Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ferry to Ketchikan

I boarded ferry about 2am. As I deposited my hazardous gas cans into the paint locker, I headed up to the purser's counter to get the cabin. MV Columbia, my ferry boat for this leg of the trip is older than MV Kennicott and little more luxurious. Same type of the cabin, roomette, was 100% better on Columbia vs. Kennicott. I had my own private bathroom and sink as well as clothing rack with hangers and power outlets. I went immediately to sleep. Little after noon we arrived to our first stop, Sitka. Sitka used to be the capital city of Alaska before Juneau existed and was cultural center in the Russian days.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Juneau Days

I got to Juneau on Saturday afternoon of the Memorial Day weekend. It was raining so I decided to get shopping out of the way and hope for drier weather in days to come so I can visit attractions around the town. Sunday was also rainy. I had to do something else than shopping so I looked for indoors attractions, like museums and churches. I visited Juneau Douglas City Museum and St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. Douglas is a town on the island across from Juneau connected by the bridge. I have no idea why they even bothered making a different city, I'd just call it West Juneau. That was a short lived excursion, so I went for a drive. There are not that many roads you can take so I headed to north end. I went as far as the road can take me, unpaved as well, to the Echo Lake. This is a heaven for ATV, crossers, campers and outdoors enthusiasts. FJ Cruiser was the smallest truck in the parking lot. Every single vehicle was largest possible pickup truck you can imagine, many lifted. Reason? They carry ATVs in the bed of the pickup truck, sometimes making platforms so they can carry two at the time. Anyway, this was not a place for me, so I headed back all the way south. In the end I ended up at the coffee shop, reading book for the rest of the day. On Monday they predicted only 20% chance for precipitation, so this was my attractions day.

Mendenhall Glacier is only 5 miles north of downtown Juneau. I did my standard touring stuff. First I visited the visitor center, where I got to see 11 minute video on Mendenhall Glacier. Then I walked around the exhibition to read up on history and other interesting facts. Lastly I headed up to the photo viewpoint to snap couple of pictures. To the left of the Mendenhall Glacier is a waterfall. That waterfall at one point was depositing its water into the glacier creating caves. With the glacier retreating over the years waterfall is now visible in its entirety. You should check out the photo album for week five for pictures and more details on the glacier.
Glacier used to stretch past todays visitor center back in 1930s. I trekked to the waterfall so I can get closer look of it and the glacier. It looked like a short hike but it was almost mile and half. I know that is short as well but I was trying to convey the message that it was a deception I was faced with. Anyway, waterfall is massive up close and loud. On my trek back to the parking lot something interesting happened. Piece of the glacier broke off. You can see which piece broke off because of the blue color of the glacier. Ice formations of the glacier trap all other colors of the spectrum except for blue. As you can see fairly large piece broke off. While in the 1990 glacier retreated only about 80 feet per year, in last five it has been more like 220 feet per year. Soon this glacier will be no more :(

Alaskan Brewery Tour - Brewery is in the industrial park for the obvious reason, space. They offer narrative tour and sampling of the different beers but have no food. State law prohibits food serving where large amounts of beer are produced and Alaskan Brewery is not a micro brewery. Of all the beers they make, I liked Smoked Porter and Oatmeal Stout the best. Their ESB (Extra Special Bitter Ale), Summer Ale, IPA (India Pale Ale), Pale and Amber were also excellent. Winter Ale was not in season, imagine that :) Beer is only distributed throughout the western United States. You can find out more at their official web site. Since the brewery was between the downtown and my motel, I stopped by couple of times for free samplings.

Mt. Roberts Tram - This is a must do attraction while in Juneau. You have couple of options depending on the time of the year. You can buy round trip tickets for the tram, or you can hike up the mountain trails and purchase $5 ticket to get back down. Also, if you spend more than certain amount of money at the restaurant or in gift shops they will waive the $5 fee. However, trails were not open this early in the season, since Mt. Roberts is at above 1500 feet and Juneau well at sea level. I took round trip ticket and hiked the available portions of the trails. I also stopped by the Juneau Raptor Center, which is a volunteer organization dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey (raptors). They offer rehabilitation to the injured birds and as well as educational programs to school groups and other community organizations. Currently they were caring for bald eagle which was found shot through the wing and is blind on one eye. I also had lunch at the restaurant and got probably the best seat in the house with wonderful vistas. I could see tram, downtown Juneau, all the cruise ships, whole of Douglas and Douglas bridge.

That pretty much wraps up my Juneau stay. If it did not rain as much I would probably have hiked couple of trails. Trails are abundant and seemed challenging with mountains so close to the coast, vertical gains are big and terrain is beautiful. Early in the morning I caught ferry to Ketchikan.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Alaska Marine Highway, to Juneau

Whittier to Juneau - In the morning I tried to spend some time around Anchorage but decided to wrap it up quickly and head to Whittier. I got just in time for the tunnel crossing. Anton Anderson tunnel connects Portage with Whittier. Whittier used to be solely Naval port, but after cold war ended they closed it down and turned it into new AMHS hub. It is closer to Anchorage than Seward, so they transferred most of the traffic from Seward to Whittier. Whittier is called strangest little town in Alaska. All people that work live in one building. That's it. There are no private homes. There are few shops and restaurants, most smaller that Manhattan size studio apartments. There is also one motel, Anchor Inn. It hosts a weirdest little museum I have seen so far. It is one room filled with memorabilia from colonial voyages, WWII, Cold War era and other significant weird Alaskan history stuff. Later that night I boarded MV Kennicott ferry. I got my cabin and went to sleep. Next day we arrived in Yakutat, about midway point to Juneau. I left the ferry to walk around Yakutat, and found that there is one pub and one general store. I stopped at each for different reasons, of course. Ten minutes later I was back on the ferry. Shortly afterwards we moved on to Juneau. I got to see some Orcas, spot some kind of whale in the far far distance and other than that it rained. I spent good deal of the ferry ride reading book and drinking beer. AMHS runs special on Alaska Brewery beers, $2.50 for bottle or tap (12 glass).

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Kenai Peninsula, Day 2

It was still raining when I woke up, so I decided to bundle up and head back north. I decided to stop again in Kenai, thinking I should get past Nikiski and into some state park, but half-way into Nikiski I turned back. It reminded me to much of Elizabeth, NJ or Richmond, CA, same type of deal, oil refineries and too industrial for my trip. As I was leaving Kenai, I spotted a restaurant with funky name and bunch of pickups parked up front. Ah, workers on the lunch break. Place is Little Ski-Mo's Burger-N-Brew. While lunching there on the burger n' beer, a moose-calf ran in the front lawn. It ran over the street and into the near by woods. Workers were rooting it on, "Run Forrest Run". Moose vs. car traffic 1-0. Elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula result was not so favorable for Mr. & Mrs. Moose with total of 264 deaths since the beginning of the calendar year. After lunch I quickly zoomed through Soldotna, Sterling, Cooper Landing, past Kenai Lake, and I reach Hope, AK; the best preserved gold mining town in Alaska. With the size and all tour was quick and I moved north towards Whittier. I found out the schedule for the tunnel and went to Anchorage for the night. Yes, it is still raining. Interestingly enough I got mistaken for Alaska number of time while I was on Kenai Peninsula. I decided it might have something to do with my unkempt looks. I have not shaved in 10 days and I was looking little Alaskan with that beard (sorry excuse for the beard), baseball hat and glasses. Right then I decided also that at some point I should get rid of the beard. :))

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Kenai Peninsula, Day 1

Seward looked little bit depressed to me, so I took off after a short ride around town. I pass through the village of Moose Pass. I hit the Sterling around lunch time. Here is where I applied my proven way to find decent place in town to eat. Drive around until you find the place with most cars parked in front of the place. I have applied this method many times during this trip and ... it did not fail me yet. So, I stopped and Suzie's and got Captain's Seafood Platter. Yummie!!! Remember this will work in places where you can reach all 5 corners of the place within 2 minutes of driving and principality has no more than 5 places to eat :))) I passed over Kenai River, then Russian River and got to Soldotna, then headed north to city of Kenai. I stopped by the visitor center and found out that the second oldest Russian Orthodox church is near by. I went to see it and got to chat with priest there.

After the repast, I moved south towards Homer. City of Homer in itself is nothing special, but Homer Spit is remarkable. It is the 2nd longest Spit in the world I was told by locals. After some friendly talk with a local owner of some art gallery, I was told that one place, one bar that is a must see in Homer, is of course Salty Dawg Saloon. So, I parked the FJ Cruiser and found Salty Dawg near by and went in. Nice bar, good local booze. They brew it and package it in used SoBe iced tea bottles. 20oz bottle for $8, good deal and good brew. I tried their Bitter first, then Wheat. Since the heavy rain started while I was at the Dawg I decided to bunk up at Bidarka Inn (Best Western) to upload photos and blog a little.

Monday, May 21, 2007

To Kenai Peninsula

Straight from the Salmon Bake Bar I went back to the campground and packed up the tent. I decided that I would not get much sleep and I had to be out by 11 so, I continued south on Parks Hwy towards Anchorage. I stopped at Trappers Creek to have a breakfast and load up on the coffee I needed badly. After I loaded up on the coffee, I decide that it would be fun to ride another 4x4 high clearance trail. Northwest of Trapper's Creek is road to Petersville, miners town back in the days. Road is about 28 miles long and crosses many creeks, canyons and valleys. However, I did not make it to Petersville. At about mile 22 I hit a mud patch which I did not wish to cross. I have crossed couple of mud patches already, and I had to stop for each one and walk it first to make sure I could traverse it. Since I did not install the winch there would be no way for me to pull the FJ Cruiser out if I did get stuck. And since there was nobody else on this trail, I had to turn around and head back. Oh, I so wished I spent another 2G on the winch :)

Shortly after I passed through Willow, Houston and Wasilla. I got to Anchorage in the early afternoon. I stopped by Toyota dealership but they were overbooked and could not take in next 3 days. Yeah right, like I have time to wait. So I washed the truck at the self wash. I found local Jiffy Lube and 10 minute oil change took 2 hours. Price was a bargain, twice what it costs in NYC. Welcome to Alaska! I did some quick shopping and continued towards Kenai Peninsula. As soon as I got on the highway I noticed that car was rattling at speeds over 50 mph. For some reason my wheels were out of balance. I decided to head back and got consultation from experts at Sears. After another 2 hour wait, I was ashamed by the local repairman. After the test drive he inspected the wheels and found the problem. He pulled me over and under the truck to show me. MUD and ROCKS. Apparently when I washed the FJ Cruiser I did lousy job and wash the outside of the tires only. So, I went back and did another car wash, this time, I did it proper. With wheels clean and no rattle, Kenai here I come. I decided that I could make it to Seward just before midnight. I did, day over, sleep time. Read on...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Denali National Park

DNP Day 1 - From Fairbanks I took (George) Parks Highway south towards Denali National Park. After the bumpy ride of Dalton Highway, Parks Hwy felt like Formula 1 GP track. I could even open the windows down, for there was no dust! As you leave Fairbanks, road heads straight through the mountains. First valley leads straight into Nenana. About 5 miles north of Denali NP entrance I took a Stampede Road. It heads northwest-west over the valley's north of Denali NP for a beautiful view of northern ridges. Of the 23 miles only first five were paved, rest was labeled as 4x4 vehicles with high clearance. It was a nice drive by the lakes across ridges and by the rivers.

I decided to have lunch at Rose's Cafe, small diner just before NP. There I had their infamous Grizzly Burger, 1 lbs. of beef, topped with fried egg, bacon, cheddar and swiss cheese, and large portion of French fries. They take your picture before you start eating. If you finish it all, including fries, they post picture on their web site as well as printed copy on the wall in diner.

I checked into the Riley Creek Campground (inside of Denali NP) and setup my tent for the night. After that I drove 14.8 miles into National Park. That is as far as you can get in your own vehicle. Rest of the road (unpaved) is only accessible by Shuttle and Tour buses, except for workers and rangers.

DNP Day 2 - I started the day two with Shuttle bus tour. Tolkat Shuttle bus takes you to the Tolkat River, 53.4 miles into the park. It is not a tour bus, so the driver does not have a script to narrate. However, I got lucky and got the loud mouth. Mr. Gary Borenstein has been the driver for last 14 years and worked in Park last 30+ years. He lives about 8 miles south of the Park and claims to be a walking encyclopedia on DNP. Regardless to say he talked to much. Shuttle bus stops every time some notices an animal. 6 hours ride turned out to be about 8+ hours. Eventually even Gary stopped talking and drove without stopping. It was getting late. I did not get to see much more than that I have not seen already. Dalton Highway has spoiled DNP for me. I have seen most of the wild animals already. Well except, brown bear - grizzly. And they were really far far away.

I finished of the night at Salmon Bake Bar and Restaurant. They had live music for the most of the night. Band named Denali Cooks, was formed of the former Denali area cooks, hence the name. Music was nice mixture of blues, jazz, bluegrass and classic rock. I closed the bar around 4am.