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Thursday, February 25, 2010


J.J. slips Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again" into the system and eases his way down the road away from Copper Canyon Princess Wilderness Lodge. I say eases because that's how the coach moves down the steep, serpentine road. No wonder this place will be closed for the winter in just a week or two.

The ride to Valdez winds through the Chugash Mountains. Because of their proximity to the coast, the the Chugash Mountain Crest is the snowiest place in the world with an average annual snowfall of over 600 inches. We travel the Richardson Highway built in the mid 1940s. Prior to that time, the way to move from the coast inland was over the “Goat Trail” which wound through the mountains. Today what is left of that wilderness trail can be be recreationally hiked. It's another world since the 1940s. Hikers can pick up the Goat Trail off the highway at Bridal and Horsetail Falls.

J.J quickly points out Mt. Billy Mitchell (named after Billy Mitchell, father of the modern Air Force and the man who correctly felt that control of the North American continent would be done by those who held Alaska, a point proven during WWII).

We also pass the beautiful Worthington Glacier and once again see Nature's palette at work.

One marvel follows another, and coming over the Thompson Pass, rising up through the clouds and coming down through the clouds is breathtaking. Thompson Pass rises to 2,678 feet and can get as much of 980 inches of snow. Those poles are not mere light poles. They indicate to the snow plowers the depth of the snow and also show them the road. Imagine the snow like that! This is not a road one wants to slip off! I'd bet that through most of the lower 48, a sign reading Easy Freeze means ice cream. Not in Alaska! Nothing like Flash Freezing FISH!!!! Ha Ha Ha It is a bit sad to get to Valdez. It's the end of the land part of our tour. Though it's been spectacular, we also know we've barely scratched the Alaskan surface. In fact, we've been advised that when we return, we should make sure to get to Nome. It's an entirely different world.

Valdez is very small, and in the mountains across the water we see the huge oil tanks. Valdez is 96% recovered from the 1989 Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. We've no time to explore, however, as we board our catamaran for the speedy trip down the Prince William Sound to Whittier where we'll meet the Coral Princess. Our catamaran is quite a boat. It has real-time sonar and map, and it's fascinating to follow our progress, to observe icebergs, perhaps results of Columbia Glacier's calving, and spot those seals resting on a buoy. We see fishing boats on the Sound. Silver salmon are starting to run. Fishermen cast their gill nets and bring their catch to the tenders that bring the fish back to port.

It's a difficult but very important way of life they lead. This life was violently interrupted in 1964 by the Good Friday Earthquake. Valdez was the city closest to the epicenter, and the earth rose and fell about three feet. Prince William Sound emptied and came back as tsunamis that virtually destroyed Valdez and left 32 people dead. It is one more place that proves Alaska is not an easy place.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010


Sitting out back of the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge, we overlook America’s largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias, equal in size to six Yellowstones! Our stop here at Copper Center reveals another kind of Alaska, so independent that until recently there was no local government.

This National Park is primarily primitive, so Rob and I take a tour with another Alaskan transplanted from the lower 48. This naturalist, Dave, as other transplants we've met, has a “background.” Dave is a retired teacher who came to Alaska in 1978 and has spent the last 19 winters here. In this area people live in log cabins or simple houses and many do subsistence hunting. Dave explained there is a tiny but very expensive, grocery store about four miles from his house. When he and his wife get to Anchorage to see a doctor or to run other essential errands, a 4½ hour drive each way, they stock up with as much as their truck can carry. Dave is also the founder of WISE, the Wrangell Institute for Science and the Environment, a non-profit group whose mission is to provide science and environmental education and to instill stewardship. Dave’s love of Alaska is practically palpable, and our four hours with him is educational, fascinating, and one more highlight of this trip. Dave gives us a wonderful tour of the area. We move, once again, to another world. The watercolor landscapes of Denali and the shrubs and bushes along the Denali Highway give way to spruces, aspens, and other taller, thin trees. There are ten species of trees in this area of the state among which are black and white spruce, cottonwood aspen, birch, balsam, and poplar. A temperature of forty below zero is the cutoff for growing even though the area does get about ten inches of rain yearly. Only the hardiest varieties grow here. Trees grow slowly. While they may appear young by their sizes, many are quite old.

The temperatures of -40° and -50º also make lakes like the expansive and beautiful Willow Lake unable to support fish. Fish simply cannot survive these winters. These are not facts that lure me to pack up and move, I can assure you. But there is a growing population in this part of the state, and that is the cause for beginning local governmental authorities.
We travel in a mini-van, and with Dave we are able to get up close to the Alaska Pipeline. Rob and I know people who came up here to work on the pipeline. The best part of our time with Dave is spent on the two trails we walk. He shows us different ecological systems and explains how they work. We see the important work of beavers, learn about permafrost and come to understand the lack of variety in tree species. The trails we follow help us solve that age old question, Does a bear…..We walk along ridges overlooking the Copper River Valley where once again we are treated to jaw-dropping views. In a tent reminiscent of our Girl Scout platform tents, Dave has a trail-side museum with artifacts illustrating the many things we’d learned during our time with him. Some kits show us the skulls of animals in the area, and he has skins, donated, which are fun to touch and in the case of a grizzly bear, to try on. He emphasizes, as did our guide in Denali, the inter-relationships that exist in nature. Right now, for instance, the snowshoe hare population is declining. They are food for the lynx. What will happen to the lynx? The Denali guide indicated that this is cyclical and that nature adjusts. The hare will return and then the lynx will too. Amazing to me is Dave’s presentation of the mandible of a moose. (not the above photo) It is so heavy I cannot pick it up with one hand. He explains how in nature every part of an animal is utilized. The rodents, for instance, eat the moose antlers as a source of calcium.

As we continued on the trail, we taste some of the mainstays of the local diet—both human and animal: lingonberry and pumpkinberry, for instance.

Later in the afternoon, Rob and I take a walk through the woods along the marked North Trail at the Lodge. Along the trail we are treated to an incredible variety of mushrooms, and near the lodge to strikingly vividly painted flowers. No matter where we are in Alaska, the beauty is overwhelming. We also get to see a food cache up close. Remember that the legs of these caches are greased up to prevent climbing animals from getting in.

We also see a fish wheel, an interesting and efficient way for the Native Alaskans to fish.

How enlightening is this trip! I’ve absolutely no complaints. For more information about WISE, the Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, please go to, or

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Sunday, February 14, 2010


I remember when Fannie Flagg was a stand-up comedian—a flaming red head with a thick southern drawl and a passel of funny jokes. Then came Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and the hit movie version. Flagg’s talents also lay in writing. I thoroughly enjoyed another Fannie Flagg novel, Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven with its upbeat outlook on life (, so when I spotted A Redbird Christmas, the bookstore racked up another sale.

Fannie Flagg’s A Redbird Christmas is a wonderful feel-good book. It is filled with her signature quirky characters living in a small-town southern setting. She skillfully describes Lost River bringing the reader right into this out of the way community. Before long I knew its history and its inhabitants. They have real longings and real problems. They may be idiosyncratic, but I became involved with them and wanted to find out what happens to them. Flagg involves her readers, and her books are the curl-up-and-read-in-one-sitting kind.

Her main character, Oswald T. Campbell is a sympathy-invoking soul alone in Chicago’s wintery cold and snow when he receives a sad diagnosis from his doctor. He is dying, and in order to extend his life as long as possible, he must leave the Chicago climate in favor of someplace warm. Through a peculiar turn of events, including his seriously short supply of money, Oswald ends up in Lost River where, although be tries to avoid it, he cannot avoid becoming part of the community. In a small town where there is a real shortage of eligible bachelors and an abundance of single ladies, Oswald is drawn into the social life. He soon meets the central figure in this tale, a redbird named Jack, owned by Roy, the local grocer. Jack somehow draws the community closer and affects many of Lost River’s inhabitants, including Oswald.

One wonders whether life is filled with a series of coincidences that twist and turn us until we find our destinies. That is a question Flagg often raises in her books. Whether you believe in these convenient coincidences or not, you can’t help but come away with the feeling that going through life with one’s eyes open to new possibilities cannot help but make new possibilities appear. That’s a very positive message. I believe it’s true.

A Redbird Christmas is charming. I read it with a smile. I read it right after the Christmas season, and I suppose it might be described as a Christmas tale. But Fannie Flagg’s book, a New York Times bestseller, will charm a reader regardless of season.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Alaskan travel brings daily adventure. Today’s full-day journey along the Denali Highway conjures up tremors of expectation. The entire route promises outstanding opportunities for scenic views of the Alaska Range, boreal vegetation, glacial features and wildlife—caribou, moose, fox, ptarmigan, trumpeter swan and other waterfowl. BUT this 135 mile highway, open only from mid-May to October 1, is one of just 13 highways in the state. Denali Highway is paved for only the first 21 miles. The remaining 114 miles is a primitive mixture of dirt and gravel, and that description is quite kind. It is a rocking back and forth, jaw-cracking, laughable and fun potholed ride that comes with distinct warnings in the form of a Bureau of Land Management Recreation Guide:
  1. Don’t attempt to travel from Oct 1 through May; snowdrifts may block your way.
  2. The maximum recommended speed on gravel is 30 mph. Slow down when passing another vehicle.
  3. Make sure your car is in good condition. Check your spare tire and make sure you carry a lug wrench.
  4. Carry extra water and sufficient food for an emergency situation. You cannot predict how long it will take to get help if you become stranded.

Where else do you see road signs like these? Yes, that does say "Dog Team Xing." I add for the sake of fairness, the state of Alaska cannot pave this road because the heaving atop the permafrost makes it impossible. Truly this is another world. So with booklet in hand, a hopefully carefully maintained coach from Princess, and faith in our driver and excellent tour narrator, J.J., we embark. J.J. has us play a game. We will count every vehicle we see on this journey. I’ll tell you the number at the end of this post.

(look at the road in this photo)

Our heavy coach crosses the Susitna River driving over a 1.326 foot wooden bridge made of black spruce.
At some points we drive over eskers which are ridges of silt, sand, gravel and cobbles carried and deposited by streams flowing within a glacier. When the glacier melts away, these deposits are left as mounds. Amazing! We stop for lunch in the McClaren Lodge, (follow this link to their website) mile 42 on the Denali Highway, a thriving blip on the map named after the McClaren Glacier, 16 miles north.

Beneath the mountains, the flowing patch of white is the glacier. The McClaren River is the result.

I’ve already shared the winter road conditions with you, but in true Alaskan spirit, the owner of this wonderful and very charming inn is a young couple who live here 12 months a year with their baby. There's the pioneering spirit alive and thriving. Their phone bill begins at $600.00 a month because there’s no cell service. They apologize for the prices on their menu, but it is incredibly expensive to get supplies to them. Just sayin’ We dine on a hearty chili, a delicious soup, a thick, dense bread (all the bread up here is thick and dense; I guess it’s left over from the hearty sourdough breads). Our cutlery is plastic and our dinnerware courtesy of "Solo." It's fine with us and it somehow fits with the warm, homey atmosphere that is the McClaren Lodge. I imagine how wonderful this must be for some snowmachiner or dog musher, the only passerbys in the winter, here on a dark, snowy night becoming part of the family, sharing the stew and watching one of the dvds. Then he'd delight as we did in a nice slice of McClaren berry pie, a combo of strawberry, rhubarb, apples, raspberry and blackberry. Pretty darned good!

Back on the road we pass kettle lakes. These are small lakes and depressions formed when chunks of ice broke off retreating glaciers and were buried in the glacial debris. The ice eventually melted leaving circular-shaped depressions called kettles. Nature has a way of making even debris into things of beauty. The Denali Highway ends at Paxton, a town founded in 1906 and now boasting a population of 43. We make a pit/snack stop in the Paxton lodge before heading down the Richardson Highway to our destination, the Copper River Princess Lodge. Paxton Lodge Artistic Humor

J.J. shares a factoid I shall never forget as he points to a road sign. Alaskans are so independent and so hate government intervention that road signs are shot full of bullet holes! There’s an Alaskan joke that the least safe place in Alaska is behind a “No Hunting” sign! Ha Ha. I try to get a photo, but we are moving too quickly; yes, this road is paved. But J.J. is 100% correct.

Here’s the vehicle tally. On the entire 135 mile stretch, we see a total of 34 cars/trucks/campers. It’s still tourist season, so this is a busy day! J.J. says we’d had a good day. I am surprised Disney hasn’t invented a Denali Highway ride, complete with bumps, water, and animals. It would really be something else!

My daily conclusion remains the same. What a wonderful, beautiful, and diverse country we are! It brings tears to my eyes to see this beauty and to experience this state.

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