Thursday, July 25, 2013

We had a great trip to Soldotna and Kenai today. The salmon were still running in the Kenai River and the banks were lined with eager fishermen.  At the mouth of the Kenai River fishermen were waist deep in the icy water with their pole nets stretched out hoping a salmon would accidently swim into the net. It seems ineffective to me, but it works!
The rule is you must be on the “shore.” This guy was out in the river paddling along with his net.  I think he would be in trouble if Fish & Game showed up!

Jim stopped to talk to these guys about the salmon fishing. They are Alaskan residents, and lifelong friends. Meet Gene Charles and Gene Charles. Really nice fellas.  They said net fishing for pinks  is 21 days long.  The rule is head of household gets 25 fish, and each member of the household gets 10.  Sherry got to pick up one of their nets, she says they’re heavy.  Families come down here for a few days of fishing. Camping on the beach. Kids playing in the sand while parents fish.

This is John. He had the afternoon off and decided to get in a little fishing.  John said they had lived in Alaska for three years. His wife was hired as a teacher in a school above the Arctic Circle where winters get down to – 60. Then they drove to the Kenai on a trip and loved it. He said the winters are sooooooooo much warmer in the Kenai! He said it only gets down to – 10 (I think he’s crazy.)  

 Jim has a thing for chainsaw carvings so we stopped at a little place on the way back to Seward.  This guy doesn’t use Redwood, he uses Spruce, which is much harder and has a finer grain. It allows him to carve much greater detail and put a much nicer finish on the carvings. I really liked his work, the proportions are more realistic. No funky, chunky bears and eagles like you see along the coast in Northern California. His carvings are unique, like the bear chairs – so cute! He said he lives in Port Angeles in Washington State. Every summer he loads up his wood and comes to Alaska to spend the summer carving.  Check out his web site at

We were here in 2010 and the towns of Soldotna and Kenai were much smaller. In three years the towns have GROWN. Now they have McDonald’s, Arby’s, Fred Myers, Home Depot, etc.  We didn’t recognize the towns.  
 We stopped at Kenai River Flats so I could do a little birding. It was a warm and sunny  day and the birding was awesome. Sherry and I walked the road checking out all the little shore birds in the ponds.  For great BBQ try Sackett’s in Cooper Landing.  This was the best BBQ we’ve had in years! Brisket, Pulled Pork and Hot Links. OMG, it was delicious.  

Monday, July 22, 2013

Just 80 miles from Anchorage on Turnagain Arm, is Hope. It was Alaska's first gold mining town, established in the 1890’s. The ongoing quest for Resurrection Creek gold created the community of Hope, named after Percy Hope, the youngest new miner to step off a boat when all present decided that the town would be named after the next exiting passenger. At the time, there were six mines in the Hope region -- the Hirshey Mine, Bear Creek Mines, Hope Mining Company, Lucky Strike Mine, Nearhouse Mine and Paysteke Mine. Today recreational gold mining is a big draw in this tiny town of 192 people.

If you're new to gold panning the man to see is
Gold Rush Peck. He can teach you everything you need to know about getting gold out of the earth.

Peck’s given name is Peck Hassler; he's been gold mining and panning since he was 10 years old. Peck walks with a cane, wears rainbow suspenders, a jacket with an embroidered picture of himself on the back and he has a wicked cool leather hat filled with a couple of Bald Eagle quills, some big fish hooks, pins of Alaska, turquoise jewelry and a couple pins noting his service in Vietnam. "This hat was willed to me by my friend Frank," said Peck. "I know this hat is water repellent but that could be from all the sweat and stink."

Peck proudly served his country for 30 years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War era. Retired now, he enjoys showings kids of all ages how to gold pan.

But first you have check out his world map and put a pin in your home town. The map is pretty cool; he’s had several visitors from the Antarctic; loads of visitors from New Zealand; Siberia, etc. He says visiting with folks and learning about their lives makes his life good. We spent a couple of hours with Peck, Jim and Sherry gold panned while I visited with Mrs. Peck. Peck is the real deal, and he is an amazing Alaskan Character. 



This trip has not always been a smooth one. I guess I should have been expecting something to happen. After all the 5th wheel is 10 years old. And we have dragged it over 1,000’s of miles of rough road. It’s suffered Canada and Alaska road frost heaves, Mexico pot holes, etc.  But I would NEVER have guessed the frig door would be the first thing to fall apart. And I do mean – FALL APART. The wood panel came loose, the frame fell apart in pieces and the foam insulation let go. It took two hands to open the door (holding it together) while two more hands got stuff out of the frig. We finally laid our hands on Liquid Nails and Duct Tape and set to work “fixing” the door. While Jim and Jimmy squeezed and pushed on the various door parts; I backfilled the foam insulation with the Liquid Nails and then Sherry and I made Duct Tape band clamps to hold the whole thing together while the foam dried. Please note my ingenious use of a table knife and BBQ fork for tightening the band clamps. Talk about a Red Neck repair! Not pretty, but it will hold until we get home and that’s all that matters.

In August 1900, two prospectors spotted a green patch of hillside that looked like good grazing for their pack horses. The green turned out to be part of a mountain of copper ore.

From that incident, a boom town was born, where 600 workers lived, toiled and played. Within 20 years the strike proved to be the richest known concentration of copper ore in the world. Kennicott became a company town that included homes, a laundry, machine shop, hospital, general store, schoolhouse, baseball field, skating rink, wood surface tennis court, a recreation hall, dairy and a powerhouse which generated steam and electricity.  By 1911, a railroad had been built 196 miles through the wilderness to tidewater at Cordova to remove the ore.  Kennicott had five mines: Bonanza, Jumbo, Mother Lode, Erie and Glacier. The ore from these mines was analyzed as containing 70% copper as well as silver and traces of gold.
The centerpiece of the town was a massive 14-story mill building where copper ore was processed for shipment.  Kennecott produced 4.625 million tons of ore averaging 13 per cent copper valued at roughly $207,000,000. In addition, the silver by-product from this operation brought in another 4½ to 9 million.
Today the National Park Service (NPS) is hard at work restoring and preserving Kennicott Mine. Kennicott was in terrible condition when the NPS took over the site. 70 years of neglect have allowed the buildings to be undermined by flooding and unstable soils. First order of business was to beef up the foundations. Then structural repairs, new windows and doors, then paint. Slowly but surely Kennicott is coming back to life.

Now the Kennicott Mine is at the center of America’s largest national park.  Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is 13.2 million acres, or six times the size of Yellowstone. Here you'll find North America's largest sub polar ice field, which stretches 100 miles, as well as nine of the 16 highest peaks on U.S. soil (including Mount St. Elias at18, 008.) The park also encompasses glaciers, rivers and an active volcano. Only two roads lead into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and one of them is the 58 mile Chitina-McCarthy gravel road. Beginning at the Copper River it follows the abandoned railroad route to the historic town of Kennicott.  

On the way to Kennicott is the tiny historic town of McCarthy. McCarthy became the site of the CRNR turnaround station and businesses such as hotels, restaurants, and stores quickly developed.  McCarthy has a very colorful history. Since no gambling or drinking was allowed in the mining town of Kennicott, McCarthy evolved as a diversion for the miners, providing saloons and a red light district. At its peak, McCarthy provided services to the area's 800 residents. When the mine closed in 1938, Kennicott became a ghost town. Unlike Kennicott, McCarthy has a few hardy souls who have made it their home.

When we crossed the mighty Copper River we saw folks fishing for pink salmon. Several men were net fishing along the bank below the bridge. I can’t even imagine doing this. The water is straight off a glacier and is freezing cold and moving so swiftly it makes standing in the swirling water difficult! One slip and the waders they wear would fill with water and drag them down into the deep river.
For those Alaskans who can afford the permit the fishing wheel is safer and more productive. The river was lined with fishing wheels. We stopped to watch as the wheels were emptied of their precious cargo. This man scooped out 5 or 6 salmon every time he dipped his net in the wheel’s holding tank. The amount of fish he can take is based on the number of people in his family. He hoped to take 500 fish during the pinks run. After the fish are lugged to shore he has to fillet them for drying, smoking or canning. It is hard, wet, cold, messy work. Many Alaskan’s depend on salmon to make it through the year.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Deep in the heart of Prince William Sound, surrounded by some of the world’s tallest coastal mountains is Valdez. It’s why Valdez is called the Switzerland of Alaska. The city lies at the head of Port Valdez, a natural fjord that reaches inland about 11 miles from Prince William Sound. It is the largest port in all of Prince William Sound and it’s an ice free port in winter. The population here is about 4,000. If you’re into fast food chains don’t come here. Valdez does have Thai, Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Most of the businesses here are locally owned and operated. The only national chain stores in town are the NAPA and RadioShack stores.
This is the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery. We’ve arrived at the beginning of the salmon run so there are only a few salmon here. Further out in Prince William Sound there are hundreds of thousands of salmon gathering, preparing to make a run to their home streams. Many of the salmon will return here to the hatchery where they were born. Once they get here they have to run the gauntlet of Stellar Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, bears and Bald Eagles. See the five Sea Lions lurking in the brood pool waiting for the salmon?  
Once the Sea Lions catch a salmon they toss it in the air, retrieve it, slap it on the water and then eat it. All during this death ritual the Sea Gulls are right in there trying to steal scraps from the mouths of the Sea Lions. While all this is going on you see Seals slipping in and out of the brood pool trying to catch salmon without becoming dinner for the Sea Lions!

The other cool thing about the hatchery is all the Black Legged Kittiwakes who nest here. Parents take turns staying with the chicks while the other one goes off to fish. A close look at the Kittiwakes reveals most of these have two or three chicks under them. As you can imagine, such close quarters leads to squabbles between neighbors. There is always shrill screaming going on as birds fight for purchase on the ledge. I wonder how the chicks keep from falling into the swift water below! As an avid birder I could spend the whole day here just watching the birds. This photo were taken yesterday.

Today I went back to get more photos of the chicks and they were are all gone! No idea what happened, Fox? Ermine? There are so many predators here there is no telling who ate the chicks. The poor Kittiwakes have already started courtship rituals, nest rebuilding, fighting for mates, etc. I caught these two male Kittiwakes fighting over a female. They actually submerged in the river during the fight.  I have to think the second batch of chicks won't fair much better. The wild kingdom is very cruel sometimes.

Today we visited The Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum today. It contains one of the largest collections of Native Alaskan art and artifacts in the world. When the Whitney’s came to Alaska in 1947, they never imagined they’d end up staying for good. But stay they did, making a fresh start in a new land they soon called home. Maxine traveled to Native villages throughout the territory, buying items directly from the artists to sell in her gift shop. This is truly a world class museum filled with not only native art and artifacts, but also some amazing animal mounts. Polar Bears tower over visitors; huge wolves lounge around, while Elk, Caribou and Big Horn Sheep glare down at us. I really liked the scene with a pair of sled dogs pulling a seal on a sled. The expressions on the dog's faces are perfect! The large collection of Eskimo Dolls was really beautifully. Made me so glad I purchased Rosie in Inuvik!




Last time we were in Valdez we took a half day kayak trip on Lake Valdez to see the Valdez Glacier. Feeling more confident in our kayak skills we took a 10 hour sea kayak trip to Columbia Glacier this time. The Columbia Glacier is 25 miles south of Valdez. The glacier itself makes an amazing sight, encompassing 660 square miles flowing out of the Chugach Mountains. It’s the second-largest tidewater glacier in North America and the largest in Prince William Sound. The face is more than 3 miles wide and it’s rapidly moving backward at a rate of 4 feet per day in the summer (and no it’s not because of global warming!) At the foot of the glacier, hundreds of small icebergs, known as growlers, have broken off the glacier and roll and float in the Sound, many of them larger than a house! It was an iceberg from the Columbia Glacier that led to Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.
We take a water taxi out to Heather Bay and get dropped off at the glacier's terminal moraine. We have to portage our gear across the moraine and then everyone shoehorns their way into their kayak and buttons up. We spend the day rowing around the sound enjoying the icebergs and the beautiful scenery. There are loads of sea birds here, including Gulls and Murrelets.

I have to admit I was a little worried about flipping over in the sea kayak and being trapped by the spray skirt (you step into it and then it snaps around the opening you sit in) while hanging upside down, trying to stay calm and waiting to be rescued. But everything went just fine (WHEW.) Turns out it’s not easy to flip the things.

Later in the day we could hear icebergs breaking apart and BOOMING into the water where we had been in the morning. The shapes and sizes of
the icebergs was incredible. Some were as big as
a warehouse and some looked like ice sculptures. We had to gauge the height of the iceberg and then stay twice as far away as the iceberg was high. Apparently they not only break apart but they also flip over!

This is our fearless leader, Russell. He brought us hot cocoa, apple cider and chocolates for our break. We even got an Alaskan sex talk (seems the barnacles in the bay are sex maniacs.) The iceberg he's paddling in front of has flipped over creating the interesting shape.

Our sincere thanks to Anadyr Sea Kayaking for a another great trip. Our boat captain, Scott and our kayak guide Russell were awesome. I bet this trip will be the high light of our Alaska trip!
 On the 90 minute taxi trip to the Columbia Glacier we passed the Valdez Fleet fishing for Pink Salmon. No gill nets here just seine nets. To catch the salmon they use two boats. The large boat carries the net and has the fish holding tanks. The second boat is much smaller and is called a “Jitney.” It takes one end of the net and pulls it out into the sound to make a circle. The end of the net goes back to the big boat and then they begin hauling it in. Here’s the end result.

This year Fish & Game issued 230 commercial fishing permits for the Valdez Fleet. Once the boat’s holding tanks are full they call for a tender to off load them. As fans of The Deadliest Catch we were pleasantly surprised to see the Northwestern out in the fjord offloading salmon to deliver to the processing plant in Valdez.

The next day the fleet came back to Valdez to restock. They cleaned out Safeway. Want staples like bread or milk? You’ll have to wait until the next Safeway delivery in three days. Here’s the fleet getting ready to go back out. The harbor was completely crammed with boats. They were moored six and seven deep. Lashed together like that the crews had to cross from one boat, to another boat to another boat, etc. The harbor was busting at the seams with commercial fishing boats!

Today Sherry and Jimmy took a Halibut fishing trip on the El Gat. They were gone from  6:30 am (yawn) until 6:00 pm. The boat carried them out to the Gulf of Alaska for some fishing in super deep waters. Sherry hooked a really nice Halibut. She was so excited about the fishing trip, she was like a kid in a candy store. I am pretty sure Jimmy went along to be sure Sherry didn’t fall over board in her excitement to catch a fish! Sherry’s biggest fish weighed 51.2 pounds. She and Jimmy also caught three Halibut in the 20 pound range. They're taking home 57 pounds of Halibut!




Sunday, July 14, 2013

Alaska has a population of about 800,000 people. One third of those live in the greater Anchorage metropolitan area. Anchorage is surrounded by mountains that make a stunning backdrop to the city’s skyline. The Chugach, Kenai, Tordrillo, Talkeetna, Aleutian and Alaska Range Mountains (which includes Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America climbing at 20,320 feet) can all be seen from Anchorage. The city is also home to 1,500 Moose, dozens of nesting Bald Eagles, 2,400 Dall Sheep, Brown and Black Bear, Beluga Whales, Beavers and hundreds of bird species.

My favorite spot is Potter’s Marsh. Located south of Anchorage, off the Seward Highway it has stunning views Turnagain Arm. And it’s not just a Mecca for birds. Moose are regularly seen here. Often feeding just below the viewing platforms where you can get amazing photos of the huge animals. Rabbit Creek flows through the marsh and provides a good spot to see spawning Chinook, Coho, or Humpback Salmon. And of course in Alaska where there are salmon there are bears. Black and Brown Bears fish here for yummy salmon. Additionally, Muskrat, Least Weasels, Mink, Snowshoe Hares, Red Squirrels, Voles, Shrews, Lynx, Coyotes, River Otters, Beavers, Red Foxes, and Porcupines are also visitors to the refuge.

So we picked up Sherry and Jimmy at the airport on the 8th.  They will be with us for the next two weeks. Our first sightseeing trip was to Potter’s Marsh. This cow and her twins spent several hours grazing so close to us I wanted to reach out and pet her really cute babies! We also saw a huge Bull Moose out in the grass. It was pretty amazing.

The birding at Potter's Marsh was great. Lots of sea birds like this Arctic Tern and Mew Gull (Mom has just regurgitated dinner for the chick.) YUM!

In Anchorage we saw a Moose crossing a 4 lane road and a Black Bear by our campground. Sherry chased the bear trying to get a photo. One shoe on, one shoe off running across the gravel trying to catch up to the bear. She thought because it had a collar on it was a nice bear (NOT.) In the end all she got was a couple of very blurry pictures of a bear with a bright yellow Fish and Game collar on.