Several weeks on, and a slightly more direct routing of only four flights saw me stepping off a flight at Anchorage International to meet my companions for the next week, Elsa and Juvy, and resume the adventure around Alaska and northern Canada. First stop after arrival was to check out the aircraft, which was sitting snug and happy after its stay in the Alaskan summer. We had a remarkably poor dinner at a downtown Alaska restaurant before turning in for the night at the AirBNB apartment we’d arranged. The next day the three of us explored Anchorage a little in the morning. Visits to souvenir shops netted me a large quantity of bear-themed T-shirts.
That afternoon we set out. The airplane was heavy with 111 gallons of fuel, three people, and three people’s gear. As a result I decided to taxi through the pilot-controlled gates to the international airport, past the cargo planes sitting on the ramp, and we departed from the 10,000+ ft main runway.
The flight took us a few short miles south across the Turnagain arm onto the Kenai peninsula. Low cloud hung around, but was more than good enough for the flight along the low ground. After touching down at Kenai we rented a car, although not without a huge amount of hassle from the Avis location flatly refusing to honour the online booking and insisting we pay more than double, or be left stranded.
We drove north along the coast road and after a pizza in a local joint on the way, found beautiful camp sites in the Captain Cook State Recreation area. That night the wind was blowing a gale, and the sound of the occasional large tree branch crashing down nearby did not make for a restful night! Thankfully, the falling timber avoided the tents, although a few large limbs did come close.
After packing up the tent site we drove back south to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge visitor center, who gave us a suggested route for touring the refuge (located quite some distance away from the center itself). Apparently there was a good chance of seeing bears, so naturally we set out for the refuge in high spirits. We spent the morning there, enjoying the views and some short hikes, but sadly saw very little in the way of wildlife.
Returning to the airport, we took off for our next destination, Homer. We didn’t have any particularly firm plans for what we’d do once we got there. The weather along the route was poor, so we didn’t get to enjoy much in the way of views. After arriving we hung out in the lounge of a local airline until the rain passed, and then set out to walk towards the town.
It was getting late in the day so the visitor center was closed; we ended up just walking down to the beach to see the meadows that hug the coast here before taking a taxi back to the airport, and making the short flight back north to the gravel strip of Ninilchik.
The strip at Ninilchik was deserted, but smooth with several parking spots available. We tied down the aircraft and set up the tents before exploring. Just across the road from the strip was a camp ground, which offered use of the showers for only a few dollars each. We washed up, cooked dinner on the camp stove, and settled in for the night.
After a very relaxing night at Ninilchik we set off south to the island of Kodiak. Kodiak is, unsurprisingly, the home of the Kodiak brown bear and is very famous for their bear population. Would this be the chance to finally see some bears? The weather was fantastic, and the flight south took just a couple of hours, landing at the city strip in downtown Kodiak. A local pilot arrived at the same time and welcomed us; he kindly gave us a lift to collect our rental vehicle. A lack of rental car availability on the island meant that we had ended up renting a 15 foot box truck from U-Haul to drive around in. At least there would be plenty of space for our luggage.
Our first stop was the tourist information office and visitor center in town. The very helpful volunteers gave us a good rundown of what we could do in a day (basically, drive just about everywhere on the limited road system), and suggested that we’d have a good chance of seeing bears on our travels. We set off to explore the island in our tremendously practical box truck.
We drove rapidly down the coast, stopping at points to enjoy the views, and split off east towards Chiniak. We clearly were not the only ones who’d had the U-Haul idea, which explained why all of the vans and smaller trucks had already been rented! At the end of the road was an old airstrip, used during WW2 and since then rarely utilised. It was still in fairly good condition, largely thanks to the steel mesh planking that had been used to surface it; I’d have hesitated to take the C182 in, but slightly more capable bush planes would have had no trouble!
Close to the air strip, visible through the binoculars, was an old WW2 bunker. We decided to hike out and explore it. There wasn’t much left of it now, primarily just the bunker itself and many chunks of metal left over from the guns. We entered the bunker with some trepidation (would there be bears? Meth addicts maybe?) but it was empty and covered in graffiti. From there we drove down to the southernmost end of the road system, stumbling across the Pacific Spaceport Complex. Opened in 1998, the complex has supported a total of 17 launches, both orbital and sub-orbital missions. Touring complete, we headed back to Kodiak for dinner, and then camping in the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Taking full advantage of our vehicle, we set one tent up in the back of the truck.
We had, so far, failed to see any bears. In order to rectify this we had phoned around every bear viewing company in Kodiak to see who could take us at short notice. Starting to despair, we called one last number and who should answer but Jay, the pilot we’d met at the Kodiak airport upon landing! He owned a bear viewing company and had spare seats in his Beaver for a tour. We signed straight up!
We met Jay at the seaplane basin early in the morning, and took flight south across the island for some bear viewing. It was a popular location, and several aircraft were already moored along the lake. A 15 minute walk from the late, a weir had been built across the river, and a salmon ladder constructed to allow the fish to get around this obstacle. The arrangement created ideal dining conditions for bears and we sat on a bank just feet from the water, watching numerous brown bears with cubs splashing around in the water catching fish.
Bear viewing was captivating, but all too soon it was time to board the Beaver and head back to Kodiak town. Jay dropped us off at our airplane and we took flight north, today’s destination being Denali National Park. We stopped first at Talkeetna to refuel, but to our displeasure found that the “24 hour self serve” that the FBO advertised was anything but; you actually needed an employee to dispense it, they’d all gone home before posted closing time, and the “Call for fuel” number just kept going straight to voicemail. Luckily the capacious tanks on the C182 meant we could continue to our planned destination safely, and plan for refueling after leaving Denali.
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