We're going on a bear hunt
Our trip to Alaska began with the question I often think, if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go? River’s reply was Alaska. Not the usual sun, sand and serenity you would typically think of, but then he’s not your typical kinda guy. At first, I wasn’t bowled over, I thought Pah! Alaska. Really! It’s so far, it’s cold and erm…there are bears! However, always chasing new adventures I swiftly changed my tune and began to think more along the lines of bears, yes I would love to see a bear! Well back then I did…
We travelled to Alaska in May. It’s not the height of the summer season which runs June through September yet still warm enough for the lakes to be thawing, the wildlife are coming out of hibernation and the days begin to last longer, 6am – 11pm in fact!
After two flights, Heathrow – Seattle, Seattle – Anchorage we arrived late and grabbed a night in a local motel. The Lakeshore inn and suites is situated just 5 minutes by car from the airport. They kindly provide a 24 hour free shuttle service to and from. The next day, back at the airport we picked up our car and began our road trip.
1st Stop. Seward.
From Anchorage we stocked up on supplies at the local supermarket and headed for the Seward highway. We had heard it was named one of the most scenic drives through Alaska, but we were both totally unprepared for the breathtaking views that greeted us at every twist and turn. The crystal clear waters mirror the snow-capped mountains, I can’t count how many times we stopped the car to take it all in. You simply can’t help yourself! Deep blue skies, lakes glistening, moose roaming at the side of the road and eagles gliding through the air, you truly are in a place unlike anywhere else. We had only been driving for around an hour and we were already in love.
After a quick picnic in the small village of Moose Pass we hit the road again only to be greeted by a family of moose. How ironic. The next stop was Bear lake and home for the next few nights. We were fortunate to be staying at Bear Lake Lodgings, a charming B&B ran by a wonderful husband and wife duo, Pat and Dennis Perry. Once welcomed we quickly settled into our room. The decor was so fantastically Alaskan yet felt immediately nostalgic, a real home away from home. Pat told us the history of Bear Lake and its Salmon rich waters which draw the bears down in summer. She equipped us with hike trails, glaciers to visit and the essential bear spray! and we were set. We drove into Seward to get our bearings (no pun intended). After dinner we drove down by the water’s edge only to be joined by half a dozen seals playing in the water. A perfect end to our day.
Day 2. We were up bright and early.. mainly due to jet lag, nonetheless the early bird catches the worm and we…ahem River was up and at ‘em. He used the time to catch footage of the peaceful lake and its surroundings. Pat made us a wonderful breakfast, fresh fruit compote and baked french toast with apple and cinnamon. Delicious and highly recommended!
Our plan was to visit Exit Glacier. After being warned there very well may be bears on the walk we grabbed the bear spray and somewhat wearily headed out. As I mentioned May isn’t the height of the season, great on one hand that places are still relatively untouched since the winter but it did mean the trails were still heavily snow-covered in parts, even so we were up to the challenge. We did meet a handful of other walkers braving the snow and potential bears in order to get to the glacier which made it slightly less daunting. It might sound daft but you kind of have to not think about the bears else these hidden beauty spots would never be seen. Arriving at the glacier made the knee trembling, palm sweating walk there worth it. The Exit Glacier was so named after a group of mountaineers succeeded in crossing the Harding ice field ‘exiting’ via the glacier. It truly is a natural wonder, a powerful formation of ice that has formed over thousands of years. Just to be able to sit, stare and marvel at the creations of nature is worth the possible bear encounter. Ok maybe not, but it comes highly recommended if you dare!
Seward is a small town, it has a beautiful harbour on the outskirts of the centre complete with bars, plenty of eateries and copious boat tours ready to take you out around the Fjords giving tourists the opportunity to witness wildlife, glaciers and possibly whales up close.
Food is quite expensive in Alaska even in the supermarkets so choose wisely if you’re on a budget. We enjoyed DIY picnics everyday for lunch keeping the cost of dining out to a minimum but also further enhancing our time in the great outdoors, lets face it you don’t go to Alaska to lie on the beach!
That evening we were invited to join Pat and Dennis for ice-cream. Along with running Bear Lake Lodgings B&B, Pat also has a ‘dipped gourmet ice-cream bars company’ of which we were welcomed to try. Tempted by a choice of ice-cream it was then dipped in melted chocolate then rolled in either chopped nuts of crushed Oreo. Delicious. I can see why her company has been enjoyed for so many years. After ice cream and a minor earthquake which lasted around 45 seconds and came in at 5.9 on the Richter scale, Dennis entertained us with stories of the indigenous Alaska. Formerly running a float plane taxi service from their own back yard and an Alaskan for many years, his tales of bear encounters together with the bear plastered on the lounge wall were enough to give you nightmares! … Ok I was already having them but he was positively fascinating. He said something that will forever resonate with us. “Alaska is the biggest playground but it will kill you in a heartbeat if you don’t treat it right” Dennis Perry.
Day 3. We were sad to be leaving Pat and Dennis, after a short time with them we felt extremely welcomed and somewhat traumatised…only kidding! but honestly, Alaska is a wild place we wanted to get out and experience more.
2nd Stop. Homer.
After being woken at 4am to River telling me what was local dogs was, quote “a wild pack of wolves, howling outside in the moonlight” blah blah blahhh I wasn’t feeling super fresh. Quick coffee stop and we were on our way.
I’m not gonna lie the drive to Homer is undoubtedly less scenic than the Seward highway, however comes with it’s own uniqueness. If you’ve never seen a straight road you will have after this drive…one after another after another. It’s not all bad, the tree-lined roads come with a plenitude of grazing moose to spot and soaring eagles to keep you entertained.
We stayed at Land’s End, quite literally at the end of the land off Homer spit road. A 4 mile long spit out into the ocean. Our room, the Midship Bay, was a sea view room facing the Kachemak Bay State Park.
The room was superb. The views from both our private balcony and enormous kingsize bed across the bay were simply mesmerising. We knew this place would be perfect for our time in Homer. The hotel also houses a hot tub overlooking the bay and an onsite restaurant for guests and non guests alike. A glass enclosed dining room to really showcase the stunning outlook whilst eating. Open breakfast through to dinner, a perfect spot to enjoy in Homer.
True to Dennis’ word, Alaska is definitely a big playground and Homer didn’t disappoint. Loaded with float planes, boat taxis, kayak tours and snow mobile adventures to be had, the spit road had lots to offer. We headed down for a bite to eat and came across Finn’s. A popular pizzeria with locally brewed beers and a conservatory style eating deck overlooking the bay. Grabbing a beer and taking a pew, we sat down to witness a Killer whale journeying through the bay. Totally in awe we watched as it birthed its fin to us every few seconds. What a magical night. On a high from seeing the whale yet tired from the journey we resorted to our room to watch the sunset, only to be greeted by 3 Killer whales heading out into the ocean. Such an incredible evening and one we’ll remember forever.
Day 5. After breakfast we headed into Homer, a bigger town in comparison to Seward and lots more on offer. We were running low on picnic essentials so headed to the local supermarket to stock up. After refuelling ourselves on coffee and cake from the Coal Town Coffee Shop we were ready for an afternoon on the water with Brad at Coldwater Taxis. The sun was breaking through the clouds and we were lucky enough to be venturing out to see Halibut Cove. We met Brad together with his friend Mike and Gus, the Border Collie at the harbour. We clambered aboard his stunning boat, designed and created by the very captain himself. We set sail out of the harbour and across to the first stop, Gull island, so-called for its abundance of inhabitants. It is quite a sight to see as they continuously circle the island, swooping and diving for food then trying to fight each other off for a taste of their prey. Sailing out further, we reached Halibut Cove. A tranquil, beautiful and gentle bay hiding only a handful of colourful houses, each one built into the rock face. Simply stunning. The cove provides a coffee shop and many art galleries for tourists to see plus it’s home to the highly regarded restaurant; The Saltry, only reachable by boat. Unfortunately it was closed as we were out of season but it is a must do on our next visit. Sailing round the cove we felt utterly privileged to have had a glimpse inside this rare and wonderful place that very few will ever get to see. If you get the chance to visit Homer, be sure to arrange a trip with Coldwater Taxi’s. Brad can truly make your time in Homer unique with trips to ‘off the beaten track’ hikes, hidden away lodges to stay at and routes to a private sauna nestled in the woodland. Definitely take Alaska in with Coldwater taxis.
Upon our return, Brad and Mike very kindly invited us to join them for a beer up at Alice’s. A local, very favourable hang-out to wind down after a memorable evening. Before the night was up, we were thrilled to catch a glimpse of how very few Alaskans live, AKA Yurt life. Mike very generously let us in to his yurt, what a unique way to live at one with nature yet with all the comforts of a conventional house. It goes without saying we left feeling extremely envious.
Stop 3. Knik River. Palmer.
Sad to leave Homer after having such a wonderful time here but road trip must and we were back on the road, this time to north of Anchorage.
Now, by this point we had heard a lot of bear stories. Literally everyone you meant either has their own story to tell or a friends, the ever-present danger of bears is real. One consistent deterrent we had been told to do is to make lots of noise. We had wanted to experience a night in one of Alaska’s many public use cabins that are dotted across the vast remote wilderness. They’re aimed at helping tourists and locals alike experience the true Alaskan outback with an overnight stay in the middle of nowhere. We were very tempted, although you need to take everything with you, sleeping gear, cooking, cleaning equipment so just bear (ha!) that in mind if you do choose to stay in one. We did get reminded when off walking to make lots of noise, people often walk with bear bells on them to let bears know people are around and they will stay away. I would then like an explanation, everyone in Alaska, as to how we came across a BIG black bear by the side of the busiest highway out of Anchorage! This is not to say I’m not thrilled we saw one, I was super thrilled we were in the car!
Arriving at Palmer, we had the pleasure of staying at the wonderful Knik River lodge. Hidden at the very end of Knik river road lies a handful of private lodges. Owned by a lovely man named Peter, together with his staff they helpfully run the most desirable hideaway. The pure solidarity of this location only enhances the beauty, surrounded by snow topped mountains leading to the famous Knik Glacier and the Knik river running below. The main lodge, elevated over the 3 helicopter pads, is the perfect setting to enjoy breakfast or dinner. The restaurant features a wrap around balcony and is a wonderful setting for an evening drink, to sit and read in the peaceful surroundings or catch a first hand glimpse of helicopters taking off and landing in front of you. The cabins come complete with your own private decking and picnic table, a mini kitchenette and bathroom. They are idyllic yet it’s the views that really gives this place it’s attraction. No sooner had we arrived and unpacked, we managed to get a table for dinner. The food on offer is a mix of locally sourced seafood and the finest quality meats. After a long drive it was a treat to eat such superb food looking out over the river. Sometimes you’ve just gotta pinch yourself!
Next day after a small, if not well deserved lie in (in all honesty we couldn’t pull ourselves out of bed!) We packed up lunch and headed to out to explore. A short drive from the lodge is Thunderbird falls, a waterfall nestled in the woodland that had recently thawed from the winter. The afternoon sun streamed through the trees that lined the trail, it’s a relatively easy mile long hike to the 200ft falls but a beautiful one at that. Once at the falls there is a viewing platform or for the more adventurous a further short walk down to the foot of the falls. The noise of the water crashing over the rocks is a dominant reminder of just how powerful nature is.
Knik River’s nearest town is Palmer. A relatively large town compared to what we had seen on the trip. One that is framed with beauty, from the Pioneer and Twin peaks in Chugach range to the Talkeetna Mountains in the South. We enjoyed a brief time in Palmer and neighbouring village Butte. FYI Butte pizza is delicious.
Later that evening, Peter generously offered a trip in one of his helicopters up to the glacier. What an experience. The helicopter trip itself, up over the mountains, seeing a family of bears all before reaching the spectacular glacier. The ice forms differently everyday, as the weather is getting warmer leading up to summer the melting ice causes the pilot to carefully choose new places to land each time. The way the ice evolves is truly beautiful. Flying over giganic icebergs, towers of ice and glacial lakes is remarkable. Just walking over the glacier, experiencing it first hand is unforgettable. The power of nature found up here is simply unparalleled, it really is a must to see when you stay at the Knik River. Over the course of the following week Peter and his team will transport a team of Mushers and their huskies up to the glacier. Over the summer months they will remain on the glacier providing daily dog sledding for tourists.
Next day and the start of our last full day. As we clearly hadn’t hiked enough, we were off to do another one! We drove up to place called Hatcher Pass, home to the Independence Mine State National Park. Once a working mine for gold now sadly, a ruin. Quite an eerie, completely desolate place that was built high up in the mountains. Perhaps the deepest snow we had encountered thus far on the trip. As we walked up to the mine the snow continued to get deeper and deeper, as it was out of season only the trusty (mad) few of us were making our way up to see. We were joined by a couple of skiers seeking the untouched snow and the intermittent roar echoing through the valley of sea planes and helicopters ferrying tourists back and too. So loud it trembled through our bodies. One last thing I really have to mention is River’s Meindl hiking boots. I have to, not only because I heard how amazing they were all day every day, but because they really were the secret to the success of all these hikes. Quite simply, if you don’t own a pair, get a pair. They will hands down change your walking life, I’ll definitely be investing for our next trip.
Arriving back at the lodge for our final evening we had time to reflect on what a journey we had been on. We were lucky enough to enjoy the very tip of the iceberg in terms of what Alaska’s playground has to offer. After seeing the incredible things we saw, doing what we did, hearing the tales we did and meeting the people we did, it’s safe to say we will definitely be back. If nothing else they’re neighbours to Hawaii. ALOHA!