Friday 23 June 2017

The Harding Icefield Trail, Alaska

Given I'd already walked the first 2.8 miles of this trail on the ice climbing trip I wasn't sure if it was worth going all the way to the top. I asked around and was assured it was worth it, so I hiked the whole thing with my last active day in Alaska. It was absolutely worth it.

Theme song: The Wishing Well by Walter Martin.

Another warm day on the lower parts of the trail. Bug spray mandatory

Exit Glacier

Start of the snowy section. Probably the last 2-3km was under boot-deep snow. I was very glad to have brought my gaiters and boot chains.


Exit glacier flowing down the left, harding ice field feeding it from the right

Emergency shelter close to the top

Back at the foot of the glacier. They have put up signs showing the previous position of the glacier all the way back to the 1800s, which you start seeing on the road as you're driving in.

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Kenai Fjords Alaska Kayak Trip

Unable to convince any of my friends to come with me, I joined up with a couple and another guy who had already booked a kayaking trip in Alaska with Kayak Adventures. This was the main reason I was going to Alaska, and the centerpiece of the trip.

Theme song: The Wishing Well by Walter Martin.

The type of trip was called "mothership" which meant essentially we had our own private sailing boat driving us around and being a base of operations for kayaking fun. We ate and slept onboard, which was pretty luxurious compared to a wet tent on a beach. This video gives you a great overview of the trip and introduces Captain Mike and his boat The Starr.

Day 1: Seward to McMullen Cove

It was a gloriously warm sunny day when we left Seward. Resurrection bay is ridiculously pretty, and shortly after leaving Seward we saw a Fin whale, which are apparently fairly rare.

Fin whale

On our way to McMullen we also saw harbor seals, a mountain goat, a bald eagle, and a bunch of different seabirds, including puffins.

It's quite a long way around the cape and into Aialik bay, but by 3:40pm we were in our kayaks on the water, having our first paddle of the trip around McMullen and Quicksand coves. It was great fun exploring the coastline and getting a marine biology lesson from our fantastic guide Emily.

Unfortunately the great weather didn't hold, and it started to drizzle just as we got in our kayaks, but we were all completely waterproof from head to toe so it didn't actually bother us at all.

Paddling towards quicksand beach

Day 2: McMullen to Pederson and Aialik Glaciers to Paradise Cove

This day was the highlight of the whole trip. The tides were perfect for entering Pederson lagoon at a reasonable hour (I talked to someone in Seward who did it at midnight due to tides). There was a ton of ice in the lagoon which actually made paddling a little tricky. We pulled up onto land and looked out over a mass of ice. Pictures courtesy of my paddle friends, I didn't take any myself because my hands were freezing and I didn't want to get them out of my gloves :)

Pederson Glacier

We rode the tide back out to the boat, had lunch ,and headed to Aialik glacier. It's incredibly impressive, and quite eerie. We had the entire glacier to ourselves since we didn't start paddling until about 4pm, after all the day-trip boats need to head back to seward (huge advantage of the mothership trip).

We paddled through lots of floating ice bergs and listened to the thunder of the ice calving. We saw some decent-sized calvings, although nothing super-huge. We saw a house-sized iceberg roll over in the bay and create some waves. Also waiting on more photos from others here too, it was way too cold for getting my hands out of my gloves often. I was wearing thick neoprene paddling gloves, which were warm, but my hands were wet inside, so bringing them out wasn't fun. Also getting gloves off and camera in and out of the dry bag was quite a business. The other couple on the trip had a waterproof Go-Pro, which was a much better setup.

Aialik glacier

After Aialik we loaded the kayaks up and drove to Paradise Cove to sleep for the night. It was quite some distance, I don't think we actually cooked an finished dinner until about 10pm.

Sunset in paradise cove, sharing it with another boat

Day 3: Three Hole Bay to Seward

Just enough time for one last paddle before the long trip back to Seward. The water was incredibly still and glassy. Paradise cove was a beautiful paddle. We paddled out to Three Hole Bay (one of the bridges making a hole has fallen down, so it's only two hole now).

Shortly after I took this photo a humpback whale arrived and hung out with our kayaks for about 20 minutes. It probably got as close as 50m to us, which actually made us nervous since our guide had told us a story about her being tipped out of her kayak by a humpback once (although that's the only time it's ever happened to anyone in the area as far as she and the other guides know).

We loaded the kayaks back onboard and began the trip back to Seward. I was glad I had taken my travel sickness tablets, since the sea swell was decent as we came around the cape. As we were coming around we started hearing from other boats about a group of Orcas in the area.

Pod of Orcas!

Orca coming alongside then diving under the boat
We were lucky enough to see them and we hung out with a adult male, a mother and a calf for the better part of an hour. Twice one of them came directly alongside the boat, within a couple of meters, and then ducked under the boat. It was amazing stuff. Photos to come.

Notes on gear

I wore sealskinz waterproof socks with chaco sandals in the kayak and they were perfect. I needed 3 pairs of thin socks under the sealskinz for warmth. Beautifully dry the whole time.

Waterproof pants and jacket were essential for being on the boat and in the kayak. I wore a shirt, thermal top, light fleece and rain jacket on the top. Long underwear and waterproof pants on the bottom. Beanie and regular cap (to keep the rain off my face) on my head. When on-deck and the boat was underway I added a down jacket.

I used my own NRS paddling gloves (the warmest type) to keep my hands warm, but your hands get wet inside the gloves. The company provides pogies which are big mitts you attach to the paddle over your hands, which stayed drier. I liked the gloves better because they protected me from friction with the paddle. I couldn't fit the gloves under the pogies, that would have been ideal.

Waterproof Go Pro is the ideal camera setup. Getting a regular phone or camera in and out of the dry bag is a PITA, especially with wet gloves to take on and off.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Ice Climbing on Exit Glacier, Seward Alaska

Day 2 continued the action packed week, with an ice-climbing trip with Exit Glacier guides.

Theme song: The Wishing Well by Walter Martin.

We (five tourists, two guides) met in their office to get fitted with mountaineering boots, crampons, and helmets (as well as lunch and some snacks). After a short drive to the exit glacier parking lot we started hiking up the Harding Ice Field trail to access the ice.

The hike up is fairly steep and the day was warm, so we did it in T-shirts. The mosquitoes on the trail are pretty intense, definitely recommend bringing some repellent. You hike 2.4 miles to the "top of cliffs overlook" then turn left down an unmarked trail that takes you to the side of the glacier. This is the optimum point for ice climbing on the glacier: good width crevasses without too much snow.

View over the outwash plain from the Harding Ice Field trail

Exit Glacier

A glacier hiking trip starting out ahead of us

Crampons on, ready for ice

Setting up the first practice climb

Walking on ice

View up the glacier towards the icefield

Setting anchors with ice screws. We ran two ropes into each crevasse.

All up I think we climbed around 5 times in three different crevasses. Longest climb was probably around 20m. Some of the crevasses were much deeper in places (I couldn't see the actual bottom), but we usually just belayed down until we hit a snow bridge. Climbing wasn't physically challenging, more technically challenging being in the right posture, kicking your feet in correctly etc. We used the guides' ice tools to do the actual climbing, and just hiking poles for stability when walking on the ice.

We went from T-shirts on the trail to multiple layers, down jackets and shells on the glacier itself. It's dramatically colder air coming down the ice.

Looking up, about to climb

It was great fun, and much more interesting than just tramping around on the glacier. The hardest part of the whole thing is getting belayed over the edge of the crevasse. Anyone with good fitness should be able to handle one of these trips.

Saturday 17 June 2017

MTB: Lost Lake Trail, Seward Alaska

First activity of the Alaska trip: mountain biking the Lost Lake Trail, the #1 trail in Alaska on

Theme song: The Wishing Well by Walter Martin.

I rented a bike from the Seward Bike Shop:

The shop is run by Ron, who knows everything there is to know about local mountain biking. He didn't have full suspension bikes for rent, but I got a Kona hardtail for about $35/day. I posted the opening hours for the shop on the Google maps entry. You can actually ride to the trail from the shop (4.5 miles one-way), there's an off-road path beside the highway that looks like it goes most of the way.

I took the wheels off and fit the bike into the tiny little compact Toyota Yaris I had rented, which BTW cost almost $100/day with all the fees. Rental cars are really expensive in Alaska.

The trail is fantastic and is now in my top 5 rides of all time. Not super technical, so the climb isn't too hard, although there were probably a couple of places I pushed over a rocky ledge on the way up. It would be really easy to surprise a bear on the trail, especially when moving quickly on a bike, so I wore multiple bells and carried bear spray.

Descent is all downhill, pretty fast, obstacles are mainly rocks and small creek crossings. Lost Lake was completely free of snow on Jun 17, but there was still quite a bit of snow on the Primrose trail at the top. I went that way to check it out, and pushed through snow for a few km, but it wasn't particularly fun. If there's snow on Primrose when you get up there I wouldn't bother going too far.

From the top you can see all the way back to Seward and Resurrection Bay

Approaching Lost Lake

Lost Lake, with quite a bit of snow and ice cover hanging around

Turned right onto the Primrose Trail and almost immediately hit snow.

Great view of more of the lake from the Primrose Trail. Most of the camping spots are on this side in somewhat protected gullies. It's worth coming around this way a bit, to get this view. I kept struggling through snow on the Primrose trail for 4km before turning around again. I wouldn't recommend it, it was hard work and not fun riding.

Spectacular view for the start of the descent