Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Monday, May 25th Healy

Lakeview Inn offers rooms that have a view that one doesn't even want to look away.  There's even a little deck but the Mosquitos could carry you off here. Romance in the evening is lost with the buzzing of Mosquitos and their hovering in hordes, just waiting for their turn to land on your skin. Deet is a main ingredient here, pretty lotions are useless, and only the best bug begone candles are burnt. Some joke that the state bird is the mosquito. ( it's not though, the Willow Ptarmigan has that title).
       I went on a lovely jog, exploring the many trials Black Diamond has through the trees and brush. Up here near Denali is where the trees are especially scraggly. Old trees do not gain the girth and height here with the permafrost and super dry environment. there is still dense foliage for any animal to be comfortably concealed. I explored the trails and really just enjoyed cruising around. I'd slept in- so there was plenty of time for the ATV tours to scare away the morning animals. They recommend clapping occasionally when walking or hiking alone. Since clapping is awkward when running,  I was told to ( by the Iditarod runners who owned the B&B as well as another runner ) to talk to myself or sing a song. If the bears don't leave me alone hearing me sing and mumble to myself- at least the humans will be scared off by the crazy tuneless girl.

     We went on the covered wagon tour, since that is what Lydia will be doing up here this summer.  They have Belgian and Percheron draft horses here to pull the wagons in teams of two. S, her friend, drove the wagon while another employee gave a tour. It was interesting winding down the road -one mile of it has carpet underneath. There was a fellow who lived off the road that was owned by the railroad. He went along and picked up carpet that people and businesses had thrown out on the side of the road in order to put it down on the dirt road to his place. Having the carpet in place under the dirt and rocks helped maintain the road, and though it seems crazy, it was actually ingenious because now companies specialize in material to put down beneath gravel. After all his hard work he then patrolled with a loaded potato gun - ready to use on anyone trespassing, even though it was not a private road.
We arrived at the turn around point, a lodge where a lunch was set up for the group. The cook had grilled chicken, salmon, ribs and a variety of sides. It was one of the favorite meals on the trip. Then the cook made  peach cobbler for dessert! When on the road going from place to place, one only has one chance to find a good meal; Sometimes you miss it, and sometimes the only place available just isn't that good. So our delight in this meal was pretty high ranking.

   The backdrop to our wagon ride consisted of the mountains to one side, the coal mine, and a moraine. A moraine is where two glaciers are next to each other, carving their own separate valleys, and push together between them a large gravel mound. ( and by mound picture a very large and steep hill). this one is actually the largest gravel moraine in Alaska! After finding a full sized mammoth bones while excavating, they stopped stripping for gravel.
After a break we went to Denali national park and drove the 15 miles in that is open to public traffic. After that there is restricted public access. You can go farther with a permit or a pass, so good if you want to bring an RV or popup camper. Otherwise, one can hike in, or take one of the green park shuttle buses in and out of campgrounds farther into the park for tent camping or hiking.
We chose a brief mile long trail to go on that follows the Savage River.

On the drive down we saw a one moose, three bears, and three Caribou! The Caribou was most exciting because they were less then a hundred yards from the trail! They were laying down calmly, observing us with casual interest, perhaps gloating in their knowledge that we could not hunt anywhere near them. Of course, Lydia pulled out the Caribou jerky sticks we had bought in Anchorage and we laughed at the irony of our snacking in front of the creatures whom provided the snack..

The bridge allowed us to return on the other side of the river, because there was a snowy pile that had been obstructing the trail until very recently. This trail was just lovely to wander through. A glacier had carved out the valley we were walking in and had dispensed it's gravel and boulders against the cliff sides.
We ate in the Glitter Canyon, so nick named for its sparkling newness and gleam of a fancy shops. After meandering through the shops we headed back for an early evening that ended up being spent in, going up and down the three flights of stairs trying to convince the washing machines and driers to work. ( only had to switch the load once and run it 3x as long. Success!!)

Sunday, May 24th Healy and Denali

Breakfast was served hot and fresh and delicious. The stories continued to be shared while we passed around homemade strawberry jam. Rhodi had been living far north raising her three kids, where she made and canned everything. She ordered her groceries once a year, and those ordered foods would last the whole year. She made it sound like nothing, no big deal...plan ahead, get the sugar and the flour. But I cannot imagine that, especially with a family. The place is for sale, and they are looking forward to buying somewhere they can do substance farming. Green houses are actually rather popular here. Because sunshine isn't always in short supply, but warm weather and fresh vegetables are.

We were off down the road again! chartering a course on the map for Denali and intrigued by anything along the way. Talkeetna was qualified as just such a place. The Talkeetna store is apparently a much advertised location. I completely missed the draw but did not miss the comfortable smells and creek of the old wood floors. Reminds one of Baldingers candy store, but without the dark chocolate and old fashion candy. The stairs were lined with animal furs; coyote, fox, wold, lynx, caribou. We trailed our fingers along these great pelts, marveling at the feel and color, and exactly people kept warm wearing animals skins and furs! I mean seriously! it sounds exotic and exciting, but you hear about -50F and -75F temperatures and suddenly it begins to feel insufficient in a multitude of ways. Upstairs in the store, there are other basic supplies.  Gloves, a few books, socks, undershirts, underwear, and other odds and ends.
Let's take a moment and rewind. When you see packages of undershirts, socks, boxers, and panties-they came in packs of 5 or 7 or some odd number. Here, they have been removed from those prepackaged bags, and placed in individual zip lock baggies. Each baggie is labeled neatly with the item, it's gender, style, and size. Minimum supply, and maximum distribution!
We did not stay long in the town. There was a open air market we strolled through with artists, a jewelry maker who specialized in porcupine quills, bamboo socks, and organic herbal lotions and soaps. Continuing along the main street, which is easily identified because it is the only street, are a collection of other shops and stores. In the short hour or so we were there, the amount of people increased to a crowded level. On sidewalks, in storefronts, sitting inside restaurants and spilling onto patios. Either we missed a few tour buses or people came out of the woodwork.

The tourbuses are annoying because the stops are so restricted to stores that are specific cruise brand tours, and they leave out the areas many other restaurants and shops as options.  They also take a quiet afternoon and turn it into a crowded mass of humanity.
Healy was next! Just a few minutes away from Denali National Park. The town had just opened up last week. Stores were opened for the seasons and the traffic lights were turned back on. We headed for the Black Diamond Resort, where Ms. Lydia will be working this summer! This small town of a population of about 800 swells to est. 3000 with college kids and seasonal workers for the tourist season. We stopped at the barn and continued back to to the area were most of the employees live in the provided...housing. Thankfully Lydia is in one of the better trailers! It's not a dry cabin ( one without running water), but has hot water, wifi, and first/surplus food is delivered there too! Due to them being "the girls" trailer, excess food and the maintenance guys give them extra assistance for their frequent needs. Once they get some curtains up, they won't even have to change hunkered over or on the sly! Seriously prime real-estate.

We settled into The Denali Lakeview Inn, a charming B&B right on top of the lake, with the mountains proud centaurs on the horizon. The names of the peaks surrounding us were Mt. Healy, Black Diamond, Sugarloaf, Jumbo Dome; and below them an extremely productive coal mine.
This area is rich in coal, and contains some gold still and, the biggest payout-platinum!
For dinner we ate at the 49th State Brewery. For the area, I can see why it is a big deal. Seriously overpriced with a mid-sized plate at best. However, their whiskey bourbon, and scotch selection made up for what the menu lacked. There were also microbrews on tap, but honestly they were mundane and flavorless in comparison to the distillery options.
We headed out to the Salmon Bake with a crew from the resort and area. It was a really fun time! It's got a couple floors, and each night there is some kind of special music or theme. Despite the sparse crowd, it was 80's night! We talked we laughed we told stories. The only thing to complain about would be the large table that made it hard to hear, so we either had to stretch across the table or cluster around on a side.
Beer enjoyed: Alaskan White. Whiskey: Johnny Walker

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Saturday, May 23rd Anchorage Half Marathon to The Big Susitna

Trent/Waldron Glacier Half-Marathon

Never ran at a 9am start before! It seems Alaska handles the odd hours of daylight and later nights by getting things going a little later in the day.  Not as though there is heat to beat. Dropped off at the start at the Westchester Lagoon for bib number pick up. It is on a small pond or inlet that is surrounded by trees with those mountains clearly visible from their protective stance outside the city. I discovered that it is named after, and held in honor of a predominate couple of runners in the community. A few years ago they met a bear on their run. It was somewhat discomforting to hear. It was a wonderful morning around 50 degrees F, though some low gray clouds stalked the horizon, the rain held off and the nice weather triumphed. One of the biggest differences here is that it is so dry. None of the cloying humidity that coats itself to our skin back home. Talking to people before the race, I was told if we see a moose on the trail we are following, you will likely hear someone shout out "come on move! arg! bull*&#% moose!" Evidently they are less of a rarity and more annoying, especially if they aren't scared of you and decide they don't want to move". However, I was cautioned, if it looks mad (hair bristling, ears back) run and hide behind a tree.. they have a slow turn around ability!!
I was surveying the area and here is the flaw...back home we have all these lovely great big trees with their thick rings of growth. Here, the permafrost only allows shallow root growth, and limits tree height. The Subarctic tundra is an environment that not only slows degeneration of the old trees, but it also limits the regrowth. So even the old trees do not grow very tall or wide. Most trees seen are the black and white spruce, the birch tree and aspen. Aspens here are a bit darker in their bark color then at home, they believe it's an adaptation to the limited light here. The slightly greener hue is a color that is better for light absorption, which leads to more chlorophyll production. Also, all the green really makes the Birch's white flaking bark stand out even more starkly, bordering on luminescent.
Anyways back to the run! Flat course, ducking through a few tunnels that looked like 5x large drainage pipes under roads.  Three water stops, which it turned out I needed. Between the plane and the dryness I was evidently still a little dehydrated. Quick to figure out the weakness. Thirteen miles of trail on an out and back race with nothing but beautiful surroundings. Few houses or building were even seen, despite the location as Anchorage, wouldn't have wanted anything else! My wonderful loving family showed up at the wonderful finish line to cheer me in!!! This is the first time my sister has seen me, and my parents haven't seen any since fall of 2013 (Erie *shudders in horror*). So it was rather nice to have them there, even if for a half. It really was phenomenal being able to walk after!!  A truly kind volunteer got me a shirt and mug from the previous year. Even though I didnt place ....and I saw none for sale for this year.... I sincerely appreciated the souvenir!!! way better then blisters and hurting muscles.

Walked around an open air market going on! music food and vendors with homemade crafts and all kinds of things for sale. I found the same pastry I had in Prague!!!! THE SAME KIND!! (**see February 2010) A light flaky pastry that is a thick hollow ring to be nibbled upon. There it is rolled in cinnamon and sugar, served with hot spiced red wine.  Here it is coated in chocolate and rolled in a treat of your choice, then filled with a chocolate or creme mousse!!! A well devoured treat.

En rout north we stopped in Wasilla  right near the Iditarod dog museum. They even had a statue for Balto out front! A wolf-dog who will always hold a place in our hearts as a childhood hero as important in our minds as Roberto Clemente and Judy Blume. There was a team hooked up to a sleigh on wheels.
Barbara and Raymie Redington had a team of dogs there, giving rides and talking. Raymie Redington's father, Joe, is the one who took initiative in restarting the race again to commemorate the value the sled dog had in Alaska's history. For awhile people were no longer keeping their sled dogs, the invention of the iron snow machine made them think the cost of keeping the dogs wasnt worth it with the new machine-until they realized how  unreliable it was.
     The Alaskan husky is the perfect blend of breeds. Husky, malamute, and a few other breeds (setter too?) are combined to create this ideal endurance working dog.  They are bred to not have hip dysplasia, have thick warm coats, and an assortment of other physical attributes. More important is their mental aptitude! Another dog sledder described to us that  sled dogs cannot wait to see what is beyond that next hill. They eat raw meat combined with a special dog food that has insane amounts of fat in a single scoop. During the race, they eat 10,000 calories a day. (the mushers don't get to slack on those calories either). We learned so much talking to them. About the cold, and the distance, and the training. Their booties, aren't put on to keep their paws warm, but to protect against the ice and injury. There were three puppies there, their father is an Iditarod finisher and runs in the lead (whichever appointed position that may be titled). So, these puppies were most assuredly not for sale. Other dogs, not suited for racing, may be.
I won't fill these pages with details that I havnt lived through and may mess up. But the information we learned from the Redingtons was only continued when we stayed at The Big Susitna Bed & Breakfast with Bill and Rhodi Davidson. They were both also Iditarod dog sled racers. We learned some history, and heard a lot of stories. Like how running the dogs in the dark is so peaceful. About the routes the race takes, and how it had to be shifted this year because of the weather. The problems with wildlife, including some stories of belligerent moose. In one case the moose hung out in one section of the woods and would charge at the dogs! One time, she charged and couldn't be deterred so he shot her with a 44, and the moose still ran another 200 yards. The problem was that it was the end of the run, and he had to cut up all the meat, haul it in, and call a game guy to come collect it. Not allowed to keep the meat without permits and such (I think). I enjoyed listening so much to stories of places I have never been, encounters I had never imagined, and the history of this state with the people in it.

Friday, May 22rd Anchorage

A surprising early wake up. It's easy when the sun is already up. Luckily we are discovering that anchorage does not wake up with the sun. We pulled out our maps and, with the help of some lovely ladies at the visitor center, charted a route. There was much map passing and circling of attractions and then we were on our way.
   I should mention it was debatable if I would join the family's departure because on Kodiak island there was a crab festival and a marathon! While intriguing... To get to this island that was relatively close, One would have to fly, which is extremely expensive last minute, but allows you to make your own schedule. Otherwise there is a nine hour ferry ride that goes back and forth every few days between the island and mainland. Hmm fine if there is time but not so helpful when a brief couple weeks is all you have to explore a state twice the size of Texas. Something to keep in perspective when googling where to go and pinning points of interest. So I opted for the Trent/Waldron glacier half marathon in Anchorage tomorrow! This state isn't going anywhere. Coming back is more then an option. It's probable.

We ate at the Snow City Cafe. Though the line was long, you can call ahead or order take out. The menu offers varieties of breakfast and lunch options that are healthy and flavorful. It also came highly recommended from the visitors center.
Following the fuel up we hit the road south about an hour to Portage to see the Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center ( AWCC). We turned off the highway and walked around the gravel road past the animals fenced in fields. The animals that end up here have been rescued from the wild where being too young or too injured would prevent them from surviving on their own. The goal of the AWCC is to rehabilitate them, however some are rescued so young thing they cannot learn the skills needed to ever be released. The facility was beautiful! Yes there were fences, the wire kind, Some with a a few lines of electric fencing layered on too. These were not unhappy creatures; the animals had food, water, companionship, somewhere for shade, and some grass to nibble on.

We saw Caribou with their tall spindly antlers, which had begun growing this spring, since they shed them each season. The older the caribou, the bigger their rack will initially grow each year.
There was a porcupine, curled up in the shade with his quills making him feel safe and comfortable. Turns out, the quills do not eject from them to a potential threat! Their quills are just very loose and when they are frightened, the spines bristle, making predators rather piqued if too close!

    The black and brown bears had been rescued when they were a small 3-5 pounds ( depending on which bear ). Every now and then, one would be separated from a mother and found by hunters, workmen and taken here. The ones I read on will never be able to live in the wild though. They were cool to see up close with their slow and methodical mannerisms, but with an underlying bulk strength and speed.
    Lydia and my favorites were the moose! Their long legs are perfect for wading through the snow, but makes them look less graceful and more spindly, and their shoulders are set higher than their lower hindquarters. The most adored over feature was their long sloped noses!They look less like the horses or deer noses we are familiar with and perhaps echo what I believe a camel would sport. Their noses would waffle a little when finding a branch and somehow this large cumbersome looking creature is able to delicately strip the smallest twig of its coveted bark, without breaking or consuming the wood.
Well worth it to see these animals up close despite the fences.

Returning to anchorage we stopped at Girdwood to check out the Crow Creek Mine.  One could tour the remnants of the mine, but we preferred a short hike to a cheesy overpriced mine. This path we strolled on is part of the historical Iditarod trail. It was beautiful in the deep woods where trees crowded in close and only left in a dappling of sun onto the dirt path. We walked down to where the path intersects with a gorge, which is crossable by a handtram. One gets into a cage that is suspended from a cable, it is enclosed to a chair-rail height, and open above that. through the middle is a rope that you haul yourself across to the other side. If someone on either side is nice, or in a hurry to get the tram to their side so they can cross, they might lend a hand! we zipped right along, which is great because there is a breath taking drop with the cliffs plummeting down to a rushing river. One of the snowy peak overlooks the gully and trees crowd right up to the edge. It's hard to take it all in because your hauling hand over hand quick as can be. Partially because one doesnt want to slack while a stranger offers a hand, also because the tram does sway a little and bounce in the wind. (not a place to linger without the possibility of stroking out).
Driving back into anchorage was absolutely lovely. The Chugach mountains followed along opposite the bay as the road wound along the opposite cliff The road parallels the train tracks that run a little lower along the water bank. The bay has one of the largest water fluctuations in the world. When the tide is out, the bay's muddy floor is exposed. Due to the dry air, the top layer dries rapidly. This gives the impression that the mudflat is safe to walk on.  A local told us that the signs posted telling to beware of the flats are there for a reason, it is certainly not okay! Once you crunch through the hardened top layer the mud underneath is like concrete, trapping someone. There was an instance where someone was stuck and the fire department was on the shore, but could not get to the stuck person before the tide came in. Yeeeesh. Yikes.
Back in anchorage stayed at the Arctic Fox Bed and Breakfast. But with it's big windows and lovely soft beds it was very welcoming. We stayed in one that included a kitchen, and we cooked in fresh salmon, before curling up and sleeping.High rating at this place. Of course after one beer I was asleep before the sun set.
oh wait...the sun doesnt go down until 11:30! slept like a baby without drawing a curtain.


Monday, May 25, 2015

Thursday, May 21st 2015-Pittsburgh to Alaska

The Maharg Family is off again on an adventure. The days leading up to it had a flavor of frenzy because Lydia has decided to take a job and remain here for four months.
FOUR MONTHS IN ALASKA!!!!!! Her travel buddy got a job and offered to ask the boss if my sister could have a job at the same place for summer. She was accepted, of course! therefore her unpacking in PA had a rapid turnaround time.
I told my students its a good thing I care about them, or I would surely join. So they had better practice since I will be stuffing myself into a plane to come back and listen to their music. (Despite the effort practicing is surely going to suffer while I'm away. but the break in lessons was not mourned or argued that's for sure). But anyways, back to Lydia. The recent graduate of Penn State University is taking a suitcase roughly the size of a small wale to go work at a resort just outside of Denali National Park. This place has draft horses who take people on covered wagon tour. She will be part of the group who takes care of the horses and leads the tours. I could not be more proud!

Departure from Zelienople-5:30AM
  Departure from Pittsburgh-7:45
Arrival in Houston 11:00 (four hour flight, time adjustment)
      Departure from Houston 16:30 -delayed due to a monsoon accompanied with thunder and lightning
Arrival in Anchorage at 20:00 !!! (seven hour flight)
Our exhaustion was forgotten when we saw mountains from the plane window. Luggage retrieved, car rented and we bounced from the airport! by nearly 21:00 the sky was bright and the sun was warm. Anchorage is a city at the foot of the Chugach mountains. The city's western view dominated by these giants to the east. (i think). Apparently these magnificent peaks are usually still snow capped this time of year. Due to the shortage of snow, the concern  is not enough ground water recharge! The question remains how this deficit will be made up. If that' important down in Anchorage, we are told it is even more important up in Fairbanks, with its even drier environment! It is in that northern area that the conifer grows, a tree whose cones that need to catch on fire to regerminate.
We stayed at a little comfortable hotel near the airport. Mom dove into bed, pulled the blind over the window and strapped her face mask over her eyes, and went to sleep.
Lydia, Dad, and I stumbled into town to eat at Humpy's (a much heard of place). and tried our first Alaskan Amber beer. (a new favorite). That was all it took to tuck us into bed that night!
While going back to the hotel at 23:30, the sun had finally set at 23:12,  and a deepening twilight set in with a thin moon high in the sky. The mountains had faded into purple smudges in the dark, and there was a brief five hours of dark for the earth to rest beneath.