Sunday, June 29, 2008

moose-cellaneous details

So Sal and I are back home in Florida now…..I didn’t have access to WiFi during the last four days of our trip (not even while we waited for our flight out of Fairbanks airport…..what?!?!? an airport with no WiFi ???)… I thought I’d get everyone caught up on the details of our final adventures in Alaska. And I just wanted to say a BIG thanks to everyone for your enthusiasm! {smiles} It was my first time blogging from the road, and I loved having everyone come along with us on our journey. I’ve had so many great responses, everyone wanting to know what we did and what we were doing next. How fun!

Anyway, picking up from where I left off with my previous post……it’s difficult to find the words to describe our second day in Denali National Park, but “unforgettable” is the first one that comes to my mind. Lots of visitors to Alaska allocate only one day of their schedules for the park, and I’ve read that many of them regret it, wishing that they had another day to explore it. So, I made sure to schedule that into our itinerary. So on our second day in Denali, Sal and I set out hiking on a trail to Horseshoe Lake, and before we started out I mentioned to him that I hoped to see a moose (until then, we had seen only one, at a distance). They prefer to wade out into lakes and eat the water plants, so we figured that this particular trail would be ideal. As we arrived at the lake, we caught a fleeting glimpse of a female moose retreating into the woods on the opposite side of the lake. Bummer, we had just missed her! I suggested to Sal that we wait patiently, silently, that maybe she’d come back out, or perhaps other moose would arrive. Moose are very silent, and blend into their surroundings very well, so they’re often difficult to spot. But after about 30 minutes and as I was losing hope, she emerged again, this time with her adorable weeks-old calf! I will never forget that moment, seeing them step out of the treeline and into full view, then wading into the water to feed together. I was in disbelief! .....and it touched my heart.....

As I mentioned in a recent post, wildlife viewing is all about timing and luck, neither of which we have control over, and as a general rule, it’s my understanding that visitors typically see less wildlife than they hope to in Alaska. So this moment was beyond incredible! We stood still and silent, and were able to observe them for at least 15 minutes, until something even more amazing happened…..they decided to wade across the lake and came within only 100 feet of us!

(notice how the calf is trying to keep up with mom in water up to his shoulders! “mommy, wait up!”)

Here we were, watching these incredible creatures in their natural habitat, up-close. Not at a zoo, not at a theme park. It was almost unreal. And moose cows are ultra-protective of their calves, of course, so it was amazing that while aware of our presence, she didn’t seem disturbed by it. That evening I found a perfect moose T-shirt in the park's gift shop, and I wore it home on the plane. I have fallen in love with moose! And did you know that they’re vegetarian? (just like me!)

Our extended stay in Denali also gave us time to enjoy some of the park programs, including a Ranger presentation about wolves in Denali NP. Really interesting, except learning that wolves hunt moose {frown}. Then it was off to Fairbanks, again by train on the Alaska Railroad. And we were treated to lots of moose sightings during the ride!

In Fairbanks, we stayed at the Aurora Express B&B. It’s actually a set of restored Alaska Railroad cars, tracks and all, that have been converted into guestrooms…..a neat concept….and it’s perched on a hill overlooking Fairbanks, beautiful view. And we had breakfast in the “dining car”.

Frankly, I wasn’t wild about Fairbanks, it seemed a bit ordinary compared to other places in Alaska. Not everything has that “wow factor” in travel, and I’ve learned to be OK with that. But it gave us the chance to spend our final full day in Alaska on an Arctic Circle drive tour, which launched from Fairbanks, and it was thrilling! So Sal and I have crossed the Arctic Circle, and we have Official Certificates to prove it {wink}. The tour company had a fun welcoming “ceremony” when we arrived, rolling out a red carpet with a dashed line on it, and passing out pieces of cake to celebrate. Cute!

To get to the Circle on land, you have to drive on the rugged Dalton Highway. It’s a long ride from Fairbanks (15 hours round-trip!) through 200 miles of remote Alaska, and most of the road is unpaved gravel, but the journey sure was fun. The road parallels the alignment of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, and we stopped to see it up-close and learn more about it. Here are some random pipeline specs:

it’s 800 miles long, traversing the entire state north-to-south from near the Arctic Ocean to Valdez in Prince William took 3 years in the 1970s, in harsh Arctic conditions (an engineering feat!).....oil travels through the pipeline at temps over 120 degrees F.....the pipe is 48-inches in diameter with 1/2-inch thick has transported 15 billion barrels of oil since its completion.....radiator fins on the vertical members help cool the permafrost supporting the pipeline, since the soil would otherwise melt due to heat conduction from the oil.....“bumpers” allow for lateral movement of the pipe due to vibrations from earthquakes, avalanches, etc......accounts for 25% of US annual oil production.....the pipeline is elevated to allow for migration of caribou herds.....

During the drive, we stopped for lunch along the Yukon River at a former camp used by pipeline construction crews back in the 70s. Another stop was to learn about the tundra landscape, and we used a shovel to dig into the permafrost to feel firsthand how the soil gets colder and colder with every inch of depth. Within the upper foot of tundra, ice crystals are visible within the soil. The earth is frozen below that, hard as a rock. The tundra is spongy and “springy” to walk on, reminding me of the peat bogs that we walked on in Ireland last summer. As a geotechnical engineer, I love soil stuff, so this part of the tour was very interesting to me.

Crossing the Arctic Circle was our final adventure in Alaska. But one other thing that I wanted to mention, something that we saw everywhere in Alaska…….the trees, the forests. Millions of them, and they’re gorgeous…..Sitka Spruce, Black Spruce, Aspen, Birch, Willow. Palm trees are (still) my favorite, but those majestic trees had me in awe.

We said good-bye to the Land of the Midnight Sun on Wednesday, and took a (long) overnight flight back to Florida. I’ll savor the experiences, sights, and memories from our Alaska visit forever. I will miss the moose, the trees, the 22 hours of daylight. This trip was how Sal and I decided to celebrate that we both turn 40 this year, and what a gift it was……happy birthday, sweetheart! So glad that we could discover Alaska together!

Now, we’re home, and it’s back to reality (and temps in the 90s). And as much as I love to travel, I’m so glad to be re-united with Buddy & Aruba, I missed them SO much! But I know that they had tons of fun with Grandma & Grandpa while we were gone.

Gotta get started sorting through (and scrapbooking!) the 1,100+ photos that we took in Alaska.

Have a great week.....

Monday, June 23, 2008

a "beary" nice day in Denali !!!

So, any guesses about where we are now, based on my hint from Saturday??? We took the Alaska Railroad north from Anchorage to Denali National Park and Preserve.....and the hint referred to the fact that we explored deep into the park, all the way to Wonder Lake. Aha!

But before I get into the details of our first day in Denali, I'd love to share the details of our ride on the rails. The railway is a great option when traveling in central Alaska, you get a scenic journey and the fun/novelty of a train ride.
We opted (i.e., splurged) and went for first-class so that we'd have seats in the upper deck of a domed, all-window car. And it was so worth it!

Also included was access to an open-air platform at the back of our car, where you can step outside and take great (unobstructed) photos and feel the crisp mountain air blowing on your face.

And a bit of serendipity......Sal and I happened to be sitting near a couple speaking Italian, so we introduced ourselves and Sal enjoyed chatting with them in Italian during our ride. I joined in with my limited didn't occur to me that perhaps I should brush-up on my Italian before leaving for Alaska!

While here in Denali, we're staying at Denali Crow's Nest in an adorable little cabin; it's comfy but not plush. But it has everything we need (even WiFi !!!) and is close to the park. We have a little "porch" and a nice view of mountains and forest.

Our first day in Denali Park was absolutely spectacular, I can hardly describe it! I think the best word is LUCKY. Let me explain. The park doesn't allow visitors to explore the park by car, to protect the park and its wildlife residents. Instead, you can hike or take one of the park's green shuttle buses, which are actually converted school buses, along the park's one unpaved's an attempt to keep the park and preserve pristine. We chose to take it 86 miles into the park, the furthest route (all the way to Wonder Lake), so that we'd have the most opportunity to view wildlife and take in the scenery. That was a great idea.....except that Sal and I have been fighting colds for the past week (we think the 40-degree temp difference between Florida and Alaska got to us), and we were quite exhausted to get up at 5:00 AM to catch our 11-hour park shuttle bus tour. But we were determined not to miss our park tour, so we downed some Nyquil, got some sleep, and despite our colds and fatigue, we got up early and did it.....and oh boy were we rewarded !!! I can hardly describe the sheer luck that we had in seeing wildlife throughout the park. Keep in mind that sometimes wildlife is hardly visible in Denali, it's completely a matter of luck and timing. But we saw a total of 10 (yes, ten!) grizzly bears! Even our bus driver was amazed. And 2 of them came very near our bus......we first spotted them at a distance, munching on grass or berries, and as we all sat staring at them from the bus, silently waiting, they sauntered over and walked behind our was incredible!

We also saw moose, foxes, rabbits, caribou, owl, and dall sheep.....most of which were too distant to photograph, or scampered off too quickly.

We were also lucky to get a view of 2/3 of Mt. McKinley, which is within the park and is 20,000+ feet high. Again, our bus driver was amazed because she said that only about 30% of park visitors get any glimpse of it at all, it's typically shrouded in clouds. That's it between my and Sal's heads:

Saturday was also a special day here since it was the summer solstice. There were about 22.5 hours of daylight here, with darkness starting around 2:30 AM and the sun rising again by 4:00 AM. Different! And the darkness is not the complete black that I'm accustomed to, the sky still seems to be slightly lit here during the "night". We're certainly in the Land of the Midnight Sun!

Our second day in Denali Park was spent hiking and checking out the amazing park Visitor Center. We had an experience during our hike that I will NEVER forget, but I'm getting sleepy now, and will have to sort through our more than 1,000 Alaska photos (!!!) in order to compile a blog post about it. I'll be back here soon to share that experience with you, but here's a hint: it was as if we were on the set of a nature documentary about the largest species in the deer family.

On Monday, we're departing Denali and heading even further north to Fairbanks, again by train. While there, we're taking a tour to a unique place, here's a hint: it's "invisible", it's in a cold place, and it's the parallel of latitude that runs 66° 33′ 39″ north of the Equator.

We're heading home on Wednesday, but I hope to have a WiFi connection between now and then so that I can post to my blog again before we leave. If not, I'll catch you back here later in the week! Bye for now!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I'm wild about wildlife!

I'm here in a remote part of Alaska and I have a WiFi connection, I'm loving this! It's Friday night....nearly midnight and it's still so incredibly light outside! It won't get dark until probably 2:00 AM here! How cool, the days are long and I feel more energetic.

We flew from Juneau to Anchorage on Tuesday (even that was a spectacular view):

and rented a car and drove south for 2 hours to Seward via the incredibly scenic Seward Highway, a US National Scenic Byway on the Kenai Peninsula in south-central Alaska:

We visited Kenai Fjords National Park, both by boat tour and then a land hike to see Exit Glacier, up-close (brrrr.....):

The boat tour through Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska was thrilling, wow, we saw so much wildlife! Sea otters, humpback whales, orcas, steller sea lions, puffins......just too awesome! It was so cold out on deck, but I was out there snapping photos anyway even as I turned into a human popsicle.....I didn't care, it was so worth it.


The orcas were a real treat; the pod was especially playful and inquisitive....they came right up to, and swam under, our boat!

And the boat tour company participates in the Denali Green Tags program, which gave us the opportunity to offset the carbon footprint left by our boat trip and support renewable energy. So, we toured green!

Seward is also home to the 2004 champion of the Ididarod race, and he has opened his facility for tours and to meet the dogs. Of course, we just had to go! For the "summer version" of a dogsled ride, they hook up a dog team to a wheeled cart for an "Ididaride".....and you really get a feel for the power of the dogs. Wow, they sure do love to run!

Then came the really fun part: you get to pet the dogs and play with some of the up-and-coming champions.....the puppies! So adorable, as you can imagine.....and they made us miss Buddy & Aruba even more!

the pup I'm holding has one blue eye, one brown eye:

and this pup sure wanted to give me a kiss:

Afterwards, they gave a demonstration of the arctic gear that the mushers and the dogs wear (including paw booties) out on the 1,000 mile Ididarod trail every March. Most races last 9 days or so, at temps as low as 60 degrees F below zero. Brutal!

We left the quaint town of Seward after a couple of days and returned to Anchorage for one night. From there, we headed north on the Alaska Railroad for an amazing ride to our next destination.....I'll leave it as a surprise until I blog about it soon. Hint: in the interim, I'll let you "wonder" where we are.....

P.S. ~ The trash cans and recycling bins in Alaska are all designed to be "bear-proof":

I love knowing that you're joining us on our Alaskan journey, and I'll meet you back here soon! Enjoy the weekend.....

Thursday, June 19, 2008

oh, what fun in Juneau!

Sal and I arrived in beautiful Juneau on Friday afternoon. Our ferry ride up from Ketchikan was great....we were able to catch some ZZZZ's in our cabin and then watched humpback whales during breakfast on the ship. It doesn't get any better! In Alaska, you don't just travel from Point A to Point B....getting where you're going is half the enjoyment!

We spent the weekend visiting with Sal's cousin, John, who lives in Douglas, just across the Gastineau Channel from Juneau. What an amazing time we had together! On Saturday, we went about 10 miles outside Juneau and hiked a 3.5-mile trail that follows the Mendenhall Glacier trim line through rainforest and waterfalls. The air was refreshingly crisp, and we enjoyed incredible views along the way:
My fellow scrapbookers will appreciate this --- there's a scrapbook shop, The Creating Place, in downtown Juneau, and John and Sal were kind enough to grab a coffee and wait while I browsed. I chatted with an employee there who recently moved to Juneau, but had grown up in Florida, within a few miles of where I did.....small world, huh?

On Sunday, the 3 of us went glacier trekking. In a was AWESOME! A true once-in-a-lifetime experience. Quintessential Alaska! We met our outfitter and pilot at a helipad where we geared up and then boarded a helicopter to Mendenhall Glacier.

It was the first time that Sal and I ever rode in a helicopter, so neat. I loved the way the helicopter lifted off, at an angle, leaning forward….it’s a cool sensation. And yes, then we landed on the glacier!

There, we met up with our trekking guide who fitted us with crampons, which are metal, sharp points that are attached to your boots and allow you to grip the ice as you hike (see photo, left). Being up on top of the glacier, seeing that unique landscape, and hiking on the ice were experiences unlike any other! Unforgettable....

Some of the melted ice formed beautiful blue pools and streams, where we collected and drank some of the pure, refreshing glacial water. The contrast between the turquoise blue water and the bright white ice is so gorgeous!
To get an even better idea of our glacier trekking adventure, here's a brief video clip filmed by the tour company. Way cool !!!

On Monday, the fun continued when Sal and I took an all-day boat tour of Tracy Arm. It's a gorgeous fjord that's about 50 miles south of Juneau. At every turn, not unlike most of Alaska, we saw one breathtaking view after another…..sheer granite cliffs, snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, icebergs, glaciers and wildlife (there's a bald eagle sitting on the upper left corner of this iceberg):

And at this time of year, the resident harbor seals are giving birth, so we were also treated to seeing some seal pups resting on icebergs with their mothers. Loved that !!!
(Note the green hue of the water in the fjord; it’s caused by glacial silt in suspension, filtering the light.) The highlight of the tour was how they pulled the boat close to the “Windex blue” face of Sawyer Glacier (within only about 1,200 feet).

We just lingered there for an hour, enjoying lunch and the incredible view (and the chill in the air!). We even saw (and heard) some calving activity (chunks of ice falling from the glacier face)….it really does sound like thunder.

When we returned to Juneau that evening, we caught up with John after his day at the office (he’s an attorney for NOAA). He joined us for a ride on Juneau’s famous Mount Roberts Tramway. The weather was still clear and sunny, so we had amazing views from the summit. A perfect end to a perfect day! Except that after dinner we had to bid a sad farewell to John, who was such a gracious host during our stay. We'll miss you, John, and will look for you in Florida sometime! Thanks again!

We caught an early AM flight out of Juneau on Tuesday and we're now staying in a cozy cabin, at Bear Creek Cabins, in Seward (south-central Alaska). We have some fun stuff planned here during the next couple of days. I'll blog about the Seward leg of our trip soon, as our cabin’s spotty WiFi connection permits.

Thanks for coming along with us on our journey…..I’ll catch you later in the week!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

a quickie post.....

Hi everyone! Sal and I are just about to depart from Juneau after a fun weekend here in this beautiful city. And what a great time we had visiting with Sal's cousin, John! We've been so busy, in fact, that I haven't had a chance to catch up on my blog......and tonight I've gotta get to sleep because we need to catch a very early AM flight to Anchorage. So, I'll be posting details and photos of our cool activities in Juneau as soon as we get settled in our next town, which is Seward, and hopefully we'll have good Internet connectivity there. In the interim, you can take a look at the B & B that we stayed in while in Juneau, the Alaska Wolf Lodge (we were in the Mt. Juneau Suite).

See you back here soon! Thanks for stopping by.....

Thursday, June 12, 2008

heading north to Juneau.....

Today we're bidding farewell to Ketchikan and heading north to Juneau. The weather has gone back to the typical rain and fog that Ketchikan is known for, so we appreciate all the more the sunny and gorgeous weather we had for the past 2 days.

Yesterday, we explored Ketchikan on foot, walking the quaint and artsy downtown area. We also visited the Totem Heritage Center, which has the largest collection of original totem poles in the US.....pretty impressive! Here are some of them:

Today we'll be boarding a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway System; our vessel will be the Taku (shown left). It's a 23-hour trip, so we've booked an overnight cabin. As we go north through the Inside Passage, we'll make brief stops in Wrangell and Petersburg before arriving in Juneau on Friday afternoon. The Alaska ferries are a great (and scenic!) way to get from Point A to Point B in the southeastern part of the state, which has few, if any, roads in most areas.

Here's a route map for reference (I love looking at maps):

We'll be visiting with Sal's cousin, John, throughout the weekend. How cool is it that he lives in Juneau? And we all have a really exciting and adventurous activity planned for Sunday, so stay tuned for details!

Unfortunately, Sal has caught a cold, so I hope he feels better soon and can enjoy all of this! :-(

Thanks for stopping by, and I'll meet you back here soon!

Aruba's heading to the polls

Oh, how we miss our dogs SO much! This happens every time we travel.....I get so lonely for them. But, I know that they're having fun. My parents are always so kind to have their "granddogs" stay with them while we're gone. So, Buddy & Aruba are having a vacation with "Grandma & Grandpa".

And my Mom has expanded Aruba's already extensive wardrobe of bandanas. I brought over some fun fabric, and she sewed some blue trim onto it with red thread. How patriotic! (In case the fabric print isn't too visible in the photo of our camera-shy Aruba, it's a collage of the word "Democrat" and some little donkeys.) So, now you know Aruba's political leanings.....I honestly don't know where she gets it from?!?!? {wink}

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

soaring like an eagle....

Hi everyone! Sal and I had a terrific first day in Ketchikan yesterday! The weather was absolutely perfect.....very sunny (that's kind of rare, since it rains a lot here) with a mild temp around 55 degrees F. (Apparently that is considered "summer" by Alaskans.....our B&B host asked us if we'd like a FAN for our room because it's getting warm! We kindly explained that we're from Florida and, well, it's not hot to us.....wink)

But it certainly was perfect weather for our first-ever floatplane ride! It was exhilarating! The tour took us to the nearby Misty Fjords National Monument, a gorgeous and remote area of southeast Alaska. The scenery is pure geology.....3,000+ feet high sheer granite cliffs, loved it! Our pilot, Michelle, was excellent and narrated through our headsets during the flight. She also piped in dreamy music to them, which enhanced the experience so much. (and I got to hold Michelle's puppy, too!)

Not only did we fly over and through the gorgeous fjords, but we landed in the water (so cool!) among them and then got out on shore to walk around and take in the stunning scenery and fresh air. As you descend, you get a sense of the scale of everything around you....the cliffs get bigger as you shrink to what feels like a speck.

The lakes at higher elevations are thawing, some creating dramatic waterfalls:

(Notice our plane's shadow in the lower right corner, above)

For the ride back, Sal sat up front with Michelle as her "co-pilot". And almost as an added bonus, as we were getting ready to take-off from our stopover, we spotted a mother bear and her 2 cubs (wow!) and were able to watch them for a few minutes before they scampered off into the woods. We also saw several bald eagles....their distinctive white heads make them easy to spot. So majestic....what a remarkable introduction to Alaska!

Thanks for continuing on our journey with us. See you back here again soon!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

hello from Alaska!

We're Ketchikan! It's one of the southern-most towns in Alaska. We arrived on Monday night after a very smooth trip up from Florida. No delays, no missed connections, no lost luggage. Fabulous!

We have only been here a matter of hours, but I can already appreciate the beauty of Alaska. So grand! We had a great night's sleep here in our cozy place, the Eagle Heights B & B (we're staying in the Bear Room).

Today we're off to a wonderful activity that I'll leave as a surprise until I can blog about it, complete with photos. So check back on Tuesday night or Wednesday and follow along with me and Sal on our Alaskan journey!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

blogging --- an excuse not to pack?

Hi everyone ~ what a whirlwind week, so busy! I hope you're enjoying the weekend.

Today was a big day for Hillary Clinton, for Democrats & for women. A huge crowd gathered in DC to celebrate her, and to hear her speech in which she officially suspended her campaign and endorsed Barack Obama. (I joked with Sal that she should have shocked everyone and worn a skirt instead of one of her trademark pantsuits.) Although I was sad to see her exciting and historic campaign come to an end, I am hopeful that she has inspired others to aim to be, or least to envision, a woman in the Oval Office. Somehow I can't bring myself to delete the "Women For Hillary" link from my blog's sidebar just yet.....

Sal and I are busy getting everything together for our trip to Alaska. Wow, we're so excited !!! But I don't enjoy packing. That's odd for someone who loves to travel, right? I guess it's because it means doing laundry, getting organized, and the like....not my fortes. So, the next time you hear from me here it'll be from Alaska. I'll meet you back here soon!

(Sal just told me that my My Big Fat Greek Wedding is on TV....we love that movie! Just what I needed, another excuse to postpone packing!)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Rennie did not make it

As a follow-up to my May 21 post, I'm so sad to update you that Rennie did not survive the alligator attack. I was absolutely stunned to read the animal shelter's update this morning, it seemed that she was pulling through until recently. But she succumbed to a systemic infection and died yesterday.

The shelter worked tirelessly to save her, and I've contacted them to thank them for all that they do for animals......they do it all with love and a shoestring budget.

God bless you, Rennie. {sadness}