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.

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