Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Fuller Lakes Trail

This is one of the few views on the trail, looking out over Skilak Lake.

We ended up doing the Fuller Lakes Trail as a day hike. It is a 5.8 mile (round trip), 1400 foot elevation gain hike up to the upper lake. Once again, it was raining, and we had our rain gear on as we started the hike, and just as we began hiking the rain stopped. What luck!

This trail is one of the nicer ones we've been on. There was relatively little erosion, few plants hanging over the trail, and the grade was comfortable with no very steep parts. The only downfall of this trail was that it was a bit muddy from the recent rains and so was a bit slick in places.

We reached Lower Fuller Lake first and where it crosses the outlet stream there was a beaver dam both just below and another just above the log bridge. We saw a momma duck with 8-10 fuzzy ducklings swimming around the edge of the lake, and another duck out in the middle, but that was the extent of our wildlife viewing for this hike.

After we got back to our cabin that day I read some literature about where to view wildlife, and the Fuller Lakes Trail is billed as the trail to go on to see brown bear. We saw only one bear scat, at the Lower Lake. The other people we met on the trail all had guns on them (one strapped to his chest, another in a hip holster), and we had our .44 as well (in a leg holster since we had our fully loaded backpacks on). Of course we never hope to have to use it in self-protection, and we have safety in being in a group, but it is the sensible thing to do hiking in this country.

Just as we were nearly to the Upper Fuller Lake (middle picture) the trail became a boggy mess. We would have had to bushwack through the alders to reach the lake, and since we didn't have any real reason to get there, we decided to head back. Round trip, with fully loaded packs, we made the hike in 4 hours. The suggested hiking time for the trail is 4-6 hours, so we were right on. It seemed like an easy hike even with our packs, but now, two days later, we are still recovering and sore! Only 5 days till we start the Chilkoot Trail!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Kenai & Soldotna Hikes

We were supposed to spend our whole weekend backpacking up to the Fuller Lakes in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge Area, but got sidetracked. First to waylay us was the Stolstice Music Festival taking place on the Diamond M Ranch in Kenai. There were over 30 bands playing all afternoon and evening of the 20th (the stolstice) and 21st. This is an annual fundraiser for the local public radio station. There were a few vendors (the Gourmet Hot Dogs were the best!), and the muscians were a mix of local and from around the state, a huge mix of types of music, and a range of abilities as well. It was a fun time hanging out, though chilly at times.

Since we were on the Diamond M Ranch for the festival, we decided to spend the night there before heading out packing. The next morning when we got up it was raining heavily, so we decided to spend the weekend at the Ranch and do some day hikes.

The Oilers Field Trail is an approximately 1 mile loop next to the semi-professional local baseball team's field. There is a frisbee golf course and fitness course trail there as well. In the winter these trails (as well as the adjoining golf course) are used for cross-country ski trails.

The Soldotna City Park is one of our favorite places for a picnic. It is right along the Kenai River in downtown Soldotna, nearly across the Sterling Highway from Safeway, has a small little-kids playground, and lots of private picnic areas that you have to walk down the trails to. We never see the sign until after we pull in, which is probably why there is hardly ever anyone there (just fisherpeople; never picnickers).

Then we checked out the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor's Center (a nice place; great movie about wildlife in Alaska) just off Ski Hill Road and hiked the trails. There is an interpretive section of trail, the Lake Loop, and the Forest Loop. We took our fully loaded packs on this tame, mostly flat, woodchipped trail. It was probably only 2 1/2 miles all the way around the outside loop, but it is a nice, comfortable, safe-feeling hike.

One set of hiking trails that we checked out the trailhead, but didn't actually hike were the Tsalteshi Trails, which begin at the Skyview High School or off of Kalifornsky Beach Road. There are a rabbit warren of trails, which would be fun for exploring, but also increase the chance of getting temporarily lost! These are cross-country ski trails in the winter, and can be mountain biked in the summer. The disconcerting part of the trail map was that all the distances were measured in meters, for a total of about 33,000 meters for the whole trail system (I'll let you figure that out!).

Finally, we hiked the Skilak Creek Trail that begins in the parking lot of Kenai River Campus of Kenai Peninsula College. It is another easy hike down to Skilak Creek and the Kenai River. There were metal grate boardwalks along the river since there has been extensive bank damage that has affected the fish habitat. This is part of the area where much of the population of Anchorage ends up during July salmon spawning and dipnetting season. The trail was under a couple miles and it was interesting to explore.

So while we hadn't planned on spending a day hiking in Kenai and Soldotna, we got to explore some short, fun hikes. I recommend these hikes for anyone visiting the area that wants a tamer taste of Alaska hiking. The ironic part is that when we got out of the car for the first hike of the day it stopped raining, and didn't rain again all day!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pushki Strikes Again

Last August Doug got pushki when he mowed the lawn at his school; once again pushki has struck it's ugly head in our household, this time with Aurora.

On Monday Doug and the kids mowed the lawn at Razdolna School, but when they were done they came right home and all took showers and we washed their clothes. It appeared we had nipped the problem in the bud as none of them broke out. This afternoon I noticed a red welt on Aurora's arm. It looked like a burn, but she said it didn't hurt or itch, but I suspected pushki. Within hours we watched the progression as the blister swelled and swelled, to what you see in this picture. It seemed like a delayed response from Monday, until Doug remembered that he mowed our lawn yesterday and he ran over a few small pushki (also known as cow's parsnip). The kids raked the whole lawn today and deposited the clippings in my compost bin. Suddenly it all became clear, and I was sick when I realized that Aurora had spent the entire day in the sunshine.

Pushki is photosensitive, which means it gets worse in the sunlight. When contact is made, the best thing to do is take a shower and wash off the fluid as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, we were in town when we noticed it, and it was hours before we were home and Aurora had access to a shower. There appears to be nothing one can do about it once contracted, besides perhaps take the homeopathic remedy, causticum, a pill that some say takes care of the problem. So now she is showered, we'll head back to town tomorrow and get her started on causticum, and we'll see how our next 5 days go, since we are planning a training backpacking trip.

Monday, June 16, 2008

It's Tough to be a Moose

I was so excited to see our local mama moose coming down to the pond to drink this evening and smiled as the baby frolicked in and out of the water (this picture was taken after 11 pm), but the delight soon turned to sadness when I saw that there was only one baby left, and the fur on mama's back was all torn up.
There is a reason moose normally have twins; all too many don't make it. Judging by mama's state, a bear went for this one. I can't see a dog ripping up the fur on her back like that. She obviously fought for her little one. This happens all the time, and is the cycle of life in nature, but usually we don't see the evidence wandering through our yard. If I were going to be an animal, a moose is not one I would want to be. It seems like a tough existence.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Grewingk Glacier-Kachemak Bay State Park

Today was Trails Day 2008 at Kachemak Bay State Park, across Kachemak Bay from Homer. Volunteers were sought to clear and improve trails, pick up trash and other needed tasks. We signed up for the Grewingk Glacier trail; it was supposed to be a good hike and project for families and groups. Water taxi rates, normally $75 per person to get across the bay, were only $20 per person for volunteers.

The taxi got us over to Halibut Cove in about 30 minutes from the Spit. It dropped us off on the beach near our trailhead. The trail was a well-maintained single track for about 3 1/2 miles until we got to the glacial till field (not sure if that's what it is called) where the glacier had retreated. We ate lunch on the beach of Grewingk Lake, then hiked as far around the lake as we could. The outflow river is too big to ford so they have set up a tram sopeople can pull themselves across it. It was quite a ways out of our way so we didn't check it out (we'll save it for the next trip!)
The pit toilet at the lake was an entertaining sideline: open top, removable seat and falling apart. We recommended that next year it get fixed up, even if technically it's not "trail"! As we hiked around the lake, terns started divebombing us, and twice they actually touched Denver's head. We figured there was a nest nearby, but didn't realize how on target we were until Douglas noticed an egg lying in the middle of the beach, looking like another rock. There was no nest!

The lake was full of icebergs--some quite large and others the kids hauled out of the water. My favorite iceberg is the one pictured here that looks like a snowmobile.

It was a great, but long day of hiking. It was probably 7-8 miles of hiking over mostly flat terrain, but we had to check in at 7 am and we didn't get home till after 7 pm! As part of our training for the Chilkoot Trail we took a couple of loaded packs so that added to the challenge for us. As always, there was plenty of bear scat along the trail. We took the saddle trail back to Halibut Cove and it was a quick hike: only 1 1/2 miles back to the beach. There wasn't too much work to do, so we had plenty of time to hang out and explore (and take naps!) before the taxi came to pick us up in the evening.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Close Encounter with a Black Bear

The kids and I loaded up our backpacks this afternoon for a training hike (we'll be hiking the Chilkoot Trail in a few weeks, a 33-mile, 5-day trek) and headed down the hill towards Kachemak Bay. Our road turns into a dirt track that meanders down a couple miles to a retired couple's home where it ends. As we headed down I kept my eyes roving for wildlife as usual, and noted that the swampy area, thick alders, canyon and stream would be great habitat for bear and other wildlife. With this in mind, I kept up a steady stream of chatter with the kids and talked louder than usual.

The trip down was uneventful. As we headed back up the trail, conversation lagged since we were a little more breathless. I suggested we sing some songs, and we were about halfway through a rousing rendition of "The Littlest Worm" chorus song when a huge, beautiful, glossy black bear came crashing up the embankment of a stream that ran by the trail, just ahead of us. It headed across the path and crashed off into the alders on the other side. As Denver said later, his body stretched clear across the trail.

It happened so fast--seconds--from the time I saw the bear, told the kids to stop, and it was gone. I told Aurora to keep singing and we went on, with some glances over our shoulders from time to time. It fueled us to get back up the hill. I had a hard time getting Aurora to stop singing! We didn't relax until we were out of the woods and back on the gravel road.

It was a good reminder. I am always telling the kids to talk, talk loud, and make noise when we're out in the woods, and until now I don't think they really understood the importance of doing so. This could have ended differently, as any encounter with a wild animal is not predictable. But we did a number of things right, and now I can say "The Littlest Worm" saved us!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area Camping

We had an event-filled 3 days camping at Hidden Lake last week in the Skilak WRA with a group of 20 or so people (my aunt and uncle and all their kids and grandkids). Here are a few highlights:

Black bear: As we were driving down the Skilak Lake Road (a gravel loop off the Sterling Highway) a black bear with a gorgeous, glossy pelt ambled off the road. My aunt and uncle saw a bear on the road 2 hours earlier when they drove it too. A few nights later my husband and I were walking the roads in the campground and a man pulled up in his van and said he just saw a sow with 3 cubs cross the road in the campground a little ways from where we were at. We saw plenty of bear scat on our hikes, some fresher than others. Apparently the brown bear aren't around (near lakes and rivers) until the next week or so when the fish begin to run.

Kayaking and canoing: We went out kayaking and canoing a number of times a day as our campsite was right on Hidden Lake (It is a double spot, and the only site in the campground that is right on the lake, so a coveted place!). As we paddled along a pair of loons swam within 20 feet of us, and if the loons weren't around when we started, they came out once we got out there. It was so neat to have them pop out of the water next to our canoe, swim around and then dive again. They were so u
nafraid! A momma moose and 2 babies came down to the shore to eat across the bay from us, so we paddled over for a closer look. There were other shorebirds as well, rocks coming down to the water, and basically a beautiful northern lake.

Morel mushrooms: Wow! Who would have thought we would be in mushroom heaven in Alaska, after moving from Michigan where they are known for mushrooms? We found more mushrooms here than we'd ever found in Michigan, and we weren't even looking for them! We introduced our party to them, and soon lots of them were spotting mushrooms everywhere. It was a tasty side dish for dinner one night.

Hiking: The kids and I hiked these trails last August (you can go to past blog entries for details on the hikes last summer), but the grass was only a foot tall (compared to over our heads last summer!), so we found it much more enjoyable hiking. Of course, there weren't the ripe berries that we'd found in August, so guess that's the trade-off! Bear scat was especially plentiful on the Hideout Trail (above, with wildflowers in foreground) in some places every 20 feet or so, but we were in such a large, noisy group that we weren't worried (In Alaska no group of more than 3 people has ever been attacked by a bear.). The Burney's Trail, which starts in the Hidden Lake Campground, was lengthened and improved, and so was much better than last summer. And the Vista Trail (top photo and below), an 800 foot climb with incredible views of Skilak Lake, had snow near the top that the kids had fun playing in, which was a cool treat after a hard climb. Even a 4-year-old girl made it up that trail in a little over an hour, so it is very do-able.