Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hatcher Pass and the Quest for Blueberries

 Looking at the pictures below, you would think we went back up on a big trip to McKinley. But Hatcher Pass is just down the road from us, an hour or so away, tucked between Palmer and Wasilla. We wanted a nice place to have a picnic lunch and hopefully find some blueberries. (Yeah, I know I'm about a month early, but I wanted to see a real life blueberry bush, ripe or unripe berries.)
We stopped at the Independence Gold Mine, which has been closed down since the 1950's(?). The parking lot had several picnic benches and we discovered we weren't the only one with the idea to picnic. This is the view from our bench.

Up from the parking lot, the Visitors Center houses some pretty interesting exhibits about the conditions of life there when the mine was producing its lode gold.

There are several trails around the area.

We finally spotted a blueberry bush. The berries, however, were far from ready for the taking. 

On our drive back down, we spotted a parking lot with a trailhead that led hikers up a mountainside. We figured to try it out.

And look what we found! We foraged about a ziploc baggie full of them. The kids had a grand ole time gathering up the berries, as I jumped in with them, thoughts of steaming hot blueberry pancakes dancing through my mind.

Couldn't count on this girl to make contributions to the berry stash.  They went straight into her mouth!

We would give it three more weeks for the rest of the patches to ripen. At that time, Fam Och would be there on our newly discovered blueberry fields stocking up for some blueberry jam.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Excursion #2-- Talkeetna River Rafting Trip

 We have mixed feelings about this rafting trip. For one thing, a float down any river in Alaska, regardless of any situation, is simply magnificent.  The views are incomparable. And for that, it was a great experience. But considering that we have done two rafting trips before (one in Colorado and one down the Snake River @ Jackson Hole), we have something to compare it to.  Our two previous guides were chockful of information about the area, the animals, the vegetation. This particular guide, whom we have taken to nickname as Mitch "the Mute" has several more years of reading up to even compare.
 Here we are before we push off into the Talkeetna River. The whole float lasted about two hours, floating down a little under ten miles down the Talkeetna, and ending at the confluence of Talkeetna, Little Susitna, and Chuitna Rivers. The raft holds eight, and we had a single rider hop on with us (no, he isn't my mom's boyfriend, LOL, just kidding, Dad). Not that his company affected us in any way, he was just about as mute as Mitch the guide.

This was Liv's first time on a rafting trip awake.  In the past, it seemed near proximity to water would render her unconscious. We were relieved and happy to observe how much she enjoyed this trip.

 This was also my mom's and niece Maddy's first trip on a raft. 

There's my baby, totally relaxed, she laid down and soaked up the sun. No fear at all, while her neurotic mother looked on.

Cheesy. Somewhere along the course, we stopped by the banks where some bearded old dude sang us two country Alaskan songs. Really? It was a bit gimmicky for my taste. 

But, yeah, Mitch the Mute pointed out some beaver dams, and then couldn't answer why beavers built dams. I already knew why, but asked so he could explain it to Sophie who is fascinated by anything related to animals.  He pointed out some cranberries along the banks and after a long silence, he muttered, "You can grab some to taste them." Ummm, ok, but not if it makes you that uncomfortable, buddy. Most of the trip was silent except for when Sophia and Madison broke out in a fit of unexplainable giggles. 

Oh, well. He did say he was just a high school senior. Perhaps Talkeetna River Guides should hire more knowledgeable guides. The other trip that launched with us seemed to have one of those.  If you ever decide to go on this excursion, insist on anybody BUT Mitch unless you want a guide with a bland personality. In that case, to each their own.

Excursion #1 = Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride

If you have little ones, esp. little ones who are in lurve with horses, this is one excursion you should never miss.  We were the only group who signed up for the 5pm time slot, so we got the VIP treatment.  Jesse, the driver, and his assistant Colleen (who we later find out is distantly acquainted with the Mister..small world, I tell ya) picked us up in front of the lodge.

Note Miss Soph, who sat like this for the majority of the ride, staring at the horses.

They first took us to a lookout point, where we got a great view of Ruth Glacier and Curry Ridge.  We got our first taste of watermelon berries ( some know it as twisted stalk) and blueberries that were growing wild along the trail.

The kids got to pet the reindeers (domesticated caribou) Baby and Mitch.

 Then we got to try our hand at gold panning. Each little bag of dirt guaranteed gold flakes. The ones we found were laminated onto a card that said "As long as I have this card, I'll never be broke!" Cute.
Then we roasted marshmallows and made S'mores.

Madison and the rest of the gang got to feed the reindeer graham crackers.

Posing with moose and caribou antlers.

And a moose kiss to end the day. Aaaaw.

Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge

The main lodge that houses the great lobby, gift shop, ranger desk, Grizzly Bar, Mountain View Dining was impressive. I'm not gonna go on and on about it, since, really the star of the show is outside. The view is absolutely breathtaking. Madison, my niece from Utah, kept saying, "Wow, there are so many trees here!"

We dropped our luggage off in our rooms. We got lucky and had our rooms in the Bldg 1, right across from the main lodge.  I understand there are over a dozen buildings, some a considerable walk from the center of the resort. We headed straight for the excursions desk and signed us up for two, one for later in the afternoon, the other for the next day. Then we set off to explore the grounds a bit.

This is on the Lodge Trail, which is about 3/4 of a mile if that. The gravel path lead us on a loop around the main lodge. There were many lookout points that showed off the Susitna River below, plenty of wildflowers, and even a bunch of berry-yielding plants.

This is a high-bush cranberry, not quite ripe yet. Although it didn't stop the girls from trying it out. I was laughing so hard at their faces, I didn't get a chance to capture on film.

Considering the weather forecast for Talkeetna and Trapper Creek called for constant rain, we did not expect to see Mt. McKinley this time around. The folks there seem to get a really big kick out of saying, "Only 30% of visitors who come here get to catch a glimpse of the mountain." But when we arrived at the lodge, the sun was shining. And as the day wore on, and the sun kept up its presence, our hopes of seeing it lifted and grew.

We had dinner after our first excursion and retired to our rooms, with McKinley still hiding behind clouds. We signed ourselves up for the mountain viewing wake up call. Yep, they call your room if the Great One makes an appearance. I understand they do this for the Northern Lights as well (but that's usually during the winter). It was 10:45 pm, and I was whining to the Mister about how bummed I was that I hadn't seen the mountain yet. He pulls the curtain to our window aside to peek outside, ready to say it was still hidden when he froze, "I think I see part of it."

Mister, D, and I rushed out across the street and through the back of the lodge to confirm the sight. It was there! The very peak of it, still behind cloud cover, but the majority of it was in plain view!!! Mister D ran to collect Grandma and the girls and we were able to snap this pic before everyone else came out in droves from their rooms!
Right above Dylan's head in all its 20, 320 feet of glory is Mt. McKinley (the big white mountain also called Denali), above the Mister's head is Mt. Hunter , and off to the left from Liv's is Mt. Foraker. What a sight! All day, all we saw was the Tokoshna range (the mountains that are dark in the back) since it was only 20 miles away. During sunset, the Alaska range along with the showstopper McKinley made a grand entrance. 

Princess Rail Tour Getaway

It's been said the best way to see the Alaskan wilderness is by train. Passengers are able to access areas of Alaska that only the railroad passes through. Another plus? My hubby, the Mister, need not worry about his propensity for narcolepsy when behind the wheel. A great deal came up from Princess Tours (the same co. that has the cruises) for BOGO rail-only tours, and yours truly had to snatch it up.

There are several Princess lodges in the state, but considering the amount of leave the Mister was willing to take, and the fact that we were clamoring to catch sight of the tallest mountain in North America, we opted for the two day, one night trip to Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge.

**If you are looking to book one of these tours, make sure you choose "rail-only." We had a friend make that mistake and although they rode the train up to Talkeetna, they had to have a bus ride home. Not so fun.**

Once we had our luggage checked in, the staff guided us onto a motor coach to drive us to our train car, which was probably one block from where we were. The Mister and I laughed, confirming suspicions this type of tour probably catered more to those in their geriatric phase. The Princess car was at the very rear of the lineup. Everyone was assigned a table number at booking, four to each table. With seven of us, we claimed two tables right across from each other. Seating is at the top level, with glass domes to enhance the view.

The place was spacious with under-seating storage for carry-on bags. We had a tour guide on our level. She pointed out must-see's, explained about the local flora and fauna, and pretty much kept us engaged through the trip. We brought snacks on board for the little ones (I heard we weren't really supposed to, but I don't think any pax wanted to deal with hungry and ornery kids).

The treat of the ride? With McKinley off in the distance (picture quality won't show it in this pic), a bald eagle flew THIS close to our window. I was not quick enough to catch the bird when it was closer (booo).

The open air platform downstairs. The lower level also held the dining car. They served made-to-order meals (breakfast in our case). Eggs were eh. Reindeer sausage was heaven (but reindeer sausage is always heaven). Drinks were uber expensivo @ 3.25 for soda, more for those with alcohol. Bring your own or order water. 

 The time flew by, and before we knew it (three hours later) we were disembarking at Talkeetna. A 50 min motor coach ride later, we were finally at the lodge at Trapper Creek, ready for the adventure to begin. TBC...