Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Aurora Gazing, Glacier Walking and 9 Bonuses around Anchorage!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Aurora Gazing, Glacier Walking and 9 Bonuses around Anchorage!

loved this hole on the wall of a building in Anchorage, Alaska
Our first ten days in Anchorage was a continuation of our five days in Fairbanks: skies heavily overcast, occasional showers, and temperatures in the 40s. We were increasingly resigning ourselves to the inevitable; we will not be able to tick off seeing the Northern Lights from our bucket list! And then it came. In the last week, our luck changed. The skies cleared, and the sun shone.

Things We Did with Cherry and Rick

Aurora Gazing at Flattop Overlook

They Lights come in 11-year cycles, and we are in one that began in 2013. The season lasts from late September to late March (the Equinoxes). The Geophysical Institute put auroral activity forecast at 6 (from  0 to 10) on September 28, 29, and 30. That meant a 60% chance, the first of three required criteria. We were staying with Cherry and Rick. We all chose the 29th when Weather Underground forecasted the least cloud cover (13%), the second rule (plus 0% precipitation, 44 F, and two mph winds).
finally viewing the Aurora Borealis from the Flattop Overlook in Anchorage
The third requirement is little light pollution which means choosing well where to see the Lights. We picked the Flattop Overlook that rises 1,300 feet high with a city aerial view, just twenty-five minutes from their house. It was windy when we arrived at 10:30 pm and "froze" despite our layered bundles. It was an instant party. The typical greens and usual patches were already active in the skies. A few times striking rays and glimpses of pinks flashed. It was well worth the thirty minutes of cold.

Walking on Ice at the Matanuska Glacier

At 27 miles long by 4 miles wide, Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier accessible by car in the US.  A valley glacier, solid ice that flows like a river under its weight about a foot a day, it began its retreat to its present day location about 10,000 years ago. With no significant change in mass for two decades, it still feeds the Matanuska River, 100 miles northeast of Anchorage off Glenn Highway.

walking on Matanuska Glacier
We first saw the glacier in 2009, driving to Anchorage from Tok, at the view deck of the State Recreation Area on MP 101. A few months ago, I saw the Facebook pictures of the recent trip Cristine and husband Mitch took there. So we found out from them how to experience the ice up-close. With my sister Cherry and husband Rick, we found the only glacier access point at MP102.

We drove through an “unsafe road” to the office 2 miles down the valley, paid an entrance fee of $20, and drove another 2 miles to park next to the glacier. Then we braved the challenging, muddy, and slippery hike onto the ice. With cleats lent to us by Cristine, we had a ball exploring the glacier on our own. And I finally walked on a glacier, another item on my bucket list I was able to tick off!

on Rodak Trail at Eagle River Nature Center
Things We Did By Ourselves

A Hike at Eagle River Nature Center

Bill’s and my first hike was the easy, 40 minutes from Anchorage. The Nature Center has 10 miles of hiking trails in the Eagle River Valley of the Chugach State Park. We paid a parking fee of $5 and walked the 0.75 miles Rodak Trail. Explorer Mendenhall called the Valley “a miniature Yosemite” with lovely fall foliage, snow-riddled rock faces, a running river, and two viewing decks.

 A Stroll in Downtown Anchorage

downtown Anchorage


Bill and I also spent some time in downtown Anchorage where we had fun taking our pictures with replicas of bears, the sod log cabin that is the Visitor Center, and the many reminders of the legendary Iditarod race. We perused Alaskan gifts and souvenirs, including ivory and fur products. Unfortunately, we spotted many of Alaska's homeless around Downtown.

jumping and fishing at lovely Mirror Lake

Fishing at Mirror Lake

We spotted this lake from the highway and saw how beautifully the water reflected the birches and other trees. One afternoon Bill and I took a look and there met a Filipino father and son fishing. It turns out it is a favorite fishing spot which is regularly stocked by the Alaska Fishing and Gaming Office. Its mean depth is more than 6 feet and has a shoreline length of 1.4 miles.

Things We Did with Cristine

at Potter Marsh, in Anchorage
Wildfowl Viewing at Potter Marsh                
Cristine took us to Potter Marsh where viewers can leisurely walk the Turnagain Arm, a wooden boardwalk that winds 1,550 feet from the parking area through the marshland habitat for a variety of birds. Geese were feeding off the fish, mallards rested on fallen tree trunks, eagles hovered in the sky, and white swans gracefully glided on mini ponds but not a single moose came out to meet us.

up close and personal with Alaskan wildlife
Wildlife Viewing at 
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

The Center is is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Alaska's wildlife on about 700 acres at the southern edge of Turnagain Arm and the entrance to Portage Valley in Girdwood, Alaska. It is a refuge for orphaned or injured wild, credited with the reintroduction of elk and wood bison back into Alaska. I was so excited to see bears, moose, musk oxen, bison, elk, and reindeer.

enjoying Alyeska Resort

Enjoying Hotel Alyeska Resort

Then she also took us to Girdwood where the famous Hotel Alyeska Resort was located with its popular ski runs. It would have been great to stay there with its lavish lobby, quaint pond, functional chair lifts, and lovely views. An Art Gallery gave us interesting art finds and souvenirs and the end of the day was an excellent steak dinner in a cozy log cabin. 

the beauty of Hatchers Pass

A Drive through Hatcher Pass

Hatcher Pass is a scenic drive, winding through the mountains for roughly 60 miles between Palmer and Willow. It is open in summer but is partially closed at other times because 22 miles is gravel. On another day, Cristine drove us up to the top of the pass, to about 4,000 feet in elevation where the earliest snow in the state collects around Independence Mine Historical State Park.

A Walk around Eklutna Lake

at Eklutna Lake

She then took us to Eklutna Lake, a great spot in which to picnic, hike, or fish. The trail is supposed to take you out 10 miles where you can then continue to get a better look at Eklutna Glacier. But there were so many mosquitoes that Cristine and I decided we would just take a few photos and leave.

A Hike to Thunderbird Falls

Thunderbird Falls Trail is a 1.8-mile moderate hike in Chugiak, Alaska, about 35 minutes from Anchorage. I almost gave up as the hardest part was the rise at the trailhead directly off Glenn Highway. Bill and daughter Cristine encouraged me to continue, and it became a leisurely walk after. We stopped at a Gorge View midway, and the Falls was visible from a balcony at the end.  We could have had a closer view on the Creekside Trail that split from the general path. But no, thank you!

Thunderbird Falls and the easy half-mile hike to and from it, with Cristine
We loved our visit with Cristine and the trips to the famous Moose Tooth Pizza Place and Suite 100 for her birthday dinner with Mitch. We also enjoyed out stay at Cherry and Rick’s home and were glad we were able to see "Sully" with Cherry. We also took the couple to Sophia’s CafĂ© between Palmer and Wasilla for an excellent Meditteranean lunch which we first discovered with Cristine.

But the highlights of our visit remains seeing the Northern Lights and walking on a glacier!

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