Friday, August 23, 2013

Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Last weekend another traveling OT, named Shuling, and I went to Wrangell St. Elias National Park. We stayed in Kennicott. Kennicott was the site of a historic copper mill that is the main feature of the park. It has been standing there through the Alaskan weather and floods for over 100 years. All of the buildings are in some state of disrepair. The operation had two components: the mines where ore was extracted from the mountains, and the mill town where the ore was processed. From 1911 to 1938, nearly $200 million worth of copper was processed. This is a ton of money and even though the operation only lasted only 27 years it made the Kennecott Copper Corporation a huge international company. The mines, where the majority of the empolyees worked, were far up on the mountain side. There were 5 mines: Glacier, Erie, Jumbo, Motherload, and Bonanza mines. The mining conditions had to be absolutely insane. I hope they got paid a lot! They said that the miners would stay all day in the mines in the winter because it was warmer in there then outside. Four of the mines were connected by long tunnels straight through the mountain. Quite a feat.


Erie Mine
When we got into the area we had to park across a foot bridge. We walked our luggage across and a shuttle picked us up on the other side to take us to the Kennicott Lodge. We had to take shuttles from then on, but it was not a big deal since there was only one other place we could go, a little town called McCarthy that was about 15 minutes down a dirt road. Both of these small towns are pretty secluded. The only way to get cars across is a privately owned bridge that costs ~$100 to cross! The people who go over usually plan to stay a while.
The Kennicott Lodge was really cute with all these old ledgers, artifacts and historical documents from the mines lining the walls and decorating the bedrooms. We spent a little time walking around the copper mill and that was that, we had seen the whole town. ;) We decided to head over to McCarthy that evening on the shuttle to go to the Golden Saloon. This was a really nice bar with excellent food! They had a band playing that night who I really enjoyed listening to. The town of McCarthy was no bigger then Kennicott with only one hotel, one bar, a few gift shops and some run down cabins. Everyone in the bar knew each other because they all worked in one of the two towns. I would say 75% of the people were employees and 25% were tourists.

On Sunday, we went hiking on the Root Glacier. It was a cool experience. We got to wear crampons and try to do some scaling of an ice crack. It was harder than it looks. The walls of the ice crack were slick and cold and I was not 100% confident that my crampons would hold me. Once the guide showed me where to step I eventually made it through. Some of the crevasses made by the melting ice were huge and went hundreds of feet deep. It was scary trying to look over the edge and see how far down they went so usually I would just stick my camera out real far and take a shot. I can't say that it worked real well, it was too dark in there.



That evening we headed back to McCarthy to go to a concert that was in a quaint log cabin. We watched Michelle J. Rodriguez who is a singer/songwriter and plays the ukelele. It was kinda quirky music and she just had hand written music with lyrics that she did not always get right. She was not a professional, but because some locals and her had been working together all summer they had good harmonies and multiple instruments which made her songs sound great and it filled up that tiny log cabin with an ambiance that was wonderful.
On Monday morning we did another flightseeing tour and it was just as good as the last one I took only this time it was not over mountains, but glaciers. I was thrilled I got to sit in the co-pilot seat!!


After that we stopped in at the McCarthy Museum and ate at "The Potato" which looked more like a shack then a diner, but what else would you expect from Alaska. I have learned to expect the unexpected.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

video blog of our trip

Sorry it took so long, but it takes about an hour to upload one video here... :) These videos are from the last blog post of the week long trip. My adventures from this weekend are to come later.
Reindeer farm
Surprise Glacier

View from Mt Alyeska of the tram.
Flightseeing: view from afar. McKinley is in the little puff of cloud
Flightseeing: circling. Can see all the way into the interior of Alaska and then the Northface of Mt McKinley

 Flying back, going right through the mountains along the Ruth Glacier:
Bear in Denali
River running through Denali
Cubs playing on the tundra

Friday, August 16, 2013

Land of Inspiration

My parents and Dawn flew out to Alaska to visit me on Friday, August 2nd. The best flights available got them here pretty late and it felt even later to them with the 4 hour time change. We all piled into my apartment that night and just hoped for some restful sleep to begin this adventure!
Saturday, we left early and got a start on the long, but scenic road to Glenallen which then turns west over to Anchorage. This is the same drive that I did a few weeks earlier and I was excited to share the views with my parents and Dawn. It took the whole day just to do the drive especially since we were stopping to take pictures of everything. I am sure everyone else was as happy as I was that we had nothing to do super early the next day.
We woke up leisurely and went to see the Anchorage museum. The best part was the kid's section. :) We spent more time in there than anywhere else in the museum. We played with the bubble maker, the earthquake simulator, the slow motion jump camera, the tidal wave simulation, the heat tracking camera, and the amazing ball maze. Aren't we so cultured? ;-)
Later that day we went to Palmer, AK where we toured a farm where they raised reindeer. During the tour we learned that both female and male reindeer grow antlers which they shed every year. The males lose them by the end of fall (late November) whereas the females will retain them till after they give birth in the spring. So it stands to reason that all of Santa's reindeer had to be female. Now it makes sense why Santa is so efficient and never gets lost.
We also learned that when their antlers are new they have nerve endings and huge blood vessels in them. They can actually feel with their antlers. It can hurt the reindeer to have their antlers touched with too much force so we had to be gentle if we wanted to feel the velvety fur. Eventually, the nerve endings and blood vessels will all die before they shed the antlers, otherwise they would bleed to death.
On the tour we got to feed the reindeer a little cup of food and they all knew it! They came running out of their pen toward us as soon as we walked out. They crowded around us like they had never been fed before, nudging us with their noses, and nibbling at anything they saw. For how sensitive their antlers supposedly were they were not very careful with them. I was dodging and weaving to get out of the way as they ran past me to the people who still had food left after mine was gone. There was an easy trick to get them to leave you alone. Even if you still had food left, you could put the little cup under your arm and hold up your empty hands and they would all walk away thinking you were out of food. It was pretty cute actually. I know we all enjoyed our experience with the reindeer!


On Monday, we made our way south and stopped at the Wildlife Conservation Center which was a quick drive through where you could see bison, black bear, a bald eagle, and supposedly, a lynx, but he was being shy. However, our main goal that day was a glacier cruise out of Whitter. We were heading for Surprise Glacier. We saw many other glaciers along the way and some cool sea life, but Surprise was the best. It was huge and we had to do some of our own ice breaking to get to it. The sound of the ice against the side of the ship was very eery and a little concerning, but we made it. My parents had a Glacier ice Margarita on the way back.

On our way back we spotted some porpoises that were playing in the wake of the ship!
Before getting back to Anchorage we made our final stop for the day at Mt. Alyeska where we rode a tram  up the mountain to make our reservations at the Seven Glaciers restaurant for a fine dining experience surrounded by glaciers and scenic mountains. The food was TO DIE FOR! I had the best salmon bisque with a seasoned scallop and caviar. Oh my goodness! Unfortunately, this soup is not on the permanent menu so I may never have the opportunity to taste it again. I will remember it fondly. :)
 Tuesday morning we ran through the Aviation museum in Anchorage where we played with a flight simulator. Thankfully, our real flight over Mt. McKinley later that day did not end like the flight we tried to land on that simulator. Dave was the very competent pilot with Talkeetna Aero Services that showed us the awe inspiring sights of the Alaska range from the air. He narrated the whole trip for us so we knew all the names of the mountains and glaciers and even little landmarks for climbers or pilots trying to land on the mountains. Since we were flying over the top of Mt. McKinley at 23,000 ft we had to use supplemental oxygen in this little unpressurized plane. This was a first for all of us and it was totally cool! I was so giddy about this flight before hand, and then just in utter amazement afterward at what I had just experienced. If any of you ever come to Alaska this must be on the "to do" list!


The next day we got to see Mt. McKinley from the ground when we took the bus into Denali NP. The wildlife viewings were abundant again and some were much closer this time around with a caribou trotting right in front of the bus for a while and dall sheep walking along the roadside. Dall sheep rarely come down from the highest points on the mountain side so we got very lucky with this rare sighting.


We finished our day with a dinner theater at one of the hotels in the area. The cast were the waiters and the actors, everything was served family style and was all you could eat, but since your server had to get up on stage eventually, you better eat fast! They cleared those dishes like there was no tomorrow and began the show. The show gave a little detail about the life of Fannie Quigley who was one of the first women staking gold mining claims in Alaska, but she became better known for her impressive outdoor skills and her cooking.

On Thursday, our last day in Denali we went for a couple little hikes that were very pleasant and then went on an ATV tour in the afternoon. Since there are no ATVs allowed in most of Denali they have a little loop hole. If you look at a map of Denali NP, on the north east corner there is a little cut out that the government did not protect since it was private land with coal mines on it, so that is where the ATV tours are able to go. Being in this area also held a little significance since it was as close as I will probably ever get to where the true story of the movie "Into the Wild" took place. We were only about 40 miles away from the bus and, in Alaska terms, that's close. Especially since it takes about 3 days and 2 river crossings to hike there.


Finally, we made it back to Fairbanks. Now we were able to relax a bit more. We did a tour of a gold dredge where we learned how to pan for gold, a tour on the Riverboat Discovery, visited Pioneer Park, and made a trip to North Pole, Alaska, which seemed fitting with our reindeer experience earlier in the trip. Other then that, we had a nice evening with local music at a coffee shop, checked out downtown a little,  and hung out on my couch a lot for some solid relaxation.
The Riverboat Discovery has been voted the best boat tour in North America, and I can see why. It is a family owned business and the tradition of captaining the boat has been passed down to the grandson who captained our ship. We passed by some interesting sights and got to explore a replicated historical native village at our one stop, but the best was passing Susan Butcher's house where she used to train her sled dogs before she passed away in 2006, and hearing the story of her life. Now, her husband and family continue the tradition and showed off the dogs skills. Susan won the Iditarod 4 times and ran it 17 times. She was dedicated and so were her dogs. She had one special dog named Granite who was the runt of the litter and who everyone thought should be given away since he would be no good as a sled dog. Susan had a special bond with Granite and in the end he led the sled team to 3 victories in the most famous dog sled race in the world.
From the amazing scenery, the sights and sounds of Alaska from both land and air, to the remarkable stories of the people who make Alaska great, I can only say that this was truly and inspiring trip.