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Kayaking in Resurrection Bay.
By Walt Zyznieuski | SUBMITTED
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Northern exposure
By Walt Zyznieuski

The subtle clues were good signs that wildlife was in the vicinity of our cabins near a creek: seagulls flying through the forest canopy and two bald eagles perched in the treetops.

At first, we didn't pick up on the clues that Mother Nature offered us, as we noticed the obvious hints of wildlife. But other clues finally led us to spotting our first bears of the trip: salmon pieces in and along the creek bank and on the beautiful green, moss-covered forest floor.

This was a great start to a 10-day outdoor adventure for my two sons and me, as well as my cousin and his two sons to the great northern wilderness: Alaska.

Our adventure would first take us to Anchorage. We all flew in and stocked up for our trip. From there, the itinerary for the first part of our trip would take us south along the Cook Inlet and the Turnagain Arm, making our way to Seward, Alaska, where we would explore glaciers, streams, mountains and the Gulf of Alaska. 

This trip was a learning experience for the boys and was an outdoor adventure into Alaska's wilds. This was my second trip up North; the first served as a major fishing, camping and exploring outing. Our trip was a sightseeing, wildlife-viewing and hiking adventure. It would offer us the chance to see and hike on some glaciers; observe salmon returning to their streams to spawn in clear, rock-lined creeks; spot and photograph wild animals in their own backyard; and marvel at the spectacular scenery - everywhere. This truly was an adventure of a lifetime for us.

It was fitting that we would start our trip in Seward, as the town was named after William Henry Seward, the secretary of state who was instrumental in the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million.

Seward was ridiculed for purchasing this frozen wasteland, but, as I gazed out over the mountains, countless bald eagles flying overhead around Resurrrection Bay, I was thankful for Seward's wisdom in helping purchase this great wilderness for America.

Seward lies at the tip of Resurrection Bay, with peaks towering on each side, offering great views of the mountain ranges. This bay is a result of the retreat of the glaciers that once covered the area. Considered a coastal rain forest, the numerous waterfalls cascading over the mountainsides attest to this. 

Seward truly is an outdoor playground, offering numerous fishing and sigthseeing charters, sea kayaking and wildlife galore. We found the area to be a favorite of bald eagles hunting and perching on treetops in town; sea otters playing and hunting along the shore; and moose and bear seen on the edge of town.

Seward also serves as the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, a docking facility for cruise ships and is home to Kenai Fjords National Park. It is also home to the original start of the historic Iditarod Trail.

We explored Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska on a narrated wildlife boat cruise. We also sea-kayaked in the bay. Boating was an awesome way to see the towering mountains and the sea life - and the birding was truly spectacular. We ran across puffins, sea otters, steller sea lions and humpback whales, which were our favorite and offered great views as they surfaced occasionally. 

Other day trips took us to the Alaska Sea Life Center for an overview of the sea life in Alaska; a stroll along the city path along the bay; a challenging hike up Mount Marathon for a great view of town; and an exploration of Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park.

At the park, the trails had signs showing the years and extent of the Exit Glacier and how it has retreated over the years. It was interesting to see this receding glacier, but we were more stunned to see first-hand how fast it has been receding in the last 25 years.

An hour south of Anchorage, we stopped by the Begich Briggs Visitor Center and took a boat ride on Portgage Lake to see Portgage Glacier up close. We also hiked Byron Glacier, where the kids had a grand time playing in the snow.

A side trip into Whittier took us through America's longest highway/rail tunnel, and a hike up Portgage Pass Trail offered great views of Portgage Glacier.

Our final destination would take us north along Parks Highway into the great north tundra area: Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali offered us a great escape and a chance to explore the terrain and hike up mountains, view the tremendous wildlife found in this protected biosphere and snap hundreds of photographs.

At 6 million acres in size, there's plenty of area to get out and explore. I especially enjoyed exploring the glacial outwash stream valleys. 

We hiked throughout the park and up a few mountains, where we were treated to breathtaking views and - better yet - blueberries for snacks. On our first evening driving in the park, we also spotted Mount McKinley. It's said that visitors can only see the mountain one out of three days, as North America's highest mountain has a weather pattern of its own.

A 90-mile road goes into the park; the first 15 miles are open to all vehicles on a paved road, and the remaining 75 miles are on a gravel road where only permitted vehicles and buses are allowed to travel. Once in the park, the best way to really see and appreciate it is by way of your own two feet.

We took a daylong tour into the park on a bus that took us to the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66. On clear days, visitors are greeted with grand views of Mount McKinley; we saw the bottom third of the mountain that day.

Exploring the park by bus, we were rewarded with numerous animal sightings including caribou, moose, black and grizzly bears, dall sheep, a golden eagle and numerous sightings of Alaska's state bird: the ptarmigan.We also took a ranger-led walk that took us up a mountain pass to learn about the flora and fauna of the park. Great views of the range and wildflowers were available along the hike.

Denali National Park truly is an incredible wildlife and nature preserve that all of us should see at least once in our lifetimes.

On the last evening of our trip, we decided to drive one last time into Denali to see what wildlife we might run across.

Shortly into our drive, a bus and cars were stopped along the park road. It was our clue that something was spotted ahead.

As we slowly approached the vehicles, there they were: a moose and her large calf snacking on their favorite vegetation - willows - along the roadside. 

The great thing about Denali National Park is that you never know what you'll see around the next bend in the road, along the stream or on the hillside. Our last Kodak moment was a great way to end our outdoor Alaska adventure.

 

Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )

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