Travels with Lois and Jason

Alaska:  Close Encounters of a Furry and Icy Kind

June 27 - July 16, 2011

We put three amazing wildlife videos we took at Lake Clark Natioinal Park, Alaska on You Tube:

Our three weeks in Alaska immersed us in three different environments and ecosystems that were 100% different from each other:  tundra, coastal, and glacial. 


  • The most amazing aspect of hiking to a glacier is that you seem to go and go and go and go and never get any closer.  Glaciers are so big and distances so distorted, even though you are getting closer, it doesn’t feel that way.  Note Jason in the foreground and the little black dot on the right is a shipmate closer to the glacier.


  • The most amazing aspect of having a 500 pound grizzly bear walk toward you is that your heart flutters, you stand transfixed, amazed, awed, and thrilled.  Even though you know the distance between you is getting closer, you dare not budge because if you turn and run you become easy prey.

  • The most amazing aspect of flying over an ice field is seeing the awesome power, beauty and grandeur of the ice.

  • The most amazing aspect of watching a pair of bald eagles perched high in their trees is the grace and elegance of their pose.
These were among the encounters which made our trip to Alaska truly “amazing.”  We’ve been to many exciting and beautiful places, have seen many glaciers and wildlife, but this trip stimulated and excited us in ways heretofore not experienced.
Our time in Alaska was divided between Denali National Park in central interior Alaska, Lake Clark National Park along the Cook Inlet in western Alaska, and Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska.  Alaska is so big that each location was hundreds of miles from the other.  This map shows the relative position of the three parks we visited.

Transportation in the three parks was significantly different thus greatly influenced what we did and saw.   Our first week included the train from Anchorage to Denali and back.  The train took 7 hours each way.  There is exactly one road in Denali National Park which runs from the railroad station at the park entrance to the former gold mine town of Kantishna, 92 miles west of the park entrance, and about 30 miles northwest of Mount McKinley.  The bus to our lodge took six hours (and of course six hours back), with us spending almost every minute leaning out the windows watching for wild life and admiring the scenery.


Lake Clark National Park has zero roads.  We arrived and departed by a "puddle-jumper" plane, which used the beach as its runway.  The picture at the left shows our plane on the beach and bears in the water at low tide.  Our principal activity was just standing in one place, watching and enjoying the bears.  The area we covered was relatively small, about one mile wide and two miles long, and an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) was used to assist getting around, including going through the slough at low tide.  (At high tide, we used a row boat to cross the slough.)

While our itinerary took us from Denali to Lake Clark to Glacier Bay, our excitement stems from our encounters in the latter two parks.

Denali was . . .

This part of our trip took us to tundra (plains above the tree line) and vast areas of permafrost (ground which is frozen year round).  Trees were rare; there were black spruce where there was permafrost (it has a shallow root) and white spruce where the ground thaws.  Everywhere else there is an extremely dense variety of shrubs for ground cover.  The plants are one to three feet high, and very old, measured in decades and centuries, as the growing season is so very short.   We were visiting at the height of the wild flower season, but unlike southern California where fields of flowers spread their beauty in abundant glory, each flower fought for survival in a hard, cold, wind swept environment. 

Mount McKinley (in clouds)

We had clouds and rain everyday during our first week in Alaska.  We wanted to visit Denali National Park to see the “Great One” (Denali) as Mount McKinley is called, but we never saw it because of the clouds and rain.  On clear days, Mount McKinley is reflected in the clear water of Wonder Lake, but we did the hike in rain gear instead.  Oh, by the way, that is Mount McKinley behind us!  We had signed up for a flight-seeing tour, but it never happened because of the weather.

Our expectations for Denali wildlife far exceeded our viewing reality.  The bus to and from Kantishna Lodge stopped numerous times as our guide would say "there's a moose" or "there's a Dall sheep" and we'd strain our eyes, zoom our binoculars, and lo and behold, on the side of a mountain two miles away were specks of white or black or brown which moved against the background:  animals!  We really did get excited, even if we couldnt see what we were looking at.  We snapped our pictures, and with the miracle of magnification, there were actually animals out there. 

Polychrome Pass

Dall Sheep


Moose in Tundra

We did have a couple of “close” encounters when some Dall sheep ran across the road ahead of us and a coyote tried to get a magpie’s nest fairly close to the road.  The magpie chased the coyote up the side of the mountain, which was really amazing to watch.

Our stay at the Kantishna Lodge was okay.  Each morning of our three days we went for a guided hike and in the evenings there were talks on the history, culture and geology of the area.  On our last night there was an excellent presentation by an Hoonah Tlingit Native American Indian.  After talking about their culture and various aspects of past and present life, he and his daughter did hoop dances for us.  It was really great.

Of all the places we visited during this trip, the mosquitoes at Kantishna were the largest and most aggressive.  Even though we wore netting and put on repellant, we both had numerous bites.  In our room we had an electrified tennis racket which was labeled "mosquito killer!" 

Lake Clark is Grizzly Bear Country

We had selected this totally unknown National Park based on the “promise” that we would see bears.  The Lodge’s website stated that you were not allowed outside without a guide.  But what did that mean?  The reality was we had no idea what we were getting into, and it lake clark arrivalnot only shocked and thrilled us, but left us craving for more.

We stayed four nights at the Homestead Lodge, a privately owned property with room for 12 guests (for two nights we were the only guests) on 20 acres of land within the National Park; this arrangement was grandfathered as such when the land became a National Park in 1980.  Homestead Lodge is located on the Cook Inlet.  It uses a wind turbine and solar panels for most of its needs, with a gas generator as back up.  Anchorage is at the north end of the Cook Inlet, along the eastern bank.  Our lodge was at the south end, along the western bank.  The Lodge owners have a small plane they keep in their “backyard” and use it go shopping in Homer or other “nearby” towns across Cook Inlet.

For us, it was a 75-minute flight in a 4 person plane from Anchorage to the Lodge;  they weighed us and our luggage before boarding.  The plane landed on the beach (see picture above), and that was our first bear encounter.  A sow (mother bear) with cubs was on the beach and had to scamper to avoid being hit by the plane.  Soon after landing, we were back on the beach to watch this sow teach her cubs how to dig for clams.   A few hundred yards further was a lone bear (an “adolescent” three to four years old), also digging for clams.

Our next four days were filled with incredible and delightful bear encounters.

The Setting

To appreciate our bear experience we need to provide a more complete description of the setting which is the bears’ home.  We were the visitors privileged to observe them where they live, doing what they do naturally.  When we met the park ranger, she emphasized over and over again that the bears of THIS region of Lake Clark were unique and that what we were experiencing was unlike bears anywhere else.

Homestead Lodge

Bears in sedge grass meadow

lake clar
Lois, sow and cub

The 2 shiny dots beyond slough
in top left are the Lodge roof

Imagine a stretch of beach about two miles long with a river at either end.   There is a meadow between the beach and the forest which varied in width from one-quarter to one-half mile, with a “slough” running down the middle.   As we learned, a slough is a saltwater estuary, or waterway about 100 yards wide which filled and emptied with the change in tides.  And what a tide. This portion of the the Cook Inlet has a 20-foot change between high and low tides.  This meant that at low tide, the sandy exposed area of beach extends one-quarter to one-half mile off shore.  At high tide there is very little beach and we had to use a row boat to cross the slough. 

The meadow was filled with sedge grasses of many colors.  These grasses can survive high flood tides of sea water as well as the rain and snow fall.  Grizzly bears love to eat sedge grass.  And they love clams, which become “easy” prey at low tide.

The last element of the setting was us humans.  We were told that this is the third generation of bears which have grown up with the lodge and visitors.  They have learned that the people do nothing, that the putt-putt of the ATVs used to ferry people around were just another sound in the environment.  Bears would not even lift their heads when the ATVs would go by.  People were neither a threat nor food, so the bears ignored us.   And, given that this bear population is stable at about 20 – 25 animals, the guides know each bear at sight.  We even got to know a couple as well.

Cubs Playing in Our Backyard

By our second day we were no longer interested in watching the “grazing bears” as we came to refer to the bears scattered through the meadow eating sedge.  But we never tired of watching the cubs at play and nursing.

We watched the cubs romp and play in front, on the side, and in the backyard of the Lodge.

An Incredible Encounter

We had one extremely dramatic encounter 100 feet from our room.  We were returning from canoeing at Silver Salmon Lake, about a half-mile hike from the Lodge along a trail which was about six feet wide cut through extremely dense under-brush.  As we came around a blind bend in the trail, a 500-pound grizzly bear was approaching from the other direction.  We were no more than 15 to 20 feet apart.  Scott, our guide, stopped us, and the bear stopped.  The proper protocol for grizzly encounters is to stop, bunch together to make yourselves look as large as possible, speak quietly to the bear, back up as a group slowly, and move off the trail to make room for the bear to do its thing.  We scrunched together at the side of the trail, but there wasn't room for the bear to pass, and we really couldn't move off into the brush.  Scott said to the bear that she had to turn and go.  She just stood there when her two cubs came round the bend and wandered up to her.  One cub was a bit more curious and came within five feet of us, plopped down on its belly, rolled over (a real comedian that one) and then got up and hid behind mom.  After what seemed like hours, but my video is only 2 minutes 39 seconds (click here for the video), the sow turned, walked back down the path and turned into the bush to watch us go by.  She then returned to the path to continue on her way!

After this incredible experience, we were thinking everything else would be boring.  We were so wrong.  Over the next two days we saw the cubs playing in our "backyard" and the  sow nurse the two cubs (click here for video), watched another sow fish a bit, and then after checking us out at close range (we stood still and she came within yards of us), she laid down and nursed her one cub a dozen yards from us.

Really Fresh Sockeye for Dinner

Salmon fishing in Alaska is very highly regulated to protect the stocks.  The locals we interacted with applauded these rules.  For this area of Lake Clark National Park, Monday and Thursday were the assigned fishing days, and the day we arrived, Monday, July 4th, was the opening day of the season.  So, during low tide, about 2:00 PM, a gillnet was laid.  This is a rectangular net about 300 feet long and 10 feet wide.  It was set out on the beach, with buoys along the top and weights along the bottom.  At very low tide a pulley had been anchored in the sand about 300 feet off shore.  A rope had been passed through the pulley and was now used to pull the net out into the water.   We were told that as the tide came in the net would right itself and be ready to catch the fish.  We have to return at peak high tide, about 6:30 PM, to see the results.


Talk about a new experience:  WOW!  Neither of us had ever fished, and here we were witnessing one of the oldest and most widely used forms of fishing:  gillnet fishing.  When we left the beach at 2:00 we still didn’t understand the how’s and why’s and what was really going to happen.

There was a crowd that returned about 6:00 PM to watch the exciting climax of the afternoon net laying.  A retired commercial fisherman led the way and explained what was happening.  Here’s a brief summary of the salmon life cycle and why the gillnet system works.


Salmon are born in a stream, migrate to the ocean for a couple of years, and then return to the same stream to reproduce.  Scientists believe that the fish “smell” their stream;  we were told that each stream has a specific chemical make up like a finger print.   To find their stream, the salmon swim into shore with an incoming high tide and then turn along the beach “smelling” for their stream then go back out with the outgoing tide.  Putting a gillnet straight out from the beach catches the salmon as they come in with the tide and turn to find their stream.  For our net, 43 sockeye or red salmon were caught.


After pulling the net on shore, several people undid the salmon as quickly as possible to try and beat the bears to the catch.  They had almost succeeded as they got all the fish out of the nets but not into their buckets before a sow and two cubs showed up.   The sow got a couple fish for her efforts.  The rest went back to the lodge to become one of the best fish dinners we have ever had!

While Lake Clark presented totally new bear and fishing experiences it also enabled us to do some “old fashioned fun” as well.  We went for a fantastic canoeing trip through Silver Salmon Lake adorned with beautiful yellow water-lillies.

Each day we took a stroll through the sedge grass meadows.  On one of these outings we spotted a pair of bald eagles in two trees talking to each other.  Suddenly the male flew to its mate as you can see in the video (a Ken Burns moment for videographer Jason).  What an incredible set of experiences!



Glacier Bay Still Has Glaciers (as of July 2011)

We spent one week sailing through Glacier Bay National Park on a 12 passenger boat, the Sea Wolf.  There were 9 passengers on our cruise, along with the five crew members.  The boat was once the USS Observer commissioned in 1941 as a mine-sweeper, a small, all wood, slow (7 knots max speed) boat, and decommissioned in 1945.  It was perfectly designed for an intimate cruise past some of the world’s most beautiful fjords and glaciers.  Because of its size, we were able to go into inlets and side channels larger ships could not access.  Also, there were daily kayak paddles to move even closer to rookeries, tide pools and glaciers (we did two of these), and rock scramble hikes so we could truly experience the ice (we did two of these).  With six days to explore Glacier Bay, we felt we saw all that could be seen from the sea.

Reid Glacier:  it’s all ice crystals!

A six-passenger rubber skiff was used to ferry us to shore for our exploratory hikes.  These were “wet” landings, meaning we wore high top rubber boots to exit the skiff in a half to one foot of water.  We’d then changed to hiking boots once on the beach.  Our boots and life jackets were always taken back to the ship so they wouldn’t be “play things” for the bears.  Our first shore excursion was a hike to the Reid Glacier, a relatively small (by Alaskan standards) ice flow.   The skiff dropped us on a lateral moraine (the mass of earth and rock debris left at the side edge of Reid as it melted back), about a half-mile from the glacier and we then rock scrambled to actually reach and touch the ice.  While we’ve see numerous glaciers on our travels, this was the first time we actually walked up to and touched one of these monuments of time, weather and pressure.  And it was a shock.

Reid Glacier

Front view from about 1 mile away;
notice “whipped cream” look of surface.

Side view with Jason in foreground and a
shipmate much closer on right in center

From a distance, the glacier appeared to have a smooth, even frothy-like whipped cream, surface.  But up close, rocks, cracks, dirt, and pits give the surface a grimy appearance.  The sides were not vertical, but slatted like a steep inverse V.  Mountain valleys cut by water are V-shaped.  A lateral stream of melted glacier water flowing along the side of the glacier carved the inverted V.  We could walk up to and touch Reid Glacier at the particular spot we visited because of the way in which the rocks and other rubble that made up the morraine had accumulated.  The lateral stream at that point was perhaps 25 feet below us.

At the glacier, Kimber (our guide and naturalist) pointed out glacial ice worms, long black threads that live in the ice near the surface.  According to Wikipedia, glacial ice worms are unique to North American glaciers and can appear as black, blue or white in color.  They are related to earthworms, eat alge, and cannot live outside the glacier.

But even more astonishing than the worms was the ice itself.  When we walked up to the glacier and touched it, a piece broken off.  Kimber explained how the ice that we were touching had fallen as snow a thousand years ago high in the mountains (about 11 miles from where we were).  The ice we were touching was not created like ice in a freezer;  that is, a glacier is not water which has been frozen like one big ice cube. Glacial ice is formed by snow flakes piled on snow flakes piled on snow flakes over thousands of years creating enormous pressure which compacts the snow, forcing out all air, and leaving the ice in a crystal form. We could easily break off a piece of the glacier as it was made of small, beautiful ice crystals.  These millions of billions of small crystals then careen down the mountain as a sheet of ice (at a snails pace of course) working their architectural magic carving valleys and water filled fjords. As this sheet of ice twists and turns, moves over harder or softer base rock, it appears as a river flowing, with breaks and cracks (called crevasses) that give it character and beauty.

AppleMarkTouching Reid Glacier

Glacier ice crystal

Never saw Riggs Glacier since Slapping Fish Bring the Bear

Note hikers at middle bottom

The hike that was scheduled for our third day in Glacier Bay was to a ridge high above the water to view the Riggs Glacier.  The route is shown in the picture to the left. 

Glacier Bay is a wilderness park with no roads nor man-made trails.  All our hikes followed animal trails, narrow paths created by bears over the eons.  For some routes, the animals followed the same path and over time the plants simply got mashed down and created a trail.   We were going to just go part way along one of these trails, an easy scramble according to Kimber, but far enough to see the Riggs Glacier across its inlet.   All our shipmates were going to climb to the top of the ridge.

Here comes de bear!

A stream came into the bay near where we were anchored and our landing area was just beyond it.  Once on the beach we divided into two groups and the fast group began their ascent.  But a few minutes after we separated, these well laid plans were disrupted by the sound of fish splashing in the water.

Salmon, for some unknown reason, leap from the water.  Kimber said it may simply be “jumping for joy when they smell their birthing stream.”  Whatever the reason, the bears in the forest hear the splash and it brings them to the water’s edge to fish.

Rock behind Jason (Lois is still there!!!)
was refuge from grizzly charge

We were now in Glacier Bay, not Lake Clark.  The bears here may very occasionally, if ever, see a human.  They don’t know what we are:  friend, foe, food or fluff.  Bear protocol says that if you meet a bear you are to bunch together to look bigger than the bear, speak softly, and back away to give the bear space.  The Park Service wants bears to see humans as non-entities to be ignored.
Well, Kimber, Lois and Jason are on this beach and the salmon are jumping for joy and down the mountain comes this adolescent male grizzly bear, maybe 500 pounds of teen spirits.  He quickly swam the stream and Kimber says, “I recognize that bear.  He charged me last year.”
Next thing we know she has us scrambling up a big rock behind us (pictured left), where there was definitely no bear food around.

The grizzly charger having
a very berry feast

Kimber afterward told folks that “Jason forgot he was blind the way he went up that rock!”   In Lake Clark, we were only a few feet from huge bears and never felt threatened.  But now, here we were 50 yards away, and our hearts racing - we were under attack.  The bear came out of the stream and ran up the beach, stopped maybe 10 yards away, smelled the air and looked over the situation. That was a real heart stopper!  The bear then turned and started eating berries.  Kimber meanwhile was on the walkie-talkie with the other group, telling them to come down so we could make a “bigger” group and everyone would be safely on the beach, not on a high narrow bear path.  Once we were on our rock and the bear was eating, she told them they could go ahead with their hike.  We spent the next hour watching the bear eat.  Once the bear left, the rest of the group came safely down the mountain and joined us and the skiff, which had been called to wait off shore, and took us back to our boat.


On our fourth day of our Glacier Bay cruise a black bear was spotted on the beach.  This was our first and only black bear of the trip and it really looked great from a quarter of a mile off shore!


Margerie Glacier didn’t put on a show for us!

Perhaps the most famous glacier in Glacier Bay is Margerie.  She is about one mile wide, 200 feet above the water, and extends 21-miles from her origin high in the mountains to her calving ground in the sea.  This is the glacier all the cruise ships visit as it is the most active glacier in the Park advancing about 7-feet per day and calving (dropping icebergs into the sea about every 30 minutes).  We watched incredible pictures on YouTube before our trip, so our expectations for a caving event were pretty high.  Regrettably she never calved while we were watching.  But she did give us a different treat.

Margerie’s surface was radically different from what we had seen before:  no whipped cream surface here, but spires and towers and pinnacles of varying shapes and sizes. She was stunning!

We had elected not to do the strenuous kayak trips through icebergs to enjoy the grandeur of the Margerie Glacier but went in the skiff marinstead.  The channel was choked with icebergs, so Captain Steve took us to the far side of the channel, over a mile away from the face of the glacier, to get through the icebergs.  We made our way up the channel and reached about the mid-point of Margerie and started steering toward the face when a glacial wind began to blow.  This wind occurs when conditions are right and is caused by the temperature difference between the air in contact with the surface of the glacier and air away from the glacier which is warmer.  It was a strong, cold, artic wind.  It quickly cleared all the icebergs in front of the glacier, but also prevented us from getting as close to the glacier as we had hoped because of the strength of the wind.  But the wind didn’t stop us from hearing the crackling of the ice as it splintered and fell. These pieces appeared to be falling onto the glacier’s surface which we could not see.
Unfortunately we never saw Margerie caving but we sure heard it.  What a memorable experience to see such a beauty!

Whale watching

walteOur last day in Glacier Bay was spent whale watching.  Our hope was to see a breaching whale.  We saw more tails than we could count, and one whale came really close to the boat, but alas, seeing a whale leap from the water to return with a mighty splash will have to wait for another time.

Glaciers from the air

We had an unexpected feast for our eyes on our way back to Juneau.  We took a flight-seeing tour in a four-seater plane which took us over Glacier Bay from 1000 feet.  We saw each and every glacier we had seen from the boat, as well as many others and the Brady Ice Field (left photo). The Brady Ice Field is vast,  miles across and appearing flat and smooth.  It is fed by dozens of mountain glaciers that surround it, and it is the source of many of the glaciers that we saw which plunge into the sea.

What an incredible two hours.

To see a glacier at sea level is to see a limited view of the face and some of the surface.  But to see it from the air was to see the ebb and flow of the ice, as it cascaded and carved its valleys and canyons.


The Johns Hopkins Glacier was visually exciting.  As the glacier carved its way down the mountain, sides of the mountain caved in and left a black streak on the glacier.  This has happened in such a way that there were ribbons of black and white interwoven along the miles of glacier as it worked its way to the sea.  From the air the phrase “river of ice” came to life:  the glaciers aren’t static inanimate objects but a turbulent, active moving force.  We could see the rapids where hard base rock forced the glacier up and over, and smooth wide areas of softer easier soils.

Our three favorite glacial experiences, the Reid which we actually touched, the McBride (pictured at right) with its turquoise ice filled inlet, and Margarie with its pinnacles and towers, calving and crackling, all showed how magnificent they were from the air.  As we soared over we could see their origins high in the mountains, their sculpturing arms, and their watery finish.  This was an awesome end to an incredible three weeks in Alaska.

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August 11, 2011