Week 9: August 15 – 17, 2014 – Part 2: Anchorage and Heading Home

After cramming a summer’s worth of clothes and gear into our suitcases and taking care of the paperwork to sell our ride for the summer to one of the trail crew guys, we were ready for the last leg of our Alaskan Adventure.  Friday morning, we crawled down from the A-frame loft one last time, we said our goodbyes, and Misha drove us to Anchorage.  We would be staying with a work associate (Brian) of Alex’s brother who generously offered to take us in while we were in town.

After grabbing lunch with Brian, he took us on a tour of Anchorage.  We checked out the Alaskan Heritage Museum in the Wells Fargo Bank Building before meeting up with Brian’s partner, Tim, and heading to a local Greek festival.

The Greek Festival provided us with great conversation, food, and entertainment.  After topping off dinner with baklava sundaes, we head back to Brian and Tim’s house for the evening.

We spent the night enjoying their company, dogs (Gilda and Gretel), stories, and learning about Tim’s cooking explorations (mustard, yogurt, bread, and cured meats).  We made plans to hike to the top of Flattop Mountain, in Chugach State Park, the next morning.

Future jar of mustard!

Flattop Mountain is a popular summit in Alaska.  It provides 360 degree views of the Alaska and Chugach Ranges, Anchorage, and Cook Inlet after only 1.7 miles of hiking with 1300 feet of elevation gain.  The trail also skirts Blueberry Hill, where, yes, you guessed it… you can pick blueberries when the timing is right.  Despite the rainy weather and cloud cover, we really enjoyed our hike.  The rainy weather made the rock scrambles near the summit slick, so caution was needed when going up and down, and the clouds hid much from our view,  but we still had a great time with Brian and another friend who came along.

After returning to Brian and Tim’s place, we had second breakfast before spending the remainder of the day enjoying their company and learning about and helping to make cured meats and mustard.

Tim’s meat curing work area

Calculating quantities

Cured Pork Jowl (top) and Salami (bottom) in process

Mustard is EASY to make!

As our hours in Alaska drew to a close, Brian worked to get us flight upgrades and succeeded in landing Alex in first class!  We had a quick sushi dinner before Brian and Tim dropped us off at the airport for the first leg of our flight.  We left Anchorage around 9pm local time on Saturday, flew to Houston, TX, where we had a 4 hours layover before our flight to Philadelphia.

We landed in Philadelphia shortly after 3pm EST on Sunday and were greeted by Alex’s parents and brother Tyler.  They took us back to Dave’s parents’ house where Dave’s car was parked for the summer. We all ate and shared stories of our summer before the two of us loaded our luggage in our car and headed home… but only for a short while! We made a quick unpack and repack and were off to Doug’s house in New Jersey.

9 weeks worth of mail!

Doug had picked up Alex’s car which had been in Iowa all summer getting repaired from the deer incident that occurred on Dave and Doug’s ride home from Idaho in June.  So, before the school year started on Wednesday for Alex and Thursday for Dave, we needed the car back at home. After a summer without climbing, however, we couldn’t be so close to the Gunks without making a trip!  Our friends Kevin and Sam met us at Doug’s as well on Sunday night and we all spent the evening catching up after months apart.  Monday morning Doug had to go to work (sad for him!) while the rest of us got some much needed sleep before heading to the Gunks for a day of climbing, and Sam’s first multi-pitch climb!

Alas, our summer was officially winding to a close.  We headed home Tuesday evening, Alex would have her first in-service day of the school year the next morning, and Dave would begin on Thursday.  It was officially time to get back to “normal” life… until our next adventure…

Week 9: August 9 – 17, 2014 – Part 1: Last Week on the Lake

Saturday morning, we drove down the 6 miles of dirt road to the parking area at the start of the Butterfly Lake trail.  Together with Drew and Vic we made our way down the 2.5 miles of muddy trail with two wheel barrels of  3 cement pavers each.  Dave, in his typical fashion took his wheel barrel the whole way, while Alex and Drew tag teamed the other. Dave was concerned that Drew’s assistance might weaken his hardy wife who he has high expectations for, and make her think she doesn’t need to be “tough.”  The funny thing was, most of the grumbles came from Drew, with several statements of, “Is this REALLY how Vic has been having you guys bring in supplies?”  or “Couldn’t this stuff get flown in?”  Tiring and difficult as it may be, we were the volunteers, and this is the sort of thing we signed up for… so we were ok with it!

After arriving at the boat launch, dripping from both the rain and sweat, the task of the day was to impound the boats that still did not have the needed permits, which were due to be put on the boats in mid-June.  All other boats would be moved to the appropriate off-shore or on-shore storage locations.  This was the step that we needed to be complete in order for us to complete our project, and Drew was the man for the job… because he is the ranger!

With all the boats moved to the appropriate places, we were able to spend time later in the week adding the finishing touches to the project.  Fences to block off the areas that were being rehabilitated were installed, coir logs were installed along the devastated shorelines, jute was placed on torn up ground to help protect the regrowth of vegetation, and information signs were posted.

Who needs the sledge hammer when you have a rock?
During the week, we were also able to finish up our portage project by running the remainder of the boardwalk and installing a dock area.  We were excited to show Vic our work, since this project was one that we had been looking forward to completing all summer.

There was a great deal of good work that came out of this week, but one “oops!” early in the week. Monday morning Alex rushed outside first thing in the morning because Dave was teasing her that he would eat her apple and peanut butter.  What can we say, we are serious about our food and protecting it in this relationship… apparently we both eat a lot!  As it so turns out, the bottom of Alex’s foot made contact with a rusty nail of the bear mat, and it was followed by a screech of pain and some blood.  Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad, and Alex had received a tetanus booster a few months earlier!
As our time was winding down, we made sure to take time to appreciate our surroundings, take in a few extra lake views, and the sunsets and moon that were now happening early, and by early we mean midnight. The week also brought some cool mornings and evenings along with rainy weather, so we  made it a point to have a few more fires in the wood stove while we relaxed with our books and morning coffee and evening tea.  We also had the opportunity to relax in a sauna at one of the private cabins on Butterfly Lake.  As we had previously mentioned, there are some surprising things to be found on this backcountry lake, such as hot tubs and saunas.  One of the locals we had hung out with earlier in the summer invited us to check out one of the saunas. We spent a few hours alternating between sweating and swimming.  We would relax in the wood stove heated cedar building which was steamed by throwing ladles of water on stones that sat atop the stove  and when it became too hot, we would jump in the lake.  

When Thursday morning came, we packed up our belongings, wrote a farewell entry in the cabin log book, and closed up the cabin one last time.  As usual, we paddled in a mixture or rain and drizzle to Tanaina where Vic picked us and the canoe up for the final return to the station.

Friday, we will head to Anchorage and have some time to check out the city before we fly home on Saturday.  Our time in Alaska has gone so very fast; it is hard to believe we have been here for nearly 9 weeks.  We will be glad to once again have running water, a comfortable bed, and to leave the smelly outhouse behind, but we will miss our quiet lake, beautiful scenery, mornings drinking coffee while reading by the fire and the cries of eagles and loons echoing over the lakes.  

Week 8: August 2 – 8, 2014

We paddled back in from Tanaina Lake on Saturday, and had the pleasure of immediately seeing a bull moose happily feeding on the side of the lake.  We were planning on meeting Vic later in the day at the Butterfly Boat Launch, but in the mean time we had a task… and it was one that was either going to be a cake walk… or be very tricky.  There was a group of about 30 teenagers and an instructor somewhere in the woods in around Tanaina Lake learning how to build temporary emergency shelters without causing harm to the woods, and we were asked to check in on them, if we could find them.  Sounds pretty easy.  Teenagers are loud, so how can you miss them?  But, we really did not know exactly where in the vast terrain they may be… and we never did find them… but we did find a loon with a baby loon!

After making our way down to Butterfly Lake, and dropping off our things at the cabin, we headed over to the boat launch.  We were excited for Vic to see the progress we had made, and he seemed excited as well. We installed some temporary signs, and secured the geogrid to the ground with duckbills, so they would be even less likely to move as boats are slid over them.

The remainder of our week was spent continuing bringing additional materials down to the boat launch area from the trailer parked at the end of the Butterfly Lake Trail, returning no longer needed supplies to the trailer, and working on creating a boardwalk in the mud pit known as the Butterfly-Buckley portage.  One of the needed supplies were four more coconut coir logs. These are used to help prevent further erosion on the shoreline and help rehab the areas where boats had been sitting on the shore.  

These things are 10ft long, 12″ diameter, we guesstimate weigh about 50 pounds, and are awkward to carry!  We had four of them to carry down, and hoped we could do it in two 5 mile round trip outings.  Really, Dave hoped to carry all four at once, and Alex hoped she could carry one! After trying out different methods, we settled on each of us carrying a single log over our shoulders as being easiest.  Dave secretly video taped Alex carrying hers.  Though inaudible, this is about when she was contemplating how this compared to prison camp slave labor.  Two down… two more to go!  We’ll save those to for another day!
Now that we had fasteners, we could begin to put together the project we have been wanting to complete since day one…  more boardwalk on the portage from Butterfly Lake to Buckley Lake. This portage was our most hated portage with its mud pits and roots.   It was the portage closest to our cabin, so we crossed it anytime we left our lake… so we were stoked!  We loaded up our canoe with supplies we had from the cabin to get us started.

With supplies in place, we got started, picking the straightest path that could avoid the most roots.  Our plan was to take the boardwalk as far as we could with the supplies we had, hoping it would get us through the worst of the mud.

As you can see, we decided to test out some time lapse photography…

Day 1
Day 2

After breaking down materials stored near the boat launch from an old portage, and transferring them in two canoe loads across the lake, we had enough supplies for us to complete a boardwalk that made us happy.  We still had a staked out area at the start that we were hoping to have an old barge to utilize in the area, but if not, we would build a wide platform.

In between our projects, we spent time viewing small wildlife…

Taking in the views…

Jumping in the lake…
Baking cookies (without eggs or butter!)…
And tracking down rogue ATV’s…
Friday, we were treated to a pick up from the parking lot at the end of the Butterfly Lake Trail.  Only a 2.5 walk from our cabin instead of a 2.5 hour paddle up to Tanainna.  The reason for this was the volunteer appreciation picnic!  All the volunteers and employees from the Mat-Su Valley (Matanuska and Susitna Valleys) would gather at our ranger station and there would be lots of food… food that we did not have to paddle with and carry on our backs!  We were excited!  There was DELICIOUS smoked pork made by Nick, one of the maintenance guys, Drew brought red salmon (something we have been hearing about ever since we arrived in Alaska) he had caught the week before, and there was a wide variety of fruits, veggies, salads, appetizers, cakes, pies and cookies!  It was hours of gluttony for all!
Tomorrow, we would head to the backcountry for our last time!  It is unbelievable how fast the summer has flown by!

Week 7: July 29 – August 1 – Denali National Park

Tuesday, after reorganizing at the ranger station, we were on our way to Denali National Park.  The fog and clouds from the morning had burned off into a beautiful afternoon, offering stunning views of the Alaska Range as we moved our way closer and closer along the Parks Highway towards our destination.

We took advantage of a roadside pull-off, Denali South View, in Denali State Park to get a few pictures of the rare site. Though there were a few clouds blocking a perfect view of Mt. McKinley itself,  it was still a grand site. McKinley is a tricky mountain, it is said that only 30% of visitors get to actually have the clear weather needed to see the mountain.

After a couple hours in the car, oooh’ing an ahhh’ing over the landscape, we had finally reached the “town”/tourist trap outside the national park, known as “Glitter Gulch,”  home to several hotels, guide services, restaurants, and countless gift shops.  We made our way up the long an and windy road to our hotel, The Grande Denali Lodge.  Yes, you heard us right, we were staying in a hotel!  That is all thanks to Theresa and Justin, otherwise, we are pretty sure we would have been sleeping in our tent instead of the comfy bed, with real pillows, blankets, and a bathroom (with plumbing!) that was a mere few steps away.  The hotel was situated, somewhat perilously, partway up a mountain on a rocky outcropping, and the road was adorned with all sorts of road signs alerting us to things such as the “road is wet when raining,” and the outcome of moose-car interactions.

After settling into the room and showering, we headed “downtown” for dinner.  While we waited for our table at Prospector’s Pizza, we perused a few of the nearby gift shops.  The four of us decided to share cheese fries, an elk meatball sandwich, and a “Densmore Mountain” pizza.  The food was delicious, and even so filling that for the first time this week, we had leftovers!  We headed back to the hotel, bypassing the tempting smell of the ice cream shop because there was no room left in our bellies, to settle in for a comfy night’s sleep.

Wednesday morning, the four of us headed to the Black Bear Coffee House for breakfast.  The food, coffee, and red eye chai tea was excellent!  We enjoyed it so much, that we actually returned each day of our stay for breakfast.  There were a few little mix-ups with the timing of our food on the first two days, but nothing worthy of deterring our return.  If you ever happen to make the trip, have the “Goldilox,” a fresh bagel topped with herb cream cheese, smoked salmon, dill and red onion.
After breakfast, Theresa and Justin dropped us off at the entrance to the park, and they headed off for a flight and glacier landing.  It was a beautiful, clear morning, so we were confident they would have an amazing time.  We all planned to rendezvous later that afternoon at the sled dog kennels in the park.
We entered the Wilderness Access Center to gather some information about the park, and the shuttle buses that run through it.  Denali National Park is very different from every other national park we have visited. The biggest difference for us was the freedom to go wherever you want. Most hikers in state and national parks are used to being told to “stay on the trail.” In Denali, there are a few maintained trails, but otherwise, you can go wherever your heart desires, and your feet can take you.  Another difference is there is a single 92 mile road that runs through the park, and you can only access the first 15 miles in personal vehicles (during the summer season), any where beyond that requires use of the park shuttle buses.
After gathering the needed info, we walked up the road to the Murie Science and Learning Center as well as the Visitors Center.  We had some time to check out a few exhibits before hopping on a shuttle that would take us into the Savage River area of the park.
The clear blue skies provided us with unobstructed views of mountains, including McKinley itself.  The often heard question, “Is the mountain out?” could today be answered with a definite “YES!” 
Before we could reach the Savage River stop, Dave spied a mountain with a trail winding its way up its side and said to Alex, “Want to go up there?”  Sure!  We hopped off the bus at the next stop, Mountain Vista, and headed towards the trail.  We only had two hours to hike before we needed to make our way to the sled dog kennels, so we would go as far as we could.  Dave was determined to reach the top, and was all wound up on coffee, so was practically running up the trail.  Alex was doing all she could to keep up with him as they passed group after group of hikers.  As the terrain steepened, Alex was practically hyperventilating trying to match Dave’s pace, and finally “let him loose” to run up the mountain.  She knew this would be the best for both of them since Dave would get to burn off some energy and they were on a well marked trail with lots of tourists.


The pair rejoined on a rocky outcropping after the designated amount of time. Alex had worked her way upwards and Dave moved downwards from his run straight up the mountain, along which a group of ladies resting in the grass told him he was “adding to the view” when he apologized for running nearby.  We took some selfies, admired the views, and then headed downwards at a pace they considered somewhat leisurely… but many would consider brisk.

We were down in plenty of time to catch the next shuttle.  The bus would take us a bit further into the park to the Savage River area before turning around to return us to the visitor’s center where we planned to meet our companions and head to the dog sledding kennels.  At Savage River, we had 25 minutes before the bus would depart, so we walked down to the river and Dave tried to “pan for gold” in the frigid water… without a pan!  Sadly, no nuggets (or flecks) were found.

Once back at the visitor’s center, we found out that Theresa and Justin were held up in traffic and would not make it to the kennels in time for the presentation, so we hopped on the bus and enjoyed some time visiting the dogs and hearing information about their purpose and history in the park.  In Denali National Park, sled dogs are used to help travel into areas where any other means of transportation would be useless or unreliable. Throughout our time in the park, we also saw volunteers taking the dogs on walks along the park road for their daily “off-season” exercise.  

After the presentation, Theresa and Justin where waiting at the visitor’s center to catch a shuttle back to our hotel.  We doubted our shuttle would get us there before they left, so we decided to start briskly walking their way, and would hitch a ride from a bus further down the road.  As luck would have it, Dave stuck out his thumb, a passing bus stopped, welcomed us aboard and returned us to the visitors center just in time to catch the shuttle with them back to our hotel.  We all took our turns showering (YAY! for running water/indoor plumbing!) before heading north to the town of Healy for dinner at the 49th State Brewery

The place was packed, and we had a wait 45 minute wait ahead of us, so when we spied four adjacent empty seats at the bar we snatched them up.  We enjoyed a fantastic dinner and entertaining waitress before heading outside to take some pictures with the bus from the movie “Into the Wild.”  The movie is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless, who went off to live and die in the wilderness along the Stampede Trail which begins outside of the town.

Shrimp Tacos and Black Bean & Quinoa Melt

Before heading back to the hotel, we took a drive along the 15 miles of open road into the park in hopes of seeing some wildlife.  Sadly, the only thing we saw was what Dave was SURE was a grizzly bear along the Savage River. The rest of us however, we were sure it was a rock.  It was never verified to be a rock, however, it was definitely not a bear.

Thursday morning, Theresa and Justin were up and out the door early to begin their 12+ hour bus tour along the entire 92 miles of park road.  We, however, enjoyed the comforts of a quality mattress and pillows for a couple more hours before saying hello to another amazingly clear blue sky and sunshine.  After another tasty breakfast at the Black Bear Coffee House, we made our way into the park via the hotel shuttle.  We had about 45 minutes before the park shuttle would take us to Savage River, where we planned to begin our hike.  We watched a video of stunning park views in the auditorium and wandered around the visitor’s center before heading outside to catch our ride.

Unfortunately, we made a bit of a mistake and let our bus drive away without us on board…. so we had to wait around for another hour.  Once we finally arrived at the Savage Canyon Trailhead, we officially began our hike. We chuckled as we passed a teenager walking the opposite direction with an armful of large rocks. What he did not know was that we just passed a park ranger who would soon be telling him collecting rocks from a National Park is not acceptable.

When the trail came to a footbridge that crossed the river and returned hikers back towards the trailhead, we began our ascent towards the top of Primrose Ridge.  Our path soon turned steep as the trail faded away and our route was up to our own discretion.  Along our steep and chossy ascent we ran into two hikers who were retreating because the path they chose seemed too difficult.  When we asked what way they tried, we quickly realized we should be fine…. they went the one route that we had already clearly identified as the way NOT to go.  

Once we gained the 1,500 foot rise to the ridge, we were walking on wide open alpine tundra.  Alpine tundra is an interesting surface to hike on, it is kind of like a non-stop walk in a bounce house.  The tundra was also filled with many alpine flowers, and Alex had to take a picture of each and every variety. We walked for an undetermined time and undetermined distance before we decided to begin making our way off the southern side of the ridge towards the park road.  From atop the ridge, we tried to pick out a line that would avoid as much of the hated alder patches as possible, however, avoiding them all was going to be a hopeless case!  We made our way through the dreaded vegetation that varied in height from ankle, to waist, to over our heads, making up songs as we went…. “Hey bear… be aware bear… don’t be a scare bear…” As we made our way onto flatter terrain, we started to spy blueberries!  Knowing we were getting close to the road, and time was not an issue, we stopped periodically to pick the berries.  Now, we added in lines to our bear songs letting them know they had to be “share bears” and let us have their berries…. emphasis on the BEAR sound in berries.

Closest we came to seeing a dall sheep

Primrose Ridge from near the park road
We made it back to the road, at what appeared to be about two miles west of the Savage River stop. Much to our dismay, we did not see anything larger than a marmot during our hike.  We didn’t want to surprise a bear while we were in the alder patches, but one from a safe distance or a dall sheep or caribou herd would have been nice!  Recalling the bus schedule in our minds, we knew we could probably make it in time to catch the bus, but not in time to get the 6:00 shuttle to our hotel… this was the last shuttle that would be in the park without having to call for a special (but free!) pick-up.  Unfortunately, we realized we were going to miss our 6 pm shuttle by 10 minutes.  As we were pulling into the visitors center, an idea came to mind… a bus from one of the lodges across the street from “downtown” was pulling in.  We could always hop on that bus, grab a bite to eat and drink.  Then, we could have our official dinner when Theresa and Justin returned later in the evening. Perfect! Shrimp pad thai, cold drinks, and mountain views!  As we were sitting, enjoying the cool weather and cool drinks in our puff jackets, a text came through letting us know that Theresa and Justin were at the hotel.  Again, timing was perfect!  Our hotel shuttle appeared alongside the road, we waved it down and were on our way. We decided we enjoyed 49th State Brewery so much, that we would head there again for dinner!
Pitas and Hummus

Roasted Red Pepper, Mushroom and Spinach Mac & Cheese
Over dinner we were able to exchange stories of our day’s adventures.  It sounded like Theresa and Justin had a fantastic tour of the park and had the opportunity to see many different animals and pan for gold along the way.  On our way back to the hotel after another great dinner, we spied a moose along the road, but apparently Justin had seen enough wildlife that day and didn’t care to stop for very long to look at another moose.

Friday, we packed up our belongings and headed once again to the Black Bear Coffee House for breakfast, where we once again had the exact same, delicious breakfast with chai tea.  
We made a stop in Talkeetna, walked around town and the climbing ranger station, before we decided that none of us had enough room in our stomachs for the giant Seward’s Folly burger we talked about sharing at the West Rib, and instead had some ice cream before getting back in the car.  Once back at the Nancy Lake Station, we said our goodbyes.  We would be heading to Wasilla for our weekly grocery resupply, while Theresa and Justin would be heading to Anchorage for a few days before returning home.  We were sad to see them go after having another great visit with them this year!
Alex’s Alpine Flower Picture Collection