Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Day 5 in Valdez

We arrived in Valdez after a spectacular drive to get there. (See previous post about the two major waterfalls in Keystone Canyon). We picked Bear Paw RV Park and were very happy we did. Forty dollars a night right in the heart of Valdez with the harbor right across the street. The staff was super friendly, the sites were reasonably spaced apart even though it's basically a parking lot, and they offer plenty of services. They have TWO parks in one...their second park is right near the first one, and it's for adults only. The second park was for much bigger rigs when we pulled in. The main park has crushed gravel, very level sites. They have private restrooms, a laundromat, a dump station, cable TV, Wi-fi and hot, unmetered showers. The adults only second park is their waterfront park on Prince William Sound, with larger and more wooded sites.


Stellar's Jay-courtesy of Fish and Wildlife Service
We loved Bear Paw. Saw a bald eagle who visits daily in a tree just outside the office. Saw a Stellar's Jay while we were there in the park as well. Beautiful navy and royal blue jay....

Plenty of things to see and do in Valdez (Val-deez) with some great places to eat as well. Valdez has FIVE glaciers in the area that you can see and visit. One of the things Sparky wanted to do was take a cruise around the Prince William Sound with Captain Fred of the LuluBelle. She had read reviews of the two main glacier/wildlife cruises before leaving home. One was called the Stan Stephens glacier/wildlife cruise, and the other one was called LuluBelle Tours . Either one is spectacular, but the LuluBelle is a smaller boat and we thought the experience would be better with not such a big crowd on board. Not only that, but the Stan Stephens appears to have to run on a much tighter schedule and not have quite the flexibility of staying in the area if wildlife is being spotted. Since we were there early in the season, we had no trouble booking our tickets the day before the cruise. And we chose the LuluBelle. It's a posh touring vessel. Oriental rugs inside the stateroom and in the captain's cabin, teak and mahogany woodwork throughout, it's gorgeous. 


Captain Fred has been running these tours for 39 years and he really knows where to go and how long to hang out. We saw EVERYTHING that the opening page of the website talks about. We were exceptionally lucky the day we went. Did we see wildlife? Is the pope Catholic? Does a bear shit in the woods? Oh, YEAH! 

Harbor seals? Check.
Bald eagles? Check.
Stellar sea lions? Check. One big fat mama. Check.
Go into a rocky cave in the boat (!) and bang your head on the rocks if you don't watch out? Check. He actually went part way into the tunnel and the rocks were right over your head! He kept saying, "Want to get closer?" Uh, ok....

Sea otters? Check. Up close and personal? Check.
Dall porpoise? Check. They look like mini orca whales. They swam and played under and around the bow of the boat. They were so fast! Sparky has a video of them on YouTube if you'd like to see them in action. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1inBYRCSMw

AND...tada...the whales...we saw several....AND Sparky caught the best shot of all, one on her bucket list...the tail end.

Captain Fred is terrific. He's a non-stop talker pretty much for the whole cruise, full of interesting facts and history. We learned a LOT about the wildlife and the area. We enjoyed his narrative very much. 
The Columbia Glacier was fantastic! We did not see much calving, however. Sometimes, there are huge chunks as big as houses cracking and falling off the front of the glacier, but not this time. It was still spectacular. You could hear booming and cracking, it just wasn't falling much today.....

The fresh air was too much for some, and people were in and out of the inside cabin, in and out. Eventually, some just had enough of the fresh cold air which was in the 30's by the time we got to the Columbia Glacier and sacked out on the way back. 

We had a marvelous time because we dressed really warmly, lol....you would be miserable if you don't wear appropriate clothing! Think dead of winter clothing and you'll be fine for whatever the weather brings.  We absolutely loved this tour. We would go back and do it again in a heartbeat. We'll tell you about where we ate while we were in Valdez next time.....See you soon!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Day 4 Driving to Valdez on the Richardson Highway

After leaving the Fairbanks city limit, we are heading southeast on the Richardson Highway towards Valdez. (The natives pronounce it 'Val-deez', just so you know). There is tons of construction on the Richardson Highway this summer. We hit sections of loose gravel on the Richardson, we encounter lots of slowdowns and worry about rocks flying up. We notice that the rocks and stones flying up are kicking up from our tires from our own RV, not from construction trucks. Sparky winces at every hit, because it's LOUD,but we get through the construction ok....

Right away, as we get started, we notice that the Milepost Directory tells us we will be following the pipeline all the way to Valdez and sure enough we see it above ground, then it disappears below ground some of the time, but it's always there. We stop more than once to read all the placards, and get this--YOU CAN WALK RIGHT UP TO THE PIPELINE IN PLACES AND TOUCH IT! What??!! No fences, no gate???  Nope, not in some of the sections. In other sections, very fenced off and NO ADMITTANCE. That totally shocked us, that it was so easily accessible. We couldn't see any cameras, although we are sure they must have been somewhere.  Guess they figure it's so remote that who's going to mess with it. Certainly, not us! This is Sparky, touching THE ALASKAN PIPELINE.
Regardless of how one feels about the pipeline traversing the beautiful Alaskan wilderness, it's interesting to learn about it. The above ground sections are built in a zig zag pattern to allow for the expansion and contraction of the pipe due to temperature changes. It's 800 miles long and the diameter of the pipe is 48 inches. It cost 8 billion in 1977 and was PRIVATELY FUNDED, the largest privately funded construction project at the time. It crosses three mountain ranges and over 500 rivers and streams. (THAT part scares the heck outta Sparky.)

Where there is permafrost, and the oil in the pipe might cause the ground to thaw and make the pipeline unstable, the pipeline is insulated and has unique supports above ground. There are vertical pips called Vertical Support Members (clever name) that sometimes contain heat pipes to REMOVE the heat and keep the ground frozen.  Here's one more interesting fact about the pipeline, and then we'll move on:
As we get closer to Valdez, we stop and see the Worthington Glacier (very small as far as glaciers go), but you can walk a short distance and get fairly close to it. We read in the Milepost of several cool things to see--an old railroad tunnel that was never completed that involved a gunfight, and waterfalls in the Keystone Canyon area. Are they ever SPECTACULAR!  Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls. WOW! The scale and grandeur of these falls was jaw dropping. Wish there was a person standing at the guard rail for perspective but not at this time. This is Bridal Veil Falls.
And, Horsetail Falls.....

We arrive in Valdez, planning to stay at the Bear Paw Campground, having checked our Milepost directory for different campgrounds and calling around. There are several in Valdez, at least three right downtown. We picked Bear Paw because it was VERY centrally located and got great reviews. It's a gravel parking lot, but well done. We weren't disappointed! More about Bear Paw tomorrow, a fantastic trip out on the ocean on the Lulubelle, and great places to eat!
See you on the road.....er, ocean!

Monday, July 2, 2018

Day 3, Driving in Alaska

We really like heading to Alaska during early June. Tourists have not quite arrived in great numbers yet, it's easy to find pullouts, and the tours in towns are not quite booked up yet. The weather is in the 50's during the day, and the forties at night, which feels wonderful to us Floridians. We are on our way to Fairbanks, via the Parks Highway. Our plan is to check out Fairbanks, maybe stay a day or two and then head east and then south, eventually heading to Valdez. There is a lot to see and do in Fairbanks....You can check TripAdvisor.com for a wonderful list of things to do. There's lots of culture in Fairbanks, but for us, we are geared towards nature this time. So we decide to pass on by Fairbanks. We're driving along, passing moose habitat after moose habitat. We see no moose. Sparky inquires, "How come with all this perfect moose habitat, we're not seeing any moose?" and just as she looks down at the Milepost directory which keeps saying, "watch for moose" and we keep seeing yellow moose alert signs by the road, Eldo shouts, "MOOSE! MOOSE!" Sparky looks up and there one is! But as she sees it, it's too late to get a photo, so Eldo knows, the question is coming, "Can we turn around?" Now mind you, we're in a 33 foot motor home and that's just not as easy as turning around in a car. But Eldo is so well trained by now, Sparky doesn't even have to ask. He turns the rig around and back we go to the pond. The moose sees us and shuffles off through the underbrush. DARN! But hang on, there's another one! 

Yay! Two moose in one day! And off we go again...

Sparky is intrigued by the name of the town, North Pole, Alaska. the Milepost directory says the whole town is decorated all year round for Christmas. Even the light poles are candy cane striped. So we decide to stop there, at the coolest Christmas shop ever, called the Santa Claus House. Not only is it BIG, but it has all kinds of ornaments (Sparky's favorite part about decorating for Christmas). There are reindeer right next door to the shop. The outside of the shop has cool painted tile artwork on it. Sparky buys a cool metallic Alaska ornament. The nice extra they do for the people who pass through their shop, whether you buy something or not (as long as you buy the postcard) they will mail it for you from the shop so it gets a postmark of North Pole, Alaska. AND they even pay the postage! Beautiful things in there, but many, if not most items were from China. Sparky found a cool few things made in the USA, like these Belsnickel Bells. 

Yes, it's a touristy shop, but it's still beautiful and fun to look around. They have inexpensive items and high dollar ones, like this Russian carving for $15,000. 

And they have the courtesy to let you know how much time there is left until Christmas! (Sparky better get rolling on her Christmas crafts when she gets home!)

We press on....We stopped by the Delta River, which is a braided river. So much silt is deposited by glacier runoff and glacier melt, that the river winds and turns and the pathways it travels are many in number, giving it the "braided" look and therefore the name. 

We see a willow ptarmigan on one of our stops and a bald eagle. Sure, we can see bald eagles at home in Florida, but something about seeing them against the magnificent mountains in Alaska, makes seeing them more special. Sparky is in 7th heaven. The scenery is non stop spectacular....

And the moose signs many.....
We were thinking of visiting Wrangell St. Elias National Park, but you can't take an RV in very far at all. The roads are too rough and restricted to RV rentals. It's huge,  13.2 MILLION acres and has very few visitors compared to other national parks. We do visit the park entrance for the required tourist photo and the visitor's center which was very informative. 

We boondock for the night at MM112.6, at the Simpson Hill Overlook.  In the Milepost directory, it says it "has a long paved parking area east side of the highway. Wide paved access road with a big turnaround and an excellent view.  On a clear day, you can see the Wrangell Mountains." We did....It was very spacious, an excellent boondocking spot. The Wrangell Mountains consist of Mt. Sanford, 16,237 feet, Mt. Drum, 12, 010 feet, and Mt. Wrangell, 14,163 feet. They were beautiful. Unfortunately, Sparky has so many photos of all the beautiful mountains in Alaska, she can't find a specific shot of that range. There are many mountains in Alaska which are not named, simply because there are just so many! Our plan is to head to Valdez in the morning.....We are having no trouble sleeping despite the many long hours of daylight this time of year in Alaska. It doesn't get darker until about 11:30PM and even then, it's more like dusk back home. 

We did put a black cloth over the bedroom vent in the motorhome to block out the bright light at night and that helps some. Some people bring or purchase a piece of aluminum "shade", like the silver sun blocker shades you put in car front windows during the summer. They just get a cut piece the approximate size of the vent opening and push it up there and it stays without any tape, helping to reduce the light and the heat loss during the cool/cold summer nights in Alaska. Other people put aluminum foil all over the windows in the bedroom, but we were so refreshingly tired every night from the fresh air, we didn't need to do that. 

See you tomorrow (or soon...) on the way to Valdez with the Alaskan Pipeline!

Friday, June 22, 2018

Day 1, Day 2 Driving an RV in Alaska

We spent the night in the parking lot of Great Alaskan Holidays. That was our first day in Alaska, flying in and spending the night at the company's parking lot. It was quiet and we were tired. They give you access to the rig because they know that for the most part, you arrived late and are tired. In the morning, bright and early, we were to watch a video and then be on our way! We had the rental for the week, and we intended to make the most of it!

The video was GREAT! We were thinking, geez, with all our experience, this is going to be a waste of time, but it wasn't! We learned a couple of things. One was, why people bottom out on the back of their rigs leaving parking lots...why? Because they drive straight out instead of on an angle. Many of the gas stations in Alaska have fairly steep entrance or exit driveways, so we were glad to learn about this tip. They also had tips about going around obstacles which we found helpful, and were sure that many people, newbies mostly likely, don't realize how far forward you have to go before turning the rig and where tail swing comes into play. Eldy remembered the tip about don't make your turn until the rear wheels have just passed where you want to make your turn to allow the full length of the rig to be where it needs to be so you don't hit anything or anybody.

It took us a little while to get checked in and get going on the road, so we got a late start to our second day in Alaska. We were headed to Denali, and were thinking that being this early in June, we might be able to get a spot at Riley Campground in Denali. Eldy had seen a couple of openings that morning, but once we got there in mid afternoon, they were gone. We had our trusty Mileposts 2018 directory, which Sparky had on her lap every time we went anywhere in Alaska. A quick shout out to the Mileposts directory, it's indispensable!  At every mile marker, this directory tells you what to expect--it's updated every year so you get the latest info on driving conditions, highway repairs, construction zones, frost heaves, animal sightings, and much much more. It even has local history tidbits! We stopped at Mile Marker (MM) 174, because Mileposts said it was Hurricane Gulch. Oh, wow! It was quite the view! There was still snow in the parking lot! 

For the record, it was quite the views all week long. 

Onward we went. We finally decided to boon dock at MM 314.6.....The number of pullouts is AMAZING in Alaska and the Mileposts directory tells you if the pullouts are wide or small and what side of the road they are on. Technically, you could stay as long as you wanted to and never have to pay for a site....there are wide pullouts every few miles for the most part, and some are farther away from road noise than others. They are FREE.

At MM314.6, they had an outhouse, a picnic table and terrible mosquitoes! We hoped that was not a harbinger of what our week was going to be like. (It wasn't. Mosquitoes were not bad at all the rest of the week.) We were so happy to be on the road!

Tomorrow, Day 3.



Thursday, June 21, 2018

Renting a Motorhome in Alaska- Part 1--renting the RV

Well, by now you know that Sparky and Eldo love Alaska. We've been there four times, twice on a cruise, and three times renting motorhomes. As we no longer own our 40 foot Tiffin Phaeton, we have to rent an RV if we want to travel by RV. Eldy says that even if we did still have our Tiffin, he would not take it to Alaska. Why, you ask? Because of the possibilities of rough roads and windshield cracks and chips due to passing traffic throwing up rocks and stones or construction zones with loose gravel. The roads for the most part are good, at least the main highways are. But every year, there is frost heave and winter damage, and even on the main highways of Alaska, you will encounter roller coaster rides from the frost heaves, and summer construction where they try to repair the worst sections of road that got hit the hardest over the winter. 

We had to get out of the heat this summer for at least a little while. Eldy had been researching for weeks and weeks to get the best airfare. We are lucky in that we have FOUR airports to work incoming and outgoing flights from where we live in Bradenton. So for weeks and weeks, he went back and forth working on airfare and rental pricing of motorhomes. He would check to see if it was cheaper to leave from one airport but return to another one. (It was). Is it cheaper to have one stop instead of non-stop? (Sometimes it is and worth having a layover "break" from long flight hours). We have previously rented from a company called AK Motorhomes. We were very happy with them, but they are a much smaller company and don't have as many choices of rigs to go traveling in. They advertise their units as new, but are not always available once you get to their site. 

You have to compare RV rental companies very carefully when you decide to go to Alaska. Do they charge for linens? For cookware? For a coffee pot? For chairs? Do you get unlimited mileage? Do you want insurance? What time is check in and check out? Have you read the reviews for each company? You have to think about when your flight back home leaves and how many hours you will be sitting in the Anchorage airport waiting to go home as far as your checking in the motorhome when you are ready to return it. AK Motorhomes is just one company we worked with. We've rented from them twice and never had a problem with either rig. Last year we rented a Coachman, 27 footer, but it was actually longer than that when we picked it up and older than we thought it would be. There are many options for renting...here are a few:  

https://www.yelp.com/searchcflt=rvrental&find_loc=Anchorage%2C+AK

This year we rented from Great Alaskan Holidays. Wow, what a rig!  And WOW! What service and staff! this is a fairly big company. They have about 500 RV's in their fleet. We rented a 2019 Minnie Winnie--a Winnebago which was a 32 footer, but actually is closer to 33 feet in length--too long for Riley Creek Campground in Denali, in case you are wondering.  The campground only accepts up to 31 foot RV's. The cost was 159.00 per day and it completely furnished with bed linens, quality towels and plenty of blankets. (We used all four of them!) If you want chairs, that's extra. Coffee pot is extra. Everything was new and in terrific shape, even the queen mattress, nice and firm.

We arrived in Anchorage after closing hours, but they have the rig all ready for you. The key is in a special spot, you let yourself in, spend the night, and the next morning, you check out after watching a 45 minute video all about RVing--how to empty tanks, how to drive an RV, how to leave parking lots, etc. We actually learned some new tips that we had never realized in the three years that we full timed. What's surprising about this is, if you never have driven a motorhome before, they send you out the door with only having watched the video. Although the video was VERY thorough, that was it. No tour of the rig, no explanations or demonstrations on how things work, and that was a scary thought. WE were very comfortable of course, on just seeing the video, having been RV full timers for three years, but NOT very comfortable knowing everybody gets the same introductory video and that's it. We really think the company ought to assess each customer's experience and tailor a how-to session based on that. Maybe the video is so complete, they don't need to do that! 

They offer collision insurance, but you are not pressured into taking it. We did, and we are glad we did. It was peace of mind having it with all the road construction and loose gravel sections that we encountered on the main, supposedly GOOD roads/highways. The company has an incredibly high percentage of chipped and broken windshields and we didn't want to take any chances with a 2019 rig. 

We were extremely happy with the company. Their service was fantastic, their check in and checkout staff terrific. We had a minor problem with leaving a towel behind at a campground and Eldy dropping the glass carafe coffee pot, and we were envisioning ridiculous charges for replacement, but nope! Nada. No charge. Their staff was readily available to answer questions, the manuals in the rig were excellent as far as helping you figure out minor problems and they have a staff ready for emergencies. Great Alaskan Holidays is an excellent company to deal with, and we highly recommend them!

See you on the road in Alaska!


Saturday, May 26, 2018

The St. Augustine Lighthouse Version 1

During the same trip we took to see the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Gardens, we stopped off to see the lighthouse there. The two are almost right across the street from each other. Neither is to be missed!


We stayed at a Sleep Inn which was right down the street from the zoological gardens, just a few minutes away from the other. The Sleep Inn was more of a budget motel, nothing too special, but it gets good ratings and the prices although over 100 dollars for the nights we were there (during the week), was one of the cheaper hotels available. It had reasonable rates and was within a very short distance of the lighthouse and the gardens.

The lighthouse is beautiful....It's well kept, it's very interesting, and if you want to climb the stairs, that's 219 steps with plenty of resting spaces along the landings along the climb. There are also informational placards on the landings where as you stop and catch your breath, you can learn about the keepers, their kids, and their shenanigans. Sparky learned that one of the keeper's kids Cracker Daniels, took his sister's pet cat, Smokey, and dropped it from the top of the lighthouse WITH A PARACHUTE attached. The cat made it to the bottom, but then promptly disappeared for a few weeks. The sister didn't find out about it until 50 years later! Sparky loves to climb lighthouse stairs and wishes she could do it more often. She was feeling pretty good about having done 219 steps and not be out of breath, until she heard about the two lady retirees in their seventies, who climb the stairs TWICE A WEEK and do TEN repetitions of the stairs each time. One lady carries a Cheerios necklace and bites off one to keep track of the repetitions!

There's the usual oil bucket and-- "Can you lift it?  Imagine carrying that up and down the stairs a few times a night!"

Sparky liked the utensils display where you had to guess what they were used for. It was a cool interactive display where you held your hand over the photo of the tool, then the answer displayed on the mirror above your hand. Can you guess what these tools were used for?

The one on the left is a baked potato fork, the one on the right is a tomato fork. They had a cool downstairs part to the lighthouse for younger children. Even the stairs going down were cool.....
The view from the top is always great! Some people have trouble with the confines of the swirling staircase to get to the top, but so far, Sparky still likes to climb them. She just doesn't look down as much as she does up!
Lots of interesting facts as you make the climb to the top. Lightning strikes the lighthouse several times a year. And in the year 1886, there was an earthquake centered in Charleston, SC that shook the lighthouse violently for 40 seconds!

We enjoyed our visit so much to the lighthouse and the zoological gardens, we plan on returning in about a month to see more babies at the Zoological Gardens, a.k.a. Alligator Farm and see what's hatching. Bye for now!

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Fantastic Trip to St. Augustine!

This is going to be a photo heavy post! Sparky and Eldo took a two day trip to St. Augustine, because Sparky had heard there was a fantastic zoological park with lots of gators (she's in!) and a great rookery! (She's in for sure!) the name of the place is the Alligator Farm Zoological Park. Fellow birders and photographers said that the rookery was much much closer to you as you go through the gardens, than say, the Celery Fields in Sarasota, and they were right. The gators below the boardwalks keep away the birds' tree climbing predators so there are PLENTY of species that feel safe and nest there every year. 

There are snowy egrets, great egrets, spoonbills, green herons nesting, and tri colored herons nesting, and depending upon when you arrive in what month, there are different stages of nesting and species flying in to get ready to nest. 
As soon as we walked in the park, as a matter of fact, there were nests EVERYWHERE up in the trees right above our heads. Woodstorks and spoonbills everywhere! Several species in the
same tree. All the people were looking at the gators below, because they were so big and fat, that few looked up above in the trees.  (We were surprised after the day ended that we had not gotten bird poop on us while we were there. Sparky suggest you might want to wear a hat if you go there.) We rounded a corner as we walked a little further into the park and there were LOTS of spoonbills up in the trees. Lots!

The birds are "displaying" right now...That's where they strut around and show off all their beautiful plumage and hope to attract a mate. Their feathers are almost always splayed out to show off to their best advantage. This is a snowy egret.
Sparky loves it when she sees one having a "bad hair" day.....
This one looks mad or frustrated...with all the hundreds of egrets competing for attention, maybe he's not getting any?
The best part of the day was seeing baby spoonbills in a nest for the first time! We were so surprised to see that they nest in the palms. We always see the grownups on the ground in the marshes where we live.
Sparky caught this spoonbill spreading its wings in the palms....

There were some unusual ducks there, too. These were called ruddy ducks. Guess they are kind of common along the east coast, but we didn't know that! Love the blue bill!


Another one of Sparky's favorite spoonbill shots for the day....
Not all the shots were about the birds today. There is a fabulous zip line and obstacle course that runs right above the zoo gardens. It looked really fun!
If you are interested in going to the Alligator Farms/Rookery, the nesting action starts around February and lasts until August, with the peaks being mid March thru early June. They open at 9:00 AM daily.  Tickets are 24.99 for adults, but there are local coupons available in the tourist mags or there is a 10% discount for seniors. This is a fantastic place to bring grandkids or the family. The exhibits are beautiful, modern and well done, AND well taken care of. The grounds are beautiful, there is plenty of shade as you walk around, and lots of places to sit. Food and drink are available, too. This zoo park is one of the oldest zoos in the country, founded in 1893, but they have done an amazing job of keeping it up to date, very informative and entertaining. There are shows available several times a day as well. It's a diverse population of crocodiles (24 species!), birds, reptiles and mammals and a fabulous way to spend the day. We easily spent three hours there and liked it so much, we are going back next month!       Bye for now....