Thursday, September 8, 2016

Thunderbird Falls

The bottom of Thunderbird Falls.

If one drives across the newly paved bridge at the Eklutna Lake exit off the freeway north of Anchorage, there is a nicely developed parking lot and restroom at the trailhead of Thunderbird Falls. We were there on a rainy Saturday morning and the parking lot was nearly full and the trail busy.

I'd hiked that trail before many years ago, and my memory said the trail was only 1/8 mile to the falls, but it is actually 1/2 mile to the canyon overlook, and a mile to the falls overlook. Another little leg of trail heads to the base of the falls. So as hikes go, it is short, with a few big hills but then mostly flat.

The trail is wide and comfortable walking to Thunderbird Falls after the initial hill

Boardwalks add to the easy hike
 Sometimes my quick 'point and shoot' on my iphone camera works, and other times it doesn't. This was one of those times that it was a little too quick, so my shot of the whole waterfall from the upper deck didn't turn out. It is a fairly large waterfall, and though we have lots and lots of waterfalls in Alaska, many are in the wilderness and not easily accessible. This one is about as easy as it gets!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Eklutna Lake Campground

This campground has been on my bucket list for years, but it is a stretch for a weekend (5 hours away) and they don't take reservations so it's a long way to drive and find out there's no spot open. But this has been the summer of knocking off many hikes and trips that have been on my bucket list, so I was determined to make it happen. 

This campground is definitely high on my list of fun places to visit, and my only regret is that we didn't discover it sooner as it is a family playland. Here are some features:

  • Nice, roomy, fairly private sites
  • Three hiking trails:  two climb up the nearby mountains; one is an easy loop. There are also all the miscellaneous trails around the campsite.
  • A kayak and bike rental shop
  • A 10+ mile gravel road along Eklutna Lake that ends at a glacier.  Fourwheelers are allowed on the road Monday through Wednesday, along with bikers, walkers, etc. Thursday through Saturday no fourwheelers are allowed so the bikers and walkers get it all to themselves
  • An ice cream/coffee shop with take-out type food (burgers and such)
  • Group camp area
  • In the middle of construction:  a cabin for folks to rent
  • You can swim in the lake, or any non-motorized vehicle (it is the water source for Anchorage)
This place is about 25 minutes north of Anchorage; once you get off the freeway it is 10 miles down a winding road that makes 30 mph seem fast. There is no cell phone access (a good thing, I think!). So once you're out there, you're not going to be running into town since any town is quite a ways away. But it has all sorts of amenities out there to make it comfortable.

To me, this is the sort of campground you bring your family and your toys and enjoy for a week.

Here is my photojournal:

Eklutna Lake

The Twin Peaks Trail is a couple thousand foot climb, though it is not clear where the official trail end is

Multiple trails appear in steeper spots as folks seek stable footing

Twin Peaks Trail above treeline

Eklutna Lake from top of Twin Peaks Trail. The road runs the entire length of the closer side of the lake, about 12 miles

The Twin Peaks the trail is named after. The trail doesn't climb up to the peaks

The ice cream and etc. shop

The bike and kayak rental shop

A sign along one of the trails that made me laugh

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Orcas in Peterson Bay

We were over across Kachemak Bay a few weeks ago at a social gathering at someone's house over there, when suddenly a couple orcas surfaced. My husband got out his phone and nabbed a quick view of them, but by time folks gathered to see them, they'd dived and were out of sight. We caught a glimpse of their blows when we were heading back to Homer an hour later, but they didn't resurface like they did in this video. The bouy's are an oyster farm.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Abundance the Alaskan Way

This has been the most insanely abundant summer. It started out with a mild winter, and I'm not sure we got a frost at our place (varies by location around Homer) after mid-April; I could have planted my greenhouse then, but I kept waiting for the late frost that never came. June was dry and warm. It was a little scary because usually when I weed, there is moisture in the soil 3 or 4 inches down. This year there was no moisture in the soil up to 8 inches--bone dry. We got a week of rain the end of June and only the top 3 inches were moistened; it was still dry below that. For a gardener, I found that scary. Partly because I pay 6.5 cents per gallon of water and I can't or don't want to water as much as the garden would need to get down to the roots. But partly because I'm always sensitive to our environment, and the lack of snowcover this year likely contributed to the very dry soil as the snowmelt offers timed release of water.

In mid-July it started raining, and it seems like it was rainy or cloudy every day until yesterday, though I was gone for 3 weeks of that time, so I couldn't vouch for that. But suddenly we found ourselves watching for the rare period that the grass was dry enough to mow, and it felt like we were haying rather than mowing. Instead of being like 'normal' Alaskan rainy days, it was warm along with the rain rather than cool, making for crazy growth.

This is the year of the berries. I didn't know blueberries grew on this side of Kachemak Bay, but this summer, I am finding them here, there and everywhere in abundance on the Homer side, and others have mentioned this as well, so I know it's not just me. I thought I'd been missing them all these years!

My serviceberry bush (bushes?)
By August 1 my quota of berries had been met, a whole month earlier than usual:  one shelf in my stand-up freezer. That lasts me about a year worth of smoothies. Of course, with berries right here in Homer, do you think I stop picking? No! It is a problem because every spare moment I want to run out to my favorite patches and pick, because the abundance continues. I lost all of my raspberries this year because I was gone during the crucial first week of August and by time I got home, the slugs and yellowjackets had decimated all raspberries I could find. It was disgusting picking berries (attempting to) because there would either be a swarm of yellowjackets around me or on the berries, and if not a yellowjacket, a slug! Eeeew! But other berries have made up for the raspberries.

My serviceberry plant that got me 1 1/2 gallons a couple years ago and 2 gallons last year got me 3 1/2 gallons this year. I was up on a ladder picking, with, once again, yellowjackets swarming. I am so amazed I didn't get stung, but they were pretty drunk from the berries. They'd literally eaten chunks out of the berries. The slugs had only gotten to the lowest berries that were in the grass so we didn't lose too many to them.

And did I mention the strawberries? I have this tiny little patch that I put 9 plants into a few years ago that was going nuts this year. It helped I beefed up my bird resistance system, covering the plants more thoroughly with chicken wire. Last year I lost a lot to the birds. This year I lost many to the slugs. I even ran into friends buying cheap beer to lure the slugs away from the berries. Despite slugs, I got a great strawberry harvest.

And my apple tree...what a weird thing. A few years ago rabbits ringed two of my three apple trees. We cut the two down, and I'd heard that one tree cannot ever produce apples by itself because it needs to cross-pollinate, so I contemplated cutting the other one down. Low and behold, it blossomed and has apples on it this year--big, tasty apples! Go figure!

Our rhubarb brought in $70 this summer, in addition to providing countless crisps and enough to can and freeze as well. Bear Creek Winery pays 75 cents a pound for rhubarb cut into 1 inch pieces. My kids use it as a way to earn some mad money. Three times this season we cleaned out our small rhubarb patch, pulling the stalks, cutting off the tops for the compost, chopping, and then dropping it at the winery. It is quick and easy, and each time netted us a bit over $20. Otherwise it'll just die and rot, and I'll throw it all in the compost.

I didn't think I would get any fish this year, what with all my traveling, but one of my cousins called me up and offered a trade I couldn't resist:  She would provide the fish all filleted, if I would process (can most; vac-pack the rest) hers for her. Another cousin had a 36-jar canner (24 pints and 12 half pints), so that meant only 2 loads, one for her and one for me. I got to do it at one of my cousin's place, and she had it all set up with cutting boards, knives, and a freezer to throw things into when done. It was a deal too sweet to pass up, so a day later I was back home with 36 jars of canned salmon and 18 frozen filets and a happy cousin. That is abundance!

Alaska always feels like abundance to me anyways, but this summer was just nuts. Homer folks pulled in their hay on May 31, and this weekend are cutting a second round (first dry spell in 6 weeks!). Berries, fish, garden...and just the weather that made it all a joy. Wow. It makes me feel so rich to have a freezer and cupboards full of real, fresh food that we can enjoy for the coming year.

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!