Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Best vacation ever, Day 12 and 13, Alaska

Best vacation ever, Day 12 and 13, Alaska

At this point, things are winding down.

We got up and found a scrumptious breakfast place, The Snow City Cafe. Apparently everyone thought it was scrumptious and walkable from the hotels - we waited quite a while, but they serve coffee to those on the benches, so all good!

The flowers flourish in Anchorage due to the extended daylight. The dahlias were gorgeous!

We took an uber to the Alaska Airlines Center, which is further out - too far to walk when you are going to run a half marathon the next day...

Did I mention the half marathon?

After retirement, Barry decided he wanted to run a marathon in every state, but to include me and my hip in this journey, he graciously switched it to half marathons. So we timed our vacation to include the Mayor's Marathon weekend. Interestingly, so did about 40 runners from the village of Libertyville Running Club. The club founder was running his 50th state marathon, so a bunch of fellow runners came along. They had club shirts both today and in the race, so found ourselves saying "we're from Libertyville, too!" many more times in Anchorage than we would ever have imagined.

Alaska is a great state for minimizing waste - the practical environmentalist. So, no goody bag (we throw out most of the filler, right?) and all forms online. As you checked in, they assigned a bib and registered it to you online. Checked as we left. Done.

Expo - ├╝ber - Walmart (morning food, sweatshirt for before race) - hotel - walk on the coastal trail - ice cream at Wild Scoops, a micro-creamery. Barry had the famous "Baked Alaska" cone which features toasted marshmallows on top of your ice cream.

Half marathon morning walked to race start.
Nice start with a recognition of all the 50 staters, national anthem, and Alaska state song. Temp was about 60, full sun. Race starts on the coastal trail, moves up to the road by the airport, takes a real trail with roots and hollows and grass for about a mile, cutting through the woods back to the coastal trail, then you run home.

Barry and I weren't expecting any great shakes for this race, due to general fatigue after our active vacation. The race had more elevation gain than we expected, mostly in steeper inclines, and most despicably climbing into Anchorage downtown from the trail at the end. Yes, I walked. Yes, it still counts!

Post-race treats included fruit, donut holes, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We headed out for gourmet pizza then off to the airport...time to go home. I would go back to Alaska in a heartbeat. Beautiful, wild, fun, clean and not crowded. Much left to explore!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Best Vacation Ever, Day 11, Alaska

Best Vacation Ever, Day 11, Alaska

Josh picked us up bright and early, none of us felt like much breakfast after the late dinner yesterday. We went over to Denali and hopped a bus to the sled dog kennels!

Denali still has working dogs; often the dogs can move heavy items across the snow much better than vehicles. They love to work, they are bred to work. The AKC doesn't recognize the Alaskan husky as a breed because there isn't any uniformity of color or form - they chose each year's litter for smarts and temperament and strength.

All the dogs received their morning kibble in Kongs or other slow feed devices - they had to work to get the food out. Beautiful animals. After the demo started, the ranger told us the dogs work until they are 9 years old! When she asked us to clap, a cacophony of barks erupted - "pick me! pick me!" Click here for a video  The middle dog you see jumping up and down like a spring was ignominiously escorted off after the run...the walk of shame. He is only 10 months old, youthful enthusiasm overruled training.

Josh took us to the train station for our wonderful return to Anchorage via the Alaska Railroad. We were in a dome car, so could see eagles fly overhead and all the scenery. In the back, was an open deck for viewing/photography without glare of windows. We were served two very good meals during the 8 hour journey. Young tour interns pointed out items of interest and then...


Only 30% of summer visitors to Denali see Mt. Denali. Clouds often obscure the peak due to wind patterns around the heights.  TAH DAH!!

So awesome.

Said goodbye to Lisa in Anchorage...she was headed right to the airport. We hiked over to our Marriott hotel, which seemed so...so hotel-ish after our stays in the lodge rooms. Time to rest up!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Best Vacation Ever: Alaska Day 7

A nice normal wake up today, 7 a.m., by our guide for the day Josh I (there will be another Josh on Day 9-11).

Josh drove us to Seward, a huge fishing, cruise, and sightseeing boat port. We were joined by four gentlemen, friends from Atlanta, on the Glacier Express by Major Marine Tours to see the glaciers and hopefully whales. As we boarded, the Captain asked what we wanted to see...Sea Otters high on my list and we saw this little guy early in the voyage.

The voyage included an "all you can eat lunch " which made it a strange combination of Old Country Buffet and National Park Ranger narrated sightseeing cruise. This is a major way to access the Kenai Fjords National Park, so Maya, a Park Ranger, educated the group about the geography, fauna, and flora of this vast area.
Most everyone took Dramamine or some other anti-nausea med. We had to cross some bumpy water before we got to the first glacier. Unfortunately, that meant many of the passengers were sleeping when we saw our Sea Otter and humpback whales!

While we also visited the Holgate Glacier, this photo is of the beautiful Aialik Glacer. You can see all the ice in the water. Chunks of ice fall off the glacier as it moves and warms...called calving. The boat could only get so close due to this ice. Staff scooped up a chunk of the glacial ice and for glacier margaritas. No, didn't have one:)

Glaciers have a gorgeous blue tone...when glacial ice first freezes, it is filled with air bubbles. As that ice gets buried and squashed underneath younger ice on top, the older ice starts to take on a blue tinge. As the ice grows denser, the bubbles become smaller and smaller.
Without the scattering effect of air bubbles, light can penetrate ice more deeply. Glacial ice acts like a light filter, absorbing red and yellow light and reflecting blue light, creating the beautiful blue hues of a glacier.  WHO KNEW?
We didn't eat lunch until 2 p.m. Prime rib, salmon, salad, rice. Very good. We were the last table in the first round, and then a lot of people lined up for seconds (and thirds). This did not work out so well for them. Around 2 - 3 p.m., the boat turned and went back through the big wave section after receiving a report of an Orca sighting. 
The Dramamine had clearly worn off. Enough said. Luckily our group did not suffer any sea sickness. 
The Orca family group was beautiful. It's hard to catch a full photo. One breached just as we were leaving, and of course I didn't have camera in hand. We also cruised by puffins nesting on island cliffs, but again we weren't close enough for my lens to capture a clear image, and they are fast little flyers! Here are seals sleeping on the rocks, with the blue glacial tint to the surrounding water. 
Josh ferried his exhausted group back to the lodge, where we learned Augie would again be our guide for our final lodge-based adventure day. Kayaking tomorrow!

Best vacation Ever: Alaska, Day 10

Slept well with the windows open, lulled by the sounds of the Susitna river. Fresh coffee in the River Lodge lounge and then off to breakfast with Lisa and Josh of Great Alaska.

Josh chose a locally famous breakfast spot, the Roadhouse. The Roadhouse has existed since early 1900's, serving as a restaurant and small hotel for miners, railroad workers, tourists and mountain climbers. They serve ENORMOUS breakfasts, so be sure to ask for a half order. And we knew we would need all that food, because we were exploring Denali National Park today...

In a bus.

Maybe not.

Denali is mostly inaccessible by car. The first rangers used sleds and dogs to patrol the park and prevent poaching. In fact, Denali was established because miners and railroad workers were decimating animal populations, especially Dall sheep. Concerned sport hunters, who had seen this occur in the lower 48, petitioned the government to establish protected lands. When tourists started to come to Alaska (quite the traveling feat), the rangers needed a way to get them in and out of the park - and wisely decided to protect the park from vehicles, instead establishing bus tours.

In Denali, private vehicles can drive the first fifteen miles of THE road in Denali. Park Road is 92 miles long - after Savage River, only Park buses can continue on the single lane, gravel miles. They have tour buses and transit buses: If you want to get off and on and hike or camp, transit buses. Seeing the park with tour guide narration? Tour buses, choosing either 5 hours, 7- 8 hours, or 12 hours. We were scheduled for the 8 hour bus. 

Our bus was comfortable and clean - tour guide knowledgable and friendly. Like many people in Alaska, he said he had the best job in the world. We stopped about every 2 hours at rest areas with plentiful facilities and beautiful views. At the turnaround point, our BIG VIEW of Mt. Denali (Mt. McKinley), the lady was feeling shy so our photo is of clouds, no mountain. Even though the guide had a photo of what that view was SUPPOSED to look like, it was hard to picture. 
See photos of hills and mountains, Dahl sheep, caribou and Barr-i-bou.Dinner at the Salmon Bake and then tucked in. Denali is beautiful...too bad we didn't get to see the grand lady...

Friday, July 5, 2019

Best vacation ever: Day 9 Alaska

Best vacation ever: Day 9 Alaska

The second Josh picked us up for the final chapter of our Great Alaska journey - we traveled with Lisa to Denali, stopping at Talkeetna on the way.

Our first stop on the drive was the Alaska wildlife Conservation Center. Rescued animals were kept in large natural fenced areas. They had a grizzly who was found as a young cub with hundreds of porcupine quills in his feet, abandoned and starving. He now lives at the center, healed and happy, unable to leave since he never learned how to survive in the wild. Moose, wolf, deer, caribou, porcupine...all were represented.

Next stop was lunch - at the Alyeska Resort and Hotel, a ski resort. We took their tram to the top of the mountain (2300 elevation) and enjoyed snow and lunch with a view.

Next stop was Talkeetna, a town often used as the beginning point for Mt. Denali climbers (remember, Mt. McKinley is now called Mt. Denali). It's cute and quaint; we arrived in time to check in to our rooms at Susitna River Lodge before heading over to the airport. We were to do a Denali flyover. However, that day Mt. Denali was cloud-covered, making for poor viewing and bumpy flying. We were offered cancellation or a different tour, and all decided to do the flight.

We flew over beautiful valleys, where each homestead had a small airstrip - no road access. The mountains were majestic, and when we climbed to 12,000 feet we were able to see glaciers, glacial lakes, a fabulous look into Mount Spurr, an active volcanoe.

Glad we decided to make the flight. It was fabulous. Dinner in Talkeetna, just made it into the restaurant before the 9 p.m. close. Another fun day with Lisa, a good day getting to know Josh, who as tour guide was able to join us on the flight.

Best vacation ever: Day 8 Alaska

Best vacation ever: Day 8 Alaska

7 a.m. wake up..ahhhh. Knock and coffee by our guide for the day, Augie.

Barry and I met Augie at the entrance circle, where our three kayaks were strapped to a trailer, ready to go.

Sort of...

Augie was running a little late because the ratchet straps were misplaced. He explained that he only had one to use, which could be trouble.

Sadly for Augie, it was. In order to get to our planned kayak on Hidden Lake, we had to enter the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, and traverse mostly gravel roads. Bump, bump, bump, stop, readjust kayak strap, bump bump stop...poor Augie. Augie stayed super calm and although Barry tried to help, really Augie figured out how to secure them and we made it to the launch. He called Great Alaska and they located who had snagged the straps, so they were going to send someone out to drop off extras. Yay for a stress-free ride back to the lodge.

Here's the photos. WOW. We kayaked out to the second island, had lunch with the butterflies, and paddled back out on a beautiful, phenomenal day - about 4 hours on the water. Perfect.

Tomorrow to Denali with Josh II. 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Best Vacation Ever: Day 6, Alaska

Best Vacation Ever: Day 6, Alaska

Tap, tap, tap...we were awakened at 4:30 a.m. and appreciated the door side coffee. Guzzled some more at breakfast. Dressed with more layers than when we fished for King Salmon - had been a bit chilly all day. Finally broke out the light long underwear and double socks for stylish under wader wear. Packed our lunches, and clomped down to the ramp where Nick had our gear. We were joined by Alex and Sarah, on their honeymoon from Texas.

Sockeye Salmon don't really hit the Kenai River hard until later in the summer. They are present, but not so plentiful. Fishing for sockeye is incredibly random. After racing to beat Steve (the other fishing guide) to the best tie-up spot, Nick set us up with reels and a demo on Sockeye technique. He warned us yesterday that the fish weren't running full out yet.

1. You cannot see the fish
2. The fish aren't feeding as the swim upstream to spawn, so they will not bite a hook/bait.
3. The fish aren't plentiful
4. You throw out your line, drag it back through the shallower water, and then snap it and IF YOU HAPPEN TO DRAG AND SNAP IT WHEN A FISH HAPPENS TO BE THERE, you can hook the fish.

Luckily, we are fishing in a gorgeous location on a beautiful day with eagles flying by and limited mosquitos.

Because otherwise, this would not be fun.

Barry, still not feeling well, set to with the determination of a man with  a task and a low grade fever. He was strong on the snap, and was casting at about a 2:1 rate to my casts. Alex also had The Crud, and eventually gave up and laid down in the boat. Barry caught the first fish...and 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 which filled our (3 each) limit. I hooked 2 and lost 2. Sarah caught 3, and Nick (guide) caught 1, but he was busy helping all of us with our catch.

Now for Barry to do this, he must have cast 2,000 times, and I am not exaggerating. It seemed every time he would eat a snack, he'd come back and catch another. So then everyone was trying the Doritos/cookies strategy...I was doomed, because I packed a healthy lunch and apparently apples are not linked to higher fish catching.

Half way through the day, Lisa (our Hoosier friend from day 1) and her guide came floating by on their rowboat. Her activity was a river float with a stop for champagne and cheese and fruit. Since my arm was aching and I was a tad frustrated, I thought about wading out and jumping in!

All in all a fun day. When we returned to Great Alaska, the staff came out to sign us up for fish transport and help us take photos. They were happy for us, our catch, to take our photos. Genuine, intimate, nice people. It is truly what made our stay here so special.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Best Vacation Ever: Day 5, Alaska

I forgot to mention that Barry caught The Crud at some point in our travels. After fishing yesterday, he fell into bed, shivering and coughing. Great Alaska couldn't have been nicer, several staff/guides offering to take us into town for meds. I traveled with cold meds, so we were set up. It was nice that this morning was Hiking, so Augie, our guide for the day, didn't need to wake us until 7 a.m.. I could get used to this coffee at the door too easily! Again, ate, packed lunches and filled our water bottles, and off we went.

Augie took us on a hike to the Russian River falls where the Sockeye Salmon were swimming en masse upstream...up WATERFALLS...to get to their spawning home. Here you see the waterfall, and I tried to include a photo of the fish pooling on top of each other waiting for their attempt. I caught one fish on camera, not in a big leap though. It was hard to capture!

Next we walked further on to a Weir. The weir blocks the fish and makes them swim over to one access point, where they are counted. The Fish and Game staff then relay that information and decisions are made about fishing limits - they were increased from 3/person to 6 while we were in Alaska. The limit varies depending on the river and type of salmon as well.

On our way to the second hike location, Bear Mountain Trail, this friendly fella strolled in front of our van and around the side, stopping to munch a bit before continuing on his way. So check black bear off the list! The bear mountain hike was only about a mile long, mostly uphill, and we were rewarded with this fabulous view of Skilak Lake. It is a glacial lake fed by the Skilak glacier, so a beautiful blue. Augie also showed me a lot of the  wildflowers, and got me to eat a northern bluebell flower. Yum. Blueberries grow wild in the mountains, but sadly not harvest time.

Walked/hiked about 8 miles and since Barry wasn't feeling well, called it a day. I went down to the "beach" while Barry napped. This is an area by the river staffed by Cameron, where one can practice sockeye salmon fishing (I practiced...Cameron actually caught some). Cameron set me up with waders, reel, and basic instructions and I happily cast away for an hour or so. After supper, guests gather around the campfire to socialize and snack on s'mores. I don't know HOW because the food was GREAT and very filling.

Tomorrow: Sockeye Salmon fishing...which means...4:30 a.m. again!

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Best Vacation Every: Day 4 Alaska

Up and at 'em early birds! A guide at Great Alaska woke us with a knock and coffee at 4:30 a.m...breakfast at 5, pack a lunch at the lunch bar and then fishing!

Today was King Salmon fishing. King Salmon is catch and release only on the Kenai. Steve our guide had the boat set up for four: Barry and I, and Bo and Joe, a father-son pair from California. This was Bo's present to Joe for high school graduation.

It was a chilly, beautiful morning. We went up river a few miles and then set up at one of Steve's favorite spots. He set us up with different lures, and coordinated getting all the lines in the water so no tangles. No sooner did the lures hit the water than yours truly caught the first fish. Steve guided me through reeling it in, then carefully arranged for the photo so the fish was
not harmed.
Barry  was next to catch one of these beauties. We each caught 2, and I think each lost 2 during the day.

The big story of the day occurred after a few hours. Our lines were in the water trailing behind the boat. I have a photo of my lure...Barry's was slightly longer...maybe 5 inches, about the same colors. Steve suddenly pointed out a young eagle flying down the river right by us. We were all so mesmerized by the sight that we didn't discern his intent until too late. The eagle swooped in and grabbed Barry's lure, somehow tangling or hooking himself.

Steve did a great job keeping all calm. Three of us reeled in our lines. The eagle swam/floundered toward shore. On Steve's request, I got his coat from under the seat and the large net ready. Steve slowly moved the boat to shore, instructing Barry how to keep his line. When we made it to shore, Steve put on his gloves, put his pliers in pocket, and grabbed the net. The eagle was thrashing around trying to free itself. Just as Steve managed to net him, the eagle either got free or the line/hook was knocked off by the net...and off our errant eagle flew.

And, if you are wondering what Joe was doing...he instantly had his phone out and recorded the incident. He trimmed off the initial boat maneuvering, and if you are interested in seeing it (he did a great job!), here's the link:  Eagle Video

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Best Vacation Ever: Day 3 Alaska

Best Vacation Ever: Alaska Day 3

Woke up at Bear Camp - slept decently considering still adjusting to time change and the constant light. Our tent hut super cozy, beds comfy, perfect for people (like us) who aren't really campers. After breakfast, headed back out to viewing sites 2 and 3 in the national park. Met the ranger as she checked on the viewing sites. Saw bears, bears and more bears. I should have split up the bear info between Day 2 and 3 descriptions!

Here's a few photos. Start with an adolescent male bear who lumbered up the beach behind us. He was so lanky (still 200-300 pounds). I loved watching the sibling bears cuddle and wrestle. Saw bears sleeping on rocky cliffs.

It was mating season, so we witnessed the amorous adventures of two different couples. Turns out, bears have delayed implantation. When the female bear goes into hibernation, her body fat determines how many baby bears implant...between 1 and 4 depending on how well nourished she is. The cubs are born during hibernation! The guide was a little vague on how aware the mom was of the birth...the cubs somehow get into place to nurse, and in the spring...surprise! Baby bears! We only saw one mom with a cub, and she was moving fast and I didn't get a photo. The guide explained she keeps moving because the cub is vulnerable to predators, even older male bears.

Tides put us on a late afternoon flight back to the lodge, where we enjoyed happy hour. Guests meet their guide for the next day. Dinner is social - we sat with Lisa and another couple from Bear Camp. Food is a single entree; all entrees through vacation were excellent. Exhausted, we fell into bed - scheduled wake up was 4:30 a.m. for FISHING!

Best Vacation Ever: Alaska Day 2

Best Vacation Ever - Day 2


While researching Alaskan trips for our 35th anniversary, I booked this particular vacation after hearing an author, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, speak about her experience at Bear Camp. I already received the catalog from Great Alaska Adventure Lodge, and her descriptions sealed the deal. However, I was very nervous about the small plane ride. In all I'd read, I learned small planes were the key to touring Alaska. Only 20% of Alaska is accessible by car. So, nerves or no, I was committed to getting to Bear Camp.

Brian from Great Alaska picked up Lisa (my new friend!) and us promptly at 7:30. On our drive to the Lodge in Sterling, AK, we were impressed with the beauty of the valleys, rivers, and mountains. The lodge is on the edge of Sterling...off the main road and into another world. It sits on the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. So beautiful! After a short tour, we found out our departure to bear camp was delayed. Since the planes land on the beach (gulp), we needed to wait for low tide. We ate lunch (elk burgers!) then Sherry, coordinator of activities and guides, sent AJ, a lovely young woman from Michigan, to lead us on a kayak ride down the Moose River.

The flight to bear camp was JUST FINE. We needed two planes for our group; Lisa was on the other plane. Totally smooth, no bumps, great scenery, super smooth beach landing.  We flew into Bear Camp, received an orientation, and immediately went out with one of the bear guides, Steve. The bears dig for clams (an early source of protein) on the mud flats right in front of the camp. 15 years ago, only 1 out of 50 bears did this. Now nearly all the bears do. Recently, a bear discovered the flounder in the shallow water, and caught one (by slapping down, I think!)...a second and third bear have already adopted this fishing behavior. Smart bears!  We were watching this beautiful female bear feed, then walked to the camp's personal viewing platform, inland "behind" the camp, on a large meadow...two minutes later, down our trail, she came, walking next to the platform and then out to rinse off in the meadow lake.

Dinner was steak - delicious - after a "happy half hour" of wine/beer and appetizers. Then back out again, this time with guide Clinton. Off of the beach are three viewing areas set up by the national park. They are a simple log for sitting and looking over the meadow, and the bears are used to seeing humans there.

Suddenly, Clinton calmly announced everyone should get behind him - he squatted, facing the beach, arms slightly outspread. And we all twirled and crouched and faced a beautiful female brown bear. Clinton saw her exiting the meadow next to us.

She walked RIGHT in front of us, then to our side, then decided the view was nice and sat next to the log we vacated. Exhausted, she lay down and relaxed...and I thought "we are going to be here a very long time". However, still hungry from a long winter of hibernation, she sighed and rambled back to the meadow to munch grass.

Hard to pick only a couple photos to share! What a day! Into our tent-hut for a much needed rest...