Yikes, I really fell off the blogging map this spring. I am going to blame a combination of rainy weather and one too many irons in the fire, but I am happy to say it is green and pretty in Carlisle, and I am ready to get back to adventuring!
And it seems appropriate that my first post back is all about beautiful things: butterflies and blown glass. Last week, I traveled to Columbus, Ohio to spend time with family and during my visit I went to the Franklin Park Conservatory. It is a place that holds both nostalgia and excitement for me. The nostalgia comes from my time working as a volunteer in the butterfly garden every Sunday during one summer break in college. I was quiet, and a little awkward, and loved escorting people through the double door system (to keep the butterflies in) and watching their faces ripple with wonder as the small, striking creatures took flight in front of them, sprinkled through the air like tiny drops of fairy dust.
That summer, I also helped release newly hatched butterflies into the garden, delicately pinching their wings between my fingers and freeing them with the quick flick of my wrist. It made me feel like I was part of something bigger, something unique and beautiful. Now when I visit, I get that wonderful feeling of returning to a special place that has changed, yet somehow still feels familiar in just the right kind of way.
Stepping back through the double doors on this trip, I was amazed to see so many butterflies in one place. Instead of being sprinkled through the air, as I remember, the butterflies coated the room like stars across a night sky. The air seemed to vibrate with them. We spun in circles watching them land, feed, and spring to the air again. Some flew in tight groups, like swirling leaves, while others dipped and glided alone. A little girl near us held out her hand and one landed, perched on her finger like a snowflake, gone before she had time to breathe. It felt almost magical.
In addition to the butterflies, the conservatory is also speckled with Dale Chihuly’s incredible glass artwork, which only adds to the swept away feeling of stepping into the gardens. Originally part of a visiting exhibit, some of the Chihuly pieces where purchased by the Friends of the Conservatory, a private nonprofit group, to remain as a permanent collection. Every time I see his work I find myself in awe. The glass seems to embrace art and nature and color all in one breathe.
My favorite piece is a bright red and yellow, twisting sculpture set in the Pacific Island Water Garden, which also happens to be the home of the butterflies. The piece seems to rise out of the green like a volcano and the butterflies have taken to it as their own personal resting place. It is a combination of my two favorite parts of the conservatory: a swirling, spinning, quiet reminder of all things bold and bright.
I think I still have butterflies on the brain!
The Road Trip Continues… Alaska to Pennsylvania
After traveling for several days through the Yukon and British Columbia, we finally arrived in Alberta where we took our first two day stop at Jasper National Park. Talk about pretty. The Canadian Rockies are something to marvel at- towering jagged peaks of sheer rock. The area is snaked by rushing blue-green rivers and some of the prettiest lakes I have ever seen.
We were welcomed to the park by several packs of goats who are a car-stopping attraction in this area. Literally. They walk out in front of cars as if they own the road and don’t seem to mind when they block both lanes of traffic as they walk back and forth. Too funny.
Our other animal highlight in Jasper: a huge male elk! His velvet rack was impressive as he stood stoically on the side of a back road.
But my favorite part of the park during these first two days was our hike on the Sulphur Skyline Trail. It was an intense uphill climb, over 2,000 feet of elevation gain, but the views made it worth every lung-burning minute.
On the final shelf before the peak, we walked through a field of alpine wildflowers. It reminded me of pastel polka-dots scattered across green paper. So cute.
The wind picked up as we began the final ascent to the summit, a series of tight switchbacks up a rock/gravel knoll that would lead us to the treeless, boulder-topped peak. Lucky for us we hit the summit as the other group was going down so we had it to ourselves. A moment alone with the mountains.
The view…wow. It felt as if we had been dropped into the jaws of a shark, rows of razor sharp mountains piercing the blue sky in every direction. Wind pushed in fierce gusts that sucked my jacket tight to my skin. I never wanted to come down.
We are 24 days into our journey from Alaska to our new home in Carlisle, PA, and I am finally getting around to writing my first blog about the trip. I’m behind. Way behind. And it is hard to imagine how to backtrack and tell you about all the amazing things we have seen over the last 5,000 miles. But here goes nothing.
We left Alaska on June 30 and headed straight for Canada. Crossing the boarder felt a little like taking a big gulp of air and diving into the water. No turning back now. Let the road trip begin!
Driving east, we took the famous Alcan Highway. It would carry us approximately 1,700 miles from Alaska deep into Canada. It has a reputation for great wildlife sightings, rough roads, and fabulous scenery. And it certainly lived up to our expectations on every front.
The first stretch of the Alcan travels through the Yukon, which I loved. It is wide open and wild. Sometimes we would drive for hours without seeing another car. Bears appeared alongside the highway like dark shadows and the mountains poured across the landscape. It is a place where you breath deeply and feel the power of the natural world.
The road conditions were awful: frost heaves, gravel, and pot holes that could swallow a dog. But our car plugged on without incident (which we were thankful for).
We camped every night. Enjoying the quiet of this part of the country and the rush of water from rivers and rain that make sleeping outside feel like being swept up into a lullaby. Lovely.
In many ways the Yukon felt a lot like Alaska. Like home. A fabulous start to our journey (even with so many hours in the car).
This weekend we took our last mini-Alaskan vacation (time flies!). It was a whirlwind of travel but a wonderful way to see a few new places before we start our road trip east on Saturday. For this trip we left no travel stone unturned, we took a plane to Anchorage, a bus to Seward, a water taxi to Orca Island, relaxed for two days, water taxied back to Seward, took a car to Anchorage, and finally, the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Whew.
Lots of pretty and fun things along the way!
Our water taxi to Orca Island
Our yurts from the water
Kayaking with Lucas and my parents in Humpy Cove
Lucas admiring the waterfall we kayaked to
Early morning row boat in our cove
From the train
You know a trip is going to go well when on the first morning you are ten yards away from a moose eating breakfast while you wait for the bus. Yep. No other way to start the day. Better than coffee.
This weekend we made a trip back to Denali National Park, perhaps my very favorite place in Alaska. For this trip we pulled in late, camped a night at Riley Creek, the campground at the park entrance, and got up early to catch the camper bus. That is when we saw the moose munching on willows. It strolled around like we weren’t even there.
We jumped on the bus about 7:30AM, and rode it out to the end of the road, about six hours to our final destination: Wonder Lake. Riding the bus is a little like going on a safari set in the mountains. At every turn there is a chance to see wildlife and jaw dropping scenery. My kind of playground.
We saw: moose, grizzly bear, caribou, Dall sheep, and a fox who used the park road like a side walk. Not bad for a days drive!
Our final destination, Wonder Lake, was new territory for us. We had never been this far out on the road before, and we were looking forward to spending two nights deep in the park. Our campground sat facing Denali (Mt. McKinley). But when we arrived all the mountains were clouded over as a storm rushed in bringing high winds, rain, and hail. So we did the only logical thing, took a nap
But that night we got what we were looking for, clear blue sky and a picture-perfect view of Denali. Just 26 miles from the mountain, it filled the sky line dwarfing the foot hills around it like a giant jagged tooth. We were so close you could see the details on the face of the mountain, the places where the rock breaks away into air, the knife edge ridges leading towards the summit, and the snow clinging in a bright white veil.
If the mosquitoes hadn’t been so ferocious we would have stayed out all night soaking it in. But the mosquitoes, wow, we have never had to wear our head nets so much. Best $2 we ever spent. And don’t we look cute?
Day two we had a breeze making the mosquitoes more tolerable, thank goodness. And spent time hiking, soaking our feet in the lake, and tracking the visibility of the mountain. There is something so special about sitting up on a windy knoll looking out over a rippling lake with the tallest mountain in North America drifting in the clouds out in front of you. Totally worth the mosquitoes!
I’m a little behind on blogging lately, between friend’s visiting and figure out what comes next for us (only 2.5 weeks left in Alaska! Crazy) things have been busy. So I am backing up: Two weekends ago, we took a 12 hour road trip to Homer, Alaska, swinging through Anchorage to pick-up friends visiting from Wisconsin on the way.
Homer is a cute little coastal town, famous for its halibut fishing. In real life, I’m not really much of a fisherwomen. In fact, I can count the number of times I have been fishing on two hands and most of them involve me doing more chatting than fishing. But, fishing is one of those things that is very Alaskan so I was more than game to give it a try. In light of this, we booked a charter fishing trip out of Ninilchik, just north of Homer, and signed on to start fishing at 4:30AM with Captain Steve.
We knew it would be a good day when on the way to Ninilchik from Homer we saw seven moose. Seven! Apparently 4 in the morning is prime moose viewing. Upon arrival we suited up in rain gear, team banana-yellow, Xtra Tuf boots (which I have been wanting to wear since seeing them in the southeast, where in one town they are referred to as the Juneau sneaker), and piled into a van to drive to the harbor. Our boating crew included our group of four, another couple, Captain Steve, and deckhand Chuck.
The boat launch was a marvel unto itself. In Anchor Point, where we launched from, there is not actually a harbor. Instead, a tracker (yes, tracker) pulls your boat out into the ocean and at the end of the day pulls you back out. The tracker backs straight into the water as if it were designed to be a land/sea machine. Nuts. And according to Captain Steve, they have only lost on tracker to the water since they started using this system in the 1990s.
As we raced out into open water, we had great views of the snow capped volcanoes in the distance, and the mountains that run along side of them. I am really going to miss seeing mountains in every direction.
But back to fishing. Our first stop was in shallow water, about 45 feet, we dropped our bait heavy lines with two pound weights to the bottom and “bobbed” them every two to three minutes. This helps release the scent and bring the fish to our boat. It worked pretty quickly. The wife of the couple with us got the first bite, a small one (which means 10-20 pounds), and a few minutes later I had one on my line. It was like reeling in a dumb bell. Mine wasn’t a keeper either, but I was pretty happy to have at least caught something, and within fifteen minutes of the start of our trip. After that, the boat was alive with hits. The fish couldn’t seem to gobble up our bait fast enough. We got two keepers (25-30 pounds) and Captain Steve moved us out to deeper water searching for the “really big ones.”
Deep water is work. We used 4 pound weights and dropped our lines around 200 feet to the bottom. But, we got tons of action. Lucas caught the biggest fish from our group of four, about 45 pounds, and afterwards was ready for a break! The wife of the couple on our trip kept saying, “Here we go again…” each time she had a fish on as she leaned against the side, heavy breathing. It become our tag line for the weekend. But truthfully, the next day we were all insanely sore.
My favorite part of fishing was the madness of so many fish on lines at once (4 out of 6 people at one point), deciding what to keep or toss back, and watching Lucas and our friends as they wrestled to bring fish in. At one point, my friend Vanessa and I reeled in a fish together to give our arms a break. Girl power.
We lucked out with weather (sunny skies and calm seas for the most part) and ended up with two keepers each (our limit) and close to 100 pounds of halibut. A great day. And dinner, halibut three ways, was a feast!
In Homer, like much of Alaska, it rained off and on during the weekend, but it didn’t stop us from meeting up with friends of the family the next day for another boat trip. Alaska seems to make the world smaller in such wonderful ways and has provided us the chance to meet friends of friends and friends of family who have, for one reason or another, ended up in Alaska. It is nice to know there are so many generous, warm people in Alaska who are excited to share the place they love with you. Our boat tour guides, Tom and Sandy, were just such people!
They took us out to “bird island,” a chunk of craggy rock jetting out of the water covered with a variety of nesting sea birds. Never have I seen so many birds in one place! The murres, black and white birds that dive to feed on fish, bobbed in tight packed clusters all around us. It was like a river of birds pouring out into the ocean.
But the highlight of my day was seeing a baby sea otter surfing across the water on it’s mom’s belly. Too cute for words.
We also stopped out at Halibut Cove, a tiny island community of about 40, whose homes and stores sit on stilts out over the water, linked by a series of boardwalks. I almost felt like we should talk in a whisper or that we had past through a veil of mist into a secret world like Brigadoon. The water was deep green with dark rock rising straight from the sea floor, topped with puffs of grass, and polka doted with isolated homes. We visited the gallery of Diana Tillion, a local artist who painted with octopus ink. And peered down into the shallow water looking for sea life. A wonderful way to spend the afternoon.
The other part of Homer we really liked was the spit, a narrow piece of land that juts out into the water like a floating tooth pick. It is a boat harbor, a shopping and dining area, a place to fish, camp, and walk the beaches. In the large boat harbor we saw the Rambling Rose, a crab fishing boat from the Alaskan based show, Deadliest Catch.
We also, of course, spent a lot of time playing Euchre and eating halibut every night for dinner. Great weekend in Homer, AK!
We took way, way to many pictures (over 500) during our nine day trip so today I thought I would present the next leg of our journey in pictures.
Our Juneau, Alaska photo journal:
The M/V Columbia.
Wonderful visit to the Alaskan Brewing Company!
The view from Mt. Roberts (Juneau below).
Bald eagles at Auk Bay.
One of the many harbors, plus the mountain reflection. Makes me happy.
Whale Tail: Step 1
Whale Tail: Step 2
Whale Tail: Step 3
Beach walk on our drive “out the road.”
Mendenhall Glacier. Love. Love. Love.
View of the Mendenhall from the west glacier trail.
Lake feed by the glacier, near our campground. Great views in our own backyard.
Steaming to Sitka!
This weekend we headed south on the Richardson Highway for Valdez, Alaska. Beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe this drive. So today I will let pictures do most of the talking. But I will note that we saw three mountain ranges, lots of wildlife (moose, caribou, bald eagles, and a wolverine), tons of snow, rushing rivers flanked by ice and snow, waterfalls, a canyon, and ended at the Valdez Arm which opens into the Prince William Sound, and eventually the Gulf of Alaska. In the course of our seven hour drive we had sun, rain, snow, and sun again. The day offered a little bit of everything, and I wouldn’t change a moment of it!Moose, Black Rapids Pipeline, Alaska Range Thompson Pass, Chugach Mountains Thompson Pass, Chugach Mountains Caribou Horsetail Falls, Keystone Canyon Small Boat Harbor, Valdez Alaska Range
Lucas and I have been vigilantly monitoring the snow plowing progress at Denali National Park for the last few weeks, and this weekend, we got our break. On Saturday, the park road was opened to the public up to mile 29 for the first time since the fall. Saying we were excited is perhaps an understatement.
Denali has quickly become one of my favorite places in Alaska. I could happily explore this massive park every weekend and never get tired of it. There is just so much to see.
For this excursion, we decided to drive the road out to mile 29, Teklanika, and then continue to hike deeper into the park via the road. Less than five minutes into our drive, we were chatting, and looking out at the snow covered peaks wishing to see a moose. And bam. A moose, snacking a few yards off the road in the woods. It was a good sign for the day ahead.
The drive itself is always beautiful. Denali is one of those places you can never quite capture in a picture because it surrounds you. Full mountain immersion. It is like being lifted into another world, quiet, still snowy-white at this time of year. The peaks look like they have been draped in yards and yards of white silk. And these kind of views stretch in every direction.
We also got super lucky on Saturday. The clear-sky day revealed the mountain. Denali (McKinley). It peaked out early, within ten miles of the winter visitor center, and we craned our necks to watch it as it appeared and disappeared behind corners all the way out to Teklanika. I am always amazed at how huge it is. It stands in the sky like a giant, even when it is hundreds of miles away.
After a leisurely drive, taking pictures, getting out to walk a little on the hard-packed, wind-swept snow, we made it to the “road closed” sign and continued on foot. The next section of the road, out to Igloo Mountain, is sandwiched by mountains and crosses a few rivers, little and big. The first river, the biggest we crossed, had several open patches of water. The deep blue water appeared from under the snow and ice, swept across the riverbed rocks, and disappeared just as quickly under more ice. Signs of spring.
At Igloo Mountain we decided to hike, off the road, into the snow a little bit. A side trip. At first the snow was hard-packed and wind-swept like what we had walked on earlier. But at the top of the first rise we found ourselves on the tundra, covered in thick patches of icy, wet snow, and we started to sink. First to our ankles, then knees, and then up to our thighs. We struggled to move forward. It was like walking in silly putty. I even spent some time crawling across the snow to help distribute my weight. I wish we had a video. It was comically ridiculous. We gave up less than a half mile from the road. We were missing the snow shoes we left in our car. But we both like a little adventure, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day.
On the way back, the light was beautiful. Soft against the blue sky, and the Denali, the mountain, continued to dance along the horizon. And the icing on the cake, we saw another moose, laying down in the snow, on our way out. Back to back moose sightings. Oh, Denali. I am already dreaming about our trip back this summer.
On Saturday we touched down at Fairbanks International Airport in the midst of a dark, snowy, semi-cold (only -14) evening, happy to be back. Weird right? But Alaska has become home (for now), and I couldn’t get over how winter-white and pretty it is here. Being in Alaska is a little like living inside a painting.
We had a great break, visiting with family and friends, soaking up as much sun as we could, and enjoying the fact that it was way warmer. But I have to say, going to the mall the week before Christmas was totally, completely, overwhelming. So many people and cars and stuff. And traffic..ahh. How quickly we have gotten used to the wide open, sparsely populated life of Alaska.
But the best thing about being back happened today, less than a half hour ago, right here in my own back yard. Moose! Mama and baby. Oh, yea. I was pulling in the driveway after a morning meeting, and I spotted a large, brown, over-sized horse-like animal right behind the building. It did not like the sound of our truck (a temporary loan from friends that makes me feel very Alaskan, and tiny behind the wheel, it even takes diesel) so the moose ran a few yards and out popped the baby from behind our building. I slowly made my way inside, ran to the windows in front of my desk, and watched them eat and play and lay down for about 30 minutes before they moved on.
I am feeling very lucky. How many people can say they have seen moose in their backyard?
It turns out they had been hanging out behind the building for a while, Lucas took pictures when they first arrived, and then I went crazy taking pictures when the baby stood right outside the window eating. Have you ever seen moose lips? About the cutest thing ever.
Long story short, I am a little moose obsessed today, and it makes me excited to get back to exploring this amazing state.