Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Babymoon Part 3 - The I have died and gone to heaven edition.

As if things couldn't get any better, they totally did. I have wanted to go here for years. Something like 18 years, to be exact. The Kenai Fjords have mesmerized me heart and soul.

I love moments like this when Jim says "we should jump!" He's just as spectacularly nerdy as I am, isn't it great? I don't think I actually propelled my body upward at all, but hey, that's what folded knees are for; creating the illusion of jumping. The first attempt wasn't so successful...

Once in a while we gauge the timer allllll wrong.

Exit glacier is one of the only things in the Kenai Fjords that you can actually drive to. We had booked a boat tour and had about 45 minutes to kill after getting hot chocolate at an awesome coffee house filled with old storage trunks and stacks of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1958, so we took the 8 mile drive to the glacier. It would have been fun to go exploring, but it was so incredible just to see it.

The boat tour took no time at all to be amazing. The skies were overcast and grey, threatening to rain on us the whole time which made the ocean not a terribly impressive color - except for a few shallow locations near the shore where the colors were incredible. At times it almost felt Caribbean; except for the temperature, and the lack of sunshine, and the fellow passengers in rain parkas.

There were many glaciers in the area, this one I believe is Bear glacier. It was toward the beginning of the tour and I thought that was awesome. Boy, I didn't know what was coming.

We squeezed through some narrow openings, which were ridiculously gorgeous.

See how pretty the water is next to the rock? I wonder if some of it has to do with the different sediments deposited from glacial erosion. I know we saw one lake in one other park (cannot remember for the life of me what or where) that was a teal green color because of sediment from erosion.

I love this mug. He laughs at me sometimes for taking about a bazillion pictures everywhere we go, but I think secretly he likes it because he always wants to copy them from my computer.

We did hit up the visitor's center before heading out and asked the ranger what we should be on watch to see. "Well, you won't see any humpback whales, they've already moved on, and the puffins have left too" which we figured left us with a glamorous collection of snow, water, and maybe fish interspersed with the gorgeous scenery. Turns out he was wrong. We saw both puffins and humpback whales, within the first hour on the water.

The whales tend to leave behind all manner of tasty bits floating in the ocean that the birds want to eat, so we could often find the humpbacks by watching where the birds were circling.

And a tail... I confess I really hoped he'd breech. It didn't happen, and I am totally OK with that. The tail was pretty cool in and of itself.

It did rain during the boat tour, but we are Oregonians and didn't care! I was a little worried about the turbulent waters affecting my stomach even though I've never been motion sick. The bumps from some road construction in town were enough to get me feeling queasy, but this did nothing. If anything I really loved it. We would sit for a time, then go outside if the captain said he thought he saw something and just hang out there for a while. It was a six hour tour, I probably would have fallen overboard if I stayed outside the entire time.

There were so many waterfalls. I never tire of waterfalls though, so that was definitely a good thing.

This chunk of ice was about 10 feet long, and I kept trying to imagine how big it was when it initially fell off the glacier. This really put into perspective how icebergs could be a problem. In some directions there was a ridiculous amount of ice floating in the water.

We had clear enough sailing that we were able to make it all the way up the fjord to the Aialik glacier. This was incredible. The boat stayed there for at least a half hour and I could have easily stayed longer. There would be loud cracking/popping noises and then periodically they would be followed by a large chunk of ice calving into the ocean. Incredible, I tell ya. I was pretty mesmerized by this and when one particularly large chunk fell Jim said "take a picture!" but I stood frozen and saying "wow!" over and over like a crazy person. It was honestly one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.

The boat staff retrieved a couple chunks of glacial ice from the water so we could all have a chance to hold it. It was crystal clear and a bit heavy.

Fortunately I was wearing Aeryn's cheap cotton skeleton gloves so when they got wet I could lay them on the heater by our seats and they would quickly dry off. No, I didn't take a single jacket that fit around my belly. Fortunately it didn't rain too much!

See? Calving is really spectacular - just to see how much water is displaced by each chunk that falls is mind boggling.

This little seal was swimming within a quarter mile of the glacier. I feel cold every time I look at him swimming in that icy water.

The front face of the glacier is about one mile wide. It's so hard to look at it and truly understand the size. This was also the turnaround point for the tour.

On the way back the captain made a concerted effort to take us to areas where he knew there was wildlife. We saw these Stellar Sea Lions basking on the rocks. There were a couple in the water at another spot waiting for the tide to raise the water enough they could get onto a nearby rock. Evidently sea lions are not the best rock climbers by nature.

At one point we had separate Orca pods swimming of opposite sides of the boat. That was a good time to be standing on the bow! It was really exciting to look from one side to the other as the separate pods would be swimming along. The folks who chose to stand along the sides of the boat near the doors to the gallery really only saw a small fraction of the excitement. If you're ever on a boat like this, it is worth it to make your way to the front.

The Orcas didn't put on too much of a show, but we were all just happy with their presence.

These bald eagles were watching as their eaglets were out practicing flying. Apparently adolescent bald eagles do not have good enough vision yet to land on branches or other small targets and practice flying where they can land on larger surfaces.

The eaglets looked so much like golden eagles. Had I not been told, I'd have never known they were bald eagles.

Last, but not least, a sea otter that would actually hang around and put on a show. Most scampered off as soon as they saw us. This guy was perfectly content until someone took a picture with a flash and scared him off. The captain was a bit peeved at that one since he'd said over and over to make sure flashes were of.

Hands down, this was the most incredible trip we've ever taken. It has made us re-evaluate our top 5 National Parks and for me at least I think this has displaced Glacier in the #1 spot. I love it here and could come back over and over again. I'm so glad this was our last destination. As beautiful as the rest of the trip was, I think it would have felt anticlimactic if it all happened after this. We literally couldn't believe our luck and would have been happy seeing half of what we did.

We did get to go to the Anchorage temple at one point, and Jim went running in the mornings. In that sense it was pretty normal, except for all the completely abnormal awesomeness that ensued. This concludes our babymoon and leaves me wanting to take another. If I had the choice between Alaska and Hawaii at some future point I really do not know which one I would choose. So no, I'm not bummed that we used up our miles. This was so, so worth it.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Babymoon Part 2

The second stop on our journey was completely surprising. I had no idea at all what to expect. We headed to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which happens to be the largest one in the country. We didn't really know what we were in for, so we stopped in to the visitor's center to ask around. The ranger was really helpful, even if he did laugh when we said we had several hours before we had to head another way. He then proceeded to explain that we'd be lucky to get into the park at all in that amount of time and we'd have to turn around as soon as we got anywhere worth going. Instead he deferred us to some hikes on the edge of the park boundary and we headed that way. 

We ended up settling for driving through the park a bit instead of going hiking and I think my pregnant self actually appreciated that. Normally I really like going on hikes, but things are just a bit harder for me right about now.

We stopped at a little spot along the Copper River to have lunch. There is land privately owned by native alaskans that is within the park boundary and along the road, so there were public easements available for day use. I found the explanation of the easement boundaries a little confusing so we stopped just long enough to eat and be on our way. These little boats were everywhere. They don't look too stable so I hope the river doesn't get too turbulent.

Heading out of the park we stopped at a little rest area to stretch our legs (and get a much needed pregnant lady break) just to find this little waterfall. We didn't expect it, but it was a nice surprise.

This was just the start of the random stops along the side of the road. All the pics below were acquired that same way and I have no idea where they were at.

We never take only serious pictures. Heaven bless whoever invented the tripod. And the remote sensor for a camera. I honestly love their brilliance.

Yes, again, we stopped at some random pretty place along a road. Contrary to what I've posted so far, the hubs kisses me pretty much every single time we take timer pictures. It's a tradition of sorts. I don't post them all because, well, this is a family site and I'm sure no one wants to see 50 pictures of us lip-locked. This one makes me feel tall enough to be a real person and a little less pregnant, so it's clearly on my good side and definitely worth sharing.

Funny story, we drove this road (no, I don't know which one it is) in the dark the night before as we headed to our hotel for the night. We had NO IDEA anything interesting was there. Imagine our shock when we're driving along, look to the left, and see a huge glacier coming out of the valley. We were blown away.

The sun was really intense so I snapped a couple and we carried on...

Jim asked if I wanted him to stop so I could get better pictures of the glacier, I said no and then muttered under my breath that I'd probably regret that choice. Moments later we saw a turn off for a state recreation area and overlook and stopped to take a look. That's when I got this shot:

See what we would have missed? I mean really. There are no words to describe it. This is the Matanuska glacier and the scene blew my mind. It's beyond awesome and perhaps my favorite scenic picture of the trip.

I look lame here. Weird face, weird arm position, weird posture. Since it proves I was there and I'm not hiding from the camera for nine months I will deal with it. It was an incredible stop. Which confirmed it... I am so glad we went. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Babymoon Part 1

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to write about this. We've been home a full week now, which is just strange.

For the last year or two, Jim and I have had a master plan. School is intense, and pretty crazy, and we didn't get the typical newlywed time with no children so we tend to try and get away now and again by ourselves. He's often the one who orchestrates this, and he's been planning something big to celebrate once he finishes his comprehensive exams. The goal was initially to do them this year, right before Christmas break. That meant that our celebration could take place in January on the beaches of Hawaii.

I've been pretty excited for that trip. I'm sure he doesn't know how much because I didn't really talk about it, I just kept it in the back of my mind and used it as a determining factor in things that I would do - like how I'd cut my hair - based on where I wanted it to be when we got to traipse around the islands. A little extreme? Perhaps.

And.... then we found out about our little man entering the picture in January. Reality hit. There is no way I'm flying to Hawaii a week before my due date or with a week old baby. The trip was cancelled. Even though I'm very excited to meet this little guy, I was a little disappointed that the trip wasn't an option any more. Jim however felt that meant we should do something before he shows up.

We decided on a long weekend and picked one that seemed reasonable, then picked a destination that would be practical. Between Alaska and San Francisco, Alaska won. I wasn't truly convinced when I gave the go-ahead to get the tickets, and was both excited to go and worried that it wasn't the best choice, especially when Aeryn's school FINALLY posted this year's calendar and I realized we would be leaving on the second day of school. Jim found friends for Aeryn to stay with and we were off. I was excited, but had really low expectations. My only goal was to be fully present and be someone who was fun to be with. I literally said silent prayers for at least an hour on the plane that I would be able to relax and enjoy the time with my husband. It was remarkable to me that the anxiousness I felt when we took off in OR was completely gone when we landed in AK. I didn't worry at all after that and was able to be fully in the moment. It was fantastic.

Our first main stop was Denali National Park.

Our rental car is actually parked right behind the sign. Jim guessed at what angle we should be at so it would stay hidden and it totally worked. It's been a rainy year up there and we didn't know what to expect. We took the park service shuttle out to Eielson Visitor Center and it was lovely.

We had some hopes of what to see and Jim really hoped for a moose. I did too, as I felt short changed to not see one last time I was in Alaska (1995!). Driving in we saw this she-moose, as we affectionately called her, and had to snap a pic to prove it happened.

The next morning we took the park service shuttle out to Eielson Visitor Center and it was lovely. So incredibly lovely. Driving into the park we saw the leaves changing from completely green to mostly golden. The farther we went into the park the golden leaves turned to brown and most had fallen already. The red leaves were blueberry bushes putting on a show.

As if a moose wasn't exciting enough, we saw bears. Eight bears to be exact. My favorite sighting was a golden sow and her dark furred cub right next to her. It was incredible how hard the golden grizzly was to see amidst the sparse foliage.

These were taken at the Toklat River visitor's center. It was really bright and beautiful, but also very windy.

It's a horrible picture, and my hair is completely in my face, but I got to be a caribou for a moment. 

Jim got to be a moose. I have to say those antlers are all much bigger than I ever realized. They are heavy too! How do the animals avoid continual headaches???

One of the best things about our trip into Denali is the fact that we are now official members of the 30% club! Apparently only about 30% of the park visitors ever get to see a clear view of the mountain. We were lucky and had a remarkably gorgeous day. Jim loves the horizontal line that shows a clear division what altitude the snow fell. It was really gorgeous to see the last bits of fall in the valley and the first bits of winter on the mountains.

This was the first and last stop our bus made. It was cloudy in the morning when we stopped, but by our return trip in the afternoon the valley was much more visible.

After finishing the shuttle trip we stopped by the kennels to see the sled dogs housed at Denali. They were smaller than expected, but very energetic. Jim was a good sport, since he's not so much a dog person, and pet every one that would let him.

I loved this girl. Her name was Sylvie and she was a big fan of the ol' belly rub. Quite a sweetheart. I was really excited to text Aeryn pictures of the pups because I knew she would love them. She maintains at this moment that Huskies are her favorite dogs. That may change by the morning, but for today that is what she thinks.

Leaving the National Park we drove through Denali State Park on our way to stop #2. These sights were so breathtaking. Jim stopped on the side of the road so I could snap this picture. 

This one was taken at the same stop, just looking another direction. The golden leaves were so vivid!

Needless to say, by this point in the trip I was convinced it was a good choice. We were already mesmerized and having such a good time together. That hubs of mine is an awesome travel companion.