Monthly Archives: January 2014
I arrived on the Kenai in the middle of winter but despite the snow and the cold, I kept up my normal routine of taking regular walks. During the week, it would be quite dark outside so I tended to reserve my walks for the weekend when I could go out mid-day and take in the sights. There was a lake at the end of the street where I lived in Sterling, Alaska. It was my favorite place to go. The walk to the lake was refreshing and the view of the lake was utterly beautiful. While my first trip to the lake was a brief walk to the edge of the lake, the snow covered lake surrounded by a curtain of trees and set against the back drop of Mt. Redoubt in the far distance kept bringing me back.
At first, I tried to walk around the lake. The snow covering the frozen lake made it difficult to figure out where the edge of the lake was and without a path around the lake, I often found myself wondering if I was walking on land or the frozen water. I began walking and the more I walked, the more I realized that there was more to the lake than I could see. The tree line folded into the lake and obscured a good portion of the lake. Once I made it around the tree line, I realized that the lake was quite huge. Still, I was determined to hike through the snow and make my way around the expansive body of frozen water.
That was until my Alaska noob mind started running full force in noob mode.
Even though I had stayed as close to the tree line as possible, I knew I had to be walking on the ice and as I walked, images of the ice cracking under my feet and then giving way to send me plunging below into the frigid water kept popping up. Now, I knew that the weeks of below freezing temperatures froze the lake up pretty good, and I was only walking along the edge so at most, if the ice did crack or break, nothing more than my feet would get wet. Still, it was a good hike back to the house, and I was pretty sure that walking back with cold wet feet in freezing temperatures would probably mean I wouldn’t get to keep my feet so after a few more steps forward, I decided the best course of action was to head back.
I made several more trips back to the lake and each time, I would start out to walk around the lake. After a short time, those noob thoughts would send me back home. I watched the season change on those weekly walks. I watched the snow drifts get smaller and the ice on the road turn to pools of water. I saw the buds on the trees grow into leaves and the white blanket give way to brown grass crushed by the weight of the winter snow. I then watched as the grass turned green and began to stand tall again to give everything an Alaskan summer appearance.
I could now see where the water met the land or more like the trees met the water. The tree line extend right up to the water and in some places into the water. The only path around the lake was to walk through the trees so after pausing for a few moments to watch the herrings that scuttled nearby, I began my walk. I ducked under branches and stepped over fallen trees. I slid down muddy slops and stepped over sitting puddles of water. I found a lot of moose tracks and bird tracks as well as big piles of moose poop. I also discovered an impassable stretch of mud.
The first few steps into the mud were slippery but after a few more, I found my steps were sinking into the mud. They sunk more and more with each step I took until it became very difficult to free my foot from the mud to take the next step. This once again triggered the noob safety alarm in my head that turned me around and sent me home.
As the summer moved on, the mud dried. One day after work, I was restless and with the sun still shining, decided to try again to walk around the lake. I made my way to the lake and again ducked the tree branches and stepped over logs to get to the mud hole. The perpetual sun had dried the mud allowing me to continue on my way. At least until I rounded the point along the lake where the trees folded into the lake. I took a moment to view the lake from a perspective I had not been able to before. It was quite beautiful but I was in search of wildlife to shoot with my camera on this trip. I searched the treeline for wildlife and after finding none glanced at my watch before continuing on. Much to my surprise, it was almost 1130 pm. It was 1130 pm and I still had over an hour walk to get home. I also had to be up at 6 am for work the next morning so once again, I was turned back before making it around the lake.
Living on the Kenai comes with its fair share of danger and I don’t just mean the type of danger that comes from the weather elements. Although the cold is not to be trifled with, I’m talking the bigger dangers that exist on the Kena like the wildlife, earthquakes, active volcanoes and the mosquitoes.
There is an abundant amount of wildlife on the Kenai. Everything from bears, moose, coyotes and other furry creatures with sharp teeth but nothing is scarier than the beavers. While I have never met a beaver I didn’t like, I have heard that Alaskan beavers are capable of eating small dogs, neutering larger ones and in general making the largest of dogs whimper in utter fear. There apparently is nothing more dangerous on the Kenai than an angry beaver.
In addition to the wildlife, there are the earthquakes. Earthquakes are fairly common on the Peninsula. In fact, this year is the 50th Anniversary of the Good Friday Earthquake that cut off all access to Seward and dropped Homer Spit by 6 foot, which demonstrates the danger of earthquakes. However, the largest earthquake I’ve experienced since coming to Alaska was a 4.4. The rest of the earthquakes that have happened have either been too far away to notice or just felt like the earth farted.
Then there are the volcanoes. The Kenai is home to four active volcanoes–Mt. Spurr, Mt. Redoubt, Mt. Illiamna and St. Augustine. They sit on the western side of the Peninsula and are all visible by driving from Soldotna to Homer. They are as beautiful as they are dangerous. When you look at them from a distance, the beauty seems to shroud the danger that lurks inside them. Mt. Redoubt seems to be the one that likes to burp its stuff up the most although from the stories I heard, the last time Mt. Redoubt burped, the wind was blowing in the direction of Russia so all the fall out headed that way instead of heading east.
Despite the angry beavers and other wildlife, the earthquakes and active volcanoes, nothing compares to the dangers of the mosquitoes. There are 27 species of mosquito on the Kenai and they all come alive at the same time–summer time. What they lack in size, they make up for in numbers and it has been reported that a swarm of mosquitoes is capable of carrying off a small moose or baby bear.
In all seriousness, Alaska, like any rural area, has its dangers. The important thing to remember is be smart, be safe and be prepared which applies anywhere and everywhere. As an Alaskan Noob, I have experienced a bit of a learning curve but I’ve also found that most of the people on the Kenai are very willing to help when needed whether it is offering advice, sharing some insight or actually lending a hand. Alaska is home to the friendliest bunch of strangers you will ever meet but if that’s not enough, you can follow the guidelines for preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse published by the Center for Disease Control.
I’ve always enjoyed a good beer but had not drank alcohol in years before arriving in Alaska. One man got me back into the swing of drinking beer again and that man was Bill Howell, author of Beer on the Last Frontier and the great Alaskan Beer Blog. Bill introduced me to Alaskan craft beers and since that time, I have slowly been making my way through them. Bill’s books and blog can explain about all the Alaskan craft beers and the industry a lot better than I can but I can tell you what I like.
Never having had much interest in craft beers before, I took Bill’s suggestion and started with Kassiks. He said that Kassiks is a good introduction to craft beers, and I should start with Beaver Tail Blonde. Well, the name of the beer won me over instantly–Beaver Tail Blonde, I mean who doesn’t enjoy some good Beaver Tail once in a while. Oh how I loved the Beaver Tail. It was nice , crisp very stimulating in my mouth. I also tried Kassiks Morning Wood, Dolly Varden and Big Nutz. I enjoyed the Dolly Varden even though it was a lot smoother than the Beaver Tail. However, I kept going back to the Beaver Tail Blonde, no doubt because I enjoy a good Beaver Tail more than Morning Wood or Big Nutz.
The next brew I tried after Kassiks was St. Elias. You can only get St. Elias beer at St. Elias but you can also get an amazing pizza to go with the beer. St. Elias is one, if not my favorite, eating establishment for a good meal and a good brew. It also happens to be where I took my honey on our first date–a bit of pizza, a bit of brew, a bit of….
I had been seeing Alaskan beer everywhere I went. The Alaskan Brewing Company is located in Juneau but you will find it everywhere across Alaska. I actually was reluctant to try it because I found it everywhere I went so it seemed less special than the other craft beers Bill was teaching me about. Nevertheless, they had a nice sample box that gave me a taste of a variety of their different brews so I gave it a shot. It was good and I didn’t find a beer I didn’t like but after finishing the sample box off, I went back to enjoying Beaver Tail.
After a few months of enjoying lots of Beaver Tail, I ventured out again and tried some beer from The Kenai River Brewing Company. OMG!!! The selection I had to choose from was a bit overwhelming at first so I went with the IPA and purchased some Sunken Island but quickly found myself wanting to try it all. I actually found that my favorite was Naptown Nut Brown….(please don’t tell Dolly Varden that I actually prefer a Naptown Nut over a nice set of ….).
Still, I went back to Beaver Tail Blonde and as of yet, haven’t strayed much more. I just can’t seem to get enough Beaver Tail which keeps stalling my plans to try some beer from Homer Brewing Company and Anchorage’s Midnight Sun Brewing Company. Eventually, I will get to them. I mean, I plan to spend the rest of my life in Alaska so I have plenty of time to try all the Alaskan craft beers and still enjoy the Beaver Tail Blonde.
As a noob in Alaska, I was enamored by everything I saw–the winter-wonderland landscapes, the snow covered mountains, how blue everything looked as the sun began to set. I took long walks in the snow with my camera, snapping pictures of everything I could to send back to share with family and friends. One thing kept eluding my camera though–moose.
It’s not that I didn’t see moose. I saw them quite frequently. I saw them on the side of the road, in the parking lot at work, in my front yard, at the post office and just about everywhere I went. The problem was that every time I pointed my camera at the moose, it would turn around leaving me with a picture of a moose butt. I spent my entire first winter loading pictures of moose butts on my Facebook page because the moose just would not cooperate with me.
Then in July, when the construction of Kenai Peninsula College’s new residence hall was nearly complete and we were able to start moving in, I had my chance. Two moose families moved into the area to eat the lush grass around the residence hall. Bonzai and her offspring Ed and Shenzai and her baby Fred. After a short while Crazy Charlie joined Bonzai. Crazy Charlie was just a baby as well and it quickly became apparent that Bonzai had sort of adopted Crazy Charlie.
They stayed for the entire summer and visited the residence hall every day, grazing on the grass for hours. Shenzai and Fred often kept to themselves in the back of the hall while Bonzai, Ed and Crazy Charlie were more bold and snacked on the grass in front. After hours of snacking, they would lay down in the shade of the building and nap for a bit before wandering off. We would put up signs around the hall informing students about the moose outside. The students gave the moose a wide berth walking to and from classes, occasionally stopping to take a picture and the moose were patient and tolerant of everyone’s coming and goings. They had essentially become residents of the hall and everyone was actually a bit sad when they stopped coming around.
That’s one of the things I love about Alaska–instead of pushing the wildlife out of the area, humans and wildlife are able to co-exist in the same space so its common place to see Moose and other wildlife in and around your home, work and neighborhood. Yes, they can destroy things and they can be dangerous so signs like these are not uncommon.
But by being smart, respecting the wildlife, keeping your distance and being aware you can keep yourself safe and still enjoy the experience of a visit by a moose, which is something I have yet to get tired of.
Once the journey on the ferry delivered me to Haines, Alaska, I still had a two day drive from Haines to Anchorage. My brother Tommy joined me for this part of the adventure and I was grateful. He is a forest firefighter and well versed in battling the elements of nature so if nothing else, his companionship offered me a great deal of confidence that we could overcome any challenges we faced along the way. He flew to Juneau and bored the ferry when it docked. It was just a short ferry ride from Juneau to Haines and then we were on the road.
The first thing we encountered was the Bald Eagle Preserve. Jackson, Tommy’s son, gave him Baldy, his stuff bald eagle to accompany Tommy on his trip. Jackson wanted him to take Baldy with him so he could visit his cousins in Alaska so our first stop along the way was to the Bald Eagle Preserve so Baldy could do as Jackson wanted. The preserve was just outside of Haines so it was a short drive. There was an area for cars to pull over so that is exactly as we did. Tommy pulled the car onto the icey pull off and we carefully got out of the car. After a few tenuous steps on the ice, we stood before a clearing in the trees where we saw a sea of bald eagles.
After snapping some pictures of Baldy with his cousins, we were ready to head out. Tommy headed on to the car as I started to step off the snow bank I had been standing on. It wasn’t a large snow bank by any means which would prove to be lucky for me. As soon as my foot hit the ice, it slid backwards. The top part of my body propelled forward and in a split second, I was sliding on my belly across the ice. I had only been in Alaska for a short bit and already took my first fall on the ice. As I carefully picked myself up, I found myself hoping that this was not an omen of how the rest of the trip would go.
Once we were back on the road again, it wasn’t long before we were crossing the border into Canada. We pulled into the Canadian border patrol and saw cars, most of them belonging to folks that were on the ferry with us, forming two lines. At the front of each line was a Canadian Border Patrol Officer. One of the officers was a woman wearing a thick jacket and gloves. The other one was a large man wearing a short sleeve shirt with the sleeves stretching tight across his large biceps. We were waived forward by the man whose shirt stretched just as tight across his muscular chest as his sleeves did across his arm. I asked him how he could be in the 0 F temperatures with no coat on. He smiled, told me it was a warm day and asked us where we were heading. I explained we were heading to Alaska. He asked me why I was heading to Alaska and I explained I had just taken a job with Kenai Peninsula College to help open their new residence hall. He joked with us a bit about the crazy things college kids do and then waived us on our way, wishing me good luck in my new job.
For the next three hours we drove through the Yukon and then had a very different experience with the US Border Agent when we crossed back into Alaska. The US Border Agent sat inside a warm building and talked to us through a window. His look was very sour during the entire interaction. He asked us where we were coming from and where we were going. He asked to see our passports and registration for the car and as we were putting them in the metal tray that extended from under his window, he wanted to know what business we had in Alaska. I told him about my new job as he looked through the documents we put in the tray. He asked about the car registration again to which I explained that I lived in Oklahoma they didn’t issue car registrations so I provided him with the bill of sale for my SUV and a tax receipt from Oklahoma. That seemed to settle the matter. After a few more questions about whether we had any alcohol or illegal drugs in the car, he gave everything back and without ever having cracked a smile, sent us on our way.
We had planned to stop in Tok for the night but the drive from Alaskan border to Tok was quite deceiving on the map. What looked to be a drive of a few hours on the map was literally twice what we expected. This was in part due to underestimating the size of Alaska and in part due to the icey conditions of the road that had us driving slower than the speed limit. We finally pulled into Tok about 9 pm. We were both exhausted so after checking in. My brother hooked up the oil pan heater in the hopes it would be enough to keep the car warm enough in the -30 F temperatures that it would start in the morning, and then we climbed into bed. We were both fast asleep on lumpy beds by 930 pm.
The next morning we woke up, started the car up and gave a sigh of relief when it started up. We left it running while we enjoyed breakfast with the folks from the ferry. After breakfast, the ferry party went separate ways with most folks heading to Fairbanks. We headed south toward Anchorage. Unlike the day before, we were making good time and actually made it to Palmer before the sun set. Another few hours the next day and we were in Anchorage where my brother and I parted ways. He prepared to head home while I spent a few days in Anchorage visiting the University of Alaska, Anchorage.
I ended up cutting my visit in Anchorage a bit short due to on impending storm that would make travel from Anchorage to the Kenai dangerous. I left Anchorage a few hours before the storm hit in Anchorage and managed to stay ahead of it all the way to Sterling where I pulled into the driveway of the place I would call home for a while.
The best advice I have for anyone planning to move to Alaska mid-winter is to wait until the summer, especially if you plan to drive. If you do have to make the journey during the winter, I strongly suggest taking the Alaskan Marine Highway.
When making my decision to move to Alaska, I thought about flying but the cost of shipping all my stuff was crazy and well out of my financial reach. My other option was to drive the Alaskan-Canadian Highway but the idea of driving an unforgiving stretch of road in frigid temperatures scared me. The idea of driving the road didn’t scare me as much as the idea that during the winter, the Alaskan-Canadian Highway was devoid of people and if something were to happen, no one would find me until the warmer weather drew people out of hibernation. So instead, I settled on a compromise.
For $1100 I purchased a ticket for my SUV on the Alaska Marine Highway. I packed everything I owned into my SUV (if it didn’t fit, I threw it out, gave it away, sold it or left it with my parents) and headed out west to Bellingham Washington where I was to catch the ferry that would take me to my new home.
I traveled from Oklahoma northward to Iowa where I met up with some friends. I enjoyed a nice meal with Doogie and Mark before hitting the road again, heading west where I would eventually meet up with my brother in Northern California. After spending new year’s with him and his family, I headed North again stopping to visit the parents of my childhood best friend before making the last leg of the journey to Bellingham. All in all, I spent close to two weeks traveling the highway so by the time I reached Bellingham, I was happy to be out of the car for a while.
The Alaska Marine Highway travels up the coast of Canada from Bellingham and then along the coast of Alaska. It also provides transportation from the mainland to the smaller islands like Kodiak as well as the smaller coastal villages like Seldovia. During the winter, its travel schedule is a bit more limited so it would have taken me three weeks to make the trip from Bellingham to Homer, which sits on the tip of the Kenai. Most of that time would have been spent in layovers that stretched from two days to a week. I didn’t have that much time or money to spend on hotels so I took a direct route to Haines, Alaska. Haines, Alaska was the closest port to where I was going and just a short two day drive to Anchorage, Alaska, which is only about a two and a half hours North of the Kenai.
I still had to drive a short stint through the Yukon and then North to Tok, Alaska before heading South to Anchorage but at least I had three days on the Alaskan Marine Highway to rest up for what I imagined would be the hardest part of the trip.
I arrived at the dock in Bellingham, Washington several hours early. I wasn’t sure if I would get sea sick or not so I stopped and picked up some Dramamine (which it turned out I didn’t need). Everything I read about the ferry indicated that there would be food service on board but that I could also bring food with me so I picked up some fruit, nuts and a few bottles of water to snack on if the need hit. Then I pulled into the dock, pulled my SUV into the waiting lane and munched on some of the nuts while watching drug sniffing dogs go car by car and people with suitcases, coolers and sleeping bags walk up the ramp. After a short while, dock workers began waving cars forward, directing them where to park their vehicles on board the ferry.
I had paid a bit extra to reserve a cabin so after locking up my car, I headed upstairs to check in and get my cabin assignment. Reserving a cabin on the ferry wasn’t a necessity but after traveling on the road for two weeks, I wanted to make sure I was rested up for the rest of the drive.
The cabin was quaint. It consisted mainly of two single bunks stacked on top of each other, a built in metal desk, a shelf and a bathroom that wasn’t much bigger than those you find on an airplane. There was a shower in the bathroom which made the bathroom a few feet bigger but I still had to do an odd dance to close the shower door and still be able to open the bathroom door to get out. It wasn’t fancy but it was to be my home for three days.
However, I really didn’t spend that much time in the cabin during the trip. I spent most of my time hanging out in the dining room or taking walks on the deck. Most people seemed to hang out in the dining room, which was open 24 hours a day. While food service was limited to specific hours, the dining room was where people hung out to talk, play games, read and generally socialize.
It was in the dining room that I met Dan and Diane. Dan was a contractor on his way to Fairbanks to work on a bridge and Diane was his wife. I met Ed and Marie who were from Alaska and as an anniversary gift to themselves were traveling the entire coast of Alaska. I met several people from the military who were en route to their new post in Fairbanks or outside of Anchorage. I also got to know some folks from North Carolina who were on their way to Fairbanks and then on to the North Slope to make crazy money drilling oil and a family from Haiti who already had two young boys and a third one on the way. Most the folks were heading to Fairbanks with a few of us going the other way to Anchorage. Regardless, we all had to pass through Tok so we all got to talking and agreed to look out for each other on the road.
When I needed a break from socializing, I took laps around the deck with my camera. It was the middle of winter so the days were short and just got shorter the further North we went. However, the ferry traveled closed to the coast so, other than two short open water crossings, I could always see land.
I enjoyed the views of the Alaskan coastline and the introduction to the Alaska village when we stopped at the various ports.
If I wasn’t walking the deck or socializing in the dining room, I was eating in the dining room, drinking in the bar or watching movies on the upper observation lounge that was scattered with blow up beds and sleeping bags from those that chose not to reserve a cabin. The movies weren’t the best movies and were actually rather old but the food was amazing. There were so many choices–sandwiches, burgers, comfort foods, soup, snacks, prime ribs, salmon and so on. No matter what choice I made, I was never disappointed.
And there was no reason not to eat my fill. Because we traveled so close to the coast, the ferry rocked very little so I didn’t get sea sick and when it did rock, it was during the two short open water crossings. During the open water crossings, I returned to my cabin where I laid in bed and read. I never got more than a page or two into the book before the gentle rocking put me to sleep.
Needless to say, the three days I spent on the ferry were the most relaxing days of my journey. With nothing to do but eat, sleep, walk around and read, the “go go go” energy that had driven me across the country dissipated and was replaced by a strong sense of calm that would carry me through the rest of my journey.
I have lived on the Kenai Peninsula for a year now so does that mean I’m no longer an Alaskan “noob”?
After a year living on the Kenai, I feel like I have successfully made my way through some rite of passage that makes me a full fledged Alaskan now. I can’t pull one experience out of all the experiences I’ve collected and say, that was it, that was the point in which I lost my noobness, but with the passing of the one year anniversary of my arrival in Alaska and all that I have seen and done, I have to believe my noobness is gone.
I drove the Alaskan Highway in the middle of winter. I took a ride on the Alaskan Marine Highway, visited Homer, Seward, Anchorage and many other places and named the moose that regularly visit me at work and home. I watched a lynx hunt rabbits in my front yard, hiked in snow deeper than my knees and came within feet of touching a glacier. I learned the difference between dip net fishing and set net fishing as well as learned that a bit of yarn works well as bait for Salmon. I explored the world of Alaskan craft beer, shoveled snow off my roof and became use to the regular earthquakes. I found my favorite restaurants, tried moose meat for the first time and eaten my share of salmon and halibut.
I’m loving life on the Kenai but have I lost my noobness when there is still so much to do and see and experience on the Kenai? In a strange way, I really hope not because all that the Kenai has to offer is new and I never want to lose that feeling of utter awe that washes over me each time I see and experience some new aspect of the Kenai’s natural beauty.