Saturday, July 19, 2014

Anchorage to Homer and Back Again

I left off last time just as we pulled into Anchorage.  This is the largest town in Alaska, with a population just under 300,000.  That’s approximately 50% of the state’s total population.  The second largest is Fairbanks with 31,500.  To help you impress your relatives and friends with your extensive grasp of meaningless trivia - the smallest “incorporated” town in Alaska is Kupreanof with 23 year-round residents.

Alaska has been fun and interesting so far - but expensive.  While wages are fairly high here, and only 9.6% of the population earns below the official federal government poverty level ($22,113 for a family of four), the cost of living is 22-26% higher than in the lower-48.  That leaves quite a few living on the edge.  You see a lot of dilapidated buildings, along with tons of old cars and various bits and pieces of equipment lying around everywhere (a picker’s dream).  Towns are small to miniscule, government services outside the bigger towns are few if any, and there is a whole lot of empty and beautiful space between.

Just about any road that turns off a main highway or town road immediately turns into packed dirt or gravel.

In fact, Alaska is the least densely populated state in the U.S.  And when you get out into those empty spaces it is truly a beautiful and awesome place.  But if you like the lights, bells and whistles of a big city, Alaska will definitely not be your cup of tea – Alaska is all about the outdoors.
 Alalik Glacier

Resurrection Bay State Park

Field of wild irises

Waterfalls are just about everywhere.

Leaving out of Denali we cruised into Elmendorf AFB’s FamCamp for a few nights of catching up on chores.  Yes, I hate to disappoint you, but even full-time RVers like us have chores to do! 

Thanks to Chad Carpenter-Tundra comics.

But we did take a little time to see some of the sights.  There was a nice Farmers Market downtown that we took in, along with checking out a few stores in the area.  Heinz found a great winter coat, but for some reason, just didn’t seem to think he would get much use out of it when we got back to more southern climes.  What do you think?

Now why wouldn’t he want a wolverine and sable coat that weighs 30+ pounds?  Of course, the $4,500 price tag didn’t help!

We spent a very enjoyable morning at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage.  The Center showcases the heritage of Alaska’s 11 major native groups.  As you enter the Center you first come to “The Gathering Place”.  This is a rotunda where Native Peoples demonstrate dancing and games, and elders and teens relate native history and tell stories.  There is a rotating exhibit of Alaska Native art in the “Hall of Cultures”.  The Theater hosts a variety of films about Alaska and its people.

Alaska Native Heritage Center.  All of the white dots in the picture aren't from a dirty lens, they're willow catkins being blown in the wind.  The locals call it summer snow.

Outside on the grounds of the Center there is a stroll through six authentic life-sized Native dwellings situated around a small lake.  A visitor is introduced to the traditional lifestyle of the Athabascan, Inupiaq, Yup’ik/Cup’ik, Aleut, Alvtiiq and the Eyak, Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples.  Each dwelling has a host or hostess, often a teenage members of the tribe, talking about the daily lives and tools of their ancestors.

Grey whale skeleton - estimated to have been 42 feet long and have weighing 33 tons.  Whales such as these were hunted in open boats called umiaks made of driftwood or whalebone, covered in stretched sealskin, and sealed with seal fat.  The boats were approximately 20-30 feet long and 4-6 feet wide.

Model of an umiak that would hold a hunting team of 8-14 men armed with harpoons of wood with whale or caribou bone tips.

Heinz checking out traditional style skin-on-frame kayaks of the Eyak.
Communal home of the Alvtiiq.

 A totem of the Tlingit depicting respect for self.  A human figure in a clan hat bound by salmon represents the self.  Self is supported by the presence of Raven and an emerging Eagle - representing the cultural rule that one always married into a different clan, Frog-voice of the spirit world, and Brown Bear-representing the strength of the tribe.

A totem of the Tsimshian depicting respect for the environment.  The singer holds a drum and drumstick.  He is singing the praises of Ha’lidzogat (the world).  The post honors the world by (top to bottom) the eagle and raven on the eyebrows of the singer (the sky); the wolf on the drum (the earth); and the killer whale as the canoe the singer sits in (the sea).

We spent that afternoon with Heinz indulging me (yet once again), with a drive up to Turnagain Pass, for another round one of my wonderful wildflower photography expeditions.  Turnagain Pass was named for the Turnagain Arm, one of two narrow branches of Cook Inlet.  The legend is that the inlet was named when Capt. Cook tried to explore it in 1778.  The water became too shallow and Cook told his crew to “turn again” to sail back out to sea.  But I was much more interested in the flowers than the water that day and my gallant husband stayed in the car and read while I happily “tiptoed through the tulips” - well, at least the monkey flowers and lilies.  It’s been a delight not having to keep a lookout for snakes underfoot - Alaska has none.  Now if I could just remember to look up now and again for those pesky moose and bears.

Turnagain Pass

Yellow Monkeyflower.

River Beauty.

Chocolate Lilies.

Then it was time to point the rig south and indulge Heinz for a change.  Next stop… the Russian River in time for the red salmon run.  Fishing the Russian River for salmon is one of those things that a fisherman HAS TO DO, when they come to ALASKA.  I’ll let Heinz describe his experience.

Among other things, fishing for Sockeye salmon (Reds) was on my list of “must-do activities” while in Alaska – and fishing on the fabled Russian River – well, that just made it all the sweeter.  People come from all over the world to fish this river, and we had a parking spot just a five minute walk from the ferry (SCHAWEET!) and all the time in the world to enjoy the solitude that is… fishing (EVEN SCHAWEETER!).  However, with Reds running up the river in great numbers, I knew that we would not be the only ones with the same idea – I just had no idea just how many there would be.  I found out the next morning!

Aiming to beat the crowds, I hit the VERY FIRST ferry to go across the river.  It was 6 am and to my astonishment, the far bank of the river was already almost completely lined with countless fishermen that either hiked three miles in from a campground, or spent the night before on the riverbank, just to beat the rush of people (like me) to the river – a “tactical” rookie mistake!

 Crossing the river on a ferry with no motor.  Attached to a cable, power is supplied by the river flow as the pilot points the ferry in one direction or the other.

It’s 6 am and hundreds of my “besties” are already in place catching fish.
It was then that I realized these poor fish simply didn’t stand a chance.

Waiting an hour JUST to get a spot to fish from, I studied what others were doing – then set up shop.  I had fished for salmon in Idaho and just “knew” what had to be done here – “arrogant” rookie mistake.  Well, with people all around me hauling fish out of the river, I finished the first day catching no fish – zero, none, bupkis!  BUT, I did learn to drift the lure across the rocks, differentiate what it felt like to hit a rock or get a bite, and was CERTAIN that tomorrow I would max out on my six fish limit – “overly confident” rookie mistake.  Well, it took another full morning before someone, realizing I still didn’t know squat, took pity on me and schooled me up. 

Trying to figure out which lures and techniques to use on any given body of water is always trial by error and takes a while.  Even though others were eager to share their knowledge IF ASKED, I thought I could figure it out in fairly short order by myself “cocky” rookie mistake.  Eventually, a fine old gentleman took pity on me and showed me exactly how to rig my gear and how to present the lure.  Within an hour “BAM” and a Red salmon was “on”.  The moment that fish was hooked, it took off like a bullet and took most of my fishing line with it.  Eventually, I deftly slowed the fish down (I ran out of line), expertly reeled it in (the fish got tired), and delicately netted my first salmon (it gave up).  MAN, what a fight – and I was HOOKED – common rookie exuberance.

During the next day and a half, I hooked, fought, and lost, literally dozens of Reds.  Turns out, that’s normal, these fish are quite aggressive - running, jumping and twisting through the air when hooked.  It also turns out that I had countless bites the two days before – IF I had only known what I was feeling for.  In the end, I managed to land four salmon to take home and start the “stocking of the freezer” – hopefully that’s NOT more stupid rookie overconfidence!

Was that a rock, a fish, someone else’s line?  Hell, they all feel the same - I don’t know!

Now I do!

They don’t call it “combat fishing” for no reason!

And this would be one of them.  “HEY, is that MY lure in your ear?  No? Whew!”

“Well, the owner wants it back!”

And on the third day… there were fish… and they were good!  And there was MUCH rejoicing in Mudville!

Now you know why they call these salmon – Reds!

After three nights on the river, we continued down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward.  It’s kind of interesting traveling the way we do; we’d planned on two nights in Seward and wound up staying for six.  Going in, the town didn’t seem like much - around 2,500 residents, a few streets, a few restaurants, a fishing port, one state park and one national park.  But we sure managed to stay busy.  This is a pretty little town, with lots of murals on the buildings and quirky touches here and there.

 Mural of Mt. Marathon on a bank wall on the edge of town.

Can’t imagine why I liked this one…Ha!

 Commemorating the fishing industry, on the side of a restaurant.

This type of decoration was on quite a few houses.

Howling at the moon.

Kenai Fjords Tours offers day-cruises through Resurrection Bay into the Kenai Fjords National Park.  We opted for the Northwestern Fjords tour.  During the 9 hours we were out, the boat went into the Fjords, home to three tidewater glaciers and several alpine glaciers.  We also traveled past the seabird rookeries in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. 

While the desk staff didn’t guarantee any wildlife sightings, they did promise that the glaciers would be there.  The glaciers were there; in fact we cruised to within ½ mile of Northwestern Glacier, and listened to the thunderous cracking of the ice as it moved ever-so slowly towards the sea.  But the sea life also didn’t disappoint us. 

Resurrection Bay.

Northwestern Glacier from several miles away.

Moving through floating ice as we moved into Northwestern Fjord toward the glacier face.

Northwestern Glacier from around one mile away.

Close up of blue glacier ice.  Glacial ice is blue because the dense crystalline ice of the glacier absorbs every other color of the spectrum.  You get to see what does not get absorbed - blue.

L to R: Anchor Glacier, Northwestern Glacier, Red Stone Glacier, and Northeastern Glacier.  There are estimated to be over 100,000 glaciers in Alaska with 616 of them named.  They contain enough surface ice to cover the entire state of Maine.

While at the glacier, a crewmember brought up a piece of glacier ice.  Heinz challenged a fellow passenger to lick it.  So she did.

So, of course, she challenged him right back – and he did!

Orcas alongside the boat.  As the largest member of the dolphin family, orcas reach 30 feet in length, weigh 4-6 tons, and can speed along at 30 mph.  This toothed whale feeds on fish or other mammals.  They stay in family pods led by a matriarch for life.  When ready to mate, an orca makes a complicated call (passed down through the pod generations) that is answered by other orcas.  The caller will mate with the responder whose call is least like his/her own, thus ensuring diversity within the species.

And you thought the fin in Jaws looked ominous! This was a pod of over 20 Orcas.

Humpback whale arching out of the water.  Humpbacks eat nearly a ton of food per day, mostly krill and small fish.  They migrate 6,000 miles each spring from Hawaii and other points south to reach their feeding grounds in Alaska.  After leaving Alaska in the fall, these whales will not feed again until their return the next summer – now THAT’S a diet!

Enjoying myself on the cruise.

Puffins on a rookery island in the National Maritime Wildlife Refuge.

Bird rookeries in the morning fog. 

Day two saw us up early again and heading out to the Iditaride Tour.  This one takes place on land.  We were bundled onto a comfortable bus for a ride out to the Seavey Sled Dog Kennel.  The Seavey family is well versed in dog mushing.  Dallas (27 y/o) and his dad, Mitch, are the owners of the kennel.  Dallas was the 2012 and 2014 Iditarod champion and is a 3rd generation musher.  His father, Mitch, is also a two-time winner of the race, 2004 and 2013.  His grandfather, Dan, was one of the original organizers of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race began in 1973 along the Iditarod Trail.  It is a 1,100-mile endurance sled dog race lasting for 10-11 days - weather permitting.  It begins in Anchorage, AK on the first Saturday in March and ends when the last musher either drops out or crosses the finish line in Nome.  The winner receives a prize of $50,000.

At the kennels, we were given a tour of the dog area, and treated to a summer sled training run.  The kennels use these tourist runs as a means of training their animals and keeping them in racing shape.  After our run, we were shown the gear used by a musher in the race, listened to wonderful stories of the Iditarod Race and best of all, got to play with some of the puppies.

One of the first things we noticed about these dogs is that they are not your typical Hollywood-style sled dogs.  A lot of the original sled dogs were of a range of breeds that were actually stolen from farms and villages all over the lower 48 as the gold rush miners (who needed animals to pull their gear and supplies) were working their way northward.  Dogs of good size, strength, and stamina were bred with others of the same characteristics – regardless of breed.  What resulted are dogs that appear to be mutts, bred for speed and endurance that treated as highly trained athletes.  Today’s race worthy mixtures often incorporate Greyhound, Pointer, Irish Setter, and Border Collie among a variety of other breeds.  Most dogs weigh between 35-55 lbs.  The top speed of a 16-dog team would be reached going downhill at 25-30 mph.  Average speed for the 10 day Iditarod Race is 10-12 mph.  They have very tough, webbed feet with closely spaced toes that act as snowshoes.  Most sled dogs have a double coat, with the outer coat keeping snow away from the body, and a waterproof inner coat for insulation.  The dogs work best at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sled dogs can burn between 10,000 and 26,000 calories /day when racing.  They are fed high-fat/high protein diets and on the trail may eat oily salmon, moose, or blubbery sea mammals. 

These animals are definitely not your average mutt, a yearling pup with good bloodlines can go for $600, while the right dog with an impressive race record and bloodlines can set a musher back $10,000.

It’s hard to see any particular breed in any given dog.  Getting harnessed for our ride.

But, what if I don’t want to go?

HEY, will you sit down already - we’re ready to roll down here!

And they’re off…

Our musher explained that one of the most important parts of training a dog team is socialization.  This helps to train them from reacting negatively to other dog teams and bystanders.  So after the race, we got a chance to thank all the dogs for allowing us to go along on their workout.

And for the best part of the day, some puppy love.

Can we keep him?  I promise to feed him every day…and you can walk him!  Won't that be fun?!

There is some great hiking around the Seward area and we tried out a couple of the trails.  Exit Glacier National Park and Resurrection Bay State Park both had nice trails that were scenic and fun.

Hiking up the Lowell Point Trail in Resurrection Bay State Park.

Hmm… are those bear tracks mixed in with those human tracks along the trail?  Why, yes - they are.

Looking out across the bay from Lowell Point.

The trail continues on another four miles, but if you don’t get back across this area before the tide comes back in, you won’t get back for another 12 hours when the tide is out again.  We passed on this leg!

 “Ghost” trees along the trail.  These trees are all along the coastline in this area, remnants of the 1964 Alaska earthquake and tsunami.

Exit Glacier in Exit Glacier National Park.
While in Seward we absolutely had to knock out another item on the “must do” list - deep-sea fishing.  So it was off to another boat and out into Resurrection Bay.  Now I’m not much of a fisherman, but the crew was great at coaching and success was ours.  Between the two of us, we managed to catch 4 halibut, one salmon (mine-it got used for BAIT!), and 9 rockfish.

  Pulling in a fish.

Not a record fish, but I was happy with its 32 inches.

 Ready for filleting…note the big one on the right…yeah, it was mine J

Filleting the halibut.  When the day was done we put about 30 lbs. of fish into the freezer.

Now for some serious fish eating before the King salmon start their run.

We decided to stay put in Seward to celebrate the 4th of July.  It was a very interesting holiday.  For starters, the fireworks show was at midnight to start the day rather than ending it.  Watching fireworks at midnight during the summer in Alaska was also, shall we say…different.

Midnight fireworks on the 4th of July in Seward.  Just isn’t quite the same when the sun doesn’t
really set.

Seward celebrates like most small towns do…people showing off their patriotic attire, a parade with local business floats, the scout troops, etc., church food booths, outdoor activities, and so on.

 It’s all about showing your patriotism.

I like this little girl already.

Brownie Scout troop marching with dignity.

Santa was tied up, so he sent a substitute to take his place in the parade.

Chicken BBQ from the local Catholic church.

But Seward has something that other towns don’t - the Mount Marathon Race.  Never heard of it?  Well, neither had we.  Turns out that this is the 2nd oldest marathon in the U.S. - with Boston being the oldest.  Dating from 1915, this marathon attracts runners from all over the world; but this is a marathon with a twist.

Folklore has it that the race began when two sourdoughs were sitting in the Yukon Bar arguing about which of them could climb and descend Mt. Marathon (3,044 feet) at the edge of town, in less than an hour.  To settle the argument, a race was held, with the loser buying drinks for the house.  The first man down ran it in 1 hour and 2 minutes.  The current record is held by Eric Strabel at 42:55.

The Yukon Bar is still there.

Let me quote Runners World in describing the race.
“Contrary to its name, the Mt. Marathon Race isn’t a legend for how far it stretches through the vastness of Alaska, but rather how much unpleasantness it crams into so small a package.  Starting in downtown Seward, racers run a ½ mile to the foot of the mountain, then scrabble about 2,900 vertical feet straight up cliffs and mud and shale before finally staggering to Race Point.  There, race officials note their time and bib number, hand them water, and send them hurtling back downhill in what more resembles free-fall than running—over snowfields and rock fields and waterfalls and crags—until they reach the finish line back on the streets of Seward.  All this occurs in 3.1-3.3 miles, depending on your route, and on trails so close to town that spectators can follow nearly every tortured step high on the mountain.  By yardstick the contest is briefer than a jog around Central Park.  By every other count—sheer adrenaline, lung-bleeding exhaustion, potential for disaster per mile—there may be no other run like it in the world.  Blood flows freely.  Bones break frequently—arms, shoulders, cheekbones, legs.”

For a great look at the route check out the YouTube video at

Racers on the mountain.

Ironically the race route goes past the local hospital.  Or was that on purpose?

If you don’t come down the mountain looking like this, you apparently didn’t try hard enough.

For the female readers… Alaskan wildlife on the run.

This is not just a youngster’s race.

Definitely not.

Allison Ostrander, 16 y/o winner of the Junior Division.  This was the first year a girl outran the boys in the Junior Division.  Juniors are 10-17 years old, at age 18 they move up into the Women's or Men's Divisions.

Holly Brooks - winner of the Women’s Division.

Eric Stradel - winner of the Men’s Division.  Yes, that’s blood running down his leg.

At the end of the day we settled in for the evening with BBQ ribs and a nice local beer.

Nice end to a nice day.

The next morning we hooked up the Honda and headed to the west side of the Kenai Peninsula.  Traveling down the Cook Inlet we stopped first in Soldatna and explored the area for a day.  There wasn’t all that much to see or do in the area, but we did spot a few interesting sights.

Holy Assumption of Mary, Russian Orthodox church in Nikolaevsk, AK.  Built in 1897.

One room cabin built in 1947, lived in by a couple and their 3 sons.

Food cache used by the family to keep bears out.

As we tooled around we ventured down to the Kasilof River to see if there were any salmon running.  We ran into an amazing sight - dip net fishing.  Alaska residents are allowed to subsistence-fish using a dip net at certain times during the salmon runs.  Each household is allowed a permit, allowing the holder to catch up to 25 salmon and 10 flounder for the permit holder, and 10 salmon for each additional household member.  Non-residents are prohibited from participating in any way.

 Dip netting on the Kasilof.

It becomes a party atmosphere for the whole family.

It helps if you’re bigger than the net.

It also helps if you’re bigger than the fish.

I didn’t know waders were made this small.

If you clean them on the beach, that’s less weight to carry home.

And the gulls can have a treat.

Then it was on down to Homer.  The town was started by Homer Pennock - a con man who created numerous schemes for separating wealthy people and their money.  In 1896 he set up base camp on the Homer Spit.  Pennock sought gold throughout Cook Inlet, established bogus mining companies, and sold stock in them back east.  There were no laws against this back then, so lots of people lost money, and Homer got rich and retired to New York City.

The area is now the 2nd largest fishing port in Alaska.  The other popular catch in Homer is the tourists.  Homer is the jumping off point for many of the halibut fishing charters and flights to remote regions to watch bears feeding on the salmon runs. No sense in going fishing, our freezer was full.  Since we’re coming back here in August when Heinz's cousin is visiting, we chose not to fly out to the bears this time around and instead checked out the Wynn Nature Center and the Island and Ocean Visitors Center.  The Wynn is a 140 acre wilderness area open for visitors to meander through lush forest and wildflower meadows.  The Island and Ocean Center is situated on the Kachemak Bay estuary and has walks through that area. 

Here are some random shots of Homer. 

The Homer Spit.  The harbor is way out there on the end.

I’m not usually much into the lichens and mosses, but I just had to take this shot when I heard the name…Fairy Barf Lichen.

The small boat harbor in Homer.

The Salty Dawg Saloon.  The front part of the building dates to 1897 and was one of the first cabins built in Homer.  Over the years it has served as the first post office, a railroad station, a grocery store, a coal mining office, a school house, and since 1957, a bar.

Mosaic in the office of a flight-seeing tour company.

A nice peaceful scene on the estuary.

Tsunami warning tower.

A sandhill crane with a colt (name for a baby crane).  These cranes mate for life and the colts stay with their parents for 8-10 months after hatching.

Lastly I promised to update you on whether the mosquitoes were any bigger on the peninsula.  You tell me.

We’ve left the Kenai Peninsula now, passed back through Anchorage, and are heading for Valdez.  So stay turned.