More Fairbanks and Fun Facts

We found Fairbanks to be a very interesting place – with the contrasts of very warm temperatures in the summer (it can reach 90 degrees) and very cold temperatures in the winter (-20 isn’t unusual, and it can get colder).  On this late November morning it’s a balmy 18 degrees there (according to Intellicast), and the number of daylight hours are quite short – with 30 days still to go before the shortest day of the year, and the sun will rise in Fairbanks at 9:50am and will set at 3:30 pm.  (Here in Petersburg the sun rose at 7:48am and will set at 3:30pm.)  We noticed that the thresholds at our Fairbanks motel were very high, and realized it was to accommodate winter snow accumulation.  We also noticed that EVERY vehicle had an electric plug hanging out of its front end.  The plug is for an engine block heater – an absolute necessity to keep the engine warm enough to start in the extreme cold.  Every parking lot had outlets to plug cars in, and in places where it would be normal to park a car for more than 5 hours at a time there was an outlet at every parking space.  You don’t want to be stranded with a car that won’t start in those temps!

Another interesting thing we saw in Fairbanks was a large number of pickup trucks with big poly tanks in the back.  People who live far enough out of town that they can’t connect to the city water supply need to provide their own water.  In most places you would just have a well to supply your home, but the land around Fairbanks has so much naturally-occurring arsenic in it that wells aren’t safe.  Those homes have a large water supply tank underground, and they either get water delivered, or they save a bit by hauling water themselves.

We travel because it’s a wonderful way to learn things.  Did you know that the hippocampus (part of the brain) of the chickadee grows by 30% in the fall so the bird can remember where it stored all its seeds for the winter?  Did you know that a moose – a pure vegetarian – can go up to 20′ underwater in search of its favorite vegetation to eat?  If you were designing a vegetarian animal that can go underwater, would it look anything remotely like a moose??

We took the opportunity of great weather to do a little hiking, and we chose the Angel Rocks Trail to enjoy the fall color and sweeping views.  Note the perfect fall color – this photo was taken on September 5th.20150905 0633 angel rocks view 2 r20150905 0653 angel rocks jim r20150905 0647 full frame fall 2 rAfter a good workout climbing up all those rock outcroppings we decided to head out the road to check out Chena Hot Springs.  Chena is a privately owned resort with natural hot springs piped to indoor and outdoor pools, as well as an ice museum – originally designed to be an ice hotel, but I can understand why that idea really didn’t catch on.  Despite sore muscles and tired feet, Jim opted for the ice museum rather than the hot pools so we took the tour.  The museum employs two ice carvers who repair and maintain some of the elaborate ice sculptures in the museum, and they periodically add new pieces.  The jousting knights on horseback were tough to photograph well, but they were incredible!20150905 0691 chena ice museum jousters r20150905 0708 chena ice museum jouster closer rThe ice museum was really fun, with an ice bar where you could get an appletini in an ice glass…20150905 0715 chena ice museum rr at the ice bar r…and where you could sit by a fake fire on an ice chair with a reindeer hide cushion to keep your tushie warm.20150905 0720 chena ice museum drinking by fire rIn one of the rooms they had a bed with a giant polar bear for a headboard, with raised paws to complete the effect.  I know there are some ice hotels in Scandinavia, but I couldn’t imagine staying overnight in one.

We explored all the major things on our list in Fairbanks, sadly missing the last of the migrating birds at Creamer’s Field since they were well on their way south in early September.  With an extra day before the next adventure, Jim wanted to see the car museum.  This didn’t sound like the most exciting way to spend a day, but we believe in compromise and he never complained when I dragged him around to look for birds.  He lingered outside looking at the odd snow tractor and I braced myself for a loooong day…20150907 0900 fairbanks car museum tractor jim r…until we got inside and saw a stunning collection of beautiful classic cars and period clothing, learning that all but 3 of the 91 cars on display actually run!20150907 0938 fairbanks car museum 2 r20150907 0903 fairbanks car museum 1 rWe thoroughly enjoyed this place – an unexpected delight.  The knowledge and care that goes into maintaining these lovely machines is impressive, and it makes us long for the days when cars had a lot more style.20150907 0915 fairbanks car museum detail 3 r20150907 0921 fairbanks car museum detail 2 r20150907 0932 fairbanks car museum motoring jim 3 rJim was even a good sport and showed us what it must have looked like to venture out in one’s motor car back in the day…

Fairbanks was an unexpected delight, though we couldn’t handle those weather extremes, even with the promise of so many clear nights to see the auroras in winter.


Road Trip – Alcan Highway to Fairbanks

The 1422 miles of the Alcan (now called the Alaska) Highway were built in 1942 to carry military supplies.  It took 15,000 men and 11,000 road construction machines to get the job done in only 8 months.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to build this road through such very wild country, but we’re glad it exists because we certainly enjoyed all the fall color and beautiful views along the way…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…as well as wildlife, such as these mountain goats just below the snowline…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…and this grizzly bear that was chasing something into the woods.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw a number of gray jays…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…but the fall color was the star of the show!20150904 0568 pretty fall color 2 rWe arrived in Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska, and lucked out with some gorgeous weather.  A trip up the hill to the University of Alaska Fairbanks was our first stop, to check out the Museum of the North.20150904 0542 fairbanks museum of the north r20150904 0543 fairbanks museum totem rEveryone who visits the museum is greeted by the large bear in the lobby – as close to a brown bear we ever hope to get.20150904 0544 fairbanks museum jim and big bear rIt’s a great museum with history and artifacts from all the Alaskan native tribes as well as natural history and art pieces.  As we were leaving around 5pm, we were treated to some of the last sandhill cranes migrating south for the winter.20150904 0817 fairbanks sandhill cranes 3 r20150904 0860 fairbanks sandhill cranes 6 rWith nice clear nights in the forecast, we stayed up late and headed out to see the aurora borealis – the northern lights.  Around midnight we saw some waves in the sky…20150906 0737 fairbanks aurora waves r…followed by the rising moon and some brighter activity.20150906 0762 fairbanks aurora 9 rThe later we stayed up, the better the light show got!20150906 0744 fairbanks aurora 6 rFairbanks is known to be a great place to view the aurora in the winter because there’s a high percentage of clear nights, though winter temps often get down to -20, -30, or even colder, and the thought of standing outside for hours in that kind of weather is a high price to pay.  We were lucky that the fall nights were cool, but not too cold.

An Alaskan Road Trip Adventure

This is the first installment of tales from our September “road trip” to the Alaskan Interior.  Over the course of three and a half weeks we drove 2500 miles and covered another 2000+ miles on ferries, airplanes, and a tour van.  Here’s a picture of our entire route – Alaska is a very big place!  (Yellow indicates road, blue indicates airplane, and red indicates ferries.)alaska map road trip overview 2I put “road trip” in quotes since we live on an island that’s not connected to anything, so to get our car to a road that actually goes somewhere requires a boat ride first… on the Alaska Marine Highway, (aka the ferry).20150824 0335 ferry in wrangell narrows rThe ferries that serve Petersburg are 418 feet long, carry 600 passengers and up to 134 vehicles.  The Marine Highway is a vital service that connects the isolated communities in SE Alaska as well as Prince William Sound throughout the year, and it’s a popular way for summer tourists to get around and see more of the Inside Passage.

The ferries are moving most of the time, and they’re constrained by tides in a few places so the schedule varies from day to day.  You have to meet the ferry when it happens to stop in your town – which might be in the middle of the night.  The ferry only stops a few times a week in Petersburg, though we were lucky that our “road trip” start date coincided with a midnight arrival of the ferry COLUMBIA.

There are only two towns in all of SE Alaska with roads that actually go somewhere.  Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Angoon, Gustavus, Hoonah and Kake are all land-locked, so we have to take the ferry to Haines or Skagway to get to the road system.  It’s interesting to note that Haines and Skagway are only 16 nautical miles apart, but they are 350 miles apart by road.  If you look at a map you can see that the Canadian border is very close to Haines, and that means we have to go through two provinces in Canada (British Columbia and Yukon Territory) to get to the main part of Alaska.alaska road trip psg to canadaWe arrived in Haines at a very reasonable 4pm, so we checked into a hotel and drove over to the Chilkoot River to look for bears munching on the last of the summer salmon run.  We saw some eagles and could smell plenty of dead salmon, but no bears this particular afternoon.  Haines is a beautiful place surrounded by tall mountains, but it gets much more snow and cold in the winter than Petersburg does.20150901 0345 haines rThe next morning, September 1, we pointed the car north.  Along the Chilkat River, which plays host to the largest concentration of bald eagles through the winter (about 3000 birds), we spotted a native Alaskan fish wheel – a means of catching salmon that is only allowed in a few places since it’s such an effective mechanism and could lead to overfishing.20150901 0365 chilkat river fish wheel rIt’s only about 40 miles up to the Canadian Border, steadily climbing and gaining altitude as we drove.  The first leg in Canada is through British Columbia, and the fall color was just gorgeous!  All the deciduous trees are yellow, but the only red was from the fireweed on the roadside.  We miss the pretty reds and oranges we remember from the east coast.20150901 0406 fall color on alcan 2 r20150901 0382 yukon high country 2 rAs we climbed the mountains were showing snow about 1000′ higher than we were.  We turned right at the Canadian town of Haines Junction onto the Alaska Highway – also known by its older name, the Alcan Highway.

In February 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt ordered the construction of an Alaska-Canada (Alcan) military highway to allow for transportation of military materiel and personnel to the relatively unguarded “back door” to the United States.  American and Canadian troops built the road through rugged mountainous wilderness in only 8 months!  In 1946 the road was opened to civilian traffic.  My Father was in the Army in Alaska during the Korean War, and he and his buddies drove back to the Lower 48 on the Alcan.  I love that I was retracing some of my Dad’s steps.

20150901 0405 alcan view rJim was a great trooper and stopped for me to take photographs often.  The scenery was just so stunning at every turn, though the photographs don’t do justice to the beauty.  We stopped to take a photo at this meadow, and a black bear ran across the highway just as we were pulling over to the side.  We watched him run into the woods, and as we were admiring the view we spotted a grizzly bear at the far edge of the meadow.20150902 0433 yukon vista 3 rIn general we didn’t see as much wildlife as we had hoped, but it was hunting season and the animals were hiding.  The road was paved in many places, though it can develop potholes and heaves so it’s constantly under repair.  Most stretches were through remote areas with a roadhouse every 100 miles or so.  We stopped in Destruction Bay, Yukon for the first night, located in Canada’s dramatic Kluane National Park.  Kluane abuts a provincial park in British Columbia on one side, and it abuts the U.S. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on the west side, creating the single largest protected land mass in the world.  And we got to drive through parts of it.20150902 0422 yukon river vista r20150902 0446 yukon mtn vista 2 rWe’re still learning lots about life in the north country, and we learned that just because something is called a “highway” does not mean that it’s paved.  Travel on the Alcan requires attention, periodic slow travel, and a sense of adventure.  20150902 0442 alcan hwy in yukon vista rWe finally made it to the Canada-Alaska border on the west side, the entry to the main part of the state.20150902 0472 jim at alaska sign r20150902 0475 on the border rThe border is funny because the Customs stations for the U.S. and Canada are about 20 miles apart, and there’s a little rest stop at the actual border where you can walk around and step between the two countries.  You can see the swath of cleared land that demarcates the border, running as far as the eye can see in both directions.  It took the International Border Commission 50 years to physically survey the entire length of the Alaska-Canada border – this is rough country!

The last thought for today is to remind you how big Alaska is – it’s 2.4 times larger than Texas, and yet there are very few roads.  We drove on a lot of Alasks’s roadways on this trip, but we only saw a small portion of the state.  Here’s a map that shows all of Alaska’s roads (Routes 1-11).  Notice how much of the state can only be accessed by air or (sometimes) by water.alaska road map 1

Pretty Lights and Big Teeth

We’re back in Petersburg after our big road trip to the Alaskan Interior, and I’ll get you caught up with all those blog entries later on.  In the meantime, I thought I’d show you a slice of life back here in the harbor in early October – a rainy time in the rainforest.

October is the start of dungeness crab season, and the crews were busy re-configuring their fishing boats from salmon gear to crabbing gear.  Even on a miserable wet day the boats were lined up at the crane dock to load pots…20150927 1810 loading crab pots r…and the HAAKON was riding a little low in the water with so many pots!20150927 1807 haakon loaded with crab pots rA lot of the fishing fleet chose not to go crabbing, so many of the bigger boats were back in their stalls, resting from the busy summer salmon and halibut season.20150927 1809 south harbor fishing fleet rWe got a nice week-long break from the rain so we headed Out The Road to enjoy a picnic lunch with friends on a crisp fall day.  The prospect of clear nights sent us to our computers to check the forecast for the aurora borealis, and activity for the week was predicted to be pretty good.  Friends called us one evening to say that the “lights are on!”, so we grabbed cameras and drove up to Hungry Point – the corner of land where Wrangell Narrows meets Frederick Sound.  It’s nice and dark there, and the mountains make for a beautiful silhouette.  Luckily the aurora activity started quite early – around 10pm.  It’s usually best seen around 1am-2am, and that means either staying up really late or setting the alarm and climbing out of a nice warm bed to go and see if the aurora is active.  We usually can’t see much from the dock here – there are too many bright lights, but a short drive or walk can get us to places where we can see what’s going on in the night sky.  No matter what it takes, or how cold it is, it’s really worth the effort to get to see the aurora!20151004 1834 petersburg aurora 1 rThe aurora reflecting on the water was really pretty, and we were serenaded by the groans of the Steller sea lions that like to lay on the two lighted buoys in the foreground.  What was so very interesting is that when the aurora got particularly active and bright for about 5 minutes, the sea lions also got much more vocal.

The aurora goes on much of the time, but we rarely get to see it down here in Southeast Alaska because our winter nights are so often overcast, and the aurora activity doesn’t always swing as far south as we are.  Green is the most common color to see, but red and purple and white can occur too.  In the photo above you can see some red on the bottom of some swirls.  The aurora can come and go through the night, with just a pale green glow that can brighten and start dancing and undulating, sometimes forming curtains that gently sway or swirls or bands of color.  Just watching it move and shift is magical.  Sleepiness and cold are quickly forgotten when the skies put on their show!20151004 1839 petersburg aurora 2 r20151004 1836 petersburg aurora 3 rWe spent a few days walking around like zombies from lack of sleep, and although we were sad to see the cloudy-rainy weather return at least it meant that we could get some rest.  We had a lot of things to do to get ready for winter, and one thing on the list was to get in the 48 degree water and replace a few zincs on the boat.  We have good dry suits and warm gloves to handle the water temperature, but the job was made a little more interesting because of the Steller sea lions.  “A Toyota truck with fins and teeth” is how one diver describes them.20150927 1816 fuzzy Steller r They can cause problems and harass divers, and I’d rather not experience harassment from a 2000 lb. animal.  Normally we only see them in the harbor now and then, but they hang around the canneries and fishing boats in the busy summer season.  The canneries have quieted down, but the big sea lions are still around the boats quite often.  The zincs needed changing, so we decided that one of us would go in the water and the other would serve as a lookout.  Guess who won the job to get wet?20151005 1857 dive in the harbor rI was just getting started on one of the zincs, trying not to drop the wrench or the nuts when Jim pounded on the swim ladder to get my attention.  I popped up and quickly climbed up the ladder as far as I could in the bulky suit… with my feet still hanging in the water.  Fortunately the sea lion didn’t pay any attention to us, and as soon as he left the area I slid back in the water to finish the job as quickly as I could.  I had one more Steller alert in the middle of the job, but once again he ignored us and eventually swam away.  Nothing like a little excitement to make you forget the chilly water!  20151006 1869 steller you lookin at me r

Misty Fjords National Monument

We’re back from traveling and now I have the chance to catch up on photos and posts – and the final leg of our boat cruising season is next up.  The last post was about Ketchikan and some of the native culture, and this post will be about the 2.3 million acres of the Misty Fiords National Monument, a short distance behm canalMisty Fiords is located on Behm Canal, which separates Revillagigedo Island (where Ketchikan is) from the mainland.  It consists of 50 million year old granite that has been carved and shaped by glaciers, with mountains 2000-3000 feet tall that plunge vertically into the sea, which is 1000 feet deep.  It is a very beautiful and magical place, and we wanted to see it by air as well as by boat.  Before friends Bill and Mary flew home, we all hopped aboard Island Wings’ deHavilland Beaver floatplane for an aerial view.20150818 0055 misty fjords by air scenic r20150818 0030 misty fjords mtn lake draining to waterfall rThere are thousands of mountain lakes high up among the peaks, often draining down the sheer walls in dramatic waterfalls.  We made a landing on one of the mountain lakes, and the call of a loon was the only sound we heard.  Stunning.20150819 0123 foursome in front of plane 4 rNo matter how long the flightseeing trip is, it’s never long enough.  Heading back towards Ketchikan we spotted a purse seiner fishing for salmon…20150819 0097 string of pearls purse seiner by air r…and as we approached Ketchikan we had a great view looking north up the Tongass Narrows, with town on the right, the airport on the left, and a few cruise ships still in port.20150819 0136 tongass narrows by air rThe only way to experience this remote wilderness is by boat or by float plane, and we intended to do both, despite the fact that the sheer rock faces and very deep water makes anchoring a daunting prospect.  We didn’t have as much time as we would have liked, but any time spent in the Fiords Monument is worth it.  We cruised south from Ketchikan to get to the bottom of Behm Canal, and turned up into the fjord system.  Our first highlight was seeing the tall spire of New Eddystone Rock – 237′ of basalt pillar left behind from a volcanic vent.  This land was shaped by fire as well as ice.20150821 0166 new eddystone rock and burgee rThe rock doesn’t look that big when you’re heading towards it, but when you look with binoculars you notice the little specks on the beach that are seals, and you realize that you’ve been approaching it for a long time and it still looks so far away.  This is what it looks like from the air, and it’s odd to find this tower and shallows around it in such deep water.  It’s one of the few accessible places for seals to haul out and rest in the area.20150818 0064 new eddystone rock 2 by air rTurning east past the spire we entered Punchbowl Cove – gorgeous.  Clouds hung below the mountaintops, and we just slowed down to savor the view.  If we had more time we would have stayed there for a few days on the single Forest Service mooring ball – the hike up to Punchbowl Lake has legendary views.  Next time.20150821 0206 punchbowl cove cloud rNext we headed into Walker Cove, a particularly pretty area with waterfalls of every shape and size.  We were able to anchor just off a small meadow, watching a bear prowl the shoreline.  It’s a place where you can feel very very small.  Can you spot the three boats in this photo?  There are two DeFever 49s and a sailboat.20150821 0315 misty fjords 3 tiny boats rI spent hours paddling around the cove, investigating as many of the waterfalls as I could find… these are just a few of them.20150821 0269 walker cove waterfall 2 r20150821 0282 intimate waterfall r20150821 0265 walker cove small waterfall rWe really had to cut our exploration of the Fiords short, and we were sad to leave after just a couple of days, but we’ll definitely return.  As we headed out for the last day the weather turned gloomy and the monument really lived up to its name.20150824 0326 misty fjords very misty rOur hurry to return to Petersburg had a good reason – another kind of adventure – a road trip to the Alaskan Interior.  On the way home we were treated to humpbacks, orcas, sea lions, seals, eagles, sea otters… and a rainbow.  Not a bad way to wrap up a boating season.

Culture in Ketchikan

We’ve been entirely too busy having adventures to catch up with editing photos and blogging about them, so I apologize for the slow trickle of postings.  We’ve also been out of range of cell phones and Internet quite often, and that makes things a little difficult too.  Here’s a map of Southeast Alaska to show some of the places where we’ve been cruising, and you can see Ketchikan at the bottom – almost to the Canadian border.  Ketchikan is the southernmost town in southeast ketchikan to skagwayKetchikan is a nice town, though it’s overrun with cruise ships in the summer season.  I don’t mean to offend cruise ship passengers, but the big ships tend to create a culture of mindless shopping and faux experiences to fill the too-short time that passengers have to visit a port.  We always feel sorry that cruise ship people don’t get the chance to see more of the “real” place.20150815 10309 ketchikan creek street rCreek Street is a famously touristy place, but the interesting thing is that it’s an active salmon stream and is a great place to see these fish returning to spawn in August.

The last time we were in Ketchikan was when we first arrived in Alaska and we had a few repairs to make before we could continue on.  By the time we finished the repairs we only had a small weather window to head north, so we missed a number of things we really wanted to see, particularly the two totem parks.  In this southern end of the Alaskan panhandle there are three Native Alaskan tribes: Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, each with stylistic differences in their artwork.  Ketchikan has two totem parks – one north of town (the Totem Bight Park) and one south of town (Saxman village).  This trip, we were able to visit both, as well as the Totem Heritage Museum in town.20150816 10331 ketchikan saxman totems rThe collection of poles at the Saxman village were collected or replicated from abandoned villages in the nearby areas.  Poles with decorations at the bottom and top but nothing in between are memorial poles.  The stories of each are moving and interesting.  20150816 10329 ketchikan saxman totem rOther poles tell stories or depict various clan symbols, and the tribal house in the background has lots of beavers to represent the local Beaver Clan.  We were lucky enough to see some dancing by Beaver Clan members, including a few little children.20150816 10342 ketchikan saxman totem dancers rAfter visiting Saxman we decided to take the city bus as far north as it goes to the Totem Bight Park, which was excellent.  Totems are displayed here and some are replicated as older totems begin to deteriorate.  Totems are disposable art – they have a limited lifetime and when they begin to rot they are just left on the ground to return to the earth in their own time.  It’s sad to see all that effort and skill just lying on there, but that’s the way of totems.20150816 10369 ketchikan totems left to rot r New poles are created to replace old ones, and it encourages new carvers to participate.  The park had trails that meandered through the forest with little open alcoves where poles were on display, and a number at the base of each pole corresponded to a guide brochure so we could read a little about each pole’s origins and purpose.20150816 10368 ketchikan totem bight 1 rThere was also a small tribal house, with Beaver Clan themed poles inside, and the traditional small oval opening for the front door.  The idea was that if an enemy tried to come into your house he had to enter bent over so much that he couldn’t attack you before you had a chance to prepare.20150816 10384 ketchikan totem and tribal house rIn the middle of Ketchikan is a small Totem Heritage Center where some very old poles are preserved for historical study and cultural preservation.  In addition to the old poles there are some newer poles and panels, which might be found in a tribal house, and the skill and beauty of the artwork never ceases to impress us.20150819 0150 ketchikan totem panel rThe Heritage Center also had some Tlingit button blankets, worn as ceremonial robes, decorated with clan symbols.  These things are so special to see, and it pays to look at the details of each – to see the artist’s style as well as the symbols of their family tree.20150819 0155 ketchikan museum button blanket rTotems and Native Alaskan symbols are found throughout Southeast Alaska, and we consider them just as important as the beautiful mountains and plentiful wildlife.20150819 0147 ketchikan totem fish and flag r