Monday, May 26, 2014

Ship Creek Trail-Anchorage

We are always in search of trails to hike and paved bike paths for various recreational activities. I've known of the existence of a coastal trail along significant portions of the shore around Anchorage but until a couple months ago, never found it. When we discovered it while out for a walk in downtown Anchorage back in the beginning of April it was still covered with snow/ice. So when we found ourselves in a hotel in downtown Anchorage again this past weekend, we made a beeline for it, determined to check it out.

A gull found a perch in the middle of Ship Creek
The walking access to this bowl near the Alaska Railroad train station next to downtown Anchorage was our biggest puzzle. We could see the train station, a hotel, Ship Creek and even the paved recreational path, but couldn't quite figure out how to get down there. One way is down stairs to the Alaska Railroad depot. The other is along a back street a few blocks away. This time that back street was nearer our hotel so we headed down the steep street to the industrial section to the Ship Creek Comfort Inn where we hopped on the Ship CreekTrail heading upstream along Ship Creek.

Ship Creek at the Comfort Inn, looking downstream at the restaurant that spans the creekbed
The paved path is double the width of the bike paths on the Kenai Peninsula, with substantial fencing on both sides of the trail. We walked nearly an hour, and we crossed beautiful bridge after beautiful bridge. It was 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening and the trail was nearly deserted; we only met a couple other folks out there the whole time we were on the trail. It borders the creek on one side and an industrial park on the other, which is quite the jarring contrast.

Beautiful bridges cross Ship Creek and the railroad tracks along the Anchorage Coastal Trail
This trail is 11 miles long, starting at Kincaid Park on one end and at 2nd Avenue on the other. When the salmon run dipnetters flock here, which might partly explain why it is done up so nicely. My cousin from Eagle River said they did substantial improvements on the trail last year, which might explain these amazing bridges. We spent a bit of our walk pondering how much it must have all cost and where did they get the money.

A section of the Ship Creek Trail
Luckily the smoke from the wildfires on the Kenai Peninsula was not too bad, though that could be partly why there weren't many people out and about since the media was warning that air quality was poor. The haze in the pictures is more likely smoke than it is clouds.

We are looking forward to bringing our bikes up to Anchorage one of these trips up and taking in this entire trail. It will now be one of our "destinations" when in Anchorage!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Sandhill Crane Time of Year

Yesterday as I was dropping one of my daughter's friends off after track practice we noticed a bunch of sandhill cranes in a neighbor's yard. Aurora's friend was laughingly saying that they must feed the cranes because they'd only had one crane in their yard ever, while the cranes seem to hang out across the street in their neighbor's yard all the time.

I tend not to be one of those people who gapes and stops in the middle of the road and takes pictures, but it was quite interesting watching the birds hopping around, and another car (a local) stopped to watch as well. Here is a brief display of what I am guessing is a mating ritual. The two mallard ducks sitting on the lawn to the right of the cranes cracked me up. Do they travel together??

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kachemak (Smoky) Bay

A couple evenings ago as I was out for a walk I noticed a deep brown haze covering the Kenai Mountains across Kachemak Bay. It wasn't gray like fog it was brown like smog, and it was in a distinct line like it was just blowing in. I was wondering if maybe the fires that were recently burning near the Russian villages by the head of the bay were getting out of hand. 

I didn't think much more about it till yesterday morning when I woke up and the first thing I noticed is that the sun was blood red behind a thick haze, and I couldn't see more than a mile or two. Not even the bay was visible. There was a hint of smokey smell. I was a little more worried now so I Googled "Homer" and "fire", but didn't get any hits. Next I hopped on Facebook since nothing can happen around Homer that someone doesn't comment on. There I got my answer.

A wildfire was getting out of control near Funny River Road in Soldotna, 1 1/2 hours to the north of us. A wind from the north was funneling the smoke right down to Homer. The fire started fairly small on Monday, but by Tuesday morning was 1 mile wide by 7 miles long.  By Tuesday evening it was a raging 7000 acre wildfire. Luckily it was in a wilderness area so no homes were threatened.

It threw our lives just a little out of kilter. All high school sports practices were cancelled or held indoors Tuesday. People were told to stay inside since air quality was so poor. There was some ash flying about, but nothing substantial. And it actually got a little bit dark (rare at this time of year). By evening a wind came up and started clearing things out and we were able to see the bay and then the mountains again.

One of Denver's teacher's gave them a little history lesson. Apparently "Kachemak" means "Smoky" and was named just for this phenomena. When fires occur the cold water of Kachemak Bay acts as a magnet and the smoke settles over the water. Reading on Facebook, friends who live at higher elevations locally had sunny skies while we were socked in all day with smoke nearer Homer. I thought that was an interesting tidbit.

Today, though the fire is still going, there is no hint of smoke in Homer. When I went outside this morning there was a light dusting of ash. I am very, very happy to have the smoke gone! I like being able to enjoy the great outdoors. Weather can be dressed for but it is harder to avoid bad air.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Tale of Two Post Offices

Fritz Creek General Store, post office, etc.

When I think "post office" I would never picture the above building. It is an old log cabin that defies the sterile atmosphere most modern post offices embody. I don't think too much about it anymore, but it is still a different sort of set-up.

When we first planned our move to Alaska, we shared the house we were renting with the family we were renting from, and we also shared their post office box. They gave us the address as Fritz Creek, with a zip code of 99603, which is Homer's zip code. This gave Mapquest endless problems and it took us awhile to figure it out. Fritz Creek is at about Mile 8 of East End Road. There is no special clustering of homes near it as the homes are spread all along East End Road. Back in the early days of Homer before the reservoir was built, the creek was one of the reliable sources of clean water and folks would drive up there to get water. But they established a post office there for the folks who couldn't make it all the way into town.

The post office is officially in Homer, and although the road is in good condition now and for most people it is not much more effort to drive all the way to town, the post office at Fritz Creek continues on.Mail is delivered to Fritz Creek from the Homer post office daily. When I am placing a mail order and I give my address as Fritz Creek, it gives the rep pause when they respond that there is no Fritz Creek, only a Homer. I say, "Same difference" and to make them happy, let them mail it to Homer. Whether we put "Homer" or "Fritz Creek" as our city, the mail gets to us the same since all the post office boxes there begin with "15" which denotes it is a Fritz Creek box.

The Homer post office along the Sterling Highway
Besides sharing a zip code, these two post offices could not be more different. This was dramatically brought home to me a week or two ago when I decided to brave the Homer post office to mail a package. It had been years since I'd set foot in it, despite driving by it many times daily. The Fritz Creek post office is a couple miles out of my way to get my mail, but well worth every moment of time and cent of gas.

I walked into the Homer post office with my package after chatting with an acquaintance outside for 15 minutes. I held my breath, wondering how long the line would be. It was plenty long: 5 people ahead of me. Shortly after getting in line, another 5 or more folks added to the line. Nearly all of them were there simply to pick up packages, yet they had to stand in line for 15 minutes or more with the rest of us who had transactions to complete. When the postal clerk asked for the brown slip of paper from the first person in line, everyone in line started waving their slips as if to say, "Take mine! Take mine!" I struck up a conversation about the post office with the man behind me, giving my condolences that he actually got his mail at this post office which has stunningly slow service. Soon a bunch of us were talking about how I miss out on the best part of standing in line at the post office: seeing half of Homer and catching up on the latest gossip.

Contrast that with Fritz Creek where I walk by the two resident kitties as I head in the door, one with a dead mouse between his paws. The entrance is liberally papered with local notices and events. Four rickety tables are often seating locals who are enjoying the delicious sandwiches and desserts the deli cooks up fresh daily, and conversations flow as folks walk in and out of the post office, deli, general store, video store, liquor store and gas station. The floor is rough wood and it is dark but homey. McNeil Canyon School student artwork is posted on the wall in the post office area. I grab my mail, and if there is anyone at the postal window, it is an unusual day. My longest wait has been 10 minutes to mail a package at the peak of the Christmas season (contrasting with a minimum of a 15 minute wait in Homer), with 1-2 minutes the norm. The postal staff is friendly and we know each other. They frown on taking cell phone calls in the building, and I've heard they refuse to serve those who are taking a call. 

So while some might prefer the sterile but slow and unfriendly atmosphere of the Homer post office, I will continue to go out of my way to head up to Fritz Creek to get my mail for the comfortable, homey atmosphere where I feel like a person rather than "just a customer."

Saturday, May 17, 2014

A Frenzy of Action on the Garden Scene

I like things like rhubarb and strawberries that come up every year. I don't have to feel guilty for not getting out there and getting things planted. This year, with our lows in the 40's and highs in the 60's for the past 3 weeks, growth is insane.

The rhubarb is over a foot tall already!
Last year at this time the rhubarb was still under snow probably, or just peeking the first shoots out of the ground. It is ready to be picked right now, and I haven't even used up all of the rhubarb in my freezer from last year (Guess what I'll be making the next couple weeks? Rhubarb crisp, rhubarb get the idea...)

Strawberries blooming...with horsetails messing up my already once-weeded berry bed
Last year at this time I threw some strawberries that were being choked out by weeds in a flowerbed into this raised bed in hopes of saving them. Right now they are blooming madly and growing despite all the horsetails that threaten to overwhelm them.

This time of year is crazy busy with all the various things I am part of ending for the summer. Normally I'm not even considering planting till the end of May (last year I planted on May 25th and I thought that was exceptionally early). This year I'm feeling like I am planting 3 weeks late. I keep waiting for the frost or the snow--the typical nutty weather we get this time of year. It has not materialized so I was finally home for a day with no plans so I was determined to get the greenhouse and garden planted today.

A quick run to Wagon Wheel got all of my seeds and most of my starts: zucchini, cucumbers, broccoli and cauliflower. They were light on tomato plants so I ran up the Sterling Highway to Baycrest Greenhouse and was pleased with their selection and also the health of their tomato plants. 

Supplies to plant
Back home I gathered my supplies: rake, hoe, fertilizer, buckets to throw weeds into, my roughed out garden map, gardening gloves, sunglasses, sunscreen, baseball cap and a waterbottle for hydration. The hose got hooked up and covers for the broccoli and cauliflower plants pulled out of storage.

Laying out the plants in the greenhouse
In the greenhouse I laid out my plants. They look like they have too much space now but they will be filling out soon enough. The lettuce was planted 3 weeks ago and is coming along nicely, though in need of weeding. However, most of the weeds that grow with the lettuce can be thrown into the salad too (chickweed, goatsbeard, chamomile) so I'm not too worried about pulling them out of there too soon.

Outside I am planting my usual mix:  heavy on potatoes, onions, carrots and kale. This year I'm back to some broccoli and cauliflower and zucchini outside, all of which I avoided last year due to extensive summer travel. Spinach and lettuce fills in the spaces and if something doesn't come up I'll sow those in the bare spots. The one new thing this year is beets. Last year I discovered both my kids love beets and beg for them, so I'll see how they do in my garden.

Visiting moose
As I was busy planting I heard a crunch-crunch and looked up to see a moose right outside the garden's moose fence. He wandered on by, and I was grateful for the fence to keep him out. (As have been sitting here writing this blog post, another moose, a younger one, started eating my roses so I had to run out a couple times and shoo him away.)

Garden all planted!
A day's worth of work and the garden is planted. Now I have to stay on duty for the summer to water and weed and coddle my plants along! But so worth a few hours of work and $70 of seeds and plants for the year-round bounty that goes into our freezer or cool storage!

Friday, May 9, 2014

New Uses for a Weed--Stinging Nettle

I have this nice little bed of stinging nettle next to my driveway that I usually cover up with grass clippings to keep them from going to seed and spreading. Having grown up around stinging nettle, I avoid them as much as possible. Their sting is actually worse than pushki's, it's just that pushki stings tend to turn into blistering burns, whereas nettles just sting, sometimes for hours.

I've been hearing rumblings about how good nettles are for the body (makes sense--fresh, green plant....). Last year a local group was recruiting kids to go out and collect bags full of nettles so their group could make nettle burgers. This winter I went to a talk by a local naturopath and she was singing nettle's praises saying they are one of the best antibiotics on the planet. She suggested making a nettle tincture with 100% brandy or rum, packing the nettles in a canning jar with them, cover with rum, put in a dark cupboard and swish every few days. Apparently it will last forever. But drying nettles for tea works too. 

So my view of nettles has changed significantly. I am down to my last package of spinach in my freezer from last year's garden and I've been contemplating actually buying healthy greens from the store (not always so healthy...). With this crazy warm and dry spring, the plants are flourishing and the nettles are the perfect size for picking right now: less than a foot tall. Last night I put on my fish gloves and took my scissors and a large ziplock baggie out to my bed of nettles and started snipping. A few minutes later my bag was full. I zipped it shut and threw it in the fridge after warning my daughter NOT to eat these raw--I would cook them up for us (she told me not to worry--she wouldn't consider eating nettles!). So tonight for dinner I am going to be audacious and stir-fry up some stinging nettles. Websites I've read say use them just like spinach--even make pesto out of nettles! Apparently the stingers don't sting once they are cooked or dried. Yes, I am a little apprehensive.

I thought this was a very helpful website for learning about harvesting and preparing nettles:

If you decide to try this--good luck! And don't pick nettles along a road as they probably have yucky stuff on them.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Stars are Disappearing...And Other Signs of Summer

Panorama view of the Kenai Mountains from our home on a sunny May day

It is 57 degrees and sunny on May 1, no sign of snow, and I'm inside blogging about it? I hope to make some of you jealous! I'm almost prepared to call this the winter that didn't happen. I want to call this summer, not spring, though some part of me is thinking it is quite wrong to plant my outdoor garden in early May. Usually the snow is so deep at this time of year I have to dig out the gate to get to my greenhouse. Instead I'm going to be tilling my garden this weekend and I'm wondering why I don't just plant while I'm at it?! Of course, this all bodes ill for the planet: if it is this hot in Alaska in early May, it means permafrost is melting, glaciers are melting and our entire planet is facing some risk because of what is happening here.

How we know summer is coming (even if it feels like it has arrived, this year)
  • At some point in March, it begins to be quite noticeable how light it is out during the day. By mid-April I actually started appreciating the blackout blinds in the bedroom. Today the sun will set at 10 p.m. In the morning if I'm not running about by 7 a.m. it feels like I'm a slacker because the sunlight makes it feel like mid-day already!
  • With a skylight in the bathroom, the nightlight is off for 6 months till October. 
  • It's not really ever getting dark at night right now.  It is kind of dim-ish, but the sky is always a bit light and fewer and fewer stars are visible each night it seems. Soon they will be gone for the summer. I will miss them.
  • Sandhill cranes go honking  ovehead regularly, though I notice them most at bedtime and we open the windows and we hear pairs and flocks honk over one way, then honk over another direction.
  • The bird chirps in the mornings are prolific! It is insanely noisy in our yard in the morning as I head to work (across my driveway to the cabin).
  • My perennial flowerbed is up and I have flowers blooming already (unheard of!)! The rhubarb is already leafing out! With this insanely warm, sunny weather, plants are easily a month ahead of schedule. Leaves are popping on the trees. Besides last Friday, we have gone something crazy like 2 months without any precipitation, with many days being gloriously sunny like the one pictured above.
  • On the Spit the lupine are edging out of the gravel along the Spit Trail. Can't wait to see their glorious blooms again! Hoping the ones I planted in my flowerbed make it!
  • Kids don't want to stay in school. If it was cold, rainy and snow was on the ground, kids would have no problem staying in school. But with this weather, we ALL want to be out playing!!
  • My kids already have that "glow" that I have dubbed the "Alaskan glow." When folks are out in the sun so much in the summer they "glow," their skin looking rosy and red and tanned all at the same time. Usually my kids don't have that look till sometime in June. This year they had that look mid-April, but I really noticed it yesterday as they were standing next to each other (10 pm, no lights on in the house, but it was plenty bright!) and I realized it wasn't even May 1 yet!
Luckily my college classes end Monday so I will have a tad more freedom to start enjoying our early summer! I can't wait!! Stay posted for fresh adventures beyond Homer!