Sunday, August 1, 2010

Final Alaska Musings

If you are an Alaskan, don't allow work to interfere with ATV riding, snowmachining, salmon fishing, rafting and canoeing, bicycling and hiking.

If you are an Alaskan living along a highway and you want to get rid of stuff, lay it out on the highway with a for sale sign on it.

The number of beautiful mountains in Alaska would drive the natives crazy if the ceiling were not 500 feet on six of every seven days.

The best hamburgers in Alaska were
1. Kenny Lakes RV Diner (The Willow Woman). Congrats to Ms. Kim Morse.
2. The Monderosa-Mile 309 on the Parks Highway near Fairbanks
3. The Crows Nest-Above Honkey Tonk Row just outside Denali National Park

The best soup in Alaska is made by Kim Morse at Kenny Lakes Diner.

The best fish dinner in Alaska is at Rays Waterfront Diner in Seward.

The worst fish dinner in Alaska is at the Pumphouse Restaurant in Fairbanks.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In the Lower Forty Eight

This afternoon we passed through the border at Osoyoos and are spending the night in Omak, in a motel. Given the 96 degree weather, we decided we could use some A/C. It took five days from Fairbanks to get to the U.S. border, and it will be only two more to Napa.

This kind of driving is something we do well, although it is not particularly relaxing. We did pass some extraordinary scenery, Muncho Lake in northern B.C. long mesas in the northern Rockies, and the delightful Okanagan valley just before getting to the border with Washington state. Problems in the first few days were caused by the Canadian system of summer road repair. Basically, cars are halted for up to fifteen minutes by a flag woman/man, and then a pilot car takes the string of cars slowly up a single lane road. Sometimes these stops take up a full hour. And then, fifty miles down the road, another repair. But by the time we left Prince Rupert, the system changed so that cars can go both ways, although slowly, through the repair zone.

Hitting Penticton around 4:30PM in the hot sun revealed everyone doing as much water based stuff as possible, including floating down between lakes on every type of inflatable contraption known to man. We bought a crate of peaches (this was after Nick warning Mary "Don't even think of buying a full crate of peaches!") north of the border and, fortunately, were allowed through customs into the U.S. with them. They are fantastically good.

It looks like we can make central Oregon tomorrow (that will finish off the hot weather for sure), and we will try to camp. We have a great chili dish that Mary made, and it only gets better. That and a salad and a beer will be a great final dinner in the camper.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

If You Want to go South, First Go West and then North

Denali National Park, despite continuous rain, fog, and cold weather, is a wonderful place to view wild life. Mr. Fox here was hunting for arctic squirrels and couldn't have cared less that we were nearby. Mr. Wolf, below, however, was wary as hell of us. But he wanted the shoots of some tender grass very badly, and apparently he had no choice but to come real close to our bus. He is part of a pack of Toklat grey wolves, and he may be recovering from a Moose kick that sent him about twenty feet into the air earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Mr Bear below was intent on his meal of soap berries, which apparently taste like, well, soap. He can't be choosey since he must gain a few hundred pounds in a hurry to make it

through the winter. All in all, a pretty good day's work. In addition to these fine specimens we saw many moose, golden eagles, lots of bears and cubs, and even a gyrfalcon, apparently a rare bird for those who are building their life time list.
We are ready to come home and tomorow we start down the Alcan. More later. This trip has been a blast.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hiking in Denali-July 19

After suffering through another rainy day on the road, we arrived at Denali National Park yesterday. After a halibut stew dinner, oh my, was that good, thanks to Mary's cooking skills, we hit the hay. Early this morning we caught our bus to the hiking site. The hike itself was through tundra and snaggy willows, quite a struggle but less so for us than a couple of other hikers. Some of us abandoned the stragglers, who was in the capable hands of a ranger, and hiked back to the road for our return bus ride.

During the ride we saw many grizzly bears, beginning to descend to river banks since the berries have ripened. We also saw caribou (nowhere near the grizzlies) and Dall sheep. The ability to see so much wildlife is reason enough to come here. Mary temporarily lost her camera today after Nick had taken one bear shot. It was turned in to lost and found and is now in our hands. But, as a result, nothing in the photo department.

After a couple of days of feeling low about the weather, we are pretty pumped for the last few days of our journey (to remote cabins in Denali) prior to turning the rig south for the long journey home.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Posting to Blog

July 15, No Internet Connection, Rain-Weary, and Wondering What to do Next


This posting is being prepared offline, despite the availability of a storng wifi signal nearby. Unfortunately the computer is showing signs of advanced age and it is so far refusing to link with a communications device.


The scenery is most likely magnificent in Valdez, but the persistent fog has kept the ceiling to about 100 feet since we arrived late this morning.


We wandered out into the boat harbor and were able to buy some fresh and delicious sockeye salmon at the retail outlet of Peter Pan Fisheries, one of the processing plants here. Cooked up on the sauté pan, and served with boiled potato and chard, it was sensational. Almost as good as the tequila we sipped during the meal. This is a nice RV park and we got our showers in and laundry done in very little time.


We talked about what to do next. We both are tired of constant bad weather, and our curiosity about what is around the next corner has diminished after more than a month of travel. We have a reservation at a nice lodge deep in Denali National Park but that stay only begins in a week. We may see if we can advance the dates of that segment. Were it not for that commitment, Mary and I agree that we would probably turn the nose of the truck south and head for the lower forty-eight.


Here are a couple of Alaskan vignettes for the reader:


We walked into Kenny Lake RV Park's diner last night after returning from Kennicott/McCarthy. We had low expectations but we felt pretty good after the long day, and it was nice to sit in something other than a bouncing shuttle bus. We began to talk about whether it would be fun to drive up some bad roads and visit Chicken and Eagle, both on the way to the Taylor Highway and the Yukon. Eagle is where John McPhee spent most of a year writing "Coming into America", his highly personal and good book about Alaskans. One of the local fellows, sitting with his wife while waiting for their dinner, said "You aren't going there soon." He pointed out that a heavy rain the previous day had washed out sixty miles of road that we had planned driving over. Another couple let us look at their Anchorage newspaper, and the story was there. Apparently many cars and trucks are stranded along the broken road, and one vehicle was found submerged.


Our dinner arrived, and we feasted on the best burgers we have tasted in a long time, and even better curried rice soup. I noticed that the cook was also doing all of the waiting on tables, and wondered if she could finish, since there was quite a crowd. But her daughter showed up soon and things moved pretty well.


This morning I returned to the diner for coffee and chatted with Kim Morse, the woman who cooked dinner for us. She has very recently purchased the diner, and is renaming it "The Willow Woman Diner". She in fact is pretty willowy, that is, flexible and strong. Kim looks like life has been hard, but she still has beauty in her eyes, and her attitude is terrific. She has some visions on how to change the menu, but she said that they have to use up what was in the cooler and on order first. She loves the local produce that is available in the short summer months. Her soup is a borrowed recipe from a Thai pull-through diner about one hundred miles up the road. I congratulated her on the good dinner and said that things were pretty busy when we left. "Oh, you should have stuck around. We had some real excitement around 10:30. Apparently the horse belonging to another local up the road went prancing down the highway in front of the RV Park. That set the cell phones buzzing and soon someone road the horse bareback for a few miles to return it to the owner. Anyone who happens on Kenny Lakes should go to this diner for a fun experience and good food.


The driver of our shuttle yesterday was pretty sure she didn't want to go to a wedding that she was committed to later this week. "He is such a nice man, and none of us can imagine why he is marrying his fiancé. He is forty and she is sixty. My husband said if she was hot, that would be one thing, but that isn't the case. She did hard drugs for thirty years, and some of us think she is still doing them. She is terrible to his kids. We are thinking of giving them a rafting trip on the Copper River and shoving her off." My guess is that this could be a very short lived marriage.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A punishing 58 mile dirt and gravel road is about the only way to go by vehicle into Wrangell St. Elias National Park, and so off we went in a shuttle driven by a skilled guy named Edward. We crossed a footbridge and were taken by another shuttle to the Kennicott Glacier Lodge, a large but simple operation. We had a room with bath down the hall. We were comfortable enough. Our time was divided between hiking along the glacier and examining the remains of Kennecott Copper Corp's initial and fabulously rich copper mine. The above photo was taken during a six mile hike we took this morning.
This picture is one of several taken of the the mill constructed to take most of the non-copper content out of the ore. We toured the inside of this mill, guided by a nice young graduate student from Virginia named Neely. It was a three hour extravaganza, starting at the tip and descending stage by stage through the mechanisms used to refine the ore. A good use for an absolutely miserable rainy day. Check Facebook out for more pics.

On our way out we were rewarded by this wonderful sight of a Moose with her calf, placidly munching trees and acquatic vegetation.

This strange picture was taken along the Copper River. Alaska residents and natives are allowed to use fish wheels to trap salmon. There was not a lot of activity today, because the salmon are between runs. It is amazing that these fish can come up this glacially fed, silted up river.
More later. We are most likely headed to Valdez next, of Exxon spill fame.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Here the Next Sunset is July 14th

Mary and Nick arrived at Lake Iniakuk via light wheeled aircraft and float plane several days ago, to find this lovely main house, operated by our hosts Pat and John Gaedeke and John's partner Angela. While our first two days were overcast and rainy, any tension we had (not much given our laid back Alaska vacation to date) left in a hurry.
When the sun came out we took a tremendous hike, 2,500ft vertical gain that tired our puppies, but look what it got us! The views were unbelievable. We took a nice rest, ate our lunch and kicked back to hear the bees and lazy flies buzzing behind closed eyelids. No mosquitos at this sunny spot either.

Float planes were the way to go. This photo, taken while exiting the Iniakuk lodge and headed to Bettles for our return to Fairbanks, illustrates the isolation. Literally hundreds of rivers like this meander through a pretty flattened out country. Most of the rivers have one closed off oxbow after another along their routes.

On the first day with no rain, we crossed Iniakuk Lake in a fast outboard, towing these neat German built rubber canoes. Wooden seats snap into these boats and we put folding legless camp chairs on the seats to increase comfort even more. One can load these canoes up with a lot of gear and the draft is still around six inches. We went out the exit river a short distance to the Malamute fork of the Alatna River, and then into the main stem of the Alatna. We had a fine shore lunch, and then continued down river to our eventual take-out. The float plane landed right on the river, coasted to our gravel bar, and in twenty minutes we were back at Iniakuk, enjoying hot tea.
We will make a longer blog posting about this portion of the trip in due course.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Photos Along Denali Highway-Mary Photography

Mary took this photo of a local "crank" who is making ends meet by being camp host at Tangle Lakes campground.
Mary's photography is exceptional. This is a view taken during our drive along the Denali Highway between our first and second nights there.

This is a nice rainbow captured by Mary at Tangle Lakes

This is the view from our campsite overlooking the Susutna River. The Susutna flows all the way to Cook Inlet.

Vot it mean English, "Go Native?"

Please note that the blog posting "Old Believers" was without photographic content. So here is Nina, the champion separater of tourist dollars from their wallets. She is a cloned personality of my step-mother Alexandra Ivanovna.
Mary and I didn't want Nina to feel like she was dressed for a party without company, so Mary and I hauled out our Russian clothes that we always carry around in our back packs, and helped improve the atmosphere.

And here are Nina, Mary and Nick (hmmm, are those backpacking pants Nick has on? Oh, well, cover is blown)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July 2

McLaren Glacier, 63d 20s latitude, 146d 30s longitude, feeds the McLaren River, and it passes like a sleepy python through an enormous grassy valley, mostly above tree line. We hiked along an ATV road near McLaren pass summit, heading towards Osar Lakes. The weather held up, and we were treated to vistas unknown within our experience. At the end of the hike, Mary noticed a female Willow Ptarmigan in summer colors with three chicks. Ma P looked like she would make a tasty addition to the stew pot.


Unsatisfied with our Tangle Lake campground (it kept filling in with RV's until we felt like we were participants in a Boy Scout Jamboree), we drove west on the Denali Highway after our hike. We came upon the Susutna River, and then recalled a comment by an Alaskan we had met, that we should head out an unimproved road nearby to find a camping place. So here we sit, all by ourselves, on a bluff overlooking the Susutna and its valley. Its parent glacier from time to time comes into view. Tomorrow brings another attempted hike. Post Script. We got rained out of the hike since it poured all night long, so we continued on the Denali Highway to Cantwell, where we are now parked for the night. Nice RV facility, showers, clean, good wifi, quiet.


The cigar afternoon at a nice campsite provides an opportunity for the mind to slow, and to consider the many impressions of Alaska and their residents.


Alaskans love their salmon runs up select rivers, such as the Kenai. People stand twenty feet apart, casting a limited distance so as not to foul a neighbor. Twenty miles away there is no-one and we get a terrific state campground to ourselves.


Alaskans love their RV's, their ATV's, and presumably their snowmobiles. We met a nice family, three girls and a three year old boy, from Fairbanks while we rested at Tangle Lakes. They sported two ATV's and rode around before setting down for the evening. They were first time visitors to this area along the Denali Park Highway.


Alaskans are friendly, offering tips to the visitor on where to go. One of these conversations led to our idyllic campsite overlooking the Susutna. As this is being written, an ATV rider stopped to ask Mary about his lost dog, a Chow/Setter mix. He is camped about two miles up the road and may have another family grouping down the road. At any rate he and his friends keep burning gas going back and forth, back and forth.


Political candidate signposts are every where. We have yet to see the words Republican or Democrat on any sign, but all of the candidates for State House, Congress, Senate, are pro-Alaska, pro business, pro jobs.


According to my boat captain in Homer, Greg Sutter, no-one does value added work in Alaska. Everyone is involved in extracting something, timber, mining, and fishing. Eventually everything will be taken, and Alaska will be in the soup. Maybe, but I see very little imprint of man on this huge state, which makes even Montana look like a study in miniature.


Moose may be pretty rare. We finally got a good sighting west of the McLaren River and four vehicles had pulled over to look along with us. Out came impressive tripods, binoculars, and expensive telephoto lenses. We have yet to see a bear, but we are equipped with bear spray and an air horn in case we meet old Oso on the trail. The closest we have been to a bear was at Lake Nerka, where we saw signs of very recent bear grazing. One of the science teams there lost $25,000 worth of measurement gear. A bear had dug it up, and mouthed it thoroughly, covering it in heavy bear saliva. Like a human baby, a bear will test something new by trying to eat it.


The Denali Park Highway contains a few lodges, several of them closed even in the midst of summer. The romance of trying to make a living by attracting people to a beautiful area during an eight week season is irresistible to some. The reality is the odds of success are extremely low. Better is to have a run down lodge at the intersection of a major highway, especially if it has gas, hamburgers and toilets.

Old Believers

June 29, 2010


Mary and I drove east of Anchor Point ( on the Sterling Highway north from Homer) ten miles to the end of the road and found Nikolaevsk. This village is one of the homes of Russian Old Believers, a persecuted Russian Orthodox sect (tens of thousands were killed during Peter the Great's time). This is a conservative people, still dressing in Old Russian costume and obeying Slavonic church rituals that are unchanged for centuries.


Nikolaevsk has a beautiful three domed Russian church, St. Nicholas, guarded by Archangels Michael and Gabriel. We had read about a Russian restaurant in the village, the Samovar, and found it. It was run by a dynamo woman named Nina Felkikov, who is excellent at making the tourist part with his money.


She reminds me of my step mother Sandra in many ways. She is forward, orders everyone around, and puts on a great feast of borscht, piroshky, and pelmeny. We ate Russian style, meaning that Nina put Russian costumes on us, and took many photographs with our cameras, then sat us down for the excellent meal. She bustled around taking care of us and another two couples who showed up around the same time. Her English is good but accented much like many of my Russian relatives. Her speaking is staccato, "two minutes until food, thirty seconds until you take this picture, two minutes to get this garment on and take more pictures, thirty seconds to sit down and eat."


Nina's restaurant is chocked full of bric-a-brac, and we walked away with two lacquered Russian soup spoons as well as some good memories. Nina played a CD with Russian music and I promised to send her another CD with Sandra's singing of Russian gypsy music.


Nina is an electrical engineer (Norwich University) but spends most of her time running her café in the summer. She came to the US after being born and raised in Khabarovsk. She met a widower in Nikolaevsk and married him about ten years ago. There is a picture of a very old woman who must have been her mother. The picture reminds me of Sandra's mother.


Nikolaevsk is a pretty basic place. There are several ordinary looking houses, but a few have lace curtains and blue roofs, very much in keeping with Old Russian custom. In the long winters people come to snowmobile in the area. For all I know, Nina keeps them warm with borscht.


After this experience Mary and I had difficulty staying awake with the short drive to our campground, and this was so even with no vodka at the meal. We took two pounds of frozen pelmeny with us and dined on some of them at our camper dinner this evening.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Gone Fishin'

Nick had a great day fishing the Homer tuck with a fabulous boat captain. Nick is standing over his King salmon limit (only person on the boat to catch a King). Everyone limited on halibut. You are allowed two kings per day (five in one year) and two halibut per day. Thirty seven pounds of salmon and halibut are on their way to San Francisco.
Greg Sutter is a hell of a boat captain. Tim, one of the three clients with him on our day, stands next to Greg. Greg had us out in terrible, windy weather, trying to get all of us our fish. We were one of the most successful boats.

This was an early morning shot before the rains came. A bit of Milt's head (the second of the three clients) shows on the right. It was a hell of a good time.

Aleknagik Smolt Sampling Day

The above photo is a kitchen shot taken at the Lake Alekgnagic station. Jackie, station manager, has been there for seven years. She holds a master's degree in biology. She is an expert field researcher and also has cooking skills! We feasted on pork ribs and chops the second night in the station.

This is a typical view of Lake Alekgnagic. All four interconnected lakes in this system are very large. It takes two hours by fast boat to get between the two stations (Aleknagic and Nerka).

This was the mother lode of smolt, taken from one of the beaches sampled on Aleknagic. Other beaches just had a few. Consider that tens of millions of smolt escape the system every fall to try their hand at becoming adult sockeye salmon. The Bristol Bay commercial fishery takes around thirty million sockeye a year, without affecting the health of the system.

This is a photo of a typical beach sampling scene.

Here is the crowd on the day's sampling. Jackie and Rachel are the managers of the sampling effort. Owi is an intern for the summer. Mary is supervising the entire effort while Nick is photographer for the day.

University of Washington Research Station Outing

The above photo is of Dan Schindler, head of the Aleknagic research station, near Dillingham. This University of Washington station has been in existence since 1946. Nick in his posting "What makes a good coach" summarizes the findings about the sockeye population in the Aleknagic system.
Dan's wife, Laura Payne, is an ornithologist. She is studying the population of wood swallows that migrate every summer from southern California to this site to reproduce. This photo, shown together with Laura and Dan's six year old daughter Luna, is of several one day swallow chicks.

Here Laura is examining a green sided flycatcher chick that was found in one of the swallow's nest boxes.

Here is another photo of the flycatcher chick.

These are four very hungry swallow chicks. After Laura has trimmed a bit of toe nail from each chick (to facilitate identification if they are caught in adulthood, she puts them back in the nest. The nests are boxes that Laura built and mounted in trees in a meadow near the University of Washington's Lake Nerka site (part of the Aleknagik system). One opens the side of the box by unscrewing it, and the chicks and adults are there. By plugging the entrance hole to the box when the chicks are out, the parents can't tell they are gone, and will not abandon the nest. When the chicks are returned, the plug is pulled from the hole in the box, and invariably one or both parents is back inside within a minute.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"What makes a good coach is knowing what the result is supposed to look like"-Vince Lombardi as told to John Madden

The Aleknagik system, feeding into Bristol Bay, Alaska is one of the few unspoiled habitats for salmon in the world. Nick's prior exposures to salmon habitat were the Columbia River system (95% salmon population decline due to excessive damming (Grand Coulee, Chief Joseph, Rocky Reach, Wanapum, the Dalles, and several other hydroelectric dams), the Klamath River (hundreds of miles of salmon habitat isolated by two main stem dams) and California (all rivers have been dammed and water diverted). Aleknagik has been studied continuously since 1946 by the University of Washington. Through sediment boring, the health of the habitat for sockeye salmon has been extended to the last glacial period. The evidence from all of the research is that the sockeye population is as large as or larger than it was thousands of years ago, despite the substantial annual harvest taken by Bristol Bay fisherman for the past 130 years. Climate warming may be the cause for the improvement, given that Aleknagik has exceedingly short summers (ice out begins May 30 and ice returns towards the end of September)


The importance of Aleknagik to caretakers of salmon in the lower forty-eight is that this is what the restored environment should look like. Some of the critical research findings, all of them eye-openers to Nick, are:


  1. Aleknagik Lake itself (one of four interconnected lakes) provided an opportunity to sample twenty nine separate sockeye groups. They overwhelmingly demonstrated phenotypic variation mostly as a function of spawning habitat. For example, two adjacent populations ( creek and beach spawners respectively) showed dramatic variation in phenotype, but the beach population was almost identical to another beach group over 50 kilometers distant;
  2. Sockeye spawn in three distinct landforms, beaches, small creeks, and rivers.
  3. Spawning sockeye come onto their redds at different times during the overall spawning run.
  4. Each river and creek has a large annual variance in numbers of fish, but there is very little covariance. The result is a stable annual escapement of sockeye from the system into the Bristol Bay fishery. The positive result for the fishing industry is that closure of the fishery is only likely once every forty years. The northern California salmon fishing fleet can be properly envious.


Thinking carefully about these findings, evolutionary adaptation by the sockeye to the fine gradations of its environment has stacked the deck (selected for) species survival in a big range of possible adverse conditions. Also, it appears that the "action" is in the small creeks more than in the rivers. The creeks provide numerous protected, quiet pools where smolt can grow. Thus, when salmon restoration programs in the lower forty eight focus only on placing salmon in large rivers, failure is likely.


The trout-addicted fly fisherman also should take careful note of the Aleknagik system. Rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, Arctic Char, and Arctic Grayling are all dependent on salmon eggs and decaying carcasses for their most significant growth. Trout have evolved a tricky adaptation, given that they typically require warmer habitat to thrive than salmon, who seek colder water. Trout swim rapidly from their lairs to gobble up salmon eggs in colder water, and quickly return to warmer water.


Finally, even bird fans can take lessons from the Aleknagik story. Tree swallows that next closer to salmon runs produce more chicks and sustain a higher survival rate than more distant nesting birds. The insect biomass consumed by the swallows is larger near decaying salmon due to resulting nutrients that favor micro-invertebrates.

Monday, June 21, 2010

June 20, Ankorage


10:30pm and the sun still shines low on the horizon over Cook Inlet, the view from our hotel window near the airport. Tonight we're in Ankorage and have half of tomorrow to sightsee some in town before our departure for Dillingham. So far we've managed a Starbucks, a mall with a shoe store (needed a water resistant walking shoe for the many rainy days), and a Walmart (that pesky, hard-to-find a 50 or 30 to 20 amps adapter). Not much to Ankorage but lots of fast moving 3-lane roads past low rise, poorly planned, malls filled with low end retail shops or bars, gas stations, hair salons, and all manner of small businesses. A working class housing neighborhood with modest bungalows near our hotel where I walked (9:45pm -- like late afternoon, high summer, upper mid-west) is pleasant - grassy lawns, filled with mature large blooming lilacs, bright colored annuals, mature birch trees - very pleasant area to walk.


Tomorrow is the summer solstice. I find the continuing daylight somewhat unnerving - I stay up too late at night even when I'm tired. I wake up at night, any time - 3am, 5am - and it's still light, a continual gray light through the night as far as I can tell.  Weird, but on a sunny day such as this one in Ankorage, very seductive to continue enjoying the beautiful light.


nick has commented on some of our activites in Seward, a small town, with town fathers interested in controlling all forms of commercial development, according to the RV owner's comments. Consequently, I found it quite a charming little town,not spoiled by uncontrolled growth. It is surrounded by commanding natural beauty and two national parks. We saw some of its beauty for the first time this morning - few clouds covering the surrounding snow and glacier-covered mountains. Seward is a big tourist town with much to offer. We sampled a day on the bay viewing much wildlife and many birds on our cruise to Northwestern glacier (where Nick took the photo of the harbor seal in the calving glacier filled inlet). And we had another visiting Seward's Marine Life museum and walking the town. The downturn in the national economy has made it hard for some small merchants to stay in business judging by the number of empty store fronts on main street. Many local residents make it clear that summer is the time of the year that they make money. The RV owner told me she worked 7 days a week all summer. I asked when does she take a break, she said "winter". Everything is very quiet then. Most workers in town are government workers in some form. The others work like crazy all summer and pick up odd jobs in the winter when available. Otherwise there is commercial fishing and service businesses for the local community.


Time for bed. 11:30pm and the sun is still above the horizon. Nick just covered his eyes with his eye mask. I should do likewise.    Mary

Sunday, June 20, 2010

More Photos

Mary explaining a point during our picnic in Haines

Camper parked along the Cook Inlest

Ninety-five pound halibut caught by a nice young guy

Harbor seal enjoying 36 degree water

View at low tide in Northestern Fjord, Kenai Fjord National Park

Scene at Seward docks

June 19th Chat on Eve of Departure from Seward

The woman who owns our RV park says that white people in Alaska don’t like to work. This was in response to Mary’s comment that we heard a lot of Spanish spoken in Anchorage. The current generation of young people says, “Hey, I don’t need to take that kind of work”. The owner’s daughter is twenty-five and pregnant and says that she wants to take care of the baby, and doesn’t feel like she should have to work. Mom rolls her eyes. It is difficult to get work in Homer, but her son got a job cleaning the barnacles off of fishing boats, working at night. He is happy with the wages and the free time he gets during the day time. Mom is from here, and lived away only during a two-year stint in Florida, which she hated. She is no longer with the husband that took her there for a military posting. I met her current husband, who re-filled the camper propane tank. He is a nice guy who spends a lot of time sitting on a bar stool watching TV.


We had a “townie” kind of day. We went to the Homer based Alaska Sea Life research institute, where they care for wounded wild life. It is a small scale Monterey aquarium as well and has many wonderful tanks with live fish, King crabs, jelly fish, and others with harbor seals and a very large Stellar sea lion. When we finished with the exhibits we wandered to the other end of town and had a great lunch, peeler shrimp, and seafood salads. Later we drove to the Exit Glacier, an outfall from the Harding ice field. This outfall has receded steadily from its first sighting in 1821. One of the more interesting pieces of research on glaciers is that the scientists have cored many glaciers and they report that the pace of glacial melt has never been as fast as it is now for the last ten thousand years.


The rain continues steadily. We may get a couple of glimpses of the sun in Dillingham when we head that way on June 21st for our visit to the University of Washington salmon research station. A recent paper from the scientists there indicates that the sockeye salmon sustain very high reproduction rates, due to the high variability of their spawning cycles. Several sockeye sub groups make their pilgrimage from May through July, and this dispersion of the species reproduction cycle assures that some will find the right opportunities to feed prior to spawning and good water conditions for running the rivers.


In the morning we will take a final look around here, maybe visiting an Alaska state salmon weir around the corner from our RV park. Apparently several fish a day are crossing the weir.


Communication back to the lower forty-eight has been pretty good, but we are going into the first of our off-the-grid side trips. We will leave the PC and cell phones in Anchorage when we fly to Dillingham, and will begin the use of electrons again when we return to Anchorage on June 24th. Our plans are vague from that point, but we will most likely head to Homer, a good place to base ourselves for a few days of visits to other Kenai Peninsula towns. We also have a sketchy program in mind to visit Kenicot in Wrangell-Elias National Park. This was the site of Kennecott Copper’s first major mine. There is probably a reason why the spelling changed. Perhaps the corporate geniuses decided that more letters in the name means more prestige. Some wag told us that Kenicot is better than Denali because it contains a lot of “funky Alaska”. We are looking forward to figuring out what that means.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Here is a truly random selection. From the top, Northwestern Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, Photo along the Haines Highway, Ketchikan, and Mary with drying socks. Peace to all

How Did We End up in Seward? Musings on the evening of June 17th

Alaska provides some constraints on a driving trip that require an adjustment to the routine of even the road savvy couple. The distances are enormous, and the map is misleading to those of us who have only driven the lower forty eight. The roads are sometimes good and sometimes not. Frost heaves abound and the prudent driver doesn't want to go air borne too frequently. All the road repairs are done in June and July, so the friendly hello of the lonely flag man occurs often (one of these guys entertained him self and us by showing the dragon fly sitting on his arm, consuming the last of a bumble bee it had caught in mid air. The waits are less than ten minutes, but occur several times a day.


Taking all of this into account, we realized that we won't have time to cover all of the Kenai Peninsula in between our next two fly-in trips, and so we ambled down to Seward to get this piece of the Kenai under our belts before the flight out to Bristol Bay. The usual spectacular vistas lay around every bend in the road. Much of the morning we drove along one arm of the Cook Inlet. Nick remembers the Cook Inlet people who had a huge investment fund in the early eighties, and who bought into several startup cable TV companies in the lower forty-eight. They probably made damned good money. A glacier enters the Cook Inlet far to the east and south of where we drove.


We broke the journey with a fine hot sandwich and soup lunch at the Mt. Alyeska ski resort. Mary got a recommendation from one of the nice shoe clerks at a mall in Anchorage. I spent the shoe buying time reading the WSJ on my Kindle, but I did overhear Mary and the two girls talking about mid-summer's night approaching in a few days (the 21st of June). Mary said something like "do you have sexual orgies like in Scandinavia on that evening?" I missed the reply but I think the young women were a little surprised.


We arrived late afternoon to a nice spot six miles from Seward, got the camper rigged up and put the RV park laundry machines and shower facilities to work. Nick learned the previous night that not all RV parks have electrical outlets to receive a typical three prong 20 amp 110V plug. That led to a question of the manager of this night's RV facility, and she loaned me a conversion plug (50 to 20 amp). Looks like we need a trip to the hardware store tomorrow.  It has rained on and off for several hours, much like yesterday evening. The pattern is: mornings are cloudy but dry, with the sun poking through the clouds occasionally, while the afternoons bring a steady, moderate downpour. We drove into Seward and had a good seafood dinner and beer and wine. The restaurant was crowded with tourists and locals, a bit of a shock to ears more accustomed to road sounds and quiet camper life. Tomorrow we get a nine hour cruise of the Northwest Fjord of Fjordlands National Park. If it would stop raining we could get a hike in the following day. The snow level is down to about 1,500 feet, so until it does clear we are restricted to walking on the flats. That is a possibility because Seward is situated in a very wide harbor.


Here are some notes from our June 15th dry camp at Lake Creek, the Yukon.


This was the first day we put substantial mileage on the truck. We picnicked along the Haines Highway, in view of Haines Junction, situated below in a beautiful valley. The Haines Highway is a glorious journey past glacier-filled mountains and very long vistas.


We refueled at Haines Junction. The fuel stop owner, a Chinese man and his wife, took time out from their Chinese language color TV program to take Nick's money. They told another customer that business was slow but beginning to pick up with the summer travelers.


We moved on to Lake Creek campground, not far from the US border. This was an absolutely silent campground in the woods. The camper really shows its stuff at dry camps. We have abundant water, hot water, cooking heat, refrigeration, lights and a furnace to take the morning chill off.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Haines Day

Despite our plans, we never left Haines. It was nice to be on land again, without rain. We found a state park with views of two glaciers across the Lynn Fjord, and picnicked. We then went to two museums, a presentation by the Bald Eagle foundation, and three grocery stores. The match between the number of activities and grocery store visits was an accident.

The previous evening on the ferry Nick went out for a final cigar break and lucked out. Nine humpbacked whales spouting and rolling. One went airborne and came down with a huge splash. No pictures of that event. Too dark and the camera was packed away.

We will try to get more photos into this blog. Right now there are some connectivity problems to be worked out.

Dinner calls.

A Blog Posting from Mary

   Finally I'm at our shared computer to add my thoughts and reflections on this remarkable journey Nick and I are sharing.  I write now, late morning, while Nick reads the recently downloaded Sunday New York Times. We went ashore in Ketchikan, our first stop en route to Haines early this morning. We spent most of the hour we had in the Best Western lobby downloading emails, the NYT, and the New Yorker onto the Kindle. We are in our full second day on board the ferry.  The days have a flow to them: much reading until eyes blur then a break gazing at the surrounding shoreline mountains and looking for wildlife – some whale spotting; then another break to walk around, up and down the three flights of stairs, to restart the blood circulation system. It is cold, sometimes raining and standing outside chatting with fellow passengers and admiring the scenery is a great pastime. Mostly we cruise through very narrow channels, protected from the pitch and movement of the open ocean. When we do pass through areas open to the Pacific, the swells are notable. Last night while sleeping, the fruit I had resting on the sink counter, rolled into the sink.  I was glad I was in bed, safe from being thrown around.

   The quality of the snack bar and dining room are mainstream America, but they mark a break in the reading and gazing. Many of our fellow passengers have brought most of their food because purchasing it on board is expensive. We too have brought some of our own food to enhance what we choose to purchase. While Nick and I have a cabin room with private bath, many other passengers spend the threes days on board living in one of the lounge rooms – generally sleeping on the floors – or on some plastic garden-type lounge chairs in an area euphemistically called the solarium. The solarium is on the upper most rear deck space, roofed, but open to the fresh air and blowing winds. On another rear deck, fully exposed to the elements, yet others have pitched tents to sleep and place their belongings. Currently it is quite cold. Those folks living outdoors wear their wool hats, fleeces and rain jackets for a little warmth. They sleep in sleeping bags.

    If I remember to inquire about the number of passengers – varies from port to port – I'll report a definite number, but I'd guess there are more than 150. There are also a large number of staff members keeping this moving hotel/living quarters operating. There are no public spaces without people, but they are very pleasant and we prefer them to our cabin. The staff present various forms of entertainment throughout the day. We have three lectures on Alaska – the Tsongess National Forest, the inland waterways, and native culture.  There are movies for kids a couple of times a day. Navigation maps of the inland waterways are posted and a staff member moves a large yellow arrow to indicate exactly where we are. I find this information most interesting.

    Back to reading…currently the Girl With the Dragon Tatoo and Blood River.


Ketchikan-A Gash in a Fjord

Today is June 13th. We were rousted at 6:30AM by the loudspeaker announcing our arrival at Ketchikan. It had been a short night, with sleep disturbed by one of the open ocean crossings. (This means rock and roll for the uninitiated) Ketchikan is a surprise, just a little dock space and marina for containers and small boats, and a sprinkling of buildings halfway up the hill fronting the fjord. The airport sits across the channel from town and a small ferry brings people across. Four large cruise ships were packed into moorage at the far end of town. There is a very active sea plane service right next to the ferry boat landing. Heavy, windy squalls came through every ten minutes or so, and the temperature didn't get above fifty degrees


Still, we took advantage of the short stay (one hour) to get our electronic doper fix of email and New York Times downloads to the PC and Kindle. Ketchikan's Best Western staff was kind enough to let us onto their wifi. Good smells of fried eggs and sizzling bacon came from around the corner, but there was no time. Nick downloaded two oatmeal cookies from a vending machine for later consumption. Mary met a young woman who had just graduated from college in Arcata, CA. She and a friend are bicycling forty nine states for a year. They rode from northern California to Bellingham and got on the ship. They will get off at Haines, to ride the Alcan back to Montana. They have panniers for their gear. Maybe in a year the economy will recover enough so that they can get jobs. Back on board the M/V Columbia, Nick found good cell phone reception and called and left VM's for our daughters. Even the Spot Messenger (portable GPS) worked, most likely because it is easier to find the satellite when sitting still. Nick had tried to connect the Spot en route yesterday and was unable to get a fix.


We have less than twenty four hours to Haines; with intermediate stops at Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau (we'll skip that one, given the 3:15AM arrival). Nick hopes to be allowed to get off at Wrangell. Who in his right mind would miss an opportunity to say he spent time in Wrangell? Hopefully, a few months from now everyone will forget that the stop-over lasts less than an hour, giving Nick the opportunity to talk about all of the salmon he caught and logs he skidded during the journey. (Addendum) Wrangell is one of the sweetest smelling places in the north. Pine resin and sea remind us of what the environment used to be like generally along the west coast. Wrangell was founded as a Russian fort in 1834 to restrain the expansion of the British. That didn't work out so well. Later, Wrangell was an outfitter for both the Cassiar and Klondike gold rushes, as miners headed up the Stikine. Today this is a peaceful town, loaded with wooden churches and, hopefully, an equal number of bars.


Mary has been completely relaxed. "There is nothing I have to do, so I am comfortable doing nothing." She is racing through the first Stieg Larson book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, having read the second novel first. The two of us roll around the ship like marbles, running into each other every hour or two. We hang together and tell tales of people met and things seen then go off again. We still have some food from the camper, and the leftover cheese, salami and crackers are better than anything sold on the ship. The cook and wait staff are all State of Alaska employees and, due to state law, cannot accept gratuities. The result is the expected in both the cooking and the serving.


It will be great to drive off at Haines tomorrow morning. The ship is comfortable and convenient, but cabin fever is creeping in. Problem number one is lack of exercise. Problem number two is the tantalizing scenery rushing by, but with no way to get out into it. The routine onboard is reading, looking out the window, going on deck for photos and binocular searches (a few porpoises and an occasional partial whale viewing, plus two bald eagles), listening to mediocre Forest Service lectures, chatting up the crew, dining on bad food, and sleeping.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

M/V Columbia-Beginning Second Day

Jim and Jan Carrell picked Mary and Nick up on June 11th at the Fairhaven Inn, near Bellingham, WA. Jim and Nick were good friends in college and have fished a little together. Jim is a retired mathematics professor at University of British Columbia. Jan and Jim met at the University of Washington fifty years ago. After loads of conversation and a great seafood lunch on the Chuckanut Highway’s Shell House, Mary and Nick drove onto the ferry. Um, that is, four hours after arriving in line, we drove onto the ferry, the last but one of all the vehicles. In the meantime, we saw a full fire truck and an eighteen-wheeler go on board. One reason for our delay is that we disembark at the next to last stop. Beyond that, who knows? The shape of our vehicle was a good fit for one of the last spots on the truck deck. In any event, after hoisting about 150 lbs of gear up the steel stairs, we met the Purser, who gave us the keys to our berth. Immediately after, the ship horn sounded and we were off into a gorgeous sunset and the glassy Sound.


We cruised up the remnants of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, enjoying a stunning vista of Mt. Baker. We had a poor meal in the dining room and went back outside. Before complete darkness we found the lights of the Port of Vancouver. We could even see lights on top of Whistler. A few porpoises messed around with the ship.


Nick, while on cigar duty, met Chief Johnny Ruiz, head cook. Like many professional cooks, he is a chain smoker. He has lived in southern California, Idaho, Utah, and now Anchorage. He bemoaned the shipping of water from Idaho to California during one of our state’s many dry spells. Nick apologized on behalf of the whole state. Johnny worked for seven years as the helmsman on a seagoing scientific sailing vessel, saying it was the hardest job he ever had. He got two weeks a year off, “not good for a marriage. Fortunately, I have a great woman, and we are still together.” The science was to examine volcanic fumaroles at the bottom of the ocean. He said that they saw unbelievable life formations, including many that live on a sulfur rather than oxygen cycle. To him, this dramatically opens up possibilities of life forms on other planets.


During a walk this morning, Nick met another new buddy, Marshall, on deck with his wife and four kids. His Dad is still asleep. Marshall finished his residency and fellowships at Stanford medical school this year, and is taking up his first job, in Anchorage. He is a pediatric anesthesiologist. His father, who lives in Utah, flew to California, drove a one way U-Haul back to Utah with the family furniture, then flew back to drive a second car for the family to Alaska. It sounds like he needs the sleep, since he is really old (one year older than Nick). Once the family gets to Anchorage, Dad will fly home.


An annoyingly efficient sound system carries all sorts of announcements, including into our berth. We just got the morning “Car Deck” call. Three times a day, passengers can return to their vehicles for fifteen minutes. There are many dogs on this journey and they are not allowed out of the vehicles. Given that some will be on board for almost three days, the owners are allowed to go down and care for pooch. The imagination creates all kinds of bad scenarios regarding what pooch has done in the truck overnight.


Nick had a nice exercise walk and a few calisthenics on an outer deck. Mary is doing the same at this moment, and then we will go for breakfast. The weather is deteriorating.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Update and Backdate

We have arrived in Bellingham. The ferry is five minutes away. Our hotel overlooks a noisy railroad track, a parking lot and warehouse roofs. Not what Nick imagined, but we also see Puget Sound out the window. There is nothing picture worthy about our vantage point.
However, the Mt Shasta City evening was very nice, and Nick encloses a couple of pics of that segment. The first is of Mt Shasta, showing some of its snow load. The second is of Mary standing at the steps of our camper, prior to dinner. The RV park was pretty basic, but had an electrical hookup.
Tonight we are heading out for a walkabout, and a seafood dinner. Despite the clouds, one can already tell that it stays light quite late. Last night, along the Oregon/Washington border, it was light until 9PM despite the rain.
It is quite nice disengaging from the news. Never heard anything about the oil spill today. Maybe it is a figment of Rush Limbaugh's imagination.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Watching Ships on the Columbia River

Two days into this trip have led us to a nice RV park on the north bank of the Columbia River. We sit in our comfy camper, working the electronics and dinner prep simultaneously. Strangely enough, we still have elements of the Walkure working our neurons. Serious music dopers, Mary and Nick. Northern California, Oregon and Washington show evidence of a very wet winter and spring. Rivers (Sac, Klamath, Rogue, Wilamette, Columbia) are full, as is Shasta Lake. Mt Shasta has enormous snow covering this year, apparently twice normal.

Weather is not cooperating for sun lovers, with rains forecast for the next several days no matter where we go. It matters not, given that we are either driving or sitting on a boat for awhile. Bellingham is our destination tomorrow and a night in a hotel (shower time and a seafood dinner). We meet our frineds the Carrels for brunch at an oyster house on the 11th before putting the rig on the M/S Columbia, our Alaska ferry.

The camper is working well. It is very efficient to set up. Once the top is raised, the first item is to make the bed so that all of the pillows, blanket, sleeping bag can go in the over cab space. The second thing is to pull down the dining table from the roof mount and set it up. The refrigerator runs dual fuel (propane or electricity) so when we have a hookup, we switch over.

Rain has started, but dinner has too. Time to enjoy it. This beats the hell out of tent camping.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The wheels are starting to come off

The mental wheels, that is. The space shuttle doesn't require the logistics for this venture. Nick and Mary have eight electronic gadgets (two digital cameras, Ipod, two cell phones, one Spot Messenger, a Kindle, a PC), each one requiring a different sized charger or battery. Many of these have web support, and most of the usernames and passwords differ from each other.

Clothes for the trip are either in Napa or San Francisco, and it is whack-a-mole to figure out which.

Food is sufficient to feed us for over two months, but the truck/camper won't carry all of it.

One way or the other, we are off on Tuesday.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Alaska Email Test Message

Configuring the rig for our Alaska trip was a fascinating exercise. It became apparent, while looking for pickup trucks, that American trucks are simply the best in the world. How Detroit could get that right and lose the ability to manufacture attractive and competitive cars, would be a good sociological study. Nick asked questions of as many knowledgeable people as he could find, and the conclusion was “buy a Ford 350 with dual rear wheels and a big diesel engine.” The next step was finding a camper. Mary and Nick don’t like the idea of towing anything, because of our desire to go into rough road wilderness with the rig. We both knew of the Alaskan Camper by reputation. The more we looked into the Alaskan, the better it seemed for us. It rides low, but then easily rises to a height where Nick can fully stand up inside. It has a queen size (more or less) bed with enough length for Nick’s height. It has a comfortable place to sit for prepping dinner, reading, and eating. It has a drop down dining table. It has hot water, a heater, a refrigerator, and a stove top. The storage space is adequate. Most of the camper equipment is standard. We ordered blackout curtains so that we can sleep when the sun doesn’t set. We are bringing two folding chairs for outside seating when weather and bugs permit. The camper has a neat stereo system, including radio, CD player, and IPod dock. We ordered two powerful storage batteries for the camper. There are also two batteries in the truck and two alternators. This configuration provides for a quick recharge of the camper batteries when we are driving the truck. The propane bottle (22 lbs) can run the camper fuel needs for about a week. Many RV parks have electrical hookups. When electricity is available we can switch the refrigerator off of propane, and also run the internal lights on the external power source.


Part of the trip will be through Canada. So we have to remember our passports. Also, Canadian regulations limit the amount of booze. Looks like Mary and Nick can have two one liter flasks of sipping tequila. Nick can also “borrow” Mary’s tobacco allowance and take along a nice supply of cigars to frighten off the mosquitoes.


Nick bought a Kindle and likes it a lot. The Kindle store allows one to buy a single day newspaper on line, so wherever we have wifi we can get our New York Times. The classics, being in the public domain, are pretty much free or can be downloaded for a couple of bucks. So, Nick has the complete works of Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, John Donne.