Monday, August 31, 2009

Michelle's Excellent Alaskan Vacation Day 4

July 31, 2009

I leave Denali Backcountry Lodge tomorrow AM. It’s been a tremendous experience. After lunch yesterday, I put a fire in the gazebo & sat reading & writing. Joe & Susan sat out in the sun along the creek. Bill returned form the Fannie Quigley hike & joined me in the gazebo. We talked quite awhile – or should I say HE talked. When the time came to move on, he said, “ I hope I didn’t talk your ear off..” I still have both.
Since I had a sedentary afternoon, I wasn’t real hungry come dinnertime, but I went to the dining room anyway. I had a glass of wine and hors d’ouvres upstairs and chatted with Pam & Wiley from WA. When dinnertime came I sat with the couple I’d met at the train station who are recently retired, form Ann Arbor MI – never did get their names. Dinner was shrimp & scallops, but I wasn’t very hungry – ate politely, & excused myself before dessert.
I took a walk out to the end of the road (literally) & back around Fannie Quigley’s. It was a path I knew and I’d forgotten to sign out at the desk as they ask us to do when venturing out without a camp guide. I wanted to go back out into/onto the tundra. I thrill at the wide open expanse, the spongy floor the abundant berries, & especially the intoxicating fragrance of labrador tea.
I strolled back toward camp, but detoured up a path toward the ridge where remnants of Fannie’s garden remained. It was a steep incline, the path was rugged, & I found my heart rate racing. I stood on a bluff & could see for miles. I breathed in deeply the fresh, clear air and listened to nothingness. “I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation” I thought to myself.

I returned to camp and went to the building they call the cultural center. There I popped in a video about Denali: the taiga, the tundra & the arctic. As the video ended, other guest filed into the room for a scheduled video presentation. I put my boots back on, straightened up my chair and quietly departed. I went to the library and borrowed a couple of books on wildflowers & one on berries of Alaska, returned to my cabin & read until I could no longer keep my eyes open.
This morning, - Friday – started with a 9:00 AM guided hike along an old mining road, along Moose Creek & into the valley where intricate beaver dams & lodges had been erected. Shannon was our guide, a tiny, soft-spoken twenty-something girl from Homer, AK. The group was Pam & Wiley, Joe & Susan, Bill, myself and a newcomer, Martine, from Paris, France. We hiked an elevation of about 2,000 feet & probably three miles

We found a pair of cast-off moose antlers & had fun with them before returning back to camp, just in time for lunch. The skies began to cloud over, the air cooled, the humidity rose and the threat of rain was imminent.

A gold panning demonstration was beginning & I watched as guests tried their hand. I walked back to the main lodge, got a fresh cup of coffee, went upstairs and picked up a book on the history of the Alaskan RR. I eased into a rocker on the upstairs porch & was quickly engaged in conversation with a man & woman who were “day visitors’ - had come in on a bus from the park entrance, they were from Vero Beach, FL. I had only begun reading about the start of the railroad & how the government restricted private ownership of the coal being mined, forcing bankruptcy with only 70 miles completed. Joe came out on the porch & joined me & it was pretty good timing as he is a bankruptcy attorney & he answered some of my questions that rose about government intervention in private enterprise. We talked awhile until it began to drizzle – I mentioned that I thought I would stir up a fire in the gazebo if he & Susan were up to joining me. I returned to my cabin to grab this journal intending to write by the fire, as well as get my thermos to fill with hot apple cider. When I got to the gazebo, Joe was already building the fire, Susan came along shortly and we talked about two books they had that their older son had authored. The books were on Shin Buddhism.
Another couple joined us- Al & Marian – recently retired educators from CA. We conversed, stoked the fire, read a bit until it was “happy hour”. We bought beer & wine & enjoyed it in the gazebo next to the alder wood fire, as the rain fell steadily.


Wiley, Pam, Moi, Bill, Joe & Sue

After dinner, we returned to the gazebo, & built a very substantial fire. Bill, Joe & I chipped in on a bottle of Reisling. We took an old tinder bucket to use to chill the wine. It had a hole in the bottom apparently from an ember. Joe chewed a piece of gum and plugged the hole, then we dipped it into the creek & 40-50 degree water served to chill the wine perfectly. Al & Marian joined us, Bill talked & talked, thrilled to have a fresh audience. Wake up call is 5 AM, so, at 10:30 PM we wrapped it up. Tomorrow is the long ride back out.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Michelle's Excellent Alaskan Vacation Day 3

July 30, 2009

My bed was very clean and comfortable (I was also very, very tired!) The air was cool – almost too cool,- as at one point I shut the window above the bed. I enjoyed the sound of Moose Creek tripping over the rocks & stones, and the smell of alder wood fire from the gazebo. The sky never did darken, just remained that dusky haze.
Morning started with a breakfast of hot oatmeal with raisins & brown sugar. Other choices included French toast, sausage, cold cereals & toast, bagels & pastries.

At 9:00 A, I joined others in a casual hike with our naturalist guide, Erick. We headed along the botanical trail, being introduced to local flora & fauna. One plant, labrador tea, was a pleasantly pungent sage aroma. We stopped at some structures erected to measure snowfall – 4 feet is not unusual. We were introduced to Widow’s tea (Monks’ hood) – named so I suppose due to its toxicity & legend of sourdough women serving it to their abusive spouses. I said earlier that Labrador tea had a sage fragrance – I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate – it’s a distinct, lovely fragrance & our guide indicated that’s the fragrance of the tundra. I wish there was a way to record that wonderful feeling it provides the senses.

I witnessed “lichen” (spelling mine, pronounced ‘liken’) and heard about “Freddie Fungus and Annie Algae” who took a liken (lichen) to each other, and now their marriage is on the rocks… must be a biologists’ inside joke. Horsetail grass which has a course texture (can be used as a scouring pad). Balsam & poplar trees – of course Alder wood, which is prolific. Bluebell/Oyster leaf which tastes like green beans to most, has a fish, “oyster” taste to some; Siberian yarrow which looks to me like Queen Anne’s Lace (only smaller – has a medicinal quality).
We visited Fannie Quigley’s cabin & heard of rugged survivalism & how she cooked & sold meals to the prospectors, how she managed to develop a gardening system by which boxes were elevated so as to achieve a soil depth above the frozen tundra floor. (perma frost).
We checked out a stretch of Moose Creek which housed a huge beaver lodge … or at least did earlier – seems the beaver ran out of a viable food source & abandoned his lodge. The lodge and dam stretched beyond the eye’s visibility.

We then headed out into the tundra. The ground covering under our feet was spongy moss. Imagine walking on a giant inclining sponge Erick pointed out blueberries & the difference between them & similar looking “crow berries”.

He challenged us to identify a plant known to eat mosquitos – calling it a round-leaf sun-dew. One member of our party correctly spotted & identified it, and so was rewarded with home-made chocolate chip cookies which she shared with the group. Erick then pointed out “cloud berries” (also known as salmon berries, for their color) which flourished along the floor. We sampled them with enthusiasm.

Walking back, he pointed out signs of visiting moose; prints along the trail which he thought to be relatively fresh. He pointed out a pile of moose skat, which he said was “winter skat” Of course I wanted to know what made it “winter’. As opposed to any other skat. In summer, moose diet is wetter – lots of foliage, so their skat looks more like a cow paddy. But in wither, when the snow covers the ground, their diet consists of sticks & bark. I now know more than I’ll ever need to know about moose skat .
We returned to camp just minutes before lunch, which was a great buffet of two delicious soups ( I had cream of seafood soup that was FULL of salmon!); ample breads, meats & cheeses for sandwiches; several fresh salads, chips, desserts and assorted beverages. A most fulfilling morning.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Michelle's Excellent Alaskan Vacation Day 2

The Alaskan RR pulled out of Fairbanks at 8:15 AM. I was impressed with how clean & orderly the depot was, and how friendly was the staff. Pulling out of the depot, the platform was lined with rail personnel all smiling and waving – and looking as sincere as could be. The first hour or so was somewhat monotonous – one passenger called it “just a tunnel of trees”. Beautiful, none-the-less, for its emerald vastness.I met a charming woman named Evelyn. She is 69 yrs old, and lives in North Pole, AK. She was quite talkative, but not in an over-bearing or obnoxious sense. She was traveling to Anchorage to get her pension straightened out. She was mixing the business of her pension with the pleasure of her granddaughter’s special occasion – I think a wedding…? She was raised in MT, & came with her husband to work on the RR & stayed – that was 25 years ago. Her husband passed away a year ago at the age of 70. She rides the rail free. She was extremely well versed on AK history – she told me all about the coal mining, oil pipeline, lack of roads, severity of weather, how the lower 48 provides all of their consumer goods

We traveled through the town of Nenana, birthplace of the Ice Classics. Townsfolk gamble on the date that the ice will break up on the river. We passed by Moody Bridge – Evelyn told me there’s a wind sock on the bridge so motorists know what direction the wind is traveling so as not to get broadsided – or at least to slow down when crossing.
Arriving at Denali train depot was quite an experience. Obviously a major tourist intersection … throngs of tourists with guides and motorcoaches for all sorts of cruise lines & accommodations. I felt alone as everyone else had a bus or van or guide to take them on to their next destination. Finally, the bus from the backcountry lodge pulled up. It had been at the Denali Cabins and already had 15 or so passengers.

Dana was our driver and guide – a robust woman I’d place in her mid 40’s, and a wonderful guide! It was a very, very long (7+ hours!) ride. And my backside is stiff from the hard school bus seat. I had the good fortune of the very front seat, so had benefit of great views as well as the guide’s narration. I was glad to have good binoculars: I saw a small group of Dall sheep that wouldn’t have been visible w/ the naked eye. We saw caribou; first one & two – then 4 & 5, and at one point a herd. We saw grizzly bears – one loner, & later a sow and cub. We saw ptarmigan, blue billed magpies, many, many snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrel, a rodent-type creature called a pica (can’t live warmer than 70ยบ - ) and a nest with golden eagles. We saw various ducks & beaver.

Polychrome Pass

July 29, 2009

The mountain was “out” and was it ever impressive!!

There were several good photo opportunities & we took advantage of each one! As we were nearing the end of the road, Susan & Eric from Jackson Hole, WY spotted a moose. This was exciting – I’d never seen a moose before!! Turns out she had a calf trailing in the brush. Amazing animal.
We finally arrived at the lodge – nearly an hour after expected. We were quickly assigned cabins & then sat down for a family style dinner of fresh spinach salad, eggplant or pork loin with sides of peas & mushrooms & roasted potatoes. Coffee or tea & German chocolate cake.
I am struggling to finish this: It’s just past midnight & my body aches all over. But this is magnificent. A tidy, cedar cabin with clean, crisp bedding, the pure sound of tundra silence, the faint aroma of wood burning fireplace, and gentle, cool, pure air.
I shall sleep fast and furious.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Michelle's Excellent Alaskan Vacation

Day 1

July 28,2009

I am in the Alpine Lodge, Fairbanks. A long day of airplanes. It’s 11:15 pm Alaska time – which is 4 hours behind FMB time. I’m nearly on 24 hours now. It is light out – the type of light we see at 8:15-8:30-ish.
With the exception of the Ft. Myers-Miami flight, all my seats were window – “F” – and on the right side of the plane. This was fortuitous as it was the better side for best viewing. The Miami to Seattle leg was long. At one point the pilot pointed out Yellowstone National Park. That was a highlight. That leg of flight had the most turbulence and the most cloud coverage. The Seattle to Anchorage flight was awesome views, until the approach to Anchorage when it clouded over – it was raining in Anchorage. As we flew closer to Anchorage the mountains grew larger. They looked like dessert dusted with confectioners’ sugar. I am sure I saw glaciers. I dug my camera out of my bag to take a shot from the airplane. As luck would have it, it clouded over almost instantaneously.
I had never seen such mountains – such rugged terrain.
Anchorage was gray & wet. We had about an hour lay over, so I sat at the gate looking out over the tarmac. I noticed it appeared that many folks – mostly men – use the airlines to commute – not like the NYC, DC kind of commute, but “boots on the ground” workers, who carried folders of what looked like active construction projects. One man held a cell phone conversation as he sat down next to me in the airport. It had been warm – or so Alaskans thought. “60’s” was getting warm! Most folks didn’t have A/C – he mentioned attending a “moose roast”!
My Anchorage to Fairbanks leg found me sitting next to a very chatty man who has lived in Fairbanks for 25 years. He gave me quite a history of Alaska – explaining the flora & fauna, the population and industry, the slough & mud flats, the winters & fuel charges, even the dish on Sarah Palin.
All in all a most full day!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Catch Up

I find myself having to think hard to recall what today's date is, what time of year it is - spring, summer, fall - time is like a flash. I returned home from vacation nearly 2 weeks ago, and it seems like only yesterday. So much to catch up upon. I only just now went through my aol inbox and cleared out 150 e-mails. It's Sunday afternoon and I haven't been out of the house, yet. Gracie is napping out of boredom, I'm sure. Lauren returned to Tampa Friday nite, for classes to start tomorrow. I still haven't completely unpacked. What to do first.

I kept a journal on vacation, all hand-written. I'm entertaining the idea of transcribing some of it to this blog, along with some of the GREAT photos I took. That's added to the list of "what to do first". Hopefully soon I can record some of my observations, etc. For kicks and grins, though, and until I do, here's one of my favorite photos, taken in Denali National Park along Moose Creek:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Greetings from Glacier Bay National Park

I thought I'd pay the .75 cents / minute for internet to drop a note - little did I know it'd take fifteen minutes to log in..
We're cruising Glacier Bay National Park. It's very foggy right now, but we'll be crusing all day, so there's hope that visibilty will improve as the day progresses.
So far the trip's been pretty good. Denali Backcountry Lodge was awesome! It was all I hoped it would be. We saw "The Mountain" "The High One" "Denali" - Had spectacular views and I got some good shots. They say only 30% of the visitors see the mountain - and then theres statistics about late July - early August that are even slimmer - like 3%.
College Fijord was fantastic. Thanks to brother Ken for the advice on being sure to get up early to see it. I went to bed about 2:00 AM Sunday nite (Monday AM) so getitng up at 5:30 to catch the view at 6:00 AM took incentive and determination. It was more than well worth it.
I'm not convinced that cruising is all others say it is. Today's only Tuesday, so maybe HAL can/will redeem themselves. I went to the dining room for dinner last night at 6:00 PM. It was nearly 8:30 when I was seated - well after every single other guest came in - reservations or not. I sent a very direct note to the Guest Relations Manager. How difficult is it to find a seat for a solo traveler? I'd've sat with the help, at that point. Consequently, I missed the meet and greet with the captain , the 8:00 Broadway show, and the start of the movie. I ended up listening to some very bad karaoke.
My blackberry's not working - no Verizon on the horizon.
Alaska is absolutely fabulous. I'm surprised at the similarities between the Hawaiian people and the Tlingit/ Chilkat/ Aleutians. I'm learning a lot about culture, natural resources, environment etc. Wonderful, Wonderful trip.
Love to You!