstly, if you see a bear, keep a good distance.
  2. If the bear is on the trail, change the hike path.
  3. If the bear comes close to you, fall to the ground and act dead.
  4. If the bear starts to eat you, you should fight back.
The first two were okay.  The third one was barely manageable, but the fourth point! I mean, wait for the bear to eat you and then you fight back.  Now, that was something.  Anyway, we didn't even have a hiking pole with us to fight back.  There are different instructions for brown and black bears.  But, we discarded all the fears (that's what I thought) and headed to the 8 mile round trip Harding Ice field trail.  The trail straightaway took us into a thicket, with dense vegetation on both sides of the trail, coupled with very steep elevation.  Hema was very concerned that a bear could easily jump from either side of the trail.  I laughed her off.  

"What are you talking about? If we see a bear, let us just give a bear hug.  After all, they are huge creatures, but are very cute."

She replied, "What are you talking? Have you seen its paws? If it gives us one slap, we are dead." 

Harding Ice Field Trail
We saw a couple who were coming to us from the opposite side.  We asked them how come they were back early.  They told us they had just seen a bear cub, and that they did not have the intention to go further.  In spite of that, we thought we'll move on and see what happens.  So, we continued further, with each of us saying something like "Hey bear" and moving on trying to keep a conversation to let the bears know that we were in their vicinity.   So, as we passed by a bush, I could here a distinct rustling of the leaves and a disturbance from a bush.  We walked passed it dismissing the sound.  I told my wife that I had heard a noise.    And then, after walking a few feet further, I looked behind to see a small, cute bear cub walking in our direction on the trail.  That was it.  Hema and I literally freaked out.  We started walking hurriedly and tried to maintain as much distance as possible from the bear.  In fact, I wanted to take a shot of the bear, but Hema prevented me from taking a snap so as not to distract the bear with the shutter click sound.  Also, she warned that the mama bear could be around.  We lost sight of the bear after about five minutes.  So, after going further, we were caught in confusion.  Should we continue hiking in the wilderness or head back? But, if we head back, then there was that little bear cub on the trail.  And this is when, I had to listen to my wife preach for a few minutes the importance of precaution and safety.  Anyway, I convinced her that we should be heading down.  We walked with trepidation watching every step, in every direction.  We breathed a sigh of relief when we heard voices in the opposite direction.  We saw a park ranger guiding a couple.  Even they had seen the bear cub.  We now had a new found energy.  We continued our hike with them.  The ranger was there to repair a bridge across the water.  My wife returned back with him, while I continued a further two miles with people who I met on the way.  It was truly an adventurous experience.  The Harding ice field trail was truly worth it.  I didn't finish the last half of a mile, as I had to return back to the visitor center to try out a less strenuous hike with my wife on the "Edge of the Glacier view" trail.  The views were just breathtaking.  There was rain in the air, but then, the locals told me that once you are in Alaska, you should stop caring about the weather.

We headed back to Anchorage by the Alaska Railroad and spent the night there.

Days 2 and 3 - Denali and more encounters with the bears

We had our breakfast at Snow City Cafe, supposedly the best breakfast place in town, in Anchorage.  The breakfast was truly fantastic.  We then headed to Denali, which was about four hours away.  We passed through Sarah Palin's town, Wasilla, and continued on 3N.  As we approached the George Parks Highway Scenic Byway, we were treated to some scintillating colors.  It felt as though we were on a different planet.  The basic colors had been sprayed across Denali.  The backdrop of the mountains along with the beautiful vegetation made us forget that we were on planet Earth.  It was surreal.
On the way to Savage river
On the savage river loop trail
We checked in at McKinley Village Lodge (a fantastic place to stay) about 6 miles from the park entrance, and then headed to Savage River about 15 miles into the park, the last point allowed for private vehicles.  Beyond this point, you had to depend on the park vehicles to ply in the area.  The drive to Savage River is just fantastic.  The place is just colorful, literally.  At least, we had never seen something like that.  The area had a 2 mile round trip hike with almost zero elevation.

Bear on the Tundra Alpine Trail
The next day, we got up early in the morning to take the bus to Eielson visitor center.  We saw some fantastic wildlife on the way - bears and moose.  We decided to take the Tundra Alpine trail from the visitor center.  Now, my wife tried to dissuade me as much as possible from the hike saying that we should take the ranger led hike instead of going on our own.  As usual, I let out some stupid jokes saying why we should not be scared of the bears and reasoned that it won't be a problem now since we have prior experience.  I don't know how being followed by a bear cub would qualify as good experience, but I had to convince her somehow.  So, we hiked to the top amidst some steep elevation.  It was a brutal hike, but the views along the way were simply superb.  As we were coming down, we realized some folks shouting from below.  "Back up" and "Stay off trail" were some of the calls we heard.  So, we spent a few minutes contemplating whether to stay there or come down.  And at this point, I also had to listen to my wife's "I told you so" taunts.  The weather was really foggy, and even if there was a bear nearby, we wouldn't have figured out.  And then, I zoomed my camera to see where the bear was.  We were able to walk off trail and reach the visitor center without any issues.

The big female moose

Day 4 - Anchorage
We spent the next day doing some biking on the coastal trail of Anchorage and headed back to California.

Some Additional Information
It's very tricky to plan how many days you want to stay in Alaska.  Ideally, even a year is not enough, so it's important to understand what you exactly want to do in a week's time or ten days.  So, if you plan to spend about a week in Alaska, you can spend a couple of days in South West Alaska (Seward, Girdwood, Homer or one of these places), a couple of days in Denali and maybe a day at Anchorage.  Denali is just overwhelming.

Dealing with bears
We have ended up seeing a lot of documentaries on bears after we got back.  We still don't know the right way to understand them.  One thing to be noted is, we are entering their territory.  So, we are the ones who should learn to behave in front of them.  Another thing, they can attack us and not vice versa.

Alaska is a tourism spot for about 100 days.  The season extends from mid-May to mid-September, and this is the only time where hotel folks, tour people and the main cities make money.  So, the cost of touring Alaska is at least one and a half times more expensive than other places.

One of the ways you can save money is to buy the Alaska Tour Saver book from here for about a 100$.  You can also get it from eBay at a lesser price depending on the travel vouchers you are looking for.  If you are going as a couple, then you get a lot of Buy one, get one free deals.  The savings can be immense, be it for booking the Kenai Fjords tour or even booking a hotel in Denali.  It is very important to plan your trip at least six weeks in advance.

Everything is interconnected
All the folks we met in Alaska were just fantastic.  Since everything in Alaska is so tourism oriented, everything is interconnected.  For example, when you take the Alaska Railroad to Seward, the luggage is taken care by the Railroad authorities itself.  Your luggage is automatically taken to the appropriate hotel. If your hotel is not in the list of serviced ones, then you can have the luggage delivered to the hotel from the Marine Tours service.  You can get the luggage when you go back to the hotel after the Tours.

Early to bed
From our experience, be it Seward or Anchorage, the city goes to sleep pretty early.  We were taking a walk at about 7 in the night at Seward, and the downtown was pretty much deserted.  We could understand the reason later.  Even though the sun stays up till about 9, people are used to getting to bed early, thanks to the short days during winters.  So, that practice continues even in the summers.  At Denali, the town was buzzing with activity at 6 in the morning, as people were getting ready to catch the 6:30 am bus to Eielson visitor center.

To sum it up, Alaska is an awesome place.  The nature and wildlife here is like nowhere else we have seen before.  The time we spent in Alaska is an experience that is just not forgettable.  Ever since our return, we have been guzzling as much info as possible about Alaska and its bears.  No photo or video can do justice to the wonderful landscape of Alaska, and it's an experience of a lifetime, really.