Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sniff, Sniff - Wrapping up our journey through Alaska

It was time to get moving, the temperatures were getting lower, the fall rains moved in, with the threat of snow soon to follow.  We’re now back in the lower 48 known by Alaskans as “Outside”.  But I still want to tell you about the second half of Marion and Norbert’s visit.

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act.  Signed into law by Lyndon Johnson, the bill established the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS) and set aside millions of acres of wilderness for the use and benefit of the American people.  There are currently 757 wilderness areas throughout the U.S. that retain their character and where nature is in charge and the imprint of humans is largely absent.

Wilderness Act Signing 50th Anniversary logo and link to website 

Leaving the Alaska State Fair we circled east to Glennallen and south towards Valdez (considered to be the Switzerland of Alaska).  We stopped along the way to see part of another National Park, this time the Wrangell-St. EliasNational Park and the Kennecott Copper Mine.  Named for two of the mountain ranges in the park, the 13.2 million acres comprising Wrangell-St. Elias NP was dedicated in 1980 to “maintain the natural scenic beauty of the diverse geologic, glacial, and riparian dominated landscapes, and to protect the attendant wildlife populations and their habitats; to ensure continued access for a wide range of wilderness-based recreational opportunities; and to provide continued opportunities for subsistence use.”  You just know that it HAS TO have some amazing scenery. 

Our first stop was the park’s Visitor Center where stumbled upon a ranger talk on the wildlife in the park - we settled in for a listen.  Norbert and Marion seemed surprised at the number of activities/talks offered by the park rangers in our national parks.  This particular talk included quite a bit about the habits, and range, of wolves in the park.  

According to the ranger, wolves are considered one of the animal world’s most fearsome natural villains - though they almost never attack humans.  Living and hunting in packs of 6-10 wolves, they roam large distances - as much as 12 miles/day.  When successful in a hunt a single wolf can consume 20 lbs. of meat at one sitting.  Wolf packs are established according to a strict hierarchy, with a dominant male at the top, immediately followed by his mate.  Usually this male and female are the only animals of the pack to breed.  However, all of a pack’s adults help to care for the young pups.  The average lifespan in the wild is 6-8 years.  Despite the size of the park there are only around 50-60 wolves.  This is due to the large range each pack covers and that when they cross the park boundaries they are fair game for hunters by Alaska state law.  

Marion checking out a wolf pelt.

Leaving the Visitor Center we headed down the McCarthy Road, through Chitina to McCarthy and Kenicott through absolutely beautiful countryside, with some interesting stops along the way.

Along the McCarthy Road in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Remains of the Gilahina River Railroad Trestle.  This trestle was rebuilt each year for 30 years after the spring floods would wash it out.  

The Kuskulana River Gorge from the bridge 238 feet above the river.

Once we got to McCarthy, we hopped on the 5-mile long shuttle ride for the Kennicott.  If you remember from a few blog postings back, this is the location of the Kennecott Copper Mine, largest and most pure copper deposit ever found.  The copper was discovered in 1900 and by 1906 the Kennecott Copper Corporation was formed by the Guggenheim brothers and J.P. Morgan.  Construction of a railroad began in 1908 from Cordova on the coast to Kennicott (the town is Kennicott and the mine is Kennecott).  The towns of Kennicott and McCarthy grew quickly and totaled a population of over 1,400 people.  

In 1938 the ore vein was playing out and the expenses of transferring the output to Seattle could no longer compete with the falling price of copper ore.  The mine was officially closed in November of that year.  The managers of the mine gave the workers three days notice that the mine was closing and railroad service was to be discontinued.  If workers wanted a ride out - they had to get all of their stuff into one sock ASAP.  It was said that if you came to Kennicott at the end of that week you could find houses with the dishes still on the table, and clothes in the wardrobes.  The towns now have approximately 40 year-round residents.  We were there at the tail end of the tourist season and the towns were beginning to get the look of their winter season.
Locals gathering on a porch to pass the time.

Kind of says it all…

We decided to take the guided tour of the inside of the Kennecott Mine Buildings - it is an amazing place.  Abandoned in 1938, the National Park Service acquired the property in 1980.  Since then there has continuously been work done to stabilize and preserve the buildings, but no work done to restore them.  This is the policy of the National Park Service in all buildings in all national parks.  In addition, since this is a historic site, all of the items scattered about the property have to stay where they are – they cannot be cleaned up.  Together, these rules make the property a real snapshot in time.

Kennecott Mining Corporation processing plant in Kennicott, AK.

Debris left behind when the mine closed.

The tour of the mine’s ore processing building starts on the 14th floor and winds down to the ground floor.  We learned some amazing facts along the way:  in the winter, the managers of the mine kept the temperature in the processing areas at 32 degrees in order to “encourage the workers to maintain their pace of work” just to stay warm.  The workers (all male of course) lived in company barracks, two men to a bed, hot-bunking to decrease the number of barracks the company would need to build.  No alcohol was allowed on the property.  After being paid the men would go 5 miles down the road to McCarthy which had saloons, restaurants, and brothels, often returning the next morning hung-over and broke.  

 Hardhats are required by all.

As the ore arrived from the mine it was crushed into smaller pieces.  As those pieces came down a chute to this station they fell through the grate on the floor.  There was a man stationed here to further crush by sledgehammer any rocks too large to fit through the grate.

Rocking trays that separated even smaller pieces of ore.

Everywhere we went there were huge wheels, belts, and cables used to move ore through the plant.

Men were at this location to bag up ore that had been crushed to the appropriate size for shipping to Seattle for final processing.  Baggers were the lowest paid workers at the plant.

Stairwells would certainly not have met today’s OSHA standards!

Picture of the power plant supplying electricity to the complex 
(from the top floor of the processing plant).

Two-story boiler in the power plant used to produce hot water for the ore washers.

Even trucks were left behind when the mines closed.

After the tour we were all smiles, either we enjoyed the tour or we were trying 
to pep ourselves up for the 62 miles of dirt road ahead of us.

Continuing our way to Valdez, we stopped off at a spot where we could see the Alaskan Pipe Line up close.  While we were there a security guard came along, explained the pipeline, evaded questions about his route, checked our ID’s, logged us into his activity sheet, then took our photograph for us.
 Checking out our ID’s and logging us in.

In spite of having Germans along, I guess we checked out ok.

Valdez was as enchanting the second time around as it had been earlier in the summer when Heinz and I had traveled through.  After hearing about our boat trip out to the Meares Glacier, Norbert and Marion were ready to head out.  So it was off to Stan Stephens Cruises and a trip to the Glacier.  The day was on the gray side with intermittent rain and cold!  But we had a blast anyway.

Sea otters along the way to the glacier.  The smallest of the marine mammals, sea otters have the thickest fur of all - 850,000-1,000,000 hairs per square inch!  No, that’s not a typo.  In contrast the average hair count for a young human adult is between 100,000 and 140,000 for the entire head (female blonds average the most, and have more fun as a result).

A raft of sea otters.  The whiter the facial fur, the older the otter.

The rain and fog may have made for cold travel, 
but the visual effects were amazing.

Marion and Norbert in front of Meares Glacier.  It was just a 
bit nippier than when we saw it in July…by about 30 degrees!

Once again Heinz shamed someone into lick a 
piece of glacier ice - this time it was Marion.

So of course he had to lick it himself, again.

But the main attraction was watching the ice calve.  
Take a peek at this video to see the ice in action.

The next day we took what I think was the most amazing tour I have ever taken in my life - Anadyr Adventures Valdez Glacier Tour of ice caves.  We paddled in two-man inflatable kayaks across Valdez Glacier Lake between large icebergs, in and out of amazing ice caves and past glacial streams, and crossed over to the glacier face itself.  We lunched on the “beach” of the glacier (ice covered in rocks/dirt), and took a hike across part of the ice itself past crevasses and glacial pools.  Remember all of those photos you’ve seen in books of glowing blue ice that you were sure had been Photoshop-ed?  Well, we’re here to tell you that they haven’t been - or at least not much.  The ability to kayak into an ice cave and touch the walls, see and feel the water dripping down on you, and view the various shades of blue ice was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Kayaking across Valdez Glacier Lake toward our first ice cave.

We all spent large amounts of time with our heads up, mouths open, 
with the sounds of “oooh” and “aaah” echoing off the walls of ice.

Single file into a cave.

The ice was the most brilliant shades of blue.

Then it was time to put in to shore and enjoy our lunch.  A nice touch was the hot tea and chocolate the guides brought along.  I have to admit, most of us stood to eat, that glacial ice is cold.

View of the lake from our lunch “beach”.

A crevasse up on the glacier.

A glacial pool fed by melting glacier ice.

After lunch we got to go through even more caves while kayaking back to our take-out beach.

 Morgan, our efficient and hilarious guide.

This video will give you a better feel for what an ice cave is like. 

Of course there was water in Valdez.  And there were salmon.  So off Heinz and Norbert went to try their luck at pulling in some silvers for dinner.  As they fished, Marion and I tooled around town, the museums, and some shops.  Then we went back to find the “boys” and see what kind of luck they’d had.  I think a few pictures will give you a good idea.
Nice piece of carpet, but I think it’ll clash with the RV d├ęcor.

Hey Norbert, could you see if you can get one that the gulls haven’t already 
pecked the eyes out of – and maybe a bit more meat – and just a tad bit... ah... fresher?
I’d always heard that at the end of salmon season you could walk across a stream 
on the bodies of dead fish.  I thought that was an exaggeration until I saw this one.

After their depressing day of “fishing” all decided it was time to wave farewell to Valdez and turn north to Denali National Park.  The trip up was fabulous.  The colors were changing, the sun was shining, and Marion and I finally let up on the fish jokes.
Along the Parks Highway.

Bridal Veil Falls.

Roadside stop along the Parks Highway…

…where Heinz and Marion discovered wild blueberries…

…which we spent close to an hour picking…

…then boiling them down…

…ending up with wonderful (“Awesome, man”) blueberry jelly 
to go with our homemade bread and yogurt.

We finally made it to Denali - a week before the park closed for the winter.  The colors were bewitching on the day of our arrival.  The weather was ideal for viewing the leaves - a sunny, crisp fall day.  

 Looking across a valley in Denali National Park.

Red leaves surrounding red berries just looks like fall.

The moose were out.

As were the photographers.

The next morning we drove down to the Wilderness Center to look around and catch the Ranger Talk on owls. On the drive back to the campground we stopped for a bit to watch as the weather changed. 

View coming down the hill from the campground in the morning.

Star of the show, a Boreal Owl.

Coming back up to the campground we got snow.  
Snow?  You’ve got to be kidding me - it’s only Sept!

Yep, that’s snow all right.

But it doesn’t seem to bothering this fellow.  
Of course, he does have a nice fur coat to keep him warm.

A day later and the weather was beautiful again and we were off 
on the park shuttle to Eielson Visitor Center deep in the park.

After the snow the park was just magical.  Having seen it green everywhere in the beginning of summer, it was wonderful to see it coated in red, yellow, and white.  As far as wildlife went that day, we saw a couple of moose, but the bears were out getting prepped for their winter siesta.
 After the snow gold and white were the prominent colors.

Along with some red and green.

But the bears weren’t paying any attention to the colors, they just wanted the roots and berries.

Hey, a little privacy here please!
Some places were just white with a tiny bit of color.

A young grizzly with snow on his nose.

And his brother who apparently had to play copycat.

This is Polychrome Pass.  The photographer in the lower part gives a sense of scale.

View from Eileson Visitor Center.

Mom and two cubs chowing down for their winter snooze.

Just looking said it all.

No comment is needed here!  

Even dead plants can make great beauty.

After Denali it was back to Anchorage and Marion and Norbert’s last couple of days in Alaska.  While Marion and I took a photographic tour of the center of town, Heinz and Norbert took in the local Aviation Museum.

 First stop on the photo tour, the flower gardens.  Marion chose pink.

I went for the reds.

Marion took this great close-up of a totem pole by the courthouse.

During a session on photographing flowing water, I got this 
pretty nice image of a miniature waterfall in front of a business.

Antique snow ski attachments for bush planes.

There were small float planes on display.  Outside the museum there were 
hundreds of planes that were 2-6-seaters for flying out to the bush.

Later we stopped in at the Anchorage Museum to see the Native Peoples collection.  In the first arrangement of its kind, the Smithsonian Institution has loaned hundreds of indigenous Alaska artifacts to their place of origin and allows access for hands-on study by Alaska Native elders, artists and scholars. These cultural and historical treasures are exhibited in the new Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum.

The center’s main exhibition is titled Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska. The exhibition features more than 600 objects from the Smithsonian's collections that were selected and interpreted with help from Alaska Native advisers.
Carved ladle, Tlingit and Haida Indians.

Seal hunting hat, Alaskan Eskimo.  The more elaborate 
the hat decorations, the greater the expertise of the hunter.

Athabascan spirit mask.

The museum had a special exhibit on plastic pollution of the world’s oceans.  The major collections of oceanic pollution are located in five large gyres. An ocean gyre is a large system of circular ocean currents formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation. 

The movement of the world’s major ocean gyres helps drive the “ocean conveyor belt.” The ocean conveyor belt circulates ocean water around the entire planet. Also known as thermohaline circulation, the ocean conveyor belt is essential for regulating temperature, salinity and nutrient flow throughout the ocean.

Ocean gyres circle large areas of stationary, calm water. Debris drifts into these areas and, due to the region’s lack of movement, can accumulate for years. These regions are called garbage patches. The Indian Ocean, North Atlantic Ocean, and North Pacific Ocean all have significant garbage patches. The garbage patch in the North Pacific Ocean is sometimes called the Pacific trash vortex or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The size of the patch is unknown, as large items readily visible from a boat deck are uncommon.  Most debris consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface, making it impossible to detect by aircraft or satellite.  Instead the size of the patch is determined by sampling.  Estimates of size range from 270,000 square miles (about the size of Texas) to more than 5,800,000 square miles (8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean). 

Garbage patches are created slowly.  Marine debris makes its way into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for instance, from currents flowing along the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia.  Some of the debris is also dumped from ocean vessels.  The circular motion of the gyre draws in the debris, mostly small particles of plastic.  Eventually, the debris makes its way to the center of the gyre, where it becomes trapped and breaks down into a kind of plastic soup. 

The exhibit consisted of art works, educational panels, and interactive displays - all made from plastic debris gathered from gyres and beaches around the world.
 Plastic Death, Rebecca Lyon

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 


Bounty Pilfered, Pam Longobardi.  Made of 1,000 pieces of ocean plastic gathered 
from beaches in Alaska, Greece, Hawaii, Costa Rica, and the Gulf of Mexico.

We're treating the oceans like a trash bin: around 80 percent of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic.  Plastic that pollutes our oceans and waterways has severe impacts on our environment and our economy.  Seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life are eating marine plastic pollution and dying from choking, intestinal blockage and starvation.  Scientists are investigating the long-term impacts of toxic pollutants absorbed, transported, and consumed by fish and other marine life, including the potential effects on human health.

Biodegradation is the process of breaking down man-made products by nature.  There was a great information panel on how long various objects take to break down.  For a few examples: monofilament fishing line – 600 years, plastic bottles – 450 years, disposable diapers – 450 years, biodegradable diapers – 1 year, Styrofoam cups – 50 years, and newspapers – 6 weeks.  

Marine plastic pollution shows us that it is actually not possible to throw anything "away" - it just goes somewhere else.  Reducing, reusing, and recycling are the best ways to stem the tide of plastics into our oceans.  Here are some specific steps you can take to cut down on your use and protect our oceans.

1. Cut disposable plastics out of your routine. Simple alternatives include bringing your own bag to the store, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content.

2. Recycle. When you need to use plastic, be sure that you recycle it after you've reused it. Each piece of plastic recycled is one less piece of waste that could end up in our oceans.

3. Take Responsibility. Whether you represent yourself, a business, or a government, know how much you are contributing to the problem of plastic pollution.

                Conduct a waste audit and share the information.
Set specific goals to reduce or eliminate your plastic waste generation.

I have to admit that traveling has made me more and more conscious of how human can muck up our planet.  But enough with my soap box. 

While in Anchorage, we took Marion to her first rodeo - she had a blast.  It sometimes got tricky trying to explain the rules of judging each event, but we tried.

Trying to save the barrel on her way around.

Tuck and roll, man - tuck and roll!!

Ride ‘em cowboy!

Fascinated by all the action.

Then, poof, just like that three weeks were up and Norbert and Marion were headed back to Germany; Marion with a huge amount of photos and Norbert... (heavy sigh)... without a fish.

Our last sight of their backs as they head for security.

Heinz and I decided to stay a few more days and went back to Seward as Heinz had heard that the fishing for silvers was good.  Good was not quite exact - excellent was more like it!  In short order Heinz had pulled in 14 large silvers.  The freezer was now at the point that when you opened the door, fish frozen fish would fall out and crush your tow!  That's actually not a "bad" problem to have.
His daily limit of six, caught within 4 hours.

My solution to the freezer dilemma…I learned to can salmon!  
30 jars later I was finished and told Heinz it was time to stop fishing.

So we finally said a fond farewell to Alaska and headed south to Colorado to pick up my dad at the end of his summer sojourn in Grand Junction.  Stay tuned, next up will be our travels with Daddy.

A Cuban meets a German - a perfect finish to a magnificent summer.  
(Cuban cigars courtesy of Norbert and the duty free shop).

Oh, by the way, our final count on large animal sightings for the summer was:
Grizzlies – 21, Moose – 43, Foxes – 3, Elk – 1, Black bears – 11, Coyote – 2, Caribou – 38, Dall Sheep – 37, Wolves – 2, Mountain Sheep – 6, Porcupines – 3, Dolphins – 14, Humpbacks – 6, Orcas – too many to count, and Bison – 93.  Quite a summer to remember.