Kenai Peninsula Part 2 and Beyond

The Homer area is known more for its fishing opportunities than anything else, but we were there for sightseeing and bird watching. We started both those activities during the drive from Seward to Homer. Backtracking up the Seward Highway we repeated some of the great views we had seen on the way down and during one of our sightseeing days in the area. At the junction of the Seward Highway and the Homer Highway is a small lake called Tern Lake. The lake as aptly named as there are Arctic Terns nesting on the small islands on the lake. We watched a parent make several trips to a much smaller pond on the other side of the road and dive a few inches below the surface to capture small fish to take to the two chicks waiting for her just off the nest. I was never able to capture this wonderful fisherman with a digital image at the exact moment of catching a fish, but it was fun trying.

As we got closer and closer to Homer we realized we would be handicapped by the same smoky conditions we had put up with since leaving Anchorage. This was frustrating because our plan had us spending a morning on the water and the rest of our time working along the coast and into the foothills in pursuit of birds.

When we arrived at the RV Park we had chosen we were pleased to be able to see across the Cook Inlet to the opposite shore. Unfortunately, the view was not clear enough to identify the mountain peaks on the other side.

Connie had made reservations with a water taxi operator who also did pelagic bird watching trips. We lucked out in that he was taking a group from the east coast the morning after we arrived and there was room for us. So, after we got settled in the RV Park we took a drive out to the spit to locate the parking area we would need to park in and to get an idea where to meet the boat the following morning. Since we were there we wandered up and down the spit in search of a place for dinner. We finally decided on a good looking place, but, for once, we were a little disappointed in the quality of our meals. That was particularly frustrating because we paid a lot.

The next morning we got to the pier early and waited for our partners and the water taxi. As it turned out one of the people on the trip from back east was a nurse who works for the same home health agency Connie once worked for in Northern Virginia. Between sightings the two of them talked and Connie got caught up on the lives of several of her former nurse companions. Connie was also able to update the other woman on the life of another of the former group who moved to Maine and we have kept up with over the years. It was fun for Connie and the rest of the group was pretty impressed.

Meanwhile, I stuck close to the skipper of the boat because he really knew his birds. The guide from back east was pretty good, but it is hard to beat the local expert in his own backyard. The guide confused the Marbled and Kitlitz’s Murrelets and the Pelagic and Red Faced Cormorants while at the same time I was getting a real education in how to tell the differences among these birds. As well as these four species we also saw Surf Birds, Harlequin Duck, White Winged Scoters, Brandt Geese and Common Eider, all birds we had not yet seen during our trip to Alaska. Of course we saw the usual suspects for the area such as Arctic Tern, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Horned and Tufted Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake and Common Murre to name a few. There were tens of Bald Eagles of all age groups standing along the beaches waiting for dinner time.

Even with the compromised vision from the smoke, our morning in the inlet was fun, educational and socially inspiring. I cannot leave this subject with another of those “you won’t believe this, but…” stories. When we first moved to San Diego and joined the local Audubon group we met the outgoing president of the club and learned that she was moving to Alaska. She had taken many trips to Homer over the years and decided this was the place she wanted to live. There is a big difference between Homer, Alaska and San Diego, California. Anyway, after some squeezing of the brain, Connie was able to come up with the lady’s name and she asked our captain if he might know her. Sure enough, they work together on a local bird festival committee. What a small world.

Our morning was considered successful even though we would always like to see more species of birds.

In the afternoon we ventured out in the car on the one road that heads towards the bitter end of the peninsula to see what we could see. We drove several miles on a paved road and then it began to degrade some. First we came to the end of the pavement and on to a really good gravel surface. Then the road began to twist and turn a lot and finally it got really narrow and eventually came to an end. Along the way we stopped several times to either find birds we could hear or to take in the sights. We found no new birds during the afternoon, but we did see a lot of nice looking homes and some really great views. By the time we got back to the coach we were exhausted and ready for dinner and bed.

We spent the next day exploring the roads that head back toward Anchorage. I say roads, because there is the Homer Highway and the Old Homer Highway, the latter being much curvier and no longer a complete road. Our goal was to drive as much of the old road as possible in order to see as much of the peninsula as possible. The old road took us closer to the beach in many areas and we got to see some pretty neat sights. We were rewarded for our efforts with birds such as Sandhill Cranes, Belted Kingfisher and Orange Crowned Warbler, all firsts for the trip. We watched people fishing, but more importantly we saw fish avoiding the hook. We ended up driving a couple of hundred miles that day, but we had a great time.

We left the Kenai on July 13 and headed back to Anchorage and Fort Richardson. We spent just one night at Richardson, but it was a busy one. We did the laundry and made a run on the commissary for groceries. The next day we headed in the general direction of Valdez. We stopped at the Tonsina River Campground and Lodge. We chose this place because of the ad in The Milepost. The ad had a cute drawing of a Moose adorning a bar. Enroute we called for reservations but when we arrived it was obvious we didn’t need them. As it turns out the current owner acquired the property earlier this spring and is trying to make a go of it. The previous owner had not been in residence and apparently there was issue between the owner and manager. The result was that the property was not well maintained and therefore not attracting a lot of customers. The folks who bought it are living on site and are working hard to make it a must place to visit. The current owners are Russian by birth, but have lived and worked in the US for several years. He was a general contractor in Florida and sold out when business started to fade due to the economic downturn. He knows what needs to be done and as we talked to him he was trying to sort out the priorities so that he could most quickly start seeing a return on his investment. One of the best things they have going for them is the bar and restaurant. The bar is a lot of fun and the food in the restaurant is really quite good. The owner’s wife is the head cook while one of his sons is the assistant chef. The three daughters, all beautiful, rent the RV sites and rooms as well as work in the restaurant. They will return to Miami and their biological mother for school this fall. One of the sons intends to stay until they can do no more work due to snow and cold. The parents will remain through the winter and work on marketing the property. Connie and I can see great potential in this property. We really hope these folks do well here. My biggest concern for them is the location is not central to any great destination. However, they are close enough to Valdez and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve that they may be able to overcome the distraction with proper marketing techniques and really good food reviews.

We had been advised by many not to take the coach into Valdez due to the long pull to get out. So, we opted to stay at Tonsina River two nights and take a day trip to Valdez. We left early in the morning to make the drive to Valdez in time to catch a boat trip and still have time to stop along the way to look at what we may find.

Along the way we did indeed find things to stop and take closer looks at. The most dramatic was the Worthington Glacier. The glacier is protected by a state park with the same name. There is a small visitor center and viewing area and a trail that extends to the toe of the glacier. We started along the trail stopping frequently to take pictures. We quickly realized that we did not have time to hike all the way to the toe and make it into Valdez in time to catch the boat. So, at about the halfway point we turned around and went back to the parking area. I was a bit frustrated as I seem to have caught some bug that has been driving me to get my feet on a glacier. Only time will tell if I ever get to walk on one.

As you can imagine we got some pretty neat photos of Worthington and the best will appear in my web album. We had to get back on the road and down into Valdez.

We booked our cruise of Prince William Sound with Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises. We had seen some pretty dramatic videos of calving glaciers as seen from the several boats operating in the sound. We had opted for the half day cruise departing at noon. This cruise follows the Valdez Arm and ventures out into the sound eventually moving southwest toward Point Bull Head on Glacier Island where we saw nesting gulls and kittiwakes. From there we headed north into the Columbia Bay and to what we assumed would be the toe of Columbia Glacier and some dramatic calving shots. As we approached the north end of the bay the captain announced that we would not be able to get within a few miles of the glacier due to the grounded icebergs that were blocking the way. We were really disappointed not only because we would not be able to see the glacier itself, but that we were not informed that this would be the fact either when we made our reservations or when we boarded the ship. Had we known, we could have taken the full day trip that goes to the Meares Glacier where calving is seen. That trip leaves two hours earlier than the one we were on. To add a bit of salt to this wound, the captain of this boat was a bit of a problem in that he was not particularly interested in pointing out things that his passengers may be interested in. For instance he doesn’t personally like Bald Eagles so he would sail right by perched eagles and not call attention to them. He even told Connie he didn’t like them. He was a pretty knowledgeable guy, but I would not call him a very good tour operator. It did me good to see him having to pump sanitary tanks upon our return to port. That was job for which his attitude was much better suited to be performing.

I was able to observe this final action because we decided to eat at a waterfront restaurant on the pier adjacent to where our boat was moored. We had a great dinner and the entertainment was worth the price of admission. We had a great young waitress whom we learned was in Valdez on a work travel program from Poland, I believe. She was guaranteed a job in Alaska and an opportunity to earn money to fund travel within the country. In her case, she was going to New York for a vacation before returning home at the end of the season. It seemed a really interesting way to see some of the world while young enough to enjoy it. She had only arrived in Valdez a few days ahead of us and was scheduled to be a bus person, but had already worked her way to being a waitress. She was very concerned she wasn’t taking good enough care of us. She did just fine. We really enjoyed talking to her.

Our drive back to the RV Park was long after spending the afternoon on the boat. We made only one stop on the way home and that was to capture a photo or two of the sun through the smoke and haze. It really looked more like a moonrise rather than a sunset. Of course, it never really completely set either. By the way, the long hill climb out of Valdez would have sucked a lot of fuel and would have been fairly slow, but were we to go there again I would feel confident driving the coach into town. I am not sure there is a need from our perspective to stay in Valdez more than one night making the decision to take the coach there a tough one.

On the morning of July 16 we were back on the road with the motorhome heading towards Tok and the beginning of our outbound journey. However, along the way we stopped at the main visitor center to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. We took a few minutes to learn a bit about the park and we were impressed. First, it is the largest of our national parks at 13.2 million square miles. It is also one of the youngest having been established in 1980. Like Denali, the park is focused on preservation rather than tourism. That said there is very little of the park that is accessible via motor vehicle. I found the words of the park brochure to be quite interesting. “The largest U.S. national park, it equals six Yellowstones, with peaks upon peaks and glaciers after glaciers. Follow any braided river or stream to its source and you will find either a receding or advancing glacier.” There are at least 14 mountain peaks over 10.000 feet tall. I counted 17 glaciers within the park and probably that many more that originate from icefields within the park. I cannot imagine the management challenge this vast land presents to the National Park Service. With the very few roads in the park rangers must use a lot of helicopters, dog sleds and boats to patrol and observe the happenings within the park. The main road into the park goes to the Kennecott Visitor Center at the foot of the Kennecott and Root Glaciers. We opted to not take this route as we could not make Tok this day with a side trip into the heart of the park. After looking at the brochure I was a little disappointed we had made that decision. Oh well, another reason to return.

I think it would be fun to someday return to this place for a much more in depth exploration. As Connie and I have discussed recently, we need to come back with the intent of doing more hiking and more rigorous hiking than we are accustomed to so we can get deeper into these preserves and away from the more casual tourists. As you will read in a later article, we need to do more training at higher altitudes in order to really enjoy the tougher trails. We have not made any decision to make any overnighter type hikes, because we are not sure how much we want to share a tent with a bear, or sleep on the ground for that matter. However, I have long known that one should never say never. There could be some motivating factor that would cause us to want to spend the night on the trail somewhere. Who knows, it may even be fun.

After a short loop trail hike in the area of the visitor center we were back on the road heading for Tok.

We had originally thought we might make it all the way to Chicken from Tonsina River, but our later than normal start and the stop at Wrangell pretty well guaranteed we would have to stop at Tok. We picked a different park for our second stop in Tok, just to have a different experience. The park we picked had free wifi in the lounge. That meant the opportunity to read e-mail and drink beer at the same time.

From Tok we made the short 79 mile drive to Chicken on July 17. The drive was much better this time than when we traveled to Chicken in June. The weather was much better and there had been some work done on the road making it a bit easier on the coach and our nerves. We arrived at Chicken early in the afternoon after making several stops along the way to look at the scenery. There are two RV Parks in Chicken. We picked the one that is closer to Downtown Chicken. The park offered nothing but 20 amp electric and no water or sewer. The park did offer a bit of a bakery and a gold panning area where a person can pan for gold for a small fee. With a lot of time remaining in the day we chose to do some panning. I can tell you we both found gold, but between us we would be lucky to have more than a quarter’s worth. It was fun working the sand and gravel and day dreaming of a huge nugget, but …
We did meet an interesting woman while panning. This gal lives and works part time in Fairbanks and comes to Chicken every weekend she can get more than two days off just to relax and pan for gold. She had an interesting perspective on national and local politics and kept us amused with her opinion.

After dinner we went over to downtown Chicken and browsed the gift shop for souvenirs and then went next door to the bar for a beer. We had wanted to have our beer inside the bar, but the cigarette smoke was thick as fog, so after a quick look around we went out on the porch where we met another couple enjoying the charm of this little bitty town.

There were two reasons we stayed in Chicken. First, we wanted to make the drive over the “Top of the World Highway” while fresh as it was guaranteed to be a challenge to my driving skills and Connie’s nerves. Second, I wanted very much to have breakfast at Susan’s place. Breakfast would include eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast and the first of what would be a series of cinnamon rolls. We had been reading about world famous cinnamon rolls throughout Alaska, the Yukon and British Columbia. I had done well to stay away from them so far, but I had my sights set for a few of them starting with Susan’s which I had salivated over when I saw them back in early June. I was not disappointed with my breakfast. It was worth the cost of the camping the night before. Of course I shared my cinnamon roll with Connie thereby saving myself some of the calories I could have ingested.

Finally, we were on the Top of the World Highway. We had read much and heard more about this road from all sorts of sources. Most of the people we talked to had recent experience and we got a full range of recommendations and opinions about the quality of the road. You may recall we had taken a little drive along the highway when we visited Chicken in June to try to help us interpret the advice we had gotten. From Chicken the Canadian border we had a tremendous drive. The gravel surface was in excellent shape and the views were to absolutely die for. We saw some of the largest fields of fireweed we had seen during our entire visit in Alaska. We took some pictures, but as you will see we were so far from the fields it is a little difficult to appreciate the brilliance we saw. From the border on in to Dawson City we found a variety of road and weather conditions. Sections of the road are paved, but probably shouldn’t be as the frost heave was pretty brutal. Other sections were gravel and had not seen the blade of a road grader in a good long while. As a result we experienced some of the worst wash boarding we had seen since this adventure started. I was down to between 5 and 10 MPH in order to keep our teeth in our mouths. It was horrid. The weather turned south on us as well. We had a lot of wind followed by blowing rain making it a little tough to see. By the time we go to the ferry that crosses the Yukon River at Dawson City we were ready for a break. The ferry crossing was a hoot. We got to watch a couple of crossings before we actually boarded and made the crossing ourselves. We were a bit apprehensive as we watched the ferry ground itself on the beach of the river to offload and onload vehicles. The crew is very experienced in safely loading the boat. They all carry signs that say SLOW on them. As you approach the boat the guide watches your approach carefully and points at his sign repeatedly to make sure you get the message. I was only crawling when we made the transition from sand to steel. All went quite well. With a howling wind we made our way across and a bit up stream to the other side. The ferry’s engines were roaring as they tried to keep the boat moving toward the opposite shore and another beach landing. But we safely moored and the crew as expertly unloaded the boat as they had loaded it. Our chosen RV park was at the other end of town, so we got to preview this “active ghost town” as we drove through. We also got to watch an increasingly ugly rainstorm get going as we made the drive. By the time we got to the park it was flat raining. I donned my raincoat and made a dash for the office to check in. The manager told me that it had been wonderful all day and she hoped that this would pass quickly. We got our assigned space and as I looked over the landscape I realized that we would need to move to make room for other incomers. That meant we would have to detach the car from the motorhome before we moved because there was nowhere near the site to safely unhook. The problem with this idea and the only reason I am sharing it is that by now the rain was coming in sheets and I mean sheets. So, on went the rain pants and off I went to get us settled. It was probably an hour before the rain subsided and during that time a giant swimming pool formed on the former roads through the park. We stayed put for the night as we had noticed that the roads in town were not paved and given what we could see from our windows we would certainly find ourselves wading through mud puddles in town. Since we had opted for two nights in Dawson City we figured we would be able to see most of what there is to see before we had to leave.

By morning the weather had improved to a bright sunny day and we were off to explore. As I said, Dawson City is a living ghost town. By that I mean that the town that exists today, while much smaller than it was at the height of the gold rush days, exists as much as a museum as a town. With few exceptions all the businesses are there to serve the tourist industry or those who are part of that industry. This is not a bad thing, because they really have done a great job of preserving this valuable piece of Yukon and Alaska history. Nearly all the businesses are in restored buildings which for the most part house the same sort of business as they originally had.

We drove downtown and took a walking tour of the area stopping at several stores to look around. One sort of general store was stocked in two distinctive lines. One was the typical tourist line of goods such as t-shirts, ball caps, vests and souvenirs. The other side of the store was stocked with real clothes for real people who actually live in the hostile environment of the Yukon Territory. It was obvious that this store’s owner understands basic business. We found a great little place for lunch and to plan our afternoon. There was to be a reading of Robert Service Poetry by an actor by the name of Tom Byrne. We decided to go see that show and we were really glad we did. Fortunately the weather remained sunny and mostly warm as the show was on the lawn of the Westmark Inn, one of the local hotels. Tom was a great story teller and he did a wonderful job of reciting Robert Service’s poetry. The show lasted about an hour and was mix of Tom setting the scene and then reciting the poem from the set scene. Tom has been putting on this show for thirty years. His acting experience is vast and varied, but by his admission he is passionate about The Robert Service Show.

For the sake of truthfulness I have to say that the Westmark Inn which is part of a chain of hotels in Yukon and Alaska is in a modern building. The reception area and gift shop occupy a building of the era, but from what I could see all the rooms were in fairly new buildings.

After being thoroughly entertained we decided to return home for dinner and a little rest before sampling some of the nightlife. On the way we stopped to take a look at the cabin Robert Service lived in for many years while writing his poetry. Not far from Service’s cabin is half of the cabin where Jack London once lived. You may recall that while in Oakland we saw the other half of that same cabin. Who knew then that we would see both halves?

After dinner we drove back to town to Diamond Tooth Gerties – Gambling Hall and Can Can Show. Diamond Tooth Gerties is in its original building and it was Canada’s first casino. The show is a much tamer version of what was probably produced during the rush.
We had front row seats for the first show of the evening. It was about as corny as it could be, but quite entertaining. After the show the girls and Gertie came out for pictures with the fans. One is included in the web album.

After the show we stuck around for just a little while. We walked through the small casino and decided to play the slots for a few minutes. The current slot machines are not originals, but are not very modern either. We donated a few dollars to the cause. By the way, the cause is the town of Dawson City. The casino is now a not for profit operation with all proceeds going to the town for the renovation and maintenance of other historic buildings. We had a good time pretending It was 1856 or there about.

We were much more tired than we thought, so we decided to leave and find the other rather famous bar in town which is rumored to house the pickled thumb of one of its former customers. I could not believe we could not find the place given the relative small size of the town, but we could not and therefore went home and to bed.

On Monday, July 20th we were once again underway. Our goal was to make Carmacks, Yukon Territory.

I will stop now as I am dangerously close to exceeding 5000 words and probably lost a lot of readers along the way. If you are still reading, click on the photo below to get to the web album I have put together for this article.

Coming soon is our last long gasp in Alaska and the rest of the Alaska Highway. Stay tuned.

Homer, Alaska to Dawson City, Yukon Territory


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