Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Visiting Whittier--Portage Pass and Horsetail Hikes

This was the trip I was determined to do the two hikes I've been wanting to do in Whittier for years:  the Portage Pass trail and the Horsetail Falls hike. To my delight:  they happened!

I've looked for the Portage Pass trailhead probably 4 times in the past, each time I've gone to Whittier, and I never found it. This time, there was no missing it:  a sign announced its presence as soon as you get through the tunnel.

Portage Pass trail sign with the Bear Valley-Whittier tunnel entrance in the background


The road has now been developed to allow plenty of parking
The trail starts up at an easy grade and gets a bit steeper and rougher,
but there are plenty of salmonberries to snack on along the way

Portage Pass at 800' elevation

Another glacier to the left of Portage Glacier, with an impressive amount of water flowing from it

Portage Glacier, with its foot in Portage Lake

View of Whittier from Portage Pass
The hike was a relatively easy one--about 800 feet up to the pass in one mile. Another mile takes you all the way down to the Portage Lake. The trail was a bit rough and rocky, and the day we were there the flies started becoming quite annoying.

I'm not sure what makes Portage Glacier so popular and well-visited, except that in the past it was more accessible, coming nearly to the visitor center. Now one can see it from a boat ride on Portage Lake or from this trail. 

This video is from a bench about 1/4 mile past the pass.


Horsetail Falls has been engraved in my heart as a beautiful hike, one of the earliest ones we took after we moved to Alaska. It is still beautiful, though one of my favorite features, the pools at the top reflecting the mountains around, have mostly dried up. The trail is now getting overgrown with salmonberry bushes, and some of the wood walkways are rotting. The flies were really bad by time we got to the overlook deck at the top, so we didn't stop and hang out but went plunging down the trail to escape them.

When we ran into some folks at the trailhead about to start and they asked if it was worth hiking, I definitely recommended it. It is relatively short for the awesome view, and the wood walkways on much of it make walking fairly easy.  We still don't know which fall is Horsetail Falls; there were 3 or 4 falls coming off the cliffs above the trail. The falls is not the highlight of this trial, though!

Turn right just past the Buckner Building in Whittier to reach the Horsetail Falls Trail



In some areas the trail is getting overgrown

A cruise ship in the harbor in Whittier from top of Horsetail Falls hike

May favorite feature of this hike:  the still pools at the top



Saturday, July 23, 2016

Camping in Portage Valley

I've had my eye on the Black Bear Campground in the Portage Valley for years as a place to stay but we usually have places to explore closer to home. With both the kids occupied last week, we decided to make a trip to the Portage Valley and hop over to Whittier for the day.

There are three camping options in the Portage Valley:

The Williwaw Campground is paved, huge and what I call an RV campground as it is set up for RVers to be comfortable with pull-through sites and extra-long parking. Bathrooms are still pit toilets, but nice ones on the relativity scale! Sites are quite private as the brushy trees have grown up densely, which also controls sound, and are nicely spaced so one does not feel like they are camping on top of each other.

The Black Bear Campground just a mile down the road is small and what I call a "tenters" campground as it is a gravel road and parking, sites can handle some smaller RVs, and there are bear containers around for folks to store food in, which they don't usually have in larger campgrounds. There were maybe 15 sites and it was quite wooded so the shade kept it cool, a bonus when camping in hot weather.

A little further along the road are 5 free walk-in campsites. A parking area is provided and a sign saying where it is okay to camp, but beyond that there are no toilets, water, bear containers, etc. No reservations are taken, so it is first-come, first-serve. The walk from the parking area to the sites is a few hundred yards--so backpacking backpacks would make it more convenient, but a wagon would work as well, or just multiple trips hauling things. The main Portage Valley trail goes right by these campsites, so if one was staying they would have to be comfortable leaving their things in their tent while they were away each day.

Part of the Portage Valley trail

The trail through the valley is nicely developed
A hiking or biking trail runs a few miles between campgrounds and day use areas, parallel to the road. It is mostly flat and easy walking. We did come across some berry-filled bear scat on the trail--no surprise because there are bear everywhere. We just talked as usual and kept our eyes open.

Portage Valley is about an hour from Anchorage, so in a pinch, it could be a place to stay when needing to make a cheaper trip to Anchorage happen (I'm thinking about our aborted camping trip to Anchorage a few weeks ago...and that exciting campground in the city!). For some reason I'd always viewed the Portage Valley as a not-a-destination, because there's not much right there in the valley, but with Whittier just through the tunnel and Girdwood 20 minutes down the road, it has some redeeming qualities.

The Portage Glacier, which not too many years ago had a huge presence in the area, has now retreated out of sight of the Portage Visitor's Center, so that changes things a bit, and probably makes the valley a bit warmer than it used to be as well. We drove to Whittier to get a glimpse of it, opting to hike rather than take the boat ride up to the base of the glacier, which is one option.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Summit Creek Trail

I ran into an avid hiker recently and was talking hikes, and he said his all-time favorite hike on the Kenai Peninsula was the Summit Creek Hike because you get above treeline faster than any other hike. Of course I had to check it out, so on a recent camping trip as we were driving through the area, we decided to check it out.


Unmarked parking off
Seward Highway
Interestingly, this trail does not have a sign along the Seward Highway announcing its presence, unlike the Devil's Creek Trail which is just a few miles away and most other hikes. According to one online source, it is because of the fragile tundra ecosystem, but it runs parallel to the Devil's Creek Trail, and connects with the Resurrection Trail, so I'm not sure why this one gets special treatment. It does have a parking area, on the right just past the Upper Summit Lake, before passing the avalanche closure gates. We were coming from the south and opted to park in the large paved parking area across the road from it (not directly across, but quite close).

Within minutes past the trailhead, we were already getting views of the mountains around us, and 45 minutes got us to bunches of alders, but mostly wide open vistas up the valley and of the peaks around us. The trail is a nice single-track in good condition, similar to Devil's Creek in that it climbs along the side of a valley, and very gradual so it feels easy. We didn't notice the climb until we turned around and headed back and we were sweating a whole lot less going back!

Trailhead of Summit Creek Trail
The biggest treat of this hike was the fireweed--brilliant masses of it. The worst part of the hike was the heat, which felt like it was in the 80's and humid, which is why we didn't go a long ways. Here's some of the scenery from the hike:

First peek of views as the trail climbed out of the trees

Ferns, fireweed and a bit of view

Amazing fireweed vistas!

Likely an old mining road on the mountain across the valley from the trail

Looking up the Summit Creek valley
Apparently there is good backpacking up this trail, and one can hike up, along the Resurrection Trail for a bit and then back down Devil's Creek Trail for a really long day or couple of days hike.

After sweating buckets in a 1 1/2-2 hour hike on this trail, ice cream at Summit Lake Lodge was a nice treat. Apparently the lodge is for sale for a cool $3.5 million, so we were looking at it with fresh eyes, considering how much we like stopping there and wondering where we would get after-hike treats if not there. Likely back to Cooper Landing.

So this hike goes on our list for further exploration when we have more time and the weather is cooler!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Seward Camping and Hiking Trip

We have driven by a number of trails along the Seward Highway south of the Seward Y (that's local's term for where the Sterling Highway meets the Seward Highway) that I have not yet hiked, so with Aurora's time in Alaska winding down, we decided to take a weekend trip down towards Seward to try to get some of those hikes in for me, and sneak in a couple of Aurora's favorites as well. We didn't get to them all, but got some good exploring in.

Fireweed lines the trail from the campground to the Ptarmigan Creek Trail
Ptarmigan Campground is one of my favorites places to stay. It is just past Moose Pass heading south on the Seward Highway, and with only 16 sites, it has a few more tenters than many campgrounds, and therefore fewer generators. It also accepts online reservations (at recreation.gov), which is a huge bonus, though that website is stunningly clunky to use. It does assure a place to stay, though, which is nice during busy weekends.

Long Lake Trail--lush temperate rain forest
That evening after setting up camp saw us dash down the road 10 minutes to the Primrose Trailhead. A few minutes up the Primrose Trail, there is a turnoff with a sign pointing to Long Lake. I've always wanted to explore it, so as our evening stroll, we headed up thataway. It was moderate terrain, with some climbs but not steep ones. The temperate rainforest has its hold here, with moss covering everything, making a beautiful hike. We only went 30 minutes up the trail as it was late. Hiking all the way through to the Grayling Lake Trailhead 6.5 miles away is my goal someday. I have a reputation for underestimating the difficulty of trails, but now that I know what this trail is like, it makes convincing my hiking partners to go with me easier!


Saturday we hiked at Exit Glacier's Harding Icefield Trail (see other blog post about that hike), after getting stuck in road construction on the park road. We'd been here only a month earlier but since then they'd completely ripped up the road and built it up quite a few feet as well as put in large culverts. It seems like an impressive and ambitious project for a road that only goes to Exit Glacier. I hear it is for flood control. Makes me wonder if they're expecting floods--as the glaciers and Harding Icefield continue to melt at unpredecented rates?


Aurora really wanted to hike Mt. Marathon, so we'd dropped her off at its base before we did our hike at Exit Glacier. A 4000 foot climb on loose gravel and shale was not our idea of fun. It was only her second time doing the full climb and she really enjoyed the camraderie of meeting folks on the mountain as she climbed. Here is a picture of it from our picnic spot in town:
Mt. Marathon, with the up trail on the right above treeline and the down trail straight down from the peak

We were tired, but we let Aurora convince us to do another hike up the Seward Highway towards our campground:  Victor Creek. So after lunch in a very nice pavilion along Resurrection Bay in Seward, we headed back up the road. The most distinctive feature of Victor Creek is its trailhead, or lack of one. There is just enough space for two cars, and if coming in from the south, a 3-point turn is required to get into the parking lot as one crosses Victor Creek on the Seward Highway and then makes a hard right to get into the lot.

This trail must not get much traffic as the parking is minimal:  2 cars maximum
The official USFS trail description says this is a 2.5 mile hike one way, 1100 foot elevation gain. Only 500 feet per mile? Piece of cake! Ha. Nothing is as it seems when one reads the trail descriptions.  It was quite pleasant the first 45 minutes with trails looking like these:

Early on the Victor Creek Trail

More pleasant trail winding through the woods along Victor Creek

Even the stream crossing in an avalanche chute was a cinch
But when the trail became like this we got cranky!
Yes, Aurora is on the trail and so am I, just a few feet away!
Amazingly, we persisted for 15 minutes of not seeing the trail, wading through the elderberries, pushki, devil's club and grass. The trail is under there, one just can't see it. You could tell we were aware of this as being bear country because we talked loudly about nothing, just to hear our voices, and because I got my bear bell out of it's pouch and let it jangle from my pack. At some point, though, we decided it was not going to get any better and we weren't going to see anything amazing so we turned around.

The only 'view' from Victor Creek Trail that we were able to discover
Most trails "go" somewhere--an overlook, an amazing view, another trail, a waterfall. This trail acutally ends "abruptly" according to the trail description. Supposedly there is mining up this way, which is likely why the trail exists. It is a pleasant hike, until you get to the brush, but the only view you are likely to see is the one above, looking up the valley. If we're driving by and want a quick stretch, this would be my hike of choice. With few others on it, and being so close to the highway, it makes for a fast choice for getting on a trail.

Victor Creek is a typical Alaskan 'creek':  fast flowing and gray with glacial silt
That ended a day of 8 or 9 miles of hiking--plenty for us. An evening of relaxing in the campground and a good night's sleep rejuvenated us for the next day:  the Primrose-Lost Lake traverse for Aurora and berry picking for Doug and I.  

We dropped Aurora off early on Sunday morning in the Primrose trailhead, which was full of cars. Apparently the snow from 3 weeks earlier had melted and there were oodles of people camping on the trail this weekend. Despite warnings that a brown bear sow with cubs was sighted along the trail a few weeks prior, we were figuring the large number of hikers and bikers on the trail were going to be discouraging bear from hanging out on the trail. Off Aurora went with my bear bell and bear spray. Doug and I headed out berry picking. No, I'm not going to say where, but honestly, berries are EVERYWHERE. One cannot not find berries it seems to me. Well, maybe I am just especially attuned to them. I see berries everywhere. We picked blueberries until flies drove us nuts, then we went to the Seward end of the trail, 15 miles south of the Primrose Trailhead, to pick up Aurora.

Lost Lake Trail, not far from the trailhead

I'm not sure why one end of the trail is called Primrose and the other half Lost Lake, but that's how it is. We hiked a ways out the Lost Lake end to meet Aurora. First we met at least a dozen bikers and hikers, though, including a couple bikers who told us they'd spent the day hopscotching with Aurora, with her ahead of them most of the time (running and hiking) and them catching her on the downhills (biking). As they said, "She was booking!"

Thus ended our weekend of camping and hiking. It was delightful to check out some old and some new areas and trails. We introduced Doug to the gelato shop in Seward; Aurora guided us to the picnic pavilion along the bay. I masterminded the trip and tried to make sure everyone got something that they really enjoyed from the weekend. It was a memorable one, particularly as it was likely Aurora's last camping trip in Alaska before she heads off to college. Good memories!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Harding Icefield Trail at Exit Glacier, Seward

Every so often I will write about a hike that there seems to be crowds of people on, but that crowded is relative. Sometimes five people on a trail makes it seem busy. But the Harding Icefield Trail at Exit Glacier a couple weekends ago, on a pleasant Saturday, took the award for crowded. On the way up in the morning, it wasn't so bad. We passed a handful a of people, and a few passed us heading back down. When we turned around from the top of Marmot Meadows at mile 1.4, it seemed like we didn't go more than 15 seconds the whole way down without meeting someone heading up. Many folks seemed ill prepared, wearing only t-shirt and shorts and perhaps carrying a waterbottle. That's fine until one gets up higher and the winds blow off the glacier, and then the air becomes chilly, especially on sweat-soaked cotton. This appears to be an international destination, as there were many folks from China, Japan and other Asian countries. 


The trail starts off with level gravel
But in places it gets narrow and rocky

The official trail map shows these features, which I got pictures of:


The bridge, at .8 mile, has a typical rushing Alaskan stream 


Marmot Meadows acutally does have marmots. I saw three, but was not quick enough or close enough to get pictures.
Looking at the bottom of the cliffs


We had planned to hike to the Top of the Cliffs. The map says it's at 2.4 miles, a couple thousand feet elevation from the Visitor's Center. Piece of cake. We'd be back to Seward to pick up Aurora in a few hours, after her climb up Mt. Marathon. Either we were really tired that day, or that hike was harder than we expected, but by time we reached the top of Marmot Meadows, we were ready to turn back. There was a nice overlook there !where I got a video of Exit Glacier, and by that point we'd gotten on jackets to ward off the chilly wind.


Exit Glacier from top of Marmot Meadows

We would do this hike again, but will be more prepared for a challenging hike (4000 foot climb over 4 miles, one way), for crossing snowfields, and for lots of people!

This video starts at the base of Exit Glacier and has a view of the Cliffs.



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Hiking Trails

We always lament how little hiking there is in the Kenai-Soldotna area, but one nice trail that can be run is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Hiking Trails. They just got a new visitor's center built that opened this year (maybe late 2015), and is always interesting seeing the latest in interpretive choices.

The trails at the KNWR Visitor's Center in Soldotna are a nice, comfortable to walk without significant elevation gain
There are several loops, some laid with wood chips, under 3 miles for the largest loop. I will say that the mosquitoes here were worse than anywhere else we have been this summer, and we've camped a lot. It was also one of the few times we did not put bug spray on, lulled by how few bugs there have been, and we were treated to swarms of the blood suckers. Every few seconds I would swipe my necks and kill another 3 or 4 of them. This was unusual, though, as I don't recall being driven insane on these trails before.

The biggest bummer about these trails, and the reason we don't hike on them more, is because the Visitor's Center parking lot is only open regular business hours, so if you're in the area after hours you would have to park along the road, and make sure you're not still on the trails when they close. We would come here more if it weren't for that.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fireweed and Spruce Aphids--What the Warm Weather is Doing in Homer

The fireweed outside my window is likely 9-10 feet tall.
From inside my house, considering foundation height, it is still taller than I am!

As I looked out my window the other day I was struck by two things:  the height of the fireweed and the brownness of my spruce tree. Both are results of record-breaking warm weather in Homer recently.

We have a saying that when the fireweed reaches the top of the stalk, blooming from the bottom up, summer is over. However, I think this may need to be revised. This year nearly everything is a month to six weeks early. 

Blueberries!
July 7th--just a week ago--I was across the bay picking blueberries and salmonberries. The salmonberries were fallng off the bushes they were so ripe in places. Last summer we picked berries the first weekend of August and I thought that was outrageously early. The previous 3 years I scheduled my girls weekend out across the bay, berry picking every Labor Day weekend, and the blueberries were just coming into fine form. Crazy! We are a solid 6 weeks early on the berry season this year. So are the fireweed going to fluff early, but in the middle of summer?

Behind the fireweed in the picture above is my glorious spruce tree. All over the Homer area, spruce trees are browning, due to an invasion of spruce aphid, which are caused in part by mild winters (above 15 degrees F, according to the recent UAF Cooperative Extension handout about it). While I've kind of enjoyed the warm winters, seeing beautful spruce trees appearing to die (they are not; only suffering) is challenging. The strange thing about these aphids is they only suck sap from old needles, so new growth tips still grace the trees. Apparently cutting what appear to be dead branches off just stresses trees more and should not be done, which people in Homer have been doing. In fact, many have already cut their spruces down completely, finding the brown and dropping needles intolerable. We need a cold winter to reduce the spruce aphid population, but predictions don't have one coming.


July 2 garden is ahead of schedule

I could have planted my greenhouse in late March this year and not risked much. We got a couple of mild frosts, but not enough to get excited about. We rototilled the garden in April; normally the ground is too boggy to work that early and it happens in mid-May. The garden picture above was taken July 2, and in the two weeks since, it looks like it has been hyped up, with many the plants double in size and broccoli and zucchini ready to pick. The spinach is over the top...it can't take this heat. The slugs have made lunch of the strawberries, which is still a bumper crop despite them.

I don't know if signs of climate change are visible in the Lower 48, but here in Alaska, the signs are everywhere, from the changes in the ocean to the unseasonably early plant growth. It is both unsettling and fascinating to watch, and I have to wonder if this is like a slow motion train wreck we are in the middle of observing.