Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Girdwood, Alaska--Beautiful Village of Chalets

The only other time we've visited Girdwood, 30 minutes south of Anchorage, was at Christmas when we went downhill skiing at Alyeska Resort, and that is what really puts Girdwood on the map. Yet it is an achingly beautiful place in the summer too as Douglas and I found out this past weekend as we spent three days in one of the chalets on a retreat. Huge amounts of snow in the winter translate into much rain in the summer, so the area has a rain forest feel to it: huge pine trees dripping with moss, lush vegetation and thick moss covering rocks and tree trunks in the woods.

We had some time before our retreat started on Friday, so we headed down Crow Creek Pass Road to explore the area. Three miles down what felt like a deserted country road we came to the Crow Creek Mine. There was a campground there ($5 a night!), and the mine grounds were beautifully kept up and aesthetically appealing. A walking tour led from the blacksmith's shop at the entrance, up past the meat cache and mess hall to a miner's cabin. For a small fee they deck you out with miner's supplies and give you directions to Crow Creek where you dig up some gravel and then haul it to the sluice where you pan for gold--finders keepers! From 1898-1940, an average of 700 ounces of gold were mined here each month (the largest nuggest found was the size of a chicken's egg!) until production costs grew too great. According to a brochure, "It's estimated that more gold remains on the site than has ever been recovered!" The creek was excavated 200 feet, so there is now a gorge that the river rushes through, with the beginning of it pictured here.

The next gem we discovered in Girdwood was the Virgin Creek Falls (pictured at top of entry). It was perhaps a 1/4 mile or less hike from the trailhead to the falls, and the trail wound through a beautiful evergreen forest with moss as the predominate vegetation. However, I doubt we would have found this on our own. It is not marked from the main road; in fact, until you get to the end of a series of roads through town that lead to it and you see a small sign tucked in among the blueberry bushes, you don't even realize it is a trailhead. So we were glad that the group leaders chose this as one of our hikes for the weekend. It would be a wonderful place to go back to without a big group (there were 30 of us there!) and enjoy it in peace.

The final delight of the weekend (another group hike!) was a 3 mile hike that begins (or ends, depending!) at the Alyeska tram (the motorized one) at the base of Mt. Alyeska and ends over on Crow Pass Road near the Crow Creek Mine. The highlight of this hike is the hand tram where you get into a cage and pull yourself across the river which is 200 feet below. Or, if you are lucky, there is someone on one end or the other to pull you across, in which case you just enjoy the ride! Once the riders are across you pull the empty tram back and load it up again. With our large group it took quite some time to get everyone across, but it was great fun.

Even without the tram, the hike is one of the most beautiful I've been on in Alaska. The trail is mostly hard packed dirt, wide enough to walk side-by-side with one or two people. A few places were boardwalk, and since it had been raining for 4 days straight there were some muddy places that were easily skirted. The trees were huge, there was a plethora of mushrooms, and the sense was of being in a rain forest. I was busy chatting the whole time and hardly noticed the scenery, so this hike is on my list to go back to and really relish the area. By the way, there is a name for this trail, but I don't know what it is!

We drive by Girdwood every time we go to Anchorage, and while I thought it was a quaint ski village, I never realized it was so delightful in the summer as well. In walking through town (too strong a word, really), I was amazed at how many homes are tucked in at the base of Mt. Alyeska. Nearly all seemed to be chalets, log cabins, rustic and so delightful to look at in the winter when covered with snow. There is a long, nicely paved path from one end of Alyeska Resort to the other which we enjoyed a number of times over the weekend. I look forward to future trips to Girdwood for camping, hiking, and of course skiing, and am amazed that we've missed this gem until now!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Haying in Alaska

Since we've moved to Alaska, it has become a much-anticipated tradition to help my aunt and uncle with the haying each summer. They are in their late 60's and early 70's so don't throw haybales so well anymore, so they really appreciate our strong, young backs!

Haying happens once per summer on the Kenai Peninsula. It can range from the first week in July during a really hot year to well into August if the weather doesn't cooperate. This year the weather did not cooperate, so it resulted in weeks of anticipation that we were ready to drop whatever was going on to run to Ninilchik and help get the hay in. Although the weather in Homer is not always the same as 40 minutes up the road in Ninilchik, I noticed it was sunny Thursday and Friday and that they were haying in Homer, so I mentally counted the days: Cut on Friday, dry on Saturday and Sunday, bale on Monday. Sure enough, my uncle called Monday morning. As soon as I heard his voice I said, "We're ready to come down as soon as you need us! We're ready to hay!" The dew was heavy, and he didn't anticipate it drying off enough till late afternoon, so we got our bags packed for a quick take-off.

At 6:15 we finally got the call: we're haying! They'd gotten one load in by time we got there with a couple of young guys from California who were visiting as well as Kelli and Todd, their daughter and son-in-law. Two more loads and a couple hours later, 500 bales were in the barn. It was a relief to get some dinner (finally!), wash the sweat and grime off and rest our weary muscles. Heaving dozens of 40-60 lb. bales of hay around for hours is one workout that gets my heart rate up. In fact, one of my friends told me today that a guy near Ninilchik dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of a field while haying yesterday. The more people on your team throwing bales the less stress on each person, and it can be more fun depending on who the group is.

The kids find haying a blast. Since they're both not quite strong enough to throw the bales up on the wagon they each got a turn driving the truck this, an essential role, but one that allows the more physically able to heave bales. Aurora did help unload the wagon in the barn since gravity helped do a lot of the work. They ride the top of the hay wagon, ride the bales as they come out of the baler, run around the field, swing from ropes high up in the hay barn and otherwise stay happily occupied.

This year, though it was a late crop, was average for this field. They got 905 bales off it. Last year they got a measly 710 bales, while 6 years ago was a whopper year with nearly 2000 bales from this field. So there was satisfaction that the horses would be fed for another winter, as well as relief that it was finally done and they could go on vacation. Until the hay is in, life is somewhat on hold, waiting to see what weather comes and if the window is large enough to get it all in.

People all over the world hay, but for us this has become part of our Alaska experience: something we never did in the Lower 48. As grueling as it can be, there is a sense of comraderie and fun. And like I mentioned when we were out there the other day: It's always sunny when you're haying!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

HELP! Please Turn Over

By Michelle

As Denver and I were walking on Bishop's Beach
this afternoon checking out the high tide flotsam and plethora of baby kelp bulbs, I noticed what looked like a rectangular piece of foam tucked in among the debris. I often pick up trash on the beach if it doesn't look too messy to carry in my pocket, and something about this piece of trash caught my eye. I turned it over and saw in big, bold letters, "HELP". I thought it was a prank, or something someone in a shipwreck might throw into the water. However, I turned it over and read the inscription on the other side: "This is a drift card for a current study of Seldovia Bay and its interaction with Kachemak Bay conducted by Seldovia Village Tribe. If you find this card please contact....and provide the following information: card number, date and time, distance and direction from Seldovia or Seldovia Point. If found in the water, release this card where you found it. If found stranded on the shore, dispose of this card properly." We thought that was pretty cool that we found this and actually picked it up to look at it. We headed back up to Islands and Ocean where Denver was going to the weekly Discovery Lab.

By Denver:

As I walked into Islands and Ocean I was feeling excited to be part of a current study. Soon I went into the Discovery Lab. After looking at a few of the stations, I told the attendant at a station about the drift card and she seemed pretty interested. She told me more about the card and told me it was for studying surface currents on the ocean. She got on the computer and showed me maps of their (Islands and Ocean's) drift card study and where the cards ended up. They print out the message and varnish it to a block of wood. It was interesting hearing the results of the experiment. They dropped 500 drift cards in a st
raight line at the other side of Kachemak Bay on the curve heading back down the Kenai Penisula. Surprisingly, only a couple cards landed in Kachemak Bay. The rest ended up in the Kenai River area. In another study drift cards were dropped by a high school girl who made 1000 drift cards and threw them out in a straight line right before the curve across Kachemak Bay. She thought they would all end up in Kachemak Bay but she was wrong! Almost all of them ended up in the Alueutian Islands area and only 3 were found in Kachemak Bay. Her study showed there was a surface current that nobody ever knew about. It was fun being part of a cool study and learning more about the ocean that I live by. I would like to do a study with drift cards too.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Buying a House in Homer

After renting a house for two years, we finally decided to take the plunge and become homeowners again. However, the decision to do so was easier than finding a house that we all would be happy with. Living 30 minutes out of town became quite a drag the past 6 months as our kids got more involved in sports, my husband began playing basketball again, and I yearned to be closer to friends and activities. So it was a no-brainer choosing a place closer to Homer, but how close was the question. I wanted to be within a few miles of town, while Douglas, who was going to have a long drive to work once we moved, wanted to be a bit further out. Location helped narrow our search, as of course price does.

Prices made us cringe: our $130,000 house in Michigan would easily be double that or more here in Homer. Homes with a view of Kachemak Bay seemed to be a good $20-$30 K more than places whose view was obstructed by trees. All but one place we looked at had a view of the bay, though some better than others.

Without housing code here, homes tended to be built haphazardly by whomever, without thought for future owners, logic or quality. Most 3 bedroom homes we looked at were in the $275,000-$300,000 range, on about one acre, and were in crummy shape, needing many repairs to get them comfortable and livable. We were still burnt out on home improvements from our house in Michigan so we had no desire for a fixer-upper.

Our Realtor patiently showed us house after house, not censoring them too much. Nearly all of the houses we looked at were empty, some having gone into foreclosure and others the owners had to leave Alaska for family issues, health issues or jobs. Many had been on the market as long as two years, and without any care, were pretty ragged looking. In some we could see potential, but many were so bizarre we couldn't see living there. Our son liked the strange houses, and our daughter wanted to be close to friends and hoped for climbing trees. I wanted a greenhouse and garden, while my husband thought having a workshop would be a treat.

Amazingly, we found a place that fit nearly all these specs, but not until we expanded our search to 2-bedroom homes that might have an extra room that could be converted into a bedroom. The house we found is within walking distance of my daughter's best friend, with enough weirdness to please our son, a greenhouse and raised bed garden with tons of flowers for me and a heated workshop for my husband, and yet in move-in condition. The price was out of our range, but after two years the seller was ready to sell and came down on the price enough to be within our price range, so we have become proud homeowners.

Part of my heart is still up at the end of East End Road. I left friends up there, and I will miss the wide open spaces and privacy of no neighbors within earshot, the long season of snow skiing and snowshoeing from my door, the pond down the drive, all the horses, and the tremendous views of Portlock and Dixon Glaciers. My tradeoff is that now I sit up in bed and see the Homer Spit and ships on the bay, I have a more workable yard (it's mine!), we will have leaves to rake and will get fall colors on the ridge above our home (yellow aspen), and our drive to town does not involve taking a cooler full of food and clothes for an entire day of unknown weather changes.

It is great fun to be able to plan changes for house and yard--to own where we live once again. The kids have discovered ripe strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and watermelon berries right in our yard, and there are many nooks and crannies for them to explore in the house, outbuildings and yard. Best of all, they have had playdates galore. For us, our new place came with a guest cottage, so we are hopeful for company! After all this, I have realized that no "place" can make us happy, and yet people are the joy that keep our lives fresh and meaningful, so our prayer for our home is that it be a source of love and good company.