Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Alaska 2011 Vacation - Best. Trip. Ever... Ever

So you know how your Uncle Ed and Aunt Martha used to make you sit through hours and hours of picture albums full of out of focus pictures and polariods with peoples heads cut off after they came back from their thrilling trips to Fort Meyers, Florida and Niagra Falls? Or better yet, picture after picture after picture of fields that all looked the same or mountains that all looked the same... because they were all slightly blurry and taken from a moving car? No? Just me? Huh.

Well, anyway - I'm not your Aunt Martha, so I'm not going to force you to sit through anything. There are plenty of pics here to look at and most of them are either funny or beautiful or me bragging photographically about what a great time we had. But you can look at your leisure or don't look at all. Your choice. Of course if you don't look at them you clearly don't really love me and I'll know because you won't quite be able to look me in the eye the next time I see you... but that's okay. Your choice. To love me or not.

Okay, moving on. Just an FYI, many of them really should be opened up so you can see them clearly.

As most of you know, Jeremy and I went to Alaska for 2 1/2 weeks with my parents in late August/early September. I've been to Alaska once before, Jeremy's been twice before, and this was Mom & Dad's first trip. And it was amazing. It was the most wonderful vacation we've ever taken.

Not only, I think, because we had such a good time and loved every minute of where we were and what we were doing - but because we were truly on vacation for the first time in our lives. Neither of us had ever taken more than a week off work since we started working as young adults - this time we took over two weeks off. We lost track of the days of the week, I didn't know the date... it was wonderful. Since we were in Alaska connectivity was sporadic at best, so I couldn't check my email (personal or work) even if I wanted to so we were really and truly disconnected and truly relaxed. For anyone who has never taken more than a week off at a time, I can't recommend it highly enough - it made all the difference in the world.

Okay - let's get started with the pics! Yay! (I know, I'm excited too you guys.)

On the plane, headed to Chicago. Mom is EXCITED, Jeremy is wondering if his Xanax has kicked in yet. 

First day in Alaska in Wasilla - just happy to be there. And REALLY happy to find a good bar in the hotel!

Of course, Jeremy had to check out Sportsman's Warehouse - which is just like Cabela's. What was the point? I don't know - ask him.

Day 2 - headed to Palmer to check out a Musk Ox Farm and the Alaska State Fair. Mom and Dad posing in front of a braided river.

Jeremy and I posing in front of the same braided river. Yes, of course I found a Starbucks in Wasilla as soon as I got up. What am I, suddenly caffeine-free? I think not.
  So we headed to the Alaska State Fair on our first full day in Alaska, which happened to be the first day it was open. On the way we checked out The Musk Ox Farm and were able to tour the whole place and meet many of the ox. Musk ox aren't actually ox, by the way, they're more closely related to goats genetically. But they've been around since the ice age and were extinct in Alaska by the late 1800s and have been recently reintroduced. The coolest thing about musk ox is their wool - it's called qivuit and it's the warmest natural fiber. It's warmer than wool, but not scratchy at all, and it's as fine as silk - actuall a little finer. They have to send it to silk factors to have it spun into yarn because it's so fine. Of course it's also ridiculously expensive. One skein that just weights an ounce or so that will make a scarf costs around a hundred dollars. Sarah Jessica Parker has a $5,000 qiviut sweater that she wore in Sex in the City 2. The movie sucked. The sweater was pretty. Moving on.

The musk ox (the ones that weren't male and all horny anyway) were really friendly and wanted lots of attention.

The girls were "in season" so the boys weren't friendly.

But the cute yearlings were.

Cute, aren't they?

Here are the babies!
And then it was on to the Alaska State Fair! Since Alaska has daylight almost 24 hours a day during the summer, they can grow vegetables like you wouldn't believe.

We had to stand in line for a while to get it - Jeremy and Dad were so excited!

There are little espresso stands all over Alaska, it really is such a wonderful place, you know?

We broke the bottle before we even got to make a garlic bloody mary, but the sample we had before we bought the bottle was wonderful. :(

Here are some of the award winning vegetables. That cabbage is over 124 pounds!!!!

We headed to Talkneeta after we left the state fair to meet Jeremy's friend Peter. Peter is the gear editor for Field & Stream magazine. He wrote all this stuff. Peter, his wife and their youngest daughter (Becca)  moved to Talkeetna last August. Which, of course, means I've heard non-stop about how wonderful Peter's wife, Sandy, must be to agree to move to Alaska. What really sucks is that once I met her I had to agree - she is pretty wonderful. They all were. Jeremy and I stayed at Peter and Sandy's house - which was beautiful - and Mom and Dad stayed at Talkeetna Lodge - which turned out to be amazing timing for them. More on that later.

A pic of Peter and Sandy's house taken from their backyard...

And THIS is their backyard! The lake is beautiful, isn't it?
A little about Talkeetna. Talkeetna is the little town that Northern Exposure's fictional Cicely, Alaska was patterened after. It's also the starting line for a mountain climb up Mount McKinley (North America's tallest peak), so it's got a steady stream of adventurers going in and out of this little town. And lots and LOTS of characters.

Our first evening in Talkeetna was at West Rib Pub, which could be "The Brick" for you Northern Exposure fans.

Peter and Jeremy during dinner at West Rib.
  West Rib Grill and Pub is famous in its own right, not just for its similarity to The Brick. Their ginormous sandwich, Seward's Folly, was featured on Man Vs. Food. It's got over 2 pounds of caribou burger, sliced ham, 12 slices of bacon, 12 slices of cheese, lettuce tomato and "big ass sauce". It's ridonkulous. Totally. Click on the link to their webpage - they have the video from Man Vs. Food on there.

Somebody ordered Seward's Folly while we were there! It was HUGE.

Seward's Folly - they didn't finish it. And there were three of them trying.
  I woke up the first morning at Peter's house and Jeremy wasn't in bed. I knew where he had to be, and I was right, he was down at the lake behind Peter's house taking pictures of the early morning fog on the lake. It was beautiful.

My favorite picture from the whole trip.

Don't look, I don't have any makeup on yet. It's 5 in the frickin morning.
  Now let me get to how lucky Mom and Dad were to be staying at Talkeetna Lodge. It's got an amazing view of Mount McKinley, but most people never get to see it. Unfortunately, clouds and rain often obscure Northa America's tallest mountain. According to USA Today, only one in three Alaskan visitors ever get to see it. When I was there seven years ago, I got a cloudly glimpse of it for about ten minutes before it was totally obscured. Here's an article about viewing Mount McKinley from USA Today and what a challenge it is.

We warned Mom and Dad that they probably wouldn't get to see it, but they may get a few glimpses here and there. Peter told Mom and Dad to let the front desk know they'd like a "mountain call" - which means that if the mountain is visible at any time, they'll call and let you know. It's a rare priveledge to see it.

So that morning after some coffee and a few pictures of the lake, we called Mom and Dad to see what they were up to. "Looking at the mountain," Mom answered nonchallantly. What?!? It's out?!? "Yep, clear as can be - it's gorgeous." So we got our butts in gear and high-tailed it the three miles to Talkeetna Lodge... and there it was.

Mount McKinley from Talkeetna Lodge.

Mom and I self-portraiting in front of Denali (aka Mt McKinley).

Jeremy and Dad chatting about all the excitement (on the back deck of Talkeetna Lodge).
  We got there and there were a ton of people on the back patio taking picture of the mountain. There were a few professional photographers there with all of us amateurs. They were really helpful, giving advice to the rest of us (for example, take a pic with the flower bed in the foreground - like the one below). One guy from National Geographic said that it's this clear about two or three times a year - he kept saying how lucky everyone was. The staff were all notified that the mountain was out and clearer than it had been all year so they were all taking their breaks on the back patio so they could see it as well. It was really neat - an early morning festive atmosphere. Unfortunately, as beautiful as the pictures are - they just don't do it justice AT ALL. It was breath-taking. And it was like that for 2 of the 3 days we were there. Just amazing.

We went four wheeling in Denali National Park. Then drove through the park hoping to see some wildlife. We spotted a moose lying in the woods just a little off the road, but since he was partially obscured it's hard to picture how big he was. But he was BIG.

Dad getting ready to go four wheeling - handsome in his helmut, huh?

Dad "Evel Knievel"

How ya doin, Jeremy?

The moose - click on the picture to open it so you can see him better.

Hello? Kiss your wife already, butthead.
Peter's daughter, Becca, is a naturalist for Mahay's Riverboat Tours. So we took the five hour Devil's Canyon tour. It's 130 miles round trip and the highlight of the trip is Devil's Canyon itself. It's class five rapids and like nothing I've never seen before. We took pics, but it didn't occur to me to take video. I SO wish I'd taken video so you could see how amazing the rapids were. Lots of adrenalin.

Peter hadn't ever seen his daughter work before so he joined us on the tour.

Saw a bald eagle on the river's edge.

Devil's Canyon

Peter and Becca

Jeremy and a bear skin at the trappers camp we toured on the boat trip

I had to try ON the bear skin... I think it's "me", don't you?
After the boat tour, Jeremy and Peter went fishing. Did I mention that Peter is also a hunting and fishing guide? He taught Jeremy to fly fish that day. He caught chum salmon and pink salmon. Unfortunately Peter didn't have any waders that would work for me so I wasn't able to join them. So instead I walked into Talkeetna and did a little hanging out while Mom and Dad took a nap.

Had a little spinach bread - garlic, cheese, butter, spinach... mmmm.

These were freaking amazing.
Then I headed back out to Talkeetna Lodge. I figured after all that walking I could have some wine along with my "hip enhancer", so Mom and Dad obliged...

Jeremy and his chum salmon.
  That night Peter's wife, Sandy, came home so we build a bonfire in the backyard and had a few drinks. What a life.

Almost forgot to take a picture of the AMAZING fireplace at Talkeetna Lodge before we left.
  So while we were hanging out with Becca, Mom and I totally fell in love with Becca's beaver fur slippers. So we decided we needed a pair ourselves - so soft and warm and pretty... Peter suggested we stop at Alaska Fur Exchange on our way to Homer (our next destination) when we drove through Anchorage. He said we could get a good deal on beaver slippers there, and that we would really get a kick out of the place. He was right. Amazing.

As I said, our next destination was Homer. Homer is such a neat place. It has a huge boat harbor (the Time Bandit of Deadliest Catch fame is docked here), located on "the spit". The Spit is a long penninsula that is kind of hard to explain/describe except that it's a 4.5 mile long finger of land that sticks out into the ocean.  There are tiny shops and restaurants (the kind that will cook up your halibut catch for the day) up and down the Spit. This place is clearly a fishermana's paradise.

After a day full of driving, we needed (yes NEEDED) a drink.

Hello bloody mary, hello espresso martini, we missed you
  We stayed at Land's End, which is at the very very end of the Spit. Such a neat place. We took advantage of the spa and had massages. We watched whales from the restaurant. Just a really unique place to stay.

Drinks on the veranda
  When you go to Homer, you MUST visit The Salty Dog Saloon. And you've gotta leave a dollar bill behind to mark your visit.

Mom patiently awaiting another bloody mary.

And here it is!

This trip was a celebration of my fortieth... um, I mean the eleventh anniversary of my twenty-ninth  birthday. So I left my mark behind. We tried to find the dollar bills we tacked up last time (seven years ago) but had no luck. Surprise, surprise, huh?

Our halibut fishing tour got cancelled, but that's okay, I was happy to pose next to the big wooden halibut. It didn't smell as bad.

Like I said, the Time Bandit is docked at Homer.
  So now I can tell you about the best part of the trip. Hand down the very best part of our trip. We went bear viewing it Katmai National Park from Homer. Jeremy really wanted to go halibut fishing so he booked another halibut charter and missed out on the bear trip and I really wish he hadn't. It was an amazing experience. When we booked it, I thought we'd be standing on a platform and watching bears gather at a river where the salmon were spawning or something. But that's not the case at all.
First, we hopped in six seater airplanes. Yes - SIX seats. (We went with Homer Air - and I'll give them a ton of credit for such skilled pilots) Once we up in the air, the flight was smoother than most large commercial flights I've been on. It was an hour flight each way from Homer to Katmai National Park. And when you get there (which is an island), you land on a sand beach.
Mom and I are pretty cute in our headsets, aren't we? Dad got to ride up front with our pilot because he's so tall. Mom and I were stuck in the tail because we're so short. Stupid shortness.

Bear tracks on the beach that we landed on.
  It wasn't until we landed that we really got it. We were going to walk AMONGST the bears on the island. There was one other group on the island while we were there. You can see in the pic below how close we can get to the bears.

This bear and wolf were hunting together.

There's no zoom used in this pic - the wolf ran this close to us.
We were walking around the island and the owner of Homer Air and I were chatting and he stops me and says, "Watch this - this is gonna be funny" and points to the other side of the little creek we were on toward the other tour group. They were walking toward a bend in the creek and we were far enough ahead of them that we could see a bear walking toward the same bend in the creek. They were going to meet at the corner and neither one could see the other yet. "Funny?" I thought. "This guy is nuts!"

As soon as they saw the bear, the guides got the group to bunch together to appear like a very large single mass. The bear just strolled right by without a second thought.

The bear must have passed within 15 feet of this group of people and paid them no attention at all.

As we watched it I was so thankful that I wasn't in that group. Now I really wish I had been!

Spotted a salmon!

Chasing it down...

Caught it...

It's lunch time!

This guy had just finished lunch and he had a very full tummy.

Mother and son - he was about four years old so this would be his last year with mom. Time to get off the couch and get a job next year.



"Mom, not in front of company!"

Bear butts (heehee)

I forgot the name of this glacier that we could see from Katmai National Park. But it was very pretty.

This one was digging for clams.
  We saw about a dozen bears while we were on the island. I just don't know how to describe what it was like to walk among the bears. They weren't at all interested in us. They were full of salmon and as long as we showed them the appropriate respect for their space, they were perfectly content to have us around.

A pic of Homer Spit on our flight back from Katmai.

Jeremy and his HUGE halibut haul from his Homer fishing charter.
  Jeremy enjoyed his fishing trip too though. He caught his limit and had it fileted and shipped home. We've been enjoying it since we got back. Delish.

Celebrating surviving the bear tour!

We celebrated with Duck Farts. This was Dad's idea, by the way. It's an Alaska thing... or that's what Dad said anyway.
  After our trip to Homer, we were ready to embark on phase two of our Alaskan vacation - the cruise. We hopped on the Island Princess at Whittier and spent the first couple of days at sea - passing through Glacier Bay and seeing some amazing sights.

Click to enlarge and you'll see Turner Glacier on the left and Hubbard Glacier on the right.

A close up pic of Hubbard Glacier.
  Below are a couple of pics of Jeremy while we were in Glacier Bay. Notice all the ice chunks in the water from the glaciers calving.

This is Jeremy when you say "Smile!"

This is Jeremy when you say "I farted!"

My impression of Jeremy when you say "Smile!"

My impression of Jeremy when you say "I farted!"
Mom's "educational" assistance at Johns Hopkins Glacier.

Our first stop was in Skagway - and go figure after a week and a half of GORGEOUS weather, it was cold and rainy all day. We had purchased two excursions for that day - a train ride up a mountain and back down (a 41 mile round trip ride up the Yukon Pass), and a dog sledding excursion. After our rainy trip up the mountain and back down, we decided to pass on the dog sledding and hit the Red Onion Saloon instead.

And it was a brilliant decision. Red Onion is a former bordello and the second floor has been restored and isnow a museum. So we sat and had a few drinks, then Mom and Dad went back to the boat... and Jeremy and I had a few more drinks. Never thought I'd say I sat in a brothel while my dad ordered a Streetwalker!

Dad's enjoying a Streetwalker (Prosecco and Chambord) and Mom's enjoying a Hot Red Onion (cranberry liquer, Fireball whiskey, cinnamon and lemon slice).

Click on this one so you can see the full size - this is the original bar from 1898 when it operated as the finest brothel in Skagway.

A view from the top of the stairs of the whole bar area (the floor is original too, by the way).

There were ten "cribs" upstairs that the girls worked in. The beds were about 3/4 the size of a modern twin bed - people were smaller then and they weren't actually sleeping in them...

Jeremy and I with our "madam".
I was pretty bummed when we had to leave to get back on the boat. I enjoyed a few Red Hot Onions myself and I'm going to have to start making them myself here at home. A perfect cocktail for a cold rainy day. Or a chilly day ... or just a day that isn't hot... or, you know, any day.

We saw Sarah Palin...
  Our second stop was in Juneau. Jeremy took another fishing excursion and Mom and I headed to Mendenhall Glacier and for a beer tasting!

A self portrait of Mom and I at the Mendenhall Glacier after our hike.
  I also got a really good shot of salmon swimming in one of the creeks at Mendenhall Glacier. They said there's a small bear that hangs out there and grabs a few salmon every afternoon, but we didn't get to see him, just the salmon.

Beer tasting - Alaskan Brewing Company - they were all good, but Mom and I REALLY liked the Perseverance Ale. It was a very dark Russian Stout. It looked like coffee, and it was a bit bitter, but it was delicious.

And here's Jeremy's haul from his fishing excursion in Junea. I think this is a silver salmon.
  Then we just hung out in Juneau and messed around for a little bit. Meaning we had a few drinks and did a little shopping, of course. I got a beautiful leather coat. Jeremy got his nose picked by a fake bear.

Fat Stans - a liquor store WITH A BAR in it. Hello? Why don't we have one here? HUH?
  Back on the boat and on to the next destination. But first, we all got dressed up and went to dinner at one of the fance restaurants on the boat. Our waitress was hilarious. She had only been working on cruise ships for about a year, she was in her early twenties, was from the former Soviet Union and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was her FAVORITE American movie of all time. She told us all about how much she loved it and she could recite nearly the entire movie.

Mom taking a whiff of smoked salt. It was smoky. Go figure.

Our waitress asked Dad to dance with her as we were leaving - so he obliged. It was so funny!
  The weather cleared up and we had beautiful cruising weather again. Our travel agent had gifted us a couple of bottles of wine, so we ordered one from room service and enjoyed it on the balcony.

I think this is my favorite picture from the trip. Another self portrait.

On our last full day at sea we were joined by several LARGE pods of dolphins. It was amazing.

They were jumping so fast you just had to take random pictures and hope to get lucky and capture one - got one in the lower right hand corner.
While I was not at all happy about the end of our vacation, I was pleased to hit the Vancouver airport. And here's why - Starbucks released Pumpkin Spice while we were on the boat. And I was DYING for a pumpkin spice latte!

Venti Pumpkin Spice Frappucino and Venti Pumpkin Spice latte = happy Heather Broad
  There are probably fifty other pictures I'd like to show you and storied I'd love to tell - but for those of you who have made it all the way through this blog post you're probably tired of looking at my face and hearing about Alaska. So I'll end it now, but you'll hear about it again - because we're certainly going back!