Road Report #3
July 9, 2008
Dogsleds flying over the frozen river ...through the endless dark of winter ...they came for mail, for supplies, and for social contact.
It is still there, much as it was in the 1930s when Samme Gallaher came to Alaska as a 15 year old. I met Samme, now in her 90s, at the Valdez museum. She was up from her home in the “lower 48” to push her autobiography of those days. An energetic, enthusiastic spirit, it is easy to see the Samme who learned how to sleep out at -40 degrees on the winter trapline.
The historic photos of the roadhouse show the rooms to be little changed – wallpaper, furniture and wood-burning stove all as they were. We enjoyed big fluffy biscuits and jam with our coffee, imagining the way it might have been for Samme and her friends when home was a 9 x 9 cabin some 20 miles up the frozen river.
I am also reading Basil Austen’s account of the 1898 gold rush. He was a young man – mid-twenties, who came north to seek his fortune. He and his partners were adventurers in their mid-20s, young and strong and healthy. He was a gifted diarist with a keen, self-deprecating wit and a deft hand for description. Great first person account of landing in the tent city of Valdez – mud to their knees. Getting outfitted at tremendous cost – a ton of goods per man, then humping that up and over the Chilkoot Pass on homemade, self-propelled sleds.
He goes on to describe the two winters he spent in the bush, surviving by improvising and heading for the roadhouse when the isolation became too intense. In so many ways, for these healthy young men the gold rush was a great lark – the adventure of a lifetime. Not so much for the men who were there on the backs of family and friends who had combined their savings to stake a family member - a desperate attempt at a payoff that would rescue them all. Or not.
We continued on to Anchorage and registered for a campsite at the city-owned facility - Centennial Campground. After settling in we realize it is a tad grim. The sites are great, lots of green space, but there are lots of squatters hanging about asking for food and the bathrooms are not very well maintained. Apparently there are bear problems in the park too. One of the fellows who came over asking for food told us he was attacked by a bear earlier that day. Maybe true, maybe not but he looked pretty beat up so we fed him.
July 10, 2008
Everywhere we go they hand out brochures about being “bear aware.” The rule seems to be NEVER RUN. Okaaaaaaay. If the bear is not aware of you, retreat quickly and leave the area to the bear. But if the bear is sniffing the air and watching you, make yourself “BIG” by waving arms over your head, talking in low tones and backing away slowly. With any luck he’ll leave you alone. If it is a black bear and he/she attacks, fight back with everything you have in you.
With a grizzly, follow the same strategy. If he charges, hold your ground. He is probably just investigating. If he actually attacks, fall down dead. Hopefully he will just sniff around and then walk away. If he starts to eat you – THEN fight back. You betcha.
Let’s hope my nerve is never tested. One of my big motivations for having a hard-sided camping vehicle was so that we could come up into these areas and camp with some security.
Come morning we continue down the south side of the Peninsula to Seward. This is a small town divided into the old and the new by the 1984 tsunami that wiped out the harbour fronting the old Seward.
The old Seward now features a main street lined with cafes and galleries. Carvings out of whale bones, moose antlers and wood are very big here. And they are beautiful. One thing I am continuously struck by is the quality of arts and crafts up here in the north. Alaska and the Yukon are just crawling with creative talent.
The site of the old harbour is where they’ve now situated the Alaska Sea Life Centre. This facility has been created since the Valdez oil spill to research Alaskan sea life and be an interpretive centre for the public. It is a clever combination of aquarium/natural history museum. One of my favourite exhibits is a “sound wall” where you can press buttons to hear sounds like a glacier ice moving, a beluga whale, a humpback whale, a sea otter, and so on. Very cool.
Loved the bird refuge where we could view the ocean diving birds. On the surface they were nesting and relaxing but the water portion of their home extended some 30 feet down a glass wall. The docent said that one of the birds is capable of diving as deep as 600 feet. Could have watched them diving all day.
The touch and feel exhibit encouraged you to use two fingers to gently feel the surface of star fish and anenomes and sea slugs and such. A steller sea lion exbhibit included a feeding show and the salmon exhibit channelled spawning fish past a viewing window.
By evening we’d travelled on to Homer and enjoyed a walk on the beach. It is a gravel beach with huge tides – up to 28 feet – and that really showed in the terrain created on the beach. But little life to be seen there – no shells or even evidence of life in the form of abandoned shells or dead crabs or anything. Boring beach to walk and hard to walk too – soft gravel.
Come morning we headed out to see the Farmer’s Market. Steve figured they would be selling old farmers there and was disappointed when he couldn’t find any for sale. Have no idea what he was going to do if he found one for a price he was willing to pay. If he truly wants an old farmer, we already have Dad :)
What they did have is the biggest radishes I’ve ever seen – like small apples. And great baked goods – bought cinnamon rolls and a rhubarb tart for dinner. Lots of photos and art cards, preserves and honey. Popcorn and rag mats and crocheted toques and plants and veggies.
Carried on to the famous Homer Spit on Cook Inlet. The inlet is the puddle in the bottom of a bowl constructed of massive mountain peaks and glistening glaciers.
This area has quite a few municipal/state camping parks. Absolutely no facilities – a few had fibre cans and in a few places on the Spit we noticed toilet blocks but that is it. There was one private RV park which apparently charged $78 per night. Same view but hook ups.
Unfortunately, same gravel beach. Apparently there are interesting tide pools when the tide is out but both last night and today at noon the tide was in so no luck on viewing those.
Went to the Salty Dawg Saloon where people write their names on $1 bills and tack them to the walls. We did that too. Look for ours on the life-ring at the back door. It does not look that big - saloon, but it was packed with drinkers in the middle of the day.
Had a walk through the souvenir shops – these ranged
from gorgeous Alaskan art shops with beautiful pieces in the thousands
of dollars to souvenir shops with their made-in-
Carried on to the Pratt Museum. This was great – lots of exhibits and artefacts about the early settlers as well as a corner dedicated to the stories of men lost at sea. An exhibit about the fishing industry explained the different kinds of boats and how/where they are used and for what. Saw a great movie about the different ways they fish up here – long lines and gill nets. Saw another movie about the Valdez oil spill. And still another about the bears at McNeil River in the Katmai National Park and Preserve.
These small town museums are usually a labour of love by the locals and if you really took the time to look at everything, could easily consumer a day or more of your time in each town. If you are coming this way, do make time for the Pratt in Homer. Well worth it.
Drove to Isaac Walton State Recreation Site at the confluence of the Moose River and the Kenai River. Here local and vacationing fishermen were casting out over the river. I’d always understood that spawning salmon don’t eat so I wondered how the fellows (and one lady) were managing to snag them. But that is exactly what they are doing – snagging them by drawing their hooks across the water
Watched one fellow pulling one in – just an amazing size. He released it, although the fish seemed to be quite damaged and had a hard time recovering. The fellow spent a long time trying to get it swimming right. Hope it did as it must have been 30 pounds and so beautiful.
July 13, 2008
Enroute we saw two good sized moose in Potters Marsh. No time to get a photo before they ran away – shy. Saw Dall sheep on the side of the mountains. Stopped at Beluga and Bird Point but did not see either. The Parks Dept wants a $5 fee if you stay longer than 30 minutes at any of these viewpoints on the Kenai.
Came into Anchorage mid day, stayed at the Creekside Motel and RV Park this time. A gravel parking lot beside the highway with a grotty toilet block and laundry. Oh well. Checked out Earthquake Park which is where something like 1200 feet of the city collapsed into the ocean – 70 homes vanished, just like that and three lives were lost.
Looking for its world famous seaplane base we drove around
the edges of the airport came on a huge moose just munching on the grass
and bushes. In the winter they live on twigs. Amazing to think such a
large and obviously powerful animal can get so much nutrition out of greens
and wood. Apparently over 2,000 moose call Anchorage home. There is certainly
evidence of that, with big piles of moose squat all over the trails.
The seaplane base is an interesting place - apparently it has more takeoffs and landings than any other seaplane base in North America. It is a whole lake in the middle of Anchorage. Around the edges of the lake there are "slips" for the float planes, much as you would have slips for boats. People build tiny little cabins beside their planes. Some are pretty basic, others truly express the personality of the owner with antlers and flowerpots and distinctive paint jobs.
Once a pilot, always a pilot ...so these floatplanes had Steve's imagination running on forward. There ARE compensations to living in the north and one of them seems to be owning your own plane because the numbers of small planes, both float and wheeled in Anchorage must be one plane for every two people. There are literally thousands of them lined up.
Come morning we’ll head up the Parks Hwy to Denali
and hope for a rare sighting of Mount McKinley in the sunshine.