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  • Writer's pictureSandy Snyder

The Three Ks: Exploring Southeast Alaska

We entered Alaska through the town of Skagway, which is a microcosm of everything Alaska. (On the map below, it’s located north of Juneau on the panhandle.) Though it has fewer than 1000 residents, cruise ships dumped almost a million tourists into the town in 2019. It’s where the gold rush miners of 1897-98 started up the famous Chilkoot trail to the gold fields. And it’s remote: located at the end of a long bay or fjord, it can only be reached by boat or a single road from Canada.

As you can see, most people live in the southeast quadrant of the state, and that in order to drive from Skagway to Haines (my first favorite Alaskan city), you must cross back into Canada and drive 350 miles. It’s a 8 hard hour drive or a beautiful 2-3 day trip. Or – you can take a 45 minute ferry ride. We did not attempt to go to Whittier (on the coast north of Seward), one of the strange Alaska towns, but if you have time, go. You can get there by sea or by driving through the longest railway tunnel in North America. Yes, cars and trains share the tunnel to Whittier, which was built during the second world war and which now has only a few hundred residents, most of whom live in a single 14-story building. And – look south on the panhandle and notice that there are NO roads going to the state capital, Juneau.

Almost everything comes to the coastal towns by water. We went to a Haines grocery store looking for fresh veggies on a Wednesday and found nothing. When we asked why, we were told that the barge from Seattle comes on Thursday.

We left Haines and headed for the most heavily populated part of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula. As we traveled, we learned that the peninsula is full of natural wonders. We drove or floated or flew and saw the most beautiful views, and then turned to see a view that was even better. This is a place of fire (volcanoes), ice (glaciers), rock (the mountains) and water (the beautiful rivers). You could travel for a lifetime and not see more than a fraction of the land’s desolate beauty.

Mt. Wrangel in the Largest Park in the US

One day, we took a “flightseeing” tour of the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains. We flew in a tail-dragger Cessna from the airport in Gulkana, near Glennallen. (Check the map again.) These mountains are part of the Wrangell-St.Elias National Park and Preserve. Our pilot/guide told us that the park and preserve are the largest protected area in the US, and that when you include the adjoining Chugach National Forest and Canada’s adjoining Kluane National Park, it’s the largest protected area in the world. Altitude in the park goes from sea level to over 18,000 feet, and the park is the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite – and Switzerland – combined. And – oh, by the way – some of the largest mountains are active volcanos.

Mt. Wrangell itself is snow covered and shaped like a smooth dome. Yep – it’s an active volcano. It’s over 14,000 feet tall and certainly doesn’t look like a volcano. It has a “pimple”-shaped (our guide’s word) protrusion on one side that our guide told us is the same size as Mt. St. Helens. I hope that mountain doesn’t decide to do anything dramatic any time soon. The mountain and its neighbors also have glaciers. Think of it – magma inside and glaciers outside.

We learned (again) that glaciers aren’t always white. The ice is mixed with soil and is only white

when winter snow adds another layer to the glacier. We were able to fly over some amazing crevasses and pools of aqua-colored water.

I’m highlighting three areas, all Ks: the Klutina River, the Kenai Peninsula, and Katmai National Park and Preserve. All three places linked us to fishing and were the only places where we had to make reservations months ahead. The fishing season is short and highly regulated, the fish operate on their own schedules, and even the moon and the tides can affect your success. We fished on the Klutina and Kenai Rivers, but at Katmai, we were only observers. The fishing pros, brown bears, know much more than we do about salmon.

The Klutina River

The Klutina River

One of the most beautiful places in Alaska was the Klutina River. We camped right on the river at “King for a Day” campground in Copper Center, and Tom arranged to celebrate my birthday with a fishing charter on the river. The trip was a 12-hour, 20-mile float and fish trip on a beautiful blue river on a day with temps in the low 70s and blue skies. We drove two-and-a-half hours into the wilderness on a rutted dirt road, and launched onto the fast-moving, turquoise-blue river. Our guide took us to his favorite fishing spots (except for one that was occupied by an unfriendly competitor), where we were able to fish for sockeye and king salmon. Tom caught a king salmon that weighed almost 50 pounds and some sockeye salmon. I caught the sunshine -- but they let me hold the salmon for the photo because it looked so much bigger!

King for a Day Campground

We got back to camp in the evening, where Tom filleted the catch and I retrieved Maggie from the campground staff. They’d kept her for the day, filled her with treats and introduced her to every fisherman in the place. The next morning, I again experienced the feeling of being Michael Jackson’s chauffeur, when everyone greeted her and told me I had a great dog. Sigh …

The Turnagain Arm at Low Tide

The Kenai Peninsula

This area is Alaska’s most heavily populated region, and the favorite of tourists and residents alike. It’s located just south of Anchorage, and – as usual – there’s just one narrow two-lane road to get there. On the above map, you’ll see that from Haines we drove northwest, back into Canada, then back into Alaska, over to Anchorage, and down the Turnagain Arm to the peninsula. The Turnagain Arm is a long thin inlet or bay (I can’t think of a better term) that stretches from the ocean almost to Anchorage. It has a very high tidal change; you can see what looks like sand far out from shore, but it’s actually mud, and it can kill you. If you don’t sink down into it to the point that you can’t be extracted (gory stories), you can die when the bore tide sweeps in faster than you can run. The only road from Anchorage to the peninsula is two narrow lanes crammed between the mountains and the Arm and always clogged with traffic. A combination of clueless tourists driving the RVs they just rented in Anchorage and impatient resident Alaskans make it more dangerous than the Arm itself. Alaska does have one great traffic law: if you accumulate five vehicles behind you, you MUST pull over as soon as possible to let them pass.

Socked-In Seward

We first drove to Seward, on the east side, hoping to fish in the ocean for silver salmon. Our hopes were dashed by a small craft warning, so we spent our time in Seward wandering around town with all the other disappointed tourists and visiting the excellent Sea Life Museum. We might have stayed for a few days, hoping for better weather, but we already had reservations on the other side of the peninsula.

Katmai National Park and Preserve.

2018’s summer weather was bad followed by bad. We’d scheduled two excursions: one to watch grizzly bears hunt salmon and one to fish for halibut. Bingo – we got the only two good days they’d had for weeks. On day one, we flew from Beluga Lake in the middle of Homer across the Cook Inlet to Brooks Lodge in Katmai National Park. The flight in an Otter float plane from lake to lake was amazing, showing us the beautiful volcanoes and the huge national park, but the opportunity to watch bears fish for salmon with absolutely no regard for humans was unbelievable. When you land at Katmai, you’re sent to “Bear School”, where you’re told how you will interact with the resident population of brown (grizzly) bears. The park rangers have made it possible for us to see these marvelous animals by controlling the humans, not the animals. Rules are strict (no food, gum, tobacco, bear spray and stay 50 yards away from the bears) and there are rangers everywhere to enforce them. There’s a footbridge used by humans and bears, and people do NOT have the right of way. We left for home about 90 minutes late because one of the passengers was caught on the wrong side of the bridge while a mama bear and her cubs decided to hang out there.

"Teenage" Bears Playing at Katmai

Day two was halibut fishing day, starting with a 2 ½ hour ride into Cook Inlet and instructions on how to fish for halibut. Rule one: never, ever set the hook. Folks like me who don’t know how to fish have much better success than those who can’t break themselves of this habit. Again, over-fishing has resulted in much smaller limits than we saw eleven years ago: two fish per person, with one being less than 28 inches long. Most people were coming in with very small fish. However, our captain, Captain Jim of Silver Fox Charters, took us out about 35 miles so that we could catch larger fish. Tom was the most successful, landing a 75-80 pound halibut.

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