Journal 49:
Family                                                              Aug. 5 - Sept 1, 2014
Our final month in Alaska was filled with family visiting from Texas that included the Martins, Castillos and daughter Amanda. Additionally we went to Houston, AK to visit Cousin Shanna.
The Texas family visits were tailored to the length of their stays.  Overall we pub toured Anchorage, toured the Kenai Peninsula (including the Kenai Fjord National Park), several beautiful hikes, Denali National Park and with Amanda a special trip to Fairbanks to view the spectacular northern lights.
We were blessed to see many grizzly bears and Denali.  One day we saw more than 20 bears. From the Denali transport bus we had several fun, bear close encounters and two encounters on foot, not so fun.  The closest contact on foot was when walking with Amanda.  From a distance we noticed a bus had stopped to view something. Using binoculars I could see a huge grizzly on the mountainside.  As we got closer to the mountain the bear disappeared.  I had the bear spray in hand as we continued up the road and when we turned a corner there was a grizzly about 25 yards from us; way too close! We calmly retreated but the bear was following us.  The happy ending was a bus came down the road and we boarded it to get passed the bear.
Another scary moment was while on a park ranger led hike called the ‘Discovery Hike’ (aka the Disco hike).  We crossed a river and then hiked 2000 feet up a very steep mountain thru alpine tundra, whew!  When we reached the top the ranger suggested we go down the mountain ‘scree-skiing’. Scree is a collection of broken rock fragments at the base of mountain cliffs, volcanoes or valley shoulders. This scree was in a canyon that appeared straight down.  Long story short, we took the big first step straight down a vertical cliff. The journey was fun and safe with our feet submerging about 8” into the scree.  
This friendly guy put on quite a show rubbing his back against a tree, turning over in the dirt and casually eating grass before finally approaching the bus to sniff the tire then ambling away down the road.
The days are getting much shorter and the nights much darker.  With this change the Alaskan northern lights, Aurora borealis, can be seen. The bright dancing lights of the aurora are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. The lights appear in many forms from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky with an eerie glow.

The most popular location to view the northern lights is from Chena Springs, AK. Bathing in the natural thermal springs gives you something to do until the northern light show begins around 2 am.  We asked the staff about the best place to see the lights and they replied, “Look up!”  Sure enough the lights gradually appeared and like a fireworks show, they started off small and ended with the most eerie swirling colors imaginable.  Pictures and words cannot adequately explain the experience. 
Although it was still August fall colors were already appearing on the trees and alpine tundra.  The aspen trees were bright golden and the tundra displayed hues of red and yellow.  We saw many Pacific Humped Backed whales that were spending their final days in Alaska before migrating to the warmer waters of Hawaii. The tidal glaciers were still calving: huge ice fragments would plunge into the ocean and it sounded like an artillery shell exploding. 
From Mission, TX we began the journey north on April 1st and today we departed Anchorage for the trip ‘home’. Our summer vacation will have been 6 ½ months long and it has been glorious seeing friends, family, new sights and experiences while enjoying average summer high temperatures in the low 60’s.  There is now a distinct crispness in the night air and ice pellets and sleet are predicted for the first days of our 5,000+ mile trip south.

Best regards,

Brian and JoDon