Let me start this series of posts by thanking Classic Journeys for not only creating an impressive itinerary but also for engaging two of the most talented, caring and funny guides, John Williams and John Lorec. Not only did I get a hands-on view of our stunning state of Alaska, with majestic, humbling panoramas of glaciers, mountain ranges and forest trails but I also discovered an entirely new lexicon within the English language. As my readers know, I am a long time student and admirer of our language (see this post) so this discovery was quite a surprise – more on this later.
Before I take you through this incredible journey let me provide a brief geography and history on the Kenai Peninsula and the major towns visited on this hiking excursion.
BACKGROUND This peninsula, some 200 miles long and 100 miles wide, is often called “Alaska in miniature”— for it contains every Alaska wildlife habitat and waterway type except Arctic tundra, which makes it a perfect destination for visitors. Its indigenous people – the Dena’ina subsisted as many do today, by fishing. In the early 18th Century the peninsula was visited by the first “European,” a Dane sailor working for the Russians and in 1778 the famous British explorer Captain James Cook sailed up the inlet that would in the future bear his name, and claimed this area for England.
I guess the Russians didn’t buy that concept – for they created the first white settlement. Eventually the US got involved, creating Fort Kenay in 1867 which was abandoned in 1870 after the US purchased Alaska. Also, in 1857 this former fishing village was forever changed when major oil strike occurred.
Kenai: The city of Kenai, fronting Cook Inlet now lies on the western boundary of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Prior to Russian settlement, Kenai was a Dena’ina Indian village. Russian fur traders first arrived in 1741 and these traders called the people “Kenaitze,” or “Kenai people.” In 1791, a fortified Russian trading post, Fort St. Nicholas, was constructed for fur and fish trading. In 1849, the Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church was established by Egumen Nicholai.
Homer: To the south, Homer was founded, and picked up its name, when Homer Pennock, an adventurer from Michigan, landed on the Spit (a “spit” is a small point of land of gravel or sand running into a body of water) with a crew of gold-seekers in 1896, convinced that Kachemak Bay was the key to their riches. It wasn’t. Fishing would come to dominate the town’s economy for most of the 1900s. Homer was also effected by the 1964 quake as the Spit dropped by 6 feet and most of the buildings were leveled. It took six years to rebuild.
Seward: Seward got its start in 1903 and its ice-free port would become the most important shipping terminal on the Kenai Peninsula. The city also served as the southern end of the 1200-mile Iditarod National Historic Trail to Nome, long a major dogsled thoroughfare via the Interior and Bush. We hiked a portion of this rugged trail – more on that in a future posting. Unfortunately Seward was devastated by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, with oil tanks exploding and tsunamis causing incredible damage.
Anchorage/Girdwood: Anchorage was established in 1914 as a railroad construction port for the Alaska Railroad. The city’s economy in the 1920s centered around the railroad. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the city experienced massive growth as air transportation and the military became increasingly important. Anchorage also got hit by the 9.2 magnitude 1964 Good Friday Earthquake that lasted nearly five minutes. Rebuilding dominated the city in the mid 1960s. In 1968, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, and the resulting oil boom spurred further growth in Anchorage. In 1975, Anchorage merged with Eagle River, Girdwood, Glen Alps, and a few other communities.
Now onto our first foray on this incredible land. As with all my trips, I have found going out a day early (and staying a day later) than our actual planned itinerary gives me a chance to adjust my body and mind to an unfamiliar locale. Since we were meeting up with the hiking group at the Hotel Cook we decided to camp out there – especially since the hotel was renowned for its particularly unique Whales Tail lounge. Unfortunately it was closed since our arrival was on the Fourth of July. Never fear – we returned the Hotel Cook at the end of our trip and you will see how we fared in a future post. In the meantime we strolled around town and walked through Resurrection Park which was right along Cook Inlet:
What we immediately noticed was the wide expanse of grey silty sand:
It may not look pretty – but it represents a very powerful situation – Anchorage has the world’s second highest tides – varying over 40 feet from low to high tide. In fact, there is a phenomena called a bore tide in which the leading edge of the incoming tide clashes with the flow of the outgoing tide to form a wave that travels up a river or narrow bay.
These tides come in so quickly that they sometimes produce a bore tide wave that can reach 10 feet high:
Though this looks benign it is actually quite dangerous; the water is icy cold, and the bottom sand is very soft and like quicksand is extremely difficult to disengage from. Surfing alone is not recommended.
The beginning of the above video was taken from Bird Point, which was actually our first stop. We did have to travel by van from downtown Anchorage and the two Johns split us up into two groups of 8 in separate vans for expediency and comfort. Once there, we embarked on our first hike. Located south of Anchorage along Turnagain Arm (more on the origin of this name in a future post) this trail features noteworthy elevation gain, as it starts from almost sea level and extends well above the tree line and it 5 miles roundtrip. Here we got our first look at some of the most spectacular scenery of glaciers and mountain ranges, some of which we were to visit more intimately during the following days.
There was a gentleman on the trail with an enormous telescope facing these mountains and he was very generous to offer us a closeup view. What looked like little white patches of snow to the naked eye, turned under his telescope into Dall Sheep, similar looking to mountain goats but with horns that curve on the sides of their head instead of pointed horns that go up:
We didn’t do the complete trail as some glacier hiking awaited us, so we returned to the vans, As is my wont I looked up – and captured this with my camera:
A full sun halo and ice cloud – and with this sign from above – I knew that this trip was going to be something really special.
Next week: Our first hike to a glacier with a rather poetic moniker, and our first lesson in “Jspeak.” Here is a teaser: