Saturday, August 7, 2010

On the road again!

I started this blog two years when Joy, Paul, and I took a trip to Alaska, so that we could share stories and pictures.  We liked that trip so much, we bought the company decided to take another one.  George, Joy, and Paul are moving to Mammoth, Wyoming (aka Yellowstone National Park), so Joy and I are driving her Honda out (Paul will be commenting from the back seat, while George and Holly the Collie (really a Sheltie) will be going ahead by plane). 

Joy and I leave Columbia, MD on Friday the 13th (auspiscious, we thought!) and drive to North Carolina.  We pick up Paul from Camp Don Lee on Saturday and then it's Westward Ho!  We hope to arrive at their new home on Friday the 20th, God willing and the creek don't rise!

We'll have two laptops, an iPhone, and a digital camera on the trip, so we hope to post regular updates here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Back home and still adjusting!

I don't know if anyone is still looking at this blog, but just in case . . .

It took about 24 hours of traveling (Kotzebue to Anchorage, (4 hr layover); Anchorage to Minneapolis (5 hour layover); Minneapolis to DCA; DCA to Shady Grove Metro; Shady Grove to Germantown to retrieve my car (kindness of my good friends the McClures); Germantown to Columbia), but I made it home last Tuesday evening. I left the next morning of three days of training in Southern Maryland.

It's taken me since then to get readjusted to life in the lower forty-eight, on EDT, etc. I have some amazing pictures of Copper Center/Kenny Lake, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, our INCREDIBLE glacier hike, and Kotzebue and I want to get them up in case anyone is interested. Hopefully soon!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Joy's Top Ten List of Fun Things to do in Kotzebue

1) Watch the Tundra grow.
2) Go to the E.R. (recreationally)
3) Watch the Alaska Airlines flights (aka the "Freedom Bird") take off and land at the airport
4) Lay on the floor and stare at the dusty ceiling fan
5) Watch the rain come down.
6) Bake banana bread.
7) Reminisce about summer.

Alas, we could only come up with seven . . . . . .

Saturday, August 2, 2008

No There There

Now that we are in Kotzebue (more on that later!), we have had a bit of chance to reflect on the journey through interior Alaska. We covered almost 1500 miles in the trusty rent-a-car and saw some absolutely amazing things and had some incredible experiences.

We also couldn't help but we struck by how much nothing there is out there. Miles and miles of road with few or no cars. Acres and acres of land with nothing (and not just in the national and state parks, perserves, and forests, but all along the road side.). Every 50 miles or so (sometimes less often) we would pass a "town," which would mean a gas station, a convenience store, a post office, a school (sometimes), a church, and that's about it. A few houses. A few people. And this is in the part of Alaska that is ON the road system!

I guess this should not be that surprising, given the size of Alaska and the population -- 680,000 people, 250,000 of whom live in Anchorage and another 40,000 in the suburbs thereof. After Anchorage, the next largest city is Fairbanks, where the population is around 30,000. Juneau, the capital, is about the same. There are just hardly any people here. Alaska has 121 high schools with less than 50 students. Less than 50 total, not 50 per class.

I found it interesting to visit and contemplate. I think Joy found it a bit oppressive.

North to Fairbanks!

So, Monday night we stumbled off the bus after the 8-hour ride into the park and headed to the "Denali Outdoor Center" where we were spending the night in a cabin and doing a rafting trip (a float trip - no whitewater) the next morning. We arrived to find that our cabin was ready but our trip had been cancelled, because no one but us had signed up and they have a four-person minimum. They tried to talk us into a white water trip (no thank you!) or a later float trip, but we declined. On our quest to find some food (harder than you'd think), we did see a gorgeous double rainbow. At 10:30 pm. Only in Alaska.

So after a cozy night in the cabin, we headed back to the Denali visitor center and out for a short hike (about an hour) through the "boreal forest" or as it's also called by it's Russian name, the Taiga -- which means "land of little sticks", because most of the trees are quite thin of trunk and many are twisted and stunted, because it's not easy to grow on the permafrost. The trail came out by a beautiful lake, where we saw the largest beaver dam any of us had ever seen (but not any actual beavers).

Then we piled back in the trusty blue rent-a-car and headed for Fairbanks, a drive of a couple hours through moutains and woods, opening out into the Tanana valley, where the city (population 30,000) sits on the banks of the Chena River. We throughly embraced the tourist role for this part of the trip, visiting a historic gold mine (where we learned about the gold rush and panned for gold -- yes, I bought the necklace to display my found gold flakes and I wear it with pride, thank you very much!), "Alaskaland," with it's historical displays, the all-you-can-eat salmon bake, the "golden heart musical review" (which was corny, but funny), and North Pole, Alaska (complete with Santa and reindeer). We also visited the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, which was somewhat more edifying, with displays about the geography, climate, wildlife, and Native cultures of Alaska's various regions, as well as Alaskan art (and, of course, a very nice gift shop).

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Denali - YES! (Mt. McKinley, not so much)

We departed from the McKinley Princess lodge on Monday morning to make the roughly hundred-mile drive to Denali National Park. we expected this to take about an hour and a half to two hours, knowing we would need to stop to get gas, because we only has about a quarter-tank in the electric-blue rental car. (BTW, we have learned that this a very popular make, model, and color of rental car in Alaska, because we have passed many on the road and twice tried to get into the wrong car in parking lots at popular tourist destinations.)

Little did we know that 1) it would take a lot longer than that to make the drive, because they are doing construction on the winding, one-lane-in-each-direction road through the mountains (this road, like pretty much everything else in interior Alaska, is built on permafrost (ground that is permanently frozen a few feet below the surface). Apparently permafrost does do some melting, and then shifts, which means frequent re-grading and repair of the roads AND 2) there is NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING, for many, many, many miles along the George Parks Highway from Talkeetna to Denali National Park. The low-fuel light turned on and Joy and I began to get a bit nervous, then a lot nervous, as we wondered how far towards "E" we could push our little car and formulate a plan for what we would do if it conked out on us. Luckily, just as it started to rain and our situation looked very grim, as if from nowhere, Cantwell, Alaska (pop 147, but with two gas stations) emerged from the mist. Paul credited the four-leaf clover he found in Talkeetna, while Joy felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.

We poked around the very nice Visitor center, hit the gift shop, and waited in a VERY long line for a diet coke and turkey sandwich (note to Doyon/Aramark Services -- when you operate the only food service concession in a large national park, it's probably wise to have more than one cashier working the lunch rush during the busy season. Just a thought.). Then we headed off to catch the bus for our Tundra Wilderness Tour. Visiting Denali is quite different from visiting many of the national parks in the lower 48, like Yellowstone/Grand Teton or Great Smokey Mountains. The park/national preserve is enormous -- 6 million acres -- and has only one road, which runs 90 miles west from the visitor center and stops. Private cars are allowed only on the first 15 miles; if you want to go further in, whether to hike or camp or just look around, you have to take the bus. There are two sets of buses -- shuttles that run from the visitor center to the end of the road and back, which you can get on and off at designated points -- and tour buses, which provide interpretation and snacks, but don't stop (other than for the occasional bathroom break). Because we were traveling in unfamiliar territory and with a ten-year-old, we decided on the narrated, climate-controlled tour.

The tour we chose goes out to Mile 62 on the road, and takes about 8 hours. A guide described the natural, geological, and zoological features of the park while we and our 40-odd travel companions (every seat was full, mostly with people on a packaged cruise-tour) kept our eyes peeled to the windows, looking for animals in the distance. Like the whale-watching trip in Seward, the scenery was at least as interesting and exciting as the animals. (Mountains, deep valleys, "braided-channel" glacial rivers, etc.). Also like Seward, you'll have to take my word for what we saw, because my wildlife photos from the bus are even worse than the ones from the boat. We did pretty well in the wildlife department, spotting:

  • Ptarmigan (the "p" is silent -- the state bird of Alaska)

  • Snowshoe hare (look like the bunnies at home, except with really big feet and no cottontails)

  • Ground squirrels (smaller version of what we have at home)

  • A Golden Eagle who swooped and swirled right outside our windows

  • Several Grizzly Bears, ncludng a mama and cub walking right by the side of the road

  • Dall Sheep (the white cliff-dwelling wild sheep who inspired the creation of the park)

We stopped in an area where wolf had been reported and several people on the bus claimed to see them walking through the brush, but I never saw anything myself. We didn't spot any moose, but we have seen several wandering my the roadside, so we weren't too upset about that.

The other thing we didn't see, to our disappointment, was Denali (aka and officially Mt. McKinley) itself. It was just too cloudy. Ah, well -- that's what postcards are for, right?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Caribou, Moose, and BEARS, oh my!

Of course, one of the main reasons to come to Alaska is to see the wildlife. Today on the way from Seward to Talkeetna, we stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Center, which is a refuge/sanctuary for orphaned, injured, etc. animals. They have fairly spacious, naturalistic enclosures for animals representing the full spectrum of Alaska's wildlife.

Unsuprisingly, I guess, when you consider its size, Alaska has a wide range of climates and habitats -- from the temporal rainforest down in the "Inside Passage" area near Sitka and Juneau through the Alpine forests of the Denali area to the tundra of the Arctic region. The wildlife center captures this variety with tiny Sitka deer, elk, bison, moose, caribou (aka reindeer), black bears, and musk ox, which are weird wooly-mammoth looking creatures prized, apparently, for their extremely warm fur.

We enjoyed looking at and photographing the animals -- it was striking to get so close. We made the rest of the scenic drive through the funky climbing town of Talkeetna to the lovely McKinley Princess lodge where we admired the views of the lower part of the highest mountain in North America (the top was shrouded in clouds, as it apparently usually is -- maybe we will see it tommorrow, or maybe not -- 2/3 of the visitors to the park don't), had a nice dinner, and soaked in the outdoor hot tubs (I nearly wrote "under the stars," but of course you don't see any stars, because it's still daylight at midnight).
After Joy and Paul turned in, I headed back up to the main lodge with the laptop for e-mail checking and blogging. I decided to walk along one of the nature trails on the property and had just started out when I looked maybe 100 yards ahead and standing right in the middle of the path was A BEAR! A BEAR! Before it fully registered (but not before I got a good look) he (she? I didn't get an introduction) turned and bounded into the woods. I turned and headed back for the road. Before I came up here I hoped to see bear, but I didn't really mean quite that up-close-and-personal.