Browsed by
Category: Amazing Landscapes

A Bear In Ketichikan, The Inside Passage And Vancouver

A Bear In Ketichikan, The Inside Passage And Vancouver

Well, this is almost it. We are now at our final stop before making the long journey home to New Jersey. Looking back on this trip, the definite highlights were Denali and the humpback whale watching trip in Icy Strait Point.

But the last few days have had their moments.

First we stopped in Ketchikan, Alaska which is apparently the salmon capital of the world. It was pretty clear why this is – every year thousands (or maybe tens of thousands? Or hundreds of thousands??) swim up the creek that flows right through the center of town to spawn. They didn’t really come out so great in my pictures but all you really need to do is look down and you can see thousands of them.

With salmon of course, come bears and eagles. And we got to see both! Including one bear that just kind of popped up out of the bushes behind us!

Note of course my filming technique, which is critical for filming bears at close range. Essentially it boils down to staying a few steps behind the morons who rush up to get close to a bear. I mean seriously, these animals can run 30 miles per hour! Personally I would have never chosen to get this close to a bear but it really just kind of popped out of the bushes behind us. It was never really scary because except for that one look he gives us at the end of the video, he really didn’t seem all that interested in us.

Plus, there were literally a dozen idiots who rather than staying in place or slowly backing up actually ADVANCED in his direction. So if anyone was getting mauled – it would have been them. Still it was the closest I got to a wild animal since that time I foolishly stared down an elk at Rocky Mountain National Park.

In any case, our new bear friend didn’t really bother much with us. Rather he was much more interested in the thousands of salmon in the stream below us, which is where he immediately went after creeping up behind us.

After our run in with the bear, we then went to see some native totem poles. This was pretty cool, but the really exciting thing was yet another encounter with some Alaskan bald eagles! This time they were just about close enough to get a somewhat decent picture.

Bald eagles in a tree
Note that I said it was a “somewhat decent” picture…

After a quick lunch, it was time for our last real Alaskan event – the Ketchikan lumberjack show!

Alaskan Lumberjacks try to roll each other off of log.
What can I tell you guys, just another day in Alaska.

This was……OK. It was fun to watch (although man the seats were uncomfortable) a staged “competition” between guys doing things like axe throws and racing to chop logs. Think of it as like Medieval Times but with lumberjacks representing the United States and Canada. You’re supposed to cheer on your “country” (they sort the audience into US and Canada as well) and yell things out like “Yo Hoooo!” along with the performers. Fun for kids. And pretty fun for adults too. But at about $40 a ticket for a 45 minute show with no food……..I don’t know.

It certainly wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before, so I’m glad we went. Buuuuuttttt if I ever find myself in Ketchikan again…I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this.

One other really cool thing to do in Ketchikan is to visit the Tongass National Forest Visitor Center. It’s right next to the lumberjack show and has a really great overview of all the incredible national parks and lands within Alaska. Incredibly, only about 40% of the entire state is private land. To put that another way – that would be about 25% of the ENTIRE Lower 48! Incredible to learn and really put our whole Alaska experience into context.

Alaskan land is mostly publicly owned!
This land (of Alaska) is your land, this land is my land.

From Ketchikan, it was basically straight on through until Vancouver. We traversed the “Inside Passage” which is a really narrow body of water with hills, mountains and trees on both sides. Also present, tons of birds, sea mammals and other wildlife. We also shared our journey with another cruise ship with was pretty cool.

We traverse the Inside Passage of Alaska.
Welcome to the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Unfortunately for us, like a lot of the rest of time at sea, this day was completely overcast and occasionally really foggy.

A distant view of fog in the Inside Passage of Alaska.
You can actually see the fog we spent hours in right behind us. We couldn’t see ANYTHING.

So yesterday was mostly a relaxation day. After going through The Hobbit on the last trip, this was my day to try and make a dent in Lord of the Rings on this one.

This morning we awoke in the port of Vancouver.

The Vancouver Port
Bienvenue au Canada.

After bidding adieu to the Radiance of the Seas for the final time, we made our way to our lodging for the evening to drop our stuff off and do a little sight seeing. But Ariel and I were both so completely drained (also having to chase down our taxi driver as he drove away with my wallet wiped out the remainder of my energy) that all we did was head over to the Space Museum and get some lunch (including vegetarian gravy poutine fries!!!!) on Granville Island.

Ariel gives the thumbs down to feeding pigeons.
Please don’t feed the awful pigeons at Granville Public Market. PLEASE.

We’ve also already been to Vancouver on our first road trip as a couple way back in 2012 when we did 2,999 miles in just a week and half. So we’re pretty much done here.

Now, we prepare for the long journey home and radical change in our lives.

An overlook viewing of Vancouver Harbor.
Looking out into the sea from Vancouver.

Final thoughts on this trip, plus some reviews and guides to follow.

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

Denali National Park And The Aurora FREAKING Borealis!

So we’ve been in Alaska for a few days now and it is really something. Like it’s huge state, but it’s also just a HUGE state. “Everything’s bigger in Texas” except when compared to Alaska. EVERYTHING is massive here. The mountains. The glaciers. The distances. The temperature differences. It is really incredible.

And it is just an incredible contrast from where I was last week in Iowa and Minnesota, with their gentle rolling hills and Mid-western charm. That is not Alaska – at all. This is the big leagues of adventure travel.

After our initial train ride from hell, we checked into our hotel just outside Denali National Park. After a quick dinner at Karsten’s Pub (go with the fish and chips, they’re really good) we crashed for the night at about 9:30. After a few hours of sleep, we were awakened by the phone ringing.

“Aurora!” I shouted as we jumped out of bed, got dressed and went outside. The phone call was indeed from the front desk, telling us to go outside and look up. And boy what a sight…

The ACTUAL Northern freaking Lights IN REAL LIFE!

It lasted for about 15 minutes before fading away, but we actually got to see the Northern freaking Lights. This had been a lifelong dream for me. In fact, when we went to New Zealand we made an attempt to get as far south as possible in the hopes of seeing the Aurora AUSTRALIS (the nearly identical, although much less well known Southern Lights), but it just wasn’t happening. The pictures and video really don’t do the experience justice. We just gaped at the sky, awe-struck.

And then we went right back to bed so the whole thing felt like a dream – except for our photographic and video proof.

The next morning we were up at 5:30 and headed into the park. And it was incredible. I try not to use terms like “spectacular” or “grandiose” too often but they really fit the bill. Denali is just something else. We saw all kinds of animals like moose, caribou, bears, eagles and dall sheep.

Welcome to Denali National Park. One of the most remote places in the United States.

One thing to know about Denali is that they really enforce the rules about not interfering with the animals. Being that people aren’t able to drive in, you don’t get idiots who feed animals or otherwise interact with them. So the moose and bears keep their distance. This is a good thing for them, but it’s a bad thing for you…if you hypothetically forget to bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens…

There are bears somewhere off in the distance there, I swear…

It’s not like Yellowstone, where bison literally walk right up to your car and follow you as you drive down the street.

But the real star is the mountain itself. At over 20,000 feet, Denali (which means “The Great One”) is the biggest mountain in the world. What’s that you say? Mount Everest at 29,029 feet is higher? Well yeah, sure, if you grant it the 15,000 foot PLATEAU that gives it an unfair head start! Denali is on just a 2,000 foot plateau – so the mountain towers over its base by about 17,000 feet. Everest only goes up about 14,000 feet from top to bottom.

So as far as I’m concerned I just saw the BIGGEST mountain in the WORLD.

By far, the most incredible mountain I’ve ever set eyes upon.

And apparently, it’s a very shy biggest mountain because it’s really only visible about 30% of the time. Well we sure lucked out.

Our trip through the park took about 13 hours to go to the end of the 92-mile-long park road.

The end of the road…

They don’t let private cars drive more than 15 miles into the park so you need to book a ticket with either a tour bus or a shuttle bus. The tour bus costs about three times as much and includes a guide that tells you about the park.

Don’t bother.

We went with the shuttle bus, which was driven by a National Park employee. Our driver, JJ, had a microphone and basically did the job of a guide anyway. He answered all of our questions, told us about interesting things about the park, and stopped the bus anytime someone saw an animal they wanted to photograph. In fact, he was so devoted to showing us everything we wanted that we actually got back to the entrance to the park, the last shuttle back to our hotel (which leaves at 7 pm) had left.

Our driver even showed us wild cranberries and blueberries that we could eat!

Calling the hotel to send a “special” shuttle to get us meant paying $10 and waiting 20 minutes.

NOPE.

After our new friends on our shuttle bus heard about our predicament, several of them offered to drive us back since they were staying in the neighborhood anyway. So we caught a ride for free. Much like our near disaster at Tongariro, I knew there was about a 100% chance we would be able to catch a ride back with one of the dozens of people who visit the park if you miss your shuttle. So take your time and don’t stress it.

Who would want to leave this place, ever?

We got back to the hotel, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. No dancing lights this time.

The next morning we got our stuff together and headed for the cruise ship in Seward.

And finally some relaxation. But first there was one last little sidequest to complete…

Always make the most of the time you are given.

But we’ll save that story for another time.

A Final Note On Iowa, Minnesota And The Northernmost Point In The Continental United States

A Final Note On Iowa, Minnesota And The Northernmost Point In The Continental United States

As I write this on the plane ride home and my last solo trip is already starting to feel like a distant memory. I’m so excited to be reunited with my travel mate (and life mate!) but before I turn my thoughts to our upcoming trip to Alaska, I wanted to post some reflections on what I just experienced.

First a bit about the two last states I crossed off my list within the contiguous USA.

Iowa and Minnesota certainly have their charms.

The sign you see as you leave the Field of Dreams.

Iowa, is really covered in corn fields. Like it’s ludicrous how accurate that stereotype is. Most of the time I had corn on one side of the car and often on both sides of the car.

Now, we have a lot of corn in New Jersey…

Man do they love their corn in Iowa.

…but nothing like this.

Minnesota is really huge. It’s basically Iowa on steroids. I was also shocked by how familiar the landscape looked the entire time I was there. If you put a picture of the Minnesota countryside next to the Pennsylvania countryside it would be really hard to tell the difference. When I got back from my 2010 solo coast-to-coast road trip I would joke to people that everything between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River is basically just West Jersey. And even then, once you get past the Mississippi (which is always an impressive sight to behold) it’s basically the same until you get close to Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

Turns out that Minnesota and Iowa are no exception. Yes the Mississippi River areas were really cool. And seeing a bald eagle was really moving – as was getting to the source of the Mississippi. The western part of Minnesota did start to flatten out so you got some of that “big sky” feeling but that was really only for the last 50 miles or so.

Minnesota definitely has things worth seeing. Like the source of the Mississippi River!

It just doesn’t look that different from home. Rolling hills. Trees. Corn. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The Mississippi River In Iowa. Or is it the Hudson River? Or the Raritan? Or the Delaware?

And that’s kind of why I was pretty ehhhh about both states.

I mean seriously, how can you compete with views like this:

Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona.

Or this:

Bryce Canyon in Utah.

Or this:

Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Or the picture at the top of this post (Monument Valley in Arizona).

You can’t. You just can’t. No other places on Earth have those wild landscapes.

If I was building an itinerary with must-see states I would always start with the Four Corners region. Then I’d spend a while in California. After that it’s a toss-up between Nevada, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and the Pacific Northwest. Even Kansas and Nebraska had more striking vistas than where I just went. It’s really incredible how excited I was when I approached the North Dakota border and suddenly had a 360 degree view of the horizon.

By the way that’s not a knock on Iowa or Minnesota. I’m sure people from those states would throw up after spending 10 minutes in New Jersey, a state that looked like their states but was overcrowded and oversmogged. And it’s also not to say that there are “bad” states. Every state should be visited because they all have something unique to offer.

Well except for Pennsylvania. That place is horrible and is the worst place in the world.

Oh I’m only kidding.

*Or am I? I really hate Pennsylvania and it is a terrible, terrible place.

Anyway…

The bottom line is that I’m glad I went. Really glad. But I’m also glad that I prioritized places with truly spectacular (a word that gets WAY overused when describing places) things to see before I went here. Really it was a perfect ending to a journey that I’ve been on for most of my life because if I was just driving through on the way to somewhere else I probably would have just jumped out of the car to take a picture of the welcome signs and kept going.

Doing it like this meant I got to see the Field of Dreams! And a bald eagle! And a mound of grass shaped like a bear! And the source of the Mississippi River! And get almost arrested at the border!

Well never mind that last one, that sucked.

But you get my drift.

Finally, a quick note on the Northwest Angle, AKA the northernmost point in the USA.

Cool place, but there’s still like half a continent above it!

Look – I’m glad I went. It would have been pretty dumb to go to all the other extremes AND the geographic center of the US (by accident no less!) and not take care of this one once I finally made it to Minnesota. But unless this is part of a personal quest of yours like the one I just completed (or you have your own fishing boat), this is really more hassle than it’s worth.

The people I met were really nice, but when compared to the other extremes, even within the continental US, this is the most underwhelming. First of all the other three locations are all on a coast, so you really get the feeling that you’re staring off into forever. Cape Alava in Washington looks really cool and features a really nice hike to get there. Key West is…Key West so it’s worth visiting on its own. West Quoddy Head in Maine has a great lighthouse and being that it is the only contiguous extreme that is TRULY the furthest you can go in America means you can stand there to watch the sunrise and be the first person in the country to see the sun.

The Northwest Angle, while quirky, does not really have anything like that. It’s surrounded by land and a lake. So when you look around, it just looks like you’re anywhere in America that has a lake. And it is SUCH a hassle to get there.

But the people are really nice. And apparently it’s a great place to go fishing – so if that’s your thing you should TOTALLY go there.

I guess what I’m saying is if you’re going to go there, make it for another reason, not just to see the northernmost tip. And go by boat if you can. Four international border crossings in one day is just TOO STRESSFUL to be worth it.

*PS I was just kidding about Pennsylvania. My sister and brother-in-law live there! And there’s lots of cool stuff to see there – you could spend days just around Philadelphia seeing Revolutionary War stuff, Constitution stuff, Declaration of Independence stuff and lots of other stuff too! And I guess Philadelphia has a lot to see too if you’re into big cities. I just hate Pennsylvania with a passion mostly because of their obnoxious and awful sports teams.

Mostly…

For more on Iowa and Minnesota, check out my day by day recap of my 1,200 mile journey to complete my seven-year long mission to visit all Lower 48 states.

Day 1: In which I achieve my goal and visit the Field of Dreams
Day 2: In which I stumble upon the headwaters of the Mississippi River and meet a bald eagle
Day 3: In which I hit the Northernmost Point in the Lower 48 and get detained at the border
Day 4: In which I hang out with bison and check out an abandoned nuclear missile silo