Thoughts, ramblings, experiences and joys of an Alaska girl. Home is where the heart is, and my heart is firmly rooted in the Great Land of Alaska.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Three Bears, Two Moose, One Engagement

Yes, we made it to Denali for the road trip. The day dawned dark and dismal... but ended with me wearing the sun!

We headed to Cantwell to stay at the Cantwell Lodge on Saturday. The weather was gloomy, but I was so excited to be spending some alone time with Alex that nothing could have made me unhappy, even the weather. We stayed at the lodge that night, and I totally loved it. The lodge was great: two queen beds and a single bed in every room; a kitchen area (complete with dishes, a microwave and a small fridge); and tons of channels on cable! The host was friendly and the lodge was quiet and well maintained. We spent the night snacking on pizza bites and popcorn, washed the food down with a bottle of wine, and watched Trading Spaces all night. It was relaxing, peaceful and totally enjoyable.

The next day, Sunday, we headed to Denali. When we got to the visitors center, we were informed that the road was only open to mile 30, but I was still so excited to be there that I didn't care if we only got to go to mile 15, I was in DENALI! We headed to the Denali Princess for breakfast and some shopping before going into the park. We figured we'd avoid some lines that way. We watched a little football with some tourists in the lobby (their train had been delayed due to snow in Denali, and they were headed to the McKinley Princess).

We headed into the park at about 12:30. The colors of fall surrounded us like a blanket. Patches of snow were already forming, and we hadn't even reached mile 30 yet. Just before mile 15, traffic was stopped in both directions. It's amazing how many people will stop everything just to watch two moose eat leaves off of bushes. Just before Teklenika campground, I saw a reflection pond (lake) just off to the left in the trees. The rangers still weren't allowing us to go past mile 30, so Alex and I turned around and headed back to the lake so I could get some pictures. I hopped out of the car and made my way around the trees to get the "perfect" photo. The weather still wasn't cooperating. It was still a bit drizzly.

After I took some pictures, I started walking back to the truck, but found Alex still lingering down by the lake. I joined him at the edge, and we watched the ripples on the top of the water made by a beaver swimming to the far shore. I was getting cold, and asked Alex what he would say about heading back to the truck for some carmel popcorn (we had some for the road trip). He turned to me, and out of no where says, "What would you say if I asked you to marry me at this lake?" He pulled out a box with the most beautiful ring in it! I was in shock, I think. I pointed to the ring and said, "is that a hypothetical ring?" We'd joked all the time about "if we hypothetically get married," so I didn't know what else to say! I told him I would say yes, then I'd cry. Both of which I did.

On the way out of the park, we saw a mother bear with two cubs on the edge of a shallow river at mile 15. They didn't stay long, they had berry eating to do, I'm sure. The snow beyond mile 30 was already 5-6 inches deep, with more snow on the way, and winter fast approaching.

The weather may not have cooperated and brought the sunny skies we'd hoped for. We may not have seen much wildlife. We may not have been able to drive into the park to the end of the road. But, this will always be my favorite and most memorable trip to Denali. We don't know the name of the small pond/lake where Alex asked me to marry him, but for us, it will always be Engagement Lake.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Make New Friends, But Keep The Old

.... one is silver and the other is gold. That's how I'm looking at the changing of the seasons. Summer was a wonderful friend, a new friend (since it was my first summer in Alaska since moving back). Fall is my old friend here, my golden friend.

The city of Anchorage has officially called an end to summer. I wrote in one of my first blogs about how a friend had told me that the "official" start of summer in Anchorage was when the city put up the hanging baskets that line the streets of downtown. On the flip side of that coin, the city took down all the baskets yesterday. All that was left of them when I walked to work from the parking garage yesterday were the remnants of flower petals that had showered down upon the sidewalk when the baskets were removed. By lunchtime, even the petals were gone, after having been swept up by zealous sidewalk sweepers. Adieu, summer! Welcome fall!

We are in the process of moving into a new house with views that rival views I drive to Seward to see! We are still in Eagle River, but we are moving to a new place that will accommodate our family much better. The leaves on the trees in the backyard in the new place are already changing, yet another testament that fall has indeed arrived, whether the fall solstice has arrived or not.

I've been asked by friends Outside (outside of Alaska) how we survive the winters of Alaska. To tell you the truth, the winters in Anchorage aren't that bad. My mom told me that when we lived here when I was young that they weren't that much different than the winters I grew up with in Utah. If last winter was any indicator, the winters here are warmer than the ones I experienced when I lived in Whitefish, Montana and Chicago, Illinois. Granted, the darkness can make me a little less active, but I make sure to plan activities, regardless of the sunlight. That's one key, not letting the lack of sunlight keep you inside. Yes, it's chilly. Yes, it's dark. Yes, it can seem like winter lasts forever sometimes. There is, however, the gym. Last winter, Alex and I tried to go at least 3 times a week. We also planned snowshoeing trips to get us out in what sunlight there was, during daylight hours. Angie and I took trips to Talkeetna and Homer and Seward, which gave us something to look forward to, and a bit of a change of scenery. Sure, we were still surrounded by snow, but the wildlife and the people are definitely different and unique in the different places we visited. Just getting out and driving along Seward Highway and seeing the once free-flowing springs frozen by the winter cold was a wonderful get away. Alex has ski passes for himself and the kids for this winter, so they will be busy, and outside (that's a key, get outside) every weekend during winter. It also helps that the new house has a wonderful hot tub on the deck. Even if it's cold outside, we'll be nice and toasty, outside, enjoying the winter night air and hopefully get a glimpse of the aurora borealis. There's really nothing more invigorating or spirit lifting than seeing the Northern Lights dance across the sky!

There are other ways to get out of the house than dining at one of the Anchorage basin's many restaurants. There are several museums; the tourist shops that were teeming with tourists during the summer are now ours to rummage around in; there's the beer festival in October to look forward to; events in other cities, towns and villages to enjoy; events at the Performing Arts Center that we have tickets to already; many local theatre troops (including my favorite, Cyrano's). The Snow Goose has blues on Thursdays; there's the monthly First Friday Art Walks; there's Sidestreet Espresso for a great cup of coffee (latte, mocha, Americano... pick your poison); the Anchorage Museum hosts independent films and foreign films; and, there is MEETinAnchorage and the Anchorage Adventurers MEETup groups. My kids have also been reminding me of all the crochet and knitting projects I've neglected during the summer, and with the new house comes a beautiful new kitchen that I get the joy of learning to cook (all over again) in. I'm also going to spend the fall and winter reading up on wilderness survival, the plants and flowers of Alaska, mushrooms, and write out a list of activities so that spring and summer don't catch me off-guard with nothing planned (like they did this spring and summer). My fall and winter months are full, indeed!

There's no reason for me to stay inside the house, depressed that the weather isn't warm and beautiful, during the winter here. There's always something to do, it's just a matter of looking. So, how do I survive the winter here? The same way I do the summer. I get outside, I greet each day with a big Alaskan bear hug, I remember where I live and how lucky I am to live here with the people I love, whether the weather is warm or cold, sunny or snowy, splashed with spring color, green with summer foliage, yellow with the leaves of fall, white with winter's snow, foggy, rainy or beautiful and bright. Alaska is a place to be experienced, each day providing a new adventure, each season holding its own place in my heart and it's own set of activities in my day planner.
How do I survive the winter? I don't survive it, I live it, I love it, I relish it! When it comes, it's a new friendship all over again. When it's gone, it's another old friend that I miss till it returns once again.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Touring like the Tourists

We decided not to camp when we go to Denali for the road lottery on the 15th and 16th. Alex talked to someone who said that it would be down in the high 20s to lower 30s at night. While I think we'd be fine, I guess Alex has thinner skin than I do. He booked us a room in Cantwell for the night of the 15th and one at the Denali Princess Lodge on the 16th. I'm not complaining! We haven't had a get away from the kids in... oh... EVER.

The weather is getting cooler here. I have pulled out my sweaters and am in the process of storing all of my summer wear. Pulling out the fleece and the flannel is like greeting old friends! I love sweater weather. I'm looking forward to wearing my Cabella jacket with the wolf pelt lined hat in the next few months. When my friend Connie moved from Anchorage to Tennessee this past Spring, she gave it to me. When I tried it on in April, I could only keep it on for about 5 minutes before I was broiling! It's going to be awesome this winter.

Alex got the kids and himself ski passes for the season at Alyeska already. They don't know yet, but I know they will be excited once the first substancial snowfall hits. I have no interest in downhill skiing, myself. I know, I know... I've been told that if I try it once, I'll love it and get hooked, but I just don't think I will, and it's not worth the money to me to purchase all the gear I'd need to go just one time. Alex and the kids can go skiing, I'll go snowshoeing and cross country skiing on the paths around Alyeska while they are zipping down the hills and doing face plants into snowbanks.

The leaves on the trees are beginning to turn yellow. Further up on the mountains, the low lying bushes are turning red. Fall is my favorite time of year for color. I love the colors of fall even more than I love the colors of the flowers that line the streets of Anchorage in hanging baskets during the summer. I love bundling up in a jacket, feeling the cold air on my face, wearing gloves. I love making fires, drinking hot cocoa, and snuggling to keep warm. I love watching the dogs bury their noses in the snow and chasing snowflakes as they fall. The darkness that lasts so long during the winters here doesn't bother me either. I have an aunt who has Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that makes her very depressed and lethargic during the winter. She has to spend time under an ultra violet light lamp in the winter. I'm so glad that it doesn't effect me like that in the least. Winter here is my favorite time of year, hands down. The trees, bushes, ground and mountains are covered with a layer of white that reminds me of wedding cake. It's beautiful when the light hits it, or moonlight reflects off each snowflake. The small waterfalls that usually flow down the sides of the mountains on the Seward Highway freeze into magical ice walls, the inlet freezes to a mirror like sheet of ice, and the path to Winner Creek just about evens out to be elevationless with the snowfall. The last time I snowshoed to Winner Creek last winter, I could hear the creek beneath the snow and ice, whispering as it fell over the cold rocks. I took the hand tram over Glacier Creek and couldn't tell how far above the ground I was because the creek was blanketed with a 20 foot layer of snow! It was amazing. I won't be snowshoeing unprepared like I did last year again though. I'll bring an emergency pack this year.

I'm getting all caught up in dreaming of winter already, when I should be looking forward to my Denali trip! This is a possible once-in-a-lifetime trip! Winning the Denali Road Lottery is awesome! Having sent out 10 entries, and winning with one, was great! I'm definitely entering again next year. The opportunity to drive in our own vehicle the entire length of the road is really special. Being able to stop whenever we want to, spending the day in the park from 6 am till midnight, not rushing, breathing in the air and the magesty is going to be amazing. I'm going to have to read up on Denali before we leave. I'm going to make sure I have plenty of batteries for my camera, the appropriate NON COTTON attire (no folks, here in Alaska, cotton is NOT our friend!) for layering, I'm going to crochet a hat just for the occassion, and I'll make sure we have healthy food in the truck to eat! Ok, getting psyched about the trip again! Angie won for the same day. I wonder where they are staying. I could let them use our camping reservations if they wanted. It's already paid for.

I've been here for a little over a year, but I still enjoy Alaska every day, just as much (actually probably more) than I did when I came to visit in 2005. I look forward to every sunset in Alaska, every change of season, every animal I see I feel I'm seeing for the first time, I love the abundance of the land and the secret beauty it holds. I still tape every documentary (thank you Jeff Corwin) on Alaska, bears, and Denali. I look for books about Alaska at every bookstore. I wonder, do people in Iowa enjoy their state as much? How about Oklahoma? There's just something about Alaska, there really is. There's a spirit here that grabs hold of you and just doesn't let go. I have a friend, Mary, who decided to move back to the Lower 48 a few months back. She made it for 41 days before the longing for Alaska brought her right back to it's awaiting, open arms. I love it here! Bring on the Northern Lights! YIPEE WINTER!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Blueberry Slogging

Yesterday, Alex and I went hiking up Harp Mountain in Eagle River. Ok, I'll be honest, Alex went hiking, I went berry picking. We had entered some geocache locations in our GPS unit that morning before heading out. Alex headed up the Harp Mountain Slog to find the geocache box at the top of the peak, and I stayed below, picking to my heart's content.

I decided yesterday, after berry picking for 1/2 the time and getting 2X the blueberries, I will never pick berries up Arctic Valley again. It was a bit of a hike to get to prime berry picking grounds up Harp Mountain, but no one else was there, I didn't have to compete with others, pay for parking, or search and search for ripe berries. Right above the treeline, the berries were there, waiting to be picked. At Arctic Valley, I had to hike and hike, just to find berries, and then they were so sparce that I spent hours there for less than 1 1/2 quarts of berries.

The only thing I advise about picking in an area with few people, remote areas, is to bring bear spray. The area I picked in was an area where this past June, my friend Julie and I had seen a very large black bear about 200 yards away from us on the other side. Also, Alex saw wolves when he was going up and over the slog peak of Harp Mountain.

You'll notice I didn't tell you WHERE Harp Mountain is. I guess I'll let you find that out on your own. It's my way of attempting to have a "secret" berry spot. Not many know where Harp Mountain is, and if you are willing to do the research, drive to Eagle River, and hike to the berries, I'm more than happy to share! Please remember though, this area is surrounded by private property housing, there are no restrooms and little parking, and no trash cans. If you pick there, please leave the area the way you found it, bring doggy doo bags and don't let your pups annoy the locals much.

Happy picking!