Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Alaska Just Keeps Getting Better

It has been over 3 months and the time has flown!  We'll be leaving Alaska soon, but we’re taking many good memories with us. 

When I left off my tale of our adventures we were about to leave Anchorage in search of a place to fish.  A couple of nights before we left, we met up for dinner with a cousin of Heinz’s on his dad’s side.  She and her husband were doing a whirlwind tour of the state and this was their last night before flying back to Michigan.  We all agreed that Alaska is a magical place and we’d love to come back.

Will, Kathleen, me, and Heinz

Then it was off to Willow Creek for Heinz and I.  Around 40 miles north of Anchorage, the silver salmon were in the creek and so was Heinz in short order.  We spent around a week splitting our time between Willow and Montana Creeks.  Heinz fished and pulled in several nice-sized silver salmons.
  
 
Not bad for a morning’s “work”.
  
Especially when a fillet is this big!

While Heinz was off doing his manly thing, I played the role of the gatherer and found that the high-bush cranberries were ripe.  So I picked berries, in between doing a little photography.
  
Two pounds of wild cranberries…

 
…simmering on the stove…

 
…make great cranberry syrup on your morning pancakes!

As far as the photography, I toddled around, having fun trying out a new set of magnifying filters, a 50mm fixed lens, and practicing with the manual controls.  Took some pretty good photos, if I say so myself. 
 
Mushrooms make great models, very cooperative at holding still…

 
…even when the wind is blowing.

 
The leaves were beginning to turn, guess summer is almost over.

 
Then I rounded a turn in the path and found this little guy taking a stroll towards me.  Didn’t spot mom, but I figured it was a good time to head for home.

We also came to realize that fishing in Alaska is not all about the fish.  Here it is truly a family affair.  It was nice to see families out enjoying themselves, fishing together, and stocking up the family freezer for winter.

Hey Dad, I think I’ve got one!  What to you mean my line won’t reach the fish and doesn’t even have a hook?

 
Now watch me; it’s all in the balance.  Yes, that’s her pink and purple tackle box in the background.

 
I’ve heard of starting them young, but really.  That IS a fishing pole in her hand!

 
Now this is truly a family affair, five kids, two parents, one coffee thermos, and when he was done, 4 fishing poles.

In short order our time on the creeks was over and it was back to Anchorage once again.  But this time it was to pick up guests.  Heinz’s cousin Norbert and his girlfriend, Marion, flew over to spend 3 weeks with us and see Alaska.  And boy, did we see it - well, the south central portion of it anyway. 

I would like to thank Norbert, Marion, and Heinz for their photographic contributions to this blog entry.  Between the four of us I think we got some pretty nice shots of Alaska.  I hope you like the upcoming virtual journey.


Marion and Norbert on arrival, the sign says it all.

After a good night’s sleep, we left Anchorage headed for the town of Homer and destinations in between along the Kenai Peninsula.  The little town of Hope, 96 miles south, seemed like a great first stop.  Hope, a former gold-mining town with a current population of 148, is located on the northern end of the Kenai Peninsula, on the south shore of the Turnagain Arm of Cook’s Inlet.

After the discovery of gold in Six Mile Creek in 1895, more than 3,000 stampeders headed for the area. By 1897 there was a thriving commercial center with stores, hotels, social halls, community councils, a post office, a school and of course, saloons.  But Hope’s heyday was short.  In 1898, news of the gold rush in Canada’s Yukon arrived and most of the miners packed up and headed for the Klondike.  There is still a school located in Hope with a total of 14 students, grades 1-12.  These days the school district and local retail businesses catering to the tourists and weekend fishermen provide the only employment in town producing a median income of $24,432 per family. 

There are still original buildings in town, a small, but nice historic museum, fishing or gold panning in Six Mile Creek if you are so inclined, and hiking trails leading into the Chugach National Forest.

 Seaview CafĂ© and Bar in Hope.
  
This was the second school building in Hope and now houses the town library. 

 
Spotted this in the museum - Flying Manual, circa 1938, complete with instructions for building your own Hickman Baby Seaplane.

 
Also in the museum were these tobacco boxes used by miners to indicate boundaries of their claims.  They were nailed to a tree at each corner of the claim with copies of the location notice inside so everyone would know an area was already staked.

Heinz had been telling Norbert for weeks about the great the fishing is here in Alaska and had him all ready to head out for salmon.  So our next stop along the Kenai Peninsula was the Russian River.  Norbert had never fished before, so we got him a license, rented some hip boots, and Heinz schooled him up.  The ferry didn’t start running until 0700, but the boys had a plan.  Since the ferry did not start as early as they wanted, we were to all get up at 0500, be dressed and ready to leave by 0530, Marion and I would drive them 2 miles down the road to a spot they could wade across the river and be in place by 0630 at the latest, gaining themselves all of 30 minutes or so fishing time – 30 minutes.    R-i-g-h-t, uh-huh, sure…

 First lessons the night before.

As with most “the best of plans” it didn’t go as planned.  Let me put it this way - we did get up at 0500; we did get dressed and were ready to leave by 0530; we did start breakfast right away; but then we sat around drinking coffee/tea and talking until 0645 (a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the trip).  After that morning our mantra (when discussing what time to get up) quickly became – “5 AM, because we OWN 5 AM!”

We got to the ferry promptly at 0700, got in line to purchase tickets when they opened, and along with several others, waited, and waited, and waited.  At 0800, someone finally let someone else know that no one was at the ticket office.  Soon a car roared up, a third person knocked on one trailer to wake up the fourth person, who came out five minutes later, to walk to yet another trailer to wake up the fifth person, who came to open the booth and get the ball (ferry) rolling (ferrying).

 A lot of life is about timing, and we were there on Sunday morning, and the ferry operators appear to have had a pretty good Saturday night.  So, we were up by 0500, and finally on the river by 0830 – and the whole trip was only about 200 yards (heavy sigh).
  
 Ready to head out, but NOT at 0530!


 
Norbert on the ferry, eager to catch his first salmon.

 
Second lesson – this one on the river.

 
Concentrating on Heinz’s instructions.

 
Heinz caught the first fish, but Norbert quickly mastered the fine art of netting them.

 
And that was one ugly fish.  At this stage of a pink salmon’s life (red body and green head/tail, and VERY large teeth) they are no longer very good to eat.  They are about to or have already, spawned and are dying.  So back into the water he went.

I’m not sure, but I think I heard Norbert repeating the rules in his sleep that night.

After fishing all day, the boys caught three or four played-out salmon and one Dolly Varden (a type of trout), and came home soaked – Norbert from his hip boots filling up with water when he got out a little too deep, and Heinz from straight out falling into the river.  The guys acknowledged that with the results they were getting - it was time to move on.  The next morning we hitched up, and drove further south towards Homer.

Along the way we stopped in Soldatna to visit the Homestead Museum, see a couple of sights, and hike the Seven Lakes Trail (which only goes by 5 lakes - go figure) in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.  We had beautiful weather, an amazing place to hike, great company, and mosquitoes, lots and lots of mosquitoes.  Luckily most of them were attracted to Norbert, so as long as you stayed at least 4 feet away from him, you had no problem.

                       
Our fearless leader and the group’s designated “mosquito sacrifice”.
  
During the day Norbert decided to do his best Vladimir Putin impression and went for a swim, actually more of a quick dip - that water was cold.

 
That’s right Norbert, stay a few feet away and keep your little buzzing friends with you.

 
End of the day view of Engineer Lake.

Next was a brief visit to Nikolaevsk, a small village just outside of Anchor Bay.  Anchor Bay is the westernmost town in the U.S. accessible by auto – a visit a check-off on your list of Alaska  “must-do’s” – because there really is not much else to see or do there.  But I digress.

Nikolaevsk is the home to an old Russian Orthodox church, and a small group of Russian Old Believers.  This is a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church that broke away in 1666 over changes in the religion imposed by the Russian State.  For an interesting article about the sect check out this link: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/05/a-17th-century-russian-community-living-in-21st-century-alaska/275440/

Transfiguration of Our Lord Church, Nikolaevsk, AK.

 
Russian Orthodox Cemetery

 
The church also has a cemetery adjoining it dedicated to veterans of the armed services.

 
The cemeteries were moving and dignified places as the fog moved in.

Arriving in Homer, we quickly set up camp, and took ourselves down to the shops on the Spit.  There we booked an afternoon flight-seeing tour to watch the bears on Katmai Island, and a water taxi to take us across the bay to hike in Kachemak State Park.  Happy with our plans for the next two days we wandered through the shops and fixed a leisurely dinner while watching the sunset. 

Shops along the Homer Spit.

 
Heinz and Marion kicking back and waiting for the call to dinner.

 
Sometimes the cook just gets NO respect.

 
But the sunset was worth the wait.

We were up and moving the next morning after 0500 (remember - we OWN that time, but nothing said we had to use it).  Breakfast time had quickly become a time full of dreams and schemes (requiring early rising and… well, ACTION,) but somehow we almost always managed to eat, drink, and talk our way to 8:00, 9:00, 10:00… or beyond.

On this day, our first stop was the Ocean and Islands Visitor Center (around noon) where they had a special exhibit of wildlife photography.  Marion (also a photography enthusiast) and I spent a bit of time drooling over the photos and trying to figure out how they were done.  Following that we went up Skyline Drive to eat lunch and enjoy the scenery.  Unfortunately a large part of the scenery was an enormous fog bank moving in from the Pacific.  Sigh, our previously scheduled bear flight-seeing trip had to be cancelled and rebooked for the next day, pushing our hike in Kachemak out another day as well. 
  
 Smile for the camera.

  
Homer and the Spit from Skyline Drive.  All that white across the middle is not glare or a bad photograph - it’s fog, lots and lots of fog, and the reason our bear-viewing flight was cancelled.

We filled up the rest of the day driving around town, wandering through galleries, and generally relaxing.  The next afternoon some fog moved in again, but the pilots at Alaska Bear Adventures said that it was safe to fly, and the bear-viewing flight was on.  The flight over to Katmai Island was amazing and well worth the cost - even if we hadn’t seen any bears.

Imagine taking off in a small plane seating six, including the pilot.  Think of flying over blue green water, green mountains, white snow, and white and blue glaciers, and lakes in the tops of volcanic calderas, then landing on a thin strip of sandy beach and seeing a bear sitting by the water with a salmon in its mouth.  Though the following photos will give you an inkling of what we saw and experienced, there is no way that photos can do justice to the spectacular sights.

 
Norbert trying out his “Alaskan sneakers”. 

 
The rest of us suited up and ready to go.

 
Green mountains along the Alaskan coastline.

 
Glacier stream emptying into the Shelikof Strait.

Majestic is the only word that came to mind.


 
Approaching a glacier by air.

 
What a view!

 
Glacial lake in a volcanic caldera.

 
Glacial flow
  
Close enough to reach out and touch – at times it looked as if we might not clear the next ridge.

video
To get a really good feel for what our flight over the glacier was like, check out this 1-minute video that Norbert shot.

 
River running from the mountains to the ocean.

 
A grizzly from above.

 
Our landing strip.

Bear with salmon.


 
Heinz was looking through the binoculars when the bear started charging towards us.  He freaked until he realized she was after a fish, not him.

 
Mom chasing down dinner for her cubs.

Heading off to look for a better fishing spot.

 
Heinz and the pilot helping me drag my feet out of the mud.  This was not simple beach sand we were trekking through.
  
Heinz sighed when helping me up from my knees, but I had the last laugh when he sat down in the mud!


Pre-boarding on the way back to Homer.  None of us could quite get those grins off our faces.  From L to R: Marion, Pieter (a Swede who also flew in our plane), me, Heinz, and kneeling, Norbert.

 
The sunset on the flight home.

 
Pity the poor guy who had to clean out our plane - Heinz’s seat.

 
Teresa will kill me if I get that much mud on the car seat! Careful, Marion, this is a G-rated blog.

Day four in Homer and we hopped on a water taxi and rode across the bay to Kachemak Bay State Park and the Glacier Lake Trail.  This popular hike crosses flat terrain before winding through stands of cottonwood and spruce.  Along the way the trail intersects with the Grewingk Glacier Trail.  We took the Grewingk Trail for around a mile just to ride the Grewingk Creek Tram.  The tram is a hand-operated cable car crossing the creek. 

The Grewingk Creek Tram


 
Norbert helping bring the tram to our side of the creek.

Content with our achievement, we doubled back to the Glacier Lake Trail and continued on our way to the broad, open beaches of Grewingk Glacier Lake.  Beautiful and peaceful, this is a wonderful place to stop, eat lunch, and relax for a while.  

Relaxing over lunch at Grenwingk Glacier.


 
Devil’s Club berries along the path.  Nice to look at, but not to eat.

 
Marion playing wood nymph.

 
Hiking back to the beach for our ride to Homer.

 
The Blue Too, our taxi, picking us up at the end of the day.

Too soon it was time to travel north out of Homer.  We headed for the town of Palmer, and the Alaska State Fair.  In 1935 the U.S. government offered homesteads in the Matanuska Valley.  A farming colony was established with the intent of opening up Alaska, providing food to the military in case of war, and giving families a fresh start.  A total of 203 families from Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma were selected.  Four years later, only 40% of those original colonists still remained. 

During their first year, the colonists constructed homes, cleared fields, and started a town.  By July 1936, they were ready for a celebration.  The Matanuska Valley Fair Association was formed and they held a four-day fair in September.  The fair coincided with the opening of the Knik River Bridge, which linked the city of Anchorage and the Valley by road for the first time.  This, combined with the railroad, meant that people from all over the state could attend the fair.  That year’s events included the crowning of the Fair Queen, a baby show, boxing matches, horse races, dances, a rodeo, and hundreds of agricultural entries, including giant cabbages, carrots, peas, and other vegetables.  Annual fairs have been held in Palmer ever since. 

The giant cabbage contest tradition began in 1941, when the manager of the Alaska Railroad offered a $25 prize for the largest cabbage.  Max Sherrod of the Matanuska Valley took the prize with a 23 pounder.  By 2012, Palmer farmer Scott Robb set a new record for the world’s heaviest cabbage at 138.25 pounds.  Two new state records were set at the 2013 Fair: Dale Marshall of Anchorage with an 89.25-inch-long gourd, and Kathleen Plouview of Wasilla with a sunflower with a head width of 20 inches.

Pony ride at the fair.


 
102.4 lb. cabbage.  This year’s Grand Prize went to one at 117.95 lbs.

 
71.4 lb. rutabaga

 
How about almost 5 lbs. of carrot?

 
A beautiful salmon, but who drank all the Crown Royal?

 
This sure would have gotten my vote.

 
69 straight years of State Fair entries and a lifetime entrant number.

 
A budding "Alice" proudly holding the stuffed cat she made.

I’ve got lots more to tell you about, but will leave that for my next (and probably last) posting from Alaska.  Soon, I promise - I’ve already started it!  Now, now, don’t whine Bert - it isn’t polite.

So I’ll leave you with some of our friends of the day. 

Jellyfish out of his element (sorry, some puns are just too obvious to pass up).


 
The Daytona Speedway of sand snails.  These little guys can really get some speed up.

 
Flounder that missed the tide.

 
Moose grazing in Kenai.

 
Spruce Grouse along the 7 Rivers Trail.

 
Marion’s friend – she decided that seeing real bears from a bit more distance would be just fine.

 
Sandhill Cranes browsing through a front yard in Homer.

 
Pups for sale napping in the bed of a pickup.  Who can resist these little guys?