7.27.2012

Alaska Road Trip: Day 21

The laundromat in Haines was packed full of people who, like us, were taking the ferry because the road was closed. The lady running the place incorrectly told me that there were not laundry facilities on our boat. She was too congenial to be snookering us, so it must have been an honest mistake. Although it was nice to be able to pack clean laundry, the laundromat prices were mighty steep. 


The laundromat also offered pay showers: 



At eight bucks a load, you would think the dryer would be fast. But it wasn't. So we spent a lot of time at that laundromat.


When our clothes were finally dry, we went back to our cabin for another major repacking job. We downsized each child into one small duffle bag with four days worth of clothes.

Our next stop was the outdoor store. Steve walked in and bluntly said, "Tell me what I need to buy to take on the ferry." That man had no idea how much he could have taken us for, but he wasn't much of a salesman and lazily pointed to an aisle of camping gear. Steve purchased a camping pad for me and this sweet backpacking pack for Rachel. Well, it was bought under the pretense of being for Rachel, but Steve made sure it adjusted large enough to fit me since he stole my pack from me a few years ago. 


We still had a few more hours before go time, so we went to dinner at Mosey's Cantina


While we waited for the restaurant to open for dinner, we walked around the yard and saw dozens of perennial transplants and seedlings, whimsically planted in boats.


And we checked out the the vegetable garden in the back:


The flowers on the patio were pretty:


As was the view from the patio:


The decor inside of the restaurant was bright and colorful. For a moment, it felt like we were anywhere but Alaska. 


When we caught a glimpse of the ladies in the back preparing things from scratch, we knew the food was going to be good. But we weren't expecting it to be this good:


Who would have thought a tiny town in Alaska would have a Mexican restaurant good enough to make Steve's top ten list. But it did. 

As we drove to the dock, I tried to capture the majestic beauty of the inlet. I didn't do very well. 


And then, with great anticipation, we saw our boat, the M/V Columbia: 


Steve and I were still a bit apprehensive about the ferry. Even though we arrived well ahead of time (2.5 hours before departure), there were already dozens of other vehicles lined up in front of us for boarding. There was so much uncertainty about the loading process, where we were going to sleep, how we were going to keep Adam from falling off the deck railing and into the ocean, etc. Steve drove our car into the designated lane and sent me inside to ask all of our questions, the first being how to get on the waiting list for a cabin. The lady sent me over to talk to the purser, and we were put at the top of the list. 

After I got things figured out, I went back to the car and traded spots with Steve. He took Rachel, Lucy, and a big load of our things to go find an area in the solarium. We didn't realize it was such a race to stake your claim! And since many of the passengers boarded the ferry in Skagway, the pickings were already slim. Most of the solarium was already claimed by campers who had reserved their area by putting their sleeping bags on white, plastic recliners. 

It was obvious that many of the campers were veteran ferry travelers. Some had quickly reserved the area in the back, the warmest part of the solarium with the most protection from the elements. Others stacked their plastic recliners two high and positioned them to face the side windows for optimal viewing. Steve said he was lucky to find an area large enough for six recliners together; our spot was right on the edge of the covered area, most exposed to the cold/wind/rain. 

He came back to the car and swapped positions with me again. Adam and I walked onto the vehicle ramp just as Steve was embarking with the Pilot. 


The kids were completely giddy with excitement.


Because really. . . what could be more exciting than camping on a boat?


After getting ready for bed in the public bathrooms, the kids read books (that's Dr. Seuss on my phone) until they fell asleep. 


It was still light outside and they were pretty fascinated with the whole concept of going to sleep on a boat. So some of the kids did a lot of reading.


We had asked a lady in Haines, the day before, if we were going to be cold on the ferry. She had told us the only time she got chilly was from the air conditioning. She clearly wasn't sleeping outside. It was cold. Steve and I did not bring sleeping bags on our trip, and the quilts we used in the trailer were packed away, almost completely inaccessible. (We had planned to sleep in hotels on the way home and didn't think we would need them. And yes, a sleeping bag would have been a good purchase to make before getting on the ferry, but we already have so many at home. And the lady had told us it wasn't going to be cold.) Note the ice on top of the solarium windows. 


Steve and I had one pillow and one blanket between the two of us. I gave him the pillow and kept the blanket for myself. We repositioned our plastic recliners into a circle, with all of our belongings in the middle. Then we moved our bags up on the recliners and I slept with the three youngest kids on the ground inside of the circle, snuggled right close together. That gave us some protection from the wind and created some body heat warmth. It also seemed a whole lot safer, having Adam and Kaleigh right next to me. I was exhausted and fell asleep without too much difficulty. Steve stayed awake for most of the night, watching over us from his plastic recliner and reading. 

7.23.2012

Alaska Road Trip: Day 20

I spent a good part of the morning sitting out on the porch in the rain because it was the only place I could get phone reception and internet access. I was trying to get through to someone at the Alaska Marine Highway to ask questions about the ferry. It was Sunday, and I never got ahold of anyone, but I eventually found enough information online. 

The ferry departed from Haines once a week, on Monday nights. It would make stops in Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Ketchikan before arriving in Bellingham, Washington on Friday morning. Steve and I would be charged the full price fare ($353 each). As children, Rachel and Lucy would be charged a discounted fare ($177 each). Adam and Kaleigh would both be free since they were under the age of six. Our Honda Pilot would cost another thousand dollars to transport. (Vehicles are charged by length, not weight). There were no cabins available, but we felt lucky that there were still spots open for passengers and a few spaces left for vehicles. 

We took what information we had and weighed the pros and cons of taking the ferry. Riding the ferry would cut 1500 miles out of our trip, reducing our fuel costs and hotel stays. Arriving in Washington on Friday would keep us fairly close to our originally scheduled itinerary. And it would certainly be an adventure. We eventually decided to go ahead and make reservations while there were still openings. 


We went to the grocery store, and I'm certain we went up and down every aisle at least five times. We had three kids running around looking for something to spend their money on and one little girl in the cart who had to ask everyone what their name was. 

There were at least a dozen other grocery prices that I wanted to take pictures of, but my brain was going crazy trying to plan meals for the next five days as my eyes were scanning the shelves for reasonably priced items.


In addition to cost, there were so many things to factor into our meal planning: how portable it was, where we were going to be eating it, what we had to cook it with, how much room we had in our cooler, what our kids would actually eat, how many dishes it would dirty. Oh yeah, and if it was somewhat healthy. 

By this point in our trip, I had learned a few things. Most places you go will sell fresh fruit for about a dollar a piece. Alaska grocery store prices were about the same. So there was no point packing in our own fruit, that was sure to get bruised, if we could buy an apple, orange, or banana at our destination for an equivalent price. Pringles hold up better than bagged chips. Pita bread and bagels travel better than bread, but bagels can be quite crumbly when you have a little girl who thinks it's okay to tear them into little pieces. And there is no such thing as too many granola bars.

After repurchasing many of the same grocery items that we had left in Anchorage due to lack of space, we were ready to go. On our way out of the store, Kaleigh dropped/threw my iPhone. It slid across the aisle and right under the half-inch opening underneath the shelves, which were connected to the wall. The store manager had to deconstruct part of the shelving structure to retrieve it.

We left some of our dignity inside of that grocery store, but at least we got out of there with our groceries, our kids, and my phone.

It was time for lunch, so we went back to Bear Creek Cabins, where Steve was pleasantly surprised to find that the communal kitchen was better equipped than our kitchen at home.


Bear Creek Cabins turned out to be a really great place for us to stay. The owners were friendly and told us where to take the kids for a short hike to see wildflowers, to go to Mud Bay to find seashells, and where to see bears. The facilities were clean and well maintained. There was an open grassy field for the kids to run around on, and the only other group was staying in the family cabin, so we ended up having the communal bathrooms to ourselves. 


Steve was hoping to see a bear grabbing salmon out of the river with it's paw so we drove towards Chilkoot Lake. We were right by Tanini Bay when we saw these grizzly bears lounging on the rocky beach.


We drove by the nice place to stay in Haines, the Chilkoot River Lodge. (They hadn't answered the phone the night before, and we hadn't been able to find it in the dark.)

Sadly, we didn't see any bears eating salmon in the river, but there were lots of fishermen. Chilkoot Lake offers some of the best Sockeye Salmon fishing in South Alaska and is also a popular site for kayaking. It is safe and peaceful, perfect for beginners. Bald eagles from the nearby Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve can be spotted from the lake, which is also used for ice skating during the winter. The lake is tucked back into a valley and perfectly picturesque. People who are far braver than I am were camping in tents right next to the lake.


Lucy was so nervous to walk out onto the floating dock. I'm not sure why she thought it was a good idea to hold Adam's hand.


This is what we looked like, sans trailer.


We took the kids to play at the park (so many great playgrounds in Alaska!) 


We had been saving our Canada tattoos for when we drove back through Canada. But since we would be skipping over our Vancouver stay, we let the kids go to town. Tattoos are kind of a big deal in our family.

     

After dinner, we roasted marshmallows and made s'mores. It was our second and last campfire of the entire trip. I didn't sneak a picture of him, but we were being serenaded by Jameson, the owner's nephew, and his guitar.


We bought the jumbo marshmallows, which aren't my favorite because they are disproportionately large when making s'mores.


Now can you tell how big they are?


Five million trips back and forth to the communal bathroom to get everyone showered, and we were done for the night.

Alaska Road Trip: Day 19

There were lots of things left on my list of things to do in Fairbanks: canoe down the Chena River, go swimming at Chena Hot Springs, see the reindeer at Running Reindeer Ranch, take a tour of The Aurora Ice Museum, pan for gold at Gold Dredge No. 8, go to the Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center, and ride bikes to the Birch Hill Recreation Area. But since Fairbanks had the most expensive hotels in all of Alaska, we kept our stay short.

We left Fairbanks and drove fifteen miles to North Pole. Yes, there is a city in Alaska named North Pole, and the story of how that came to be is actually quite interesting. They hoped that a toy manufacturer would want to build a plant in their city so the toys could be advertised as being "made in North Pole." To the dismay of nearby communities, the name change was approved and North Pole became an incorporated city in 1953. The "made in North Pole" endeavor hasn't panned out yet, but North Pole has become a bit of a tourist attraction. The town receives thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus each year, and many people mail their holiday cards from the town so they can be postmarked "North Pole". 

The town's streets were named to go along with the Christmas theme: Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle, Mistletoe, Holiday Road, Saint Nicholas Drive, North Star Drive, Blitzen, Donnor, and Snowman Lane. The fire trucks and ambulances are all red; the police cars are green. Street lights are decorated as candy canes. And so is the McDonald's sign: 


But the real attraction at the North Pole is the Santa Claus House:


We had been given negative review of the Santa Claus House, so I stayed in the car with the kids and sent Steve inside to check things out. He came out with the biggest grin on his face. "They've got Christmas music playing in there! It's worth going in just for that!"

Yes, the Santa Claus House was filled with more Christmas trinkets than you've ever seen in your life. Yes, it is all a little hokey. And yes, I might have gone crazy with four kids in there by myself. But something about seeing Steve get excited about the Christmas music made the whole thing really funny to me. 


The kids were sad to see that Santa's chair was empty. But then we looked across the store and saw him!


He invited the kids to sit on his lap. They unintentionally separated themselves into two groups. The believers:


And the unbeliever:


That Santa Claus was as real as could be. He knew all about Ogden and said that he had been to Temple Square forty times. If you happen to be interested, you can order an official, personalized letter from Santa Claus to be sent to your child from the North Pole. (And just so you know why the kids look so disshelved because we were prepared to drive all day and through the night, not get pictures taken with Santa.) 

The girls bought postcards so they could send something to their friends from the North Pole. 


Steve took the little kids outside to sit in Santa's sleigh: 


And to see Santa's reindeer: 


But the reindeer were all looking pretty sleepy: 


This is the group of people who went in and saw Santa after us. Every single one of them lined up to sit on Santa's lap. 


After our fun stop, we bid farewell to the largest fiberglass statue of Santa Claus in the world. All 42 feet tall and 900 lbs. of him.  tall, 900 pound, three-dimensional 


And Steve went right to work drafting off of the garbage truck in front of us. Yep, he got us up to thirty miles per gallon. 


We stopped at Delta Junction so we could see the end of the Alaska Highway. (On our drive into Alaska, we headed west towards Anchorage before reaching the end of the Alaska Highway.)


If you can't read the words on the sign, it says that at the peak of construction 77 contractors employed 15,000 men and 11,000 pieces of road building equipment. The total construction cost for 1422 miles was $115,000,000. 


We also saw how large the Alyeska Pipeline is compared to other pipelines: 

 

Lucy got bit by a humongous mosquito: 


And then we went to a gas station. I pulled up to the pump, got out, and saw the sign "Card reader broken. Please pay inside." I pulled up to the next pump, "Card reader broken. Please pay inside." I swung around to a third pump on the other side. My card wouldn't work, so I sent Steve inside to pay. While he was in the gas station, Steve just happened to glance over and see the newspaper headline: Alaska Highway closed in two places

Ummm, what?!? 

"The highway is all washed out from a mudslide. . . nobody is getting through," the gas station attendant told him. We were sent over to the visitor center to get more information. 

Steve and I left the kids in the car and went in together; we could hardly believe what we were told. All roads leading to Alaska from the Yukon Territory were blocked. Abnormal flooding had caused multiple road closures. Huge road closures that were 150 miles long. 

We asked if this was normal. (No.) We asked if there were any possible road detours. (No.) We asked how long something like this would take to open. (They weren't supposed to give official estimates, but they were hoping to get it opened up in four or five days, depending on the weather. Work crews were waiting for the water to recede before they could even begin repairing the road.) What?!?

We were faced with a decision. We could either drive to Whitehorse, the last city before the road closure, and wait things out there. (With the hundreds of other people waiting to get through.) Except that when we drove through Whitehorse on our way to Alaska, we weren't too impressed with their expensive McDonald's. And we didn't really want to spend our time waiting things out in Canada, where we were limited with our cell phone and internet usage. 

Or we could drive through Canada and back into the southeastern corner of Alaska, down to Haines, and try to get onto the ferry, completely bypassing the Alaska Highway altogether. 

We didn't have much time to decide because the border crossing station to get back into the United States closed at midnight and we had a twelve hour drive ahead of us. With the uncertainty of the road conditions, we were going to be cutting things close. 

We had originally considered taking the ferry (the Alaska Marine Highway System) home, but decided that it was too expensive to get a cabin (which had been sold out for months) and sleeping on the boat's deck with four kids. . . our four kids. . . sounded nerve-wracking, disturbing, and slightly dangerous. 

But getting stuck in Canada sounded maddening. And expensive. 

We decided to drive to Haines, where we would look into riding the ferry to Washington. If we couldn't get on or didn't feel good about it, we would wait for the road to be opened, ride the ferry up through Skagway, and drive home. That seemed like a better plan than going to Whitehorse. 

We drove fast, like the deer: 


Back into Canada:


And through some beautiful scenery. It was absolutely stunning, and there weren't any other people around. But we were in such a hurry that we didn't even stop to take a picture. I took this from the passenger window:


We made a quick pitstop for dinner (and a road condition update) at The Village Bakery in Haines Junction, Yukon. And then we kept driving. This is the third porcupine we saw (the first that we finally caught on camera):


Later, Steve needed to get out of the car and wanted play in the snow. But the kids were quietly watching a movie and I had no interest in disturbing them (or getting cold). So Steve went out and walked around by himself.


We spotted this bear on the side of the road right before we pulled up to the border crossing station to get back into the United States: 


When we got to Haines, it was darkish. But we could still get a sense of the splendor of tiny town, which is located just east over the mountains from Glacier Bay National Park. We drove around to check out all of the lodging options that I had searched from my phone. I got out and looked at one cabin, but it didn't really have a good feel to it. The kids were all asleep in the car, and I tried to talk Steve into sleeping in the car for the night. (Nope.) We circled the town over and over  and over again, trying to decide where to stay. There weren't very many options and nothing seemed quite right for our family of six. (When did we get so many kids and when did we become so high maintenance?) By then, it was past midnight. so when we called to check for available rooms, we were waking people up. 

The family cabin at the Bear Creek Cabins was already reserved, but we went to go check it out anyway. They had private cabins that were open, but that meant we would be using communal bathrooms (not my favorite thing to do). We were out of options, so we paid the $68, unloaded our luggage, and went to bed for the night.