Anchorage Redux

July 29-30, 2012

Its time to head back to Anchorage on our way back into the core of Alaska. Its not a very long drive so we plan to take in a few more sites around Girdwood.

Because of its geography, the Turnagain Arm experiences a tidal bore, which I’m told is somewhat rare. This means that the leading edge of the incoming tide takes the form of a wave. The strength and size of the wave varies based on many conditions. Today’s wave is forecast to be on the small side, but its our only chance, so we decide to stick around until the afternoon to see it anyway.

Since we have some time to kill, we head over to the Wildlife Conservation Center. The center rehabilitates and houses injured animals and animals that can no longer be released into the wild. This is another place we had seen on our first trip to Alaska. Its Alaska’s version of a drive through animal park, except that the animals are not always sleeping.

Big grizzly, sitting like a stuffed animal, waiting to get tossed some food.

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Losing a little patience with the attendant. I want my food now!

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This is a baby moose, apparently doing some yoga as part of its rehabilitation.

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Its been a while since we’ve seen bison. These are wood bison. One is giving Reen the rare stare-down, while the others maintain the traditional “talk to the butt” pose.

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Nice shot of a caribou (reindeer). This one may have escaped from Santa, notice he’s still wearing part of a harness on his head. I think Santa may be getting a visit from RPS (reindeer protective services).

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Here’s one for cat lovers, a lynx. Her enclosure ends about 10 feet from a baby deer enclosure (i.e. dinner). That is the reason for her focused stare.

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There were also some large moose, a bald eagle, black bears, elk, and a really, really, really bad smelling porcupine. Seriously, if you see a porcupine, stay away. There was probably more to see, but it was getting late and we had to get the viewing area for the tidal bore.

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We drove to a suggested area for viewing the tide and waited. The days conditions caused the tide to run late (probably traffic on the interstate), but it eventually arrives. At least we think so. The bay is wide at this spot and we’re not that close so it turns out to be, as somewhat expected, underwhelming. That “wave” in the picture is probably about 6″ high. We are told that on good days, the wave can get a foot or two high and people have even been known to surf it down the arm.

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The bore moves slowly so we stop a few miles down the road again where we can get closer to the bay. The wave is even smaller but you at least get a sense of it.

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Enough excitement for one day. Time to head to Anchorage. An hour later we pull back into Centennial campground, which is starting to feel very familiar. We spend the rest of the doing our laundry and then heading out for dinner, another trip to the Mooses’s Tooth, for … wait for it… Pizza and Beer!

The next day we get our mail waiting for us in Anchorage, pick up our new city water inlet and install it, and pack the campers to the limits with food and supplies for our 7 days in the Denali wilderness.

Hanging By A Thread In Girdwood and Reen Makes a New Friend

July 27-28, 2012

Our last stop in the Kenai peninsula is the town of Girdwood, yet another small Alaskan town. It is a popular destination for skiing, mountain biking, para-sailing, and hiking. We did none of those things save for hiking.

Its a short drive from Hope, so even though we left late so we could visit the Hope museum, we are set up in “camp” by mid afternoon. Camp is just an asphalt parking lot of the Alyeska Ski Resort, no services for $10/night. At least half the lot is filled with cars, but there is plenty of room for us and the handful of other campers that eventually arrive.

The parking spot next to our camper turns out to be quite popular with a woman who seems to show up at the resort every day to go hard-core mountain biking (you ride the ski lift up and the bike straight down). Reen chats her up and plays with her dog both days. Her name turns out to be Jill and she is the coolest, cutest, mountain-biking, rescue dog raising, internet blogging, Alaskan chick you can imagine.

The weather is great so Reen and I decide to spend the evening hiking. Brian and Will stay behind and go out to dinner with their friend Paul, who has just arrived to spend a few days camping with them.

We head out on the Winner Creek trail, which has a trail head right on the resort property. Its not the most remote hike we’ve done, but its a very scenic trail through the forest with both rivers and gorges. Here’s a couple of shots of Reen on one of the bridges over the river. Isn’t she cute in her hiking skirt!

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Getting over the gorge isn’t so easy, and requires a little more muscle. Instead of a bridge, the forest service has installed a “hand tram”. This is pretty much a small cable car powered by YOU. When we get there, the car is on the other side, so the first thing we have to do was pull it back to our side. This shot is from the station on our side after we’ve pulled it over. You can see its pretty far across to the other station.

It looks a little hairy but we climb in and start pulling again. Its actually scarier to look at than it is to actually ride. This is a shot of the side we’re heading to from about half way out. Pull, Reen, pull.

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These are shots up and down the gorge from the same spot. Its high enough up that you really wouldn’t want that cable to snap. Think of it as motivation for pulling faster. Keep pulling Reen, I’m almost done taking pictures.

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Its an out and back hike, and we get lucky on the way back. There’s lots of traffic over the tram so we don’t have to wait and some other hikers do most of the work pulling us across from the station.

We wake up the next day to familiar looking overcast sky, and decide to do another hike to Crow Pass. This one is a little more challenging, 3.5 miles (all up hill) to the pass. While some parts of the lower trail are decent hiking surfaces, large portions are over rock piles, remaining snow drifts, and across glacier fed streams.

Here’s a nice shot of Brian and Will heading down the trail. This is actually one of the better sections.

The only wildlife we saw on the trail, not counting a few over-excited and way over-energetic dogs. I think its a pack rat. Can you find him?

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Another shot looking back down the trail.

We are at the pass. As you can see, its a little cold and windy!

From the pass you can see a mountain lake and yet another glacier. There is also a hikers cabin up there you can reserve to spend a few nights. It sits right near that lake and looks like a mini ski chalet from a distance.

Tomorrow we head back to Anchorage.

Our Hopes Realized in Hope

July 25-26, 2012

Hope is a small Alaskan town on the Turnagain Arm. If you closed your eyes and imagined what a small Alaskan town would be like, you would probably be picturing Hope.

Most of the action in Hope is centered around the Sea View Cafe.

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These buildings have been in Hope quite a while. There’s an old guy sitting in the museum around the corner who can tell you just how long and a lot of other stuff as well. But only from 12-4 when the museum, and everything else in town, save the Cafe, is open.

The campground starts at the far side of the buildings; you can make out our truck with the bikes on top and camper behind it if you look closely. Actually, “campground” is probably being a little generous. Its really a gravel lot strewn with big rocks, bigger holes, and some logs. Where the logs are far enough apart to fit a camper, barely, you park. Some sites even come with ‘lectricty, though it looks to be installed with more code violations then there are salmon in Alaska. We are assigned one 20 amp outlet, which we have a hard time finding as its laying on the ground on the weeds, to share between both our trailers. It’s a good thing we didn’t both want toast at the same time or we may have blacked out the entire town.

Despite the rustic appearance of the campground, Hope is actually a nice little town. Besides the cafe, there is a gift shop proclaiming to be the worlds greatest, an Espresso stand, library, museum, place to try gold-panning, snack shop, post office and a bunch of log homes. The cafe is where it’s at though, with live entertainment both nights we were there. Brian and Will took in some of the local flavor in the bar one night but Reen and I only experienced it remotely from the camper.

The cafe was courteous enough to shut down the festivities around 11pm. We could here some of the typical scenes that play out with drunken revelers as they try to go home, but they found their way home or asleep without too much trouble. Unfortunately, a large group of tent campers on a tour decided the party should continue somewhat longer and treated us to an extra hour or two of partying accompanied by some delightful thumping bass rhythms.

We spent most of our full day in Hope hiking out to Gull Rock. The hike follows the shore of Turnagain Arm up on a bluff. The trail was easy to follow, but the vegetation along the trail was somewhat overgrown. It got to be almost head high at places, and in others you could barely see your feet it was so thick. Here I am passing through.

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Here’s Reen taking in the view at Gull Rock. That’s a mosquito net for your head on her hat. Although we were warned it would be bad, the mosquitos thankfully took the day off for the most part.

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This is Reen’s favorite shot from the hike. It’s a shot looking back toward Hope along the part of the coast that we hiked.

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Along the hike we noticed some very large mountains barely visible way off in the distance. Our hopes were realized when we discovered this was actually our first full view of Denali/Mount McKinley. On our last trip we never got to see the full mountain even though we were much closer, and we vowed to come back for another chance. Pardon the poor image quality, Reen had to do a ton of enhancement to make the mountain visible. It is 100’s of miles away after all.

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There’s Hope at the End of the Road and Salmon Lose Again

July 25, 2012

It’s time to pull up stakes in Soldatna, next stop Hope, AK. Hope is small town at the end of another road off the main highway back to Anchorage.

The weather gods are smiling upon us again so we stop at a park along the Russian river for lunch and for a hike. We can’t park near the trailhead with the trailers, which causes us to head down a river trail we think connects to the trail we want but only leads to fishing access. We end up backtracking the half mile or so back to the parking lot and walk down the road to the real trailhead.

The trail we are on is about three miles and leads to a wooden viewing platform overlooking the river at a series of small cascading waterfalls. Once we get there we realize that we took this exact trail 8 years ago on our previous visit. That time it was raining.

We spend quite a while watching the salmon try and force themselves up the falls. It’s unbelievable how hard they need to swim and jump to make it up even one falls. It’s a long row to hoe.

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There was a salmon jumping here just a second ago, I swear.

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Here’s proof there are salmon in the water. This guy is very pink; he may be at the end of his journey. Almost all the other salmon are silver at this point.

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We were just about to head back when Brian noticed the salmon were getting some new visitors. I don’t think they were invited. There was big momma, who was the best fisherman we’ve yet to see, and her two cubs. One of the cubs tried to fish, unsuccessfully, the other was more timid. Both were quick to take advantage of momma’s catch however.

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Be Vewy Vewy Quiet, We’re Hunting Agates (and RV parts)

July 24, 2012

Today’s plan is to visit Captain Cook State Recreation Area, north of Kenai. This park is literally at the end of the road, you drive north on the Kenai spur highway until there is an “End” sign and a parking lot. The park is right on the inlet and is a popular spot for agate hunting.

There’s the plan and then there is what actually happens. As we are all lazing about outside in the morning, Brian notices there is water leaking from the rear bottom of our trailer where the tank drain exits. We had actually seen this when we pulled into camp the day before. At that time, I thought it was the drain connection to the tank leaking. That would be bad, because it would mean the water leaking would be coming from the black tank (that means its outflow from the toilet for you non-RVers). Luckily, we were able to rule that out, and concluded (somewhat erroneously) that water had just been kicked up by the tires into the bed pan.

The new dripping caused us to reopen the investigation. Most of the plumbing is in that back corner of the camper. So we pulled the doors and removable panels from under the bathroom sink. This at least gives us some access to that area. I could see floor in that area did look wet. Further investigation revealed the water was coming from the fitting where the outside water supply hose connects. Our camper has a combined pressure reducer and back flow preventer installed there, and apparently these don’t last forever. Well, at least ours doesn’t.

There is just enough room to reach in and get to this, so we drain the pipes and pull the fitting. On the surface, there is no obvious problem, so the issue must be internal. Reen scours the Internet and discovers that there is one RV supply place nearby. We leave Brian and Will behind and head out for parts. After wasting 20 minutes on a bad address from google, Reen tracks down the real address and we try again. This address takes us out of town and into the country, eventually to what looks like someone’s farm. Not looking good. But as it turns out, a nice older couple were running an RV repair business from their barn. The husband drives around in his mobile repair van and the wife manages the store in the barn. It is a surprising well kept and managed store with a pretty good supply of common parts. Except, of course, the part we need. The older woman is very apologetic about being out of what we need and spends 10 minutes explaining where I need to go when we get to Anchorage to get the part, draws me a map and gives me detailed directions. For a second there, I thought she was going to bake us cookies for the ride. She would have gotten the part for us, but we will likely be in Anchorage before she can get it to Kenai.

Here is the little bastard.

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We can’t use the water system without the part installed so we decide to clean and reinstall it and live with it until Anchorage. It was only leaking occasionally, and now that we know where it’s coming from we can sop up the water before it collects.

I have cleaned up the part, and to reinstall it I decide that I need to put some silicone plumbers grease on the o-rings. So we stop at the building supply store on the way back. Of course they don’t have it, so we begin what turns out to be a 2 hour quest including a detour to Walmart. All for naught. Then to add insult to injury, when we get back to the campground I pull out my toolbox, and realize that I had actually brought some of the grease from home! Yes, the entire time we were driving around looking, it was just 6 feet behind us in the truck bed. Doh!

We get the part reinstalled and spend about an hour recovering, but it’s now after 4pm. Damn it, says Reen, we’re going agate hunting anyway! It stays light to after 10 pm so daylight isn’t really an issue. As we’re making the 45 minute drive, the sky turns perfectly clear so we know we made the right choice.

It’s a very nice beach, and we only see about 4 other people the entire time we are there. These are Reen’s favorite shots of the beach.

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The tide is out when we get there which leaves wide open mud flats between us and the water. There is a warning against walking on the mud as it tends to act like quicksand. If you take one to many steps, you have a good chance of leaving your shoes behind. I spend way too much time tossing rocks into the mud, enjoying the satisfying “thump” it makes and the cool resulting crater.

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As indicated earlier, this beach is famous for agates, something to do with the surrounding volcanoes. So we set out to track down some the wiley stones. Here’s Reen intently searching.

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There’s only one major flaw with our plan. WE DON’T KNOW WHAT AGATES REALLY ARE!
Nevertheless we proceed, and Reen comes home with two collections. These are the random stones she liked.

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And these are the agates(*see note) she collected.

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* Note: There are no actual agates in this picture.

The Salmon Haven’t Got a Chance

I’m not sure how many people know this, but they really like fishing in Alaska, especially salmon fishing. Earlier in the trip we saw fish wheels in use. Thats an interesting technique. Once you get your fish wheel in the water, using a fish wheel basically amounts to sitting around drinking beer, and occasionally transferring piles of fish from the wheels fish bin to your cooler. There also seemed to be lots of zipping around on ATVs but as far as I could tell that is not technically required to catch salmon. I’m not Alaskan, so it is possible I’m missing a crucial subtlety here.

The sport fisherman use two other techniques for taking their salmon. The big problem for the salmon is that everyone knows exactly where the salmon are going to be and they arrive in large numbers. The big problem for those fishing is that once the salmon re-enter fresh water they don’t really feed any more, so use of bait, live or lure, is not that effective on the river.

Here’s how the traditionalists do it.

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It seems like there are a lot of people but we’re told this is not actually considered crowded. We’ve seen pictures where there is only about 6ft between people. Here, this is affectionately called “combat fishing”. In reality, most of the fishermen seemed rather courteous to each other considering the situation.

There doesn’t seem to be any specific gear requirement, I saw every type of imaginable rod and reel in use. It doesn’t really matter since they just continually flip out about 20-30 feet of line a little upstream, let it work downstream briefly and then repeat. Some people may have been using some bait or a simple lure, but it looked like many had nothing but hooks. And it didn’t seem to change the effectiveness by much. When there are enough fish, some apparently randomly find their way onto your hook. This is called snagging. I don’t think snagging is technically legal, this means that if you hook a salmon anywhere but the mouth, you need to throw it back. And they do.

The other popular method is dip-netting. Here’s a typical scene.

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That’s a lot of people lined up in the water holding very large nets about 6 feet in diameter, which they seem to sell everywhere including Costco. That’s it. No, really, that’s it. You stand in the water and hold a net until salmon swim into it. Then you go home. You can’t believe how disappointed we were to discover this is only legal for residents (for at least a year) of Alaska.

Now if you were a salmon, and you avoided the nets, managed not to be picked off by one of the 100’s of hooks being dragged through the water, and didn’t find yourself trapped in the fish wheels-o-death, you might think you were home free. But you would be wrong, as this would likely be your fate…[click here]

How could there possible be any salmon left?

Old Town Kenai Deja Vu

July 23, 2012

Our first day in Soldatna, we drive to the Kenai Visitor Center. The visitor center is located in the center of “old town” Kenai. As well as selling the requisite tourist trinkets, the center has a small museum with artifacts and displays about the history of Kenai and an exhibit room for special exhibits. We check out the museum, and Reen is sure that we visited this same museum 8 years ago on our cruise-tour of Alaska.

The special exhibit turns out to be a display/sale of Alaska themed art by local artists. Even though there is an extra $5 per person fee, we go for it. The art turns out to be better than expected. The piece we both liked the best was of two bears feeding and could not be distinguished from a photograph from more than a foot away. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a $48,000 painting! Maybe we could have offered up the airstream for trade but it would have made the rest of the trip a little difficult.

The rain is holding off so we head outside to take the walking tour of the older buildings in town. Most of the tour is underwhelming. The most interesting buildings being the Russion Orthodox church and an associated chapel.

This is the Russian Orthodox Church. It is still in use for regular services.

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This is the small chapel nearby, it was built a little later and sits over the graves of the original priest and his assistant.

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Part of the tour includes a small group of old log buildings which were moved here. They are each being set up to display different uses such as a home, trappers cabin, and store. As we’re walking in, there is an older couple there who recognize us from the art display. Turns out, they are the caretakers of this little village, and they just happen to be there showing around what looks like their two teen age grand kids. You can probably image how excited those kids were to see those old buildings.

Anyway, once we get there, the nice older gentleman decides that we are going to get a personalized tour of each and every building whether we want it or not. He sends his wife off with the kids and we get more details on 5 old buildings then you think there would be. He really is a nice old guy and he keeps us interested by promising a racy anecdote about the cabins that we are seeing. But we were not getting that tale until the tour was over.

The secret was finally revealed in the last building. The space between the logs in log buildings needs to be filled and the filling is called chinking. They would generally use whatever was available, and in these buildings it looked to be mostly scraps of old clothing, sacks and other fabric. But, when they were working on one of the buildings, they found in the chinking most of a woman’s corset, complete with whalebone stiffeners! Shocking! We even got to see the actual corset. Believe it or not.

Also on the tour was a small park overlooking the river inlet where much fishing takes place. The park includes a boy scout statue which Reen swears we have pictures of from our last trip. So we re-take the shot she thinks we have, so we can compare it when we get home. We high tail it out of there just in time before the local police get wind of this statue molestation.

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