Northern Lights

My friend Rebecca woke me up about 3:15 AM Tues. morning Sept. 11th to see the Northern Lights. I didn’t have a camera to capture their iridescent beauty, but it looked like a giant ribbon swirling across the sky, more white toward the south and greener towards the north. She promised to wake me up again Tuesday night, because they are supposed to be even brighter! A professional photographer (Ron Niebrugge) caught them down at Seward about the same time as we saw them.


Turnagain Arm, Portage Glacier & Chugach Rain Forest

Sept. 10th – On Monday Rebecca drove me south of Anchorage to Chugach State Park, beside the Tournagain Arm and over to the Portage Glacier, then finally to the rainforest. Highway 1 southeast of Anchorage (Seward Highway) goes along the shoreline of the Turnagain Arm of the northwestern part of the Gulf of Alaska. We stopped at Beluga Point, a popular pull out to try to spot whales. Some sightseers with binoculars spotted some in the distance, but they were hard to spot. I was fascinated with the rapidly receding tide. Turnagain has the 2nd most dramatic tides in North America (next to the Bay of Fundy).

From there we traveled down to see the Portage Glacier. Portage Glacier has retreated over 5 km since 1900. Tour boats go across the lake towards what is left of the glacier. I also photographed a nearby peak.

The Visitor Center closed Sept. 4th, so we couldn’t see the displays.

It was getting into the afternoon so we drove to the Alyeska Hotel for a fine dining experience. Alyeska is the only downhill ski resort in Alaska.

From there we drove to the nearby Chugach Rainforest on the Kenai Peninsula. We hiked a mile toward Winner Creek ravine, where we wanted to go across the ravine on the hand pull tram, but someone had locked it into place on the other side. The water roared down below us as Winner Creek careened down the canyon.

Still it was a great, short hike. Lots of interesting trees, mushrooms, We did miss the sound of birds in the forest, however. They must have already flown south.

On the way back, we tried to catch the bore tide at Beluga Point as it came in. Sometimes it is a wall of water 6 ft high. So, although we could see the water moving very fast up the inlet again, it was disappointing not to see a big wave roll through, despite being right on time at 4:31 PM (according to the tidal charts).

For dinner we stopped at Simon & Seafort’s in downtown Anchorage close to the water, and had happy hour snacks at the bar, looking out the window at the bay.

Sunday at Church and Home

Sept. 9th – Rebecca took me with her to her new church, King’s Chapel in Wasilla, which has some racial and ethnic diversity in membership and leadership, both male and female pastors (although all the ushers were men in suits).

Their new motto is “Experience Life: together with people, power and purpose.” They have an impressive social media presence (live streaming worship, online giving), a strong evangelistic emphasis, firm belief in the power of prayer, and do a lot of mission and outreach. I was interested in their listed weekly activities that included Anguyak native dancing and hula as well as more traditional youth groups and men and women’s groups. The music from the praise team was impassioned and easy to sing to – but I only recognized one song. No hymn books – all words projected on overhead large screens. Pastor Daniel Bracken gave a message without notes that was obviously trying to reach a broad spectrum audience – he frequently referenced brokenness and the need for the saving blood of Jesus. An aside about the multi-million dollar home he’d been hosted in when speaking at a conference in Hawaii, whose owners had been financially blessed by God when they began tithing, seemed to assume the “prosperity gospel”, but most of his emphasis was an authentic reaching out to hurting people to lift them up. Rebecca describes a lot of church volunteer work involves outreach to drug addicts, hungry and homeless. While my faith understanding doesn’t fit well with King’s Chapel, I do appreciate their vitality and work in the name of Jesus. Besides, it is difficult for any preacher to listen to someone else preach, and it says a lot that I was able to stay through the whole message!

Sunday afternoon Rebecca fixed dinner, with Bill grilling fish. Originally both her son Tate’s family was expected (wife and 4 boys) and Bill’s daughter’s family (with husband and 2 boys), but one of Tate’s boys had to be at ball practice late Sunday afternoon, so Bill’s daughter decided the shorter stay wouldn’t be worth the hour drive up from Anchorage. One of Tate’s 4 boys was off at a birthday party, so there were fewer people than had been expected, which meant lots of food.

Bill and Tate talked about getting boats out of the water (at the lake near the houses), but with warm weather forecast for yet another week, decided to delay that until the following weekend. This meant that I got to have the opportunity to go for a boat ride in the evening before dusk. Bill got to show off his skill at taking the motor boat around the lake. We also had the excitement of retrieving a stray boogie board that had drifted out into the middle of the lake and was a water hazard. We also checked about a horse grazing in the yard of a couple known to be out of town, but it turned out their sons were there and had let the horse loose to graze on the grass beside the water.

After going to bed early several nights, I was finally able to stay up later. Sunday night we watched “Book Club” on the giant flat screen upstairs – a recent release featuring older actresses and actors. The three of us roared at the antics of Candice Bergen and Diane Keaton and the rest. Rebecca and I confessed to having crushes on Andy Garcia. It was a fun rom-com, and for once, I was in the “target demographic” to enjoy the plot and script!

Anchorage Climate March

Sept. 8th – Both Rebecca and I decided we wanted to go down to Anchorage, about an hour away (depending on traffic and road construction) to join the Climate March, “Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice” held at the Delaney Park Strip. One of my minister friends back East teased me that of course I had attended an environmental justice rally even when on vacation! We arrived early, found parking, and had time to walk over to the Hotel Captain Cook where we got coffee and pastries, and used a very fancy restroom, before walking back to the park for the 11:00 AM start.  We had sent an RSVP the night before to organizer Ceal Smith, who was the first speaker.

The Anchorage Mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, was pretty awesome – he was one of the first mayors to sign the Mayoral Climate Agreement after the Trump Administration wanted to withdraw from Paris Climate Accord. They are trying to introduce electric buses, but need more funding from the federal government to help get a new fleet. They need more infrastructure (like charging stations) to support Teslas and electric vehicles.

Alaska State Senator Tom Begich was the next speaker. Brother to former U.S. Senator Mark Begich, Tom talked about the collapse of the Bering Sea fishery and impact of high energy costs, and need to take care of rural residents, not just urban residents. He was also impressive in his knowledge of issues and specific, tangible solutions.

Then Rebecca took me over to the Anchorage Museum. The Smithsonian arranged a 3rd floor exhibition on the native peoples. There are a lot of historic ethnic tribes, and main groupings were represented in their clothing, armaments, housing and other cultural artifacts.

Strangest to me were the waterproof parkas… which were almost translucent and made out if animal intestines. I also admired the pottery and best work displayed in several cases.

We drove back to Rebecca’s instead of eating lunch in Anchorage.  Rebecca got fresh corn at the store, and thawed fish to grill for dinner that night. It turned out to be golden-eye instead of salmon, but was very tasty. And nothing beats fresh, sweet corn onto the cob in the late summer.

Musk Ox, Butte and Knik River Lodge

Sept. 7th – Friday Rebecca took me over to the Musk Ox Farm outside of Palmer.

Their hair yields a fiber called “qiviut”, which is incredibly soft (softer than cashmere) and can be spun like wool. Qiviut has exceptional insulating qualities (8X better than wool) and is also very strong, because the fibers are long.

Musk ox were eradicated from Alaska in the late 1800s, but were reintroduced. A decades long project to domesticate them has been going on about 70 years. They are remnants of the Ice Age and they like bitter cold – their long snouts warm the air before it gets to their lungs.

Our tour guide told us the finer points of “musk ox love.” At the Musk Ox Farm, usually only 2 bulls are chosen for breeding each year, with 2 females each… this year 2 babies were born (50% reproductive success rate).

Each year the babies are all born late April to early May. Except for Magnolia… her father was only a year old and not supposed to be able to father any children yet. She was born Sept. 27th, to everyone’s surprise. You can’t tell that musk ox is pregnant. The mom gets antsy, starts spinning around, squats and drops out a calf!

After a delicious lunch sharing a sandwich & soup, then indulging in gelato and a cannoli (Rebecca hadn’t ever tried them before), we tried to climb up The Butte. The first part of the trail wasn’t too bad, but it got steeper, and we had forgotten to bring water with us. We ascended a steep slope with a metal grid trying to hold the dirt in place. Then we got to steep stairs, and before reaching the top we looked at each other and said, “We’re good!” and started descending back down!

Rebecca then called her husband Bill about meeting us, and drove me out the Knik River to a fancy new lodge where she & her husband had been treated to a helicopter ride on their anniversary. We had to stop several times for road construction on our way out wondering why this stretch of highway with low population was high priority for roadwork. But the route was very scenic, especially the bridge across the river.

The Knik River Lodge has views that make you gasp. While waiting for her husband to join us, we had appetizers and wine out on the deck. A few mosquitoes made me regret not bringing my insect repellent in the car, but they were easily swatted away.

After Bill arrived, we moved inside to be big free and a bit warmer, as we moved into evening. Rebecca and Bill shared shellfish, while I had their grilled salmon. The presentation was lovely, but the entrees were a little bland. We got talked into dessert, which was also disappointing. .. there were not any fresh strawberries on the shortcake although we had been been specific about our question.

Bill & Rebecca each took a different route home, on the old and new highways. Bill managed to beat us, despite Rebecca’s competitive attempt. We were home in time to meet the young physical therapist who had been living in the garage apartment for wine at 8:00 PM. Marty has been doing “traveling” work and most recently worked 3 months in conjunction with the medical practice Rebecca’s son has, so the garage apartment rental had worked out perfectly. But she was moving out over the weekend, taking her time to drive through Canada back to the U.S., where she will begin a new temporary assignment with the Navajo nation in October. She was a fascinating young woman, just a little younger than my own 2 daughters, but I was so sleepy I had to retreat up to bed and go to sleep. Oh, well.

Alaska at Last

Sept. 6th – My friend Rebecca had shown me around her house and the cabin out back the night before, but in the morning I got to see everything in the daylight. Her house between Palmer and Fishhook sits above a small lake, and was the first house in the area, before a subdivision was built nearby, where one of her sons and his family live.

After she bought the house 17 years ago, she moved the living room upstairs to the 3rd level with a better view of the mountains all around, and the bedroom to the bottom level.

The main level has the kitchen, dining and woodstove, entry, half bath & laundry, and deck all around. She has an eclectic decorating approach, combining western/cowboy (with lariat, boots, Navajo rugs, kachinas) and lodge (antler chandelier, rough wood siding in dining room). I love the artwork from Wyoming – the entry has these prints with cowboy butts that is just so fun!

In the afternoon we drove up Hatcher Pass above Palmer, getting off for some short hikes on the Gold Mint trail, and then heading up towards the Independence Gold Mine. It was a beautiful sunny day, that got up to the 60s. Rebecca said it had been rainy most of the summer, and cold just a week ago, so she was glad I brought sunshine with me!

The leaves don’t turn bright colors like in the Northeast, but the aspens and birch were turning yellow and leaves were already on the ground.

We walked down the Gold Mint trail for a while. We saw beaver dams along a creek, and scanned for moose in the low lying valley, but didn’t see any. Rebecca told me that one of the peaks was “Government Peak” – a skiing group has gone and camped there in the winter.

We got back in the truck, drove a little farther up the mountain, and pulled into the parking lot for the Independence Gold Mine, went past the barrier and headed up the paved highway towards the museum. I kept turning around to take photos. We got near the top when I realized I’ve been at mines before, and didn’t feel a burning desire to continue the ascent to go into the museum, so we just turned around and went back downhill to the truck.

After being gone so long in the afternoon, we went out with Bill to a pizza joint for dinner instead of having the salmon Rebecca had intended to thaw from the freezer. The classic style pie was such a huge pizza that we ended up taking half of it home, even with 3 adults eating it.

That evening, the dusk lingered long after the sun set. Rebecca called it alpen glow when there was a golden pinkish light on the mountains. Rebecca commented on the sun setting several minutes sooner each night, but it was staying light later than where I live in new York State. Since I was still adjusting to the 4 hour time zone difference and recovering from my travels, I went to bed early.

Go West, Old Woman!

Sept. 4th – 5th – I was finally getting to go to Alaska! A good friend from when I lived in Wyoming in the 1990s had moved to Alaska in 2000, when I had moved to New York, and I was going to see her at last. We planned for a week visit, based at her home in Wasilla, and then she would get me back to the Anchorage airport to fly to Juneau, where I would go on a 2 week cruise.

I had cataract surgery at the end of August, first on one eye, then the next. Everyone was right – the colors are much brighter, and my vision sharper, so I am excited about seeing Alaska with my new eyes. But the travel time there was a challenge.

I set out on Tuesday morning Sept. 4th, with friends driving me down to Binghamton to catch a Greyhound Bus to NYC. After a stop at Scranton to let passengers off to transfer to other points in PA, and take on more passengers for New York City, we stopped once more for a rest stop at Gouldsboro PA Burger King. I hate Burger King, so I wandered into the convenience store attached, finally snagging Crunchy Cheetos and an Arizona Arnold Palmer tea can, while muttering to myself, “Who doesn’t love orange fingers?” and “Water would be better for me, but why be healthy?” – when I overheard a young man who couldn’t quite stifle his chuckle at my remarks.

When I got into The Port Authority, I had decided not to try MTA with my large suitcase and backpack. My daughter recommended a new service “Via” instead of “Uber” so I went online, was instructed to walk 2 blocks, and got my ride out to Long Island City with “Sam.” My drop off was 3 blocks from her high rise, which was fine. I picked up the keys from the door man, and went up to her apartment, where one dog greeted me and the other dog growled. I had intended to take them both out for a walk, but gave up on the one growling and cowering under her dining room table. The dog that is a brother to my own dog was very happy to be taken out for a walk by himself.

My daughter had made reservations for us at 6:00 PM at a wonderful nearby Mexican restaurant, so I took her dog back and met her over at the restaurant after she got back from work in Manhattan. We both ordered tacos carne Asada, plus guacamole and chips, and I indulged in sangria. I had a wonderful evening with my daughter, and then her partner when he finally got back home. After showering and changing to PJs, I was able to wash up the clothes I’d worn that day (I’d gotten hot and sweaty on the bus and in NYC), and repack for the morning.

Wednesday morning I was up even before my daughter at 5:00 AM, repacked, visited, enjoyed herbal tea, and hailed another ride on Via, this time out to JFK. Luckily there were no major accidents tying up the highways, and we made it in less than 30 minutes. I had checked in early online, so just needed to print out a tag for checking in my large suitcase, and then go through Security. There is never any way to predict how long Security at JFK will take since 9-11: sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes a couple hours. I lucked out and was through in 15 minutes. Since I was at my gate so early, I got a coffee and recharged my electronics while waiting for my flight.

My trip out to Alaska was all on Alaska Airlines. Instead of a straight flight, I first flew to Portland OR (about 5 hours in the air), then to Seattle (about 40 minutes in the air) and finally to Anchorage (about 4 hours in the air). I had purchased a fruit & cheese plate for breakfast on my first flight. The Portland airport apparently has high ratings from travelers! The layover in PDX was long enough to get lunch at Capers Café. I enjoyed a Greek massa plate (hummus, pita bread, Greek salad, etc.) , whose suggested pairing was a pinot grigio wine. A nearby guitarist in the center of the concourse was playing old 60s & 70s music on the guitar from James Taylor, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel.

The next flight to Seattle was very short. We had to walk out onto the runway to board a prop plane, had quick service with just wine or water offered to drink & biscotti to eat, then landed at SEA. The only other airline I’ve flown that has offered a free glass of wine was Air France on the way to Paris. I decided that a glass of wine certainly took the edge off any nerves from the propellers spinning furiously next to me just off the plane wing.

At SEA I had to go downstairs and board a train to change concourses. I couldn’t find a chair that charged electronics in our gate area, so finally found a wall plug. My smartphone is nearly 2 years old and seems to lose its charge rapidly anymore. Finally they began boarding my flight to Anchorage. I always like to use the airport restrooms rather than the one in the plane, and my group was the last to board anyway. Finally everyone was aboard the plane, and we took off into the sunset.

Literally, the sunset. We flew 3 hours northwest into the sunset, with the sun near the horizon when we left Seattle and down but still dusk when we got to Anchorage just after 10 PM local time. By the time I deplaned, used the bathroom, and found my way to baggage claim, my large suitcase came around. I was able to grab it and wheel it out to the curb, finding my friend Rebecca, who I had called and texted. It was so great to see her again – after about 20 years.

It was about 45 minutes to drive up to her house near Wasilla/Palmer. She has a charming house near a small lake. She offered me a dry cabin to myself just below the main house, but I chosen instead a chair that folded out into a bed next to a bathroom upstairs – as a senior citizen, my bladder has priorities! By the time we said good night and went to bed, I had been up nearly 24 hours (with the time zone change). Despite dozing on the plane, I was exhausted, so even though I woke up at 7:30 New York time, it was only 3:30 Alaska time, so I went back to sleep until after 8 AM!