Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Last Great Race on Earth.....Iditarod Headquarters

     We originally had planned to stop in Wasilla to visit with another long time US Air Force veteran and fellow retiree, Randy Cler.  Randy and I were stationed together at Malmstrom AFB, Montana in the mid-70s.  We visited with Randy for several hours at his home one afternoon and relived not only our old adventurous, if not somewhat suspect tales, but where and by which paths our lives have take us.  He and I share a dual career path.  Randy not only completed a USAF career, but is due to retire from the State of Alaska in a few more years.  It was a fine afternoon.  I really enjoy these visits, catching with old friends.
 
     Another reason for our stop was to resolve a DC power issue with our RV.  As long as we are hooked to the truck (towing) or to shore power in a campground we're just fine, but when we try to go off grid (boondocking) we have no DC power from the battery.  I have troubleshot everything I know, so it's off to a Service Department tomorrow morning.  Before you ask, YES.....the fuses are fine, the battery is fine, the shutoff switch is fine, and I successfully ran the length of the wiring.  I figure I am missing a fuse link somewhere. 
     Last, but not least I have always wanted to visit the Iditarod and Museum. It is located an easy 1 mile south of Wasilla on Knick-Goose Bay Road. 
    
     Wasilla is the official start to the most world's most famous dog sled race each March and there is tons of history here.  The Iditarod Trail begins here.  There is also a statue here honoring the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs, most notably the famous lead sled dog, Balto who led the famous 1925 serum to Nome, saving many children. 

     The museum has a very nice display of winning musher and dog biographies, trophies, awards, and memorabilia. 
 
There was a very nice example of a cache used to store supplies enroute for the teams.  These are built high enough to account for snow as well as bears.
There was the "Booty Tree" that displays many different examples of the shapes, sizes, colors, and fabrics the mushers use to protect the dogs' feet and packing toes on ice and frozen snow. 
 

     Of course there is also a gift shop, but that is not what attracted my wife. There was a team of dogs in training that offered trail rides, but also a smaller kennel that had future team members that captured Barb's heart. 
 
 

     This was a pretty cool historical stop for today.  By the way, if you're ever up this way, be sure to stop in for a meal at the Trout House.  On the advice of a check out girl at WalMart we ate breakfast there this morning........DELICIOUS!!!!  I was very nearly up to my waist in Eggs Benedict and Hashbrowns.  Great food, reasonable prices!  


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Whittier: the Great Glacier Tour

     Departing Seward we reversed our course a bit to visit with Molly Tatarka, a good friend and USAF veteran who lives in Sterling, AK.  It was a wonderful afternoon, catching up on old times and friends as we toured the log home she and her husband are building as well as meeting her 3 very cool young sons. 

     We did something NEW the next day; we said the "heck with it" and slept in, delaying our departure by a day.  Afterwards we once again turned our sights east and set sail for Whittier, AK. 
     This small village is located on the northeastern most part of the Kenai Peninsula in a small fjord on Prince William Sound.  The area is surrounded by 26 glaciers that in effect create the weather patterns for the surrounding area so we were treated to lots of low clouds, drizzle, and rain during our stay.  Our camping area was on the northern edge of the village next to the long term boat parking area.  They cleared out an area and leveled out the crushed gravel near the glacial river in order to create some 50 odd spots to park RVs or tents next to the river.  It is private, but cost $20 a night for a parking spot. www.whittierparking.com/camping.html  There are no services here, but there is an RV dump and potable at the city maintenance building only a block away.  It is the only place to camp in Whittier.  Because of the weather we were forced to run sparingly off generator power during our stay.  The hills surrounding our camping area contained a dozen large waterfalls that are the drainage for the Whittier Glacier which is situated right above the village.  You can hear these waterfalls 24 hours a day. 
 

     In order to get to the village you pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.  This 13,300 foot tunnel lies beneath Maynard Mountain.  It is the 2nd largest combined railway & highway tunnel in North America.  The round trip toll was $20 for us and the RV.  It is the ONLY way to drive into or out of Whittier. 
   
     I have to admit we were a bit surprised at the village.  It is quite small, most residents being seasonal.  There is a large railroad yard and longshoremen to load/unload ships, but other than that everything else is seasonal.  In fact the travel brochures tell you that most people come to Whittier to leave:  via ferries, charter boats, cruise ships, cargo ships, and tour boats.  The entire downtown harbor area is a few blocks long.  The harbor is deep and houses all different types of vessels.  There is one small island of credit card only non-manned (2) gas pumps.  Unleaded was $4.62, diesel $4.99.  Fortunately I had gassed up the Honda Gennie and had a spare can when I arrived.  There are only 2 very small grocery stores, neither carrying fresh meat or vegetables.  Most everything is canned, boxed, or frozen.  Still, sticker shock is the rule of the day.  There are only two apartment complexes in town (1 is a low income HUD high rise) and we saw very few houses. 

     We had our next shipment of mail forwarded here and it took us a bit to find the post office.  The large yellow building in the background of this photo houses many apartments, housing office, DHS office, a small convenience store, the medical clinic, union office, and the Post Office.  The other large building in town is the Alaska Railroad HQ.  In spite of all this the people of Whittier are very blue collar and just as friendly as anywhere we have been so far.  In fact the tour personnel we talked to said they love living here part time.  It is safe to say that Whittier, Alaska should be a link to other activities, but maybe not a destination. 
     So why are we here?  This is the port for our Tidal Glacier Tour Cruise.  Once again we booked through Major Marine Tours.  www.majormarine.com  Our tour was a 5 1/2 hour Catamaran tour of the Chugach Mountains while viewing Billings, Leonard, Surprise, Blackstone, Beloit, and Whittier Glaciers while navigating the tight fjords of the northern end of Prince William Sound.  I much prefer the Catamaran vessel as it is more stable on the open water, especially navigating around glacial icebergs.  We got some incredible pictures (nearly 300) of glaciers, mountains, and the Prince William Sound on a beautiful day.  We also saw more Eagles, Sea Otters, Harbor Seals, Dall Porpoises, and even another Humpback Whale.  As it was also the opening day of commercial pink salmon season we had plenty of company on the water as well.  I will not bore you further with commentary, but instead just post some of the many sights of our day. 
 
The Chugach Mountains surround Prince William Sound.
 
 
There were literally hundreds of sea otters everywhere we cruised all day.
 
 
Cruising near our destination we were treated to 3 of Chugach's tidal glaciers.  It was such a wonderful day to sail.  The weather was beautiful with calm winds all afternoon.
 
 
We saw many eagles our entire day.  These two were in the nest near a large group of salmon on a river (what a shocker!)  It is a mother and immature yearling.  It's head will not turn white till it is 5 years old. 
 
 
What trip would be complete without another Humpback Whale showing itself.  There are many of these magnificent beasts all over Coastal Alaska this time of year.  Although we did not get to see a full breach, tail lobs seemed to be the rule of the day.  We NEVER got tired of watching them.
 
 
Of course the main attraction of the day was a close visit to Surprise Glacier.  We got within about 3/4 of a mile in a fjord littered with many smallish icebergs.  Believe it or not, as the passengers wore down many a digital camera battery, the crew netted a piece of pure glacial ice to use making complimentary Glacial Margaritas on our return trip!  
 
 
The most incredible part of a tidal glacier is that it's terminus lies on the ocean.  This means that with increased pressure from above and the constant rise and fall of ocean tides, the glacier will continually 'calve' itself.  This means the glacier is fracturing and splitting off pieces of itself into Prince William Sound, hence the mini-icebergs.  You REALLY have to be on your toes as this action takes place as you are waiting for it......and the sound rivals that of a close thunderstorm or Babe Ruth's bat!  What an echo!
 
I should say that this experience is incomparable, but the only other thing I have witnessed and could describe as breath taking is my first viewing of the Grand Canyon. 
 
 
     Whittier Alaska is one of the finest places on Earth to view this type of natural miracle.  We made our way back to the north after this stop, leaving the Kenai Peninsula after 3 1/2 weeks.  We will refresh, restock, and take care of another nuisance RV problem as we travel through Anchorage and Wasilla.  You have to put in perspective that our RV is 10 years old with nearly 40,000 miles on it;  maintenance issues will occur.   So far these have not been too costly.  We plan on visiting another Air Force buddy that I haven't seen in 39 years.  WiFi in Whittier was spotty at best, even with our Verizon Hot Spot.  We posted these from our campsite in Wasilla on arrival. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Friday, June 20, 2014

Seward and Kenai Fjords Whale Watching

    One of things I envy about Alaska is that all the suburbanites and rat race warriors in Anchorage are only a couple of hours away from some of the best activities and culture in their state.  Seward is one of those jewels located just 126 miles south of the BIG CITY.  It is a small community in the east central portion of the Kenai Peninsula located at the head of Resurrection Bay surrounded by towering peaks.  The drive over from Homer took much longer than anticipated as there were literally thousands of fisherman on the Kenai and Russian rivers as the King and Sockeye Salmon run was in full swing.  Needless to say the traffic was terrible and towing an RV down a highway littered with cars, trucks, and other RVs parked along (and sometimes not even much off) the side of the road was tiresome. 
     We were fortunate once again as we camped at the Seward Resort.  Only 2 miles north of town this is another of the DOD Recreation areas for active duty military as well as retired personnel and their families.  This is a relatively new facility with a main lodge area, some outlying cabins and yurts, and a very nice RV park.  We got a great RV site with electric, water, and free WiFi & cable TV, just a short walk from the showers and laundry for a very modest (under $26) price. 

      I should have titled this "Seward: The Most Beautiful Place in Alaska (Part 2).  This has been typical of the entire trip.  Once I think I have found the most beautiful place I have ever seen, WHOOPS.......I travel somewhere new.  We spent our first day just kicking around the village.  It is a unique Alaskan village; beautiful setting, lots of shops, fishing charters, tour boats, art galleries, the Alaskan Sealife Center www.alaskasealife.org, and places to grab a bite.  This is also a deep water port so the addition of a Royal Caribbean Cruise liner added to the crowds descending on the village in preparation for 'merchant madness'.  Additionally, we visited the Seavey Family Sled Dog HQ.  This is a very famous Iditarod racing family that offers dog training and sled 'Iditarides' off season.  Barb was impressed with the wood carving out front, but had no idea how she was going to get it home. 

      We stopped in at the Marina Restaurant for some lunch and I once again had to go with the Rockfish Platter, although the fish I had in Homer at the Double Dipper Chipper was better.   Barb attacked her usual Monster Killer Cheeseburger.  It is important to note that any lunch around $20 is a decent price in Alaska.  They are famous for their big $7 breakfast specials as well.  A nice stop in before a day cruise on the water. 
 
 
     Day #2 was a short drive out of town to check out the Exit Glacier.  It is only a couple miles back up the Seward Highway and then a 9 mile drive to the west along the glacial carved valley within the borders of Kenai Fjords National Park.  The glacier stems from the Harding Ice field within the park.  This ice field spawns nearly a dozen other glaciers radiating outward.

     There are several trails you can take to see the glacier.  We chose the closer one and it was mostly uphill, traveling through several rocky glacial carved edges with lots of loose shale and did it's best to do me in, nearly succeeding.  Barb, of course, stayed well ahead of me.  You arrive within 20 yards of the edge of the glacier, only then realizing just how staggeringly enormous this mass is.  This close you can hear the water running underneath it and the ice actually makes a crackling noise.  When the breeze is still it is eerily ominous. 
 
 
     On our return to camp I took advantage of a short Ibuprofen Nap and then topped it off with a cold Alaskan Amber before getting to the task of Prosciutto Penne for dinner. 
    
     Our last day in Seward we embarked on an adventure in search of wildlife, most notably whales.  We booked our tour through Major Marine Tours (www.majormarine.com).  They provide a very good, reasonably priced tour with a Kenai Fjord National Park Guide on board that narrates the entire tour, as well as answering any and all questions.  It was a nearly balmy 68 degrees with little wind on our trip.  We toured the entire length of Resurrection Bay, seeing......well, here we go: 
 
 
Sea otters are everywhere in Alaska.  These followed us out of the harbor.
 
 
A lone Mountain Goat resting on a ledge near the bay. 
 
 
We saw several glaciers today, but Thumb Bay was the most beautiful.
 
 
A pod of local Orcas swimming in Resurrection Bay.
 
 
Although Sea Lions are thriving in SE Alaska, they are much more sparse here.  This group inhabits the rocky ledges near the mouth of Resurrection Bay.
 
 
And, of course the STAR of the show is the Humpback Whale.  Spending their winters in Hawaii mating and giving birth to calves, they journey back to Alaskan waters in the summer to leisurely feed. 
 
 
 We viewed two Humpback Whales today, both feeding with the 'Peck Slap' method of slamming their pectoral fins against the water in order to stun the krill for feeding. 
 
   
      Unfortunately, neither of our whales offered us a breach opportunity today, but after one surfacing and three blows we did get a tail lob.  Pictures DO NOT do this magnificent mammal justice.  I can't describe just how humble I felt watching these gentle beasts.  It was a perfect end to our stay in Seward.  A little fresh salt air, a little sun on our faces, and another opportunity to appreciate the beauty that can only be found in Alaska.  Next up for us is another port city of Whittier, Alaska.  We will trek the nautical miles in search of glacier calving.  This post made on our Verizon Hot Spot, even though the resort offered free WiFi. 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Homer Alaska, the Most Beautiful Place in Alaska?

    Of all the things we had planned on our trip, this is the ONE thing I looked most forward to.  I have forever heard and seen the adventures of sportsmen coming to Alaska to fish for the incredibly large halibut, affectionately named 'Barn Doors'.   Finding the charter resources, camping, licensing, and other logistics was probably the easiest part.  I did actually buy another Engel 12vdc freezer for our RV's longer trip storage, but made sure it was empty by the time we got here for the fishing trip.
     What I did not expect was the natural beauty of the location of Homer, Alaska.  Situated at the southern most tip of the Kenai Peninsula, half the town sits on a hillside on the mainland while the hustle and bustle of the fishing/tourism center sits at the end of a 4 mile long spit that extends into Kachemak Bay.  The surrounding scenery across the bay is typical Alaska; one long panorama of snow capped peaks the provides the perfect backdrop for any photograph.  Our typical luck dictated that low clouds and drizzly rain were the state of the weather the day we arrived.   At least there were NO mosquitos.  We camped at the Fishing Hole Campground on the spit with potable water, bathrooms, and access to the RV dump station.  The cost is minimal.  Again, due to the weather we depended on the Honda generator more than we would like to. 
     It rained all day our 2nd day here.  We still ventured out to visit our charter office to confirm and pay for our fishing trip, and of course shop till I dropped.  Barb has incredible staying power.  I must admit that I did find a very nice insulated fleece pullover for our fishing adventure.  We also visited the Fisherman's Memorial located near the south edge of the spit.  This is dedicated to all the fisherman who have lost their lives in pursuit of their passion on the high seas.  Included in this is the name of Jonathon Hillstrand Sr., the father of 5 sons who still pilot the vessel Time Bandit, of Deadliest Catch fame and based in Homer, AK. 
 
     After several hours of touring we decided to treat ourselves to the local lunch favorite, Fish n Chips and where else do you eat this, but on a double decker bus restaurant.  The baskets were reasonably priced and the fish excellent.  I must admit that Barb's rockfish was much tastier than my halibut. 
 
     After several more hours we had quenched my wife's passion for shopping and there was only one place to go on a rainy Alaskan afternoon to top off our day out.  The Salty Dog Saloon! 


     This world famous watering hole is the last stop for nearly every boat captain and crew after a day pulling 'Barn Doors' out of the ocean.  It was early enough to avoid the harbor crews, but we were still lucky to find a couple of seats at the bar to stop for a bit.  There is only one thing you can order here and that is beer, liquor, or soda.  The only food on the menu is microwaveable hot dogs.  Seems hard to believe that would satisfy anyone's appetite after a hard day at sea. Every inch of wall and ceiling space is adorned with literally thousands of dollar bills autographed by patrons.  Of course we did our part as loyal MSU Spartans fans with a GO GREEN GO WHITE dollar bill autographed by my wife and I.   
 
 HO
     Our third day I was up with the sunrise at 4 a.m. (and walking Dharma) and finally saw the mountains across the bay.  I took several shots and Dharma barked at a harbor seal. 
 




 
 
     Later we went to the top of The Bluffs where we could look down on all of Kachemak Bay as well as the Spit with the mountain backdrop

     We traveled to the Beluga Marsh where we got very close to several moose. 
 


     When we returned to camp we were treated to an eagle that was sitting calmly surveying his surroundings on a local building. 
 
 

     No visit to Homer would be complete without the "Fish Tale".   We fished with North Country Charters, a highly experienced outfit with over 35 years experience out of Homer.  Our vessel was 'The Irish', a 53 foot craft capable of accommodating 15 fishermen (or ladies).  We chose the 'short range' charter which is 7 hours in duration rather than an 'all day' trip.  We did cruise out just past the mouth of Kachemak Bay, but not much further into the Gulf of Alaska.  This was Barb's first trip on the deep blue sea and I wanted to make sure she would be fairly comfortable.  On the other hand, I consider myself to be fairly experienced at barfing over the railing should the seas become rough.
     Dawn arrived early as usual and the bay was fairly smooth with winds only at 6 mph.  But, once underway and the charter boat reached the end of the bay and turned south into the Gulf of Alaska things quickly changed.  The remaining 15 minutes of the trip out was full of good swells and tested everyone's limits.  The day went too quickly as we all caught our limit of halibut, but only two reasonably large fish were caught; a 73 and a 106 pounder. 

     Moving around we caught a LOT of the smaller size fish around 27-36 inches, weighing about 15-18 pounds each.  Barb and I were among these warriors.  We also released 6 other fish that were too small to keep, but have to admit that regardless of size this type of fishing tests every muscle in your body.  Imagine reeling in a 15 pound dinner plate from a depth of 204 feet.  I know the guy who battled the 106 pounder for 49 minutes was flat tuckered out and rested afterwards for the better part of an hour. It was a great day nonetheless and once the seas settled down the trip in was smooth.  The crew of the Irish were hard working young college students whose made sure everyone had fun.  I give my wife credit as she landed the two best fish, but I didn't puke and that makes me just as happy.  We vacuum packed and froze nearly 40 pounds of delicious fish (cheeks included).  I think it's safe to say we can't wait till our next trip. 
We were able to access WiFi through our Verizon Hot Spot 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Captain Pattie's Fish House

     Ask anyone in Homer about dining out for fresh Alaskan King Crab and unless you are aboard a crab boat in the middle of the Bering Sea the answer is always the same:  "Captain Pattie's Fish House".   It is located on the spit right in the center of everything that is happening.  As you can see from the picture they serve a wide variety of seafood; all local and very fresh.

     Don't fool yourselves, King Crab is as expensive here as it is in the 'Lower 48'.  The difference is here it IS FRESH, but nearly always frozen when shipped out unless you dine in restaurants that I don't often frequent.  Even in the fresh fish markets we visited, as well as the local Safeway store it was $31.99 a pound!  Barb and I are pretty frugal when it comes to traveling, but suffice it to say this is the most I have ever spent on a meal in my life.  But, like Barb and I decided long before we began this adventure, "You only live once and we may never get back this way again.  Get what you want while you can!"
     On advice from a fellow traveler we made our reservations a day in advance and requested a window table from which to view the bay.  It was well worth it.  Any weekend in Homer this time of year is pretty busy and today was no exception.  We were taken right to our table and once the waitress answered a few of my questions, we began with a very nice salad and sourdough bread.  This is where I should have skimped. 
 

     Once the crab arrived I knew I might be overmatched.  Red King Crab legs are pretty big, the size of a baguette in some cases.  It is easier to get the meat out of the shell than other crab I have eaten and it was good.  I must admit I do like Dungeness Crab better for it's sweetness.  I got a baked potato, broccoli, and butter for the beast.  The trouble began when I realized towards the beginning of my last leg that I was starting to get full.  Barb ordered the same thing and couldn't finish hers either.  I wasn't about to let any go to waste so I forged on, finishing both plates.  I would pay for this later.
     Captain Pattie's is a very good seafood restaurant and offers more than just crab.  They have a nightly special, clams, oysters, prawns, huge scallops, salmon, a Captain's Platter as well as a full line up of steaks and chicken. The food is delicious.  Our hostess was very friendly, but our waitress I would only rate average.  On a tab approaching $16,982 I found it hard to justify her 15%.  I am just kidding about the total, but it wasn't two figures either.  Hey, you only live once. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Kenai Peninsula: Cook Inlet Agate Beaches

     Departing Anchorage we headed south along the Seward Highway through Turnagain Arm and joining the Sterling Highway heading west.  Our first stop was to be near the Captain Cook Recreation Area about 25 miles north of the town of Kenai on the east shore of Cook Inlet.  We spent 3 days boondocking here while beachcombing and searching the beaches for Alaskan Agates.  There was the old style hand pump potable water available, but once again the battery bank and solar panels powered us.  This is the best part of the Land of the Midnight Sun this time of year. 
    We beachcombed Salamatof, Nikiski, and Discovery beaches during our stay.  All these beaches contain good amount of tidal rocks instead of the normal beach sand or mud.  I was surprised to discover that the Salamatof Beach is also the home to a Conoco Oil Terminal for tanker loading.  I only thought tankers visited Valdez.  We also saw several off shore drilling platforms.
 
      Mount Redoubt last erupted in 2009, sending not only large plumes of ash into the air, but tons of silicone oxide that became 'nearly instant agates' when it hit the cold water of Cook Inlet.  For years the tides have been pushing these agates onto the beaches of the Kenai Peninsula.
 
     The weather was fair, but intermittent rain mixed with our days.  We were forced to use the Honda generator to top off the battery bank several times as the cloud cover really didn't allow good solar panel operation.  The State Bird of Alaska continually made it's presence known as we sprayed DEET on ourselves several times daily here.  Sometimes the best part of my day was the late afternoon fire with a cold beer while surveying our days cache of stones.
 

     Barb's in house chef prepared Apple Chicken Sausage Pasta, Fried Razor Clams, and Parmesan Crusted Whitefish and Asparagus during our stay.
 
 
 
 
     Next stop for us is Homer, Alaska......Halibut Fishing Capital of the World!  


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Gwennie's Old Alaska Restaurant

     Don't be fooled by Anchorage.  It is just another big city, but home to nearly half the population of the entire state.  When we arrived in Anchorage Barb and I knew we wanted the best of authentic atmosphere, food, service, and prices.  We hit the jackpot at Gwennie's Old Alaska Restaurant.  They advertise themselves as a 'lodge-like setting with homestyle food'.  It is located in an older section of town SW near the airport, but easy to find.   


 
     The inside d├ęcor of the restaurant is very Alaskan, from taxidermy, wall art, to downright Native Alaskan eclectic.  This is their idea of "Lodge Style".
 
 
 
 
 
 
     The menu  ( http://gwenniesrestaurant.com/menu/)  is 'down home' with some very exclusive Alaskan treats included.    They offer selections from breakfast through dinner.  A wide variety of soups, salads, a kids menu, burgers, sandwiches, BBQ, steaks, and of course GREAT ALASKAN SEAFOOD.  Their selection of nightly dinner specials can often be to die for.  Local travel guides (including my IPhone) list this place under "Eating on a budget", but we found that the locals eat here as well, enjoying the generous helpings at reasonable prices.  In fact we were the only non-locals during our visit.
     We visited on our last night in Anchorage.  We both had our sights set as we had previewed the menu before setting out.  Barb decided on the Reindeer Philly Sandwich and I went with the Crab Louie Salad with the intention that we would share. 
     Although the Reindeer Philly was delicious, it would have been nicer with a longer style Philly bun.  It has a generous helping of sliced Reindeer Sausage, Provolone Cheese, Mayo, Bell Peppers, and Caramelized Onion.  Even with both of us nibbling on it, we still ended up with a half sandwich to take home. 
 
     Although I have had Crab Louie before you are never really prepared for what awaits you.  A generous bed of lettuce mounded with fresh crab meat and surrounded by tomatoes, eggs, cucumbers, olives, and topped off with several stalks of fresh asparagus.  I chose the 1000 Island Dressing for this and was not disappointed.  The salad did not have the same luck with longevity as the Philly and was finished off by us in one sitting.   
 

 
     Gwennie's Old Alaska Restaurant was a find for us.  We enjoyed the generous portions of food, the excellent service, and the authentic atmosphere. We will be coming back this way after our visit to the Kenai Peninsula the next 3 weeks so a return visit might be in order.