Monday, December 31, 2012

Year-End Update

Wow!  How is it already the final day of 2012?! This year has just flown by, mostly because we have really settled in and become a part of the Homer community.  Thought I'd better catch up on posts, since I am way behind as usual.  How about New Year's resolution is to get back to writing more often.

We spent much of the year, especially the latter half, as a family of 3.  The HICKORY was busy.  Much busier than the average buoy tender.  They were gone all summer to the Arctic to supervise Shell's oil drilling that never actually happened, back for 3 weeks, and then gone for 7 more.  After arriving home just in time for Halloween, they had to turn around and head out yet again for a couple more weeks of work.  We were able to spend Thanksgiving together (and even managed to squeeze in a trip to visit friends in Juneau), before they left yet again.  You know it's not normal when they have to request a waiver from the higher-ups for the number of days they have been away from homeport this year.  We were lucky enough to also be together for Christmas (we haven't missed one yet, surprisingly) and even set out on a post-holiday ski vacation at Alyeska Resort.  The ship was on standby, so of course it was recalled about 12 hours after we arrived.  Back four hours through the mountain passes and icy roads we went (curing me of ever wanting to drive to Anchorage again in the winter!) so the ship could go assist with a rogue oil drilling rig that came free from the tug towing it.  Across the Gulf of Alaska.  In the winter.  In a typhoon.  Thanks yet again to Shell for their lack of knowledge of operating safely in Alaskan waters.  They have been the main drain of our family time this year, not to mention what they have cost the Coast Guard.  More on the latest, holiday-interrupting incident here.  I have grown to really despise Shell, if you couldn't tell.

Our weather has been completely different than last year's. After the early October snow, we didn't get any more until Christmas Eve.  We spent all of November in the single digits, with plenty of ice to contend with.  It warmed up in December, but that led to rain.  After the nearly two feet of Christmas snow, the rain returned in a big way.  The snow is all but gone and the roads, yards, parking lots...everything... are all coated in ice again.  We are actually looking forward to school starting back up so we have something to do again, other than watching movies and playing with play dough.  

I know it may not sound like it, but we do still really love living in Homer.  I'm actually a bit appreciative that the weather and ship schedule have not been very cooperative lately, as it helps make thinking about leaving not quite as terrible.  For now anyway.  I'll leave you with a few pics of our November and December adventures. The ship has just pulled back into the bay, so we are going to dress up and treat the LT to a fancy New Year's Eve family dinner out at our favorite restaurant, the Mermaid Cafe, since he has been out in 20-foot seas and 60-knot winds for the past 72 hours.  I can't think of a better way to ring in 2013 and all the new adventures it will be bringing us.

Homer in Early November:

My very favorite people:

Thanksgiving in Juneau!  Mendenhall Glacier, which is open year-round.  We had such a great time hiking there in the snow.  We had less fun trying to fly out of Juneau in a surprise snowstorm.  Similar to living in Kodiak, the only way out is plane or ferry.  The city itself is really fun...good thing, since it's on our list of possible places to move.

Winter Solstice, December 21, 10:40am.  A balmy 5 degrees.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Early Winter

Just a quick update for those who like to stay in the know and aren't on Facebook!  I have several posts outlined in my head...but finding the time to get down to writing them just hasn't happened lately.

The LT has been gone for nearly 6 weeks.  By the time he gets back from this unexpectedly long trip, he will have been away longer than he was over the summer.  He actually missed the entire fall season in Homer.  He was able to come back home for two quick weekend trips last month (and we had some professional pics taken, below) while the ship was drydocked in Seward for emergency repairs, but when he returns he will find all of the mountains covered in snow and most of the trees bare.  Here's a great article about a rescue they helped with while on their way west.

We got our first real snowfall on October 16, over two weeks earlier than last year.  Most of it has melted away in the sunshine, but there is still enough left for the kids to find ice chunks to throw to the dog (and at each other).

Along with the early snowfall, we were treated to an early display of the Northern Lights last Friday.  I pulled into my driveway after a late evening at broom ball (at which I think I have improved since last year--thanks to some pretty intense circuit training classes) and found a spectacular display of green and red right from my own yard.  Last year, we didn't get our first peek at the lights until December, and we had to drive away from the lights of town and up the mountain to see them clearly.  I took these pics from my front porch.

Our time left in Homer is now numbered in months.  I don't even want to think about leaving.  But we have our list turned in to the detailer, so the waiting game is on until spring.  The LT got word that he made the list to be promoted to Lieutenant Commander.  It takes awhile for them to work down the list, so he will see the actual promotion sometime next year.  But at least it's guaranteed!

I have been sewing right along since he's been gone so much.  I have started doing more things for myself rather than to sell in my shop, and I've entered some of them in contests.  One of them, a laptop sleeve for Art Gallery Fabrics, even won!  I have 10 yards of fabric heading my way for that win.  I'm also up for another right now.  I'm in the top ten, and you can vote to help me win more free stuff to support my habit, em, hobby.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Fall? Already?

I feel like we're on an episode of Frozen Planet.  "The summer months are short in the far north.  Humans and animals alike scurry around in the fleeting sun, making the most of the time to travel and harvest before winter sets in yet again."

School starts in less than three weeks.  The fireweed is blooming, with the flowers already halfway up the stalk.  They say that when it reaches the top, there are 6 more weeks until winter.  Our streetlights came on last night around 10:15, the first time I have seen them on in months. Nowhere else we have lived have I paid such close attention to the weather, hours of daylight, and changing of seasons.  In Alaska, we truly live by the patterns of nature.

June went by in a flurry of outdoor activity.  Not long after we returned from our Great Alaskan Road Trip, word spread that the first salmon were running in the Kenai River.  Who were we kidding- we are more the Kodiak-style of salmon fishers, where you drive to a river, drop in your line, and reel in fish with ease.  We definitely are not the Kenai Peninsula style of combat salmon fishermen, who line the banks of the Russian and Kenai Rivers, hollering at each other to keep their flies in their own shoulder-width allotment of the riverbank.  But that didn't stop us from packing up our camping gear and heading out of town on an hour's notice for a Father's Day weekend initiation into family tent camping. We went with some good friends and had just about every piece of gear we needed between us all.  We snagged the last public campsite in a 40-mile radius and had a blast.  We also tried fishing...for about 15 minutes.  There was no room for amateurs.

Washing dishes in the Kenai River

Combat Fishing Zone

We had so much fun the first time, that the next sunny stretch of days (about 2 weeks later!) we headed out again.  This time it was to Captain Cook State Recreation Area, past Nikiski.

Boulder Scrambling

Alaska's natural playground

Serious discussions at a beach campfire
We did learn a few Alaskan camping tips:
-Darkness comes late (or not at all).  We used a black-backed quilt thrown over the top of our tent to help everyone get to sleep.
-All food belongs in vehicles or bear lockers at night to avoid unwelcome visitors.
-Keep bear spray within easy reach of all adults at camp--and don't spray it around the perimeter of camp as a deterrent (that was actually stated in the instructions that came with the spray- ha!).
-Starbucks Via packets make perfect camp coffee.
-Bring a propane stove if you intend to have coffee in a timely manner in the morning, as most of the firewood around is damp.

The end of June brought the departure of the LT, who has been floating around somewhere off the western coast of Alaska ever since.   He has managed to visit with several native Alaskans along the way and promises to bring home a bounty of unique souvenirs of his journey.  Shell was supposed to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer but has (fortunately??) run into several delays. You can read more about that here, as I'm not at liberty to say much else about the subject.

July brought us lots of rainy days, as well as some visitors.  We gave them the full Alaskan experience, including clamming (but no clams!), halibut fishing, glacier cruising, and dog mushing.

A side trip offshore for ling cod while halibut fishing

The most beautiful day on Resurrection Bay

Surprise Glacier

Floating on bergy bits (no, really, that's the technical name)

Another visit to Seavey's Ididaride

Even though it's now August, we have a couple more adventures coming up before settling in for the fall.  First, it's to Denali National Park again, this time on the Alaska Railroad.  We will also be spending Labor Day weekend at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, about an hour north of Anchorage.  We are lucky to have a school that sees the value in family travel and doesn't mind a missed day here and there!  Until then, we will be savoring our last couple of weeks of swim lessons and beach time before having a first-grader and pre-k-er while looking forward to the LT's return.  We have crossed quite a bit off our Alaska bucket list this summer, with mostly winter activities remaining.  We are also already (!!) working on our list of locales to be stationed next tour.  That's right, we have to move again next summer.  So let's just focus on the now for now.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Photos and a Recap

Now that we are have spent a few days resting and catching up at home, it's time to finally share our trip photos!  I put them in flickr albums for easier access, rather than inserting a ton into the blog format.

Denali National Park Photos
Fairbanks Photos
Talkeetna Photos (this is where we have the best views of Mt. McKinley (Denali)!

Now for a few musings and tips from the trip:

-The entry area to Denali National Park is VERY touristy and geared toward the bus-loads of cruise ship passengers who are on land excursions into the park.  While it's great that those visitors get a chance to see the park, as an independent traveler I felt like a second- class citizen in the eateries and especially the Denali Princess hotel.  I highly recommend staying in the surrounding areas (like the McKinley Creekside Cabins) and driving the extra 15 miles to the park.  We will be taking the train back up in August, and will be without our own vehicle, so I'm sure we'll learn some more tips then for avoiding the cruise ship masses.

-We drove our own car into Denali, just the 13 miles to Savage River that personal vehicles are allowed.  With small kids, it was perfect for seeing enough of the park, even providing a spot for a glimpse of the mountain if the clouds are cooperating, while still being in control of our own schedule.  When we return, we'll try taking the shuttle bus further into the park.  I think the furthest we will attempt is the Eielson Visitor's center, which is 66 miles each way but a 5-6 hour roundtrip.

-Fairbanks was my least favorite destination out of the three because I'm not much for city traffic and driving, but it was the favorite stop of my kids.  They loved Pioneer Park and the Riverboat Discovery. I would spend an extra day in the area if we go back so we cold check out the Chena Lakes recreation area and go on a hike at Angel Rocks, toward Chena Hot Springs.

-Mosquitoes in the Interior are ginormous! No amount of OFF could protect us.  I even have a photo of one biting Little Man right in the middle of the forehead (not staged, of course, just crazy timing of the shutter.)

-Talkeetna is awesome.  It has a great mix of locals and travelers from around the globe.  It's like Homer, only even more laid back (who knew that was possible?!).  We already have another reservation at the Roadhouse for Labor Day weekend, after a visit to the Alaska State Fair.

Would I do that trip alone with the kids again? Absolutely!  The driving was easy, with a 2-lane highway most of the way, and plenty of pit stop locations.  The only thing I would change is my planned driving times.  I did not take into account that Little Man still likes his afternoon naps.  We drove in the mornings and adventured in the afternoons.  Next time, we will be sure to flip that plan.  By Thursday his patience (and mine) was running thin!

Kids doing what they do best!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Home!

We are back home in Homer.  I can't believe I actually did that trip...1,200 miles, on my own with the kids in the mountains of Alaska.  Wow.  We are all glad to be back to our own beds tonight, but both kids want to move to Fairbanks and live on the riverboat.  Photos to come tomorrow after I download and edit them.

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 6

This morning we left Fairbanks under a quadruple rainbow and headed south to Talkeetna, detouring back into Denali one last time to stretch our legs. There were other people at the Mountain Vista trail this time, so we were able to go for a short walk. The mountain was again hiding all of itself but a sliver, but we did see another bull moose on the way out. The whole drive took us about 7 hours, but we took our time and made several stops.

Talkeetna is our new favorite getaway spot. Main Street is lined with shops and restaurants, and biking, walking, and riding ATVs are all acceptable ways to get around town. We checked into the Talkeetna Roadhouse and are staying at their Trapper John's cabin about a quarter of a mile off the main drag (and on the same property as the roadhouse owner's home). A true trapper's cabin, it comes complete with pelts on the walls and a kitchen with all vintage appliances.

We walked down to the community-built playground (which was further than we thought), designed by the same company that just did ours in Homer. It was similar yet very different, and felt much more Alaskan-themed than Homer's, but I don't think I could choose one over the other.

We headed to Mountain High Pizza Pie for dinner and intentionally ordered too much so we have leftovers for tomorrow. Then it was back to the cabin for jackets to help keep the killer mosquitoes at bay before heading on a short walk.

The roadhouse proprietor told us to head down the street from the cabin and around the end of the village airstrip to pick up a trail through the woods by the river. I felt like I was back in Kodiak, where we would cut between the airstrip and the float plane lake to get to the diner. As soon as we got to the end of the airstrip, a plane started taxiing for takeoff. To say the kids were surprised as it flew right over our heads is an understatement.

Our hike through the beautiful birch forest was short lived thanks to the mosquitoes. We are all tired anyway, so the kids are tucked in bed while the Alaskan summer sun streams in the cabin's kitchen window and the resident roosters crow at 8:30pm.

Tomorrow it's breakfast at the roadhouse and then back to Anchorage with stops for groceries and running shoes, and then on home to our much-missed Dad, dog, and beds. Adventure Girl says she wants to keep traveling around, and Little Man wants to play in his own room with his own toys.

Photos: quadruple rainbow leaving Fairbanks, one last glimpse of hidden Denali, Talkeetna, playground in Talkeetna, Mountain High Pizza Pie, Trapper John's Cabin

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 5

We began our day with a cruise on the Riverboat Discovery on the Chena River. We were accompanied by six bus loads of cruise ship passengers, but the boat was massive, with plenty of room for everyone. The tour company really has this trip well thought out. A float plane pilot performed two take-offs and landings right alongside the boat in the river.

The boat passed by the kennels of late Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, and her husband, Yukon Quest champion Dave Monson, showed off new puppies and demonstrated the power of a dog team as they pull him in an ATV around a pond. He then let them outbid their harnesses and into the river for a cool-down swim. We have seen a few other sled dog kennels, and this one outshines them all in dog yard living quarters, at least from what we could see from the boat. Note: sit on the left side of the boat from the beginning, as that is where most of the action is.

The trip included an hour-long stop at a replica Athabascan village, where we learned about the native lifestyle. Even better, the guides in the village were mostly college students who are from native villages themselves. I wasn't sure if the kids enjoyed this part until my little guy asked his dad on the phone if he would build us a fish wheel to catch salmon when we get home. He also remembered the floatplane pilot's name, who spoke with the boat captain over the loudspeaker.

Lance Mackey was even waiting at the dock when we returned, available to talk with tourists about his multiple Iditarod and Yukon Quest wins. The kids really wanted to talk to him, but the cruisers were top fast and too many for us to wait at lunchtime. All in all, a very impressive range of info from this family-run business!

We finally had time and hotel room for an afternoon nap, so we rested up before heading to North Pole. Not the actual north pole, but a town by that name about 15 miles from Fairbanks. I was debating whether it was a worthwhile stop to include, but several locals recommended a Chinese restaurant there. We have no Chinese restaurant in Homer and really miss it, so I can now say that I drove to North Pole just for the fried rice. The restaurant, Pagoda, was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives awhile back.

As an added bonus, the Christmas cheer in North Pole was so over the top (candy cane streetlamp posts on Santa Claus Lane!) that we couldn't resist a stop at the Santa Claus House for our moment to act like tourists. We met four of Santa's reindeer, and the kids spent a good amount of time calling to them through the fence to see if any of them would answer to "Prancer" or "Blitzen." They didn't. Inside, we met Santa and bought ourselves a North Pole, Alaska float plane ornament to add to our collection before escaping the store filled with expensive breakables placed on low shelves. This place was not actually set up with kids in mind, which struck me as pretty funny.

Everyone is now tucked in their beds with bellies full of lo mein, ready to start our journey back south tomorrow. Destination: Talkeetna, Mountain High Pizza Pie, and the Talkeetna Roadhouse.

Photos: the pups at the sled dog kennel, waves made by the paddle wheel (there's some math in there somewhere...sine waves, perhaps?), watching the river go by, Santa Claus House, and a ridiculously huge Santa with a teeny tiny sleigh-can you even see the kids in it?

Friday, June 8, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 4

Day 4? Really? That's it? Seems like we have been on the road much longer, with all we have seen already this week!

Today we drove just over 2 hours to Fairbanks. The drive was peaceful and beautiful, with a two-lane highway and nearly no other traffic. My favorite was the Skyline Drive portion of the Parks Hwy. right outside of the city, with enormous views of rolling green hills and snowy mountains in the background. No photos, since I kept missing the viewpoint turnoffs. Being driver and navigator at the same time is not my normal road-trip method.

We fit in a lot today, starting with a visit to Pioneer Park, complete with playground time, carousel ride, and train trip around the park grounds. We left because we were HOT. It is in the mid-70s here, the warmest day of the year.

Then it was off to run around on the trails at Creamer's Field, which was the perfect place to expend some extra energy. The field was full of sand hill cranes (and the forest was full of mosquitoes). The helpful woman in the Visitor's building set me up with a map and directions to cooler activities for the kids, should we need more indoor ideas.

We then checked into our most luxurious lodgings of the trip, Pike's Waterfront. My Alaska TourSaver book coupon got us a deluxe riverfront room, two nights for the price of one. Cushy beds, PBS on the flat screen for a little kid downtime, and a tiny balcony overlooking the Chena.

We drove around downtown Fairbanks after dinner and came back to Pike's to trade in our wooden coins (for Alaskans only!) for free ice cream cones in the lobby.

Tomorrow we're using another TourSaver deal to ride the Riverboat Discovery, three hours on the Chena River with a stop at Susan Butcher's sled dog kennel and a tour of an old native village. After that, naps are in order, followed by a visit to North Pole (a real town, 15 miles away) to visit the reindeer and the Pagoda Chinese restaurant for dinner takeout on the recommendation of a few locals today.

As for the 600 miles from "the end of the road" to Fairbanks, travel has been very easy. We must be just a bit earlier than the RV invasion, because we haven't had much company headed north since leaving the Wasilla area (and we did not see Russia from there). The highway is mostly one lane each way, with plenty of stopping places, both scenic and for gas and food. I wish I had a copilot so I could enjoy the scenery a bit more, but we are taking the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage to Denali in August (another TourSaver buy one get one; getting much more than out money's worth from that book!), so I'll get to enjoy more mountain views and wildlife then.

Photos: Pioneer Park (formerly Alaskaland), swings you would only find in Alaska, Creamer's Field, free ice cream meets overtired boy

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 3

Today we spent exploring the front portion of Denali National Park. We knew rain was in the forecast, so we drove into the park after breakfast (Black Bear Coffeehouse, pretty good) to see if we could catch a glimpse of the mountain before the cloud cover came in. We were just in time to see the middle third (photos to come when we return home). About 20 minutes later, after giving up on the Mountain Vista trail because we we're the only car in the parking lot, the clouds rolled in and Denali was hidden. You hear all the time how quickly the weather can change up here, but it's crazy to see in person.

After returning to the Visitor's Center, we set out on the McKinley Station Trail, headed for the two bridge crossings of Riley Creek on the Three Lakes Trail. The path led through a very peaceful forest with just the right amount of fellow hikers to help ward off any bears. The creek is very swift right now due to recent rain storms, so the kids weren't able to toss in as many rocks as they had hoped. The second creek crossing is a wooden and cable suspension bridge. We made it about halfway across and decided to turn back as it wasn't quite wide enough for one mom gripping two kids by the back of the sweatshirt to traverse together, and the railing was just thin metal cable. The kids spent time building rock structures along the creek's bank for awhile before heading back.

After a picnic lunch, we visited the science center and learned about different animal bones. Then it was on to the sled dog kennel, where we got to meet and pet several park "canine rangers" and listen to a presentation about how they helped establish the park as a wildlife refuge.

Shew, I'm tired all over again just thinking about what we did today! We are in need of a day of rest. We moved to different accommodations for tonight simply because it was less expensive, so we are at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge. Rooms here usually aren't cheap, but we are just on the edge of shoulder season and got a deal. Aside from last night's place being about 15 miles from the park entrance, we much prefer it to where we are now. The only gas station in town is charging $5.19/gallon, so I'm glad to have enough left to make it up the road to Healy in hope of finding cheaper prices. This lodge is owned by Princess Cruises, and it is set up for cruisers on land excursions. There is only one small parking area for vehicles at the front, and the property is huge. We had to carry our bags quite a distance, and we weren't told about the distance, parking, or the property trolley shuttle when we checked in. We weren't told much at all, actually. Not very helpful for a mom and two young kids. The room itself is okay, but certainly not worth the $269/night they charge in high season. I chose this place thinking it would be nice to stay in "glitter gulch," as they call it, for ease of walking to restaurants rather than more driving. Now that we have tried both options, we'll opt for the smaller local-owned lodging rather than more touristy lodges. But it's right on the Nenana River canyon with a great view!

We took an easy out with dinner and had pizza and ice cream to combat the road weariness. Tomorrow it's just 120 miles to Fairbanks, where we plan to take it slow and enjoy the warmth.

Photos: suspension bridge, making friends with peanut butter on our hands from lunch, view behind the Denali Princess, ice cream to top off the day

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 2

Pardon the short entries and weird photo format- I went light on tech for this trip and am blogging from my iPhone with just the photos on it. I'll upload lots of amazing pics when we return home.

Today we left Anchorage around 7:30am (thanks to kids who were up at 6!) and headed north. We were lucky enough to get a few views of the top of Denali before it clouded in for the day. We stopped several times along the way and still made it to the park at noon.

After a quick picnic, we talked with some park rangers to get advice on safe places for just the three of us to hike, got our free national parks pass for military members (this is new and so, so nice!), and off we went. We drove into the park as far as personal vehicles are allowed (mile 15) and stopped at the Savage River Loop trail. There were plenty of other people around, and even some trail workers, so we set out on the two-mile hike along and across the river.

After nearly two days of saying how tired they were of being in the car, the kids finally GOT it. Got why I wanted to trek up here to visit Denali, even though we have mountains out our living room window. Attitudes turned, kids followed our hiking rules intentionally, and a certain 4-year-old even held my hand the whole way because he wanted to. The near-500-mile drive was worth just that one hour of being surrounded by enormous rocky outcroppings, types of wildflowers that we couldn't name (we usually know them all!), and a small but roaring river at our feet. We often joke that Alaskan scenery is like that movie "The Truman Show," in that it seems so perfect that at any moment it could just be rolled away like movie sets The drive here today was just that- huge, picture-perfect views making our car seem tiny in comparison.

We saw a caribou today. We decided he would have made good pepperoni and breakfast sausage. I think we may in fact be official Alaskans. We also saw a bull moose and a cute thing that looked like a prairie dog, although I'm sure it was something else.

We are staying at McKinley Creekside Cabins, which is even nicer than its website depicts. The kids are sleeping inside while I enjoy the view on he deck. Dinner was at the Denali Salmon Bake, which was also better than expected but still definitely a place for tourists.

Tomorrow we plan to hike some more (buying the kids new hiking shows yesterday has certainly helped their eagerness to hit the trails!) and maybe visit the park's sled dog kennel. Hooray for a day without driving very far!

Photos: from the South Denali viewpoint from the Parks Hwy., creek at our night's lodging, us on the Savage River trail, dinner.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Great Alaskan Road Trip: Day 1

Today we started at the beginning of the road (which most others refer to as the end!) and took our time driving to Anchorage. In just two months since we last made that drive, the scenery has gone from snowy with ice falls and avalanche warnings to mostly fresh spring green. We even saw newly-blooming lupine along the side of the road and a mama moose with two babies in the marsh.

We don't particularly enjoy Anchorage, mostly because it is a whole lot of city compared to our 1-stop-light town, but stopping over is a necessary evil for shopping and to avoid an extra long day of driving. We are staying in military lodging at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson for the first time. What a bargain! $41.50 for two bedrooms and a living room. Before settling in for the night, we ran off some energy at the indoor playground on base and then visited the commissary. We learned last summer to stock up on fruit, breakfast items, bread and pb&j, and snack food, along with a 2.5 gallon jug of drinking water to refill our water bottles to save money and restaurant hassle along the way.

Tomorrow it's off to Denali!! Pics below are Tern Lake at the intersection of the Sterling and Seward Highways, a view entering Turnagin Arm, and the Arctic Oasis playground. On the iPhone, so I can't caption them.