Monday, July 27, 2009

Kenai Peninsula

We spent two cold, foggy, drizzly days in Homer, hoping for a clear view of Mount Douglas, Augustine, Iliamna, and Redoubt volcanoes that dominate the initial view seen across Cook Inlet, as you approach the town. Mount Redoubt erupted in 1990 and Augustine, with 13 explosive eruptions over 20 days, in 2006. These mountains, as well as several other beauties, are at the eastern edge of the famous Ring of Fire that forms a circle of volcanoes rimming the Pacific Plate. The partial view, with the fog rolling in was taken on the first day we arrived. Before leaving the Kenai Peninsula we tried again but the weather was not much better.

Homer has the feeling of a Town with a split personality. Two sections, separated by about 4 miles, have a completely different look and feel and seem to offer different opportunities. You enter Homer through what I would call a downtown or business area. There are some unique shops and restaurants, several great museums, trails to Bishop Beach, schools, and municipal offices. A regular kind of town.

Drive the 4 miles or so out to what is called the Homer Spit and here you find the other side of Homer. Lots of brightly painted shops, housed in individual units built on posts over the water, dozens and dozens of charter operations offering every kind of trip from kayaking, bear watching, halibut fishing, to evening dinner cruses. There is a local theatre group and galleries showing local artists creations. RV parks abound along the beach and boats and marinas fill in all the spaces. Quite a lot packed into this short spur of land that juts out into Kachemak Bay. This bay is an offshoot of the Cook Inlet.

Homer Spit on the left sticking out in the bay

Highlights for us were the Alaska Islands Ocean and Visitors Center, which describes with interactive displays, the role of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. One of the organization’s projects is removing foxes from islands where bird populations have been decimated. Fox farming on the uninhabited islands, begun by the Russians, was later abandoned when the demand for fur decreased. This created a wild population of foxes on these islands that had no natural predators. The foxes eliminated most of the birds by eating all the eggs and the Wildlife Refuge is hoping that by removing the foxes, the bird population will rebound.

At the Pratt Museum there were two exhibits about the 1968 Valdez Oil spill that were informative as well as emotionally compelling. The spill of 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound occurred on March 23, 1989. It was the largest oil spill in any U.S. waters and eventually spread a deadly oil slick along 1,400 miles of shoreline.

At the 20th anniversary of this accident, scientists are still studying the long-term affects. Recent and ongoing projects indicate that bird, sea otter, and Orca populations have not yet returned to pre-spill levels, and a summer long study, which dug 9000 pits on the shore, to assess how much oil was remaining after 20 years, found that an estimated 20,000 gallons of oil still remains about 5 inches below the surface.

The presentation was arranged with short stories from local citizens and cleanup volunteers, mixed with statistics on the costs and animal losses. There was a black and white photography exhibit showing 20 or 30 photos of the clean up and comments from participants. Today, this spill, that occurred 20 years ago, continues to impact bird and animal life.

Just north of Homer, while camped at Anchor Creek, we received a call from Sharon and Francis Morrow, the couple from Rockland, Maine that we met in Prince Rupert. We enjoyed a couple of days with them at the Anchor Creek campground. Marlin and Francis fished the Creek and Sharon and I combed the beach.

I liked this idea for a retaining wall on the beach. One root end was buried in the sand

A little Beach Art

Dozens and dozens of eagles roosted in the area where the river enters the ocean. One morning I counted 10 in one tree with about 5 more nearby. I thought they were waiting to catch some fish, but a local told me they were waiting for the Salmon to die so they could get an easy meal. These birds were so used to people that you could walk within 30 feet of them and they would not fly away. Many were immature but at least a third of the ones we saw were adult eagles. We even watched while an adult intimidated two immature birds off their perch. She was either an elder demanding respect, or their mother who was not happy with what they were doing or how they were doing it.

Anchor Beach immature Eagle

This area is famous for Halibut fishing and the charter boats are launched into the ocean from the beach using tractors. Sharon and I were returning from a long walk one afternoon when the fishing boats were coming in for the day. We were surprised when the tractors, hitched onto a trailer, then backed into the breakers till the water was almost over their wheels. Even more surprising was how fast the boats propelled themselves onto these trailers. Apparently they must keep their speed up so the back end of the boat does not sink down and scrape the bottom.

Tractor Launching at Anchor Beach

Leaving the Kenai Peninsula we headed back toward Anchorage stopping at Bird Creek to witness what is called “combat fishing”. When the salmon are running, any river can look like this. It is truly a family affair, with grandparents, parents and kids all giving it a try. We even saw a young woman coxing her grandmother along the slippery bank and getting her tackle prepared for her so she could fish.

Bird Creek, just south of Anchorage. "Combat Fishing"

We only spent one afternoon in the city of Anchorage. It has a busy downtown section decorated with a multitude of colorful hanging pots and vivid gardens. The city sponsors “Wild Salmon On Parade” where artists decorate salmon models and they are displayed throughout the city. My favorite was Bar-King Salmon, a fish covered with bark scales. Another, a take off on the famous Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage, called “Up Ship Creek without a Paddle”, pictured several pairs of boots in a streambed along with a salmon.

Bar-King Salmon

Up Ship Creek

The Visitors Center cabin sits amoung city skyscrapers
The next leg of this trip will take us north to Denali National Park, then to Fairbanks.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Haines and Beyond

Haines was our last stop on the Alaska Marine Highway system. Since departing the inside passage our travels have been in and out of the mountain ranges, along magnificent rivers and side trips on long dead end gravel roads. As much as we enjoyed all the rural towns and cities visited by water, we feel more in our comfort zone here in the wilderness.

Our last departure from the Alaska Marine Highway

The pictures below highlight only a small portion of the wonders observed, partly because of the hazy smoky atmosphere we traveled through. Over 50 fires are currently burning in an area around Dawson and Fairbanks, so any views of the mountains were limited. Phone and Internet access were also sketchy.

While in Haines, we camped at Chilkoot Lake State Recreation Area, which was about 10 miles outside of town. The approach is along the edge of the Chilkoot River and the park is in a conifer forest at the edge of the Lake. I had been reading If you Lived here I’d Know Your Name by Heather Linde. Heather is a long time resident of Haines. It was fun spotting places that I had had a preview of in her writing.

Chilkoot Lake. The campground was along the left side of the lake

Chilkoot River that runs out of the lake

Haines is the home of Fort William H. Seward, named of course, after the Department of Interior gent who purchased Alaska from Russia. Remember Seward’s folly from U.S. history? This deactivated Army post is now B & B’s, private homes and the eclectic Halsingland Hotel. The original fort, established in 1898, was to provide law and order for the rowdy miners.

My favorite attraction in this quirky little town was the Hammer Museum. Begun by a man named Dave Pahl with his own collection, it has grown to over 1,500 specimens that includes a case of “What was this used for” hammers. People just keep sending him hammers of all kinds. The young woman docent knew the history of all the interesting pieces in the building. We thought she had been doing this for years but she assured us she had only started there 9 weeks before. Oh to have the fresh neurons and synapses of the young.

The view from Haines city limits

A Haines Garden

We stopped at the Alaska Indian Art Center and were treated to a totem in progress. Actually, it was half painted and only needed the addition of some minor carving details before it could be shipped off to the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. This facility receives commissions for work that is sent all over the world.

The almost compete totem

Beaver with his tail

Between Haines, which is in Alaska, and Haines Junction, which is in Yukon, Canada, the road follows the Chilkat River for a time. Along the river there were several fish wheels. We were told these are used to sample and count the migrating salmon that are coming up the river to spawn.

A section of this river, just outside Haines, had been designated the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. In the fall there is a very late run of spawning salmon here and an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 eagles come to enjoy the last easy bounty before heading for their winter stomping grounds.
During our Inside Passage cruise back in 2003 (?), we booked an excursion to this renowned Eagle site. Our pal John Miles loves eagles, and where else could you see the most eagles in Alaska, right? Well they did not tell us that this congregation of our National Symbol occurs in October and November. We saw exactly two eagles that day, and while here on this trip, we did not see any. Looks like we need to make another trip during November if we are to witness the Council Grounds packed with Eagles.

I took this for Linda & John Miles and John & Mary Cole to remember our last trip here.

Dwarf fireweed with the smoky mountains in the background

Trumpeter Swans seen along the road. Large numbers of these and the Tundra Swans, who are slightly smaller, nest here

This monument to a 21 year old Native American was just at the side of the highway. Beautiful carvings were on all the rocks surrounding the central obelisk

Local wildlife

The campground experiences we have had range from the majestic to the whimsical. In Tok, an ad for Sourdough pancakes tempted us to pull into the Sourdough Campground. It not only advertises, “All you can eat sourdough pancakes”, they boast that it is the campground where you will have the most fun. Who could resist all that hype?

One piece of the “fun” was a nightly pancake toss. The object was to land a pancake in a bucket that was about 30 feet away. About 30 to 40 people were in attendance, most gave it a try and only three participants hit the bucket. Marlin was one of them and got a token (one corner of a pancake) for a free breakfast the next morning.

At the end of the official “toss” the young man, who had been adding local color to the spectacle, asked two couples if they would like to play another game. They were agreeable, so he set the husbands up with buckets on their heads, gave the wives large stacks of cakes and instructed them to throw as fast as they could. The winner turned out to be a softball player with a husband who had a good sense of humor. It was fun

In Wrangell St Elias National Park and Preserve we spent a couple of nights camped on the 43 mile long, dead end Nebesna Road, checking out fishing conditions in the many accessible small ponds. The sign below was the “local color” here. We choose not to camp here.

The next off shoot from the highway investigated was the road to Lake Louise. Here again are dozens of small trout ponds just a short distance off the road. We checked out quite a few of them, and stayed in a former Military vacation spot. Dwight D. Eisenhower once stayed in a cabin here to enjoy the fishing and quiet after returning from WWII.

Checking out the lake just below this camp site. There was one lonely swan there.

This sunset was taken at 11:15 at night.

This was the post office located at the Hart D ranch, which includes a lodge and restaurant and run by a local sculptor, Marion DeHart. It is currently for sale.

Breakfast at Lake Louise
Between Lake Louise and Anchorage the road passes the Matanuska Glacier who’s upper basin sits at an elevation of 10,000 feet where it may snow any day of the year because summer temperatures average below freezing. An information sign said that 75% of the world’s fresh water is stored in glaciers. If all the land ice melted at once, the sea level would rise 231 feet world wide.

We made a quick stop in Anchorage to have our truck checked out and decided to head on to the Kenai Peninsula. We will stop to see what the city has to offer on our return trip.

Monday, July 6, 2009


The trip from Sitka back to Juneau was on the Fairweather. This catamaran is called the “fast ferry” because it makes the trip between Sitka and Juneau in five hours instead of the eleven it takes on the other boats. Talking with some locals during the trip, we learned that even though it is fast, it is prone to frequent breakdowns when it sucks in logs and other debris after the frequent winter storms.

We only had a quick overnight in Juneau and left for Skagway on Friday, July 3. This leg of the journey was on the Malaspinia. This vessel was the first ferry built when the Alaska Marine Highway was developed in 1963. Each boat we have been on has a different personality. Our favorite so far has been the Fairweather, but they are all well maintained, with similar amenities, and friendly crew.

Coming into Juneau again with the Mendenhall glacier in sight

The ferry arrived in Skagway about 10:30 PM. We located the campground and got set up just in time to see the 11:00 town fireworks through the trees surrounding our campsite. We also missed the street dance, which we heard was quite an event. The next day, however, there were “events” all day. This Fourth of July celebration began at 9 AM with a road race, and continued with activities all day, until the Duck Derby at 5:00.

The parade, which town folks boast, “Is so good you get to see it twice”, passes through town, turns around and marches right back up the way it came. This is the year the State of Alaska is 50 years old. In keeping with this birthday theme, two fifty year-young women, who were born in Skagway, were chosen as the two parade grand marshals.

The list of fun events included a dessert auction, foot races for various age groups, a kids carnival, a tug of war, arm wrestling, horseshoe tournament, a railroad spike driving contest, a slow bike race, and my favorite, a two block long line for the egg toss. Last year the town captured the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most people in an egg toss. They mustered 1163-recorded people and took the honors away from another Southeastern Alaska town called Wrangell.

Steam Engine 73 all decked out for the fourth of July. I took this from our camper

This was a 100 yard dash for women over 40. Since I was WAY over 40, I joined in. (I did not come in last)

Raising the flag in honor of Alaska's 50th Birthday

Gettting set up along the two city blocks for the egg toss (You can tell I really liked this event)

He did it


Skagway is noted for its part in the gold rush of 1897-1898. Although the gold fields were about 600 miles away from this inside passage port, it was the gateway to the White Horse pass and the nearby Chilkoot Pass which left from the city of nearby Dyea. These two passes were the preferred jumping off locations on the tortuous journey to the Klondike, where the gold was found.

Would be miners sailed from California and Washington into Skagway, where they had to pull together one ton, a years supply, of provisions and equipment before they would be allowed to cross the boundary into the Yukon. This situation created a natural breeding spot for crooks and swindlers, one of the most famous being a man called Jeff “Soapy” Smith.

During a lull in the fourth activities, we scooted in to see a locally presented play called The Days of 98 Show. This light hearted spoof takes place in “Jeff Smith’s Parlor” where whiskey and dance hall girls are only one of the places a miner could loose their money to Soapy and his gang. The play does not make light of Soapy’s villainous ways, but points out some of the few good deeds he did for busted miners after his operation had swindled them out of all they had. Lots of singing, dancing and audience participation, (volunteered or not).

the can can dance

The "slow" bike race for women

and men

The two trails into the Klondike Gold Fields, the White Pass and the Chilkoot, were both treacherous, dangerous treks over the coastal mountains. The Chilkoot was steeper and shorter than the White Pass. No matter which choice the tens of thousands of gold crazy men and women who braved the trip made, they had to bring with them, over these mountains, one ton of provisions, enough to last them a year.

During 1897 and 1898 several creative means to profit from moving these goods were invented. They ranged from simply hiring Native packers to carry provisions, using horses and mules, to the construction of an overhead tram. The White Pass railroad was the most ambitions and in the end it became the only method used to get over the pass. Construction of this rail line began in July of 1898 and the 110 miles of track was completed in July of 1899. Unfortunately, the gold rush was over within another year.

There are unbelievable tales and photos to be seen chronicling this piece of Klondike Gold Rush history. I could not begin to tell the story. If you are interested in the history The National Park Service has a web site at

Sunday morning we had tickets for a ride on the very same White Pass and Yukon narrow gage railroad that was pulled by an old steam locomotive number 73. The trip seemed almost too much for the train, I cannot imagine trekking over this pass with a 100 pound pack on my back, walking over snow covered rocks.

After passing the summit at 2,650 feet, our train turned around at Frazer Meadow. The miners still had to travel on till they reached the Yukon River, where they had to build a boat to continue on another 560 miles before reaching the gold fields. The scenery was magnificent and the whole trip I kept thinking about those prospectors trudging through the pass in the middle of winter. Ugh.

White Pass Railroad Depot

Snowblower for the train

Looking Back

A National Park Service rental cabin donated by the White Pass Railroad

Bridge ahead

7000 foot peaks

Tunnel #2

Thankfully, this bridge was decomissioned in 1968

White Pass Summit

Fraser Meadow station, our turn around point

Frasier Lake

These trees here at the tree line are more than 100 years old.

The five flags of U.S., Canada, Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia.