Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Road Trip Tips...a Guest Blog Post for

As you may have noticed, I have been doing some reviews for, a family travel website.  Be sure to check out their blog today...I wrote an article for them full of road-trip planning tips based on our adventure from CT to AK.  Aside from our own blogs, the last time I was published was back in 2003, when I was interning in the FDLE crime lab.  Here's that article...quite a change of genre!

Check back soon if you are a Homer local...we're working on our area activities section, starting with the Homer Farmer's Market.  If you have ideas of places we should visit or want to keep up with what we're doing, like our new Facebook page and let us know!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Family Weekend in Seward

This summer has gone by so fast!  With signs of fall all around (foggy, rainy skies and fireweed blossoms reaching the tops of their stalks), we realized that is was now or never for one last summer adventure.  Seward is only about a 3-hour drive from Homer, just far enough for a getaway.  Even better, Seavey's Ididaride Dog Sled Tours and Abode Well Cabins agreed to host us for the weekend so we could review them for trekaroo.  When the kids heard "sled dogs" they couldn't contain their excitement!

We hit the road early Saturday morning in a downpour, which was actually the first real rain storm we've had all summer.  After a quick stop in Cooper Landing to peek over the bridge and get some coffee, we arrived in Seward shortly before lunch time.  It was still raining, which was not a surprise, so we took cover at the Bakery at the Harbor for lunch.  After lunch, it was still raining, so we went to the only indoor attraction around- the Alaska SeaLife Center.  I think we were spoiled by the Mystic Aquarium.  Both aquariums have Alaskan animal exhibits, but the one in Mystic surprisingly has a much better layout and more exhibits that small kids will enjoy.  Even with Little Man getting in for free and the rest of us getting a military discount, we spent nearly $50 on admission and were pushing it to keep the kids occupied for an hour before getting bored.  For adults and much older kids, it may be more interesting as there are lots of things to read about at each exhibit and some really cool artwork to enjoy.

Watching the harbor seals 

Octopus tentacles

Next we headed to check into our cabin at Abode Well, which is located on Old Exit Glacier Road.  It's just far enough out of town to be quiet and peaceful, yet close enough to be a 10-minute drive to the shops and restaurants.  We stayed in their family cabin, which has 2 bedrooms, a full kitchen, and sleeps up to 8 people.  We're so glad to have found it, as it will be a great place to stay next summer when we will have lots of family members headed our way.

Before dinner, we made a quick trip (still in the rain) to Exit Glacier.  We've seen glaciers before, so it wasn't anything new to us.  The thing that makes this glacier special is its location.  To get there you travel through the Resurrection River valley, surrounded by towering mountains.  The drive alone is worth the trip.  Since Exit Glacier is part of Kenai Fjords National Park, it has a great visitors center with a park ranger on hand to answer questions.  We were able to fit in a walk of the Glacier View Loop trail, and hope to go back next time and take the trail that goes right up the glacier's "toe"--which apparently is what they call where the glacier meets the water.

Exit Glacier

Next it was on the the Exit Glacier Salmon Bake for dinner.  The LT had been there several times before when the ship he was stationed on in Kodiak spent time drydocked in Seward, so we knew what to expect.  Or so we thought.  We have decided that the halibut nuggets were, surprisingly, the best fried halibut we have ever had.  Ever.  Yum!  It was so good, in fact, that we considered going for dinner again the next night.

After dinner, we returned to our cabin tucked in the woods, where the kids were able to go to bed- in separate rooms, even- while we enjoyed the lack of TV (oh, but we had a computer...and wifi...and may have watched an episode of The Glades) before turning in ourselves.

Sunday morning we woke up to clearing skies and made a quick breakfast in the cabin's kitchen before heading to Lowell Point for a hike that was recommended to us by another Coast Guard family who recently moved from Seward.  Our destination was Tonsina Creek via the Coastal Trail.  We weren't quite sure how long the hike was going to be, since every map and description of the trail we came across showed a different distance.  We're pretty sure it was between 3 and 4 miles round-trip.  The kids are turning out to be great little hikers, and no one complained of being tired until halfway through the return trip.  The trail was very muddy, and had actually turned into a stream at some spots, due to the several preceding rainy days, but lucky for us the sun was finally shining.  The last portion of the hike, down several switchbacks to Tonsina Creek, gave spectacular views of the mountains and bay. The creek itself was full of spawning salmon (which is why we were warned of bears in the area, but didn't see any) and lots of seagulls eating lunch.

View from Tonsina Creek

We picked up lunch for ourselves again at the Bakery at the Harbor, mainly because it was the only place we knew that we could get something easy to go, but were disappointed for the second time in a row with their service.  The food was okay, but nothing as exciting as its status of #2 restaurant in Seward on TripAdvisor makes it out to be.  We enjoyed the layout of the Family Cabin once again while the kids napped, and then it was on to the highlight of our weekend--the sled dog tour!

We all had a favorite part of meeting with the sled dogs and going for a ride (which in the summer is on a wheeled "sled" that seats 6 and is equipped with hydraulic breaks because the dogs are so strong).  I loved watching the yard full of dogs jump around and bark while the mushers were choosing who got to go for a run.  You could tell they were just so excited that they couldn't stand's obvious that these dogs love what they do.  The kids loved the ride itself.  Adventure Girl grabbed my hand several times while the dogs were racing ahead to whisper, "This is so cool."  Little Man loved watching the dogs take breaks along the way (they stop frequently on summer runs to keep cool, as they are used to racing in temperatures of 30-40 below zero).  Each stop they sniffed around and constantly looked back at the musher to see if they were allowed to run again.  I think The LT's favorite part was meeting the 9-week-old puppies.  They were cuddly and adorable, and not nearly as crazy as you expect puppies to be.  Our tour ended with a demonstration of the gear that the dogs and mushers wear while racing, and a chance to try it all out ourselves.  The kids chose a book about sled dogs from the gift shop before we walked back to our cabin.  Along the way we came across several little bunnies!

"Pick me, pick me!"

Getting harnessed up

Since the ground was still pretty wet, we decided to forgo our plans of a campfire with hot dogs and s'mores and instead headed back to town for dinner.  We ended up at the Railway Cantina, which turned out to be just perfect for us- affordable, delicious, fast, and a great view of town.  Then we walked down the street for some ice cream and a quick visit to the harbor before heading back to the cabin.

Downtown Seward

Right after we put the kids to bed, The LT spied a black bear right outside our window, eating the berries from the tops of the devil's club plants.  We got the kids back up to watch it roam the grounds for awhile before it disappeared back into the forest.  We're glad we got the chance to observe the bear from inside rather than come across one while out hiking!

Right out our window!!

The next morning it was rainy again and time to head home. What a great way to spend the last days of summer!  We will definitely be returning to Seward next year, as we now have a list of other places there that we didn't get a chance to visit.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Adventure Girl Goes to Kindergarten!

The day after returning from our last big adventure of the summer (blog post on that to come later this week), Adventure Girl- or AG, it's shorter to type- went on a really big adventure of her own.  She started kindergarten today!  She was able to meet her teacher and see her classroom last week, so she was nothing but excited to get to school this morning.  Her mom, on the other hand, was surprisingly much more teary-eyed walking down the halls of big kid school than she thought she would be.  Not to worry, though, according to Little Man. "I will keep you company, Mom."  That crazy boy sure can be sweet when he wants to be!

We are really impressed with the elementary school here in Homer.  Not only does the classroom have its own computers and a Smart Board (kind of like a huge iPad on the wall that the kids use their fingers to manipulate), but the school still has PE, art, and even music.  TWICE a week!  That's an increasingly rare find with so many school budget issues across the country.

When we picked up AG this afternoon (after waking a very grumpy 3-year-old to get there on time), she was nothing but smiles and chatter.  She showed us the restroom on the way out, noting that suddenly she is no longer afraid of the loud sounds a public toilet makes (for those who know her, you know this is a huge deal), and that she can even operate the paper towel dispenser on her own.  She accomplished the mission I gave her at the beginning of the day- to make at least one new friend and remember her name- and also learned how to play wheelbarrow with said friend as an added bonus.  She brought home a drawing of the dog for the dog, pointing out that she forgot to give him ears.  Guess there's no turning back now...she loves school right from the start.  I think I may know where she got that from.

In true Homer fashion, it was raining on the first day of school.  Each child actually keeps a clean pair of shoes at school to change into on arrival every day.

"Okay, Mom, you can leave now."

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Adventure Girls Visit Seldovia

With the end of summer quickly approaching (in Homer we have one week left before the first day of school!), we are trying to make the most of the little time we have left.  Adventure Girl (as she has recently dubbed herself) and I hadn't had a "no boys allowed" day in quite awhile, so we decided to take a day trip to Seldovia.  It's a small native village across Kachemak Bay from Homer, accessible by boat or plane.

We chose the Seldovia Bay Ferry as our means of transportation.  It's a little pricey, especially for a day trip, but luckily is offering 30% off fares through September 6.  When you only have a day to spend, this high-speed ferry is the way to go.  On the trip from Homer to Seldovia, the ferry makes a detour to Gull Island and then travels through Eldridge Passage, adding 30 minutes to the regular 45-minute ride.  We knew we were in for a possibly rainy day, but what we didn't consider was the wind and seas and their effect on the ferry ride.  We are still amazed by how different the weather can be on the two sides of the bay.  We took a backpack full of rain gear but enjoyed the late summer sun the whole day.  The swells on the bay were large, and the direction the boat had to take made for quite a ride.  I'm no wimp when it comes to being at sea, but the bow of the boat, which is a catamaran, was making some pretty hefty drops for much of the trip.  Adventure Girl sat on my lap and held on tight with her eyes closed, but I'm happy to report that neither of us gets seasick.  Luckily the ferry has a huge, 2-story enclosed cabin with comfy chairs and tables, so we were able to stay warm and dry.  The captain did his best to avoid the largest swells.

After docking in the Seldovia small boat harbor, we headed to the Seldovia Village Tribe Visitor's Center to double-check our plan for the day.  Upon confirming that the hike we wanted to go on was in fact safe for a mom and her 5-year-old (and learning that we probably wouldn't be finding many salmonberries), we set off down Main Street headed for the Otterbahn Trail.  With Adventure Girl as my little naturalist, telling me all about fallen trees, berries, and spider webs, we made our way through the forest.  This trail is the closest we have come to finding hiking similar to that in Kodiak.  It felt just like the trails at Ft. Abercrombie, with spruce, devil's club, ferns, and berry bushes.  The muddy sections had nice little bridges built over them, and upon emerging from the forest we came upon a beautiful boardwalk crossing a lagoon.  We stopped to have a snack on some benches in the middle of the boardwalk and admired some spider webs.  After that, it was over the dunes and onto the beach, where we were rewarded with spectacular views of the volcanoes, Homer, and passing boats.

Since the tide was still on the low side, we were able to make our way up the beach and cross a stream (3 times, because we left our berry-picking bag behind on the other side) to reach Outside Beach.  There was another beautiful lagoon there, along with a picnic shelter and pirate ship to climb.  We returned about a mile and a half to town via the road in hope of finding berries, but would have been better off taking the Otterbahn.  Now we know for next time.

Adventure Girl requested halibut for lunch (she's turning into a little Alaskan) so we found a picnic table on the deck of the Tide Pool restaurant, overlooking the harbor.  We shared a rather disappointing plate of fish and chips (too much batter and grease, not much fish) while watching an otter do barrel rolls.  Then it was on to the Alaska Tribal Cache store in hopes of fulfilling our quest for salmonberry jam from Alaska Pure Berry, but no large jars were to be found.  Guess we will have to stop by Alaska Wildberry right here in Homer sometime soon.

Lunchtime entertainment

We stopped by a Russian Orthodox church, and then visited a small park with huge wood carvings, a result of the 2010 Seldovia Woodcarving Festival.  Can't beat a salmon with a saddle!  After a quick snack of ice cream and coffee, we spent the last half hour of our time in Seldovia at Lollipop Park.  The playground was brand-new and fully fenced-in...perfect for all of the families awaiting their transportation at the harbor.

The Kachemak Voyager, our transportation for the day

I half-expected Adventure Girl to put up a fight about getting back on the ferry after the scary journey to Seldovia, but by then she was remembering it as fun rather than rough.  The return ferry ride was much smoother, but we did travel most of the way through dense fog with low visibility.  The 5 and a half hours that we spent in Seldovia was just the right amount of time.  The only place we didn't make it to was the historic boardwalk, so we will be sure to start there next time.  We hope to go back with the rest of the family, but probably not until next summer.

We have one last family adventure on the books before school starts!  Next weekend, we are headed on assignment to Seward and Seavey's Ididaride Dog Sled Tours.  We will be reviewing their lodging and tours for trekaroo and are really looking forward to it!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Happy (belated) 221st Birthday to the US Coast Guard

August 4th is Coast Guard Day, and this year we celebrated in style by getting underway for the day on the USCGC HICKORY.  What a great opportunity for all of the families to experience what it's like onboard a hard-working 225-foot buoy tender.  We toured, we fished, we saw some killer whales.  Fun was had by all.

The mighty HICKORY, which is too large to fit in my camera's lens while in the harbor

View off the stern at the pier, with the buoy yard in the background

The last time we saw The LT in action on the bridge of an Alaskan buoy tender, he was a new Ensign.  Eight years later, we have come full-circle.

The XO with his proud kiddos

Did you know that Alaska Governor Sean Parnell recently declared August to be United States Coast Guard Appreciation Month?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Family Camp: Across the Bay, a World Away

From the very first day we arrived in Homer, I have been mesmerized by the view from my living room windows of Kachemak Bay and the mountains beyond.  After we found out that most of the hiking in the area is located in Kachemak Bay State Park, which encompasses much of the vista that I enjoy, we started researching how to go about getting there. The only means of travel across the bay is water taxi or float plane.  Although it appears to not be very far to the other coast, it is in fact a 5-7 mile boat ride that costs about $65 per person round-trip.  Add that up for a family of four, and you get quite a pricey day of hiking.  Not having access to a boat of our own, we looked at other options.   We learned a couple of moves back that the local nature center is a great place to start when trying to find family activities, so our first stop was the Center for Alaska Coastal Studies.  Turns out, they have a field station in Peterson Bay and offer a "family camp" weekend twice during the summer.  For about the cost of taking a water taxi across the bay twice, we could spend an entire, all-enclusive weekend at the field station with a naturalist as our guide.  Needless to say, we signed right up!

Upon arriving at the center's Yurt on the Spit (which deserves a blog post of its own) we met our fantastic guide, Joanna, and learned that we were the only family signed up for camp.  While we were hoping to meet other adventurous families on the trip, we were excited at the prospect of having our own personal naturalist for the weekend.  It was a particularly windy day (but really, what day in Homer isn't windy?), and we loaded up the kids and a weekend's worth of supplies on the Sea Bird, charted by the center through St. Augustine's Kayak & Tours.  The ride was more than a little rocky, and Joanna later told us that it was the roughest trip she had ever had across the bay.  The kids thought it was fun, but I had to keep my eyes toward the floor to keep from feeling like we were going to get dumped into the very cold (47 degree!) bay.

The adventure continued when we arrived in the field station's cove.  Due to the huge tidal ranges in the bay and the steep bluff where the field station is located, there is a floating dock moored in the middle of a small cove, with a raft on a pulley system to transport people and supplies to shore.  When we finally hauled everything up the stairs and to the field station's main building, the kids were excited to see a fire pit with a beautiful deck built around it.  The LT and I were surprised to learn that we wouldn't be roughing it as much as we thought.  We knew we were sleeping in a yurt, but we had no idea that it contained bunk beds and a heater, nor did we realize that Joanna would be prepping our meals in an actual kitchen inside the field station.  There were indoor composting toilets, running hot water (but no shower), and an all-purpose room for eating and crafting.  Maybe we weren't camping after all!

The raft 

Otter Rock...if you've ever seen an otter floating around on its back, you know why it's called that! 

Our yurt, one of 4 at the field station

After a dinner of hot dogs cooked over the fire, Joanna took us on a short excursion to collect a few flowers for the kids to press and turn into bookmarks later in the weekend.  That's right, she had crafts planned, too, for a true summer camp experience! We then turned in for one of the least restful nights of sleep we have had since Little Man was an infant.  With the skylight in the yurt's ceiling and the Alaskan summer sun, it took forever for the kids to fall asleep.  We ended up each sharing a bunk with a child, meaning that we all were restless. Thank goodness for the windows in the yurt's door, allowing us to wake up to a view of sunshine and fireweed in the morning.  It made up for the lack of sleep and had us eager to get outside and explore.

Morning view from my bunk

Saturday was spent experiencing everything the field station and surrounding trails have to offer.  We started off the day with a hike to Lost & Found Lake.  The trail led us through the forest (where I was excited to discover salmon berries, which I thought did not grow around here!) and looped past the lake and through a great overlook of China Poot Bay before leading us back to the field station.  No need to bring snacks, because along with the salmon berries, the trails were overflowing with other edibles that the kids nibbled on the entire weekend: watermelon berries (who knew such a thing existed?), blueberries, crow berries and two types of currants.  Needless to say, we weren't the only ones enjoying the summer's bounty.  We saw evidence of bears everywhere, even steps from our yurt.  Thankfully, the kids are noisy hikers and probably scared away any bear that would have crossed our path.

Lost & Found Lake...found!

Monkeying around

Salmon I wish there were enough of you for jam!

Watermelon berries


After lunch, the tide was low enough for us to set out on a tide pooling adventure.  We made our way to Otter Rock and discovered anemones, sea stars, and lots of other tiny creatures living on the shoreline.  When the wind and rain rolled in, we headed back to the field station for an afternoon of creating our own sea creatures out of clay and meeting the residents of the station's touch tanks.  We also created candles containing shells from our walk on the beach.  After dinner, we headed out in the pouring rain (glad we packed full rain gear for everyone!) to pick blueberries for pancakes on Sunday morning before turning in for the night.  Our second night yurting it was much better, mostly thanks to a very worn-out family.  The raindrops on the canvas roof made for a very peaceful evening.

Learning about the creatures in the tide pools

Six-rayed sea star

Christmas anemones

Sunday morning, after waking up to the promised blueberry pancakes and bacon cooked by Joanna,  we set out on another hike.  This time we went by a native home site, where we learned how people fished long ago, and then we made our way to a small beach on China Poot Bay.  We spotted otters and even a huge gathering of seals on the opposite shore.  Then it was back to the field station for one more round of crafts before packing up and heading back home.  We all decided that we could have spent another day (or three) exploring more, but we were ready to be back to our own beds.

China Poot Bay

Mega-zoomed and cropped view of some seals across the bay...the wonders of technology

We made our way back to the floating dock via the raft and met the Sea Bird.  Making a pit stop to pick up some kayakers one cove over before heading back to Homer and were in for one more treat.  There was a seal sunning on the kayak dock who wasn't bothered at all by all of the people nearby.  According to the tour operator, it is the sixth year the seal has stationed himself there.  The ride back across the bay was much smoother, and in no time we had to go back to reality.  We now know where we would like to have a retirement cabin, but hope to get back across the bay much sooner.  In fact, I think we just may sign up for family camp again next year...and hope that other families do, too.