Monday, November 21, 2011

Haines, Alaska

On October 1st we left Homer, our next destination Haines. It was a 1,000 mile drive that took 2 ½ days, including a stop to change oil in the van, a job Spike did himself on a freezing cold, windy day in Tok, AK.  At this point we'd driven over 5,000 miles since leaving home.

To reach Haines from Homer we had to go north, retracing our route back to Palmer, then northeast to Tok before turning south. There are no shortcuts in Alaska unless you go by aircraft or boat.

A. Homer, AK
B. 1st night in roadside pullout.
C. 2nd night in roadside pullout.
D. Haines, AK

From Palmer we took the Glenn highway, a new route for us which went past Matanuska Glacier. Clouds were dark and heavy, trees were bare, we saw snow along the roadside and ponds were iced over. Winter was on our tail.

 It was growing dark with no prospects for overnight stopping in sight. Thank goodness for The Milepost Alaska Travel Planner. We highly recommend this publication to anyone driving to Alaska.  It became our bible for this trip. Among many other kinds of information, the Milepost informs you of every rest stop, trail head parking area, viewpoint pullout or pullouts of any kind. It gives descriptions of condition and configuration (paved or gravel, large or small, double-ended, etc.) and exact location by mile-marker reference and which side of the road. Even after dark we could find overnight stopping places with Milepost guidance.

On the road early the next morning we see sunrise on a snowy mountain.

As we crested a 2,000 ft. summit we were at snow-line. Here and there we saw fields of cotton flowers looking like snow banks.

A field of cotton flowers.

To reach Haines from Homer required two border crossings, first a return to Canada's Yukon Territory. We re-traced part of the Alaska Hwy as far as Haines Jct. This was the worst stretch of the Al-Can where cracks, pot-holes and frost heaves forced us to slow to 35mph. It was a bucking bronco ride for many miles, very rough on our 56 year old Moonshadow but she held up well.  Our second crossing was back into Alaska 40 miles north of Haines.

The further south we go, the more we return to warmer weather and autumn colors.
This lifts our spirits greatly, more sun, more brilliant colors, more beautiful Alaska.

One thing we learned about Alaska is that in Alaska the law allows travelers to camp anywhere on public lands they can find a space to park. As we neared Haines roadside spaces were full of campers. Here we spotted a little Alaskan humor.

The Haines Hwy follows the Chilkat River where a late season coho and chum salmon spawn was taking place. Fishermen were numerous. This explained the large population of campers in October.

The only full-service Haines RV park still open in October was Oceanside RV Park, located on Portage Cove off the Chilkoot Inlet. Moonshadow shines like a lone star in a field of white boxes.

We soon learned the coming weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving. Haines would be further inundated with Canadian campers toting fishing gear. We decided to stay put through the holiday. This made our stay in Haines seven days.

Next morning's view of Portage Cove from the RV park.

The Haines area is noted as a location for massive congregations of bald eagles in the winter. As many as 3,500 have been counted along the Chilkat River between mid-October and January. Unfortunately we were a week too early. We saw only a few clusters here and there on gravel bars.

Another beautiful scene along the Chilkoot Inlet that may become a painting.

Morning Mist Beyond Portage Cove, 11x14 oil
Painted looking east from Oceanside RV park.

On approach to Chilkoot Lake.

The Oceanside RV park owners love to host crab boils for their guests. At $6 per crab we pitched in for two. These were the fresh catch of the day.

Once crabs were boiled and ready to eat, the RV park residents gathered together, each contributing a potluck item to the feast. We cracked crabs, talked and ate for hours.

Majestic mountains along the Chilkat River north of Haines.

Storm Over Portage Cove, 10x12 oil
Painted looking south from Oceanside RV park.

Our first Alaska sighting of Brown Bears, aka, Grizzlies.
This is a mother bear who has two nearly full-grown cubs.


We saw the mother and cubs everyday frequenting the Chilkoot Lake area. We could see she wore a tracking device and all three bears had ear tags. They were too busy catching fish and playing in the water to pay much attention to gawkers on the banks. Nevertheless, caution is always the rule.

Spike painting at Chilkoot Lake while grizzlies fish and frolic in the water below.

Chilkoot Lake on a misty afternoon. Our time in Haines included sunny, rainy and misty days. Spike especially liked the Chilkoot Lake scenes.

Riverside Totem pole. There were several beautiful, newly carved totem poles in the Haines area. We heard one could get a “totem pole tour” guide at the visitor center but we could never catch them when open.

Haines Borough Public Library Totem pole. This one was carved in 2009 by designer/carver Jim Heaton along with three Klukwan carvers and three teenage apprentices. It was designed specifically for the library. All the symbolism pertains to the library's history and purpose in the community.

Beautiful mountain view in Haines on our last day. We prepare to take the ferry to Skagway for the next leg of our journey.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Going South to Palmer and Homer, Alaska

Leaving Talkeetna our next destination was Palmer. Palmer is in the Matanuska Valley northeast of Anchorage, a wide valley surrounded by stupendous mountains. With the valley floor at an elevation of 240 ft., the abrupt slopes and sharply pointed mountain peaks tower imposingly above rich farmlands. We chose to explore this area because a friend back home described it as somewhat like the farm and ranch areas in Montana near the Tetons. That was true, but on a much grander scale.

In 1935, the era of the dust bowl and depression, the Federal Relief Administration, a New Deal agency, sent 203 families to join an agricultural colony in the Matanuska Valley in order to get a few poor farmers off the dole. It wasn't an entirely successful effort but some families stayed and the population grew. Agricultural no longer dominates but as we explored the region we did see red barns and green fields which make nice subject matter for paintings.  We also saw brilliant autumn colors and massive glaciers that were breathtaking. 

A. Talkeetna, AK
B. Palmer, AK
C. Homer, AK

Matanuska River and Chugach Mountains, seen from the Old Glenn Highway loop.

All the bushy-tailed squirrels we saw in Alaska were these very pretty Red Squirrels.

On an impulse we turned off the Old Glenn Hwy onto Knik River Road. It proved to be a beautiful drive.

A dramatic sighting of Knik Glacier, a river of ice and source of the Knik River.

Mirror-like reflections near Knik River.

View from our campsite at RV park in Palmer. As we reached the end of September
more and more State Park campgrounds were closed for the season.
We often ended up in private RV parks. 

Farmland in the Matanuska Valley.

12x16 watercolor painted on location (en plein air) 
Pioneer Mountain near Palmer, AK

Another spectacular view in Palmer, Alaska.

One highlight of our trip – seeing the Northern Lights on our last night in Palmer. We had been checking the aurora forecast website for current aurora activity. That night the activity level was 4 (on a scale of 1-10) and the visibility range shown on the map encompassed the Palmer-Anchorage area. The best time to see the lights is between 11:30 PM and 2:00 AM.

We had been collapsing into bed around 9:00 as the days grew shorter. When Sue awoke at 11:30 it wasn't easy to get out of the warm sleeping bag to step outside, but she was glad she did. She woke Spike up and he spent the next hour trying to get a good digital photo (not easy!) It was down to 27° F that night, the first time our water hose froze.

Heading for Homer, Alaska                               

Homer, a town of about 5,000,  is located on the southwestern Kenai Peninsula on the north shore of Kachemak Bay. We heard Homer has a large artist community due in part to their relatively mild climate and picturesque setting. This location was our first taste of the southern coastal part of Alaska.

Black bears, mother and cub (second cub is not in photo) We saw this family on the edge of Anchorage very near a big box store shopping complex. They were not at all concerned about our presence.

En route to Homer we spotted this Airstream transformation, a terrible fate for an Airstream! But we then realized that Beatrice Bee of the Beehive RV Park made a very effective mascot to attract the attention of travelers. Moonshadow just had to stop by to say hello and get a closer look.

View of the Chugach Mountains as we drove along Turnagain Arm, an inlet named by Captain Cook who was seeking the Northwest Passage in 1778. He thought it was a river and was greatly disappointed when he  reached the end and had to turn around again.

We took a short side trip off the route to Homer to see Portage Valley, a narrow glacier carved valley where one can see 6 glaciers flowing down towards the valley, though all have receded greatly in recent years.

Moonshadow with a view of Portage Glacier and lake. We stopped for lunch in the empty parking lot of the Portage Valley visitor center. Sadly it was closed for the season.

Moose cow with twins crosses the river as we leave Portage Valley.

We saw this classic scene of mountains, clouds and lake along the way. There was no pull-out but being off-season with hardly another car on the road we were often able to take a quick shot from the roadside shoulder.

All over glacier country we saw this amazing turquoise blue in lakes and rivers. It is caused by what is called “rock flour.” As glaciers move over the land, the rocks they pick up are ground to fine dust particles that become suspended in the water. This causes the light to reflect turquoise blue from the milky surface.

We arrived in Homer and got this beautiful late afternoon view of the Spit. The Homer Spit is a narrow bar of gravel that juts out 4.3 miles into the bay. In the big earthquake of 1964 parts of the Spit sank 4 to 6 feet, forcing some buildings to be relocated. Today it is the site of a major deep water docking facility and lots of touristy shops and eateries. Homer is a popular halibut fishing location and the home base of the 7-boats and crews featured on Discovery Channel's “Deadliest Catch” reality series.

While in Homer we were unfortunate to hit a spell of rainy weather which hampered opportunities for good photos, with the exception of this lucky rainbow shot. In many cultures rainbows are considered good luck. We embrace that belief, especially when it happens to come right to our doorstep.

10x12 oil, done on location (en plein air)
In spite of unfriendly weather Spike found a good overlook of Kachemak Bay
and did this painting.

We were fortunate to catch a fascinating art exhibit at the Pratt Museum in Homer, by far one of the best small museums we have ever seen. Their exhibits cover the art, science and culture of the area with beautifully designed interactive displays. This photo shows artwork by Margo Klass who was one of three artists and one scientist featured in a special exhibit themed on Boreal Birch.

Also worth seeing in Homer is the Bunnell Street Arts Center. For such a small town Homer has a lot of interesting cultural activity. We were sorry we could not stay longer.