It seems like every summer, there is always a struggle between finding time from work to live and finding time from living to relax. Summers last only a moments time, and this one was no different. We spent a lot of our time the same way that so many others do, cramming it all in.
We did end up filling the freezer on the Kenai this year, which is a far departure from what we have done in the past. Usually, we will spend a day or two at the beginning of dip-netting season attempting to dip-net from the shore before we get worn out and decide to go from a boat on Kasilof. This year started no differently. After making the attempt to go from a inflatable with a hole in it on Kasilof for about 8 hours, I did manage to put about 20 salmon away. It was a difficult endeavor as we had to land the inflatable every other hour to drain the water out of it. It was good fun, but the goal was to stockpile delicious salmon and unfortunately we weren't getting enough at this pace to last the winter. We were, however, able to hitch a ride with another friend and do something that I had never done before, going by boat on the Kenai. This filled up our quota in only about 6 hours and had an added benefit in that the Kenai reds are much better (and fatter) than the Kasilof ones.
I am reminded every year of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books when snow first starts to hit the ground and I am forced to slow down and reflect on how productive my summer was. This quote doesn't directly pertain to anything other than to stand as a reminder about how quickly our summers go by.
"Summer was our best season: it was sleeping on the back screened porch in cots, or trying to sleep in the treehouse; summer was everything good to eat; it was a thousand colors in a parched landscape; but most of all, summer was Dill." - Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Last week, we took a full day ride out to Jim Creek and rode all the way to the glacier. This was a first for me. While we used to spend a lot of time out there when I was a kid and have flown the area many times in the last few years, the ride was a great experience.
The area that I refer to here as "Jim Creek" is officially called "Knik River Public Use Area", and is generally considered the area between the Knik River bridge and the Knik Glacier. The area has alternately gone from an area considered to be a trouble spot and a family friendly area. In current times, there are regular Alaska State Trooper patrols which go through the area to ensure a safe atmosphere and several off road clubs clean the area, clearing abandon cars and general waste. It is a dramatic change from 10 years ago, when burned out stolen cars were seen regularly, and a change that is welcome. A google images search will yield more than enough pictures of what I am referring to.
Along the trail, the wildlife is abundant. One of our goals while we were up there was to get at least one spring bear for the freezer. We mostly stayed off of the river bed during the journey hoping that we would have better luck in the soggier terrain. Although we saw plenty of goats and moose, the only bear sign we saw was a lonely set of tracks well off the main travelling area. I am certain this is in part because even though the weather seems right, it is just a little bit too early still. We will probably end up going at least a few times in May and continuing to see how the trail conditions are. If you get a chance and are headed up that way, don't forget to bring your phone and a phone charger. I missed out on some great opportunities to take some pictures because my phone died.
Get out, get on the trail, and have a blast!
As many people already know at this point, 4 days ago the Motherlode Lodge in Hatcher Pass was burned to the ground. It is a particularly sad event for many people because of so many fond memories passing by the local checkpoint and events at the Lodge itself, with at least one of my friends getting married there.
Constructed as a Roadhouse in 1942, there isn't a ton of information to be gleaned from the internet on the lodge itself. I suspect this is in part because while Hatcher Pass is a location that so many people in The Valley are familiar with, there aren't many outside of here that know much about area at all.
A little bit of browsing on the Alaska Lost Ski Areas Project (which is an awesome website but be warned you might lose a couple of hours reading about some areas that you didn't know about before) tells a lot of the story that I would wager even the saltiest of locals don't know about. There is a gallery of images there that shows the remains of the ski rope lift that was erected by Victor Cottini sometime after 1942 or 1943. After expanding the lodge to further accommodate miners in the area, Mr Cottini sold the property in 1958. He died in 1967, leaving family who still remains in the area. A wonderful write up by Carole Wegner can be found at Last Frontier Magazine (no affiliation with my website) where she talks about growing up living in the Lodge.
After the lodge was sold to the Betts family in 1958, it was maintained as a lodge and the ski area was operated in the winter time. At some time during their ownership period, the ski lift fell into disrepair and the lodge changed hands several more times. The records that I have found are sparse at best. Per the notes at the bottom of the ALSAP page, Bill Betts has passed away but Marie Betts lives in Wasilla to this day.
In 1991, the Roadhouse changed hands again to Jill Reese. In recent times, the lodge was undergoing renovations due to vandalism but was not insured according to public comments by the owner. On April 17th, when firefighters arrived on scene, the only action that they were able to take was to contain the blaze due to the property being outside of their fire area.
Our family has planned on spending more time up in Hatcher Pass this summer and fall. We plan on spending time with the girls berry picking and enjoying all that we can up there. It will be sad to see this landmark gone for sure, I had looked forward to it reopening some day.
The trail system on the south side of Mt Baldy are in really good shape the past two days. I went out yesterday with a friend of mine and made it to Bench Lake in only 35 minutes. The light snow this winter means that there is not a lot of run off to soften up the trail system above the frozen ground. The mud is only a few inches deep in almost all of the trails that we went on, with the deepest mud only about 8 inches deep. Because the trail was in such good condition, Jeremy Cooper (also from Century 21 and a good friend) and I decided to take a run up some of the trails that were too soft to make it into last fall on our limited schedule. We were not disappointed. We left from the Sitze Road Trailhead and made it all the way to Moose Meadows in only a couple of hours. We had hoped to make it at least half that far in the entire day so I figure we did pretty darn good for ourselves. We would have liked to come across a black bear to put in the freezer, but we were lacking in even seeing any signs. It is probably just a little bit too early still.
This trail system is not for novices. If this is your first time on a four wheeler or side by side, I would highly recommend bringing someone more experienced along with you. It is a great area to build up your experience if you are careful. The entire trail system can be walked out if you end up rolling your machine or get hurt. In our 9 miles of trail, we were never more than few miles from the road if there was an emergency. Some of the more technical portions of the trail can actually be really fun. There are some steep uphills which get pretty slick and some steep downhills which require careful consideration before driving down.
I don't think that the trails will last in this good of condition for much longer, especially if we get any rain or snow. As the ground thaws out, some of the muddier areas will not have the frozen base and the mud will be deeper. This will make it so that wheelers such as my trusty Sportsman 570 will have a difficult time getting through the entire trail. If you have the opportunity to get through the trail this weekend, it should be a fairly easy ride. Please do a favor to all of the rest of us riders though and stick to the trail system as no one wants to see the hillside be torn up for someone's one time enjoyment. Even better, if you are riding for leisure please bring in some rubber gloves and a garbage bag and if you see rubbish please help clean up the mess that others have inconsiderately left behind. We all benefit from a clean trail system. Thank you in advance and great riding
I have been a little bit overwhelmed lately, so much so that I meant to actually write this and take some fresh pictures last Sunday when the first fly-in of the season happened at Seymour Lake. Unfortunately, I was just way to busy to attend. This is a total bummer for our family but I guess it is ok since we were a little bit concerned about the ice being solid as it was anyway.
Fly-in events are a super exciting event for me because a) obviously they are awesome, and b) who doesn't love something aviation related? Even those that do not get the thrill from flying the plane certainly get a thrill from seeing a cub doing a 20 foot take off or a 20 foot landing, right?
Here is a brief synopsis of the calendar year of fly-in events that I plan on attending (provided there are no scheduling conflicts before then). I actually am going to include the Seymour Lake event just for reference for next year.
Mar 29, 2015 - Alaska Airmen's Association Seymour Lake fly-in. This event is a home-grown event, exclusively for members of the Alaska Airmen's Association. It is a potluck out at Seymour Lake. One of the members maintains a plowed runway directly on the lake which goes directly to his home where he hosts the event. I didn't get back home until everyone was taking off and it was awesome to watch them practice their shortfield takeoffs off of my back porch. There was a yellow cub (I actually think it might have been a J3) which did an awesome takeoff that was fun to watch.
May 2-3, 2015 - The Great Alaska Aviation Gathering. This is the event of events for static displays and industry information in aviation. Both regular poor-boy wanna-be pilots like me and true to life industry experts attend not only to see what is new, but to socialize with other like minded people. On top of all that, it gives me a chance to sit in planes that I will probably never earn the right to fly. And what could beat that? They actually raffle off an aircraft. If you have not ever been, mark it down on your calendar. And not that I specifically want anyone to compete with me for the chance to win an absolutely bad to the bone SuperCub, I do grow tired of seeing them go out of state. Seriously. Go buy a ticket today. The instructions are in the link. The money goes to a really good cause and the chances are really good that you can win.
May 8-10, 2015 - Valdez Fly-in and Air Show. This particular fly-in holds a special place in my heart because it was the first one that we attended in the spring after we bought 9533A. We flew from Anchorage through the pass at Whittier and cruised along the coast to Valdez, then stayed that night in a bed and breakfast. Leila was only a year old at the time so we didn't feel like camping was the best option. I slept like a baby that night because our convoy vehicle which drove the highway (6 hours) was having mechanical difficulties and consequently I had to take a commercial flight back to Anchorage and blast back to Valdez with a different convoy vehicle. It was one of those things in life that I was cursing at the time but Stephanie and I laugh at remembering back on it. We were so young and full of energy back then! The Air Show itself features different highlights each year, the most popular by far is the STOL take off and landing. These videos are uploaded to YouTube most years and I could literally watch these for hours and hours without stopping. Another highlight that is exclusive to pilots in this event is the breakfast on the beach. Other than that, most of the events are a blast for anyone able to make the trip.
June 6, 2015 - 4th Annual Skwentna Fly-In. I will admit it, I have a crush of sorts on Skwentna. In the past I have had the same love affair with Talkeetna, Cooper Landing, Whittier, Seldovia, Homer, and Kasilof. I love small communities. I love basically everything about them. When I go out to the Skwentna Roadhouse, it is not hospitality like you have ever seen anywhere else. They (the owner's name evades me at the moment) literally treat you like you are a personal guest in their personal home. I have not been to their fly-ins but I am certain that they are as warm and welcome as visiting their roadhouse.
Fly-in season is a great opportunity for pilots to get together after the winter thaw and test their springtime skills at everything they will need for hunting season. From flour-bombing to shortfield take off and landing, it is a blast to watch. I hope that you attend at least one of these events this spring and summer.
Here are highlights from last year's STOL competition at Valdez. Skip ahead to 3:29 to see the really fun stuff!
Clamming season is upon us once again with the negative tides of last weekend. Due to the emergency order, I half expected that Polly Creek would be seeing a sudden influx of visitors due to the lack of restrictions and the exhilarating experience of clam digging in this area. Although I have had some pretty frightening experiences out there, had I known that it was slow I probably would have made arrangements to go.
For unknown reasons, an abundance study conducted in February discovered that mature razor clam populations were down 80% from averages dated from 1991 to 2012 in the East Cook Inlet Area. This bodes very badly for the normal clamming population that frequents Clam Gulch. This is an extremely popular location, seeing many small aircraft and ATVs during the typical April and May low tide season. Generally speaking this crowd will not make the journey across the inlet to the Polly Creek area for the reasons that I have outlined below.
Western Cook Inlet is a different story altogether. Polly Creek is a difficult location to reach, only accessible via aircraft or small boat. The mud flats that are near the beach are virtually horizontal. This means that even the smallest vertical movement of water causes long stretches of horizontal reach. This is greatly exaggerated by the extreme Alaskan tides. These tides have resulted in a few deaths, which is particularly unnerving for me because I happened to be there on the day that five commercial clammers perished. All of that being said, the risk of danger is relatively low and the adventure is high and that is one of the reasons that I do enjoy this trip.
This is a true to life Alaskan adventure. There are basically two routes to get there coming from Anchorage or Mat Su by air, which is my preferred mode of transportation. From Anchorage, one can travel south over Turnagain Arm and follow the coast to Nikiski before crossing Prince William Sound. You should be gaining altitude by at least a few thousand feet above ground level before crossing because the distance over water is about 5 miles and that is a cold swim. Alternatively, one can depart from Merrill Field or Lake Hood, cross over to Point Mackenzie and after clearing Ted Stevens airspace follow the coast down to Polly Creek. This is by far the longer yet safer route.
Landing on the beach or mud flats is another adventure in and of itself. While not being any salty-dog high hour pilot, I do walk away from every flight knowing that I have learned something new. Back in the trip that my accompanying pictures detail, I still had smaller tires on my trusty Cessna 170A but since then I have learned that the flats can be deceivingly soft and that big tires are better suited for Alaska's environment. Anyone familiar with Alaska for a long time can repeat one of many tales concerning danger on the mud flats. Silty mud prevalent in Southcentral Alaska has a tendency to very very slowly suck in anyone or anything that sits resting in one spot for too long. I witnessed this event a few years ago with a 172 that got stuck, albeit temporarily. We managed to get it's main wheels out of the mud with a little bit of effort and a few of us pushing. It is not a major problem, and probably doesn't happen often but it certainly left a mark in my memory to double check the firmness of where I land when I am out on the flats. It also pushed me along in the idea to get bigger tires on my airplane.
For the actual harvesting of Razor Clams, I have seen many people use clamming guns and shovels both. Razor Clams burrow very quickly, and I prefer using a clam gun for this reason. They are very quick little creatures, and when digging with a shovel one must move very quickly. They rest only a few inches down and can be seen by little holes in the surface of the mud, but as soon as they sense the ground being disturbed and can get down about 24 inches or more with an astounding ease.
Cooking the clams is very easy if you have practice and patience. Cooking them too long, however, will make them very tough and chewy. The idea is to fry them for only about 30 seconds per side. I like to bread them and season with tobasco or other hot sauce and fry them in a vegetable oil. They go very well with a side of biscuits and a sweet vegetable like corn.
It is unfortunate that the clam population is suffering on the east side of the inlet. I hope that we do not overcompensate by overharvesting on the west side as well, but if you do have the opportunity to get out and get a few it really is an exciting trip!
Image credits for first row:
When I was young, Hatcher Pass was an almost mythical, magical place. I guess part of it is because when you are a kid, everything new is that way. I can remember a few of the times that my dad took us up there, most notably (to me) was the time that my cousins came to visit us. I don't remember exactly what time of year it was, but I do remember that there was green and I can still remember the smell of chamomile and blueberries in the air, so I suspect it was probably late summer or early fall. It is one of those memories that I will never want to lose.
As we drove up from the east entrance from Palmer-Fishhook, we stopped at a scenic viewpoint to make some sandwiches and admire the view of the valley. From where we were, it was a perfect view to Pioneer Peak. Traffic along that stretch of road casually creeps along because the majority of travelers are fixated on how majestic it all is. It seems like after we packed back into the truck it all breezed by until we got up to Independence Mine, at the top of the road and a trip in it's own right.
Like many places in Alaska, Hatcher Pass is not a singular place to do a singular activity. There is such diversity in things to do, it always feels rushed to me each visit because we find ourselves skipping one thing to do another. I could spend weeks up there and still feel like I left adventure out. On this particular trip, our activity of choice was gold panning. As a youth, it was unimaginably awesome when we gathered our few little flakes in the glass vial. For a moment in time, I was the richest person on earth. I knew that somehow, someway, I would top it only by discovering a solid gold nugget if only I looked hard enough out the window of the truck when we finished up. I clutched that vial so tightly in my hand, I am surprised it didn't break.
Because I hold it in such fond memory, Hatcher Pass was actually one of the first places that I took my bride to be on a date when I first met her. We had no plans, and certainly we weren't equipped to do much of anything other than take a drive and enjoy the view. One of the first things that told her in one of our first long phone conversations was that you can spend a lifetime in Alaska and still miss out on some of the adventures. There is that much to do. We drove as far as Hatcher Pass Lodge on that trip, pulled over to the parking lot on that cold February afternoon, sat and talked and took pictures. Everything was breathtakingly beautiful that day. The scenery outside was okay too.
The last time I was up there was last August. Stephanie and I decided to drive from Willow through the pass and over to Wasilla. Like many of our excursions, it was just for the heck of it. It was August and a beautiful day. When we got a few miles in, I decided to pull over and pick some blueberries. We didn't have the scoops that make the job more efficient, we just had some zip lock bags and determination. We ended up getting a fair amount for the effort, but will be better prepared this fall when we go back.
I have yet to take Stephanie on a gold panning trip, I think this summer might be a good time to do it. Leila is a little bit younger than I was, but I think old enough to be amazed as I once was. I just want to see that look of accomplishment on her face the same way that I'm sure my dad once did on mine.
Image credits, as watermarked:
Patrick Thun, https://instagram.com/alaska_scenery/
Last night, we had one of the best Northern Lights shows I have ever seen in my life. Stephanie and I, not wanting to miss it despite being worn out from two sick daughters, stayed out until well past 1 am just enjoying the show from out on our dock at Seymour Lake. At that moment, I once again realized just how lucky we are to live here.
We talked about how many people will never get to see the Aurora in real life because of how one has to perfectly time the weather, solar activity, and time of year. It obviously makes it very difficult for anyone who doesn’t live up here in The Greatland to get to time it that perfectly. It was literally a perfect night. Rather than write a long post, though, I have included a few pictures from last nights show. I think that these images can tell the story so much better than I can. None of these images are doctored, it was really this good looking.
Image credits, as watermarked:
Dora Miller, (Aurora Dora) www.auroradora.com
Patrick Thun, https://instagram.com/alaska_scenery/
Today I opened one of our last packets of smoked salmon from the previous year. As I was peeling every last morsel of the meat off of the skin, I was a little bit sad that we have gone through all of it but a little bit excited because that just means that we are one day closer to the next season. I do have a few fillets frozen in the freezer that I might end up smoking this weekend just so that I have a little bit longer before we are completely out. I think that this coming up year, we are going to do things a little bit different though.
Every season for the past few years I have an ongoing debate with myself about where we are going to go to get our fish. Starting in the late winter / early spring I am always dead set on hitting Kenai because of the quality of the Sockeye that come out of there. The fish are much larger and much fatter there than they are at the next fishery down the road. Because the fish are more desirable, though, there is a large crowd to deal with and that is why I end up going to Kasilof.
According to Fish and Game, Alaskans harvest 130000 – 540000 out of the Kenai dipnetting fishery. This of course means that there are a LOT of people there. Typically this is my biggest complaint about the fishery itself. Kasilof on the other hand, tends to be a little bit less crowded from the beaches and even more so when fishing from a boat. This is in part because the fish tend to be smaller and less fatty and so less people like them. The highest number of Kasilof Sockeye harvested since 1996 was in 2013 and the count was 85,528. Here is the record of counts for the last 18 years up until 2013.
This year I think we are going to do things differently. While finishing my salty-smoky-sweet snack I was reflecting on if I should go to Kenai again this year, like I always think I am going to do. I think we might end up going to the Chitina personal use dipnetting fishery instead. The expedition itself is harder, the cost of entry is slightly higher, and there is more risk involved. The fish however, are world class. Literally. Copper River Sockeye are the best Sockeye Salmon that money can buy in the retail market. In fact, the first shipment of Copper River Salmon arriving to Seattle is kind of a big deal, with a professional Cook Off occurring within 24 hours within catching the ceremonial first catch. Fortunately they are available for a little bit of work and a small outdoors expedition. Ideally, this trip will give my daughters the opportunity to participate in the harvest and everything it includes without dealing with the crowds so much like we would on the peninsula. I want them to know where their food comes from and how it goes from living in the wild to landing on the table. To me it is something almost spiritual, to be able to connect with life and be involved with processing the things we eat on our own.
It's only been a few weeks since one of my personal favorite holidays. It's the day that makes the next 12 months either a marathon of excitement or an agony until the next time it comes around. Non-hunting spouses everywhere equally await the outcome of this fated day, not knowing until the event passes whether or not the budget will be bent to it's limits. The day I am talking about, of course, is the day that the drawing results come out from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the drawing hunts.
Every year I put in for a few specific hunts and then base the remainder of my hunting and fishing seasons around that. Of course there are always the hunts that every hunter wants to participate in. For me, those are: Bison (DI403, and DI404), and Antlerless Moose (DM406, DM402, and DM403). Of course, I put in for Bison every single year, and of course inevitably, a first time entrant gets one of these rare prized tags. I know that one day I will get it and that the money goes to a good cause (almost like voluntary tax dollars that support Fish and Game) so I continue to put in for it. On the beautiful side of things, out of the two times I have put in for Caribou (DC482), I have gotten it both times.
Many people might not fully understand what I am referring to in all of this jargon, so here is a quick explanation. We are a rapidly growing state, and some of our more prized hunting areas and animals are subject to heavy hunting pressure which might endanger the continued use of the natural resources. As a way to more effectively manage this, Fish and Game has a lottery system that costs a small fee per selected hunt. A large amount of people enter, a few people get selected to hunt this area and species.
The hunt that I drew for is in the west side of the Denali Highway, west of Maclaren River. It is a landscape covered in wild expanse larger than I think most people could ever realize without seeing it with their own eyes. It is truly remarkable country. This year, because we were drawn for hunting there we plan on spending a week berry picking, caribou hunting, and sightseeing. I highly recommend this trip to anyone looking to see what “real Alaska” looks like from one of the best places to see it on the road system.