Freddy’s Place – Alaska

Many camping neophytes don’t know of the alternative RV campsites. By that I mean the places you can stop and sleep for the night without paying.  The most well known is Wall-Mart. As long as you don’t block the front doors and don’t set the parking lot afire, you’re welcome to spend the night in their parking lot. When you’re on the road, it’s comforting to know that you can rely on those places in a pinch.

Last night we accepted such hospitality at Fred Meyers. That’s a northwest supermarket chain you may know as Kroger. We call them Fry’s at home. We were in transit from Seward to Glenallen and needed to find place to sleep. The Fred Meyer’s places (at least in Alaska) allow you to stay overnight in their parking lot. Since we were in transit for a day, we accepted their hospitality.

At first, we felt like we were imposing, but from our perspective, it was wonderful. We went to the service desk to make sure that it was ok to camp in their lot. The manager assured us that it was ok as long as we didn’t block the front entry. They then added, “You will be moving first thing in the morning, won’t you?”

In all, it was a wise decision to stay. We learned a lot about Palmer by walking its streets that evening, and we found out that they have a steam whistle that blows at five o’clock. It happens the whistle was at the fire station across the street from our parking spot . . . Thank God I was already on the pot; I’m forbidden from telling you what happened to Queen Anne’s pants.

Except for the paperboy who owned the loud rice-rocket delivering papers at 3am, the night was actually quiet and we slept in until eight. That’s when the morning whistle went off. Then I got up with my dopp kit and towel draped over my shoulder and started to march into the store to shave and brush my teeth.

“Sir; you can’t come in here dressed like that!”

“These are my best cowboy pj’s! What’s wrong with them?”‘. . . Don’t ever argue with a box boy.

Anyway, our thanks to Freddy’s, especially for keeping the store open til 10pm so that we could make a Cherry Garcia ice cream run. That got us through the night . . . Not to mention the morning coffee and doughnut fix.

jw

Exit Glacier – Alaska

Alaska must have a state law that prohibits clean cars. This is the last evening of our Seward stay, and it has rained all three days. I know, rain is a minor nuisance. After all, we live in Arizona where the summer rains are only enough to glue the monsoon dust to the paint. I love Seward. There’s enough to see and do here to keep one busy for a month. It’s this campsite that has me down, or more precisely, the two miles of unpaved and pot holed road that leads here.

Like the town of Chicken, when the roads get wet, the mud coats everything. Unlike Chicken, this road’s base is dark gray slate, so its mud/paste is like thin concrete. It gets everywhere. It will cost me ten bucks at the car-wash to get Fritz back to paint . . . and that’s ten bucks one-quarter-at-a-time, because they only have the pressure washers here.

The Exit Glacier could be renamed the Gene Simmons Glacier for obvious reasons.
The Exit Glacier could be renamed the Gene Simmons Glacier for obvious reasons.

Today we drove Fritz back into town for a hike up to the Exit Glacier. A large chunk of the Kenai Peninsula is part of a little known National Park called the Kenai Fjords National Park. It includes several of the fjords west of Seward and the Harding Ice Field. The ice field drives several glaciers down the mountains and into the fjords.

The Exit Glacier is one of the few places you can drive up to a glacier. Well . . . you can drive to the parking lot, but it’s a mile hike up to the glacier, and believe it or not, Queen Anne made the hike. There are markers along the trail indicating the receding glacier’s terminus through the years. One couple along our hike had been here a decade ago and they were shocked at how much the glacier had receded since their last visit.

Exit Glacier Up Close
The Harding Ice Field (partly seen here in the upper left) drives all the glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park.

We didn’t get close enough to stick our tongues on the ice (there are ropes preventing you from doing that), but we did get to see the blue icy interior and moraine. On a quiet moment, we could hear the moaning of the moving glacier . . . or was that me climbing the trail . . . I can’t remember.

Tomorrow morning we head back to Palmer. We have to make a final Costco stop for BBQ sauce ingredients for The Great Rib challenge in Tok (more on that later). After that, we set off to see the largest US National Park . . . Wrangle St. Elias National Park in southeast Alaska. Hopefully, the roads won’t be muddy. Before I retire for the evening, I’ve been commanded to rub the Queen’s feet because they’re sore; poor baby.

jw

Seward – Alaska

Even though the ports of Homer and Seward are both on the Kenai Peninsula, they feel like opposite ends of the earth. Homer is on a headlands overlooking the Kachemak Bay. The thread of sand extending four and a half miles into the bay, called the Homer Spit, is its port. As I said, the geography is similar to the northern Pacific coast.

Old Town Seward
Old town Seward has the usual mix of souvenir shops, bars, hotels and restaurants.

Seward comes from Norway or the fjords of New Zealand. That’s because an ancient glacier carved Resurrection Bay and it’s nearby sisters. The mountains lining the bay rise from the sea like giants cooling their toes in the deep waters. During our visit to the Alaska Sea Life Center (aquarium), we learned that the bay is over nine hundred feet deep. That’s more than enough to support a healthy range of sea life, including whales, sea otters, seals and sea lions.

Red Church in Seward
The St. Peter’s Episcopal Church backs up to the spruce covered mountain.

Seward (named after the Secretary of State that bought Alaska from Russia) has what I like to call charm. There’s the usual tourist things to do like fishing charters, cruises, restaurants and souvenir shops. The mountains and the bay limit the town’s size, so there’s not a lot of new development.

Blue Seward Home
A small residence in Seward with a boardwalk entry.

The park we’re staying at is at the end of a two-mile dirt road along the west side of the bay. Although we gripe about the mud covering the vehicles, this evening, we sat on the office veranda and enjoyed our evening wine while watching the clouds weave among the mountains on the far shore.

Fishing Boat In Reserection Sound
Sitting on the porch at the camp office enjoying the interaction between the mountains and the clouds.

From the porch, we watched the fishing charters come in and hang their catch. It’s a tradition where the crew photographs clients displaying today’s catch. After the pictures, the ship’s crew clean, bag and process the fish for shipping. The gulls love it because they get most of the scraps. This evening a disrupting interloper showed up. It was a bald eagle swooping in to try to snatch the gull’s dinner. The porch lit up with whoops and screams when Deb and Sally realized what the big brown bird was. It was their first eagle sighting of the trip. Who can blame them?

jw

Homer – Alaska

Because Anne and I are a couple of days behind the group, we drove down to Homer for lunch. The rest of the gang was there on Thursday and recommended Captain Patties for seafood on the Homer Spit. The hour drive was along the Cook Inlet coast and we had great views of the volcanoes towering above the inlet’s far shore.

Fishing the Homer Spit
Out on the Homer Spit, you can try to catch salmon using long rods and casting into the bay.

Homer calls itself “The Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.” You can also fish for salmon and dig razor clams out of the estuary pool. Another big attraction is bear tours. You can hire a guide to do the local bears or take a boat to Kodiak Island and watch those monsters gorge on salmon all summer.

Cleaning the Catch
The crew from a fishing charter cleans the daily catch of King Salmon for the clients. They will also freeze, box and ship it home for you.

Most of the town is what you’d expect from a village of five thousand, but all the action takes place on the Homer Spit, a thread of land that extends out into the Kachemak Bay. The paved road is lined with restaurants, tour guides, gift shops, campsites, a resort and finally the ferry at the end. It’s an amusement park, of sorts, lining the narrow road. What little free parking there is has signs that say the greatest parking time is seven days, “No long-term parking.” If seven days isn’t long-term, I don’t know what is.

Ninilchik Eagle
A bald eagle hunts along the Ninilchik River late into the evening.

We walked the spit and then toured the town before making our way back to camp. We sat around camp reliving the days and going over the itinerary for the next few weeks. I wasn’t sleepy after we’d finished, so I grabbed the camera and wandered down to the beach. There I found a bald eagle fishing the Ninilchik River. What a great way to end the day.

jw

Ninilchik – Alaska

We’ve finally moved on from Anchorage on to the Kenai Peninsula. Our first stop is the little village of Ninilchik, a former Russian colony of about two hundred families. It’s on the west coast of the Kenai about halfway to Homer.

Bird Point
Low hanging rain clouds decorate the mountains along the Cook Inlet.

Our drive down yesterday was enjoyable even though it rained most of the way. South of Anchorage, there is a wild-fire along the way, and firefighters hoped that the rain would help them get it under control. As we drove by, the smoke was heavy but there weren’t any visible flames.

Turnagain Pass
At the top of the Turnagain Pass the low white clouds almost came down to the road.

Driving along the Cook Inlet on the coast road was eye candy for me. The low white clouds covered the mountains about waist-high, just like they do in New Zealand. The road crosses a low pass into the Kenai interior before it reaches the coast at Soldotna. Then it turns south and follows the coast. The drive reminds me of Oregon and Northern California.

Orthadox Church
A Russian Orthodox Church overlooks the small town of Ninilchik.

There is difference however. On the other side of the Cook Inlet are a range of mountains including three dormant volcano’s. In yesterday’s rain, they were hidden. Maybe they’ll come out and play today or tomorrow.

Roof Gulls
Seagulls rest on a roof peak in Ninilchik.

The Kenai is Alaska’s Mecca for salmon and halibut fishing. Fred has already booked a halibut charter for tomorrow and we may go back to the Kenai River tomorrow. It’s still season for Kings down here and they say the rivers are full of Sockeye, called ‘reds’ by the locals.

Ninilchik Village
The small village sits on the bank of the Ninilchik River mouth forming a small harbor.

The rest of the group has been here for two days and we all leave for Seward on Monday. With that tight schedule, any fishing I get in will be brief. After all, there is laundry, sight-seeing, photography, shopping and restaurants competing for time too.

jw

Half Empty Glass – Alaska

We’re still in Palmer even though Deb, Fred and Sally have moved on to the Kenai Peninsula. We will meet up with them on Friday. We got Fritz back from the dealer yesterday, after getting the worlds most expensive ignition switch installed. This morning, I took him to the shop for a lube service. I wanted him ready for the long drive home. He’s logged over 5000 miles on the odometer so far; already more than half the scheduled trip, but he’s been on a lot of side trips.

Boat on the Cook Inlet
A wooden boat sits dry in the salt marsh on the Knik River arm of the Cook Inlet.

This is always the time on vacations where I get melancholy. The vacation is already half over. Although there is a lot of traveling left, we’re still on the downhill run. After planning ‘the trip of a lifetime’, I hate to see it come to an end. As I said, there’s more than a month before we get back to the stress and rigor of retirement. We still have so much to see and do.

There’s a line in the Dan Fogelberg song Nether Lands that best explains this confusing feeling I have: “And where do you go when you get to the end of your dream?” I’ve already learned the answer to that question. It’s another quote from the movie Finding Nemo. The line is Dory’s, when she says “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”

My ‘swimming’ technique is like an astronaut coming home from the moon (This is actually how I got through school well before astronauts). I need to focus on getting the landing right, but I stare blankly out the window and let my mind wander. Eventually, another hair-brain scheme pops into my head and (my last quote of the evening is from Tag Team); “Whoomp! There it is.”

jw

Little Susitna River – Alaska

This was a very satisfying weekend. The weather was nice, a little humid, but nice. Sally, Fred and Deb caught up, they were in the campsite when I got back from fishing Saturday. Yesterday, I joined the local SCCA for a day of Autocrossing, followed by a delicious salmon dinner. How could things get any better?

The first thing I spied when we rolled into Wasilla last Wednesday was the Three Rivers Fly and Tackle shop. Since Fred and I decided that we would exclusively fly fish on this trip, I’ve found that the box stores can’t give the kind of local information that the independent fly shops can. So, after dropping Fritz off at the dealer, we hopped into the beater and paid a visit to Three Rivers.

Normally, these stores are an esoteric experience. You get the feeling that you should wear a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe with one hand, while balancing a glass of 12-year-old in the other. This store isn’t like that. It’s more like a garage where guys hang out to b.s. because they like what happens there.

The first thing I noticed when we walked into the crowed store, was they had two rods set up on contraptions that seemed like homemade lathes. They were actually making repairs to someone’s equipment right there in the store. Not the normal, “Yes, we’ll send it out and have it repaired. You can expect it back in two weeks.”

I waited my turn, and then told them how we’ve come up from the States, oops I meant the other states, and how I’d like to do some salmon fishing. After a couple more questions, he pulled out a local map and gave me two local places that are twenty and thirty miles away. I guess in Alaska, that’s local. Then he showed me how to set up my rig before finally recommending flies.

On the tray before me, lay an assortment of fuzz and feathers that no self-respecting fish would ever consider putting in their mouth. They were the colors that my little sister wore in junior high school. He swore that they worked, so I bought a mix of several colors and put them in the bag. “Why do you need to buy more flies?” Anne questioned from behind. “Because, they’re there,” was my feeble reply.

After I got all of my chores done the next evening, I drove out to the Little Susitna River and in spite of leaving my waders in Fritz, I walked into the water up to my knees. The fish were there, I could see them swirling. I couldn’t get to them. The new flies were weighted, and when I would try to cast, the weight would jerk and snap like the outside person when you played ‘crack-the-whip‘.

When I got home fish less that night, I researched the Internet to find out what I was doing wrong. Friday we went to the car dealer and retrieved my waders and a couple other items. Saturday morning, I left for the fishing hole. With a few rig adjustments and my waders, I was able to land the flies right where I saw fish two days ago, and I did. Hour after hour, I perfectly landed flies on target, before retrieving the line and doing it again.

The afternoon passed and I grew weary and decided to call it a day. “Three more casts,” I thought to myself. On the third cast, the line stopped its drift, so I snapped the rod to the vertical. Something pulled back, and in milliseconds a silver rocket broke the surface of the water, clearing the lower tree branches. Then just as quick, it jumped a second time every bit as high, before it turned and looked at me then gracefully . . . spit out the hook. It was gone.

Thrilled and disappointed simultaneously is how I felt. “At least I hooked one,” I thought. But now there were several swirls in the water before me, and with all that activity, I gave in and made one more cast. As before in mid drift, the line stopped and I set the hook. Like an instant replay, the fish jumped only this time when she came down, she began to take out line. This was a good fish.

For twenty minutes we battled (even I think that sounds corny). She would take out line, before I would reel it back in. Finally she tired and other than a few head shakes, she was a big weight at the end of my line. I needed to land her and I looked around. I didn’t have a net. A boat full of fishermen were watching nearby, so I gestured that I could use a net, but they didn’t understand and powered by with thumbs up. I did the only thing I could. I began to step by step make my way to the shore, where I beached and subdued her. She was a female seven and a half pound silver salmon. My first.

I put it in the garbage bag I brought for such an occasion, and placed it into the trunk. On the way back to camp, I stopped and bought ice for the bag. I drove the rest of the way home with a smile on my face.

Fred, Deb and Sally were in camp when I arrived and the inevitable question came, “Did you catch anything?” Without saying anything, I opened the trunk and pulled out my trash bag.

Fred said, “Wow!”

Deb said, “Beautiful.”

Anne said, “Ewww!”

This morning Fred and I are going out fishing. He wants to catch one like we had for dinner last night, and I promised to show where I caught it. On the way, we have to stop off a Three Rivers, so he can buy some ugly flies and I can have them replace the tip of my fly rod that I broke on Saturday.

jw

Anchorage – Alaska

Since we have some down time, and the dealer gave us a beater loaner (complete with cracked windshield), Anne and I drove down to Anchorage yesterday. My friend Jeff sent a link to a local food truck, so we decided to check it and the town out.

We missed the Babycakes truck. Either I read the schedule wrong, or they couldn’t make it. Instead we ordered a Cuban sandwich from one of the other vendors. With a slice of ham, a slice of pork, cheese and zesty pickle on a pressed Panini bun, it was tasty. There was a second truck selling baked good, so we indulged in a cupcake parfait; that’s where they alternate layers of cake with icing. We needed a good walk after that.

K Street Eatery
Anchorage has several sites where local food trucks can set up and sell food. The trucks rotate from one site to another. We took advantage of the K Street place for lunch.

I wanted to check out the street made famous during the 1964 earthquake. The newspapers and TV showed how one side of the street sunk a full story. There was far worse damage elsewhere, but that image remained with me. The area affected was along 4th Avenue between C Street and E Street.

Anne's lured into the Kringles Store.
Anne’s lured into the Kringle’s Store

While we walked the sidewalk, I remarked that this part of town reminded me of the road next to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s at the edge of downtown, nearer to the port. It had all the trinket shops and the cruise ships sent busloads of tourists as part of the tour. But I didn’t see a single place to eat seafood. There were plenty of bars, but no salmon, no crab, not even a sushi restaurant. Evidently, Anchorage knows that this is high on the sightseeing list, because the Hard Rock Cafe is at the end of the block, but it needs more local seafood.

South Side of Fourth Avenue
The south side of fourth avenue has a mix of building styles. It’s kitschy but at least has some charm.

The other observation that I made was the street had a split personality directly related to the earthquake. The south side of the street has the original buildings, a mix of old storefronts, bars, with an occasional log building here and there. The north side buildings that sustained most of the damage were replaced with two reinforced concrete structures designed in the 60’s. They act as a shopping mall, but there are few tenants. The owners painted the west building bright yellow, while the east one is purple. Inside of the west building we found the walls plastered with news clips and explanations of what and how the earthquake damaged the surrounding areas. Since the epicenter was in Valdez (an unknown little fishing village at the time), it will be interesting to see how it recovered.

Fourth Avenue's North Side
It was the north side of Forth Avenue that sank one story. Those buildings were replaced with two commercial building that serve as shopping malls. They are conspicuously devoid of tenants.

jw

Palmer – Alaska

We’ve been forced to modify our plans. Anne and I had to leave the gang behind and go on to Palmer, a town north of Anchorage. That means skipping over a stop where we could have spent more time near the park. We will be here for a week, and Fred, Deb and Sally will catch up with us in a couple of days.

Fritz has been acting up ever since Montana. Whenever we would turn the key to start the engine, it didn’t react quite right. It has gotten worse. Now, we have to say a prayer, then perform yoga and hold our tongue just right to get him to start in the morning. That’s when the problem is the worse.

Since we carried some tools, and the internet, we narrowed the problem to either the lock that prevents the truck from starting when it isn’t in park or the ignition switch. There are only two qualified shops in Alaska that could fix it. An independent shop here in Palmer, or the only dealer in Anchorage, or the state for that matter.

When we got to town and set The Ritz up, we drove to the independent shop, where they confirmed it was the ignition switch/steering lock-out mechanism. They can’t fix it, because the part has to be programmed specifically for Fritz, and they don’t have the electronics to do that, I have to take it to the dealer tomorrow. Cha ching! Even the electronic key needs re-programming. We don’t have a choice, either we drive it in tomorrow or drag it in on a hook from who knows where.

Fox in the Field.
A red fox on the hunt, makes his way through an open field.

There is some good news however. Most things that come into Alaska, come in through Anchorage, and most of Alaska’s fresh produce is grown here in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. At the store today, tomatoes were 2.49 a pound instead of the five bucks apiece we’ve paid since we left the states. Even better, there is a variety of produce in Freddy Meyers, so we can save our canned goods for on the road.

Dall Sheep On Igloo Canyon
To capture mountain sheep you need an extreme lens, or be a big horn sheep. i neither have an exotic lens or am I a sheep. My lens makes little white specks into bigger white specks. That will have to do for this trip.

Once I get car things settled, I may get to try some salmon fishing. The rivers run clear here and salmon are in the streams. That’s quite different from the park where the glacial rivers are sterile because of the silt runoff. I’ll have to keep my eye out for bald eagles. If they’re around, there is fish near.

Black Wolf
There’s a competition among the bus drivers in Denali. The primary score is the mountain as I’ve already explained. The other triumph is to see the big five: Grizzly, Dall Sheep, Moose, Caribou, and a Wolf. Hunters have decimated Denali’s wolf pack because of recent law changes that govern area adjacent to the park. Here is the last of our ‘Big Five’. A beautiful black wolf we found in a part of the park where he had never been spotted before.

I’ve processed a couple of photos from yesterday’s bus trip, and I want to share them with you. I hope you like them, I’m sure that you don’t want to see the inside of a garage (OK, I know a couple of you might), so I will be away from my camera for a day or so when we’ll get to check out Anchorage (and the Costco store).

jw

Success – Alaska

It’s been a long and successful day on the bus. After yesterday’s post I thought I’d share with you a shot from the Eielson Visitor’s Center and relieve the suspense. The shot is of the Denali complex, from The Wedge to Peter’s Dome all surrounding Denali like jewels in a diamond ring.

As I explained in a earlier post, only 30% of the Denali National Park visitors actually see the mountain. What we learned today is that only 10% of those visitors ever see a cloudless mountain. They sell the 30% T-shirts here, but not one for ten per-centers. At the end of our trip, the first thing that the Queen and I did was to march into the gift shop, and buy our tee-shirts. I can die now.

The Denali Chain
This is the great mountain, Denali and the lesser peaks surrounding it. They are visible and cloudless. A very rare sight for park visitors.

I can’t begin to explain how massive this mountain is. The photo included was not taken with a telephoto lens. It was a normal lens from thirty-two miles away. There are two peaks on Denali, the north, which is pyramid shape, and the south which looks like a scoop of ice cream. The south peak is over twenty thousand feet making it the tallest mountain on the North American Continent. The distance between the two peaks is two miles. Another bit of trivia that sells tee-shirts here is that Denali’s base plateau is under three thousand feet, while Mt. Everest sits on a plateau of sixteen thousand feet. So, with pride, the Alaskan’s boast that Denali is taller from base to peak than Mt. Everest. I’m not going to join that argument, I’ll just say there are windows in the visitor center two stories high, and this mountain fills the center panel. ‘nuf-said.

jw