Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bald Eagles

I am really bummed I didn't have my digital camera with me the other day when I was out on the Homer Spit. Two bald eagles were sitting by the side of the road, one on a dead tree, the other on the ground next to it. They were there for over 40 minutes, and people stopped and walked within feet of them and they didn't fly off. I thought at first the one on the tree was tied there, because I couldn't believe it would put up with people walking up to it, but it was free. Every so often it would stretch it's wings out as if to fly, then would tuck them back in. It was very alert, looking in every direction, almost as if posing.

Someone who visited Alaska once said that up here bald eagles are like robins. I would love to see a robin (I suppose there are some up here, but I don't think I've seen once since we've been here), but instead we get to see bald eagles everywhere! For some reason since winter has set in the eagles soar along the coastline and up and down along the Homer Spit. They're around in the summer, but not in the numbers that we see them now. In fact, as we drove down the Homer Spit last week an eagle was coasting about 20 feet above our car and just off to the side so we could see it's legs tucked in underneath it. We were driving 35 mph and it was keeping up with us (or we were keeping up with it, depending on how you look at it!) without a flap. And when I am working out in the gym they fly right by the windows.

These are glorious birds, and we feel privileged to be able to be around so many of them! If I get a picture of one, I'll post it here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Mail to Alaska

Mail generally seems to take 3-5 days to get to or from Alaska (or at least to us, in Fritz Creek). Packages sent by USPS standard shipping take 17 days....or at least that's how long it took during the pre-holiday rush. I don't even pay attention now because I usually don't want to know how long it took! The fastest we have gotten anything up here was an LL Bean order that took like 3 days--and shipping was free! The worst shipping scenario comes into play when companies tack on fees on top of the usual shipping fees. TigerDirect, a technology mail order company we used extensively in Michigan, charges usual shipping, and then tacks on $25 on top of that! Other companies do that too. They know that we want the items, can't find them anywhere up here, and so we don't have much choice besides find another company that doesn't tack on fees.

My cousin lives out in the bush, and a package from her took 11 days to get here. They're out west of Fairbanks, and everything either goes out by barge down the Yukon River or by plane. If I think service is poor here, I would get a lesson on what it's really like if I lived in the bush!

Swimming Pools & Skating Rinks

Something we have noticed is that just about every school in Alaska seems to have an ice skating rink, and a large number of them have swimming pools. I'm not sure why they all have skating rinks, but some of them are quite impressive, with boards all around the sides, benches for skaters and bleachers for spectators. The kids came home from school in high excitement on Friday because McNeil Canyon School's skating rink was up, so the kids got to spend their 40 minute lunch recess ice skating. The school has 50 pairs of ice skates, so nearly everyone who wants to can skate. The principal hot mops the rink so it is nice and smooth. Unlike most schools where they have the nice boards around the rink, McNeil's ice is just held in by plowed snow.

There are very few public swimming pools. Since the boroughs own and build the schools (borough's are kind of like counties), they just build swimming pools in the high schools. Since so many schools are K-12, then there is a pool in the K-12 school. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has one full time person in the district who handles chemicals for all the pools. At one point recently the State of Alaska was looking at requiring a swimming class for every high school student in the state. Luckily, that got nixed, but they wouldn't have even considered it if so many schools didn't have pools.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dwindling Daylight Hours

This picture was taken Dec. 5 at noon from the Homer Spit. Obviously, the sun doesn't get very far off the horizon! At 3:00 the sun was the same distance above the mountains, just in a different place.

One of the main things on my mind before moving to Alaska was dealing with the short days in the winter. We are nineteen days from the shortest day of the year, and we are definitely feeling it. It begins to get light out around 8:00 a.m., but the sun doesn't actually peep over the mountains until 10:00 (on good days, when it's not cloudy!). It sets right about 4:00 where we live, though it sets later in Homer. (I couldn't say how much later because I'm never in both places at sunset on the same day.) Just in the past week or so the lack of daylight has become more noticeable. A couple days ago my neighbor, who has lived here all her life, said, "You'd think I'd get used to this lack of sunlight by now, but I still hate it." In our family we're noticing our moods are a little rougher, perhaps. One never knows if it's lack of sleep or stress or something else causing moods, but when everything else stays the same, I begin to suspect it is lack of sunshine. On one hand, it is very noticeable, while on the other hand, it really isn't as bad as people think. I remind people that even in Michigan in November and December one can go to work in the dark and it is dark when you get out. Like one of my cousins up here told me, the lack of daylight affects everyone, just some people more than others. I take to heart the recipe for staying mentally healthy: take care of myself. That means exercise every day, get sunshine if the sun is out and I can, get a good night's rest (not difficult when it is dark so many hours), eat well. It's common sense stuff, but if we want to stay here and stay happy all winter, this is what we do. A couple other things I have learned: don't be afraid to go out in the dark (it's amazing how many people think that once it's dark you have to stay inside), and play games. I have learned more card games, board games, cribbage, etc. in the past few weeks than in the past 25 years combined!
P.S. You'd think with all this darkness I'd have seen the northern lights, but even up here the ideal times for viewing northern lights is 12:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Like they say, drinking lots of water before bedtime helps in viewing the aurora's!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

An Alaska Thing??

We have done many things up here that we would never have dreamed of doing in Michigan. I'm not sure why that is....except that life is just a bit different up here even for all the ways that it is similar. Here are a few things that I wonder if they are "an Alaskan thing":
  • Haircuts: This past weekend while visiting my aunt and uncle in Ninilchik something possessed me to ask if they had hair clippers and scissors. They did, so I got Denver on the chair and started shaving. I've shaved him bald before, but never actually tried to cut his hair with any style, but this time I did. I think it turned out pretty cute; Denver has mixed feelings about it. He even added a prayer when we said grace the next day that "Mom learns how to cut my hair better!" Aurora was next, which was pretty easy since I have trimmed her bangs before. I even went at it with the thinning shears and I think I went maybe a little overboard with them, but bangs are bangs and Aurora's not complaining. Amazingly, I got Doug in my chair! I'd been badgering him to get a haircut for weeks, but he rarely gets to Homer (even more rarely during the day when salons are open), and even he thought $30 was too much for a guy's haircut. So I revved up the razor and away I went. I didn't think it was too bad, but you notice I'm not putting a picture here. My aunt kept telling him to give me a couple times to get the hang of it. Anyways, I would never, ever have done this in Michigan.
  • Since our car was in the shop yesterday, and I needed to get to Homer, Doug took the 4-wheeler to work. He strapped on his bag of school papers, popped the kids on back to take up to the bus stop, and then zoomed off. He was able to go about 15 mph faster on the 4-wheeler than in his vehicle. He said it sure didn't seem any faster.
  • Our landlord's parents grow cows for a few people they know. They get the calves young and grow them all summer and butcher them in the fall. When we moved here someone mentioned it to us and we said yes, we would definately want a cow. A month or so ago they butchered our cow and took it down to McNeil Canyon Meats for us. We filled out a form telling them what cuts we wanted and how we wanted them, and a few days later our order was ready to be picked up--prefrozen and packaged. In addition to the 1/2 moose we got (which was free except for processing), we got 219 pounds of young cow, every cut plus burger and stewing meat, for basically less than $3/lb. I learned how to pressure cook stew meat (another story: we had to get a chisel to pry off the cover of the pressure cooker!) and I am learning to cook meat too. We are all becoming conniseurs of what type of cuts we like best (so far, all of them!!), and rubs, marinades, broiling, grilling and all sorts of other things are becoming household words and activities. I never would have dreamed I would become a meat-eater, but up here meat is the cheapest food if you hunt (or have someone who raises a cow for you!)
  • Since the bus stop where the kids get dropped off is 1/2 mile from our house, they like it when I can walk up to the stop and meet them when I can. Well, what with all this snow, I decided to ski up there. The roads are all covered with snow so my skis wouldn't get scraped up. The kids thought it was kind of cool, but they wanted to be on skis themselves. Plus I ski a lot faster than they can walk, so they spent most of their time running to catch up with me! Maybe I'll snowshoe next time??!!

Picking Up My Car

(I am adding this picture of the canyon quite a few months later. The picture of the house across it is the neighbor with the gun, who took me up to Steve's place.) Steve, our car mechanic, lives across the canyon. His house is right there, not more than a few hundred yards away. When he called me this morning and said the car was ready to be picked up I flippantly said, "I'll throw on my snowshoes and be right over." I hadn't believed our landlord when she said our Steve lived "across the canyon." I thought she was exaggerating. Well, I discovered that a canyon it was, and I got quite a workout snowshoing across it. A few minutes turned into quite a few minutes later!
As I said, I put on my snowshoes and headed west towards one of the two houses that can be seen from our house. I had picked through the alder bushes this summer looking for leaves to compost, so I'd been that way. Just past the alder bushes, though, I came to the edge of "the canyon". I was startled. I wouldn't say it is more than 50 feet deep, maybe 100 at the most (hard to tell with all that snow). The sides were steep and bush-covered. I didn't like the alternative (walking up to East End Road and crossing where the canyon begins), so I plunged on. The snow was so deep that the bushes were bent over double so I was (mostly) able to walk right over the tops of the bushes. Cool! I thought. A small stream ran through the bottom, but I was able to step over that and then clamber back onto the tops of the bushes. Going up the other side was a little trickier. Luckily there were small trees I could use to pull myself up. When I got to the top there was a big mound of snow from the plows. I could hear a dog barking madly on the other side. I peered over the edge and saw my neighbor staring at me in amazement. She was outside trying to figure out what her dog was barking so furiously at. She'd been expecting a moose, patting her back where she had her pistol, and telling me about a mad moose that wandered into her yard three years ago. I wasn't a moose, and nor was I at the right house. She invited me in for tea, but I declined since I didn't want my mechanic worried, wondering where I was. She walked me up to Steve's, and when she told him I'd walked across the canyon he stared at me in astonishment. I think I am going to provide these native Alaskans with an entertaining story. And I have a lot more respect for canyons now!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

First Big Snowfall

The first big snowfall has brought out an unsurpassed beauty beyond what I could have imagined. Even the unsentimental, pragmatic Doug ooohs and aaahs about how beautiful the drive to school is, with the road deep in untouched snow and the evergreen boughs laden with white stuff. Mountains that we look out the window and see daily suddenly have taken on new dimensions and we see them with fresh eyes. I took these photos Friday evening as the sun was setting, and the air was aglow with pink light. We got about 8-10 inches of snow during the day (it was just beginning as we headed out the door in the morning). The fascinating thing is that Homer had virtually no snow while we were getting dumped on. Just past mile 10 of McNeil Canyon School the road heads down off the bluff and the elevation cutoff is such that the snow becomes rain. Friday morning it was actually snowing all the way into Homer, but it didn't "stick". The snow "sticks", or stays unmelted beginning at McNeil Canyon School. The temperatures warm up more in Homer, so snow turns to rain and snow gets washed away or melts.
Along with the incredible beauty, the snowfall brings icy roads. Thursday night as I headed home from the Greenhouse Gardening class I am taking at 9:30 p.m. I had only a few feet visibility the last 10 miles home (past the point where the rain turns to snow). Unfortunately, the road in the last 10 miles is narrow with steep dropoffs and no guardrails, many hairpin turns and tight curves and generally challenging driving conditions in the best of times. With virtually no visibility I was down to a crawl since I never knew when another curve would be upon me. I know every curve of that road by now, but when normal landmarks are gone it is a little disorienting. I was guided home by the reflective posts on the side of the road.
Friday morning had its own challenges since the snow was accumulating quickly, so the roads were now slippery, or at least had the threat of slipperyness. Since the stakes are so high (if you go off the road in the dark, down one of the canyons or off the bluff, no one would ever see you down there), I err on the side of being cautious and opt to stay on the road but get places slower if I don't know whether the roads are slippery or not. The elevation change offers its own threat, since somewhere along the way there is often ice, between the snow and the rain. Three busses were sitting on the side of the road putting chains on their tires Friday morning as I headed into town. They have an emergency plan and the roads were bad enough for them to go into action that day.
Such tradeoffs. I love the beauty out here, and if I lived in town in Homer I would never know how different it is out here in the country. Homer is brown and drab to our glorious Christmas-card perfection. I really begin to feel I live in two different worlds as I drive into Homer each day. I am curious to see if the snow will begin to "stick" in Homer like it does up here.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Halloween in Homer

We were pleasantly surprised by the Halloween offerings in Homer. We started out at 3:00 at the Pratt Museum in town (one of the best small museums in the country); they had a skeleton scavenger hunt for kids. We've been there before, but I'd never noticed how many skeletons they had! The staff there was so enthusiastic that it made that event fun. We got "spotted" and got our picture taken for the Homer News "spotted" section (if you want to go see it, homernews.com, click on the "you've been spotted" link. Aurora got cut off, but Denver & I show up)
Next we went to Smoky Bay Natural Foods where they had apple bobbing (Denver and Aurora are pictured above). It took Denver awhile, but he finally got one. His waterproof fireman's suit came in handy to keep him dry! After Aurora got hers the kids wanted ME to bob (at the suggestion of the clerks at Smoky Bay). Since I don't remember bobbing for apples before, I was game. Luckily, I picked up some pointers from watching the kids (push it up to the side and then use your teeth!) so I got one quickly. Our reward was to keep the apples, carmel apples and cookies too!
Later we headed up to Mountainside Drive, which we were told was the best place to trick-or-treat in Homer. The kids filled up their bags pretty quickly, so then we headed down to Homer High School where a local church was sponsoring free hot dogs, kettle corn, spiced cider and punch. The school commons was full of people warming up and enjoying food and company. There was a carnival at 7:00 at the high school as well, which we didn't stay for since the kids were eager to get home and sort their candy and start trading!
All in all, we were happy with the many events for Halloween. Aurora's Little House on the Praire outfit my mom made her still fit (for the 3rd year!), and I had a matching dress and bonnet that I wore for the first time!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

An Alaska Toy

We finally broke down and got our ultimate Alaska toy: a 4-wheeler! It seems like everyone up here has multiple 4-wheelers, and we understand why: there are lots of areas that are too mucky to hike through, and the distances great, so there are many places that are only accessible by 4-wheeler or horseback. Up here these are work tools as much as recreational vehicles. The one we got is 500 cc and definately workhorse vintage, which is what Doug wanted. In Alaska, Honda has an 80% share of the market (compared to 60% of the share in the lower 48). After doing careful research, Honda came out the clear winner. They are a head above all other ATV's; they just don't have the problems that some other brands have, and they can last a long, long time if well taken care of.
This is the first time we've found anything cheaper in Homer than in Anchorage, but this machine was going for a couple thousand more in Anchorage, and we paid less than the manufacturer's recommended price. The dealer threw in a 4-wheeler cover for free since the kids he hires to clean them didn't clean them; that was a $200 benny, and the ATV wasn't all that dirty! We held off on getting a trailer just yet, since we will probably just go from our place here for the winter. Our neighbors let us borrow their trailer and helmets.
To celebrate our new acqusition Doug drove our 4-wheeler up to school with Denver on with him. He got there faster than I did in the Durango! I drove back home with Aurora, taking a few side excursions down trails, much to Aurora's delight (I guess she likes going through big mud puddles!). Don't worry, we are NOT going to let our kids drive this thing. Besides the fact that kids under the age of 16 are not supposed to drive 4-wheelers, this is a BIG 4-wheeler with a lot of power. The kids were very bummed to hear this. When I asked Aurora if she would like a 4-wheeler for Christmas, she got this glint in her eye and gave a very firm nod. Hm.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Haunted Hickory

"The Coast Guard Cutter HICKORY in Homer is opening her haunted doors and creaking hatches to all who dare to walk her dark passages. All are welcomed, but be warned...bring your scream with you." Thus proclaims the flyer for the Haunted Hickory which Doug, the kids and I dared to enter tonight. It was docked at the ferry terminal of the Homer Spit. There was a longer line for this than even the Dept. of Motor Vehicles--at least a half an hour wait on the dock. Luckily they had fires going in big metal drums to warm ourselves while we waited. The moon was full tonight, and the clouds scudding over it creating the perfect eerie atmosphere. This event was free, though a 2-can donation for the local food pantry was appreciated.

Aurora was excited to go because the kids at school said it was actually scary. They had a "less scary" version for those 7 and under the first hour of each night (tonight and tomorrow night), but we went to the "full scare" version. It was really cool, and the kids and I enjoyed it. The scariest part was being followed by the skeleton who kept crowding into us, and there were lots of surprises as we climbed up and down ladders and stepped through hatches. There were some gruesome parts, but not too bad. The kids both considered it well worth the wait, and Aurora wanted to do it again! No pictures, since it was so dark, and the ship sure wouldn't look spooky in the daylight!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hay Maze

The barn you see here is almost entirely filled with hay, but the catch is it is formed into a maze of tunnels that are just big enough to get through. As part of the Girl Scout event Oct. 19, each girl (and some of us brave adults) paid $5 to go through this maze. I am very glad that one girl mentioned taking a flashlight, and I had one in the car, because while I am not claustrophobic, it was uncomfortable at times. I did not trust Denver to go through by himself, so he crawled in first with the flashlight and I came after him. At times he would go around a corner and it was pitch black and I had no idea which way to go besides by feel. I was wiggling along on my belly and elbows to get through, and in a couple of places where we had to go down or up it was a really tight squeeze.
The kids all had great fun, and Aurora and Denver both went through 3 times. Once was enough for me. Of course, as luck would have it, I had on a wool hat and wool sweater as I crawled through, so while I waited for the kids to keep going through I was plenty busy picking hay out of my hat, sweater and hair!
The family that runs this barn does so only for groups on a reservation basis. They used to end visits at Halloween, but groups kept calling and asking to go through. They have 17 horses, so this is their winter supply of hay. Each year they make the tunnels differently as they get the hay and build the maze. They are located a few miles north of Soldotna a mile down a gravel road which was a little bit difficult to find. They do require signed waivers, which is a really smart idea. And they said one person once lit a match while in the maze because they didn't have a flashlight and they freaked out. Hmmm. Do you think this place is combustible??!! However, the freaking out part I can totally understand!

Challenger Learning Center of Alaska

Friday, Oct. 19 all the Girl Scout troops from Homer, plus one from Seward, made a trip to Kenai to the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska. This place is billed as the closest simulation to a space flight besides the real thing. Anyone can take tours of the place, but the activities and simulations are only open to groups. Many corporations come here for training, teambuilding or even interview missions where they put the various candidates for a job in a room and see how they react to situations. This is a non-profit organization hosted in a 9-million-dollar building that is debt free. Since Kenai is home to many huge oil companies they have some hefty sponsors.

Aurora, pictured above, started out in the Space Station. Each girl had a task; hers was to use the robotic arm to pick up and weigh a solution. She said it was very challenging. Halfway through the 2 1/2 hour session they switched with the girls in Mission Control. There Aurora was Isolated 1. She found it really exciting to use email to connect with the other people on this mission. Each person had to complete their task in order for someone else to complete their own. Aurora liked getting on the computers in Mission Control most, and said the whole experience felt almost real.

Denver went along (since I was a driver) and he got to go through the rocketry session for the K-2 kids (there were 2 other boys in this roomful of 35+ girls, but that didn't stop Denver from raising his hand every time he knew an answer!). He said the best part of it for him was having to communicate in order for teamwork to happen. Everyone was broken up into groups of 6 and had to develop a balloon rocket. Part of the challenge was to discover what level of payload would be "just right" to make the rocket fly best. Denver said in his group the rocket launch that worked the best was with 1 payload (a paperclip), though they tried it with up to 6 payloads. Then the kids got to make their own paper rockets and then went outside and launched them. The laucher had 30 pounds of pressure and some of those rockets really flew!! Many even embedded into the ground. Needless to say, that was great fun!

Sunday, October 14, 2007


OK, you people not from Alaska, what does PFD stand for? Having worked in the newspaper business, when I started seeing that I thought it was a typo and was supposed to be PDF. Nope. It stands for Permanent Fund Dividend, the money the State of Alaska gives out to every citizen of Alaska each year. This year it is about $1400 I believe. I am startled at how strongly some Alaskans view their entitlement to this money, and how outraged they are when they don't get as much. As an outsider I'm like, "Hm, no state taxes, plus they give you money. What are you complaining about??" Unfortunately we will not get dividend for another 2 years. The application period opens Jan. 2 of each year and lasts a few months. You have to have lived in the state for a full year when you apply. Thus, we will not be able to apply until Jan. 2009, and receive our first dividend in Oct. 2009. Bummer. I'm looking forward to bolstering my kids' college funds. It's like a tax return in October!

A Weekend in Anchorage

My husband had two back-to-back conferences in Anchorage last week into this week so the kids and I drove up to Anchorage to spend the weekend with him. Here are a few notes about the drive and the city. I forgot my camera, which is a bummer because the mountains were gorgeous! Snow-capped peaks rose up above the clouds and took on new dimensions I didn't notice in the summer. Wish I had a picture to share.

I was impressed that I made the drive from the kids' school on East End Road to downtown Anchorage in 4 hours. I was really pushing to get there before dark, but since I wasn't sure what time "dark" was, I just pushed to get there ASAP! It was the first time I drove the entire way myself and I noticed things I don't normally notice. First of all, it is really quite an easy drive. There are no big mountains to climb, no switchbacks, etc. The worst of the drive is where the road winds along the Kenai River, the road is rough and narrow, and the speed limit is 35 mph. Besides that the speed limit is generally 55 or 65 mph, there are a decent number of passing lanes and the roads are in good shape. The most frustrating part of the drive is slow drivers. I was really impressed with how many drivers pulled off and let me and others pass if they were holding up traffic. While there is a law that makes holding up more than 5 vehicles illegal, in the summer the RV's wouldn't get anywhere because they'd always have 5 vehicles behind them so they just plug along. It was so courteous of the drivers to pull off and I resolved to do the same if/when I am in that situation. The scenery is incredible, particularly once you get into the mountains north of Soldotna and they are with you all the way up to Anchorage.

Part of the purpose of my trip was to get studded tires for our Subaru. I didn't even price them in Homer because everything in Homer is much more expensive than in Anchorage, so I don't even know if I saved any money after spending $60 in gas to get up there! Studded tires appear to be the norm here. If you've read the post about my drive to work, you'll know why I'm getting them. Six or seven days a week I'm driving the tight turns and mountains road to work. From what I hear, black ice is common because of the elevation change. I was hydroplaning in places on the drive up to Anchorage, and though it was much rainier on the way back today the car handled better. Those studs will come in handy!

We were looking forward to going shopping at the Dimond Center Mall. It is a nice, big, multi-story, modern mall, and even has an indoor ice skating rink and attached hotel. We got there when they opened at 10 on Saturday and went to get Aurora's ears pierced. Well, Aurora passed out in the earring store after getting pierced so we just weren't in the mood to shop after that. The bagel shop across the street from the mall had really yummy breakfast burritos and breakfast bagels that got us all calmed down and back to normal.

We are not big-city people, but Anchorage does not feel like a big city. It has some tall buildings (the Sheraton Doug stayed in has 15 floors), but it does not have the typical road infrastructure of a big city, nor the really bad traffic. It feels safe and comfortable (at least the places we were). I believe the population is about 250,000, which makes it smaller than some of the small cities in Michigan like Grand Rapids, and it is nothing like Detroit or Chicago, which I think of when I picture a "big city". We saw quite a few people with "homeless" signs, but they looked pretty clean-cut; again, not the type of homeless people you see in Chicago.

I saw more police this weekend on the roads than I have seen in our entire 4 months here, and they actually had stopped people which I don't think I've seen once since I've been here. There is generally an amazing lack of police on the roads. Like Doug said, there are certain corridors they patrol at certain times, and I suspect I was driving during those peak travel times this weekend.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Misc. Comments on Life in Alaska

Four months into our new life here, I thought I would give a miscellaneous meandering of things that strike me, particularly after spending a week back in the midwest.
  • When someone asked me this past week, "Is Alaska really that different?" what came to mind was "wilder", "rougher", and "more remote". It is difficult to pinpoint exactly how and why that is, but Minnesota seemed very tame, and back in Alaska I can feel the "edge" of wildness again.
  • Today the sunrise was at 8:30 a.m. The days are rapidly growing shorter. It is still light out at 7 when I wake up, just no sunshine till a little bit later!
  • This past week there was snow at our kids' school, though we didn't get any here (the school is actually a few hundred feet higher than where we live). It is fascinating because there are mountains everywhere and you can "see the snow coming." It snows at higher elevations first, and the line where the snow stops is getting lower and lower. The glaciers we see from our house (Dixon and Portlock) were blue all summer, but are now white and covered with snow once again.
  • Fall colors here are peaking. Everything that can turn yellow, has turned yellow. The most beautiful sight right now is the yellow trees with green spruce mixed in, snow on the elevations, deep blue lakes below the mountains. Wow.
  • Gas is still $3.17 for a gallon of gas in Homer, while it has gone as low as the $2.70's in Anchorage. It has been at that price since we've been here. There is not a lot of fluctuation in gas prices like we saw in Michigan.
  • The diversity of people here is still one of my favorite things about Homer. It seems like everyone has some sort of accent, and it is fun to try to figure out just what type of accent it is!!
  • The other thing is that we really appreciate visitors from the Lower 48. It is fun to share and show this area with people.
  • Overall the quality of life here feels much higher than our life in Michigan. Again, it is difficult to put our finger on, except to say that our kids' school is awesome, Doug's school and district are very good, as is my college. Basically I think that we fit into what is available in this area.

Travelling to the Lower 48

My mother died recently and with a 2-day notice, I needed to get down to Minnesota. Thus I discovered one of the biggest downfalls of living in Alaska: the amount of time it takes to get anywhere. I got to the Homer Airport at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, and did not get to Chicago until 6 a.m. Friday morning.
I took a Grant Aviation flight from Homer to Anchorage. The hilarious thing is I saw one of my cousins walking through the Homer Airport. I didn't realize she was going to be my pilot! She just started working for Grant 2 weeks prior and is pictured above. She invited me to sit in the co-pilot's seat of the 10 seater; she didn't have to ask twice! It was really cool seeing all the controls up close. I also enjoyed seeing Homer from the air. Yep, that's the entire town of Homer above. There are many more homes, but this is Homer proper.
After a 2 hour layover in Anchorage, I flew to Las Vegas. After another 2 hour layover, I flew on to Chicago. What with the time change (3 hours), it made for a long, long trip, and not something I would want to do regularly.
On the plus side, for the return trip I left Minneapolis at 9:30 a.m and reached Anchorage by 4:00 p.m. By cutting my layover times, it also meant I had to run to catch my connector in Vegas. They should have taken off already, but since there were 5 of us who needed to catch it, they waited for us (thank goodness!).
A number of people I have talked to have moved back to the lower 48 for just this reason: it is so far from people's family. If a person doesn't earn enough money to fly back to visit relatives (and driving is not much cheaper, and a lot longer!), then it is nearly impossible to ever go visit. That can be a big downfall to living in Alaska. We are glad we have relatives here, if only a few.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

First Frost, Mushrooms & Mosquitos

We had our first frost over the weekend. I was startled to have to scrape my car. I took a class called Mushrooms of Kachemak Bay Fri., Sat. & Sun., and a frost is not the best thing for mushrooms, so when we did our field searches we stayed away from the higher elevations.
Dr. Gary A. Larsen, a research professor with the Institute of Artic Biology from Fairbanks, was our instructor. He was very knowledgeable, and it was cute how he would oooh and aaaah about various mushrooms we had collected. Basically we met at a site and then he would send us off for an hour or two to scavenge and find as many mushrooms as possible. The table above is maybe 1/5 of all the mushrooms we found the first day. The second day we went out and found many more different 'srhooms since we were in swampy areas the second day, and higher lands the first.
I brought bugspray with the expectation that walking cross-country through the woods would produce a swarm, but there were no bugs in the forest (thank goodness!). In the swampy areas we found crowberries, blueberries (shrivelled up) and lowbush cranberries. The cranberries we out-of-this-world delicious. My aunt had told me they are best after the first frost, and now I'll be able to eat them before, but will not pick lots of them until after the frost because they are sooooo good.
It was a fascinating weekend hanging out with dedicated mushroomers (there are morels in Alaska! They grow the first spring after a forest fire.), learning what distinguishes different mushrooms and how to identify them, and some edible mushrooms. I am hoping Dr. Larsen makes the 11 hour drive down from Fairbanks again next year to teach this class again!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Kachemak Bay Campus--Teaching College

Kachemak Bay Campus (KBC) in Homer is part of Kenai Peninsula College (KPC), which is part of the University of Alaska Anchorage system. It has taken me months to figure out this relationship. Kachemak Bay Campus has about 500 students enrolled each semester, which is roughly how many went through North Central Michigan College in Gaylord each semester. As in Michigan, there are dual enroll students (high school students taking college classes), as well as huge variety in the ages of other students. This semester I am teaching College Writing. Of my 12 students, 2 are dual enroll, 2 are older (over 30 or so) and the rest are in their late teens or early 20's. For nearly all of my students, this is their first college class. Based on student test scores, they are placed in Prpe086, Prpe108 or Eng111. Prpe courses are remedial to bring students up to college level skill.
What I find most exciting about teaching here is the contact with other instructors. As an adjunct in the past it took me years to meet and get to know other adjuncts, and I never spoke with other instructors in my field. Here I am in regular contact with other instructors, most of them full-time. I will be collaborating with other instructors later in the semester with their students and mine involved in peer editing activities. I have met with other instructors about Service Learning ideas (of which I am a dedicated fan), and when I have questions about how to teach various skills I just drop one of the experienced instructors an email or catch them on campus. The down side of having colleagues is that it does take more time to network and discuss things. At this point I don't mind that and am just thrilled to be around other dedicated teachers who are good at what they do and passionate about helping students and trying new techniques in the classroom.
I have already developed a reputation as being an "expert" in Blackboard, and have coached other instructors in its use. In fact, I will be developing the online delivery for Prpe086 this fall, and facilitating it (teaching it) next semester. When I received my Blackboard certification in Michigan last spring, my goal was to develop such classes. There is a great need for instructors who know how to use or are willing to learn alternative delivery methods.
There are actually 2 campuses to Kachemak Bay Campus. I teach at West Campus, which is an old intermediate school. The faculty offices are there, and it is staffed by a secretary who sets up technology in classrooms as needed, makes photocopies for instructors (Wow! This is quite a benefit!), proctors tests and handles whatever else comes up. East Campus is the nice and much newer campus. It houses the library, computer lab, art studio, campus bookstore and a very nice lounge area for students, as well as the administrative offices. It is expected that this campus will be expanded in a few years when the City Hall next door moves to a new location. West Campus will be closed and the City Hall will be renovated for the college.
The benefits to having Kachemak Bay Campus part of the UAA system is that the resources are well beyond what a small community college would normally have access to. In addition, I can transfer more easily between the many campuses throughout the state since they are all part of the same system.


Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Hunt

The pickup above is loaded down with moosemeat from 2 moose taken on a hunt in Denali this week. The people we are renting from and their families went to Denali for a week, in search of trophies. One moose they shot was a 13+ hour horseback ride back to base camp. It took 5 horses to pack all the meat, plus 3 horses for them to ride. Once they got one moose out that had to turn around and go back for the other one. They had cut out all the bones (besides the one you see in the middle of the hunk of meat above) and skinned them and left those for the coyotes, wolves and bears. It makes sense to cut out the bones because processing costs by the pound, and if the bones are there, it costs more to process. Our landlord gave us half a moose, which ended up being about 250 pounds dressed. We were at the processing plant when they brought the moose in yesterday and were able to choose how we wanted our cuts. The butcher was hilarious as he told us about different parts of the moose. He was describing how to cook each part and he would exclaim over the choicest pieces of meat as they were hung. It took over an hour with winches and pullies to get all the meat weighed and hung. Some cuts were 150 pounds (haunch, shoulder). Moose is less gamey than venison, though of course more gamey than cow. Luckily we just bought a big freezer last week so we'll be ready! Processing is .60/pound, and takes about 2 weeks.
The group also got a big grizzly. Residents of Alaska can get kill one grizzly per year in Denali because there are so many. However, it is illegal to sell grizzly pelts, and the meat is inedible, so there is a limit to how many you would want to get. Though they have lived here all their lives, they'd never gotten a grizzly pelt for themselves, onlyhelping others get theirs, so they were excited.


Visiting Whittier is one of the cooler places we've been since moving to Alaska. The falls you see above is, as far as I can tell, an unnamed falls that drops from the cliffs right to town and then into Prince William Sound. Whittier is considered the gateway to Prince William Sound, and as you can see by the picture of the town, boats are about all there is! The town is hemmed in by mountains and water, and besides a huge 10 story or so high-rise apartment building, there are very few houses/homes. It is a military town (or was; not sure how much it is anymore), so we discovered bunkers in various places. The hiking trail you see above led to the overlook above the town. It was 2-3 miles, and probably an elevation gain of 800-1000 feet. On our map, it looks like it might be the Horsetail Falls trail, but we never found any falls. The trail was quite a treat. It was boards most of the way, flat or made into steps. Where the boards slanted, there were old nets stapled to them for traction. Berry bushes lined the trail much of the way, so we got an introduction to salmonberries. They reminded us of a cross between thimbleberries and raspberries. They were on big, bushy plants with no prickers, but shaped like huge raspberries. Some were ripe, and others still green.

At the top there were several pools of water like the one pictured here. I just wanted to stop and stay awhile it was so peaceful. The Billings Glacier pictured above was a glacier we saw from the top of this trail. They were doing some major blasting and roadbuilding in the area of the trailhead, so there was not enough room to park at another trail/creek a quarter of a mile down the road from this hike. We're saving that one for another visit!

Portage Glacier Area

Three years ago when we visited the Portage Glacier, it was one of the highlights of the month we spent in Alaska. This time it had to have been the biggest disappointment of our trip, which is why I didn't even take a picture of it. The glacier above is the Byron Glacier, which can be reached by a .8 mile easy hike. The Portage Glacier is well-known because it was a major supply route between Prince William Sound and Anchorage in the early days of the state. Portage Glacier is receding quickly, and when we visited 3 years ago we were able to walk on a paved path to within feet of the glacier. Now there is a lake where the road used to be, and you can pay to take a boatride on the lake to see the glacier up close. Since that wasn't the experience we or the kids wanted, we opted to go to Whittier, whose tunnel entrance is right by the glacier. That was a really cool experience!

The tunnel is 2 1/2 miles long, one lane. Trains run through it as well, so the tracks are embedded in the road. The walls are rough-hewn stone. While the tunnel is narrow, it is also high to allow for the height of the trains going through. It was $12 round trip to drive through the tunnel, which we thought was a bit steep. The tunnel is on half hour schedules, so for one half hour the traffic can go through one way; the next half hour vehicles can come through from Whittier. It runs from early morning to late night, and is closed throughout the nighttime. Besides boat, this is the only way to get to Whittier. It is the alternate route to the Portage Pass (the pass is basically going over the Portage Glacier). The tunnel and Whittier were built during the war, so Whittier is basically a military base. I'll cover more on Whittier in that blog entry!

Granite Creek Campground & Area

The Granite Creek Campground is a little over an hour south of Anchorage in the Chugach Mountains. There is not much special about this campground. While it is on a creek, it wasn't the sort you could do much with (too fast for wading, to muddy to fish, no nice spot to sit). There were no hiking trails or much of anything besides the campground. There were pit toilets and water, and the sites were very spread out so you didn't really feel like there were a lot of people there. It is right on the Sterling Highway with paved bike paths stretching for many miles in both directions, and if we go back, we will bring bikes and/or rollerblades to take advantage of that. It is also just a mile down the road from the Johnson Pass Trail, a 23 mile long trail. We only made our way a few miles down it, as we found berries to pick. There were more trailing raspberries along here than anywhere else. I think trailing raspberries are one of the more delicious berries I've eaten. However, they are nestled close to the ground and you have to be looking for them. It takes many berries to amount to anything but a light snack, so we just enjoy the taste bud delight.

Crescent Creek

The Cresecent Creek area, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours south of Anchorage, is a fun outdoor playground area. There is a boat launch, 2 campgrounds (one more developed than the other), tons of fishing in the Crescent Creek, and hiking. We stopped there on our way through and watched the fly fishermen pulling in the trout. As you can see in the picture, there were a lot of salmon. They are red because being in fresh water changes their color. Once they spawn they will die, which is why there is a dead fish in the foreground. At this point the salmon are not good eating, but the fishermen were pulling in the trout from amongst the salmon. This was a beautiful Labor Day weekend so there were more fisherpeople out there than usual.
The Crescent Creek Trail was a nicely kept up trail, wide so you could walk double, and through some nice woods. It is billed as a good trail for family dayhikes. The only downfall of this trail was that there were so many mountain bikers careening down it that we had to be on constant lookout for them. I think at least 25 bikers zoomed by us in the 1 1/2 hours we were on this trail. Again, Labor Day weekend may have made the traffic heavier than usual. We delighted in picking some berries. The crowberries a few miles up the trail were huges and juicy, which is unusual for crowberries!

Friday, August 31, 2007

McNeil Canyon School

Aurora and Denver go to McNeil Canyon School, a 10-15 minute drive from our house. It is a K-6 school with about 130 students, which is almost exactly the same size as the elementary in Vanderbilt. Class sizes are mostly 15-20 students. There is one teacher per grade, except for 5/6 which is combined into one big class of 30. The students here call teachers by their first names, which is totally bizarre, and I have a hard time with. I like Aurora's compromise: Mr. Bill. Aurora's teacher was Teacher of the Year recently for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. One third of the students at McNeil are Russian, some who live outside the Russian communities and others who are driven from Razdolna or Voznesenka each day (busses do not go out to the villages).
Each school in this district has a Site Committee, since in this case the school board lives 2 1/2 hours away in Soldotna. The staff is very positive and progressive, using best practices. They find ways to make learning fun. Aurora and Denver never come home tired and drained like they used to, though that could be from the schoolday too, which is from 7:50 a.m. to 2:20 p.m.
School is very rarely cancelled. While there is snow, it is logistically nearly impossible to close school for an entire district that encompasses hundreds of miles. And if one school closed it would put them out of whack with the rest of the district's calendar. So they just don't close school.
I met the principal of McNeil this summer at a potluck and asked him what the biggest challenge the school had. His answer was that more parents are working and not available to volunteer during the day in the school. Frankly, if that is the greatest challenge in the school, I think things must be going awesome! I have a hard time picturing a school with lots of parents volunteering during the day.
Every student that enters this school district has to have a physical. One immunization that kids do not get in Michigan that is required here is the Hepatitis A. All students in the district are required to get a TB test each year. This is done by the school nurse in school.
Overall, it is a very comfortable, positive place for our kids to be, and we are confident they are receiving a good education there.

Our Drives to Work!

The nearest store of any type from where we live is the Fritz Creek General Store you see pictured here, which is also our post office. Our mail is delivered to Homer, but as a service to residents of East End Road, those who have PO boxes can get their mail at Fritz Creek (a 15 minute drive instead of 30 minutes!). The food here is good (hot soup, sandwiches and fresh baked bread) and lots of locals have lunch or dinner here.
Doug has to drive 1/2 mile on gravel, 1 mile on paved road, then 5.5 miles on gravel road to get to Razdolna. The gravel road is new (in the past few years); in the past it was what we call "the bush", which means you cannot drive a car there.
My drive into Homer is longer and more challenging. It is race car driver heaven with all sorts of curves, tight uphills and downhills, hairpin turns, etc. I have actually come to enjoy driving this road every day, though we'll see if I still say that on the first snowfall.
East End Road is the only way into Homer. It follows the bluff above Kachemak Bay. Across the bay is the mountain range with glacier after glacier. I discovered the worst part of this road on the first day of school last week: school busses. If you get behind one, you are going to be stuck behind it alllllll the way into Homer. It makes a 30 minute drive feel like eternity as there are stops to pick up kids every few hundred feet. The elementary students are bussed to McNeil (which is at mile 10 of East End Road). Middle school and high school students are bussed into Homer. The first day of school the line of cars stretched over a mile, out of sight behind me, as we followed the schoolbus. They don't believe in pulling over to let cars pass. Now I have to plan carefully what time I drop my kids off for school so as to avoid the worst 2 of 3 busses that pick up kids on that road.

Bishop's Beach

When we first moved here, I kept referring to Cook Inlet as "the lake" since I am used to the Great Lakes. It seemed the same to me. However, the more time we spend walking on Bishop's Beach, the more fascinating it becomes. The pictures above show Bishop's Beach to the north and south of the parking lot that is right in town. The picture on the left is the way we usually walk. You can walk the beach 15 miles in that direction to Anchor Point. There is also trail to a beach halfway, at 7 miles, and many people make a day hike of that, parking a vehicle at each end.
The biggest difference with this beach and the Great Lakes is the tide and the sealife. Kachemak Bay (which is where this beach is located,off of Cook Inlet) has some of the highest tide changes of anywhere in the world. In fact, there is only one other place that has a greater difference between their high tide and low tide. What this means is that the beach is always changing. Of the dozens of times we have hiked this beach, it is never the same. Two days ago (the full moon), was a very high tide. On the picture on the left, it would be within feet of the cliffs. On the picture on the right, it was all water! Tides bring such fascinating sealife and plants in. We find hermit crabs, kelp, seaweed, shells, clams, mussels, oysters and many more that we don't know what they are. We have seen sea otters swim right up to the shore, and yesterday a bald eagle flew over and landed about 30 feet from me on the sand (it was low tide) with a fish that it proceeded to eat. The eagle's nest is on the promontory you see on the right picture. It had 2 baby eagles in it this year.
The first few times we walked the beach, Denver would take bags and collect "treasures" and bring them home. Now he settles for only the "coolest" things.
There are not a lot of hiking trails in Homer, so if we want to go for a walk, the beach is generally our first choice. Where once it was Aspen Park in Gaylord, now it is a beach that is always changing.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Doug didn't know what he was getting into when he mowed the field (playground) next to Razdolna. Two weeks later he is still suffering from what we now know as pushki. Here's what happened, and how he got it.
The grass and weeds in the field at school were 3-4 feet high so Doug got on the school's newly acquired riding lawnmower and went at it. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. A few hours later he broke out in a rash of raised welts and started itch. The juice of the cow's parsnip (a tall plant that grows to about 4 feet high with a white flower on the top) basically causes burns on the skin. When Doug mowed the lawn the juice went right through his clothing. He had 4 hours to take a shower and wash it off to avoid the rash. Unfortunately, he didn't realize what it was until it was too late. His whole body broke out. On top of that, this rash is photosensitive, so once you are exposed, it is very important to stay out of the sunlight otherwise it gets worse. Doug had spent that entire day and part of the next out in the sun. He did not find out what it was until a few days later. He has tried all sorts of creams and ointments. Of all of the ungents, a medicated gel for sunburns with aloe and lidocaine has worked the best by far. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has a website on pushki, and they recommend causticum treatment. Doug has taken it for 3 days, and does not know if that is what has helped, or the gel or just time. He still has some open sores, and the itching has gotten much better, but he still has some discomfort 2 weeks after exposure.
Sensitivity seems to vary from person to person. Our landlord's mom has it so bad that when she gets a blister and it breaks, the ooze from the blister creates new blisters. Her son played with cow's parsnip as a child, picking them and spent hours playing with the stalks and he has never had any ill effects. Once you get pushki you are more suceptible the next time. And I read that if you burn cow's parsnip stalks you can get internal blisters from breathing the smoke! There is so much around that it is nearly impossible to avoid casual contact, and none of us got it all summer despite brushing against it when hiking. It is the fluid inside the stem that is the source of the rash/burn.
I would take a picture, but the flowers have all died and gone to seed for the season (just in the past week or two). If you want to read more about this I highly recommend the Kenai Wildlife Refuge site. Google "pushki" and it will be the first entry. And whatever you do, if you come to Alaska, make sure you know what this looks like and avoid contact with the juice!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Razdolna School

Some of you may have wondered about Doug's working at a Russian school. He is 3 weeks into his job, 2 weeks since school started, so let me share some of the things he has discovered and experienced.

There are currently 41 students at Razdolna, up from 36 last year. At this point 11 kids will be enrolling in kindergarten next year, in a building that has a maximum capacity of 50 students. Needless to say, there are growing pains! Since the school district rents the building from some of the villagers, they cannot actually make any improvements. They are working on a plan to address this problem. Student test scores are high, so Doug's job will be to make them higher! Parents want their kids to have homework.

There was an open house at the school today, and every family stopped by. Many were very appreciative of Doug's being there, there were numerous comments about how the school is looking better, and some were even asking if Doug was going to be there next year! Overall, it is an incredibly positive place to work.

There is a full-time K-4 teacher, Ann, who has taught at the school 10 years and lives in one of the other Russian villages (though not Russian herself). There is a part-time 5-12 teacher, Laura, for whom this is her first year teaching. The other half of the time she is a Title teacher. Doug is the other half-time 5-12 teacher. He teachs math, technology and independent study. They also have various part-time teachers who come in as counselors, to teach Russian, special education, etc. The secretary of the school is a Russian lady who lives in the village and acts as an informal liaison between the school and village.

Doug's comment after the first day of school, about the students: "They are kids like kids everywhere. They are very well-behaved and smart. The only difference is that they will start speaking Russian every so often." Doug was so excited the other day when a student was looking through the Algebra textbook and saw some graphs and said with great enthusiasm, "I really want to learn this stuff!" In 15 years of teaching he has never encountered such an openess to learning.

Obviously there is no bussing, since all the students live in the village. They have an hour for lunch and they all go home. The teachers then have a half hour lunch and half hour prep.

School supplies are delivered to McNeil Canyon School, 15 miles away, so Doug has to pick up water (the water in the school is unpotable), paper, chairs, equipment, etc. He also has to take the trash to the dumpster at McNeil.

The school belongs to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that encompasses hundreds of miles from north to south, including some schools in the bush (fly-in or boat in only). Doug has never known such an incredible level of support in all his years of teaching. He has been hired to do his job. The district office staff repeatedly state that they are there to help them do their job. This school district is one of the best in the nation for its size. While there is paperwork, like anywhere, Doug says there is a purpose to it (as opposed to pointless paperwork) and he doesn't mind it because he understands why they need it.

The superintendent is very responsive to the administrators (80 of them!). She expects them to do their job as principals, which means having quality teachers on staff. The whole atmosphere of the district is education. The health insurance is self-funded, which means they have not hired a middle-man to pay their insurance costs; the district pays the health insurance bills themselves.

Starting Over

As school starts and the pace of life shifts, I have been reflecting on our move, our expectations and adjusting. Here are a few meandering thoughts.....

I was looking forward to starting over in Alaska with a clean slate, but it definately was not as glamorous or as different as I'd hoped. It has been nice that no one here has expectations of me, what job I should work at, how I should live my life. Yet people develop expectations quickly, and pretty soon we're pegged again.

The big disadvantages of starting over, as I see them, are
1) PAPERWORK! Applying for new insurance, licenses, schools, doctor's offices, utilities, etc. etc. is a huge time siphon. I can see why people with big families don't move! The paperwork for the school alone was 15 minutes per child! Big yuck!
2) Money! It costs so much to move, and having to pay two of everything for awhile (mortgage and rent, electric, phone, etc.) can eat up extra money (what extra money??!!). It's a bit stressful still having an unsold house in Michigan (who's mowing the lawn? Is the place being taken care of?).
3) Not having the kind of friends that just know me. People are friendly, and I enjoy getting to know them, but there is a comfort in being around people I have a history with, who know my sense of humor, my hot buttons, etc., and I know theirs. I miss that kind of friend more than anything. I had forgotten how long it took to develop the awesome friendships I had in Michigan.

The advantages of starting over:
1) New experiences, new places to explore, new friends to be made, different activities to get involved with. As life-long learners, we are finding all this newness great fun. Luckily our kids share this enthusiasm, so while they miss Michigan a little bit, they too are looking forward to new adventures.
2) Not as many expectations of who we are and who we should be.
3) Learning about ourselves and each other as we experience these new situations.
4) Applying our skills in new situations.

We have no regrets. We feel like this is where we are supposed to be, and are enjoying carving out a niche for ourselves even as we wonder how long we will be here. There's no place better than the present!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Engineer Lake and Campground

This is one of the campgrounds we spent a few hours between hikes hanging out at. The loons were calling back and forth (at noon!), and we found this lake to be much more beautiful than Ohmer. It also had less traffic than Ohmer. No vehicles pulled through in the 3 hours we were there. This campground has only 4 sites, but it is at one end of the 4.4 mile Seven Lakes Trail connecting it to Kelly Lake on the Sterling Highway, so it had 2 bathrooms and potable water. We all went swimming here, as the water temperature was wonderful and it was in the 70's or low 80's. The fish were hilarious. I don't know what they were, but the moment we stepped into the water they swam up to our feet and nibbled at them, which was a ticklish affair! They were only 1-3 inches long, looked like rocks, and were not shy! We have this campground on our list to stay at sometime, as well as the camping cabin that is on the north end of this lake (a 1/2 mile or so hike from the campground). The only bummer: no berries at this campground!

Kenai River Loop

On this hike we saw our first bear. Just to the right of Aurora's head in the top picture she spotted a black bear across the river. It was just for a couple seconds, but it was still neat. The other picture is a little backcountry campsite/picnic area on a bluff overlooking the Kenai River. Aurora was enthralled, and wanted to stay for hours. We saw lots of fish jumping as we sat there, and though there had been countless bear scat and rotting carcass smells along the trail, we felt pretty comfortable in that spot. I had told the kids I would carry the backpacking stove out and cook lunch on this trail, but with so many bear around I did not want to cook anything that was "smelly" and would attract bears, so we ate our usual dry, nearly scentless snacks. This path starts in a burn area, then winds into a swampy area, then heads down to the Kenai River in a beautiful spruce forest. There is an Upper Kenai River Trail and a Lower Kenai River Trail (each 5+ miles round-trip), but we took a trail out to the river and a short loop back, which I would guess was 3-4 miles round trip, though we're not sure about that. There is very little elevation gain, so this is a comfortable hike, though the bear presence is incredibly strong so it is not relaxing in that sense. This is another trail on our "definately go back to" list.

Hideout Trail

Three years ago when we visited Alaska, we climbed partway up this mountain, but at that time we didn't have mountain legs, and now we do! The Hideout Trail overlooks Skilak Lake and that is the Kenai River in the background. It is a 1.5 mile roundtrip hike, 500 foot climb. It was neat making these climbs each day, because we could see where we'd been on other hikes. This is a hike full of open alpine meadows. We didn't see any sign of bears, and we relaxed a little from our constant vigilance and noise making. It was on this trail I first saw a Sitka Mountain Ash, a tree with edible fruit that I found in my AK berry book (author: Verna E. Pratt. I highly recommend this little pocket guide). They weren't ripe, but it was one of the few berries in the book I had not seen yet.
As we sat at the overlook I noticed the "rocks" in the river moving. Looking through the binoculars, I thought perhaps they were bears, but if so, we saw 5 of them at once just on the part of the river you see in the picture above. I didn't know what else they could be beside bears. The hike down to the river was the one we had planned on next, and Aurora, thinking they were bears, said, "Let's go! I want to go see some bears up close!" When we did the Kenai River Trail and saw a boat go by it occurred to me those might have been boats.
We enjoyed this hike, and would recommend it for being a beautiful view, but not quite so grueling as some of the others.

Hidden Creek Trail

The Hidden Creek Trail was one of our favorite's. It wound through an unburned, beautiful spruce forest with a wide enough trail to walk side-by-side in some parts. The raspberries along this path were huge, so of course we stopped to graze. There were some sections that were burned, as this is the source of the Hidden Creek Fire of '96 that burned the other areas I have mentioned. Unlike the other trails, where there were few trees still standing, as you can see many skeletons still stand. The forest was very dense before it burned!
The highlight of this hike was meeting a group of about 12 people who had just seen a brown bear in the direction we were heading. We debated for about 10 seconds about going back or continuing (it was a loop), and decided to just continue to practice safe bear habits and continue. In the 300 yards past where we met that group we saw 4 fresh berry-filled bear scat. We were a bit more nervous on that hike than others. We were on the shore of the Skilak Lake, at the mouth where the Kenai River flows into it. Fish were jumping out of the water all over the place. It was bear heaven. The trees were so dense and close to the trail that we couldn't see very far off the trail. That is the trail we most want to go on again next time we get back to the Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area.

Bear Mountain Trail

The Bear Mountain Trail is 1.6 miles round trip, a steep 400 foot climb. It is not burned, but it was somewhat open and was therefore very grassy. There was not a profusion of berries, unlike the hikes in the burned areas. The view of Skilak Lake (see picture) was almost more beautiful than yesterday's Skilak Lookout Trail. You can see where we were yesterday. The little knob on the mountain above the lake is the Skilak Lookout. The haze you see in the picture is from the Swan Lake Fire which is just off the right side of this picture on the far side of Skilak Lake. The rocks at the top of this trail were swarming with flies, and it was very hot, so we sat in the shade of a tree. I was nervous up there because there was a very strong scent (I can't remember it well enough to describe it), but it made me think of bear or other wildlife. The bear scat we saw on the way up was filled more with currant berries (I could tell by the shape of the seeds) than the bear scat we saw on the Vista Trail.

Burney's Trail

This was one of the rare hikes that we actually met other people on it-a man offered to take our picture at the top, and his dogs came trotting over. Obviously they wanted to be in the picture too, even though they didn't look at the camera!
This hiking trail has had a lot of improvements done on it in the past month. Part was regravelled and the brush cut along the trail. It is only a mile roundtrip with a 200 foot elevation gain. It has a nice view of Hidden Lake. It is a completely unburned forest, which made it really cozy hiking compared to many of the hikes we have gone on. The kids learned the joy of running downhill on this trail, and so every other trail we hiked we ran down it!

Skilak Lookout Trail

This was a 700 foot climb. The distance was either 4 miles or 5 miles, depending on which source is true (both from the Kenai Wildlife Refuge booklet). There were very strong bear signs along this path: we smelled rotting carcasses in at least 4 different spots. This was a burn area as well, but it was wetter so the vegetation was different than the Vista Trail. There were a couple of unburned areas at the beginning of the trail that were beautiful. We met a couple ladies as we were heading back down, one who had not hiked the trail for 15 years. She was amazed at how different it was since it had burned. We liked this trail more than the Vista. There was some boardwalk where the trail got mucky. There was a very nice view of Skilak Lake from the top, though a view of a different part of the lake than the Vista. On the way up there were gorgeous views of Hidden Lake.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wild berries!!

There were berries on every hike we took in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge area Aug. 10-14, more in the open, fire areas than in the closed woods. There were watermelon berries and raspberries (regular red and trailing) fully ripe and delicious. The low and high bush cranberries, currants and rosehips were not fully ripe. The kids avoided the bunchberries (which I love) and timberberries because our Alaska berry book does not recommend them. Elderberries grew in profusion, but are poisonous until cooked, so we couldn't eat those (they contain a glycoside related to cyanide). And then there were the devil's claw (nasty prickers) and baneberries (a few berries can kill a small child).

Vista Trail

That is Skilak Lake in the background, but it is hard to see because the clouds and water blend in beautifully. By the time we got to the top it was clearer and we could see the smoke from the forest fire across the lake (Swan Lake Fire, started July 29 from a lightning strike, 1600 acres burned so far). There were quite some billows of smoke coming up, which explained the brown haze on the horizon. I hadn't known there was a fire, so I couldn't figure out the "smog"!

This trail was an 800 foot climb, 3 miles roundtrip. There were more berries on this hike than any other hike we did in this area. We "grazed" our way both up and down the mountain, and we learned to grab berries without stopping!

The trail was well worn, but we couldn't see the trail because the grasses were over the kids' heads in many places, and over my head in some places. Though it was a clear day, the dew had been heavy and we got soaked within minutes. By time we reached the top we appreciated being wet because we were so hot! The area was burned in 1996 (Hidden Creek Fire, 5200 acres) so there were just skeletons of trees and no shade.
About 1/4 of the way up we came across a berry-filled bear scat. After that we began to practice good bear-avoidance tactics: talk, sing, whistle or hum or make any type of noise so as not to startle a bear and to give them time to get away from us. As it was our first hike, I was not quite aware of just how important this knowledge was since we encountered many signs of bear on other hikes.