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Lyza's Index: Alaska Edition

Aug 30, 2015

Sea canaries, sea otters, the aurora borealis, and the economical joys of a late-summer trip to a high latitude.

Last weekend, I went to Alaska. I don't know why it took me so long—it's been almost five years since I went to my last new state (Hawaii). In fact, Alaska makes a cool 50—I've been to 'em all now.

Sea canaries

Turnagain Arm is a dead-end, long finger of sea extending eastward from Anchorage off of Cook Inlet. We drove around it to get to the Kenai Peninsula.

Cook Inlet—including Turnagain Arm—has a population of Beluga whales. Most of the world's population of Belugas is more arctic, and the Cook Inlet Belugas are genetically isolated. DNA suggests no inter-breeding with other Belugas for something like 6000 years. Unfortunately, about half of the Cook Inlet Belugas died off mysteriously in the 1990s and the herd (pod?) is still struggling to slowly re-establish itself. So I feel doubly lucky that I was able to spot a few, just white humps, out in the water on this trip. Who knows how long they'll be around? (Source for this: various interpretive signs at Beluga Point and Bird Point along the Seward Highway. I have a generally-reliable memory, but this is non-robust, source-wise).

Belugas are one of my favorite whales (perhaps only beaten out by narwhals, which are amazing). They have this lovely demeanor and they look like they'd be good friends. I learned by watching Wikipedia that they are sometimes called Sea Canaries because of their "high-pitched twitter". And also, through associated Wiki-drift, that echolocation and such elaborate chatter are restricted to whales that have teeth (Odontoceti).

Other Things Waterbound

We also saw a sea otter in the harbor at Seward. I've been reading James Michener's Alaska, which has a goodly amount to say about sea otters, so I wasn't taken by surprise by how big she or he was. He or she was big! And relaxed, swimming on his/her back and grooming and pausing to let us take photos and video. Did you know that sea otters have the densest fur of any animal? (Both roadsign park signs and Wikipedia agree on that so it must be true.)

Late August is spawning season for silver salmon on the Kenai peninsula, and we timidly peered into solid creeks of flipping, disintegrating fish, nervously scanning around for salmon-keen bears.

We were ill-timed (being mid-moon-cycle) and so weren't able to see the legendary bore tide in Turnagain Arm, but I, fascinated with tides in general, console myself by the claim that (from highway signs!) the bore tide hasn't been nearly as amazing since the 1964 Good Friday earthquake dropped the entire arm's seafloor by about six feet. The magnitude-9.3 quake put a number of communities (Portage, Girdwood, Hope) partially or completely under flood. They moved Girdwood up the mountain a couple of miles. They gave up on Portage entirely. Hope starts further inland now, the former water-frontage streets now part of the sea.

Late-summer Trip Perks

Flights and crowds in Alaska in the summer are usually painfully expensive and painfully present, respectively. However, we seem to have found a loophole. Maybe it was fare wars between Alaska Airlines and JetBlue, but round-trip flights in August to Anchorage from Portland could be had for as little as $157. And since we opted to camp, Anchorage's seizure-inducing lodging prices were mostly avoided other than the $275 or so we had to drop on an airport Holiday Inn Express because our flight (cheap, but...) landed at 2:00 AM. The return flight was also oddly-timed, leaving at nearly 1:00 AM, but on the flip side, I got to stare, ecstatic, at 90 minutes or the northern lights through my window, pale green and beautiful.

I recommend visiting this part of Alaska in late August—it's still summer, but the locals are all starting to talk about how winter is coming. The aspens are just starting to go gold (though the alders are still summer-leafed) and the crowds seem to have tapered a little. I'd also like to tout that I didn't get a single bug bite—another benefit of the later season. Camping on the Kenai is pleasant and easy, not bush wilderness but accessible landscape, landscape far bigger than average.