Monthly Archives: August 2012

Who has a birthday in Haines Alaska today?


Even supersonic jets do flips and completely lose course when they hear it’s her birthday. Why shouldn’t they? Today we’ll celebrate by taking the ferry to Juneau, Alaska’s state capital. It’s the only state capital not accessible by road, incidentally.

She’s about to open presents, I better go and pay lots of attention to her. See you tomorrow.

Jim and Debbie
dreamstreamr odyssey, chasing 75 degrees

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Wrangell-St Elias and Tok Cut-Off Highway

We had a long and interesting drive today from Valdez to Tok Alaska. Most outstanding were the mountain vistas and the beginnings of leaf color change. This image was one of our favorites today.

This morning before we left Valdez a North Carolinian (from Hendersonville) struck up a conversation with me in the campground. He and his wife had visited several summers on church work missions. They decided they liked Alaska too much to return, despite how wonderful North Carolina is. He invited us to consider staying too. We’re not ready to stop full-timing yet, but Alaska is really nice.

google map of today’s drive

The 257 mile route was 99.99 percent paved and mostly smooth and easy driving. Shortly after leaving Valdez we climbed up Thompson Pass then followed Richardson Highway to the Wrangell – St Elias National Park Visitor’s Center. We followed a border of the Park for much of our drive, and then continued NE to Tok.

Ranger Caroline taught us about Wrangell-St Elias and permafrost. We stood on a bluff facing Mt Drum (12,010 feet) and Mt Wrangell (14,163). She dazzled us with a bunch of facts about the size of the National Park and Preserve, and the peaks and glaciers within.

Wrangell-St Elias contains fourteen of the United States’ nineteen highest mountain peaks, and is larger than nine of our states. 13,175,901 acres makes Wrangell St Elias Park and Preserve the largest managed area in the entire National Park system. Over 9,000,000 acres of the Park and Preserve is in the Wilderness area.

We spent very nice time in the Visitor’s Center perusing the exhibits and watched a 22 minute video in the theatre about this huge national park. The Center’s campus looks brand new, with five or six fresh-looking buildings. Ranger Caroline said she thinks it is around ten years old.

Our scenery from the road became better and better as we went along. The weather was superb, mostly sunny with a few very brief showers. This picture is a cool study in contrasts.

Sure, your trees change color in the fall. Everyone’s do. But do yours start before August 28, like these? The wooded mountains here are becoming colorful.

Detour to Valdez Well Worthwhile

The drive from Palmer to Valdez is arguably the most scenic we’ve had in over five weeks. We’ve had a lot of driving days (16 already) on the caravan, and none seemed as packed with spectacular vistas. Lest you become concerned about our bogging you down with bunches of amazing photos from this scenic drive, we promise to limit both the number and the file size of the photos we share below.

This is my favorite picture with the clouds beginning to open up to a little sunshine. Our weather in Palmer was no great deal, we had some sunshine and a bunch of rain. We left Palmer at 08:00 a.m. in a heavy fog. Within one half-hour we gained some promise of clearing skies.

Twenty minutes later the Matanuska Glacier surprises us. It seems so close we wonder how few years ago it might have covered this roadway.

Most of the glaciers we see from the ground (vs from window of small plane) rise high above us. We often cannot see much of the glacier’s flow. The view of the Matanuska Glacier unfolds a few miles east down the Glenn Highway. Cool how it winds back up between the surrounding mountains for miles and miles.

Our path took us southward along Richardson Highway, aiming for Valdez. The mountain views, like this one, became markedly more breathtaking.

The day started so foggy and then this. What a gorgeous driving day we enjoyed from Palmer to Valdez. We shot eight rolls of film this driving day, so you’re only seeing 1/20th of the amazing views we had. Hopefully the best ones are here.

Just east of Devil’s Elbow on the Klutina River, this section of river wrecked plans and provisions of many gold stampeders. The river takes a 90 degree left turn almost immediately under the bridge and the river took few prisoners amongst those early home-made boats.

We first saw Worthington Glacier from the Klutina River bridge above Devil’s Elbow. Took a lot of pictures from this spot, some with motorcycles bearing down on us, some like this with clear view.

Not just another pretty picture, I guess, we don’t know the lake or mountain name. Just a really pretty picture we couldn’t pass up when we saw it. Our biggest challenge, some days, is throwing out the extra pictures. So many good ones, which ones go into the trash?

This one, in Keystone Canyon on Richardson Highway, we shot from the truck window without slowing down. Coolest thing about it is the perspective gained by accidentally posing a redhead gal in the shot at bottom right. Sometimes accidents are lucky and everything works.

Soon after passing through Keystone Canyon we arrived in Valdez AK. Valdez is a cool little town that also unfortunately lays claim to two huge 20th century disasters. The 1964 Good Friday 9.2 earthquake killed 33 people here and nearly erased Valdez AK. Valdez also was host to the recovery efforts from the infamous Exxon Valdez tanker grounding and oil spill in 1989.

We visited the Valdez Museum and annex, situated several blocks apart, and enjoyed the history lessons. The annex dealt almost entirely with 1964 earthquake stuff, and the main museum covered early history through Exxon Valdez oil spill. The Whitney Museum, adjacent to the Prince William Sound Community College, had a tremendous number of articles. Unfortunately the collector and benefactress didn’t keep records of her finds. The museum therefore can’t do much to explain what would otherwise be important histories.

Valdez proudly holds the world record for greatest snow accumulation for a sea-level city. Their average snow fall is 320 inches. This year (2012) they hit 339 inches by February 3, with many weeks still to go and apparently topped out at 437 inches for winter 2011-2012. Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway (which incidentally stays open all winter) recorded 974″ snowfall in 1952-53. We’ll probably miss the first snowfall there by a few weeks, at least.

Speaking of wintry weather, here’s a fellow fattening for a long winter’s nap. We watched this one for ten minutes. Each time he dropped his snout into the water he pulled up with a big salmon. Back to the water, again with a mouthful of salmon.

This is serious stuff, no fishing around for this guy. Every bite’s a winner. After all, salmon and berries, he’s got lots to fill up on and time’s running short. Winter’s just around the corner, trees are changing color here. We even saw Christmas decorations on one house on our way out of Palmer.

Despite the failing light, we were able to get this picture of the spawning salmon thrashing about in the stream just below us. I think we could have reached into the water with our snout and pulled up a fish. But we wouldn’t want to be so close to the bear’s table.

But for this caravan we probably would have skipped this long detour down to Valdez. Valdez sits at the bottom of a 110 mile dead-end, or 220 miles out of our way from Palmer to Tok, Alaska. We wouldn’t have known what we missed, but we know now it would have been a lot. Valdez is well worth the detour.

Jim and Debbie
dreamstreamr odyssey, chasing 75 degrees

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©2007-2012 Dreamstreamr

Columbia Glacier and Sea Lions and Otters and Orcas

These guys welcomed us on our Columbia Glacier cruise this afternoon. We were just on our way out of Valdez port when we encountered a couple rafts of otters. They were having a great time, it looked like they were wrestling and burning off extra energy.

Despite the drizzly and foggy weather today, we had a few clear moments to see things like this spectacular glacial-fed waterfall cascading down into Prince William Sound.

The otters and orcas surely seem to be in cahoots with the tour companies. The glacier boats know just where to pick these guys up, and the sea critters perform with a smile for us. We had almost ten minutes running alongside or just behind this orca whale. Too bad his contract didn’t include it today, but you can see a very cool photo of a breaching orca here on Wiki.

Onward we slogged through chilly seas and colder air. This is but one of many little and not so little icebergs we run close to. We’re on a date with Columbia Glacier and our captain says he’ll get us as near to it as conditions allow. We suspect he already knows conditions and how close it will be, but he plays it well for his audience.

Whenever the captain or one of his spotters sees something to recommend, he calls out, “such and such on your 2 o’clock”. And everyone slides over to whichever side he recommends, and tries to catch a photo or a good look through binoculars. Predictably, the boat lists with the imbalance of dynamic human cargo.

This time, everyone was on the starboard side to watch Columbia Glacier for any calving action. Several times it obliged, releasing a large mass of ice to fall a hundred feet or more into the sound. We were far enough away that we couldn’t hear it, and the picture quality is compromised by very poor lighting and the distance. This is far and away the largest glacier we’ve seen in our travels.

Some glacier cruises will net a block of glacial ice, land it, and chip it for drinks. This cruise is pleasantly low-key — he walked around with this large chunk of very hard very old ice and let us pet it. Nice ice, nice ice. . .

This photograph best captures today’s weather conditions. You might not feel the cold (high of 52 in Valdez, and colder on the sound) but see the low ceiling and imagine rain almost all day. When we returned to Valdez we were in the rain and 48 degrees.

A good day of touring on this, our sixth cruise of the caravan. We dressed most warmly for this one and it paid off — we were able to sit on the outdoor deck the entire cruise. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to sit indoors for any length of time — way too warm in there with our clothing layers. We enjoyed it all and are glad we could see these sights today.

Jim and Debbie
dreamstreamr odyssey, chasing 75 degrees

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©2007-2012 Dreamstreamr

The New Deal Settlement for Alaska

Our country increasingly, after the beginning of the 20th century, moved away from subsistence farming. People moved closer to towns, traded there, and became more interdependent upon each other for groceries, skilled trades, nicer clothes and furniture, among other things.

The Great Depression wiped out many Americans’ wealth and businesses. The loss of investors and business owners eliminated paying jobs for our newly prosperous citizens and ruined markets for almost any other domestic producers. Subsistence farming became not just attractive but utterly necessary.

Our country’s 32nd president, Franklin D Roosevelt, quickly instituted the New Deal and within two years created the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (ARRC) to manage relocation of 203 destitute Midwestern farm families to the Matanuska Valley.

The farmer signed a 30-year $3,000 note from the government in exchange for transportation, 40 acres with a house, a barn, a well, and outbuilding. Although only 1/3 of the original recruited families stayed, replacement colonists replaced them. Some colonist families still live here.

This is probably the fourteenth visitor center for us in the past six weeks, and we still love them. No two have been alike inside. This one is great-looking on the outside and is cozy and inviting with nice stuff inside.

We watched a really interesting movie about the Matanuska Valley colonists, receiving an in-depth explanation of the program’s implementation and pitfalls. We also browsed the exhibits and enjoyed the free coffee and hot chocolate.

The Colony House is a restored 1935 house built for, and used by, one of the colonists. The house has the very furnishings typical of these colonists’ houses. Debbie remarked on how much window glass the house has — we think the Washington D.C. architects might not have understood heat loss and the Alaskan climate too well in 1934-35.

The fellow talking to us inside was one of the eleven children of the Bouwens, one of the families featured in the movie we watched. He added a lot of his personal recollections so we understand better the history.

We also visited the small farmers’ market across the street from the Visitor Center and walked all about Palmer. A fellow we met at the famers’ market came to Anchorage 21 years ago with his wife for her job. The employer guaranteed all moving costs from Florida to Alaska as well as all return moving costs.

They never went back to Florida. The couple moved 20 years ago from Anchorage to Palmer, after one year in Anchorage. He told me, “Why live in the city with no views when we can live in God’s great country out here?” It looks pretty great to us.

This great experiment of The New Deal wasn’t for everyone. But it had a lasting impact on the Matanuska Valley and brought a bunch of great people here.

Jim and Debbie
dreamstreamr odyssey, chasing 75 degrees

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©2007-2012 Dreamstreamr

dreamstreamrs Stop at THE Alaska State Fair

Our Palmer AK campground, Mountain View, has us living closer to the Alaska State Fair than 99 percent of all Alaskans. Great timing, the fair is just getting started. Everything was clean, everyone is excited, the vegetables and cakes and pies still look pretty darned good.

Flowering plants are fabulous in Alaska. No matter where we visit we see magnificent blooms on dahlias, begonias, petunias, others. These two are blue ribbon winners.

We’ve heard of giant Alaskan cabbages. These aren’t the giants, they’re just the largest exhibited and judged ones. The cabbage on the right weighed in at 89.4 pounds. We’ll miss the annual cabbage weighing, not until next week will THE giants arrive.

Dozens of bags full of wool are arrayed on the shelves. Three women spun wool into yarn, and none admitted to knowing what project the yarn was for. One said she might use it in a couple of years. Reminds me of our travels where the journey is the destination. Spinning is a reward in its own right.

We asked one of the women if she was born here. “Oh no”, she said, “I move here 21 years ago, had always wanted to see Alaska. Weirdest thing, one day AAA sent me an Alaska travel packet unbidden. The next day my church listed a caregiver need in Palmer Alaska in our bulletin. Soon after my husband received a cold call inviting him to work in Palmer if he could get there within four days. We loved it and are still here.”

Time to refuel, we stopped first for “North Carolina” barbecue sandwiches. They got it sorta close — it wasn’t pulled pork but the sauce was really good. Next to St Michael Catholic Church’s counter, the Fair’s friendliest family food place for over 33 years. Their strawberry-rhubarb pie was, in their words, “to die for.” The berry-berry pie was darned good too. Now we’re ready to hit it again, finish the fair.

The ducks and chickens were fun to see, we had no idea there are so many different types. We saw lots and lots of beautiful quilts. Few tractors are on display, all in gorgeous condition and actively caressed and dusted. “Our Body”, a display of carved-up cadavers and parts, was sponsored by the Mat-Su Health System. The exhibit seemed very popular.

More than the rides, more than the exhibit halls, more than everything than food places, are the number of hot tub vendors at the fair. Not so much variety, but lots and lots of folks are competing for your hot tub dollars. We could have bought a five- or seven-person tub for $6,000 off, a “Fair” savings.

An expensive date for the dreamstreamrs, this evening cost us over $50. Parking $5, admission $22, supper $16, pie and coffee $10. This was our first Alaska State Fair, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world. And it was nice to be able to tell folks we talked to, “we love your state”. They light up when you say it, and we do too because we really mean it.

We’re back to Mountain View Campground. Friday we’ll visit a few more places in Palmer before we pack up for Valdez. See you later!

Jim and Debbie
dreamstreamr odyssey, chasing 75 degrees

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©2007-2012 Dreamstreamr

Eating Our Way Through the Kenai Peninsula

We sometimes laugh at many Alaskan “historic sites” which date all the way back to the 1940s or 1950s. Saint Nicholas Memorial Chapel sits atop the graves of Igumen Nicolai, his assistant Makari Ivanov, and an unrecorded monk, on the site of Soldotna’s original Russian Orthodox Church from 1840s.

The Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church was built 1894, and still holds church services regularly. The church community recently completed major preservation work and the church looks great. This is a real historic site, said to be the oldest Russian Orthodox Church in America.

The priest explained this church’s history and significance here and explained many of the icons and saints. We enjoyed listening to his explanations and answers to our many questions.

We followed the Old Town Kenai walking tour to view the eighteen named sites. Along the way we stumbled into Scout Park atop a bluff overlooking the river and across to the mountains. Click on Mt Iliamna and Mt Redoubt for information about these active volcanoes we were seeing.

Toured-out for the day, we needed a food or coffee fix. Veronica’s Coffee was way too busy, we couldn’t get in the door. But Burger Bus nearby has more seating and a great local reputation. Our burgers were fabulous, and the helpings of fries were generous. We had strength to make it through our next tour, our grocery shopping.

We barely made it back to Diamond M Ranch, our campground, in time for a nap before it was time for the great campfire. The good folks at Diamond M put on a huge campfire complete with marshmallows, graham cracker squares and chocolate. They even prepared 6′ long marshmallow roasting sticks for us. Afterward we stayed a long time visiting with the owners and each other before calling end to a long day.

Early this morning we’re at it again, walking up to the old double-decker bus for fresh rolls and coffee. Another beautiful day, we have been so blessed with great weather on this caravan. We ate our yummy rolls upstairs in the bus and talked with the owner’s sister and brother-in-law, both teachers who spent several years teaching in the Alaskan bush. Neat folks, we enjoyed meeting them.

A morning walk in the woods is a great idea after hot rolls and coffee and we were lucky to have Blair, the owner, leading us through their 80-acre wooded campus. He showed us around the barn and to the bluff overlooking the river, explaining to us history of this local area.

We had an interesting conversation with Blair about the newest building on the Diamond M Ranch, the future resort. He built his large new building with a cool structural styrofoam/concrete building block called ICF by LOGIX. 5.5 inches of foam serve as the form for poured concrete walls and provide vapor barrier and system R-value north of 25. Interesting system, seems very strong.

We toured the very interesting Kenai Visitors Center and returned to Diamond M in time for dinner hosted by Ronna and Blair. They served baked or grilled fresh salmon and a salad with freshly picked lettuce. The food was divine and the dining area very cool, literally and figuratively. We ate on their second floor deck, twenty feet up, with a great view to the north.

Soldotna and Kenai pleasantly surprised us — we badly underestimated the attractions and Diamond M Ranch. Lots to see and do, more than we can handle in just two days. We’ll look forward to another visit to see how Blair’s Diamond M Ranch Resort is developing and to catch more sights and experiences here.

Jim and Debbie
dreamstreamr odyssey, chasing 75 degrees

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©2007-2012 Dreamstreamr