Monday, October 05, 2009

Alaska, and a short lived return to blogging!

flickr photo link: <Alaska, Sep 09>
flickr photo link: <Seattle & LA, Sep 09>
It's been a while now, so thanks to everyone that keeps reading the blog - I know by the stats that people are still reading it... so there you go. We still need to finish loads of stories from 2006-2008, especially our travels in Europe at the end of 08. So maybe one day we'll get back to those. So here we are, blogging "Ohdundalk" from Brisbane, Australia... What the hell, the name has stuck, so we'll keep it. And off we go on our latest trip to Alaska, Sep 09...
Day 1 – Brisbane to LAX, to Seattle
At Brisbane International, we heard those magic words at the check-in, “Good news, you’ve been upgraded to Business Class”... And so it was, we flew non-stop to LAX on our super smooth V Australia 777 with Moet Chandon, a 3 hour meal service, oodles of movie choices on a massive fold out screen and fully flat beds complete with black pyjamas - VERY nice! The only down side of V Australia (being such a young airline) is that they don't the ingredients for a proper bloody mary, and only have OP Bundy... So we gave our feedback. Great doonahs (duvets) though! Customs at LAX was pretty easy as they kept shuffling us from longer to shorter lines. We connected onto Virgin America to Seattle, which was smooth & uneventful. They have a very groovy check-in area with mood lighting and music playing. Got to Seattle (Airport), showered and kipped at the Ramada. Later on we got up and walked around the neighbourhood, past the local cemetery, Mexican restaurant & Subway of course. We found the light rail station and caught a train to downtown Seattle. Got off and walked towards Pike Place. It was dark, pretty cool & windy, with only a few tourists about. We settled on Cutters Bayhouse for dinner. Very nice - loads of crab on the menu (and possibly the most expensive meal on our holiday). Walking back to the station, Ben rang and we met up with him for drinks at a French Bistro on 1st Ave. Snoozed back at the Ramada.
Day 2 – Seattle to Anchorage
Anchorage was smaller, perhaps quieter than expected. After landing with Continental from Seattle (maybe 60% full), we got upgraded into a mammoth Ford Expedition 4WD with Hertz (I ALWAYS seem to get upgraded with Hertz in the USA!) We stayed at the Anchorage Grand Hotel (505 W 2nd Ave), with self contained suites overlooking the railroad yards. We drove over to Fort Kincaid to search for our first wildlife, and Clare soon discovered a pretty tame moose than allowed itself to be patted. Later on we read the ‘nature’ literature that said you should never approach a moose - they're very dangerous and attacked a lot of people each year by kicking them and stomping on them. Well we think the moose in Kincaid Park just wanted snacks, like carrots or similar. Anchorage in early evening was a ghost town. We bought up some souvenirs (the only shops still open in town), and went to a great little Cajun place (Gumbo Shack) for dinner. We couldn’t help but notice the homeless everywhere in downtown Anchorage. The hotel suite was just fine inside, but we hardly slept that night due to the constant and needless train tooting from the station & yards below. Passenger & freight trains to the ‘outside’ (Canada & Lower 48 USA). Take note of those tripadvisor reviews!
Day 3 – Blackstone Bay Sea Kayaking, Whittier
Quite early on Tuesday morning, we got back in the massive 4WD, and left Anchorage for Whittier. At Beluga Point, we saw a small pod of Beluga Whales swimming upstream chasing spawning salmon. We quickly passed Girdwood, for Portage Glacier, and lined up for the single lane tunnel through to Whittier ($12), which opens for 15 minutes in each direction, once an hour. We were soon away with Alaska Sea Kayakers on our excellent trip to Blackstone Bay, possibly our best day trip in Alaska. The clouds were still hanging low but the day was warming up already. We caught a fast charter boat out to Blackstone Bay (about 40 mins) with the other kayakers (3 paying passengers, 1 guide for the day & 2 other guides taking the last trip of the season). The mist was lifting and we saw quite a few sea otters - small groups of them ‘rafted’ together basking on top of the water. They were so cute we forgot to take many pics, but got one of the 2nd group we saw. The boat dropped us and the kayaks off on a stoney beach and we kitted up and got the safety briefing on how to kayak & how to survive an ‘eskimo roll’ and try to minimise the hypothermia (sea kayaking for dummies!) Of course we didn’t need to use this knowledge - the weather was utterly perfect all day. It took us a while to coordinate the 2 sets of paddles - in time - and the steering gears at the back. We visited waterfalls, were followed by harbour seals, floated amongst small ‘icebergs’ and pack ice up to the glaciers. We saw a few bald eagles in the trees at lunch. The lunch was great - a picnic on the grass above a stoney beach with icebergs sitting on it. The small insects did drive us rather mad though. Then a second glacier after lunch - sitting in the pack ice was much colder than at the first one. Clare wasn't as comfortable sitting in the kayak as she had been on the way up - seemed like one of the insects had bitten her on the back and it was driving her mad as she couldn't scratch it. While trying to get to her gloves, she accidentaly dropped her watch into the fjord. Now the sea otters can tell the time! We saw loads of harbour seals and the glaciers up close, with the thunder of cracking sounds but no actual ‘calving’ - which is probably good as you feel really small sitting in a kayak facing the glacier. We paddled off to the third glacier and got off. Joe and the blokes walked up to the touch the ice face. Clare sat on a boulder waiting for a a bear to come down to the creek. But it didn’t some, the bugs came instead and swarmed Clare. The charter boat came back to the beach, and we headed back to Whittier. The guides were departing shortly for Colorado for work in the ski season. So after 9 1/2 hours, we were back at the wharf - what a fantastic trip. We had some dinner at the fish shack and as we got to the hotel (Inn at Whittier), the rain had started.
Day 4 – 26 Glacier Cruise, Whittier, then Cooper Landing
Just pissing down. Low cloud, wind and constant rain. Totally greyness. We slept well and late. We were both exhausted after 9 hrs of paddling the day before. We had plenty of time to potter around with breakfast and then to meander around the village and take pics – waterfalls thundering down from the glacier above Whitter, and the 2 buldings in town. 90% of the town lives in one building- the xxxxx building. Then the other building is abandoned – the Buckner Building. The town was bulit for the US Army in the 1940’s and was isolated from the rest of the state until the 1980’s. The Army built a rail tunnel in the 1940’s but it wasn’t converted to road until 2000 or so. Before the tunnel the only way in as over the glacier or air-very small planes. The railways bought the town off the Army and now it is a major freight station- rail/boat connections.

Got onto the cruise in pouring rain. Saw mist, clouds, rain and wind. I slept a good way up the fjiord. Saw otters and seals around the glaciers. We got right up close to the ice face on 4 glaciers and saw some decent ice packs and proper icebergs. This was also the last cruise of the season and all the crew were going back to Iowa or Idaho for college.

Drove off onto Coopers Landing at the Kenai River. The sun came out and shone onto the autumn leaves in the forest. No more animals, despite looking for moose and bears. Other than the forests the are reminded us strongly of the 12 Bens area of Connermarra in western Ireland.

Found our fishing lodge (Drifters Lodge www.......)- great little cabin overlooking the Kenai River. And then went back to the Kingfisher Lodge for a wonderful dinner and wine.

Day 4 – Fishing, Cooper Landing

Got up early and was kitted up with waders ect and pushed the boat out at Coopers Landing onto the Kenai River and drifted downstream. No motors were allowed only rowing and drifting. We were aiming for Coho ( or silver) salmon and trout. It has rained all night but stopped before we left and didn’t start again until we got back to the cabin.

It was the best days fishing I have ever had. I lost count of how many trout we both caught. And they were huge. We caught both Dolly Varden and Rainbow trout. Joe particularly caught some huge fish. But we couldn’t keep the trout as some were too small, too big and all were gourging on salmon eggs and so were not good eating. We were using flys and drifting the lines downstream the boat floated down as well. Over some white water rapids. Not really that dangerous but fun. We got off the boat 3 times onto banks of side streams to use the ‘spinners’ and try to co-oerse the resting Coho salmon into biting our lines, as we could keep them to eat. They were on the way up to spawn, but they stop eating when they hit the freshwater and then have to travel upstream for 85 miles to spawn and then die. So we saw loads of red Sockeye salmon spawning and dying all along the river. Even caught a couple. Didn’t get a Coho landed though. Saw more bald eagles including one with a salmon in its feet flying over us and many seagulls of all sizes eating the rotting stinking salmon carcases on the banks and sandbars. The forests were in full colours but we saw no bears. People were telling us about the bears they saw yesterday, swimming across the river an hour before ect ect ...

Great day. Great fishing, great accomadation and dining. Even got to the laundry to do a spot of washing before dinner. The guides here said they would stay till the end of the trout season- early Oct- and were off to Hawaii to bar-tend for winter.

Day 5 – Cooper Landing to Seward, MS Ryndam.

Had breakfast over the river watching the mist and clouds rise above the forest. Slowly drove to Seward stopping for more mist and cloud pics and hoping for bears detours- Bear Creek, Bear Crossing and Bear River. But no bears at all. Did another glacier visit- Exit Glacier. This glacier is melting really fast. Walked up to the face- but not allowed to touch it. More alledged bears in the woods. Did see the faeces piles proving not all bears shit in the woods- some shit next to the berry bush on the glacier walk.

Drove onto Seward and returned the giant 4wd after visitng the local supermarket for some smoked salmon and chips for lunch. Board the ship and dumped all the luggage and caught the bus back down to town and visited the Sea Life Centre- aquariams for birds, mammals and fish. But no otters at the moment. Joe missed the life boat drill and then I slept for a while while Joe explored the boat and saw some otters playing next to the boat as we left. Went off for a Clive Owen movie after dinner.

Day 6 – Hubbard Glacier

Were at sea all day. I spoilt myself and had a massage after a late breakfast and a kitchen tour. Joe went to the gym and walked the decks. In the mid afternoon we arrived at the Hubbard Glacier. You might think that we had already seen a lot of Alaskan glaciers and maybe had had enough. No, each is different. This one was just huge. This time we saw some decent calvings- where the ice chunks fall off and make a big splash. I spent the time to get the exposure right and used all lenses. Even got some decent pics of seals on icebergs. Saw loads of them floating about. Did get cold though in the rain.

Some facts and figures about this glacier:
This is the largest tidewater glacier in Nth America- 76 miles long. This is one of the only glaciers that is growing not shrinking. Soon it might close the sea entrance to Russel Fjord and will create a dam and stop access to a fishing village and trap any salmon, seals and whales in the damn.

That night we had dinner in the formal resturant and had 3 courses of lobster dishes. The ship has some great Oregon and Washington State Pinot Noirs and Merlots. Then off to the latest Russel Crowe movie.

Between the flight over and the ship I have really caught up with some of the latest movies and hope to see a few more on the way back- especially the Aussie ones- Bilboa for sure. Saw ‘Sampson and Deliah’ on Virgen. That was confronting. Takes an effort to get thru as it is almost totally in an Aboriginal language and the story is so confronting. Just can’t see what the solution is to the town camps and outstation problems in central Australia.

Day 7 – Sitka

It’s a dark & dreary afternoon in Sitka, Alaska. The Phillipino Barmen are mixing 2 for 1 margaritas for the Happy Hour in the Crows Nest, as the MS Ryndam slowly spins in the harbour before heading out to sea. Our first few days in Alaska saw brilliant weather, but things are turning towards winter now... Sitka is on an island and cut off from the rest of the country except by boat. It was settled by the Russians in 1804 and was the Russian capital of Alaska before they sold it to the Americans in 1867. It continued to be the American Alaskan capital until 1913 when it was moved to Junea.

Wandered about town. Ended up in the bookstore as usual and bought a few interesting items for Xmas gifts. I went up to the old Russian cemetery and Block house (wooden fort) and then thru the back streets back to the Russian Orthodox church (St Michael’s 1848) to see the icons ect. Then met up with Joe to do a tour thru the Russian Bishops House. It was built in 1842 and and is fully restored with wallpaper, furniture and even a chapel full of icons. The building is a Russian style 2 story log cabin that is one of 4 surviving Russian colonial buildings in North America. It really shows the high standards of the Czars representive in Nth America. Opulent - is the only word possible to describe it all. Fully heated with doubleglazed windows and fine china to eat off.

Actually met a real live Alaskan who was not moving off for the winter but living full time in Sitka. The young lady at the Russian house who had a Norwegian great grandfather who came to Alaska and married a Tlingit (local Indian tribe) wife and her grandmother could speak Tlingit. Miserable weather. The marina was full of fishing boats.

Day 8 – White Pass, Skagway

Train trip up the hills along the gold rush route to Dawson- Klondike rush in 1897/1898 which was the richest gold strike in history by the end of it. Waterfalls, gorges with white water pools, forests of Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, Birch, Pine and Cottonwoods all the way up the train tracks that were built in 1898. We stopped at the Canadian border which was bleak and around 0C with very low cloud. And back down to town where I got off and ended up in the book store again and couldn’t be bothered to wait for 2 hours till the last tour of the Red Onion Saloon- gold rush brothel.

Saw 3 otters in the marina- full of yatchs, not fishing boats. A real tourist town but with a feel of a Northern Byron minus the beaches. Very hippyish. Most people were lierally packing their 4wds and loading up the skis and kayaks to head ‘outside’. A few were staying and couldn’t wait for the last boat to leave town. There is one road out to Whitehorse where the nearest, doctor, dentist and Walmart is.

Day 9 – Whale Watching & Dogs, Juneau

Junea is the Alaskan capital-just can’t see why myself. It was one the original gold rush towns – founded in 1880. Previous to this, of course, it was a Tlinget settlement.

Okay another wet cold day. My kayak trip was cancelled due to lack of interest and so Joe and I head off to a whale tour. Well Joe just couldn’t get into it- Hervey Bay apprently just pisses on the whales up here. Did see quite a few Humpbacks but they are just feeding themsleves up for the journey south and just popped up and down and don’t leap about or come up to the boat. More Bald eagles, Harbour seals and Stellar Sea Lions.

Then a quick lunch at the Red Dog Saloon and ready for our ‘dog tour’. We drove over to Douglas Island into the very wet rain forest. Aptyly named. The sled dogs were not Huskies as we were expecting. In fact, most looked like a motley mix of cross bred red cattle dogs, kelpies and dingos with a touch of greyhound. But still they could howl and run like the wind. A team of dogs sped our sled of 7 people around the muddy trails of the rainforest at a great speed and seemed to love it. There was 162 dogs in teams under a summer training regime preparing for the winter races including the Itarod race. Once again even the dogs were moving out for the winter season. But they were moving north to really get into the next level of training.

Day 10 – Bears by floatplane, Ketchikan

Utterly pouring rain and low clouds. We even thought we wouldn’t get off the ground here. But this trip had cost quite a bit and didn’t guarantee a bear. Hmmmm

Off we went and had a drive by tour of the town. Totally Alaskan as you imagine it. All wooden houses on stilts up a hill connected by board walks, full of forests with low clouds and fishing boats at the end of the street. Another town on an island, with no roads out. Just boats and float planes. Settled in 1887 as a salmon fishing town not a gold town.

Flew off to Neets Bay, which is actually on Revillagigedo Island near Misty Fjords National Monument. Certainly well named. The reason the bears come to Neets bay is to feast on the salmon, along with the harbour seals and Stellar Sea Lions and many species of birds. The salmon come here to spawn but don’t actually get to do that, as they herd themselves into races that takes them straight to the hatchery building. So their eggs and sperm are harvested by humans and then hatched and grown until they are big enough to be realeased into the sea again. So unlike salmon hatcheries I have seen in a number of countries the small salmon are not sent to a farm and fed in sea cages. They go out to sea as free salmon and swim around getting fat for 4 years and then swim back to Neets Bay. In the mean time fishing people, bears, eagles, sharks ect can catch them. About 15% of those released will actually swim back. Okay enough about salmon- I just can’t help myself.

This trip was about the bears and only the bears, despite the proximity of huge Stellar Sea lions flopping so close to shore. Yes we saw the bears- Black bears. First a Mother and baby, who ran up a tree with a salmon. Then a couple of small bears wandering around in and out of the forest and then sitting eating a dead salmon. Then a small bear called ‘Scrapy’ who literally ran past us and then stopped and looked up and saw us all a few meters away. So at this point despite all these bears, we had not one decent photo. The rain fall at Neets Bay is just massive and so the rain forest is just that, wet, wet and a bit more rain and dark. We had all of our wet weather gear on from Ireland.

Then as we were wandering back to the wharf where the sea plane was, a big male bear looking for a live salmon to catch literally crossed the path in front of us. We kept walking until we could stop and see him clearly- and get a decent photo out of the gloom of the forest. And he caught his salmon and then sat down and munched away completly ignoring us. 54 photos later I had a couple of decent pics of the bear ripping up his salmon with blood on his mouth.

All in all bloody brilliant.

Day 11 – Day at sea

Calm and clear today. So different from the past week of ‘Irish’ weather. We seem to be at sea-beyond the inside passage now.

Its Five O clock somewhere- yes here for happy hour- half price Pina Coladas.

Day 12 – Vancouver to Seattle
Perfect clear sunny day and warm. All packed up and very efficiently despatched off the Ryndam and onto the bus down to Seattle cross the border.

Okay at this point we have an unexpected detour, where I get a text message from work and after a few ph calls find that I will be working in and around Washington state for the next 2 weeks. So we spend the glorious sunny and warm weekend in Seattle and on Sunday Joe heads off to do yet another Disney Park- LA this time and I drive south to the Columbia River Gorge.

PS From Joe: God bless business class upgrades!
So last night, the flight was 100% full. The business class crew were really amazing – it was a slightly different experience again from our trip over. So we all got Bulgari personal packs (see, they DO have them!), and they gave out the black pyjamas to everyone and some people even changed before we took off! I had dinner and watched most of the Boat Rocking movie, then they made up my bed, then I woke up about 4 hours outside Brisbane – I think I slept for at least 6-7 hours, solidly… and the flight was 13 hours 10 mins! At one point last night (before I slept), I actually sat there looking at the purple lights thinking how unbelievable it all was – I had to pinch myself to make sure it was really happening. Amazing.

Post Seattle work trip:

Joe got back to Brisbane today. He was upgraded to business class trip as we both were on the way over. Betcha I end up in cattle class when I fly back. He has a CD of the best of our pics but the rest are on my laptop here. I will be back on Oct 13.
I am doing audits on apple and pear pack sheds. The pack sheds here are pretty amazing especially compared to Bundaberg ect I did one at Hood River town, right on the Columbia River, in the gorge.
I drove along the Columbia River in a huge gorge this morning and then turned into the mountains thru Indian reservations- all forests and hills- totally fire area. Just can’t understand why anyone would build houses there- doomed to burn. Then thru dry hills and plains just like Wyoming and then out into the Yakima Valley.
Snow all over Mt Hood today- 6000 ft mountain above the town I was staying in- Hood River. Weekend forecast is snow at 4500 ft and above- so 1500 m. Think that might be around here somehow.
Well in Yakima I have seen not just the usual small wooden houses, trailer park houses but also shanty towns !!!!!! There are small ‘cubby’ houses in peoples yards and spare yards. The small wooden houses in town are actually smaller than trailer houses at the edge of town. The whole Valley is just fruit farms and packing sheds. Trucks driving everywhere with bins of fruit on the back. In one town I had to stop on the hway when a bloke in a large mower drove across with mini trolleys of capsicums behind him. The town is very dry. I can smell bushfires but can’t see any smoke. I went across the road to the ‘well to do’ shopping centre for lunch and there was a bloke in the sandwich shop talking about a ph call at 4am about a raging fire near to town. I think he was a fire dept type but maybe not an actual fireman.
And the big show in town this week is the Fair- mini Ecka- and Rodeo on Friday night. I will go and get some clichéd pics, if I am not driving back to Hood River to meet up with Ben. I will have to check on the Mt Rainer arts festival re the snow level expected.
After turning off the hway into town it took me a while to find my hotel I drove around looking at all of the houses and shanties and then past the Fair. And when I found my hotel I thought – good, nice part of town- but after walking across the road to the shopping centre I realized that only the Target (large), nail shop, cut price hairdresser and local (not Subway) sub shop and small pizza hut was still open. The rest were shut up. Yeah and the bloody trains are around here again. Heard the tooting this arvo. Can’t actually see them though. Not sure if any part of this town is ‘good’.
It’s all a world away from Seattle and I am here for almost a week now.
I have bought the Pogues tickets for Sat.
Ate at Olive Garden tonight- so pretending to be ‘real’ Italian. All huge servings. I sent the salad that I didn’t know came with my order back- a giant bowl. But they did have a frozen limencello cocktail. Very very good. The options look bleak for the next week- Maccas, BK, Mexican and deep fried Fair Food. Vets (army people not animal doctors) and their families get in free to the Fair tonight. Big crowd down there.

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