Sunday, July 26, 2015

Notes from Alaska - July 19 - 25

This post covers our travels for the week of July 19 through the 25th.

Sunday, July 19 (day 43) Ninilchik to Anchorage
Ninilchik View SRA CG

After getting things stowed and ready for travel, we took the 105 stairs down to the beach for an encore a.m. walk. This morning was brighter and clearer than yesterday, which wasn’t bad, but this morning was crystal clear with no clouds. The IRS volcano/mountains across the inlet were out in all their stark splendor. And the family of bald eagles we first spotted yesterday was out enjoying the morning as well. After more observation we now think there’s more than one set of adults in this immediate area, and one of the sets has a couple of youngin’s that are still in a nest. It’s well hidden, and we didn’t actually see the chicks, but you could here them and follow the adults into it as they brought in food.

Rolled onto the very busy Sterling Highway about 10:30am… aiming for Anchorage. It’s a great day for travel, but the heavy traffic keeps a driver busy with driving, and not as much looking around at sights. I’m resigned to this being a congested day since it’s Sunday… and all those Anchoraginians? Anchoragites? who were down dip-netting in the Kenai are going to be heading home. And, we know Anchorage, being a big town, is going to be busy regardless of the day and time. Just slow down, relax, take deep breaths, and let nature take it’s course. Enjoy your drive, Grasshopper.

We did have one nearly tragic incident when we stopped at a rest area near the junction with Hope Road, and the Canyon Creek Bridge. We stopped for a break and someone came up and said a girl had followed her dog down this very steep wooded embankment next to the creek. The story was that one of her dogs (she had 2) had somehow slipped over the edge and down toward the creek. The girl tied up her other dog, left a leash, sunglasses, and keys in a pile at the top, and followed the dog down the embankment. They hadn’t seen her since.

A few people gathered at this news and a few of us were getting as close to the edge as we dare… trying to see down the wooded hillside for signs of either of them and thinking about our options. Truly, it was steeper than I’d want to attempt without a rope. Eventually, one guy started down and soon disappeared over the edge himself. Hmmm… this may be turning into an emergency rescue situation, as now we’ve got two down there. Some people were trying to call for help, but cell service was too weak to get through.

There was no response to attempts at verbal communication… yelling… from anyone that went down. Another guy went down part of the way to look over the edge of an even steeper portion of the embankment. Minutes dragged on. Finally, we could see something, some movement of some kind, of someone coming back up. It was the first guy down, carrying a dog as he climbed the slick dirt slope from one tree to another, two steps up and one down, scratching for traction, slipping and sliding his way back up the hill. We threw a nylon retrieval strap down the top 30 feet or so, and a bunch of us pulled him, and the dog, up. The girls, yes, there were actually two of them, were next.

Here’s the story: The two girls, sisters, had these two dogs out of the car for a break. The one dog, very old and not very mobile anymore, was sitting at the top of this embankment and, for whatever reason, it’s front legs collapsed and it went head over tail over the edge and down the hill. The younger sister followed almost immediately. The older sister, near panic, tied up her other dog, and went down next. They made it all the way to the bottom… quite a considerable distance… maybe 80 or 100 feet? At the bottom, because of the rushing creek, they could hear nothing from the top. The dog wasn’t able to walk, much less climb the hill. The girls weren’t capable of getting the dog and themselves up either. The guy that went down took a chance but it was the right thing to do in this case. The story ends here, but it was a tough and touchy situation for a while.

Dar did her part too. Once back on top, the older sister, who was quite shaken by the experience, simply collapsed. Dar went to her, asked if she needed a hug, and comforted her as she wept.

Once back on our way again, we just got in the groove of moving with the traffic… like a train. People were being fairly responsible and almost no one tried to pass anyone else. It wouldn’t have done much anyway as the whole dang line all the way up to Anchorage was moving about 55 mph.

In Anchorage, traffic seemed lighter than anticipated. Dar navigated us to the RV Park. We got our site, parked, and set up for a couple days. We’re right across from a Costco, so there might be a Costco-run in my near future.

Monday, July 20 (day 44) - Anchorage Local
Golden Nugget RVP

Not much to report on today. Mostly chores and crossing things off the to-do list. I got a half dozen or so posts up to the blog, Dar processed and uploaded pics. Batteries got a good soaking. We did, as I thought we might, walked over to Costco and picked up a few items. The truck didn’t move all day.

Tuesday, July 21 (day 45) - Anchorage to Chickaloon
Golden Nugget RVP

Planning a short drive today, so no urgency in getting the wheels turning. Had a few quick chores to do while in town, including a good hot breakfast, but by 11am or so, we were on the road. Our goal is Chickaloon, about an hour and a half up the Glenn Highway. For the first 30 miles along the Knik Arm between Anchorage and Palmer, the road is a zippy 4 lane divided highway.

At Palmer, the Glenn Highway goes through town and takes a turn to the east, following the Matanuska River... with the Talkeetna Mountains to the north and the Chugach Mountains to the south. It also becomes a winding two lane highway. You’ll remember the Chugach Mountains from our time in Valdez… we’re just on the other side of them up here.

Tonight we’re at the King Mountain State Recreation Area. Our campsite is right on the banks of the fast flowing Matanuska River, which will provide the “white noise” for tonight’s sleep. Across the river is 5800 foot tall King Mountain. You sorta...gotta...havta brace yourself on a tree and lean way back and look up to see the top. Ahh, the third dimension at it’s best.

This afternoon we met up with Sarah, a family friend and childhood neighbor of our Son-in-law, Gage. She’s been in Alaska for years and has recently put considerable effort into building an off-grid cabin in a very secluded spot near here. Actually it wasn’t just her, by herself… her partner Jeff was an equal part of the endeavor. We really wanted to see it.

After a winding steep climb on a primitive dirt and gravel road, oh, I don’t know… maybe a mile or mile and a half… we arrived at her cabin. First impression: a very impressive structure, larger than I anticipated.

She gave us the full tour. There is no powerline to the property at all… cost to bring it in is just prohibitive. So they’ve installed 10 large solar panels, a bank of batteries, and a large inverter to convert the DC battery power to 120v AC. When the sun doesn’t shine, which typically happens every winter up here (imagine that?), they also have a diesel generator.

There is no well for fresh water. Thus, and this is more common in the far north than I realized, they have a large water tank in the back of a pickup truck, and bring their water in themselves. The fresh water storage tank is buried next to the house to keep it from freezing.

There is no sewer or septic system. They have a composting toilet that works, but they’re not real happy with it. There are plans afoot for another solution to this problem.

Heat is provided by a wood stove, fueled by the largest wood shed I’ve ever seen. There is no shortage of fuel on their property… the only constraint being their willingness to cut and haul it in. When the slab was poured for the basement floor, an in-floor system was installed so that eventually they’ll also be able to heat it with hot water from an outside wood burner. But that’s a future project.

This lifestyle is not for the faint-of-heart, or those who shun hard work and serious effort. From an outsider's perspective, it can seem like an idyllic and peaceful situation. I’ve had this fantasy myself. But as she talked about everything that still needs to be finished, all the future projects that needed to be done, and all the work necessary just to keep it livable, it could be said that the cabin owns you just as much as you own the cabin.

But these are two driven people who clearly aren’t afraid to do what needs to be done. Thanks Sarah for opening the window on your life and letting us peek in.

Inside Long Rifle Lodge
Wednesday, July 22 (day 46) - Chickaloon to Willow
King Mountain SRA CG

Great sleeping night and a bright calm morning. The threat of rain hasn’t materialized yet, but it’s still in the forecast for the next few days. Nearly the ideal camping morning… the kind you see in ads for camping gear.

Once through our morning routine and breaking camp, we drove east on the Glenn Highway, about 30 miles, to the Matanuska Glacier area. It’s the largest glacier accessible by car in the USA. If you pay the price, something like $20 per person, they’ll let you drive out and stand on it. Think it’s mostly people from Florida or Southern California that do this. Those from the northern states think it’s a tad strange to pay to stand in a snowbank. I know… I know… this isn’t a snowbank, it’s a glacier. That’s true. But let’s just agree that it’s a very old snowbank that turned blue with age.

We did have an agreeable time at the Long Rifle Lodge, which sits on a hill within view of the glacier. First impressions can be deceiving and that was the case here. The Lodge’s pedestrian exterior belies it’s rustic woodsy warm interior. There’s an amazing collection of 20 or more mounted animals, from small fox and lynx to a 7 foot tall bear. That alone is worth the stop.

But we were slightly famished and also had lunch. Our waitperson was delightful and we had a good conversation with some folks from Florida who had just paid to walk on the glacier. I’d highly recommend the Long Rifle Lodge for good views, good nourishment, and a good time as you run the Glenn Highway.

Feeling new energy and awareness, we reversed direction and began heading west on the Glenn Hwy. We’re eventually heading for Willow, but needed to stop and resupply the larder. That was accomplished in Wasilla, but Wasilla isn’t a place that interests at this point in our trip. It too is a large collection of people, commercial establishments, 5 lane roads, stop lights, and hubbub. But it’s where you gotta go when you want a broad selection and lower prices.

Not too many miles later we stopped at the highly underutilized Nancy Lake State Recreation Area Campground a few miles south of Willow. We need a break, and this could be the place. To my shock, we even have a reasonable Verizon 4G signal here. We might stay a week.

Hatcher Pass Road disappearing up the hill.
Thursday, July 23 (day 47) - Willow to Hatcher Pass and back to Willow
Nancy Lake SRA CG

There’s a loop excursion known as Hatcher Pass Road that a traveler can do in this part of Alaska. Easily accessed from anywhere in the Mat-Su Valley, the road goes north from Wasilla (or Palmer) and snakes between mountain peaks as it follows the Little Susitna River upstream to the old Independence Mine site, now a State Historical Park. To this point, the road is reasonably paved. But if one wants to continue the steep climb to Hatcher Pass, you’d turn onto a rough gravel road and go about another mile to the 3,886 ft. summit. That doesn’t sound very high but, at these latitudes, it’s above treeline in the alpine zone. It’s also Alaska’s third highest mountain pass after Atigun Pass (4,800 ft. - Dalton Hwy) and Maclaren Summit (4,086 ft - Denali Hwy).

Birds have it made. With the ability to look down on two-dimension dwellers like us, they can, at their whim, soar into the third dimension… something mankind has only been able to do for the last 110 years. Until that time, we’ve had to make do with finding high ground and looking down for a similar perspective. Being high makes me high.

We lingered at the summit. Wondered what that is over there… where this road over here goes. We made ourselves a picnic lunch and sat on a comfy rock next to a summit lake, and talked about what we’ve seen this day… this week… this month. We watched clouds form, move, and dissipate among the surrounding peaks. Sun breaks continuously changed the lighting… look away for a moment and you’ll see a different scene when your eye returns.

From the top of Hatcher Pass, the rustic gravel road continues west for about 30 miles, following Willow Creek to the town of Willow.

Tonight we camped again at Nancy Lake.

Friday, July 24 (day 48) - Willow to Talkeetna and back.
Nancy Lake SRA CG

After a quick run into Wasilla for a few things, we drove up to where our friends Sarah and David are staying. Dave works as a fishing guide during the day and at a restaurant in the evenings. He’s certainly busy this time of the year.

But Sarah, Dar, and I drove up to the touristy little town of Talkeetna for the afternoon. One of our motivations was to try to see Mt. McKinley (Denali), as it was a clear day and the next few look more “iffy”. They say that 60 percent of the people who come to Alaska never see the mountain, the largest in North America (at over 20,000 feet), because of persistent cloud cover. Sarah knew a good viewpoint just outside of Talkeetna.

Sarah and Dar
What a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. The conversation never lagged. We learned so much about Sarah and Dave’s lifestyle, their cabin way out on the Yentna River, their routine, systems, and solutions to living entirely off the grid. They built their little cabin themselves mostly from local trees and other materials. And they love it… both their place and their lifestyle.

We also found the Denali Brewing Company… and you know what that means. That’s right. We also had a late lunch at their restaurant.

Talkeetna is (was?) noted for it’s annual Moose Dropping Festival. No, despite what some folks from PETA feared, they did not drop a moose from a helicopter. The “droppings” referred to varnished and numbered chunks of moose excrement that were bagged up and dropped from a helicopter onto a target. The lucky person whose numbered moose dropping was nearest the target won a cash prize. It was a lot of fun. But alas, things like this get out of hand when too many people get involved and the event was scratched in 2009. Hasn’t been one since. I’ll bet the market for varnished moose poop has declined too.

Mt. McKinley (Denali)
Oh, Denali? The locals prefer to call it Mt. McKinley. And yes, we did sorta get to see it. There were some clouds obscuring parts of it, but we did see it’s snowcapped top. Sarah’s a witness. And we’re claiming our position firmly in the minority of visitors that have seen it.

Saturday, July 25 - (day 49) - Willow local
Nancy Lake SRA CG

Not much to report for today. We spent all day at the campground. Our R&R day was interrupted when a group of 25 girls and attending adults… a group of some kind… took over our loop. There are three loops in this small campground, 10 sites per loop. Not a big imposition for nimble campers such as us, we just moved to another loop to escape the crowd.

We did some outdoor cooking, preparing a pasta alfredo dish for dinner tonight. Also bought a few bundles of firewood and started a campfire, our first in a couple weeks. About 5pm or so, Sarah came over with McGee the wonderdog, and we ate and drank and poked at the fire until it started raining, about 9pm. I can report that three people (actually four including McGee) are possible inside our little camper because we did it… escaping the rain until she had to go.

Tomorrow and our creek-float with Sarah and Dave looks a little iffy right now as there’s a 100 percent chance of rain. But, in our experience, the weather forecast up here is just an educated guess… even more so than in the lower 48. So we’ll just wait for tomorrow and deal with whatever it is.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Mat-Su

We're currently in what they call the Mat-Su Valley of Alaska. It's a reference to the broad flat plain to the north of Anchorage formed by two rivers... the Matanuska, which we camped next to the other night, and the Susitna, which we're going to be near for while.

Over the last week we've had some good weather and some great experiences... which you'll be able to read about this weekend when I put the post up.

Since we don't have much internet connection up here, I've been continuing to write most days, but doing so offline. My intention now is to publish the weeks collective goings-on in one post that I'll publish on the weekend, or as soon after as possible... assuming I have internet available.

I also found out that the links to our photo albums that I included in a post recently don't work for everybody. For those links to work you must have a Google Account, and that ain't gonna work for some. The best way to get to our photo albums is to click on the tab at the top of the blog that says "Pics". The latest albums are always at the top. We do hope you'll check in on them to get a visual perspective of what we've been up to.

And, lastly, there are a few new posts I put up tonight... right below this one... right... down... there.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Homer Day

Kinda looks a little like Mt. Hood, doesn't it?
It's Mt. Iliamna across Cook Inlet from the Kenai.
Saturday, July 18 (Day 42)
The clouds dissipated some last night so this morning Redoubt Volcano, just across Cook Inlet from our camp in Ninilchik, was out in all of it’s sun-lit glory. Many taller mountains exist, but when a mountain soars to over 10,000 feet and it’s only 15 miles from the ocean… sea level, that’s a sight. All those Colorado 14-ers are tall, but they’re standing on a floor that’s already a mile high… so they poke up above the surrounding land merely 9,000 feet or so.

Still breezy here this morning. The low was around 52°. Most mornings in the far north, when we think to check the temperature, seem to usually be in the low 50s. Don’t know why. Just an observation.

First thing up, we took the path from the campground to the beach, and had us good old fashioned morning beach walk. Probably the longest walk we’ve taken since starting this journey. Tides here are big, the difference between high and low tide can be 20 feet or more. Our walk this morning was at near low tide, so there was a lot to look at.

Dar spotted it first. An eagle. First thought it might be a hawk… but hawks don’t hunt fish over water. And this was a large bird. Next thought was a golden eagle or a juvenile bald eagle, and that question was soon answered when we found Mom sitting in a nearby in a tree. It was clearly a bald eagle. And then we saw this young eagle had an older sibling, but one not old enough for the full fledged bald eagle white head and markings. Three eagles, just flying around and sitting, probably as curious about us as we were about them. May have caught some good pics too. The bright sky, the scenery, the wildlife, the walk… what a great morning.

We decided to extend another day here at Ninilchik View CG before driving south to check out Homer. Anyone who’s been to Alaska will be happy to tell you about Homer. But their perspective and attitude about it may not be the same as mine. If you’re into fishing, Southern Alaska is the place to be this time of year. Salmon in streams and rivers, and halibut in the nearby bigger water. And there are a lot of people that come here to fish. It drives the economy of these otherwise small quiet towns. It can make things a little crazy… especially if you’re not into fishing.

Anything that’s happening in Homer, if it’s worth seeing, or doing, or catching, or eating, is happening either on the “spit” or on the road leading to the spit. Homer sits at the confluence of Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. With the big tides around here, large amounts of water flow into the Bay from the Inlet during high tide, and flow out of the bay during low tide. All that water moving back and forth carries sediments that, over many years, have built up a reef or sorts… a long narrow beach-like landform that extends out into the bay for 4 miles. It’s called a spit.

Well, they’ve got RV parks and camping out there, as well as restaurants, tourist-trap shops of every kind, a small boat harbor, larger boat dock facilities, fishing charter services, motels, condos, tattoo parlors, and parking lots. They need the parking lots because everyone who comes to Homer has a car that needs to be parked, so they can wander around all the tourist-trap shops or go out on a fishing charter.

Out on the Spit
We first drove all the way out on the spit in an effort to orient ourselves. A little put off by all the people milling around, we then thought we’d find Homer Brewing Company, the towns craft beer experts, who are not on the spit, and see if we can find something to slake a thirst and feed a mid-day hunger. Finding the place was easy with the help of the GPS. It’s more brewery than pub… while we could get a beer, they don’t serve any food. Dar was looking for some fresh-caught local fish, and the recommendations we got from a local pointed us back to the spit. So back out to the spit we go.

I just don’t do crowds well anymore. Maybe I never did, but I think I was more tolerant when younger… or I was more successful in hiding my feelings. (Put a smile on and you’ll get through this!). Whichever it was, I’m not so much that way anymore.

We eventually found a place to park, found a restaurant that didn’t have a long waiting list, and had fresh caught local fish. It wasn’t the experience we were hoping for, but it was OK.

And we did experience Homer during fishing and tourist season. Wonder what it’s like in Autumn?

Early morning walk on the beach.

Little reason to come if you don't fish.

I don't know.

I think I found a home.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Seward Washout; Next the Kenai

Friday July 17 (day 41)
Seward AK

Besides the sound of wind hitting and shaking the sides of the camper, and rain hitting the roof, I heard someone outside (walking a dog, I presume) tell another person (walking a dog, I presume) (why else would anyone be out in this weather?) “supposed to rain for another two days!”.

That did it. We’re not going to sit here for two more days of rain. That’s one reason we have wheels under our home away from home. We can move if we choose to. And that’s what we decided. Between rain squalls and wind blasts, we got the camper together and closed up, and we took off looking for sun.

A peek outside revealed a monster cruise ship, Radiance of the Seas, had pulled in overnight. It’s such a large ship it makes the small town of Seward appear even smaller. Some folks say that cruise ships have ruined these towns. Others like the economic activity… people spending their money right here in little Seward. I’m not sure who’s right… can see both sides of the issue. But when a ship comes to a town of 3000 residents, the sudden influx of 2000 more people makes an impact. But they come… and they go. It’s very intermittent economic activity at best.

We did not give Seward a fair shot this time. The weather prevented our usual mixing, mingling, and exploring that we’d usually do. But we’ll be back.

As we drove north on the Seward Hwy, and then pivoted west on the Sterling Hwy, the weather did improve. Before we made Soldotna there were even a few blue patches in the sky between the clouds. And it wasn’t raining.

Soldotna and it’s twin city Kenai make up the largest concentration of population on the Kenai Peninsula. They even have a Walmart and a Northwest favorite Fred Meyer Store. Since we needed a few provisions we thought we’d stop quick at Fred Meyer. OMG… WTF… (shock and awe!), the parking lot was packed to overflowing. The store was full of people. Even the restrooms in the store had waiting lines. What’s going on?

Two things, maybe three. First, it’s tourist season. And what does every tourist hear about Alaska from people who have been here before? “You’ve got to see the Kenai. It’s just amazing. Scenery and fishing like you’ve never seen before.” So they all, every visitor to the 49th state, eventually comes here to see what the big deal is. I think most of them came this weekend.

Second, it’s salmon season. The salmon are running and the salmon fishers are running after them. People up here go crazy during the salmon run… a little like “buck fever” back home during deer season. The roads are full of people with crazed looks on their faces, pulling big boats with big motors, and big campers loaded with big fishing gear… and they’re driving fast, like they might miss the big one if they don’t hurry. They don’t know why they’re here but, like the salmon their after, they always return to the same stream they were hatched on.

And the third thing adding to the congestion may well be the weekend. That’s right, it’s Friday. And there are plenty of locals who are afflicted with salmon-fever too. They pour down here every Friday, they don’t know why, to stand in the same stream they were hatched on. You just gotta love Alaska.

Not feeling the good positive vibes in Soldotna, we continued south until we found a little state campground named Ninilchik View CG. Just a dozen or so spaces, only a couple were occupied as we drove through. What? Just a few miles back we drove through another state campground that was completely full. So why the difference? The “full” campground was right on a salmon stream. The Ninilchik View CG is high on a bluff above the shore of Cook Inlet… not so many fishing opportunities here. Additionally, it’s not very “big rig” friendly. The spaces are level and nicely separated, but not very long. We took a space for the night.

Across the inlet, in the haze as the sun sets, are three volcanoes still considered active: Iliamna to the southwest, Redoubt straight out, and Spurr to the northwest. Just remember IRS.

Good night all.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Wet Seward

Thursday July 16 (day 40)

Rain. Rained all night. Rained all morning. Rained all afternoon. I believe this is the first period of extended and steady rainfall since we began this trip. We… I… could deal with it better if I had an internet connection.

Since arriving in Alaska I’ve been disappointed by our ability to hook up to the internet with our Verizon MIFI device. Only in Valdez did we have good service. I don’t, and didn’t, expect we’d have universal service up here. Just consider the huge amount of space, the mountains. Just too much geography for anyone to cover. But if a town as small as Valdez has service wouldn’t you expect the bustling town of Seward would too? After a half-hour call with Verizon yesterday, we’re still sitting here with nothing. I’m suspecting my plan is partly to blame by not allowing roaming to other data networks. But it did work in Valdez… a good strong 4G signal. I don’t know and being pandered by the tech rep who didn’t seem to know any more about the MIFI device than I did certainly didn’t clarify the situation. Enough on that subject.

We’re still parked at the edge of Resurrection Bay in Seward. It’s a very nice spot. With the sky being generally cloudy the past day or so, I had to fire up the generator this morning to give the batteries a little boost. Usually a couple hours of run-time will be sufficient.

Today is the 40th day of our trip. As we pause and look back at where we’ve been, what we’ve done, what we’ve done is amazing. So many life-long memories (which for us really isn’t all that long ;-). We’re probably not quite to the halfway point of our trek around the far north, but here’s a thought on our experience so far.

I’ve become an even greater fan of going small… as small as you can… for an exploration rig. Who says you can’t make a tiny camper like ours work for months at a crack. We ran into one couple who are getting close to 2 years fulltime in their little camper. Like anything having to do with RVs or campers, it’s compromises all around. Sure, there are times a little more space would be nice… like today, days with steady rain for example. But sacrificing some space for nimbleness and the ability to go anywhere, pull off anywhere, without concern about having the space to turn around or even jut to park. Sure, we see big RVs all the time… bouncing up the frost-heaved roads… straining to keep the tires off the shoulder on narrow roads. But having driven our 40 foot diesel pusher over 50,000 miles in varied and sometimes extreme road conditions, I think I’m enjoying this trip far more than if we’d brought the motorhome.

When it stops precipitating, we're planning to drive out to Exit Glacier, the one spot in all the Kenai Fjords National Park it’s possible to get a truck (car… camper… etc.) into the Park. Over half of the Park’s almost 700,000 acres is blanketed by the Harding Ice Field. A relic from the last ice age, it conceals most of a mountain range under ice several thousand feet thick. It’s the largest ice field in North America. Sliding off this cover of ice are numerous glaciers. Rivers of moving ice sliding down steep mountain valleys, and carving them even deeper as they go, glaciers terminate where they melt and break away. They are fed from the snow and ice above (input) and melt away where they terminate (output). As long as the input is greater than the output, the glacier advances... grows in size and extent. If the output is greater than the input, the glacier retreats. In this part of Alaska most glaciers are in retreat, but there are some that are advancing.

Still raining. MIFI’s still not working.

Later in the afternoon:
Yes, still raining. Sure hope the parts of the state ablaze with more than 300 wildfires is getting some of this.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

From Whittier to Seward

Wednesday, July 15 (day 39)

Woke to a bright clear sky. Poking my nose outside the view of the surrounding mountains was nothing less than spectacular. There’s a glacier in a mountain saddle above our camp and the steady sound of falling water from that glacier was our background “white noise” all night long. One doesn’t often fall asleep to the sound of a glacier waterfall.

Got ourselves moving quickly to enjoy the clearness while it lasted. We’ve learned that weather changes quickly in these parts, especially close to the ocean, and often mornings are better than afternoons. We drove back to the visitor center and Portage Lake to see what we missed yesterday afternoon, and then continued on our way out. Just a short drive to the junction with the Seward Hwy. There were a series of road construction segments through here where traffic was down to one lane… you know, the flagger, the pause, the alternating one way traffic. Not a problem. Actually used the pauses to get a better look around.

The Sterling Highway breaks off The Seward and heads toward Kenai and Homer. Today, we continue south through Moose Pass and toward Seward. Another pleasant and scenic drive. More cloudiness as we neared Seward.

Stopped at the Seward visitor center and then, the visitor center for the Kenai Fjord's National Park. Next on the agenda was to find a camp for the night.

The city of Seward provides waterfront camping in Resurrection Park, right on the shore of Resurrection Bay. We found a good spot and set up camp. There are some sites with water and electric, but we chose a dry camping spot closer to the water. The forecast for tonight and tomorrow is rain. A storm is moving ashore and we’ll be getting wet. Overall, we’ve had some decent weather for our trip.

But keep in mind that rain helps prevent forest fires.
Here are a few photos from the day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Aboard the Good Ship Aurora to Whittier

A day or so ago, as I contemplated the next leg of our trip, an idea struck me. There’s a ferry dock here in Valdez… and I’d heard already that there’s ferry service over to Whittier, the next port to the west and on the northern end of the Kenai Peninsula. Online I found that the ferry Aurora leaves Valdez at 7am and gets into Whittier a little after noon. The next step was to find out if there’s room for a little pickup and camper.

Since the local ferry office doesn’t open until noon, I called the 800 number and found there was one last spot available before we’d have to go on the standby list. It didn’t take long (about 2 seconds) to decide we’d take it. It’s not cheap, $369 for two people and the truck/camper, but there are some offsetting savings to be considered. This five hour trip eliminates somewhere around 350 miles of driving (up to $120 in fuel, and, at our pace, two days of travel) and an overnight ($$??). Then, if you really want to dig deep for a rationalization… just think of the wear and tear on the truck.

In any event, the plan came together nicely. The ferry folks even let us overnight at the terminal so we’d be right there for our 6am boarding time.

We fit perfectly in the fork truck section.
This morning our wake up call went off at 5am. And we were all set to roll by a hair after 6am. The boarding process is easy: picture id for each passenger, reservation number, propane tanks off and verified, declare any other flammables… that’s about it. Because the Aurora, our ferry, is plumb full during most summer trips, the process of loading vehicles is a little like putting a 100 piece picture puzzle together. A few vehicles at a time, they fit and nudge them together to get the maximum usage of space. A dock worker told us the Aurora has 600 linear vehicle feet that is “sold”, reserved… but they can usually fit closer to 700 feet if they pack ‘em in tightly. That means it’s often the case two, three, maybe four vehicles on a waiting list can also be loaded. Good information for future reference.

No one is allowed on the vehicle deck during passage so your scruffy little dogs will have to be by themselves for a while. And it’s best to take everything you’ll need for the passage… coats, reading material, electric confuser machines, snacks, etc. They really don’t appreciate someone whining about forgetting their seasickness pills because any access to the vehicle deck once underway must be accompanied by a crew member.

We’re aboard the Ferry Aurora. A few facts: she was built in Wisconsin by Peters Shipbuilders of Sturgeon Bay in 1977. She’s 235 feet long, 57 feet wide (beam), and has a draft of almost 14 feet. Cruise speed is a comfortable 16 mph. She can carry 250 passengers and 34 regular cars or small trucks. Large trucks or buses, of course, reduce the number of cars. At least during this summer, the Aurora is running between ports on Prince William Sound.

During the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the Aurora played a key role as a base station and supply hub during the cleanup.

You could consider the cost of taking the ferry kind of high (as I alluded to above), but this 5 hour cruise takes you through some of the most picturesque parts of Alaska, and unless you’re on a boat of some kind, you ain’t gonna see them. Good views of mountains and glaciers, wildlife (it’s not uncommon to see humpback or killer whales out here), and all of it from a comfortable reclining seat or a table in the cafeteria. If you’re the kind that enjoys these sorts of things, the price might be a bargain.

By the time we were docked and unloaded in Whittier, it was almost 1pm. Took a quick drive around Whittier and didn’t see a lot to interest us. Of note, there’s a huge 6 story high building built during the late 40s by the Army to be a combination barracks, office, hospital, general store, officers quarters, etc… It was, at the time, the largest building in Alaska. It was partially used during the 50s, during the cold war, but was never completely occupied or utilized. Alas, the Army abandoned it in 1960 when they closed the base here. It’s been sitting vacant and deteriorating ever since.

There’s one other large building on the Whittier skyline, this one also built by the military. But this one was converted to condominiums. And at this point, almost everyone who lives in Whittier (about 200 people) lives in that building. There really isn’t a typical residential neighborhood with houses and garages and parks, anywhere we looked. It’s a weird town from that perspective. But that’s OK, I like weird.

For the night we thought we’d drive a few miles out of town to a NFS campground. There are a few of them along the road… the Portage Valley Highway, which is a relatively new road that connects the Alaska road system with Whittier. The reason it’s a rather new road is that before 2000, there was no vehicle access to Whittier at all. The town’s only land connection to the rest of Alaska was by railroad.

In the 1940s, the Army (remember them from above?) used Whittier as a main supply and personnel depot. They blasted a 2-1/2 mile long tunnel through a mountain and ran the rails through it so they could service the other military bases in Alaska. After the war, and then after the Army closed its base here, The Alaska Railroad ran freight through it. But then an idea incubated. We have a tunnel… why not connect Whittier to the rest of Alaska by road through the same tunnel? And that’s what they did. A large multi-year project widened the tunnel somewhat, and built the Portage Valley Highway to connect it all to the rest of Alaska.

But, I’ve never been in a tunnel like this one before. It’s one lane. Not one lane each way, no way bunkie… it’s just one lane. And on top of that, the railroad must share that same single lane with vehicle traffic. Well, how’s that done? With great care. On both ends of the tunnel, there’s a large 6 or 7 lane wide vehicle waiting area. Cars and small trucks in the first three lanes, vehicles with trailers in this lane, large trucks in that lane, passenger busses over here, etc. Then you wait. There’s a large sign board that advises everyone as to the next “release of traffic” from your end. Think of a one way highway construction zone and a flagger. In the meantime, while you wait, traffic is flowing toward you from the other side. Or, perhaps, a train is coming through. Don’t know. You just wait until they tell you to go.

We waited about 20 or 25 minutes. That’s OK, there’s a lot of scenery to look at. At 2pm, we were released and started slowly moving through the tunnel. As I mentioned before, it’s almost 2-½ miles long, so at 30 mph you’ll be inside the bowels of the mountain for 5 minutes or so. Especially here, earthquakes do cross your mind from time to time. Not sure I’d like being a mile inside a mountain when one starts. Also not sure what would happen, but it probably wouldn’t be good.

Then, just a few miles up the road, we found a campsite in the Williwaw CG. For the day we moved the truck hundreds of miles from Valdez, but only added about 20 to the odometer. G’night all.

Some of these pictures are award winners. Check 'em out if you have the time. Here's a link to that album. 

The Aurora was built in Wisconsin. How cool is that?

Inside... the tunnel.

Our campsite along Portage Valley Highway

Monday, July 13, 2015

Valdez Notes

Valdez is a small town of about 3500. It’s location is a stunning... soaring setting, surrounded closely and on nearly all sides by the dramatic Chugach Mountains. Due to the heavy winter snowfall, icefields and glaciers abound. It’s sits on the north shore of Valdez Bay (a deep fjord really -- 700 feet deep) an arm of Prince William Sound. The town seemed reasonably energetic and happy.

It originated as a stepping off point on the “All American route” to the Klondike during the goldrush days about 1897… little more than a tent-city and a makeshift dock. But as the northernmost ice-free port in Alaska, it soon found it’s niche serving the growing population, miners heading into the interior, and other interests of the last frontier.

In 1964, in March on Good Friday, a huge earthquake caused tragedy in old Valdez. The largest quake ever recorded in North America, at 9.2 on the Richter Scale. 32 people were killed in Valdez during the quake… all 32 of them on one of the city docks either helping or watching a supply ship unload it’s cargo. The dock and the poorly supported soils on which it was built slid down and into the bay as the soils liquefied during the almost 5 minute long ordeal. Not one of the victims was ever found. In the adjoining town itself no one was killed but buildings were damaged, some heavily, and it’s estimated that the ground on which the town sat sank 4 or 5 feet. After things settled down and authorities got a grip on the situation, the decision was made to move the entire town 4 miles further west where more stable soils made it a more safe and suitable townsite. It took almost 3 years, but they got it done.

Good friend Tim and me in our later years.
"What are you looking at?"
Valdez is on Valdez Bay, an arm of Prince William Sound. Really a glacier-formed fjord, it’s a very deep (700 ft.+ carved by heavy glaciation) body of water that doesn’t freeze during the long cold and brutal winters. As the furthest north ice-free deepwater port in Alaska, it was the obvious choice when deciding the route of the Trans Alaska Pipeline in the early 70s. The oil terminal sits across the bay from Valdez, the town, and it employs a sizeable number of local residents.

We were in Valdez for 5 nights. The first two, we had a campsite in the Valdez Glacier CG out just beyond the airport and just a mile or two away from shrinking Valdez Glacier. The third night, we camped on Allison Point out on Dayville Road, not far from the oil terminal. For the fourth night, we went into town and stayed at Bayside RVP in order to freshen up, give the battery a good soaking, do a little laundry, etc. The fifth night we parked overnight at the ferry terminal.

One of the first things we did was book a wildlife and glacier cruise. We heard good things about the Lu-Lu Belle and Captain Fred Rodolf. We booked it for Saturday July 11. The weather looked a little “iffy” but we decided to go anyway. It turned out to be a wonderful time and the boat was comfortably loaded with a less than capacity crowd. Departure time coincided nicely with our normal morning schedule: be to the dock and ready to load at 10:45am. Boat departs at 11am.

During the slow departure from the small boat harbor in Valdez, Captain Fred started talking… and he really didn’t stop for the next 8 hours. He’s a practiced and entertaining guide, knowledgeable on the area, it’s waters, it’s wildlife, and it’s glaciers. He and Lu-Lu Belle have been together since 1979. We learned history, geography, economics, meteorology, biology, climatology, and glaciology, with occasional commentary thrown in for color. It was a truly enjoyable afternoon. One reason we chose his cruise rather than the “other” offering in town is that he’s very flexible and will stay out chasing whales or watching a series of active calves breaking away from the glacier… well beyond the time the tour is slated to end. Our 6 hour cruise landed us on the dock more than 8 and a half hours after departure. We liked that.

During the cruise we saw dolphin playing in our bow wake, at least 5 different humpback whales, right next to the boat… including a mother and youngin’, several “rafts” of sea otters, Stellar sea lions, many coastal shore birds including a few puffin, and some others I can’t remember.

Of course, the highlight of the day was the Columbia Glacier. This is the one where the boat works its way slowly through a bay of calved ice… floating ice, some so deep it’s stuck on the bottom. Eventually we’re as close as we can go safely… about a quarter mile, maybe a tad closer, from the face of the glacier. We were there for more than an hour. The sounds a glacier makes as it prepares to shed more ice… as it’s moving down the mountain to it’s termination… is something I’ll never forget. At first it sounds like distant thunder, then a deep cracking and booming from within. Sometimes movement can be seen, other times not. But eventually you detect an area of the face that’s unstable… smaller pieces are shed, crack, and fall to the water… an area of instability is often the area to watch as it may take several cracks, booms, and smaller ice sheddings before the big one happens. Hundred foot high, or larger, chunks start to slide away accompanied by the boom of cracking ice releasing from it’s thousands of years resting spot. Falling into the bay, another boom, multiple booms… which sends out a tidal wave… a wall of water that will rock a 75 foot tour boat a quarter mile away. And the deep blue color of ice so dense for so long that the oxygen has dissipated... a color like no other. What a neat experience.

Of culinary and consumptive interest, here are some of the places we patronized while in town: The Totem Inn has good breakfast… and probably other meals as well. Off the Hook, the restaurant at the harbor Best Western Hotel was spendy but very good. The Fat Mermaid has craft beer, make a serious bloody mary, good pizza, and often live entertainment. There’s one grocery store… a Safeway that was reasonably well stocked and priced. The friendly checkout person took one look at me and gave me the senior citizen discount. How nice was that? Hmmm?

We also visited the two Valdez Museums. The first focusing on the earthquake, including a number of artifacts… items that survived the quake. The other focuses on the cultural and historic elements that formed the community, including key figures instrumental in it’s formation. We can wander around good museums for hours.

During our visit to the Fat Mermaid we ran into a couple guys, a father and son, who were up from Colorado. It turns out the father, Bill, and his young family, were living in Valdez during the earthquake. He was working for the Alaska Highway Department at the time. He recounted for us what he saw and how he felt during the almost 5 minute long event... how he remembers looking out the front door of his trailer and seeing trees, big trees, violently swaying from side to side... their tops touching the ground on either side as they swayed. When it was over there was chaos as people absorbed what had happened and evaluated the damage. Later, he was appointed to the city council and was one of the people who worked to complete the massive task of moving the town to it's new site. A chance meeting turned into a first-hand history lesson. It also proves that stopping at a pub for a beer can be educational.

Here’s a fact I found fascinating: The 1964 Alaska Earthquake occurred on Good Friday. In 1989, exactly 25 years later, on Good Friday (no less!!), the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound causing one of the largest oil spills in US history. As one resident told us, “We’re not big on Good Fridays”.

Another little factoid of local lore: In 1778, an island in Prince William Sound was named by Captain James Cook for one of his young officers during an early exploration of the North American Northwest Coast. That officer was William Bligh, later the historic villain Captain of the HMS Bounty (Mutiny on the Bounty). The reef that the Exxon Valdez hit is Bligh Reef which extends out from that same Bligh Island.

If a town “works” for me (neat, clean, uncongested, local pride, necessary services, happy residents, etc.) I feel it’s become part of me after a few days and nights. On our expedition to the north, it happened in little Inuvik, to some extent in Dawson City, and now here in Valdez. They’re all small places, and perhaps a little quirky, but there was a spirit that draws me in.

Both of us really liked Valdez.

Dar with Capt. Fred from the Lu-Lu Belle

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Wrangell - St. Elias NP to Valdez

Decamped and left our small roadside camp off Nebesna Road, and headed out of Wrangell - St. Elias National Park after a quick breakfast. We were alone with moose and squirrel, along with a bunch of other wildlife. At this hour of the morning, except for the very rare car or truck, this is a very secluded spot. Certainly no people around.

Stopped at the visitor center in Slana again. They were particularly helpful the day before, so Dar wanted to thank them and fill them in on our experience. In the category of “small world”, it turns out the woman at the desk is a relative of the Ellis Family who runs Devil’s Mountain Lodge at the end of Nabesna Road -- who we met yesterday. It seems most Alaskans are quite willing and happy to bring the passing visitor into their realm. Very friendly bunch.

Underway again, we tootled southward on the Tok Cutoff portion of the Glenn Highway until we got to Glennallen, where we refueled both the truck and ourselves. Then it’s south on the Richardson Highway toward Valdez.

During the day we experienced varied road conditions… everything from glass-smooth new asphalt to “rock and roll” roads like we’ve seen nowhere else. For a few stretches it was more entertaining watching big RVs deal with these frost-heaves (or whatever caused them) than it was looking at the spectacular scenery. (OK, with some effort one could do both.) And by just staying behind a group of them we could toodle along at 30 or 40 mph, enjoy the scenery, and not feel like we were the cause of the traffic jam.

Closer to Valdez the road comes out of a valley and begins winding around and through the stunning Chugach Mountains that sit atop (to the north of) the coastline of Prince William Sound like a crown. According to some folks, these mountains are why Zurich Switzerland and the surrounding Alps are called the Valdez of Europe. While other mountains are perhaps taller or more massive, the Chugach Mountains are spectacular in their closeness and steepness. They’re not “over there” or on the horizon. They’re literally right here, right next to the road. The enshrouded high alpine valleys above are filled with ice fields and moving glaciers, the result of huge amounts of snow that fall most winters. This time of the year the melting ice causes cascades and waterfalls… which are all over the place. Not a few dozen, but hundreds… maybe thousands of them… flowing down the sides of steep peaks… silvery stripes… everywhere one looks. I don’t have the words to adequately describe it.

The only way by car or truck into Valdez is over Thompson Pass. It’s elevation, at just under 2700 feet sounds low but it is above treeline at these latitudes. During our passage conditions up there were kinda ugly… wind, rain, very cold, when just a half hour or so later, in Valdez, it was partly sunny, much warmer, and milder breezes. In Winter, Thompson Pass has a reputation as a very dangerous pass. It’s the snowiest pass in North America with as much as a thousand inches of snow in one season. Of course not all winters produce that much snow, but the average snowfall is between 20 and 30 feet. Hmmm… might have something to do with all the glaciers and ice around here.

We found an agreeable campsite just outside town and very close to the Valdez Glacier, before taking a quick orientation tour of the town. There’s a lot more to be said about Valdez, but in a future post.