Day Trips (Anchorage, Whittier, Girdwood)

Anchorage is known for high crime and drug problems so we knew we didn’t want to stay in the city. That being said, it is the cheapest and best place to restock. We also wanted to make a day trip into Whittier. Our compromise was to find a campground in between these areas and do both without having to move the camper. The original plan was to camp in Chugash State Park, which turned out to have no open sites we could fit into. We had to drive 20 miles back the way we came to Williwaw Campground in Portage. We found a great site with lots of trees and set up camp for 4 nights. Portage is a pretty stop surrounded by glaciers, lakes, trees, and lucky for us, sunshine.

30 miles south of Anchorage, in Turnagain Arm, occurs a phenomenon called a bore tide. Though visible in some 60 places in the world, Alaska’s is one of the largest. A bore tide can best be described as a rogue wave that quickly brings the high tide waters with it. Because of the differential of low tide, the wave is significant enough to surf. It happens once a day and is greatest a few days after a full moon. It just so happened that the day we went out to watch it was the biggest of the summer. We grabbed some snacks and sat along a pullout. The closer the predicted time got, the more people showed up around us, including surfers and stand up paddle boarders. We counted at least 30 people in the water, all but one in wetsuits, waiting to catch the wave. From our vantage point about 30 feet higher than the water level, the wave looked smaller than it probably was. Some surfers were able to ride it for awhile, only one rode the whole way. They say beluga whales sometimes follow the bore tide half an hour after when the water level is risen. We were hungry and decided not to stay and look for them.

We started Saturday with a walk from our campground on the Trail of Blue Ice to the Begich and Boggs National Forest Visitor Center at the base of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier. When we arrived, they were setting up various booths with activities and learning for kids (of all ages.) It turned out Aug 3 just so happens to be Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday. I got to be the first to sign his birthday card and made an ornament to take home. It was a pleasant 3 mile hike and a good chance to get Molly out of the camper before locking her up for the rest of the day.

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska and feels like it. The population is 300,000. Like any other metropolitan city, downtown is made up of one way streets and expensive parking. There’s every store you could want from home, restaurants, and of course local stores too. We much prefer the small towns throughout the state so one day of errands in Anchorage was plenty. After seeing ulu knives in almost every gift shop on this trip, I was eager to go in and see the factory as well as a demonstration so I could learn how to use it correctly. Unfortunately the factory was closed on weekends and their demonstration was a 4 minute video so it was really just a gift shop. We did eat at some recommended food stops, including Moose Tooth pizza and Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ. Mark got a haircut and I got a pedicure too. We also drove by the Wyland whale wall that was painted in 1994. After hitting the stores we needed, we were glad to leave the big city behind.

Our trip mileage so far is 5,570. While Mark changed the oil in the truck on Sunday morning, I went for a 4 mile run on a beautiful path, yelling “hey bear” and “good morning” every time the trail turned a corner I couldn’t see around. I keep tasting blueberries every time I see a bush, and they are still tart and not ready for picking. There haven’t been any mosquitos to speak of.

After finishing our morning chores, we set out for Whittier. Until 2000, the only way to get to Whittier was by train or boat. Now they have a 2.5 mile tunnel. It’s one lane and alternates every half hour to let traffic through from either direction. And it’s also a toll road, a bit expensive at $13 but worth it to go see a new city. After clearing the tunnel, the views open up to hanging glaciers and Prince William Sound. Whittier has a cute harbor, 3 restaurants, and 2 shops. Everything else is commercial fishing or day charters of sea kayaking and full day halibut and salmon trips. We enjoyed some fish and chips, crab cakes, and fried shrimp and shopped a little. After talking to a local, Mark chose a short hike called Emerald Cove Trail. We scrambled on a walkway mostly based on 2 planks that were almost disintegrated for most of the trail, with muddy bogs in between. There were copious blueberries along the path, but still not ripe yet. I keep testing them every time I see them. After about a mile, we reached a waterfall that fed a creek that reached the ocean. We followed the cove downstream and watched chum (dog) and hump (pink) salmon trying to swim upstream. The creek was very shallow so we could see their fins and the tops of their bodies as they tried to swim. The path got pretty smelly as spent salmon carcasses lined the creek bed. It was definitely a circle of life moment to appreciate their journey and the instinct that drives them to reproduce. It’s fascinating to see how the salmon change as they get farther from salt water into fresh water. Their body shape, faces, and coloring completely changes as their bodies literally disintegrate.

We both needed to do some work on Monday, which means we had to drive out of our cozy campground about 10 miles to the town of Girdwood, which was also the location of our hike for the day. We sat in the truck for a few hours calling and emailing customers. The sun has been out in full this last week, with comfortable temps in the high 70s. We wound down with work just in time for lunch. I had halibut salad and Mark opted for a good, old fashioned burger. Girdwood is a winter ski town with a huge resort and beautiful huge homes. I loved their giant sidewalk board, using painted buckets for chess pieces and coffee cans for checkers. With full bellies, we were ready to tackle the Winner Creek Trail. What’s cool about the hike is that there is a hand tram to cross the river, manually pulling yourself in a metal cart across the divide. The trail is 5 miles one way, but from the direction we started, the hand cart crossing is right at the mile 1 mark. The dirt road to get to the trailhead was pretty bumpy and Mark was seriously second guessing my intentions. We finally found the trailhead only see a sign posted that the hand tram is closed. After hearing rumors, I googled to confirm that there was a death on it in June and another accident 2 days ago leaving someone in critical condition. Since we were there, and had brought Molly also, we went ahead and hiked as far as we could, to the closed tram and back. Another beautiful hike, shaded in tall evergreens, and lined with ferns and devil’s club greenery. Lots of blueberries, and you guessed it, not ripe yet. I really hope AK blueberries are not supposed to be this tart.

We are on a facebook page called RVing to Alaska which has been instrumental in our trip planning. Someone posted pictures yesterday of the first Aurora Borealis, which is VERY early in the season. We checked our Aurora apps and it looked like there would be another possibility tonight. There is a KP scale from 0-9. The higher the number, the better the chance and the more active of a show. Tonight is a KP of 5, which is pretty good. Mark watched videos on camera settings and set up the tripods. We made it til 1:20am before we finally gave up and went to bed. Part of our timing for this trip toward the end of summer and beginning of fall was to give us a good opportunity to see the Northern Lights, which are electric disturbances caused by solar storms. They happen frequently but can only been seen when the sky is dark enough. While they have been seen as early as August, it is typically much later in the month so we’re still hoping for good chances in the coming weeks as we start our slow journey toward home. We’ve got about 5-6 more weeks until we plan to be home so still plenty more to see and do.6

None of these days trips have been what I would consider highlights of our trip, yet the last 2 days have really struck me with humbling gratefulness in making this unforgettable journey with Mark. This adventure is literally a dream coming true. Every day we are exploring something new, a new culture, a new lifestyle, new sights and areas. We are immersing ourselves as much as possible, eating in local restaurants, interacting with locals, absorbing this land and yet we know we aren’t even scratching the surface of what Alaska is. This summer will always be the most memorable and probably greatest in my life. It’s sure going to be hard to top! Maybe we will come back to Alaska in the future, maybe we won’t. We’re here now and loving every minute. My heart is absolutely full.

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