Sunday, July 5, 2009

Jiggety Jig

Made it back home after a week in Alaska. The last two plus hours of trying to make it back from LAX are the first hours I've spent in the dark in a week.

I'd flown into Anchorage and met up with a friend at the airport. We decided to hang out in Anchorage for a day and put up at the Copper Whale Inn (B&B) which had great breakfasts and decently appointed rooms with blackout curtains. Right at the corner of the property was a bike rental shop. We rented bikes and rode out along the coast. The bikes were the way to use the trail as the mosquitoes mostly waited until we stopped to attack. A walk would have been miserable. But walking through downtown was just fine. Everyone had flowers out in baskets, planters, window boxes - everywhere.

After a late lunch at Humpy's where we dined on snow crab and halibut sandwich with a great hummus plate and root beer on tap, I dragged my friend all over to get souveniers. We spoke to some friendly but wacky shop owners and stocked up on kitch including ulus. We didn't get the best selling t-shirt "Alaska: I can see Russia from my house" but were mightily tempted... Dinner was with a friend of a friend and involved more halibut and draft house brewed beer. I'm starting to wonder if Alaska has the most small breweries per person of any state because it seemed every place had their own.

Day two was spent mostly on the train. It was a really civilized way to travel. We could wander between cars, get sit down food or a snack, go up to the glass topped observation car, hang our head out from the vestibule, or lean our seats back and our footrests up. The ride from Anchorage takes 8 hours to Denali and 12 to Fairbanks. We were kinda done in by Denali and got all kinds of giggly during the last couple of hours. We didn't disturb many people though because those nearest us were deaf. I got to use some rudimentary sign language to translate announcements and chat a bit which I enjoyed while feeling inept. But we enjoyed each other's company and I think all of us cracked up when my friend and I were signing, "Look! More trees!" Alaska has 6 kinds of trees but, by my estimation, you can see 800,000 of them from the train. It was beautiful, but 12 hours of very similar beauty. Still glad we took the train ride.

Our friend and hostess picked us up at the Fairbanks station then took us back to her place and fed us Copper River salmon her husband had just caught. Delicious. They've built their own house, which is cool in and of itself, but they also have a really functional layout and good looking design which is extra bonus points. The house also accommodates their 3 dogs and 2 cats and their friends' dogs. The first floor is over a garage filled with winter outdoor gear and tools and other storage. The first floor has mostly concrete floors with radiant heat which I'm sure is lovely when it's cold, but we weren't cold the entire time we were up there. Our weather was fantastic, even overwarm.

Wait, cats you say? Well, yes. And I'm wicked allergic. They did actually manage to keep cats out of their guest room which I know because I could breathe better after spending the night there than I could when I entered. It took a while to work out the right combo of meds to keep the wheezing down but my breathing was compromised for the entire stay which made it hard to hike. So the hours and hours of hiking was whittled down to just a few and we did other things instead which were pretty excellent contingencies.

One "small town" moment came on Wednesday. We'd driven down just south of Denali National Park and overnighted in a cabin owned by the university (UAF). Our plan was to wake up, go out for a good breakfast, then hike up a mountain. Our plan was literally derailed when we packed up only to find that the only railroad crossing was being repaired and they wouldn't let us across until after noon. Keep in mind no one had yet had coffee or tea. We only let this throw us for a little while because it turns out that our hostess knew someone down there on our side of the tracks.

And not only did they give us some morning caffeine, they didn't have any one booked for a flightseeing tour, so we got to go! I slapped on a motion sickness patch and hoped that 40 minutes was enough to get some effect (some, not full protection), and us three and the pilot spent nearly an hour and a half flying over fault lines, glaciers, rivers, and right up near Mt. McKinley (Denali). Best plan B ever. The crossing was still closed when we returned (my first landing on a dirt airstrip), so we just did a local hike. We'd brought one of the dogs with us, who was thrilled to finally get out and run around. I got winded a LOT earlier than I would have expected, but all in all did ok. We even made it back in time for dinner with their neighbor, complemented by excellent scotch and the presence of 5 dogs, one of whom filched a biscuit.

Thursday our hostess had to work. If it had been routine fieldwork we could have gone with, but it was a special trip, so we stayed in town and drove over to downtown Fairbanks for a look. It's a pretty small town. There were some nice shops but I wasn't feeling aquisitive and just looked. My friend actually had to make use of the Wells Fargo where she received excellent customer service, far superior to her CA branch. My friend and I made dinner with some help from our host to cook the meat for our moose fajitas with lime margaritas.

Friday was a nice lazy day. After a breakfast of bacon, with eggs and bagels fried in bacon grease, we spent it motoring down the Tanana river after gassing up and getting some sunscreen. My other small town experience was running into our hostess's brother in the store! Also in the store, they sell sleeping bags at the registers for those last minute impulse needs. But back out on the river, we enjoyed the perfect weather, checked out the trees and some houses along the way, and finally stopped for some fishing. We fished long enough to lose several lures, but not long enough to catch anything even though we could see the fish jump. When we motored back up to the boat launch it was nearing 7pm but still bright daylight and other folks were just getting into the water. Dinner that night was at a local brew pub (see?) with some of their friends.

July 4th was a hoot. We got up a little late and headed over to the Esther parade. This is the parade Berkeley would have if it were 1/10th the size. Gay rights flags, anti-nuclear floats, 6 female grad students playing ukelales and signing, and a little kid with a remote control car chasing someone on a scooter tricked out with dinosaur bones (night at the museum inspired), and a pig wearing wings (Alaska Swine Flew) were some of the highlights. Tons of people stopped to chat and it was a crapshoot whether or not people recognized faces or dogs first. Afterward we followed the crowd to the community pot luck. We gave a donation and dug in. A local area forest fire made the air rather hazy and thick, but it kept the mosquitos at bay. A final diner with friends of theirs once again ran into 11pm without my noticing because it was still so light out.

This morning, I got up a skosh late but made it to the airport in time to make my plane. So starting at 8:20 Alaska time (9:20 PDT) I said goodbye to the dogs and was on the go. I got out of Alaska by way of Minneapolis. My dad is working at the airport as a gate agent, so he booked standby tickets for himself and my mom to get through security and come hang out with me for dinner, which was nice of them. The flight was way too full for them to even consider getting on and following me back though. We got into LAX with no problems. I had a window seat and got a great if hazy view of the grand canyon at dusk with a big band of rainbow color on the horizon. Getting home from LAX was a PITA. First, it took an HOUR from when we got to the gate to when we got our bags, then due to the place being mobbed, was another 40 minutes to get the shuttle to my car. Fortunately once at my car I was out in mere moments and made good time home, walking in right around 11:20.

And since then, I've killed an hour typing this and eating a snack. I need to shower the remaining cat dander off me and try to sleep well for work tomorrow. I've been wondering what it means that the only time I thought of work while on vacation was to think about how I wasn't thinking about it. It was great to have the whole week off and just bum around with friends and their friends in an unfamiliar landscape with lots and lots of daylight. I don't have time to upload pictures tonight, but if you hang in there, you too will eventually see many many trees.


Amy in sunny CA said...

Wow - sounds like you and "the other friend from CA" had a ton of fun!! I wish I could see T's home - it must be gorgeous!

Glad to hear you made it home "safe & sound". Can't wait to see the pictures!

Junior and Orion said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful time, with the exception of the cat allergies.

Alaskan Hellcat said...

You forgot to mention that at the railroad crossing a) they told us they posted signs in the bar and restaurant and on the stop sign-- and it was a 8.5X11 piece of paper that looked like a "lost cat" sign and b) in frustration your hostess called her hubby in Fairbanks and he said "well, what do you want me to do? Call the crew boss and tell him you got to let me wife through, she's hasn't had her morning coffee yet".

You and your friend are the BEST for coming to visit :) Hope you had as good a time as me!

CrankyOtter said...

Did I forget to mention I had a great time? I can be dumb like that. I had a great time. It was an awsome, relaxing-while-still-doing-stuff vacation. Even with the evil allergies.

If I hadn't already retold a bunch of Ron White jokes, I would have brought up the one where his wife called him long distance to tell him about the dog crapping in the house... but I had told a bunch of RW jokes already and none of us had had our morning caffeine. And *what* sign??? They were off their nut about it being posted. "Oh, it was at the bar!" Yeah, that helped us, not. (I knew there was a reason we should have gone...)

Turns out the friend I eat lunch with spend a summer working at Denali and bought her fishing license from our flightseeing pilot. More small world stories - or like finding like stories. She's the one who told me to take a kneeling pad on a hike to sit on :)

Amy, T's home is pretty cool. Next trip to SD and I can show you all the pics.