Friday, July 30, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Kenai: The End of the Alaska RV Tour

We left Homer on Wednesday, July 28th and made the short 87 mile drive north to Kenai. As we went along, we passed communities with names such as Ninilchik, Kalifornsky, and Kasilof. The histories and cultures of these communities are tightly interwoven between native people and Russian traders and fishermen.

The Kenai Peninsula is very pretty. We drove past inlets and rivers where people were fishing, and saw rustic campgrounds and fancy lodges. This area is a hugely popular summer destination for many people of varying means and backgrounds, but the one unmistakable common core is Fishing. Some folks set up dilapidated RV trailers wherever they can and live in them while they fish. Others rent cabins, stay in high-end lodges, or occupy RV parks in fancier motor homes and RV trailers. Whatever their accommodations or resources, they are all there for the Salmon!

We arrived at the Beluga Lookout RV Park around noon. This park is located along a ridge top in Old Town Kenai, and has a great view of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet.

We got there just at the tail-end of the dip netting season, when Alaskan residents are allowed to use home made nets to literally scoop up salmon for their own consumption - they are not allowed to sell or trade the fish. The head of household is permitted to keep 25 salmon, and each family member can keep 10.  For many economically depressed families, the resulting cache of fish will help them survive the coming winter; a family of four can easily pack away 200 pounds of Salmon meat. This is subsistence fishing in its truest form.

After lunch, Spike took us on a walking tour to the Holy Assumption Orthodox Church which was built in 1896. This church building is actually the second church on the site, replacing a Russian Orthodox church that had been built in 1849. Spike asked the priest to tell us the history of the church and talk to us a little about the Russian Orthodox Church in general. I was very interested in what the Priest had to say because I have often wondered what it is that defines religious orthodoxy.

As we learned, the Russian Orthodox Church considers itself to be the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ and his Apostles (specifically the Apostle Andrew) almost 2,000 years ago. That is, they claim direct lineage to the beliefs and practices of the very first Christians. We also learned that the Russian Orthodox Church falls under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow, in communion with the other Eastern Orthodox Churches.  It is the largest of the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world and, among Christian churches, the Russian Orthodox Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in number of followers, now exceeding 135 million worldwide members and still growing.

There are deep and enduring links between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kenai Peninsula that date back to 1841, when the Russian Orthodox church served as a vital method of assimilating the natives to the Russian culture. The church also provided religious and educational services, and served as an administrative and judicial center for the region. 

The church building that stands there now is over 100 years old and is showing its age, but restoration efforts are underway to protect and preserve this National Historic Landmark which is the oldest standing Orthodox church in Alaska. Even during restoration, the Holy Assumption Orthodox Church continues to serve a congregation and play an important role in the Kenai society.

After visiting the church, we walked a little further to the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church Cemetery, which dates back to around 1860. Spike was explaining that the growing season is so short there, that the cemetery care keepers don’t bother to mow the grass. Just as we were talking about this, Paula Scott spotted a moose staring at us from the edge of the woods. She was staring intently at our group, apparently wondering what the deal was with all the yellow vests. I whipped my camera up and got this photo… pretty cool, eh?

After our visit to the Church and cemetery, we rode with Spike in the van to the local Safeway grocery store. Our group was having a King Crab feast that night and we needed to pick up some Alaska King Crab legs. While Lynda was shopping, I walked about a 1/4 mile to a nearby Radio Shack and bought another DVD player. That’s right, our DVD player had gone bad the night before - I think 11,000 miles of road vibration proved too much for it. Anyway, I found another player that was pretty inexpensive and we’ll see how long it lasts!

Our group assembled in the pavilion at the RV park Wednesday evening for dinner.  Spike, Roger, and Teresa provided potato salad, coleslaw, rolls, and deserts. All we had to do was bring our own King Crab legs.  Unfortunately, there wasn't enough space at the tables to eat, at least not for me - I need a lot of elbow room to work on those crab legs! So Lynda and I went back to the Trek to eat and then returned to the pavilion for desert.  The food was good... I really like crab legs!

The next day, Thursday, was our last day as a group. We spent most the day doing little chores and chatting with folks, and Lynda polished up the poem she wrote for the group. She asked me to read it on her behalf later that day, at our "last supper". I turned in the quiz that Spike handed out to each rig during our first orientation briefing. This was 20+ questions about Alaska and the Yukon, intended to make us pay attention during the tour. It was not an  easy quiz but we had fun researching the answers. Spike and I also found some time for him to review how to maintain his web site, which I had rebuilt back in January.

And so later that day, the yellow jackets gathered once more for our last potluck dinner. It was five weeks to the day we first assembled in Hazelton

Spike grilled the Halibut that Roger and Teresa caught in Homer and we also enjoyed the various side dishes and deserts everyone brought. Fran's brother joined us also, and it was nice to meet him.

Then Spike read some poetry, passed around some articles of interest such as a big gold nugget, old coins, trading beads, part of a sea otter pelt, and other items that tied in with things we had done or talked about.

Spike picked folks out of the group, gave them scripts and had them perform some impromptu skits. It was all great fun!
He also announced the quiz winners: we got third place, Merrill and Jim Dick got second, and Sophie and Roxie won.

Those kids did a great job finding out all the answers!

And Spike also read to us a very entertaining note that Merrill had left for him, with tips and tricks for walking their little cocker spaniel, Edie. I cannot even begin to recount how funny that note was...we were all in stitches of laughter! Edie is a little "challenged" as far as socialization goes - she makes Sydney look people friendly and relaxed - and Merrill's note was explaining how to soothe her, and how to sing to Edie so she would poop. I really need to see if I can get a copy of that note!

And then a few folks from the group stepped up to read poems they had written to entertain our group, and I read Lynda's Flight of the Bumblebees... Through the Yukon and Alaska. I'm pleased to say I did it justice and the group really enjoyed the poem!

Click here to see photos of our stay in Kenai, including our "last supper".

And that was the end of our RV Caravan Tour of Alaska.  Lynda and I left the RV park this morning around 9 AM - it felt odd to be leaving on our own.  More than once today I've reached for the radio to share something with the others.

But, more adventures lay ahead of us and so we're not too sad. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How are Sydney and Barley Doing?

Over the past few months the dogs have evolved to the point where we can leave them loose in the Trek for up to 3 hours or so. Although we never have problems with them messing, they get bored if we leave them alone much longer and then they start chewing on things, such as the area rug. Oh yes, there is a 12-inch stretch along one edge that is a little shredded. But I just spun the rug around and hid the bad spot under their food bowls - no problemo!

Actually, we're pretty sure that Barley does the chewing. Although Sydney has other "challenges", she prefers to chew on her toys and not household objects.

Anyway, our rule of thumb is to crate Sydney and Barley whenever we go somewhere for longer than 3 hours.  And we have left them for as long as 8-9 hours, although only rarely.

They don't seem to mind their crates; in fact, they go right into them without any cajoling whatsoever. Nonetheless, this crating process can be a hassle. We have to empty the storage compartment to pull out the crates, and then empty everything out again to put the crates away. Also, Barley drops so much hair when he's in his crate that I have to vacuum when we return.  Although he seems happy enough, I think this shedding is a sure sign that he does suffer from some crate anxiety.

Anyway, we leave the TV on if we can pull in a station or leave a DVD movie playing.  This seems to soothe them, although camping neighbors sometimes report barking and scratching noises while we're gone.  We're pretty sure the scratching noises are from Sydney dancing on the bottom of her crate.

Barley is getting better about other dogs. His behavior is not so Alpha and he often will ignore another dog entirely, unless it is bouncing around and barking at him.

Although we continue to socialize her, Sydney is often unfriendly to other people and will sometimes bark and look ferocious when we cross paths with others.  But if the other person is unafraid and just walks up to her, Sydney backs down and becomes their friend.  Several people in our caravan group have taken this approach, including Roger, Spike, and Debbie. Still, we're careful with her around other people, particularly children.  

Lynda and I are so glad to have Sydney and Barley with us - they may not be perfect, but they are wonderful companions and have settled into our traveling lifestyle very nicely! 

So how are the dogs doing?  They are just great!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Homer, Alaska

We left Anchorage on Monday, July 26th and drove the 221 miles to Homer along the Sterling Highway. We stayed in Homer for only two nights, leaving the morning of Wedesday, July 28th.

As we drove along, Spike told us about the Russian background of this part of Alaska. Russian whalers and fur traders established the first white settlement in Alaska in 1784 on Kodiak Island and later in Sitka. Although Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867, the Russian influence is still evident today in the communities of Sitka, Kodiak, Unalaska and Kenai, where onion-domed Russian Orthodox churches remain.  We would see some of this influence on our way to Homer, but even more so in a couple days when we go to Kenai.

Along the way, we stopped at the Fred Meyer store in Soldotna to give everyone a chance to eat lunch and stock up on groceries.  That parking lot was a zoo!  In addition to our group's RVs, there must have been at least 30 other rigs filling the parking lot. Nearly three-quarters of Alaska sport fishing is done in the South central region of the state, which encompasses this area. Yes, it's summertime and fishing is underway!

We arrived at the Heritage RV Park on the Homer Spit around 3 PM.  Here is a photo that Joe Scott took and shared with our group.

The Homer Spit is a 4.5 mile long piece of land on the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula that sticks out into Kachemak Bay and it boasts the longest road into ocean waters in the world, taking up 10–15 minutes to cover by car. The Spit is home to the Homer Boat Harbor, which serves up to 1500 commercial and pleasure boats at its summer peak, and also to the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon, campgrounds, hotels, and restaurants and the infamous Salty Dawg Saloon. Unfortunately, the weather was so damp and chilly the day we arrived that we explored none of this... it was just too miserable! 

Lynda had decided to go deep sea fishing for Halibut the next morning and so she went with some others from our group to get signed up.  She needed to get up around 5:30 AM to get down to the boat dock by 6 AM. I'm glad she does not go fishing very often because I also had to get up to fix her coffee and push her sleepy head out the door! Anyway, she has made a separate posting about her fishing experience and so I'll leave it at that.  

Later than day, when our intrepid Halibut fishermen returned home and the tide came back in, John Bland took us to the next door fishing hole in the hopes we could catch some Salmon.

John was very patient in showing us what to do but we didn't catch anything, although I enjoyed it anyway. By then the sun had come out and it was a pretty day, although still quite chilly.

The next day, our Halibut fisherman went and picked up their fish (Lynda chose to have most of her catch mailed home) and then our caravan group got ready to head to Kenai. This will be our last stop in Alaska as a group - it's hard to believe that 5 weeks have gone by and our Alaska RV tour is winding down. We're feeling a little sad about it.

In honor of our military retirees and veterans, I played the Air Force song (Off We Go Into The Wild Blue Yonder) over the radio as our caravan got underway for the last time.  After all, it was time those Army, Marine, and Navy folks in our group listened to some real military music  :-)

Click here to see photos of Homer and stay tuned to hear about Kenai! 

Alaska RV Tour - Halibut Fishing off Homer

On the day before were scheduled to fish (Tuesday, July 27th), those of us without our own cars loaded up into Spike’s van and he took us down to the boardwalk on the Spit so we could purchase our fishing licenses and pay for our spot on the charter boat. Debbie at The Fish Connection told us the name of our boat and where at the docks we could find it. She also gave us a stern warning that the boat would leave at 6:45 AM. and would not wait for late-comers.

At some point, Spike told us most of the boardwalk on the Homer Spit and the retail spaces along it were built by and owned by the same family who owns the Time Bandit of “The Deadliest Catch” fame.  He always knows tidbits about the local area, no matter where we are!

Anyway, that evening Consuelo packed a back pack for me with a lunch and a set of dry clothes and she made sure I was in bed early - since it would be an early wake up for me the next morning. Despite her declarations to the contrary the night before, Consuelo was up with me bright and early - she made some coffee and sent me on my way. Worried I would have problems with seasickness, she made sure I had my pressure points wrist bands as I left to meet the others at Spike’s van at 6:00 AM. Since Roger and Teresa would also be fishing, Roger drove all us hopeful fishermen down to the docks, In addition to me were Neil Brown, Paul Deragisch, Jim Dick, Bob Bennett and his grandson Weston.

When we arrived at the dock, we weren’t surprised to see John and Linda Bland’s white Jeep already parked – John is an avid fisherman and it was no secret he he’d been looking forward to this since we met up in Hazelton. I was a little relieved it hadn’t worked out for me to ride with them as we planned— John probably left the RV park at 5:15 AM!

We walked down the slight ramp from the parking lot to the dock and quickly spotted our fishing boat and her crew waiting for us. Also waiting was the rest of our fishing group – Don Braucher, Herb Neubaum, Tim Wolums, John Melcher, Snake and Irene Simpson, Jim and Bettye Chaplin, and of course, John and Linda Bland.

The captain introduced himself, checked each of our fishing licenses and gave each of us 2 things that looked like big safety pins, each with a number embossed on it. He explained the limit on halibut is two fish per person. As we caught fish, the deck hands would ask for a pin and pin it to the fish. When you run out of pins you may as well stop fishing, because you can’t keep anymore. The captain also told us to remember the number on our pins, because that’s how they would identify who’s fish is whose at the end of the day. I was number 3, since I was the third person to get on the boat .

Once everyone was on board and had their pins, the captain had us gather in the galley area so he could give us the mandatory safety briefing. After he pointed out the location of the life vests, many of us agreed that if we ended up in the water, a life vest would only prolong the agony - although we wouldn’t be going out onto the Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska is still some pretty darn cold water.

Finally the captain fired up the engines and pulled away from the dock, and he navigated us out of the harbor. We were soon cruising along, headed to the open waters where we would do our fishing. We saw nothing but some beautiful cloud formations as we motored along. I tried to stay out on the aft deck as much as I could (to stay in the fresh air and reduce my chance of getting sick).

After about 2 hours, we finally spotted our boat’s sister ship, who was stopped with all her passengers happily fishing. Our captain swooped our boat around— perhaps so we wouldn’t be hitting the same school of fish? And our deckhands started giving us lessons on how to catch halibut. They had rods and reels and bait all ready for us. One of the deckhands picked up a rod and showed us the 2-pound lead weight; he showed us how to unlock the reel and told us to just toss the weight out and let it carry the line to the bottom. He explained the bottom was about 200 feet down, so to be patient. When we felt it hit the bottom, we should jerk it up quickly and let it sink again. Once we felt a fish hit, we shouldn’t try to jerk to set the hook – that would likely yank the hook out of the fish’s mouth. When we felt a hit we should just smoothly start to reel the fish in.

While the deckhand was demonstrating all this, he got a hit! So he called young Weston over to bring in the fish. And so it was that 11-year-old Weston caught the first fish of the day!

The hand also explained that when we got a fish close to the surface we shouldn’t try to pull it out of the water but to instead shout out “fish up!” so they could come and assist. The two deckhands gave each of us a fishing rod and spread us out around the boat. They kept an eye on us and quickly came to our aid when anyone had a problem. I had a little trouble at first with locking and unlocking the reel, but one of the hands got me sorted out. When I got my first hit, I started reeling and reeling (200 feet is a lot of line to reel up) until it finally got to the point where I could see my fish in the water.

It seems like halibut don’t fight very much, but their shape and weight make them tough to pull up (picture a big flat fish – they’re not exactly slicing through the water…we were pulling in 12 to 20 pounders – but they can reach a couple of hundred pounds!).

So I could see my fish and every time he got close to the surface, I could see him dive under the boat. So I kept reeling and reeling. Finally one of the deckhands noticed I was struggling and he came to help me. He looked over the side, saw my fish go under the boat, he told me he’d be right back—he was going to the other side to cut my line. A few minutes later, he was beside me and told me my fish was lying on the deck on the other side of the boat. He took my rod from me and told me to go get my fish.

I went around to the other side of the boat where I found Irene sitting and resting. In front of her were two halibut fish lying on the deck and flopping around. I asked her what happened and she said someone else’s fish was tangled up in her line, so the deckhand had cut the line. We laughed at each other as we realized we had been fighting each other under the boat! Right about then the deckhand showed up and I was relieved when he told me the bigger of the two fish was mine. He showed me and Irene where he’d cut the line and he asked me for one of my pins. I reached into my pocket and he pinned my first fish. When he picked it up off the deck, he told me he thought it weighed about 18 pounds—not bad for my first one! I was happy.

The deckhand laid the fish out at the stern of the deck and set me up to fish some more. With my next hit, I started reeling the line in, but I think that first guy (and Irene on the other side of the boat) had worn me out. I struggled to hold the rod with my left hand (which is so much weaker since the stroke) and reel the line in with my right. I kept having an awful vision of the whole rod and everything jumping out of my hands and disappearing into the water –and I had seen the sign in the galley warning of a $100 charge for lost tackle. Fortunately, Roger was standing right next to me. Without even asking if I needed help, he reached over and held my rod for me. Roger yelled “fish up!” and one of the hands came over to help get the fish off the hook. He asked me if I wanted to keep it, I asked what he thought it weighed, he said maybe 12 lbs, and I said let it go – that first one spoiled me, so this guy lived to grow some more!

My last hit of day, I’m proud to say I brought up completely by myself. I was getting very tired by this point. As the fish got close to the surface someone yelled “fish up! And a deckhand appeared beside me. He looked at the fish and said, “God, you’ve just got him by the skin of his lip, can I go get the gaff?”—I guess he asked because gaffing a fish can ruin the fillets… I told him sure (Frankly I was just glad for the help at this point… I don’t think I could have reeled that line in any more).When he came back with the gaff, he was very careful and hooked the fish in the mouth with the gaff. He took my other pin and pinned my second keeper, telling me he thought it weighed about 14 lbs.

I went back to the stern of the boat to check out the “bounty of the sea” we had brought in. All day long, I had been hearing people yelling “fish up!” but I was focused on my own fishing and hadn’t really paid attention to how the others were doing... Turns out everyone caught their daily limit of 2 fish each—we had a great day!

Laid out across the aft deck and covering the deck from side to side was a great row of halibut fish! The crew gave us the opportunity to go find our fish, pick them up and get our pictures taken with our catches. When I found the fish with the #3 pins, I could barely lift them up!

We had about a two-hour ride to get back to the docks and as we motored in, the two deckhands made use of the time by cleaning and filleting the fish - not a pleasant job, but these guys really knew what they were doing! With super-sharp knives, it looked to me like they could gut and fillet a whole fish in about 2 minutes with 4 or 5 swipes of their knife. They tossed the guts over board as they worked and we soon had a large group of very happy seagulls chasing us. They used numbered plastic bags to line 5-gallon buckets, and as they got a fish filleted, they dropped the fillets into the appropriately numbered bucket. For another $5 per fish they would skin the fillets, as well. I decided to keep my fillets with skins, but a few folks requested this extra service.

When we got to the dock, the crew brought out several large plastic trays. They had index cards with everyone’s name and fish number; they took the bags of fillets and dispersed them among the trays, placing the matching index cards on top of the bags. Right about then a guy came down the dock pushing a big wheelbarrow – he was from Coal Pointe Fish Processing, the place that would be packaging and freezing our fish. This guy loaded all the trays into his wheelbarrow and headed up the dock to load them into his pickup truck and rush them down to the processing center - I was very impressed with how efficient this whole process was. Halibut fishing is what they do in Homer and these guys know how to do it right! The crew told us we should head down and meet the guy at Coal Pointe to put in our orders.

So, tired though we were, we climbed up the steep ramp from the dock to the parking lot (it had been just a slight ramp down that morning but the tide had gone out while we were gone). We loaded into the van and Roger drove us three buildings down to Coal Pointe. Our fish was already unloaded and waiting for us. The staff there was pulling index cards and calling out names. When you heard your name you stepped forward and they weighed your fish. Someone with a clipboard wrote down the weight and asked what you wanted – vacuum-packed, frozen or for an additional charge, flash-frozen.
I told the young lady helping me that I wanted all my fish packaged into 1-pound packs and frozen; and that I would want to ship some home. She told me I’d have to come back in the morning (it takes overnight to freeze the fish), she also explained that they would package the fish in approximate 1lb. packages – no guarantees of exactly 1 pound and in the morning I could take what I wanted then and arrange to have the rest shipped home. Coal Pointe also has a FedEx counter so they can handle everything. She handed me my receipt, which showed I had 12.5 lbs of fillets and told me I would need to show it in the morning to get my fish.

Finally we headed back to the RV park. I was exhausted and excited to tell Consuelo about my day. I wanted a cold beer and to peel out of my clothes and take a hot shower – everything I was wearing smelled like a dead fish. I was also curious to hear Consuelo’s ideas on what we should do with nearly 13 lbs of fish!

As it turned out, I decided to send 10 pounds home (it got there in less than a day, still frozen solid) and we kept the rest which we'll enjoy over the next few weeks.  My plan is to invite friends and family over for a Halibut bake when we get back to Tennessee in late September.

Click here to see photos from this fishing trip.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Part II of Anchorage, Alaska

On Friday, July 23rd I left Lynda and the dogs at the RV Park and went downtown with the Trek to get an oil change, have the tires rotated, and fill up the propane tank. I had an appointment with the local Chevrolet dealer - that which shall not be named. When I made the appointment, I asked how much the oil change would cost and the service representative said he would check and call me back. But, I never heard back from them and was soon to find out why.

After driving into town and figuring out the one-way streets, I was able to get into the dealership service area. And then I found out that they wanted to charge $150 for the oil change and $125 for the tire rotation, although they could not balance the tires. Yikes! After telling the customer service representative the dealership is gouging motorhome customers, I walked out and used the GPS to locate a truck tire shop. Those folks rotated and balanced the tires for $60 and recommended another place for the oil change. I paid $74 for the oil change and it was done within 45 minutes. Then I filled up on propane at a gas station near the RV park and was back home by 11 AM.

We spent the rest of Friday relaxing and I decided to make a nice dinner, including roasting some potatoes in the microwave/convection oven. And this is when the oven made an awful groaning sound and then quit... for good. Yes, it was kaput! In all fairness to this microwave/convection oven, it was 13 years old and we had been using it every day. Anyway, I tagged along with Roger the next morning, Saturday, while he was running some errands. We went to two or three places but I could not find any microwave/convection oven combinations. So then I borrowed the van and ran around some more. After hitting at least 8 stores, I gave up and returned to the Trek with a microwave and a separate convection oven. What a pain! By that time, we had to get ready to go out to a group dinner and I could not finish installing the new microwave. I would have to finish it off later that night.

So our group went to dinner at the Sourdough Mining Company - as it turns out, this place is right next to the tire shop that took care of the Trek on Friday. I had to chuckle at that. Anyway, the Sourdough Mining Company specializes in serving large quantities of food to large quantities of people and so the food is average at best. Its a fun place for kids, but that's about it. After the meal, we went to the show next door, "The Adventures of Dusty Sourdough". This is really all part of the same experience; you can take in this show after dinner if you want.

Afterwards, we went across the street to the Wildberry Products and Chocolate Factory and watched a film about Alaska. Then we went next door to see their infamous chocolate waterfall and walk around the gift shop. I actually relented and bought something: a 4-DVD set entitled, Alaska, Into the Wilderness, which we'll watch when time permits.

Although we were both tired when we got back to the RV, I finished installing the microwave before going to sleep - we were going on an all-day tour in the morning and then leaving for Homer, Alaska the morning after.

The next day, Sunday, most of our group rode the train from Anchorage to Whittier, where we boarded the Klondike Express for their 26 Glacier Tour which goes 135 miles around Prince William Sound.

Although the day was rainy and cold, this was a really good trip! We spotted numerous sea otters, a small group of sea lions, and (of course) lots of glaciers.

Here is a map of the Klondike's route and the glaciers we saw... click here to see our photos of the tour.

And, in case you haven't already seen them, click here to see our other photos of the Anchorage visit.

Next, on to Homer Alaska - stay tuned!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Part 1 of Anchorage, Alaska

We arrived in Anchorage yesterday, Wednesday July 21st, and will leave on Monday, July 26th. We are staying at the Golden Nugget Camper Park, which is located in town amid a somewhat residential area. Because our group is camping on the caravan side of the park, it is a bit of a hike to go to the laundry room located on the "regular" side. Other than that, this RV park is fine.  One of the things we've learned during this trip is that RV campgrounds in Alaska and the Yukon are rarely as nice as many found in the lower 48, especially those that cater to caravans.

After we got here around 6 PM yesterday, I spent until midnight washing the outside of Trek.  I had to be low-key about this because the RV park does not really want people cleaning their RVs at their campsite.  Anyway, this was the first exterior cleaning the Trek has had since we left home in mid-April and it was filthy! 

Some intesting factoids about Anchorage: this is the most northern major city in the US and is the largest in Alaska. With a population of over 286,000 residents, Anchorage is home to over 40 percent of the Alaska's total population and the Port of Anchorage handles 95% of all goods entering Alaska. Elmendorf Air Force Base (AFB) is on the north side of town.
The first time I visited Alaska was back in 1987.  I went on temporary duty to Elmendof AFB, which was my base camp as I flew around Alaska for three weeks servicing tactical satellite radio equipment.  This is when I fell in love with Alaska and promised myself that I would come back - it only took 23 years!
This morning, Thursday, Spike took us on a tour of the city. Because he lives in Anchorage (at least part of the year), our group has use of Spike's Ford Excursion while we're here, in addition to the van and various tow cars.  We packed ourselves in tighter than usual to reduce the number of vehicles - Anchorage is a big and busy city and it's hard to keep 20 vehicles together!  Anyway, we drove past the Anchorage Float Plane harbor, through Old Towne and other areas, and stopped at Black Elk Crafts (where natives get supplies to make their crafts), the Alaska Fur Exchange, and the Ulu factory.  Although we did not buy anything, it was interesting to look at the goods. 

Spike then took us on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail out to Earthquake Park, an area where large tracts of land slid into the Inlet and an entire neighborhood of homes were destroyed by the Good Friday Earthquake.  This earthquake hit on March 27, 1964 and was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America, measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale.

From Earthquake Park, we could look across Cook Inlet and the Knik Arm and see the beginnings of the Knik Arm Bridge which (if ever completed) will connect the Mat-Su Borough to Anchorage.

After a morning of touring around, we returned to the RV park for lunch and then off we went again for more sightseeing.  Before leaving, Spike made a bet with several of us that we would see a moose today. We laughed about this because, as much fun as we were having and as beautiful as the countryside is, we have not been seeing the quantity or variety of wildlife we expected. 


Shortly after getting on the Seward Highway to drive along the Cook Inlet, what should we see but a Grizzly bear ambling along a bike path right next to the highway! That was pretty exciting for us, but probably even more exciting for the two girls we saw on bikes very shortly afterwards, heading towards that Grizzly.

Going along the Seward Highway past Cook Inlet, we stopped at a local meat and fish processing place called Indian Valley Meats. This is a tucked away, attractive little complex on the side of a mountain overlooking the inlet. In addition to the meat processing facility, there is a small shop where they sell cured game meats and wild salmon, ice cream, local preserves, etc.  They also have a Bed & Breakfast, which looks like a nice place to stay.

After Indian Valley Meats, we continued along the Turnagain Arm towards the Portage Glacier. 

The Good Friday earthquake took its toll in this area also. At the western end of Turnagain Arm by the old town site of Portage, the ground sank about 7 feet and sea water flooded the area.  Dead trees from this event, preserved in the brine, jut up like mangled toothpicks. It is an eerie sight... like something out of a Tim Burton movie.

We made a stop at an overlook that has a great view of the Portage Glacier.  Unfortunately, it was overcast but we still got some decent photos. 

Then our group went on to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center of the Chugash National Forest.  Here we learned about Ice Worms (they are real!) and  listened to an interpretive guide tell us, in first person, the story of Alaska Nellie.

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University of Alaska Anchorage
Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska's well-known camp cooks and roadhouse owners - she was 42 years old when she arrived in Seward on July 4, 1915. Her life story is fascinating and I would say Alaska Nellie is exemplary of the tough and resourceful people that settled Alaska over the past century.  Here is photo of Nellie with a pet bear at Crow Creek mining camp, near Girdwood, 1918.

By the way, Lynda and I have noticed that there seems to be little gender bias in the Yukon and Alaska. Man or woman, if you are self-reliant and trustworthy, you are respected and valued.  Certainly Alaska Nellie is remembered with a great deal of admiration.

Our group then started to leave the Visitors Center to make our way to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  Unfortunately, the Frye's car decided not to start but Spike was able to cobble together a towing arrangement and the Frye family dispersed into other vehicles. 

So off we went to the Wildlife Center, and Spike won his bet - we did see a moose that day! In fact, we also saw rescued Grizzly bears, Black bears, Moose, Bison, Caribou, and Musk Ox.  This wildlife center is well worth the visit. Visitors drive through the park to view the animals, which are secured in generously sized enclosures, and you can stop and get out as you like. We enjoyed it!

It had been a fun day but we got back to the RV park a couple hours later than expected.  Thankfully, Roger walked the dogs for us and so they were fine - no messes or calamities to deal with, just two happy doggies that were very glad to see us.

Click here for photos, and stay tuned for more about our visit to Anchorage!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Denali to Anchorage, Alaska

We left Denali on Wednesday, July 21st and our caravan made its way towards Anchorage, heading southwest along the Parks Highway. 

After about an hour, we pulled off to get a closer look at an odd structure built to look like a giant Igloo. The story on this, according to Spike, is that this building was intended to be a hotel but it has never opened because it does not meet codes.

Apparently various people have owned the Igloo but no-one has been able to renovate the structure as needed.

So, the giant igloo sits on a huge lot, crumbling at the side of the highway.

We took a lunch break at Sheep Creek Lodge, a gorgeous 10,000 square foot restaurant and lodge that (according to their web site) is constructed of Alaska White Spruce harvested from Nenana, Alaska. At the time of the harvest, the logs were standing beetle kill (you can see the holes created by the spruce bark beetle in the logs) and the logs range in age from 80 years old to well over 300 years old!  Sheep Creek Lodge really is a striking place and we would love to stop there again sometime and perhaps spend the night. 

After Sheep Creek Lodge, our caravan made another stop in Wasilla to visit the Iditarod Trail Race Headquarters and Museum.  Because there is limited parking space at the Iditarod Headquarters, we left most of the RVs at a nearby VFW post.  We did take our Trek, however, and the Kurz' and Rozenboom's rode with us. Lynda had to keep a death grip on Sydney, who growled and glared at our passengers the entire time. "Crazy Girl" is aptly named!

At the museum, we watched a video about  the history of the Iditarod and some standout participants such as Joe Redington Sr. (considered the Father of the Iditarod), Rick Swenson, Dick Mackey, Norman Vaughan, Susan Butcher, Jeff King, and Libby Riddles.

The Iditarod race covers 1150 miles over some of the most rugged terrain in the world: jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and miles of windswept coast. On top of all that, dogs and mushers are working in temperatures far below zero, buffeted by winds that can cause a complete loss of visibility. Hearing about the challenges of this amazing race and the fortitude required of the dogs and the mushers was humbling.

After visiting the museum, we went outside to visit some husky puppies. And wouldn't you know it: Lynda struck up a conversation with Joe Redington's daughter-in-law. And, as it turns out, they know some of the same people from the dog racing scene in New Hampshire, where Lynda had been a junior musher in the late 1970s and early '80s.  Its a small world, which is even more reason to treat it well!

Unlike Lynda, I have never been on a dog sled and so we went ahead and took a ride on a dog cart, which is used in the warm months to keep the dogs trained and fit. It really is amazing how strong those wiry little dogs are!

Well, here we were in Wasilla, also famous for a certain Vice Presidential candidate - Sarah Palin.  I have to be honest and say that I have sub-zero interest in anything Sarah Palin, but there were several in our group who wanted to see her house. So our little convoy followed Papa Spike to a nearby hotel and went down to the dock to look across Lake Lucille to catch a glimpse of the Palin residence.  Yes, we could see it.  Yipee!

After this little side trip, we returned to the VFW and reassembled our caravan and off we went to the Golden Nugget Camper Park in Anchorage. 

Click here for some photos of our drive from Denali to Anchorage, and stay tuned for more news on our Anchorage visit!

Alaska RV Tour - Denali, Alaska

We left as a caravan from the RV park in Fairbanks around 10 AM and made the 118 mile drive to the Denali area without any flat tires, broken windshields or bad wheel bearings. Looks like our spate of bad luck is over!

After a brief stop in Nenana for a look around, our group rolled into the Rainbow RV park around 2 PM. This park is only a couple miles from the Denali National Park entrance. We stayed in the Denali area for two nights, from Monday July 19th to Wednesday, July 21st. The Rainbow RV park has very tight sites and a lot of industrial-looking junk laying around.  On the upside, this RV park is right in the middle of little tourist area with restaurants and various shops.  While it is not the most attractive RV park we've seen, it was fine for a couple nights.

Spike told me that the RV park manager is married to a Barbadian woman and so I went to meet her to see if we knew each other.  Unfortunately, she and her husband were gone on a fishing trip and would not be back until after we left. Oh well...

Anyway, the next day (Tuesday) we split into two groups and each group took the 6.5 hour shuttle bus through the park as far as the Toklat River Rest stop, and then back. Lynda and I went on the first group, with the second group a couple hours behind us.

Riding this shuttle bus was a great way to see the park!  Our bus driver was very good about helping us spot wildlife and stopping the bus anytime someone saw something, or thought they saw something - we had a couple false alarms. Our bus driver had been running shuttle buses through Denali for 11 or 12 years and she was knowledgeable about the park and the animals and so we had our own tour guide as we went along! 

Denali, often referred to as Mt. McKinley, is the highest mountain peak in North America with a summit elevation of over 20,000 feet, and this huge mountain is the centerpiece of Denali National Park. Although we did not expect to get a good view of Denali because "the High One" spends most of his time covered in clouds, we were hoping to at least get a decent glimpse. As it turned out, we did better than that!  As we drove through the park, the clouds came and went and so did the sunshine but there were several instances where we could clearly see Denali and he is impressive!  Thousands of visitors leave Denali National Park without having seen the mountain and so I count myself lucky.

We also spotted numerous animals including a Grizzly sow and her two cubs, mountain goats, caribou, and even a Lynx!

Denali park is beautiful with a variety of topology and lots of flowers and other flora. We really enjoyed it!

Our group planned another potluck for Tuesday evening. It was Spike's birthday and we wanted to have a surprise celebration for him. As always with our potlucks, the food was plentiful and very good, and I think Spike really enjoyed the gathering.

After the potluck Val Frye gathered up some folks and they performed a skit to entertain Spike and the rest of us. Here is a photo of Don Braucher playing the role of Spike - notice the little stuffed animal? That would be Skippy, Spike's little Maltese dog. We all laughed at the good natured fun they poked at Spike, parodying his endless patience, optimism and sayings such as "away we go" and "does anyone need a moment?"  Years from now, we will remember these things I'm sure.

Click here to see more photos of our Denali trip.  Next, on to Anchorage!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Alaska RV Tour - Fairbanks, Alaska

We arrived in Fairbanks on Friday, July 18th and left on Monday, July 19th. We stayed at the River's Edge RV Park, which is a large campground next to the Chena River and is close to shopping and sightseeing.  Although well situated, this park has cramped sites, broken washing machines, and a very poor wireless Internet connection. I'm not sure what other RV parks are in the area but I would look around before staying at the River's Edge again.

As much as we've been enjoying Canada's beautiful countryside and friendly people, in terms of cost of living it was nice to be in a big town in the US. While in Fairbanks, we paid $50 for a bag of dog food compared to $72 in British Columbia, and $3.47/gallon of gas compared to $4.94 in Dawson City. Big differences!

With a population of around 35,000, Fairbanks is the second largest city in the state after Anchorage and is the largest city in Alaska's Interior. Fairbanks is home to the University of Alaska, the oldest college in Alaska and Eielson Air Force Base is located about 26 miles southeast of town.

On Saturday afternoon, Spike led our group on a driving tour of Fairbanks. We drove past Frontier Park and the Holy Roller Church, so named because the church was moved many years ago to its present location by rolling it along on top of pine logs. We also went through the historic area of town, and drove out past the University of Alaska and up to the Fox Visitor Center, which is operated by the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company designed and built the Trans Alaska Pipeline System to move oil from Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to Valdez, which is the most northern ice-free port in Alaska.  The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company continues today to maintain and operate the pipeline. Spike gave us an entertaining and informative talk on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and we learned some interesting facts, such as:
  • It cost $8 billion to build the pipeline in 1977 and was the largest privately funded construction project of its time. 
  • The pipeline is over 800 miles long and 48 inches in diameter.  
  • Engineers designed the pipeline to endure and protect Alaska’s harsh environment as it crosses three mountain ranges, three major earthquake faults, and more than 500 rivers and streams.
  • The pipeline is constructed to move and shift in response to geological movement caused by earthquakes and permafrost activity. 
  • The pipeline corridor includes more than 550 crossing areas for caribou, moose and other wildlife.  
  • Since going into operation, over 15 billion barrels of crude oil have passed through the pipeline.  

On Sunday afternoon, our group went on the Riverboat Discovery Tour and we really enjoyed it! This was a leisurely three and half hour cruise on the Chena River aboard the Discovery III, a 156-foot stern wheeler.
The Riverboat Discovery Tour began with an Alaskan float plane demonstration that showed "bush-style" take offs and landings, and explained the advantages and seasonal use of floats and over-sized soft tundra tires.

In a land of rugged topology, fast weather changes, few roads and bitter winters, Alaskan bush pilots deliver supplies and people to otherwise inaccessible areas.  This is very dangerous work: planes frequently crash and lives are lost. Nonetheless, Alaska has the largest number of licensed pilot per capita, including those holding a private pilot license so they can transport themselves, family and friends.

As we moved slowly down the Chena river, the Discovery III stopped alongside Trailbreaker Kennels, founded by four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher and her husband Dave Monson. Dave spoke a little about dog mushing and training dogs, and gave a demonstration of the combined power of a dog team pulling an ATV. 

Continuing along the river, we passed the Chena Indian Village and Athabascan fish camp. The stern wheeler stopped briefly while a young Athabascan woman told us about these native fish camps and how salmon is (still) cured and stored for the winter.  After that, we went along until we reached the confluence of the Chena and Tanana rivers. It was a beautiful day and we saw numerous pleasure boats with folks fishing.  At this point, the Discovery III turned around and headed back upriver.

On our return leg, we stopped for a one hour visit at the Chena Indian Village, where native guides gave us a tour of an authentically recreated Athabascan Indian village complete with cabins made of spruce logs, a cache used for storing supplies, and a display of various animal hides.
We also visited a very nice display about Susan Butcher in a cabin located next to the Chena Indian Village.  We both became quite sad as we looked at the information and photos - we very much admire Susan Butcher and her accomplishments, and well remember her death in 2006 from Leukemia.  The world lost an amazing person when Susan passed away.

Just before reboarding the Discovery III, we visited the dog yard near the Susan Butcher display where Trailbreaker Kennels, still in operation under the direction of Dave Monson, keeps some sled dogs.

This Riverboat Discovery Tour was excellent and there is very good reason why is it rated as one of the best tours in all of Alaska! 

We returned to the RV park, walked the dogs and got freshened up for dinner with Dave Monson at his home, to learn more about Susan and Trailbreaker Kennels. Yes, we really enjoyed this!

The meal of prime rib and salmon was wonderful (I went for seconds) and Dave's discussion about dog racing was so interesting. With the help of Val Frye who "volunteered" to wear the clothing, Dave gave us a demo of the gear the mushers wear and told us about the hardships and challenges of long distance races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.

We also were able to spend quite a bit of time with the puppies... the only thing cuter than a sled dog puppy is two sled dog puppies!

And we had a chance to chat a bit with Dave and Susan's youngest daughter Chisana.

And that was our visit to Fairbanks... it was a lot of fun and we enjoyed our time there! Click here to see more photos.

Next stop is Denali, Alaska - stay tuned!