On the Road Adventures

Friday, July 31, 2009

July 31 - Glenallen

As promised, we rolled out of Anchorage today, but not before we got to see a few F-22s flying around over Elmendorf AFB. They make a completely different sound than an F-15, and when one decides he needs to make a turn, it’s no swooping, gradual pull around, it’s a 90 degree whip to the right that looks totally effortless. It looks more like it’s swimming through the air than flying like a traditional plane. I was pleased to get the chance to see them.

Then Glenn highway goes through suburbs of Anchorage, Eagle River and Palmer, and then it enters the Matanuska valley, dominated by the Matanuska glacier. The mountains look rawer and newer than other peaks we’ve been seeing. Their sharp edges snag the clouds that come overhead, and the winds shred them into rags, just clinging to the tops of the mountains. The river than runs out of the glacier is fierce and turbulent, and looks like liquid concrete from the combination of glacial silt and the fine, gray sand that fills the valley floor that it’s eroding away. The Matanuska is a stable glacier that has stayed at the same point for about 400 years. Part of the reason is that it has acquired an insulating layer of fine, wind-blown silt on top of the glacier, so the ice extends far on either side of the white area. It’s just under a load of dirt so thick that there is a small forest growing on top of the ice.

About 50 miles out of Glenallen we crested the high point of the road and began to see the Wrangle Mountains. They are among the highest in the state, and include Mt Wrangle, which is the only active volcano in the mainland part of Alaska. Tomorrow we’ll visit the Wrangle-St Elias National Park Visitor Center and get the whole rundown on this impressive range of mountains.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30 - Anchorage

Well, we stayed yet another day so Ger could do some more work on his client’s problems but he took a break this afternoon and we went down to Potter’s Marsh, south of town, to check out the boardwalk into the marsh. We saw a pair of bald eagles, an eared grebe, yellowlegs (a long-legged wader), teal and Canada geese. The pink salmon had come into the marsh and were lurking beneath the boardwalk, probably gathering their energy before the last mad dash up the creeks that feed the marsh. Tomorrow we’re leaving for sure.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 27-29 Anchorage

We headed for Anchorage today. The drive was beautiful, for we could now see all those spectacular mountains that we could only guess at through the smoke three weeks ago. The fireweed is spectacular. I’d read about fireweed, but it didn’t prepare me for the reality. Fireweed is everywhere there is a patch of land with nothing else growing on it. Fireweed along the road; fireweed just below the snow melt; fireweed in amongst the yellow-green of aspen and alders and the dark blue-green of the spruce; fireweed making bright magenta patches up the mountainsides. As the story goes, the fireweed blooms all summer long, and when the blossoms get to the top of the stalk, then the first snow is 6 weeks away, so that’s our calendar. Leave when the fireweed tops are blooming. We still have a way to go.

July 28
Chores day. I did loads of laundry, Ger washed the car, and we went to see Harry Potter. It was the perfect thing to do on a soggy day.

July 29
Ger did some long-distance work with one of his clients, and I’m sitting at the Starbucks in the Base Exchange playing computer. Tomorrow we head in the general direction of Valdez, but it’s almost 300 miles away (gasp!) so we’ll break the trip up into at least two parts.

July 25/26 - Quartz Creek

We didn’t do a lot on the 25th – it was chilly, windy and rainy. Gypsy and I walked to the boardwalk and I did some bird watching. That LBB showed up again, but kept flitting around behind leaves. It could be a juvenile something, which is a good excuse for not being able to identify it. Later we all took a long walk, but it was nice to get back inside where it was warm.

July 26

We went on a raft trip down the Kenai today. All the other people on the trip were on Princess cruises, either post- or pre-cruise, and everyone was in high spirits. The trip down the Kenai was beautiful. The water is a clear, blue-green color. My watercolor friends will recognize what I mean when I say “azurite genuine.” It’s exactly that shade. We saw gulls, eagles, several mergansers, and some ducks, golden-eye and cinnamon teal. No bears. Boo. The fisherfolk were the wildest form of life we saw as we floated by them, and there were lots of those! The float was billed as having some Class III rapids, but while there were stretches that made the guide work, it was basically a float trip with a few little splashes and bumps. We pulled out at Hidden Creek on the edge of Skilak Lake. The lake was much higher than usual because the glacier at the end of the lake had formed a sort of holding pond in front of it, dammed up by ice, and the ice just broken up, sending a wall of water washing down into the lake. The wind was also fairly stiff, so instead of riding across the lake to the launch ramp, most of us walked out along a 1.3 mile trail. It was a nice walk and a good change for all the sitting we’d been doing.

We got back to Cleo, rescued Gypsy, and went to a little nearby cafĂ© for dinner. After we got back, Gerry took Gypsy for a walk around the campground, where he learned that she had apparently spent her entire day lounging on the dash in the front window, since people stopped him to ask if she was “that doggie in the window.” While he was out, he went up the boardwalk and discovered that there were red salmon in the stream, so he came back and got me, and we walked back over with camera and polarizing lens in hand. The fish were so neat. It was the first time we’d seen them in any of the streams, and it checks off one of the experiences we wanted to get while we were here. (Thank you, Betty, for showing me how to use that polarizing filter!)

July 24 - Quartz Creek

We woke early this morning to the dulcet tones of the battery alarm. Apparently, despite the fact that the instrument panel told us we had a third of the propane left, it lied, so when the propane ran out, the refrigerator automatically switched to the house batteries and completely ran them flat. At 6:30 in the morning, we weren’t going to shatter the peace of this place by turning on our generator, so Ger went out to scout for a place that sells propane, and he returned a short time later, triumphantly bearing coffee.

Later in the morning we got the propane and got everything recharged. Then we took a walk along the boardwalk and looked at birds. (Okay, I looked at birds. Sighting list: Boreal chickadee, Townsend’s Warblers, Yellow-rump warblers, juncos, and a little brown bird – known in birding circles as an LBB - I couldn’t get a good enough look at to identify.) The people across from us had seen bears while they were fishing yesterday, so they told us the right spot, and more importantly, the right time. Bears, it seems, take afternoon naps and come out at 10 at night, so we did the same thing and sure enough, down the river, a few hundred feet from a flock of salmon fishermen, we saw a black bear and two browns. Hallelujah! I was delighted to see a family of mergansers in the river, a mama and nine babies. The water was just racing along and I would have thought that those baby birds couldn’t compete with the current, but they got themselves up on top of the water and ran like crazy, scooting upstream very capably. They made me laugh to see them scamper across the river like water bugs.

July 23 - Quartz Creek campground, Kenai

We got to Quartz Creek early in the afternoon and got lucky in grabbing the one remaining site where we could stay for more than one night. This in another wonderful Forest Service campground, with level, widely separated spaces. We are a few hundred feet from Kenai Lake and Quartz Creek runs behind the campground. There’s a boardwalk and viewing platforms over the creek, where the “other” fishermen are fly fishing for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden trout.

We drove back along the road to the Russian River Ferry, where we had seen a lot of fishermen in the river. I took a picture of them lined up along the river and laughed about “combat fishing.”
“Oh, no”, said a guy near me. “This is tame because the runs are light right now. When it gets really going, there will be 5 times that many people out there. That’s combat fishing.”

We scanned the banks for signs of bear, and Gerry caught a quick look at one as it vanished into the underbrush. Then we drove out to a gravel road that cuts down into the wildlife preserve. It was a scenic drive, but we saw no signs of animals at all. Gerry really wants to get a good look at brown bears, so he has been disappointed at their shyness.

This is Skilak Lake. All the dark gray water at the base of the mountains is glacial water that was explosively released when an ice dam gave way and emptied the large lake that had formed at the face of the Skilak glacier.

Pictures for July 23

Back to the land of wireless. Yippee!

Old Russian Orthodox Church in the town of Kenai

A hundred+ year old cabin, now falling down, but the caretakers of the historic district have it nicely dressed up with flowers

How could I have forgotten the salmon fishers? It is dip net season for the silver salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River, and there were enough boats to cross the river without getting your feet wet. Poor salmon!

And then if they get past the dip netters, they face a phalanx of line fishers just where the salmon like to rest from the current.

The coast just off Capt Cook campground. These rocks are the size of school buses and were dropped here by a retreating glacier 20,000 years ago. We saw splashes from waves against rocks very far out into the bay, so navigation here is very dicey!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

July 22 -23 Soldotna and points east

Sorry, no pictures for today. The card reader seems to have been put away in a very safe place, meaning, of course, that I can't find it.

Yesterday we drove up to the town of Kenai. It was a Russian fur trading station and has two Russian Orthodox churches, one of which is still active. I took some pictures and talked to the priest, who was from Brooklyn originally and has never lost his accent, so it was kind of surreal to be talking about the Russian church and culture with someone dressed in all the regalia of a Russian priest, but who sounded pure New York.

After we took the Kenai tour, all 30 minutes of it, we drove out to the end of the road to Captain Cook. Two surprises - the beach was littered with monster boulders dropped by the ancient glacier that carved the inlet millenia ago; and I never knew that an enormous oil field lies under Cook Inlet and the inlet is studded with oil platforms. No wonder ships coming into Achorage are required to have a pilot on board.

Today we're going to Quartz Creek campground in the center of the Kenai Peninsula, and I'm not sure about the availability of internet there, so I may be quiet for a couple of days. After that, we're back to Anchorage for a few days, so I'll get caught up then.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

July 21 - Soldotna again

We moved from Homer to Soldotna today. This morning first thing we went to the Pratt Museum in Homer, where Gerry went yesterday while I was in Seldovia. They have a live web cam on the falls at Brooks River over on the Katmai National Wildlife Preserve, which is one of the famous places to see bears. He was fascinated with the action in the web cam, so we went there this morning to check it out. There was only one bear, but it was very interesting to see it looking for salmon.

One thing about Homer – the out-the-front window picture I took doesn’t really show the tidal action there. The gulf is coming into a minus tide period for a few days, so we’ve been watching the tide recede farther and farther from the front window. This was high tide – about 10 feet from that second log.

And this was low tide, which doesn’t look so impressive until you realize that the little black bug way out there in the middle is a person. It was getting to be close to a quarter mile from the front of Cleo at low tide. Some folks were there planning to dig for clams in the next couple of days.

Our excitement for today was getting back to full hook-ups so I could sweep. Sand, sand everywhere. I swept. And then I swept some more. And then I walked on the floor with bare feet. And then I swept some more. I think I got the majority of it though. It reminded me of when we lived on Oahu and I took one of the girls to the doctor for something. He looked in her ears and said, “Oh, I see you’ve been to the beach.”

We have Moosestroodle from The Moose is Loose Bakery for dessert tonight, and we'll stop for more goodies tomorrow first thing before we go on out explore to the town of Kenai.

Monday, July 20, 2009

July 20 - Homer Day 5 - Side trip to Seldovia

I decided to take a water taxi across Kachemac Bay to the town of Seldovia today. Seldovia used to be the bustling city of the area, but when Homer got a road to the outside and a harbor, Seldovia started to fade. Then the 1964 earthquake destroyed the canneries and the town pretty much ceased to have a reason to exist. The people who live there, though, hang on. One of the people on the ferry was a resident, doing her commute back home. She said she liked it much better than driving in LA.

The young woman who was captaining the boat was very interested in the wildlife of the bay, and part of the trip was a long detour around Gull Island, a large bird nesting colony for tufted and horned puffins, glaucous winged gulls, black-winged kittywakes, and pelagic and red-faced cormorants, so we got to see all of them.

This guy is a tufted puffin, and the other one is a horned puffin doing a stretch.

Here is a series of pictures of a horned puffin taking off from the water.

After the island, we cruised between other islands where there were eagles, otters, and kayakers who were staying in cabins on the islands for a vacation. It looked like they were having fun. Out in the open channel again, the captain spotted a
minke whale. It’s a small whale who is usually very shy, but this one was willing to hang around and show off a little. The water was so clear, we could see it swim under the boat and then surface in a shallow roll. It was special enough a show that even the captain got out her camera.

We docked in Seldovia for a 3 hour lay-over, so the first stop was lunch, and then a stroll around town, which didn’t take very long. The town used to be all on boardwalks and there are a few houses still on piers with boardwalks over the river leading into the harbor.

I had a nice chat with the lady at the tribal store, where I got the Sedovia hat pin – a unique trophy for our wall of pins showing all our stops. The town used to be Russian orthodox, so a friendly local showed me the path to the old church, which is no longer in use, and then I walked back to the harbor and talked to some of the locals, who were all very willing to brag about their “best kept secret” place to live.

July 19 - Part II

An amendment to Day 4 – turns out doing the laundry wasn’t the most excitement we had. After laundry, we went to lunch at Captain Patty’s where we both had chowder, I had salmon and Ger had halibut, all of which was excellent. We were by the window so we could watch all the boat and bird action out in the water. There were two loons there, so I got a picture of them after lunch.

You look'n at me, sucker?

Then we came back to Cleo, where we saw an eagle on the weather station across the street, so I took the camera and went to get pictures. He posed very nicely for me, and then started calling to someone high above. Sure enough, after a little while, there were two eagles sitting there, being chummy. So more pictures.

But the most excitement occurred while I was taking eagle pictures. Gerry took Gypsy out for a walk where she met a friendly black lab, and the two of them enjoyed a mad romp. And after that was the most fun part. We figured out what to do with that shower hose and nozzle that is in the utility bay outside the motorhome: you use it to give a salty dawg a bath. Why is it that the dog can romp and wade in icy water forever, but start showering her off with warm water and she starts shaking like she’s going to die?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

July 19 - Homer, Day 4

What do you do in Homer when it's cold and rainy? If you have a view like ours, you watch the ocean. Last night we watched a freighter come in to pick up a pilot, looked at the shore birds that were picking at the edge of the surf, watched a flock of kittiwakes swarming over a school of fish and diving in unison into the water. We spent a long time looking at... what? A log? A dead otter? No, a live otter that was sleeping until it almost got washed ashore, and then it stirred itself enough to swim back out to safety. This morning, more shore birds and a still, almost flat grey sea speckled with birds here and there. So, what else do you do? Laundry, of course, especially if the laudramat offers free wi-fi! This may by the highlight of the day.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

July 18 - Homer Day 3

We had a rainy day today. Just had to say something about it, didn’t I? It wasn’t terribly cold, in the mid 50’s but with the damp and slight wind it was a little chillish. I’ve been wanting to check out the art galleries in Homer, so I left Gerry to keep the dog company and went gallery prowling. I found some neat small prints of wildlife drawings I liked, and lots of bigger, much more expensive stuff I also liked but didn’t buy.

We had the guided walk of Homer on our schedule for today, so I picked Gerry up and we met the docent (who was more reliable than the one scheduled for yesterday) and got the guided tour of Homer. We learned that the front building of the Salty Dawg was the original building on the Homer Spit and dates from the end of the 19th century. It started life as the office building for a coal company located at the end of the spit. There is a great deal of soft coal here, and three prospectors hoped to make an easier living selling coal to steamships. But it turned out that because the coal was so soft, when it was all piled up it tended to spontaneously combust. Few steamships found that an admirable trait, so the company went out of business, but one of the owners did give his name to the town.

Then after WWII, residents decided to create a harbor at the end of the spit, and the fishing and packing industry caught on at Homer. While there’s no cannery there now, there are a lot of fishing boats harbored there for both the commercial and tourist trade. Our guide explained the differences between a halibut boat and boats designed for catching salmon, cod or crab. This boat is for catching halibut.

Instead of a cannery there’s an outfit there that specializes in processing, freezing and shipping the tourists’ catches, and on a good day during the fishing season they might ship out as much as 15,000 pounds of fish. Here we were, chilled to the bone from the cold, and the kids who were working in the processing plant were wearing shorts and t-shirts and working with icy fish in icy water and a -40 degree freezer unit. Tough kids!

After our tour we went back to one of the galleries because an artist I admire, Barbara Lavallee was going to be there doing a signing. When we were in Alaska last time, I bought one of her little prints of native women weaving hats that has been on the wall over my computer ever since. It’s just one of those cheery works that makes the soul happy to look at. So I was pleased to have the chance to meet her and I got a couple of prints, a book and a calendar she personalized with some of her sketches. So now I have a treasure from Alaska.

July 17 - Homer Day 2

I realize that I didn’t show you the out-the-window view for this spot, so here it is. It’s another lovely, sunny day. I’m beginning to feel guilty for being happy about the sun, since all the locals are fretting about the lack of rain. We visited the Islands and Oceans Visitor Center today to get the rundown on the natural world hereabouts. It is fairly small, but it has a science lab where kids can get their hands wet and play with the microscopes, which is a nice thing to do to catch their interest. They have some guided walks, too, which we will take advantage of later in the week.

We tried to go on a guided walk through Homer Spit, but the docent forgot to show up, so we’re scheduled for that tomorrow. So we went down to the very end of the spit and watched the gulls waiting to greet the returning fishing boats.

After that excitement, we took a drive out of town toward the end of the Kachemac Bay. The road wound up into the hills, so there were some great birds-eye views of the glaciers and mountains across the bay. At the very end of the road there is a community of people who emigrated from Russia after the Russian revolution. They are called Old Believers, and the description of their life style seems very like Mennonites. They use cars and utilities, but are basically self supporting and keep to the traditional Russian orthodox beliefs. As we got to the end of the road and closer to their town, the road first became graded gravel, then dirt, then to a pot-holed track. It was the kind of road you might have if you don’t want to encourage visitors, so we turned back. Their cemetery was just before the road got awful, and it was filled with flowers.

We came back to Cleo, had dinner and went for a nice long walk on the shore. Gypsy wants to get in the water, and we let her do that this morning. She took a bite of water and got the most shocked look on her face. Salt water and fine black sand make a messy combination, so she’s not going to get the chance to do much wading. While we were walking we saw a swarm of birds out on the water, maybe a thousand of them, swooping and diving, and flashes of black and white at the leading edge of the swarm. They looked too small for orcas, so they were probably Dall porpoises, but were so far away the camera couldn’t see any details. Inconsiderate creatures! They could at least do their feeding closer to shore so we can see.