Travelling alone through Alaska.

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I’m not sure if I should share this secret with you, however I am approaching my 70th year of life so one starts thinking about oneself differently. Keep it secret OK?? ( An involuntary thought process I might add! ) When I run out of energy I think it Is my age. I never used to think that way… when I forget your name, I think that is my age!! When I park the car and have to think hard where I left it I blame my age! When I can not eat all my dinner, and I always used to eat everything on the plate, I blame my age! These days I struggle to cut my toe nails, that is a new predicament; so I blame my age!!  Two years ago I didn’t blame my age for anything…what has changed may I ask??? I’m not sure I want to hear the answers. But I can still catch good sized fish, laugh and enjoy life !!

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My14 pound Silver Salmon – caught and released to spawn!

People still say to me you have so much energy or you look sooo young. I like those people. I recently planned and booked an exciting adventure to Alaska. Before I went I was a little concerned how I might manage the driving on the wrong side of the road and  about being away from my friends and family for almost a month. Silly thoughts in hindsight. I managed absolutely fine. Many of you have husbands and wives to travel with – you are fortunate so don’t bitch when the navigation goes wrong, or he wears the wrong shirt with the wrong shorts! Enjoy the fact you have someone else to blame in life. I could only blame myself,f so I paid extra for a GPS …money well spent! I added in a couple of extra nights so I wouldn’t get too tired. In other words I took it calmly.

I say to you single folk out there don’t hesitate to go alone … book a trip, drive yourself, have fun and push yourself out of your comfort zone. You will come home feeling confident and young again. Well once you recover from the flight although I personally don’t believe in jet lag! I feel like I have been at a party all night and apart from tiredness I am fine. Don’t let being on your own stop you having an adventure! To my married friends keep on exploring; it keeps us all young!

Now about this latest trip. The first week was 6 days at Lake Clark National Park where I was invited with other photographers to observe and photograph brown bears. See my previous blog about the bears.

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Typical scenery Seward Highway

Following this week and a night to recover in Anchorage, I collected a rental car (avoid Hertz although the car was fine- rude staff) and headed off for 12 days to explore the wilderness of the Kennai Peninsula. No cruise ship moly-coddling until I am 80. “Concentrate on your driving Lynn” was all l thought about that first hour or three as I headed south  to Girdwood. Actually it was only a 2 hour trip. I took it quietly that first day!! I stayed at the beautiful Girdwood resort called Aleyska Resort for 2 nights. This is a ski resort in winter and in summer is a very pleasant stopover. I caught the gondolier to the top both evenings where I sipped a glass of wine and watched the sunset.The second night I dined at the Seven Glaciers a fine dining restaurant worthy of the claim, and I enjoyed the sunset over theTurnagin arm. Next day I drove to the scenic town of Whittier, 217 people live here, a fascinating seaside town through the Whittier Tunnel at 2.5 miles long this is the longest tunnel in North America.The tunnel is one way so check the hours and you do share it with trains and trucks. Now you are in the Prince William Sound complete with marina, glacier views and quaintness. I thoroughly recommend Varleys Seafood for Halibut and Chips, the best I had in 3 weeks. This town played a major role in war time but these days it is a largely forgotten and in winter it is virtually closed down!

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I also visited the Alaska Wildlife Centre a few miles from Girdwood. I pre-booked a behind the scenes tour but you can just pop in anytime. My behind the scenes tour had me feeding green beans to a porcupine, an apple to a very large moose and petting a small musk ox which is really a sheep! Quivet is the extremely soft hair gathered form these beasts for top of the line scarves and hats.It is very expensive; a high quality knitted scarf can cost more than 300 U.S. dollars, but will last over 20 years with good care. I actually decided New Zealand Merino would suffice in my wardrobe! The tides in this part of Alaska rise 30 feet so at times the animal park was under water however I saw most of the animals. They rescue animals that often would meet a certain death in the wild such as two homeless Lynx kittens  and a bald eagle with one wing and others.IMG_4057IMG_4072

I discovered some great coffee shops, the roads were good, the sun was shining and I was happy driving The Seward Highway. Sometimes one sees Beluga Whales off this highway but I was concentrating on my driving! Actually there are places to pull over to shoot the views and I did make numerous stops.IMG_4001

See the gondola shadow as we climb higher into the mountains.

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Aleyska Resort – Girdwood

Seward is a fascinating town. Many of the cruise ships start their voyages here but I only saw one. Mr Seward was a very forward thinking man – Seward is named after William H Seward the USA Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. In 1867, he fought for the U.S. purchase of Alaska which he finally negotiated to acquire from Russia. In 2015 we realise what a stroke of genius this was ! Seward was a partner in the law firm in New York where my son  worked for 4 years, Cravath & Co… small world.  Seward was badly damaged in the 1964 Alaskan earthquake 9.2, also known as the Great Alaskan earthquake or the Good Friday earthquake.  

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Beautiful red flowers along the highways

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The North Western Glacier ‘calving’- looks like an icy waterfall!

Around Seward and most Alaskan waterways in September there is an abundance of trout. They are heading upstream to spawn. Seriously wall to wall salmon in many small creeks and rivers. I spent two hours trying to capture these salmon jumping up a weir near Seward. Dertermination paid of for them and me as they achieved their goal and I got the photo!IMG_3010-Edit

Bear  Creek Weir.

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This National Park sign was slightly amusing at Exit Glacier near Seward.

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This is the boat they took President Obama out on from Seward the day I was there – a decoy older style boat!

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A sea otter basking in the sun in Seward. Note the jelly fish!

Currently the population of the Seward is 2,528. The quake and tsunamis ( 67 m high) caused major damage and today there is no high rise or waterfront building. I kept thinking about Christchurch when I was there. Seward boasts some great cafes overlooking the water. I sat and enjoyed lunch watching a sea otter playing in the marina outside. This is the town where the day cruises leave from and I fortunately had pre- booked  the 9 hour boat trip to the North Western Glacier. Most trips don’t go this far so I was indeed lucky. The boat passess beautiful scenery, Sea Otters, Humpbacks and Orcas. The boat passes over some very ripply water and this is an undewater moraine with powerful rips, we could see the water surging. The Glaciers are numerous and this North Western Glacier is impressive despite the fact that it too has receded in recent years. The booming noise as it ‘calved’  was something you need to hear to believe as the sound echoes around the  mountains. Harpers Sea Lions lay sleepily on the ice below. I saw several Humpback whales, sea otters and numerous Orcas on this trip.IMG_4669-EditThe Autumn colours were a beautiful contrast – this is Summit Lake Lodge an ideal stopover.

Back in Seward I also walked to the strangely named Exit Glacier where President Obama followed my foot steps the next morning!  Some one had to check the track for him!!   New Zealand has Fjords and Glaciers as well, but this is like New Zealand on steroids, they have dozens of glaciers and the wildlife is a real bonus. The regions and the people are different as is the food. Food in Alaska generally was simple, chips with Salmon, chips with Cod, chips with Halibut, chips with Spare Ribs, chips with Steak… I am sure you get the picture. Mind you the Spare Ribs and Black Cod or Sable Fish were memorable. I often saw NZ Sauvignon on the wine lists and once I spotted New Zealand lamb 🙂 Seward has a few tourist shops and excellent coffee. There is a  Safeway and  a small hospital, a large aquarium and several gas stations.This is a tourist town 100%.IMG_3668

A Tufted Puffin in Seward

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Spooky misty trees along the Seward-Homer Highway.

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I didn’t see a wild moose, however 85  motorists have been killed on the roads by moose this year!

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Nilinchick – old Russian cemetery

Nilinchick is a coastal old Russian settlement complete with a pretty turreted church and hundreds of jet black noisey ravens; or maybe they were crows! Voznesenka is at the end of the road near Homer…there were no road signs saying it was 4×4 road so I drove down the razor back to the beach before deciding if the ominous rain clouds dropped any moisture I may never return from the end of the road!! Hence I curtailed it out of there quite quickly! On Google it tells you the road is 4×4  only !! My Central Otago farm driving skills  became useful. The third Russian town I visited was Seldovia two hours by boat from Homer with no road access. A deserted little town but it had just hosted a world-chainsaw carving expo.     IMG_4419

Homer is a tourist town at the far end of the Kennai Peninsula, famous for the halibut fishing! Yes I managed to drag in a halibut, not as exciting as the 14 pound trout I caught  earlier in my holiday! In New Zealand we see many old cars abandoned, in Alaska it is old boats. Homer virtually closes down over the winter but in summer it is bustling and boat tours are plentiful. I stayed in a small Inn with friendly owners, the oldest TV I have  seen in years and sixties décor. In Homer there is little time to watch TV and the bed was comfortable. When I caught my Halibut I gave the Inn owners my fish and she returned a piece all seasoned with vegetables etc so I could cook my own dinner! Most enjoyable even on my own! I also had a wonderful dinner at The Homestead where they attributed the Pavalova to the Aussies but I set them right of course!

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The weather was absolutely beautiful for much of my trip however Homer lived up to its’ reputation and we had four moody, misty days. I saw my first ever fog bow, absolutely beautiful, albeit difficult to photograph.IMG_4497-Edit

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Seldovia had a chain saw carving expo.

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A beautiful spot for Seafood Chowder and Pinos Gris overlooking the Seldovia MarinaIMG_3740-Edit-EditHomer summer houses.

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One of the many abandoned old boats in Homer.

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IMG_4470Some serious fishing fleets – Homer & Seward

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In Homer they have an annual wooden boat day.
I also loved the way many of the small boating lakes provided spare life jackets for children. Is this something we could adopt in New Zealand?

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A typical roadside eatery – lovely people very helpful with directions!

IMG_4152-EditSo to finish my story, I had driven hundreds of miles and not seen a moose. My last day I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a moose, then did a U turn and back to see two of these magnificent animals. This is a Caribou or Reindeer.This chap was around 1.7 m to his shoulder…that is one large animal.I was so excited and watched them for 30 minutes or more before they wandered in the woods. I ended my holiday on ‘natural high’ with this relatively rare moment between myself and two Caribou.

If you have questions or comments please reply in the comment box. Enjoy and don’t stay at home another moment!

 

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Travel Trivia

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I loved my recent trip to Alaska, do put Alaska on your bucket list and don’t die before you get there!! Seriously it is magical. You can read about my week with the bears here.

Some of my comments  apply to other parts of the USA, not just the BIG state; some good some not so good!! But all written with you in mind, hopefully they are helpful snippets.

Tipping…I hate tipping, it almost spoils a pleasant dining experience. You are about to leave a restaurant following a delicious dinner and bingo!! The tip has to be calculated regardless of how good the service is.. Has it already been added?, always check this before adding your tip amount which is expected to run around 15% evidently. However many locals I gather only add 10-12%. I downloaded an app. to my phone which was helpful and I could set it to 15% or 12% or whatever.  There are numerous apps to assist you when travelling.

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I also got caught on a day trip on a tour boat, as we disembarked everyone was handing the crew/person who talked about the sights we enjoyed a tip over and above the fee we had paid!  Really!!

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Under this verandah in Seward were two restaurants – definitely not well sign posted.

Bottomless cups of Coke, Pepsi etc and Unlimited filter coffee seem to be the normal. I can never drink more than one at a time, but a nice gesture in most American eateries.

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The majority of Americans still think filter cona style coffee is great. Mention speciality coffee and they might point you in the right direction!  Alaska definitely has a culture of speciality coffee but there are many places like the Crown Plaza in Anchorage who have no idea! . Some shops sell nothing but coffee, not even simple food! Lots of roadside Alaskan cute coffee buses.. Hotels all seem to have FREE wi-fi. Last time I stayed in NZ or Australia this was not the case. Often only free in the foyers😳 IMG_4695

I love showers with spray heads, I only came across one bathroom with a hose spray shower. Most NZ showers have hose sprays – how else do you wash your underneath anatomy!!  Water doesn’t run uphill!! Oh well  just another American idiosyncrasie !!

Buying petrol, it is so simple in Australia and New Zealand but not in the big USA. Insert your credit card at the pump..it says “wait a Moment,” ( wait forever) go inside they say ‘try again, so you trot our dutifully and try again. No luck. Back inside. I ask is it because I have a Foreign credit card? The woman looks at me as though I am an alien… No kidding. She says to me you have to pay inside in advance. I ask how do I know the cost! “Well you can pay cash! Is there an ATM machine I ask?” “two blocks down the road” she mumbled, I might add it is raining !! Then she says “there is another garage in town you could try!” With that I drove to the next garage..went inside first off and the lady said I will put fifty on your card and if it’s less I will  refund you! OK I said and sure enough I received $5-75 change… All done with a smile. But it certainly was not simple.

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Another day I went to another Gas station and the machine accepted my card and I was done and dusted and refueled in minutes 🙂  On another occasion I was asked my zip code..I knew that wouldn’t work so I tried my sons’ American zip code but Visa knew that wasn’t right!! Back inside and this time the young lass held onto my credit card while I filled up and then she deducted the amount… Simple enough, but honestly American fuel businesses need a shake up!!!

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Food..burgers and chips paninis, Caesar salads , all pretty de ja vu – NZ we have a lot more ‘foodie’ eateries, Pacific Rim Cuisine is definitely a favourite of mine. I suspect NZ food is more expensive than the average traveller wants to spend though. High bar stools and booths are still very popular stateside. The best eateries often look quite dark and intimidating from the outside. Certainly you won’t find a meat pie for sale anywhere, hot dogs are the equivalent snack it would seem and endless chips.

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Key Lime Pie

Fine Dining… Yes definitely Alaska has some fine eateries. Seven Glaciers at the  Alyeska Resort in Girdwood and The Homestead near Homer are both well worth making the effort to dine at. Try specialities such as Halibut and Alaskan Salmon of course but don’t overlook the Kennai Scallops at Mykel in Soldotna, large succulent and sweet or the Black Cod called Sable Fish.

IMG_4088 The best Halibut and chips without doubt was in Whittier In a quaint little waterside café called Varley’s Swiftwater Seafood. I met people in there who had driven all the way from Anchorage for lunch and to enjoy the Halibut  ‘n chips and now I having eaten there I under stand why!! The best anywhere in Alaska.

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I couldn’t help noticing the bullet holes in sooo many road signs. Despite signs saying no shooting near the highways!!

Road side notices in many areas are Double Fines for exceeding the speed limit. I wonder if that would work in NZ.? Maybe at Maramarua which is a bad crash site in the north Island!! I didn’t see any mention of speed cameras and I saw only one patrol car !

In Canada the ferries to Vancouver Island run hourly and the voyage is 90 minutes, with waiting time 2-3 hours. Beautiful ferries, they take cars and people, 400 at a time. But strangely you cannot buy a beer on the ferry or either side in the restaurants catering for the passengers. Very strange I thought. Turns out Vancouver was a ‘dry‘ city for twenty years!! The other interesting thing is there was absolutely no security checks for these ferries. Plane passengers are so tightly screened and yet a ferry with 2-4 hundred passengers and cars no one checked a thing… Is that weird or what??

A cold beer is pretty good on a hot summers day -

A cold beer is pretty good on a hot summers day –

Rental car people; well Hertz in Anchorage anyway. No service – there’s the car and a mumbled thanks on return. How hard would it be to talk to the driver, ask where you’re heading, make small talk. On return ask how was your trip? After all this is one of the last things you might do in a country or city… Leaves a bad impression when they grunt and point to the elevator!! They are just there because they can’t get a job anywhere else! Students on summer jobs are so wonderful, interested in you as a person, happy to be working, great attitudes. Alaska has sooo many of them, wonderful. IMG_4635

Up close and Personal with Bears

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A Mama Grizzly walking past my lodge.

A Mama Grizzly walking past my lodge.

Silver Salmon Creek Lodge 45 minutes by fixed wing from the Anchorage plane hub. I have never seen so many small planes in one place, sea planes, old planes, new planes, red, yellow blue planes. ( Apology to Dr Seuss) Every colour and model parked alongside either the gravel roads..(runways) or estuaries for float planes. My chosen plane was literally a tin box… And after a lengthy warm up period we took off west along the main land of Alaska. We flew over river mouths looking for and spotting beluga whales below us. They chase the salmon into a river mouth before having a feeding frenzy but schedules prevented us witnessing this massacre! The pilot pointed out all the volcanoes and the scenery beneath us kept unfolding. Vibrant green meadows, pools of deep midnight blue water, trees, braided river mouths, turquoise water channels, islands and eventually a long sandy beach where our pilot touched down perfectly.

Typical scenery on the flight in.

Typical scenery on the flight in.

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Our group of 14 required two planes and on arrival on the deserted beach 4-5 ATV’s hooked to trailers (with cushioned seats 😀) collected us for the short drive to the lodge through a couple of fords and plenty of mud! I thought, happily,I was back on the farm. By now the sun was shining and lunch was ready. Introductions all round: our group included a writer, a Scotsman, a Pom who lives in German, one Canadian, one Kiwi and a handful of Americans. Bankers, farmers, an horologist, two vets, a nurse, a neurosurgeon, a dentist and computer ‘geeks’s. I mean that in the nicest way😀and moi. All of our group were photographers from those with enough gear to sink a ship through to a point and shooter… The 12 -24 mm lens was the one that impressed me! The staff were fabulous, they included a half Kiwi, Alaskans and so forth- the chef Vinnie haled from Texas and was excellent…pork ribs to die for and fresh perfectly cooked halibut and of course the dark pink, very rich salmon caught 5 minutes away so it doesn’t get fresher than that. I have survived the week on a satchet of hot coffee topped up with the unpalatable filter coffee…tasted good, my friends know I have a coffee addiction! However the Russian River Chardonnay was perfection after a long day bear viewing! So what happens at Silver Salmon Creek.

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Silver Salmon Creek

Silver Salmon Creek

The lodge is set on 40 acres and surrounded by the Lake Clark National Park. The Park is 2.6 million acres, surprising how few people have heard of it! Dave the owner of the lodge owns a Cessna 172 and the signs as you exit the lodge that say “look both ways for aeroplanes” are not a joke! We were divided into a variety of groups depending on your days chosen activity.

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Bear viewing being the most popular, but salmon fishing was also popular… The limit is two salmon daily. I caught three and released two. The 14 pound silver was quite a fish- and she is still swimming upstream to spawn and then sadly unlike trout she will roll over and die. I fished with a rod and lure but some folk were fly fishing.

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My 14 pound Silver Salmon.

The streams are idyllic and every so often a bear wanders into the river and the fishermen retreat to watch the bear catch a couple of fish. Bears have right of way everywhere in the park. Bear viewing is an adrenalin rush.

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We wear muck boots (Kiwi gum boots) as the fields are swampy in parts.the lodge rents waders, muck boots and fishing tackle and tripods and large lens….a pretty darn good service. So we head out to the river mouth to look for bears, there are about 9 different bears in the region this week, lone females or females with cubs. The male Grizzlies stay in the woods fortunately. Sometimes we sit and wait, other times we spot the bears and drive so far then stealthily walk across the fields to where they are. We generally give them about 100- 200 feet between us but sometimes they’ve been as close as 8 feet, no kidding! These bears are the 6th generation of bears used to humans so they ignore us but we are always told to huddle together when the bear gets close.

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The Bears frequently stood up on their hind legs.

The Bears frequently stood up on their hind legs.

The bears are busy filling up on the salmon before winter. The cubs are around 8-12 months maybe and they can’t catch fish yet. One Mummy bear lay down on her back near us and her two cubs suckled her…then they went for a sleep and we just sat in awe and silence watching this intimate bear family moment. So privileged. Then Mother bear tries to catch fish, often unsuccessful…they expound huge energy fishing and cover miles every day. They see a splash and leap,often missing their prey. Then they snorkel looking for salmon, funny to watch. After an active dive or two they shake their heads like dogs, a site to enjoy and all one can hear is the clicking of 14 cameras! When she catches a fish she often eats half of it before sharing with the cubs, a few fish die as they have already spawned and the cubs sometimes find these. The human group size is limited and the gun toting park ranger was around most days checking his territory and visitors to the park; a very pleasant fellow actually. A film crew arrived one afternoon to document a fly fisherman. There is one other lodge further up the road. The roads are local, everything comes in by plane or boat. No jetties and a tide that can drop and does 30 feet! One afternoon we sat in silence listening to the stream bubbling across a stony section of river, the odd plop of a fish jumping and observing the bears wandering silently along the river bank…so special. At times the bears are very vocal, the noise is similar to a contented cow mooing! There are bear foot prints in the mud and trust me those feet and claws are massive. Back at camp a cub tore strips of the laundry door! They have a keen sense of smell and will come into camp and steal the empty aluminium fish boxes, and cart them off forty feet before giving up… Every day we have had the big old mama grizzly wander through the campsite.

The entire 6 days has been adrenalin filled with daily bear encounters. Thank you to Dan and Tanya from Natural Exposures who have been taking groups of photographers to this unique spot for many years. 

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On two days I went by boat to Duck Island where the Horn Puffins live, the first trip we only saw a few as it was very windy and they had taken to the ocean fishing. Trip two was calm and what a transformation, puffins on every rocky outcrop darting back and forth in great activity, photographing a puffin in flight was challenging but so rewarding when one succeeded. These birds have exquisite face paint…beautiful. On another coast was an ancient fish cannery now closed down and derilect. Sitting around the camp fire was a fun way to relax at the end of the day but most people were in bed early, these days are tough, walking in boots through swamps takes it out of you!!! And bed becomes a desireable destination so we can leap out of bed at 6-30 and do it all again.

imageAfter all the perfect bear shot always awaits us! I travelled with a company called Natural Exposures and it was an Invitational trip. However you can apply to them and they have some amazing trips on their agenda. They’ve won awards for their trips so seriously check out their website.

Northern Lights - Alaska

One of the added adrenalin filled moments was waking up at 4 am and witnessing the Northern Lights.. This is what memories are made of!

Postscript – writing a blog on the iPad has a few difficulties so please accept my apologies re layout etc.