Monday, April 30, 2012

It Sometimes Rains in Juneau

           When I tell people I’m from the Seattle area I often hear, “it rains a lot there doesn’t it?”
“True,” I reply. “But it’s a dry rain.”
In Southeast Alaska it rains a lot but it’s a wet rain!
As we sailed north it rained in Ketchikan, Wrangell and Petersburg. We now sit in Juneau and the rain continues, full throttle.
By some standards it doesn’t rain that much in Southeast. Juneau averages just 58 inches annually compared to 75 inches out west on Kodiak Island (where we are headed!) But, compared to this area, Seattle seems positively parched at a mere 37 inches annually.
On the ferry north we visited with a couple from Petersburg who gave me a hint of their weather pattern.
“Do you have “city” water at your home?” I asked.
Motor cycle in the rain. Note fisherman in background

“No, we have a cistern and collect water from our roof,” was the reply.
“How about in the summer, when it’s dry?”
He smiled politely. “We never run short.”
Enough said.
The interesting thing is, it doesn’t matter. Of course it rains; get over it. And get over it they do. They don’t complain or seem to let it get in the way of their activities. They just dress for the weather and get on with things.
Rainy Walk @ Mendenhall Glacier

While I filled up at a Juneau gas station a motor cycle rolled in with the driver clad in rubber boots, jeans and a good raincoat. Never mind the wind that was pushing the rain. Nearby (see photo) two guys, similarly clad, were preparing their skiff for a little fishing. Rain? Dress for it and go!
After lunch we did a short hike—in the rain—at the nearby Mendenhall Glacier and ran into entire families, hoods up, jackets zipped and boots on, enjoying the same trail.
It’s what you do if you want to live in Southeast Alaska.
Monday morning we will again board a ferry and sail north, three hours to Haines. Current Haines forecast: Rain!

Kathy and Steve at Juneau's Red Dog Saloon

A Word About Juneau: Juneau is the capital of Alaska, isolated from the rest of the state and assessable only by boat or plane. Between the state government, fishing and tourists, it is a busy place, particularly in the summer. A popular cruise ship destination it can handle several ships at once with enough jewelry, tee shirt and souvenir shops to handle the throngs. The cruise ship flood will begin the first week of May and the merchants are stocking their shelves to meet the rush.  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Life on the Alaska Marine Highway (aka Alaska Ferry)

            Life on the 400 foot Matanuska is good! While not a fancy cruise ship, our home for two nights is clean and comfortable with food and a warm bed to suit our needs. The crew is “Alaska” friendly which means warm and helpful.
Our "deluxe cabin"
We slept well with the gentle pitch and roll of the ship lulling us to sleep.
There are just four decks of interest. The vehicle deck, with room for 88 cars greets drivers. After boarding you must take what you want from your vehicle as access is not allowed while underway. If you have a pet you are allowed three escorted visits per day plus time spent in intermediate ports of call.
Next up is the cabin deck. 109 Spartan cabins are available for an extra charge. Ours is very basic; window, bunk beds, chair, drop down desk, in-suite facilities. (Think dorm room from 1960’s.) Full figured passengers might find the “compactness” a challenge.
The cabin deck clean and bright.
          The next deck, from fore to aft (that’s front to back for you landlubbers), begins in an observation lounge with a cinematic, 180 degree view (where I now write.) Next is a well appointed cocktail lounge. A small gift shop sits at the entrance to a full service cafeteria that connects to a spacious dining room aft.
The top deck has an outdoor solarium aft and a “recliner” lounge amidships.
That’s it. No pools, hot tubs or casinos but all that one would need for an enjoyable cruise up the inside passage. (We are told there are also enough life boats/rafts for all!)
We believe the surrounding scenery is spectacular but, with the low hanging clouds and rain, we can only imagine what the dark shapes on either side of our passage conceal. But we are in Alaska so the weather is neither a surprise nor disappointment.
We made our first landfall, Ketchikan about 4:00 a.m. and departed at 5:45 a.m. We chose not to do any touring. Next stop will be Wrangell then Petersburg.
The Solarium or "Roughing It" area.

Accommodations On Board: The Matanuska offers four levels of nighttime accommodations.

Super Deluxe: Cabin, described above, with outside window.
Deluxe: Cabin, described above, without window.
Semi-Roughing It: A reclining chair in the “recliner lounge.” Guests just dump their gear beside a chair and sleep in the chair or, at their option, on the carpeted floor of the lounge. Showers and rest rooms are nearby.
Roughing It: A personal tent or place on a plastic lounge outside in the solarium. If there is space, everyone can sleep under the solarium roof. No tents on this trip but later in the summer many will stay in tents erected on the deck. Guests are advised to bring duct tape to anchor their tents since conventional stakes are ineffective on the steel deck.
The two “roughing it” alternatives are typically Alaskan and available for no extra charge. Camp stoves are not permitted!
The on board cafeteria offers a full range of choices throughout the day. The cod and pot roast for Saturday dinners were home cooking at its best.
Life on the Matanuska is just fine and quintessential Alaskan.

Navigating the twisted Wrangell Narrows requires skill and nerves. Note the watchman on the bow for added insurance.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Hazelton to Prince Rupert to the Alaska Marine Highway

The Usk Ferry
      Today, Friday, we traveled to Prince Rupert to meet our Alaska Ferry for a one day and 8 hour trip to Juneau via Ketchikan, Wrangle and Petersburg. We are told we can leave the ship at each stop, if they are on schedule. We shall see.
The last 200 miles to P. Rupert surprised us. We anticipated snowy mountain ranges and winding roads but instead followed the Skeena River as it wound its way to the sea. On the way we passed by the Usk Ferry, a little one car engineless ferry that is fastened to a cable and uses the current to cross the Skeena to a small village on the other side. While not a novel idea—there used to be many such ferries on the Columbia River, for example—few remain.
We reached rainy P. Rupert at noon with a ferry check in set for 5:00 P.M. We found a great seafood restaurant, “Smiles Seafood Cafe” on the shores of “Cow Bay” in an area undergoing redevelopment. We never learned the background for the bays name but suspect a cow was involved. P. Rupert, a fishing and shipping hub, offered little for us in the rain so, after a Tim Horton’s stop, we headed for the ferry and were delighted that we could join the queue on the ferry landing. We popped open the Chalet, turned on the heat and settled in to await the Matanuska, our ferry north.
Waiting for the Matanuska
Vehicle loading was a choreographed affair; big trucks, Rv’s, trailers, cars of all types were sorted by destination—Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau—so they could unload in the right order at the correct port. On schedule, 8:00 P.M., we cast off and headed north. More on ship life later.

Thoughtlets on Coffee Shops: We have not seen an espresso shop since we entered Canada! While shops line the streets in Washington State towns, big and small, we have entered a Canadian coffee vacuum in Central B. C. How do these people live?
It’s not that they don’t drink coffee. Every Tim Horton’s is jammed with sippers of basic coffee. No steamed milk for this lot. The best designer drink they offer comes from a machine where they press a button and the drink comes out. Perhaps in this country of miners, loggers, farmers and truckers, designer drinks are for sissies.
We are not worried. In one day and eight hours we will be deposited back into the U.S.A. where they know the meaning of single tall skinny decaf vanilla latte, extra hot, no foam. 

Sightings: In Canada, their one dollar coin is adorned with a Loon and affectionately called a “Loonie.” In the U.S. there is a chain of stores called “Dollar Stores.” In Prince Rupert we spotted a similar store called “The Loonie Bin.” Clever?
The Matanuska in Winter

Thursday, April 26, 2012

B. C. is a Big Place! Prince George and Beyond

British Columbia is a big place! We knew that before we embarked but, somehow, when you’re driving and driving the scale of the place sinks in. We have covered 800 miles and have 200 to go to reach Prince Rupert and our ferry north. (For comparison, that’s about the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles or Miles City Montana!)
Cataline Motel & RV Park

Tonight we are nestled into the Cataline Motel and RV Park near Hazelton B.C. This is the kind of place you go through to get to somewhere else but, with our Chalet, home is where we park it. We used a rigid criteria to select this place—it was open. Most of the RV parks don’t open for a few weeks so we could not be choosy. Actually this RV park wasn’t open either. The owner, who must be ok since she has a cattle dog, let us park by the motel and use the facilities in an unoccupied room next to the Chalet. Not classy but not shabby either.

Heading north this morning we passed the turn to the Bowron Lakes area. Kathy’s father loved the Bowron Lakes which are a series of four lakes arranged as the sides of a square. You can paddle each, portage to the next and, after 8 days and 80 miles of paddling, you end up where you started.

       We have been passing through farming, ranching and timber country with lots of sawmills. The people we meet are typical of so many Canadians, friendly and helpful with a good (or tolerant) sense of humor. We had expected more mountains but traveled rolling countryside. Now, as we approach the coast our valley is surrounded by snow covered mountains north and west.

World's Largest Fly Fishing Rod

We got our Costco fix, the last for a few days, in Prince George, one of the larger interior towns. I think we set a record—our bill was under $20, excluding the two hot dogs.
We passed through some noteworthy places again today.
·         ***Vanderhoof, the “Geographic Center of British Columbia” and
·         ***Houston, the “Home of the World’s Largest Fly Fishing Rod.”
We past near Fort St. James, which is “More Than Just a One Horse Town”
How good is that? Ya gotta love PR people!

Road Wrap; The Good Idea that Wasn’t

Road Wrap Gone Wild

Wandering through Camping World (the RV store!) before the trip I came upon a roll of “Road Wrap.” It sounded great. If you are going where there are bugs or the chance of flying gravel you apply this sticky back, clear film to your car and, presto, your paint is protected. Alaska is noted for bugs and flying gravel so it seemed like a great idea.
So far, not so great. First, despite how it looked in the picture on the box, it was hard to apply to curved surfaces without creases and bubbles. Then, as we drive along, I’ve begun shedding my wrap like a snake sheds it’s skin. A few more days of driving and it will all be gone. Not to worry; I have more. As long as I have more I will stick it on in the hopes that the gravel and bugs hit before it flies off again!

The Alaska Journey Begins; North to British Columbia

            Day one was concluded without mishap. The Chalet hitched up and followed us obediently over 400 miles into Central British Columbia. We even worked in a stop at our favorite Woods Coffee in Lynden, to fortify ourselves for, what proved to be, an easy border crossing.
The first days travel can hardly be considered an adventure since the roads are paved and all the comforts of home—including fast food restaurants—are available. But, for us, much of the ground was new.
The views became more interesting as we turned north, winding up the Fraser River Canyon. It’s a big powerful river that was the focus of early travelers and settlers. Towns like Boston Bar, Spences Bridge and Cache Creek hug the river, each concealing an interesting story of its past. The power of the river is on display at aptly named Hells Canyon.
Moving north the terrain evolves from thick green forests to a more arid landscape. It’s much like going from western to eastern Washington State.
The Shores of Lake McLeese
The small towns along the way have a number of charming claims to fame. Driving on the “Gold Rush Trail” we passed through the “Garlic Capital,” “The Longest Town” (It stretches 11 miles along a lake shore) and the “Hand Crafted Log Home Capital of North America.”
We are now nestled along the shore of Lake McLeese in our first ever RV park. We have “shore” power but the water is not on yet—still too cold some nights.  
Now, on to Prince Rupurt and Prince George.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Arctic Chalet; Traveling in Style

Arctic Chalet folded for travel
Since we will be spending a great deal of time away from major cities we wanted to upgrade our camping experience to better handle rain and bears, not necessarily in that order. For many years we have depended on a North Face Expedition tent for our accommodations in the wild. We have been through wind, rain and snow in such a tent. However this year we upgraded to what we call a “hard sided” tent, our “pop up” trailer.

The Arctic Chalet Arrowhead is easy to tow and set up. Once it’s up it offers ample space for two, hot and cold water, refrigerator, stove and even a heater. We believe its hard sides will at least slow a bear down and make him earn his supper. 

Completed roof
Raising the roof
Kathy is skilled at stuffing two weeks of food and gear into a compact sea kayak and is putting those skills to good use selecting food and gear for this trip. Between the tow car and Chalet we should be able to fit all the "must have" stuff. Unlike kayak trips to remote areas, we will be able to purchase supplies along the way. Services may be far apart but people do live along the roads to Alaska.

 Supporting the local businesses is fun and adds variety to the shopping and eating experience. But, if we need a touch of home, there are two Costco Stores, three Targets and nine Walmarts in the 49th state. The place is truly civilized.

Raise the side walls

Ready for move in.

We plan to spend most nights camping in the trailer but will toss in the occasional motel room with an indoor shower and other luxuries.This trip will be our idea of a modified "roughing it" experience.

 So, we are looking forward to our Arctic Chalet experiment. It will be interesting to see if it meets our expectations.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Going to Alaska: The Plan and the Reason

Kathy and Steve are off to Alaska by boat and car. We are going on a trip where the "getting there" is more important than the "being there."

We've been to Alaska eight times, always by air. So we've dropped in, sampled Alaska and then literally flew home. It was a wonderful way to cover lots of ground on a tight schedule. This trip we plan to ease into the state and savor the "getting there" part of the experience. It takes longer but should be worth the effort.

The good news--there is a road all the way, the Alaska Highway, through British Columbia and the Yukon to our 49th state. In fact, the road's celebrating its 70th birthday this year, having been constructed in a rush during World War II. More on that later. At 2200 miles from Seattle to Fairbanks it's a long stretch of road.

The Mantanuska will be our home for two nights.
The original plan was to drive both ways. Then, looking for variety, we decided to take the Alaska Ferry from Bellingham to Haines, bypassing some of the road heading north but giving us a water view part way up placing us in some new areas once we landed. Then, since there was no room on the Bellingham boat, we cut the boat ride in half, and plan to board a ferry further north in the Canadian town of Prince Rupert. We will get off the boat in Juneau, wait overnight, and grab another boat for the short run on to Haines.

We are sixteen days from departure and are starting to gather all the stuff we think we will need knowing that we will take twice as much as we actually need. But that's part of the adventure. Another part will be getting our travel trailer ready for the trip. That process begins tomorrow as well. More on that later.