Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A HURRICANE TURN AND BEARS IN THE WOODS…

Heading north we cruise past Anchorage and enter Alaska’s heartland, the Mat-Su Valley.  Since there are no RV parks in Anchorage with a decent reviewer rating we choose to stay about forty-five minutes away in Palmer at the Mountain View RV Park.  Although the name of this park is hardly original, the mountain views here are pretty spectacular. The spaces are tight and the park is crowded since this is a popular stopping point for caravans.  We can only get a power and water site, but since these spaces are not full, we have a bit more room and the Wi-Fi is OK (after all of the caravan folks go to bed, and since they’re mostly old, they don’t stay up too late.)

Native Dancer
It may be a sacrilege to say this out loud, but Anchorage just has no appeal for us.  Just another urban center with malls and restaurants, albeit in a lovely location, but most of Alaska is lovely.  It just doesn’t float our boat.  There is one attraction of interest for us: The Alaska Native Heritage Center.  The theme here is “Changing Lives, Living Values” a place to explore the traditional and contemporary ways of Alaska’s indigenous societies and the success of these people as they continually adapt to an ever-changing world.  We start with a guided tour of traditional native dwellings of the five distinct cultures.  Here we learn a bit about customs and daily life of the early residents. The hunting, gathering and storing of food during the long days of summer and the efficiency of the shelters to protect the people from the harsh winters and the predatory polar bear. After the tour we enjoy a demonstration of the music and dance of the different groups. It is interesting that the dancers express themselves through hand and body movement while staying in place. The time for dancing, music and story telling is winter and the dwellings do not allow a lot of room for large body movement. There is also a demonstration of traditional games.  The emphasis is on strength and agility.  It’s mind boggling to see these young athletes kick a ball suspended high in the air over their heads with a short lunge forward and land on their kicking foot. In the Hall of Cultures there are interactive displays highlighting the arts, crafts and tools of the five groups.  Here we also meet native artists and see their contemporary expression of traditional arts.

Next, we head north on the Parks Highway through Wasilla (a suburban land of strip malls) and land in Trapper Creek at the Trapper Creek Inn and RV Park.  It’s a small park with an inn, gas station, café, public laundry and mini-mart.  Spaces are narrow but there are a lot of trees and it’s pretty quiet even though it’s right on the Parks Highway.  Wi-Fi here is excellent! 

The nearby town of Talkeetna is unique in many ways. A popular rumor is that fifteen years ago the town elected their mayor, Mr. Stubbs as a write in candidate and the town has loved him ever since. We actually saw Mr. Stubbs strolling down Main Street and into Nagley’s Store where the Mayor’s office is located.  What set’s Mr. Stubbs apart from other politicians is not his leadership qualities but his background.  Mr. Stubbs is a part Manx ginger feline! So what’s not to like about a town with a cat for a mayor?  In addition to it’s kitty politics: Talkeetna is the jump off spot for mountaineers climbing Mt. Whitney (AKA Denali.) There are a number of air-taxi services to take climbers to the base camps. The Alaska Railway has a depot in Talkeetna and the town entertains hundreds of tourists daily.  There are restaurants a plenty, charming hotels, art galleries and gift shops.  It is also located at the confluence of three rivers, the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna so there are lots of water sports and of course fresh water fishing. Stopping at the visitor center we inquire about the best not to miss attractions in the area.  We decide on boats and trains and pass on the planes

We visit the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum. It is a collection of vintage structures including the Ole Dahl Cabin #1 that is probably the oldest existing building in the town.  The museum houses a typical collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century memorabilia: trapping, mining, railroads, bush pilots and a few native artifacts. But it’s worth a stop to see the Mountaineering exhibit with the twelve foot square scale model of Mt. McKinley.

The Twister Creek Restaurant and Denali Brewing Company offer five-ounce samples of eleven brews for $2 to $3 each.  We pick five with alcohol contents ranging from 5.1 to 9.6 percent and a smoked salmon dip with capers, chopped red onions, cucumbers and a sliced fresh baguette. We enjoy these alfresco while people watching and soaking up the Alaska summer sunshine.
Twister Creek Resturant and Denali Brewing Company on Urbanspoon

Collecting Birch Sap
We stop at the Kahiltna Birch Works and sample some Birch Syrup, and candies.  We also take a tour of the processing plant. Birch Syrup is interesting, similar to molasses but with some slight herbal notes. It would be a good ingredient for sauces, glazes and baking.  We considered purchasing a small bottle, but a large group showed up as we finished our tour and the lone employee was tied up giving them a tour. The syrup was good, but not worth hanging out for fifteen minutes...  If we decide we really need it later…they do have mail order.

Now all bakeries smell good, but the scents in the FlyingSquirrel Bakery and Café are beyond amazing! This place is so good; we HAVE to make multiple stops during our time here.  Their Rugulas are to die for, Lemon Coffee cake amazing and their Chai Cookies out of this world!
Flying Squirrel Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon

Beaver on the Susitna
The five hour Mahay’s Jet Boat Adventures Devil’s Canyon Tour takes us on the Susitna River and into the nationally registered Wild River Park of the “Devil’s Gorge.”  Along the way we see a beaver, three black bears, and some bald eagles.

Counting Fish
There are also fishing wheels and cones, but these are all for scientific purposes.  Scientists are catching, tagging and releasing salmon to study their movement in the river. The State of Alaska is doing its due diligence, environmental impact studies for the third time since the 1960s to build a hydroelectric dam further up the river.  The project is highly controversial and very expensive, and the current Governor of Alaska seems to be moving forward with this project. One wonders, who’s gonna profit big time from this project?  

Class VI Rapids
In Devils Gorge the jet boat blast upriver on class three and four rapids.  We stop at the base of the class six rapids and hang out for a bit taking pictures and bouncing in the wild waters.  It’s a real kick when our Captain Israel Mahay, has to turn the boat around to head back down stream!

After the boat trip, we stop at the Flying Squirrel Bakery and order a take out lunch for the next day’s adventure: The Hurricane Turn Train.  The train consists of two engines (one at each end) two passenger cars and a baggage car. This is the last regular flag stop train in the nation which means that it stops for anyone along the tracks who wants to be picked up. It is used by folks who live or have vacation homes in the wilderness (some are original homesteaders) as well as hunters, hikers and fishermen to take them to and from town to various stops along the line. (A local secret: Indian Creek is known for ten pound plus rainbow trout!) Some of the commuters on our trip are the scientists studying the salmon in the Susitna River.  It also stops for wildlife and will even back up to let folks take better pictures of bear and moose.  The atmosphere is casual; dogs ride along side with their owners. The Conductor, Warren is a kick and he is the reason that this is the number one attraction in Talkeetna on Trip Advisor.  He knows all of the regulars, the history of the area and makes it a point to talk to everyone.  Online we read that he would allow folks to ride in the baggage car with the doors open to take photos while the train is running.  Unfortunately the Alaska Railroad powers that be put a big kibosh on this practice.  So passengers are only officially allowed in the baggage car while the train is stopped. There are small open decks between the cars and this works for taking photos while the train is moving, but it gets pretty crowded at times.  

Hurricane Turn Train
We stop in Hurricane to wait for the train from Fairbanks to pass.  It’s a perfect time to enjoy our flying Squirrel lunch: a grilled cheese Panini with two kinds of cheese, salmon, sliced apples and arugula.  The sandwich is so filling that we decide to save our side dishes of curried potato salad, and Tai ginger noodles with green beans and our Chai Cookies for later. (We have them for dinner and both salads and cookies are outstanding!) Just past Hurricane, at the end of our line we stop in the middle of the bridge over the Hurricane Gorge, where we have an unobstructed views straight down three hundred feet into the gorge then the train shifts engines and we head back. On the return trip we stop to watch salmon spawn, pick up more travelers and stop at the Sherman City Hall where some of our fellow travelers pick up signed copies Mary Sherman’s book about the life of homesteaders in Alaska in the 1960’s. With so many amazing attractions in Alaska to choose from,  this is one of our favorites and gets a Dave and Dimples hearty approval!

The Next day we drive out  to Byers Lake in the Denali State park. The campground is lovely the lake stunning, with hiking trails and kayak rentals. We decide to spend a few days here hiking and maybe some kayaking before heading to Denali National Park.  The campground host recommends checking out Petersville Road so on our way back we check it out. This gravel road winds for about forty miles through forests and wetlands. There are large turnouts along the road with stone fire rings and folks are boondocking here.  The last ten miles of the road gets pretty sketchy. The recent rains have filled huge potholes (imagine small beaver ponds here) and we blindly drive through some of these along the top of the ridge.  The road has washed out a bit in some places. At the summit, about eight miles from the end of the road, we decide that it is best to turn back so we find the first wide spot in the road and turn around. No need to end our adventure with flat tires or worse.


Shrooms in the Forest

Wonky Bridge
Spawning Sockey

After doing boring stuff like laundry and cleaning, and foraging at Cubbies Marketplace we leave Trapper creek and head back up to Byers Lake. It’s raining, raining a lot, so we dry camp in the rain and spend a couple of days getting trailer fever and our kayaking plans get washed away.  When the sun finally decides to show we take a five mile hike along the lake and up to Cascade falls.  It feels good to be out and moving. The trail is beautiful with ferns and mushrooms. We cross a rickety suspension bridge over Byers's Creek that's seen better days but offers great views of sockeye salmon spawning. Along the trail we see a large fresh bear scat and hear the distinct grunt of a bear in the bushes by the creek.  We make lots of noise and the bear thankfully does not make an appearance. Now it’s on to Denali National Park...

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