Sunday, August 30, 2015

Land of the 10:35pm Sun; our Alaska trip

Alaska! My squadron had been planning a training exercise since March and I was pretty excited to go until I found out that Rob was scheduled to leave on a very long trip that same week. As luck would have it his departure date got pushed back a week and a space available slot opened up on one of our jets. So we got to both go on the trip and as far as air travel goes the lear jet isn’t half bad!

When you fly into Anchorage the first thing you notice is the striking scenery, It is beautiful there; mountains, ocean and glaciers abound over the vast  586,400 Square Miles. General Aviation is everywhere, you must be on the lookout when flying at low altitudes.  Alaska is such an isolated, untouched, spectacular land. Over 80% of the state is home to communities that can only be accessed by plane or boat. It stands to reason why there would be so many resident pilots. I read that plane crashes are more than twice the national average. A clear flight can quickly turn into a nightmare of clouds, rain and wind as pilots navigate tricky mountain ranges, glaciers and twisting rivers. Pilots often rely on sled dog trails, rivers, mountains or a familiar tree to keep them on track. The death of former Senator Ted Stevens was a glaring reminder of one of the hazards of being an Alaska resident. Regrettably, Stevens also lost his wife in a small plane crash in 1978. Pretty interesting huh?

This first full day in Anchorage we did a tour of the command center that would be controlling us for our C-21 missions while we were there. Then just about everyone that came on the trip went on a hike up Flattop mountain near Anchorage. It was a short drive out to the edge of town.  It took us about an hour or so to get to the top.  The trail was only around a mile and a half but with 1300 feet in elevation gain it was pretty steep with a bit of scrambling near the top. The top had views of mountains in three directions with the fourth view being a panoramic of the entire city of Anchorage. We stayed a while and watched paragliders launch themselves of the top. When we finally decided to rally and head down we found the paraglider pilots at the bottom. They were ex-military guys who said they went up there every day during the summer. That seemed like my kind of retirement hobby!

That night we went to dinner as a group at the Moose’s Tooth. This was my third time dining here, If you head to Anchorage, this place should be a definite stop, especially if you like pizza and beer. Sadly, I don’t, but my salmon salad was very good and the wine was good too although not much of a selection. The atmosphere was great, the company was good time as usual. If you go, head there early since the wait will most likely be over an hour.

The next day Rob and I took a day trip down to Seward to catch a bay cruise. The day got off to a wonderful start with the drive down the Seward highway. WOW, is the best word I can use to describe the scenery. I felt slightly sorry for Rob, since he was driving he got to spend less time gaping at the beauty surrounding us.  There was ocean, lakes, big mountains and glaciers along the way. I later found out that it was on the top ten most beautiful scenic drives in the United States according to several different news sources.

Our bay cruise was well worth the money. We chose to book through Major Marine Tours since they had good reviews. I am a wildlife fanatic. I love seeing animals in their native habitat, and this cruise offered a ton of wildlife viewing. We saw bald eagles, sea otters, a humpback whale, Dahl porpoises, a giant school of jelly fish and the adorable puffin. I think my favorite
is the Alaskan sea otter; this little guy likes to swim on his back and rub his feet together. He just looks like he is having the best time backstroking along and making fun of the tourists as they float by.  

Look close and you can see seals basking on the rocks

We sprung for the all you can eat salmon and steak buffet. The meat part of the buffet was beyond delicious. They said the silver salmon had been caught fresh from a local river. All you can eat can be a self-proclaimed dangerous event for Rob. He is a man who likes to get his money's worth and when they promise abundance he likes to test a vendors resolve. Apparently, this trait has rubbed off on me. When it came time to sit down for lunch I downed 2 silver salmon steaks and at least 12 ounces of tender prime rib. I will admit I spent the remainder of the cruise utilizing as little energy as possible so that my body could focus on digesting. It was worth it.

Our last full day in Anchorage we drove down to toward Whittier to check out the Portage Glacier. The internet promised spectacular views on a clear day, which apparently is pretty rare in Whittier. There is a local saying that goes something like "it is always $hittier in Whittier". We lucked out and it was a clear day so we decided to press. The Whittier tunnel was a pretty cool feat of engineering. Three miles of a one way tunnel through a big mountain. I am also an engineering fanatic. I won't bore you with the history but if you want here is a short history of how it was built. 

The hike was breathtaking the entire way. When you get to the top of the first hill you get a spectacular view of the Glacier which is on the other side of Portage Lake.  There were waterfalls running down the large mountains with lush green vegetation all along the way. Perfect cover for a bear or two. We brought some bear spray and we noticed most people had bells or bear spray with them as well.
When we finally made it down to the rocky shore of Lake Portage I think we had taken so many pictures our sim cards were nearly full. Rob was in paradise he mentioned how this hike was food for the soul. We were both enjoying the beauty of the place immensely when came the most peculiar part of the day and probably the only time we will ever witness something like this in our lives.  A family that we had chatted with on the way down, who had mentioned they were from Anchorage, got to the shore around the same time we had. Except, instead of putting on a jacket like I did, they opted to strip down to their bathing suit and went for a swim in the glacier lake! They had a gaggle of kids who were having a blast jumping all over the glacier ice that had chunked off of the Portage glacier. One little girl ran out into the water and began playing with a large chunk of ice as though it were a pool toy for quite sometime! Rob and I looked at each other as if to confirm what we were witnessing. We walked down to feel the water to see if it was close to a reasonable temperature; it wasn't. I suppose when you live through Alaskan winters the cold is relative and toughness is inherent, but in my mind the only way to encourage me to jump in a cold lake like that would be preceded with copious amounts of liquor.  

After picking blueberries and taking more photos along the hike we decided to go for lunch in Whittier. We discovered it to be an odd little town with mostly ramshackle buildings and not many choices in the way of food. Apparently, It was originally developed by the military; most of those ramshackle buildings are abandoned. We found out later that 75% of the town lives in one condo building. I am sure it made for a tight community, but my hopes of finding a nice little lunch spot were dashed. 

Day four we relocated to Kodiak Island, affectionately know as a "small drinking village with a fishing problem". It was a fun approach into the island because we flew around the entire island and did a little sight seeing. The main runway in on a Coast Guard base at the edge of the water towards a 2000 foot mountain. It was pretty neat scenery. I could get all Tolkien on you by spending over 2000 words describing the scenery but I will spare you and provide some nice photos. 

That night everyone went fishing. I went as a tag-along to watch. If you have never witnessed folks fishing in Alaskan rivers it is quite a sight to see. People line up along the banks when the salmon are running to catch their quota. There are so many fish in the water that it typically doesn't take much skill to bag your five in a just few hours. Salmon fishing is a local past time up there. By the time the guys were ready to leave that had caught 24 pink salmon or humpy's as the locals call them. As the pinks swim upstream to find their birthing spot the fresh water starts to disintegrate their bodies and their spines start to curve creating a hump on it's back. It was fun to watch the guys fishing they were like kids with all their grinning and laughing.
The final day on Kodiak island was the best day of the whole trip. Rob and I another squadron mate of mine decided to charter a float plane to go bear watching. Kodiak Island is home to the infamous Kodiak bear. It is the largest of the Alaskan bears weighing in on average over 1200lbs. Roughly two thirds or around 1.9 million acres is designated as national wildlife refuge. There are over 3000 of these bears on the island although they aren't known to come around the main city. We were all pretty curious to find a Kodiak bear out in the wild.

The plane we ended up flying in is was a De havilland Beaver. The pilot said it was from the 1940's and still had an old radial engine. Taking off was pretty cool. It was a bit of a rush skimming along the water watching the shoreline beside you get smaller. It didn't seem possible. I am sure that we were all secretly wishing we had our hands on the controls.

On our way over to the inlet where the fish hatchery was we spotted a pod of orca whales. we descended low over the water to get a closer look. It really was a very cool sight to see. There were eight of them traveling along cresting the water every 10 seconds or so. They are a pretty whale with their black and white markings.

When we arrived at the hatchery, the landing was just as exciting as the takeoff.  We skidded to a stop by a couple of fishing boats then motored toward the dock. One of the first things we noticed was all of the salmon in the water, millions of salmon. Their was a small boat near the edge of the shore racing around in circles shooting air bubbles into the water. Apparently, they were doing what they called a cost reclamation or something along those lines. Once a year they round up a bunch of the salmon and sell them to local markets in order to help offset the cost of the hatchery. They receive subsidies from local fisherman and the state but that is not enough to cover all of their expenses so they do some fishing of their own.  One of the senior workers met us and began giving us the details about the hatchery. He was extremely knowledgeable; we were enjoying learning about the life cycle of their salmon when I looked over towards the trees and saw what we had came for, Kodiak bears! A Mama bear and her cub were moseying down to the water to pick out some fish for lunch. The cub was extremely small, our new friend mentioned that they had seen the cub a few weeks ago and did not think it was going to live. The abundance of food near by must have given it a fighting chance. Our guide told us to get small and walk slowly over toward where they were moving towards.  We camped out about 15 feet from where she was at in the water. We watched her move back and forth in between the water and her cub as she plopped fish on the shore for them to consume. She seemed to be picky as she turned her nose up at some of the fish we had slain. She was quite an impressive animal; her front claws were probably over 8 inches long and she was definitely an average sized Kodiak bear, meaning huge. Her cub was adorably tiny but we knew better then to get close to it, from the horror stories of people getting in-between mama and baby. Every Alaskan I met seems to have a bear story, one that probably left there underwear just a little bit marred. We felt fortunate to watch these bears from a close but reasonable distance and escape to tell the tale.  

The next day we headed home in our aforementioned lear jets. Everyone seemed tired from the excitement but our bellies were  full of salmon and our adventure bug had been squashed for the time being. Alaska is a great destination especially if you like nature. Although this was a work trip the fact that Rob got to come made it feel more like a vacation, and it will be remembered by us a trip of a lifetime.   

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Land O' Lakes: our trip to Michigan

From the handful of times I have visited the Midwest I was left with an impression of friendly down-to-earth people, plenty of delectable dairy dishes for the choosing, and the flowing of beer and wine infused into the culture. My recent trip to Michigan was no disappointment from my past experiences. Rob and I took our first 6 day trip up to Northern Michigan and I have to say it was definitely too short.

 I say it was our first trip because Rob's family has a little summer cottage on Lake Michigan in the township of Empire. It is quaint, quiet, relaxing and awesome. We have explicit plans to go back next year. . .maybe every year. Their house has shoreline right on Lake Michigan with beach access and spectacular view of the lake. It was built in the late 60's and still has a 70's feel to it as much of the same furniture and appliances are still there. The best part about it is you are totally disconnected, no internet, no TV just the sound of the lake gently lapping against the shore. I can almost hear it now.

If you have never been to Michigan you may have had the same reaction as I did when Rob said he wanted to vacation in Michigan...Michigan? Isn't it cold there? What is there to do in Michigan? Should we invest in bullet proof vests? I admit the extent of my knowledge came from news stories about Detroit violence, NPR specials about the collapsing auto industry and HGTV's Rehap Addict who fixes up dilapidated houses in the ghetto. I was more than pleasantly surprised to find out how wrong I was.

We flew into Detroit which was a mistake. Only because it was a 4.5 hour drive to Poor Richards (the name of the cottage), this made for a very long day of travel given that we drove to Denver then had a connection through Dallas. My first pleasant surprise came from the fact that we did not have to dodge gang members and flying bullets to pickup our rental car. I know my thoughts are ridiculous but sometimes stereotypes can be difficult to overcome.

We arrived at Poor Richards just in time for the sunset which was at precisely 9:18 pm that night. This became our nightly routine to just sit and watch the sun go down with a glass of wine in hand. I am a bit of a sunset junky, as I REALLY appreciate a good one. Lake Michigan sunsets are right there at the top of my list of all time favorites. Other notable sunsets include, flying in a plane over Southern Arizona, Heron Island in Australia, and Cala Luna Point in Costa Rica.

The next day we went exploring around the Leelanau Peninsula. As I came to find out the area is known for sweet cherries, chocolate and wineries. . .What?!? I believe if a girl had to chose a dream place to vacation this could be it. We started in Glen Arbor and spent the morning tasting cherries and chocolate at Cherry Republic. Glen Arbor is an adorable little European style township. We ended up eating there a few times since it is only 15 minutes from the cottage with a good selection of restaurants. We next drove up to Leeland, which is a little fishing village. There was an adorable dock with turn of the century fishing shanties which have been converted to little shops. Rob got a sandwich on a pretzel bun from the Cheese Shanty which came recommended by the locals. He raved about the flavor and softness of the bun, but I wanted to save my appetite for wine tasting. We made a loop up and around to Suttons Bay checking out the small towns in between. We passed by a grass airport strip along the way, which got Rob pretty excited, so we stopped to be tourists. Grass strips are always fun to see. As pilots we like imagine ourselves with our own plane making the landing there. Hopefully, someday we get the opportunity to land on that strip.
We finished out a perfect day at Black Star farms where we did a 5 for $5 wine tasting. Our wine specialists was so friendly chatting with us that he just kept pouring. I am pretty sure our 5 pours turned into more like 10. That was the start of my trip addiction to their Sur Lie Chardonnay. I think I put away 4 bottles in 4 days with little help from Rob. By the time we were done with our "5" pours I was pretty hungry so we ordered their farm to table gluten-free veggie pizza. It was amazing! Everything was from their farm to include the cheese and crust which was made from grape flour. Yum.

We spent the next few days exploring the nature and town around us. We went hiking along Empire Bluffs which revealed a spectacular view of the shoreline. We took the canoe out in South Bar lake which was a fun and relaxing upper body workout. We walked the coastline up to North Bar lake which was a tranquil lake set a few feet from the edge of Lake Michigan. It was peaceful to wade into this sandy warm lake. I always like to stay active on vacations and we did plenty of hiking and walking while we were there. If you are a fit bit fanatic like I am I like to shoot for 15,000 steps while on vacation to make up for our lack of gym time, but I digress.
We ate out a couple of times at the local restaurant in Empire called Joes Friendly Tavern . I have to give a shout out to this place because the food was good and the people were friendly, go figure. When we had dinner there the place was packed, but we managed to sneak into a couple of seats at the bar. We immediately took noticed of the jovial owner who was energetically chatting with every single patron in the place. He was bussing tables and helping the waitress bring out the food to keep things moving. You hardly ever see that kind of service. One of the many reasons I like the Midwest.
On the weekend we went hiking at the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes which is National Park. As a side note if you are military make sure to get your free National Parks pass from the forest service, it is such a great deal! We hiked four miles roundtrip in deep sand. It was a killer workout and also fun. We began our hike with a steep climb up what was the first of many steep hills. As we trudged forward we passed many pouting children and discontented couples discussing whether or not to continue on. I admit that after the fourth steep and sandy hill I was tempted to whine a little myself, but I knew the view and sense of accomplishment would be worth it. It was worth it. When we rounded the last corner and we were rewarded with a crisp breeze and the cool water of the lake Michigan. We got a little wet, took some pictures then we turned around for the long trip back.
It was so hot and sandy, it was difficult to imagine this area was shaped by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago. Apparently, the dunes are migratory, moving over 3 feet per year, pushed by the wind. It is really an amazing geological wonder. After the hike we did a scenic loop drive that offered more spectacularly steep dunes and view of the Manitou islands. On our way home we rewarded ourselves with a stop at a farm stand for cherries and blueberries. It was another perfect day.

The last night we went for a nice dinner at the highly recommended Blu in Glen Arbor. It was farm to table restaurant although a bit pricey. We thought the food was great although in typical fancy style the portions were small. So we capped off the evening with a walk back into town for ice cream.

The best word I can come up with to summarize the trip is: lovely. The misconceptions I had about Michigan were replaced with fond memories and a thirst for more cherries, wine and lake-style relaxation. See you next time Empire!