Friday, May 18, 2012


You've heard me talk about the beautiful Kenai River with its turquoise waters. I'm not exaggerating.

Cooper Landing, Alaska

Pretty soon all the rocks showing at the water's edge will be covered over. The river is low right now as spring has only just begun. Waterfalls are everywhere, from trickles to gushers. Mountain snow is melting and running downhill. Soon the Kenai River will be deep and swift, accommodating fishing float trips and even some white water raftering in spots.

The River changes in its coloring. Depending on its depth, the sun and clouds, and who knows what else, the color ranges from bright turquoise to deep blue to Alaska gray. Many waters are gray here. It's the glacial run-off. All the rocks are grey and, of course, so is the sand. As glaciers move their way down mountains, they grind along the rocks and bring the gray dirt down into the water with them. Some waters up north are so silty there's no fish in them.

But down here on The Kenai (Peninsula, that is), in time, the waters will be teeming with salmon!

Sunday, May 13, 2012


Alaska has a particular business that I've not seen anywhere else. Showers. A lot of Alaska's visitors are campers, and campers need a place to get a hot shower now and then. Cooper Landing has a little store that also has a laundry and showers.

I'd heard The Fisherman talk about Wildman's before and I suppose it was the name that made me think it was a rundown dirty place. Not so. I was pleasantly surprised to find it a clean and quaint little establishment. The store has your basic minimal stock of snacks, drinks, t-shirts, and miscellaneous items, but it also has ice cream (Dreyer's in a freezer and soft serve) and a little sandwich/pizza counter. The laundromat and shower area is clean and nice.

Showering facilities around Alaska vary but most of the ones we've been to show an effort to make them nice and comfortable. It seems every one has a different method of operation.

At the Soldotna Wash and Dry you pay $5 to the attendant and receive a towel, bathmat, washcloth, and mini bar of soap. You're allowed 20 minutes in the shower room, but no one has ever enforced it.

The Trapper Creek showers, north of Anchorage near Talkeetna, are coin operated. I've yet to figure out exactly how much they cost by the time I add quarters to keep it going just a little bit longer.

The showers in Seward are the worst. They're down at the marina and are like the shower room of a college dormitory. I can't even remember how you pay for those since we only went there once years ago.

At Wildman's in Cooper Landing, you purchase a $4.25 token from the store clerk. Once you put the token in the machine, the shower operates for about 8-10 minutes. The secret is to be fully prepared, hurry at first and then enjoy whatever leftover water you have coming.

I decided that since this public shower thing is such a unique part of our lives in Alaska, it's worth documenting. Here are the first photos of my Alaska Public Shower Series. (It will be a short series as I've already revealed the whole gamut of our shower encounters here.)


Not to bad, eh?

I put the bathmat up against the door so no one on the outside would see my camera flashing.

We bring our own towels. Mine is a nice soft beach towel. I don't mess around.

The token.

This is where Wildman's is, as I showed in an earlier post about Cooper Landing.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


The other day I walked out of the local super store, Fred Meyer (known affectionatley as "Freddie's") and saw this truck. A sure sign of "break up" is mud everywhere. Alaskans call spring "break up" because of the way river and sea ice breaks up when things start to thaw.

This truck was actually dripping with mud.

That plug dangling from the front of the truck is for plugging in to a heater in winter to prevent freezing. In the "interior" and the far north of the state, business have electric outlets in front of parking spaces allowing you can plug in while you're in the store so you can actually start your car when you come back out.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

COOPER LANDING - In the Shadow of Cecil

Driving to work today from The Bear and Miss K's I was impressed anew with the spectactular situation of the tiny town of Cooper Landing. Between two mountains runs the turquoise Kenai River. A narrow stretch of land lies along either side. Sometimes it's just one side or the other, not both.This is Cooper Landing. About 10 miles long, the town consists of a gift shop, that's for sale. A mom and pop grocery, that's for sale. A mini-mart, that's for sale. Another mini-mart with showers and a liquor store. There are a couple restaurants, guided fishing outfitters, and several thriving lodges and B & Bs.

With a year round population of around 350, Cooper Landing's narrow two lane highway is bustling all summer long with trucks, RVs, campers, and motor homes. Traffic is thick. Then there's the occasional Bear Jam. That's when a bear is sighted along the highway, or crossing it, and all traffic comes to a standstill. Aside from the occasional impatient local who takes any opportunity to pass, traffic doesn't move until the first car decides they've seen enough of the great Alaska brown bear. The Kenai Peninsula is home to a high concentration of brown bears and the Cooper Landing area knows an even greater concentration. That's because of all the fish. When the salmon come in from the ocean, a huge portion of them come right up the Kenai. And where there's fish, there's bears.

Several years ago our friends took summer jobs working at Gwin's Lodge, a lodge-restaurant-gift shop-liquor store-charter booking-tackle shop. When the season ended, The Bear and Miss K stayed. Now they live on two acres nestled at the foot of Cecil. Their living room window is filled with the mid-mountain view of the northern range just a mile away.

You can see the roof of their garage at the very bottom left. Unfortunately, the mountains were shrouded in clouds. If they weren't you'd see them nearly filling the top of the photo, too.

Living in the shadow of Cecil, their place doesn't get as much sun as most places in Alaska. They've had a hard time growing a garden because, while in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Cecil and several giant trees keep them shaded most of the time. Being at the base of a southern mountain also means the days get shorter faster in the fall and the sun takes a little bit longer to make its appearance come spring.

These next two photos give you and idea of Cooper Landing's situation between the mountains. Here I'm looking south from the porch of a local shop I'll write more about in a couple days.

And here's the north view from the parking lot of the same store. The mountains are so close and little Cooper Landing is nestled in between.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sunday, May 6, 2012
Back down in Cooper Landing at our cozy s-p-a-c-i-o-u-s cabin. Boy, I tell you, there's nothing to get you appreciating a small one room cabin like camping in an overcrowded van. At 22 degrees. It felt SO good to stand up, walk around and spread out! To actually have a surface on which to put things down is great!

The Fisherman and The Bear are on another adventure together. This time it's not fishing, excavating, or building, but making beer. Neither of them over-drink but they do enjoy the taste of a variety of good beers. Making beer is something The Fisherman has done before, but not The Bear. They'll share their homemade ale with each other over the course of the summer. Here's the measuring:

(Don't you just love The Fisherman and the way he makes adds drama to a photograph?)

And the mixing:

The breathing:

And more mixing.

And rocking and rolling.

And the dog...

...who's just too cute not to include.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Saturday, May 5, 2012
My day has arrived! Neccessity required I share it with the tires, however. Other than visiting some native galleries, which we stumbled upon last night, there was only one thing I knew I wanted to do, and it's not that big a thing. Actually, there's something big that I REALLY want to do in Anchorage but it's not open for the season yet. It's Seavey's Wild Sled Dog Show. I've been interested in it for years, ever since I got hooked on the Iditarod. But now that 26 year old Dallas Seavey WON the 2012 Iditarod, well, now it's a must! Maybe I can do that when I have to drive to Anchorage for The Fisherman's Africa trip. I'm also looking forward to seeing my Anchorage friend from the Christian Writer's Conference atGhost Ranch.

Anyway, back to The Ulu Factory. Ulu knives are native tools with a curved edge and a short handle held in the palm of the hand. They're very popular tourist items but very functional as well. I love mine at home for chopping and dicing salsa ingredients. Unfortunately, the Ulu Factor was a let down. The metal smith doesn't work on the weekends, the wood shop was simply creating the cutting board bowls that come with some ulu knives (an all automated process within a casing so there was nothign to see), and the gift shop was small and typical. We did see some nice and expensive ulu knieves with antler handles, as well as some antique ulus from the owners personal collection, relics from ancient native villages. On to the tires and then down the Turnagain Arm to the Kenai Peninsula where we had dinner with The Bear and Miss K. Slept in the waterless but spacious (16x16) and warm cabin that held most of our stuff during our road trip north.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday, May 4, 2012
Well, hold on now. The Fisherman got a message on his phone from a ministry he's travelled with for mission trips to Africa. This past March in Ethiopia he split his repsonsibilities between the prayer room for the medical mission and photography. He was the trip photographer. They like his work so much that he has been granted scholarships to go on several trips a year. These trips cost a couple thousand dollars each so this is a huge blessing. The message he received said it was urgent. Turns out, the photographer scheduled to go on the Zimbabwe trip - in just 20 days - cancelled. They need a photographer pronto! We spent the day getting details, going to a public library to print emailed documents, filling out a visa application, getting visa photos taken, buying a money order and getting that all shipped off at the post office by overnight mail to the Embassy. The Fisherman's going to Zimbabwe!

Oh. Wait a minute. That means I'm going to be here in Alaska by myself. Yikes! Actually, it's going to be fine. We're not sure yet where I'll stay, but I'll be fine. I'll be camping, just like we do together, but we just have to select the safest place for me to do that alone. We'll be set up at the school by then.  Area schools arrange for summer campers to stay on the campus in exchange for use of electricity and sometimes showers. Their presence deters summer vandalism. The Fisherman's school is right in town but joins up to wooded areas on three sides of the soccer field at the back. He once woke up in the night to a bear sniffing at the back doors of the van. The Fisherman banged on the side of the van and scrambled for a look in the sideview mirror. What he saw was the backside of a bear sauntering away. Even though it was an uneventful encounter, we're not exactly sure we want me staying in that location alone.

Since the day was mostly shot with all the sudden Zimbabwe stuff we had to do, we decided to pursue the tire purchase. Back and forth we went between the dealership and Sears Automotive. The dealership had the best price but they only had one tire in stock. One. Sears had plenty in stock and would give us the Ford price if we had a quote from Ford. Sears' tires were already 1.5 years old just sitting on the rack. Hmmm. Do we wait for Ford until Monday (when I have to show up to work on Tuesday 120 miles away) or do we take old tires now? Back to Ford for advice and ultimately the quote. Now it's too late to get done tonight. Tomorrow. We did manage a couple hours downtown. We thought everything would be closed but it turns out it was First Friday!  All the galleries were open until 8:00. Yeah. Camped in Anchorage again.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thursday, May 3, 2012
We headed down to Anchorage today. We sent straight to a Starbuck's for the internet and began researching where we could find two replacement tires for the van and some tourist things I wanted to do. The remains of the day slipped away and we found ourselves too early for a too expensive movie, too early to go to bed, and with nothing else to do. We went into Sportsman's Warehouse and came out 2 hours later with a new gun, scope, and case. Now I know how a man feels when he goes shopping with a woman. I was tired and had that glazed over look in my eyes as I stood, paced, wandered, and found the corner of a display to sit down on. "Tomorrow," The Fisherman said, "the whole day is yours. We'll do whatever you want the whole day!" Sounds good to me!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Wednesday, May 2, 2012
We ran into more snow last night between Healy and Denali Park. Just past Denali it was starting to stick to the road. We turned around, pulled into the fancy hotel parking lot, and crawled in the back for a cold night's sleep. With tons of extra blankets, sleeping with a ski hat on, and The Fisherman getting up to turn on the van and heat once in the night, we slept well. We awoke to 22 degrees but were toasty warm under the covers. We also awoke to blue skies. We drove in to the park again, pondering a change of plans. We got to the big hill going down to the Savage River and the road was covered with snow as far as the eye could see - down the hill, around the curve, and back up the other side climbing higher and bending around the hill. We turned around again. On the way out we saw more caribou and had the rare privilege of seeing a lynx cross the road in front of us. By the time we got to him, he was hiding in the woods. The Fisherman said to keep an eye on him because "they always turn back to have a look." Sure enough, he did.

We left the park for real this time and had clear skies and beautiful views of The Mountain all the way down to Talkeetna. What a treat. It was fun to see it from angles we'd never seen before.

We saw more caribou, grazing and crossing the road. I got a photo of one with Denali in the background. It's a little blurry but I'll post it anyway, because it's cool to have The Mountain in the back.  Some of the other photos came out better.

We stopped at The South View for awhile then drove on down to Talkeetna another 50 miles farther. Saw a bullet riddled sign on the way.

Talkeetna was mostly closed down, too. A couple of shops were open but by the time we parked and walked up, they were closed. It was 5:30. While there seem to be quite a few Christians living in Talkeetna, there is also an equally sized contingency of drug users. The town attracts young partiers and vagabonds in the summer. They had already begun to gather in the town park, hanging out in all their scruffiness accompanied by dogs, laughter and alcohol. We drove around town a bit, checking out some back streets of this tiny town with a year round population of about 750. The drive was disheartening because while the town's main street is quaint with rustic charm, just a street away are junky yards with unkept homes of various construction. Some were old motor homes with a constructed roof built around them. Some were just weather worn and sagging. It's a harsh climate here so I have to give grace for the difficulty in maintaining a home's appearance. Especially when the few jobs in town are tourist related and dependent on those 100 days per year I mentioned earlier. Some of the houses, though were nicely kept. There are acreages all along the 10 mile dead-end road into Talkeetna. It's possible that all the nicer homes are outside of the main town center and we just saw the rundown section of town. "Downtowns" are nearly always rundown.

Along the Talkeetna road we kept passing a really neat photo op. A frozen lake was thawing. Swirling through the thawing snow and ice were old snow mobile tracks from some obvious winter fun.

We stopped at a Denali view pull-out and fixed dinner. It was so cold! We were ready for a hot meal. We pulled out the generator and fired up the Fry Daddy. Deep fried halibut coming up! We also fixed some instant potatoes. The fish was hot but the potatoes? Not so much. It's hard to get water to boil when you're only using a little propane burner (a 5-inch-square stove-surface attached to a single propane bottle). And when it's 34 degrees out and the wind is blowing. I think most of my water steamed off before it had any hope of boiling. It didn't help either that the only pan we had was not a pot, but a frypan. Lots of surface area to steam away the water! But we enjoyed our hot halibut - perfectly crunchy and caught wild last year - and our flavorful but just-warm mashed potatoes inside the van as we warmed up with the heater blasting. Another night spent camped around Talkeetna. Saw a hint of Northern Lights right over The Mountain. By the time we drove the few miles to our view spot, they were gone never to return that night. We went back to sleep.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tuesday, May, 1, 2012
Took off headed north, looking for The Mountain and also The Lights. We drove north to Denali, Mt. McKinley. We planned to spend a couple days up here driving into Denali Park looking for wildlife, views of Denali, and the Northern Lights. We ran into a snowstorm instead. Tourist season's official beginning is typically May 15th. We knew we were early but we've been early before. The park lets you drive in on your own the 35 miles to Teklanika campground. But we couldn't even make it past Savage River (about 10 miles in?) because of the snow accumulating on top of the gravel road and underneath our two bad tires. Still we saw some caribou grazing on the vegetation newly uncovered with spring's arrival.

It was COLD. 19 degrees. The mountain tops were shrouded in thin veils of snow.

The snow on the way up produced some cool splashes of snow and slush all over the van. We may not have noticed it before it melted if we hadn't stopped roadside in the park to make some sandwiches. Someone pulled up in front of us and got out. It's common that when you see someone stopped at the side of the road, it's a sure bet they've spotted some wildlife. So when they stopped we thought, Oh they're going to be disappointed. When they got out and approached the van with their cameras we thought they'd be even moreso. But no, they asked us if we'd mind if they took some pictures of our van because of the ice formations. Huh? We went outside to look, and, I'll be darned. We got our cameras, too.

We learned the season up here is actually starting a week later than normal due to the Princess Cruise Line's change of schedule. They won't be running train trips up to Denali, or opening their hotel there, until the week after the 15th. All of the shops will be opening a week later this year. When you only have 100 days to earn your year's income, the loss of a week could be significant. We found only one shop open. They were mostly stocking their store but decided to turn the Open sign on. Boxes were everywhere while employees were folding and stacking t-shirts, pricing knick knacks, and dusting the remains of last year's merchandise on the shelves. The rest of the "town" of Denali Park was literally boarded up. With the dark weather and occasional snow, it was an eery and lonely place. We didn't like it.

We found gas and a restaurant open 10 miles farther down the road in the town of Healey. Only open two days, there was a nice crowd at the 49th State Brewery at 9:30pm. Free wi-fi enabled us to get online and check the weather and the aurora forecast for the next couple of days. Not good. We decided to head down to Talkeetna tonight.