Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

Commercial fishing boat setting out from Homer, AK
Hello everybody; sorry that I've been doing a poor job of posting this summer. Ursa and I have been enjoying being in Alaska for the summer months, but we've also been enjoying some peace and quiet, relaxing in our apartment as well. Part of why we've been such homebodies is because Ursa has been hampered with a back injury, and also I had to serve a week of jury duty which, while interesting, is also rather tedious. But we did manage to find enough time to explore our Alaskan back yard with a couple of road trips down to the Kenai Peninsula. The first trip was during last r&r when Ursa's aunt and uncle, Herman and Jenny, were visiting from Boston. We had a great time taking them down to Seward for a whale watching trip. The second trip to the Peninsula was this r&r when we traveled down to Soldotna to visit my aunt and uncle, Bill and Tracy.
The Kenai Peninsula lies just to the south of Anchorage, with Cook Inlet on it's west and the Gulf of Alaska to it's south and east. The center of the peninsula is filled with the Chugach Mountains and the Chugach National Forest. At the base of the Chugach Range is the massive Harding Ice Field which is responsible for creating the stunning glaciers that have carved out the fjords that make up Kenai Fjords National Park. The geography of this entire area is everything that you've ever read in a travel brochure. It was interesting to see the diversity of the little towns in the peninsula, from the cute, tourist-centric port towns of Homer and Seward to the more rustic sport fishing towns of Kenai, and Soldotna.

The Sites

The Boardwalks at Potter Marsh
The scenic Alaskan highway that takes you south to the Kenai Peninsula is the Seward Highway. And the first stop on the Seward Highway, just outside of Anchorage is Potter Marsh. This beautiful wildlife refuge is a man-made wetland created by the construction of the Alaska Railroad embankment in 1917. An elevated boardwalk has been added to allow people to move about and view the wildlife without impacting the delicate ecosystem.
Arctic Tern
Potter Marsh is one of the best places for birdwatching that you will find anywhere, and I've enjoyed birding there on multiple occasions this summer. For those of you who don't know, I've been participating in a birding program run by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, called Wings Over Alaska, where birders receive certificates based on how many species they can identify within the state during the course of the year. The first level is at 50 species, which I've already passed (I'm at 63 at the time of posting) my goal is to try to get to the next level which is at 125 species. The fourth and highest certificate of participation is given for identifying 275 species, and is signed by the Governor of the State of Alaska.
Savannah Sparrow
As far as birding goes, you would be hard pressed to find a more perfect locale to view birds from. On any given afternoon you'll find arctic terns, mew gulls, bald eagles, canadian geese, yellowlegs, a variety of swallows, an assortment of ducks, as well as smaller birds like song sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and redpolls. It's a wonderful morning stop en route to the Kenai Peninsula.

Humpbacks bubble netting
During the first part of June, Ursa's Aunt and Uncle came to Alaska to attend and astrophysics conference in Anchorage. At a break in the conference we took them down to Seward for a couple days.
Whale watching with Herman and Jenny
The biggest highlight was taking a whale watching tour onboard one of the Kenai Fjords Tours catamarans. I've been on whale watching trips before and they've all been great experiences, but this one also featured a menagerie of other wildlife such as sea otters, dall porpoises, sea lions, puffins, and other sea birds. But the real attraction is the humpback whales who we got to observe using a technique known as "bubble netting" in which a group of whales swim in an increasingly smaller circle blowing bubbles to herd a school of fish closer together, then suddenly one of the whales swims up through the middle of the "net" and is able to swallow tons of small fish in one gulp. It was a fascinating view at the feeding habits of one of natures most amazing animals.
Ursa at Exit Glacier
The next day, we drove over to Exit Glacier and took the short hike up to it. This is a great opportunity because you can walk right up and touch the glacier itself! It is also compelling to look at the barren mud flats that lie along the base of the valley where the glacier used to be, and to see the road signs marked with dates which denote where the glacier used to be at various points of the last century, which go on for miles before you get to where the glacier is now.

Dip-netting for salmon on the Kenai River with my Aunt Traci
After being holed up for a few weeks in Anchorage during our more recent r&r, Ursa and I made a point to get out and explore the state a little more by driving down to visit some of my family in Kenai. My Uncle, Bill and his wife Traci live there as well as my cousins, Molly and Billy. It was great to see them all, though we did miss out on seeing Billy, who had some scheduling difficulties.
The towns of Kenai and Soldotna are a pair of quaint little fishing towns cut out of Alaska's boreal forest. They are not as touristy as the port towns of Seward and Homer which play host to a lot of cruise ships. The real draw for Kenai is the fishing, particularly in the silty waters of the salmon rich Kenai River. We had a great time dip-netting for red salmon. There is not much science to dip-netting, I would love to tell you that it took a tremendous amount of skill and perseverance to perfect this technique, but that would be a lie. Just wade into the water, drop in net, when a fish hits in it you'll know. Then drag said fish to shore and repeat. I got 10 which was more than enough to fill our freezer to the brim. But more important than the fish was the community involvement of it all. Standing in the river, talking to your neighbor, waiting for a fish to hit your net makes you feel a part of this community in a way that I hadn't before. Dip-netting on the Kenai River is an activity that just feels distinctly Alaskan.
Sea Otter floating in Cook Inlet
We also got another opportunity to do some fishing, this time in the more conventional method with poles and bait. My Uncle, Bill, has recently purchased a new boat and we decided to take it out into Cook Inlet for a little bit of halibut fishing. It really wasn't the best time to be fishing, and we had very little luck, catching only one halibut, but it was mostly fun just to get out on the boat and have some quality time with loved ones.  It was also great to see all the wildlife; the sea otters were adorable and plentiful, and of course (me being a bird nerd and all) I was excited to see the sea birds. Lots of murre, pigeon guillemot, and short-tailed shearwaters.
Downy woodpecker
And speaking of birds; every morning that we were in Kenai I made a special point to wake up extra early and go for a hike in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It was a beautiful place to go explore nature via a very well kept system of trails. There was some great birding to be done there: I saw a Harlan's Hawk, red-breasted nuthatches, plenty of bald eagles, a pair of gray jays and this busy little downy woodpecker.

The Food

Kenai and Soldotna are rather small towns, so consequently my expectations of what to find there in the way of fine dining were rather low, but as it turned out I was pleasantly surprised by the places that we ate at. Our first night in town we had a lovely dinner at Mykel's, which was good but like most of the places to eat during the tourist season, is overpriced. The next night, we had a wonderful dinner of steak and smoked salmon with our friend, and Ursa's old boss, Joe Conte. Thanks Joe, it was all fantastic and we look forward to seeing you guys in New York, hopefully sooner as opposed to later.
Our favorite place to eat on this trip was at St. Elias Brewing Company where we had sandwiches wrapped in the best pita bread I've ever had. And yes, the beer was delicious as well. I sometimes wish that I was more of a beer nerd, and could better appreciate a good microbrewery but unfortunately I'm only a nerd in every other sense of the word. Ursa knew that she would love St. Elias before we even sat down, based upon the mural on the wall of Bieres de la Meuse, which was originally painted by her favorite artist, Alphonse Mucha.

Destination Libation

The Salty Dawg Saloon
Every Alaskan that I know, and I do mean EVERY, has at least one t-shirt or hoodie from the iconic Salty Dawg Saloon. I don't think they let you into the state without one. Located on the Homer Spit, the cabin portion of this landmark was built in 1897, and was one of the first buildings constructed after Homer became a town site. This building served as the town's first post office, a grocery store, a railroad station, a school house, and a coal mining office. In the late 1940's it was used as the office for Standard Oil Company, until in 1957 it opened as the Salty Dawg Saloon. After the "Good Friday" earthquake in 1964 the substructure was moved to it's current location on the Homer Spit, and the distinctive lighthouse was constructed to cover a water storage tank.
For this week's Destination Libation, I would have rather included something new or exotic or especially something regional, but it just didn't work out that way. By the time that we got to the Salty Dawg, we had just come in from a long day of fishing and I just wanted something familiar, so I ordered my go-to drink, a whiskey and 7up. I suppose that I could give you the recipe, but the ingredients are kind of in the title. . . add whiskey, add 7up, and keep 'em coming.

All said, we had a wonderful time getting to see some of the attractions that Alaska has to offer. Because of Ursa and I's work and travel schedule whenever we are at home, in Alaska, we tend to just skulk about around Anchorage, and relax in our apartment. It sometimes takes a concious effort to force yourself to treat your back yard like a tourist would and apreciate it for all that it has to offer. It was refreshing to get a chance to see more of Alaska than we typically bumble into.
It was also Ursa's birthday this r&r, so I would like to say, happy birthday Ursa, I love you so very much! We had a wonderful party for her at her favorite sushi restaurant in Anchorage, Sushi & Sushi, and our friend, Autumn, did all the decorating and made a fantastic, 3 tiered cake, sugar cookies, and homemade truffles, it was such a great time, and a stellar effort from Autumn. Thanks again, Autumn.
Looking forward, I will be having a bunch of new posts coming up this month. Ursa and I will be driving my car up from Idaho to Anchorage, making stops in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, as well as Calgary, AB, and then a lovely drive through Canada. I'll be keeping everyone posted on here with a travel log during the trip, and later converting that log into my more conventional posts. I'm especially excited to see some of my old friends in Boise and Twin Falls. So we shall see you all soon. Bye!
Happy Birthday Ursa!