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!

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.

Denali Bark Rangers

the dogs resting on their shelters

We had an hour or so to kill before catching our bus into Denali National Park, so we headed over to the park’s kennels to check out the dogs. Denali is the only park in the US National Park Service to employ sled dogs.

Before Harry Karstens became the first superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park in 1921, he was a mail musher—delivering mail via dog sled as far north as Fairbanks, south to Valdez, and west to Kantishna, now the terminus of the 92-mile road that traverses the park. Harry was chosen for the job because he knew the terrain and how to deal with the elements. And he recognized that he couldn’t protect over two million acres in winter without sled dogs. He hired rangers and assigned each an area of the park to patrol for poachers who were killing off the wildlife. Each ranger was given a sled and seven dogs from the park’s kennels, developed by Karstens himself.

The Denali National Park kennels are still going strong. Today poaching is not such a problem, but the park was tripled in size in 1980 and dogs are a necessity to cover all that acreage in winter. Currently there are 35 Bark Rangers, all Alaskan huskies. Each year a new litter is added to the crew and the most senior dogs are retired and put up for adoption.

 

These dogs love to run and live to work. They were marvelous to watch as they pulled a wheeled sled around a gravel track for our enjoyment—and theirs! The dogs get so excited about being put to work that their human handlers have to “put them in two-wheel drive” to hitch them to the sled. They say that if they let the dogs approach on all fours, their enthusiasm could cause injury. The dogs are strong, especially around the neck and shoulders, and they have been trained from their puppy days to “hop to it” on their back legs. It’s the most natural thing in the world to them.

Go, dog, go!

 

Whoa, dogs!

 

Koven enjoying a chew toy for a job well done

 

Clove has a surprise in her shelter.

 

Three-week-old puppies–seven of them!

 

my favorite, an adorable female named Story

Talkeetna

Main Street, Talkeetna

Talkeetna lies between Anchorage and Denali National Park at the confluence of three rivers: the Susitna, the Talkeetna, and the Chulitna. Its name means “where the rivers join” in the native Athabascan language. At one time it was an important camp for the Athabascan tribes who congregated here in summer to catch and dry fish for the long Alaskan winter. “Na,” we found out today, means “river,” which is why we see it in so many Athabascan geographical names. Rivers were a source of life.

The town had a brief stint as a mining camp at the beginning of the 20th century, but the real boon—and one of the primary reasons it’s on the tourist map today—was the railroad. As with so many railroad construction camps that popped up along the tracks, Talkeetna grew from camp to village when railroad workers, drawn to the beauty of the place, chose to stay and plant roots. There are now about a thousand year-round residents. The population swells to around 3000 in summer.

Denali with the mighty Susitna River in the foreground

It’s easy to understand why people who come to visit choose to stay. The view of the Alaska Range on a clear day is breathtaking. And then there’s The Great One, Denali, that calls to professional climbers all over the world. The National Park Service ranger station in Talkeetna is the first hurdle potential climbers have to clear on their journey. Rangers ensure they are adequately prepared for what they are about to encounter. And once prepared, Talkeetna is where they hang out until the weather clears enough for them to be flown to the first base camp, usually on Kahiltna Glacier at 7200 feet. The ascent and descent typically take around three weeks. This year, in the short climbing season from April to July, 1189 people went up the mountain—and 1189 returned. Only 495 successfully reached the summit.

Obviously, we aren’t planning to climb the mountain. We stopped off on our way to Denali to see the cute little town that some claim was the inspiration for the 1990s television show, Northern Exposure.

the only stop sign in town

 

cute shop!

 

This shop sold nothing but salmon-oriented art. Beautiful stained glass!

 

Cute li’l cabin–love the moss growing on the roof!

 

Our li’l cabin, the historic Black John’s cabin built in 1933 by a miner/trapper.

I don’t recognize fictitious Cicily, Alaska, in Talkeetna, but we did get to stay in our very own little log cabin.

Cozy!