Monday, June 30, 2008

Lazing on the Kenai Peninsula


This is the fish walk on the Kenai River at Soldatna. It was built to preserve the river banks which are so important for the salmon, and also to provide handicapped access to fishing. You may recall that earlier on the trip we met a family coming up to pastor a church in Soldatna. I thought it was the wilderness. Actually, it is a well developed community with TWO grocery stores. The world comes to fish their Kenai River in the summer.

Fishing Fishing Fishing. The state sport is dog mushing, but in the summer, all the world turns to fishing. Tides, runs, limits, netting permitted or not, opening the river to fishing, closing the river because the escapement rate is not high enough, summer long contests for the biggest halibut or king (you have to buy the $10 ticket before you catch the fish. Sports pages are filled with fish stories, although they do have an Alaskan baseball league with great college players making their mark. They play their night games without lights. On the solstice, the Fairbanks team starts their game at 10:30 pm. I am enjoying the sports page.

Yesterday we went to a swimming pool at Nikiski, indoors under a big gold dome, nice and warm, with a hot tub and a really big slide. Carl had to pay $2 as a senior citizen, and I told him I would buy him a ticket to go on the slide, but …..he said no thanks. All the natives were really white except for their faces. Like Willow Pool the first week of May.

After we soaked in the hot tub, I selected an RV park for the night. I was surprised to realize that we had settled in only 5 miles down the road from the night before. That's progress, yes? We needed a break from vacation. That's as much an oxymoron as retired people taking a vacation, no?

Carl rode today, nice bike path from Kenai to Soldatna. Daisy and I took a couple of walks at the RV Park/aka Ranch. Near the barn was a nice embankment, and Daisy got a great workout diving in the bushes up and down the slope to the pond. She is so funny in the bushes. Daisy and I were saving our big walk for a hike into the Russian River falls where you can see salmon jumping, and maybe even a bear. Unfortunately, the line to get a parking place was once again about a dozen deep. When the salmon are running in the Kenai and Russian Rivers, you have to yield to the folks in the hip waders.

On the way back to Anchorage, where we are waiting patiently for the full moon so we can watch the bore tides, we stopped in Girdwood, the cutest little town at the base of the Alyeska Ski slopes. Carl tried Musk Ox burger. (I tasted it and I prefer buffalo. Musk Ox is kind of chewy.) The trip back along Turnagain Arm was incredible, mountains covered in snow on both sides for miles and miles. On the way down, we had rain and mist covering the mountains. Today the sky was blue and the sun was out. We are grateful for this wonderful place.

Epilogue: The bore tide was there, but not a roaring bore tide. Maybe in a couple of days when the moon is full. Meanwhile, we had some more wonderful bike rides on the Chester Creek Trail, a great trip to Flattop Mountain to see the city below on a drop dead beautiful day, and fine time waiting for the little bore tide at Beluga Point. Daisy went to a baseball field, fenced, for a little off leash romp. She knows when the gates are closed, and she doesn't run like she does when freedom calls.

We'll probably be moving on.....Valdez is calling.

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

HOMEr again

6,000 birds. That's the official estimate of the number of birds on Gull Island in the middle of Kachemak Bay. Winter count: zero. The migrating birds return here to hatch their eggs, puffins burrowing in, others just taking turns balancing the egg on the rocks.

Today we went across the bay with the Center for Alaska Studies to see the tidepools at their Peterson Bay Research Center and saw Gull Island up close and personal on the trip. We were ferried by St. Augustine Kayaking, and the plan was to kayak in the afternoon. Things don't always turn out the way you plan.

Getting to land is by way of a rope barge from a floating dock. Why? The tides can change by as much as 28 feet; the community lives by tidal times. The education tour dealt mostly with plants strange and unique to the area. We also learned a great deal about the spruce beetle, which is systematically destroying all the old growth spruce in the state. In the long view, the spruce beetle is simply recycling the forests. New vegetation is growing under the dying trees and in a few more lifetimes, the spruce will return again. There is a bog on the island, like an English bog, very acidic, but strange plants adapt and survive in its harsh environment. If we had been avid birders, we would have hiked back to a lake filled with millions of birds, but the mosquitoes like it just as much, so we passed on the birds. I was looking forward to the tidepooling.

Poor planning on tour times, I would say, because the tide was in, not out, while we were there. Therefore, we never got to walk in the tide pools to see the sea creatures. Could have switched our times, I would think, to tide pool. I am putting that in the suggestion box at the center.

In the afternoon, the boat returned to take us kayaking. Carl had voiced many reservations about fitting in a kayak, and he was right. He really doesn't. The guide shoehorned him in, and he could neither move nor breath. I am sure she had visions of rescuing him and trying to dislodge him from the kayak. After a few paddles around the bay, it was time to say, nope, this is not working.

Scott, the man who owns St. Augustine Kayaking, took us up to his house on the bluff, where we waited for the others to come back from their kayaking. He has built a house, three guest houses, and three outhouses, mostly from native growth off the land. The guest houses are one room, with a sink and a wood heater and a Coleman stove on the porch. It is camping at its quaintest. Scott is in the process of building an outdoor kitchen to cook for his guests. He's been in the area for 30 years, always in the outdoor adventure business. His building talents are quite extraordinary, especially his imagination in incorporating timber from the land.

The day was rain, sun, cloud, rain, sun, cloud, but never very stormy. The trip back was pretty chilly though. Summer has just not come to the peninsula yet. Salmon are late, and bears are getting hungry!

The next morning, we awoke to sunshine and forgave Homer for all its gray blustery days. We had a leisurely coffee at the Two Sisters Bakery down the street, which we have come to love in the few days we have been here, and after Daisy's walk, which she will probably tell you about, headed for the view overlooks. East End Road follows the bay about 12 miles east, and the views are breathtaking. If you have the kind of vehicle that likes rough roads, you can keep going past the pavement's end to a Russian fishing village. We traversed up East Hill Road to Skyline Drive, where the view made all the previous ones seem mundane. From the upper bluffs, we gazed over at the glaciers across Kachemak Bay, coming down from the Harding Ice Field, and down on Homer, the Homer Spit and the sparkling bay. It was the only sunny day in about a week, I think, and we were not alone in heading out for the views, the wildflowers and the seratonin. I now understand the allure of this place.
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Friday, June 27, 2008

Happy Birthday, Alaska!

Happy 50th Birthday of Statehood, Alaska!

We are honored to be here as Alaska celebrates this event. So were Wynona Judd and her mama, singing at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage to open their version of Wings over Texas celebration this weekend. They call it Arctic Thunder. I'll bet that was televised in your neck of the woods too.

In honor of this auspicious occasion, here are some facts about Alaska.

With 570,374 square miles, Alaska 1/5 the size of the rest of the USA. That translates to 7 South Dakotas, 8 Washingtons, 73 New Jerseys, 14 Tennessees, 8 Oklahomas, 12 Louisianas, 4 Californias or 2 Texas's.

Alaska is 47th in Population, followed only by North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming. Half of the 600,000 inhabitants live in Anchorage. Density of Population is 1.1 persons per sq mile.

Alaska has 100,000 glaciers covering 28,000 sq miles, 5 % of the state. There are 1800 named islands and 13 major volcanoes. The farthest islands in the Aleutians are closer to Tokyo than Anchorage. They are in the Eastern Hemisphere. 85% of the state is unlain by permafrost.

Alaska has the largest concentration of bald eagles in the world. 3,500 come to Haines in the fall and winter to feed on salmon. Grizzlies, bald eagles, humpback whales and wolves are in abundance and endangered elsewhere. Alaska has the longest salmon run in the world: 2,000 miles up the Yukon River.

Alaska has northern lights, 40 foot tides, active volcanoes, frequent earthquakes, 3 million lakes, half of the world's glaciers, tundra, rainforests, cabin fever, mukluks, totem poles, potlatches, migratory whales, 27 species of mosquitoes, and the state sport of mushing.

Maximum solstice summer daylight in Fairbanks is 21:49 hours, winter 3:42 hours. Juneau has 100 inches of snow. Barrow's mean January temp is 13.4 below. Right here here in Kenai on the Cook Inlet it is 52 degrees with a wind chill coming off the water of something much below that, based on my chilly face after a walk.

Happy birthday, Alaska!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The end of the road

Homer is commonly called the end of the road, the farthest west highway on the North American continent. Technically, the road ends on Homer Spit, a 6 mile glacier moraine extending into Kachemak Bay. It was much wider before it sank in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. Now is it a narrow ribbon of highway and businesses: fishing expeditions, shops, art galleries, restaurants, outfitters of all kinds. I find it to be quite blustery. The spit ends with the Homer ferry; you can take the ferry to Kodiak and points west, or back south towards the lower 48.

Homer's scenery is stunning. The town hugs the coastline of Cook Inlet and Kachemak Bay. Across the bay are strings of volcanoes, some still active, covered in snow and mist. The last eruption was in 2005. Redoubt steams and hisses every day. The bluffs which provide a breathtaking view of the bay and Homer are covered in wildflowers and houses that hug the hillside. The beaches are glacial gravel, filled with stones and sealife. You can go clamming for razor clams on the Cook Inlet with a fishing license and a giant bulb planter. You can do just about anything here except get a suntan. The high in July is 60, and there are more cloudy days than sunny.

Artists love Homer. There is a juried art show at the Pratt Museum, and an outdoor exhibit in their gardens. We could take the narrated walk tonight, but we've already formed our opinions today. You be the judge via the photos we took.

The Pratt Museum has a camera on Gull Island, teaming with 6,000 birds, and a webcam that will be operational as soon as the bears come to MacNeil River Preserve. The salmon, like summer, are running late this year. I have provided the museum link as the Bear Cam in the Links section on the right. Keep checking till it is live.

The Islands and Oceans Center is an outstanding architectural wonder set on the hillside above Cook Inlet, and they have free guided encounters along the beaches. It is a consortium of several conservation agencies including Alaska Fish and Wildlife and the Alaska Wildlife Refuge.

I accidentally found a yoga class this morning. Felt SO good. The locals were talking about what a blustery day yesterday was. I was glad to hear that. If those were normal winds, I would think they were crazy to live here. They refer going over the the south shore of the bay, which requires a water taxi or your own boat, as crossing over. "Are you thinking of crossing over today?" On the other side is Kachemak State Park with numerous glaciers coming down from the Harding Ice Field, trails for hiking, inlets for kayaking, and quaint art shopping, dinner, or just visiting native villages.

The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies sponsors walks at their research center across the bay and guided kayak trips in the coves. We are going to try that tomorrow, rain or shine. Probably rain. They say we don't want sunshine, or we will get winds. We are officially "crossing over."

Daisy is loving her new long line walks. She dives into the shrubbery along the trail to the beach, with nothing but her butt sticking out of the grass. She runs to the water's edge, smells the kelp, leaps over the driftwood logs. She is definitely getting more exercise. So am I. I have been walking a lot lately. But tomorrow will be the real test of a walk the locals rate "moderate". I am also supposed to wear rubber boots for the muck and the mud. Oh boy.

In case Daisy forgets to update her log, there were two more moose sightings on the way down to Homer. Rumor has it the Pratt Museum moose and bear are frequently sighted on the trails too.

Fishermen, this is your paradise. Halibut everywhere. Toss your hook and you come up with your limit. The Homer sweepstakes winner so far is 271 lbs. Normally, the winning fish will be over 300 lbs. That's a lot of fillets!

On the way down the Sterling Hiway, I wanted to hike to a falls on the Russian River where salmon run and bears fish. The line for parking places was about a dozen deep, all fishermen. No one could go in until someone left. Knowing fishermen, that was going to take all day. On the way back, I will get there earlier in the day. On the Kenai river, the fishermen were standing shoulder to shoulder. Reds are running.

Elsewhere, Exxon got its punitive damages reduced by the Supreme Court to about 4 days of net income. Given what I have seen of the Alaskans' side, the decision is unfortunate. Many many people had their way of life changed forever, and the fisheries are still not recovered. Naturally, the local papers agree with my sentiments.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A fine day for a glacier


Today we walked to Exit Glacier. What a thing of wonder. You can get about 40 feet from it; then there are ropes to protect it from the masses like me. If I had been willing to hike 7 hours vertical, I could have walked on the Harding Ice Field that Exit Glacier spills from. Don't think I am in shape for that one. If I had been willing to soak my boots, I could have waded across the glacial plain of water rivulets to stand at the toe. We chose the middle ground, dry feet, medium climb.

One the way to the glacier, we passed a bear jam, a crowd of people watching a black bear cub in a tree. He crawled down and was later seen near an information pavilion. Such a cutie.

We spent the afternoon at the SeaLife Center in downtown Seward. It is a center for displays, education, rescue and research on arctic sea life, how it is changing, and how to re mediate the effects of man on the populations. There was one large tank with puffins who entertained the crowd all day. They dive and swim faster under water than any of the fish. They chased the fish all around the tank, nipping at their tails. They can stay under water for a LONG time. I took about 30 photos, all on high shutter speeds, and they were all blurs under the water. I saved the best one and you can see it in Teregram's photo album.

We had a local brew and watched the catch of the day come in. The charter boats hang up the catch and hoist it up for photos and admiration. Today there was a 7 foot salmon shark in the catch. He looks so cute. Too bad he is dead.....You can see his photo in the album too. On the news tonight, there was a 7 foot salmon shark caught in Homer. Apparently this is unusual enough to make the news, so tune in to Anchorage news at 1 am your time Wednesday night and you might see my shark.

Daisy has a new retractable leash, and she is going to be enjoying a whole lot more exercise from now on. Starting today. She likes it. She can run 26 feet away and sniff all the smells that I don't get near on the 6 foot leash. That's three times as much exercise for her. On all the walks without cars that we are taking, it is perfect.

I do love Seward. It can be a little gray, but since it is in the rain forest, it is green and lush. My eye has grown used to a landscape filled with gray glacial gravel, but some greenery is nice. Tomorrow we are going to the other side of the peninsular, to Homer. Another high point for me, Homer.
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Monday, June 23, 2008

Heaven on Kenai


The Kenai Peninsula on a sunny day is a piece of heaven, particularly if that is the day you have decided to splurge on a tour into the Kenai Fiords National Park, accessible only by boat. If there is a park ranger on board like the tour we chose, even better.

The mountains rise 6,000 feet straight out of the water. The glaciers touch the edge of the calm waters in the bays created by the fiords. On a day like today, the ocean swells are only three feet; no one gets sick. By contrast, yesterday it was raining and the swells were ten feet. On the other hand, they saw orcas.

Wildlife list?

Sea Otters
Baleen whales (humpies)
Stellar Sea Lions - look at my video clip; these guys are funny!
Black footed kittiwakes
Birds birds birds

The park is home to 218 species of birds, 48 species of mammals, and 450 species of plants. It is awe inspiring how much life returns here for the summer. The Arctic terns travel from Antarctica.

Seward is the base for these tours, and what a quaint little town of 2000 people. There's more here than the park; Alaska Sea Life Center, the beginning of the Iditarod trail, the beginning of the Alaska railroad, Exit Glacier that you can walk on, sea kayaking......

So many more choices here. And not a single fast food hamburger joint in town. Tonight we dined on fresh halibut caught today....bought it about an hour off the boat. YUM!

We are in our second night at the quiet and scenic Stoney Creek RV park in the woods about 6 miles out of town on Stoney Creek, a fine place to walk a dog. Next week, there will not be a spec of land to park the RV. Locals from Anchorage will be staking out their spots for the 4th of July Marathon Mountain run and festival. Hundreds run 3000 feet up the mountain and down....and party all weekend. The town will open every parking lot for the 30,000 people it expects. Maybe we will come back just for the spectacle...for the day, which is only 22 hours long.

On the way down from Anchorage, we met a family that moved to Fairbanks where the man is the director of public radio there. They had gone clamming down in Homer for the first time, got lots of razor clams, and had a great time! I used to have a pair of pants called clam diggers. Wonder if I will want them?

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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Fishing for king, tap dancing, and trails

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Finally, a blog about fishing. This is the place. Every stream has salmon trying to force their way back up to spawn. This year the king run is bad though. Everyone is analyzing what happened to the hatchlings from six years ago. The most popular theory is something happened in the ocean. It is more disappointing since the hatchling count was so strong that year.

I took some photos at Ship Creek for you anglerphyles.

After the fish viewing with Daisy, we went to the Saturday market, where we could have eaten countless reindeer dogs. Carl found a great biking jersey with a black bear silouetted against Denali on it. My favorite part, besides shopping the booths and spending my retirement dollars on junk, was watching the tap dancing ladies do the Iditarod Trail song. Enjoy the movies.

We spent the remainder of the day on the trails. The Tony Knowles coastal trail starts downtown on Knick Arm and extends 9 miles south along Turnagain Arm. Carl biked it. I found the hills too challenging. Daisy and I chose to walk. And guess what jumped up out of the bushes at us? A MOOSE. I was so surprised I jumped back and screamed. Daisy was too taken aback to bark. Wow. A real life moose one on one encounter. My first! It was a female or a youngster, no rack. It ambled up the trail for about a 1/2 mile before meeting joggers and bikers. They yielded, of course. Finally, it turned and went back into the bush. And of course, I did not have my camera.

I biked Chester Creek again, and Daisy got a walk there too. It was late in the day, and still a few people from the Midnight Sun Marathon were limping their way to the finish. Our RV is at mile 23 of the marathon, so it is an easy bike ride down to the finish at the Coastal Trail.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Denali Watchers

All day today we looked for Denali. Best views are not in the park, but from the south. As we stopped at each rest stop that is supposed to be great Denali viewing, we had conversations with every one there. "Did you see it?" "yes, it came out about 5 pm yesterday and the park was full of people watching." "No, we saw just the tip from Wonder Lake." And so it goes. Seeing the Great One is everyone's challenge.

We ourselves decided to go to Talkeetna for the night, since the view from just outside the town is good when the mountain comes out.

And guess what? There it was. Not right away, but when Carl said let's go back again before we park for the night. There was a band of clouds around the middle of it, like Saturns rings, but the top was in the clear. Mark another one off the life list.

Talkeenta is a hoot. It's the town that Northern Exposure was modeled on. It's a mountain climbers town, where international climbers come to ascend Denali in the spring. Other than that, it's smaltzy Alaska, complete with a dirt street. Sightseeing planes take off for Denali circling continuously. The train comes in several times a day, and about a dozen big tour buses full of folks drive by the RV park 5 minutes later. From here to Hurricane, the train is a milk run. Anyone walking along can flag it down for a ride and get off without a designated stop.

I enjoyed their moose parade and posted some photos for you. They are getting ready for the July moose dropping festival. Mostly, I enjoyed people watching. We walked into town for dinner for fresh halibut and bread pudding and Ice Axe beer, their own 9% alcohol brew.

Single ladies, I took special note of all the men in town. You have your own blog following this one. Enjoy!
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Searching for mountain climbing men in Talkeetna

Many of my single girlfriends have inquired about finding an Alaskan man. I thought Talkeetna would be the place to break away from the gray haired couple RV set and look for the natives for you guys.

In the spring, this town has thousands of mountain climbers in residence. They come from all over the world. About 1500 people attempt the climb up Denali, 10% women. Pretty good odds, huh?

The first thing you would notice about the men is their pickups. All of them are 4 x 4, and there are a minimum of 2 dogs in the truck, either in the back barking at you, or riding with their heads out the window. All those men in their pickups seem to be going somewhere fast. Too fast to pose for my pictures.

But as for the mountain climbers, I am sad to say it looks like they have all gone home till next year. So try this town in March, not June, and meanwhile, please enjoy the photo album I put together of the mountain men I did find. Follow the link to Teragram's photos....

Doing Denali

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Denali is rated as the cheapest wildlife experience in Alaska, with good reason. For $30, you can take the park shuttle in about 66 miles. For $20 you can dry park in the parks numerous campgrounds. To get from point to point on a daily basis, ride the commuter shuttle that circumnavigates every 15 minutes.

The bus system is the reason the 6 million acre park stays wild. With limited access, the animals wander unconcerned in the back country, visible from the bus. Once off the bus, you are free to hike the tundra to your heart's content. It's a once in a lifetime deal. You can drive your own vehicle 14 miles in to the park to catch of view of the elusive Mt. McKinley.

Denali is the official name of the park now. Mount Mckinley, or Denali, the High One, is the tallest peak in North America, over 20,000. It is so tall it creates its own weather, and is seen on average once in three days. So far, our day has not come.

We took the 6 am cheap shuttle bus 66 miles into the park, after hearing that the narrated tours were no better than the driver talking on the shuttle bus. It was true, and the discomfort of the school bus seats was overrated. Not a bad 8 hour day, really. We got off every hour or so for a rest stop anyway. It seemed that the tour bus was always overcrowded, and we had empty seats. Much better for wildlife viewing. I list the wildlife as we saw them. The driver stops so you can look from the open school bus windows and photograph. Mostly you gaze with binoculars.

1 moose stumbling across the road
Snow shoe hares
Bald Eagle in a tree
1 Moose in a Pond
1 Dahl Sheep on a ridge
12 dahl sheep on a ridge
4 dahl sheep
6 caribou
1 moose in a pond
4 caribou
1 sleeping grizzly
many snowshoe hares
many ground squirrels
1 Red fox
2 blonde grizzlies
12 dahl sheep
12 more dahl sheep
1 red fox outside her den
1 moose munching by the visitor center - best moose photos to date

The park road is cheap thrills. It is gravel and winding, and the engineers laid it out to hug the sides of mountains. I love looking down, but those with fear of heights moved over to the other side of the bus.

Dog sleds are used for winter patrols. Tours of the dog kennel and sledding demonstrations are free, so we intend to do that too.

We have been on the road well over a month, since May 13. I am accustomed to waking with aspens and black spruce outside my window and daylight 24 hours from the skylight above my bed. It was our intention to get a hotel room once in a while, and I will admit I have fantasies of stepping out of the shower and into my bed without walking 5 or 10 minutes. But not enough to give up the wilderness. No, definitely not enough. Life is good out here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chena Option LLC

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Okay folks, here's your retirement plan. After you read this entry, let me know what your contributing skill set will be for our new cooperative.

We need to buy Chena Hot Springs. We will operate it as a retirement community with the idea of breaking even so we can all live on our social security. It's going to be a working retirement, so don't think you get off easy. We will need people to work the restaurant, the pool, the grounds, the airport (Carl dibs the airport), the sled dog kennels, the gardens, the stables, the hotel. Some of us may need to rethink how our skill set will fit this new environment.

In the summer we'll be working sunup to sunset, somewhere between 18 and 21 hours. With this rigorous schedule, we may need to take in some non-social security members who just want to check out of corporate America early. They will have the energy we need and provide a business continuity plan.

You can catch up on the sleep in the winter, when it will be darkish and mighty cold, but a dry cold, they say. Running water probably won't work at 50 below, but maybe we can divert some hot springs to fix that problem. Anyway, the springs will keep us clean year round. Not to worry about hygiene.

In the winter we can work with the sled dog teams up and down the valley and get involved with the Yukon Quest in February. Maybe the dogs need life coaching, for example? We can even take turns returning to the land of light during the winter to see the family, but we will still need staff for our Aurora Borealis business.

The paybacks are wide open spaces, incredible scenery, and a primo hot springs to soak in every morning, noon and night. You can have summer jobs lined up for the kids/grandkids.

We can hook up with University of Alaska Fairbanks, only 60 miles away, for our continuing education. We'll need to make a run into Fairbanks anyway to pick up paying guests and groceries. In March, we'll go to the ice carving contest with regularity. You'll probably want to ditch your car for a 4 x 4 pickup with really big tires. Oh, and a snowmobile. You will want one of those.

I don't think it will turn out to be a full time job for anyone, so don't let the camp capers scare you away. There will be time to write your book, learn your foreign language, paint your masterpieces. I learned that even though the sun might only be out 3 hours, there are really long dawns and twilights here in the winter, giving you lots of the kind of light that artists crave.

More about the primo hot springs. The water is channeled into a rock pool. At first as you cross the pool, you wonder why there is a cold spray in the middle, but it takes about three minutes to realize how smart they are to add cold water. Once you parboil under the pipe that massages your entire body, you have to cool down. Standing under a sprinkler for a few minutes does the trick. There are cooler spots suitable for a little dog paddling, and there are hot spots just right for boiling corn. It's perfect. If you happen to schedule a massage after soaking, you will be over the top.

Perhaps we will organize a Northern Lights trip just to experience winter here. That would be an important next step in building our commitment.

I will be serving as the temporary CEO until we get our board of directors in place. So give me a post back, and I will certainly consider your skill set in our business plan. Oh, and what year can you start?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

I saw Santa Claus today

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Tok has some fine bike paths, considering that Tok is just two roads crossing in the middle of nowhere. Carl and I both took a spin on them. The path toward Valdez is better, newer, smoother.

We were bound to North Pole when a Moose crossed the road. Too quickly to get the camera out, unfortunately, so you will have to assume what it looked like. Then we spotted another grazing down a power line easement. That one we photographed, but the photo is so poor you have to believe us again. Perhaps there is a finer moose photo in our future.

At Delta Juntion, we chowed down on a fine Buffalo Burger. This is becoming something of an obsession, and although the meat is lean, the fries or at least chips that come with it probably cancel out my good intentions.

Carl is longing for rare buffalo, so when the opportunity to buy our own came up just south of North Pole. we screeched and turned in. We tasted buffalo, yak, and reindeer sausage, bought some buffalo hamburger, a steak and some brats. Daisy got a free very large cow bone which she has not parted with since then. It's about the size of her head. is their link if you want to order some, but wait till winter when the shipping doesn't cost so much. They can send it by slow boat during the winter and it won't thaw.

We passed the largest training AFB and the northernmost base in the US on the way into North Pole. Mighty impressive. Right now I hear them training in their 60,000 s miles of air space. From here they can cover the globe in short order.

So, finally, we arrived at North Pole, a town of 1500 about 15 minutes south of Fairbanks. The town decided to reinvent themselves in the 50's in the hopes that someone would want to build a toy plant here. The plant never came, but the tourists do, and they are very very busy mailing letters in December for the whole USA.

I wanted to find the post office, because who can resist that stamp, no? Carl said what street is it on? Santa Claus Lane, I said. He had this look on his face. It was the truth! I took several things into the post office, and the lady at the counter let me hand cancel them myself. She said I could get a job during the busy season.

This is indeed the funniest town. Do you want to live on Mistletoe? or North Star? Take your pick of any christmas name, and that can be your address. If you are a Catholic, you are really in luck. The church's name is, oh yeah, St. Nicholas.

My phone, which had no service in the Yukon, is dead. I could make a call, but could not see the screen. But you know what? There was an ATT right there on St. Nicholas Drive. Of course there has to be a phone store in North Pole. How else could all those xmas cell phone gifts get processed? There was a wonderful young girl there names Alyssa. She said yes ma'am and yes sir. She said my phone was terminal. Sigh. I looked at a lot of phones, but I just couldn't make this decision under pressure. I just got everything perfectly sync'd up to Outlook. I have this software, cables, the works. How do you just buy a phone without information? And UPS? and Ebay? At the North Pole? Things have really changed in the last two years. A phone is a musical instrument, an MP3, a streaming video, a whatever, you name it. I laid my head down on her desk to sigh. "I just want my old phone back." She said, "You know, when everything is going well, something has to go wrong. Be glad it is your phone." What a wise young lady. Of course she is right. I took the name of a website with me to look into which phones will sync with my outlook.

Then we moved a few feet south to Santaland RV. What a funny place. There's candy canes everywhere. Reindeer peeking from behind clapboard faux stables. A big Santa out front. Free tours of North Pole every morning. And they are right next door to Santa Claus House. There's reindeer behind Santa Claus house, one with a rack so huge it looks fake. And everywhere there are mail bins saying we will cancel your mail the North Pole. And private bathrooms. I felt like I was in a luxury hotel in Disneyland.

I searched all night to get smart about phones, and about 11 pm went to EBAY and bid on one. I didn't even consider if it was the perfect phone. Then I won the auction. Oh no. How do I get a phone to the North Pole? Nobody is going to believe that I am in SantaLand RV Park on St. Nicholas Drive. Do I just stay here till a phone arrives from Phoenix, regular mail? After I won the bid, I sent the seller about 5 emails telling him this was no hoax. After all, the guy said it was his grandma's phone. Surely he believes in Santa too.

North Pole is a great biking town. They have paths everywhere, and, it's pretty flat. We woke up the next morning and took one of those paths. I forgot about the prevailing winds, so I went a little too far when it seemed so easy. Since we have to come back to Santaland when my phone arrives, I am looking forward to another flat path ride. And private baths. And reindeer.

Mr. Ebay called Carl today, and he is going to ship it faster than snail mail. Santaland RV Park will hold the package till we come back. See? Life is good in North Pole.

Meanwhile, we headed 60 miles northeast to the end of the road, Chena Hot springs. The new masseuse showed up today, and in addition to parboiling in the outdoor rock pool, we are going to get pounded and tenderized. We are her first two victims since starting the job today. Lots of squirrels here. Daisy thinks life is good. I think life is yummy.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Merry June 9th, from Snowy Yukon

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Whitehorse was a whiteout. We woke to gentle precipitation, which became snow. So much for the bike path that goes over the river dam and next to the fish ladder. Perhaps on the way back. Miles Canyon was also a whiteout. Inside activities are the gameplan for today. We visited the Beringia museum, which shows how the land mass was connected to Asia during the ice age, and creatures such as the wooly mammoth and tigers and muskox and wild horses walked over from Asia and lived on the steppes. There are some bones in the museum, and lots of faux skeletons. Miners who contributed their finds did much to aid the archiological study of the area. The mammoth was one huge creature.

We moved on 100 miles to Haines Junction, where we settled in to a wet Sunday afternoon. Poor Daisy. She really needed her walk. Finally the precip stopped, and we took a nice hike into the forest with her bear bell on and a towel pinned around her middle to minimize the mud underneath her belly. We are in the Kluane Wilderness now and will be for a long time. Our hike last night was along the Dezadeash River trail.

Soon after Daisy and I returned to the RV, the snow became earnest in its efforts. By morning we had several inches on Teregram.

I checked weather to the north, and Tok was 50 degrees, so we left the 31 degree wet fluffy stuff and drove north through snow. We crossed the two highest passes on the Alaska Hiway today. The mountains peaked above snow clouds, and the scene was mystical.

At Sheep Mountain, we stopped to look through their spotting scope for Dahl Sheep. Try finding off-white sheep on snow on a ledge a mile away. The ranger finally got me to look in the right place, and there they were, lined up on a ridge, sitting out the storm, looking out on Kluane Lake, which stretches for miles.

There are three villages between Haines Junction and the border, each populated between 30 and 110 people. As we drove, I felt how isolated the Yukon Territory is. 32,000 people in 186,000 square miles, vs. Texas with 20,000,000 people in 266,000 sq miles. Coming up on Alaska, there are 630,000 people in 591,000 sq miles. See what I mean about sparse?

We only stopped at one of the villages. Burwash Landing has an interesting natural history museum. I took pictures of most of the animals in their faux natural habitat. One thing about a stuffed stands still to have its photo taken, and it's not likely to eat your dog for lunch.

When we stopped for lunch, we met a family moving from South Dakota to Soldatna, a village south of Anchorage, near Homer. They have four children under the age of six and a big white dog. He's going to pastor a church there. Now that's what I call a calling.

North of Burwash, frost heaves and slumps on the the road got serious. When the road is constructed, the permafrost beneath is disturbed and melted. The road slumps. Then comes winter, and up comes the road as the water freezes again. Makes the road like a roller coaster, without much notice. The maintenance crews flag most of them, but sometimes there's a bit of a surprise! Then there are long sections of road work, where maintainers are shoving gravel right down the middle. You pick a side to drive on and hope you don't meet someone. Finally, there are the flagman sections. Those can take a while. It's all part of the process. They only have a few months to get the road back into shape so it can heave again next winter.

At any rate, you can kiss your carwash goodbye. The water truck is ever present, keeping the dust down, and creating a nice coat of milk chocolate on Teregram. The dirtiest things I see are the tow cars, affectionately known as toads. They are milk chocolate with a surprise car center. You will never know what color the center is until you wash it. I am amazed that so many people line up at the car/RV wash. Eternally optimistic, I suppose.

We entered Alaska today, 5,000 miles and 4 weeks from home. YAYYYYY! I felt comforted and more at ease after the border crossing, another non-event. The border crossing guard asked if each of us, including Daisy, was going across of their own free will.

Tok is our home for tonight. Population 1,435, 206 miles from Fairbanks, with only the town of North Pole between us and Fairbanks. Cheena Hot Springs is calling my name!

Mama turned up on my trip yesterday. I was thinking about her the day before, wondering if she had yearned to come to Alaska, since Daddy had been stationed here in the war.

For those of you who don't know, my mother loved dimes. In her later years, I would give her a roll for her birthday, and it was better to her than any bouquet of flowers. Carl found a story about the time she died that reminded us of her and her dimes. A man had always gone on walks with his dad and his dad picked up change as they walked. Now every time the son finds change on the ground, he feels like his dad is there. So it is with me and dimes.

So yesterday, miles from home, Carl reached in his pocket and gave me a dime. He had dropped his razor in the trash in the showers, had to dig down to retrieve it, and there at the bottom of the trash was a dime. An American dime in the Yukon. So, hello Frances! Hope the weather is great where you are. Oh, and please ask Daddy about his time in Alaska. Did he meet many bears, I wonder?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Watson Lake is famous for its signpost forest started by a lonely soldier building the Alaskan Hiway. He put up a sign of his hometown and how far away it was. The signposts grew. Today there are over 60,000 signs. That's two signs for every resident of the Yukon Territory! It is pretty amazing to walk through, and almost impossible to photograph. No, we did not leave a sign. Maybe next time we will be more prepared and steal our street sign before we go.

Yes there are only 32,000 people in the Yukon Territory. That is why they are not a Province. Most of the people live in Whitehorse, the capital city.

We had a low key day, with breakfast on a creek in a provincial park, a walk to Rancheria Falls, crossing another Continental Divide, and having dinner at Mukluk Annies Salmon Bake. Very quaint place. If you eat Salmon at Mukluk Annies, you can dry camp in her parking lot and wash your RV for free. Showers cost $3 extra.

We chose to go down the road one mile to a very quiet Provincial Park with Teslin Lake lapping below us. The lake is 85 miles long, and I would call it more of a river; we will be near it for some time tomorrow. The most beautiful scene of the day was coming around the bend to the view of Teslin, a tiny peninsula village on Nisutlin Bay connected over the bay to the south by the longest bridge on the Alaska Hiway. Take your breath away stunning.

Today I got a chance to photograph bluebonnets blooming throughout the Yukon. They probably call them Lupines, but they are bluebonnets to me. With the tough conditions, you will not see fields of them like we do in Texas, but they are quite stunning. Earlier on our trip I saw yellow lupine at the Buffalo Jump.

Having multiple springs has been a bonus on this trip. Lilacs, fruit trees, wildflowers. A floral blessing.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Stressed out

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Primo! Liard Hot Springs has been kept in its natural setting, with a boardwalk across a marsh approach. Located in a provincial park north of Muncho Lake, it hits the spot with travelers and locals. There are two pools. Alpha pool is boiling hot, but as you move away from the source, there is a cooler stream for frolicking.

The walk to the upper beta pool takes you through a tropical forest, with little hot boiling springs everywhere keeping the climate warm for ferns and even orchids. The beta pool is 9 feet deep and swimmable. Warm, but not boiling.

I took a movie of a complete stranger lost in meditation in the pool. He woke up and told me he had almost died the day before. He's driving a 30 year old bus back to Anchorage for a friend, and his brakes failed near Summit Pass. Yikes. We talked about life. He's writing a novel, and he's stuck. He figures he lived to finish it.

There was wildlife today. My first moose was a shy one, foraging in the woods near the boardwalk back from the hot springs. Nevertheless, he was clearly a moose. There were stone sheep licking the minerals from the side of the road, buffalo wallowing in dirt holes, a wolf who was gone when we went back to take his picture, a mama and cub bear, and a solo bear.

The vegetation is changing. Most of the trees are skinny and not very tall pine poles. They struggle to survive in the frozen ground most of the year. Several locations have Drunken Forests, named so because of the skinny trees that topple here and there in the soft soil when it thaws.

We had a great buffalo burger at Coal River Lodge. Just right. Then, before the end of the day, we crossed into the Yukon. There's about 3 hours of night now, but if it were winter, we could see the northern lights here. We attended a show about the northern lights tonight in Watson Lake at the Northern Lights Center. It's magnetic fields around the poles that cause the phenom.
From here at the Downtown RV Park in Watson Lake, population 1,500, we can walk to the grocery, the Northern Lights Center, and tomorrow the Signpost Forest. We even washed Teregram, her first wash in 4,000 miles. The last few days on patches of failing road and yesterday's rain had made her a real mess.

In Dawson Creek, we met a man driving his Model A from Iowa to Alaska. We've passed him every day, and the next day, we find out he is ahead of us when we pass him again. He goes about 40 mph. I guess we are dallying around, huh?

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Le Junque

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Marl Brown is my kind of Guy. He's the founder and curator of the Fort Nelson Heritage Museum. He's got a style with junk. Maybe it is the way his collection is amassed by kind, like a row of old washing machines, all pristine condition, juxtaposed with a collection of drilling heads. Or maybe it is the color combinations, some of them my favorites, like turquoise and purple with a splash of yellow. He has painted everything and maintained it free of rust and dirt. He provides ample seating and boardwalks throughout the collection, some of the seating a collection of its own. Please beware neighbors of mine, my yard may grow more eclectic after this visit. He's got me inspired. Tonight I pulled out my water color pencils. You go Marl! What a gift to the world.

After leaving Fort Nelson, which is nothing without Marl, we drove northward into the Terminal Rockies, meaning the northernmost end. They begin 1850 miles south in New Mexico, and they end, well, about here.

I believe the deer, moose, bear and stone sheep were all put off by the rain, off and on, cleaning the bugs off the windshield but making a mess of the rest of things. Poor Daisy. It's foot wiping time.

We stopped because we believed an ad that claimed that Testsa River Campground is truly the Cinnabun Center of the Galactic Cluster. That raised my expectations, so I must admit it was a comedown after eating Dinner Bell's East Houston working man's giant Hungarian Cinnamon Rolls. But then, Dinner Bell does not also sell muklucks and fur hats....Pink Fox anyone?

We arrived at Muncho Lake, green with copper oxide, and called it a day. In the parking lot we saw one of the sled dog transports, a wooden affair on a pickup bed with the sleds strapped on top and 13 dogs, 6 generations in compartments like a dogcatcher would have, except all homemade from wood. Next thing I knew Carl was petting dogs in their crates and talking to the owners. The owners are moving from Michigan to Alaska. We met great great great Grandma sled dog and the puppy, 9 years separating them. The puppy had puppy breath. So cute.

Muncho Lake is surrounded by 7000 foot mountains and itself is 2,680 feet. Daisy and I set off on a walk and returned pelted with rain. Minutes later it was beautiful again, and so it has gone all evening. After taking my yoga mat 4,000 miles, I finally found the perfect place to stretch: on top of the picnic table. While I was stretching, the float plane returned to the dock with its fishing weary passengers. The establishments in the area seem to struggle to survive. Perhaps 3 months of economy in a remote wilderness is not enough.

We met some folks from Homer; we have just listened to some of Tom Bodet's stories of his time in Homer, the end of the road, that the Stades gave us before we left on our trip. During his stay, Bodet lived with his wife in a tiny house. Some of their rules included: one person must stay in bed until the other one is completely showered, dressed, breakfasted and either gone or sitting down quietly. Another rule was no unnecessary motion. Don't get up to get something, just ask the other one to pass the item you want. If you get up, the dog gets excited and wags its tail, and somebody's juice gets spilled.

Sounds like life in the RV. However, after three full weeks we are doing much better in the domestic relations department than I would have anticipated. Maybe we have the space thing down. This much I know. When traveling and choosing a hotel room every night, when you pick wrong, it can be an uncomfortable night. When you pick wrong with an RV park, you just put down the shades and pretend you are not there.

Tomorrow, we are off to Liard Hot Springs, where we plan to parboil all morning, or maybe all day, then to Watson Lake in the YUKON. Another territory! Another set of wildlife! I really want a moose, and I have only seen the ones that met the bad end of an automobile. Yick!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

1000 waterfalls, 5 bears, and 64 Chainsaw Carvings

Today was a 5 bear day. No photos to prove it, but there really were 5 black bear at various points along the road from Prince George to Chetwynd. And in Chetwynd there are 64 chainsaw carvings. This is the chain saw carving capital of the world. I picked up a map for tomorrow's bicycle ride. See more at Maybe you can pick up a photo of one of the chainsaw carver artists at work since I am missing the big contest by two weeks.

This morning in Prince George we biked on a path along the Nechako and Frasier Rivers at Cottonwood Park. Not long ago there was a flood and Ice Jam. It took out chunks of the path so that we had to portage the bike around. The park is officially closed because of the flood damage, but we were not the only ones breaking the rules. There was a blind dog who liked to go swimming in the river, a kayaker putting in, and numerous bikers, walkers and joggers. I am now OKAY in the middle gear at 2600 feet on flat roads. I guess that is improving.

I passed two gentlemen with Middle Eastern accents right after Carl passed them. I said " Passing on your left" which caused them to jump off the path in alarm. I suppose Carl had just said the same to them, because they said, "So, it is always on your left?" (Please fill in your own version of their accents). "Yep", I said. They had poor short term memory. I passed them three more times on my ride, always saying "Passing on your left", and they did various things, but never did they move right. Mostly I went through the middle of them.

Daisy was given three dog biscuits at the full serve diesel station. I know you want to know how much diesel is here....$5.60 a gallon, roughly. But the premium over regular gas is not as great as in the states. $4.99 for Diesel in Seattle, I heard on the news tonight. The good news is we got 18 mpg on the last tank. Those air tabs Carl installed on the RV are starting to pay off. They reduce the dirty air behind us like the little wing tips on aircraft. It also helps we have not had those headwinds lately.

We drove about 200 miles north today, with various bear stops, and one very nice waterfall, cool as melting ice, called Bijoux falls. In addition to Bijoux falls, there were about 1000 falls of all sizes coming down the cliffs on the side of the road. We are going back into the Rockies, this time from the West, and snow is melting.

We are now arrived at the point that we can use the MILEPOST, the official guide to the Alaska Hiway, mile by mile. Tomorrow we reach Dawson Creek, Mile 0. In the old days, it was the jumping off point for the Yukon gold rush, and the Canadian government required each prospector to take with him 1000 pounds of supplies. I guess we had better get some sleep tonight, because we have work to do tomorrow. That's a lot of flour, sugar, beans and coffee.

Speaking of sleep, it is still light at 10:30 pm.....we are getting more daylight everyday, and we are only halfway up British Columbia.