Thoughts on turning south

Although we will be in Alaska for another week or so and I still have stories to tell of our week in Fairbanks, I am thinking back over the entire trip and our expectations and experiences.  Alaska is a different state of mind.  It is vast distances and a shrunken perspective.   The road network gives access to a miniscule portion of the territory and to maybe 90% of the population.  The people are as varied as anyplace else in the US, but I think a sign we saw the other day “American by Birth (Wisconsin) Alaskan by Choice” says a lot.  To become an Alaskan is to thrive on extremes in weather and in amount of daylight.  To be independent minded and to accept that your neighbor is too.  To stay awake until the sun sets in summer and I don’t know what they do in winter.  People are mowing lawns at 10 at night, we find ourselves sitting up until all hours not realizing the time and on a day like today with temperatures in the high 70s and clear blue sky who wants to waste a precious minute of sunlight. 

We came here knowing that this would be our one lifetime drive to Alaska.  Call it a “bucket list” item, call it a dream, we’ve finally done it after talking about it for years.  It is hard to think about leaving.  It is harder to say we won’t be back.  There are things we want to do, places we have not gone, people we have not met yet.  I suspect we may make this trip again.  If I was a fisherman or hunter, you could not keep me away from here.  We hardly count as outdoors folk compared to Alaskans who drop everything on Thursday and head for the wilderness, to hunt, to fish, to pan for gold, to be in the outdoors. 

It is a small state.  We meet people who are transplants from Buffalo, Fairport, Syracuse and the Adirondacks, not to mention most every other state in the Union, but mostly northern states.  We see RVers in Denali who we met a week ago in Homer.  We make new friends in Fairbanks and they take off to drive the Dalton Highway as we prepare to drive the Richardson for Tok and Haines and Hyder as we think about reentry into the lower 48.  We have not been here long enough to call it “outside” as they do. 

Fairbanks has been a kick.  We are at the Elks Lodge which is across the Chena River from downtown and that is a five minute walk


The population approaches Brighton (for non Rochester people a good sized suburb of about 35,000) and the surroundings comprise maybe a total of 50 to 70,000 depending on how far out you count.  The Fred Meyers Store here, a Kroger store that gives Walmart a run for the money, is the largest in their system and is expanding.  They take orders and ship to the Interior where bulk deliveries of anything stop with freeze up in September or October and resume in early May.  Small items can be delivered by plane, but those are bush planes and it is very expensive. 

The city is defined and divided by a river and rail yards.  We are between them.  This is the northern end of the Alaska RR.  The tracks stop here.  The Chena River flows in a serpentine course through the city and from our window it seems to be a placid little stream.  In 1967 it flooded up 17 feet over flood stage and where we are was deep under water.   The business heart of the city was washed away.  The river has been tamed by flood control devices and the city has rebuilt.  In 1967 the population was less than half of what it is today.  There are modern buildings for the University and Hotels and governmental offices and there are building that date back to the founding of the city in 1906.  Those are mostly log buildings and many are in use as they were when they were built with the later addition of electricity and in many cases running water.  It is not unexpected to see outhouses in the outlying parts of the area.

We have tripped over band concerts and gotten drawn into contra dancing.  We have seen Muskoxen and flowers and have spent a lot of time in magnificent museums and galleries.  We drove out to Circle City, the first gold rush city on the Yukon River, before Dawson.  It was the Paris of the North blossoming from nothing to 3000 people in 60 days and fading to nothing 9 months later when gold was found on the Klondike.  It is a backwater town of natives who travel as much by boat on the Yukon and its tributaries as by car, maybe more. The local bush plane is tied up next to the general store across the road from the airstrip.

We drove four hours out and 4 hours back for this visit.  We have been tracking the gold mania for two months and this was the last of the places we wanted to see.

We departed Fairbanks planning to stop in Tok to refuel and meet Suzette at the Visitor Center.  There were delays in departure, not the least being the US Postal Service inability to deliver mail to the Post Office it is sent to.  After a stop at the downtown PO where our forwarded mail was supposed to be, we tracked it down at the Geist Rd PO, a different Zip code but not too far away.  At first they did not want to even look, finally the worker agreed to look at the USPS printout we were carrying and off she went to to return with our mail.  Free to move on. 

Longer ago than we choose to think, Carol helped a student who had been driven out of her family home get on a train to, as we were told, Skagway.  She traveled by train, plane and boat to Skagway where she was met by her aunt, Suzette, who was living in a cabin in Dyea (see posts from out visit to Skagway).  Later they moved to Tok where Suzette bought some land and built a plywood cabin.   We had a delightful visit with our new friend and spent the night in the coach in her driveway.

Ok, this is turning into a major ramble.  We have not had adequate service or time to be able to post anything in a week.  Tonight we are in Haines, AK, known as”the other Southeast AK town accessible by road.  In a day or two we will take the ferry 15 miles to Skagway and drive out of Alaska for the last time this trip, the drive from here to Skagway is 360 miles!

Road report:  Between Tok and Haines Junction once we crossed the border into Canada we experienced the worst road of the trip, Top of the World was a picnic, it was merely narrow, dirty and frightening for lack of shoulders.  Alaska Highway from the Canadian Border to Destruction Bay is broken by frost heaves and shifting permafrost.  At any moment it was possible to become airborne (think about that in a 22,000 pound vehicle) and then land so you are launched again immediately.  When we stopped at a pullout just before Destruction Bay we opened each cabinet very carefully.  All were in a jumble.  The worst, and funniest was our closet.  Every single item in the closet was on the floor, nothing was left on the rod.  Fortunately they came down with their hangers so it was short work to restore them to hanging. Wrinkles, who would notice?

We continued on into Haines (140 miles south of Haines Junction) and planned on staying in a commercial camp ground as I could not locate an Elk Lodge or any other close in freebee.  Driving down Main Street, Carol yelled “Elks” and slammed on the brakes.  Sure enough there is a nice full hookup RV park located behind the lodge.  Haven’t met any members yet as it is Sunday and the Lodge won’t open until sometime tomorrow.

After we washed the car in a nearby carwash, we drove out to Chilkoot Lake SRA where bears are reputed to feast on the fish right along side the fishermen.  It’s true, they do. 

I will post some bear pictures shortly.  We had no luck getting useable photos on Sunday, but got great shots on Monday.

 Click Here to see the album online at your pace.

Pictures, I’ve got pictures!

Ok here are mostly pictures with a few words to tie them to the blogs they should have been with.

Our drive down Kenai Spur to Captain Cook State Recreation Area lead to these:

Of course we had to photograph the 4th of July Parade:

Enough Parade, there are 400 more images but I won’t bore myself and you!  I mentioned that we had a great time at Veronica’s Coffee House:

And I extolled the virtues of our celebration at Double Musky in Girdwood:

We stayed in our hidden and not so secret camping spot along Portage Glacier Road:

It is near the Chugach National Forest Trail of Blue Ice:

I think I even mentioned that we met some Yupik natives who stopped by our campsite to enjoy the pond:

We are often at our happiest looking at birds and we are especially grateful when a bird poses, and poses and. . .

We even got to see some salmon moving up through the marsh to their spawning grounds:

Then there is Anchorage:

And Palmer:

and the Bear Paw Fair in Eagle River:

Our favorite camping price is  –0- Here we are camping (?) on the street in Talkeetna:

Well that’s all the pictures for now.   I have stories from Denali NP and then on to Nenana and Fairbanks and. . .  but it is 10:50 PM and the sun is still well above the horizon and we have driven eight hours to go to Circle City and back, but that is a tale to be told soon, unless I forget it.

Catching up – again

As I write Anchorage is well behind us.  Actually so is Talkeetna and Denali NP.  I will try to summarize a nine days of activity.  the connection here is so bad that I cannot get out a notice of the posts I have put up,  “The 4th” and “Leaving Kenai – on to Anchorage”.  I have lots of pictures but that will have to wait until Fairbanks where I hope we will take some time and have adequate connection to post them. 

Anchorage: On our first afternoon walking around the tourist area we came across Cyrano’s  a local theater group which was putting on “Putnam County 25th Annual Spelling Bee”.  I am a snob an generally will not attend “amateur” performances, but this seemed intriguing and we had not attended theater since Ashland OR.  Tickets were $23 each and available for Saturday night, Friday was the opening.  Curtain was at 7 PM so a light snack and off to theater after a day of wandering the shops in Anchorage.  This was some of the finest theater we have attended.  The performances were strong, the voices were well trained and wonderful and the hall was tiny.  The audience was 150 – full house – and it was great.  We left the performance exhilarated and happy.  Finding no place to satisfy both of us at 9:30 at night we went back to Eagle River CG and made a light dinner on board. 

The next day we decided to take the bikes and ride the path from Earthquake Park to downtown, about 11 miles.  At the park I pulled the bikes off the roof and mounted the front tires and asked Carol to fetch the seats from the back of the car . . . long silence . . . where are the seats?  It is hard to miss two bicycle seats in the RAV4.  They were a dozen miles or more back on the coach.  I forgot to put them in the car.  We took a nice walk and looked at the park, it is the remains of a neighborhood that slid into the inlet during the earthquake of ‘64.  Several hundred feet of bluff slid down into the inlet carrying homes and lives to oblivion.  I will post pictures when I can.

We left Anchorage with some regrets, but grateful to leaving relative civilization behind.  We headed out to Talkeetna.  Those of you who know me well have heard me talk endlessly about the wonderful meal of halibut I had in Talkeetna in 1997.  All things must change.  The place we remember is now a chocolate shop, not bad actually, and the town, as we pulled in, was overflowing with tourists.  Driving the motorhome and tow’d through the throng was a challenge, especially since the directions to “free camping” that I had were wrong.  Somehow I got the coach onto Avenue B in front of the Ranger Station  as described, although the directions said Avenue C.  No small difference as the town is divided by an airstrip that predates statehood and is a protected historic site, also still in use.  It runs between C and D the entire length of the town and stops just short of Main Street which is the only way around it, if you don’t count the alley. 

We parked across from the Range Station on B and there we spent the night.  The Alaska Rule is simple, if there is no sign saying you can’t, you can!  There were plenty of no camping signs in other places in town, but this stretch of road had no such sign.  By six PM the place was almost deserted.  All the Princess and Holland America groups had retreated to their lodges and all that was left were some mountain climbers and us, oh yes a couple of hundred locals too.  Dinner was at West Rib and my “Homer Split” (a nice piece of halibut and an equally nice piece of Salmon for those who can’t make up their mind”) was wonderful.  Carol ordered a bread bowl of spinach warmed in a sauce for us to share, she ended up enjoying that as her main course.

Our objective was to take a flight up to land on Ruth Glacier on the flank of Denali.  It was not to be.  Our arrival day was cloudy and reports were that warming had softened the glacier so that landing was not advisable.  The following day was overcast and raining, no point in trying to fly unless you enjoy looking at the inside of clouds.  We left for Denali National Park saddened.  We may have to return.

I will keep this going although we start a new part here.  The Parks Highway which runs through Denali State Park and Denali National Park is named for Mr Parks and has nothing to do with the fact that it runs though the parks.  From Palmer, outside of Anchorage it runs through Wasilla, a town we in the lower 48 were not aware of until 2008, and on to Denali and Fairbanks.  I have left out several lesser towns that make it an interesting drive.  A reminder, Alaska’s population is on a par with Monroe County, NY and Anchorage has about the population of Rochester, without the county.  Fairbanks is about 70,000.  A village of 900 is a population to be noticed in this state.  Most of the places I have mentioned are far smaller than that, for example Talkeetna has a resident population of between 400 and 500. 

We pulled out of Talkeetna and headed for Denali.  We were getting desperate for a luandry facility and after a couple of weeks with no reliable hookups good electric and running water seemed like a great idea.  We stopped in Cantwell, pop 245, at Cantwell RV for two nights so we could clean up a bit and spend time in Denali, only 27 miles further down the road.  I got on line while Carol was doing laundry and booked us on a shuttle bus back into the wilderness as far as Eielson Visitor Center (66 miles in from the the Wilderness Access Center) with a 6 AM departure!  We got up at 4 and staggered around finishing assembling our kit and arrived by 5:30 to get in line for our bus.  I did not have time to get tickets, all I had was an acknowledgement of reservation which I printed out and carried with me.  I guess they are used to this, because the on duty dispatcher took my printout and returned with tickets in a matter of minutes.  Here is where I will insert the pictures of our trip.  We saw two bull Moose, 3 brown bear, a small herd of caribou and other animals I could not get in the camera frame.  At the Toklat rest stop Carol and I left the  bus and began to walk up the road toward Eielson Center, 15 miles away.  We had no intention of walking all that way.  The rule is any walker can flag down a shuttle bus for a ride to the next stop as long as it is not past the point you have bought the ticket to.  Also any out bound bus with space will pick up any hiker for return to the Wilderness Access Center.  Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, we did not see any large mammal wildlife while we were walking along the road. 

We returned to Gee 2 late and had dinner and fell into bed.  the next day we packed up everything and returned to Denali with the whole rig which we were able to park in the RV parking lot and we road the free bus in to Savage River.  This is the furthest point we could have driven our own vehicle with no special permit had we chosen to do so.  We left the whole rig in the parking lot and took to the shuttles for transportation.  While were sitting eating lunch in the parking lot, there was a knock on the door and Roger and Susan who we met in Homer were standing there.  They had recognized us as we passed them on the road.  We are hard to miss, as there are not a whole lot of NY plates up here and we have Orange and Silver bikes on the roof of the RAV4.  What fun!

By 5 we were on the road on the Parks Highway to bring us to MP 269, The June Creek Rest Area.  We do recommend it to passing RVers who want a neat place to send a lunch, dinner or night.  Tomorrow we plan to be in Fairbanks at the Elks Lodge #1551.

Leaving Kenai – on to Anchorage

What do you call a person who lives in Anchorage, and Anchorite?  I don’t think so.  Apropos of nothing at all!  It just popped into my head.

Leaving Kenai, we drove up the the highway to the Seward and turned off onto Portage Glacier Road where we pulled into the free spot we had found the week before.  It was populated with mostly day users and by nightfall there were only a couple of tenters and a van.  WE drove into Girdwood and fulfilled our promise to ourselves and dined at Double Musky.  This is  a highly regarded apres ski place and a dining venue that people from Anchorage (see the opening sentence) take an hour drive to for dinner on special occasions.  The meal lived up to the reviews and later that night we returned to the coach sated and content.  During dinner a staff member announced that if we wanted to look out in the parking lot there was a bear passing through.  We chose to stay seated and enjoy the meal.

Wednesday we drove back onto the Kenai Peninsula and took the Hope cutoff for a 16 mile drive to this small, historic near ghost town.  It is another remnant of gold fever and yet 151 people live there, some still prospecting in the area.  It is not a place you will read much about as the gold fever was very short lived and it was not a huge draw.  The Klondike boom dragged most of the prospectors away.  Hope is actually very close to Anchorage by air or boat, right across Turnagain Arm, but the road trip is a couple of hours.  Sort of like the distance between Rochester and Toronto.  Once the railroad was built Hope no longer served as an entry to the Kenai and it dwindled.

Back to the coach for dinner.  We prepared for departure in the morning and midmorning we  left the Kenai area for the last time, this trip.  As we drove to Anchorage we stopped along the Seward Highway at Windy Corner to view the Dall Sheep on the cliffs above us.  And we made a stop at Bird Point to look for Beluga Whales and birds.  Birds yes (green violet swallow), whales no.  Our last stop along the way was Potter Marsh just outside of, or maybe just inside of Anchorage.  there are two long boardwalks and we saw birds and salmon in the stream waiting for the the next rising tide to help them up the next step.

We continued on through Anchorage to Eagle River and the Eagle River Campground.  It is glorious here, but our gaining a campsite was pure luck.  After our first circle looking for a suitable site it appeared we were out of luck.  I stopped just past site 1 and flagged down the campground host to ask his suggestions.  He told me the people on site 1 were just preparing to leave.  This seemed strange to me at 3 in the afternoon, but I did not question the luck and prepared to take possession.  After we separated the car from the coach, I decided to back clear.  Today our insurance replaced the back window on the car.  Later, as I was buying firewood from the host’s wife, I learned why they had left.  They had seen a bear in the campground and that was too much for them.  My question, where can you go camping in Alaska without the chance of seeing a bear close up?  Only someplace where there are no campers stupid enough to put food in their tents and there are no moose with calves.  In other words, no place.

The 4th

We decided to stay in Kenai at the Elks Lodge #2425 after two nights at Kenai RV Park ($40 for full hookups and Wifi v $15 for electric and wifi sort of) no comparison once we got the laundry done and the coach washed and vacuumed.  As usual nice folk at the lodge, if only they would ban smoking so we could spend some time with them. 

We were a half a block walk from the parade route.  We went out about 30 minutes ahead not knowing what to expect.  The parade marshal passed us about 10 minutes after the announced start and the street was thronged with people (always wanted to use “thronged”) and kids with plastic bags(?).  Every other float or group was throwing candy into the crowd.  Two hours later the last participant, a police car came by and the road reopened.  The participants ranged from high school bands to a seniors group called the Golden Girls who danced the length of the route.  There were 30 Harley Davidsons in a group and it seems every race car from the local track was towed through the town as well.  The big oil companies, Tesoro and Conoco-Phillips had large floats and a half a dozen candidates for Kenai Borough Mayor participated.  There were fire companies from Kenai, Nikiski and the municipal airport, oh and Soldotna too.  I will post a bunch of pictures for you to browse, but not here, not now. 

Afterwards we returned to the coach for lunch to avoid the good stuff with long lines at the fair.  We toured the fair and along the way saw another section of Kenai we had missed in our previous wanderings.  We determined to return to the wildlife viewing areas we had stopped at before because so many people reported seeing Sandhill Cranes and Caribou that we wanted to try one more time.  We had better luck this time and saw 6 Sandhill Cranes way in the distance and a group of 5 Caribou, one was a calf, also pretty far off.  But we saw them!

To return to Sunday.  We drove out the Kenai Spur to its end at Captain Cook State Recreation Area and drifted back towards Kenai.  As Carol drove I was reading The Milepost as usual and came across this quote “SY 26.8 . . .  Drive to road end (0.8 mile) for a good view of Nikishka Bay and oil platforms in cook Inlet; Arness Dock, built on a base of WWII Liberty Ships (still visible);”  The first thing a noted  town is Nikihiki, they can’t spell anything the same twice in this state.  Next we turned down the road to explore and got some pictures of the old hulls.  I have lost the entire day’s shooting on my camera through stupidity (thought I had transferred them and reformatted the card – oops – 3 different recovery programs have said “nothing found” and there is nothing worth $70)

Music, Music, Music and some other adventures

Saturday after some domestic work cleaning up the rig at Kenai RV Park we went to the Visitor Center where we learned we had already walked most of the sites of the Kenai Old Town.  We shopped at the Farmers Market, mostly crafts, very little in the way of food or produce, not surprising given that the growing season is very late here. 

We drove out a bit to see Kenai Landing, an attempt to convert an old cannery into a resort and shopping area, and a couple of over looks where we hoped to see some wildlife. 

The primary wildlife viewing of the afternoon turned out to be a moose cow and her calf feeding along side the road in an area of commercial structures and not far from a residential area. 

We had heard that a performer named Hobo Jim would be performing at Kenai Landing that afternoon at 3 so after lunch and some other wandering we returned and paid our $5 each cover to join a crowd of 8 or 10 participants to hear Hobo Jim.  We really enjoyed his performance.  He is listed as the Official Balladeer of Alaska and has been writing and performing for many years.  He writes for many of the names recording out of Nashville and he records for Nashville label.  The small audience was a bit surprising although by the time we left there were maybe 20 or so. 

We left because we had stopped by Veronica’s Cafe the evening before and heard that there would be music and food beginning at 6:30.  We had very nice food and the music was pleasing and in the modern folk tradition, guitar and voice and interesting lyrics. 

We entered as strangers and realized that we were maybe the only people in the three small rooms who were not local and well known to each other.  By the time we left we had been included in the local vibe and felt part of the crowd, it was hard not to be since we were crowded in with everyone.  As we left at 9 or so we were hugged by Veronica and warmly thanked by the musicians. 

Off to Hooligans Bar in Soldotna for more Hobo Jim.  This was a whole lot different.  It was a noisy, smoky bar and Jim clearly was drinking and playing to a very different audience. He got louder and more raucous and in a couple of numbers managed to offend just about everyone who might choose to take umbrage with his lyrics.  We were hysterical.  As we walked in he greeted us form the stage commenting that he had seen us earlier.  Afterwards he gave us hugs in farewell.  At 11 he wrapped up and made way for a rock band.  We had had enough smoke and still had a 20 minute drive through territory with moose and bears roaming the roads so we left.  Two songs stay with us “Iditarod Trail” the anthem of the race and his best known song (chorus “I did, I did, I did, the Iditarod Trail”), he played it in grade schools across the state for years, and “I am Alaska.”  Also we did buy a cd of his with these two and many other songs.  He now is available on iTunes.

We moved to the Kenai Elks Lodge the next day and will stay through the 4th for the Kenai parade.  There are no fireworks scheduled as the only dark is after midnight.  Sunset tonight is 11:35.  Our current thought is to drive back to Portage Glacier Road on Tuesday and then take the car to Hope and then dinner at Double Musky in Girdwood.  The reviews and recommendations are all excellent and the vegetarian menu they sent when I asked for Carol is just fantastic.  Then Anchorage and pick up mail in Palmer again.

Changing Plans on the Fly

I think you are all getting the point that we are not real good at making plans and sticking to them.  Our Monday plan was to pick up the mail in Seward and do some last minute shopping, you never know what stores were in our near future, then on to Soldatna for a free overnight at Fred Meyers or in an out of the way gravel lot with room for 100 RVs just outside of town. 

We didn’t make it quite that far.  As we approached Coopers Landing, on the Upper Kenai River we noticed that we had a coupon for buy-one-get-one-free at Alaska Rivers Adventures for a 3 hour float trip down the river.  I called and learned they had room on the 2 PM trip and room for us to park the coach for the time of the trip. IMG_3436 The float was pleasant with only one class 2 rapids to moisten us about the ankles. The wild life was exciting with multiple eagles circling to pick up salmon and lots of fishermen one the banks and in the stream, especially where the Russian River joins the Kenai.  Our guide told us that they were nicely spaced out with little crowding, a light day. 

In the midst of the fishermen were three bears also fishing. Most of the fishermen ignored them and they also seemed indifferent to the competition. A couple of the fishermen, on hearing our warning about the bears stopped fishing and walked over to see them! Further down river we saw an apparently solo bear checking out the river for dinner, or maybe mid afternoon snack.

We rounded out the day by retracing the down river route to the take out and then following the Skilak Loop (19 mile dirt side road that returns to Sterling Highway eventually) to seek out free camping in the woods.  None of the sites we passed were suitable to we pulled into Upper Skilak (pronounce the “i” as a long “e”) Campground, a National Fish and Wildlife property which meant that the $10 fee was only $5 for us “old” folks.  Nice spot in the woods with plenty of room for coaches up to 40’ of course no hookups at all. 

Tuesday we did make it to Soldatna, but by now we had decided to continue on to Homer directly and stop in Kenai and Soldatna on the return.  The highways in Kenai are all down and back, there are no alternate routes.  Actually much of Alaska is like this so if you miss a turn going one way you can pick it up on the return.  We drove through Homer out on to Homer Spit which extends four miles in the Kachemak Bay.  Homer is actually divided between the main land and the far end of the spit.  We are camped at Fishing Hole about 100 yards from an active fish cleaning station and about 30 yards from Pier One Theater.  No hookups but the dump is just beyond the fish cleaning station.  We do have plenty of gulls and a few Bald Eagles observing the action and helping themselves to anything not put into a cooler.  The gulls seem to have targeted our solar panels and the front of the coach, oh and Carol’s shoulder as well.

The whole Alaska Album can be seen by clicking here.