Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sunny Summer Sitka Day

Sometimes we have a hard time explaining why we love Alaska so much.  Maybe this synopsis of our day will help.

The kids went to their first day of morning summer camp through Sitka Community Schools.  Emerson went to Engineering is Elementary, where he spent the morning building bridges with straws and marshmallows.  Ava worked on cartwheels and handstands in Gymnastics.  Both came home with flushed faces, excitedly telling us how much fun they had.

Meanwhile, Mike had the day off (aside from the usual work phone calls), so we took the opportunity to finally explore the Sitka Cross Trail while the kids were at camp.  We discovered the other day that we can access it right from our neighborhood, via the Indian River Trail. We took Charlie the Running Dog with us, and old Midas stayed home to nap.  It was SO much fun.  I have been avoiding most trails through the woods on my own because of the brown bears.  Between Charlie, his bear bell, and our conversation, we were pretty sure we would scare any that happened to be nearby.  The section of trail we ran was the last bit of unimproved terrain, and it was fun to leap over the log steps and tree roots, and sink in the mud.  It was also narrow and a bit creepy at times when it went through the thick salmonberry bushes in the forest.  Portions in the muskeg were breathtaking, with views of the surrounding mountains.  We took the Gavan Hill Trail down towards town and looped back toward home.  Muddy Charlie had his first foot rinsing of the day when we got back.

After lunch, we took advantage of the sunny afternoon since we know a storm is rolling in tomorrow. We haven't explored any of the fabulous hiking trails, so we thought we'd start small with Thimbleberry Lake.  The total round-trip distance was about a half mile, and we figured the kids would be too tired after camp to go further anyway.  What a happy surprise the trail turned out to be!  Not only was it very well-maintained, but the lake is just breathtaking.  As soon as we got to the water's edge, dog leashes came off, and shoes and socks went flying.  The kids and dogs spent a good thirty minutes splashing around and soaking up the mud.  

After we got home, the dogs had a much-needed bath in the front yard.  Then we built a campfire(which we still aren't great at) and made some s'mores, since we had been promising the kids we would do so for some time now.

This awesome day followed three consecutive days of fishing on the boat.  The first two days, we just went out in the sound close to town and caught some rockfish (which are really delicious, but take more than a couple to make a meal).  Yesterday, we got up early and had some guys from the ship come with us to show us how to use our trolling gear.  The ocean swells were too big for comfort, so we ended up wandering around for 8 hours, trying our luck at different spots.  We learned how to use the downrigger, but did not get any salmon.  We then tried for halibut, and got more rockfish.  Ten rockfish, to be exact!  Good thing they are tasty!

As the kids showered off their day this evening, Mike and I sat on the back deck.  Through the open bathroom window, we heard Emerson dancing around and singing, "Everything is Awesome," which is the theme song from The Lego Movie.  I think he's right.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A return to "normal"

What a whirlwind year we've had.  One year ago today, the kids and I were moved out of our Homer house and living in temporary quarters while waiting for the HICKORY to return home from an extended trip to the Bering Sea.  Less than two weeks later, we drove out of town on our way to California.  Today we are waiting on a ship to return again, this time from a dry dock period that has had it away from homeport for over three months.  And somewhere in the middle, we lived in California for 7 months, and moved back to Alaska.  We still can't quite wrap our minds around how this all came about.  Our time in California seems sort of like a dream at this point--did we really live there, or was it just a vacation?

My unpacking "help"
 We've had people question our choice to pull the kids out of school mid-year, especially since we knew ahead of time that the ship would be going to dry dock pretty much right after we arrived, leaving us essentially as a single-parent household while trying to settle into a new town.  It seemed even crazier to some since we first were told that the dry dock would be occurring in Alameda, the very same town we were moving away from.  But we would do it all again, in exactly the same way.    Yes, Mike left after we were only in Sitka for two weeks, before we even had our furniture in our house.  The poor guy hasn't slept in his own bed on a regular basis since January.  But since it hadn't been that long since we lived the ship life, we were able to slide right back into routine.  It helped immensely that we had school and other activities to keep us busy and help us meet people.  We all made more friends here in two months than we made in seven months in CA.  We even have a nice older neighbor across the street who brings us cookies and dog treats.  The kids excelled in school, thanks to their new teachers jumping right in to assess their abilities and taking the time to challenge them.

A fish out of water
Mike was able to come back to visit for two separate weeks over the 3-month period, but his time here was anything but normal.  The first week was consumed by probably the first ever honey-do list I've given him, full of moving-in chores that I ran out of steam to complete on my own.  The second week was all about our boat.  Yes, our boat. We're doing Alaska the right way this time, which to us means having the ability to fully take advantage of the amazing natural resources around us.  So the time in Seattle afforded Mike the opportunity to find us just the right boat for fishing, camping, and exploring.  We had to put the boat on a barge to get it here, and it conveniently came during a time that Mike was here to help get it fully outfitted and in the water.

Our new money pit

Somehow, we managed to be together for Mothers Day

In the past four months, Emerson turned 6 and Midas turned 11.  Charlie grew into a full-sized dog.  Ava had a fabulous ballet recital, Emerson played on his first t-ball team, and both kids have been participating in regular swim lessons.  Mike and I celebrated 11 crazy years of marriage, with many crazier years to come.  It snowed and melted, spring sprung, and our garden grew.  Summer has come, and I now have a first grader and a third grader.  How is that possible??

Only in Alaska do you spend the last day of kindergarten digging pits for crabs with your classmates at the beach.

Ava loved her teacher so much that she wanted her again for third grade.

Rough life these guys have.
When we are all finally reunited and the ship is back where it belongs, we will get back to "normal."  We are all looking forward to our first regular weekend of regular things, like coffee and pancakes, and a morning trip together to the beach.  Just to have a week with work during the day and coming home in the evening will be fabulous.  Even some normal time with the ship deployed, doing real work, will be a welcome routine for its new captain.  We have quite a bit of fun planned for what I see as our "bonus year" of Alaskan summertime, and I can't wait to get started!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Settling in to Sitka

We have officially been back in Alaska for over two months now.  Our past year has been such a whirlwind that it sometimes feels like we never left.  When we were leaving Homer, headed for California, it was really difficult to go. But we also thought that maybe we were ready for a break from small-town life, isolation, and high cost of living.  Once the shiny surface wore off life in the Bay Area, one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the country, we realized once and for all that we were not meant to be city people.  We need trees, mountains, open spaces, clean air and water, and neighbors who look out for each other.

Sitka by the Sea

Moving back to Alaska has been like going home.  We may be in a different town, full of friends yet to be made and places yet to be explored, but the Alaska state of mind has become part of us.  As of last week, we have even officially changed our state of residency, after holding onto our Floridian status for so long.  Attaching Alaska license plates on our vehicles was a big cause for celebration.  After waiting at the DMV for about 3 hours to get them, champagne was definitely in order.

After moving so many times (this was number six in the past 10 years), I have learned to jump right in and get involved in things the "locals" do.  For such a small, isolated place, Sitka offers an amazing amount of opportunities.  The kids have more activities to choose from than we can reasonably fit into our schedules.  Ava is taking ballet from the Sitka Studio of Dance.  The studio is very professional, and Ava just loves it.  The instructor was even able to get her up to speed for the spring recital.  Both kids started swim lessons at the Baranof Barracuda Swim Club, and although they had to start from the beginning yet again, I am confident that this is the place they will finally learn to swim independently.  Emerson even put his head underwater for the first time today, excitedly and all on his own.  The Sitka Conservation Society runs a chapter of 4-H called "Alaska Way of Life."  It focuses on just that--living in harmony with the state's resources, and learning to take advantage of them.  We have already learned a great deal by attending their programs, about things like local birds and the herring sac roe fishery.  Ava's new favorite food is herring eggs, and both she and the dogs try to gather them off the seaweed on the beach and eat them on the spot.  Luckily, Ava (mostly) listens when I tell her that they aren't really fresh enough by the time they have washed ashore.  Emerson joined the Sitka Little League, and we will soon be knee-deep in practices and games.  We attended opening ceremonies on Saturday, and we were amazed by how many kids participate.  The high school has a beautiful turf field, with Mt. Edgecumbe as a backdrop.

Settling the adults in usually comes after the kids are situated, but this time around I feel like I have met quite a few friends already.  I signed myself up for a booth at a bazaar last weekend, and my handmde goods were a big hit.  I'm hoping to have a table at the farmers market a couple of times this summer, while the cruise ships are in town, and I'm looking into getting some of my items into a couple of local shops and galleries.  I've been taking classes at a couple of different fitness places (re:fresh and the Hames Center).  I'm volunteering in kindergarten every week, and going on lots of field trips.

Aside from organized activities, we are really just enjoying life.  Our house is in a great spot for walking, running, and biking.  We can walk to the harbor in about 5 minutes, and continue on through downtown.  I love walking the dogs up to the coffee drive-thru window, and strolling back home by the fishing boats and totem poles.  We have a couple of favorite beaches, where we go instead of playgrounds, because the kids would much rather build driftwood bridges and dig sandy trenches than climb on slides.  They always come home with sea glass, favorite sticks, and rocks.  We have even had a dead crab in a jacket pocket, and a fishy-smelling barnacle-covered rock that ended up on someone's dresser.  We have a large, terraced garden that we have been prepping for planting season.  It hasn't been used in a couple of years, so it took some muscle to get it ready to go.  We even uncovered a rhubarb plant under the overgrowth.  Now that the leaves are starting to peek out of the branches surrounding the house, we are realizing that we have quite a few berry bushes as well-salmonberry, huckleberry, blueberry, and maybe even raspberry.

We have also found bear scat a little too close for comfort to the garden.  The bears are out and about, looking for trash to eat until the plants grow and the salmon swim upstream.  One day last week when I picked up Ava from school, the police were patrolling the back of the parking lot that is adjacent to the forest, as a bear had been seen nearby.  We were giggling at the contrast to the last time we had seen police at school, in Alameda, when they were there due to vandalism and parking violations. We'll take bears any day.  But we'll keep our trash can in our garage so we don't see them in our driveway.

In true Coast Guard fashion, we were all together in Sitka for about two weeks, and then it was time for the ship to head to dry dock.  If you're at all familiar with what that means (pulling the ship out of the water for major maintenance and repairs), you probably also know that it's a lengthy process.  At this point, we're just hoping that they get back not too long after school is out for the summer.  We have seen Mike for a total of about 4 weeks so far this year, due to the crazy circumstances of his job change.  He was home on leave last week, which was the first time he saw our new house with our own stuff in it.  It was also his first time in his own bed since January.  The kids have eased right back into having him gone, and it helps that they are busy with school and activities.  At least we have been able to talk on the phone and via FaceTime.  Once the ship gets back home, we should see much more of each other.  As an added bonus, Mike found us a fishing boat down in Seattle.  We can't wait to get it up here and fish for king salmon and halibut, as well as go explore more of the area.  There are quite a few forestry service cabins and even a couple of hot springs that we can reach by boat.

We're already gearing up for a fun summer of long, hopefully sunny days with not enough sleep and plenty of visitors.  In Alaska, you learn that if the sun is shining, you go out and enjoy it.  The sun is still up until around 8:30pm right now, and I already feel the itch to be outside if it's not raining, even if it's just to read the evening paper on the front porch.  I think we will have lots of company while we live in Sitka.  It's hands-down the most beautiful place we have lived, and it has pretty much all of the best parts of Alaska at your fingertips (after paying the $1000/person round trip price it costs to get here, of course).  Hiking, kayaking, fishing, boating, and exploring are all accessible right from the 14 miles of road on the island.  If we run out of room in the house for visitors, we can always pitch a tent in the backyard--just watch out for bears!

Humpback whales viewed right from the beach

Eagle fights during herring spawning season


The muscle needed to prep the garden

Mini muscle, amazingly effective at garden prep as well

We'll just call her the garden manger

Monday, March 3, 2014

Tips for travel on the Alaska Marine Highway

Now that we have taken the Alaska Marine Highway through the Southeast going both north and south, in both summer and winter, all within an 8-month time period, we have accumulated quite a few tips and tricks. Since I am finding myself sharing them many times with others who will be making the same journey, I thought it best to round them all up here. Have more to add? Please comment below!

Booking your travel:

  • Book as far in advance as possible. Summer trips fill up very early, and so does space in staterooms and the car deck.
  • If your travel will be longer than 12 hours (or an overnight trip), book a stateroom! This is especially important if you are traveling with children. There are not enough bunks for every passenger on board, and you will find people camping in tents on the outside deck (yes, really!) and sleeping in reclining chairs in the lounges. If you are on military orders, your stateroom cost will be covered by the military. 
  • About staterooms: "with facilities" means that the cabin has a restroom with toilet, sink, and shower. "Without facilities" means that you will share community restrooms and showers onboard. A stateroom with a "sitting room" is fabulous if you can get one. There are only a handful on each ship. They include bunks, restroom, and an extra area with a table and chairs to give you room to spread out. Your military orders will cover any type of cabin you reserve.

Before you board:

  • Stock up on microwaveable, non-perishable meals. There is a community microwave onboard, located in the cafeteria. Also bring bread, PB&J, and plenty of snacks. We even brought hot dogs. If you have a cooler, you can purchase ice onboard for a quarter. Meals purchased from the cafeteria or dining room can get pricey, depending on your family size and length of travel. We learned on our summer trip south that it is unrealistic to try to eat a can of soup for every meal. On our trip back north, we found a nice balance: bagels, instant oatmeal, toast, and cereal for breakfast, microwave something or make a sandwich for lunch, and purchase dinner onboard. If the kids didn't like what was served, they had a sandwich and a huge $4 fresh fruit bowl from the cafeteria. Some people will even bring a slow cooker and make their dinners that way. I am not one of those people. 
  • Bring your favorite instant coffee, tea, cocoa, etc.  The cafeteria isn't always open when you want something warm to drink, but you can access hot water or the microwave all the time. 
  • You can also bring alcoholic beverages, if you consume them in yr stateroom. Don't forget a wine bottle opener and something to close an unfinished bottle with! 
  • Keep in mind that everything you haul onboard, you must also haul back off.  If you are bringing your vehicle, unpacking stuff, bringing it up at least one deck and to your stateroom, and then doing the reverse when your journey is done, it can be quite cumbersome if you try to bring too much. 

Traveling with a vehicle

  • When you check in at the ferry terminal, you will be given a lane number based on your destination. You are asked to get into your lane 2 or 3 hours in advance of departure time, but it can take an hour or two of waiting in your vehicle before you are directed to drive onto the ship. If you have bored kids, one parent can walk onboard with them and get settled in, but you need to ask to do so when you check in. Your tickets will need to be printed separately so that the driver also has a ticket. 
  • The car deck can be a crazy place! Follow directions exactly, as it is very close quarters. Don't forget to set your parking break. 
  • Pay attention to announcements onboard when arriving into every port. Sometimes vehicle owners are asked to rearrange their vehicles. 

Traveling with pets

  • Make sure you make a reservation for your pets. Dogs are $25 each, and military orders do not pay this fee. 
  • Arrive with a valid health certificate. This is especially important when traveling to Alaska, as you will be asked for the certificate before you are allowed to board. 
  • Pets remain in vehicles, on the car deck. Yes, they have to do their business on the deck. And you have to clean it up. The ferry only provides paper towels for cleaning, so bring your own plastic bags. Some pets just won't go on the ferry. They will be okay! There is only one stretch, between Bellingham and Ketchikan, that is extra long. It takes over a day. 
  • There will be car deck calls 3-4 times per day when you can go down to feed and walk your pet. You will be surprised at how many dogs are onboard the ferry! 
  • When you pull into a port, you can get off  and walk your dog. Get off every chance you get! 
  • If your pet may wander around or destroy the inside of your vehicle, put it in a kennel.  On our last trip, a couple of dogs climbed into the driver's seat of a vehicle and turned on the flashers. Four times. In the middle of the night. Don't be that guy!

While onboard
  • After settling in, explore the ship.  Each vessel is different.  Learn where the purser is located, find the movie theater, the cafeteria (and dining room if there is one), and the kids play area.
  • Don't spend all of your time in your room!  The forward observation lounge is a great place to spend time.  Bring the kids, books, board games, electronic gadgets (with headphones), and binoculars.  People spend thousands of dollars to cruise these waterways on vacation, with good reason!  
  • There are power outlets onboard.  There is no wifi.  Bring a laptop or DVD player and some new movies.
  • Turn off your cell phone until you are in Alaskan ports or Bellingham to avoid connecting to Canadian towers.  That can be costly.
  • If you have forgotten something, the only port with businesses nearby the ferry terminal is Ketchikan.  There is a grocery store, hotel with restaurant, and coffee stand right across the street.  Ketchikan is typically a long port call, so you have time to walk a bit.
  • DO NOT miss seeing the passage through the Wrangell Narrows.  It's a narrow waterway between Petersburg and Wrangell.  Even if it's the middle of the night, get up! We missed it over the summer since it was 3am and we were tired.  This last time, I stayed up late to watch, and I got a whole new appreciation for buoys and channel markers.  In the dark, it's like Christmas with endless flashing red and green lights.  When we were going through, it was dark, snowing, and windy.  Two crew members were on the bow, making sure we didn't hit anything.  Every so often, a spotlight shone down from the bridge onto a channel marker.  We came so close that I felt like I could reach out and touch the markers at times.
  • In our opinion, the passage from Juneau to Sitka is the most beautiful.  It includes Chatham Strait and Peril Strait.  
  • Talk to fellow passengers!  On the ferry, people are likely to be Alaskans or military members.  Everyone loves to give tips on favorite spots to eat, fish, shop, drive, etc.  Chances are, at least one other person is going the same place as you.
  • The day before you are set to arrive at your destination, start taking extras from your stateroom back to your vehicle during car deck calls or port calls.  When you finally arrive and take your vehicle off the ferry, you don't have much time at all to load up and go.  You don't want to hold up everyone behind you waiting to get off.
I'm sure there is more.  I'll add as I think of things!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sitka: We made it!

I just realized that I never posted upon completion of our winter Alaskan adventure!  We made it! After a 4-day ferry ride, with snow in every town that we stopped, we made it to Sitka on Tuesday afternoon. 

It has been snowing on and off in Sitka for a week, which has left an unusual amount of snow in the ground for this area. The kids and dog have been loving it. 

We really like our new home, which is set back in a nice surround of Sitka spruce and has mountain views from every window. The people in town have been very welcoming. We have gathered tips on just about everything while wandering through the fabulous little shops in town, and even had an offer to stay at someone's house while we are waiting on our things to arrive. We have word that they are on the barge and should be in town next week, though. Hooray for that. 

The kids started at their new schools on Wednesday, and so far we are very impressed. They really love their new teachers and smaller classes. Next week, they are already starting dance, Girl Scouts, and karate. This transition has been pretty easy so far! 

In the new backyard. 

View from Totem Park, which we walk to from our house:

Monday, February 17, 2014

CA to AK: The Ferry Journey, part 1

After nearly 48 hours, we are halfway through our ferry journey to Sitka. We have survived the long stretch from Bellingham to Ketchikan, which is 36 hours straight at sea. 

We really lucked out with our stateroom on board the m/v Malaspina. We reserved a 4-berth room with sitting area, but they don't assign a specific room until checking in on the ship. There are only a handful of rooms with sitting areas. The rest have only bunks and a restroom, or maybe only bunks. The purser saw our  party of people and stuff and changed our assignment to the best room in the house, with two big windows and a double-size sitting area. Score! Having the extra space to be able to sit at the window while the kids are spread out watching movies has saved our sanity. If you're ever traveling on the Malaspina, request room 106 if you can. 

As we are traveling up the Pacific coast in winter, we expected a bit of a bumpy ride. We had two open ocean stretches during the day on Saturday with the waves rolling in on the port side, big enough to send our collection of water and wine bottles rolling around. At about 2am, we awoke to the bow of the ship (where our stateroom is located) rising and crashing on what had to be some pretty large waves. It continued on and off for two hours while the kids pretty muh slept through it. Ava woke once to laugh at the creaking sounds the walls of our cabin were making. We were very happy that our car full of dogs was tucked safely in the stern of the ship where it would take less of a beating. 

This morning we pulled into Ketchikan and got to go ashore several times over the course of the 7 hours we were there. There was an inch or three of fresh snow on the ground, and the kids were extatic to dig out their snow boots and kick it around. We walked the dogs three times, bought a few groceries, and ran off some energy. I even got to sneak away on my own to appreciate being back on Alaskan soil and find a good latte. 

Now that the long stretch is over, the rest of our voyage will go by much more quickly. We will be stopping in Wrangell (where this is probably posting from via my phone) and Petersburg tonight, and Juneau in the morning. The dogs will get to take their walks on land rather than the car deck. We are going through the Wrangell Narrows late this evening. Even though it will be dark, we are hoping to see some of the passage. It is said to be so narrow that you can toss a coin from the ship onto the shore. Hopefully we will sleep better tonight--we are finished with the open ocean crossings and will be in the Inside Passage for the rest of the trip. We are also in some snowy, windy weather...winter in Alaska!

The sitting area of our stateroom

Lighthouse in Bella Bella, Canada

Inspecting the shoreline 

Somewhere in Canada


Another Florida native loving his first time in the snow!

Friday, February 14, 2014

CA to AK, Day 2

Yesterday we completed the driving portion of our trip. We are in Bellingham, WA, where we will board our ferry this afternoon. Yesterday's drive was much easier, with mostly dry skies and beautiful  scenery.

We loved driving through Northern Oregon, with green fields full of grazing sheep in front of rolling hills. Since we definitely qualified as a high occupancy vehicle, we were able to take the express lanes through Seattle. While we missed most of the city skyline, we zipped through the city in less than 10 minutes. 

Our ferry journey will last 4 days. We were supposed to travel to Juneau, where we would have to lug everything out of our stateroom back down at least two levels to the car deck (this is definitely not like a cruise ship with baggage service!). Then we were to drive off the ship at 8am Monday, visit with friends, check into a hotel, and head back to the very same ship at 2am. After loading and unloading people and bags several times over the past few days, not to mention the very real possibility of having to drive around a snowy Juneau without snow tires, I called the ferry service last night to see if it was possible for us to just stay put and take the ride to Skagway, Haines, and back before heading to Sitka. To my surprise, not only did they allow us to do just that, but it is only going to cost the extra night for our stateroom! So for my Coast Guard friends who end up in a similar situation, just choose the "military on orders" option when calling the AK Marine Highway and ask if they can set you up with a "thru fare" to avoid a layover.  Juneau friends, we are sorry to miss connecting with some of you!! We will be at the ferry terminal Monday morning from 8:15-10:15. But there will be a next time once we get settled in!

Today we are going to do a little last-minute shopping to stock up on snacks and new movies before we head to the ferry terminal. Saturday will be spent at sea. Our next update will come from Alaska!! We will be in Ketchikan on Sunday from 7am-2pm AK time. 

Oregon scenery

Old snow right over the Washington state line.