Monday, November 26, 2018

Arctic Valley--Easiest Hike to a Peak in Anchorage

I've had a few blog posts I've been planning on doing since the summer and am just getting caught up now.  Sometimes, once I have time, I decide they're not blog-worthy, but Arctic Valley was a treasure that I look forward to going and visiting again.

I was in Anchorage for four days in August, just hanging out, when I realized that the berries were ripening. A friend of mine told me years ago about picking berries on the slopes of Arctic Valley, and I'd passed the exit off the Glenn Highway just north of Anchorage many times with the resolution to go there someday. This was going to be that "someday", and I am glad I had plenty of time because it took awhile to get there.

From the freeway exit, one passes a local golf course and then the pavement ends and the climb begins, up and up and up on a wide, rough, rutted gravel road. It seemed to go on forever, and I was sure I was in the wrong place going somewhere strange, when suddenly parking lots appeared and a valley opened up in front up me with a trail heading up the middle of it. There were only 2 cars in the parking lot, so I was uncertain this was a well-used place. I took a side trail first, that led to nowhere, before heading up the valley, just exploring and scoping for berries.

As the morning wore on, more and more folks showed up on the trail and there were plenty of cars in the parking lot by time I left. I only had enough time to get to the saddle at the head of the valley, overlooking Eagle River and Eagle River Valley on the other side before I had a commitment in town I needed to get back for. I realized that I'd hiked the area from the other side last year and the Arctic Valley trails connected with the Eagle River trails.

Views of surrounding mountains are a feature of Arctic Valley, starting above treeline.
And this year, no sign of the abundant berries I expected

The military presence of the Joint Elmdorf-Richardson Base is evident

A plane cuts a swath through the sky as I near the top of the saddle

At the saddle, looking down on the city of Eagle River

Up to the right on the saddle, to meet the trails that come up from the Eagle River side

Looking back down the valley I'd come up at the Anchorage area

The history of Arctic Valley is long and interesting, and reading the interpretive signs was fascinating, with a deep connection with World War II

Gazing north to Denali
There are a number of trails to explore here and many have moderate grades rather than the oxygen-depleting climbs of many mountains. Though there weren't any berries to speak of, it was still a gem of a discovery, being above treeline the whole time, a feature Alaskan's appreciate for being able to see bear from a ways off. I hadn't realized it was still an active downhill ski area, so I'll be mentioning this to my kids when they are home for the holidays as an alternative to the in town Hillside slopes.

What caught my fancy was the history of the place, detailed on the interpretive signs. Tours are still available to see the Nike Hercules missile site where live test fires were conducted (see 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Life Filleting Fish for a Summer

Our son was determined to have an "Alaskan" job this past summer, so he focused his job search on the Homer Spit. Through word of mouth, he heard North Country Charters was paying well for office jobs, but when he walked in and asked about it, they suggested perhaps he'd like to be a fish filleter. With the potential of making more money, he was enticed, but it took some persistence on his part to make it happen.

He'd never filleted a fish before in his life, so some folks went out and caught fish for him to practice on. He would go to school all day, run track practice and then get the call that they had some fish for him to work on. He'd don some grungy clothes and dash out to the Spit. A past filleter for North Country showed him the ropes and let him at it. He practiced on a few fish and they declared him good at it, so he was in business.

Hanging, washing, weighing the fish. Then comes the pictures with them!
The small, white plastic container is for the halibut cheeks, a coveted delicacy

The large halibut, over 100 pounds or so, are filleted "on the ground"--saving the filleter's back in heaving them onto the table

Other species caught include various types of rockfish, lingcod, and salmon

Anywhere from one to five boats would go out each day for North Country, and our son would be called when the captains of the boats called in, giving him 20 minutes notice to get to work, so he was on call after noon each day. Sometimes all the boats would come in after each other, and he would get 4 boats' worth of fish filleted in 2 hours. Other times a boat would get its quota early and others would come in later, leaving a gap between boats to hang out with friends, grab a bite to eat or sit on the beach.

The hauler was an essential part of the team, getting the fish off the boat in the harbor and hauling them up to the charter building, hanging the fish, washing them off, weighing the larger halibut, and getting pictures. From there, our son would take over, getting the fish on the filet table and going to work, separating them among totes according to who on the boat caught them. From there, a fish processor would pick them up and process them according to the customer's preferences.

With its location right next to Finn's Pizza on the Spit, a popular eatery, folks could watch the filleting show as they dined and we had many locals tell us they'd seen our son at work.  We watched his arms become sinewy and brown as the summer progressed. Luckily the weather was pretty nice this summer, but fish get caught rain or shine, so he would be out there no matter what the weather, usually in a short-sleeved t-shirt. He would wax eloquent about different knives and show off his knife sharpening skills, which were deeply embedded in muscle memory after doing it many times daily for 3 months.

It was a good job for a guy going off to college, with a really good company to work for, getting paid a flat rate per boat plus tips for a job well done. He looks forward to another summer of "Alaskan" work. For us it was further initiation into a slice of life in Homer.

On nice days, this doesn't seem like a bad job

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Out on the Water on Thanksgiving Day

A last minute call from a friend Wednesday night asking if I wanted to head across the bay on Thanksgiving Day for a hike led me to ditch all my plans for the day in favor of an excursion on the water.  I was particularly excited because I just finished the Coastal Navigation class days before and I wanted to see all those things I'd learned in action to really cement my learning. My friends were happy to educate me as well, sharing their experiences of 18 years of boating on Kachemak Bay.

Seas were choppy on the way over, and supposed to calm as the day went on
In all their years of boating here, they have never been out on the water this late in the season. The weather has been ridiculously nice--in the 40's for most of the month of November and not too stormy--extending the shoulder season for recreating across the bay.

The trips started at home, figuring out how cold it was going to be on the water. It was 30 degrees and calm at home, which meant on the water, with a windchill, was going to be quite a bit chillier. I dressed with 3 layers on my legs and 4 on top, including balaclava and hat. The sun was just barely peeping through the clouds at 11:00 when we set out, so there was a nip in the air.

The lagoon we anchored in was full of water at a +22 foot tide. I've walked through this area when it was dry.
 Listening to my friends discuss where to throw the anchor was fascinating, with the details of the current tide level, expected tide level upon our return (+2 feet), how far out to be, which anchors to throw (stern, bow or both?) and then coordinate the drop on shore, which is easier with a sailboat that draws 9" than many boats. A delightful 2 hour hike with bird watching and relaxing in the sun on a bluff got us back to the boat at the expected time. The ground was soggy with the amazing amounts of rain we've been getting, with no hint of a freeze.

Poot Peak in the afternoon light, heading back to Homer
 The chop had settled down as forecasted, but there were some nice, long swells. My friends let me drive the boat back, and that was interesting, up and down those swells. Driving a boat isn't difficult, and I can see how, like driving on roads, it can be hard to stay alert to possible dangers, such as kelp rafts, logs and sea otters, when there's this wide-open expanse of water.

My friends let me skipper the boat back into the harbor--teaching me tips and tricks
 Returning to harbor, I was happy to turn over the wheel to my friend to steer into the slip. I was happy to set foot on land again. And I was just in time to take a quick shower and get to Thanksgiving dinner with friends.
There's always a sense of relief for me returning to the safety of the harbor

Looking over to the mountains we were just at the base of shortly before gives me a strange sense of perspective
It made for possibly one of the more unique Thanksgivings I have had, and the timing was perfect. I learned and reviewed so much of what I'd just gone over in the Coastal Navigation class, and had fun with my friends as well.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Coastal Navigation

In the interests of being more educated about being on the water, I joined in on the local Kachemak Bay Campus Maritime class offering recently, Coastal Navigation, which focused on Kachemak Bay navigation. Twenty three hours of instruction over three weeks enlightened, engaged and entertained me, whetting my appetite for boating, something quite new despite my living here in Homer for 11 years.

A huge focus of the class was safety, which led us to the fun of setting marine flares, setting off smoke flares and shooting rocket flares, as well as practicing extinguishing fires with fire extinguishers.

Setting off a flare, which floats and keeps its brilliant light even when immersed in water

Correct technique was emphasized for shooting off rocket flares, as they have a little kick

Smoke flares in the water in foreground, and the rocket flare illuminating where it landed for a few seconds before extinguishing

The light of the flare left a trail of smoke and lit up the water

A call to the Coast Guard before and after setting off flares managed any calls that might come in from this exercise

Fun stuff aside, we learned to navigate with maps, figure out exact tide depths between high and low tides, identify bouys and lights on maps, and much more, despite most people's ultimate dependence on their electronic devices for all this information.

Knot tying was valuable, though I think I'll need to keep practicing to stay fresh.  Tying up a boat right was listed as a marriage-saving skill, as apparently many mishaps happen in the stressful process of docking.

We learned about boating essentials, listing 17 must-haves for every boat, starting with the float plan, all the way through PFD's, survival gear and a VHF radio.

Knowing the rules of the sea for colors and locations of lights on boats, bouys, throwing anchor, docking, mayday calls and more is useful for me, as a non-captain rider on boats. We practiced mayday calls, learned the best type of survival gear, and even how to drive the boat into certain types of waves.

Best of all, however, was hearing all the stories from Anna Borland-Ivy, a woman who has been on the water in Alaska all her life fishing and recreating. Hearing all the local knowledge about places I am familiar with and how to navigate these waters with incredible tides shifts of 28 feet, glacial water and wind effects, rip tides, and currents humbled me to the power of the sea.

It was an incredibly valuable use of my time, and expanded my awareness of how little I actually knew about seamanship despite living on the edge of the sea and being out on the water regularly. I highly recommend this class, which is offered every semester by the Maritime Program classes at Kachemak Bay Campus.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Loving the Scenery in Homer

Who ever said empty nesters have more time?! Our kids have flown off to other places, and we are busier than ever. Every two or three months I figure I should get my photos off my phone. In doing that recently, I came across some beautiful ones that I snapped in the course of my walks--just normal "out and about" days in Homer, Alaska with dramatic lighting, interesting perspectives or simple beauty.  Enjoy!

The sunlight on these puffs of cloud caught my eye as I was out for a beachwalk

Then the sun broke through more and a ship came by to vary the scene

I rarely pick up shells, preferring to enjoy them as I walk the beach. On this day I picked one up, and of course it was broken by time I made it home. I'm glad I took a picture of it

A fall sunset over a ship that's on the repair beach

Impressive rivers form as high tide waters rush back out to sea at Bishop's Beach

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A Kayak Trip Across the Bay

Little Tutka Bay from Rick and Dorla's cozy spot

I've been out kayaking before in Halibut Cove and on Hidden Lake, but never spent a ton of time on the water. Last spring I was attending a silent auction and won a bid for a full day kayak trip with A Seaside Adventure.  It did indeed end up being an adventure!

As a single person, I was curious who the rest of the group would be.  It ended up being a family from the East Coast with two adult daughters and one of those daughter's husband who were doing a family vacation to Alaska. Ma and Pa were in the 60's and 70's, and Pa was hard of hearing and not wearing his hearing aids. We discovered each other on the dock as our water taxi was late.  They were panicking, pacing up and down the docks, worried they would miss their boat. Once we started talking, I realized it was likely they were more nervous about the kayak trip than missing their boat. Neither Ma nor Pa had ever kayaked before in their life, and I admired their willingness to try it--on the ocean in Alaska no less.

Turns out the water taxi was late because the waves on Kachemak Bay were impressive that day. The ride over turned into a prayer not to get sick all over the boat as we were up and down and up and down all the way over. Once we got behind the Herring Islands, the way was smoother.

I don't know if every trip is as epic to set up, but between getting to Rick and Dorla's spot in Little Tutka Bay late and then gearing up, getting lessons on kayaking and actually getting the kayaks in the water, it was almost noon. I was just along for the ride and not set on making incredible progress so I just enjoyed getting to know the family I was spending the day with.

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I'll let the pictures (with captions!) demonstrate the day.

Getting geared up, seats adjusted, basic stroke lessons

Slightly choppy waters even in the protected area behind the Herring Islands.
We were all in double kayaks; the person in back got to steer.

Little islands, mountains, water and the sky--enjoying Little Tutka Bay

Wildlife viewings on this day were eagles and sea otters

Putting in at a quiet cove for lunch

Enjoying the scenery from our lunch spot

With such large tide differentials in the area, it is important to know whether the tide is coming in or going out so the kayaks are left in a safe spot

Rick and his assistant preparing a lunch of salmon and wild greens we picked minutes before tossing them in the soup (the salmon, however, we did not catch!)

Things got interesting after lunch. We were paddling back towards our starting place and there were waves coming in and Rick noticed some rip tides in the area we would need to paddle. As he said, if all the folks were young and experienced paddlers, he likely would have had us push on, but Ma and Pa were struggling as it was so Rick decided to head back to our lunch spot. He called a friend who lived next door to him in Tutka to come and get us, and he left the kayaks there to come back and retrieve them later.

The water taxi was 30 minutes late picking us up, but the ride back was uneventful and smoother than the ride out that morning.  We'd kayaked maybe 2 hours out of the whole day. I heard that other kayak tour places cancelled completely that day, so we were lucky to get that much in.

Even for that little bit being out there, it is an experience that gave me confidence on the water. And it was fun getting to know some new people for a day too!
And back to Homer...a cruise ship was in the harbor

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Johnson Lake Campground

One of our favorite campgrounds in our early years in Alaska was Johnson Lake in Kasilof. It is relatively close to Homer--only a bit over an hour away--and has a beautiful lake, nice big campsites and some years, berries to pick. We'd given up fall camping for 8 years while the kids were in middle school and high school cross-country running, and have rediscovered the joy of fall camping once again with our empty nest. We didn't even have a full day, leaving Sat. evening after the Homer High football game and coming back early Sunday afternoon, but it was a delightful break nonetheless, even with rain nearly the whole time. The campground was pretty full but peaceful, with little traffic. I managed to find a few lowbush cranberries in the process, which will be wonderful come Thanksgiving!

Lowbush cranberries--filling my bucket!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Beautiful Alaska on a Fall Morning: Vagt Lake

Vagt Lake on a calm fall morning

Labor Day weekend we did a mish-mash camping trip that included a visit to a relative in the hospital in Anchorage, shopping in the big city, a night in the Bird Point Campground just south of Anchorage, then a jog on down the road to Trail River Campground just south of Moose Pass on the way to Seward. We got some biking in, some hiking, and explored places we'd never been before.  

The trails we didn't find!
One of those places we discovered was Vagt Lake. We weren't intending to go there; the plan was to find the Falls Creek Mine or Falls Creek trails, neither which I'd ever heard of before, but which we'd stumbled across the day before while hiking from the Ptarmigan Campground.  But we didn't find the parking area for either of those, and having passed them I suggested we pull off where the Trail River outlets from Trail Lake and check it out. It led us to one of the most gorgeous, scenic views we've seen--courtesy of the soft fall morning light and an incredibly calm morning.

The trail was only a mile, graveled and mostly flat so very accessible. There's a nice picnic or tent area when you reach the lake. We started going around the lake but it got grown over quickly and we were just out for a pleasant morning hike so we left that for another time.  Here are some photos from the hike.

The bridge and walkway near the Vagt Lake turnoff