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
Our campsite at Wonder Lake, Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background 2012
A few weeks ago a reader asked if I would write a post about camping. She explained that she hadn’t done much camping and would be interested to know how we camped, since we have been doing so much of it in Alaska. So here is my post about spending the night outside 🙂
The great thing about camping is that there are so many ways to go about it. Everyone has there own “style.” You can adapt and change based on the location, who you are going with, and how much “luxury” you want or require. Lucas and I have certainly grown and changed as campers since we first started pitching a tent together six plus years ago. And continue to enjoy everything from “luxury” car camping to minimalist backpacking.
One thing I have come to strongly believe in is the “leave no trace” ethics of camping. Although I didn’t always know all the guidelines when I first started camping (and I’m still learning and trying to get better), I think it is so important to protect and respect the outdoor places we enjoy. I think learning how to camp in a low-impact way is SO important if we want to keep our wild places wild. Leave No Trace is a nonprofit that helps educate people on good practices for camping. Here is a link on the seven guiding principles of the organization if you want to learn more.
Okay, off my soap box and back to camping. Both Lucas and I camped before we met. I started camping as a kid with my family, and he was actively involved in Boy Scouts. As a kid I did a lot “car camping.” Which means you can pack your car as full as you want, drive into a campground, park, and drag out what you need. To car camp you can be a little less organized and add in items that I would never make room for when backpacking. This is a great way to start camping. It is low pressure and you always have an out (your car) if things get really crazy.
My parents have this fabulous camping story (before my brother and I were born) about a time it was raining. As the story goes, my mom says something like, it’s really raining hard. And my dad says something like, it isn’t that bad. And moments later as my parents are laying inside their tent, the Kleenex box floats by. That is a moment to head to the car.
Our 1st tent
For car camping you need basic equipment, tent, sleeping bag, extra, but it doesn’t have to be top of the line or high tech. I camped for years with family and friends in a huge, old, blue canvas tent that was a puzzle to set up and sagged like a wet doughnut, but it was perfect for that time in our lives (it has since been retired).
When Lucas and I first started camping together in state parks near Pittsburgh, PA we car camped exclusively. We would drive in, set up the tent, go out and hike all day, and come back to cook dinner over an open fire. We had a small two-person tent (that made it all the way to Alaska) that we bought with a sporting good store gift card we won in a raffle. A joint purchase, it was our first “home” together. Our early camping days were low budget and awesome.
Isle Royale National Park 2009
When we moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where outdoor paradise was less than a ten minute drive, we took camping up a notch and started backpacking. Our first big trip (7 days) was to Isle Royale National Park. We backpacked from one end of the island to the other, carrying everything we needed for the week on our backs. This was a whole new way to camp, and for the most part, it is my favorite way to camp. You step into nature and don’t reemerge until the trip is over, and I love that. Being submerged in wild. But it certainly isn’t the kind of camping everyone might want to do.
To backpack, you need to be prepared and organized. Since you don’t have a safety exit (like a car) it is important to be sure you have everything you will need (or could need) before you leave. Gear for backpacking is more expensive, but the good news is, once you have it, you are set for a long time (unless you want to upgrade or go lighter). Lucas and I started out with mid-range gear and have been slowly upgrading and adding as we move into our 4th year as backpackers. Like our new tent- larger and lighter than the original (which we still have).
For us, the big thing we did to transition from car camping to backpacking was research, talking to people who were already going into the backcountry, reading online forums, and then, going out and trying it. We started out with a one night trip to see what worked and what didn’t. (We took more crap than we needed.) And we began to figuring out our preferences. Some of the key differences are food (no coolers, unless you want to carry it!), water (you need to be prepared to carry or purify all water for the trip, depending on the area you will be backpacking), less (better) clothing, full first aid kit, stove (fires are often not allowed in the backcountry), emergency supplies (duck tape, whistle, extra), maps/GPS, and research (know the weather, terrain, camping conditions, and so on).
Denali State Park 2011
But as much as I love backpacking, I also love the comfort and convenience of car camping, which we still do often. And will be doing for approximately 19 days this summer on our road trip from Alaska to Ohio. More on this soon.
Until then, enjoy the long days of summer!
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.