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Quote of the Day

Peanut, "Wow, mom, now we can say we've been to all 50 states! What are we gonna do next?"

27 June 2008

A Whale Soiree in Resurrection Bay

After a leisurely morning, we went back to town for our 5-hour Resurrection Bay Cruise. It was either this tour, or just Tomcat and I kayaking in the bay that evening, and Tomcat thought it would be better for all of us to do something together. I didn’t exactly see it that way, but this trip wasn’t about me so I canceled the prearranged kayak trip, and proceeded to board the boat.

The trip ended up being quite remarkable. We stopped at Fox Island for a salmon barbecue and the ranger held a little ceremony for the kids; they successfully earned another Junior Ranger Badge for Kenai Fjords National Park! Some people stayed the night at the lodge on Fox Island, but after about an hour on the beautiful rocky beach, we got back on the boat to see what we could see, to see what we could see…

Have you ever heard of a Ghost Forest? During the 1964 earthquake, the ground dropped so far below sea level that the trees sucked up a bunch of sea water, which killed them. After the quake and subsequent tsunamis, the earth popped back up with all the trees preserved, dead. So you see these gray forests up and down the coasts. Cool!

We ended up having a full-on whale party. There were more humpback whales than we could count. We’d hang over the rail on the left side and then rush over and hang over the rails on the right side. It was so wonderful for the kids – it’s hard to see a whale spray followed by a deep dive in the distance – but it’s easy to spot a breach, especially when it’s right next to the boat! The mighty whales seem to go in slow motion during a full breach.

We were charmed with multiple whales doing repeated full breaches and delivering encores all around the boat. It was indescribable. I’d say to Doodle, “Keep watching because pretty soon it’s going to ask you for a High Five” and then it’d stick its flipper in the air cooperating perfectly. Truly an extraordinary sight!

We also passed through a cove surrounded by monumental cliffs where an outpouring of gulls clouded our view. There must have been thousands of birds at this rookery. We were close enough to see them nesting in the cracks of the rock and hanging out inside caves! Little Man complained the entire time about the smell -- we had to distract him with focusing on specific birds. Tufted puffins win the prize for being the cutest birds in the air and the water -- hilarious little boogers.

26 June 2008

Exit Glacier Hike

The other part of our tour stopped at a creek so we could watch salmon swimming upstream. The natives can scoop up to 50 lbs. a day for subsistence – a whole different perspective on fishing!

There are so many glaciers around here, but the closest one is Exit Glacier and it’s just up the road. You can actually hike to the face of it, but it’s too wet at the bottom to actually touch it. When the water melts underneath, the enormous glacier can slide on it like a raft, which is how it moves. A glacier in Glacier Bay moves 7 feet a day. Imagine? Walking around, you’ll notice these gigantic boulders that are completely out of place. It would take a forklift to move them. Well, apparently, these are called erratic rocks and the glaciers literally drop them randomly as they move along their path! It’s shocking how much debris gets deposited from these glaciers annually. There are construction workers moving the stuff to their sites to build with and then next year they just start all over again!

Have I mentioned that we’re collecting dirt from each state? I have these little bottles we carry with us. It’s pretty interesting how different our 9 bottles look. Obviously, each state hosts a myriad of dirt samples. I’m not trying to be scientifically accurate or anything. I guess you could say I’m kind of after “famous dirt”. So, in Arizona we wanted the reddest dirt possible. In Alaska we opted for glacial silt. It’s all over the place. Even the sand pit at the playground is full of it.

25 June 2008

Playing with Puppies

Today was so much fun! We love this place. We actually took a tour today called the Real Alaska Tour. I was apprehensive because it was 5 hours long and involved sitting on a bus, but it turned out great.

It started with more dogs of the Seavey Family! We got to play with 2 litters of puppies and visit all the dogs in training. Apparently, Malamutes and AKC Huskies are bred for their looks, especially the ones you see in the movies. (We got to meet a handful of movie star pups!) Alaska sled-dog huskies, however, look nothing like these other dogs. They’re scrawny looking at about 50 lbs., with unrecognizable markings and they’re bred to "happily run long distances."

When puppies are just 6 months old they’ll pull instinctively if you put a harness on them. By age 3 they can run 150 miles a day in an Idatirod race. (The total race is 1,049 miles.) They run best in temperatures below zero so they often go in the middle of the night, watching the Northern Lights appear overhead. Apparently, the Aurora Borealis can get the dogs running as fast as a moose on the trail can.

We got to go for a ride, too! In the summer training they use carts and it was exhilarating. The dogs freak out, “Pick me! Pick me!” Our lead dog was Spot, who had finished the Iditarod a few years ago -- in fact, he may have been on the Mitch Seavey's winning team in 2004. I can't keep them all straight. He's the lighter colored lead dog in the picture. His job was to help out the other lead dog in training -- it was his first time leading. We were prepared for possible antics and sure enough, Dan Seavey (brother to Dallas from the sled-dog rodeo in Anchorage) had to stop the team over and over as he'd stop to pee in the bushes or sniff out a critter, the other dogs happily following his lead. They were also still learning commands so they didn’t quite have their directions straightened out (gee is right, haw is left) and Dan would yell, “Your other HAW!” It was funny as hell. After the first couple of rests, he let Peanut shout, “Alrighty Spot!” and off we’d go.

Seward, AK

The 127 mile Seward Hwy. must be one of the most beautiful stretches of highway in the U.S. – even on a rainy day like ours. Minutes out of Anchorage, we were all in a great mood enjoying the views of Cook Inlet. The road runs right along the coast above the train tracks, which look like they’d be covered with water at high tide. Note to self: take the train from Anchorage to Seward at some point.

Tomcat is a master back-seat driver, which is why we make sure he’s in the driver seat as much as possible. This road was so picturesque, I was imagining that we were on the autobahn in one of those cool BMW commercials. Then I took stock behind me: a filthy minivan loaded with kids going the speed limit with the Ballad of Wild Bear on the stereo. Not exactly the image BMW is going for…

Seward is just outside Kenai Fjords National Park, about 2 hours south of Anchorage and it feels like a blessed new world.

The sky cleared as we entered town and we immediately saw a ton of people riding bikes in the sunshine, kids playing at the fancy new playground, and murals on many of the buildings. A vibrant little town surrounded by enormous lush mountains loaded with cirque glaciers (little bowls of creamy ice-cream around the tops of the mountains). Driving around we saw a teenager showing off his new foot jumping things for a few girls, and he was happy to perform for us, too. I took pictures of him as the kids whooped and hollered egging him on.

A quick walking tour through town showed us some old houses, multiple churches and a museum loaded with earthquake pictures, Alaska Railway and Iditarod memorabilia and other cool stuff. Doodle had a meltdown when we wouldn’t let her in the 1920's bedroom display to play with the dolls in the buggy. The two of us spent the rest of the visit out on the bench.

We stayed at the Windsong Lodge, a beautiful place just outside of town, and anxiously awaited a moose that never showed up.

Anchored Down in Anchorage

Our air miles have surpassed our land miles! Anchorage is Alaska’s biggest city with something like 250,000 people; Fairbanks is ½ the size and Juneau is 1/3 the size. We expected something special – a nice waterfront, interesting historic district, some sort of groovy Alaska fashion.

Well, the waterfront consists of a train track and a lookout point where on a clear day you can see all of Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm (which has a 35’ tide!), Mt. McKinley and the Sleeping Lady. It’s interesting for about 10 minutes. The historic buildings mostly fell into the sea during the nasty earthquake* in 1964; interesting architecture clearly hasn’t been a priority. And even though we’re freezing, it’s technically summer here, and most people are decked out in flips.

*About that earthquake: It was the worst earthquake in the history of North America. It registered 9.2 on the Richter scale. Wow, huh?

We all tried to like Anchorage, but it was such a boring city. We’re used to the rainy Pacific Northwest and let me tell you, when the sun comes out there’s an energy that can’t be beat. Everyone is illuminated. Everyone is outside. Everyone is gardening and talking to their neighbors. The sunny buzz is infectious.

Here, the sun was out, but everyone still seemed droopy. Drivers actually honk as if we were in some bustling metropolis! There was no color, literally or figuratively. Anchorage is like any town U.S.A. in 1970’s suburbia – a bowling alley, miniature golf, plenty of Denny’s style restaurants and a church on every corner. Apparently, church is the first stop for new residents. Even those you’d least suspect are regular church goers. We were told when there’s an emergency up here, you rely on your community and that’s what church is for the people here – their community.

And we had fun at the Bear & Raven Theater – a little place with an excellent movie on the Iditarod and how it got started. It also had fun effects for the kids, like snow falling on you, and the Aurora Borealis appearing on the ceiling. The best stop we made, was the Seavey Family Iditarod Rodeo. Besides being allowed to play with the puppies, we all learned so much about Alaska’s huskies and their commitment to the dog-sled races. If you have an Iditarod belt buckle (meaning you finished the race), you receive immediate respect and it’s pretty easy to get a girlfriend/boyfriend.

Food in Anchorage was good. Breakfast at the Snow City Café was incredible and dinner at Orso Ristorante was funky and delicious. Copper River Salmon is running for another couple of days so it was my #1 must-have. Our server (from Florida!) told us she loves it here. Her husband is from Fairbanks and she said the people here are somehow naïve and very trusting. I liked that and tried to see it. Unfortunately, the expression I’d learned a long time ago about Alaska men kept running through my mind: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

One of my favorite Michelle Shocked songs kept running through my head, but even that didn’t help. Suffice it to say that being Anchored Down in Anchorage pretty much sucks.

Cruising in Glacier Bay (downstairs version)

You may have noticed from the pictures that my hair is 10 inches shorter than it was in the Southwest. One might conclude that I pulled it all out on the 9-hour cruise up the West Arm of Glacier Bay. Well, it wasn’t that bad, but let's just say CurlyTop had a very different experience aboard the 9-hour cruise than Tomcat.

Doodle is too little to see any wildlife. Occasionally, she saw an otter as it went floating by the boat but that was about it. Can you say bored? Can you say restless?

Finally, Grandma and I let her climb on the benches in her sock feet and hold onto the poles so she could swing, hang, climb, whatever. She wasn’t disturbing anyone – in fact, most people were impressed with her strength and agility. Moreover they understood our predicament and didn't seem to fault us. This was the ONLY way to keep her from running all over the boat, inside and out, upstairs and down.

Peanut and Little Man were also trying to earn their Junior Ranger Badges. Peanut was pretty focused, but wanted me to see every little thing she did in her work book. Little Man was all over the place -- upstairs with Italian Nicolas one minute and back downstairs with his new mate, Jack, from California the next. I could barely keep track of him! Then he'd sit for 2 minutes, needing me to help him with his workbook! It was moments like this that D
oodle would slip from view and Grandma or I would dash about like crazed lunatics. Sure enough we'd discover her calmly climbing and/or hanging by the rails out on the deck oblivious to the imminent death awaiting her in the glacial sea below her.

I kept imagining the Lions Mane Jellyfish that lives down there in the 1400-foot deep glacier water, with its 6-foot wide jelly head and 30 feet long tentacles. Or, the Orca pods out in the shallower water. Can you say mommy nightmare? All the while, Tomcat was upstairs, behind the lens of his new kick-ass camera, catching every wildlife sighting available.

It was an impeccable day for critters – we saw nearly everything there was to see – even wolves! We missed black bear and moose and the whale sightings were few and at quite a distance. Still, we did see them! So every now and then Tomcat would venture downstairs with a face full of awe, kind of shake his head at me, and manage to bark a few orders, “Doodle! Get your feet off of that RIGHT NOW! Let go of that pole!” Then I’d jump in with defenses and he’d look at me in horror at the parent I'd become, “What are you thinking?” S U R V I V A L. He couldn’t possibly understand what I was going through below deck with our little ducklings and their cooped up energy. Thankfully, everyone else got it and gave me a lot of leeway.

Realizing how little I was seeing of the wildlife, he, at one point, felt a twinge of guilt. Then he quickly remembered that I’d done this same cruise a handful of times and had seen it all before. This is a very valid point indeed. Also, I truly wanted he and Grandma to see the best of Alaska. I was thrilled that the weather and animals were both cooperating for them. I'm not so sure Grandma had the time of her life and she bounced back and forth between the "upstairs and downstairs" of this cruise.

When Margerie Glacier came into view, I scooped up Doodle and forgot all about the hassles. It’s truly a magnificent glacier and I’ve been fortunate enough to witness its change over the years. We saw the largest calving I’ve ever seen, too – what a boom!

Back home, Green is creating these cool support videos for her friend who’s fighting cancer. Peanut and I each held up signs in front of the glacier that said, “You rock Shelley!” and “You can beat this Shelley!” while Tomcat videotaped us. Several people on deck joined in with our little chant and it was pretty special.

Still, Doodle and I should have stayed on land and combed the beach at Bartlett Cove or painted together out on the deck! Lesson learned I guess.

PS: Just wait until you see the shots Tomcat got from upstairs!

24 June 2008

A Hike in Glacier Bay

Everyone else took a Ranger-led hike through the forest while I kept Doodle back at the lodge for her nap.

I couldn't wait for them to learn about Glaciation from a ranger, instead of my mumbo-jumbo lessons. When John Muir was exploring the area just 120 years ago the face of the glacier was nearly at the Lodge! Now it takes us several hours on a boat just to see it. Amazing stuff. I also wanted them to learn about some of the native plants. Devil's Club is jammed with thorns on the stock as well as under the 10 inch wide leaves, but it's essential to native medicine. And the pretty little white flowered Baneberry plant could kill a kid with just a few of its red berries!

Well, here’s what they each had to say about the hike:

Little Man, “I saw all the national park dirt! I’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s really fluffy and squishy. I really like those Ranger hats and I got a Ranger Vest with lots of pockets so I can put lots of treasures in there. I’m collecting rocks and I’m going to make a rock collection with my dad when I get home."

Peanut, “First of all, it’s fun! Second of all, we learned that the ground is squishy because the glacier was in there. When the glacier moved away, the ground started puffing up. And it was all mossy, but we could only step on the squishy stuff for a picture. Otherwise we had to stay on the trail. I saw black bear scat and tons of moose scat. Scat is a meaning for poop in case you don't know that already. Alaska is GREAT. It’s one of my favorite places I’ve been! And on our last day in Alaska it’s going to be my 8th birthday!”

Grandma, “Well, trees have fascinated me. I expected to find giant evergreens in Alaska. Now I know that the glaciers wiped the landscape clean and so far the earth only has about 18 inches of soil built back up. So the roots can’t go down very deep, and that’s also why the trees can fall over so easily.

The Alders grow first and all the trees are fighting for light so they stretch toward the shore. That’s why all the trees are in a row and leaning. I mean, they look like they’ve been planted in a row! The ground rises each year now that the glaciers aren’t weighing it down. In fact, the shore is 6 feet lower than it was in 1966 and the trees just keep creeping down, following the shore, always keeping in a perfect row! Cool, huh?”

Tomcat, “I was surprised to learn how much the earth was springing back up after being squashed by the glaciers for thousands of years. And it was interesting to learn how many of the different animals eat bark off the trees in the winter time – and actually learn to identify which animals ate it by the markings on the trees.”

The delight of our night? After the kids were asleep, Tomcat went out to see if he could find any wildlife. He heard munching sounds, looked up, and there was a big porcupine chomping a branch in the tree above him!

Magical Glacier Bay

I can’t imagine any part of Alaska being more majestic than Glacier Bay National Park. There are numerous overnight options outside the park, but only one for us – Glacier Bay Lodge. It’s a magical place and I’ve always been inspired there. I used to sit and paint, but I was a little busier this trip... The cabin-style rooms are separated by long boardwalks and laid out between the forest and Bartlett Cove.

The view of Bartlett Cove is especially lovely from the restaurant deck and the big lobby with its warm fire is a gathering place for all types of travelers – campers, locals, people like us. You get to hear the most amazing stories here – especially the ones involving wildlife encounters! This park is teeming with wildlife on land and in the water.

Another great thing about staying here is that it’s practically run by kids – they come here for summer work, usually on break from their respective universities in the lower 48. You can make buckets of money. In fact, most local people in Alaska work 80-90 hours a week during the long daylight hours of summer. Then they chill out (literally) during the long winter months.

Peanut got to play with a little girl from Sitka that was here for the day, sailing with her family on their boat. Little Man made friends with Nicolas, a boy from Bologna, Italy. One morning he walked in and goes, “Good morning, Little Man!” The next morning, Little Man greeted him with “Buon giorno, Nicolas!” The rest of the time neither of them could shut up, both jabbering in their own languages. We also met a really nice couple from Rhode Island (they were amazing with our kids) and it made me remember all the trips we used to take without kids and how different it is to travel with little ones in tow. Nothing compares to seeing a place through a child’s eyes, but ah…such bliss when they finally go to sleep!

19 June 2008

Helicopter Tour -- The Juneau Ice Field

The weather forecast for our trip was rain, rain, and more bloody RAIN! But as you know by now, we’re pretty lucky and we arrived to blue, cloudless skies. I immediately called ERA Helicopters to book my favorite tour of all – a helicopter ride across the Juneau Ice Field, with a short stop on Taku Glacier. Lucky again, they had space for 4 at 2pm!

Doodle and I went for a nap at the Goldbelt Hotel while Tomcat, Grandma, Peanut and Little Man took off for what I sincerely hoped would be the best experience of their lives. A few hours later I heard a tap-tap on the door and Tomcat pulled me into the hallway with his arms stretched wide, “That was INCREDIBLE! I can’t believe the Russians sold us this place for $7 million bucks!” Apparently, they cried when they had to sell it and it’s easy to understand why. Nothing can prepare you for the vastness that is Alaska. I’ve been on the helicopter tour twice and each time I couldn’t believe my eyes. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

When glaciers advance, they crush the Earth, smashing 100+ foot evergreens like toothpicks. Then they recede, scraping the Earth smooth. And they’re noisy! It’s like Rice Krispies all over the place followed by thunder, which is actually the glacier calving off huge chunks. The ice itself is black from debris, until it calves and reveals a blue, bluer than the Caribbean. You simply must go. You’ve got to hear it with your own ears and crunch it with your own feet and see it in all its magnitude with your own eyes.

A Day or Two in Juneau

There’s always the trouble with time in Juneau. Two days isn’t quite enough 3 days is too long. Remember there are 18 hours of daylight here, so you can cover a lot in a day!

When you come to Juneau, hit the Trading Post on the main drag. It’s a fascinating eclectic store, jam packed with items ranging from $1000+ hand carved totems to $20 seal skin thimbles to $1 mountain goat hooves (essentially black, pointy, hollow toenails). It’s my favorite store here followed by the Russian House with their intricately painted stacking dolls. (Peanut has one, where the smallest doll is smaller than her pinky nail!)

You can skip every other store as long as you get a bag of Kettle Corn to munch on as you side step all the other tourists. The kids’ favorite thing to do was the Mt. Roberts Tramway. It’s irresistible as you can see it from nearly everywhere in Juneau. At the top, they have great presentations in the Visitor Center; there’s a regular showing of a movie on native Tlingit culture called Seeing Daylight and we were there just in time for a narrative story of how the Killer Whale Clan came about called "Nats???? and the Killer Whales". There are easy hiking trails and breathtaking overlooks outside the Nature Center (a nice gift shop) and Spirit, a bald eagle from the Juneau Raptor Center, who lost an eye to a bullet, poor beautiful thing.

I tried really hard to prepare Tomcat and Grandma for the dazed and confused look of most Alaskans. The service industry is lacking to say the least. The power goes out and people just shrug. The nicest hotels in town often run out of hot water or have lumpy beds. With few exceptions, restaurants are mediocre at best. My favorite exception is The Hangar! People in shops are sloooow. I once tried to buy postcard stamps only to find ONE store sold them and after that, no one seemed to be able to tell me where I could mail them. The post office had closed 10 minutes before the sign on the door said it should have and that was that. Weird stuff like that happens all the time up here. So if you expect service like you get in the Lower 48, it’s best to read the sign hanging in the historic Red Dog Saloon, “If our speed or service doesn’t meet your standards, lower your standards.”

Travel Philosophy

It’s fun flying to Juneau because you get to walk out on the tarmac and up the stairs to board the plane. It’s especially fun if you’ve never done it before and you get out of the airport before the flight attendants can show you where you’re supposed to go (to the back). Tomcat and Peanut walked directly to the stairs at the front of the airplane and waltzed right into the cockpit! According to Tomcat, their surprise appearance was clearly a post-9/11 taboo.

Between the cockpit and the passengers is a big section behind a black wall with a secret door. You have to stare at this wall the entire flight wondering, wondering, wondering. Well, check this out: it’s cargo! Everything has to be flown into Juneau, so it’s loaded down with fruit and veggies, toilet paper, glue, whatever. Very cool.

The mountains surrounding Juneau the only capital city surrounded by water, are enormous and lush. I taught everyone how to spot bald eagles in the trees: look for cotton balls! When you find one, it’s the male eagle’s head! And there are almost as many eagles as there are swarms of tourists from the numerous cruise ships docked there.

The kids were awed at the size of the ships and wanted to know when we were ever going to go on one. How do you explain “not in a million years” to kids that insist on the details? I wanted to use sweeping generalizations like “we don’t like Cruise Ship people” but finally I slowed it down and tried to explain our family’s travel philosophy, which is borrowed from Rick Steve.

I used to work for a tour operator that sold small adventure cruises to Alaska. That’s where I learned the benefits of traveling in small boats with interesting independent travelers. Kayaking in front of a glacier is quite a different experience than seeing a glacier from the deck of an enormous cruise ship. I told Little Man that jumping into glacier water (search our blog for Tracy Arm Fjord) is quite different than jumping into a pool on a big-ship cruise. Maybe it’s fun, but it’s not exactly what we’re after.

In fact, we went to eat at my favorite breakfast spot in Juneau, the Sandpiper Café. It was delish as usual and the waiter was telling us how he takes 6 months off every year to travel around. He just “lives on less” and saves his money. I asked him a tourist question and he goes, “Are you guys tourists?” I said, “Yeah” and he goes, “Wow, I just never would have guessed you were tourists.” As we left the restaurant Tomcat pulled me over, “So was that the best compliment you ever got?”


17 June 2008

Alaska - State #9

Tomcat had no idea we'd be in Alaska this week. Oh, clever, clever CurlyTop!

Long before this "50 States in a Year" idea came to me, the kids and I had decided to surprise Tomcat with a trip to Alaska for Father's Day. Would you believe these little people actually kept this a secret for almost a full year?!

I've been paying for it bit by bit, on the sly, not an easy task I assure you. And getting the time blocked on his work calendar was tricky, too. Fortunately, he has a fantastic assistant who helped cover for us -- he thought we were going to Texas for my High School Reunion this week. How's that for slick thinking, eh?

Sunday was Father's Day, the big day. Grandma was as giddy with excitement as the kids. We wrapped up the travel documents with a little Alaska guide book and when he opened it, he was truly shocked. He just sat in bed, jaw agape, and stared at his tray of breakfast, letting his tea get cold. I don't think he even realized when we were going -- in just 2 days -- until Peanut started to giggle and mentioned we weren't actually going to Texas. (I have to say he'd been quite a bear about missing 10 days of work for yet another Texas trip, and his outlook quickly shifted.) He's wanted to go to Alaska for more than a decade and when I
brought Little Man up here last year for a special trip, he started to get irked. Now, finally, it was his turn to see America's Last Frontier.

Some people don't even realize just how big Alaska is. Being from Texas, it's important to note that Alaska is more than twice the size of the Lone Star State! Here's a visual. If you laid Alaska across a map of the U.S. (in a particular way, sort of southward), it would touch both oceans!

Alaska Dirt Sample

Alaska Dirt Sample.
Seward, Alaska.