Under construction

We are home and planning our next adventure because the compass never stops spinning. Check out my Future Adventures tab to see some of the possibilities! I’d love your feedback and ideas.

Home again

public forum in Seward

As you may have guessed by the gap in my posts, we are home. We left Portland two days ago—six days after we originally intended. Tropical Storm Irma (pka Hurricane Irma) was well north of Atlanta, our waypoint, and Hurricane José was still running around in circles in the Atlantic trying to decide what to do. Both Atlanta and West Palm Beach airports were fully operational, and we encountered no obstacles, thank goodness.

We arrived in West Palm Beach just 20 minutes after Marcus’s mom arrived from her hurricane haven in Connecticut. We took her home, made sure everything was working properly, and drove 45 minutes north to Stuart. We got to Publix a half hour before closing, picked up some essentials, and got home around 10:00. Except for a small roof leak that left a stain on my office ceiling (that looks, oddly, like the face of an angry badger), all is well.

Many people have asked what our next adventure will be. I’m not sure what’s in store for 2018. A year ago I had no idea we’d be going to Alaska this year. We’ve been talking about a three-to-four month trip to Australia and New Zealand. I’d love to spend a summer in Inverness, Scotland. But right now I can’t think about being away from home for that long. It feels too good to be here. I will miss the excitement of exploring new territory, but right now the familiar is welcome.

Thanks for coming along on this adventure with me. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride and maybe even learned something about our 49th state.

Until the compass spins again, Cindy

Out of the frying pan, into the fire

photo: Mark Graves, The Oregonian/OregonLive 9/05/17

When we decided to wait out Hurricane Irma in Portland, Oregon, we didn’t realize that we were headed into a different type of disaster—wildfire. The Columbia River Gorge east of Portland, from Troutdale to Cascade Locks, is burning. The fire was started by a teenager shooting off fireworks.

My family was there during a reunion just two months ago, enjoying what is arguably one of the most beautiful places in Oregon.

Such a shame and so preventable. We heard the kid was warned by people nearby that the dry conditions could result in a fire, yet he chose to ignore their warnings. (It’s been a very dry summer. The grass in Portland is like straw.)

We saw the smoke as far away as Seattle airport. Fortunately visibility was good enough at PDX for our flight from Seattle to land. The airport is adjacent to the Columbia River.

My old buddy, Smokey, shed a tear over this one. (An old childhood friend)

Winter is on its way

Talkeetna Mountains, August 31, 2017

There was a dusting of snow on the Talkeetna Mountains between Denali and Talkeetna, south of the park, that wasn’t here just five days ago when we made our train ride north. Now we are southbound, on our return to Anchorage, to begin our journey home.

Winter is coming and it’s time for these two travelers to head where it’s warm. Hard to believe that it’s still summer in the Lower 48. Looking forward to some warm weather in Portland, Oregon.

Talkeetna Mountains, September 4, 2017

Clouds?

lenticular cloud

Not to be outdone by the wildlife and mountains, the clouds have their day. These lenticular clouds were everywhere today.

Lenticular, or lens-shaped clouds, are formed by air moving over the surface of the Earth that encounters obstructions, like, say, mountains—big mountains. The air swirls around the obstacle and, under the right conditions of moisture, temperature, and dew point, can form these crazy saucer shapes that some people mistake for UFOs.

Mountain’s Majesty

 

We came to see the wildlife, the kind that moves, but we never anticipated the wild beauty of these mountains. Trees, rock, snow, glaciers—it’s awe-inspiring! And if you time it just right, you might even catch a reflection off of a calm lake on a clear day.

Into the Wild

king of the tundra

 

two young moose dining on willow

 

caribou, aka reindeer

I stand corrected regarding an earlier statement I made that reindeer are not indigenous to Alaska, but had been brought here from Siberia by fur traders in the 19th century. According to one of our naturalists, reindeer and caribou are one and the same animal, and caribou are definitely indigenous to Alaska. In Europe and Asia, the animal is called a reindeer. In North America it is called a caribou. Alaskans use the term “reindeer” to refer to a “domesticated” caribou, a caribou that is kept in a herd for the purpose of meat harvesting, and the domesticated variety probably did originate in Siberia.

It was James Michener’s book, Alaska, that confused me. He described the fur traders purchasing reindeer in Siberia to bring back for the Inuits in northern Alaska. These natives of the Arctic coast couldn’t always get out to hunt in winter. If their Fall hunt wasn’t sufficient to sustain them over winter, they faced starvation. Domesticated caribou would provide a reliable supply of meat during the winter. Perhaps the Alaskan wild caribou could not or would not be herded, but the domesticated variety from Siberia, bred in a herd, could be.

Dall sheep high in the foothills

The Dall sheep’s primary defense from predators is to hang out at high altitudes on inclines too steep for their predators to climb. Their teensy feet help them balance on impossibly narrow ledges.

Dall rams hanging out

 

male grizzly

Denali grizzlies are significantly smaller than the coastal variety. They don’t have access to salmon and other fish and are essentially herbivores. At this time of year they are eating every berry they can find, some 20,000 calories a day. Mama Bear may have to get up in the middle of her winter’s nap to forage for food, if she’s got new, or even yearling, cubs to nurse.

In the video below, Mama Bear’s pace never changes as her young cubs (born in the Spring) frolic around her. They stopped to sniff and eat a few berries, wrestled with each other a bit, then ran to catch up, never letting her out of their sight.

 

beavers stockpiling willow in their winter cache

These four beavers were busy storing willows in their cache for consumption during the long winter. They construct underwater accesses to their lodge (the mound of sticks in the foreground) and cache because the surface of the pond will be frozen over.

trumpeter swans on Wonder Lake

 

sandhill cranes heading south

We heard them calling before we could see them, two large flocks of sandhill cranes preparing to head south. They will follow the Alaska Range southwest until they come to a low pass where they will wait for air currents strong enough to lift them up and over the mountains. These two flocks merged and separated, merged and separated, and finally merged as one before heading toward the mountains.

We saw hundreds of sandhill cranes preparing to migrate. Our guides say that the crane’s migration is their cue to make their own preparations to head south. Safe travels everyone! We’ll see you cranes this winter in Florida!

North Face Lodge

at the park entrance

Last February I was researching a place to stay inside Denali National Park. I had read that the best place to see wildlife is as deep into the interior as visitors can go. There is only one road into the park, and it’s 92 miles long. The first 15 miles is open to car traffic, but the next 77 is open only to the buses that ferry almost 600,000 visitors a year in and out. With stops for wildlife viewing and other necessities, these buses don’t average much more than 10 mph on a bumpy, gravel, single-track road. I started thinking: 92 miles at 10 mph—the drive could take nine hours in one direction! I planned on visiting the park every day for four days, and I had no intention of living on a bus. We were going to have to stay in the park.

a warm welcome at North Face Lodge

There are only three places to stay inside the park, and one involves cabins without plumbing. Scratch that—an outhouse down a dark path on a cold, windy night was not in my plans either. We chose the North Face Lodge, the camp’s sister lodge just down the hill. I read something about guided hikes on the website. Not sure where, when, or how that would work, but if it didn’t suit our needs, we could always do our own thing.

a fireside chat before breakfast

We discovered that the lodge had our entire four-day adventure planned down to the personalized napkin pins. We were met at the park entrance, assigned to a bus, relieved of our luggage, and welcomed aboard—along with 30-some other people. The 17 rooms at the lodge would be occupied for four days by the same group of people. Everyone arrives on the same day and leaves on the same day. We were greeted at the lodge by two energetic, young hosts who, over the course of our four-day visit, told us where we needed to be next, and what we had the option of doing there. They were supported by a whole passel of staff who rotated through various tasks: naturalists, guides, bus and van drivers, cooks, servers, gardeners, dishwashers, housekeepers, and more. The lichen expert may be your bus driver/hiking guide one day, and the next morning she’s serving you stuffed French toast. They were an incredible team, so enthusiastic about spending their summer in the great outdoors.

personalized napkin pins defined our social groupings

We were delighted to be part of this little family. We ate our meals together, and at each meal we were seated with someone we hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet. Each day after breakfast we chose our own level of adventure: strenuous, moderate, or foray. Or we could choose to stay at the lodge and hike their nature trails, bike, canoe, or just sit by the fire and read. Selecting our own tempo provided a different way of mixing us up. After finishing a moderate hike on the tundra the first day, we were a bit envious of the forayers who did less walking and more riding around in vans to carefully selected locations where large mammals were known to hang out. So the second day we chose to foray, and we had an opportunity not only to see wildlife, but also to get to know a different group of people. Normally I like to call the shots about what we do and when we do it, but this was so well orchestrated and so congenial that I felt a bit sentimental on the day we departed. What a marvelous group of people—both guests and staff—and what an enjoyable way to share a common passion! I’m going to miss them. Sometimes it’s fortuitous not to know what you’re getting into.

We interrupt this broadcast…

Irma’s projected path

…with this urgent message: Travel home has been delayed due to the impending, catastrophic hurricane Irma.

We left Anchorage yesterday bound for home by way of Portland, Oregon. We had planned to stay only one night (to catch our collective breath and see Adam and Megan one more time), but as every television at the hotel and airports blared out reports that Irma continued to gain strength and wind speed, her destination still Florida, we began to consider a longer stopover. It just didn’t make sense to head into this mayhem. Our one hesitation: ensuring Marcus’s mom did not have to weather the storm alone. Once we had confirmation that Marcus’s brother was able to get her reservations on a flight out of Florida today, and a personal limousine to drive her an hour and a half south to Miami, we started working on our exit (or more precisely, non-entry) strategy.

Flights have been re-scheduled to next week, an Airbnb apartment secured in Portland, rental car acquired, groceries purchased, next week’s appointments postponed…. Did we forget anything?

Now we will try to relax and make the best of our extended stay in Portland–just as soon as we hear Naomi is safe in Connecticut.

Whenever we travel during hurricane season, which is usually when we travel, we recognize that our home could be hit while we are away. So we button it up tightly and hope for the best. Somehow, though, I never envisioned having to race a hurricane home. And for what? Perhaps there is a reason that we find ourselves on the west coast at this time. Just wonder what we will return to when we finally get home.

Thanks for your concern and thoughtful communications. And please continue to keep all those who are in Irma’s path–whichever path she takes–in your thoughts, as I’m sure you have with Hurricane Harvey’s survivors.

And now, back to our regular broadcasting….

Denali Drive-in

 

The drive in to Denali National Park started as a typically overcast Alaskan day. The rain drizzled down the bus windows as we made our way from the park’s entrance into the interior. But the rain didn’t dampen our spirits. Our eyes were glued to the landscape, scanning for anything that moved. This park is the most likely place to see Alaskan wildlife in its natural habitat, the reason 30-some strangers had boarded a bus to spend four days together in the wilderness. “It’s snowing!” the bus driver announced. We readjusted our focus and discovered that, indeed, those raindrops had turned into fat, icy snowflakes. The first of September and the first snow of the season on the park road (approximately 2000 feet above sea level).

As the skies cleared through the afternoon, we could see a thin dusting of snow–termination dust, they call it–on the Alaska Range foothills. The powder on the donut, so to speak. Some day soon these hills, and the tundra below them, will be a white wonderland.

By the time we stopped for our picnic dinner, around 4:00, the sun was shining so brilliantly we had to don hats and sunglasses and remove layers of jacket. We gazed across the east fork of the Toklat River at the frosted foothills, a stunning backdrop against the reddish glow of the tundra. We had been so intent on finding wildlife that we neglected to notice the beauty around us. Mother Nature had to wake us up a bit. I’m sure she had a good laugh over that one.