Rainbow Lake

Another new adventure for me is Rainbow Lake, easily reachable by a trail off of Snug Harbor Road. What is so amazing about Cooper Landing is that snow-topped mountains always frame any vista no matter where you look.

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The trail is a well-maintained gravel path and relatively flat except for the beginning of the trail descending from Snug Harbor Road. The trail is nicely adorned with various vegetation, which I am guessing to be spruce, of various dimensions. Some are gnarled and others stood straight up.

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After a short walk, we arrived. Rainbow Lake is not a big lake, but the views are breathtaking! This will be one that we will definitely repeat over and over.

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Breathtaking Waikiki Beach

So we’re at the beginning of another season at Gwin’s Lodge (www.gwinslodge.com). In addition to putting out fires that inevitably erupt at the start of each season despite everything that we do and plan, we get precious opportunities to sneak away to enjoy the beautiful outdoors that Kenai Peninsula has to offer. One location is what the locals dubbed as the “Waikiki Beach.”

Off Snug Harbor Road is a semi-hidden opening and passageway to the shores of Kenai Lake. It’s unpaved and some big ruts have developed. Navigating carefully in a truck, we made it onto the beach. The view was spectacular.

Nearby, two women sat around a campfire with two dogs. It looked like they were preparing to spend the night. What an amazing place to spend a night under the stars!

We took plenty of pictures and proceeded to Cooper Lake and Rainbow Lake down the road. But when we came back on the return trip, I insisted that we stop by Waikiki Beach again, as the sun is now much lower on the horizon. I was expecting some more decent shots. And I was right!

The mountains and water were painted with an entirely different palette. These photos do not do the beauty justice! I consider this spot a must-see on the Kenai Peninsula!

 

Doing the Denali – the Tallest Mountain in North America

Denali or Mount McKinley is one destination we have been dreaming about. So in 2013 we finally made it there. From Gwin’s Lodge in Cooper Landing we drove up to Anchorage to catch the Alaska Railroad. The day started off rainy as we pulled into the train station and we quickly scurried in with our luggage. The agenda is 8 hours of train ride North to Denali, then a bus tour into Denali the next day, a free day of touring on our own, and then finally a trip back down to Anchorage on the train.

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And we did it in style! We were in the Goldstar class where we rode in a double-decker clear domed car equipped with a private bar that was at the head of the train. We also had access to an outdoor viewing deck. Below the deck is a full service dining car.

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The scenery along the railroad was breathtaking. Mountains after mountains, rivers and creeks. Fireweed blooming by the roadside. We chose to take the train so that all of us can devote our full attention to the scenery instead of navigating and driving. And the scenery didn’t disappoint. We enjoyed hot cocoa and attentive service of the Goldstar attendant in comfy cushy seats with our feet up. It’s not quite the Orient Express, but in our mind it was close enough.

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The train left Anchorage at 8 AM and arrived in Denali at 4 PM. We stayed in one of the cute cabins at Tonglen Lake Lodge (http://tonglenlake.com), a new lodge near Denali. The owner has four talented border collies who trains for agility competition. We had a great time playing fetch with them.

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Early the next morning we were off on our Kantishna Experience bus tour. This is the longest trip offered, lasting 11 to 12 hours, and traveling the entire 92 mile road into the park and back. Yes, it is a long bus trip but we didn’t want to miss anything.

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Here are some of my favorite pictures.

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We were let out of the bus at a number of points along the road to stretch and take in the view. My favorite spots were probably the Polychrome Overlook and the Eielson Visitor Center.

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A little ground squirrel greeted us at the Polychrome Overlook.

P1090394 P1090396 P1090414A caribou crossed the road.
P1090457 P1090505At the Eielson Visitor Center.P1090518 P1090520 P1090533 P1090542P1090570 P1090573

A ptarmigan by the side of the road. By winter time, these birds’ feathers are all white to help them camouflage in the snow.

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At one spot in the road, three female moose sauntered near the bus and gave us plenty of opportunities to take their pictures.

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The bus tour was a long but worthwhile trip. The next day we were on our own and we drove into the park to Savage River Loop Trail, the end of the 15 mile long paved road beyond which private cars are not allowed. We hiked on the 2 mile long Savage River Loop Trail, which was a nice and easy hike but very windy.

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We also saw the sled dogs’ kennel and saw a sled dog demonstration. All in all, it was a great trip and it was fun to seen Denali. Hope to come back soon.

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Hiking the Matanuska Glacier

Another item on our to-do list was hiking the Matanuska Glacier North of Anchorage. The scenic drive is two hours northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. The website http://www.matanuska-glacier.com/ describes, “The Matanuska Glacier is the largest glacier in Alaska that can be reached by vehicle.  It is approximately 26 miles long and 4 miles wide at its terminus.” On the way, we pulled over to an overlook of the Matanuska River, which was very low in August.

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At another overlook, we admired the river below.

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Matanuska Glacier Park is located at milepost marker 102.  This privately owned park is the glacier’s only access point.  An entrance fee is collected at the office which then allows travelers to drive up to and park next to the glacier. We also hired a guide who provided us helmets, crampons, and trekking poles. Our guide was a student from Spain whose name was Jasmina. At a park table and bench we put on the crampons to get ready for the adventure. We thought it would be cold walking on the glacier, but our guide advised us to dress light. She only had a T-shirt on!

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At this point there was ice underfoot but it was dirty from all the foot traffic. We walked further following our guide toward the towering glacier in the distance.

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Along the way we saw cravasses.

P1100579  I reached into a pool a water and pulled out this beautiful ice crystal.

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The glistening ice formations are beautiful with jagged ridges and points with breathtaking blue hues.

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We were glad we had a guide who carefully took us on a route along ridges and up steep inclines. She explained that each guide scout the route every morning because the glacier changes quite a bit from day to day. One day there may be a small hole that can be stepped across and the next day it may be too wide to cross.

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At this spot we filled our water bottles with refreshing icy cold glacial melt water.

P1100708 The melting ice sometimes formed strange and fascinating ice sculptures that shone in the sun. P1100716

The glacier is vast. Just by seeing the pictures of the glacier it’s hard to understand the scale unless there are people in the picture.

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These people are actually climbing the ice formations with ice picks and ropes.

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The tour ended up being three hours of pretty strenuous walking and climbing. Some spots required good balance and sturdy footing. However, I would definitely recommend this guided tour of the Matanuska Glacier!

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Copyright 2014 Gwin’s Resorts LLC. All rights reserved.

Whiterwater Rafting on Sixmile Creek

Gwin’s Lodge provides a full-service concierge service for our guests. One of the companies we use is Chugach Outdoor Center in Sunrise, Alaska that provides guided waterwater rafting on Sixmile Creek. Its website says, “[d]ropping over 50 feet per mile as it flows out of the Chugach Mountains, Sixmile Creek, near Anchorage and Seward, has cut its way through three separate canyons offering memorable Class IV and Class V Alaska whitewater rafting.” So one day in early August, 2013, the four of us left the comfort of the Lodge and went to Sunrise near Hope, Alaska.

After signing away our lives, we are grouped with other would-be rafters to get our dry suit  and life jacket on. It took a while to get the right size suits and helmets passed out and pulled on. We also had to find shoes that fit from a pile of used and beat-up sneakers. I guess that’s better than wearing our own shoes into the water. After everyone is finally outfitted, we get into vans and are transported to the launch site a short distance away.

We are divided into six-people groups and we chose Mudflap with a mullet to be our guide. In addition to the four of us, another lady joined our group. Keith knew Mudflap and we learned later that he is actually “famous.” Mudflap made an appearance as Sarah Palin’s whitewater rafting guide in episode 6 of her reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. After that episode aired, a comedian made fun of his name in a the monologue portion of the late night show (which I cannot remember!).

Before we proceeded, we all had to undergo a swim test. We lined up, waded into the Sixmile Creek, and had one last check of our equipment before we launched into a swim toward the opposite shore. The guy pulled the straps of my already tight life jacket and helmet to make sure they were on securely. We were told to swim toward the opposite shore and then kick up our feet and float toward a rocky shore where all the rafts are parked. Because of the current, it felt like I didn’t swim very far at all. The dry suit and life jacket constrained arm movement. However, I didn’t feel cold at all. The neoprene gloves I bought really helped to keep our hands warm and protected. One man actually cut his hand on a jagged rock while he was getting out of the water and had to abort his rafting trip.

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IMG_0182Once we settled into the raft, we were off. Mudflap explained what instructions he will be yelling out and what we needed to do. This is serious stuff as there will be five class V rapids in the third canyon. He will need everyone’s cooperation to get the raft going in the right direction and approaching the rapids in the right way. Our adventure began! The first two canyons were smaller rapids up to class IV. Zion actually fell out of the raft on one of the smaller rapids in a canyon and he quickly swam to the side and we were able to pull him out right away. That was very scary for me! Mudflap was excellent in yelling out instructions and we all tried very hard to follow exactly what he dictated.

Here is more excerpt from Chuagach Outdoor Center’s website: “Rising over 500 feet in places, these towering canyon walls are draped in a lush carpet of old growth rain-forest with cascading waterfalls pouring in from the sides. Crystal clear water with healthy salmon runs make this a river runner’s dream. Safely running Sixmile’s narrowly constricted passageways takes a coordinated team effort with technical and precise paddling. Working closely with your guide, you’ll be paddling while (s)he handles the oars. This oar paddling combination gives you power when you need it, as well as precise maneuvering capability.”IMG_0248

At the end of the two canyons, all the rafts were put to shore to give us a chance to rest and to back out before we venture into the third canyon that features five class V rapids called appropriately “Staircase,” “Suckhole,” “Merry-Go-Round,” “Zig Zag,” and “Jaws.” Images of Meryl Streep going down the Colorado with Kevin Bacon in the River Wild danced in my head but we only hesitated a second before committing to the third canyon.IMG_0356IMG_0355

Not sure if it was one of the class V rapids,but Keith almost tumbled backward out of the raft.

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At one rapid it was so narrow that the raft barely fit through between the boulders on either side. But with Mudflap’s expert steering and our paddling, we threaded through the rocks with ease.

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What a blast! Zion thought this was definitely the highlight of our trip (on which we saw Denali, hiked the Matanuska Glacier, and rode the Alaska Railroad train).

This was my TripAdvisor review of the trip: “As a group (two middle-aged parents with two older teens) we were unsure about going down all three canyons and ride down class V rapids with names like Staircase, Suckhole, Zigzag, Merry-Go-Round, and Jaws. I guess Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon going down that class V rapid in The River Wild traumatized me more than I knew. The swim test was strenuous, which put further doubts in my mind. However, Mud Flap (of the Sarah Palin’s Alaska episode 6 fame) made the trip entertaining, fun, thrilling, and safe for us. Mud Flap was very good about giving paddling instructions, and what to do if you do find yourself out of the raft (swim left or right, tuck into a ball to get out of the Suckhole, or take the whitewater rapid float position). We only had one swimmer (my son) the entire trip (and some close calls), and it was in the very first canyon. He easily swam to the shore and we were able to pull him in quickly. I would highly recommend Chugach Outdoor Center for your outdoor adventure!”

One final note. Earlier in the same year in May, there was actually a death on the river. A British guy came to Alaska to climb Mount McKinley. He successfully conquered that mountain and decided to do the rapids before he went home. Due to high waters from snow melt early in the season, the rapids were especially treacherous. He came out of the raft at Zig Zag and was not recovered. Another raft company was involved in this accident. http://www.adn.com/article/20130528/uk-mountaineer-killed-alaska-whitewater-rapid-accident

Copyright 2014 Gwin’s Resorts LLC. All rights reserved.

Hiking Exit Glacier/Harding Ice Field Trail in the Kenai Fjords National Park

In late August 2014 we decided to tackle the trail that would take us to a spot overlooking the Harding Ice Field in the Kenai Fjords National Park. Having owned Gwin’s Lodge for almost three years we still have not had the luxury or time to see many of the sights Alaska has to offer, and this was one that we have wanted to see. So on a clear sunny morning we left Cooper Landing and arrived at the NP near Seward.

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The NP website information provides that “[t]he 8.2-mile round trip Harding Icefield Trail is a spectacular day hike. Starting on the valley floor, the trail winds through cottonwood and alder forests, passes though heather filled meadows and ultimately climbs well above tree line to a breath-taking view of the Icefield.” We got our bearings at the visitor center and set out on the hike fairly late in the day at around eleven O’ clock, hoping for the best.

The trail started flat but soon started to rise in elevation. It had a lot of switch backs and some places were rocky where you have to be careful in placing your feet. According to the NP website, for every mile in distance, the trail gains about 1,000 feet in elevation.

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After seemingly a long time and a lot of effort, we finally make it to a point where we were awarded a peek of the Exit Glacier river bed below.

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There was a pretty waterfall and a bridge to cross it at 0.8 mile.

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We also spotted a waterfall in the distance.

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The going can be treacherous at times with very uneven footing and steep grade. We just keep our mind on the prize – that view at the top.

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Along the way there were some plants that had clusters of bright red fruit that brightened our spirits.

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Finally, we get to Marmot Meadows at mile 1.4 where we have a good view of the Exit Glacier.

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Patches of Fireweed have put on their Fall colors, adding splashes of bright colors on the hillside.

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This is a view of the river bed leading from the Exit Glacier.

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Finally we arrive at the Top of the Cliffs Overlook and we were awarded with a breathtaking view.

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By this time, it was around 4 O’clock, and we still had 1.7 miles left to go to get to the End of the Trail at 4.1 miles, with the return leg to get back down. We decided we probably should attempt the summit next time if we didn’t want to stay up there overnight and we were already pretty tired. This was a strenuous hike that further inspired us to train and get more fit for our next season back in Alaska!

Copyright 2014 Gwin’s Resorts LLC. All rights reserved.

Hiking the Slaughter Ridge Trail

It was August 2014, and I was up at the Lodge for the second time this year. I had been there in May to help get the Lodge opened for the season and welcome the new employees. At the end of August it was near the end of the season and I wanted to visit to check on everything and get to have a little bit of fun.

The weather had been pretty good – warm and dryer than normal. We had been wanting to tackle the Slaughter Ridge (or Slaughter Gulch) Trail. Many of our employees have made it up the trail where there is breathtaking views overlooking Cooper Landing and Kenai Lake. So on this morning we decided was the perfect day to do it.

Having inquired about the location of the trailhead from our employees, we had the kitchen pack sandwiches and snack for a picnic, and we set off. According to the Peninsula Clarion, “[t]raveling east from Mile 48 on the Sterling Highway, cross the bridge at the outlet to Kenai Lake. About .2 miles east of the bridge, find the intersection with Bean Creek Road. Immediately east of that, a short unmarked dirt road departs the north side of the highway and ends at the start of the Slaughter Gulch Trail.” At the turn off to Bean Creek Road, we noticed a couple of dogs by the side of the road. When we opened the car door a border collie looked up at us. The dog welcomed us and eagerly followed us up the trail. We didn’t think too much of it as we thought this is a neighborhood dog that likes to take people up the trail.

P1020484The beginning of the trail is in a temperate rain forest that was still wet from the previous night’s rain.

P1020495Along the way we spotted many different kinds of mushrooms and fungi. There was a small creek of crystal sparkling waters along side the trail. We also passed a couple of secluded houses hidden in the trees.
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After seemingly walking a long time in the forest, we reach higher altitudes and steeper grade in the trail.

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According to the Peninsula Carion, “The trail climbs roughly 1,500 feet in the first 1.3 miles, emerging on a bluff that overlooks Kenai Lake. The valley to the northwest runs to Slaughter Creek, which emerges from a small lake and drains into Juneau Creek by the Resurrection Pass Trail. Langille looms steeply from the valley’s northeast edge, ….”

Finally, we were awarded the first glimpse of the turquoise blue Kenai Lake/River as we reached above the treeline.

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We kept going, feeling refreshed and looking forward to even an higher perspective over Cooper Landing and Kenai Lake. The dog stayed with us and urged me on when I pause to rest or gauge the best spot to put my next step on steep slopes.

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Periodically we would stop to catch our breath and take in the vista. We again remind ourselves that we need to get into better shape so we can tackle more trails like this. Having just turned 50, this has to be a goal so I can enjoy more of the Alaska outdoors for many years to come. Many people tell me that Alaska is on their bucket list. I remind them that to really enjoy what Alaska has to offer, they need to make the trip while they can still physically hike the trails and climb the mountains.

The views over Cooper Landing is breathtaking!

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Some of the vegetation is already turning Fall colors, painting the hillside in patches of brilliant ochre and crimson.

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We finally reach a bluff that looked like the perfect picnic spot. The border collie shared in our sandwiches and chips to reward her for being the perfect guide dog.

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Finally, we make it all the way to the top and the view was breathtaking.

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There was a stone monument at the top, that said, “In loving memory of Wayne Fritz Koecher, 15 April 1981-2 January 2006.” What a lovely way to remember someone.

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Our loyal hiking companion was even a little tired. After exploring the top of the ridge for awhile and taken many many pictures, we started back down. On the way we encountered a local and started chatting with him. He claimed to climb this trail at least a couple times a week as it is one of his favorites. So we asked him about the dog. He looked at the border collie and said he’s never seen her before. That totally negated our assumption that this is a neighborhood dog that just likes to take people on this hike. We looked at her tag and saw that the phone number on it wasn’t a local 907 number. So we called the number and talked to the owner who discovered the dog was missing that morning. Having made arrangements with the owner to meet her at the trailhead at the bottom of the mountain, we kept going down the trail. The owner was there waiting for us when we finally retraced our steps and reached the start of the trail. We were happy to be able to reunite her with her dog.

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This was a wonderful hike that I look forward to doing with the kids when they come up. It can be a bit steep at sections, but it is definitely doable for two middle-aged not very fit people. I loved the companionship of the dog who kept our spirits up. What a wonderful way to spend a day in Alaska!

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Copyright 2014 Gwin’s Resorts LLC. All rights reserved.