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April 24, 2013 / valosin

More Musk Ox

More Musk Ox

Another Musk Ox at the farm.

April 24, 2013 / valosin

Feeding the Musk Ox

Feeding the Musk Ox

Me feeding the musk ox on our visit to the world’s only musk ox farm in Palmer, Alaska. Home of the Oomingmak qiviut collective. http://www.qiviut.com/

April 24, 2013 / valosin

Kennecott McCarthy

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So, this is kind of a hard post to write, and I’ve been putting it off for ages. This will be the last post for this little blog. Jon left a few days ago for a year-long trip back to the Arctic (he’s chronicling his trip at http://solsticetosolstice.org/), and I elected to stay behind in WI, returning to my life as scientist and general homebody.

But, I couldn’t let Bigfoot Wanda die without one last post about what was probably our biggest adventure, the trip to Kennecott.

After Dan left us (triumphant in his victory over the giant fish), we headed east towards Wrangell St Elias National Park. This is an amazing place. It’s the largest national park in the US. At over 20,000 square miles, it’s roughly 1/3 larger than Switzerland. With all that space, the park gets about 90,000 visitors per year. So, you wind up with a lot of space to yourself.

Our destination was Kenecott/Mc Carthy, which several people we met, who were natives of the area, told us was one of the most amazing places in the state. It combines some truly majestic scenery with fascinating history.

The road there was a nightmare. We got off the highway near Glenallen, and headed out onto the Mc Carthy road. It was paved for the first 60 miles or so, to the Chitina. The Chitina is on the Copper River, and is one of the two major places where residents of Alaska are allowed to collect red salmon by dip-netting for subsistence. The dip-netters favor the area around Chitina where the river has carved out gaps in the surrounding cliffs. The river eddies into the gaps, and the salmon tend to gravitate towards the eddies to rest while swimming upstream. The salmon that come out of here are the famous “Copper River Reds”, which are considered some of the best tasting salmon available. The total trip up to their spawning grounds is hundreds of miles, so they build up larger stores of fat than most other salmon species. Since the Chitina is only about 30 miles in from the ocean, the salmon caught here still have almost of all of their fat, and haven’t undergone a lot of the hormonal changes that take place before mating (and make the flesh much less palatable). So, pretty much the only way to catch tastier red salmon is to get them in the ocean before they start up the river (and that’s both much more difficult and highly regulated).

After we passed the Chitina, we lost the pavement. The rest of the 60 miles to our campsite was the old railway bed that had once led to the mine. The road was too narrow for two cars to pass (much less our camper trailing the forester), except for a few widened turnout areas. It was gravel and dirt with the occasional old railway tie sticking out to shred any unsuspecting tire. Miraculously, we made it to the end of the road without blowing a tire. The road ended in a gravel and stone parking lot/campsite beside the Kennicott river. We got there late in the evening, exhausted by the drive, so we found a place to stop, without much thought to view, and set up for the night.

The next morning, we woke up, and started looking around. The first thing we noticed was the ice falls.

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We were at the point where the ice field formed in the bowl between, Mt Wrangell, Mt Blackburn, Mt Sanford, and Mt Drum flows out to form the Kennicott glacier, which then melts into the Kennicott river. The ice field is over 5,000 feet above the glacier, so the drop down to the glacier forms this ice fall. It’s the third-largest ice fall in the world and, since the two larger ones are both the in the Himalayas, and they start well above 10,000 ft, this is likely to be the largest one I’ll ever see.

Since most of the people had left for the day, we moved to a camping spot with a better view.

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The spot we found had no people or man-made structures between us and the ice falls. It’s pretty amazing to be able to have an unobstructed view of these mountains and ice falls while sitting at the table eating breakfast.

The road ended at this campsite, but there was a footbridge across the river to the road to Mc Carthy and Kennecott. The whole area was part of Wrangell St Elias Park. We headed over the bridge and into town to see what we could find.

Kennecott was a mining town founded after a prospector in 1900 found ore in the area that registered more than 70% copper (for reference, some modern mines pull and process ore that is 0.8% copper). They formed the Chitina Mining and Exploration Company, and started operations by the fall of 1900. But, the remoteness, and extreme climate made small-scale mining difficult.

By 1903, the word had spread, and more people were trying to get in on the action. The Guggenheim family and J. P. Morgan collaborated to start the Kennecott Copper Corporation (it was an early mispelling that caused the town and company to be called Kennecott, while the glacier and the river are Kennicott (named for the naturalist Robert Kennicott, who explored the area in the mid 1800’s)). For those of you interested in labor history, the Kennecott Copper Corporation (now the Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation) is probably a familiar name.

Anyway, the Kennecott Copper Corp built a railway to connect the mine with the port city of Cordova, where it was barged to Washington State. Because of the incredible distances, it wasn’t cost effective to transport the raw ore, so a processing plant was built in Kennecott, to do a first round of refining before transporting the ore. The Kennecott mine started full operations in 1911.

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The mine operated for a little under 30 years, until, by November of 1938, it had ceased to be profitable. Once the mine was no longer operating, the entire town was simply abandoned, leaving a ghost town. We met people who had lived in the area as kids in the 70’s and 80’s who talked of going up to the area and seeing brooms left on the train platform where people just left them as they got on the last train. Houses were left with dishes on the shelves and bottles on the table.

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The National Park service took over the area in the 90’s, and has been trying to preserve the area, and rebuild some of the buildings in order to open them to the public. They’ve opened parts of the generator buildings. Imagine our shock when went in to find a room full of gigantic boilers, stamped with “Neenah Foundry”. It brought me up short a bit to realize that there was so much money in the ground here that it was profitable to transport these boilers that probably weigh hundreds (if not thousands) of tons each the nearly 4,000 miles up to Kennecott, in the early 1900s.

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After a day of wandering around boggling at the scale and remoteness of the place, we decided to find out what there was to do in the surrounding wilderness. We found a guide company offering guided hikes out onto the Kennicott glacier. We signed up for one the next morning.

We headed out in the morning to the glacier. The glacier itself is about a 2-mile hike from the guide company’s headquarters in town. Once, we got to the glacier, they showed us how to put on the crampons they’d provided us with. It takes a certain amount of adjustment to get used to having metal spikes strapped to the bottom of your shoes. The weather was sunny and warm, which made walking out on a plane of ice and snow hundreds of feet thick extra strange. If you’re going to go out hiking on a glacier, this was just about an ideal place to do it. Because Kennicott glacier is at the bottom of a huge ice fall, the ice gets very strongly compressed, so the huge crevasses that make most other glaciers so dangerous are largely absent here. There were, however mulans (spiral holes where the meltwater has drilled down to find a way out of the glacier), and other holes and cracks formed by the meltwater. We had a very thorough and personable guide who kept us all alive and made sure we saw some truly amazing sights.

We had lunch on the glacier, and filled up our water bottles from the meltwater pools on the surface. The meltwater is nearly perfectly pure, and doesn’t have any microbial contamination, since it’s been ice for most of the past 10,000 years, and is perfectly safe to drink (and delicious).

We headed off the glacier, and back to town to return the crampons and other equipment, and then back to our campsite for dinner. At this point, we were planning to leave the next day to head down to Valdez. But, we woke up the next morning to a beautiful, bright, sunny day (this is a place that gets about 5 clear days every summer). We decided to see if we could find a flighseeing tour of the ice field and the glacier. We called up one of the flightseeing companies in town, and they told us they could take us if we could get to town in 20 min or so. We hopped on the shuttle bus to town, and heard the bus driver, and a bartender for the town bar who was also on the bus talking about how someone had gotten a flightseeing tour, so they were going to get to go along for free. We got to town, paid for our tickets, and headed out to the airport.

We were on a small, propeller plane (a Cessna of some description, Jon would know exactly what it was). There was Jon and I, the pilot, the bartender, the bus driver, and one other seasonal worker in the town. It was clearly way over the maximum weight for the vehicle. It took the entire length of the runway to get off the ground, and I was starting to worry that this may well be the last thing I ever do. The statistics on small plane crashes in Alaska are terrifying. But, we got up in the air, and proceeded to head up the glacier towards the ice field. We headed towards Mt. Wrangell, which is an active volcano. However, it’s capped by a glacier, so it has a very strange shape. It’s domed, rather than the usual cone shape you see for a volcano. The ice over the top prevents the lava from flowing out the top in the usual way, so it seeps out cracks in the side and forms a dome.

Because it was a bright day, we didn’t see much wildlife on the hills (the parts that aren’t covered by glaciers), since everything was hanging out in the shade. But, the views of the ice fields were stunning. Jon got some truly amazing pictures, and I’ll make sure to post them if I can cajole him into editing them and getting them posted.

The next morning, we left to head down to Valdez for a few days of fishing for silver salmon from the shore, then to Fairbanks and one last visit with our friends there before heading home to WI.

And with that, I guess we’re done with the tales of our travels. I’ll post more pictures as they come available, but this will probably be the end of the stories. Thanks again for taking the time to read our ramblings, and I hope at least some of the stories have been interesting.

Barbara

October 31, 2012 / valosin

Seward

Hi,
So we’ve gotten even further behind at this point. It turns out our discipline is a bit lacking. In an attempt to catch up, and not still be writing about Alaska when we leave for our next leg, we’re going to move to just focusing on a few of the highlights.

With the requisite excuses and apologies out of the way, I’ll talk about the fishing trip. Jon’s brother, Daniel came up to visit us for a couple of days after we came back up from Homer. We decided that, since he was only here for about 48hrs, we wanted to plan something big, and uniquely Alaskan for that time. We decided on a fishing charter to go catch halibut and salmon. Originally, we’d planned on going out on a halibut-only charter which led to the inevitable spate of “just for the halibut” jokes. The best charter we could find on short notice (Daniel was flying standby, so we didn’t know for certain until a day or two before he arrived that he was coming for sure) was out of Seward.

We found ourselves a camping spot boondocking outside of Seward (more with the authentic Alaska experience, it’s not camping in Alaska if you don’t boondock) along the road to Exit Glacier. We took the Forester back up to Anchorage to pick up Dan (this is the advantage of going to all the trouble of towing a vehicle, we don’t have to pick up camp in order to go somewhere for the day).

Lois and Chris had been kind enough to give us a couple of pounds of ground caribou and moose. So, we made hobo packs over a campfire for dinner. Jon, unwisely decided to test the edge of one of the packets to see if it was too hot to pick up with bare fingers. It turns out it was too hot, and as soon as he touched it, a bit of the foil melted off the packet and stuck to his finger. It turns out that molten aluminum is both hot and sticky. By the time he got it cooled and off his fingers, the thumb and forefinger had second degree burns.

Since we had to be at the dock at 6 am the next day, and Jon wasn’t feeling all that energetic with his burns, we all turned in pretty early. Dan got to see all of the elaborate shades and blinds we put up in order to get some semblance of darkness during the long days. Mostly we used a reflective insulation material that looks basically like bubble wrap covered in foil. We made inserts for all of the windows that fit in between the existing blinds and the windows.

Anyway, we tried to get a decent night’s sleep, since we knew that the next day was going to be a long one. Jon didn’t get much sleep, since he was still in a lot of pain from the burns, poor guy.

So, 5 am rolled around much earlier than we’d hoped. We got up, and made ourselves lunches to bring with us (with a certain amount of grumbling about “$300 a person to go fishing and they still tell us to bring our own damn lunch? This sucks!”). We showed up at the hardware store that doubled as the headquarters for the charter service at about 5:50 am. After waiting for them to open at exactly 6 am, we got our fishing licenses for the day set up, and got on board. The boat was medium sized  (maybe 50 feet long) and there were 15 passengers plus the two crew members.

The captain, Jim told us that we would be heading out to a halibut feeding ground about 3 hours away from Seward. This took us out of Resurrection Bay and into the Gulf of Alaska. As we headed out, the seas got rougher and rougher. Jon and I headed down to the bunk area of the boat to try and get some sleep on the way out. I woke up about an hour into the outward trip, and went up to the deck to watch the rest of the trip out. It was cold and grey and misting, but the scenery was spectacular (as it pretty much always is in Alaska). The first fishing area we stopped at was one that has kind of a limited number of halibut, but they’re mostly older and larger. They told us that the aim was for us all to limit out on halibut (which was two per person). They set up rods for each of us, spaced out around the boat and put cut up herring onto the hooks for bait.

Jon, emerged from the bunk area feeling wretchedly seasick. He hung out on deck for a bit, but eventually decided to go back down and lie down for a bit. I had brought some Dramamine, and he took a couple of tablets before going back down to lie down. Neither Dan nor I were feeling seasick, so we set about the business of catching some fish. The two crew members came around periodically to change out the bait and make sure that everything was in order. Both Dan and I caught a couple of medium sized halibut (20-45lb or so each). Jon was feeling a bit better, so he came back up just as Dan got another bite.

Most of the fish we had caught so far didn’t really fight or try to take out any line, we just dragged them up as soon as we felt a tug on the line. The bite that Dan just got was different. It took off as soon as it took the bait. The captain saw the amount of line the fish was taking out, and asked if we had a king stamp. The king salmon run had been much lower than expected this year, so they had all but canceled the sport fishing (and commercial fishing) season for king salmon, but you could purchase a license to catch one king salmon for some exorbitant amount of money. We didn’t have one, but the captain told Dan to bring it in anyway, if it was a king, someone on board most likely had a stamp, since most of the other people on board were fairly serious fishers. After about 10 or minutes of trying to bring it in, Dan gave the pole over to Jon to finish reeling the fish in. Jon struggled manfully at it for about 20 minutes. With his burnt hand, it was pretty agonizing for him. He was getting ready to hand the pole back over to Dan, but the captain told him to keep at it, the fish was almost up. Pretty much as soon as the words left his mouth, the fish took off again, taking out more line than it had before. Jon gave the pole over to Dan, who spent about another 20 minutes or so bringing the fish up.

By this point, they had decided that it was definitely a halibut, but likely a much larger one than we had been bringing in so far. After about 30 or 40 minutes, everyone else on the boat had stopped their own fishing to watch Dan. As the fish got closer to the surface, the captain leaned out over the side, and started calling out. “Big fish…woah, BIG fish. Two gaffes. I’m going to need two gaffes.” At that point, we saw him take the club that he was holding in his hand (and had been using to kill all of the other fish we had brought on board) and set it aside. Then he told everyone but Dan (who was still reeling the fish in), and the other crewman to stand back. I was a little confused about what was happening at this point. As Dan brought the fish up to the surface, and they got the first gaff into it, the captain reached into the back of his overalls, pulled out a 9mm handgun.. and shot the fish. 7 times. After that, they got the second gaff into it, and pulled it on board. Here’s the video of the landing.

Since Dan didn’t have a derby ticket, they decided to fillet the halibut onboard. We still had another 6 hours or so on the water, since we were headed to the salmon fishing grounds. Leaving the halibut intact would let the blood get into all of the meat, and begin to cause it to be inedible, so they filleted it while the boat was on the way to the salmon grounds. They actually filleted all of the halibut on the trip over. Again, more video.


We got to the salmon fishing grounds around 5pm. We stayed for about an hour and a half, but the salmon either weren’t there anymore, or they weren’t biting. The captain told us that the week before, they had come to the same place, and everyone had limited out (the limit is 6 silver salmon per person per day). I caught one salmon. Jon caught one as well, but it got away when one of the crew members tried to hook it on the gaff. So, we wound up with only one salmon. Truth be told, we weren’t all that broken up about it, since we already had more fish than we had any idea what we could do with.

We got to shore around 8pm. We dragged our fillets to the processing place, where they would cut everything into ~1lb chunks, and vacuum seal each chunk and flash freeze it. Since the total haul of fillets (~150lb) was far more than we could even think of fitting in Wanda’s freezer, we asked them to pack up most of it (~100lb) into shipping boxes, which we would send back to Barneveld.

We dragged our butts back to Wanda at around 9pm, 15 hrs after we’d left in the morning, about ready to collapse. We threw together some sandwiches for dinner, and fell asleep pretty much immediately.

The next morning, we woke up, picked up camp to go to the dump station, so that we could get showers. After that, we did a little bit of last minute souvenir shopping, and had lunch at a Chinese buffet, and picked up our fish from the processors. Then it was back to Anchorage to mail the fish (thank heavens for the 75% discount on FedEx overnight shipping Dan gets as part of his job. Otherwise the shipping costs would have been crippling) and get Dan to the airport to get home. Kind of a whirlwind tour, but Dan seemed to enjoy it.

We still had a freezer stuffed to bursting with fish, so we started looking for ways to use it up. We also wound up giving a good chunk of it away to friends in Anchorage and Fairbanks who had fed us fantastic moose, caribou, and fresh caught salmon while we’d been up here.

Next up, the story of our time in Kennicot McCarthy.

As always, thanks for reading,

Barbara

September 30, 2012 / valosin

Homer, Seldovia and beyond

Hi,

Here we are again trying to catch up a bit.

After going out East End Road, we decided we wanted to go out a little further afield.

We decided to take a ferry out to the city of Seldovia. Seldovia is off of the road network, only accessible by boat or air (true of a surprising large amount of Alaska). We chose to do the combination wildlife cruise and ferry. So, we took the long way out, and went slowly. The cruise did get us many of the highlights of Alaskan marine life (puffins, oyster catchers, sea lions, otters, etc). There were also some pretty spectacular rock formations.

Suspicious Puffin

The town itself is a small, charming tourist town. It has maintained much of the architecture and city planning of old, coastal Alaska towns. In the beginning of the 20th century, it was one of the busiest and most important ports in the state. It is one of only two ports in Alaska that is ice-free all winter. The name comes from the Russian word for Herring Bay (because of the large herring populations in the area). Like most of the Cook Inlet, Seldovia has very large tides (up to 30ft per cycle). The town was originally built around a boardwalk along the shore and slough, with most of the houses built on stilts beside the boardwalk

The 1964 Good Friday earthquake dropped the land in the city 6 feet. The drop in the land (along with the tidal wave caused by the earthquake), destroyed the boardwalk and most of the coastal buildings. The city was partially rebuilt on higher ground, and now the only portion of the boardwalk that remains is a small historical area of a few shops and restaurant. Between the devastation of the earthquake, and the increased road development in the state as a whole, Seldovia lost its place as a relatively large and important port town and cannery, and has become mostly a tourist destination for summer travelers.

We spent a nice afternoon wandering around the local bookstore and souvenir shops, and having lunch at one of the local cafes (which seemed to be rather overwhelmed by the number of people coming in from the boat, so lunch took us over 2 hrs). We also stopped at the grocery store, mostly out of curiosity to see what the cost of food is like in place where everything must be either flown or shipped in. It turns out to be pretty darn expensive. A box of cereal will run you anywhere from $9 to $15.

We caught the boat back to Homer in the mid afternoon. We were getting ready to leave the next day to go up to Anchorage for more repairs on Wanda.

We came back up the Sterling and Seward Highways. We stopped at a park near the Junction of the two highways called Tern Lake Wildlife Viewing Area. We had planned just to stop to use the bathroom, and make ourselves a sandwich for lunch. However, we encountered someone in the parking lot who told us that the red salmon (otherwise known as sockeyes) were running in the area, and that the stream nearby afforded a great view of them.

It is a very strange thing to see salmon run. These guys were headed for the streams and ponds near Kenai Lake, and had nearly reached their spawning grounds. They had already gone 5o miles or more swimming upstream in large, cold, fast-flowing rivers. The amount of strength and effort it takes to make the journey is truly staggering. I did find myself standing on the viewing deck that overlooks the stream thinking “Really? This is the evolutionary strategy that worked?”. Watching each fish inch its way up the stream, fighting furiously for each centimeter it gets closer to its goal, and seeing the ones who either misjudge where the current is weak enough to make it, and get swept back 30 or 40 feet just to turn around and try again, or the ones who lose their strength and give up entirely is something of an exercise in humility. It’s also staggering to see the sheer number of fish that run. The densest runs will create a nearly solid wall of fish. It begins to look like you could simply walk across the stream on their backs. I wouldn’t recommend trying that, however, I have a feeling they’d be slippery.

There is also the incredible change that takes place when the salmon leave the salt water and head towards their spawning grounds. The salmon that we had seen or caught in or near the salt water were smooth, sliver fish that looked mostly like very large trout. Once they hit the fresh water, however, they undergo enormous hormonal changes to prepare for spawning. The red salmon turn from sliver to crimson on their bodies. Their heads turn a dark green and the males develop hook shaped protrusions on the front of their mouths. Unfortunately, once they start the visible changes, their meat becomes much less tasty. This leads to the saying we heard among many fishermen in the area “May all your reds be chrome.”. They also stop eating entirely when they head upstream. This can make it a little challenging to fish for them. Luckily, they also become extremely aggressive. So, any kind of bright, flashy spoon will tend to work, because the fish think that it is a competing fish, and attack it.

After standing for a while, and admiring the fish, we headed on. The next stop in our day’s journey was Whittier. Jon’s brother, Dan was going to be coming up and visiting us in a few days, and we were trying to find the best place to pick up a fishing charter while he was here. We decided to check out Whittier before he came to see if it would be promising.

Whittier is on the opposite side of the Kenai peninsula from Homer, so it sits Prince William Sound, rather than the Cook Inlet. The only way to access it by road is to go through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This is a ~ 2 1/2 mile, one-lane tunnel through the middle of a mountain. Because it’s one way, and is a combination car and train tunnel, there is a rather complicated set of staging areas and signals to determine who can enter the tunnel and when. The tunnel itself is both impressive and terrifying. There are frequent emergency pullovers and doors for emergency shelters/escape areas. But, the tunnel itself has no visible support infrastructure. It’s simply a hole blasted into the rock. I found myself rather fervently muttering “please no earthquake now, please no earthquake now” for most of the trip.

Whittier, is a fairly fascinating town. It started out as a military base/port for oil delivery to bases further north in Alaska. It is another of the all to rare ice-free ports in Alaska. The entire town was originally housed in a single 14-story building, which to this day houses more than 50% of the residents of the town. The Buckner building (now abandoned) was built in 1953, was the largest building in Alaska. The town still consists essentially of a harbor with some small storefronts for the various cruises and fishing charters that operate out of the harbor as well as a few restaurants, with the enormous concrete buildings that house nearly the entire town about half a mile back from the shore.

It was, unfortunately a bit of a bust on the charter front. They were all either full for the days we were looking for, or we simply never heard back from them. So, we headed towards Anchorage for the night.

Thanks once again for reading,

Barbara

September 21, 2012 / valosin

Homer, Alaska

Hi,
So, we’ve gotten inexcusably behind. I’m now writing about events that occured a month and a half ago. We’re back in Barneveld, and I’m hoping to use the down time to catch up.

Following SalmonStock, we decided to stay for a while down in the Kenai Peninsula near Homer. We headed down a bit slowly. We stopped at an art galery suggested by the owner of the Scenic View RV Park. The artist in question is Norman Lowell. He and his wife have been homesteading in the Kenai for more than 50 years, and he spent much of the long, dark, and cold winters painting and creating sculpture. His gallery showcases his prolific and eclectic approach to art. Unfortunately, we arrived about 15 minutes before closing, so we rushed through a bit, and missed a chance to really absorb his huge body of work. The artist himself showed up while we were looking through shop, and we had a chance to chat with him about his experiences and art. We had hoped to pick up a print as a souvenir of the trip (or to bring back as a gift), but most everything was way out of our price range, so we settled for a collection of postcards.

We also stopped at an old Russian Orthodox church just outside of the old, historical area of Ninilchik. The fireweed was in full bloom, and the combination of the (to us) exotic and unusual architecture with the bright and vibrant flowers (along with the view across the Inlet from the churchyard) made for some spectacular pictures.

After that, we headed down to Homer itself. We chose a municipal campground on the Homer Spit (the little jut of land that sticks out from the city into the Cook Inlet). We set up on a weekday afternoon, when space was plentiful, so we parked at an angle, taking up more space, but giving ourselves a fantastic view of the inlet, and the mountains on the opposite side, from our dinette window.

We had planned to meet Lois and Chris for dinner. They were bringing meat to make moose burgers. We suggested that we would find crab legs to bring. This was the first coastal town we had been in since coming to Alaska, and Jon was looking forward to the seafood with great anticipation. King crab wasn’t in season at the time, but we found several places that buy and freeze the stuff in season and sell it year round. So, we bought a pound or so, and had the store steam and crack the shells. Between the moose cooked over the fire, and the crab we had quite the feast.

The next morning, Lois and Chris were going to go fishing for salmon on the Kenai river near Soldotna on their way back to Fairbanks. We invited ourselves to come along and try our hands at salmon fishing. The first stop was a hardware/sports equipment store in Soldotna to get the gear necessary (wading boots, rods and reels, lures, fish killing club, etc). Chris’s expertise was incredibly helpful in navigating the maze of various brands and price points on everything.

We headed down to the river and found a place on the bank to set up. The river itself is incredibly beautiful. It’s a glacial meltwater river, and the silt that comes out of those particular glaciers makes the water look like liquid jade.  I was a little concerned that we weren’t going to get much of anything, since there were boats all over the river, and groups of people set up about every 10 yards or so along the bank. I had vastly underestimated how many fish there are when the run is on, though.  After about two hours of casting Chris had caught two pinks and a chum (two different species of salmon), but tossed them all back, since none of them are particularly great eating. I caught a pink salmon (again, we tossed it back), and Jon caught a fairly substantial silver. We kept the silver for dinner, since it is a very tasty species of salmon.

We filleted the fish on the river bank, and drove straight home to get started cooking it. We made one of the two fillets for dinner that night. We did it over the campfire with slices of lemon and a few dots of butter (all wrapped in foil). I’m not usually a big fan of fish, but this was fantastic. We chalked that up to the freshness (it’s hard to come by seafood in WI that was alive less than 3 hrs before you eat it), combined with the primal satisfaction of having caught your own dinner.

The next morning, we decided to take a bit of a trip out of town to a Russian settlement nearby. The trip took us out East End Road, which runs along the cliff above Homer looking out over the inlet to the stunning glaciers and mountains on the other shore. The views were stunning, but the road itself looked like it would be daunting in all but the best weather. About 30 miles out of town, the road passes through a farming village, and then begins a series of extremely steep, unpaved, switchbacks down the cliff to the shore. We parked the car at the top of the cliff and starting walking down the road. We were a little apprehensive, since the friends that had recommended the place had told us that the residents of the village were extremely insular and did not look kindly on strangers invading their privacy. We were prepared to be met with a lot of hostile glances, and possibly be run off the place entirely. We could not have been more wrong. We encountered a couple of young men on the road down who were working on fishing boats nearby. They were very chatty and didn’t seem phased at all by the presence of obvious tourists.

We wound up giving up before making it all the way down to the shore and across the tidal flats to the village (it’s only accessible by car/truck at low tide) since the climb was much steeper than we had expected and it was starting to get late.

That’s probably enough for now. Next up, our adventures in Seldovia.

Thanks, as always, for reading,

Barbara

August 30, 2012 / valosin

SalmonStock

Jon promised more tales of Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay, but he’s running a bit slow. So, in the interest of not falling too much further behind, I decided to write about our travels after we got back from the Arctic Circle.

After the excitement of driving the Dalton to and from the Arctic Ocean we were planning to take a bit of a break and hang out in Fairbanks for a few days. However, we heard about a music festival/political fundraiser going on in the Kenai called SalmonStock.

SalmonStock is an annual music festival, that this year was being used as a fundraiser for groups opposing the Pebble Mine (a proposed gold mine in a river that drains into Bristol Bay, which is one of the most productive natural salmon fisheries remaining in the world) and generally supporting environmental protection in the waterways and supporting subsistence fishing communities. The only hitch was that Ninilchik (where the festival was being held) is about 550 miles from Fairbanks. In Wanda, that’s at least two full days of driving. So, back to the road with us.

The first day of driving took us south of Fairbanks, past Denali (we couldn’t see the mountain since it was cloudy and rainy for the whole day) and to a municipal campground in Willow, about 65 miles north of Anchorage. The campground was nearly empty, except a campsite full of young men who were clearly selling meth out of their trailer. Since there wasn’t another place to stop and camp for 50 or 60 miles and it was already 11pm or so (with darkness beginning to set in), we decided to grab a site at the opposite end of the campground, and just keep to ourselves for the night.

The next day we woke up and got going as quickly as we could. We went through Wasilla (no, we didn’t see Sarah there), stopped in Anchorage for lunch at a Polynesian restaurant called “Hula Hands”, and drove down along the Turnagain Arm, which is one of the bays extending off the Cook Inlet. The tidal mud flats are something else to see. The water carves new and strange designs into the muddy silt with every tidal cycle. The arm (and the Cook Inlet as a whole) is apparently home to a community of Beluga whales, so I was keeping an eye on the water, and the camera at the ready in case they should make an appearance, but I never did get a glimpse of them.

After driving along the Turnagain (so named for all of the twists and outcroppings of the land which mean you constantly have to “turn again” to keep from driving into either the sea or a cliff), we passed into the Chugatch National Forest. This is where it does begin to to become clear the much of Alaska is part of the temperate rainforest that characterizes much of the Pacific northwest. The mountains are craggy, rocky, and fairly well glaciated, but trees and shrubs cover every surface that isn’t either absolutely vertical, or already covered in ice. It is a much greener and more fecund looking landscape than we had been used to in the interior.

We followed the Seward and Sterling highways over to the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula, along the Cook Inlet through Cooper Landing, Sterling, Soldatna, Clam Gulch, and finally to Ninilchik. It was a far higher density of people and towns than we had been used to (although, still fairly remote and rural by pretty much any definition of anywhere in the lower 48). We found it strangely exhausting, and we were definitely ready for a rest by the time we hit our destination.

Home for the night was a place called “Scenic View RV Park”. We have generally tried to avoid private RV parks during this trip, since they’re seldom much more than overpriced parking lots. The availability of an electric hookup and running water is rarely enough to make up for having to spend $30+ a night to be in a place with no privacy and no space. Scenic View is definitely an exception. The owners were unfailingly nice, and very chatty. We were greeted with enthusiastic hellos and a little paper french fry tray of smoked salmon that the owners had caught themselves the week before and smoked themselves as well. The sites were all separated by hedges, so there was no feeling that your neighbor was staring into your window and vice versa. Then there was the view, which was, indeed scenic. The camp sat on a ~60 foot bluff overlooking the Cook Inlet. On the other side of the Inlet, easily visible from the windows of Wanda were Mt Redoubt and Mt Iliamna (Mt Redoubt generally marks the end of the Alaska Range and the beginning of the Aleutian Range). Off to the south, and visible from the garden of the park was Mt Augustine, which the owner casually informed us had risen out of the inlet about 150 years ago. All three are volcanoes, and Mt Augustine erupted as recently as 2006. Mt Redoubt put up a plume of ash that redirected air traffic as far away as Anchorage in 1999.

We had a wonderful evening making dinner and watching the mountains slowly disappear into the night.

We woke the next morning to cold drizzle. We started to break camp, as we were going to spend the rest of the weekend camping in a parking lot closer to the actual festival. As we began to get Wanda ready to go, we discovered that one of the leveling jacks was not pulling up as it should. We tried all manner of turning the system off and on again, and eventually resorted to reading the instruction manual. It told us that, in cases where the jack won’t retract correctly, it can simply be manually tied up to the bottom of the frame. This necessitated Jon, with his bad back, crawling underneath the coach and finding a suitably sturdy and non-mobile piece of the rig to tie the jack up to. This is much more easily explained than actually done.

With much grunting and cursing we finally got the jack secured and we were ready to be on our way. Luckily, we only had about 20 miles to go. We showed up at the unpaved parking lot behind a liquor store we were going to be calling home for the next couple of nights. Its main appeal was that it was both very cheap and less than half a mile from the festival grounds.

It was only about noon, and the friends of Jon’s that we were meeting up with weren’t going to be there until the early evening, so we settled in to hang out and wait for a bit. We struck up a conversation with the two guys next to us, who were political operatives in Anchorage. Of course, they knew people who Jon knew (I’m convinced that Alaska is nothing but one giant small town), and we passed a happy afternoon chatting about Alaska and various political aspects of the state. They also tried to convince us that we should move here permanently.

We eventually wandered over to the festival itself for the evening. It was a pretty typical music festival kind of atmosphere. There were several stages, with one main stage flanked by two wooden salmon statues with flames shooting up out of their mouths. There were also a bunch of food and drink carts arranged about the place. We hung around the main stage, and danced for a while. We found a cart selling halibut and chips for a late lunch. It was as fantastic as you’d expect when the fish was most likely alive the day before we ate it. We decided to go find ourselves some dinner and come back later for the main act. It was cold and constantly drizzling, so we didn’t really want to be outside much without a really compelling reason.

The headlining music act was a group out of Colorado called “Leftover Salmon”. They’re kind of a bluegrass hippie jam band (think Phish and their ilk). The music was fun, and there was a light show along with the performance that was clearly designed for people taking a lot of hallucinogens. We, of course, weren’t partaking of anything more exotic than one or two beers (Hi, mom!). We hung around and danced and watched the fire dancers wandering around the crowd until the show closed down. There was an after show, but there was a separate entrance fee (on top of the $40ish fee to get into the festival for the day in the first place), and we (well, ok, I) was fading fast, so we decided to call it a night.

We slept in late the next morning, and had brunch. It was cold and drizzling again, so we decided we didn’t want to go to the festival, and instead to move on to Homer. We made plans to meet up with Lois and Chis at a municipal campground on the ocean shore in Homer later that evening.

Next up, our adventures in Homer and beyond…

Thanks again for reading,

Barbara