Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Farewell (almost), Alaska

It’s been a while since I have had a chance to blog, so I will do this in sections and try to break this into appropriate dates. I am writing this on August 13 in Banff. We have no Internet connection, so I am taking my time and trying to sort out my thoughts.

Our last stop in Alaska was in Chicken, and what a fitting end it was. Chicken is about 65 miles from the Alaska highway up a road that covers rolling hills then turns to dirt 2 miles out of town. It is a stop for those who are taking the “Top of the World Highway” through Dawson City. Our trek bypassed that route because it is dangerous and difficult to drive. We added Homer instead, and – believe me – the tradeoff was worth it. Homer was probably my favorite stop on the whole trip.

Chicken is a bustling metropolis of 26. They generate their own electric (when they feel like it), have no phone service, no cell phone service, no local government, no local taxes, and a VERY rustic way of life. Downtown Chicken consists of a souvenir shop, a café, and a liquor store.

The campground in which we stayed had no hookups at all. We dry-camped (generating our own electricity, using stored fresh water, and draining into our own holding tanks). It was quite an experience, and almost half the group opted not to go. Their loss! It was a real look at frontier Alaska. (OK. Not total frontier. We had wifi Internet through a satellite connection. No need to go THAT far!)

The town was founded as a mining town (weren’t they all!) and was supposed to be name Ptarmigan (after the local fowl). When the founders could figure out how to spell ptarmigan they settled for “Chicken.”

Oh, yes. The cheer for the local (fictional) school: Go Peckers!

The Chicken Dance

Welcome to downtown Chicken, Alaska, population 21 in summer and 6 in winter. A regular metropolis. Chicken is on the way to Eagle and then the US/Canada border. It is a beautiful area of rolling hills in the Tanana Valley State Forest.

The drive up here was only 70 miles from Tok, but took a while because of poor road conditions. Seven of the 17 rigs in our group decided not to stay here and drove up in their cars for the day. The road had some good bumps, frost heaves and unpaved areas, but not as rough as other roads we have travelled. The bad news at the end of the road is we are dry camping. That means no electric, water or sewer. You do use your own water, battery and store up the sewer to dump at the next camp.

We didn't see any critters all day, but lots of chicken merchandise in the gift shop. Our first stop was the log cabin post office decorated with chicken stuff. The post mistress actually came outside to take our picture holding her rubber chicken. Mail is delivered here by plane twice a week. There are three commercial areas in Chicken, each has a cafe and gift shop and one gas station for the town. We proceeded to our lodgings at the Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost. They have a cute cafe and gift shop and we ate and shopped. Then we went outside to pan for gold. It is as addictive as a slot machine, you always imagine a huge nugget in the next pile of dirt.

I ventured out for the dredge tour which was quite informative. That is how much mining was done in Alaska years ago. The big machine is now sitting in a ditch and dirty, rusty and greasy. But, walking through its innards was interesting and a new experience. Later we had a dessert party with blueberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream. Then we played a round of hillbilly golf, another unsuccessful wildlife drive and we were off to bed.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Worth Getting Sick Over? I Don't Think So!!!!!

Remember that boat ride we took in Seward? The one I said was worth getting sick over? Well today was a boat ride that wasn't worth getting sick over -- and I did: get sick, that is.

Valdez sits on Valdez Bay which joins into Prince William Sound (home of the infamous Exxon Valdez disaster). Today we took a boat ride on the LuLu Belle, a tour boat that was actually built by the captain. It tours Prince William Sound and goes out to see Columbia Glacier (the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska) to search for wildlife.

Back when my parents lived in Pompano Beach we went out for dinner to a restaurant in Boca owned by a husband and wife team. The husband cooked and the wife sang opera. I first realized we were in trouble when the door was locked after we were seated. We were then treated(?) to a couple of hours of the most god-awful music you have ever heard.

Today was not a dissimilar experience. We got on the boat at 2:00 PM. We think it left that late because they use it for a church service on Sunday mornings. The captain was quite garrulous and described everything we saw as we left the harbor. He told us of the wildlife we could expect to see. He told us... And he didn't shut up for 7 hours!

The ride was a little choppy, but it was not too bad on the way out. We saw a lot of scenery. When the captain spied some puffins on the side of an island he took us in close while the boat bobbed up and down (and up and down and up and down). He virtually ignored several dozen seal lions who were on the shore and playing in the water next to us (while the boat bobbed up and down...). Moving on, we passed by the entrance to the bay where the Columbia Glacier sits. We would get back to it later. The crew makes sickness bags available for those who may need them. We pass.

A little later on (This is about 4 hours into the trip. We are on the verge of picking straws to see who gets the pleasure of strangling the captain.) the captain spots 2 humpback whales -- a mother and a calf -- swimming, so we caught up with them and followed for a while (45 minutes?) watching the occasional surfacing with the boat going up and down (and up and down...)

By this time there are a bunch of little kids and a few adults who are really seasick. The crew comes around again with sickness bags. This time we take a couple -- just in case.

Wondering when this ordeal will be over, we hear the captain (who has been talking this entire time) tell us we are going to head over to Columbia Glacier. Great! This is what we came to see! As we approach the glacier we see icebergs of varying sizes. As we wend our way around them the captain announces that he needs to find a "lead" or a path through the icebergs that will stay open so we can get to the glacier -- which is only 7-1/2 miles away! While he is looking he allows us a photo op (see picture above). This took another half hour. The captain then took us a little farther in but announced that there was not a good enough path so we could not get any closer (about 7 miles) and we never got to see the glacier itself.

So we started to head back. The captain announced that it would take us between 1:45 and 2 hours to get back. There were serious plans for mutiny at this point. So we headed back. The captain talked. The boat bounced up and down (and up and down...). I demonstrated the proper use of the sickness bag to everyone at my table. Although they did not appreciate it at the time, it may have been the best entertainment of the day.

After losing my lunch it became apparent that I was not alone. The boat ran out of sickness bags and starting passing out plastic supermarket-type bags in which to deposit your previously-enjoyed lunch. And the captain kept talking. And the boat kept going up and down (and up and down...)

When we finally returned to shore there was a virtual stampede to get off the boat. It wasn't so much the sea sickness. The captain still hadn't shut up!

One Toke Over the Line...

Today we drove back to Tok (rhymes with poke) and it was beautiful, but uneventful. Actually took no photos along the way. We left Valdez and retraced our route up to Glennallen and then headed east back on the Alaska Highway. This is day 39 of our 50 day trip and we are headed home.

It was very foggy in the morning and we drove slowly through Keystone Canyon and Thompson Pass wth no visibility. No views, but we got through safely and that's all that counts. At the Tok RV Village we went to a salmon bake and then listened to a small group wth two guitars and washboard. Their music was good and stories were better. Alaskans just love living here and they are thrilled that there are no taxes. Tok has no local government either.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Sloop John B.

Today is our boat ride on Prince Willam Sound. I think you should read Jeff's blog for the details of the day, but it was disapponting for us. You can't control the weather, but it was unfortunately not a day we want to remember.
The boat was gorgeous with shiny wood and oriental rugs. There were too many people on board without enough comfortable seating for inclement weather. We did see a humpback whale and her calf and I enjoyed seeing them glide through the water and one good glimpse of her tail. Also saw some puffins, sea lions and waterfalls. We never got close to Columbia Glacier and that was to be a highlight of the trip, but there is always next time. Jeff and I feel lucky to have seen all that we have in our lifetime so no more complaining from me.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I'm Sitting on Top of the World

Today is sunny, warmish and a great day to be alive. I am off on my kayak, hiking trip and I am psyched. I walk to the harbor at 10am to meet my leader and six others in the group. We drive to the gravel road that leads to the Valdez Glacier. This glacier used to come all the way down to the old town and was very important to the area. The gold prospectors had to hike up and over this river of ice to get to the gold fields. This could take several days and was a strenuous hike with all your supplies strapped to your back. Unfortunately the gold was a myth and there were many disappointed men. The influx of people did bring prosperity to the town and gave the steamship companies fares and income on the way up as they shipped furs and other commodities downstream.

Anyway we had inflatable kayaks that held two people. These were rather large, stable boats where you sit on top and not in a hole. I paired up with the only other woman, Sandy, and we had fun paddling in the glacial lakes up to the mouth of the glacier. There were huge ice bergs and little pieces of crystal clear ice floating by. It took about a half hour to reach the glacier and the front was a thirty foot wall of ice and rocks. At the right edge was an area of loose rocks and we landed there.

We scrambled up the rocks and started walking along the glacier eventually reaching the ice area. There were many crevasses (cracks) and holes in the ice many of which were large enough to fall through and never be found.The rocks were pretty large and loose so the footing wasn't stable and lots of slipping, but luckily no falls. Under the layer of rocks and gravel was clear blue ice and many rivulets of water flowing. It was incredibly beautiful out there and so remote. We were surrounded by mountains with trees and waterfalls and snow covered peaks.

Finally we reached the middle of the glacier which is called the moraine. This is a wide area of rocks and gravel pushed in from the sides by the flowing ice and becomes a huge dark line when you are looking up. Being close to it is awesome as it is about thirty feet high and of course we climbed up to the top where we sat around and ate our lunch. I also used the ladies room, which was located behind a large rock and had great ventilation.

We then hiked back to the kayaks and had walked about a mile each way. We then paddled back to the van and I was quite pleased with the entire adventure. The other trekkers were really nice and we all enjoyed chatting and getting to know each other a little. I particularly liked the quiet and calmness. As you glide in the kayak the only noise is the creaking of the ice and the dripping of melting bergs. The blue color of the ice is beyond a regular palette.

Back at the campground Jeff and Ziggy were waiting for me and had spent a quiet day up at the salmon area watching the water and relaxing. We went for fish and chips with a few couples and then went back out to Dayville Road where the fish hatchery is located. We saw thousands of pink salmon, otters and eagles along with more gulls then you can count. I could stay here and watch for hours as it is so fascinating. A few couples from our trek were there and we ran into my paddling buddy and enjoyed introducing her and her friends to Jeff. This is definitely the hot night spot in Valdez.

Back at the RV we watched the DVD of Bridget Jones's Diary and I laughed out loud as I do each time I see this movie.

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Tide Is High

Today is a free day for us and the sun is shining. I took a short walk into town where I made arrangements to go kayaking tomorrow and found a cute place called Latte Dah for some Chai Tea. The harbor is picturesque with fishing boats and docks surrounded by mountains.

Jeff and I took a drive to see the sights and turned onto a dirt road which had been the town of Valdez before the 1964 earthquake. It had been a thriving little community that was completely destroyed, then condemned as unsafe and the town was rebuilt farther down the road. There was an outline where the post office had stood and some information panels, but that is it. Very sad.

Farther down we found Dayville Road which would become a favorite place in Alaska. It is a long stretch out to the Alyeska Pipe Line Terminal where they have huge oil storage tanks and shipping facilities. Along the way is a salmon hatchery, electric plant, fishing areas and camping spaces. We were fascinated as thousands of pink salmon were in the water making their way upstream to spawn and then die. In the photos above the water is completely covered with so many salmon you could walk across.

We spent lots of time watching the determined salmon and also the sea lions, otters, gulls and eagles that come to eat them. The otters are a hoot as they catch a salmon and then lie on their back to float and eat. They hold the wiggling fish in their paws and chew away. After a few bites they discard the fish and dive for another. The delighted gulls patiently circle the otters and eat the remnants. It is a little sad, but nature and survival at its best.

The area also has a fish ladder which is man made to help the salmon go upstream and avoid the hydro dam. The bad part for the fish is the hatchery. To ensure the salmon will spawn and make new little salmon, they are "helped???" by humans. They are caught and slaughtered in this building and sorted by sex. Then their eggs are harvested and fertilized. After incubation and hatching the young fry get large enough to be released into the open water. After a few years in the ocean they will come back here to spawn unless they are hooked, netted or eaten along the way. And that folks is the life cycle of a salmon.. enjoy your next meal!

After hours of salmon viewing we drove another dirt road to a glacial lake near the mouth of Valdez Glacier. I will come back here tomorrow to kayak. Also visited the Crooked Creek Salmon Spawning Center where they had a viewing platform over a stream. There was very little water and the salmon were working hard to get through the current. We watched and had great respect for these fish. They even have an underwater camera here so you can see the struggle from all angles.

Later we spent some time at the campground and after dinner returned to Dayville Road to watch the salmon again. We saw the bear in the photo along the road happily eating grass.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

MOSQUITOES??? We don't want no stinkin’ mosquitoes!

You’ve heard about ’em. The world-famous Alaska mosquitoes. Well here we are—three couples on the trek who were prepared at our campfire tonight. Yes, the mosquitoes were bad tonight, but – believe it or not – this was the exception in Alaska. For the most part the mosquitoes were relatively few and relatively small in Alaska this year. Canada, however. That’s another story.

The lovely chapeaux we are wearing are actually Brian’s – bought on his infamous camping trip up here in the late eighties. He needed them so he could keep the mosquitoes away while he was eating. We haven’t had quite that bad a problem.

The other couple standing – Don and Dianne Weir – are from York, PA and retired from a business selling pizza and other goodies at various fairs, carnivals, car shows, etc. Don is an antique car nut and has several (14-15) original unrestored Fords, Brewsters, and others that he shows all over the country.

The seated couple are Bob and Jeanette Rieck from Surprise, Arizona. The Riecks are full-time RVers. They have a small (1000 sq. ft.) house in Surprise and spend most of their time in their RV. They are, by the way, two of the nicest people you would ever hope to meet. Bob is the stereotypical Boy Scout /church youth group leader type. He has a million stories ,games and songs, and he shares with all of us. Oddly enough, by sheer coincidence Bob and Jeanette live right down the street from our Trekmaster, Glenn, although they did not know each other.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Carousel (Jacques Brel)

Worth Getting Sick Over

In our travels Judy and I have had several experiences which have made us motion sick. You have to understand, I’m the one who got seasick on the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan! But sometimes it’s worth it.

The one that always comes to mind is The Hulk – the big roller coaster at Universal Studios Orlando. I don’t know if you are familiar with an induction coaster. This is not your father’s roller coaster. A regular coaster pulls you up with a clanking chain and then lets you roll down a hill. Not so an induction coaster. Luckily a neighboring rider warned us to put our heads back against the head rest.

The Hulk blasts you up into a dark tunnel using magnetic induction. It must be what it feels like to be piloting a jet launched by catapult from an aircraft carrier. 0-60 in nothing flat. When The Hulk comes out into daylight it immediately turns over on its back and dives straight down. And that’s only the beginning. Suffice it to say that Judy and I were sick for the rest of the day – and it was worth it!

So back to the point of all this. Yesterday we took an 8 hour cruise in Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. Judy and I both had our sea bands on and we managed to avoid anything worse than a queasy feeling. But the point is that it would have been worth getting sick.

We went to two tidal glaciers and watched (and heard!) them calve from just a couple of hundred yards away. We saw seals lying on ice floes. We saw sea otters and a pod of orcas. And there were a bunch of horned puffins diving for fish as well as the occasional bald eagle.

Worth getting sick over? You bet! The sickness lasts a couple of hours, but the memories last forever. So next week in Valdez we will be looking forward to our trip into Prince William Sound. Seasick? Maybe. Memories? Oh, yeah!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Am I Blue?

I like Seward. It is cute and cozy, but large enough to be interesting. This morning I visited a small town museum and saw artifacts and photos of the way things used to be. Also watched a movie about the July 4th race on Marathon Mountain. This majestic peak looms over the city and waterfront and is considered quite formidable to climb. Well the movie was a hoot and the race participants literally crawled up the mountain on hands and knees. The trail is all rocks and dirt and looked very difficult. Many of the runners fell on the way down and some actually somersaulted and got bloodied and bruised. One couple from our group did attempt the climb later in the day and found it incredibly difficult. They were thrilled to get part way and turned back.

I walked around in the shopping area and found an adorable bar stool with an otter painted on the seat. Since that is Jeff's favorite critter I purchased it and shlepped it back to our RV. In the afternoon our group drove out to Exit Glacier. Aside from being beautiful we had a great hike right up to the ice. It was a fun and not too strenuous walk and we were able to stand right alongside the blue ice.

Back in town we visited the Alaska Sea Life Center, a good aquarium. The best part was the exhibit of puffins, murres and gulls. We just love the puffins, but the photos were all disappointing. They are the funniest birds since penguins. The float on the water like ducks and have an awkward flying style with their wings flapping crazily. They land by sticking their feet straight out and using them like skiis as they skid to a stop.

What rises in the north and sets in the north?

The sun in Alaska in the summer. In Fairbanks, which was as far north as we got, the sun sort of set but it never got really dark. The darkest it ever got was about like a half hour after sunset at home. (Yes, it really screws up your system!)

But the sun doesn’t didn’t rise in the east and set in the west. It rose slightly east of north and set slightly west of north. It was sort of interesting trying to figure out what time of day we might have shade in any given spot. We were usually wrong.

Now that we are in Seward, which is about 325 miles south of Fairbanks, we actually have something approaching night. The sun sets around 10 or 11 at night. (It’s been really cloudy, so it’s hard to tell.) At night it is almost dark.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sailing, Sailing

Today was a highlight of our trip. We took an all day cruise in the Kenai Fiords National Park. The park is immense and contains many glaciers fed by the Harding Icefields. Our town of Seward is just one of the fiords and is the northernmost port in Alaska that does not freeze over making it an important place for shipping. Cruise ships come in here also and Jeff and I had disembarked here on our Alaska cruise in 1996.

Our catamaran was very comfortable and we sat on the lowest deck, inside at comfy chairs and tables. We met an interesting couple from Georgia and spent the day talking and watching the water, ice and sea birds. Being a smallish ship (150 passengers) we were able to get about a quarter mile from one glacier and stayed there a while watching it calve into the sea. The blue color of the ice is amazing and it was cold so I got to wear my thermal underwear, knit hat and gloves.

Later we visited another glacier and chased a pod of Orca Whales. We saw a few otters float by on their backs and lots of seals, puffins and murres playing on the seas. We were served a fish fry lunch on board and stopped at Fox Island for a salmon grill dinner. Just a perfect day except for Jeff being a little queasy with the sea swells.

Arriving back at Seward we saw this comforting sign near our campground and then spied this bald eagle perched in a nearby tree.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


The title today is from a song by The Bobs and the top two photos were taken at Turnagin Arm where we searched unsuccessfully for Beluga whales. The road from Anchorage south is just beautiful with the water on your right and beyond that ranges of mountains. We stopped often along the way to look out and saw the train at one stop.

Later we stopped at the Alyeska Resort which is noted as the best hotel in Alaska. Popular for skiing in winter, it is a hiking paradise in summer and also a jumping off point for paragliding. We took the tram to the top and were tempted to do a tandem glide, but time and money stopped that thought. Instead we walked around and enjoyed the views from the top and had a delicious lunch.

Arriving in Seward we were greeted by a charming coastal town and our city campground was on a gravel beach. The locals said that this area had lost about 60 feet which fell into the sea in the 1964 earthquake. They never rebuilt because it isn't safe, but seems to be good enough for tourists to camp. We felt no tremors and enjoyed three wonderful days exploring the land and sea.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Look at Me I'm Sandra Dee

Monday is the most gorgeous weather day we've had so far. Bright blue sky and not a cloud to be seen. The first day since July 4th that I didn't need to wear a sweater or jacket. We had lots of plans and they all fizzled as we relaxed and enjoyed.

Jeff headed off with the trekmaster to do some shopping for an upcoming dinner. I set out to find a nail salon and had a wonderful manicure and pedicure. It felt good to be pampered. For lunch I had a vanilla milkshake and drove home to find Jeff taking a snooze on the couch. What a great day!

Dinnertime we joined the group for a chuck wagon style dinner complete with ribs, chicken, halibut, fried, corn fritters, slaw and dessert. We rolled out of the restaurant and into their gift/chocolate shop and then a small theatre with an amusing (and thankfully) short show.

Now I am doing some more laundry and finally have internet access. Tomorrow we leave for Seward which will give us views of water and glaciers.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Lazy Day II

Sunday turns out to be another quiet day with laundry and just hanging out. Seems like we need a day to recharge our batteries. Around noon we go to the movies. We have been aching to see the new Harry Potter movie and it is very good with great special effects.

Afterwards we spend a few hours at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. They have displays on five native groups including life size housing units. It is a large center and you walk from village to village. Inside the main building there are sports demonstrations and native dancing and singing. In the photos I am standing in the entrance to a wooden native communal home and Jeff is posing next to the jawbone of a bow whale.

We do go out to dinner with our trekmaster for a Chinese buffet.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Anchors Away

Today is tour day in Anchorage. We have tickets to a one hour trolley tour and the city has lots of charming sights. Downtown the visitor center has a sod roof and the streets have beautiful hanging flower pots and planters. The color scheme is purple and yellow, the Alaska state flag colors. We visited a statue of Captain Cook and a float plane base. On the edge of the city is Earthquake Park, a grim reminder of the 1964 disaster that ruined the city and took lives from here to California with shaking and tsunamis.

The city has a farmers market and we walked around and had lunch there. They had all kinds of food as well as crafters and a few produce stands. Later we spent some time at the Anchorage Museum. This is a first rate collection about Alaska natives, wildlife, gold, oil, WWII and present day.

After dinner we ventured back downtown to visit Ship Creek. This is a river and dam where salmon swim upstream to spawn. We saw several large (3') salmon and dozens of fishermen. The most fun was a few playful beavers who are the largest member of the rat family.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Puppy Love

Another great driving day as we headed to Anchorage. Along the way were mountains and rivers - ho hum! - and a stop at the Alaska Transportation Museum. It was eight acres of old cars, fire engines, trains and planes. Kinda a guy place as everything was in disrepair like a junk yard. Some antique cars were inside a building and the rest of the "junque" was spread out on grassy lawns. We trudged through several train cars and a large display of chain saws and Jeff enjoyed seeing some old military planes and helicopters.

Next stop was the headquarters for the Iditarod Race. We were able to cuddle with some puppies and take a cart ride pulled by a sled dog team. These dogs are bred to run and they can't wait to get into action. They are fast too and I could imagine them pulling a sled through miles of snow.

Got to our campground and the group had an ice cream social. Jeff had his guitar and sang a few songs. The folks on our tour love him and one couple are Tom Lehrer fans and we go around singing those old songs that we like so much.

Brian left today for a long weekend in Vladivostock. Don/'t ask me why anyone would want to go there, but that is where he and his buddies chose for a vacation. I am anxious to hear about it and hope he gets home safely.