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Yup – I can see Russia from here.

We got a slowish start from Valdez on Tuesday.  It was a long drive day that was ending at the halfway point to Seward, our final stop on the trip.

We got coffee, wandered through a second-hand shop (I think everyone knows of my great love of thrift) which featured the usual previously loved, now out of date clothes alongside several copies of the Sarah Palin book.  Then it was time to make our way out of the city.  First stop – a quick walk down to a glacier just outside the city.  It was a quick walk down and an impressive site, but a short detour.  From there, our most important stop – Russian lunch.  There are are a lot of Russians in Alaska, which I suppose makes sense (see above and Ms. Palin), but I hadn’t really thought about it.

We’d passed a couple Russian restaurants on the way into Valdez, and were very focused on it on the way out.  The lodge was somewhat in the middle of no where.  It was empty when we arrived, besides a Russian couple watching the Olympics on tv and sitting on a leather couch with with two teacup yorkie dogs.  The place, like every other place in alaska was decorated with animal pelts and anters, but unlike other places there was also Russian dolls and trinkets everywhere.  We had blinis and latkes and, of course, beer.  We left sated and wound towards Sheep Mountain, repeating some of our steps.

We turned on the local news station and heard an update about the accident we’d witnessed as well as the shocking story of a restaurant touting a reindeer tenderloin, which, after an extensive investigation, turned out to be elk from New Zealand.

Along our drive we passed many signs for the local politicians, but nothing for the presidential campaign, save for one lone Bernie poster that we were both convinced was placed by a rogue tourist with a sense of humor.

Our next detour took us into Copper City, a gold rush town that was trying to draw tourists with a  gas station, a “museum” and an art gallery that was closed.  It was charming and tiny.

One final stop at the Wrangell-St Elias National Park Visitor Center – the largest national park in America, and one I’d never heard of.  We took a nature hike through the woods and saw spotted magpies and various rodent like creatures.

The Sheep Mountain Inn, offered mountainside cabins that reminded me of many of the my childhood camp houses, with knotty pine and sparse decor.  What it did have were amazing burgers and a jacuzzi, which we enjoyed before an early turn in, in hopes of an early morning.


I’m very cold, but the globe is definitely warming. (also – Deadliest Catch)

Monday was a great day.  it was cold and uncomfortable, but it was Alaska – the Alaska I came to see.

After dropping Siobhan off for her glacier cruise, and taking a quick walk around town, I screwed my courage and headed for my glacier kayak trip.  Going along with me were a family from Oakland (Scottish mom, 2 boys under 10, and a dad who worked for Apple and sorted out the problem with my iTunes library); a dad from Wasilla with his two daughters, Brooklin, who lives in Arkansas with her mom, and Jaylin, who lives in Oklahoma with hers; and Annika and Janice a couple from San Jose traveling with their mutton-copped friend Mead (“like the honey wine” he patiently explained).  Our guides were college seniors Emma, from Maine and Julian, from Vermont.  With an uneven number, Emma jumped in the boat with Jaylin, and I was paired with the 6’2″, size 12 footed Janice.  I couldn’t have been more pleased.  Janice was trained on the back of the boat, me on the front position and we all jumped on our guide boat to take us to the glacier.

Leaving Valdez Harbor, our skipper pointed out the fishery and told us about the how salmon are captured for spawning, released, and re-caught if they return.  I asked if that still counted as wild salmon.  “We help them through the toughest part in their lifecycle, their infancy.  After that, it’s all them.”  So, I guess, yes.

He showed us where the pipeline ends and the tanks set up for oil.  We learned about the earthquake in 1964 and the spill in 1989.  And the ways the town was trying to prevent anything else from devastating the community.

We passed sea lions lounging on rocks and seals and otters playing in the cold water.  There were small, fluffy seagulls relaxing on ice so close I wanted to pet them.

We finally pulled into a rocky inlet where we disembarked and pulled the kayaks down from our big boat.  We sat on beach (I sat on my life jacket – those rocks hurt) and ate bag lunches and berries we picked from the brush.  Finally, it was time.  In our many layers of warm and waterproof clothes, maneuvering in and out of the boat required a bit of a yoga, but we go there and headed off.  I only had my iPhone, which, it quickly became clear, would end up in the bay if I tried to use it for photos, so I’m a bit short on pictures.  Still, it was stunning, take my word for it.

After a few moments, I heard Janice behind me begin to pant.  After a few more moments, I noticed she was no longer paddling.  “I’m too tired” she said.  “No problem, I’m good” I replied – totally not good!

The rain begin about five minutes into our paddling and got progressively worse the closer we go to the glacier.  Coming up to a rocky clearing, the water got shallow and the current got fast.  Emma and Julian (who might not be, but I really hope are a couple) had to get out of there boats and pull us through to open, calm water again.  There we got our first glimpse of the glacier, glowing blue.  There was ice floating all around it and we would put our hands in the water to touch it and then instantly regret it as the chilly water dripped up our arms.  Near the glacier, all of us chilled to the bone, we pulled up to another beach and Emma and Julian hastily made hot chocolate and pointed to covered trees for anyone needing a bathroom break.  I did, but couldn’t image how I’d get all my layers off, so I opted for the wait and hope for the best approach.

The kids argued forcefully to just call the big boat to us, but we all got back into out kayaks for another couple hours of paddling.  We went up to the glacier, which has receded 50 feet this year alone and is a living testament to climate change.  Then we headed back the way we came.  By the time we got back to our big boat, the kids were shivering and blue and the adults were debating which was more important – a drink or a hot shower.

I loved every second of it!

For me, the shower came first and after meeting Siobhan back at the hotel, warming up my bones, we headed to our hotel bar for dinner.  We sat at the bar watching the olympics and chatting with Dylan, the bartender and a lifelong resident of Valdez.  He, like many Alaskans we’d met, taken time off to join the military before settling back home.  He told us about Robert, the new chef they’d woo-ed from up north to come cook.  We had bulgogi (korean food is very popular in Alaska), halibut and salmon.  It was great….then Robert came out of the kitchen with a wad of tissue in one nostril, blocking a bloody nose.  He asked us how our meals were.  “Great,” we replied looking at everything but his nose.  “Do you want dessert?” “Um…no.  We’re done.”

One of the two men sitting next to us, ended his conversation with the other and got up to leave.  Mike, the one left, struck up a conversation with us and very quickly came around to his role on the Discovery Channel hit, The Deadliest Catch. Neither of us watch it, but it seems many folks who come to Alaska do.  He was embarrassed and eager to share that his show nickname is “Paint Chips.”  He is, he told us, fishing royalty – he grandfather and great-grandfather were important members of the small fishing community in Alaska. He told us the many kidnappings in his family and warned us not to kidnap him, though we would do well to do so.   He was drunk and sad and told us about his children and their mothers, who only wanted him for his family reputation.  He urged us to come to his room to hang out and bought our drinks despite our demurring.

I’m going to Start watching the Discovery Channel!

Wish you were here

I’m eating pancakes in a bar and watching the olympics.  In an hour I head out on a glacier kayak trip.  The sea air and mountain air blend to an intoxicating sweetness and the heavily booted fishermen drinking coffee around me are laughingly pessimistic about the possibility of a good catch today.

My mother would love this.  She died eight years ago today and I’m certain that she would be thrilled about my being here, but this is also a trip she wold have loved.  She might not go kayaking with me (god forbid her hair get wet), but no one loved fresh mountain air and rosy cheeks more than her.

Siobhan is already on her boat trip (she wanted a steadier boat than I did), and as I walked back for a second cup of coffee, I realized the date.

I miss you mom.  Thank you for everything. It’s because of you that I can take this trip. I’m so grateful.

The Ghost of Ethel Merman

When we got to the hotel in Copper Center the night before last Siobhan was certain that she heard Ethel Merman singing God Bless America. There was a flag ceremony going on outside our window, but I heard no music and I don’t believe that it was there.  As we know, ghosts only appear to those who believe, and Siobhan believes, but I do not.  So the only explanation is that Ethel’s ghost had taken residency in Alaska.

We had a bit of a lie-in in the morning and then took a quick walk around the grounds.  Fabulous views are becoming ordinary to us, but seeing the Alaskan pipeline wind up a mountain was very cool.

The hotel was up a long winding drive, and as we drove down it to head to Valdez, we came upon a terrible accident.  An RV camper seems to have gone into the back of a tour bus.  The front of the RV was smashed completely and it seemed as if no one could make it out unhurt.  Traffic was backed up in both directions and the shaky asian passengers in the tour bus were making their way into shuttles to head up to the hotel

We turned around and drove back up where we indulged in a large bloody mary and salmon chowder (I resisted explaining to the chef what chowder should be).  We left a few hours later and though both vehicles were still not cleared, we were able to drive through.

We had abandoned our plan to do a side detour to an old mining ghost town, but when we reached the turn-off we couldn’t resist and took the drive.  The high twisting road offered plenty of gorgeous views of the mountains, clouds lifting off them, and more than a few scares for Siobhan (who is afraid of heights).  “NO – it’s slippery” she yelled as I turned on to one steep, gravely embankment.  It wasn’t and we walked a ways down the mountain.  It was great.  After passing Three-Mile Lake, then Two-Mile Lake, and finally One-Mile Lake (really), we arrive in Chitina , population 126.  There was an old bar and an “art gallery” and little else.  The art gallery was for sale, much like one of the bars in Talkeetna, and we weigh the pros and cons of buying it, but left empty handed.

The road to Valdez was peppered with waterfalls (this one was especially amazing!) and foggy mountains.  Visibility was slim and the rivers came up to the road, but we made it in one piece.  Valdez was leveled in an earthquake in the late ’60s, so there is no old town, but the port is lovely.  Wild bunnies overrun Valdez, and were constantly underfoot.  The food options in Alaska are surprisingly disappointing.  Everything is expensive and there hasn’t been good seafood yet.  As we wondered from place to place in search of something that looked good, we stopped into the Totem Inn, which, so the advertisements said, was known for it’s crab legs.  As we walked in, we knew the hotel lobby feel would not work for us, but a waitress with a large feather fascinator on her head approached us.

“You look festive” I said.  “Very festive, ” added Siobhan.  “So, we hear your crab legs are amazing,” I said.  “Yes – tell us about the crab legs, where are they from? Are they really amazing” said Siobhan.
She looked at us both in silence for a minute and then, in a heavy russian accent asked “so…you vant menu?”

Another waiter dressed for Mardi Gras bounced over and told us this was the place to ear.  I asked about another restaurant that had been recommended and he said “no no.  I”ve never eaten anywhere but here.  This is the place to eat!”

We went to the other place.

After dinner we walked the town a bit more and wandered into a bar on the water.  It was full of locals and a few tourists.  Siobhan and I pondered living up to potential and what we do next in our lives.  Other conversations around the bar were about the Olympics, the flint water crisis, and the best guns for camping.



Now we’re talking, Alaska

The thing about Talkeetna and Denali National Park it that you’re there for the mountain.  If you aren’t at the mountain (or fishing I suppose) there’s not much reason to be there.  With my flight to the mountain canceled because of weather (in Alaska you should put “weather permitting” behind any sentence the way you put “in bed” after your fortune), and a long drive ahead of us, we had an early departure from town and headed out in search of adventure and puppies.

After an overlong detour for coffee – service in Alaska is sloooow – we arrived at Dream A Dream Iditarod Kennel.  Vern Halter has competed in more than 20 Iditarods, with his best finish as third place.  His wife is also an experienced musher and vet.  Now in their 70s, they continue to train both dogs and mushers and open their farm to visitors wanting to learn about the race.  He explained the history of the race and the rules and regulations.  He showed us a charming video likely made in the early ’90s and told us about the client he’s training now, Cindy Abbott (click – her story is amazing!) . He talked about her mid-life trip to Everest and her moxie and I thought “I need to meet her! I need to be her!”

Then he brought us out to meet the dogs.  After a walk through the woods with five husky puppies (OMG!) we got in an open jeep.  I was in the front middle seat and Vern commanded “watch that break” as he jumped out and starting harnessing dogs to the jeep.  I could feel them pulling as I pushed hard to keep the car in place.  The dogs barked and howled eagerly in hopes of being selected to pull us.  Once the selected 16 were harnessed we zipped off for an exhilarating drive through woods and mud and puddles.

We picked Vern and Dream a Dream somewhat at random, but he was a charming and funny and I could have stayed there all day.  One of his young assistants was a visitor to the farm 8 years ago when she was a teenager living in Texas.  Vern said to her, finish college and you can come back and work here.  Eight years later she called him and he invited her up. I might do the same in a few years.

From Vern’s we headed over Hatcher Pass.  A gravel mountain pass that winds high into the clouds and over.  It took a couple of white knuckled hours (and one very scary wrong turn that required me to back down the narrow twisty road).  Every moment was frightening and gorgeous.  When we found ourselves back at sea level and paved roads there was a small inn where we stopped for lunch.  The alpine lodge had walls of windows over looking the green mountains and vibrant fire weed covered fields.  Our fondue and beers didn’t live up to the beauty of the place, alas.

On the road again, we were going to head directly to the hotel, but quickly turned off to visit a golf course and then a musk ox farm.  There were baby ox and they were beautiful! they are combed for their soft hair and woven goods where for sale, but we resisted.

A couple hours later we reached our hotel.  I am watching the olympics, Siobhan is reading by the fire and we are happy!












Zen and the Art of Mountain Climbing

I’m leaving Denali Park today without ever seeing the mountain that this whole trip was based around.  Though I wasn’t planning on really going up, I was planning a lot of hiking and a glacier landing and hike nearby.  Weather has not been my friend and the clock has run out (although I may try to grab a flight from Anchorage towards the end of the trip.)

And while I’m trying to be zen about it all, there’s only one thing that can make this better….husky puppies!

Don’t Stop Believing!

11pm daylight is hard to get used to.  We were up late last night and were still asleep at 8:30 when the folks from the Denali Air Taxi called to tell me that my flight to Denali and glacier landing was cancelled due to weather.

Over delicious pancakes (when eggs were brought to the table, the waitress said, oh – sorry, I had the wrong single lady)  we did some quick, and not so quick research and decided to take a train to nowhere.  Literally – it went into the back country, would drop folks off for camping, hunting or fishing, and head back to town.   It was about 7 hours of gorgeous views and entertaining travel mates.  Steven and Jean from Wasilla brought some family who’d come up for a recent wedding.  They also brought champagne (and flutes) and cheese and crackers.  They were chatty and a little drunk and we loved them.  A dad with his three boys did not and he’d try to catch our eyes to roll his whenever possible.

We peered in vain hopes of seeing bears or moose by settled for swans and some other birds.  Our couple of stops had us riverside watching salmon swim upstream and at the “Sherman City Hall” where we met homesteaders (and bought their book, complete with recipes for baloney sandwiches).

While nature whizzed by, we talked about projects we wanted to finish and what the meaning of freedom really is.

Back in Talkeetna, we wandered our puddle ridden path to the Denali Brewery to get a delicious French Roast sandwich, local beer and some olympic viewing.  Our waitress Baldy, for her bald head one presumes, was a UMass Amherst grad who, like so many others we’d met, had come to Alaska for a summer job and never left.  And I could see why.  Talkeetna is a town of young athletes.  As Siobhan said, after two days there’s nothing left to do by drink, gossip and fornicate.  I love it here.

Walking back through the woods, the music that  rose from some unseen campsite could not have set a better tone!   Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.   With that, I go to sleep hopefully that I will have my flight to Denali tomorrow!