Today we embark on a 4,000+ mile road trip from North Pole, Alaska to our new home in Carlisle, PA. It will be 20+ days of travel, exploration, and tons of camping. We are really looking forward to our journey and the new town at the end of the road.
Our itinerary is flexible, but we plan to drive the Alcan Highway into Canada, camping along the way, then stop for a few days in Jasper National Park, at Lake Louis, and Banff National Park. A break from driving (which I am sure we will need), and a chance to celebrate our 1 year anniversary in Canada over a pre-ordered chocolate peanut butter cake
Then we will travel down to Glacier National Park for another few days off the road. Plus lots of hiking, yes please! We hit the pavement again until we reach the Black Hills/Badlands for more exploring, and then deadhead towards the Midwest to spend time with family (and collect all our belongs scattered between Ohio and PA) before we reach our final destination.
Looking forward to our latest adventure, but we will certainly miss Alaska! It will always have a special place in our hearts.
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!
Today my newest blog post for Women’s Adventure Magazine came out! To read about our flight seeing trip to the south face of Denali (Mt. McKinley), click here.
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!
To reach Sitka, the last stop on our southeast journey, we once again rode the ferry. This time our ferry was smaller and faster, which after traveling this section, makes perfect sense. We steamed through narrow corridors with names like the “Straight of Peril,” mountains rising on either side as blue-green water churned out behind us. We saw humpback whale blows puff and disappear, and we marveled at how the sun can make things seem to glitter after days of off and on rain.
The solarium was smaller and wet, so we fluxed between our reclining, cushioned seats inside and standing on the back deck to feel the sun, the gush of cool, coastal air, and the salty spray that smeared on the lenses of my sunglasses. But honestly, I was just happy to need my sunglasses!
We arrived in Sitka to an unbelievable blue sky, making the white tipped mountains and green crusted islands all the more vivid. It is a small, compact community, like most of the southeast it is squeezed between the mountains and the sea, and boat harbors line the edges of the downtown like water parking lots.
During our time in Alaska we have been the recipients of so much generosity and kindness from friends, friends of friends, and strangers, and in Sitka we were lucky enough to have family friends who not only put a roof over our heads, but took us out for a boat tour on our first night.
We motored into a long, tree-lined, mountain-circled, cove, spotted a humpack whale, visited the hatchery, and back in open water, we had ring side seats to watch the coast guard helicopter practice rescue maneuvers. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to drop a metal basket onto the deck of a boat without crashing it into everything. Talk about skill.
For the next two days we had rain, off and on, but it didn’t stop us from exploring. My highlights from Sitka:
Downtown- It is small and cute with little shops, a nice book store, restaurants, and several historical sites (mostly Russian) that showcase Sitka’s complicated past. Although it isn’t flashy, I liked visiting Castle Hill (do not be mislead there is not an actual castle on the site), rather it is a high point in town that was used by both the Tlingit (the natives who first inhabited Sitka) and the Russians as a fort, and the location where the USA finalized the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867.
Sandy Beach- Tide Pools! We looked up the tide chart and timed our visit to see star fish, sea anemones, mussels, sand dollars, and gooey-ducks. I love spotting the unnaturally bright color of a starfish wedged halfway under a rock. Tide pools are like a treasure hunt, and I was a happy hunter.
Totem Park- Set along a wooded path, the totems in this park were brought to Sitka in 1906 after being displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. The totems, like those we saw in Ketchikan, illustrate the stories and history of the people who carved them. I particularly liked a brightly painted one near the park’s visitor center (pictured above).
The Raptor Center- At the front desk I met Tootsie (above), a Beanie-baby sized owl who would never get any bigger, and I knew I was going to really, really like this place. And I was right. The Center has three many goals: rehabilitation, education, and research. Our tour included a look at the rehabilitation area and a chance to see the permanent residences of the facility who, for one reason or another, can not be released back into the wild.
Our favorite quirky story about the residents came with the introduction of the captive ravens. Seemly to prove the point that they are as smart and mischievous as their reputation indicates, the ravens at the Center have made a deal with the wild ravens living near by- food for shiny objects. The wild ravens bring the captive ones coins and shiny ribbons and any other glittery object they can find, and in exchange, they are provided with food. The birds are bartering.
Whale Park- Although we did not see any whales here, it offers pretty views, and just a little ways down the road a gravel pull off became our go-to lunch spot. From the car we could see the water, the mountains, stay dry, and have the binoculars close at hand. During lunch we spied on fishing boats that passed through, saw a Stellar sea lion playing in the water, and watched eagles dive and dip over our heads. My kind of lunch break.
Mt. Verstovia- A steep, straight-up-the-mountain kinda hike, this trail promised views on top of views. Unfortunately for us, rain, fog, clouds, and eventually snow, limited the views, but the trail was still neat. Climbing up, you could see out through the trees to the spotted islands that dot the water around Sitka one minute, and the next, a wave of fog so thick you could almost taste it, would roll in and the world around us would disappear. It was like watching the horizon melt into the white-noise of fog. A book on Sitka that we saw said it was like hiking into the clouds. I agree.
My favorite part about the southeast was the feeling of awe that often I felt, like when hiking Mt. Verstovia. When the natural world, wild and untamed, seemed to edge out my presences as a person. The way the land and the water merged in breathtaking battles, the abundance of wildlife, and the way the people who live there seem to thrive on this fringe. A beautiful (wet) corner of Alaska.
But I must admit, I was happy to see the warm, sunny sky of Fairbanks when we got home.
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!
We arrived in Ketchikan, AK in the late afternoon, after a “milk run” plane ride. Meaning we stopped everywhere on our way: Fairbanks to Anchorage, Anchorage to Juneau, Juneau to Sitka, and finally Sitka to Ketchikan. Needless to say, I was happy to be off the plane, ready to begin our adventure.
Ketchikan is on an island. A small dot of civilization on a wild, rugged coastline. The town itself is a mix of industrialism and tourism. These two seemingly opposing sides of the coin geographically split the town. From the airport ferry drop-off to downtown we walked through two different world. Outside the downtown, the city is framed in metal shipping containers and warehouses and commercial fishing boats, rusted and twisted by harsh weather. It felt gritty and real. The transition to downtown was striking. Fresh paint, bright signs, little shops, and looming over the harbor, giant cruise ships that swamp the town in loads of people when they dock. The strange thing is the two parts seem to merge and separate seamlessly. I liked the juxtaposition of it all.
The little downtown was cute, and tiny, but my favorite part was seeing Creek Street. Not because I wanted to shop or the salmon where running, but because my grandparent’s had been there, many years before, on their own vacation. I had seen the picture my Gram took of the shops lifted up over the water by stilt-like wooden beams, and I wanted to merge the real version with her picture. Memories laid on memories. And it lived up in the live version. A quaint, walking-only street, floating in the air over water.
We only had a short visit in Ketchikan, but to me, these were the highlights:
- Ward Lake- our pretty (but loud) campground. Nestled in a valley ward lake is surrounded by snow capped mountains and features a walking trail that circles the lake. On the trail, green draped trees towered over us, twisting towards the sky like sleeping giant. Sitting by the lake, in the shadow of the mountains was a beautiful place to eat our first dehydrated dinner of the trip!
- Deer Mountain- a local called this the “standard” hike, and I can see why. With a quick rise in elevation after just a few short miles, it offers spectacular views. I loved both the hike through the temperate rainforest (more green- I may be obsessed!) and the ocean/mountain views at the top. We didn’t get all the way up, about 500 feet short of the summit, because the snow was still very heavy, but it didn’t impact the beauty. We could see out over another distant island, and on the farthest horizon, snow covered Canadian mountains. Water drifted like dark ink between the green and white pockets of land making the world seem like the wide screen opening of a movie. Pretty, pretty.
- Rotary Beach- our first ocean stop. Here I loved the piles of sun bleached drift wood stacked in haphazard designs, the rocky crests of tide pools, and slow lapping of the stunted ocean waves. We ate lunch here, smelling the thick aroma of salt and drying seaweed, and later came back for a nap/break. It is such a different kind of Alaska leaning against the smoothed wood, sitting in sand, scanning the sky for eagles.
- Totem Bight State Historical Park- the totems in this park are as impressive as I imagined they would be. A gravel path weaves through the woods to an open area with totems looking out towards the ocean. I loved the intricate designs, paint colors and patterns, and the stories they tell through symbols. A remarkable history. Most totems are made of red cedar because it resists rot and for the height, isn’t as heavy as other kinds of wood. Standing beside one of the massive totems made me feel toy-solider-small.
- Settlers Cove- our second camp ground, snug against the rock shoreline with a waterfall pushing fresh water out into a new salty world. And it was quiet. Thankfully. So quiet. Here we also hiked, Lunch Falls Loop, with nice view of the waterfall and the river, more green on green, and the howling of ravens that sounded so much like monkeys it felt like we had slipped into the jungle. Dinner on the rocks looking out at the ocean.
Bright and early on our last day we boarded the ferry. Best way to travel ever! The solarium, a covered outdoor deck complete with overhead heaters and chase-lounge chairs, was our spot. We put our sleep pads and sleeping bags right on the chairs and watched the scenery float by while snug and warm.
Steaming to Juneau!
Last week Lucas and I went on a nine day adventure to Southeast Alaska. It is a place of extremes: overwhelming mountain and ocean views coupled with intense weather and an abundance of wildlife. In moments of sun or clear skies, it was beautiful, like seeing a cloud of sparklers at night, almost magical. But other days, it was wet and foggy, which was sometimes eerily striking in its own right, and sometimes equally frustrating. I have never been so glad to own a good rain coat.
*Map courtesy of http://montessoriborealis.wordpress.com/about/
It was a traveling trip. We flew into Ketchikan, AK, a small town of around 14,000 people, and the southern most city on our trip. We spent two nights camping and touring this area before hopping on the Marine Highway, the state ferry system that connects this roadless corner of Alaska. Our ferry, the Columbia, passed through the even smaller towns of Wrangell and Petersburg, before we reached our next destination, Juneau. The state capital, and home to around 31,000 people, Juneau is nestled in a narrow straight with mountains on all sides. Here we explored and camped for three nights before getting on a new ferry, the Fairweather, for our final boat ride to Sitka. It is a small town, around 8,000 people, on the outer edge of the southeast, surrounded by little islands that dot the ocean like gum drops. We spent three nights here, staying with a family friend. I loved the sinking immersion of being in one region for so long and seeing how the little communities that stretch out across this part of the Alaskan coast are so similar and yet so different.
One of my favorite unifying factors was the Tongass National Forest, part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world that stretches 1,000 miles along the coastline of the Pacific. All the places we visited were dripping in green for this exact reason. On several of our hikes in the southeast, moss and lichen were so invasive it covered every inch of the forest floor, wrapped up around the trunks of trees, and hung like gnarled green hair from the limps above. A snow globe of green. After months of white on white, it felt almost like falling into another world.
In addition to the forests, and the snow capped mountains towering over them, the ocean and the culture it creates seem to tie this part of Alaska together in a way roads never could. Fishing is life here, whether as a profession, for food, or for fun, boats and harbors are more plentiful than parking lots. Access to the water expands the reach and scope of life in the southeast making the small stretches of land populated with people feel much bigger than they look. And of course, I never get tired of seeing all the marine life that thrive in this isolated place.
I can’t possible write about our whole trip in one blog, so this is the introduction. Welcome to the southeast. More to come in the next few days.
For months I have been hearing tales of spring from the lower forty-eight, bright colors, intense blooms, vivid greens, while I looked at muddy piles of melting snow, matted down brown grass, and naked trees. But that is all changing, fast. According to the local Fairbanks newspaper, the Daily News Miner, we are finally joining the rest of the country in our little corner of Alaska.
Thursday, the National Weather Service announced that Fairbanks, AK had official entered “greenup.” Greenup is a new term for me so I will give you the definition listed in the newspaper: “Although somewhat subjective, greenup ‘is the rapid transformation of the landscape from brown to spring green as the leaves of deciduous trees burst forth,’ according to greenup guru Ted Fathauer, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.”
Most locals agree that greenup, aka spring, all happens within a matter of two weeks. Brown to green with the snap of your fingers, and from what I have seen so far they seem to be right. This weekend when we were driving to meet friends, I looked up at the tree line and realized it had changed. Instead of scratchy branches, the trees were peppered with lime green sprinkles that almost seemed to glow or sparkle in the evening light. Green. Actual green. It seems the only color I have seen, for months and months, is white. I hadn’t realized how hungry for color I was until I looked at those trees popping with buds of spring. It felt like getting a new box of crayons, all the points still sharp.
I am still skeptical that winter is really over, especially when I hear that in Denali National Park it has been snowing all week. Fresh inches piling up. But for now, I am embracing the green of greenup, like an oasis of color. Fingers crossed the color palate here in Alaska just keeps growing.