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.

Water, Water Everywhere -- and Whales!

Saturday was dedicated to an AMAZING whale-watching boat trip out of Seward. We gathered in downtown Seward around 8 am and loaded onto our boat with about 15 other people for a full day of cruising Resurrection Bay, the Gulf of Alaska, and Kenai Fjords National Park.

Even if you never saw any wildlife, the scenery alone would be pretty spectacular -- high, snowcapped mountains on both sides, clear water, etc. On the way out of Seward, you can see "ghost forests" of trees that were killed and then petrified when inundated by salt water when the ground level dropped close to 10 feet and the town was inundated by a tsunami in the 1964 earthquake. They have "Tsunami Evacuation Route" signs along the highway the way we have hurricane signs on the east coast. Resurrection Bay is pretty much ringed by moutains.

And then there are the glaciers. Kenai Fjords (fjord, we learned, means "valley cared by glaciers" and in this case filled in by water) has a large number of glaciers, several of which we were able to see from the boat. The glaciers have an interesting light-bluish color (caused the refraction of the light through the dense ice). We spent some time observing Ayaliak Glacier, which is a tidewater glacier (it comes right down to the water), which is constantly "calving." "Calving," in the glacier sense, means that chunks of ice are breaking off and falling into the water. There is a rumbling, crackling sound when they do this, and when they fall into the water, spray and condensation shoot up. There are chunks of ice, ranging from very small to quite sizeable, throughout Ayaliak Bay near the glacier.

And, lucky for us, we did see quite a bit of wildlife! The Canon point-and-shoot digital camera I am using for the trip is great for close-up shots of people and good for scenery shots. It's not so great for shots of moving objects in the middle distance, so you will just have to take my word for it (and look at the few slightly blurry shots), but we saw:

  • Puffins (they are so cute, and quite small)

  • Harbor seals

  • Doll Porpoise

  • Sea otters

  • Humback whales

  • Sea Lions

  • A bear ambling along the coast line

  • Bald eagles

  • Orcas. Lots and lots of Orcas! At this time of year, multiple groups of Orcas gather in the gulf of Alaska and intermingle for breeding purposes -- this is called the "Superpod". We wandered into the middle of this Killer Whale speed dating scene.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Alaska -- The Adventure Begins!

The view out the window of the Anchorage airport when i arrived -- 10:30 pm!

Joy and I woke up bright and early in Anchorage (well, everything and everytime is bright, here in the land of the midnight sun!), collected the rental car (a compact American car in a shade of blue I didn't know was still used for cars) and set out south out of Anchorage to the Kenai pennisula.

Good news about driving in Alaska (outside of the big cities) for the directionally-challenged like me: there are hardly any roads, so there are very few turns! We drove for three hours and honestly I think we only turned twice!

The Kenai penninsula is gorgeous -- moutains, water, etc. We enjoyed the drive down, collect Paul at Space Camp in the town of Kenai, and headed over to the town of Seward, which is sort of like West Yellowstone, for those of you who have been there, but smaller and with slightly fewer giftshops and a lot more fish. It's a point of embarkation for tourist boats (like the one we went out on Saturday) and commercial fishing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Leaving on a Jet Plane . . . Eventually!

Wouldn't be a trip without a little drama, right?

As those who know me well can testify, I'm an inveterate procrastinator, a real last-minute girl. But this trip, I was ready. My bags were packed, I was ready to go! I was T minus 30 or so to leave for the airport, running the vacuum and making the bed, when my cell phone rang. It was Orbitz, through whom I bought the tickets, calling to let me know that due to "weather" (it was a gorgeous day) Northwest Airlines had cancelled my 12:15 flight to Minneapolis, which of course meant I would miss my two connections.

So, Orbitz-girl says, they have rebooked on another set of flights.

The next day.

Obviously, this was not O.K. with me -- we have a complicated and packed itinery that involves, among other things, leaving Anchorage at 10 am Friday to pick up the 10-year-old from Space Camp. A 24 hour delay-of-game would totally throw the plans into chaos.

So, it took two different phones calls to NWA and some tears and a little screaming, but they got me on a flight to Detroit and then from there to Anchorage. I spent 6 hours at DCA, 1.5 hours in Detroit, and 9 or so hours in the air, but I made it!!

I arrived in Anchorage at 10:30 pm (Anchorage time, 2:30 am my time!) and it was overcast but daylight. I've never been so disoriented in my life!

Spent the night at a hotel/guest house in Anchorage, got a little sleep, and we're off!

Pictures tonight, hopefully!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Our Alaskan Adventure -- Itinerary

After years of talking about it and months of planning, the time is fast approaching for the Alaska trip!

I've christened this trip the "I'm going to Alaska . . . No, not on a Cruise" expedition. I might have a t-shirt made.

So, here's the basic outline of the trip:

Thursday, 7/24 -- Fly out. Depart DCA (National) at 12:15. Change planes in Detroit and Seattle/Tacoma, eventually arriving in Anchorage at 8:30 pm local time. Alaska is four hours behind EDT, so that's basically 12 hours of traveling. Meet Joy and spend the night in Anchorage. (Columbia, MD to Anchorage, AK -- 4278 miles)

Friday, 7/25 -- Look around Anchorage a little, then drive to Kenai to pick up Paul at Space Camp. Drive on to Seward and spend the night. (Anchorage to Kenai -- 157 miles. Kenai to Seward -- 104 miles).

Saturday, 7/26 -- Whale Watching trip.

Sunday, 7/27 -- Poke around Seward a little, then on to South Denali by way of Talkeetna. Spend the night at the McKinley Princess (Seward to Talkeetna -- 237 scenic miles)

Monday, 7/28 -- Into the park! Tundra Wilderness Tour by bus. (Talkeetna to Healy -- 165 miles)

Tuesday, 7/29 -- Rafting trip in Healy. On to Fairbanks -- explore Pioneerland, learn about the goldrush, etc. (Healy to Fairbanks -- 187 miles)

Wednesday, 7/30 -- Fairbanks to Copper Center (260 miles)

Thursday, 7/31 -- Wrangell-St. Elias National Park -- activities TBD. Hopefully Glacier Hiking!

Friday, 8/1 -- Return to Anchorage and fly to Kotzebue (Copper Center to Anchorage -- 193 miles. Anchorage to Kotz -- 549 air miles (can't drive it even if we wanted to -- no roads!)

Saturday 8/2 -- Monday 8/4 -- Kotzebue! Exploring the Northwest Arctic -- the tundra, the town, etc.

Monday 8/4 - Tuesday 8/5 -- Fly Kotz -- Anchorage -- Minneapolis -- DCA (red-eye).

First post!

I'm thinking that a blog might be a good way to share about our trip to Alaska, so I am experimenting with this.
Hopefully pictures of mountains, moose, and glaciers will be forthcoming soon, but in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure, here are a couple pictures of Hermione with her "summer buzz cut"