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.