Thursday, July 26, 2012

Alaska!

Alaska has long been high of my list of places to go.  So when we saw an opportunity to do it, we jumped, even though Kacey was 6.5 months pregnant.  One thing that helped was I found a way to use reward flights and a reward car.  Also, grandma came in to watch Nolan.  Even though we have taken him on many adventures, and even though he would have liked a couple things on the trip, it just wasn't the best idea to take him on this adventure.  We had a wonderful time, saw a lot of wildlife, and visited places few will ever go.!  And, I couldn't resist putting my one of my favorite pictures right here.
Byron Glacier


Wednesday June 27 - Bakersfield to Fairbanks

What started out as a simple connection in Denver turned in to a transfer to Alaska Air, adding Seattle as another waypoint (with awesome views of Mt. Rainier while landing), and our bag waiting in Denver for 24 hours.  But, we made it to Fairbanks, and got to our hotel, the Regency Fairbanks Hotel, for bed around 2:30am.

Thursday June 28 - Fairbanks to Denali

This morning, we ate "breakfast" at the hotel - a continental with slim pickings.  But, we had a plan to stop by a Safeway on the way out of town to pick up some snacks and lunch for later.  The drive to Denali was a little surreal.  We were tired, driving in a strange place I have wanted to visit for a long time.  The landscape was uniquely different than anything I had seen before; Alaska is the definition of rural.  The rolling mountains go for miles without interruption, and the trees quickly change while driving as they adjust to their varying ecosystems.  The roads are pretty good, and there aren't very many of them.  The speed limit is usually 65 mph, but 55 through some mountains, and 45 through "towns".  There are also usually passing zones in mountains and on long straight-aways.

We reached Healy, a small town about 8 miles north of McKinley Village, and stopped for gas at the Miner's Market and Deli.  They had a sign for deli as well, so we decided to check it out.  It was surprisingly good!  (And they are the cheapest gas around)  They made a fried fish sandwich for Kacey and I got the Denali (the works).  We headed on to the Wilderness Access Center in Denali National Park.

We were supposed to meet our bus tour here, the Tundra Wilderness Tour, and we were early in hopes to sit in the front.  The nice lady there informed us that we were the last pickup location, yuck!  She then proceeded to help us out by telling us the first pickup location, changing our tickets, and getting us on our way quickly.  We rushed to the Grande Denali Hotel and were lucky that only one person was already waiting, so we were second in line!  We ended up with good seats on the bus (i.e. we could take photos out the front window of the bus).  Unfortunately, the bus was having issues so we had to wait at the visitor center and change buses.  But after that, our guide and driver David (with 30 years experience) had us going and was teaching us a lot about Denali. It didn't take long to reach Savage Station (mile 15), the end of the road for most traffic.  And hanging out near the Savage River were a few caribou, our first sign of wildlife.

Our first stop was at the Teklanika River rest stop (mile 30).  It was lightly raining and the sky was overcast, but we still went out for a look at the river.  The views were much nicer on our return journey, though.  Also, as the road is gravel, the windows get dirty quickly so the bus driver (and a few passengers usually) would wipe down the windows at our stops.  Shortly after we started back up, we saw our first of many encounters of Dall sheep.  Throughout the day, they were high up on the mountains, so we relied on the camcorder zoom to view them.  But even more exciting is that a grizzly bear was spotted not too far from the road!  While it was foraging for food in the brush, we were able to spot it a few times through breaks in the trees.

Our next stop was at Polychrome Overlook (mile 46).  The rain had stopped, but the clouds remained.  They were high enough, though, to get a partial glimpse of the Polychrome hills.  There were a few small trails that lead up to the overlook here, so I went on up.  On my walk up, I saw an animal coming toward the group.  At first I thought it was a wolf.  But as it got a little closer, it was obviously a fox.  This guy was pretty fearless and walked around with the tourists for 10 minutes or so. Our next stop was at the Toklat River rest stop (mile 53).  The views were pretty nice here, but again much nicer on our way back home.  There were Dall sheep grazing on the hillside next to us, and I walked out to the river to bask in the beauty of the hillsides.

Just a few minutes after leaving Toklat River, a moose walked right in front of the bus!  As I was in the front, and my Nikon was always in the waiting, I got a few pictures of it; and I think I was the only person to do so.  It was very exciting!  We reached the Stony Hill Overlook (mile 62) and simply turned around without stopping.  I was a little bummed, but we stopped right after the turn around and stopped near a small field of snow.  The sun was starting to peer out of some of the clouds, so at each rest stop on the return, the pictures were much nicer.  The cloud cover was still too thick to see Denali, but we were happy to see the wildlife that we did!

The tour ended around 9:30 at night (even though it was light out, weird), so we asked David where to get some pizza.  He told us Prospector's Pizza was our best bet.  So we stopped in, ordered a pie, and walked around the shops next door.  While most were closed, I was able to stop in at Subway for a Sprite (not sure why I was craving this, I seldom drink these).  We picked up our pizza and took it back to our hotel, getting in around 11pm at night.  If you are in the area, the pizza was pretty good!  We stayed at the Denali Park Hotel, which is not what you might assume; it is not the park hotel.  It is a hotel about 8 miles north of the park in Healy.  It was much cheaper than the places in McKinley Village and if you are looking to save $100/night, then stay up in Healy!  The room was fine for our single night stay and the curtains blacked out the sun pretty well.

Miles driven: 135
Pictures from this day

Friday June 29 - Denali to Anchorage

Today we got up, Kacey got a breakfast sandwich from the Miner's Market, and we headed back in to Denali.  We wanted to check out the Visitor's Center before driving down to Anchorage.  First off I had to get the National Park Passport cancellation stamp and brochures.  Then, we started a short hike down to Hines Creek via the McKinley Station Trail.  The bugs were getting too bad, so after going back for our spray, Kacey decided to hang out in the Visitor Center and watch the video.  The view at Hines Creek was peaceful and on the way back I saw a snowshoe hare!  We bought a postcard for mom and mailed it from the shop (which we still beat home) and got on the road for the long drive to Anchorage.

We read in the 2 tour books we took that Denali State Park had two rest stops with lookouts of McKinley.  While we stopped at both, it was too cloudy for a view of the mountain.  We kept on driving and decided to go straight to the Anchorage Museum so we could spend maybe 2 hours there.  We didn't really decide to go here until we were driving that day, and if you have a couple hours in Anchorage, this isn't a bad place to spend it.  While the contemporary stuff on the top floor was too strange, there is tons of interesting Alaska information and artifacts to be found.  Once we were done, we stopped by the airport to retrieve our bag and drove to our hotel, the Howard Johnson Plaza Anchorage.  Yes, Howard Johnson's apparently do still exist!  I love budget hotels and we found the sign posted at the front desk of this HoJo humorous.  This hotel rated poorly, but it is because people probably weren't expecting a budget hotel.  If you want to stay downtown Anchorage for cheap, then this is your best option.

We decided to walk to Glacier Brewhouse for dinner (recommended by many sites and Mike and Maggie).  The food was good (especially the bread pudding; they ran out and had to make more, so we got it free and warm), and it was tasty to try a few beers they brew.  This is also where we realized that properly prepared, fresh halibut is awesome!

Miles driven: 263
Pictures from this day

Saturday June 30 - Anchorage to Seward

This morning, we woke up and I walked to Starbucks to use up my gift card for breakfast.  We got on the road and decided to stop at a few of our potential stops today.  These were the Alyeska Tramway in Girdwood, Portage Glacier, and Exit Glacier.  This was a lot to do on our way to Seward!  But, it was a fun day and the weather was absolutely beautiful by time we reached Portage and Byron Glaciers.

Just south of Anchorage is Beluga Point.  We saw the sign and decided to stop in hopes of seeing some.  I didn't know the time of year they come through, but apparently we were a couple weeks early.  It was still a nice view point, and some Dall sheep were hanging out on the cliff above us.

Next was the Alyeska Resort in Girdwood.  We wanted to take the Tramway up Mt. Alyeska.  While the weather wasn't super clear, we decided it wasn't too bad and we gave it a shot.  Kacey saw that they had a deal for a discounted lunch combo at the top of the mountain; and since it was almost lunch time we went for it.  Kacey got a crab roll and I got fried halibut.  It was ok and if you are going up the mountain close to lunch time, it is not a bad option.  We watched some paragliders taking off after lunch, played in the snow, and headed back down the mountain.

Our next stop was Portage Glacier.  I stopped by the Visitor Center first to see where exactly we should go.  Portage Glacier is across the lake from the visitor center, but they recommended the hike to Byron Glacier.  So we drove up to the trail head for the simple ~0.8 mile trail.  I sprayed for bugs and Kacey covered up.  The skies were really starting to clear up and the views of the glacier and the creek were absolutely beautiful!  Once we got to the glacier, we just hung out a while and enjoyed the view!  Everything was super blue, except for the bright green hillsides.

Our next stop was Exit Glacier, just north of Seward.  I didn't realize until we pulled up that this was in the National Park System!  (That meant another stamp)  The road to Exit Glacier is the only road within Kenai Fjords National Park.  This glacier also had a short, relatively easy hike.  It is paved almost all the way to a lookout point, and then gets a little more rocky to get close to the glacier (but still not very hard).  Exit Glacier has been rapidly retreating the past 150 years and markers along the trail show it's retreatKacey bundled up once again and I had to spray my hair because the bugs were so bad!  It was another beautiful glacier viewing, and it was time to get to our hotel and find some dinner.

We drove in to Hotel Seward, the only place we would stay 2 nights in a row.  The rooms are small but with the just of us, we did fine.  We unfortunately stayed above the boiler and sweat through the night.  Opening the windows just let light in, and allowed us to listen to the drunken locals all night.  This was about the cheapest option by time we made our reservations.  I think next time, I would try to stay on the north side of town near the marina, not on the south end by the SeaLife Center.

We drove back to the marina area for dinner.  We tried to eat at Chinook's, but were disappointed by the small menu.  So, we walked next door to Ray's Waterfront.  We got seafood linguine and halibut piccata.  Food and view were ok, and the portions were pretty good size.  I was kind of wanting something sweet, so we stopped at one of the last places open, the Wild Iris.  They had fudge and gelato, both made downtown Seward.  Since we were close to the Safeway, we decided to grab a few breakfast items for the morning.

Miles driven: 164
Pictures from this day

Sunday July 1 - Kenai Fjords National Park Boat Tour

Today was all about the boat tour of Kenai Fjords National Park.  We were hoping for good weather, wildlife, glaciers, and delicious food on Fox Island.  We were blessed with all!  We arrived a few minutes early for departure at 10am, and Kacey stopped by the Bakery at the Harbor to supplement her food for the day.  The day started off a little overcast, but the skies cleared up pretty quick, and the sea was very calm all day!

Our first bit of wildlife was some sea otters hanging out in Resurrection Bay.  Very soon after, we saw humpbacks near the shore.  Since the bay was carved by glaciers, the shoreline drops immediately a hundred feet or so, enabling the whales to dive near the coast.  Just as we decided to move on, some Dall porpoises come up along the port and starboard bows and swam with the boat.  They didn't jump up too much, and it was hard to get decent pictures, but I got a few where you can make them out.

As we moved out of the bay and passed Bear Glacier, Orca whales were spotted!  It is rare that this trip gets to see them, so we were excited!  Our captain did not get very close (two other boats were already close), so the pictures were from far away, but still cool!  After watching them for a while, we headed toward Aialik Bay.  We did see another humpback along the way, but he was casually feeding.

In Aialik Bay, we first passed Holgate Glacier.  While this wasn't our big attraction, we didn't really see it for long.  The big attraction was next up, the Aialik Glacier.  The bay around the glacier is beautiful mountains to the west and bright green hillsides to the east.  But straight to our north was the magnificent Aialik Glacier!  We moved in, about a quarter mile from the glacier, and shut down the engines for about 20 minutes.  We just sat and listened to the glacier (and the loud folks out on the deck).  I snapped a few pictures of ice calving, and recorded one video of it.  While the pieces look small due to our distance, they were actually large and created a large booming sound upon impact with the water.  There were a few ocean kayakers near the glacier enjoying the view as well.

On our way back to Seward, we were lucky enough to see another wonder of nature.  A breaching humpback whale!  It was quite awesome (and a little difficult to photograph).  The whale only gave us a show for 10 minutes or so before stopping the fun, at which point we moved on closer to the dock.  Along the way, we spent some time near Barwell Island, watching lots of birds, watching some seals, and watching some puffins.

Our next stop was our salmon and king crab dinner on Fox Island!  (Oh, and the vegetable lasagna was good too).  We had a good time skipping stones and sitting on the beach.  But we boarded the boat for our 45 minute ride back to Seward marina.  There were beautiful views of the mountains along the way, and we had a view of the trail used for Mount Marathon each year.

Back in Seward, we walked around for a few minutes at the marina, stopping at the Harbor Street Creamery for a peanut butter milkshake.  I also picked up a breakfast pastry at the Bakery at the Harbor.  When we got to the hotel, Kacey was craving something sweet, so we walked over to Sweet Darlings for some gelato.

Pictures from this day

Monday July 2 - Seward to Kenai, Whittier, and then Girdwood

We got up and while Kacey was getting some food for the day started not feeling too well.  I just ate my muffin from the night before and was ready for the drive to Kenai (and skip the SeaLife Center).  We didn't really know what to expect on this day, but it was fun to explore.  We stopped at the visitor's center in Kenai and learned about the old town; maybe two blocks of an old Russian Orthodox Church, a sandwich shop (closed on Mondays), and some apartments.  There were also some old buildings which have been re-purposed as little hotels and things like that.  I was mostly excited about the Russian Orthodox Church! After a quick (cloudy) view of Cook Inlet from Erik Hansen Scout Park, we headed toward Soldotna for lunch.

Soldotna is just a little town east of Kenai with more commercial stores and restaurants.  We were recommended to St. Elias Brewing Company for pizza.  The pizzas were pretty good, and so was the beer.  After a quick chat with Nolan on the phone (while we had service), we headed back east, this time taking the Skilak Lake Loop road (on a recommendation from the Kenai visitor center).  This is a gravel road that parallels the highway and swings down by lake Skilak, and we were on the lookout for wildlife.  The drive was nice and we saw a black bear, but the camera didn't quite focus fast enough as he was really on the move.

As we were driving, we were contemplating driving to Whittier.  All we knew is that there is a shared use tunnel from Portage Lake to Whittier, the longest vehicle/railroad tunnel in North America.  Once we picked up a cell signal, I searched online for more information and found the schedule.  It was open eastbound to Whittier vehicles from 4:30-4:45.  It was 4pm and we were about 50 minutes away.  So with Kacey behind the wheel, we got a move on!  The most important part of making up time is using your opportunities to pass trucks and RVs, and she did great as we got to the tunnel at 4:45 exactly!  We were the last car, so it worked out perfectly.  The tunnel is about 3 miles long and takes about 6 minutes to drive.

Once in Whittier, we knew there was a Prince William Sound Museum we wanted to see, and we thought we would have about 30 minutes to view it.  Well, it turns out it is open later than the travel book said, so we had plenty of time, but it was pretty small.  It is a single room in a building that doubles as a convenience store/apartments?  It was hard to tell.  But there was some interesting information about Alaska's role during WWII and the building of the railroad, highlighting Alaska's heroes.

We next drove over to the marina area as there isn't really a town here.  There is a tall building which is apartments, some industrial businesses, a train station, a marina with adventure excursions, and some restaurants and gifts shops near the marina.  This town is mostly a jumping off point for people heading in to or out of the waters of Prince William Sound.  The biggest thing in town is the large parking lot to support people going either way.  We contemplated eating but decided to do it in Girdwood and catch the 6pm exit through the tunnel.

We got to Girdwood, found the Carriage House B&B, and went in to town for dinner.  We decided to eat at Jack Sprat for dinner.  The pan seared halibut and the baked ricotta cavatelli were both very good!  It was too late to make the ice cream shop or the bakery, so we stopped at the Eagle grocery store and bought a small tub of ice cream for dessert.

Miles driven: 253
Pictures from this day

Tuesday July 3 - Girdwood to Palmer, Talkeetna, and then Fairbanks

We got up, ate our breakfast prepared by Rachel, and got on the road toward Fairbanks.  Today was a big driving day, but we also had a few stops planned.  We first headed to Palmer to see a couple sights and eat lunch.  The visitor center there didn't have much to say about the area, but confirmed that we should next drive Hatcher Pass on our way north.  The old town really doesn't have much, but one can walk by a few old buildings.

The Colony Inn serves up some lunch and while we were contemplating getting something to go, a local advised we order food here.  So we ordered 2 sandwiches to go and walked down to the United Protestant Church, otherwise known as the Church of a Thousand Logs.  It was a very unique looking church, both inside and outside.  We grabbed our sandwiches and headed up toward Hatcher Pass.

Hatcher Pass is a mountain pass road known for it's beautiful views, traveling from north of Palmer west to Willow.  It is a gravel road that had just opened up a few days prior and was still lined with snow in some places.  The road was easily passable in our all wheel drive Taurus and while it was a little cloudy, it was very peaceful and beautiful.  We stopped a few times along the way to look around, and once in the middle of the road to take a photograph.  After an hour or so, we reached the Parks Highway and headed north to the road to Talkeetna.

Talkeetna is a town often used as a jumping off point for many adventure excursions to Denali.  This little town draws lots of tourists and has a lot of food options.  Kacey got some food at the Spinach Bread shop.  They were also selling some delicious homemade rhubarb-blueberry cobbler!  We walked in a few shops and Kacey bought a shirt for her little girl.  After a quick walk to the Susitna River, we got on the road for Fairbanks.  But, not before stopping at the Kahiltna Birchworks.  I was hoping for some birch beer, but we just sampled the other treats they had, and Kacey bought some birch caramels.

We stopped once again at the south and north viewpoints for Denali within the Denali State Park.  And to our luck, the mountains were viewable!  After taking pictures for a while, we continued north to McKinley Village just outside of Denali National Park.  We went to the Salmon Bake restaurant for some food.  With a long wait for a table, we went upstairs and waited for a spot at the bar.  We got a salmon sandwich and a buffalo burger.  Not too bad, and their fries were good too.  Kacey heard what sounded like an Indiana accent next to us at the bar, and she was correct.  They were from Shelbyville and Evansville.  On our final drive to Fairbanks, the sunset views were very nice and we stopped frequently to photograph it.  We also saw a moose drinking water right by the road!  We got in around 10:30pm and tried to get some rest.

Miles driven: 445
Pictures from this day

Wednesday July 4 - Fairbanks to Coldfoot and Wiseman

We got up, ate a little "breakfast" and headed up to check out the pipeline.  At Mile 8.4 of the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks, there is an area to view the pipeline.  For two engineers, this was cool!  Mostly, because there was an Alyeska pipeline engineer there and we talked to him for a while.  We headed back to town to check out the visitor center and grab a bite before heading to the airport for our tour.  We didn't have long at the visitor center, but it seemed pretty cool.  We stopped by Alana's Cafe for sandwiches to go on the plane.

We got to the small aircraft airport around noon and started getting briefed about our flight.  Simon was our pilot of the 10 seater plane.  It wasn't too bad, much more comfortable than our flight to Placencia, Belize.  The seatbacks had a map of sites we would be flying over.  The views of the Yukon River, the pipeline, and the mountains were incredible.  It started raining when we were getting close and it was sprinkling as we landed in Coldfoot.

We got in our van for the 15 minute drive north on the Dalton Highway up to Wiseman.  Our driver, Cody, was working up here for the summer (and originally from Indiana).  Wiseman got a bridge around 2000 to be connected to the highway, and about 13 people live here year round.  It is the northern most town in Alaska with year round residents (we were told).

Wiseman was full of bugs!  People live off the grid, but have internet and satellite TV.  They have federal licenses to live off the land.  It was an interesting town and local Jack Reakoff kindly hosted us around town and his house.  We toured the little chapel as well as one of the cabins people can rent (and they sell coffee, tea, and snacks there too).  After walking around a while and using the outhouse one last time, we headed back to Coldfoot for our flight home.  The skies opened up and the views of Gates of the Arctic National Park were awesome!  We were about as close as someone can drive to get to the park, as there are no roads to the park.

After arriving back in Fairbanks, we decided to drive to North Pole.  We figured it wasn't much, but we visited the year round Christmas store (with year round Santa!, who was already gone for the day) and saw the reindeer outside (they looked sad).  We drove back to Fairbanks for dinner at the Pump House.  It was nice!  I got elk meatloaf and a beer sampler, and Kacey got one more serving of pan seared halibut.

Pictures from this day

Conclusion

We couldn't have asked for anything more (except for more time).  We saw wildlife, towns, mountains, museums, glaciers, big skies, the Arctic Circle, and ate some good halibut.  We took over 2200 pictures but only about half are viewable on the website.  I only exposed about 10 of the 120 orca whale pictures, for example.  Our car served us well, but was pretty filthy after a week in Alaska.  Hotels are more than we were used to paying, but we always stay at budget hotels (and even Alaska budget hotels get expensive).  Gas wasn't too much more than California, but someone from the midwest would double-take the price.  We were lucky to have very little rain as it is common for rain in the summer.  Tours are worth the money and get you close to the things you went all the way to Alaska to see.  I am sure we saved money by booking the tours all on our own.  The train is expensive so if you don't mind driving, a car is the cheaper and faster way to travel.  I already know that a second trip to Alaska would include a cruise (which we don't like) of Juneau, Glacier Bay, Homer, and Kodiak.  But, it was an awesome trip, and we were really blessed to have the experience to see so many of God's beautiful creations!

Find all of our pictures here

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Nolan is 4!

Nolan turned 4 last Wednesday.  This was the first time we were in a place where he had some friends that he could have a party (even though younger than this, he wouldn't really get it).  Technically we had a little cake (zucchini bread) with grandma while she was here a couple days before his birthday.  Then, we had another cake and presents on his birthday with just mom and dad.  Then on Saturday, we invited a few of Nolan's friends over for a little low-key party!  We told the kids to bring swim suits and we set up sprinklers in the yard, made some water balloons (but lost many of them to the sun before the party), and got some water toys out.  The kids had lots of fun and Nolan was very excited that his friends came over!  It was a great time with some wonderful friends.  Kacey made some very tasty homemade cupcakes and homemade icing.  We made spaghetti and sauce, salad, and a fruit salad inside a watermelon shark.  It was a tiring yet happy day!

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Nolan turns 4!