Saturday, July 25, 2015

Alyeska Mountain

Sunday we drove south of Anchorage to Alyeska Mountain.  It's a beautiful drive along the highway toward Seward, and you come along Cook's Inlet and Turnagain Arm.  Cpt. James Cook was the explorer who led the 1778 expedition looking for the Northwest Passage, and the inlet was later named for him by one of his subordinate officers.  The inlet branches into two fingers, or "arms," the Knik and Turnagain.  Cpt. Cook was bound and determined to find the Northwest Passage, so when he saw the two arms he sent a party led by William Bligh, of HMS Bounty fame, up the Knik Arm to find the passage.  Bligh opined that the two arms were actually mouths of rivers, and not the Northwest Passage, but Cook was not to be deterred.  Bligh's party soon returned to report that it was indeed just a river.  And after going up the second arm only to discover the same thing, he frustratingly shouted "Turn Again."  And the name stuck.

Turnagain Arm has another claim to fame, though--it's home to the second highest tide fluctuation in the world, second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada, which we were fortunate enough to have seen last year.  Here the fluctuation is between 35 and 40 feet per day from high tide to low tide, and the quickly moving incoming high tide also forms a bore, like at Fundy.  We heard that at one time a guy set a world record for the longest continual surfboard ride, when he rode the incoming tide for 11 miles!  Sometimes it's only 6" high, but at times it can be 6' high.  A lot of kayakers try to catch the tide at the right moment, too, to have a thrilling ride!

Alyeska is the ancient Aleutian name, meaning great land, that ultimately became Alaska.  We had read about the tram going up the mountain so we decided to give it a whirl.  The mountain is in Girdwood, between Anchorage and Seward, and you get to the tram by walking through this fancy resort hotel.  It's a 2.2 mile hike up from the tram base to the top, with a 2300 ft. elevation climb.  I had been feeling a bit puny, so we had decided to just take the tram up and walk down--as it turned out, maybe not the best decision.  Anyway, the tram ride up was beautiful and we saw lots of kettle ponds, small but deep holes formed over 15,000 years ago when massive blocks of glacial ice melted, now filled with fresh water, and some spectacular vistas.  This particular place reminded us a lot of the mountains in Switzerland, too.  Anyway, it was pretty cool when we got off the tram at the top, with a lot of wind blowing.  We had lunch in the little deli restaurant there, and enjoyed a fabulous bowl of tomato and gargonzola soup--a slight step off the vegan express, but it was delicious!  Nothing like a good hot bowl of thick, savory soup on a cold day on top of a mountain!!  After lunch we headed out to start hiking down, but when we stopped to ask a man who had just come up how the trail was, he told us it was pretty steep and somewhat treacherous at places, due to some mud and water.  Well, a couple steps down that trail and Trisha decided the better part of valor was to ride the tram back down--not this puppy, though--no sireebobtail, once this Capricorn had made the decision to walk down, no way it wasn't gonna happen--well, three days later my leg muscles are still reminding me of the wisdom of my favorite line from the Eagles:  "every form of refuge has its price!"  It was pretty slow going, and the guy was right, it was a bit treacherous at some places, but I took my time and used my hiking poles to my advantage--no way I could have made it down without them--but the old quads are still screaming!  A 2300 ft. drop in 2 miles put the pressure on the legs.  On the way down I met so many people coming up who said, "Can't believe you're walking down, it's so much easier going up!"  And one funny interchange--I met a young woman who was hiking up; she was quite winded and redfaced.  When she saw me she exclaimed, "Oh my gosh, you are such an inspiration!"  Which is young person speak for "You are really old!!"  The tram operator had told us he thought it was really a strain on the knees, but my new replacement knees weren't a problem at all--thank you Dr. Burnikel!!--it was just the quads.  Anyway, made it safely down, much to Trisha's relief!  We stopped in the hotel bar for a beer, and while we were there we overheard the bartender talking to a couple from Fairbanks who was visiting.  Her question "So how do you guys like it down here?" struck us as amusing, since to us, there's no part of Alaska that is "down here," it's all "way up there!"  But it was a beautiful day!

Stopping at Potter's Marsh, a boardwalk across some marshy land that's home to lots of birds and fish

Not sure if these are rednecked grebes--they were a ways off, and their heads were tucked down into their bodies so I couldn't really get a good look at their necks, but this is one of the species there, according to the story boards

Cute birdhouse, using an Alaska license plate on the roof

If you look closely enough you can make out the salmon in the creek

On the drive to Girdwood
Stopped here at Beluga Point, where often beluga whales can be seen.  We weren't so fortunate on this day, but a couple days later when our caravan was driving the same route to Seward, a couple in our party saw a large pod of belugas!

One of the many glaciers you can see

Some of the beautiful flowers along the way up to the hotel to the tram

Riding up the tram, one of the glaciers in the distance
Some of the kettle ponds
Looking down on the trail--they had several trails, one designated for just hikers, one for mountain bikers, and one for racers

At the top of the tram, looking down
onto the hotel and resort, where the base tram station is
Some hikers along the trail

Vistas from the top
Cool to see this small plane flying down in between the mountains!

Trisha as we started down the road from the top where the restaurant was, leading to the trail
stream of glacier melt flowing down the mountain

dwarf fireweed

The trail got a bit narrower here!

Some incredible views going down!!

Looking down on where I'll be heading!

And looking back up to the tram station at the top, from where I started

Cool little bridge across some water

Just amazing vistas!  Made the pain in the quads worth it!!

Now getting to the bottom
Collection of snow making machines at the base of the trail, near the resort
Some spectacular flowers on this grassy area outside the hotel, near the tram station, where Trisha waited for me to get down
Pretty showy, huh?

And, for the most beautiful flower of them all!!

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