sealife

National Park of American Samoa

National Park of American Samoa our 59th and final national park!
Receiving our 59th park certificates from NPS Ranger Pua Tuaua

Our 59th and final park!If we didn’t save the best for last, we certainly saved one of the best for last!  Nearly two-and-a-half years after we began our journey to visit all of the national parks, we have finally visited our last one — The National Park of American Samoa.

This was our last park primarily because it was the most difficult to get to.  It is south of the equator in the South Pacific Ocean; closer to Australia than to the United States.  Hawaiian Airlines flies there just twice a week from Honolulu, so our routing took us from Los Angeles to Honolulu for an overnight, and then on to Pago Pago [pronounced PAHNG-oh PAHNG-oh] the next day.  Elapsed travel time to reach this island chain was just over 24 hours for us, 12 of which were in the air.  Clearly, traveling to this national park requires commitment!

Because we had some difficulty trying to find out how to best visit this final park, I am going to provide more logistical details in this post for those readers who plan to tackle American Samoa at some point.  In fact, I will write two separate posts — this first one will focus on the geography and our experience in the park itself; the second one will share more of the fun, cultural things we did during our week-long stay in American Samoa, and provide some hopefully helpful information and links for travelers who plan to make the trip here themselves in their own quests to visit all 59 [at the time of this blog post] of our incredible national parks.

Samoa IslandsHistory and Geography — The Samoan Islands are part of Polynesia, and while they have been populated for over 3,000 years, they have only been known to the western world for a little more than two centuries.  Samoa is referred to as the Heart of the South Pacific, and it is believed to be where all Polynesian people originated.

The Samoan archipelago includes the independent nation of Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa) and American Samoa, a US territory approximately 60 miles to the east.  While both share a common language and culture, each has distinct natural features, and fun fact: because the international dateline separates these two nations, American Samoa is one hour earlier than Hawaii and Samoa is one entire day earlier.

Matafao Peak, at 2,142 feet, is the tallest peak on Tutuila
Matafao Peak, at 2,142 feet, is the tallest peak on Tutuila

American Samoa consists of seven primary islands: five rugged, highly eroded volcanic remnants and two uninhabited coral atolls.  Visitors fly in to Pago Pago [airport code PPG] which is located on Tutuila [too-too-EE-lah], the main island, and this is where most of the 70,000 residents of American Samoa make their homes.

The view from atop Mount Alava of Pago Pago Harbor
Pago Pago harbor and the villages of Pago Pago and Fagatogo as seen from the top of Mount Alava (which we climbed!)

Pago Pago Harbor is a collapsed volcanic caldera and it is one of the largest natural harbors in the South Pacific.  A steep mountainous spine runs the 20-mile length of the island with a few notable peaks including Tutuila’s tallest mountain, Matafao Peak (2,142′); Rainmaker Mountain (1,718′); and Mount ‘Alava (1,610’) looming over the harbor.  There are a couple of main villages with hotels (just four on Tutuila), restaurants (maybe a dozen, including two McDonalds that, like in mainland U.S., are a favorite of all the children), markets, office buildings, banks, etc., around the harbor, and then many smaller, more primitive villages scattered around the perimeter of the island.

National Park of American Samoa — The National Park of American Samoa consists of 9,500 acres, virtually all of which is rainforest, on three islands.  Tutuila is where the Visitor Center and the largest tract of park land can be found.  Ta’ū (tah-OO) and Ofu (OH-foo), 60 miles east of Tutuila, are sparsely populated islands where a couple of villages have only a few hundred people.  American Samoa’s tallest peak, Lata Mountain (3,170′) can be found on Ta’ū, and Ofu features sand beaches and coral reefs with a mountain backdrop.  In addition to the steep cliffs and rainforest area, another 4,000 acres of the park are offshore and under water.

Visitors to the National Park of American Samoa see land that is largely undeveloped, and the facilities found in most national parks are lacking here.  A few park information kiosks and placards can be found, but by and large, this park is enjoyed “with a bit of the explorer’s spirit” as the park brochure suggests.

NP of American Samoa Visitor Center
The Visitor Center – closed on this day, but we posed with the poster I made and came back on another day

As is always the case when we visit national parks, we attempted to make the Visitor Center our first stop, but after walking a mile from our hotel (in temperatures in the high 80’s and with lots of humidity) we saw the sign on the door that they were only open Mon-Fri from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  But not to worry, we took photos of ourselves by the front door, then using our “explorer’s spirit” meandered around the town some and hopped on one of the “aigas” — the unscheduled buses (more about these in my second post) — to go explore around the town.

A couple of days later when we came back to the Visitor Center, we were very impressed with the educational content on display, and very pleased that a school with 5th – 8th graders had come on this day to learn more about the park on their island.  We engaged a bit with the students, and the teacher,  Faia’i Vaeao, and made a plan to stay in contact with all of them at the Peteli Academy.  And as a very nice surprise, once the rangers knew that this was our 59th park, they asked us if we could come back the next day as they would have something for us.  We obliged and were absolutely thrilled when Rangers Pua Tuaua and Pai Aukuso-Reopoamo presented us with special certificates proclaiming that we had been to all of the national parks!

I’ll conclude this first post by sharing some of the photos we took while hiking on one of the few trails in the park area; this one took us 3-1/2 miles up through the rainforest and along the ridge line to the top of Mount ‘Alava where we enjoyed incredible views of the island before hiking the 3-1/2 miles back down.  We were joined by several new friends we made at our hotel, Sadie’s By The Sea — I’ll be writing more about that in my next post; this one is long enough!

Fred’s Kenai Fjords National Park and Preserve

Below are a few photos from our recent visit to Kenai Fjords NP and Preserve.  As you will see, there was plenty of wildlife and stunning mountain-rimmed fjords, and I took a four-mile hike up to an expansive icefield and glacier.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in this album.  To close the album, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

Wildlife

 

Fjords

 

Harding Icefield and Exit Glacier



Kenai Fjords National Park and Preserve

Kenai Fjords NPThe second of six national parks we’re visiting on this year’s trip to Alaska, Kenai Fjords National Park is very similar to our first park [Glacier Bay NP] in that to visit and take in the park you must spend time in the bays of the Gulf of Alaska.  Kenai Fjords was established as a national monument in 1978, then made a national park in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).  While a fairly new national park, its story began in the Pleistocene (Ice Age) some 2.5 million years ago.  The park has undergone constant change since then thanks to the Earth’s crustal movements and changing global temperature and precipitation amounts.

That's our destination: Aialik Glacier
Aialik Glacier – one of several we saw during our 6-hour Kenai Fjords boat cruise

Aialik Glacier

Kenai Fjords NP protects The Harding Icefield, an expanse that covers over half the 670,000-acre park, and glaciers reach down from this massive ice age relic.  Annual snowfall rates of up to 60 feet per year continue to pack onto the already-thick ice, then gravity tugs these ice sheets down and they become giant bulldozers.  As the glaciers recede, they uncover U-shaped valleys that fill with sea water, creating the stunning fjords (pronounced f’yords). This seemingly inhospitable environment is actually teeming with life, and this is what we came to see.   We took another day-long boat trip out of Seward, traveling around the peninsulas and into the fjords.  Humpback and Orca whales treated us with their presence in the waters, as did Dall’s porpoises, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and cute little sea otters floating on their backs.  In the air and on their nests: bald eagles, cormorants, common murres and black-legged kittiwakes.  On the steep-sided mountain slopes: three mountain goats.  On the beach: a black bear.  We enjoyed two species (horned and tufted) of fun and bright-beaked puffins.  A crazy adaptation here in this dynamic place, these champion diving sea birds actually swim better than they fly, and it is estimated that they can reach depths some 250 feet down in these frigid waters. 

Oliver getting his shots - from Uncle Fred's camera
Ella & Oliver found Fred’s photos to be better than theirs, so they used their cameras to take pictures of his viewing screen – much better images!

Fred’s photo post shares really terrific photos of the many creatures we saw on our boat cruise day.  Both Ella and Oliver used their kiddie cameras to shoot wildlife photos of their own, but discovered that taking a photo of Fred’s viewing screen on his camera produced a lot better animal close-ups — too funny!  Another favorite, funny moment on our boat trip was Oliver, a.k.a. “Big O” (he liked that name Fred gave him), pretending to be “Freddie” — he donned Uncle Fred’s glasses, wide-brimmed sun hat, and hoisted one of his big cameras for some serious photography of his own.  Ah, the joys of traveling with these two precious kids!

 Chris, Ella, Oliver, and LoLo at Exit Glacier
While the Kenai Peninsula features some 40 glaciers, the only one accessible via the road is Exit Glacier, to which park visitors can hike.  Fred opted for the 8-mile hike up along the side of Exit Glacier to the Harding Icefield — see Fred’s Kenai post for photos of his hike.  Chris, Ella, Oliver, and I chose a shorter, more kid-friendly hike.  Because this one is pretty heavily visited, roping keeps tourists back a bit; we’ll be able to approach others in upcoming parks and we will actually be able to climb on them.
LoLo, Ella, Oliver & Chris in KenaiWe had a fabulous time visiting the Kenai Peninsula and Kenai Fjords National Park.  Being with one of my best girlfriends (we’ve known each other for 33 years now!) and her kids really made the trip extra special for both Fred and me.  Ella and Oliver are very close to our hearts, and spending two weeks of our five-week Alaska trip with them has been an unforgettable joy…!

Oliver & Ella in Seward

Scenery and Seafood in Seward

Seward Harbor
Seward Harbor in Resurrection Bay

Seward, Alaska, is another great town in the Kenai Peninsula.  It’s home to the Visitor Center for Kenai Fjords National Park which is why we routed here, but this is a cool little coastal town (pop: 3,000) to visit even without national park activities.  We spent three nice nights here — July 17-19 (yes, I’m behind with my blog posts!) — another ‘end of the road’ destination one reaches by driving the beautiful and scenic Seward Highway south out of Anchorage to where the road literally ends at Resurrection Bay.

The Richards + Fred in Seward
Chris, Oliver (who liked Fred’s new nickname for him: “Big O”), Ella and Uncle Fred, a.k.a. “Freddie”

We are still traveling with my sorority sister, Chris, and her two delightful kids, Ella (10) and Oliver (8-1/2).  Before we were each married, Chris and I traveled a lot together over the years, and now it’s been fun to add the kids and Fred into the mix.  The three of them bring a fun and silly energy to our once-quiet travel.  [Chris, remember the time when the two of us could sit and enjoy a bottle of wine in peace and quiet?!?  Oh, how the times have changed, but I wouldn’t trade them for a single minute – being Aunt LoLo is the best!]

We stayed at the Hotel Seward which bills itself as ‘historic.’  Upon checking in we realized this meant ‘slightly old and a little worn,’ however it didn’t matter; the whole town is a little dated [with the exception of the very modern and very cool Alaska SeaLife Center] and we did find the accommodations really quite nice.  The kids especially liked all of the mounted animals in the old lobby.  I especially liked the pink shower surround in my bathroom!!

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in this album.  To close the album, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


I’ll post more about our park activities in my upcoming Kenai Fjords National Park post, but here are a few photos Fred captured depicting what goes on at the docks when the fishing boats come in:


Before and after shots of my Alaskan King Crab dinner on our final night in Seward:


We all had a really great time together in Seward — lots of funny things to laugh about… lots of giggles and wiggles (Oliver!)… and lots of beautiful scenery and fresh seafood!

Seward, Alaska
Resurrection Bay at the end of Seward

At Home in Homer

When I was in Alaska with my nephew Kyle nine years ago, I vowed to come back someday and go to Homer.  Don’t ask me why… I hadn’t known anything about this little town at the time, nor did I know what drew me to it.  All I knew was that I had to visit Homer.  So when I began to plan this trip a year ago, I knew I would be routing us down the Kenai Peninsula to finally pay Homer a visit.

Homer is a funky little town at the end of the Sterling Highway some 200 miles south of Anchorage.  It’s the true end of the road on Alaska Highway 1.  It features the Homer Spit — a long piece of land jutting out into the Kachemak Bay, and the road extending out onto The Spit, at 4.5 miles long, is the longest road into ocean waters in the world.  Shops along a boardwalk, a boat harbor, local art galleries, bars and restaurants, and even a couple of RV parks — we could have driven Charley up here! — are alive all summer long as the town really swells during the summer tourist season, then all but closes down during the wintertime.  And if all this isn’t enough, Homer is known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” so its restaurants serve up delicious halibut, salmon, black cod, and other delectable fruits of the sea in quantities (large) and prices (reasonable) not seen back in the Lower 48.  It’s just 10 miles across the glistening bay to the mountains which are frosted with snow and glaciers.   Where there’s a prettier view in the world, I’m not sure.

Lori, lovely proprietor of the Bay Avenue B&B

As it turns out, I think I was supposed to come here.  I had made accommodations for us at the Bay Avenue Bed & Breakfast, and from the minute we walked in the door, I could feel that this place was special.  Lori, our lovely and gracious hostess, made us feel right at home in her well-appointed, Spit-overlooking house on the bay.  We visited some before heading out to a dinner featuring the above-mentioned halibut (yum!), but it was the following morning that it happened.  Let’s just say Lori and I bonded and don’t be surprised to find me doing a little stint with her up here next summer!

Unfortunately we had to leave Homer after just two days (why hadn’t I booked a longer stay here?!?) but not before learning many wonderful things about Alaska from Lori, enjoying her delicious breakfasts washed down with her locally-harvested tea, and if I’m honest, falling in love with Homer.  If it wasn’t so far from family and friends back in the Midwest, I think, no, I know, I might just like to call Homer “home.”

This photo and the one above it of the famous Homer Spit are not mine; they’re taken from Wikipedia.  I’m not sure how to legally site them, but this is my best attempt at providing this disclaimer.  Next time I visit Homer I’ll go up the high ground and take the shots myself.  Until that time, enjoy these.  

P.S.  When traveling to Homer, we passed through the village of Anchor Point.  In keeping with our goal of traveling to the four Extreme Points in the U.S., we recently visited Cape Alava, Washington, which is the farthest western point in the Contiguous U.S. — see Westernmost Extreme Point post — and that’s how we defined our N-S-E-W points goal.  But for the record, Anchor Point is the farthest western point in the U.S. that is accessible by road, and it’s much farther west than the state of Washington.  If we make it to Barrow, Alaska, that little town is the farthest northern point in the U.S. accessible by road.  Next year we may just have to go there….

Fred’s Whale of a Tail

Forty tons.  Fifty feet in length.  It is one to the largest living beings on Earth.  On two different occasions we cruised in icy, cold waters and watched these beautiful animals surface, blow, and then hunch their backs and dive into the depths of Alaskan waters.  If we were lucky, we caught them as they glided momentarily on the surface and then dove with a broad tail as the last thing that we would see before they surfaced again.  The images below are what I was lucky enough to capture on our two cruises in Glacier Bay NP, including a great one that took flight.

 

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in this album.  To close the album, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.

We’re in Alaska! Glacier Bay National Park

We’ve actually been here for nearly a week, but as we figured, we would be challenged with Internet connectivity in some of our more remote locations.  Well, we started out in one such place — Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve — but boy! were there other things to do besides write posts and work on our website!!

In review, we stayed at Glacier Bay Lodge right in the park for five days and nights, giving us plenty of time to take it all in.  Highlights of our time in Glacier Bay include:

»» We took a day trip on a boat 65 miles up into Glacier Bay — all the way up to Johns Hopkins Glacier.  It was incredible!

»» We went whale watching — Fred’s photos of this amazing day posted shortly.

»» We rented sea kayaks and explored the cold bay waters of Barlett Cove.



»» We hiked the local trails through the spectacular rain forest here in southeast Alaska.

Below are a few of Fred’s photos of a bit of the wildlife we encountered in Glacier Bay NP – more to follow when Internet connectivity permits.

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in this album.  To close the album, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


Incidentally, seeing a wolf is a very rare occurrence.  Seeing one eating the carcass of a moose calf is practically unheard of!  So Nat Geo!!!

Olympic National Park

Olympic NPOlympic National Park is one of the last unspoiled and untamed places in the United States.  Its landscape of rugged peaks, steep cliffs, dense forests, and wild rivers made it difficult to navigate and settle back when the European Americans were first on the scene here in the late 1800s, although Native American hunter-gatherer tribes had lived off this land and its rich resources for thousands of years.  Visitors to the park today find it largely a wilderness area, and only a few roads penetrate into the park for short distances.  This is just the kind of park the Jollys like, and happy were we to stay in a couple different places so we could visit all areas of the park and enjoy it over a leisurely eight days.

Fred & Laura at Olympic NP - Mt. Olympus in the background

There are three main ecosystems in Olympic NP.  The first features high mountains with subalpine forests and alpine meadows.  Visiting the Hurricane Ridge area and hiking 11 miles of trails in this section of the park, we were treated to high-point views of the Olympic Mountains and the 7,980-foot glacier-topped Mount Olympus.  Below are some photos of our most spectacular hiking in this area:

If you click on a photo, you can see a larger version of it.  You can also use the arrows at the bottom (click on the photo if they disappear on you) to scroll through all the photos in this album.  To close the album, click on the ‘X’ in the top right corner.


While staying north of the park at Elwha [outside of Port Angeles where the main Visitor Center is located], we also took a day to visit the Crescent Lake and Sol Duc hot springs areas which are on the north side of Olympic.  We chose a good 8-mile round-trip hike out to Deer Lake which started out easy enough with a fairly level 0.8-mile trek through some really nice old growth trees to the lovely but sadly anemic [due to the severe drought throughout the Pacific Northwest] Sol Duc Falls.  But then the party was over and up we had to go on a steep and rocky path for another 3+ miles up to Deer Lake.  We ate our lunch beside this beautiful, serene lake nestled in a grassy bowl in the mountains [at 3,550′] with forest all around – talk about a dreamy day!  Along the hike back down, we met and talked with fellow avid hikers, Patti and Joe, and lucky them, this is practically their back yard!  They gave us lots of good suggestions for enjoying our remaining time in this area; always a welcomed and appreciated gesture, especially from people who really know the area and seemingly like to enjoy it the way we do.

 

Ruby Beach in Olympic NP
Ruby Beach in Olympic NP

A second area of the park / ecosystem is the coastline that is in some parts sandy, in some parts rocky, but in all parts quietly rugged and beautiful.  This non-connected strip of Olympic NP runs nearly 75 miles along the Pacific Ocean, next to and around several remaining Indian Reservations.

Kalaloch NP CG
Kalaloch NP Campground – we spent four nights here along the coastline

After four nights up north, we came over to the ocean and dry camped (no water or power hook-ups) for four more nights in Kalaloch Campground, one of the National Park Service’s several campgrounds in the park.  We used this site to visit the western parts of the park.


As mentioned in a previous post, we hiked 3.1 miles along a coastal trail out to Cape Alava, the westernmost point in the Contiguous U.S. [see Westernmost Point post], and also found ourselves enjoying the quiet beauty of the stacks, driftwood, and rocks at Ruby Beach.

The third section of the park is on the western side of the mountains and is primarily a rain forest.  Lush ferns cover the ground where the shrubs and tall trees haven’t already taken space.  Mosses hang off the huge trees, and it’s truly spectacular to walk through this forest primeval.


This section of Olympic NP, the area around the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, was Fred’s favorite part, and he’s posted some cool photos of this section already — see Fred’s Olympic NP post just below this one.

Wild goats - a mama, year-old kid, and couple-of-weeks old kid
A wild mama mountain goat leads her year-old kid and a baby kid just a couple of weeks old

I could go on and on with photos and stories and cool things we saw and did in Olympic National Park, but I’ll close this post with the mountain goats.  We ran into a few wild ones along the beautiful Klahhane Ridge Trail, and while they were very neat to see, they are unwanted creatures in the park.  Not native to this part of the state, they were introduced here in the 1920s and have been causing problems ever since, including one of them going rogue and impaling a hiker with his horn a couple of years ago.  The National Park Service is currently evaluating options for addressing the goat situation, for they now number over 1,000 in the park, they’re becoming more aggressive with humans, and they continue to damage the indigenous plant life.

Staying warm in Florida, and staying a little while longer….

Tamiami Village - our Florida digs for a couple of weeks
Tamiami Village – Charley’s digs (he’s the one straight ahead) for nearly a month here in Florida

We’ve been hanging out here in Florida for a while now – in fact, it was a month ago that we pulled into this state.  At the suggestion of someone we met way back in August up in Pennsylvania, we chose to stay in the Tamiami Village RV Park in Ft. Myers for a few days over Christmas.  We then left Charley in their back storage lot for a couple of weeks while we met up with the Jolly family in Ft. Myers Beach for the big wedding and then gallivanted around the ocean side of Florida and in St. John before coming back to Tamiami for another week.

Active shuffleboard league
Like a scene out of Cocoon, shuffleboard!
The schedule at Tamiami Village RV Park
This is an active group!

Tamiami is a large RV park with trailer homes in one section and snowbirds in RVs / motor homes in the other.  There is an active, very friendly group of folks that seemingly come back year after year to this place, and we can see why.  We were greeted almost immediately by our ‘neighbors,’ Bob & Nancy, who couldn’t have been nicer.  They helped us all week long with tips and suggestions on what to do while in the area if participating in Tamiami’s weekly Euchre, Texas Hold-em, and other card games, or shuffleboard, the spaghetti dinner or ice cream social wasn’t enough activity for us.

Cycling out on Sanibel Island
Cycling out on Sanibel Island

One of their suggestions for us was to take our bikes out to Sanibel island.  We biked some 20 miles all over the well-laid-out bike paths, visited the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, had a delicious lunch – we can’t have too much seafood while we’re down here! – and finished our afternoon with a visit to the beautiful old Sanibel Lighthouse, then a dip of Sanibel’s famed Pinocchio’s homemade Italian ice cream topped off with an animal cracker – yummy!

11-mile bike ride to Mel's Diner for breakfast
Mel’s Diner – we earned our big breakfast after cycling 11 miles to get here

Another great suggestion from Bob & Nancy was to bike over to Mel’s Diner.  While this one was a lot fancier than Alice & Flo’s Mel’s Diner, the breakfast we had after biking some 11 miles to get there was delicious – another great activity while in the area.  Throughout the week we also took in a couple of movies which we have only done one other time in these last eight months, enjoyed another visit and delicious dinner with Aunt Carolyn & Uncle Bob, and generally just relaxed and enjoyed our stay at Tamiami Village.

We are sure enjoying the weather down here at this time of year – but then again, who wouldn’t?!  When we do bother to look at a weather map, we often see that we’re nearly 70 degrees warmer than back up in Chicago – not a bad place to hang out for a little while longer….