Alaska Video Footage

I made a short video of our Alaska trip.

Hope u liek.

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Published in: on July 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm  Comments (2)  

Twin and O’Malley Peaks

June 22 – Let’s just say we didn’t get up at 5 AM this morning… Matt didn’t make it out of bed until 10 AM.  Remarkably, both of us could move all muscles and joints with ease.  We were pretty happy, considering we were afraid we wouldn’t be able to move.  So happy in fact, that we decided to go on another hike!  There are many, many hikes to choose from in Chugach State Park.  I was voting for an easy one… but there seemed to be a lack of 4 mile hikes.  So we settled on a 6 mile strenuous hike – Twin Peaks.  The walking surface was an easy one – an old road.  Unfortunately, it was a steep old road, and after the first hour or so, my legs were complaining.

A view of Eklutna Lake from the trail.

A view of Eklutna Lake from the trail.

Matt however, was fresh as a daisy of course…  But he waited patiently for me to trudge on, and we did reach the viewpoint of the twin peaks, had our snack, and headed back down.

Twin Peaks (you can't see them, but there were a couple dozen sheep on the hillside)

Twin Peaks (you can’t see them, but there were a couple dozen sheep on the hillside)

It was only mid-afternoon, but I was ready to just relax.  We already had reserved a hotel for the evening to shower and sleep in a bed!!  So we headed to the Eagle Hotel in Palmer, AK and did just that.  We went to bed fairly early because…

June 23, 4:30 AM
Rise and shine!  Matt and I were up early, heading to the parking lot for the hike up to O’Malley Peak – our last hike in Alaska for now.
A mama moose with her two calves along the road to O'Malley Peak trailhead

A mama moose with her two calves along the road to O’Malley Peak trailhead

O’Malley overlooks Anchorage, AK, on one side and part of the Chugach range on the other.  It is also a popular area to hike, hence the early start to ensure a parking space (it turns out we need not have worried, as the parking lot was quite large).  There are many routes to the top of O’Malley, and we had chosen to do a loop – ridge walk to the top, and then scree down and walk through the wide, flat valley on the way back.  There were still many snow banks left, and we had to walk through one to get onto the ridge.
Hiking over the snow bank to get on to the ridge.

Hiking over the snow bank to get on to the ridge.

Matt walking up a snow bank on the ridge leading to O'Malley Peak

Matt walking up a snow bank on the ridge leading to O’Malley Peak

The ridge was very rocky, much like pieces of Cantada Peak had been, but in a much milder fashion.  It was easy to skirt steep parts, or if we did climb, it was just a few feet in a sheltered area between rocks.  However, it took a long time.  The ridge is known for its many false peaks and with the rocky terrain, it was slow going.
Climbing our way through the rock on the ridge.

Climbing our way through the rock on the ridge.

Standing on a false peak along the ridge.

Standing on a false peak along the ridge.

Looking out over the surrounding area from the ridge.

Looking out over the surrounding area from the ridge.

Fortunately, we did eventually make it to the top, and had beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and city.   Ironically, our last day in Alaska turned out, in regards to the weather, exactly what we had expected from Alaska – cool and windy.  The sun had chosen not to make an appearance for our hike, so that had contributed considerably.  However, the clouds made for some cool pictures at the summit.
A view from the top of O'Malley Peak.

A view from the top of O’Malley Peak.

Looking out over Anchorage from the top of O'Malley Peak.

Looking out over Anchorage from the top of O’Malley Peak.

After a brief rest at the summit (it got cold!), we headed down the scree.  Now Matt is a huge fan of screeing, and is very comfortable with it.  However, in a particularly thin area (an area with little scree to slide down) he happened to take a very graceful fall, basically plopping down when his feet stopped skiing.  Being the slower of the two of us, I was behind him and laughed heartliy as he claimed he had just needed a break so he had sat down.  And so he sat while I made my way down to him… only to find that right as I came up behind him, I too fell on my butt!  We laughed pretty heartily at our twin falls.  We won’t mention how many more “rest breaks” Matt took on his way down.  We did make it down, and much more quickly than the ridge walking up had taken.  The valley we walked through on the way back is called the “ball field” because of its flat nature with hills rising on bath sides like bleachers.  It made for a nice walk back, and an end to our hiking in Alaska for now.
Published in: on June 27, 2013 at 9:19 am  Comments (3)  

Cantata Peak

Allison and I had scheduled three days in Chugach to climb mountains. I pulled some maps and route descriptions off Summit Post, and we decided to tackle the most intimidating peak on day one. We figured we would be coming off a day-and-a-half of rest, so it was probably our best chance for success.

Starting the hike through the fog

Starting the hike through the fog

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Eagle and Symphony lakes in the background

This “intimidating peak” – Cantata – is reached by hiking six miles to a pair of glacial lakes (Eagle Lake and Symphony Lake), then climbing another three-ish miles and several thousand feet up a valley and along a razor-like ridgeline, and finally up the scree fields on the south-facing slope. The crux of the climb is the western ridge.

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The western ridge, from below

At first glance, the ridge appears way too sketchy to attempt without climbing equipment. I’d read online, however, that it could be kept at class 3 with some patient route-finding.

Allison and I reached the base of this ridge after a few hours of steady uphill hiking. Instead of standing around gazing at the towering slopes before us (and likely talking ourselves out of the climb), we paused for only a few seconds before jumping right in.

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Crossing a snowy patch

Cantata Peak

Cantata Peak

In hindsight, we really had no business attempting some of the more exposed sections.

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Routefinding

Routefinding

Routefinding (mud glacier in background)

“Do you think we ought to turn back?”
“Huh?”
“Do you think we ought to turn back?”
“Sorry, it’s really windy up here. But yeah, we can stop for a snack.”

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Free climbing

We ended up missing the essential turnoff to keep things class 3, and wasted nearly two hours scrambling around on some genuinely scary class 4 stuff (“but we can’t stop NOW! We’re only 200 feet from the top!”). We finally decided to turn around…but before doing so, I wanted to explore one more scree chute. This turned out to be our ticket to the top…but only after descending several hundred feet and side-sloping over to the more friendly south face.

The final stretch

The final stretch

Signing the summit log

Signing the summit register

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Looking back toward the lakes

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Summit view, looking south

Of course, the battle was only half-won at this point. Allison had humored my enthusiasm on the way up, but now I was starting to realize exactly how dicey the descent was going to be (and to appreciate why she had been so concerned on the way up). The image of a cat getting stuck up in a tree would be appropriate here. I won’t go into the details, but it was a very slow and methodical process getting down.

Crossing a mildly exposed section of ridge

Going down the ridge

But we did make it down, eventually.

Looking back at the summit

Looking back at the summit

After descending the mountain, we made the final 6 mile trudge back to the car – just in time for an 11:00pm dinner at a local pizza joint. The entire trip took 15.5 hours.

Published in: on June 25, 2013 at 9:25 am  Comments (1)  

Broad Pass Cafe

As mentioned in the previous post, we headed back to the Anchorage area on June 20 so we could climb some of the beautiful mountains in that area as well.  Shortly after leaving the park, we happened to see our first bear running across the road (a black bear).  Unfortunately, he was too fast for our camera, so you’ll just have to take our word for it.  Also documented in our previous post was our love of Broad Pass Cafe, and their hamburgers.  Well, we got there a little before their lunch hour, but no worries because they serve breakfast as well.  We decided since their hamburgers were so good, breakfast would probably be awesome as well.  I ordered a short stack of pancakes with scrambled eggs, and Matt had the Awesome Omelet loaded with meat, mushrooms, and cheese.  We knew when the order came that this was not going to be an ordinary breakfast…

Our breakfast at the Broad Pass Cafe

Our breakfast at the Broad Pass Cafe

In fact, the breakfast seemed destined to be a pretty exciting affair.  Shortly after our order arrived, a group of bicyclists (they were biking 1,200 miles through Alaska in 3 weeks) arrived to eat before their daily ride.  They sat next to us and honed in on the foot wide pancakes I was attempting to devour. Now, our readers should know that the short stack holds 2 of these giant pancakes, and there is a tall stack… which contains 5.  Apparently there was a renowned eater in their group, and the other group members quickly challenged him to the task of eating a complete tall stack of pancakes.  Being a good sport, he accepted.  Little did he know what he was getting himself in to.  Apparently Broad Pass Cafe has a Facebook page with a tall stack challenge posted.  The closest so far to completing was a 15 year old boy who worked at the cafe, coming in at 3.5 pancakes.  So the cook (or mom, since this is a family owned restaurant) sent her son (the waiter, about age 15 as well) out to take a before picture of our biker friend, to be followed by an after picture that I really need to go look at on Facebook.  Matt and I stayed long enough to see the tall stack arrive, and wish him luck.  He had a small crowd at this point, and we were sad to have to leave.
The tall stack...

The tall stack…

We continued our journey to the Anchorage area and stopped mid-afternoon at Eagle River Campground to see if we could find a campsite still available.  We were in luck, and quickly set up camp.  We chose this campground because it is in Chugach State Park, the park we were hoping to hike in for the next few days, and was extremely close to our first planned hike – Cantata Peak.  We scouted out the trailhead about 15 minutes away, went into Anchorage for a few more supplies, and went to bed extremely early – alarm set for 5 AM the following morning.
Published in: on June 23, 2013 at 10:50 pm  Comments (2)  

Being a Tourist in Denali

As most of our readers know, we rarely follow the beaten path when it comes to our vacations. In fact, so far in Denali we have walked on an established trail a total of 1 mile (not counting the trails between the campsites and Visitor’s Center). Well, we thought we’d be real tourists today and do something most tourists do. First, Matt slept until almost 8 AM! I still got up at 6:30, but we’ll excuse that. Then we decided to take a morning hike on a trail. In fact, it was one of the approximately 8 hikes in the park that have an established trail. It was the only one with a “strenuous” rating. So up to Mount Healy we went. It was quite the uphill hike – 2.5 miles. Unfortunately, when we got to the top, the views were poor due to haze in the air. That was rather disappointing. But at least we got our morning exercise in.

On top of Mt. Healy overlooking the town right outside of Dinali.

On top of Mt. Healy overlooking the town right outside of Denali.

After our vigourous 5 mile hike, we were hungry. And rather sick of freeze-dried meals, Ramen, and energy bars. So we ventured to our favorite hangout place in the park, the Mercantile. The Mercantile has frozen chimichangas and a microwave, amongst many other frozen meal and food choices, – so chicken chimichangas became the lunch choice.

After lunch we went to the dog kennels. Denali is the only national park that still uses sled dogs actively to maintain the park. And everyday they give park visitors the chance to come meet the dogs and learn about what they do. It was a touristy demonstration (they had a sled on wheels that a few of the dogs pulled to demonstrate), but also very informative. They had a map showing the routes the dogs run in the winter to patrol the boundaries and carry supplies. No snow machines are allowed in the Denali Wilderness. Currently they maintain about 30 dogs, all of which are of the Alaskan Husky breed. But you would never know it looking at them, as they all look completely different. They also had gear from the past and present to view, and rangers to answer questions. We were glad we went.

Visiting with the dogs.  They stay outside year-round.

Visiting with the dogs. They stay outside year-round.

You can see how different this dog looks compared to the first.

You can see how different this dog looks compared to the first.

Part of the dog sled team in action! (they have wheels on the sled)

Part of the dog sled team in action! (they have wheels on the sled)

The rest of the evening we spent relaxing, as tomorrow we head to Anchorage to climb three peaks, once again off the beaten path. However, on our way down we plan to stop at the most amazing burger restaurant that Matt and I have ever found. It is literally this little cafe attached to a gas station at the corner of Routes 3 and 8 (or George Parks Highway and Denali Highway). We ate there on the way up.. and can’t wait to eat there again tomorrow. Of course our favorite burger restaurant would be in Alaska. All the more reason to come back!

Published in: on June 19, 2013 at 10:44 pm  Comments (2)  

Mt. Margaret

After three days of backpacking, Allison and I were ready to do some climbing without 30 lb packs. We decided to tackle Mount Margaret – a nice little mound of rock near the park entrance that would conveniently save us having to purchase more shuttle tickets.

The first part of the climb was a pretty easy class 2 walk-up. Because it was so easy, we got lazy with the route selection… and before we knew it, we found ourselves facing a somewhat nasty class 4 pitch. This was the kind of stuff that definitely would have turned us aside, had we been lugging the more cumbersome backpacking gear.

But we weren’t lugging the more cumbersome backpacking gear, so there wasn’t going to be any retreating. The question really came down to our different climbing styles. I was in favor of bypassing this particular stretch by traversing a field of loose scree, while Allison wanted to just climb the thing head-on.

“Hey, Allison, how’s about we cut over that way.”
“Are you nuts!? You’re going to get me killed. We should go this way.”
“Are you nuts!? You’re going to get me killed.”

And so on.

Being a gentleman, I caved in first. And I even insisted on going second, so I could take pictures and absorb the blows from the rocks she rained down on me (and also, so I could tell myself that I’d somehow manage to catch her if she came falling by (and, I suppose, so she could use her otherworldly (and vastly superior) route-finding skills to actually find a way to the top)).

...and there she goes

…and there she goes

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“Don’t leave me!!”

I was definitely awake at this point, and I’d only had one small cup of instant coffee. After about 35-40 vertical feet of scrambling, we found a way to cut back over to a more gentle slope.

Cutting back over to that gentle grassy slope

Cutting back over to a more gentle slope

The rest of the climb was uneventful, except for the little mountain sheep we kept running into. I wanted to shout at them – “WAKE UP SHEEPLE” – but Allison was determined to creep up on them quietly so we could take pictures. So I (sheepishly) complied. (I used the “sheepish” pun as many times as I could throughout the day, but for some reason Allison didn’t find it as funny as I did.)

Bah

Bah

So we get to the summit, and come to find out the top of this mountain was right off the set of The Lord of the Rings.

Weathertop in the background; Ringwraiths off-camera stage left

Weathertop in the background; Ringwraiths off-screen stage left

"They're taking the hobbits to Isengard!"

“They’re taking the hobbits to Isengard!”

We also found a cool place to eat lunch, and I did some crawling around on the ground with my tiny, 3-year-old, completely non-fancy Nikon Coolpix…just to prove that any buffoon with a digital camera can take awesome pictures. (I have this thing against camera snobs, see.) Behold my amateurish artistry:

Allison + Dall sheep + flowerz + Mt. McKinley + lenticular clouds

Allison + Dall sheep + flowers + Mt. McKinley + lenticular clouds (atop the mountain)

While eating, we saw a marmot watching us from the rocks. We also got charged by a sheep, but he veered off about 30 feet before reaching us. I don’t think he appreciated us eating lunch on his hillside.

Eating lunch on his hillside

Eating lunch on his hillside

Descending the mountain

Sheepishly moving away from the angry sheep

Later in the afternoon we climbed down the other side of the mountain, hiked back to the car, and called it a day.

Published in: on June 19, 2013 at 9:45 pm  Comments (2)  

Denali Backpacking Part 2

From the top of Cabin Peak, we decided to make a gradual ridge walk down to a neighboring valley.
Hiking along.

Hiking along.

Just hiking on top of the world.

Just hiking on top of the world.

It was a great plan (we saw three elk hanging out in the shade below us.. until they saw us and took off) until we had to start heading into the valley – more thick brush, ugh.
We did eventually make our way down to the stream to enjoy a quiet lunch before crossing the valley, a few streams, heading down a side canyon, and finally up into the mountains again.  We were now on part of Polychrome Mountain (Polychrome is huge, so we hiked a very small piece of it).
Up, up, up!

Up, up, up!

A rest break looking out over Cabin Peak from Polychrome Mountain.

A rest break looking out over Cabin Peak (the brown one, dead center) from Polychrome Mountain.

Taking a rest break on Polychrome Mountain.

Taking a rest break on Polychrome Mountain.

After more uphill hiking, we reached a beautiful valley and decided to set up camp at the top for the evening.
Looking over the mountains north of Polychrome Mountain.

Looking over the mountains north of Polychrome Mountain.

Beautiful flowers on Polychrome Mountain, with beautiful scenery!

Beautiful flowers on Polychrome Mountain, with beautiful scenery!

Viewing the landscape.

Viewing the landscape.

We got to  eat dinner on the ridge and enjoy a little breeze!
Dinner on the ridge.

Dinner on the ridge.

We also enjoyed the peeping/scolding some of our valley neighbors gave us (little creatures that look like prairie dogs that live in the mountains of Alaska).  We even got to watch the meanderings of some Dahl sheep across the valley.  Matt and I have decided we are forever grateful for their carefully laid paths along the mountainsides, which we found ourselves following quite regularly.
Our campsite on June 16th.

Our campsite on June 16th.

Our campsite on night 2, overlooking the valley.

Our campsite on night 2, overlooking the valley.

Our final day was spent hiking out of the valley, up a stream, and across the tundra to the road.
Hiking through our favorite overgrowth.

Hiking through our favorite overgrowth.

We saw many signs of black bear, grizzly bear, moose, elk, and sheep, but no sightings of the actual creatures who made all the prints along the shore and left their poop on the tundra.  Once we reached the road, we were picked up by a shuttle and carried back to our car.  Showers and pizza (topped with reindeer sausage and ground elk) were the first stops made. 🙂
Our route is on black.  The pink marks the boundaries for zones 32 and 31.

Our route is in black. The pink marks the boundaries for zones 32 and 31.

Published in: on June 17, 2013 at 11:57 pm  Comments (2)  

Denali Backpacking Part 1

Upon arriving in Denali National Park on June 14, we quickly arranged a backpacking trip to take place over the following three days, June 15- June 17.  The logistics of planning a trip in Denali were new to Matt and I for the simple reason that Denali is divided into backcountry zones.  There are 87 zones in Denali, and only so many people are allowed to be camping in each zone each night (approx. 6-8, but is depends on the size of the zone, animal density, etc.).  After much deliberation, we decided to hike in zones 32 and 31.  These zones would give us mountains we could climb with our packs, and tundra that was not too heavily wooded.

We started June 15th at 6 AM to break camp and meet the shuttle that would take us to our drop- off point.  Denali is also unique in that you have to take a shuttle to almost all destinations, and the park road is over 80 miles long (which takes the shuttles about 6 miles to transverse).  Our drop-off point was around mile 53, and it took about 3 hours to get there.

We arrived at our “trailhead” (there are few maintained trails in the park, so almost all hiking is self-navigated with a map and compass) at 10 AM and quickly set off down the east bank of the Toklat River.  The Toklat River is very wide with many branches, shallow in most places, but can get deep with snow and glacier runoff.
Matt walking on a snowbank left along the Toklat River.

Matt walking on a snowbank along the Toklat River.

Since the weather was in the high 80’s  and very sunny, we had been warned that the afternoons could get very tricky with river crossings.  We therefore started on the east side of the river with the intention of staying there.  However, we came to a dilemma not long after: cross a branch of the river, or start hiking through a dense forest.  We chose to venture the river since we had come prepared with water shoes.  We found that one crossing led to many more as the branches of the river intertwined.  At first it was nice and shallow – easy crossings.  But as time went on we found the channels getting deeper and quicker. (We actually took a video of one such crossing…coming soon!)
Crossing the river - it got waist high in some places!

Crossing the river – it got waist high in some places!

We realized we weren’t going to be able to keep following the river without risking a wipeout, so we ventured onto the tundra to continue our hike.  Our destination for the night was Cabin Peak, a 4,961 ft. tall mountain.  We quickly realized that hiking across the tundra was nothing like hiking in the lower 48.  First, the tundra is like a sponge, so it’s a bit like walking in soft snow that you sink in, and then have to lift your leg out to take the next step. In other words, it’s hard work.  The tundra also has many small trees and bushes growing across is, as well as many small streams.  Without a trail, it was important to find high points occasionally so that we could pick the best route.  So that was step one when we reached the tundra – find a small hill to climb, figure out what route to take with the least number of obstacles, and then do our best to follow that route as we went (there were always unexpected obstacles that you couldn’t see or plan for).  That worked pretty well.
Slowly but surely working my way up.

Slowly but surely working my way up.

We correctly identified Cabin Peak, found an appropriate ridge to start climbing it, and even saw a moose on the way up.  As we climbed the views of the surrounding areas got better and better.  There were so many beautiful peaks, rivers, and glaciers to look at.  We took lots of pictures. 🙂
Beginning our ascent into the mountains with the Toklat River in the background.

Beginning our ascent into the mountains with the Toklat River in the background.

We did tucker out before reaching the peak, and decided to make camp in a shallow basin mid-climb.
Our campsite on June 15th.

Our campsite on June 15th.

Allison sitting outside the tent, looking out over the scenery.

Allison sitting outside the tent, looking out over the scenery.

That brings us to sleeping in Alaska during the summer.  There really isn’t a complete darkness.  The sun doesn’t move directly above at mid-day.  Instead the sun circles around the sky, dipping below the horizon for just a few hours (which brings a twilight darkness, but never to the point where it is hard to see), and then coming back up again.  So camping really becomes difficult is you are accustomed to sleeping in darkness.  You have to fall asleep when it is light, and never really get a true darkness.  The other unfortunate circumstance was that Alaska was having a heat wave, and it was around 85 degrees out.  Too hot, especially when the breeze only came occasionally. Matt and I are still wondering why we brought warmer clothes, as even at night the temperature dips to the 60’s for just a few hours – nothing the sleeping bag can’t handle.  Anyway, we made it through the first night, Matt sleeping much better in the sunlight than I, and proceeded the next morning to finish the climb to Cabin Peak.
The ridge we are planning to walk.

The ridge we are planning to walk.

Walking the ridge.

Walking the ridge.

Matt on the ridge.

Matt on the ridge.

What a view!

What a view!

Consulting the map for the best route.  Mt. McKinley is the biggest, white peak on the right.

Consulting the map for the best route. Mt. McKinley is the biggest, white peak on the right.

Looking out to the surrounding mountains.

Looking out to the surrounding mountains.

Heading down the ridge from Cabin Peak.

Heading down the ridge from Cabin Peak.

The views were spectacular, and well worth the climb. Matt also celebrated his 24th birthday looking at the views!

Matt on a ridge below Cabin Peak.

Matt on a ridge below Cabin Peak.

(to be continued)
Published in: on June 17, 2013 at 11:40 pm  Comments (2)  

Who Knew Just Getting to Alaska would be an Adventure?

June 13, 2013

Well, our trip to Alaska began in superb Rodgers’ fashion.  Our flight out of Milwaukee was to leave at 6:50 AM.  So naturally, we set a couple of alarms for around 3:30 AM to ensure we would have plenty of time to get to the airport, check bags, and get through security.  And somehow… we slept through all of the alarms.  Thank goodness for my internal clock that gets me up by 5:30 AM, a habit left from the school year.  So at 5:24 AM, I sat bolt upright, saw the sunshine streaming in, and panicked.  Fortunately, Matt heard my exclamations of “Matt, it’s 5:24!” right away and we switched into high gear.  We were on our way to the airport in less than 10 minutes.  Thank goodness for good teamwork.  We even remembered all chargers, somehow.  We arrived at the airport at exactly 5:50 AM.  Once again, good teamwork allowed me to check the luggage, while Matt parked the car.  The security line was pretty short, so we managed to arrive at our gate 10 minutes before boarding even started… leaving Matt enough time to get his cup of coffee before the flight.  Matt and I spent the rest of the day marveling at our good fortune and trying to figure out how we managed to make that first flight.  The rest of the travel day proceeded smoothly – Milwaukee to Dallas, Dallas to Seattle, and Seattle to Anchorage.

As many of our readers can probably imagine, our first stop upon arrival in Anchorage (after picking up our rental car), was REI.  We had a lot of fun, as it was a larger REI with many new food options available.  After stocking up on food needed for Denali National Park, we headed to Palmer, AK to spend the night en route to Denali.  It’s going to take some getting used to, because we went to bed at 11 PM, and it was still very bright out.  Apparently, sunset is around 11:40 PM, and the sun rises again at 4:10 AM… so we slept through any darkness that occurred.

June 14, 2013

So I (Allison) am the early riser in the Rodgers duo, so I got up around 6 AM and decided to take a walk.  I was hoping for some great scenery pictures, but we we’re staying in the middle of Palmer, and the buildings were in the way for great mountain pictures, even though we are surrounded by them.  However, I did find a very interesting memorial nearby that was dedicated to the Matanuska Colony Project.  No, worries, I had no idea what that was either, but they had awesome boards of information.  Apparently, during the Great Depression, the U.S. paid people living in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin to go start a colony in Alaska named…. Palmer, AK!  So they had a memorial with the names of the colonists from each state that came to Alaska to settle.  I know I’m turning into my dad with these historical connections, but I thought that was pretty cool, right?

The dedication plaque to the colonists who had moved to Palmer, AK.

The dedication plaque to the colonists who had moved to Palmer, AK.

One of the Matansuka Colony Project informational signs.

One of the Matansuka Colony Project informational signs.

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The list of colonists who were from Wisconsin.

Anyway, we are headed the rest of the way to Denali today.  The plan is to talk to the rangers about a backcountry backpacking trip, as well as good day hikes.  Then, if there is time, there is a Dog Sled Demonstration at 4 PM.  Tomorrow, the real adventures start!  And don’t worry everyone, we got our grizzly strong bear spray 😉

The mountains surrounding Palmer, AK.

The mountains surrounding Palmer, AK.

Published in: on June 14, 2013 at 11:53 am  Comments (3)  

A Great Alaskan Adventure

Being a teacher, I decided I wanted a break from the classroom for Spring Break.  So, naturally, I decided to visit a teacher friend of mine in Kasigluk, AK.  I spent the week in her classroom learning about her life as a teacher in a small Alaskan village, and falling in love with the people and places I had the privilege to see and talk to while there.  Even sitting here at home – it’s hard to believe everything I just experienced this week – and it will be even harder to try and describe what no words can fully explain.  But this will be my best attempt to share my experiences in a place so unlike anything I have ever known.

I began my journey on Friday evening – flying out of the Milwaukee, WI airport around 7:30 PM.  After a (very) brief stop in Minneapolis, MN, I continued on to Anchorage AK on an overnight flight.  I arrived in Anchorage at 12:30 AM (I gained 3 hours flying to Alaska) and had some time to sleep in the airport before my 6:15 AM flight out. Unfortunately, this meant my hours in Anchorage yielded no views of the beautiful scenery – as the sun doesn’t rise until after 8 AM at this time of year.  Disappointed at the lack of mountain views (I comforted myself with the fact that I would be back in the summer to visit in the daylight) I continued on to Bethel, AK (west of Anchorage).  This is where my true adventure begins.  I now was going to be navigating from a town out to a small village in the middle of the Alaskan tundra.  Fortunately I had a surprise waiting for me in Bethel!  My teacher friend, Anna, due to inclement weather had decided to fly in to Bethel, AK the previous night to surprise me! She was afraid, correctly, that due to fog and visibility issues, flights would be delayed out to the villages.  So we hailed a taxi and went into the hub of Bethel to find some breakfast.  We settled on the Red Basket – a small diner much like those found in other small towns, except they offered reindeer as an option. I seriously considered trying the new dish, but being only 8 AM decided that breakfast food sounded better.  After breakfast, we got a tour of Bethel from the next taxi driver, and then went to the home of some teacher friends of Anna’s to spend some time while we waited for the weather to clear.

By mid-afternoon, flights were leaving so we headed to Era, a small plane airport that provided flights to the tundra villages.  I was very excited to ride in a small plane, and I was not disappointed.  Our plane – a small 7-seater, including the pilot and co-pilot’s seats, promised a new adventure. And, luck of luck!, the plane was full, and I got nominated to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.  I was beaming (and probably looked ridiculously excited), but ready to get my first views of the tundra.  These planes fly quite low, so you can watch the villages go by under you and see nothing but snow and ice for as far as the eye can see.

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Boarding the plane to take us to Kasigluk, AK.

Sitting in the co-pilot's seat.

Sitting in the co-pilot’s seat.

The plane ride to Kasigluk, AK takes about 20 minutes.  The landing strip still had snow and ice on it – which made me nervous, but was a routine landing for the pilots of these planes.  The airstrip is a bit outside the village, but fortunately someone was nice enough to offer to let us ride in their sled (towed behind their snow machine) into the village.  And so there I found myself, with my snow pants and parka riding in the middle of the tundra toward this small village of around 300 people.  The village is set up in a rough square, with the school, community center, and water treatment/electrical buildings in the center, and the homes, store, post-office, police office, and recycling center around the edges.  We headed to Anna’s house first, which is located right next to the school.  Anna is lucky to live in a village with running water, so it provided all the comforts of home.  After resting and meeting Anna’s housemate, Bobby, she gave me a tour of the school and village.  Fortunately, I had brought some warm weather with me (in the 30’s!) so it was a pleasant walk.  The warm weather also meant that most village children were out playing with friends, and adults were working outside.  So there were a lot of introductions, hello’s, and “Who’s this?” as we walked the square.  Anna also decided to visit a particular family to see that a member had made it back safely from Bethel after the weather delays.  Homes in the village are built up on stilts, sometimes with storage underneath, because of the massive amounts of snow, and also mud that comes with the melting of the snow.  This home also had a small fish camp in front (an area for drying fish outside and a smoke house), as well as a steam house (a small building used to steam in (like a sauna).  Many generations of a family often live together, and this home was no exception, as people of all ages ran, worked, talked, and laughed around the house.  We were just in time for dinner – and moose tongue soup was on the menu.  Well, no time like the present to try a new dish, so Anna and I each sampled.  Boiling the moose tongue in water had left it with an oily broth, different from anything I’ve ever had.  But the tongue was good, tasting much like other meat, just slightly chewier.  After chatting for a while, we headed back to Anna’s house for glorious sleep (much needed after having slept on planes and in the airport the previous night).

Moose tongue soup.

Moose tongue soup.

Walking to the store in Kasigluk.

Walking to the store in Kasigluk.

Yes, this is a 4-wheeler buried in the snow.

Yes, this is a 4-wheeler buried in the snow.

Sunday dawned another glorious day on the tundra.  Pancakes and salmon and crowe berries were on the menu.  I also tried powdered milk for the first time, as fresh milk is unavailable in the village.  With the pancakes, I sampled Alaskan birch syrup – but decided it was a bit thick and had a flavor less appealing than maple syrup. Anna and I then went to school to work in her classroom for a while.  I decided my week project would be organizing her classroom library.  Anna and I also talked about the challenges faced in her teaching, brainstorming ways to make things better.  Being teachers, we just can’t get away from the question, “How can I better help my students?”, and so much of our conversations centered on that.  Much of my learning curve was listening to the realities of village life.  I was fascinated by these amazing people who lived in this entirely snow covered land, in a village not accessible by any road.

In the afternoon, a group of students came and made pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with Anna and I.  While we waited for the cookies to bake, the students painted, which resulted in Anna and I getting some fan mail. This was also my chance to learn a little more about the languages in Kasigluk.  The original language is Yup’ik, which students learn from elders in the village.  However, English has also taken hold.  Currently students at school are taught in a dual-language program – with different subjects being taught in Yup’ik and English.  This means that conversation is often a mix of the languages, so I had to be a close listener to understand everything. There are also certain expressions and ways of saying phrases that I found myself picking up as the week carried on.

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The paintings made for us by students.

The paintings made for us by students.

I was looking forward to meeting all of Anna’s students on Monday morning, but unfortunately, Anna and I found ourselves sick with food poisoning instead.  We spent the day puking, sleeping, resting, and, later, nibbling on crackers and applesauce.  Needless to say, not the way we had pictured the day going.

Fortunately, by Tuesday morning we both felt much, much better, and headed to school for the day.  I got the privilege of co-teaching math with Anna in the morning due to the week being a testing week for the state of Alaska, meaning normal school routines were interrupted.  In the afternoon, I finished up the library, and helped around the classroom as needed. After school let out, Anna, Marie (who teaches with Anna in the classroom), and I went to the post-office and the store.  This was my first time to explore the prices I had infamously heard about from Anna.  The box of cereal we bought cost almost $7 for price comparison.  Anna and I also found a huge beef heart for sale, but not knowing quite how to cook beef heart, decided to pass on that purchase.  Anna then took me on a walk across the tundra to Fox Lake (currently a frozen lake covered in snow, so really you can’t tell it’s a lake at all).  However, it was beautiful to walk across the white world of Alaska.  We also found a sled dog team tied up in their own little sled dog village (complete with individual dog houses and a shed buried in snow for storage).  For dinner, we ate moose meat – roasted in the oven by Bobby.  It was delicious!

Beef heart.

Beef heart.

Moose meat and carrots.

Moose meat and carrots.

The tundra, with the sled dog village in the background.

The tundra, with the sled dog village in the background.

Kasigluk, AK

Kasigluk, AK

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Kasigluk, AK from Fox Lake.

Wednesday, I spent the morning teaching with Anna, and the afternoon reading with students in her classroom to help Anna document what reading level students were at.  After school, we went to church, the Russian Orthodox Church, the only church in the village.  Neither Anna nor I are members of the Russian Orthodox Church, but I wanted to experience everything I could while I was in the village, and church is a part of the village life.  And boy was it an experience!  Women and children stand on the left, and men on the right (there are no chairs, except a few for the elderly and women with children).  At times the congregation kneels, so as Anna put it, it was an aerobic workout.  Fortunately, much of the service was in English, which is not always the case, so I could understand much of what was said.  The priest also welcomed and thanked Anna and I for coming, which was really nice.  Late Wednesday evening, Anna and I decided to rearrange her classroom to a layout she thought would work better for her students.  I, as the nominated organizer, cleared, and cleaned up shelves that then were moved to provide a divider in her room.  We then rearranged desks and tables, finishing up in the wee morning hours.  We couldn’t wait to show the students.

The Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian Orthodox Church.

Dressed for church.

Dressed for church.

Anna's rearranged classroom!

Anna’s rearranged classroom!

Thursday, during the day, was a repeat of Wednesday – spending the morning and early afternoon in the classroom with Anna.  Her students and I were quickly becoming fond of each other.  I read to them each day I was there – and that was some of the most attentive listening I saw from them.  They were all very eager to get their one-on-one chance to read to me too.   After school, Anna and I showed Marie some pictures we found while cleaning, pictures of fish camp.  Marie then sat down and told me all about fish camp and answered all of my questions. I enjoyed being the student, and just learning.  It’s what I had been doing all week anyway.  So much to learn, and all of it so interesting!  Later Thursday promised a whole new adventure – a trip to the other half of Kasigluk.  Anna had to teach me this, but Kasigluk is divided into the old village, and the new village.  Anna lives in Akula, or the new village, which is on one side of the Johnson River.  On the other side of the river lies Akiuk, or the old village.  Both villages currently have schools and run as separate villages, except they share the air strip and the police force divides itself between both.  However, the old village is slowly sinking, which is why the new village was built so that eventually all would move to the new village.  Not all want to move, however, so that has been a slow process.  Anyway, Akiuk was having Yuraq, the traditional style of Yup’ik dance, practice, and Anna and I had been invited to attend.  An older student drove us over in a sled attached to his parent’s snow machine.  The sled ride itself was an adventure, and my first time to another village.  Then of course the dancing was all new too.  The dancing is directed by drums, and therefore danced to the beat of the drums.  Anna and I watched for a while, and then we joined in. After the dance practice we were driven back to Akula where we went to Volley Night.  Anna, an avid volleyball player, started Volley Night as a way to connect with the village, and now it is a favorite weekly event. Whoever shows up plays, and despite my poor volleyball skills, I actually had a lot of fun.

Anna ready to travel in the sled.

Anna ready to travel in the sled.

Traditional Yup'ik dancing.

Traditional Yup’ik dancing.

Friday was my last day in the village.  Students only have a half day on Fridays, so I finished reading with students, and then gave them each a book to keep.  They were so excited to have a book of their own!   For lunch, two of the village families had brought me dried fish to try before I left.  So I had dried white fish, king salmon, and flat fish. Not bad! The families have been so generous with food and having me experience everything I can.

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Dried King Salmon

In the afternoon, students can come back to school for a 30 minute open gym time, so Anna and I watched older students practice NYO (Native Youth Olympics) http://www.ankn.uaf.edu/curriculum/NativeGames/nyo.html

I didn’t know anything about this these events and competitions, but was utterly fascinated with them.  A few of the students demonstrated some of the events for me.  I would love to see a full competition sometime.  Also on Friday afternoon, a student of Anna’s came in and helped Anna and I put up a new word wall in her classroom.  Because of the dual language program, there must be a Yup’ik and English word wall in the classroom.  So her student practiced his Yup’ik by saying the words to me as we worked on the word wall.  It was so much fun to spend time with her students.  As he left, he said, “See you on Monday, Miss Allison!” He knew I had to leave but I truly have loved my time in Kasigluk, and everyone made me feel so welcomed, it was hard to leave!

Unfortunately I did have to leave on Friday evening.  I flew out on a slightly larger plane, holding around 15 people.  I retraced my steps to Bethel, Anchorage, and then Chicago this time.  The whole time I couldn’t believe it had been a week already.  I learned so much, and enjoyed every minute of it.  I was asked to stay more times than I can count.  I had my future planned by Susan, who wanted me to come teach and Matt to come be a doctor in Bethel or traveling the villages.  And who knows?  Maybe someday we will.  But for now I’m back in Milwaukee, transitioning from a land covered in snow to one covered in grass, and where it’s now warm enough I can put the parka away.  I hope I do at least get to travel back someday.  I miss you already Anna!

Anna and I in front of my departure plane.

Anna and I in front of my departure plane.

Kasigluk, AK from the air.

Kasigluk, AK from the air.

Anna also keeps a blog of her time in Alaska, so you can read more about her experiences here: http://aka-mylife.tumblr.com/

Published in: on April 6, 2013 at 11:35 pm  Comments (3)