Sunday, August 1, 2010

Hooray, we have wifi again! So to catch up......

After Homer we moved to Seward for a few days. Seward is a clean, pretty fishing port on Resurrection Bay. Much of the City of Seward is new. It was heavily damaged by a combination of seismic activity, the land sinking 10 feet, post-quake tsunamis and earthquake-caused fires from the 1964 earthquake. We camped right on the bay with a 180 degree view of the bay. Out in front of us were the old pilings for a cannery that was completely destroyed during the earthquake.

We took a 9 hour day cruise to see Pacific Humpback Whales, Dall’s Porpoise, Steller Seal Lions, Harbor Seals, Sea Otters and birds in Kenai Fjords National Park. Our boat was the 43’ Misty, much smaller than the boat we took in Homer, this boat only carried 16 passengers. The smaller boat allowed us to travel further and get closer to wildlife. We cruised through Resurrection Bay, Aialik Bay and the Gulf of Alaska. The cruise took us through the Chiswell Islands and the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. These islands are located out in the Gulf of Alaska and they were covered with 40 million marine birds! My favorite birds were the comical looking puffins. We also saw Steller Sea Lions and Harbor Seals hauled out on the rocks to get warm. Some of the Steller bulls were enormous!

In Aialik Bay we saw the massive Aialik Glacier. The glacier was huge, a mile wide, it rises more than 500 feet above the bay. Because it is actively calving, ships must stay a quarter mile away from the face of the glacier. The day before, two big ice chunks calved sending a 30’ waving speeding across the bay. The pilot of the 43’ sister ship to ours said he had to turn tail and run to keep from being swamped! Said it scared the hell out of him. The most amazing thing about the glacier is the noise. It booms, cracks, snaps, pops and moans as it grinds its way toward the bay. It sounds like artillery rounds going off in front of you! To get some perspective on how big the glacier is, look for the 100 foot catamaran sitting ¼ mile in front of the glacier (hint - look to the right.)

In Aialik Bay we saw a Humpback cow and her calf feeding in the rich waters of the bay. While mom would deep dive for food her calf remained near the surface doing blows, tail slaps, spyhops, pec slaps and one big air breach (which I missed getting a picture of.) We watched the calf for almost half an hour, then mom surfaced, retrieved her calf and they were gone. Pretty cool! Most of the trip we had an escort of Dall’s Porpoise bow surfing the Misty. They were fun to watch, but almost impossible to photograph! First, you have to hang WAY OUT over the railing; second, you need good hand eye coordination; third you have to able predict when they will surface. As you can see, my technique was lacking.

Once we turned for home, several of us settled into the cabin where we were out of the cold wind. Next thing I know, Jim’s tickling my nose because I’ve fallen asleep against the bulkhead. He says I wasn’t snoring, but my mouth was hanging open. Jim thought it was funny so he took pictures of me, naturally I have deleted them. Thank God I’ll never see those people again!

We visited the Mitch Seavey (Iditarod Champion) Racing Kennel in Seward and took a 2 ½ mile dog sled ride. Our 8 person wheeled sled was pulled by 16 Alaskan Huskies. Jim said it felt like we were going slow and the musher said it was because he was riding the brake. To show us he took his foot off for a second and we ZOOMED down the trail! The musher said that in the 59 degree “heat” the dogs would exhaust themselves in minutes so he made them go 10 mph.
 After the ride we saw puppies and then the Seavy’s explained about all the gear they use for the dogs and the mushers. They explained about caring for the dogs during the races, etc. Here is my favorite photo from the visit. This is an embarrassed retired racing dog, Mitch, demonstrating his warming coat and coyote tail warmer for his boy parts.

In Seward you can hike to Exit Glacier. This is a valley glacier, it’s land locked, slowly melting and forming Resurrection River which flows into Resurrection Bay. We decided to hike the 2 mile round trip, moderately strenuous trail to the foot of the glacier. After seeing spectacular Aialik Glacier, Exit Glacier turned out to be silent and disappointing.

After Seward, we travelled to Portage Valley to see the Portage Glacier and the tiny port town of Whittier. Long ago, Portage Glacier carved out a valley where glacier melt water accumulates forming Portage Lake. The glacier calves into Portage Lake, where icebergs float in front of the visitor’s center. This iceberg weighs 375,000 tons and only 10% of the iceberg is visible above the water line.

To get to Whittier you have to drive through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel connects the town of Whittier with the rest of the Kenai Peninsula. The tunnel is the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America. 2 ½ miles long, the tunnel has “safe houses” every 1600 feet. Frankly, I found the need for 9 safe houses to be somewhat disconcerting! Only wide enough for one way traffic (10’ wide vehicle limitations,) cars have to drive on top of railroad tracks. Cars travel through the tunnel at the top and bottom of the hour, trains use it in between. While I am sure the tunnel is an engineering marvel, I didn’t like it one bit. The tunnel goes under the Chugach Mountain range. When we entered the tunnel it was sunny and warm, when we came out the other side it was really cold and very foggy. Apparently the mountains trap all the crummy maritime weather right there in Whittier.

Whittier was a depressing little town. It was founded by the Army during WW II and abandoned by the Army following the end of the Cold War. Whittier’s population is under 200. Whittier is called the "city under one roof." Formerly an Army building, the Bewitch Building has been converted into condos and office space. All the City offices and nearly all of Whittier's residents live in the Bewitch Building. We spent less than two hours in Whittier.

We are back in Anchorage for a few days. We needed to pick up our mail and we wanted to see the Arctic Thunder Air Show put on at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Unfortunately, two days before our arrival, a Boeing C-17 air cargo plane crashed at Elmendorf while practicing for the air show. 4 men (active-duty and Air National Guard) were killed in the crash which is still under investigation.

Arctic thunder was the best air show I have ever seen. While there were a couple of privately owned aerobatic planes participating, 99% of the show was military planes. And there were military planes of every kind parked on the tarmac that you could walk through. I loved the Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS. The crew was on board to explain all the equipment to us, it was really interesting. We had a demonstration by a Harrier II Plus Jump Jet. These babies will make you deaf when they rotate their exhaust nozzles down for a vertical takeoff or landing. Talk about full military power!
You can’t appreciate the power of an F-22 until it roars by you at 200 feet doing 600 mph! They did an Air Combat F-22 demonstration with 4 of the F-22’s. These are the newest generation in stealth fighters, and man are they versatile. They can fly 60 knots or 600 knots. They can stomp on the brakes and whip a U turn so fast you can’t believe your eyes. The F-22’s made several transonic passes during the demonstration, got some cool pics, here's one of them! For a fighter it has the tightest turning radius in the world. When they fly by at 60 knots you’re sure they will fall out of the sky because they’re going so slow!

There were also amazing demonstrations by the Blue Angels and the Canadian Air Force Snowbirds. Check out the photo of the Blue Angels passing each other. We got to see the Blue Angles C-130 transport named Fat Albert strut it’s stuff. It demonstrated a short field landing, bringing the C-130 to a stop in only 1600 feet! At the end of the air show there was a really nice but sad ceremony for the men killed in the C-17 crash which included the missing man formation flown by the F-22's.

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