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Destination Alaska Part V: A 66-Day Trek to the Last Frontier

Stunning beauty, crazy signs and the Fourth of July

Independence Mine (Photo credit Sheryl Gallup) Independence Mine (Photo credit Sheryl Gallup)

By: Sheryl Gallup

This is Part V of an eleven-part series

Click here for Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Today, we finally left for the Kenai and it was only about a two-hour drive from Anchorage to Sterling on the Kenai Peninsula where we are camped. It feels great to be here. It has been raining on and off all day, but it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the mountains as we travel today. Some of the mountains during our trip have been barren rock. Some have been mostly covered in snow and glaciers, but my favorite mountains are those green and full of life.

As we traveled along the Seward Highway, I was fascinated by the mud flats. When the tide is out, there are miles and miles of mud flats and they look so inviting that I wanted to squish the mud between my toes. But, unfortunately, they are also deadly as the ground is so unstable that it is like quicksand. They have signs posted all along the highway warning of the danger – obviously, so that people don’t go running through there squishing mud between their toes.

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Turnagain Arm, Seward Highway and the Mud Flats

As we drove today, we passed over the Kenai River a number of times and the water has that same turquoise color that so many of the mountain lakes have. It is so breathtaking and I still find it hard to believe that it is all due to rock flour.

We read about a nice campground in Sterling called Real Alaskan Cabins and Campground and decided to give it a try. We are very glad that we found it because the sites are wooded, and more off of the highway than some of the others we saw in town. Because we are staying here for three days, that means we will be in camp for the Fourth of July. The campground hosts told us that they are hosting a Fourth of July celebration with fresh halibut and BBQ ribs. Sounds like good eating and good times to me.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

I have been thinking about earthquakes a lot since I saw a sign on the Seward Highway a few days ago announcing the location of the worst earthquake in Alaska history. It happened in 1964 and measured 9.2 on the Richter scale. So, today I decided to Google earthquakes to read more about it. Instead I was distracted by another official website announcing that we had 14 earthquakes in southern Alaska just TODAY! And there have been 76 just in the last 7 days. I realize that they were small, measuring between 3.2 to 5.3 but, just the same, I like the ground under my feet to be solid.

We took the Sterling Highway today on the journey to Homer and the Homer Spit. I have been eagerly awaiting the Kenai Peninsula, Homer and the Spit since we started planning this trip a year ago. The town is so quaint and I love all the shops, restaurants and the harbor.

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Homer Spit Shops

We walked along the marina and hit most of the shops on the Spit, then headed to this adorable restaurant for a late lunch. The Harbor Grill had the best crab cakes and fish tacos I have ever eaten. We sat near the windows overlooking the marina and took our time to just relax and watch the boats coming in and out of the marina.

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Homer Spit Marina

On the way out of Homer we stopped at the Islands and Oceans exhibit which is presented by the USF&WS. It provides an introduction to the Aleutian Islands Wildlife Refuge and the birds and animals that inhabit it. It was heart-warming to know that the entire Aleutian Islands are owned by the USF&WS and that means that it is protected and will be there forever for all of us to appreciate.

From the museum, we had a spectacular view of the Cook Inlet and we took some time to enjoy the view and to look through the telescope to see the mountains that surround it.

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Cook Inlet, Homer

During our day trip today, we stopped at a few recreational areas with beaches. This too was one of my favorite activities for the day because it allowed me to look at the ocean, walk on a beach and look for rocks.

Thursday, July 4, 2013 (Independence Day)

Our destination today was Kenai City on the Kenai Peninsula. I was very anxious to get on the road this morning so that we could visit yet another coastal town. Now, you would think that a town that bears the same name as the peninsula it is sitting on would be really cool. Not true. When we drove into Kenai City and the first things we saw were a Home Depot, McDonald’s and a Wal-Mart, I knew this town was not for us. The city is modern and fast paced and, in our opinion, they have commercialized their history basically removing nearly all of it. The Visitor Center in the heart of town did have some interesting exhibits that discussed First Nations history, and they had some beautiful ivory and antler carvings, but not much in the way of the history of the town.

At the information desk at the Visitor Center, I asked where the old part of the town was, and I was surprised when I was told that I was pretty much standing in the middle of it. Yup, about a block away from the Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Home Depot is the start of their “old town.” I was provide with a walking tour map, but when I read the map it displayed where the old buildings are, but most of them were not in their original locations and most of them were not that old as they were circa 1940s and 1950s. Some of the old buildings now housed a business of some sort. Kenai City was a very clean city and had a nice backdrop. Had we needed to do some shopping we probably would have appreciated it more.

We jumped back into the truck and decided to drive around the town and see if we could at least see the Kenai River or something. We went to a delta marsh estuary to see what we could see but it was mostly seagulls and a few water birds.

Without much to see in Kenai, we boogied out of town and headed back to Soldotna. From there, we decided to explore the Funny River Road, mostly because the name intrigued us. The road eventually came to a dead end by the Funny River, but at least the drive was in the wilderness and away from the chaos of town.

We ended our day today by attending a Fourth of July picnic hosted by the camp managers and the owner. They provided BBQ ribs, elk strips and fresh halibut and the rest of the campground provided side dishes. It was fun to celebrate, especially since all of us are away from our homes and our families this holiday. The number one question on everyone’s lips was, “Where are you from?” We met some great people from Reno, Nev., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a few resident Alaskans. It was very useful to chat with the Alaskans who told us places that we just couldn’t miss, what to avoid, and which roads were acceptable for traveling with a trailer.

Some of the men at the picnic worked in the oil industry and had various jobs on the pipeline or on oil rigs. It was fascinating listening to the stories about the pipeline. I learned quite a bit about how they compensated for the extreme conditions and the extreme fluctuations in the temperatures. One of the questions Woodzjoe asked of the pipeline workers was, ”Why is gasoline so expensive in Alaska if the pipeline is here and also refined here?” They all laughed and we felt left out of the joke until they explained that it is a real sore subject for Alaskans because the answer is, it shouldn’t be that expensive.

Tomorrow we leave for Seward on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. Based on what I have read, and what friends who have been there have told me, we shouldn’t be disappointed.

Get me back to the wilderness!

Friday, July 05, 2013

We reached Seward about noon, found a campsite very quickly and were shopping in the quaint little downtown area within an hour. We are camping in an area called Resurrection Bay which is on the east side of the Kenai Peninsula. We are right on the waterfront and when we first got into town we could see the mountains among the clouds. But, the rain moved in and with it the fog. Now, the entire bay is cloaked in fog and clouds giving it sort of an eerie feeling.

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Brown and Hawkins Store, Seward

The town of Seward doesn’t quite have the same charm that Homer and Skagway had, but I applaud them for not commercializing their old part of town and that they kept some of the old charm from the 1900s. I also enjoyed the murals. Seward is full of hand painted murals and it adds great charm to the city. My favorite was near the Alaska SeaLife Center and it was an illustration of some whales and some perching water birds.

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Whales Mural

We also entertained ourselves at the Alaska SeaLife Center located at the end of the downtown area right on the bay. It was a beautiful tribute to cold water sea life including fish, sea creatures, water birds and seals. The aquariums were not the biggest I have seen, but I enjoyed seeing the variety of sea creatures that I don’t often get an opportunity to see like octopus, invertebrates, star fish and jellyfish. The salmon tank was rather cool, and we both really enjoyed watching the seals. I also respect that these exhibits are dedicated to research, rescue, and rehabilitation of marine life.

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Alaska SeaLife Center

Seward is called the Gateway to the Kenai Fjords National Park and Woodzjoe and I are committed to taking the tour on our next trip to Alaska. But, it also involves either a full day or a half-day trip by boat and we really felt like we needed to keep moving.

It has been raining all day. In fact, it has rained every day for the four days that we have spent on the Kenai Peninsula. We must be in a rainforest. I bought some postcards of Seward so that I knew what it looked like because what we can see through the fog, rain and low-lying clouds looks nothing like the postcards. Time to move to drier ground tomorrow, and that means inland.

We have been amused by some of the signs that we have seen on our trip. We found this one today on the Seward Highway.

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Fish viewing? Where?

What was odd about this is that it was at a pullout and there was no water there. So, either the fish emerge on Seward by land during August and September, or maybe fishermen set up booths so you can take a gander at the fish late in the summer. It is too funny.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Saturday we traveled from Seward towards Anchorage back through the Turnagain Arm. While traveling the Seward Highway we saw two moose, knee deep in muck in the middle of a marsh. We would have loved to stop for a Kodak moment, but sadly traffic was heavy and there was no pullout. Shortly after we saw the moose, we had an opportunity to pull into a pullout and watch the tide rolling into Turnagain Arm. It was fascinating to watch the ocean water level rise while the mud flats slowly disappeared.

After Anchorage and headed out of town about 45 minutes to Wasilla, we knew right away that we were going to like this town. Lake Wasilla was right along Highway 3 – Parks Highway. For a moderately populated town, it had the conveniences for shopping including a Target, and it had restaurants as well. We found a Best Western right on Lake Lucille, and the setting was so beautiful we knew we wanted to stay there. This hotel was very nice and the view of the lake made it a peaceful setting.

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Lake Lucille, Wasilla

This morning we enjoyed our breakfast in the hotel dining room while sitting lakeside for one more view before we hit the road. What made this morning unusual is that we didn’t really have a plan on where we wanted to venture. Usually, we live by the Milepost book and have everything all planned a day or two in advance, but today, we decided we liked Wasilla so much we just wanted to explore it more.

We drove around the city a little than decided to explore the Palmer Fishhook Road and the Wasilla Fishhook Road which connects with the Hatcher Pass Road. It did not disappoint. It is a paved, winding road that follows the shore of the Little Susitna River. This is the closest I have felt to the mountains the entire trip. Usually the road cuts through the mountains or is alongside the highway, but for some reason, it was as if the mountains came down to meet us right next to the road. It was almost a spiritual experience to me. I felt so blessed to be there in that moment.

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Little Susitna River

The river was crystal clear and a beautiful color of turquoise. As the water rushed by it looked so inviting. At one of the pullouts, we stopped and took some pictures and then noticed that one of the roadside exhibits explained that we were standing in the middle of the Castle Mount Fault Line. Since I have been a little concerned about earthquakes that sign sort of set me on edge for a little while, but then we moved on and with every bend in the road the river changed and the mountains became more beautiful.

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Mountain View from Hatcher Pass Road

The road changed as we traveled. When it began to climb towards the Independence Mine, we knew that this was going to be a bit more difficult travel hauling the trailer.

The road to the mine was paved, but very steep, narrow and winding. My eyes were closed through parts of that climb, and I was already full of anxiety about the trip back down the mountain which would be on the cliff side, not the mountainside.

Independence Mine was well worth the trip. It was one of the few hard rock gold mines in the state of Alaska. It was active in the 1930s and 40s and much gold was discovered there. Many of the original buildings are still standing and were representative of the mine manager’s office and home, cookhouse, land office, schoolhouse, bunkhouses, and more.

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Independence Mine

We spent a couple hours at the mine and thoroughly enjoyed it. Had it not been raining, we might have hiked some of the paths that surrounded the mine. But, now that we are on about day eight of rain, we really did not want to spend that much time hiking around in it.

The drive down the pass was scary and we were careful not to burn out the brakes, but Woodzjoe is an expert at handling our rig so I just kept my eyes closed so as not to panic and freak him out, and we got down the road just fine. Important to note that if you ever choose to do this road, leave your big rig behind and take a car or truck up the road. The best part of the road, so we heard, is when the pavement ends and it turns to gravel and continues to climb up the mountain. Hatcher Pass is actually a loop road, but with our rig we could not take that route.

We are camping tonight in Willow, right along the Kashwitna River. The River is really shallow next to the campground but fish are jumping like crazy. As they jump, they appear to be red in color so we think they are salmon. But the season does not open for another week – or so we heard.

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Magpie

I fell in love with these beautiful Magpies while we were still in Canada, but they never sit long enough for me to photograph them. Finally, today while Woodzjoe was panning for gold, I sat in the truck and read a book. This little friend kept walking around by the truck so I finally got his picture.

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