Thursday, August 29, 2013

Yesterday we took the fast ferry to Skagway for the day. For the first time in a week it was sunny and
warm. The ride was really pretty, water the color of aqua, sea birds soaring overhead, Humpback whales cruising past, glacier fed waterfalls cascading into the canal.
A crew member told us about  “Glacial Rebound?” As the glaciers melt an enormous weight is lifted of the land and the land actually rises (rebounding.)  In Haines it’s rising .760 inches a year, other places it’s an inch and half! WOW. This waterfall used to fall straight into the canal. It is not erosion at the foot of the waterfall, it’s rebound land rising up.


Our first stop in Skagway was the Red Onion for lunch. This is one of my favorite places in Alaska! After lunch we took the Brothel Museum tour. The tour was so much fun and our tour guide really got into her role. While the building has served many uses over the past 100 years it stilled retained much of its original “brothelness.” (I know that is not a word, but you get the idea, right?) Here are several of the saloon's working girls all tricked out for business. Jim enjoyed making "deposits into their treasure chests."


The Red Onion Saloon, was Skagway’s most exclusive bordello. It was the classiest dance hall and saloon in the bustling gold rush town of Skagway. The saloon served alcohol on the first floor while the upper floor satisfied more than the prospectors thirst. The brothel consisted of ten tiny cubicles, called cribs, each one was ten foot by ten foot. Each room had a hole in the floor which connected to the cash register in the bar by means of a copper tube.

In order to keep track of which girls were busy, the bartender kept ten dolls on the back bar, one for each of the girls in each of the rooms. When a girl was with a customer, her doll was laid on its back. When she sent her money down the tube, the doll was returned to the upright position signaling to the waiting prospectors that she was ready for business. The bartender safeguarded the girl’s earnings, usually $5.00 for a fifteen minute  trick, preferably in gold. The girls then utilized the loose floorboards to hide nuggets and private tips. After paying the Madam and the upstairs bodyguard their cut the girls made about $1.25 per trick.
Because the rooms were divided by single planks toe-nailed into the ceiling and floor not much sound-proofing was provided. To decorate their cribs, the women stretched linen across the rough planks, and then glued wall paper to the cloth. Remnants of the original wall papers still cling to those planks. When one of the crib walls was removed there were eighteen layers of wallpaper on it! 

In the parlor were period photos of half naked women. Our guide told the story of a local judge who volunteered to reduce the sentence of  any woman who had been arrested if they would provide him with a nude photo of themselves. When the judge passed away the nude photo collection was found in his home.

The museum is filled with many antiques from the gold rush days. Many of the items on display were found in the brothel including this Madam’s gown. The gown was found wadded up and stuffed beneath the floorboards. In its time it would have cost a small fortune for such a dress. It is made of silk and weighs ten pounds. It’s been beaded with tiny pieces of copper. Very shimmery.

The museum includes a crib room as it might have looked during the Gold Rush.

Here's Jim in the Madam's bedroom hoping to get lucky with our guide.

The Red Onions most famous madam was Diamond Lil Davenport. This Klondike Gold Rush madam ran one of the most lavish houses of ill repute, and her ostentatious nature showed in her personal demeanor. Lil stood nearly six feet tall; she was remarkably good looking and she always sported an elaborate diamond collection, one of which was implanted into her teeth.  Certainly nature had fashioned her into a perfect beauty and at first glance she did appear to be a person of real refinement. But Diamond Lil was a courtesan in the fullest sense of the word, only entertaining the obviously rich clients who could pay handsomely for what she had to offer. Nevertheless she was fully entrenched in the world’s oldest profession.

Skagway is a really cute gold rush town. It is an absolute must see when traveling in Alaska.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Welcome to Haines Alaska, Valley of the Eagles. Haines is located on the shores of America’s longest fjord, the Lynn Canal. We are camped at Oceanside RV, right on the beach with an incredible view of the canal. This is a great campground. During summer they host crab feeds. But now its fall so our host, Joyce did a shrimp boil. It was delicious and so much fun!
Haines is home to the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The Preserve consists of 48,000 acres of river bottom land of the Chilkat, Kleheni, and Tsirku Rivers. Eagles are attracted to these rivers by the five species of salmon that spawn here. During summer, eagles build huge nests along the rivers. The trees are peppered with eagles perched high up looking for fish to feed their eaglets. Come November and the late salmon run, salmon carcasses will provide lots of food for the eagles. The combination of open water and large amounts of food bring over 3,000 eagles to the Chilkat Valley. Come November (and the Bald Eagle Festival,) birders and photographers will outnumber the eagles!

We took a flat bottom jet boat ride on the Chilkat River. We saw several Bald Eagle nests on the trip. I’ve always known their nests are huge but the actual statistics are really interesting! Nests
can measure 9 feet in diameter, be up to 12 feet tall and weighed over 2 tons. WOW! I guess that makes sense since eagles usually return to the same nest annually. The nest grows larger and heavier during the nesting season and as the years pass.

The flat bottom boat ride was incredible. They feed you lunch, provide you with jackets and blankets to be sure you stay warm and our boat captain, Seagra was so knowledgeable. The weather was good, the scenery beautiful and there were lots of eagles. Perfect!

A couple  of years ago the Haines library was selected for the Best Small Library in America Award. From nearly 150 nominations the Haines library was selected for its tremendous commitment to its community, its services, programs, collections, and growth over the past five years. The library boasts 67,000 visits annually, which is amazing when you consider their  population is only 2,600.

The library provides the most interesting programs. Like Creating Contagious Content; How to Build Your Social Media Audience; Learn to Play the Ukulele; Spanish Fun; Amateur Magicians; Puppeteers; Summer Canoe Project;  Read to a Dog; Chess Club; Music in the Stacks. No wonder they won the award!

We also visited the Sheldon Museum while we were here. The museum’s collection was started by Steve Sheldon at the age of 8 (in 1893) when he purchased a piece of the original transatlantic cable for "the museum I'll have some day."  Steve and his wife gathered all sorts of interesting things including Tlingit baskets, bead work and blankets. A family hobby for 50 years, the collection was eventually donated to the community.

The museum’s Tlingit (sounds like KLINK IT) collection is amazing. Also displayed are a number of carvings done by local Master Carver, Jim Heaton.  The museum has commissioned a new totem pole for the museum grounds.  Master Carver, Jim Heaton (above) and apprentice Jeffery Klanott (left) are hard at work on the new totem pole. Carved from an 800 year old yellow cedar, it will be next year before the totem is finished.

A major attraction in Haines is the Chilkoot Weir Adult Salmon Counting Station operated by Alaska Fish and Game. They count the salmon which are going up the Chilkoot River to spawn. For every 10 Sockeye counted, they take one and cut a sample out of its back and record its length and sex. The samples are sent back to the lab and studied. It turns out that the fish from each spawning river have unique scales. These are like "river" prints. They also sample catches made by commercial fishermen and can tell in which river they spawned. People come from all over the area to fish for salmon below the weir. It’s always interesting to watch the fisherman and the bears share the same stretch of river. It’s also interesting to watch the bears and tourists interact. When we were here in 2010 we saw an Asian tourist ride her bicycle into the bushes closely following a Brown sow and her twin cubs! I immediately switched my camera to video so I could capture the “incident” to sell to CNN. Fortunately a Park Ranger interceded and the bear was saved from the stupid tourist.

Watching the bears is always so interesting. While this sow is hard at work eating and bulking up for winter her cub is busy playing with anything he can get his paws on. Such as the sand bags placed on the weir by Fish and Game. Before the evening is over the cub will dislodge all the sandbags and chuck them in the river. Bad bear cub! He’s also busy honing his how to catch salmon skills. So far we have seen five bears fishing the river by the weir.

Haines Packing Company is located at one of the oldest cannery sites in Alaska. The cannery is situated just five and a half miles from Haines, at the mouth of the Chilkat River in Northern Lynn Canal. All five species of wild Alaska salmon are delivered fresh to the dock by the local fishing fleet. The fish are processed immediately.

We were able to watch them process the salmon through viewing windows. I had no idea how labor intensive it is. After trimming the head and tail off they are run through a filleting machine. The are trimmed by hand and put through a
machine that debones the fish. Now here’s the amazing part, they debone the fillet again by hand with pliers! No wonder salmon is so expensive!
The cannery also has the cutest gift shop ever! It’s guarded by Splash, the Boston Bull Terrier.  I was able to cross a number of people off my Christmas shopping list thanks to this shop!  

See the cute doggie raincoat and hat? The shop owner won first place at the Alaska State Fair for this entry in the Recycling category. It's made from Purina Dog Food bags which are plastic coated. So cute!

Did you know the Disney movie
White Fang was filmed in Haines and the movie set still lies in the city? The Haines Brew Fest and Southeast State Fair are both hosted on the old Alaska set. This is also the location of the community garden. While Jim and Maggie poked around the old movie set I checked out the garden! I was surprised at some of the vegetables they can grow in Haines. Not only was the garden productive, it was also very pretty! 

We took a ride one day to do a little birding and to look for the Gold Nugget Mine on Porcupine Creek. The birding sucked, but we found the mine! Unfortunately the mine gate was locked and a DANGER! – Restricted Area sign hung from the post. We could see a little bit of the plant and we could hear it running but that's all. If you are familiar with the show “Gold Rush” you know Grandpa and Parker Schnabel run the Gold Nugget Mine. Because I felt so unsatisfied with my non mine experience we stopped on the way to town so Jim could snap my photo in front of Ma and Pa Schnabel’s Southeast Road Builders location. With my “Gold Rush” experience completed (sort of) we headed back to camp.


Almost everything in Haines is brought in by the once a week barge. Food, fuel, building materials, parts, etc. Because of this, it’s an expensive place to live. Jim had a heart attack today when he went to the store for a loaf of bread that turned out to be $9.00 (because it’s baked in the lower 48, then frozen and shipped here.) Want premium gas? It’s  $5.55 a gallon. It’s no wonder Alaskans hunt, fish, gather berries and keep a vegetable garden to help offset the high cost of  living in Alaska.  

Did I mention that Haines celebrates Mardi Gras? Yup. I know it’s hard to believe, but for the last 20 years on August 24, Haines plasters the town with green, gold and purple decorations and then gets plastered (if the noise level last weekend was any indication.)  At least Jim survived this Mardi Gras without injury. Who knew there was a New Orleans of the North?

I forgot to tell you we are stranded in Haines. We left two days ago for Skagway and only made it as far as the Canadian Border. As we pulled up to the crossing a very loud screeching sound emanated from underneath the 5th wheel. One of the Border Guards checked underneath and said “you have a busted spring.” Of course this happened on a Saturday when all the auto shops are closed. So back Oceanside RV Campground we went. Turns out the campground owners also own a marine repair shop and they can fix our spring for us! On Sunday they took measurements and ordered the part on Monday from Anchorage. Hoping it will be here in a few days and  we  can get back on the road. It’s getting cold here, the first snow is just around the corner, so we need to go soon. Don’t think we’ll make Skagway, time to head south before winter catches us.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

On our way to Haines we spent two nights in Palmer. We had driven through the area several times but never had a reason to stop and check out the area. Palmer is located in the Matanuska Valley. It’s a beautiful area, surrounded by cultivated hay fields, the Palmer Hay Flats, the Matanuska River, the Chugach Mountains and the ancient Talkeetna Mountains.

The valley includes the Matanuska coal fields. With the beginning of WW1 the high quality coal
fields became critical to fueling US battleships. By 1917 the US Navy had constructed a rail line from the port of Seward to the coal deposits.

At the end of the War the US Navy distributed land in the coal fields to veterans and additional land was opened up for homesteading. In one year Palmer transformed from a mere whistle stop rail siding to a planned community. Eleven million dollars was spent to create the town of Palmer and relocate 203 families from economically hard hit Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Each family drew lots for 40-acre tracts and their farming adventure began in earnest. The failure rate was high, but many of their descendants still live in the area and there are still many operating farms in the Palmer area.

The families brought with them Midwest America's small-town values, institutional structures, and a well-planned city center reminiscent of their old hometowns in Minnesota. Many of the structures built are now in a nationally recognized historic district. We visited one of the original farms, now on the National Historic Register.

Also located in Palmer, is the Musk Ox Farm. A private non-profit organization begun in 1954 and dedicated to the development and domestication of the Musk Ox, for the purpose of providing additional subsistence income opportunities for Alaska’s first people. The soft extremely fine under-wool of the Musk Ox, called qiviut, is harvested once a year and delivered to the Alaskan native knitter's co-operative. The knitters work at home in Eskimo villages throughout Alaska creating scarves and luxurious caps. Each village has its own signature pattern derived from traditional designs. Originally Eskimos gathered the qivuit when the Musk Ox shed their coats in the spring. Qivuit is 8 times warmer then sheep’s wool, its softer then cashmere and it’s waterproof. An adult Musk Ox can produce four to seven pounds of qiviut a year. Because the qivuit is so hard to obtain it currently sells for $55 an ounce!

These little guys are this years calves. Aren't they cute!

The Musk Ox is an ancient arctic mammal originally found in Asia, Europe, Greenland, Siberia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. During the Pleistocene, Musk Ox wandered across the Bering Land Bridge to populate North America with the likes of the wooly mammoth, saber-toothed cat, and giant ground sloth. Teetering on the brink of extinction 34 young Musk Ox were captured in Greenland in 1930 and relocated to Nunivak Island, where by the late 1960s there were over 700 Musk Ox. Small populations were transplanted back to the mainland of Alaska and these have done well. Musk Ox also have been introduced to areas in Siberia. Now there are an estimated 4,000 Musk Ox in Alaska and an estimated 140,000 Musk Ox alive in Alaska, Greenland, Canada and Siberia combined.

As far as we could tell, the Musk Ox farm does not appear to be having much luck domesticating the animals. Employees do not go into the fields with the animals. When it’s time to harvest the qivuit the musk ox are run into a pen of sorts for combing and removal of the qivuit.
Another item on our to do in the Matanuska Valley is the
Independence Mine State Historical Park. On our drive there we saw a Moose grazing WAY UP on the mountain. Can you see her?

Here’s a better photo.


The park  is a huge, abandoned gold mine that sits at the top of Hatcher Pass on Skyscraper Mountain. The drive cuts through the Talkeetna Mountains and is one of the most beautiful side trips in Alaska.The Independence Mine was a hard rock gold mine. At its peak of operation 204 men worked year round  in 12 miles of  tunnels blasted deep in the mountain. Over 150,000 ounces of gold were recovered between 1936 and 1943. The site included a mine managers office, apartments for married couples, two bunkhouses for bachelors, a school, cookhouse, engineers offices, framing shop, assay office, sorting mill and power plant. A covered shed led from the foot of the mill to the mine entrance. It was only 400 plus steps UP to work every day!
By 1942, the United States had entered World War II, and the War Production Board designated gold mining as nonessential to the war effort. Gold mining throughout the United States came to a halt. The wartime ban was lifted in 1946, but gold mining was slow to recover. After the war, gold could be sold only to the U.S. government at a fixed rate of $35 per ounce. Postwar inflation raged, and gold mining became an unprofitable venture. Finally, in January of 1951, after mining nearly 6 million dollars' worth of gold, Independence Mine was closed.

Alaska has been hard at work restoring the mine. Like Kennecott Mine it will be years before the job is finished. And given the mills current condition it’s hard to imagine it can ever be restored.

On the drive to Palmer we saw this cow and calf laying in the grass at the edge of the woods. She was so calm, even when I scrambled down the shoulder of the road to take photos. It was pretty cool.

So we say bye, bye to Palmer and head for Haines.


Homer, where the land ends and the sea begins. Love Homer Alaska! We were camped on the spit, right on the beach overlooking gorgeous Kachemak Bay.

The Spit is perfect for beach combing. Shells, pretty rocks, agates, and other bits of litter sprinkle the beach. On one walk there was a wreath and flowers washed up (there had been a seaside funeral the day before for a fallen fisherman.)  At lands end there are magnificent views of mountains, glaciers and Kachemak Bay. Maggie loved walking on the beach. Lots of delicious smells, other dogs to meet, napping in the sun and sand fleas to snap at. Perfect.


The four-mile-long strip of land known as the Homer Spit stretches into the middle of Kachemak Bay. The Spit is the exposed part of an underwater moraine from an ancient tidewater glacier. In 1964 the Good Friday Earthquake rocked Alaska with a magnitude of 9.2. The quake caused the Spit to drop seven feet. Before the quake the Spit was covered in tall trees and grasslands where cattle and horses grazed. Now nothing except clumps of salt grass grows on the Spit because of saltwater intrusion.
Further up the Spit is the Salty Dawg Saloon. Built in 1897 as one of Homer’s first cabins, the present-day saloon was once the town’s first post office and later, the railroad station, a grocery store and coal mining office.  The small dark interior is papered with money on the walls and ceiling. Even if you don’t drink, you must visit the Salty Dawg. It’s a friendly place to meet locals and other travelers. These guys are from upper New York. They’re on a fishing trip. Jim spent the entire time talking to them.

I  chatted up a local named Dave. Originally from Minnesota, he now calls Homer home. He  told me that the week before a guy went walking in the woods with his assault rifle (for bear protection) when he actually encountered a bear. He shot the bear 13 times before killing it. Now here’s the rub. The moron was walking with ear buds jammed in his ears listening to music! In Alaska you CANNOT walk around in the woods without watching and listening for wildlife. His stupidity got the bear killed. LOOK, LISTEN, make some NOISE  and wildlife will split like Moses and the Red Sea. My personal bear deterrent is 99 Bottles of Bear on the Wall sung loudly. It must work, I have yet to be attacked by a bear! Dave and I are in agreement that many people are stupid and wildlife suffers because of it.
Homer calls itself a “Quaint Drinking Village with a Small Fishing Problem.”  I am not sure about the drinking thing, but the small fishing problem is not true. Fishing is big business here.
 Homer’s fishing fleet is composed of sport fishing and commercial fishing boats. You see many happy people walking away from the pier with bags of filleted Halibut and other yummy fish they caught.  Jim likes to walk down to the pier when the boats come in because there’s always lots of excitement as the fish are hung up for photos.
Homer is a great place to unwind and relax. Next stop – Palmer.