Saturday, December 31, 2016


We had scheduled a trip with Alaska Bear Adventures in Homer to fly to Katmai National Park or Lake Clark National Park to experience what is supposed to be the best grizzly bear viewing in Alaska.  However, much to our dismay, the trip was canceled due to a forecast of heavy rain.

We had a day to kill in Homer, and, still looking for adventure, we discovered that we could book a private harbor cruise of Kachemak Bay. In spite of the weather, or maybe even because of it, the scenery was beautiful:

Our goal was Gull Island, a rocky crag about three miles out that offers prime nesting spots for seabirds:

Thursday, December 29, 2016


After breaking up a long drive from Talkeetna to Homer by spending time at a musk ox farm and a reindeer farm near Palmer and then staying overnight in Anchorage, we continued our long drive down the Kenai Peninsula. The distance from Talkeetna to Anchorage is about 115 miles, and the distance from Anchorage to Homer is about 220 miles. In a place like Alaska, where there are an infinite number of side trips and sights, that could be a week-long trip, but we managed it in two days.

One of Homer's nicknames is "The End of the Road." You can see why:
The white line is Day One, and the blue line is Day Two.

The Kenai Peninsula is located on the southern coast of Alaska and is famous for its beautiful scenery. Homer, our next destination, is marked by the red dot on the map below:

Bob had read that the salmon might be running in some of the rivers and that there were some good places for animal sightings, so we made several stops along the way. Try as we might, we didn't see any moose, or any other large animals for that matter:

Here and there we saw a salmon swimming upstream, but not the hordes we had hoped for. I think it was just a bit too early in the season:

Monday, December 26, 2016


My husband is a wildlife lover extraordinaire, and Alaska is certainly the place to see wildlife, but he wasn't content with seeing animals in the wild. No, he had to scout out every specialty farm and preserve. I was a little bit worried about OD-ing on animals on this trip, but for the most part, what we saw was unique and entertaining, starting with a musk ox farm and a reindeer ranch.

The Musk Ox Farm is in the Palmer/Wasilla area, about 45 minutes from Anchorage.

The farm is a non-profit organization that is funded partly by tourist dollars and partly by selling muskox wool, called qiviut. Qiviut is eight times warmer than sheep's wool by weight and softer than cashmere, but boy-oh-boy is it expensive.  A single skein (1 oz./200 yards) sells for $95.00. 

A male musk ox sheds 4-7 pounds of qiviut per season. I suppose if I had to brush one of these beasts, I'd charge $95.00/skein too.

For a more reasonable price of $11.00 each, we took a 45 minute tour of the farm, which has about 80 musk oxen, the largest captive herd in the world.

The musk ox is one of the oldest living species and was once a contemporary of the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger. The goal of the farm is to domesticate these animals. It takes multiple generations to build a domesticated herd, and they've been at it since the 1950s.

Friday, December 23, 2016



When I first started teaching Freshman Composition over twenty years ago, I ran across the audiobook version of Charles Kuralt's A Life on the Road. I thought his wonderful storytelling style would provide a great example for my students of how to write a personal memoir (which was their first essay assignment), and so every semester for several years I checked out the worn box of cassette tapes from our local library and played a couple of chapters in class.

One of my favorite chapters, entitled "Flight," was about Kuralt's madcap journey with his photographer and a soundman around Denali in a small Cessna piloted by the legendary Don Sheldon. After circling the mountaintop for a while, Sheldon put the plane down on Ruth Glacier, and Kuralt and his photographer ended up spending the night in a cabin on the mountain built by Sheldon for exhausted climbers but, at the time of Kuralt's visit, inhabited by a Catholic priest. (Those kinds of anomalies tend to occur in Kuralt's essays.)

Kuralt's very visual description of his fantastic celestial voyage and glacial bed and breakfast stuck with me for twenty years, and when we booked a flight around Denali with a landing on Ruth Glacier, I couldn't have been more excited (and yes, nervous that we might end up spending the night up there).

The flight was everything I had hoped for and is probably my favorite experience from our trip to Alaska. Naturally, when we got home I decided I had to find a print copy of Kuralt's story. It was harder than I thought because I couldn't remember which one of Kuralt's books it was in. First I ordered a used copy of On the Road with Charles Kuralt, but that wasn't it. Finally I found the similarly titled A Life on the Road, and voila!, there was the essay. Having shared his experience, I found Kuralt's telling even more appealing than I had twenty years before.

We began our adventure by checking in at Talkeetna Air Taxi at 11:00 AM, where we were each issued a pair of snow boots that fit over our shoes:

We waited around for fifteen minutes or so while our single-engine propeller ski plane was checked over and fueled. Our transport was a de Havilland Otter plane, a plane developed in the 1950s. Impressive durability, but not exactly a confidence builder. I thought we'd be flying in something of more recent vintage.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


What is the first color that pops into your head when you see the word "Alaska"? Be honest now.

It's "white," isn't it? Yeah, me too.
We did see plenty of white, but even the white was a more colorful white---but more on that in another post. I think what really surprised me the most about Alaska was the crazy, brilliant, ostentatious COLOR. This was especially true in Denali National Park.

But first, some background information. The entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve lies about 265 miles north of Anchorage, or a 4-5 hour drive. From Talkeetna, where we had spent the day ziplining, it is only 60 miles. It is a HUMONGOUS park--more than six million acres. There is only one road that is available to tourists, and in most cases that road is accessible only by park bus, but it does go to the heart of the park.

We spent the night in one of the Denali Backcountry Cabins, which were quaint and wonderfully located, but not luxury accommodations, which I wouldn't have guessed based on the price. I suppose when there is little competition, you can charge what you want.

Important facts about Alaska:

Friday, December 2, 2016


I'm pretty surprised that it took us so long to get to Alaska.  We had been to every state in the US except for Alaska and North Dakota. Between the two, it was no contest which one we wanted to visit more.

Sorry, North Dakota, but you're next on the list.

If I had to say which state I think Alaska is most like, I'd have to say Texas. WHAT?!! Except for size, they don't seem to have much in common, and even regarding size--although they are the two largest states in the Union--Alaska is 2.5 times larger than Texas.

What I found to be similar is that both feel almost like an independent country rather than a state. Things are just different in Texas and Alaska.

Here is Goldilocks (Whiteylocks?) and the Three Bears:

I'm not sure what this ceiling design in the Anchorage Airport  is all about--maybe the aurora borealis?

We arrived in Anchorage in the WEE hours of the morning (4:15 AM constitutes "wee," doncha think?), picked up our rental car, and headed north towards the metropolis of Talkeetna. There was plenty of "purple mountain majesty" to appreciate:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


I have a dear Catholic friend named Diane who, about a year ago, invited me to go on a retreat with her to a Benedictine monastery in Valyermo, California, just over an hour from where we live. It was somewhat out of my comfort zone but exactly the type of interfaith experience I have learned to value, so I accepted her invitation. The earliest my schedule and the retreat schedule matched up, however, was the second week in July, so I had to wait a while.

It was worth the wait, and in fact I think I will go again if given the opportunity. I found at least ten things that visitors need to see/experience when at St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo.

St. Benedict, who lived in Italy from c. 480-543 AD, is often called "The Founder of Western Monasticism" and is the Patron Saint of Europe. The Benedictines observe a strict daily schedule revolving around gathering in the monastery chapel five times a day for prayer. Guests are not required to attend all (or even any) of those prayers, but I tried to go with Diane (who went to them all) to two or three each day. The focus on prayer is one of the things that makes visiting St. Andrew's a unique spiritual experience.

Resounding peals of the bell standing outside the chapel call the monks and guests to prayer four times a day. (Out of respect for sleepy guests, the monks don't ring the bell for the earliest prayer at 6:00 AM, which I confess I never attended).

                                                                 This is the daily schedule:
6:00 AM: VIGILS (The first communal prayer of the morning)
6:30-7:30: Lecto Divina (Contemplative scripture study)
7:30: LAUDS (Morning prayer)
8:00: Breakfast (Eaten in total silence, called "Grand Silence")
8:30-11:30: Assigned labor or study (This was the first of our two daily session of lecture/discussion for the retreat)
12:00 PM: Conventional MASS
1:00: Lunch with guests
1:30-4:00: Assigned labor or study (Session two of retreat lectures and discussion)
4:00-5:30: Study, rest, exercise
5:30: Lectio Divina
6:00: VESPERS (Evening prayer)
6:30: Dinner (in silence)
8:00-8:30: Community recreation
8:30: COMPLINE (Night prayer)

The Benedictine liturgy and music focuses on the Psalms, which the monks sing through completely (even the more violent or salacious psalms) every month or so as part of their prayer services. One of the monks is the "lead" singer or cantor (I'm not sure if that is the correct term). He sings his part, and then the other monks and congregants sing other parts, sometimes a capella, sometimes accompanied by a small organ.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


I always thought "Upstate New York" referred to the northern portion of New York State, but it really refers to just about everything north of New York City, which means most of the state. The map below shows "downstate New York" broken off from the rest of the state. Are all Westerners as clueless as I am?
Map from here
Therefore, all of the places we visited outside of NYC were "Upstate," even though some of them were within an hour's drive of the city. However, Upstate and Downstate New York are very distinct. The population of the 4,000 square miles that make up Downstate NY is over 12 million, while the population of the 54,500 miles that are Upstate NY is 7 million.  The population density is 3,077 people/square mile in Downstate NY and 130 people/square mile in Upstate New York. BIG difference.

We loved driving around in Upstate New York, even though we never made it to Upper Upstate New York. The drive from Albany back to NYC reminds me of West Virginia, hilly and heavily wooded.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


What New York's State Capital Albany lacks in population (just under 100,000 people), it more than makes up for in history. It was settled by the Dutch, who built two fur trading posts--Fort Nassau and Fort Orange--at this site in 1614 and 1624, making it the oldest settlement in New York. The British took over the Dutch settlements in 1664 and renamed the colony Albany to honor the Duke of Albany, who would become King James II of England in 1685 (and be deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688). Albany was officially chartered in 1686 and is the oldest chartered city in the United States and one of the oldest surviving colonies of the original thirteen British colonies.

There are lots of signs related to Albany's historicity scattered around the state capitol area:

Don't you wish you could sit on the bench and chat with this friendly green fellow? Lewis A. Swyer was a a founding member of the New York State Council of the Arts and the owner of a construction company that built some of the region's landmarks. He died in 1988 at age 70:

It was too early for wildflowers, but I was still drawn to a fallow flowerbed marked by this tribute. Irving and Elaine Kirsch were philanthropists who supported everything from the arts to park beautification to senior services. They were known for being great dancers, and effervescent Elaine was called "The Queen of Albany." Irving died in 1999, and Elaine lived on for 14 more years, doing good deeds everywhere she went. I love this marker. Irving sounds like an adoring husband.

Speaking of flowers, I wish I had gotten a better photo of this somewhat bizarre tulip statue, certainly a nod to the Dutch ancestry of the citizenry:

No, it's not a Romanesque church (as we first thought it was)--it's Albany City Hall, built in 1883. The 202-foot-tall tower on the corner has one of the only municipal carillons in the country.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Relatively recently we added state capitals and state capitol buildings to our LISTS OF THINGS TO SEE. That meant that on our last trip to New York, we had to take a major detour to get to the state capital/capitol in Albany, which is about 150 miles north of New York City.

Although only the 16th tallest building in Albany, the capitol, with its castle-like turrets, definitely dominates the skyline. Here's a view from the freeway:

New York, originally called New Netherland (with present-day New York City being New Amsterdam), was settled by the Dutch, and I thought this capitol building looked very Dutch:

Compare it to the town hall in Amsterdam: 

However, many accuse the architects of trying to imitate the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which is perhaps a better comparison:
Photo from here
A blend of Italian Renaissance, Romanesque, and French Renaissance styles, the Albany capitol is said to be the most artistically elaborate state capitol ever built in the United States. I love the long walkway that gives visitors ample time to appreciate the majestic architecture. I could imagine red carpet rolling out in front of us as we approached, and maybe a trumpet or two sounding our arrival:

Friday, November 18, 2016


Two miles east of the Roosevelt home and Presidential Museum and Library lies a beautiful patch of ground with a lazy stream running through it. Fallkill Stream meanders for 38 miles before it joins the mighty Hudson in Poughkeepsie. Franklin Roosevelt purchased 181 acres here in 1911, and the land was often used for family picnics and gatherings with friends.

In the 1920s, Franklin encouraged Eleanor to develop this piece of land, which she named "Val-Kill," loosely translated from the Dutch to mean "waterfall stream."  "Kill," the Dutch word for "stream" or "creek," is a common part of compound words in this part of New York--think "Schuylkill River" or "Catskill Mountains."